Image courtesy of Sports Betting Acumen
I may have just mentioned in the NFC preview that the NFL is known for parity, but you wouldn’t guess that to be the case looking at the AFC’s recent history. The conference has been under the tight grip of a few teams — the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and especially the New England Patriots — for much of the 21st century, with only an occasional reprieve. However, this season should be a different story.
Some of the Goliaths will stay dominant, but none of them are infallible, and some underdogs might rise up to the challenge. Will one of the plucky upstarts reach the Super Bowl? Let’s dive into the division-by-division analysis.
Is this the year Cincinnati finally gets their act together and wins a playoff game? All signs indicate no. After a disastrous, self-inflicted last-second loss in the playoffs caused by linebacker Vontaze Burfict essentially headhunting Steelers WR Antonio Brown and drawing a massive penalty, the Bengals have not done much to improve over the offseason.
Sure, they were talented enough to win the North last year, and they’ve made the playoffs five years running, but they’ve lost in the first round all five times. At some point, this is an issue with the team’s culture, and head coach Marvin Lewis should have been fired after this season. Because he wasn’t, expect another strong regular season, coupled with a first-round playoff ejection.
Meanwhile, the Steelers will continue to have the NFL’s best on-paper offense thanks to QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, and RBs Le’veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, but there always seems suspensions and/or injuries lurking around the corner for that group. Luckily, their schedule is quite easy, and their talent level is too high for them to miss the playoffs.
Baltimore will face another mediocre year, and the Browns will hope and pray that LeBron’s magic impacts them with their new reclamation project: the injury-prone QB Robert Griffin III. It won’t work. Sorry, Cleveland, one of your teams has to suck.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
2) Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3) Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
4) Cleveland Browns (3-13)
The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to win the AFC South. I know, this sounds like I’m claiming Adam Sandler will win an Oscar, but hear me out.
For starters, the Jags’ offense might be the most dangerous in the whole conference. Young QB Blake Bortles is improving every year, and the deadly WR combo of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns will give enemy secondaries fits. Their defense should continue to improve as well, thanks to promising rookies LB Myles Jack and CB Jalen Ramsey.
Secondly, who else is going to win? The Colts are essentially Andrew Luck with the defense of a Pop Warner squad. The Titans are young and improving, but don’t have all the pieces yet. And even JJ Watt can’t save the Texans’ limp offense. The South is prime for Jacksonville’s takeover.
1) Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5)
2) Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
3) Houston Texans (7-9)
4) Tennessee Titans (5-11)
Someday, I’ll write about how a team other than the Patriots will win the East. Maybe the Jets look promising, or the Dolphins are building a dynasty, or perhaps even those spunky Bills will have a good shot at their first-ever championship. But that day has not come. It may never come. It’ll be 2066 and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s zombie corpses will still have an iron grip on the AFC East.
Yes, Brady is missing the first four games due to the Deflategate ruling. Does that even matter? Three out of those four games are at home against weak teams. Besides, they went 11-5 in 2008 with backup QB Matt Cassel at the helm for 15 games. As long as Belichick is on the sidelines, they could probably start Mark Wahlberg and win the East. I mean, that worked okay for the Eagles in “Invincible,” so maybe that’s a legitimate option.
Apologies to the other three teams in the conference, but neither the Bills, Jets, or Dolphins made upgrades significant enough to topple the Pats. So while the rest of the AFC is experiencing exciting upheaval, the East will continue to be under the New England empire’s rule. Maybe in 2070, guys.
1) New England Patriots (10-6)
2) New York Jets (8-8)
3) Buffalo Bills (7-9)
4) Miami Dolphins (6-10)
I’m going to be up-front, Broncos fans: Denver isn’t making the Super Bowl again.
Yes, yes, I know, their defense is amazing, Von Miller is a god, etc. But I’m sorry, an inexperienced, unproven QB like Trevor Simian is not going to lead you to the promise land. Sure, Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self last year, but he still had incredible football IQ and was an outstanding leader. That’s gone now.
And don’t forget, the Super Bowl hangover is real: Only two teams in the 21st century so far have returned to the big game a second year in a row, and those teams were the Patriots and the Seahawks. Do not try to convince me that Simian is on Tom Brady and Russell Wilson’s level. They’ll still make the playoffs, don’t worry, but in the West? Someone else is going to steal their thunder.
Much like the NFC East, the AFC West is very difficult to predict, but instead of the reason being overall mediocrity, here, three teams could reasonably compete for playoff spots. Unfortunately, one will likely have to get the shaft, and I’m predicting that will be the Chiefs, whose head coach Andy Reid isn’t known for being clutch.
Meanwhile, the Raiders might be the most exciting young team in football, with the electrifying QB-to-WR AC/DC — that’s WR Amari Cooper and QB Derek Carr — combo (pun absolutely intended). Those two, coupled with LB Khalil Mack, only in his third year and already one of the best defenders in the game (he was elected to All-Pro in two different positions last year, something that has never been previously accomplished), should elevate the Raiders to their first division title since American Idol aired their debut season.
Unfortunately for Charger fans, San Diego will be on the outside looking in, as Phillip Rivers and company just don’t have the talent to run with the big boys.
1) Oakland Raiders (11-5)
2) Denver Broncos (11-5)
3) Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)
4) San Diego Chargers (4-12)
Follow Jackson Hogan on Twitter: @jacksonhogan