Thursday 24 August 2017 / 11:18 AM

Airing It Out: AFC Preview

With just a few more days to go until the 2014 NFL season kicks off, it’s time to dust the cobwebs and shake the rust off our Airing it Out column.

Generally I like to start these buggers off with a few paragraphs of jibber-jabber, a witticism or two and at least one 1980s movie reference, but with so much ground to cover, let’s dispense with the pleasantries and dig right in.

Here are my predictions for the AFC in 2014 … feel free to refer back to this article in February to see how difficult predicting an entire NFL season truly is.

AFC

AFC East

1st – New England Patriots: From top to bottom the AFC East is much improved, featuring (dare I say it) four potential playoff contenders. But the Pats remain a cut above their division foes and should take the crown without too much of a challenge.

Tom Brady carried the team on his shoulders last year and they made it all the way to the AFC Championship. With Rob Gronkowski back and healthy, and wide-out Danny Amendola having a full season under his belt in a Pats uniform, I think that we’ll see a definite upward tick in Brady’s TD total. Add into the mix that Shane Vareen and Stevan Ridley are one of the top running back committees in the league, and you’ve got a winning recipe.

Oh, and should Darrelle Revis return to form, we could wind up talking more about the Patriots defense by the time this season’s said and done.

2nd – Miami Dolphins: Miami could just as easily wind up in the cellar here, but considering that every team’s fate rests squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback, I’ll take Ryan Tannehill over Geno Smith and EJ Manuel.

Dolphins fans shouldn’t get too excited about the addition of Knowshon Moreno as his production will dwarf what he did in Denver when defenses prepared mostly for Peyton Manning, but in combination with Lamar Miller the Fins ought to get enough rolling on the ground to loosen up secondaries sufficiently for Tannehill to have the best year of his career.

3rd – New York Jets: Coach Rex insists once again that the J-E-T-S are going to be awesome. What else is new?

On defense they’ll be tough; from Buddy to Rob to Rex, the Ryans know how to stymie an opponent’s O, but on the other side of the field there are three big questions that will determine whether the Jets wind up as contenders or pretenders.

1. Can Geno Smith throw more touchdowns than he does interceptions? Hint: Last year he had 12 TDs to 21 INTs.

2. Does a new uniform spark a resurgence in Chris Johnson and return him to CJ2K form?

3. Eric Decker … how valuable is he outside of that Manning-led offense?

4th – Buffalo Bills: It’s just too easy to put the Bills here, even with the addition of offensive rookie of the year candidate, Sammy Watkins.

Should EJ Manuel dazzle in his second season and play well enough to keep newly signed back-up Kyle Orton on the bench, then it’s just as possible that Buffalo goes 10-6 and sneaks into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But until proven otherwise, it’s a much safer bet to assume that they’re the same old Bills.

I’d really like to be wrong with this one. Bills fans are some of the most loyal in football and 15 years without a postseason appearance is a lot for even the most rabid of fans to endure.

Check out Michael NFC Preview here.

AFC West

1st – Denver Broncos: Once again the Broncos are primed to be one of the best, if not the best, team in football. Led by an All-Universe quarterback who seemed to set a record last season every time he touched the ball, Denver’s offense will once again prove to be unstoppable, especially if Montee Ball takes the reins and shows that he can be “the guy” in Moreno’s absence.

What makes the Broncos scarier than ever is that they improved drastically on defense over the off-season, adding Aqib Talib at corner and DeMarcus Ware on the line to rush the passer.

Should they pull out the win at Seattle in Week 3, this is a team that could potentially go undefeated. Then again, they’ve got a tough schedule this season and could just as easily find a way to lose four or five games.

2nd – San Diego Chargers: The Chargers will need to somehow sweep the Broncos if they hope to challenge for the division title, but they’ll be seeing postseason play one way or another.

Philip Rivers rejuvenated his career last season and is ready to keep the ball rolling along with second-year wide-out Keenan Allen. If Allen is able to give the Bolts more of what he did as a rookie, this offense could put up a lot of points.

On defense the Chargers are not elite, but solid enough to keep the team in games and give Rivers a chance to win with his arm.

Similar to last year, San Diego does face a tough schedule. They’ll go up against all four NFC West teams along with two against each of their division rivals. But I still like their chances to make it back to the playoffs.

3rd – Kansas City Chiefs: Remember when Andy Reid shocked the world last year by taking a 2-14 squad and winning the first nine games of the season with Alex Smith at the helm?

That won’t happen again.

After KC’s hot start in 2013, they went on to go 2-5 to finish out the season. In the playoffs they gave up 45 points to the Colts to make the team 2-6 over their last 8 games.

Their defense is just not that good and Alex Smith is the kind of quarterback that really only plays well when he’s got a lead.

Jamaal Charles will keep things interesting and make big plays, but unless Dwayne Bowe plays like a Pro-Bowler and KC’s secondary finds a way to stop leeching huge chunks of yardage, this Chiefs team will be watching the playoffs from home.

4th – Oakland Raiders: Fans of the Silver & Black went goo-goo-ga-ga over the signings of former defensive stars Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley. While building a team full of free agent has-beens never works out as planned, in the Raiders’ case this team will be far more competitive than the roster they fielded in 2013.

The problem is, that roster was atrocious, so “more competitive” here is absolutely a relative term.

Instead of drafting a young quarterback, GM Reggie McKenzie opted to dig Matt Schaub out of the trash to see if he’s got any more tread on the tires. In the preseason Schaub was underwhelming and missed the final game because of a sore elbow.

Bottom line, if you’re going to put real money on anything, bet that the Raiders will finish last in the AFC West.

AFC North

1st – Pittsburgh Steelers: There are some franchises that simply can’t be held down for more than a season or two. The Steelers are one such team.

Last season an abysmal start left ‘Big Ben’ and the Steelers to climb out of an enormous hole. And while they couldn’t quite shrug off the losing streak and sneak into the playoffs, they did grow tremendously along the way.

Le’Veon Bell exploded onto the scene as a rookie, helping Pittsburgh return to their ground roots, and this offseason the team added power runner LeGarrette Blount to the backfield to give the offense a very balanced rushing attack.

On the other side of the ball the defense swapped out aging players for younger and faster options. Former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt and first-round linebacker Ryan Shazier are all ready to prove they’re just the men to reboot the Steel Curtain.

2nd – Cincinnati Bengals: Quite a few analysts are putting the Ravens in this spot, but I’m not quite ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater on Andy Dalton.

Has he been disappointing in the postseason?

Yes.

Has he taken the previously flailing Bengals to the playoffs in his first three years in the league?

Yes.

Last season Dalton threw for 4,293 yards, with 33 TDs and 20 INTs. While less interceptions would certainly be nice, this is an impressive stat line that can’t simply be shrugged off.

Say what you want about Dalton … until his W-L record proves otherwise, I like the Bengals’ chances, even if I do have Pittsburgh taking back the division.

If you haven’t seen it already … check this out:

3rd – Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens’ fate rests squarely on the play of their elite but not-so-elite quarterback.

One year after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and being awarded a ridiculous contract, Joe Flacco put up less than $100million numbers (19 TDs, 22 INTs, 73.1 rating).

Sure, Baltimore’s unit was torn apart by post-Super Bowl attrition and his O-line had him running for his life all season long (48 sacks), but I’m not quite ready to announce the return of the Ravens until Flacco can prove he is ready to be consistent week in and week out.

That being said, the addition of Steve Smith should be huge. Smith is old, but he’s simply one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game. He’ll prove to be a reliable target that finds a way to get open while Torrey Smith provides the deep threat.

4th – Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon’s one-year suspension was upheld and Johnny Manziel didn’t play well enough to beat out Brian Hoyer. Just who is going to score for these Cleveland Browns?

New Head Coach Mike Pettine could be just the guy to finally turn this franchise around … but not this year.

Look for the defense to keep games close and for Manziel to pull out two or three wins with “Johnny Football” heroics before the curtain drops on the 2014 season, but this is easily the weakest team in the division. Again.

Check out Michael NFC Preview here.

 

AFC South

1st – Indianapolis Colts: Let’s look at five reasons why the Colts are going to dominate the AFC South.

1. Andrew Luck. Even with a suspect O-line he’s going to consistently throw for 300+ yards and two or three TDs. And the guy’s a winner.

2. T.Y. Hilton. He’s a superstar in the making.

3. Reggie Wayne. Old faithful’s still got some gas left in the tank.

4. Hakeem Nicks. He may have fallen from grace in NY, but he’s a former #1 slotted in as Luck’s third option. Look for Nicks to have a huge bounce-back season.

5. None of the other three teams in this division are remotely close to being playoff ready.

2nd – Jacksonville Jaguars: While 100 per cent of the credit has gone to Pete Carroll and John Schneider, let’s not forget that Gus Bradley was a big part of the team that turned things around in Seattle.

Now that Gus has got a QB to wrap his team around, the Jags are well on their way to AFC relevance.

Blake Bortles has yet to see regular-season action, but he played with the poise and confidence of a veteran during the preseason.

While Jacksonville won’t be playing in January, they’ll be good enough to win more games than they lose and take second place in the league’s weakest division.

3rd – Tennessee Titans: Both of the bottom-two teams in the AFC South have concerns at quarterback. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Jake Locker will outperform Ryan Fitzpatrick, but this is a shaky limb.

Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright are a strong, young receiving duo that will provide Locker with solid targets to throw to, but from top to bottom this just isn’t a team that inspires much confidence, even if they don’t look “awful” either.

4th – Houston Texans: JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will make plays and anchor a tough defense with the potential to keep games close and give the offense a chance to win.

But who is going to lead the charge?

It seems as though the Texans’ front office looked at their quarterback quandary as an afterthought. Literally, the only real move they made all offseason was to trade this week for Ryan Mallett from the Patriots.

While Houston only had to give up a sixth-round pick to pry the signal caller away from New England, this could more be a sign that Mallett’s potential has been overstated all along. But unless Ryan Fitzpatrick pulls a career year out of his arse, we could see Houston testing the waters with Mallet to see what he’s got.

Sorry Texans fans, but Houston won’t be pulling a KC-esque turnaround in 2014.

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Michael Airhart

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