“Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos”
Whilst the NFC has provided the previous two Super Bowl winners, the AFC is home to the perennially strong. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers have had strangleholds on their respective divisions for the best part of the last decade. The Patriots have won their division in eight of their last 10 seasons, Steelers five of the last nine, Colts seven of the last nine and the Chargers five of the last seven. Throw in the recent boost Rex Ryan has given the New York Jets (back-to-back AFC Championship games) and the savvy drafting of the Baltimore Ravens (reached the play-offs in four of the last five campaigns) and it’s difficult to look past the main pretenders once again.
The view seems to be shared among NFL.com’s experts. All seven of the panel have chosen the Patriots, Chargers and Steelers to win their division. The only difference comes in who will take the AFC South (four picking the Texans, two the Colts and one the Titans).
The biggest hope to smash that monopoly could well be the Texans. They have, in Matt Schaub, an underrated quarterback teetering on joining the elite bunch of signal callers. Andre Johnson is a fully-fledged member of the elite wide-outs and running back Arian Foster ran for the most yards in the league last term. Wade Phillips has revamped the defence and brought in some solid reinforcements to address the reason why they missed out on the post-season last year.
(Predicted finish in brackets)
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The absence of Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games didn’t cripple the Steelers as some had predicted, neither did the loss of Santonio Holmes. Mike Wallace stepped up, Rashard Mendenhall stepped up and yet again, Big Ben dragged them through to another Super Bowl. The defense continues to be scary under Dick Le Beau and if the cornerstone of that unit, Troy Polamalu, stays fit, they look virtually unstoppable.
Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Could have been heading for another Championship game but their play-off clash with the Steelers turned on its head in a matter of minutes. They’ve lost some valuable offensive experience with the departures of Todd Heap, Derrick Mason and Willis McGahee and there will be some added pressure on Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to carry a heavier burden. Similarly the defensive stars are getting no younger. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can continue to make plays but they will hope high draft picks Terrence Cody, Sergio Kindle and Jimmy Smith fulfil their potentials.
Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Competing with two fantastically run franchises like the Steelers and the Ravens is always going to be a huge handicap for the Browns. On the plus side, Peyton Hillis exploded as a true star last year and the offensive line is underrated. Colt McCoy has shown flashes of astute quarterback play but against the monstrous Ds in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he will need to grow up faster if the Browns are to challenge sooner. Rob Ryan is no longer defensive co-ordinator and they could really miss his packages this term.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-13)
The Bengals probably had the most tumultuous off-season in the entire league. Marvin Lewis was on the brink of leaving, Carson Palmer has treated them with utter contempt and the dynamic yet distracting duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens will no longer be lining up in Bengals colours for one reason or another. Andy Dalton really struggled at quarterback in the pre-season and Cedric Benson’s career appears to be nose-diving once again. On the other side of the ball, they still have a decent defensive core but cornerback Johnathan Joseph has gone. Could be in for a very, very long year and Lewis may not see it out.
New England Patriots (13-3)
At times last year, they looked every bit as good as they did in the 16-0 season a few campaigns back. Tom Brady walked away with the MVP award and they gashed several teams for huge victories including the Steelers, Jets, Bears and Dolphins and they also edged past the eventual Super Bowl champions. But Rex Ryan outwitted Bill Belichick in the off-season with a cerebral game plan. Brady will be strengthened this year by having Ochocinco in at wide receiver. The defense has been missing experienced pros in recent years but Jared Mayo and Devin McCourty had Pro Bowl campaigns and if anyone can get something out of Albert Haynesworth it’s Belichick.
New York Jets (12-4)
“Super Bowl or bust” has apparently been applicable to the Jets for the past two years. They’ve not reached a Super Bowl and they’re far from being bust. Expect them to be contenders again but there are a few question marks still to be addressed. Mark Sanchez can be inconsistent. In the play-offs he looked like a mature leader but there were times in the regular season last year when he was woeful. Then there’s the running game which the Jets are so reliant on and Shonn Greene will have to step up. There’s plenty to like about Ryan’s defense but the front 7 has been completely revamped and they are still looking for a sack master.
Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Chad Henne is apparently the answer, at least for now. The confidence in him is not shared by all Dolphins fans. The strength of the Jets and the Patriots is always going to make Miami’s job thrice as hard and Tony Sparano could be under a lot of pressure if they don’t get off to a good start. Ronnie Brown and Rickie Williams have both gone so the new rushing attack of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas has got to yield some serious yardage. Plenty to like on defense but is it enough?
Buffalo Bills (4-12)
Fought valiantly last year with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback but in this division they’re still streets behind everyone else. Facing off against the NFC East this year won’t help matters either. They have good players but lack truly great ones. Have pinned their hopes on Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett who look like washed up has-beens. The double coverage that Lee Evans used to get will now be transferred onto Steve Johnson and that will seriously limit his productivity and the explosive C.J Spiller enters his second year with plenty still to prove.
Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans always find some reason to mess it up and fail to reach the play-offs but it’s hard to find too many reasons to doubt them this time. The offense is as highly-powered as those on the Packers, Falcons or Saints’ rosters and they appear to have made serious strides in improving their defense. Their biggest challenge then is holding it all together and not throwing games away (the last-gasp defeat to Jacksonville last year springs to mind). The Colts will of course be their main threat but there’s a consensus that Indianapolis will retreat to the shadows to lick their wounds this year and the Texans must hog the vacant spotlight.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Peyton Manning got a new contract but will he begin the season on the sidelines? Manning is not just a very good quarterback; he is the turbine fuelling everything the Colts do. Their main strength has always come from his ability to read defenses and produce the goods whether they sit back or blitz like mad. No quarterback is more important to what their team does. Elsewhere they also look vulnerable on defense despite being just one year removed from a Super Bowl.
Tennessee Titans (5-11)
The Chris Johnson problem threatened to disrupt the Titans last year and it transpired to do just that this off-season. They now have their man tied down and all of their post-season aspirations surely weigh on his shoulders. Matt Hasselbeck was a nice pick-up to go in under centre after Vince Young left in a huff and Hasselbeck’s acquisition will give Jake Locker time to learn the ropes. The defense has never really looked potent since Jim Schwartz left and they’ll need to perform far better if they’re going to have a winning season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jaguars performed well at times last year and only narrowly missed out on the play-offs. Despite this they took a quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, in the draft. David Garrard blows hot and cold and although solid, is never likely to lead Jacksonville to the promise land. Whether Gabbert can, only time will tell. The ‘Pocket Hercules’ Maurice Jones-Drew is a fantastic player and like CJ2K, he needs a big season again. They also made some quietly impressive defensive additions like Drew Coleman and Paul Posluszny.
San Diego Chargers (11-5)
They had the best offense and the best defense in 2010 yet failed to make the play-offs. They are a very real example of the importance of special teams. Fortunately the new kick-off rules should aid them more than most. Philip Rivers is on the cusp of something very special if he can reach the play-offs and Vincent Jackson will be available for the entire campaign this year which makes the aerial threat they pose positively scary. Look for more from Ryan Matthews in his second year as he attempts the unenviable task of trying to emulate LT.
Denver Broncos (7-9)
All the hype this time last year around Josh McDaniels and Tim Tebow has subsided considerably. McDaniels is gone and Tebow’s so far down the depth chart, he is virtually irrelevant. Going with Kyle Orton at quarterback is the most logical solution and he got a lot of Brandon Lloyd amongst others last year. They need a running back to step up and be a real threat rather than relying on several men to do bits and bobs. This job should still belong to Knowshon Moreno if he can finally recapture some of his college form. Von Miller has been getting plenty of praise and with him lining up opposite Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos could have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
Surprised some people by making the play-offs last year but they called some ingenious plays on offense which made them a joy to watch. Sadly they were easily brushed aside at the post-season’s first hurdle and looked out of their depth. They have plenty to like on the offensive side of the ball and could this be the year when Jamaal Charles is told to go out and get the rushing title? The Chiefs could very well ride him all the way to the play-offs.
Oakland Raiders (5-11)
Still questions at quarterback. Still questions of the ownership. Still questions about whether the coaching regime is up to the task, although possibly harsh given that Hue Jackson is a rookie, he can blame the stream of men who’ve gone before. Darren McFadden had a breakout year last year and the Raiders looked good in patches but all that appears to have been undone. Nnamdi Asomugha has gone and his loss will be felt, as will Zach Miller’s.
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“Effort without talent is depressing but talent without effort is a tragedy”
I remember watching an America’s Game recently (which chronicles the season of the Super Bowl winning teams or the best teams never to win the trophy) which featured the 1981 San Diego Chargers. Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow explained just why the diminutive running back Hank Bauer played such an important role on that team.
“You have to have a Hank Bauer on your football team, an overachiever. Because then it forces people who were gifted, you know that natural ability, to ask themselves, why am I not working harder? He’s a guy who pushes everybody else”.
Bauer wasn’t blessed with athletic ability. There were others in his position that had the raw attributes, others that were technically better. But because he worked harder and because he wanted it more he became just as important as the star names.
I thought of Bauer yesterday when Gary Neville was described by many as an ‘overachiever’. For nearly two decades, Neville has held down a right-back berth at one of the world’s most successful clubs and on top of that he has amassed 85 caps for his country.
I can fully understand the ‘overachiever’ tag but it could be seen as too simplistic. It suggests that Neville was more of a passenger during Manchester United’s two decades of dominance. It proposes that he didn’t deserve all the accolades.
But Neville’s biggest strengths were those which could not be visibly seen. He possessed a burning desire, a winning mentality and his game lent itself to natural leadership. He also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, for knowing when to attack and when to defend. He wasn’t blessed with searing speed or a bulking frame like a Micah Richards; he didn’t have an evergreen engine like a Gareth Bale or a Cafu. But mentally, Neville possessed all the traits that are typical of a Manchester United player in the Sir Alex Ferguson era yet they are often overlooked by many.
Was Neville an overachiever? Perhaps. But then this is no bad thing, in fact it should be revered. Many players waste the talents they have and the sport’s stars who punch above their weight should be celebrated.
When people look back at the Manchester United and England sides of Neville’s generation they will wax lyrical about Beckham, Scholes, Shearer and Rooney and with good reason.
But you need a Gary Neville on your football team, an overachiever. Because it forces people who were gifted to ask themselves, why am I not working harder? He’s a guy who pushes everybody else.
“We’re talking about the Jets like we’re talking about the Saints”
The balance of power may be shifting to the NFC but the AFC still contains plenty of talent. The perennially strong Indianapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh and New England will expect to be in Dallas come February and new pretenders like the Jets and Texans have serious aspirations too. The NFC possessed the first four draft picks last time around so competition runs deep in this conference.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4) – A lot of people are excited about the Ravens this year. Many feel quarterback Joe Flacco is ready to explode especially after the arrivals of wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Ravens have long sort a recognised wide receiver, they now have a plethora. Couple this with a strong running game, led by Ray Rice, and the Ravens offense looks frightening.
The Subplot: Can the offense carry the defense?
Ever since the franchise’s inception it is the defense which has spearheaded the Ravens’ success. Even today Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are some of the league’s best on the defensive side of the football. However Ed Reed, who contemplated retirement, is injured and he is joined on the treatment table with a host of other cornerbacks. The offense looks ready to go but it may have to perform above expectations if the Ravens are to realise their title aspirations.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) – Historically a well-run, respectable organisation, their name has been dragged through the mud by the antics of Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger. Holmes has had to find a new abode in New York whilst Roethlisberger will miss the initial four games. The Super-Bowl champs of two years ago suffered terribly when Troy Polamulu and Aaron Smith went down last year, with these two back their defense will be fearsome once again.
The Subplot: Can the Steelers cope without Big Ben?
Dennis Dixon was thrust into action last year and he will see even more snaps as Big Ben serves his suspension. Roethlisberger may have used up all his lives in Pittsburgh and there is little doubt that he must start to repay the Rooneys’ faith on the field. The question is, in a highly competitive division, will the Steelers leave him too much to do when he returns?
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
– Last year they swept the division and bounded into the play-offs. They were abruptly stopped by the Jets with Carson Palmer performing less than admirably in their final two games against Rex Ryan’s team. The defense was exceptional last year and Cedric Benson found a new leash of life.
The Subplot: Is there enough room for T.O. and Ochocinco?
Typically comedy double acts tend to delight us all but the egos of T.O. and Ochocinco may be on a collision course. T.O. has never been afraid to vent his anger when the ball doesn’t go his way and with the run-heavy offense in Cincinnati there were few balls being aired out. Palmer may be happy with the quandary which is developing but he must find a way to keep everyone happy. That will be much easier if they are winning.
Cleveland Browns (2-14) – The perennially bad Browns have decided that neither Derek Anderson nor local boy Brady Quinn were the answer at quarterback. Both have been binned and in their place come Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and rookie Colt McCoy. Delhomme has been handed the task of mastering the West Coast offense but he was diabolical last term. Jerome Harrison ended the season on a high as the Browns pounded him into the ground, he will hope to pick up where he left off.
The Subplot: Will Mangini last the year?
Eric Mangini survived the off-season by the skin of his teeth. But the overlord watching over his every move is Mike Holmgren. With pressure intensified, Mangini must find a way to lift a flat franchise. Otherwise Mangini could well be the first to fall this year.
New York Jets (12-4) – Confidence is high at the new Meadowlands and with good reason. A strong supporting cast has joined the team which was only a whisker away from the Super Bowl last time out. Expect them to be there or thereabouts again this time. Much will depend on second year quarterback Mark Sanchez who has struggled in pre-season. Last year the Jets kept Sanchez away from danger with a bruising rushing attack, they will apply the same mantra this time but Sanchez must cut out his mistakes and develop into a game manager.
The Subplot: Is LT Done?
So many questions surround this team but one of the more intriguing issues is LaDanian Tomlinson’s arrival. A sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate, Tomlinson has struggled of late. Was it the offensive line in San Diego or has the great back started a decline? The first few weeks will tell us more.
New England Patriots (11-5) – Bill Belichick’s men ended last season with a feeble performance against the Ravens. Many suggested that this play-off defeat signalled the end of New England’s dominance. The last decade belonged to them but they face a tough task replacing the defensive stalwarts that inspired them. They are in a tough division but the prowess of Brady, Moss and a returning Wes Welker prove they will continue to be a major threat on the offensive side of the ball.
The Subplot: Can the defense step up?
Leigh Bodden has already gone down and the shoes of Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour still need to be filled. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather have shown promise and Darius Butler, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty were all drafted high.. Last year Belichick showed what he thought of his defense by making a risky fourth down call which didn’t come off; his defense must show him that he can trust them.
Miami Dolphins (9-7) – With all the talk of the Jets rising and the Patriots falling, the Dolphins may feel left out. But write off this franchise at your peril. The busy Brandon Marshall has landed in the Sunshine State which will delight quarterback Chad Henne immensely. But it is the arrival of Karlos Dansby which may be even more pivotal to the Dolphins’ chances. Installing Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator is an inspired move.
The Subplot: Will Chad Henne get this team to the play-offs?
Like Mark Sanchez, Henne is effectively in his second year. He showed promise last year but with more tape to view he will have to be wary. Picking up Marshall is a massive coup for Henne and the Dolphins. It should also increase production of others like Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano with attention diverted towards Marshall.
Buffalo Bills (2-14) – As the rest of the AFC East looks to make it to the play-offs, aspirations in Buffalo have been significantly curbed. They did acquire CJ Spiller who can provide some explosive plays but there are so many holes elsewhere it’s going to be a long old haul in Buffalo. They could well be heading for the fabled number one pick next year and expect them to take a quarterback.
The Subplot: Can they get anything going on offense?
The T.O. experiment didn’t work last year and neither Trent Edwards nor Ryan Fitzpatrick set the world on fire as quarterback. Both are back but it is unclear who will finish the year and the Bills could well be selecting the top quarterback in next year’s draft. The o-line was banged up last year so they should get more production this year especially with Spiller’s dynamic ability.
Indianapolis Colts (14-2) – One of the league’s most consistent franchises fell just short last year but don’t be surprised if they win it all this year. Peyton Manning has a wealth of riches on the offensive side of the ball which meant there was no tail off when Tony Dungy handed Jim Caldwell the rains.
The Subplot: Can they fend off Houston once more?
There are few questions which surround Indy but their hold on the league will be tested once more by Houston. They have won the last six meetings between the two and have only lost once to the Texans since they joined the league. Last year, Manning showed he can turn around large deficits but his opposite number Matt Schaub really came out of his shell. The apparent hoodoo they hold over the Texans will be tested in week one.
Houston Texans (10-6) – Last year the Texans delighted many as Matt Schaub led the league in passing yardage. The high-powered offense will hope Arian Foster can grind out some yards on the ground to help take pressure off Matt Schaub and the defensive must cope without Brian Cushing initially.
The Subplot: Can Matt Schaub stay fit?
Last year he proved he could and the Texans must hope he stays fit again but in the past he has proved to be flimsy. Drew Brees led the league in passing yards right before he led a team all the way to a Super Bowl last year, is Schaub about to do the same?
(9-7) – The topsy-turvy nature of last year’s season ended on a high with the explosive Chris Johnson breaking NFL records. They will hope to ride him to glory again and with that offensive line he should be productive once more. Without Jim Schwartz and Albert Haynesworth the defense crumbled at times and they must pressure the quarterback better.
The Subplot: Will CJ2K repeat?
A potentially sticky hold-out situation was avoided when the Titans sorted out Johnson’s contract early this off-season. Johnson’s 2009 was remarkable but his critics will point to the shortened career running backs tend to experience, particularly those of Johnson’s build. Johnson predicts he can eclipse last year’s remarkable numbers; it should be fascinating to watch.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13) – Like the Bills they suffer from an extremely competitive division. Unlike the Bills they have a recognised star in Maurice Jones-Drew. Aaron Kampman will help the pass rush significantly and Mercedes Lewis may be due a big year if David Gerrard can stay healthy.
The Subplot: Can the team finally drum up some support?
Pitiful attendances last year led many to believe that the Jaguars would draft local hero Tebow simply to put bums on seats. The team were against the idea but they seriously need to find some way to generate excitement if they are to remain in Jacksonville.
San Diego Chargers (12-4) – It’s been a strange off-season in San Diego. The heroic LT, who is polite, mild-mannered and a likeable guy suddenly started taking pot-shots at his o-line. Then breakout star Vincent Jackson got into a spot of bother, then held out, then held out some more, whether he returns or is traded remains open to debate. Meanwhile coach Norv Turner secured a new deal.
The Subplot: Can they still challenge without LT, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson?
Antonio Gates signed a large contract this off-season but Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill are disgruntled with their current deals. As we saw last year, this is Phillip Rivers’ team and he will want the pieces back in the jigsaw. But without his left tackle and his number one wide-out, Rivers’ job is more difficult. Ryan Matthews looks set to shine though and the easy nature of their division helps again.
Denver Broncos (5-11) – Everyone wrote Denver off last year and then they flew out of the blocks after a remarkable play involving Brandon Stokley. Josh McDaniels, ridiculed for the way he handled Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, was suddenly a genius especially after they beat the Patriots. The joy didn’t last and the Broncos ran out of steam. Is McDaniels a misunderstood genius or a naïve nutter? Only time will tell…
The Subplot: Where does Tebow fit in?
How does Tim Tebow fit in in the NFL was the draft’s biggest story. Few predicted him going in the first round, even fewer thought he would end up in Denver. The buzz surrounding Tebow has not departed this pre-season as all and sundry have taken an interest in his development. For now it appears as though he will learn the ropes behind the trusty hand of Kyle Orton. Tebow will see some game time this year though and McDaniels certainly took a risk by acquiring him. The experiment may not be evaluated fully this year, but Tebow will learn life in the NFL is rather different to the college circuit he so forcefully commanded.
Oakland Raiders (5-11) – After having one of their better off-seasons in recent history, Oakland look more prepared to challenge San Diego this time around. The big change comes at quarterback, out is the moody, expensive bust JaMarcus Russell and in is the quiet, capable Jason Campbell. However previous draft picks will need to step up most notably Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The Subplot: Will their new found sensibility pay dividends?
In a league full of egomaniacs, everyone should be hoping Jason Campbell finally finds some stability and form in Oakland. One of the game’s nicer guys, his progress has been shunted with multiple offensive coordinators and coaches telling him to go left then right, up then down. This time it’s a whole new team Campbell must familiarise himself with, how he copes will go some way to explaining how Oakland get on this year.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-11) – If the Patriot’s dynasty appears to be over it might be because half of their staff is now over in Kansas. GM Scott Pioli, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are all here. Turning Kansas into New England may be tricky but San Diego aside, this division looks fairly open.
The Subplot: Is Jamaal Charles about to join the elite?
Jamaal Charles averaged more than any other regular back per attempt last year, particularly remarkable given Chris Johnson’s record breaking year. After a staggering 658 yards in the final four games, Charles looked set to join the game’s elite this year. But the arrival of seasoned pro Thomas Jones will reduce his workload. Whether Jones or Charles will take the bulk of the load is unsure but it is a nice conundrum for the Chiefs to have. Either way, look out for Charles this year.