Last week I brought you an early 2012 NFL season preview for the contenders in the NFC, as promised here is my AFC preview.
Most of the big moves in free agency this offseason were made by teams in the AFC, none more so than the signing of one of the games greatest ever Quarterbacks, Peyton Manning who after being courted by several teams opted to sign with the Denver Broncos. This in turn prompted the trade of one of the most talked about players of recent times Tim Tebow, who after a brief stay in Denver is now a New York Jet. The Broncos with the much maligned but strangely effective Tebow under Center managed to not only make the playoffs but beat the much more fancied Pittsburgh Steelers in the process before being eliminated with relative ease by the SuperBowl bound New England Patriots.
It will be interesting to see how Manning operates an offense that has much less talent than most of those he commanded with his previous team the Colts. Can the Broncos players adapt to a strictly no huddle offense or will this system be used more sporadically than it was in Indy? Denver’s strength last year was their defense lead by Rookie Von Miller, which together with Manning on offense could well be enough to at least win an often unpredictable and under achieving AFC West. The one big question mark is of course whether or not Manning has recovered from the Neck injury that prevented him from playing at all last season? Only time will tell but if Peyton can’t go then neither can the Broncos.
Is this the year that the San Diego Chargers finally put it together? The talent is unquestionably there but doubts remain about whether they can put an entire season together and if Coach Norv Turner is the right man for the job. In short the Chargers are the AFC version of the Dallas Cowboys. The Oakland Raiders missed a good opportunity to get to the post season last year, mainly due to injuries to Running Back Darren McFadden and Quarterback Jason Campbell who is now with the Bears. Campbell’s replacement Carson Palmer’s poor play was the final nail in the Raiders Coffin and much will depend on his performance again this time around, although McFadden is the main man in that offense. The un-predictability of the AFC West gives the Raiders a chance as it does with the Kansas City Chiefs but I doubt these two can win more than 7 or 8 games, although the Broncos won this division with an 8-8 record last year.
The tide is turning in the AFC South; a division that has been long dominated by the Indianapolis Colts now appears to belong to the Houston Texans. The Texans finally made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season despite suffering some key injuries, none more so than to Quarterback Matt Schaub who missed the last half of the season with a foot injury. The Texans still made the playoffs but the vaunted Baltimore defense was a step to far for Schaub’s replacement Rookie TJ Yates. The Texans have lost both Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans in the off season but they still have lots of young talent on a defense that re-invented itself under the tutelage of Wade Phillips. Defensive End JJ Watt will be a force going into his second year and the Texans also look strong at the Linebacker position and although their secondary can create takeaways at times last year they looked suspect. On Offense, Andre Johnson is the go to guy but the Texans will hope that he has overcome his hamstring problems and with Running Back Arian Foster, they have a back who will contend for the rushing title. The question being, are the relatively young Texans ready to take that next step and go deep into the playoffs and possibly all the way to the SuperBowl?
The only other real contender in the South is the Titans, but much will depend on if they can get Running Back Chris Johnson back to something like the form he showed in 2009 when he rushed for over 2000 yards. Johnson’s poor performance last year remains unexplained although he still hit the magic 1000 yard mark and the Titans Offensive Line must take a portion of the blame. Regardless of how Johnson performs this year it’s hard to see the Titans winning enough games to make a run at the post season. In regard to the other two teams in this division it’s fair to say that the Colts and the Jaguars are in transition although close attention will be paid to Colts Rookie QB Andrew Luck.
Is the AFC North the toughest division in football? The North sent 3 teams to the playoffs last year and it’s not impossible that the same thing could happen again this time around.
The Baltimore Ravens came within a missed 32 yard field goal of going to Overtime in the AFC Title game in 2012. The Ravens will rue the loss of the inspirational Terrell Suggs, who will miss a large chunk of the season if not all of it due to a torn Achilles; it also remains unclear as to whether Safety Ed Reed will be back or not. For the first time in a long time the Ravens have question marks on their defense but as always their offense will present more questions than answers. Is Joe Flacco really good enough? Is Offensive Co-ordinator Cam Cameron holding him back and why does Cameron have a tendency to sometimes move away from Ray Rice when he is one of the best Backs in the NFL? The truth is the Ravens could have missed their opportunity.
The team best placed to take hold of the North are the Pittsburgh Steelers although they are not without their own problems. Running Back Rashard Mendenhall will likely miss the first 2 months of the season due to the torn ACL he suffered back in week 17 of last season. Mendenhall’s replacement will be Isaac Redman who the Steelers had high hopes for even before Mendenhall went down. The Steelers other concern is that leading receiver Mike Wallace has yet to sign his tender and remains a restricted free agent, the Steelers will hope that this doesn’t drag on so that Wallace doesn’t miss training Camp and possibly even game time. The Steelers offense could be in some what of a transition as Todd Haley is now their Offensive Co-ordinator, a move that apparently upset QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers defense remains their strength although their Cornerbacks could be better their front 7 is formidable.
Andy Dalton and AJ Green lead the new generation of Bengals to a 9-7 record and an un-expected place in the playoffs last year in which they lost to the Texans in the Wild Card round. However the Bengals did lose twice to the Ravens and the Steelers as well as the other two playoff teams they faced in the Texans and 49ers which does suggest that they were not quite ready to compete with the big boys. It is of course possible that a 9-7 record will be again good enough for a playoff spot but they’ll need a good start as the last 5 games on their schedule look very tough and maybe we’ll find out then if they have taken the next step.
The Buffalo Bills made a flying start to last season but faded badly down the stretch. The Bills signed the best free agent available in Mario Williams to help a defense that created turnovers but gave up a ton of yards and eventually points putting pressure on their offense that in the end could not cope especially after they lost Running Back Fred Jackson who will be back after signing a contract extension. The Bills can be best described as an enigma capable of winning the AFC East but on the other hand they could go 8-8 or worse. They’ll need a good start in a division, in which despite records any team can beat any other, as has been proved year after year. It’s a big season for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and it’s also time for CJ Spiller to join the party.
As long as the New England Patriots are coached by Bill Belichick and have Tom Brady under center then they will always be considered a contender. Despite being ranked 31st in total defense the Pats still managed to get to the SuperBowl, although when it came to the crunch they just couldn’t stop the Giants offense. The Patriots have re-united Brady with Offensive Co-ordinator Josh McDaniels who was the play caller during that record breaking season in 2007. Their offense will win them a lot of games but it’s time that their defense took some of the slack. Just for the record former Linebacker and Safety coach Matt Patricia is now the Defensive Co-ordinator. New England has the advantage by fact that they have been there and done it before, plus winning in Gillette Stadium especially when the weather takes a turn will be as tough as ever.
Talking, in house arguing and finger pointing have been the order of the day for the Jets since their late season collapse and failure to make the playoffs. With the off- season addition of Tim Tebow, a Quarterback controversy can’t be too far away especially as Mark Sanchez has been inconsistent and questions have been asked about his leadership qualities. The Jets have hinted at using the ‘Wildcat’ more frequently with Tebow but this is generally an offense that won’t scare anyone. Thankfully for the Jets, they have a genuine top 5 Defense that will keep them in games but if Sanchez can’t pull them through then it’ll be Tebow Time inNew York.
My AFC Playoff teams are:
Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens & San Diego Chargers.