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The Blue & Gray Press | April 23, 2017

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NFL Preview – AFC

By Zach Moretti

WR Santonio Holmes’ touchdown catch late in the 4th quarter won the Steelers their record sixth Super Bowl. But can Pittsburgh repeat as champs this season?

Courtesy of Associated Press

Last week was the first part of the NFL preview where the NFC was covered. This week the AFC is on tap, so lets get to it.

AFC East
1) New England Patriots- Tom Brady’s 2008 season was over after only 7 minutes and 33 seconds. Now Brady is back, and looks to revert back to his 2007 form when he threw 50 touchdowns. He still has a great offensive line to protect him and dynamic receivers to throw to in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The defense will have plenty of new faces, as they replace three starters in the secondary and they just traded star DE Richard Seymour. But big names have come and gone on the defense before and the unit hasn’t suffered. Look for head coach Bill Belichick to lead New England to another AFC East title and possibly a Super Bowl.

2) Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins had a dream year in 2008 as they rebounded from a 1-15 season to win the AFC East. The big news offensively for Miami last year was the “Wildcat” offense and it should be interesting to see how that develops this season. Regardless, QB Chad Pennington will be the teams play caller and once again he leads a respectable offense. The running game should be the focal point of their offense with RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams sharing the load. The Dolphins have a solid defense with a good pass rush led by LB Joey Porter and a solid secondary directed by CB Will Allen. However, look for Miami to come back down to earth this year and miss the playoffs.

3) New York Jets- New head coach Rex Ryan is regarded as a great defensive mind and he has talent to work with on this team. They have an outstanding secondary with two elite CBs in Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard, a stellar linbacking corps built around Bart Scott and David Harris, and a beast in the middle of their defensive line in DT Kris Jenkins. The problem lies on the offense where they are starting a rookie QB in Mark Sanchez. Rookie quarterbacks really tend to struggle their first years (Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are exceptions) and it’s hard to see the Jets succeeding this year with him at the helm. RB Thomas Jones is still a solid weapon and the explosive Leon Washington is also in the mix, so the ground game should be good. The Jets may not be a playoff team this year, but they are a team to watch out for in 2010.

4) Buffalo Bills- The mayor of Buffalo gave new WR Terrell Owens the key to the city and in return asked for 10 touchdown catches and a playoff berth for the Bills in 2009. That’s what you call wishful thinking on the part of the mayor. Buffalo didn’t have enough confidence in their offense to keep their offensive coordinator around for the regular season debut and while Owens could be a nice complement to WR Lee Evans, he is already experiencing toe problems. QB Trent Edwards is nothing more than a decent NFL QB and star RB Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games of the year. Their defense isn’t bad and has some talented pieces, specifically DT Marcus Stroud and DE Aaron Schobel. But the Bills will be an average team at best and the mayor will be asking Owens for that key back.

AFC South
1) Indianapolis Colts- Indianapolis may have a new head coach running things, but they still have QB Peyton Manning. Manning will have playmakers to work with in the passing game with WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and young WR Anthony Gonzalez. The rushing attack should improve from last year, when RB Joseph Addai was hampered with injuries. The team drafted RB Donald Brown in the first round of the NFL draft to help keep Addai fresh and healthy and the pair should put up solid numbers. The defense always seems to be a question mark in Indy. SS Bob Sanders is talented, but still sidelined with a knee injury. The team has two good DEs in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and they should put constant pressure on opposing QBs. The Colts are a solid team and should retake the thrown as AFC South champs.

2) Tennessee Titans- This team’s strength is still their defense, but that group has taken a step back from 2008. Tennessee lost star DT Albert Haynesworth in free agency and their defensive line is pretty old as a whole. Veteran Keith Bulluck is part of a solid group of linebackers and the secondary is very strong with two returning Pro Bowlers in CB Cortland Finnegan and SS Chris Hope. The offense is run-heavy and they have two backs that complement each other very well in Chris Johnson and LenDale White. QB Kerry Collins was a Pro Bowl selection last year, but don’t let that fool you. The Titans are very limited in the passing game, and at age 36 it’s fair to question whether or not Collins will be able to stay healthy. The Titans are still good and will be in the mix for a playoff berth, but they won’t be able to repeat atop the AFC South.

3) Houston Texans- The Texans have the talent to be one of the top three offenses in the NFL. For that to happen though, QB Matt Schaub has to stay healthy. Schaub’s top target will be WR Andre Johnson, who is one of the best receivers no one talks about, but he also has WR Kevin Walter coming off a very good season along with emerging TE Owen Daniels. Houston’s ground game is nothing to sneeze at either, with the explosive RB Steve Slaton leading the charge. The defense isn’t stellar, but they do have two blue chippers in DE Mario Williams and LB DeMeco Ryans. Houston is similar to the New Orleans Saints in that their defense only has to be decent for them to win games because they have such a prolific offense. Look for the Texans to be in the in contention for a Wild Card spot come December.

4) Jacksonville Jaguars- The best player on this team is unquestionably RB Maurice Jones-Drew and he looks at a bigger role this season with the departure of RB Fred Taylor. But despite how talented Jones-Drew is, defenses will stack seven and eight guys in the box to stuff the run if QB David Garrard and the passing game can’t make plays. The Jags added WR Tory Holt to help their passing attack and LT Tra Thomas was signed to help boost the offensive line. The team also selected offensive lineman with their first and second round picks in the NFL draft to try and further address that weakness. On defense they still have stud DT John Henderson and the secondary is solid shape with shut down CB Rashean Mathis and FS Reggie Nelson. But overall this team just isn’t good enough, especially in this tough division.

AFC North
1) Pittsburgh Steelers- The Steelers look to defend their crown and they will once again be led by a superb defense. LB James Harrison won NFL defensive player of the year in 2008 and the defense also touts perennial all-pro safety Troy Polamalu. The signal caller is once again QB Ben Roethlisberger, but Pittsburgh should continue to be a run oriented team with RBs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall splitting carries. The offensive line struggled last season and they need to do a better job protecting Roethlisberger to prevent him from taking so many big hits. But if the defending Super Bowl champs stay healthy, they should repeat atop the AFC North and contend for another Lombardi trophy.

2) Baltimore Ravens- Baltimore is similar to Pittsburgh in that the team is built around a great defense. DT Haloti Ngata stuffs the run, LB Terrell Suggs racks up sacks, FS Ed Reed is a big playmaker in the secondary, and LB Ray Lewis tackles anything in sight. The reigns to the offense will belong to second year QB Joe Flacco, but again like Pittsburgh, the team will play primarily a grind-it-out running style. RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee should get a bulk of the carries and the team upgraded along the offensive line to help protect their young QB and open up holes for their backs. Baltimore is a solid team and they should certainly be in the playoff mix.

3) Cincinnati Bengals- WR Chad Ochocinco is confident in his team this year as he guaranteed that the Bengals would make the playoffs. That may be a little much, but there is certainly more room for optimism in Cincinnati this season now that fans see QB Carson Palmer healthy. Ochocinco will try to rebound from a terrible season last year and he will have even more pressure on him now with the departure of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. RB Cedric Benson was solid last season and should provide a decent ground game. The defense is a problem as they have no blue chippers and thus will have to rely on a lot of unknowns to get the job done. This team can return to respectability if Palmer can stay healthy, but the playoffs seem to be a reach.

4) Cleveland Browns- Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson? That is the question most Browns fans have for new head coach Eric Mangini, yet Mangini is keeping his decision on the opening day starting QB under wraps. Whichever one he goes with, they will not have a lot to work worth. WR Braylon Edwards is their best offensive weapon, but he struggled last year. The team parted ways with talented TE Kellen Winslow and RB Jamal Lewis is well past his prime. On defense, big DT Shaun Rogers and LB D’Qwell Jackson anchor the team in the middle. They should be OK defensively but will struggle on offense and won’t win many games as a result.

AFC West
1) San Diego Chargers- QB Phillip Rivers came into his own last season and became a superstar. He is once again at the helm of what should be a dynamic offensive attack. Rivers has one of the top TEs in the league at his disposal in Antonio Gates along with an emerging star in WR Vincent Jackson. The ground game will be carried by RB LaDainian Tomlinson and the future Hall of Famer is out to prove he still has some left in the tank. The defense will look to rebound from a bad season, but the return of LB Shawne Merriman and the improved health of CB Antonio Cromartie should help their cause. The Chargers are in a very weak division and they should run away with the West and have their eyes on a Super Bowl.

2) Denver Broncos- New head coach Josh McDaniels has made a lot of changes since he arrived in Denver. Unhappy franchise QB Jay Cutler was shipped to Chicago and Kyle Orton is now McDaniels man. Orton comes into a good situation offensively as WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal are the best weapons he’s ever had. The Marshall fiasco has calmed and now it seems he isn’t being traded anywhere so he can just go play football. Rookie RB Knowshon Moreno is extremely talented and should help improve the ground game once he returns from injury. On defense the team still has one of the best CBs in the league in Champ Bailey and LB D.J. Williams is a tackling machine, but they don’t have much outside of that. The Broncos won’t be very good this year, but someone has to finish second in this bad division.

3) Oakland Raiders- Oakland owner Al Davis must think that QB JaMarcus Russell is indeed a franchise QB as the team released veteran backup Jeff Garcia. If the Raiders are going to improve, they need Russell to take the next step in his development and young RB Darren McFadden to stay healthy and be the explosive back they think he can be. The defense actually has a lot to like. They have the best CB in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, a great LB in Kirk Morrison, and they just traded to acquire DE Richard Seymour from the Patriots. The Raiders are in a very weak division, so it’s plausible that they could finish second, but the playoffs are not in sight.

4) Kansas City Chiefs- New QB Matt Cassel is already hurt, RB Larry Johnson still hasn’t recovered from his 416 carries in 2006, and WR Dwayne Bowe was dropped to the third string offense earlier this off-season because his coaches questioned his work ethic. On top of all that the Chiefs fired their offensive coordinator just weeks before the opening game. Kansas City has so many bad things going on right now that there is just very little to like. The defense is getting younger and has some talented pieces that can develop in the coming years, but they aren’t there yet. This team won’t be very good this year, and we’ll just leave it at that.

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