By KELTON BROOKS
NFL football is well underway as week 1 of preseason action is now in the books. Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel starred in his NFL debut electrifying the crowd with a 16 yard scamper against the Detroit Lions. Not to mention a pair of speedy Oregon rookies in De’Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs, who returned an 80-yard punt for a score, and Josh Huff of the Philadelphia Eagles, who made a long distance call of 102 yards on a kickoff return.
This is the essence of preseason football: focusing on individual performance, not the final score.
But that will all change Sept. 4 when the Green Bay Packers take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last season, only to get trampled by Seattle 43-8. The AFC as a whole has to redeem themselves after the Broncos’ whipping. Several perennial, contending AFC teams have bolstered their rosters, while some have been decimated by injuries and free agency.
While it may not always be the case, normally the first step to reaching the Super Bowl is winning the division. Let’s take a look at which AFC team will claim the top spot in their respective division in the 2014 NFL season.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals recently awarded franchise quarterback Andy Dalton with a contract worth $96 million over six years. Dalton has led his Bengals to the playoffs every season since he was drafted in 2011. But that’s where the success stops, in the playoffs. The four year quarterback has been Jekyll and Hyde in the regular season and postseason. Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs and has completed 56.9 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions.
During the regular season, he ranks only behind Dan Marino and Peyton Manning in NFL history with 80 touchdown passes during his first three seasons. Cincinnati is a Super Bowl caliber team and talented on both sides of the ball with superstar wide receiver A.J. Green and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins. But this team will only go as far as Dalton leads them.
2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
Baltimore failed to reach the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the same year the Ravens gift wrapped an unprecedented contract worth $126.6 million to quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens have gotten better on offense signing still explosive receiver Steve Smith, even at age 35. And also welcoming back of healthy Dennis Pitta at tight end.
Last season was the first time future first ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis wasn’t draped in black and purple after he announced his retirement during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He was the heart and soul of the team. The loss of Lewis was evident in the locker room and on the field. Flacco has to shed his calm demeanor and become more of a vocal leader to lead his team to a successful 2014-15 season.
The Ravens captured headlines when star running back Ray Rice was convicted of battery chargers after he struck his then fiancé, now wife, and was issued a two-game suspension by the NFL. A heinous act, yes, but expect Baltimore to rally around Rice throughout the season.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Take a look at the Steelers linebacker unit. There familiar stalwarts are no longer on board. No more Larry Foote, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley or James Farrior, all the grizzled veterans are long gone. The group is now littered with callow youth behind second year linebacker Jarvis Jones and highly touted rookie Ryan Shazier. Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds and considered the veterans of the group at age 28 and 26, respectively.
Another position filled with inexperience and question marks is the Steelers receiver corps. Second year wideout Marcus Wheaton is penciled in as the starter after only hauling in six catches last season. Antonio Brown is a mainstay reeling in 110 catches, 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, but 6-feet-5 inch rookie Martavis Bryant has to make an immediate impact and create a connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The NFL has written off this storied franchise in recent years, but Pittsburgh could become a surprise in the AFC.
4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
FistEnergy Stadium will soon become the The House that Johnny Built, but until then, Johnny Manziel and the Browns will remain at the bottom of the division. A two win improvement would become somewhat of a success for a team who went 4-12 the previous season. Cleveland has been adamant about entrenching incumbent Brian Hoyer as the starter, but throughout training camp, neither quarterback has separated themselves from each other.
Brown wide receiver Josh Gordon, who led the NFL in receiving yards last season (1,646), is still waiting on a decision from the NFL on his appeal of a one-year suspension enforced by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It was evident in the Browns preseason opener against the Lions that they are in need of pass catches after numerous drops throughout the game.
Cleveland has a bright future with Manziel and a physical defense featuring Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, but there time is two or three years from now.
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Luck has been on the Colts’ side for the past two seasons reaching the playoffs. The former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, is a consensus top-10 quarterback entering his third year in the NFL and ranked as a top-5 quarterback by a few big wigs around the league. The Colts are set for 10-15 years as long as Luck remains healthy and surrounded by talent. The return of Reggie Wayne, who fell victim to a torn ACL mid-season, is an added bonus to receiver T.Y. Hilton who is fresh off his first 1,000 yard season.
The Colts offense only has only gotten better by signing former Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and drafting the physical Donte Moncrief out of the University of Mississippi. Trent Richardson also made headlines after pledging to rush for over 1,000 yards in the upcoming season. Production from Richardson is warranted after an abysmal season averaging 2.9 yards a carry after he was traded from the Browns.
Again, Indianapolis will reign over the AFC South for years to come as long as Luck is under center.
2. Tennessee Titans (8-8)
This is possibly a make-or-break season for fourth year quarterback Jake Locker who has missed 26 games due to injury in three seasons in Tennessee. But with an offensive line featuring three first rounders and Pro Bowl guard Andy Levitre, the Titans have made strides to protect their young quarterback.
Tennessee lost big times players on both sides of the ball in running back Chris Johnson to the New York Jets and cornerback Alterraun Verner to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although, Verner is a bigger loss compared to Johnson, leading the Titans to the 11th-best pass defense. Johnson’s production has declined drastically since his 2,000 yard season in 2009 and signing a monstrous four-year, $53.5 million contract extension in 2011 in Tennessee. Albeit, he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season since he entered the NFL.
Ken Whisenhunt is entering his first season as the Titans head coach. Known as an offensive guru who focuses on taking shots down the fill, maybe he has the ability to cure Locker who possesses a big arm. The Titans committed grand larceny in stealing former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round in May’s draft. If Locker doesn’t remain healthy, Tennessee might insert their quarterback of the future.
3. Houston Texans (7-9)
Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the answer at quarterback. He is simply a bandaid for next year’s draft or maybe the Texans believe they found their quarterback of the future in Tom Savage, who was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Pittsburgh. It seemed that the Texans turned the corner from a perennial doormat to a contender in recent years, but with questions at the quarterback position, their season is numbered.
It’s not bizarre to think Fitzpatrick is the sole reason why Andre Johnson considered retirement or a trade.
Houston nabbed the freakish defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to pair along side former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Unless the nightmarish duo can pull of 20 sacks apiece—which they won’t—the Texans don’t stand a chance in the AFC South, let alone the conference. Fitzpatrick is serviceable, but not a quarterback who will take you to the playoffs.
Losing running back Ben Tate in free agency may become a bigger blow than the Texans anticipate after the reoccurring injuries to Arian Foster. Houston will lean on him early and often, but he still won’t be enough.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
A new stadium. A new head coach. A new quarterback. The Jaguars have added pieces to rejuvenate a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. Jacksonville is still light years away from becoming a contender, but drafting the likes of quarterback Blake Bortles and going toy shopping in round two selecting a pair of wide receivers in Marquise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State), this team is starting to turn the corner from a personnel perspective.
The organization plans to start Chad Henne on the opening week of the season, but if Bortles continues to have outings similar to his preseason debut, the Jaguars may be forced to change their hands and start the rookie.
1. New England Patriots (13-3)
Everyone team in this division is looking up at the Patriots. New England has won the AFC East 11 of the last 12 seasons.
The Patriots’ dominance in the division doesn’t look to come to a stop anytime soon. The additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Bradon Browner, and welcoming back Vince Wilfork from injury, the defense may have finally caught up with the offense. Staking a claim for Revis Island and signing Browner—who will miss the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy—was a direct result of Peyton Manning torching the secondary for 400 yards in the AFC Championship.
After signing 6-feet-3, 210 pound Bradon Lafell, quarterback Tom Brady jokingly said:
“I have some of the little pygmies out there like Julian (5-10, 200) and Danny (5-11, 195), and it’s nice to have a little bigger guy out there from time to time who has a big catch radius,” Brady cracked. “Hopefully Danny (Amendola) and Julian (Edelman) don’t get mad at me for saying that. They won’t. They know I’m joking.”
All jokes aside, Lafell could never put it all together in Carolina, but maybe a change of scenery and catching passes from arguably the best quarterback in the NFL will elevate his play on the field.
2. New York Jets (9-7)
If the Jets establish any consistency at quarterback, scratch that 9-7 record, they will secure 10+ wins and make the playoffs (or if Michael Vick is named the starter). I’ve harped on this many times, but up until week 11, the Jets flip-flopped wins and losses. The Jets finished the 2013 season with an 8-8 record. Gang Green couldn’t escape the highs and lows of Geno Smith.
To have a sophomore slump, one would need to have a successful rookie season. Smith did not have that success, throwing 21 interceptions. However, he did pick up his play towards the last quarter of the season throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions with a 3-1 record.
The Jets signed Chris Johnson in free agency and wide receiver Eric Decker to aid Smith’s progress. Decker was one of Peyton Manning’s favorite target in Denver hauling in 172 receptions, 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in two season with Manning. He won’t see those numbers with Smith as his quarterback, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.
Rex Ryan is on the hot seat in New York. It seems like it has been that way the past three seasons, but if the Jets go 8-8 again, New York will have a vacancy at head coach.
3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
Miami didn’t do much this offseason to build on a surprising 8-8 season in 2013. The Dolphins brought in running back Knowshon Moreno, but he has been nicked-up with a lot of mileage on his body, and signing Cortland Finnegan wasn’t an upgrade in the secondary after he was regularly torched in St. Louis last season.
And the Dolphins’ organization should still examine themselves after giving Mike Wallace a contract worth $60 million over five years. Wallace is a one-trick pony who won’t come close to out performing his contract. The jury is still out on third year quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is in the shadow of fellow draft class quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
Tannehill tossed 24 touchdown passes last season, very respectable. But he needs to drop his 17 interceptions into the eight to 12 range.
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)
It’s hard to gage the Bills 2013 performance because of quarterback E.J. Manuel missing six games due to injury. Manuel is somewhat still in his rookie stage of on-field play in the upcoming season with only 10 regular season games under his belt. The Bills are loaded with speed on offense with C.J. Spiller and drafting the dynamic wideout in Sammy Watkins, but Buffalo is far too young to make an impact in the AFC East.
Buffalo had an opportunistic defense in 2013 ranking second in the NFL with 23 interceptions. They have talent at every position, but won’t pose a legitimate threat anytime soon.
1. Denver Broncos (14-2)
Peyton Manning could have a MVP season every year. After throwing for an NFL record of 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, the Broncos have added even more weapons on offense for Manning by signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and drafting the big body receiver in Cody Lattimore.
It’s frightening to think what the Broncos may accomplish on offense this season.
But the bigger story is on defense. John Elway, general manager and executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos, knows this Denver team has maybe a two year window to win a Super Bowl under Manning. They were downright embarrassed and bullied by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Denver needed to add toughness to match up against physical teams. They did so by adding hard-hitting, box safety T.J. Ward, a shut down corner in Aqib Talib, and sack master DeMarcus Ware.
Not to mention outside linebacker Von Miller who was cleared by doctors July 24 to participate in offseason activities.
If Denver doesn’t win the Super Bowl this season with Manning, they won’t win one at all
2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)
Every year we wait on the Chargers to play to their on-paper potential. And every year the Chargers let everyone down. But this year, the Chargers will become one of the surprises in the AFC.
San Diego flexed its ability to win in the AFC West going 4-2 last season and 6-6 against the AFC as a whole. Phillip Rivers enjoyed a prolific season throwing the second most touchdowns in his career with 32, to only 11 interceptions. Running back Ryan Matthews finally stayed healthy for a full season for the first time in his career rushing for a career high of 1,255 yards. And rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen burst unto the scene catching 71 balls for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Those are unheard of numbers for a rookie receiver.
The Chargers’ Achilles Heel was their 29th ranked passing defense, giving up 258.7 yards per game. They went out to find the solution in signing Brandon Flowers from a division nemesis and drafted one of top corners in Jason Verrett out of TCU.
San Diego is a Super Bowl sleeper in the AFC.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)
The Chiefs overachieved last season. After starting the season 9-0, they went on to lose five of their last seven games.
Alex Smith continues to display his game-manager label in Kansas City, mirroring his San Francisco days. Smith does just enough to get you to a certain point, but not enough to get you over the hump. The Chiefs are reportedly not committed to signing Smith to a long term deal.
The Chiefs’ defense were once considered stingy in the first half of the season, but they faltered hard later in the season ranking 24th overall. They still have a number of big names on defense with safety Eric Berry, pass rushing specialist Tamba Hali and the mammoth defensive tackle in Dontari Poe, but the Chiefs won’t experience the unexpected success they achieved in 2013.
Kansas City also lost key players in offensive tackle Brandon Albert, cornerback Brandon Flowers and RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Unlike the Flowers and Albert, McCluster’s presence won’t be missed as much after drafting lightening in a bottle De’Anthony Thomas.
4. Oakland Raiders (6-10)
Matt Schaub’s time may have run its course in the NFL. Throwing a pick-6 in four straight games in 2013 for the Texans and a not-so-good- showing in his preseason debut with the Raiders is not a good sign for the 33-year-old quarterback.
Despite Schaub’s inabilities, Oakland went out and grabbed talent this offseason. The Raiders signed James Jones, who once led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 14 in 2012, offensive tackle Donald Penn, and a resurgent Maurice Jones-Drew to pair with Darren McFadden. On defense, they added three veterans in linebacker LaMar Woodley, defensive end Justin Tuck, cornerback Carlos Rogers through free agency, and No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack (OLB) who will receiver tutelage from Woodley.
The most intriguing player on the team is rookie quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr. If Schaub continues his lackluster 2013 performance, the organization will thrust in the young gun-slinger in Carr.