NFL Preview: AFC

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Can you feel it? The air is crisper. The heat is breaking. The leaves are thinking about changing colors. Grocery stores are getting the first wave of pumpkin and apple flavored food. Football season’s here, folks. And what a season it promises to be. College football’s had a few weekends all to its own, but the NFL is looming. Just a few short days from now, the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots will open their season against the Kansas City Chiefs, and then every weekend from now until Valentine’s Day will have pro football. Don’t blow all your excitement on the opening week, though. We’ve only got a finite amount of football before it goes away again. Appreciate and savor every moment. Embrace the 49ers-Rams games and the Jets-Bills games. Even bad football is better than no football.

With the NFL season so close, I knew it was finally time to break out my NFL Preview. If you were foolish enough to read my MLB previews, you might be wondering where my NFL thoughts have been. Well, because I didn’t feel like doing it want to reward everyone’s patience, I decided that, instead of breaking it down by division, I’d just do each conference all at once. You’re welcome. We’ll start with the only division that actually matters, the AFC East. All win totals taken from OddsShark.com.

AFC EAST

new_england_patriotsNew England Patriots- The Pats (my Pats, I should say. Full disclosure and all that) start the season as, you’ll never believe this, the overwhelming favorites to win both the division and the Super Bowl. And for good reason. This is the best team in the NFL, and they just had the most aggressive offseason of the Belichick Regime. They spent big money on corner Stephon Gilmore, traded for receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Dwayne Allen (and defensive end Kony Ealy, who they head-scratchingly released), and picked up running back Mike Gillislee, who lead the NFL in yards per carry last year. Normally, such a stark departure from the norm would be cause for concern, but I’d trust Belichick with my life (he probably also thinks Brady doesn’t have a ton left in the tank). Losing Julian Edelman for the season sucks, but this team is so stacked that they can survive and thrive without him. Sorry everyone, the Pats are still great, and they’re still going to win the Super Bowl.

Over/Under 12.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: Trading for Brandin Cooks

Burning Question: Will they get bored beating every team by 50?

Bold Prediction: It’d honestly be bolder to say they won’t win the Super Bowl than to say that they will.

 

miami_dolphinsMiami Dolphins– In my years on this earth, I’ve only learned a few iron clad truths. The sun will rise in the east every morning. Bees are dying at an alarming rate. Video games will charge you $30 for DLC after you paid $60 for the game. And no matter where you go, there will always be at least one random ass Dolphins fan there. It’s invariable. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve known a Dolphins fan. I’ve never lived south of New York City, by the way. There’s just always a Dolphins fan wherever you go, and they’ll always be willing to tell you they’re a Dolphins fan. They’re mostly harmless. After all, tough to really be too obnoxious when your team hasn’t won a title in over 40 years.

As for the actual team, I have mixed feeling about them. I really like their jerseys and a lot of their players, but I despise Ryan Tannehill with the passion of a thousand suns and, just kind of instinctively, I dislike the team as a whole. Maybe because they’re the only team in the AFC East that comes close to posing a threat to the Pats. But their unprecedented streak of consecutive Offseason Super Bowls was broken by the very Patriots the Dolphins are always gearing up to beat. The irony is overwhelming.

It’s tough to really project anything for the Dolphins after Tannehill went down for the season. Any continuity they had from last year is gone, and the receiver-turned-quarterback was robbed of the chance to finally, finally, take that next step and become something other than a cowardly bum. Their defense was pretty bad last year (29th in total yards allowed) and they responded by adding a bunch of wicked old guys. I’m sure they’ll beat up the bad teams because, as every analyst will tell you, there’s a lot of talent here, but they still stink.

Over/Under 7.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Addition: Signing Jay Cutler

Burning Question: Will the Dolphins actually be totally comfortable with Cutler since they’re used to a quarterback with terrible body language?

Bold Prediction: They’ll win week one and everyone will say Cutler’s finally figured it out.

 

buffalo_billsBuffalo Bills– Another team with strong jerseys and a stronger fanbase, the Bills are the perpetually forgotten team of the AFC East. They’re bad, but not as bad as the Jets. They have distinctive uniforms and mascot, but not as distinctive as the Dolphins. They have a fun and effective play style, but it’s not as good as the Patriots’ McOffense. No matter what, they’re always second rate, which suits the city just fine.

What wasn’t second rate was their run game last year. They lead the league in yards per game, yards per carry, rushing touchdowns, and rushing DVOA. They have an elite offensive line, LeSean McCoy is still one of the most elusive and explosive runners in the league, and Tyrod Taylor is one of the premier running quarterbacks in the league. Losing Mike Gillislee hurts, but the new coaching staff is creative enough to overcome that. The passing game might be better than expected, honestly. I still like Jordan Matthews and think Zay Jones could be a good slot guy in the league. The defense wasn’t good, but maybe they can take a step forward in the post-Rex-Ryan-hype era.

Over/Under 6 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: New Coach Sean McDermott

Burning Question: Who will be the first Bills’ lineman to miss a game because of heartburn from too many buffalo wings?

Bold Prediction: They won’t beat the Pats either time.

 

new_york_jetsNew York Jets– Jets suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Still, it would be the most Jets thing ever if they won 6 or 7 games this year to ruin their chance at getting the number one pick.

Over/Under 4.5 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Trading away Sheldon Richardson

Burning Question: Will this season increase or decrease Jets’ fans’ inherent self-loathing?

Bold Prediction: They will play 16 games this season.

 

AFC NORTH

pittsburgh_steelersPittsburgh Steelers– The eternal heir to the AFC Iron Throne, the Steelers boast the NFL’s most theoretically explosive offense, so long as they’re playing the Browns at home. They’re totally stacked on offense. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are both arguably the best players at their positions in the league. Martavis Bryant is back from his year-long murder weed suspension and is ready to beat people deep again. Big Ben is tough as nails and one of the most clutch quarterbacks ever, but he’s always hurt and complete trash on the road. They’ll score points. They’ll have a couple games where they score 50 or so to keep the hype going. But everyone but Antonio Brown is also likely to miss multiple games.

The defense could take a big step forward this year. Considering how tightly the Steelers are associated with defense, it’s actually amazing that the current version of the defense is underrated. They finished in the top 11 or 12 in a lot of major categories, including total yards allowed, sacks, and points allowed. Their biggest weakness was the secondary, but signing Joe Haden should help shore up the back line. This team’s gonna be good. Just as long as they’re not playing the Patriots.

Over/Under 10.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: Signing Joe Haden

Burning Question: Will Big Ben contemplate retirement before or after the bye week?

Bold Prediction: They’ll lose the AFC Championship game to the Pats

 

baltimore_ravensBaltimore Ravens– Listen, I’m biased against the Ravens. I hate them and everything they stand for. I would die before giving them any legitimate praise. But they’ve been dormant for far too long. Most deep Ravens runs haven’t been logical. They spend most of the regular season looking like shit only to win three in a row to close out the year and then make the AFC Championship Game somehow.

This is pretty much the exact same team as last year, and last year they weren’t all that good. Their defense is good, but not earth-shatteringly so. They pass a ton (like, more than anyone), but are trash at passing. The running game is abysmal. But all of that is going to add up to like an 8-1 record in one score games and yet another bullshit playoff run.

Over/Under 9 Wins: Push

Key Offseason Move: No one was arrested

Burning Question: Has John Harbaugh actually learned the rules of football yet?

Bold Prediction: There will be no love lost this season between the Steelers and Ravens.

 

cincinnati_bengalsCincinnati Bengals It’s so hard to muster any kind of strong opinion about the Bengals. They’re just so blah. Their offense is good, not great. Their defense is alright at best. Actually, you know what? Piling on the Bengals is one of the easiest things to do in sports, so I’ll say some good things about them: I think they have a top five helmet in the league. I might be the world’s only Andy Dalton guy. A.J. Green is a beast. John Ross is really fast. Vontaze Burfict is a scumbag but it’s fun watching him melt down. It’s fun to watch the whole team melt down, really. You never know how the Bengals will blow a big game, but you know they will. I’m looking forward to a season where they’re not good enough to beat any of the top teams but not bad enough to get a good draft pick. Great times in Cincy!

Over/Under 8.5 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Honestly don’t even know

Burning Question: Will Joe Mixon upset the balance of the NFL’s most clean-cut locker room?

Bold Prediction: Aforementioned Joe Mixon will rush for over 1,000 yards and it will spawn infinite think pieces about how you should feel about it.

 

cleveland_brownsCleveland Browns– Of all the controversial stances, the one I’m most committed to and am most comfortable standing alone on is my love of brown jerseys. Wyoming has the best unis in college football, don’t @ me. The Padres died the day they abandoned the brown and yellow. Luckily for me, the Browns name pretty much dictates that they’ll never go away from their noble earthen tones. I had a crisis of faith last year when the Browns went through a redesign. After all, I thought the Browns previous jerseys were by far the best in the league, and this new-fangled set was an eye sore! But something clicked and I’m back in. They’re a little clunky, but I love the Browns jerseys again. I’m sure this puts all of you at ease.

Oh, yeah, the actual team is going to stink, but they had a big time draft.

Over/Under 4.5 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Willingly inviting (then wisely reconsidering) the creature known as Brock Osweiler into their facilities.

Burning Question: How will the Browns add to the Cavs’ desperate attempt to keep LeBron in town?

Bold Prediction: They’ll still be more relevant than the Jags.

 

AFC SOUTH

indianapolis_coltsIndianapolis Colts– I don’t understand this projection at all. The Colts, who finished last year at 8-8 and enter the season with a mysteriously injured franchise quarterback, are set at 9 wins. Did I miss something? They ended last year with one of the worst offensive and defensive lines again, and responded by doing absolutely nothing about it for the millionth year in a row. They’re baby-soft and, to quote the greatest wordsmith of the 21st century, couldn’t stop a nosebleed. Sure, they just traded for the third-best quarterback in the AFC East, but that won’t help much after both he and Andrew Luck get hurt since the sieve masquerading as an offensive line will let pressure in every single play. I just can’t look at this roster and envision a good team.

Over/Under 9 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Signing Jabaal Sheard

Burning Question: Will they hang a “finished 7-9 in 2017-18” banner?

Bold Prediction: Andrew Luck will play less than 10 games and refuse to blame his inept front office for torpedoing his career because he’s too nice.

 

houston_texansHouston Texans– A week ago, I would have said this Texans season was going to be easy to predict: Like last year, a great defense is let down by an inept offense and their own inevitable destiny, culminating in a disappointing playoff loss. But now I’m not so sure. Far be it from me to trivialize a hurricane that displaced millions of people, but natural disasters typically give teams an extra bit of mojo. Whatever the line is for the first game in Houston, they’ll double it. They deserve to have a lot of luck in close games, and you should feel bad about yourself if you resent them for it.

Butttttttttttttttt, this is still a flawed team. Yes, it’ll be one of the two or three best defenses in the league. But the options at quarterback are Tom Savage, who sucks, and DeShaun Watson, who’s a rookie. Obviously any offensive numbers are going to be skewed when you start Brock Osweiler, but this was undoubtedly one of the three worst offenses in the entire league last year. This defense is good, but it’s not 2000-Ravens-Level good. In the coming years, if Watson can develop, they’ll become more dynamic on O, but for now, it’s going to hold them back. I guess this season was easy to predict, after all.

Over/Under 8.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: https://www.youcaring.com/victimsofhurricaneharvey-915053

Burning Question: Does my snark have limits? Turns out yes.

Bold Prediction: They will somehow find a way to win this juggernaut division.

 

tennessee_titansTennessee Titans– The Titans are this year’s stock “hot team on the rise,” and it’s easy to see why. They finished last year as the 11th-best offense in yards per game, and third in rushing yards per game. Marcus Mariota looked like the truth before his injury. Now he’s back, and they add Eric Decker and first round pick Corey Davis to a previously uninspiring receiving corps and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of points. Then add in their second first round pick, corner Adoree’ Jackson, former Patriot Logan Ryan, and safety Jonathan Cyprien to one of the league’s most leaky pass defenses and you’ve got the full Trendy Sleeper. I’m sure you’ve heard all about them from the guy who’ll bring Game of Thrones jokes to the water cooler three weeks from now. The Titans arrow is pointed squarely up, so is the time now in Nashville?

No, it’s not. At least not this year. This budding empire may be built on pillars of sand. Assuming Derrick Henry becomes more involved this season, the majority of the Titans’ offensive playmakers have played three years or less, quarterback included. That doesn’t always work. Is Logan Ryan going to be the first player to thrive long-term after leaving Belichick’s warm embrace? Cyprien had one good season and got a big payday. That’s never backfired. The defense is still kind of stinky, even with three shiny new pieces. The Titans are coming, just not yet.

Over/Under 8.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: See Above

Burning Question: How has there not been more backlash that the quarterback for the NFL team in the heart of country music territory is a Hawaiian guy?

Bold Prediction: They’ll be the most used team in Madden online this year.

 

jacksonville_jaguarsJacksonville Jaguars– Don’t look now but the Jags have been runners up for the coveted Offseason Super Bowl two of the last three years. Florida teams love spending recklessly in free agency and building impossible-to-live-up-to hype. This year they bring in Calais Campbell and corner A.J. Bouye to a very underrated defense that was top five in passing yards allowed. They’ll be stout on that side of the ball, no denying it. The problems for them are on offense.

They have a talented group of skill guys, and 4th overall pick Leonard Fournette could be an immediate force. But the success of their entire team rests on Blake Bortles taking a massive step forward. I’m sorry, but that’s not a sentence conducive to winning football games.

Over/Under 6.5 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Not finding a way to circumvent NFL uniform rules and change their godawful jerseys

Burning Question: If they just stopped playing, would anyone notice or care?

Bold Prediction: There will be multiple salacious shots of the pool every game.

 

AFC WEST

oakland_raidersOakland Raiders– Last year’s Trendy Sleeper actually lived up to the hype until MVP-candidate Derek Carr’s season-ending injury in week 16. They had the 4th most efficient passing attack last season, and could, by combining a fresh Marshawn Lynch with their elite offensive line, balance out their offense and become unstoppable. Or maybe Marshawn is old and rusty. If that’s the case, the sledding will obviously get a lot tougher for the suddenly one-dimensional offense.

The defense is….not good outside Khalil Mack. They had the fewest sacks in the entire league and struggled against the pass. Still, it was good enough to win 12 games, but I wonder if they can sustain the magic they had last year. They won 9 games by 8 points or less last year. Records in close games are largely random year to year, so regression in that area is nearly inevitable. They also recovered the second most fumbles in the league, another essentially random stat that is impossible to duplicate. The Raiders may be in for a rude awakening in the luck department.

Over/Under 10 Wins: Under

Key Offseason Move: Signing Oakland native Beast Mode

Burning Question: If the Autumn Wind is a Raider, is that why they’re so bad in winter?

Bold Prediction: The Raiders will continue to be the most popular team in L.A.

 

kansas_city_chiefsKansas City Chiefs– Another team on my list of top five helmets, the Chiefs might also be the team that scared me the most in the AFC if Andy Reid showed some balls and started Pat Mahomes. They’ve got everything else: a swarming, playmaking defense that can stop anyone when it’s right. No matter who’s running the ball, it seems like they always get five yards a carry. They don’t really have any receivers, but that flaw is only magnified by the continued reliance on Alex Smith. On some level, I get it. You know what you’re getting with him. He’s smart, he’s steady, and he takes care of the ball. But he’s also overly cautious and a limited passer. Pat Mahomes is anything but limited when it comes to throwing the ball. He’s got an Aaron Rodgers-level arm. Yeah, he’s a rookie, but I’d rather roll the dice trying to be great than stick with the hyper-conservative Smith. The good people of Kansas City can only see so many 6 yard completions on 3rd & 8 before all that barbecue takes its toll on their hearts.

Over/Under 9 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: Trading for linebacker Reggie Ragland

Burning Question: Will Alex Smith finally set the record for career check-down passes?

Bold Prediction: They’ll go on a nine-game winning streak at some point in the season.

 

denver_broncosDenver Broncos– Speaking of teams I’d be terrified of if they had a competent QB. Alex Smith is miles (get it? Because Denver is a mile high) better than anyone on the Broncos roster. They just brought Brock Osweiler back they’re so desperate! This is the best defense in the AFC, they have two receivers with multiple 1,000 yard seasons, signed Jamal Charles, who I think still has plenty left in the tank if he can stay healthy, and they’re trotting Trevor Siemian out at quarterback. That’s terrible. I’d feel bad for the rest of the roster if I didn’t know they’d wind up with home field advantage and beat the Pats in the playoffs if they had anyone better calling signals. They won’t allow more than 17 points per game and they’ll still be outscored on the season.  Makes me question who’s really running things in Denver.

Over/Under 8.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: Signing Jamal Charles

Burning Question: “Burning” Question, get it? Because weed is legal in Colorado. Get it? You got it, don’t lie, man.

Bold Prediction: Aqib Talib will shoot Siemian, Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch on the sideline.

 

los_angeles_chargersSan Diego Los Angeles Chargers– The ultimate “if they could stay healthy” team, the Chargers’ first two draft picks have already been cursed with the Charger injury bug before the season even started. This is actually a pretty good team if everyone actually plays. The problem is, that literally never happens. Keenan Allen plays two games a year. Every snap and offensive lineman blows their knee out. Their post-Tomlinson running backs go down like flies. The U.S. Government needs to create our own knighting system just so we can knight Phil Rivers for what he did last year. Throwing for almost 4,400 yards and 33 TD’s with Tyrell Williams as his number one receiver and the most makeshift of makeshift offensive lines is a minor miracle. If, if, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Melvin Gordon can stay healthy for most, not even all, just most, of the season, they’ll dramatically improve on their generally lackluster offense from last year. With their underrated, top ten in DVOA defense lead by stud D-End Joey Bosa, the Chargers could make a surprise playoff appearance. This is the post-post-post-post hype Chargers, and they’re finally ready to take a step forward. Unless they get hurt.

Over/Under 7.5 Wins: Over

Key Offseason Move: Trading for the immortal Cardale Jones

Burning Question: Why the hell did they move to Los Angeles?

Bold Prediction: The Arnold clip will survive the move to L.A.

NFC Preview Coming Thursday

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