AFC Divisional Preview
By Nick Sullivan
As the start of the NFL season approaches, the American Football Conference, better known as the AFC, comes into form. The New England Patriots came out of the AFC last season and won Super Bowl LI in a thrilling comeback over the NFC’s Atlanta Falcons. The AFC promises to be extremely competitive again this season, with new contenders with young talent, like the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans, begin to dethrone traditional top dogs, such as the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens. Which teams will rise to the top of their division and look to make playoff runs in 2018? Which favorites may falter? Which sleepers will exceed expectations? Look no further for the answers to these questions and more.
The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East since 2001, winning the division in all but two seasons. The Patriots are once again favored to win the otherwise very weak AFC East. They comes into the 2017-2018 season fresh off their fifth Super Bowl title and bolstered their resume with fantastic offseason acquisitions Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore, Kony Ealy, and Mike Gillislee. Cooks is expected to stretch the field for hall-of-fame quarterback Tom Brady, which will allow short-yardage receivers such as Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and RB James White to operate across the middle and in the flats. Although star WR Julian Edelman is out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in a preseason game, TE Rob Gronkowski is healthy and poised to return to all-pro form. The Patriots defense remains solid as they were first in opponent’s points per game in 2016 (16.4).
The remaining AFC East teams have their problems. The Dolphins were looking for a second consecutive playoff berth, until QB Ryan Tannehill went down with a season-ending injury. Miami brought in veteran QB Jay Cutler, but it is unclear how Cutler will fit in the offense and if he can be successful. RB Jay Ajayi and WR Jarvis Landry are perhaps the only positives in an organization whose defense also struggled in 2016, ranked 29th in opponent’s yards per game (382.6).
The Buffalo Bills enter the 2017-2018 season with an aire of mediocrity. A middle-of-the-pack defense joins an offense that will have trouble moving the ball. QB Tyrod Taylor has a weak receiving core that will only make it harder for star RB Lesean Mccoy to run the ball effectively as opponents will key in on the run. The fifth hardest schedule in the league will not help the Bill’s chances.
The New York Jets do not have much going for them. A 3-way QB battle will be the highlight of the Jets offense all-season and one of the weakest receiving cores in the entire league will not help. The eighth hardest schedule in the league spells doom for the Jets.
New England Patriots:
- Head Coach: Bill Belichick
- 2016 Record: 14-2
- Key Arrival: WR Brandin Cooks (Also: CB Stephon Gilmore, DE Kony Ealy, RB Mike Gillislee)
- Key Departure: CB Logan Ryan
- Big Games: 9/7 vs Chiefs (8:30), 10/22 vs Falcons (8:30), 11/19 @ Raiders (4:25), 12/17 @ Steelers (4:25)
- Head Coach: Adam Gase
- 2016 Record: 10-6
- Key Arrival: LB Lawrence Timmons (Also: QB Jay Cutler)
- Key Departure: DE Mario Williams
- Big Games: 10/15 @ Falcons (1:00), 10/26 @ Ravens (8:25), 11/26 @ Patriots (1:00), 12/24 @ Chiefs (1:00)
New York Jets:
- Head Coach: Todd Bowles
- 2016 Record: 5-11
- Key Arrival: CB Morris Claiborne (Also: K Chandler Catanzaro)
- Key Departure: WR Brandon Marshall
- Big Games: 9/17 @ Raiders (4:05), 10/15 vs Patriots (1:00), 12/3 vs Chiefs (1:00), 12/10 @ Denver (4:05)
- Head Coach: Sean McDermott
- 2016 Record: 7-9
- Key Arrival: CB Micah Hyde (Also: WR Anquan Boldin)
- Key Departure: CB Stephon Gilmore
- Big Games: 9/17 @ Panthers (1:00), 10/1 @ Atlanta (1:00), 11/26 @ Chiefs (1:00), 12/24 @ Patriots (1:00)
The AFC North remains a competitive division for the most part. The Pittsburgh Steelers earned a berth to the AFC Championship game last season and look to return and make their first Super Bowl appearance since 2011. The Steelers boast perhaps the best offense in the league with weapons QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Leveon Bell, and WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. The offense is explosive and can move the ball with the best offenses in the league as they ranked seventh in yards per game in 2016 (372.9). A defense that seems to lose its strength a little more after every season can still support playoff hopes for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cincinnati Bengals have hung around the playoff bubble for years out of the AFC North. QB Andy Dalton mans the helm for the Bengals who have weapons RB Jeremy Hill and WR AJ Green. A slightly above average offense, 13th in yards per game in 2016, mixed with a slightly below average defense, 17th in yards against per game, keeps the Bengals from being a top-dog in the AFC. The fourth easiest schedule in the league makes the Bengals a viable playoff contender.
The Baltimore Ravens are similar to the Bengals in their playoff stature, a contender. QB Joe Flacco is an above-average NFL play-caller who has a three-headed monster at running back with Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West, and Danny Woodhead, and deep threats at WR in Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin. It’s a bit of a new look Ravens offense that ranked only 21st in points per game in 2016 (21.4). The seventh ranked defense and an easy schedule (.461 opponents win percentage in 2016) helps the cause for the Ravens.
The Cleveland Browns enter another rebuilding year. As the perennial worst team in the league, the Browns will struggle to find offense and therefore wins.
- Head Coach: Marvin Lewis
- 2016 Record: 6-9-1
- Key Arrival: RB Joe Mixon (Also: LB Kevin Minter)
- Key Departure: LT Andrew Whitworth (Also: LG Kevin Zeitler)
- Big Games: 9/24 @ Packers (4:25), 10/22 @ Steelers (1:00), 11/12 @ Titans (1:00), 11/19 @ Broncos (4:25)
- Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
- 2016 Record: 11-5
- Key Arrival: DE Tyson Alualu (Also: RB Knile Davis)
- Key Departure: LB Lawrence Timmons
- Big Games: 10/15 @ Chiefs (4:25), 11/26 vs Packers (8:30), 12/4 @ Bengals (8:30), 12/17 vs Patriots (4:25)
- Head Coach: John Harbaugh
- 2016 Record: 8-8
- Key Arrival: S Tony Jefferson (Also: TE Larry Donnell, DB Brandon Carr, DB Brandon Boykin)
- Key Departure: RT Ricky Wagner
- Big Games: 9/10 @ Bengals (1:00), 10/1 vs Steelers (1:00), 10/8 @ Raiders (4:05), 11/19 @ Packers (1:00)
- Head Coach: Hue Jackson
- 2016 Record: 1-15
- Key Arrival: LG Kevin Zeitler (Also: DE Myles Garrett, DB Jason Mccourty)
- Key Departure: WR Terrelle Pryor
- Big Games: 9/10 vs Steelers (1:00), 10/15 @ Texans (1:00), 12/10 vs Packers (1:00), 12/31 @ Steelers (1:00)
The AFC South is a relatively weak division in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts are the projected front runner in the AFC South, with QB Andrew Luck finally healthy and ready to lead a solid offense. RB Frank Gore and WR T.Y. Hilton are the main weapons for Luck who looks to cement himself as an elite NFL quarterback. A below average defense (22nd in ppg allowed, 30th in ypg allowed) inhibits the Colts from making a deep playoff run, but the easiest schedule in the NFL makes them the favorite in the AFC South.
The Tennessee Titans enter the 2017-2018 season with a lot of promise. The Titans were a legitimate playoff contender in 2016 until Marcus Mariota broke his fibula in week 16. The Titans have plenty of young talent, including QB Marcus Mariota, RB Derrick Henry, and WR Rishard Matthews. Veterans RB Demarco Murray and WR Eric Decker should help a Tennessee offense that should be tops in the NFL. The second easiest schedule in the league will help the 20th ranked Titans defense.
The Houston Texans will have a strange season with Hurricane Harvey affecting the city. A QB battle between Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson should be decided early, but the battle could affect the success of the passing game as chemistry with the receiving core will not be at a premium. WR Deandre Hopkins is a top-5 NFL receiver and Lamar Miller is a top-10 RB, but the uncertain quarterback situation could spell trouble for the Houston offense. However, the Texans boast the #1 ranked defense in yards against per game last season, led by DE JJ Watt and OLB Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans also have the sixth easiest schedule in the NFL which will allow them to compete for an AFC South title.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will struggle again in 2017. The Jags investment in QB Blake Bortles has not panned out, as Bortles has only 11 wins in his career after three seasons. The Jaguars have few offensive weapons to help Bortles other than WR Allen Robinson and a defense that ranked 25th in points allowed per game in 2016.
- Head Coach: Chuck Pagano
- 2016 Record: 8-8
- Key Arrival: DT Johnathan Hankins (Also: LB Jon Bostic, RB Robert Turbin, LB Jabaal Sheard)
- Key Departure: SS Mike Adams
- Big Games: 9/17 vs Cardinals (1:00), 10/1 @ Seahawks (8:30), 11/12 vs Steelers (1:00), 12/23 @ Ravens (4:30)
- Head Coach: Mike Mularkey
- 2016 Record: 9-7
- Key Arrival: CB Logan Ryan (Also: CB Adoree’ Jackson)
- Key Departure: CB Jason McCourty
- Big Games: 9/10 vs Raiders (1:00), 9/24 vs Seahawks (4:05), 11/16 @ Steelers (8:25), 12/10 @ Cardinals (4:05)
- Head Coach: Bill O’Brien
- 2016 Record: 9-7
- Key Arrival: DB Marcus Gilchrist (Also: LB Sio Moore, RB Jordan Todman)
- Key Departure: CB A.J. Bouye
- Big Games: 9/24 @ Patriots (1:00), 10/8 vs Chiefs (8:30), 10/29 @ Seahawks (4:05), 12/25 vs Steelers (4:30)
- Head Coach: Doug Marrone
- 2016 Record: 3-13
- Key Arrival: CB A.J Bouye (Also: DE Calais Campbell)
- Key Departure: SS Jonathan Cyprien
- Big Games: 9/10 @ Texans (1:00), 10/8 @ Steelers (1:00), 11/26 @ Cardinals (4:25), 12/10 vs Seahawks (1:00)
Unlike the AFC South, the AFC West is perhaps the most competitive division in football. The division is led by the Oakland Raiders, who are finally ready to compete for an AFC Championship and berth into the Super Bowl. The Raiders have invested in QB Derek Carr and it has worked, as Carr boasts an impressive 81-31 career TD/INT ratio. The Raiders also added the final piece to their offensive puzzle with the arrival of RB Marshawn Lynch to an running attack that was already sixth in yards per game in 2016. WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree will also cause trouble for defenses. A middle-of-the-road Oakland defense and the fourth toughest schedule in the NFL are the only negatives for the promising Oakland Raiders.
The Denver Broncos are still trying to find their new identity after the departure of Peyton Manning and their Super Bowl win in 2015. QBs Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch unsuccessfully attempted to fill Manning’s shoes last season, even with Manning’s weapons of RB C.J. Anderson, WR Demaryius Thomas, and WR Emmanuel Sanders still present. The Broncos have the toughest schedule in the NFL, but the fourth ranked defense from 2016. If the Broncos can find a reliable QB, they are a legitimate wild-card contender.
The Kansas City Chiefs captured the #2 seed in the 2017 NFL Playoffs, but fell in a disappointing home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game. The Chiefs are all-around extremely solid. Led by veteran QB Alex Smith who rarely turns the ball over and makes great decisions, the running and receiving cores are young but promising and include playmaker WR Tyreek Hill. The Kansas City Chiefs also have the seventh ranked scoring defense in the NFL, which makes them a dangerous playoff team.
The Los Angeles Chargers are up against a lot in the competitive AFC West. They are objectively not a bad NFL team led by veteran QB Philip Rivers and top-5 RB Melvin Gordon, but they have the third toughest schedule in the NFL and have to play the Chiefs, Broncos, and Raiders two times each. The Chargers do not stack up to the competition in the AFC West, especially with their 29th ranked scoring defense.
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio
2016 Record: 12-4
Key Arrival: TE Jared Cook (Also: QB EJ Manuel, WR Cordarrelle Patterson)
Key Departure: RB Latavius Murray
Big Games: 10/1 @ Broncos (4:25), 10/19 vs Chiefs (8:25), 11/19 vs Patriots (4:25), 12/17 vs Cowboys (8:30)
Head Coach: Vance Joseph
2016 Record: 9-7
Key Arrival: LG Ronald Leary (Also: RB Stevan Ridley, RB Jamaal Charles))
Key Departure: OLB Demarcus Ware
Big Games: 9/17 vs Cowboys (4:25), 10/1 vs Raiders (4:25), 10/30 @ Chiefs (8:30), 11/12 vs Patriots (8:30)
Kansas City Chiefs:
Head Coach: Andy Reid
2016 Record: 12-4
Key Arrival: DT Bennie Logan (Also: TE Gavin Escobar)
Key Departure: DT Dontari Poe
Big Games: 9/7 @ Patriots (8:30), 10/15 vs Steelers (4:25), 10/19 @ Raiders (8:25), 11/5 @ Cowboys (4:25)
Los Angeles Chargers:
Head Coach: Anthony Lynn
2016 Record: 5-11
Key Arrival: LT Andrew Whitworth (Also: T Russell Okung)
Key Departure: WR Kenny Britt
Big Games: 9/11 @ Broncos (10:20), 10/15 @ Raiders (4:25), 10/29 @ Patriots (1:00), 11/23 @ Cowboys (4:30)
- Patriots: 14-2
- Miami: 7-9
- Bills: 7-9
- Jets: 4-12
- Steelers: 10-6
- Ravens: 9-7
- Bengals: 8-8
- Browns: 1-15
- Colts: 9-7
- Titans: 9-7
- Texans: 6-10
- Jaguars: 3-13
- Raiders: 13-3
- Chiefs: 11-5
- Broncos: 8-8
- Chargers: 5-11
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