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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NFL Home Stretch: The AFC

Continued from yesterday's evaluation of the NFC.... Preseason comments in black; Week 14 remarks in blue.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens (9-3) – This is going to be a tough division with three tough teams, all with the potential to reach the playoffs. The Ravens came up three points, a dropped touchdown pass and a missed 32 yard field goal short of a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

Expect the same formula by Head Coach John Harbaugh with the benefit of an additional year of experience. The defense, led by ageless middle linebacker Ray Lewis, will be smothering. The offense will ground and pound the ball with running back Ray Rice. And quarterback Joe Flacco will do what it takes to give the team a chance to win. How much they have improved will depend on their execution in the playoffs.

I remarked, earlier in the season, that anything short of the AFC Championship Game for the Ravens would be a bitter disappointment, barring any major injuries to quarterback Joe Flacco or middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lo and behold, Lewis has a triceps injury that threatened to end his season.

But, super (outside) linebacker Terrell Suggs, like some kind of medical miracle, returns to the lineup months ahead of schedule. Now, Suggs is hurt again. I will certainly not write off this talented football team, but the injury situation has made the Houston Texans, not the Ravens, the team to beat in the AFC. 


Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) – The Steelers may have a few tender spots exposed with the retirement of wide receiver Hines Ward, some again in the secondary, and a few question marks in the running game. As long as Ben Roethlisberger remains healthy, though, the Steel Curtain is going to drop on the enemy more often than flop beneath their feet.

Pittsburgh saved its season with its come from behind, gutsy, inspired victory against the Ravens last Sunday. But the injury bug has bitten them too hard. No Ben Roethlisberger, no Troy Polamolu, and no Ike Taylor...no division title. How healthy they are in January will determine whether or not they can make any serious waves in the playoffs, if they reach the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) – This team has not strung together consecutive playoff appearances in 30 years. I expect 2012 to be no different. I do expect second year quarterback Andy Dalton to build upon his rookie year success and have the Bengals competitive in nearly all of their games. I expect the Bengals to finish 8-8 or better barring a rash of injuries. I simply think that “AFC Playoffs Town” isn’t big enough to accommodate Cincinnati in a very competitive AFC field.

Don't sleep on this team, winners of four straight with no glaring weaknesses. They are flying very quietly under the radar and getting very hot at the right time.

Cleveland Browns (4-8) – Like I said, there are three tough teams in the AFC North. The Browns aren’t one of them. Rookie running back Trent Richardson and 28 year old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden should fasten their seatbelts for a very bumpy ride in contrast to the smooth sailing they experienced at their top ten college programs (Alabama and Oklahoma State, respectively).

This team has a lot of heart, remaining competitive with a number of superior opponents until late in the game. They simply do not have the firepower needed to keep up with and close out the lions' share of NFL opponents. 

Ray Lewis is not bulletproof. Will it derail the Ravens season? 1

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans (11-1) – The Texans are the trendy, sexy pick in the AFC with good reason. First, barring a smattering of injuries across the board, they should coast to the AFC South championship. The division is just not that tough this year. Second they advanced to the second round of the playoffs in spite of losing All Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson for most of the season due to injury, Matt Schaub for the season (late in the season) due to a freak foot injury, and then backup QB Matt Leinart, who apparently fell off of the bench following Schaub’s injury (lost for the season the week after Schaub’s injury).

The Texans managed to win the South and beat the Bengals in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs under a rookie, third string quarterback in T.J. Yates. The prevailing thought, with which I agree, is if the Texans made such strides with a “next man up” personnel mantra, how far can they go with nearly all of the key players returning and everyone (on a young team) with a year more of experience?

To borrow a line from New Orleans rapper Baby Boy Da Prince, "Best team in the league, whatcha know 'bout 'dat?" Their secondary depth could be this team's kryptonite come playoff time. For now, however, the Texans appear to be coasting to the #1 seed in the AFC Playoffs.

Tennessee Titans (4-8) – I don’t expect the Titans to reach the playoffs, but this team has had a knack for pulling its talent together and overachieving. Second year quarterback Jake Locker was handed the keys to the Titans’ safe this season over veteran Matt Hasselbeck. I can only imagine that Locker made strides in the offseason as Hasselbeck had an injured and gutted Titans offense keeping the team alive in the playoff race much later in the season than expected. I expect the Titans to be a tough out, but an out nonetheless against the better teams in the AFC.

Their defense just plain sucks and will not improve with the current personnel. If I am Titans Coach Mike Munchak (assuming he is still the coach in 2013, and I think he deserves to be), I am using all of my draft picks on defensive players. Every...last...one.

Indianapolis Colts (8-4) – This team is a long way from returning to glory, but between the expectations and what little I have seen of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, I expect them to be a long way from being on the draft clock at the end of the season, too. This team has too many holes to make any real run at the postseason, no matter how well Luck performs. The running game is mediocre, the receiving core is just okay, and the defense was laughable last season. There are only so many new bodies the Colts could have brought in during the offseason to turn the Swiss Cheese D around in one year.

The Colts are about a year ahead of schedule in their rebuilding plan and quarterback Andrew Luck is the central reason. He has exceeded what some thought were unrealistically high expectations in his rookie year and has the Colts in the driver's seat for a playoff berth. Considering the coaching situation with Head Coach Chuck Pagano's leukemia and Bruce Arians' leadership as Interim Head Coach, the Colts are easily the feel good story of 2012. Their defense is going to be the death of them in the playoffs, I believe. But just suggesting that the Colts would have a playoff life to lose this season is remarkable.   


Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) – You can never judge the long term prospects of a quarterback based solely on his rookie year. That said, second year QB Blaine Gabbert did not show the world very much in his rookie year. His play was awful. The receiving corps us a collection of relative unknowns. The offensive line is unremarkable. And the new owner, Shad Khan, has ruffled the feathers of their best player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. This feels like a real life version of the movie Major League in which the owner sabotaged the team so it would tank and could justify moving. How does the ring of “Los Angeles Jaguars” sound?

Worst team in da league, whatcha know 'bout 'dat?

Could there be an easier vote for Coach of the Year?
AFC East

New England Patriots (9-3) – This is a team that typically does not rebuild; it reloads. After the protracted holdout of wide receiver Wes Welker and the loss of running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots set out to defend their AFC Championship and win their first Super Bowl in the post-Spygate era. The one constant that the Patriots can count on, assuming he is healthy, is quarterback Tom Brady. He will keep the Patriots in every game. The question is the defense and if it will hold water or be a leaky sieve like it was last season.

Should win the division...blah blah blah. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady...yada yada yada. Belichick is a great coach...yeah yeah. THEIR SECONDARY SUCKS! The competition in the AFC is about two steps up from last season. I do not expect a deep playoff run from this team.

New York Jets (5-7) – Just because I think the Jets will finish second in the division does not mean that I am confident that they will be good. The defense will be good. The offense could sink the team into the abyss.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez is not an elite NFL quarterback, He is a signal caller who can make plays when given the opportunity. Bringing in the biggest rock star backup QB in the history of pro football in Tim Tebow, failing to staff any quality receiving talent other than Santonio Holmes at wide receiver, and lacking any running backs whose names we would know if this team did not play in New York is not giving Sanchez any fair opportunity.

Every team needs a scapegoat and quarterback Mark Sanchez has risen to the role. That doesn't mean it is his fault. Mark Sanchez is not the problem. Coach Rex Ryan knows exactly what Sanchez is: a game manager. You have to protect him, you have to have competent receivers for him to throw to, you have to get your defense off of the field to increase your time of possession advantage to give a quarterback like Sanchez a chance to help your team win. The Jets have failed with "F minus" averages in all of these areas.

Interestingly, they are in second place as I expected. So are two other teams in this four team division.

Buffalo Bills (5-7) – You know this team has very little to look forward to when the wooing and acquiring of a defensive end, Mario Williams, with $50 million in guaranteed money is headline sports news for two weeks during the offseason. Buffalo has enough talent to beat the inferior teams and periodically sucker punch a superior opponent. Expect Williams to be flying back home, down south, for the winter with the geese.

Buffalo impresses me as a team that has taken very small baby steps since 2010. An 8-8 finish would be a man's step forward. Their running game is solved with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (2,471 yds., 20 TD, 12 INT, 61% comp.) is good enough to run the offense with the right pieces around him, like a better offensive line and a pass catching tight end.

The pass rush is good. The secondary is good. The linebackers are awful and the d-line cannot tackle opposing running backs. This team is a few pieces away from contending next season.

Miami Dolphins (5-7) – Hard Knocks is over and so are the Dolphins' 15 minutes in 2012. I will go as far to say that the Dolphins are on the clock.

The Dolphins finally found their quarterback to replace Dan Marino after his retirement following the 1999 season. Ryan Tannehill may have arrived 12 years later than needed, but what's past is past and the Dolphins have a bright future with this young man. As he matures and is allowed to do more with the offense, the Dolphins will be contending with the Patriots for the AFC East title. Like the Patriots, however, the Fins must do something about their embarrassingly porous secondary. Tannehill has loads of potential, but he is not good enough to make up for that glaring deficiency on his team like the New England quarterback. 

Here you go, ladies: Tom Terrific. Too bad he can't play defense. 3

AFC West

Denver Broncos (9-3) – This team managed to advance to the second round of the playoffs with the statistical equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s empty chair at quarterback last season. The sky is the limit with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning at the controls, assuming he stays healthy.

Peyton Manning is back and so are "your daddy's" Denver Broncos! Manning continues to get more comfortable in this offense and the Broncos are improving as a team every week. A trip to the AFC Championship game is becoming more of an expectation, this year, rather than a goal for this team.

San Diego Chargers (4-8) – The Chargers will put points on the board and pressure on every opponent every week because they have quarterback Philip Rivers and Head Coach Norv Turner. This team will not sniff the second round of the playoffs because they have Head Coach Norv Turner.

Head Coach Norv Turner's imminent firing is like returning an overdue library book and not paying the fine: the damage cannot be undone and nothing is being done to make up for it. Quarterback Philip Rivers has completely regressed without star wide receiver Vincent Jackson on the team anymore and without a potent running threat. Their game plan is predictable and can bee seen a mile away and the defense appears to have no foresight. Don't be surprised if the Bolts clean house after the season.

Oakland Raiders (3-9) – This team will be competitive within its division. The defense and and quarterback are great unknowns. First year Head Coach Dennis Allen was the defensive backs coach of the 2009 New Orleans Saints, a team with a secondary that helped the team lead the NFL in takeaways and scoring defense. Should some of that translate into this year’s Raiders defense, perhaps the Silver and Black can make the Broncos and Chargers sweat.

Can someone explain to me WHY General Manager Reggie McKenzie thought he was better off firing former Head Coach Hue Jackson, just a win away from returning this franchise to the playoffs for the first time in nine years, after the 2011 season? That explanation should be much more complicated than why current Head Coach Dennis Allen (or McKenzie himself) gets the ax, should that happen.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-10) – Romeo Crennel seems like a nice guy and a bright defensive mind. How is it that he has the misfortune of getting the booby prizes of coaching opportunities? His first NFL head coaching gig was in Cleveland and, miraculously guided the team to its best regular season record in 13 years, going 10-6 in 2007. Not so miraculously (one might say “expectedly” considering the fortune of Cleveland sports teams), the Browns 10-6 record, good enough to get teams to the playoffs 90% of the time (give or take), was in the unfortunate 10% that missed the postseason.

Crennel is getting a second shot after stopping a Chiefs free fall in 2011. I am just not convinced that he has the quarterback in Matt Cassel or the personnel to be successful quickly enough in today’s “What have you done for me lately?” NFL coaching landscape.

It is difficult to discuss football and the Kansas City Chiefs after the unspeakable tragedy that took place last Saturday, but this is a sports blog and this is an opinion on football. All I'll say is that I hope Head Coach Romeo Crennel gets a second full season, considering how bankrupt his team was at quarterback through no fault of Crennel's, heading into this season. 


Place kicker Sebastian Janikowski, left, and punter Shane Lechler, right. Any questions? 4

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1) Image from www.theteaent.com
2) Image from www.colts.com
3) Image from www.unbiasedwriter.com
4) Image from www.quickmeme.com

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