Posted to my personal blog Monday afternoon.
Yeah, yeah, I'm a day late. Whatever. I didn't have a chance to get this done before the games started, so, please, accept my humblest apologies as I submit a belated AFC preview.
1. New England Patriots (13-3)
The defense has a real chance to be back at the level it was when the Patriots started winning Super Bowls nearly a decade ago. It's the offense that might not be as prolific as in years past. Which isn't to say that Tom Brady and friends won't be putting up points, I just think this team will be winning more games 24-21 than 34-31.
(Post-Week 1 Edit: Or the offense could, you know, be as prolific as ever.)
Sleeper: Stevan Ridley. It seems like a new running back emerges every season for the Patriots. I'll also include Andre Carter (scroll down), who should benefit immensely from playing end in a 4-3, where he's been most comfortable and effective during his career. Having Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth in the middle of that defensive line should free up Carter on the outside.
2. New York Jets (10-6)
Still don't believe in Mark Sanchez, but I do believe in Rex Ryan's defense and the run game. Shonn Greene should become a real workhorse back who puts up over 1000 yards and double digit touchdowns, with LaDanian Tomlinson serving as a nice change of pace option who can hurt defenses as a receiver. The Jets defense will once again be the bedrock of this team, with the offense doing just enough to get by. But will it be enough to return to the playoffs? This is gonna be a tough one to swallow for Rex and company.
Sleeper: Mike DeVito. Almost put Muhammad Wilkerson here instead, but, come on, how do you not root for Mike DeVito?
3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
The defense looks like it could be a real strength for the Dolphins, but the offense is still a steaming pile of crap. Although I must admit that I'm intrigued to see how they use Reggie Bush, and whether he becomes anything more than a pass-catching, situational running back.
Sleeper: Well, I've already mentioned Kendall Langford and Sean Smith, so let's go with second-year outside linebacker Koa Misi.
4. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
They should be better than last season, and I actually think Ryan Fitzpatrick is a legit starting quarterback. However, this team still lacks the talent to climb above .500, let alone compete for the division.
Sleeper: I wanted to say Arthur Moats (scroll down) here, but he's injured. I also don't like that the team moved him from outside linebacker to the inside, but it is what it is. The defense is otherwise primarily made up of castoffs and retreads, so I'll go with a guy on offense who announced his presence in a big way against the Chiefs: Scott Chandler. The gigantic 6-7 tight end had one career catch going into yesterday's game, during which he hauled in five passes and scored two touchdowns. Not a bad start. Selected in the 2007 draft by the Chargers out of Iowa, this is Chandler's first chance to contribute in earnest, and it looks like Fitzpatrick trusts him. I'm pretty sure I'd also trust a guy who's 6-7 and can catch the ball.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
I don't buy the Super Bowl hangover "theory" with the Steelers, regardless of how awful they looked on both sides of the ball in Week 1. The only thing that could possibly derail them is if the defense starts to shows its collective age. I'll give that unit the benefit of the doubt, for now. I think the offense has a chance to be a high-scoring unit that deviates from the tried and true Steelers identity of pounding opponents into submission with the run game. Don't get me wrong, there will still be plenty of smash-mouth football, but I expect to see a more vertical attack in 2011 that takes advantage of the speed of guys like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown.
Sleeper: Isaac Redman. If Mendenhall gets injured, Redman (FROM?! Bowie State) becomes the starting running back. I also just think he should be more involved in the offense, in general.
2. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)*
With the addition of Vonta Leach, Ray Rice should have the kind of season in 2011 that he was supposed to have in 2010. He got off to a great start against the Steelers, which never gives up 100-yard rushers -- unless it's Ray Rice. If Rice plays that way the whole season, he could be the best running back in football. Disemboweling the Steelers in Week 1 should give this team ample confidence moving forward. Hell, I'm not sure I've ever seen Joe Flacco look better. If yesterday is an indication of the kind of season he's going to have, the Ravens will be a serious threat to win the Super Bowl.
Sleeper: I listed Ed Dickson as one of my breakout players, and I'm sticking with him, especially in light of his performance yesterday against the Steelers.
3. Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Good rule of thumb: When your starting wide receivers are Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, your passing offense probably isn't going to be much of a strength. The Browns are another team that is just simply lacking the talent to make the jump from also ran to contender. I will say, however, that there are few things more fun than watching Peyton Hillis run people over.
Sleeper: Joe Haden. He had 64 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and six picks as a rookie. Haden is a complete player at the cornerback position and only going to get better.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)
Not exactly an ideal situation for Andy Dalton, but Bruce Gradkowski is a more than capable backup. The Bengals have some talent, but not enough to finish better than last. I know, I know, they beat the Browns yesterday, but that's not going to change my opinion.
Sleeper: Jermaine Gresham. He's part of the super freak athlete breed that's taking over the tight end position. Gresham also happens to be the most dangerous weapon on the Bengals' offense.
1. Houston Texans (11-5)
I'm drinking the Kool Aid. It's now or never for this franchise. If the Texans don't win the AFC South this season, the NFL might as well just move the franchise to Los Angeles because it will never win in Houston. Annihilating the sad sack Colts in Week 1 was a good start.
Sleeper: J.J. Watt. Liked him a lot at Wisconsin and think he's going to be an excellent 3-4 defense end in the pros. I'm also expecting Brooks Reed to eventually work his way in as an edge rusher. On offense, it seems like Jacoby Jones is ready to emerge.
2. Tennessee Titans (8-8)
Matt Hasselbeck should be serviceable, at least for a bit, and Kenny Britt is a bad, bad man on the football field. I think the Titans will be alright. Not good, not bad. Alright. I'm interested to see how Chris Johnson performs now that he has his new contract yet missed all of training camp and the preseason. It might take him a bit to get back to his old self.
Sleeper: Aside from Jared Cook, I'll go with Jason McCourty, older brother of Devin, who's a good football player in his own right. I think he will continue to improve (as he did last season) and be a standout performer in 2011.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
I don't even care.
Sleeper: Deji Karim. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, Rashad Jennings hurt his knee during the third preseason game and is now out for all of 2011. That leaves Karim as the backup to Maurice Jones-Drew, and he should see a big increase in playing time, as evidenced by his 16 (!) touches in Week 1. Karim is fast, powerfully built, and can catch the ball out of the backfield. I remember the Eagles had interest in him going into last year's draft. But the best thing about Karim? His full name: Abdul-Gafar Olatokumbo Ayodeji Lamar Karim.
4. Indianapolis Colts (3-13)
Yeah, yeah, I get that the Colts are the perfect candidate for Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory application, but I'm not buying. If the Colts do somehow win the division without Peyton, Simmons should rename it the "Manning Theory."
This could very well end up being the worst team in the league. I had 5-11 before watching them capitulate against the Texans. I'm going to knock that down to 3-13. The Kerry Collins/Curtis Painter experiment is going to be a disaster. Or maybe, just maybe, that first game was the result of nobody being on the same page and was a convergence of shitty circumstances more than anything else. Maybe, just maybe, this offense will get better with time as Collins practices and becomes more familiar with the playbook. Ah, who am I kidding? Selling. Intriguing subplot: If the Colts finish with the worst record in the league, what will they do with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft? Do they draft Andrew Luck and let him sit for a year or two behind Manning? Do they do the unthinkable and cut ties with Manning after the season (with no further financial obligations) and draft Luck as his immediate replacement? Or, in a more likely scenario, do the Colts demand a king's ransom for the pick and trade it?
Sleeper: Pat Angerer. Undersized, but he's an instinctive player who can slip blocks and is fast locating the ball. It always seems like Angerer is in on the play and making a tackle. The second-year outside (strong side) linebacker should easily surpass 100 tackles and can also play in space when asked to cover tight ends and backs in the flat.
1. San Diego Chargers (12-4)
Only the Chargers could rank first in offense and defense for an entire season and still manage to miss the playoffs because of the worst special teams in, what, the history of the league? Somehow I don't think that's going to happen again this season, even though the unit gave up a touchdown return on the opening kickoff of the season. But the one thing that will keep the Chargers from winning a Super Bowl, regardless of how good Philip Rivers is? Yup, Norv Turner, who is really just a much shittier version of Andy Reid.
Sleeper: Antoine Cason. Not really a sleeper anymore, but it doesn't seem like he gets the credit he deserves. Cason has made himself into a very good cornerback.
(Post-Week 1 Edit: Alright, I'm about to channel my inner Jay Mariotti -- during his days as a douchebag blowhard and insufferable sports journalist, but before physically assaulting his girlfriend and completely disgracing himself -- and do my best waffling act. Not to overreact to one game or the Orton/Tebow kerfuffle engulfing Denver, but I hereby reserve the right to switch the Broncos and Raiders' record and make Oakland my sixth playoff team from the AFC instead. Cool? Cool. If the Raiders cut down on the penalties, it's a team that can be a legitimate contender because of its ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball and control the game on offense with the McFadden/Bush combination.)
Denver Broncos Oakland Raiders (10-6)*
I like the Raiders defense, not so much the offense (Edit: Nevermind, I like the offense -- a lot). This will once again be a run-heavy team that opens things up once in a while, but I'm guessing Hue Jackson will primarily just ask Jason Campbell not to lose the game. In 2010, Darren McFadden finally looked like the dynamic player we saw at Arkansas; barring injury, that should continue in 2011. Michael Bush gives them that true complementary power back. A physical, nasty team that will relentlessly beat up an opponent on both sides of the ball. They'll punch you in the mouth... and then punch you in the mouth again. And again. In other words, expect some traditional, old fashioned Oakland Raiders football. The seeds for a revival were planted last season when the Raiders went 6-0 in the division; this season, they'll return to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
Sleeper #1: Taiwan Jones. Explosive. Just like he did in college, Jones is going to break off some crazy long gains in the NFL this season. Remember, this is a guy who had five (!) 70+ yard runs last season. A big play waiting to happen, Jones is a home run threat with 4.3 speed to burn and the extra gear that allows him to break away from defenders once he gets even the smallest step. He's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
Sleeper #2: Denarius Moore. Resident Tennessee Volunteers fan and blog consultant Ilan Gluck said he thought Moore was the best NFL prospect (scroll down to the paragraph on Luke Stocker) on the Volunteers' roster last season, and it looks like he was right. Moore drew rave reviews at camp for his route running, hands, speed, superior athleticism, and maturity. An exciting player who's sudden, explosive, and can make defenders miss, he figures to be a part of what the Raiders do on offense.
Oakland Raiders Denver Broncos (7-9) My surprise team in the AFC. It took me some time to warm up to the Broncos, but I'm buying them right now. The offense is a strength with Kyle Orton at quarterback (Edit: Or not), and the defense should be much improved with the return of Elvis Dumervil and drafting of Von Miller. I also think John Fox is a good coach, and his style on offense should help Knowshon Moreno truly establish himself.
Sleeper: I've already mentioned Eric Decker, so... Julius Thomas (scroll down), who has the ability to be next in the line of former college basketball players who make the successful transition to NFL tight end. If his preseason performance is any indication, there's some serious potential to his game.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11)
The Chiefs are the AFC's Chicago Bears for me, a team that's going to fall back to earth this season, and do so with a thud. And I thought that before their abortion of a performance at home against the Bills. So far, so good, I'd say. Todd Haley's going to find his egomaniacal, despotic ass on the hot seat very soon if things go in the shitter. That's especially so now that he's anointed himself Charlie Weiss's replacement at offensive coordinator, the same position Haley held with Arizona before the Chiefs came calling. (Edit: I want to note that Bill Muir is technically the Chiefs' offensive coordinator and the one calling the plays, but you can't convince me Haley is as hands-off as he purports. Sorry, I'm not buying that a control freak like him will be able to do that. Wasn't one of the reasons Charlie Weiss left because of Haley's reported meddling and undermining? Jason Whitlock gets a little too sensationalist and preachy in his January article lambasting Haley as a head coach, but it's at least worth a read.)
Update: To add (serious) injury to insult from yesterday's drubbing, Eric Berry tore his ACL and is done for the season. Dagger.
Sleeper: Hmmm, let's see here. Ok, Jovan Belcher it is.
Denver Oakland over (3) San Diego
(5) Baltimore over (4) Houston
(1) New England over (6)
(5) Baltimore over (2) Pittsburgh
(1) New England over (5) Baltimore
AFC Champion: New England Patriots
A rematch of Super Bowl XXXI, with the same result. Yes, I think the Packers are going to repeat as world champions. And, no, I have no problem being an asshole and taking the easy way out with my predictions.
Packers 31 Patriots 27