Wednesday, September 8, 2010

AFC Preseason Predictions

As has been the case for the last few seasons, the AFC is the stronger conference in the NFL. Yesterday I wrote that the NFC has only 7 or 8 legitimate playoff contenders. The AFC has 10. Let’s look at my predictions for the conference.

AFC East

1.New York Jets: 10 – 6 (wins division, 4 seed)
2.New England: 10 – 6 (first wildcard team, 5 seed)
3.Miami: 9 – 7
4.Buffalo: 4 – 12

The AFC East is not only one of the toughest leagues to play in, but they also have a brutal out of division schedule. They must also play the AFC North and the NFC North, two of the other toughest divisions. What this means is that the division once again, will be very competitive, with the winner probably not decided until week 17. I view The Jets, the Pats, and the Dolphins as playoff caliber teams. They will probably play their best against each other, and I expect each of the three to be 1 and 1 against the other two, which is indicated in their respective records.

I like the New York Jets to win the East this year by the slimmest of margins. The addition of Darrelle Revis for the entire season is obviously highly significant, as is the many acquisitions the team made this off-season. The most important of these additions is Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie has the tools to man up against most teams’ best receiver. On many teams in the NFL he would be the number one cornerback. Playing across from Revis creates a matchup dream for Jets fans. Now, a guy with number one talent will be covering the opposing teams’ second-best receiver. When you add on Kyle Wilson, the newest first round pick of the Jets, this secondary has the ability to be more than great, they could be historically great. The return of Kris Jenkins will also strengthen a defense that was already the best in the league in 2009. When healthy, his is a top 5 nose tackle. The significance of Jason Taylor will be interesting to see, but the injury to Calvin Pace means Taylor will be the starter for the first half of the season. The final free agent acquisition to the Jets’ defense was Brodney Pool, which went highly unpublicized. I expect the ex-Cleveland safety to star in Ryan’s defensive schemes. Last year, in just 11 games, Pool produced 50 tackles and 4 interceptions. One final thought on the defense concerns Vernon Gholston, who was a first round pick, and number 6 overall, by the Jets in 2008. At Ohio State, Gholston played a defensive end, but was converted in a 3-4 outside linebacker by the Jets once drafted. After two seasons of huge disappointment, New York decided to send Gholston back to his original defensive end position for this upcoming season. He is yet to record a sack in his two-year career, but if Gholston can pick up a few here and there this season, his increase in production will be an added bonus to an already tremendous defensive unit.
On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should remain among the top ones in the league, despite the departure of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. I attribute the running success of the Jets to arguably the best offensive line in football as well as a sincere determination to run the ball, despite any difficulties. They ran it more than any team last season and I expect that to continue. However, the success of the Jets will largely rest in the large hands of second year quarterback Mark Sanchez. If the Jets want to win the division and advance far into the playoffs, he will need to protect the ball far better and make more dynamic passes. I think he will be able to handle some extra responsibility, especially with a better group of receiver, and I think my favorite team will be able to take the division from the always competitive Dolphins and Patriots.

Of course, then there are the Patriots. As always, Brady leads New England as they search for yet another AFC East title. Once again, many have them as favorites to win the division. Now here’s the thing, the Patriots made no significant moves to improve their team in the offseason, while the division rivals, the Jets and Dolphins, made some major pickups. The fact in the matter is, aside from Brady, the offense is composed of big uncertainties. The running backs seem to be the worst collection of runners the team has had in a long time. The wide receivers have taken a hit as well. I do not expect to see typical Welker numbers out of their slot guy this season, nor do I expect Moss to be as large a factor as many are expecting him to be. There appears to be some unhappiness on the part of the receiver as training camp and the preseason wind down, and once Moss gets unhappy, he can get pretty destructive. Edelman will improve, but he will not be flying under the radar this season, thus, more teams will begin to strategize against him. As for the defense, I was actually surprised last season at how well the unit performed. They finished the season ranked 12th and 13th in passing and rushing defense. If they can repeat such a performance, then Patriot fans should be more than happy. However, I do not anticipate such an occurrence. Yet, Brady and Belichick are still leading the franchise, which goes a long way. However, the question remains, how long can the duo carry the team. If the Patriots blowout loss to the Ravens in the post season last year is any indication of events to follow, this season may come to symbolize the end of the New England’s dominating, decade long, reign and the beginning of a new era. It’ll be interesting.

Miami could very well win this division. Chad Henne is on the verge of a breakout year, given his new toy, Brandon Marshall. I expect the running game to be as effective as ever. Williams and Brown are both talented running backs, who do not need the wildcat to be effective runners. The addition of Karlos Dansby from the Cardinals was a huge defensive move for the team. He will need to be a major contributor to transform the Dolphins into a stronger defensive team, after a season in which they ranked 24th and 18th in passing and rushing defense. If Dansby and company can improve defensively, that will give Miami a great opportunity to reach the postseason.

Oh the Bills, oh the Bills. Was it really only 2 years ago that Buffalo started the season 5-1 and looked like a possible playoff contender, and then pulled a “typical Bills” collapse and managed to lose 8 of the last 10 games, thus finishing the season 7-9? The most pained franchise in football then followed that disaster up with a 6-10 disappointment last season. In 2010, I expect to see an even worse performance than the previous 2 years. The reasoning for this is not so much that the Bills are worse than last season, as is not really the case. C.J. Spiller has the talent to become an elite running back in the NFL, that is, if the offensive line, which averaged the 4th most sacks out of any team last season, can open up a hole long enough for Spiller to get through. The problem is that the other 3 teams in the division are just really good. The Bills have the most unjustly difficult schedule of any team in the NFL. They not only have to play 6 games against the other 3 teams in the division, but they also must play Green Bay, Minnesota, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburg. Those are 11 possible losses right there.

AFC West
1.San Diego: 11 – 5 (wins division, 3 seed)
2.Oakland: 8 – 8
3.Denver: 7 – 9
4.Kansas City: 4 – 12

I expect the San Diego Chargers to have another Charger-esque season. They have a high-powered offense and yet another talented, young, up-and-coming, running back in Ryan Matthews. Philip Rivers’ numbers have improved through almost every season of his career. Despite the loss of Vincent Jackson for an uncertain amount of time, I still think Rivers will lead a high-powered vertical passing game, with Malcolm Floyd stepping into his new role as the number one receiver, who last season, had 776 yards on 45 receptions. The Chargers were weak against the run last year, the main reason why they lost to the Jets in the AFC divisional round last year. The overall unit is essentially the same as last season, so it will be interesting to see if such improvement is possible.

Oakland with an 8-8 record may come as a shock to some. However, now that the meth-head, JaMarcus, “I can throw a ball a mile but not 5 yards” Russell, is out of town and replaced with Jason Campbell, a .500 season may not be out of reach. Although not a single Oakland player was drafted in my fantasy league until round 13 (yes, round 13!) they will stumble their way to 8 wins this year. Their defense was already strong against the pass last season, due to the outstanding corner back Nnamdi Asomugha. So, if their run defense can move up from 29, I think we will see a winning season. When you add in the fact that Oakland gets to play the NFC West, as well as the bottom 2 teams in their own division, they have plenty of opportunities to win some football games.

There probably haven’t been a group of fans more tortured over the last 2 seasons. In 2008, they blew their last 3 games, thus losing a playoff spot and in 2009, they one upped that and blew their last 4! Well, rest easy Denver fans, because in 2010, you will not be good enough to blow a playoff race. You just won’t be in it. Kyle Orton is poor, Brandon Marshall is gone, and most importantly, you have my least favorite head coach, Josh McDaniels, who always seems involved with some type of drama. Honestly, though, I flat out can’t stand him. So, yeah, I guess I was happy to see the Broncos collapse yet again last season. And then there was the Tebow pick. I mean, I have already stated how much I hated this choice, but just incase you forgot, I hate it! Even if they wanted to get Tebow, why not take him in the second round, where he was projected to go? There wasn’t a big enough market for Tim Tebow to take him in the first round. That was a waste of a pick.

The Kansas City Chiefs are the worst team in the AFC’s least competitive division. However, they do have some young talent on offense in Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, and Dwayne Bowe. I believe in 2 years they will be competing for the playoffs. However, they are currently in need of another strong offensive lineman and an improved defense. So, look on the Brightside, a bad losing season will only further increase the likelihood of a playoff run in a few seasons.

AFC North
1.Baltimore: 11 – 5 (wins division, 2 seed)
2.Cincinnati: 9 – 7
3.Pittsburg: 9 – 7
4.Cleveland: 3 – 13

The Ravens are a trendy pick to win the super bowl this season for the simple reason that they have no real weaknesses. Quarterback Joe Flacco should have his best season of his young career, now in that major third year. His receivers have improved with the additions of Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Dante Stallworth, to play alongside Derrick Mason. Ray Rice is one of the 5 best tailbacks in the NFL, and full back Le'Ron McClain may be the best fullback. On defense, I mean, it’s the Ravens, so they must be good. Despite the departures of Bart Scott, Jim Leonard, and coach, Rex Ryan, the Raven were still ranked 9th in pass defense and 5th in rush defense last season. That will all continue in 2010 and the Ravens have put themselves in a position to win a super bowl.

The Bengals surprised everyone last season by winning the division, which they were able to do behind a tremendous defensive unit and good running game. In 2010, I believe that once again the Bengals will be a good team, however, I expect them to fall a bit short of their 2009 accomplishment. They have a very similar unit as the team that got to the playoffs, but 1. The Ravens are much better than last year and 2. The Steelers will be hungry, and Cincinnati does not get to play a Ben Roethlisbergerless squad. There is no way the Bengals sweep the division like they did in 2009.

Pittsburg is one of the more intriguing teams for the upcoming season. Last season was certainly an anomaly and Steelers fans should feel confident that the entire organization will be playing with a chip on their shoulder this season. Rashard Mendenhall is the real deal at running back and should help to bring the Steelers back to their traditional run first style of football. I also really like wide receiver Mike Wallace, who despite limited action last season, playing behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, put up 40 catches for 756 yards and 6 touchdowns! That’s an average of 19.4 yards/catch, the most of any player on any team in the NFL last season! I think Wallace will be the number one receiver by seasons end. The only problem with this team is that Ben Roethlisberger cannot control his raging hormones. He’s gonna be out the first 4 games, which are against 3 playoff caliber teams, in the Falcons, Titans, and Ravens. I have them going 1 and 3 over that stretch, which will really harm them in the long run, and ultimately, destroy their playoff chances. If Pittsburg can manage a 2-2 split over those first 4 games, then maybe they can reach the post season.

The Cleveland Browns, much like the Bills, are a bad team in a division with 3 playoff caliber teams. They’re going to get beaten up like that weird, smelly, kid with the horn-rimed glasses did in middle school. But unlike the Bills, they’re just plain awful, I mean, terrible. Their best player is tackle, Joe Thomas, who although highly talented, cannot carry a football team. Their quarterbacks would be better served as the towel boys, the running backs are so poor that not a single one was drafted in my fantasy league, and their wide receivers were good enough last season to lead the team to dead last in passing offense. Their defense is tragic and head coach Eric Mangini is anything but qualified. Sorry Browns, you should be more interested in college football, to scout for your number one pick next season.

AFC South
1.Indianapolis: 13 – 3 (wins division, 1 seed)
2.Tennessee: 9 – 7 (second wildcard team, 6 seed)
3.Texans: 8 – 8
4.Jacksonville: 4 – 12

The Indianapolis Colts will likely have a season very similar to the one they had last season. Looking at their schedule, they could easily win their first 8 games and looking to the second half of their season, I see them favored to win every game. But history has shown that the Colts put no value on the regular season, so I anticipate them to finish with 3 losses, not out of inability, but out of benign neglect. Manning is still one of the 3 best players in football and quite frankly, is the only one that matters on that team. Even if everyone else on the team got the flu, and they brought in the practice squad, I’d still take the Colts over half the teams in the league. The receivers will be better this year as will the defense. The Colts are the team to beat in the AFC once again.

I have always been impressed by the Titans and their ability to win football games they have no real business competing in. The defense will be strong against the run, but need to do better than 31st against the pass, like they did last season. Vince Young continues to prove that no matter what, regardless of his stats or anyone else’s, he is a proven winner. It’s usually never pretty, but the Titans can win games. Of course, that is a lot easier when you have Chris Johnson at running back. I would not be the least bit surprised to see him put him similar, if not better, numbers than he did last season. I think they are in a good position to make a postseason run.

This is the year the Texans make the playoffs… ok… next year is the year they make the playoffs… ok… next year? Well, I, along with many other football fans and analysts, have been claiming a Texan playoff run for the last few seasons. This is the year that I will not say that about the Texans, which means, of course, this is the year it will actually happens. So, then, I guess I am calling it then, which means, my predictions are knowingly wrong, but, no, I don’t think they will. Really, I don’t think they will. But maybe…

Jacksonville needs more parts in order to compete in yet another challenging AFC division. Their defense is inconsistent and their quarterback situation is questionable. Their receivers are often overmatched, with the exception of Mike Sims-Walker. Much like the Titans, The Jags’ running game can bail them out of trouble, as MJD, like Johnson, is one of the 3 or 4 best backs in the league. However, MJD can only do so much, and the star running back will have to play through, what I can only imagine being, another frustrating season.

Playoff predictions tomorrow.


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