AFC East- This was arguably the toughest division last year for two reasons; the AFC West and the NFC West. Miami, New England,
Miami is one of the top candidates of the year-after hangover (plenty more to follow) as the schedule gets harder and the wildcat won't fool anyone this year. Actually, this should be thought of as a transition year as Chad Pennington never fares well in an odd year, giving Chad Henne or Pat White the opportunity to lead the team in 2010. Remember, the schedule was very easy a year ago, including a game in Toronto. Now, they have the Bills in Buffalo and the AFC and NFC South teams to play, much harder.
Buffalo and the Jets should struggle this year as facing the likes of New Orleans and Indy won't help these teams at all. The Bills have no offensive line, especially with the loss of Jason Peters to Philly. They made the splashy move get Terrell Owens, mainly because the Bills have not mattered since the Music City Miracle murdered the franchise Francisco Cabrera-style. In five weeks, the splash will be gone once the Bills realize that Owens isn't a game-changing receiver anymore and that Trent Edwards won't have a chance to get Owens the ball. Even his fireworks will only be like lighting a cigarette instead of blowing up a building as past ones have been. Also hurting the Bills, a down year I believe in store for Marshawn Lynch and a young defense that needs to grow. It also doesn't help that the Bills were one of the teams to fire their offensive coordinator last week.
Defense is what is going to be good for the Jets as Rex Ryan takes his Baltimore mentality, along with Bart Scott and Jim Leonhart, and will impose that and his larger-than-life personality in New York. Their problem is that the offense will struggle due to Mark Sanchez's growing pains. It doesn't help that there's no big-play receiver for him to hookup with and an aging runner in Thomas Jones. I do believe the Jets will end up being a much better second half team once Sanchez gains experience.
AFC North- Of all the divisions, it seems like all of the teams involved should be where they were last year; Steelers in first, followed by the Ravens, Bengals and Browns. For a moment during the preseason, Pittsburgh looked to be in trouble when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his Achilles, but it seems like he won't miss anytime. The Steelers also return almost everyone from the Super Bowl team last year, meaning teams will again fear playing against the likes of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
Baltimore's defense, despite all sorts of losses from coordinators to linebackers, will still be among the elite, mainly because Ed Reed still plays football. The biggest question is Joe Flacco and if he will have a sophomore slump and needs Derrick Mason to play as well as he did last year, despite his brief retirement. I do, however, see a big year out of Ray Rice who will end up heading the three-headed monster backfield with Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain. And even with an aging Ray Lewis, him staying in Baltimore is like having a coach on the field.
Rice's teammate from Rutgers Brian Leonard has found a home in Cincinnati as we will see tomorrow on the last episode of Hard Knocks. This year's season will be remembered for the drive-by, assassin style roster cuttings by the Bengals, Andre Smith training shirtless and letting his man boobs out for America to cringe while watching and Tank Johnson doing household chores and the comedy that is caused by this. Actually, I don't think this team is going to be too bad; they have a good defense which is better with Rey Maualuga at linebacker and even Roy Williams at safety doesn't hurt them. This season comes down to Carson Palmer's health; if he plays, the Bengals could surprise, if not, they will be just as bad as a year ago, with another year Chad Ochocinco is older, another year crazier.
While Cincy tries to win with longtime coach Marvin Lewis, the Browns have hitched their star back to the Belichick tree. I don't get why the Browns keep picking up Belichick rejects; Bill did an awful job before the old Browns moved to Baltimore and Romeo Crennel ended his run as coach nicknamed Cromeo, looking just like Art Shell when he returned to the Raiders. Now, they try to win with Eric Mangini, who left after the debacle with the Jets. Doesn't a move like this remind anyone of Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles in 1994, choked their season, then went to the Jets. You know what each of those teams have in common, snakebite history. This is further compounded by that Cleveland has no starting quarterback, where even Belichick thinks Mangini is going too far. The defense is still bad, no running game and a number one receiver who drops more than TO in Braylon Edwards (and yes Braylon, I haven't forgiven you for murdering my fantasy season last year, you better suck again).
AFC South- This division is expected to be the best in the AFC as it has been for the past four years. You can make a case for each team in the division making the playoffs (yes, even Jacksonville, which should thrill all 100 of their fans). The favorite as usual is the Colts and Peyton Manning, despite losing Tony Dungy to retirement. This Indy defense has the chance to be the best in the Manning Era (except for the four, and only four games they played D in the run to Super Bowl XLI), with a strong pass rush and a good secondary, as long as Bob Sanders is in the lineup. The real questions happen to be on offense, can Anthony Gonzalez finally become the number two behind Reggie Wayne and can Joe Addai and Donald Brown give the Colts a solid running game.
Last year's champs, the Titans, probably won't be as good as a year ago, but 13-3 would be worse for them, so the playoffs are certainly are very possible. How they recover from losing defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and DT Albert Haynesworth is their biggest question. This defense is still good, but if they don't play as well as last year, they could miss the playoffs. Also, does Kerry Collins play as well as he did last year? If the Titans win, it will be because of Chris Johnson's development, LenDale "No Patron" White with an epic contract year and great coaching from Jeff Fisher, the NFL's Jerry Sloan.
If there's a team that most of the so-called experts (you can't be experts if you pick 9 or 10 teams to return to the playoffs, I'm looking at you ESPN) are picking to be in the playoffs other than New England, it's the Texans. After last year's second half run, Houston is primed to make the playoffs for the first time ever. It all rests on the health of Matt Schaub, because if he's injured, they stay go nowhere. No way do I believe Sexy Rexy or Dan "I Run Into My Endzone" Orlovsky can get the job done, not with the Colts and Titans to deal with. However, if Andre Johnson can prove to play healthy for a full season, so could Schaub. He's lucky that Steve Slaton is a beast and Andre Johnson is a top-3 receiver in this league. As for defense, Mario Williams will end the year with 15+ sacks and make an average defense look good.
Jacksonville's projections run the spectrum of very bad and playoff sleeper. One thing we can agree on, Maurice Jones-Drew is good. They need a big year from MJD if they have any chance to win, though a big year from him might not help at all. David Garrard, if anything, is efficient at QB and though Torry Holt is old, he's still reliable to have at WR on a team devoid of great receivers. The defense is the great unknown as they will make or break this team. They play each their division foes in three of the first four games; how they fare will make or break their season. Of course, no one in the Jacksonville area will know football is being played until Florida-Georgia since each game will be blacked out, since the Jaguars can get people to buy tickets.
AFC West- This division seems like it's the Chargers to lose. Well, it is; there is absolutely no reason for San Diego to lose this division, short of a swine flu outbreak. The offense will be better than last year because I believe LaDainian Tomlinson will have a comeback year, making this offense lethal. Add in Phil Rivers passing, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson catching and Darren Sproles playing the role of Leon Washington, only better, they could score around 500 points this year. Now I was prepared to say the Chargers defense would be very good this year; now with the Merriman-Tequila incident combine the worlds of sports, reality and Twitter. As long as Shawne isn't suspended during the season, it won't hurt the defense and 11-5 or better is almost certain.
So now, who will finish second? Denver and Kansas City seem like the logical candidates, since you can't use logic and the Oakland Raiders in the same sentence, except when you say you can't and only then. The Broncos have had quite the Raider-like offseason as they fired Mike Shanahan, hired Josh McDaniels, failed to get Matt Cassel, annoyed Jay Cutler and had to trade him 50 cents on the dollar. Now they have a huge issue with Brandon Marshall, he's a jerk. It's one thing to want a new contract, but to act like a petulant little kid in practice means you should be blackballed in this league. All Denver needs is to trade him, then use his enormous talent and dominate, not even Vince Carter mailed his way out of Toronto as bad as that. Otherwise, I would actually pick the Broncos as a sleeper, because for all of what Josh McDaniels did to cause this, even Cutler said he was a good coach, plus a little defense would make the Broncos a .500 team.
The Chiefs are on that short list of teams who if they win, it's out of nowhere. This year, that group include: KC, Oakland, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincy, San Fran and Buffalo. Every year one of those teams no one likes will win; last year Atlanta and Miami, in '07, Tampa Bay, in '06, New Orleans (hence no NFC South team is on this list). I would of picked Kansas City, since they have Matt Cassel at QB, Todd Haley is a major upgrade over Herm Edwards, and Scott Pioli is the GM. However, they traded away Tony Gonzalez and that's a red flag. They also fired Chan Gailey before the season, major red flag (see Bills, Buffalo). They will win at least four more games than a year ago, but that's still a 6-10 team in this league.
Last but not least, the Raiders. Here's the Raiders offseason, drafted an overrated Darius Heywood-Bey over the better receiver in Michael Crabtree (I have more for him in the next post), sign Jeff Garcia, then cut him fearing he could ruin JaMarcus Russell, have their coach accused of punching an assistant and basically traded Derrick Burgess and a 1st round pick to the Pats for a 3rd and a 5th rounder and an aging Richard Seymour, who still hasn't reported to the team as of Wednesday. Everyone has chimed in this last trade, from comparing him to the 10th man in a fantasy league who knows nothing about football (Oakland is the only team to draft kicker and punter in the 1st round of a draft unless they did more than kick) to saying that the NFL should take away Al Davis' right to trade. Need I say more.
Part II should be out with NFC overview tomorrow afternoon, with my Thursday game pick, Friday most likely will be when my final predictions are posted and I promise the Thursday game won't influence it.