AFC Preview: Excitement Levels Rise as NFL Return Edges Closer17 min read
Our reminiscing about Superbowl LII is drawing to a close, as a new season dawns.
The New England Patriots succumbed to the Philadelphia Eagles as they were unable to defend their crown. A thrilling game in Minneapolis saw the teams combine for 74 points, just one shy of the record set in 1995.
Bill Belichick saw his star Quarterback Tom Brady throw for a record 613 yards in his eighth Superbowl, also a record. However, in an ironic turn of events one of the plays of the game in February, the Philly Special as it is now known, was one that Brady had failed to complete earlier in the game.
With the new season upon us we preview how the AFC looks this season.
It is a case of same old, same old in this division. It would take a braver person than me to able to look past the winners of the last nine divisional titles. The Brady and Belichick pairing has been one of the most dominate in all of football since they combined 17 years ago.
There’s not much to say really, they will win this division but if the off season has taught us anything, it is that their dominance is beginning to come to an end. I have never seen as many stories about unrest in the Patriots as I did this off season, nor as many high profile exits.
The pretenders to the crown are now the New York Jets who are still in disbelief after their draft steal. Whilst the fanfare surround their noisy crosstown rivals the Giants taking Saquon Barkley at number two, Jets fans are excited to say that they took Sam Darnold at number three. Ranked as the best quarterback in the draft they were in disbelief as he fell into their laps. He will be buoyed by being the starting QB this season following Teddy Bridgewater’s trade to New Orleans. This is by no means going to be a close run thing but making big strides this year will be top of the Jets wish list. This is a team in transition but the faith shown in the youngster, and his impressive preseason, will show signs of the future to come.
An enigma is the Miami Dolphins as they have spent the last year and a half seemingly letting all of their best players leave. The traded Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia and he played a key role in their Superbowl success. They released Ndamukong Suh who has now joined the highly fancied Rams and Jarvis Landry was shipped out to the Browns. They are a team trying to find themselves and are my pick to have the worst record this season. Only a few wins ahead, I see the Buffalo Bills who have lost their safety blanket in Tyrod Taylor. Sure he isn’t exciting but he was never expected to win you a title. But the Bills seem to have all their eggs in the Josh Allen basket and personally I think he could be the worst pick from the drafted QBs, a bit harsh but sometimes it is not all about being able to throw the ball very far – just ask Tim Tebow.
Not many will look past perennial contenders the Pittsburgh Steelers. However it has been a bit of a tumultuous off season as contract negotiations with star Running Back Le’Veon Bell broke down and no agreement was reached. However, in order to prove he is worth the deal he is after he will need to yet again prove his is one of, if not the, best RBs in football. The Steelers have relied on the three B’s to push for the title in the last few years. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have been causing opposing defenses headaches as they prove to be one of the most effective trios in the league. The only current issue is that Bell is still holding out and has not turned up to practice following the contract negotiations breakdown. However I would also keep an eye on JuJu Smith-Schuster to have a breakout year and provide Antonio Brown significantly improved support in the Wide Receiver position. One thing they will have to do however is try to lay to rest their records against divisional rivals New England and Jacksonville who both dominated the Steelers on their way to last seasons AFC Championship game.
The team I think is ready to explode most of all 32 in the game are the Baltimore Ravens. Not many people are mentioning them in the conversation for the title and many have stated that QB Joe Flacco is not good enough to lead a challenge. I would like to remind people of the last time that these sentiments were ushered, he lead them to a win in Superbowl XLVII. This was not a renaissance I was expecting however since adding rival QBs Robert Griffin III and drafting Lemar Jackson he has kicked on hugely. Maybe the threat of the much lauded Jackson has cause Flacco to no longer coast as the undisputed starter. If preseason has taught us anything though it is that heading into the season with these three QBs could be a masterstroke as they each offer something different. This flexibility that they can now use in the position could be a masterstroke and increase their playbook exponentially. The additions made at Wide Receiver will also give them a new dimension in attack. Also, not many will recall that despite a disappointing season they still had one of the best ranked defenses last season.
This league will however have a huge amount of focus on it this year but not on the two teams mentioned above. It will be dominated by Cleveland. Over the course of the last two seasons they have one one solitary game. They enter this season however with quite a bit of hype, thanks in part to being the featured team on NFL’s Hard Knock show. They caused a stir when they surprisingly chose Baker Mayfield as the number one pick in the draft, ahead of higher rated prospects such as Sam Darnold. Then again when they chose Denzel Ward, over everyone’s highest rated defensive draft player Bradley Chubb, just three picks later. However, before you think that The Browns have found a way to blow their draft picks once again they attacked the trade window in a way that not many expected. Wide Receiver Jarvis Landry will provide an explosive element to an offense who lost a number of one possession games last season. Although they drafted a Heisman trophy winner QB in the draft they have remained adamant that trade acquisition Tyrod Taylor will be their starting QB this season. He should bring some stability as he is quite a safe option and it is hoped he can reduce the pressure put on the defense by reducing their turnovers.
An then there is the Cincinnati Bengals. By far and away the only team in this division going backwards. Which is saying something when one of the teams has won 1 in 32. However Andy Dalton’s best achievement last year was winning the last game to help the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs, the Bengals were out of contention long before this. The only plus point I can think of for the Bengals is AJ Green, a man who has ridiculous stats and is the best WR no-one is talking about.
Ravens to win AFC North
Ravens to win AFC
You know you are a good team when you are referred to by a new nickname given to you based on your play. This is the case for the Jacksonville Jaguars, or as they are more commonly know these days Sacksonville. People will say that they were one bad call away from beating the New England Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship game but regardless of this they did blow a big lead in that game as they succumbed to Brady’s side. Whilst many may have been impressed with their season this was built upon an incredibly strong defense. I think that this masks some of the weaknesses and their progress has caused Blake Bortles to play in games above his skill set. They are not an explosive or dynamic offense, however they keep the board ticking with points as theya re able to recover the ball close to a scoring position. Bortles proved last year that he lacks enough talent to overcome the big question marks that still hang over his head.
However it is the season for comebacks and my biggest question from last season will always be what if Deshaun Watson had stayed healthy? The rookie was on course to beat Peyton Manning’s record for most touchdown passes in a rookie year, in fact he was on course to destroy the record. It stands at 30 and in his six games Watson threw for 19 TDs. That is simply ridiculous. But staying healthy in Houston seems to be a common thread, they have lost star defensive player JJ Watt for most of the last two seasons. But if they can keep everyone healthy then they are my pick for the AFC crown, but that is a big IF.
Danger is back for the Indianapolis Colts as they can finally say that Andrew Luck is fit again. He is one of the most talented QBs in the game and lead awful rosters to 11-5 records in his first three seasons. This is probably why he was injured, the Colts just didn’t have the quality to protect him. But if you can keep him on the field he will win you games.
Tennessee made the playoffs last year but I can’t see the Titans doing anything but prop up the division this year. Unfortunately for them everyone else has got better simply by getting healthy. I expect a long season ahead for them and they should hold onto their memories from last season.
Texans to win AFC Championship
DeShaun Watson to win Comeback player of the year
Colts to make the playoffs
This was a very different league just one week ago. All of this is due to one trade, Khalil Mack leaving the Oakland Raiders. He was by far and away one of the best defensive players in the league. The Raiders are building at the moment and have a lot to live up to. The Black Hole is one of the most impressive and terrifying places to go as an opponent, and nothing quite lives up to the Raider Nation fanbase. But hanging over them is the upcoming move to Las Vegas which is one of the most highly publicised and anticipated moves in NFL history. But with a $100m contract given to new head coach Jon Gruden who has not coached for over 10 years I forsee more questions than answers this year. One of these will be which is the real Derek Carr? The one from last season or the MVP candidate form the season before?
Over in Denver there is another big question regarding Quarterbacks and this is surrounding new acquisition Case Keenum. There is no doubting that he was excellent for the Minnesota Vikings last season but when it mattered in the NFC Championship game, he crumbled. He was replaced there by Kirk Cousins and everyone stated that this was seen as an upgrade. Can Case now handle the pressure of being an undoubted starting QB?
But when you are talking about Denver only one thing springs to mind and that is their defense. Von Miller is a former Superbowl MVP, an accolade not many defensive players have ever earnt. They probably got the steal of the draft too when they took Bradley Chubb who many viewed as the best player since Von Miller’s own draft. It is a scary though to have Von Miller on one side and Bradley Chubb on the other hunting you down as the QB.
However I like the Kansas City Chiefs and their big gamble in this division. They made the playoffs every season with Alex Smith as their starting QB, however they have seen enough raw talent in Patrick Mahomes to trade Smith away to Washington. One thing everyone now knows is just how big his arm is as he threw a 70 yard TD pass in preseason. It is a clip that has been watched countless times due to the ease at which he was able to make this bomb. With support from Kareem Hunt, last year’s rushing leader, and Tyreek Hill this is an incredibly youthful and dynamic offense.
However, the division is rounded off by the Los Angeles Chargers. They will make the playoffs this year as they have been the nearly men for the last few years. Philip Rivers is one of the best QBs in the game and he now has a number of weapons around him, including a return for Antonio Gates. However I think they are a season away from emerging as the best team in the division. They can’t start a season like they did last season however if they can maintain their form from the end of last season then they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Kansas City to win AFC West
Von Miller to win defensive player of the year
Chargers to make the playoffs