1. Baltimore (12-4)
2. Pittsburgh (10-6)
3. Cincinnati (7-9)
4. Cleveland (3-13)
The AFC North has long been controlled by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. The two teams are quickly approaching the end of their window, and pressure from Cincinnati seems to have some people convinced their dominance over the division has ended.
I am not one of those people. Cincinnati will have to overcome a pair of sophomore slumps from Quarterback Andy Dalton and Wide Receiver AJ Green in order to compete. I believe the Bengals have taken a step backwards on offense and are slightly overrated coming into the season.
Pittsburgh, a team I predicted last year would miss the playoffs, is worrisome for the same reasons they were last year. The defense is old and struggles against the pass, as evidenced by their playoff loss against Tim Tebow’s Broncos.
Cleveland made positive strides on offense via the draft. Brandon Weeden, their first round draft pick at Quarterback, doesn’t have a great arsenal of weapons to throw to. The elite prospect Trent Richardson has a good Offensive Line in front of him, but coming off knee surgery, you have to temper your expectations for the rookie. The Cleveland defense is still very young and lacks talent at Linebacker.
This leaves Baltimore as the winner by default. Although Baltimore lost Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, there is still enough talent to be in the top-half of defenses in football. Led by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice on offense, I believe Baltimore will have very little trouble winning the usually competitive AFC North. The Ravens’ biggest obstacle to repeating as division champions could be the play of Bryant McKinnie at the Left Tackle position.
-Brandon Weeden will out-perform fellow rookie Ryan Tannehill.
-Trent Richardson will rush for more than 1000 yards.
-Joe Flacco will make his first Pro Bowl.
1. New England (14-2)
2. Buffalo (9-7)
3. Miami (5-11)
4. New York (5-11)
New England, like Baltimore, appears to have little resistance to repeat as the winner of their division. The Patriots cruised to a division title last year, and has still managed to improve dramatically on defense. Rookie Chandler Jones, who has been nicknamed “The Closer” by his teammates, and may be the most important player on the defense. Jones is the best pass-rusher on the team without question, and the team’s sack totals at the end of the year will likely reflect that.
The Buffalo Bills have been a disappointment in the preseason to this point, but I believe that the team’s fortunes will turn around during the regular season. I believe the Bills’ Defensive Line is too good to be denied. Between Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcel Dareus, the Bills have one of the best Defensive Lines in football. I believe there is enough talent around them on the defense, and perhaps more importantly on the offensive side of the ball. Ryan Fitzpatrick is clearly the weak point on the Offense, but he won’t have to do much to keep the Offense competitive. I expect a big season for both Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller.
I’m going out on a limb and predicting the Miami Dolphins will edge out the New York Jets. I would be more confident with the pick if David Garrard was under center, but even without Garrard, I believe the Dolphins have a chance. The Dolphins will be bad, perhaps atrocious on offense. The cupboard is bare at Wide Receiver and Rookie Right Tackle Jonathan Martin has been putrid to this point. There is cohesion and competence in the Dolphins front office and coaching staff that I don’t see in New York. I believe the Dolphins will be strong on defense, even without Vontae Davis, who was recently traded to the Colts.
The Jets, who appear to have more talent on paper, are without a direction as a team. Mike Tannenbaum’s acquisition of Tim Tebow demonstrates that. One of the biggest storylines in the off season was that Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes were trying to revitalize their rocky relationship. Adding a Quarterback that will create a division between the fans like Tim Tebow made no sense. Tebow’s relationship with Mark Sanchez appears to work, but I believe that it’s only a matter of time before the team is once again in shambles.
-Jairus Byrd will lead the AFC East in Interceptions.
-Rex Ryan will be fired.
1. Houston (11-5)
2. Tennessee (9-7)
3. Jacksonville (6-10)
4. Indianapolis (4-12)
The AFC South might be the weakest division in all of football. The Texans’ defense will once again be strong, but there are questions about the production of Conner Barwin and Brooks Reed, whom both really picked up the defense when Mario Williams was lost for the year. Rookie Whitney Mercilus should help out the pass rush, but it’s unlikely they will be able to play at the level they did last year. The Texans traded Demeco Ryans, and lost Eric Winston. I find it hard to believe the Texans will be quite as good as they were last year, but it doesn’t appear they need to be.
Tennessee gave them a run for their money last year with Matt Hasselbeck under center, but second year Quarterback Jake Locker will be asked to lead the attack this year. The loss of Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones leaves the Titans young on defense.
The Jaguars, who figure to be better on offense with the improved play of Blaine Gabbert and the addition of Justin Blackmon, are currently dealing with the hold-out of Maurice Jones-Drew. Back-up Rashad Jennings will get the opening game start regardless of whether Maurice Jones-Drew reports to the team. The defense drafted Andre Branch with the belief that he would improve the pass rush, but it didn’t look promising in the preseason. If Jones-Drew continues to hold-out, the Jaguars will be going backward.
Indianapolis is the predicted bottom-dweller again this year. Andrew Luck is a sure-thing at Quarterback and will have the Colts contending as early as next season, but his presence at Quarterback will not be enough for the Colts this year. Donald Brown and rookie Vick Ballard may surprise people with their proficiency running the football in Chuck Pagano’s first year as the Head Coach. The problem with the Colts is not on Offense, however. The Colts may host the league’s worst defense. Aside from some talent in the Secondary, there isn’t much worth noting for the Colts. Jerrell Freeman looks to be heading toward a breakout year for the Colts at Linebacker, but Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis aren’t going to be as productive as they were during the last administration. The Defensive Line is led by Cory Redding, whom is, at best, a league-average starter.
-Jake Locker will lead the AFC South in Touchdown Passes.
-Justin Blackmon will lead rookies in Catches and Touchdown Receptions.
1. Denver (11-5)
2. Kansas City (10-6)
3. Oakland (7-9)
4. San Diego (5-11)
The Broncos have gained a lot of momentum as a sexy pick to win the West because of their acquisition of Peyton Manning, whom is a vast improvement over Tim Tebow under center, provided he can stay healthy. Manning’s role in the offense will not resemble his role in Indianapolis, where he was asked to carry the offense. Manning will simply be asked to punish teams that attempt to cheat against John Fox’s advanced running attack. Their offense could be the best in the division, but I believe their defense will ultimately be why they win the division if they in fact do so. Second-year pro Von Miller is already the best 4-3 Outside Linebacker in the league, able to attack defenses rushing the Quarterback, but also able to stand-up against the run and perform well in coverage. Miller is not the only premiere player on the defense. Champ Bailey remains one of the league’s best shutdown corners and Elvis Dumervil might be the league’s most underrated pass rusher.
Another popular pick to win the division is Kansas City. Kansas City, a lot like Buffalo, appears to have everything in place except for the Quarterback. Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis will run behind an impressive Offensive Line. The Chiefs’ Defense, lead by Safety Eric Berry, is good-but-not-great. Tamba Hali has regressed since his career year as a Pass Rusher in 2010, so the Chiefs have struggled to get consistent pass rush. Dontari Poe’s presence on the Defensive Line was supposed to improve their push on the inside, but as many predicted, Poe simply will not be able to contribute as a rookie.
Perhaps I’m under-estimating Philip Rivers’ effect on the Chargers, but I am predicting that they will be the worst team in the AFC West. I don’t think there is enough talent on San Diego’s offense. Ryan Mathews is constantly hurt. Antonio Gates is 32, and as a player that’s success was aided by superior athleticism, has been battling injuries for a while now. Robert Meachum is an unproven commodity as a primary option, and Malcom Floyd has proven, at least to this point in his career, that his production comes and goes. The Chargers are once again depending on Jared Gaither to stay healthy despite a laundry list of back injuries that no less than a year ago seemed to signal his impending retirement. At the moment, Mike Harris, an undrafted rookie out of UCLA, is filling in for Gaither who is once again battling injuries. The Chargers’ Defense will be improved with the addition of Melvin Ingram, but how much is yet to be seen. The Secondary is an area for concern, and the Defensive Line isn’t inspiring either.
This leaves only Oakland, a team that I believe is vastly under-rated. The Raiders were headed for a playoff birth last year before Darren McFadden and Jason Campbell went down. Campbell is gone, but McFadden is once again the point of emphasis on offense. The Raiders’ biggest problem will be their lack of depth. If the Raiders can stay healthy, they have a good, balanced team.
-Darren McFadden will lead the AFC West in Touchdowns.
-Elvis Dumervil will lead the AFC West in sacks.
-Second will be his teammate Von Miller.