By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
The preseason games are complete and teams have made their final roster cuts, which means it’s time for one thing – the random Thursday night game that starts the season and forces everyone to make their picks and set their fantasy lineups far earlier than they should! Thanks, NFL!
Anyway, we’ve got a three-part preview coming your way from the Ultimate Capper this year. Today, you’ll find the AFC preview, while tomorrow we’ll look at the NFC. Then, before you flip on NBC on Thursday for the Packers and Seahawks, be sure to check back and see our playoff predictions for this season, which are guaranteed to be completely and totally wrong. Then again, what fun would it be if I was always right?
Imaging sitting at a Vegas casino with a large pile of money as my preseason pick wins the Super Bowl…
Ok, fine, it would be great for me and all ten of my readers, but that’s not the point. This is totally and entirely done for fun, so let’s get going!
New England Patriots (12-4)
New York Jets (8-8)
Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Buffalo Bills (3-13)
In a rather stunning turn of events, the Patriots are the favorite to win the AFC East. Assuming that my forecast come true, it would be the 6th straight division title and the 10th in the last 11 seasons for New England – including a whopping 10 in a row when Tom Brady has played in more than one game during the season. Over the last decade, it has been Bill Belichick’s word, and the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have just been living in it. In fact, since the Pats hired the Hoodie away from the Jets prior to the 2000 season, only three times (Dolphins in ’00 and ’08, Jets in ’02) have the Pats not won the division. They are also the only team in the division to reach a Super Bowl since Buffalo’s four straight AFC titles at the start of the ‘90’s. It’s actually been the least competitive division since the turn of the century, and once again it appears to be the Patriots throne to lose.
The rest of the teams, then, are playing for one of the two Wild Card berths, and it’s not unfathomable to think that either the Jets or Dolphins could grab one a playoff spot. If Ryan Tannehill continues his maturation process, which I actually don’t think happens if you look at the projected records, then it’s conceivable to see Miami get to 9-7 or even 10-6. Meanwhile it’s clear that Rex Ryan can coach defense, and the offense can’t really get much worse than it did during last year’s 8-8 campaign, so another season of .500 football is clearly within reach. The problem for both teams is that they have yet to prove that they can consistently beat average or above average teams, which absolutely has to happen in order to get to double digit wins, so I don’t think either team actually gets there. Buffalo, meanwhile, is still a mess, starting with the ownership and heading right on down through the organization, so even though there are promising pieces in place, this could really become a year when the Bills really bottom out – though I’m sure they won’t mind a top-3 draft pick for one more season until they get some stability at the top of the franchise.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Cleveland Browns (6-10)
I’d like to start from the bottom with this division, only because of all of the hype and controversy that surrounds Johnny Manziel. Quite frankly, I don’t think he’ll be a successful NFL quarterback, mostly because I don’t think he’ll ever totally mature into the type of truly professional athlete that’s required to play that position well at this level. His college-style antics won’t help read a defense, work through his progressions, and make a key 3rd-and-8 throw to sustain a fourth quarter drive in a close game. As players like Michael Vick, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III before him have already discovered, the players at this level are too smart and fast to get beat simply by talent alone. Unless Mike Pettine can straighten him out quickly, Manziel’s career will mimic Ryan Leaf’s more than it will Peyton Manning’s.
As for the rest of the division, all three teams have become quite comfortable with both their QB and head coach – and it’s amazing how stability in those two roles leads to success for the franchise as a whole. While John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have Super Bowl rings to their names, perhaps the most overlooked story in the entire NFL is how long Mike Brown stayed the course with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, and how his commitment to the coach has been rewarded with three straight playoff appearances. Sure, Lewis and Andy Dalton are now facing the pressure that comes with having lost all of those appearances, but that’s a much better position than the one facing fan bases in Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo, Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville. I still think the Ravens are the better team and the Steelers are aging and finally suffering the effects of consistently drafting at the back-end of each round every year, but this has been a brutal division for the last few years and should once again feature three pretty good football teams. It would be a major shock if two of them didn’t play beyond Week 17.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Tennessee Titans (5-11)
Houston Texans (4-12)
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
This is a little like the AFC East, only the Colts don’t carry the same level of intimidation with Andrew Luck as they did with Peyton Manning. Save for the 2-14 year when Manning didn’t play, this has been a division regularly dominated by the Colts, and they once again staked their claim as the division’s best team when Houston fell apart last season. Now, they’ll be tasked with reaching the next level, which means finding a way to get past either New England or Denver in the pecking order. I’m not sure they really have the pieces in place to that this season, but if anything has been proven true, it’s that Luck is as good as he was projected to be when he was drafted first out of Stanford, so the Colts should be able to surpass one or both of the two aforementioned giants relatively soon.
Again, as with the AFC East, it’s really hard to see any of the other three teams making any big moves this season, especially when considering they draw the NFC East in crossover games this year. It’s entirely possible that the worst team in the NFC East will be better than anyone in this division not named Indianapolis, so there’s a solid chance that the Titans, Jags, and Texans may all post an 0-4 record in those matchups. That, along with the daunting task of having to find a way to beat the Colts, might mean that each team is 0-6 before factoring in head-to-head games or the remaining AFC inter-conference games – and also means the thought of a playoff berth is nothing more than wishful thinking. I actually think the Texans have the most talent and therefore the best chance to make some sort of charge towards .500, but after last season’s debacle I can’t bring myself to trust them for anything more than four wins.
Denver Broncos (13-3)
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
San Diego Chargers (6-10)
Oakland Raiders (5-11)
If the second Wild Card isn’t coming from the East or South, then it must be coming from here, a division that produced both Wild Card teams a season ago in what proved to be a finish of epicly-average proportions. I don’t even know if epicly is a word, but it’s the best I can think of to describe how exciting it was to watch mediocre AFC football the last three weeks of the season. I don’t think San Diego can duplicate their come-from-behind feat last year, and I also don’t think the Chiefs will shoot out to such a hot start behind that incredible defense over the first nine games, so with everything reverting back to the norms it would seem likely that the KC will simply be a good football team, and Chargers will be just average. Combine that thought with the fact that the this division faces the NFC West – arguably the best division in the game right now – and I can’t see another season of three playoff teams from the West.
Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is how the Broncos will rebound from their devastating loss to Seattle last February. By all accounts, they have returned to peak performance and have used this preseason to refocus their sights on playing the last game of the season again this year, but what happens the first time Denver’s offense has a bad game? What happens if Manning and his receivers are out sync one Sunday? What happens in week three if they go to the Pacific Northwest and Pete Carroll’s crew throttles them again? I picked Bronco losses at Seattle (W3), Kansas City (W13), and Cincinnati (W16), but I also think this is a potentially fragile team, and if at any point their confidence is shaken – and they face some other tough challenges like two with San Diego, the 49’ers at home, and a trip to Foxboro – it could ultimately unwind their season and leave John Elway’s experiment as just another average football team. I’m clearly not predicting it, I’m just saying that if it happens and you’re a regular reader of my column, you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.
Be sure to check out the NFC Preview tomorrow, the Playoff preview and opening night pick on Thursday, the full Week One picks on Friday, and weekly picks every Thursday for the rest of the season, only at ultimatecapper.com.