Monday, September 5, 2011

NFL Preview Part 1: AFC Edition

Hello everyone. As most of you know, I pretty much specifically write about the WWE. But last year I also wrote about the NFL from week to week, giving you my predictions and reviews. Well, even though time is short, I plan on trying to write two different previews for the upcoming NFL season. The first one will take a look at the AFC.

The AFC has traditionally been dominated by the same handful of teams the last few years. The New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Baltimore Ravens have pretty much been playoff mainstays while the New York Jets look to join that list as constant playoff contenders. The Houston Texans have been on the cusp of breaking into the playoffs and this year may finally be the year with an injured Peyton Manning for the Colts. I don't think there will be too many changes in the AFC this year. Lets jump into the preview!

AFC East
1. New England Patriots
-I know the Jets are the sexy pic. But for me, it's about consistency. I love the veteran leadership the Patriots have. The additions of Chad Ochocinco on offense and Albert Haynesworth on defense help a lot. And of course, it's always tough to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Until those two have a really bad year together, they will always be my pick to come out on top in the AFC East. Jerrod Mayo should be a beast on defense for them. The secondary, which was young and struggled early last year, should be much better. Sure the Jets wiped the floor with them in the playoffs, but that should only light a bigger fire underneath the Pats. With the array of weapons Tom Brady has, it will be tough for any defense to really stop them. Give me the Pats in the AFC East this year.

2. New York Jets: Wild Card
-With the way the Jets defeated the Patriots and stopped Peyton Manning in the playoffs last year they are many people's pick to win the AFC East and get to the Super Bowl. Lots of people are praising the addition of Plaxico Burress, but I will hold off on that praise until I see him give a consistent effort in the first couple games. Offensively, I'm still not sold on Mark Sanchez at QB. He's wildly inconsistent and has yet to put together a solid season as a starter. Everyone is bound to have a bad game or two, but Mark Sanchez's bad games are REALLY bad. If Sanchez can ever put it all together, the Jets will be kings of the AFC. They have a great 1-2 punch at RB with Shonn Greene and LT, and their offensive line is one of the best in football. Their defense will also be good under Rex Ryan. A healthy Darelle Revis for the whole year will help. The Jets will be there all the way to the end with the Pats. It will be up to Mark Sanchez if they end up on top or not.

3. Buffalo Bills
-I love my Bills. Always will until the day I die. They lost some veteran leaders this year with LB Paul Posluszny (free agency) and WR Lee Evans (trade) departing. It seems like GM Buddy Nix and Coach Chan Gailey seem to be replacing "the guys" of the old regime with their guys. Ryan Fitzpatrick enters his second year as QB and played quite well as starter last year. Someone will need to step up opposite WR Steve Johnson to help get the pressure off of him. C.J. Spiller needs to show more in his second year to prove he was worthy of the #9 pick in the 2010 Draft. The defense should be vastly improved with rookie DE Marcell Dareus and NT Kyle Williams maning the front line. If Shawne Merrieman stays healthy he could be a candidate for a 10 sack season. The secondary remains a slight question mark, but it will feed off an improved pass rush from the front seven. The Bills should be competitive in most of their games and will give some teams fits this year. They're still at least a year away from competing for a playoff spot, but always expect 100% from this team when they take the field.

4. Miami Dolphins
-The reason I put the Bills in front of the Dolphins is simple. Despite some questionable moves, the Bills look like a team on a slight upswing. The Dolphins, however, don't appear to be. QB Chad Henne will be on a short leash this year. If he doesn't perform early, Coach Tony Sparano, who is also on the hot seat, will yank him. Both of them could be done early if the Dolphins get off to a slow start. The Dolphins replaced RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams with Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas. Bush has never stayed healthy long enough to be an every down back, and rookie Daniel Thomas has struggled in the pre-season finding holes and running hard. On defense Cameron Wake had an outstanding year last year, but he will need help with the departure of Channing Crowder, the veteran leader of the team. The Dolphins will struggle offensively this year and may be in for a complete overhaul next off-season if the team finishes last in the AFC East.

AFC North
1. Baltimore Ravens
-The Ravens were my Super Bowl representative from the AFC last year. They were pretty close last year, losing in the divisional round to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens were up 3 touchdowns in that game before blowing the lead and allowing the Steelers to come back and win the game. The Ravens gave QB Joe Flacco an extra weapon this year with the addition of WR Lee Evans. Evans is an upgrade over Derrick Mason and TJ. Houshmanzadeth. He's a deep play threat. Ray Rice will shoulder more of the load at RB with the subtraction of Willis McGahee. Ricky Williams will help but not by much. The big help comes in the signing of Fullback Vonta Leach, arguably the best blocking FB in the NFL. The subtraction of TE Todd Heap may hurt the Ravens offense, however. He was a reliable safe valve for Flacco when he was under pressure. The defense, while still good, is also aging. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed remain pro bowl players, but you have to wonder how much they have left. I think they have enough for one more all out effort to try and unseat the Steelers at the top of the division. 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: Wild Card
-The Steelers really didn't change much this off-season. There was really no need to after making a run to the Super Bowl last year. The Steelers are built on defense and have a great linebacking core with James Harrison and LaMar Woodley leading the way. Troy Polamalu is the leader of the secondary, but he needs to stay healthy to give the Steelers an added boost. The offense has always been a run-oriented run. Rashad Mendenhall was a workhorse last year for the Steelers, and they have to worry about him possibly wearing down this year. Ben Roethlisberger should continue to play effectively. He has a new weapon in second year WR Antonio Brown, who has had an outstanding pre-season. The Steelers are one of the most well-run organizations in the NFL and should continue to be a threat to make the Super Bowl every year. I think this is the year, however, the Ravens finally unseat them at the top.

3. Cleveland Browns
-The Browns surprised quite a few people last year with their respectable play. They upset the Saints in New Orleans and also knocked off the Patriots at home. It still wasn't enough to save coach Eric Mangini, and former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur took over the reigns. He has a workhorse running back in Peyton Hills to work with. Colt McCoy should be improved as well, especially if Shurmur can do with McCoy what he did with Sam Bradford in St. Louis. The Browns don't have the greatest options at WR, but neither did the Rams and they still did fine. The defense switches from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. That could cause some problems for the guys that remain from the old regime. Any kind of defensive transition is tough. They are also young on defense with two rookies starting on the line. The Browns just like the Bills will be a competitive bunch this year and should be good for at least two upsets during the year.

4. Cincinnati Bengals
-Many people were shocked to see Marvin Lewis remain on as head coach. The Bengals decided to keep Lewis and get rid of WRs Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. They've also apparently moved on from QB Carson Palmer, although that situation remains a mystery. But for now, and more than likely all season, the Bengals will ride rookie QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green. Green looks like a future stud but will probably go through some growing pains this year with Dalton. WR Jerome Simpson broke out at the end of last year and should help Dalton early on. Expect the team to heavily rely on RB Cedric Benson to carry the offense, which is now run by Jay Gruden. On defense, Nate Clements replaces Jonathan Joseph at cornerback. Clements might not have too much left in the tank after being cut by San Francisco. The defense will rely on second year LB Rey Maualuga to stop runners from gutting them like they did a year before. The Bengals will more than likely struggle this year and will probably be one of the worst teams in the league.

AFC South
1. Houston Texans
-Yes, it is finally time. All of the pieces are falling together for the Texans to finally take over the top spot in the AFC South. Nothing changes offensively for the Texans. They just have to stay healthy. Arian Foster is dealing with a bum hamstring right now, but the RB position in Houston can just be switched around and no one could really tell the difference. The keys are QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson. If they can put together a whole season, they'll win the AFC South. The defense will be a question. The Texans defense, especially the secondary, was torched last year. Wade Philips was brought in to fix that and his first move was switching to a 3-4 defense. Mario Williams makes the switch to outside linebacker which could effect his stats. The Texans added Jonathan Joseph at CB to help the secondary, and added multiple rookies in the Draft to help fill holes. If everyone stays healthy and the defense improves, there is no reason the Texans shouldn't finally make the playoffs this year.

2. Indianapolis Colts
-Even with Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney, the Colts, while still good, appear to be an aging team on a slow decline. Peyton Manning has barely practiced this off-season after neck surgery. The Colts got off to a slow start last year and may be looking at one again, especially if Manning can't go Week 1 at Houston. TE Dallas Clark, RB Joseph Addai, and WRs Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon have also failed to stay healthy in the last few years. The Colts don't have that much depth on offense. They rely on Peyton to carry the load and if he's injured he can't do that. The defense will still struggle against the run as it really wasn't addressed this off-season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis help on the outside with the pass rush, but the linebacking core is still not the strongest. The Colts haven't done a good job of drafting in the last couple years and that will need to change. I think the Indianapolis's playoff run comes to an end this year.

3. Tennessee Titans
-New Head Coach Mike Munchak probably did a nice little dance by himself after RB Chris Johnson signed his new contract. If Johnson held out an extended period of time, the Titans may have finished in last place in the South. But Johnson is that much of a difference maker that he can help out even with missing training camp. The Titans really don't have much without Johnson. Matt Hasselbeck was signed to take over the duties at QB, but his best days are far behind him. Hasselbeck is just a stop gap for rookie QB Jake Locker, who may see the field at the end of the year if the Titans are out of the playoff race. The Titans signed Jerry Gray to revamp their defense. The Titans will have a lot of young faces on defense that might struggle early on. The Titans may be in rebuilding mode, but Chris Johnson is a big enough weapon that he should keep them out of the division basement.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars
-The Jaguars appear to be destined for the division cellar. QB David Garrard has struggled the last couple seasons and he didn't get a vote of confidence when the team drafted QB Blaine Gabbert in the first round this year. Expect Gabbert to see the field half way through the year. RB Maurice Jones-Drew will be the workhorse of the offense, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy for a full season. If Jones-Drew goes down early, that could be the nail in the coffin of the Jags season. The Jags added LB Paul Posluszny and S Dawan Landry to add some veteran leadership to the defense, but those will only be temporary fixes. The Jags will struggle this year, and playing in front of half empty stadiums won't help.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers
-Last year the Chiefs unseated the Chargers as kings of the AFC West. Things will probably go back to normal this year. The Chargers will have WR Vincent Jackson the entire year this season, and that should help things greatly. With QB Philip Rivers and TE Antonio Gates, the Chargers should have one of the best passing offenses in the league. Second year RB Ryan Matthews will look to improve his game after a disappointing rookie season. The loss of RB Darren Sproles to New Orleans could also hurt a bit, but I think overall the Chargers offense should be fine. While the Chargers were the #1 ranked defensive unit last year, they still struggled to stop the run. They added LB Takeo Spikes and S Bob Sanders to help that, but Sanders has struggled to stay healthy and Spikes is an aging vet. The Chargers are the best team in the AFC West, and they should be able to reclaim their spot at the top.

2. Oakland Raiders
-The Raiders surprised a lot of people last year with their good start. Despite their surprising performance, the Raiders still fired coach Tom Cable and made offensive coordinator Hue Jackson their new coach. The offense will rely on RB Darren McFadden to shoulder the load. But just like Maurice Jones-Drew, McFadden has struggled to stay healthy. With Jason Campbell at QB and a handful of young receivers, if McFadden goes down it could be cause for concern. On defense, the Raiders losing CB Nnamdi Asomugha could be huge. Asomugha is the best CB in the league and it will be a huge loss on defense. They will now rely on defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, as well as second year linebacker Rolando McClain to put more pressure on the QB to help out the secondary. The Raiders will be more fun than normal to watch, but they are still a few pieces away from making a playoff appearance.

3. Kansas City Chiefs
-Some people still like the Chiefs this year. I'm not one of them. I still think the Chiefs were lucky last year to make the playoffs. Todd Haley made some questionable coaching calls last year, and losing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis this season will not help. QB Matt Cassel still hasn't looked as good as he did in New England. He's dealing with a cracked rib and may not be ready for Week 1.  The Chiefs will hope Jamaal Charles can be the centerpiece of the offense. WR Dwayne Bowe needs help from his other wideouts to get double teams off of him. Rookie WR Jonathan Baldwin will miss the first couple games due to a broken thumb, and TE Tony Moeaki will now miss the season. On defense, OLB Tamba Hali looks to repeat his AFC leading 14.5 sack performance last year. The safety combination of Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis had seven interceptions last year and look to improve on that this year. The Chiefs will be competitive for the most part, but their offense can struggle at times, and an injured Matt Cassel to start the season will not help.

4. Denver Broncos
-New head coach John Fox is looking for a fresh start after getting the boot in Carolina. He named Kyle Orton starting QB, which is the smart move. Tim Tebow has all the hype, but he's just not ready to start full time yet. Fox added Willis McGahee this off-season to compliment Knowshon Moreno, hoping to recreate the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart combo he had in Carolina. Fox likes to rely on the run, which will take the pressure off of Orton and breakout WR Brandon Lloyd. The Broncos will be switching back to a 4-3 on defense, but have enough weapons that it shouldn't hurt them too much. Rookie second round pick Von Miller will add to a pass rush that gets back 2009 sack leader Elvis Dumervil. Champ Bailey remains one of the best cornerbacks in the league but is getting older. If the Broncos can gel as a unit under Fox, they may surprise some people in the West, but I just think they lack the overall depth to improve on last year.

AFC Playoffs
Wild Card
#3 San Diego over #6 New York Jets
#5 Pittsburgh over #4 Houston

#1 New England over #5 Pittsburgh
#2 Baltimore over #3 San Diego

#2 Baltimore over #1 New England

The Ravens were my AFC Super Bowl pick last year, and I'm picking them again this year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have just enough left, in my opinion, to make one last full run at a Super Bowl appearance. Joe Flacco has another added weapon in Lee Evans and Ray Rice should continue to shine at RB. If this isn't the season the Ravens make the Super Bowl, it may not happen.

That's all from me on the AFC. I will have the NFC Preview up before the first game Thursday, as well as my normal RAW Thoughts up by Tuesday.

Until next time,
Justin C
Follow Me on Twitter @JCWonka

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