We covered the NFC in Part I of our preview yesterday
, so without further ado, here is Part II, the AFC.
The Patriots remain head and shoulders above the rest of their division. While they did lose BenJarvus Green-Ellis, their leading rusher in each of the past two seasons, it’s unclear how valuable he actually was. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season, and isn’t particularly skilled as a receiver of pass blocker. 2nd-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vareen should be able to replace him rather easily.
On top of that, the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd, who gives the Patriots a dynamic receiver that can make plays downfield. Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both fine receivers, but both are limited in what they can do downfield, due to their size and lack of explosiveness. For the last two seasons, New England’s big-play receivers were their tight ends, but now they have someone on the outside that can win a one-on-one matchup at the top of the route.
Also, by nearly all accounts, the Patriots will have an improved defense this year. Patrick Chung, who missed eight games last season, will be healthy this year, as will last year’s 2nd-round pick, Ras-I Dowling, who played in just two games last season. Their return, as well as the additions of 1st-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, should put the New England defense back on the right track.
Buffalo looks poised to make a big leap this year. They were 5-4 with a healthy Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick last season, before both players got injured and they finished 1-6 down the stretch. Their defense should also be greatly improved thanks to the arrival of all-world defensive end Mario Williams and the return of 2010 All-Pro defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who missed most of last season with foot injuries. Pairing them with Mark Anderson and 2011 1st-round pick Marcel Dareus on the defensive line will give Buffalo one of the best front fours in the AFC.
The Jets should continue to decline after a disappointing 2011 season. Their defense is still strong (although it is getting older), but their offense lacks enough weapons to stay relevant. The AFC is matched up against the AFC South and NFC West this year, which creates favorable matchups, but the Jets will have to play Pittsburgh and San Diego as a result of finishing 2nd in the division last year. Losses in those games would likely knock them out of the playoff hunt.
I was considering Miami as a semi-sleeper after their surprisingly strong finish last season, going 6-3 in their final 9 games, and actually finishing the season with a better scoring differential than Denver and the New York Giants, but that idea went out the window when Ryan Tannehill was named their starting quarterback. Ryan Tannehill wasn’t even an above-average quarterback in the Big 12 last season, clocking in well behind Robert Griffin III (Baylor), Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State), Landry Jones (Oklahoma), James Franklin (Missouri), and Collin Klein (Kansas St.). Now he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL. I’m slightly dubious.
The AFC North plays a murderous schedule this season. After playing the cupcake NFC West and AFC South last season, it gets upgraded to the improved AFC West and always-dangerous NFC East. Both the Steelers and Ravens impressed at 12-4 last season, but a more difficult schedule should cut them down to size this year. Pittsburgh shored up some of their offensive line issues by taking guard David DeCastro from Stanford in the first round of the draft, and Baltimore took out insurance on Terrell Suggs (which it turns out they needed) in Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
Cincinnati is a team that was clearly helped by their schedule last year – their wins came over Cleveland, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle, Tennessee, Cleveland again, St. Louis, and Arizona. They played seven games against playoff teams last year (Pittsburgh twice, Baltimore twice, Houston, Denver, and San Francisco), and lost all of them. As a team, they will likely improve, but their schedule should hold them out of the playoffs.
Cleveland is just hopeless. Their only winnable games this year appear to be Week 7 at Indianapolis, and Week 14 at home against Kansas City, but I’m really not confident about either of those. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they win one of them.
Even with a healthy Matt Schaub, I believe this division easily holds the title for worst collection of starting quarterbacks in the AFC, and is only eclipsed by the combination of Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, John Skelton, and Sam Bradford in the dreadful NFC West.
The loss of Mario Williams may seem bad for the Texans, but he wasn’t much of a factor for them last season, playing in just five games before going on injured reserve with a torn pectoral. Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed played well in his place, and they should continue to improve. Their offense might slip a bit with the losses of Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston, the starting right side of Houston’s offensive line from a year ago, but not enough to knock them from their perch atop the division.
I’m writing off Tennessee almost immediately. They’re going to start Jake Locker at quarterback, a decision I have little to no faith in, and they have just two returning starters on defense this season. The only way replacing 82% of your defensive starters from a year ago could be seen as a positive is if your defense was historically bad. Tennessee’s wasn’t, it was actually respectable, finishing 15th in defensive DVOA (weighted yardage per play), 19th in opponents yards per game, and 11th in opponents yards per play. When you also consider that Chris Johnson has fallen off a cliff over the last two years, it’s hard to see any areas in which Tennessee can be successful.
Indianapolis, meanwhile, could be surprisingly competitive this year. While they did lose 14 games last season, seven of them were by eight points or less. Their passing offense was abysmal, ranking 27th in yards per game, 29th in yards per attempt, 26th in completion percentage, and 27th in DVOA, but those numbers should rise this year with the arrival of Andrew Luck. Luck is unquestionably the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, and while he won’t produce Peyton Manning-type numbers right away, he’ll certainly be better than Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky.
I’m predicting Jacksonville to win two games purely out of pity. In fact, it probably wouldn’t shock me if 4 months from now, the BAC that rookie Justin Blackmon blew into a breathalyzer in June (.24) was higher than the number of Jaguar wins this season.
For some reason, I’m not buying Denver this year. Maybe it’s their negative scoring differential from last year, or their 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Or maybe it’s their defense, which for all their praise last season, finished in the bottom half of the league in nearly every statistical category. Maybe it’s their quarterback, who hasn’t played a snap in over 20 months and could be one awkward hit away from retirement. Maybe it’s how their quarterback fits with the rest of their offense – Peyton Manning has always excelled with precise route-runners (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark) that win with timing and tailbacks that excel with stretch and screen plays and can pick up any and blitzers (Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai); now he’s saddled with receivers that are only good when they’re running in straight lines down the field and tailbacks that are only effective between the tackles. Maybe it’s their schedule, playing the NFC South and AFC North, plus games against New England and Houston. Regardless, I don’t see the Broncos repeating as AFC West champions.
San Diego looks to be the beneficiary here. Despite losing Vincent Jackson to free agency, and Ryan Matthews and Vincent Brown to injury (for now), their offense shouldn’t see too much of a dip, if any. They replaced Vincent Jackson with Robert Meachem, who actually had superior weighted yardage on a per-play basis last season (and even topped guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, and Wes Welker), and they also brought in Ronnie Brown. Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates should also be healthier than they were last season. Their defense and special teams are still rather horrific, but a potentially explosive offense should carry them to a division title.
Oakland should be about the same as last season, thanks to a full season of Carson Palmer, who actually wasn’t too bad if you ignore his first two games where rust was pretty clearly a factor. He had two very strong games against San Diego, as well as another against Detroit. They should also get more than seven starts out of Darren McFadden, and they won’t have to bother with riff-raff like Chaz Schilens, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, or Derek Hagan at wide receiver now that Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore are their established starters on the outside. However, a lack of depth across the board should keep them out of the playoffs.
For the life of me, I don’t know how Kansas City got to seven wins last season. They were outscored by an average of 7.9 points last season, a figure worse than Jacksonville, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Washington, and none of those teams won more than five. The Chiefs scoring differential would expect them to finish 4-12, but they were able to squeal their way to seven victories. Healthy seasons from Jamal Charles and Eric Berry should help improve upon several of their weaknesses from last season, but with the rest of the division improving around them, as well as a substantially harder schedule, they’ll struggle to stay competitive.
San Diego: 11-5
Kansas City: 5-11