NFL: AFC season preview
The 2012 NFL season kicked off on Wednesday night with the Dallas Cowboys defeating the defending champions, the New York Giants, 24-17. This Sunday sees the rest of the league kick off and the AFC has its fair share of teams aspiring to make it all the way to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
The big game will be played on 3rd February, but the journey to that big game is just starting and we will preview the 16 teams from the American Football Conference and assess their chances ahead of the 2012/2013 season.
The AFC East’s four teams have lots of thrills and spills as there is usually a lot of pride on the line. Within it though, there is only usually one winner in recent years with the New England Patriots winning the division nine times out of the last 12 seasons.
The Jets hope to play well now that Tebowmania has arrived whilst the Bills and Dolphins have made additions to the team as they hope to pull off a shock in the division.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots were a completed pass away from winning the Super Bowl this past February. Now Tom Brady and co dust themselves down and get back to business as they look to go one step further this year and win their fourth championship.
The Patriots’ weakness last season was on defense, they gave up lots of yardage and a weak secondary didn’t help but Bill Belichick is a defensive mastermind who will demand improvement. In the draft, he moved up to bring in two gifted rookies in defensive end Chandler Jones who has raw ability and versatile linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Improvement on defense in the new 4-3 system could win the Pats the Super Bowl because on offense they are one of the best teams in the league, if not, the best. There’s one man who keeps the offense ticking and that is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
The three-time Super Bowl champion loves to win and will settle for nothing less, he personally is considered by some to be the best QB of all-time and one more win in the big game could cement that claim. He’s coming off one of his best seasons as a pro, Brady threw for 5,235 yards with 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in the 2011 regular.
He now has a new receiving threat in Brandon Lloyd who will offer him someone to throw to down deep, Josh McDaniels has returned as the team’s offense coordinator and was the man behind the devastating offense of 2007, who went 16-0. Lloyd knows McDaniels from his time in St. Louis so will fit in with the Patriots straight away but that is not where the offensive weapons end, as they have a two-headed monster at tight end in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The two are remarkable, their unique athleticism gives the Patriots a distinct advantage down the middle and does not only create matchup problems in the passing game for opposing defense’s but gives New England the personnel to run or pass and enable Brady to do what he does best by conducting his hurry-up offense.
Gronk holds several of the tight end records in the NFL which include records for most receiving touchdowns with 17 as well as the most total touchdowns with 18 and the most receiving yards with 1,327 all set in 2011. He also is the first tight end in NFL history to lead the league in receiving touchdowns for an entire season.
Hernandez is just as deadly but is more versatile, the other option in the offense for Brady is Wes Welker who is the most natural wide receiver of the offensive tandem and has been a reliable option for the Patriots for years, posting a career-high nine touchdown receptions last year. If everything goes to the plan for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots franchise then New England could well be making the trip to New Orleans for the 47th edition of the Super Bowl and win the Lombardi trophy in Louisiana for a 3rd time.
Prediction: 14-2, 1st in the AFC East.
The Bills have spent a lot of money on free agency players as they aim to improve on their 4th place finish in the AFC East last season. They started the 2011 season well and even claimed a win over the Patriots but eventually slumped towards the end of the campaign. On offense, Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to take care of the ball better and they have running back Fred Jackson back from injury.
The main additions have been on defense though and with the signing of Mario Williams, a signal of intent has been shown by the coaching staff and owners. Williams will bring a significant improvement to the D, especially as the Bills have also signed the likes of Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson who will bring a challenge to any opposing offense with this explosive pass rush.
The Bills will improve from last season but can they put points on the board; how well they can play through all 16 games will determine if they can reach the post-season.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in the AFC East.
New York Jets
The New York Jets have had a circus of an off-season, even by their standards, after acquiring quarterback Tim Tebow despite signing last season’s starter Mark Sanchez to a multi-million pound contract. Tebowmania has taken over New York and many believe it is only a matter of time before he is taking all the snaps for Gang Green.
For now though, Rex Ryan will employ the wildcat offense for the Jets which will work well for Tebow as he loves to run with the ball and will throw it when he has to. The thing is, despite having two QB’s who have the potential to succeed in the NFL, the Jets lack any other explosive weapons at the other offensive positions. So even if Rex Ryan is able to rebuild his defense into an effective unit it’s doubtful that they will make the play-offs no matter who the quarterback is for this team. If this happens and the Jets don’t improve then Rex Ryan could be on his way out of New York during or by the end of this season.
Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in the AFC East.
The Miami Dolphins are in another rebuilding process and have hired a new Head Coach in former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. Philbin was very successful at the OC position in Green Bay so he will bring something new to the Dolphins franchise but he will have to bide his time with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Like the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills, Miami’s offense is in a rebuilding process and although all their quarterback situations are different, each lacks any depth or major skill at the receiving position, making it a close encounter for 2nd place between the three in this division.
Sadly for the Dolphins, their defense isn’t good enough to keep them in games all the time like that of their two rivals so they will struggle against most oppositions. For now, Tannehill and co will have to settle for a long season full of growing pains for the rookie QB but a good season for him personally will prove that he is this franchises quarterback going forward.
Prediction: 4-12, 4th in the AFC East
The AFC North had its fair share of excitement last year as the Baltimore Ravens knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the division for the first time in five years. The Bengals will look to continue on from last season’s successes whilst the Browns are most likely to be the division’s whipping boys.
The Baltimore Ravens are a well-organised football team, they have a good Head Coach in Jim Harbaugh and his team was a missed field goal away from potentially reaching last season’s Super Bowl. Sadly for the Ravens and Jim it wasn’t meant to be, just like it wasn’t meant to be for his brother’s 49ers team.
Despite the heartache of missing out on the big game, this Ravens side has a chance at going a step further this season as they have a great defense and the offense is slowly improving each year as quarterback Joe Flacco gets better. Flacco has had his critics especially early in his career but the fifth-year QB is starting to win people over especially after some big performances last season including the AFC Title Game.
This year will see the Ravens offense employ a no huddle offense at times and this should give Flacco the ability to show off his attributes and improve on past seasons, or at least remain as consistent as he has been in the last four years, he became just the fourth quarterback in history to take his team to the play-offs four times in his first four seasons in the league and is the first ever to win a game in each.
The offense also has the explosive Ray Rice at running back who, like Flacco, is reaching new heights in his career as last season saw Rice rank as Baltimore’s second all-time rusher with 4,377 yards and 959 attempts with Rice also ranking third all-time for touchdowns with 24.
While the offense is improving as mentioned before, the Ravens defense is great even after losing the influential Terrell Suggs. But despite being in the league for 17 years, they have the heart and soul of the team still creating havoc in the league in the form of linebacker Ray Lewis. With Suggs out, Lewis may be asked to do even more but he rises to the challenge and with a different off-season training regime which has seen him look sharper than ever, he will still be terrorising quarterbacks in 2012.
So the Ravens have a lot of positives going for them heading into the new season as they look to beat their division rivals for the AFC North crown and give it another go in the play-offs.
Prediction: 11-5, 1st in the AFC North.
The Bengals have gone through many ups and downs in the franchise’s history but after reaching the play-offs last year. this young team has post-season experience under its belt and now has the tools to reach the post-season again.
Former starting QB Carlson Palmer was traded to the Raiders but by doing so, a young star emerged in the form of Andy Dalton. The young quarterback was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft and was impressive in his first season in the league. He teamed up with wide receiver and fellow rookie from the 2011 draft A.J. Green very well as Green himself finished the season with seven receiving touchdowns for over 1,000 yards, making himself Dalton’s first-choice receiving option.
Dalton racked up 20 touchdown passes for only 13 interceptions and with the 20 TDs became only the fifth quarterback to do so, joining the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton along with Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Charlie Conerly. The difference between the five was that Dalton became the only rookie to win at least eight years in his rookie season.
So with a lethal partnership among the offense as well as having a new reliable running back in Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis the Bengals look good for 2012, the defense should produce lots of sacks and turnovers as this Bengals team has a lot of athletes who can cause most offenses trouble, especially as Cincinnati has a great secondary that includes six former first-round picks, with the best of the bunch being Leon Hall who is vital to this defense following his return from injury.
Whatever happens to the Bengals, they won’t take a major step back. But if they achieve what they want, they will reach the play-offs and will hope to go further than last year.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in the AFC North.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most successful franchise in the NFL, the boys in black and yellow have won six Super Bowls since the merger and are tied for the most Super Bowl appearances with the Dallas Cowboys on eight.
A team like Pittsburgh usually knows how to get the job done and has had its moments where it has been done despite doubt among experts or just outsiders in general. Since 2001 the Steelers have made the play-offs eight times out of 11 but with a depleted O-line and no franchise running back, its down to two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to carry the load on offense again for this team.
Roethlisberger himself has had his critics in his time as a professional but this won’t phase him as the QB plays through criticism as well as various injuries from his unique style of play at the position. While his stats may not be as eye-catching in comparison to other quarterbacks, Big Ben is usually consistent and that suits the Steelers but as mentioned previously, with no outstanding running back, could the faults of Roethlisberger catch him and this team out?
Rashad Mendenhall will give it a go running the ball, despite his injury concerns, in this new offensive playbook and if the Steelers can keep wide receiver Mike Wallace happy then Roethlisberger has someone dangerous to throw the football too.
The make or break for this Pittsburgh team will be on defense as they will have to keep their side in games to give Big Ben a chance to get the job done. Another man intending to help Roethlisberger get the job done is centre Maurkice Pouncey as he is at the heart of the O-line and is this team’s best lineman.
If this team can stay healthy and construct their plan then Mike Tomlin’s men have a chance, the Head Coach will be crucial to this team’s success but there is only so much he can do as injuries have already taken their toll on the Steelers in preparation for the new season. It would be no surprise if Pittsburgh managed to reach the play-offs but in football, cracks are usually exposed and you can only rely on luck for a certain amount of time.
Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in the AFC North.
The Browns were the AFC North’s whipping boys last season and not much looks set to change in 2012. The team would like to improve on its 4-12 record from last year but it doesn’t look likely as they line up in a tough division with not the easiest of schedules.
The saving grace for this Cleveland team is that they don’t usually lose football games by a lot of points, sometimes they beat themselves and with a team that gives it their best, all you need is a few additions to have a shot of getting something going. These additions were acquired in the draft and although this season will probably not be fun for them; the likes of QB Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson are both part of the future of this football team.
Richardson is only 21 and has been rated the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, meaning that already a lot of expectation has been placed on this young man’s shoulders. Richardson was taken at number 4 in the draft making him the highest selected running back since Reggie Bush, again placing pressure on him, but if he can get fit before Week 1 following his surgery then he can at least give this Browns team something to look forward to.
As well as that, his presence will help Brandon Weeden, the QB is seven years older than his rookie team-mate and is the oldest player to be drafted in the first round ever. The former baseball player has had his injury problems but is coming off a good season with the Oklahoma State Cowboys after he lead them to a win in the Fiesta Bowl.
Overall for Cleveland, they’ll have to accept that they won’t do anything this year and probably won’t move up in the win column either but good performances by the new guys will give them hope leading into the future.
Prediction: 3-13, 4th in the AFC North.
The Texans won this division last year after wrestling dominance away from the Colts who had won it seven times in the past 10 years. The Titans thought they could make the most of Peyton Manning’s absence from the Colts team, who now have the 2012 Draft’s number 1 overall pick as their QB, but it is Houston who are the new force down South while the Jags hope to make the most of whatever chances they get.
The Texans joined the NFL as an expansion team in 2002 following its previous franchise’s relocation to Tennessee who are now the Texans’ AFC South rivals — the Tennessee Titans. The Houston Texans won the AFC South division title last year and it was a historic achievement for the team as it was their first title for the franchise.
It was only the teams’ second ever winning season in the 11 it has now played and the Texans have a solid roster to thank for a successful season. But sadly, an injury to influential Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in Week 10 against Tampa Bay ended his season prematurely.
Despite the loss of their franchise QB and injures to other stars such as wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Mario Williams, now of the Bills, Houston reached the play-offs and managed to beat the Bengals in the wildcard game with TJ Yates as the quarterback.
The positives from 2011 give this team high hopes for 2012 as many are predicting a potential Super Bowl appearance for them come February, an encounter with the Patriots seems to be the most likely match-up for the AFC Championship but maybe such a big jump in so little time is too much for Houston, especially now as the team has to play with the weight of expectation.
Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson lead an explosive offense while the defense could be argued as the best in the AFC along with the running game. For the defensive claims to be true, someone like Brooks Read needs to step up now that Mario Williams has departed, Read recorded six sacks following Williams’ injury last season. Texans fans and the franchise have high hopes, deep down the players probably do too but is the Super Bowl a step too far? Especially in a conference with the likes of the Patriots and the Ravens who both have their eye on the top prize… We’ll find out over the course of the season.
Prediction: 9-7, tied for 1st in the AFC South.
The Jags joined the NFL as an expansion team in 1995 and the football team is the only side amongst the “big 4” sports in America to reside in Jacksonville. They have had six play-off appearances but are still a long way away from a Super Bowl but now they turn to the future in hope of some success.
Justin Blackmon was their first-round draft pick of 2012 coming in at number 5 and he will need to become a spectacular playmaker in order to stamp his authority on the league’s defense’s and assure he is the Jags number one receiver. His skill set will offer Jacksonville’s quarterback Blaine Gabbert something different and something promising as he personally looks to improve on a tough rookie 2011 season in which he was sacked 40 times.
Gabbert needs running back Maurice Jones-Drew to be at his best in order to offer the offense something different and cause problems for opposing defenses to open up the passing game. The Jags D will keep them in games and if Gabbert can take care of the ball on offense whilst improving his accuracy, they could win games. But this team is still developing and 2012 will just be a learning curve for this young Jacksonville team.
Prediction: 5-11, 3rd in AFC South.
The Titans were expected to take over the reins in the AFC South following the Colts’ troublesome 2011 season. Instead they endured some problems of their own as the team posted a regular season record of 9-7 meaning they finished second in the division and missed out on the play-offs.
Tennessee could contest for the post-season this year but it comes down to two things, can Jake Locker prove himself in his first season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, and can running back Chris Johnson return to his superstar status by tearing up defenses from the backfield?
Locker was named the starter for the regular season early on in pre-season and will obviously go through some growing pains with no other coming harder than Bill Belichick’s Patriots defense this Sunday. If Locker has an explosive Chris Johnson doing what he does best then he can manage games better and produce plays so that this team can get wins but will inconsistency haunt the Titans come the end of the season?
Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC South.
There’s a new man in town and his name is Andrew Luck, drafted out of Stanford as the number 1 overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft, Luck comes in to Indianapolis giving a city renewed hope following the release of its greatest ever player in Peyton Manning.
Luck has a lot to live up to and will want to quickly avoid any comparisons with number 18 but luckily for him he has all the skills required to become an elite NFL quarterback. The comparisons will probably never end, especially when Luck starts to achieve success in the NFL, Luck holds various Stanford records and has been described as the best QB prospect since Manning in 1998. When Manning was drafted 14 years ago Colts owner Jim shaped a franchise and his long-term vision proved successful as Peyton established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever with the high point in Indianapolis being the Super Bowl triumph in 2006.
Luck will make an immediate impact and the Colts’ aim will be for their new franchise QB to one day lead them to another Lombardi trophy, they will be competitive this season but as we know, it’s a tough challenge for a rookie QB to make the play-offs in his first season. The Andrew Luck era has seen a dramatic change in this Colts roster as other long-serving players such as Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and Gary Brackett were also released from the team. Luck still has long time wide receiver Reggie Wayne to throw to and his Stanford team-mate, tight end Coby Fleener, was drafted with him to the Colts which will bring some familiarity.
On defense, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still there to generate the pass rush but only time will tell on how ready this team is for 2012, whatever happens though,Luck is a natural-born athlete and will prove to be a huge success for the Colts but with it being his rookie season and everyone looking to stamp their authority on the Colts’ new poster boy just how much luck will he and his team get this season.
Prediction: 9-7, tied for 1st in the AFC South.
The AFC West was stunned when Peyton Manning joined the Broncos as the team’s new QB. They now hope to win the division again by improving on their 8-8 record last year. The Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs will all have hopes of reaching the post-season too as they have built teams that can compete in the league and in an open division there is everything to play for between the four.
“A new era of excellence” is the slogan the Raiders are going with now that the managerial changes have been rung in Oakland. Former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has been hired as the teams new Head Coach and he now has the challenge of attempting to revive a franchise that has underachieved for many years.
They finished with an 8-8 record last year and just missed out on the play-offs via a tiebreaker but with a solid D, which includes productive defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, they should be able to help the Raiders compete in 2012. With that being said it is on offense where this team’s hopes are effectively sealed as they look for further production from their experienced quarterback Carson Palmer, who has a point to prove and now that he has had a full off-season to get to know the offense he will hope to improve on his topsy-turvy 2011.
The main weapon for the Raiders is running back Darren McFadden who despite possessing bundles of talent, has had durability problems in his time as a pro, if McFadden can stay healthy and play through the whole regular season it will definitely give Oakland a shot at the post-season as when fit, he is a guy who can put up big numbers as the Raiders will hope he can produce 1,200 plus yards on the ground to give this team the spark it needs.
Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers
San Diego finished 8-8 last season and like their divisional rivals the Raiders missed out on the play-offs via a tiebreaker to the Denver Broncos. Now Norv Turner’s team look to reach the post-season which is possible for the Head Coach to achieve but it will be tough as for the first time in a very long time the Chargers are underdogs.
The Bolts used to dominate this division when they had the likes of LT in the backfield but now all their best playmakers seem to be injury prone causing questions for this team. The likes of Vincent Brown and Ryan Matthews are injured but Phillip Rivers will still produce at QB for the Chargers, he has lost his main receiver in Vincent Jackson to the Bucs but the likes of Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal should give Rivers some targets.
His main go-to guy though is tight end Antonio Gates who, despite going through two seasons of injuries, has shown he could be back to his dynamic best in pre-season, if Gates is fit then there is hardly anyone who can cover him and it will give Rivers a reliable weapon. If the Chargers take care of the ball on offense and their young defensive players emerge then San Diego’s hopes of competing in the AFC West will be possible.
Prediction: 6-10, 4th in the AFC West.
General Manager John Elway knows the importance of having an elite quarterback in your team, after all he was one for the Denver Broncos in a glittering career which saw him appear in five Super Bowls, winning three. Since Elway’s retirement in 1999 the Broncos have only won the AFC West twice including last year when Tebowmania took over in Denver as Tebow lead them to the divisional round after a breathtaking win against the Steelers but once future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning became a free agent, Tebow was traded to the Jets.
A new era has begun with the winner of Super Bowl 41 at the helm and although there are questions about his throwing arm following his injury, Manning is healthy again and will be a valued asset for the Broncos. The five-year deal signed by Manning shows he and the franchise have faith in his ability to bounce back from what could have potentially been a career-ending injury. Peyton possesses the skill to turn Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas into potential pro bowl players but he will need the protection in order to pass the football and offensive tackle Ryan Clady is the man who will provide it on Manning’s blindside.
A good offensive game plan will also open up the run game for the likes of Willis McGahee and the defense has come under some scrutiny as it’s been claimed they overachieved last season but it has the ability to keep Denver in games and contribute to any future success of this football team. If everything goes to plan, the Broncos could well make the play-offs despite some tough regular season games.
Prediction: 9-7, 1st in the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs
Like the Houston Texans this Kansas City Chiefs team is being predicted by some for a possible run to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are stacked on both sides of the ball so they should make the post-season despite lining up in a competitive division.
With the Patriots and the Ravens being most people’s choice to be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs are already up against it but Head Coach Romeo Crennel knows that he is doing and will do well during his first season in charge of the team.
Matt Cassel is the Chiefs’ franchise quarterback and after returning from a season-ending hand injury has a point to prove as he looks to return to the form he showed as a Patriot for one year and for the Chiefs in 2010. Cassel and the Chiefs offense will deliver as they also have the likes of Dwayne Bowe at receiver and Jamaal Charles at running back. Those two are great at their respective positions and now that they are healthy along with Cassel, the Chiefs head in to 2012 with high hopes.
Defensive back Eric Berry is the star on D and could make a difference while a supporting cast among the roster help deals with the long and gruelling schedule of an NFL campaign. Tony Moeaki and Peyton Hillis are two players who can also help this team get over the line. While the Chiefs will be reasonably confident of a trip to the play-offs and reclaiming the AFC West title can it be done now that they have expectation on their shoulders?Can they get it done?
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in the AFC West.
Overall on paper the AFC only have a few stand-out candidates to reach the Super Bowl on 3rd February, while the NFC may have a lot more competition in terms of who can make the big game the AFC is just as competitive and will be just as exciting with some of the league’s best teams and players on show. Who will make it to New Orleans in 2013, the battles commence from Sunday… Let the best team win.
Skye Pank, NFL correspondent