“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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