Training camp and exhibition games have come and gone, and teams have cut down their rosters. That can only mean one thing: It’s time for the games that count to begin. The season will open this Thursday night, featuring a Super Bowl rematch between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.
We will first take a glance at the AFC, predicting the standings for each division. An NFC edition will follow in the coming days.
New England Patriots (11-5) – Yes, the Patriots will be without Tom Brady for the first four games of the season. But let’s not forget that this team still has the best coach in the league in Bill Belichick. And while a tough test awaits fill-in QB Jimmy Garoppolo in week one in Arizona against the Cardinals, the other three games all come at home. At worst, the Patriots go 2-2, but 3-1 seems like a more likely outcome. Look for newcomer TE Martellus Bennett to have a big impact this season, teaming up with TE Rob Gronkowski to give the team two big seam stretching weapons. The team is a little banged up with the likes of RB Dion Lewis, LT Sebastian Vollmer, and OLB Rob Ninkovich all expected to miss a good chunk of the season, but Belichick always maximizes the talent on his roster and to be frank, the other three teams in the division still aren’t really close to challenging for the division title just yet. Once Brady comes back, New England should cruise to another AFC East title.
New York Jets (8-8) – Had the team not been able to bring QB Ryan Fitzpatrick into the fold, it’s likely the Jets would have been in for a long season. The team unfortunately has one of the most difficult schedules in the league this season and going with Geno Smith, Bryce Petty or green rookie Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback likely would spelled doom. Bringing back Fitzpatrick, who is comfortable with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s offense means the Jets offense should continue to hum along at a good clip. They replaced RB Chris Ivory with the more versatile Matt Forte, which again should be a good system fit given his receiving chops. The Jets strength will continue to be their defensive line led by Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and breakout candidate Leonard Williams. The Jets have some question marks in the secondary, but the team overall is talented and if not for a murderers row of a schedule, would likely challenge for a Wild Card spot.
Miami Dolphins (7-9) – There is optimism in Miami with the hiring of new head coach Adam Gase and what he brings to the table as a bright, young offensive mind. Perhaps he is exactly what QB Ryan Tannehill needs to take the next step forward as the starting quarterback for the Dolphins. Veteran RB Arian Foster was added to the backfield and a lot is expected of him given what is behind him on the depth chart. Miami has a lot of high draft pedigree on the offensive line, including recent first round pick Laremy Tunsil, and they will play a key role in how the Dolphins offense functions as a whole. Defensively, the team has a stout line headlined by Ndamukong Suh but the linebackers and especially the secondary have a multitude of issues. Cornerback is a particularly troubling spot, with newcomer Byron Maxwell and second round pick Xavien Howard expected to start, and very little behind them. There are just too many question marks for the Dolphins to finish .500, let alone contend for a playoff spot.
Buffalo Bills (6-10) – The Bills definitely have the potential to have a much better record if everything falls into place. However this team has taken a lot of roster hits on the defensive side of the ball since the draft, and as a result, they will be hard pressed to contend this season. Be it injury or suspension, the Bills will be without the likes of DT Marcell Dareus, top pick OLB Shaq Lawson and second round pick ILB Reggie Ragland for various lengths of time this season. They will welcome back DT Kyle Williams and have a great young CB duo in Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. The biggest problem for the Bills is depth across the board. In QB Tyrod Taylor, RB LeSean McCoy and WR Sammy Watkins, Buffalo has an electric group of triplets on offense. The worry is that all of them were banged up at certain points last season, and haven’t proven to be overly durable over the course of their time with the Bills, especially Watkins. Head coach Rex Ryan might be coaching for his job and will try and squeeze every ounce out of his roster. It just won’t be enough this year.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) – Is this the year the Bengals finally get the huge playoff monkey off their back? Aside from a bit of a mini makeover at wide receiver, this deep team remains pretty much intact. The biggest change on the team came when offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the head coaching job in Cleveland. He coaxed a career year out of QB Andy Dalton, but with Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert set to miss at least the first half dozen games or so, combined with the loss of secondary receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, it will be up to Dalton and A.J. Green to carry the offense, unless the Bengals decide to go back to the ground with thunder (Jeremy Hill) and lightning (Gio Bernard) and run the ball more. Cincinnati should be fine defensively, with the only real change coming at safety where Shaun Williams replaces Reggie Nelson. The Bengals and Steelers will battle it out for the division crown again this year, with the Bengals, who have a more stable roster and much fewer overall concerns, coming out on top.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) – RB Le’Veon Bell, suspended for three games, WR Martavis Bryant, suspended for the season and TE Ladarius Green, lingering concussion and ankle issues. That puts a big dent in the explosive, multifaceted Steelers offensive attack, but the scary thing is that they still likely won’t struggle to put up points. QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown are an elite tandem that can’t be slowed down, no matter what. The bigger problems are on the defensive side of the ball. The front seven is improving though with a nice mix of youth and experience. However the loss of OLB Jarvis Jones for the season and DE Cameron Heyward to a high ankle sprain to start the season is mildly concerning. It’s the Steelers secondary that could be the teams undoing again, despite another heavy investment in the draft to try and fix this problem area. CB Artie Burns and CB/S Sean Davis were drafted this season, but unfortunately last years second rounder Senquez Golson was lost to a season ending injury for the second straight year and Doran Grant was cut. The Steelers secondary will definitely be picked on, but the team is strong enough elsewhere that they should be right in the playoff hunt again.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8) – There’s no way the Ravens will be decimated by injuries the way they were last season. That alone should make them a better team this year. Despite all the injuries, they still managed to be competitive last year, which is a testament to head coach John Harbaugh making the best out of a bad situation. Injuries or not, the Ravens aren’t blessed with a great amount of roster depth and have a lot of uncertainty offensively. QB Joe Flacco isn’t one of them, but how the Ravens timeshare at running back with Justin Forsett, Terrance West, Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon (once he returns from injury) works could be a disaster. And will WR Steve Smith be the same after tearing his Achilles last season? If he isn’t, Breshaud Perriman will need to step up. He has played just one game, an exhibition game this season, since being drafted in the first round last year. The Ravens added S Eric Weddle to the secondary, but the rest of the defensive backfield is not in the best shape and will likely be attacked early and often just like last season. This will be a competitive team, but it might take another year for the team to contend for a playoff spot again.
Cleveland Browns (3-13) – The Browns are slowly working their way out of being the laughing stock of the league, but it’s still likely going to be another long season in Cleveland. The team does appear to have the talent to be pretty explosive offensively, but on the defensive side of the ball it’s likely going to be tough sledding. At least with that combination, the team may be entertaining to watch. New head coach Hue Jackson is hoping that he can be the quarterback whisperer and resurrect the career of QB Robert Griffin III. He has shown some promise in the pre-season, but it remains to be seen if that will carry over to the regular season. But he has some intriguing weapons in WR Corey Coleman, the Browns first round pick, enigmatic WR Josh Gordon who will miss the first four games of the season, and raw QB turned WR Terrelle Pryor to work with and with the Browns likely to be playing from behind often, this could turn into a fun group to for the Browns and their fans to grow with. Baby steps on the shores of Lake Erie.
Houston Texans (9-7) – This division used to belong to the Colts, but now it’s much more wide open and with the moves the Texans made to improve their offense in the off-season, they appear poised to stake claim to a second straight AFC South crown. Throw in the fact that DE J.J. Watt likely now won’t miss any games after off-season back surgery and this is a team that doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. There will likely be some growing pains with QB Brock Osweiler settling into a new system, but given that he is surrounded by playmakers like WR DeAndre Hopkins, and new RB Lamar Miller, it will be difficult for him not to succeed. Draft picks WR Will Fuller and WR Braxton Miller have shown great chemistry already with Osweiler as well. If there are any suspect positions on the team, it is definitely the offensive line. LT Duane Brown is still working his way back from a late-season quad tear, and second round pick C Nick Martin unfortunately is out for the season with an ankle injury. As long as Miller helps spark the ground game and Watt shows no ill effects from his injury, this team will still rely heavily on running the ball and defense to be successful. The difference now is they have another dimension incase that doesn’t always work.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) – The Jaguars finally appear poised to make that long awaited leap to respectability. It might not amount to a playoff spot just yet, but there is just too much talent across the board for this team to not at least make it to the .500 mark. Management has been very patient with head coach Gus Bradley, but he must show some progress this year, otherwise the team will likely go in a different direction. Offense is not a problem. QB Blake Bortles appears poised for a third year leap, and WR’s Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are a great young duo. The team had a lot of question marks defensively, but made a plethora of off-season moves to address those concerns. First round pick S Jalen Ramsey, second round pick LB Myles Jack and last years first round pick Dante Fowler are going to give Jacksonville a major shot in the arm. This team is still growing, so there likely will still be a few growing pains along the way, but this should be the year that sees the Jaguars finally ascend into a team that could legitimately beat anyone at anytime.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8) – The return to health of QB Andrew Luck is going to make a world of difference for the Colts this year, but is that going to be enough to return them to the top of the AFC South? At this point, it seems questionable at best given the amount of issues the team has throughout it’s roster. Is Frank Gore going to be able to hold up at running back again? The depth behind him is not very good. The team is in good shape with T.Y. Hilton, potential breakout candidate Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett at receiver and the team hopes first round pick C Ryan Kelly will help stabilize the offensive line, but it looked very shaky during the pre-season. Where the Colts might have the biggest problem is their defense as a whole. They are banged up on the defensive line, and very thin in the secondary, especially considering they will be without top CB Vonte Davis for an extended period of time with an ankle injury. Luck better be ready to sling the ball around the field because it’s highly likely that the Colts will be involved in a lot of high scoring affairs because of their lackluster defense.
Tennessee Titans (5-11) – Arguably the most intriguing team in the entire AFC resides in Tennessee. The Titans have looked like a completely different team in the pre-season with their “exotic smashmouth” attack. RB DeMarco Murray, now on his third team in as many years, looks rejuvenated and second round draft pick RB Derrick Henry has looked like a star, bulldozing through defenders at will. An improved offensive line has helped paved the way for those two. QB Marcus Mariota also looks poised to take a big step forward this year and he has a new pair of WR’s in fifth round pick Tajae Sharpe and free agent Rishard Matthews to throw to, along with Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker. Defensively, the Titans were competent in being able to stop the run last season, and should be again this year, but how the defense performs will come down to how the secondary plays and if it’s a repeat of last year, it won’t be pretty. Getting their number one CB Jason McCourty back should help, but there isn’t much behind him or at safety. If the Titans can be just average defensively, they may just be able to escape the AFC South basement.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) – Even though they will be without their top defensive player in OLB Justin Houston for minimum six games and star RB Jamaal Charles was just activated from the PUP list after tearing his ACL last season, the Chiefs have the fewest potential issues amongst the AFC West teams, in what is arguably the toughest division in football. They may not have a lot of star power, but this is a very well rounded team across the board. Game manager QB Alex Smith is the epitome of an average quarterback, but he doesn’t make mistakes and always puts his team in position to win games. RB’s Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West will shoulder the load while Charles works his way back to health, which didn’t prove to be an issue last season. WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Travis Kelce give Smith two reliable targets to throw to as well. The team is thin at certain positions defensively, most notably at inside and outside linebacker, but if they stay healthy and get Houston back at mid-season, they will be hard to score on. Watch for second year CB Marcus Peters to take another step forward this year too after winning defensive rookie of the year honors last season.
Denver Broncos (10-6) – The defending Super Bowl champions have a potentially major issue at the most important position on the team. However given how their season went last year, the Broncos shouldn’t be counted out at all. They will roll with unproven and relatively unknown QB Trevor Siemian as their starter to open the season, and he will be backed up by first round pick Paxton Lynch. No matter who the quarterback is, the Broncos will rely on their ground game led by RB C.J. Anderson and rookie third rounder Devontae Booker and their staunch, top notch defense. Their defensive line is a little thinner and unproven after losing Malik Jackson to free agency and Vance Walker to a season ending torn ACL, but everywhere else, the team is loaded with playmakers. OLB Von Miller is the headliner of the group. The reigning Super Bowl MVP, simply put, wreaks havoc like no other. CB’s Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr and Bradley Roby gives the team three lock down corners, something no other team in the league can boast. Denver will have their doubters, but they can use the same formula they used last year to succeed and make the playoffs and maybe another Super Bowl run.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) – If the Chargers can avoid the injury troubles that torpedoed their season last year, they may bounce back. And any team that has QB Philip Rivers at the helm has to be taken seriously. The team brought back offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to help run the offense. Given how effective the offense was when he was here in 2013, it was a no brainer move to bring him back. He will be a big key to helping RB Melvin Gordon find his way in his sophomore season after a disappointing rookie year. If the pre-season is any indication, Gordon looks poised for a big jump in production. WR Keenan Allen was on pace for a monster season last year before being felled by injury, and will look to pick up right where he left off too. Defensively, the team will miss the presence of S Eric Weddle, but they are in great shape at corner with Jason Verrett, newcomer Casey Hayward and Brandon Flowers. The key to a defensive turnaround in San Diego though is being able to stop the run. NT Brandon Mebane was brought in from Seattle and DE Joey Bosa was drafted with the third overall pick. Health permitting, this team could surprise.
Oakland Raiders (9-7) – The reality in this tough division is that one team has to finish last. The Raiders could absolutely win this division, without a doubt. With the moves they made in the off-season to bring in OG Kelechi Osemele, OLB Bruce Irvin, CB Sean Smith and S Reggie Nelson this is a team with out a glaring weakness. They have a perfect blend of youth and experience, but is this the year they finally take off? If there is one slight concern, it’s at RB, where Latavius Murray still has a bit to prove. There isn’t much behind him, and he has a great offensive line to run behind, but he wore down late in the season last year. Oakland needs a respectable run game to make things easier for QB Derek Carr to operate. WR Amari Cooper was a bit beat up last year, but if he is able to play at full health this year, watch out. With budding superstar OLB Khalil Mack now joined by Irvin, and later in the season by Aldon Smith, this team will get after the quarterback. The addition of Smith, Nelson and first rounder Karl Joseph should solidify what was once the biggest trouble spot on the team. Remember when the Raiders were one of the jokes of the league? That is no more.
Division Winners: New England, Cincinnati, Houston and Kansas City
Wild Cards: Pittsburgh and Denver
AFC Champion: New England