The 2014 NFL season is almost upon us, so time to run down the possibilities and realistic expectations for all 32 teams starting here with Part 1, the AFC, and Part 2 (the NFC) to follow shortly.
The AFC Title Contenders:
New England, Denver, Indianapolis & San Diego
The Patriots still have Brady and Belichick so can never be ruled out. They will also be hoping for an improvement in their young receiving core in 2014. The loss of Aqib Talib on defense was cancelled out by the addition of Darrelle Revis and they also added Brandon Browner and former Patriot Patrick Chung to sure up their secondary.The back end of their schedule is tough with trips to Indy, Green Bay, San Diego and the hated Jets and if they want to go one further than last time out, then home field advantage must be the goal.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Broncos is, can they shake off the embarrassment that was Superbowl XLVIII? Denver has 3 difficult games to start with including a trip to Seattle. If they get off to a bad start then things could unravel but it seems that they have too much talent, especially on offense for this to happen. But Peyton Manning will not want to go to New England in the play-offs given his record there in the post season. With all that said Denver still remain slight favourites in the AFC.
The Indianapolis Colts are edging closer to the top 2 in the AFC and have the quarterback to take them to the next level in Andrew Luck. Question marks still remain on the defense that ranked 20th in the league overall and has now lost previous starters Antoine Bethea and Pat Angerer although they did add D’Qwell Jackson at Linebacker. It’s the defense that will cost them come play-off time.
The San Diego Chargers are probably the AFC’S most under achieving team of the last 10 years but finally took a step in the right direction last year that included a road win in the play-offs. Quarterback Phillip Rivers continues to put up the big numbers and has a legit receiver in Keenan Allen and finally seem to have a consistent running game that has been missing since LT left town. Questions still remain on the defense, especially the secondary but the biggest question mark of all, as always is consistency.
The AFC Playoff Hopefuls:
NY Jets, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Houston & Miami
The New York Jets could be the surprise team of the AFC, however much will depend on the play of second year quarterback Geno Smith. Smith will be under pressure to perform especially as Michael Vick is now the back up and he has help in the form of free agents Eric Decker at wide out and running back Chris Johnson. The defense is still good but problems remain in the secondary although the addition of rookie safety Calvin Pryor should help.
Two years removed from winning the Super Bowl the Ravens are still trying to find some sort of identity following the retirement of Ray Lewis. Running back Ray Rice is suspended for the first four games and that won’t help. Steve Smith will add some toughness to the receiving core that has been lacking since Anquan Boldin left and it is clear that Joe Flacco will have to carry the offense so the offensive line will need to be much improved.
The Bengals won the AFC North in 2013 but bombed in the playoffs and not for the first time in recent years. The Bengals have new co-coordinators on both sides of the ball so we’ll have to see what effect this has on the team. On paper the Bengals are the best team in their division.
The Chiefs took last season by storm early on but faded down the stretch culminating in their capitulation in second half of the wildcard game in Indy, where they surrendered a 28 point lead with 28 minutes remaining and proceeded to lose 45-44. A couple of key losses on the O-line could be a problem especially for a team that likes to run the ball. The Chiefs benefitted from a favourable schedule in 2013 but don’t have that luxury this time out and they need running back Jamaal Charles to stay healthy.
The Texans are looking to bounce back from a disastrous 2013 which saw then lose their last 14 games. Injuries and poor play at the quarterback position were key contributors in their downfall. The Texans still have a potentially top 5 defense but question marks remain on the offense. Can QB Ryan Fitzpatrick limit the mistakes, can running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson stay healthy if they can’t the defense won’t be enough to earn them a playoff berth.
Miami chocked at the end of last year’s regular season managing to miss the playoffs by losing their last two games against non-playoff bound teams. The Dolphins offensive line was statistically the worst in the NFL in 2013 and adding Brandon Albert at left tackle should help but the loss of Paul Soliai on the D-line could hurt. This team doesn’t seem to have that something extra in order to win the key games to get them into the post season.
The AFC Inbetweeners:
Buffalo & Pittsburgh
Like most teams the Bills are relying on the play of their quarterback, second year man, EJ Manuel. He showed flashes last year but must avoid getting hurt again if he is to continue to develop. Rookie Sammy Watkins will pose a genuine deep threat at wide receiver and the time has come for back CJ Spiller to really take off. The loss of safety Jairus Byrd will hurt a defense that needs work despite having a dominant defensive line.
A once perennial playoff team, the Steelers have not made it to the post season since 2011 and will struggle again this year if running back Le’veon Bell is suspended. Bell, along with LaGarrette Blount, was charged with possession of marijuana after a traffic stop on Aug. 20. Bell was also charged with DUI for driving while allegedly high. The Steelers’ once great defense is in rebuilding mode. This team is simply no better than it was in 2013 when they went 8-8.
The AFC Basement:
Jacksonville, Tennessee, Cleveland & Oakland
Two of these teams are heading in the right direction, Jacksonville and Cleveland. One does not appear to be going anywhere in Tennessee and one is going nowhere fast, Oakland.
The Jaguars should be better in 2014. They drafted well and although we may not see Blake Bortles from the beginning, Henne is capable and has help in the form of rookie receiver Marquis Lee although will again miss wide out Justin Blackmon due to off field issues. They have significantly upgraded their defensive line with the addition of two former Seahawks in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. Winning 8 games is not an un-realistic target and would be progress for a team that has only won 11 of its last 48.
The Cleveland Browns have, on paper, a top ten defence but question marks still remain on the offence and not just at quarterback. Leading receiver Josh Gordon is suspended for the season which leaves the Browns best receiver as Andrew Hawkins. They have upgraded at Running back with free agent Ben Tate but he has struggled to stay healthy in the past. If the offense struggle, which is likely then we can expect to see Johnny Manziel sooner rather than later assuming he has got to grips with the playbook.
The Titans have a new head coach in Ken Wisenhunt but the roster remains largely the same although running back Chris Johnson has moved on. Much will depend on the form and health of quarterback Jake Locker especially with rookie Zach Mettenberger waiting in the wings. If the Titans can win 6 games it should be seen as a decent season.
Things never seem to change in Oakland. They had a huge amount of salary cap space and couldn’t seem to fill it with much other than average or ageing players. The main area of intrigue is again at quarterback where new free agent addition Matt Schaub will battle rookie Derek Carr. The loss of left tackle Jared Veldheer won’t help.
AFC Playoff Teams.
AFC East: New England Patriots
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC West: Denver Broncos
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Wild Card teams: San Diego Chargers & Houston Texans