The NFL season is finally upon us. It’s been a long 214 days since the Denver Broncos were crowned kings of the football world, and tomorrow they will begin a quest to repeat. But there are 31 other teams also scratching and clawing for the title and after an action packed off season there will be some heavy competition for the opportunity to hoist the Lombardi trophy in Houston next February. Here are my predictions for each AFC division winner and my pick for the AFC champion.
The New England Patriots come in as the favorites to win the AFC East for the 15th time in the Bill Belichick era and despite losing Tom Brady for the first four games of the season due to the Deflategate saga from the 2015 AFC Championship Game, I believe that they will be in the conversation in December and January as Super Bowl contenders. Anchored by Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots defense is one of the best in the league and is one of the best defenses that Bill Belichick has ever had.
Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills made a lot of solid progress a season ago and will be a good team in the next few years, but in my opinion they still have some work to do before they challenge New England for the AFC East crown.
The New York Jets will be the Patriots’ biggest threat in Todd Bowles’ second year as head coach. Bowles has an incredible defensive mind and with Ryan Fitzpatrick back as their starting quarterback, expect big things from both wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker as well as newly acquired running back Matt Forte in both the running game and catching passes out of the backfield.
The Miami Dolphins will look to improve from a season ago with new head coach Adam Gase working with quarterback Ryan Tannehill after his time in Denver with Peyton Manning and in Chicago with Jay Cutler (both under head coach John Fox). Adding Mario Williams to the defensive line alongside Ndamakong Suh will be problematic for every offensive line in the league.
- New England Patriots (13-3)
- New York Jets (11-5)
- Buffalo Bills (9-7)
- Miami Dolphins (7-9)
The AFC North is arguably the best division in football, featuring three teams that are contenders for not only the division crown, but a spot representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t make any major offseason moves, but as long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy they will always have a chance to do something special. Losing Martavis Bryant for the season because of suspension will be a big loss, and with Leveon Bell suspended for the first three games it will put a lot of pressure on Antonio Brown to pick up the slack offensively. The Steelers still have a strong defense and adding Justin Gilbert to the secondary will add some much needed depth.
The Baltimore Ravens were plagued by injury last season and they will look to get back to their winning ways with Joe Flacco returning from a knee injury in week 11 last season, and 2015 first round pick Breshad Perriman making his debut with the team after missing all of last season due to a knee injury. Steve Smith Sr.’s retirement season was cut short due to a torn Achilles, so the 17 year veteran decided to give it a try for one more season. Although questionable for week one, he will be a threat down the field that will open up space for Flacco and his cannon of an arm to stretch the field. With both Smith and Perriman coming off injury, the value of Mike Wallace will increase as he will have to fill the void at wide receiver early in the season if either Smith or Perriman take a few weeks to come back. The Ravens defense will be a force to be reckoned with due to the offseason acquisition of safety Eric Weddle and the return of T-Sizzle Terrell Suggs from a torn Achilles last season.
The Cincinnati Bengals return as the champions of the AFC North last season and will try and get back to the playoffs and break the streak of first round exits that plaque Head Coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton. Although the offense lost Marvin Jones and Muhammad Sanu to free agency this past offseason, Dalton still has AJ Green on the perimeter as well as tight end Tyler Eifert and newly acquired wide receiver Branden Lafell to go along with the two headed monster of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard at running back. The ruthless Bengals defense returns almost everybody from a season ago, and added linebacker Karlos Dansby to go along with Rey Maluga and Vontaze Burfict as anchors of their already stacked defensive lineup. If Andy Dalton can stay healthy, there is no reason that the Bengals shouldn’t be in contention for the division crown come December.
The Cleveland Browns on the other hand are in hard core rebuild mode with new head coach Hue Jackson, who came to Cleveland after a successful stint as the offensive coordinator for the rival Bengals. Jackson has blown up the roster to fit his style, including getting rid of all eight of the Browns first round picks since 2011. With a lot of talent on the perimeter offensively, the Browns brought in former Washington Redskins quarterback and 2012 Rookie of The Year Robert Griffin III and drafted 2015 Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman from Baylor to go along with wide receiver Terrell Pryor and tight end Gary Barnidge. However, the day that all of Browns Nation is waiting for is their week 5 matchup against Tom Brady and the Patriots when WR Josh Gordan will be eligible to play after missing the entire 2015 season for failing the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Although the Browns in all likelihood will not compete for the playoffs this season, the future is bright for the Cardiac Kids up in Cleveland.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
- Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
- Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
- Cleveland Browns (5-11)
Although the AFC South did not light up the scoreboard a season ago, it is a division with a lot of young talent and every team will have a legitimate shot at taking home the title and advancing to the playoffs. The Houston Texans are my frontrunner for the crown as they have gotten significantly better since last season, where they won the division and made the playoffs. The best offseason acquisition was the signing of former Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler to lead Bill O’Brien’s offense loaded with young talent all around. Deandre Hopkins and Jaelen Strong return as the top targets for Osweiler to go along with rookie wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller as well as former Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller who was signed in free agency this past spring. J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing anchor the Texans defense that will pose big problems for opposing offenses.
The Indianapolis Colts return with high hopes of a Super Bowl after a disappointing season riddled with injuries to their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck. Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton will be Luck’s top targets on the perimeter while tight end Dwayne Allen will be much more involved in the passing game after Coby Fleener signed with the New Orleans Saints. The Colts defense remains in question, but with the return of Luck commanding the offense, some of the pressure should be alleviated.
The Jacksonville Jaguars come into this season with high hopes to compete for their first playoff berth since 2007. Quarterback Blake Bortles has made significant progress since his rookie year as one of the better QBs in the AFC and he has the weapons that can set the Jags up for success. Tight end Julius Thomas will command every defense’s attention while on the field that will free up real estate for wide receivers Allen Robinson, Marquise Lee and Allen Hurns to make plays down the field. Running back T.J. Yelden had a great rookie season and free agent acquisition Chris Ivory will help out the running game significantly. Defensively, the Jaguars will have success rushing the passer with 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler returning after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury and former Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson who was signed in free agency. The Jaguars also signed former Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson and drafted Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey to help them in the secondary.
The Tennessee Titans may be the surprise of the NFL this season if Marcus Mariota plays well in his sophomore season. The Titans added running back Demarco Murray from the Philadelphia Eagles and drafted 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from Alabama to help out the running game and also added veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson to add depth to the receiving core of weapons for Mariota. Tight ends Delanie Walker and Anthony Fasano also will be key assets for Mariota. Although the Titans do not have many household names on defense, legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have them well prepared each week to try and establish themselves as a force in the division.
- Houston Texans (10-6)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
- Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
- Tennessee Titans (4-12)
The AFC West is home to the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, but don’t be surprised if another team rises to the occasion and dethrones them. The Broncos still have the core of their team from a season ago, but they lost a couple of key pieces that will leave question marks for the remainder of the season. The obvious question is at the quarterback position. Losing both Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to the Houston Texans in free agency means that Trevor Simeon will make his first career start on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers. Von Miller, Demarcus Ware and the rest of the defense will still be dominant rushing the passer, but don’t be surprised if the offense is somewhat sluggish to start the year.
The Kansas City Chiefs come into this season after a successful season where Alex Smith returned to top form for the first time since his days in San Francisco. The Chiefs ended the season extremely hot before falling to the New England Patriots in the Divisional round of the playoffs and they will look to build on that momentum to separate themselves as legitimate contenders in the AFC West. Although they lost offensive coordinator Doug Petersen to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Chiefs still have plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the ball to put up big numbers. Tight end Travis Kelce is coming off of a huge season as a red zone threat and has put himself in the category of the league’s top tight ends, while Jeremy Maclin and Jamaal Charles will also be focal points of the Kansas City offense. Charles is returning from injury and may not be 100% for week 1, so look for a heavy dose of Spencer Ware both running the football and catching passes out of the backfield early in the season.
The Oakland Raiders have built an offensive juggernaut with quarterback Derek Carr leading the charge alongside wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree with a duel threat running back in Latavius Murray. Their defense is anchored by linebackers Khalil Mack and Malcolm Smith who are both coming off of incredible 2015 seasons and this is a division where I could see three teams in the playoff hunt come December and January.
The San Diego Chargers were not a very successful team in the win column last season, but with the players on the roster they will not be a team that will be beaten easily. As long as Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates are on the offensive side of the ball they will be lethal in the red zone, and adding wide receiver Travis Benjamin to the mix with Keenan Allen will open up lanes for Rivers to utilize Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead in the running game. The loss of Eric Weddle in free agency will hurt the secondary, but the addition of rookie Joey Bosa to the defensive line will only help Melvin Ingram get after the quarterback yet again after he recorded 10.5 sacks last season.
- Denver Broncos (11-5)
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
- Oakland Raiders (10-6)
- San Diego Chargers (6-10)
- New England Patriots