|Andrew Luck will hope to return to the play-offs for the third successive season with Indianapolis|
Following on from the American Football Focus NFC predictions that were posted last week, here’s what AFF thinks will happen in pro football’s other conference, the AFC. Will Denver make it back to the Superbowl following their crushing defeat at the hands of Seattle? Or will it be Tom Brady and New England who return to the big game in search of a fourth Superbowl title. Keep reading to find out…
Bill Belichick’s charges have demonstrated incredible consistency over the past 13 years, and nothing figures to change in 2014. The additions of Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner strengthen the secondary significantly, although Browner is suspended for the first four games of the campaign. With an improved D and a healthy Rob Gronkowski the Pats, led once more by Tom terrific himself, should stroll to yet another AFC East crown.
New York Jets (Wild Card)
The Jets should be as exciting to follow as ever this year, with Rex Ryan on the hot seat (again) and Michael Vick brought in from Philadelphia to back-up incumbent QB Geno Smith – for now. Smith actually played well during the pre-season and with WR Eric Decker brought in to give him a legitimate option on the outside the previously stagnant New York offense could come to life, in the process putting them in contention for a wild-card spot.
Last season was a lost year for the Dolphins, when the rookie hazing scandal engulfed the franchise and threatened to see head coach Joe Philbin axed. This all came after an off-season spending spree headlined by the addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for both the team and player Wallace struggled to make an impact, and heading into this campaign Philbin finds himself under enormous pressure to deliver in one of the leagues weaker divisions.
While many things change in the NFL year on year, others stay exactly the same. As has been the case for a decade now Buffalo figures to be one of the poorer teams in the NFL, with second-year QB E.J Manuel looking worryingly inaccurate during the pre-season and reports of dissent within the ranks rife in the media. The Bills are currently looking for a new owner but whoever takes control of the team had better prepare themselves for a long battle to return Buffalo to respectability.
Even though the Bengals once more disappointed in the play-offs they remain the class of the division, largely off the back of the play of Andy Dalton and A.J Green. The defense is also a feared unit and in total Cincy are one of the more balanced teams in the league. Whether they can make that next step to become a threat in the post-season is up for discussion, but their validity as the premier team in the AFC North is far less questionable.
Joe Flacco and co suffered a Superbowl hangover in 2013, thanks largely to the regression of Ray Rice and the retirements and free agency losses that plagued the defense. While the D has had time to rebuild and should be improved this year Rice will miss the first two games of the season after his domestic abuse charge, leaving the Ravens in a similar predicament to a year ago. The addition of Steve Smith out wide should help, however, and despite the former Panther’s advancing years he’s still a good complimentary player opposite Torrey Smith and should serve as the perfect replacement for Anquan Boldin – albeit a year too late.
Are Pittsburgh really much better than they were a year ago, when they comfortably missed the play-offs for the first time in years? I’m not so sure. Ben Roethlisberger is back but the offensive line is still one of the worst in football, while the defense continues to age without replacing the players it has lost during the past two or three seasons. Even though both Le’veon Bell and Legarrette Blount were arrested on drugs charges recently neither were suspended, a lucky break for both although it raises serious questions about their reliability and maturity heading forward.
Bobby Hoyer has been chosen to start the season at Quarterback ahead of Johnny Manziel, but you get the feeling that it’s only a matter of time (and Cleveland losses) until Manziel takes the field. Josh Gordon has been suspended for the entire year which robs the Browns of one of the NFL’s most dynamic playmakers, but the defense should be strong enough to keep the team competitive in most games. Unfortunately the offense won’t be able to capitalise, meaning yet another losing season for the Browns is on the cards.
By far and away the standout team in the division, Indy should cruise to a defense of their division crown. Andrew Luck enters his third year in the league looking to continue his ascent towards the top five players at his position, while the rest of the team around him improves steadily year on year. The running game looks bare unless Trent Richardson can finally justify his first round price tag, and the defense has holes. But don’t let that persuade you from thinking the Colts won’t stroll to a third play-off berth in a row.
The Chris Johnson era is over in Tennessee, but what will really decide the fate of this team is the play of Jake Locker at Quarterback. Locker is probably on his last chance to earn the trust of the Titans hierarchy, so it could be an important year for both him and the franchise. Tennessee don’t figure to pull up any trees in 2014 but the dearth of good teams in the AFC South still makes them favourite to finish runner-up to the Colts in the division.
After falling to the worst record in the NFL last season, Houston was able to acquire the freakishly talented Jadaveon Clowney with the first overall pick in April’s draft. Paired with J.J Watt, who was this past week given a contract extension worth $100 million, Clowney should give the Texans one of football’s most feared pass rushes. Brian Cushing is another standout defensive player; however the offense is in terrible shape with Ryan Fitzpatrick and the recently acquired Ryan Mallett set to battle it out for reps at QB while ageing veterans Arian Foster and Andre Johnson appear to be shadows of their former selves at running back and wide receiver, respectively.
In coach Gus Bradley’s second year at the helm in Florida the Jaguars are likely to show some improvement on last season’s showing, although with third overall pick Blake Bortles set to sit and learn for at least part of the season the team is unlikely to compete with the upper echelon teams in the NFL. Bradley has begun to put his stamp on the defensive unit by bringing in his former Seattle protégées Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to play on the defensive line, and if the D can carry the offense for the first part of the year the Jags could surprise a few people.
Despite a record breaking regular season in 2013, the Broncos Supberbowl humiliation at the hands of Seattle left a sour taste in the mouth and led to an off-season spending spree, particularly on the defensive side of the football. Aqib Talib, T.J Ward and DeMarcus Ware were all brought in via free agency to shore up an occasionally leaky defensive unit, while Wes Welker’s pre-season concussion and subsequent four game suspension for a banned substance violation could hurt Peyton Manning and the offense in the early going. Fellow receiver Eric Decker bolted for the Jets in the spring, so Manning will have to be at his very best in the early going without two of his favourite targets from a year ago.
Kansas City Chiefs (Wild Card)
Jamaal Charles headlines the Chiefs west coast offense going into this campaign, with Quarterback Alex Smith rewarded for his solid play last season with a four year contract extension. The defense was at times stifling in 2013 but fell apart late on in the season, most notably so in the play-off defeat to Indianapolis. Head coach Andy Reid will expect more of the same this year, although he’ll need his defense to play like it did in the first half, not the second, of last season.
San Diego Chargers
Phillip Rivers enjoyed a career renaissance a year ago and that could continue in the new season, although the AFC West is one of the most competitive divisions in football thanks to the strength of both Kansas City and Denver. Mike McCoy earned rave reviews for his work last year and he is unquestionably one of the brightest young offensive minds in football; unfortunately I don’t think the Chargers don’t quite possess enough talent on either side of the ball to make waves in the upcoming campaign.
As per, the Raiders look set to struggle in 2014 thanks to misguided management and a lack of talent on the roster. Derrick Carr is the only rookie Quarterback from April’s draft class who will start on opening weekend but that’s as much an indication of Oakland’s woes at the position as Carr’s actual talent. It could be a long season in the Bay Area for Raiders fans, and head coach Dennis Allen could struggle to see the season out.
Who do you think will fare well in the AFC this season? Will the Broncos make it back to the Superbowl, or will it be Tom Brady’s turn to return to the big game? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley