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Thursday, September 5, 2013

NFL Preview 2013 – AFC

Yesterday we discussed the NFC. Now for the other half of the NFL as we return to football tonight! Teams are listed by division in expected order of finish.

Trivial side note: this is The Daily Hat Trick's 1,000th posting. Thanks for reading!!!


Cincinnati Bengals – Cincinnati has been quietly building up for a serious Super Bowl run for the past two seasons. The next step is to win the division and I think they are ready to do it. Andy Dalton manages a game as efficiently as any good NFL quarterback. The defense is very solid and underrated, in my opinion. The backfield, with rookie Giovani Bernard and the "Law Firm" of Benjarvis Green-Ellis is going to be an extremely difficult 1-2 punch to defend. And Head Coach Marvin Lewis is due.

Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers missing the playoffs is...odd. That is exactly what happened last season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back and healthy, as healthy as he will ever be. Losing running back Rashard Mendenhall to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency in the offseason was significant. I'm not sold on Isaac Redman or rookie Le'Veon Bell (who is out for Week 1 with a foot injury) at tailback. The running game has to improve for a team with the Steelers' smash mouth identity (and no more Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace) to compete with the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens in 2013.

Baltimore Ravens – The defending Super Bowl champions lost a lot of players this past offseason to free agency, trades, or retirement. Examples include a couple of future Hall of Famers - linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed - safety Bernard Pollard, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and a host of other talented, standout players. Super Bowl XLVII MVP quarterback Joe Flacco is going to have to earn his record contract this year. I simply think the Ravens had too many departures to be the force in the AFC that they were last season.

Cleveland Browns – To borrow a little Family Guy shtick.... There's the opening kickoff...and the season's over!

Chloe Call, Giovani Bernard's girlfriend might be in for a treat as a first-year NFL WAG (Wives And Girlfriends).


Houston Texans – When? When is this team going to live up to all of the potential that we can clearly see? The Texans have had two carbon copy seasons: division titles, first round wins at home over the Bengals, and humbling second round losses. The only thing getting in the way of the Houston Texans making a deep playoff run is the Houston Texans.

It starts with quarterback Matt Schaub and it ends with a defense that gave up too many critical, ill-timed plays last season. The addition of safety Ed Reed, assuming he is healthy, might be what pushes this team to the next level. Their window is starting to close. It may be 2013 or bust for the Texans' Super Bowl prospects in the near future.

Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck was impressive in his rookie year. The Colts exceeded all expectations as they went from the worst team in the league in 2011 to an 11-5 playoff team last season. Luck needs to take better care of the football if the Colts are going to wrestle the AFC South title back from the two time defending division champion Texans. The addition of running back Ahmad Bradshaw should give Indy some power running and short yardage potency and boost what was an anemic running game last season.

The big question mark was the defense. They could not stop the run and did not put much pressure on the quarterback, especially late in games. The Colts drafted several defensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft, including pass rusher Bjoern Werner out of Florida State. His speed makes him a perfect fit in the Colts' 3-4 scheme. Adding Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry to the secondary will also provide a huge boost. I am not clear, however, about how the leadership vacuum left by the departure of All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney will impact the defensive unit.

Tennessee Titans – Tennessee could fly under the radar and make some noise in 2013. They've beefed up their defense substantially, adding enforcer Bernard Pollard at safety for example, and have a host of young players with another year of experience under their belts. The real keys to the Titans' success under third year Head Coach Mike Munchak, however, is staying healthy, Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson getting off to a fast start, and quarterback Jake Locker stepping his game up in his third season. The latter is critical.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Here's a haiku...ahem!

The Jaguars are trash
They really stink so badly
Corpses smell better

The Texans need Andre Johnson to find the end zone more than he did last year. Johnson had 112 receptions, but only four for touchdowns in 2012. 2
AFC East

New England Patriots – The Patriots will run away with the division, but not because they are so good. The rest of the division is that bad. The Pats have some serious problems for a team that is expected to contend for the Super Bowl every year. Wide receiver Wes Welker is gone, run off by management to the Denver Broncos and quarterback Tom Brady's rival/nemesis, Peyton Manning. Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail and probably not coming out...ever. Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski might miss a fourth of the season or more. Versatile scat-back Danny Woodhead went to find greener pastures in San Diego. The Patriots are probably going to win a very bad division. I don't see a Super Bowl run this season.

Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins have a chance to make the Patriots sweat a little in 2013. The X factors are the development of second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and how well he meshes with prize free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace. In addition, second year left tackle Jonathan Martin has some huge shoes to fill following the departure of All-Pro Jake Long to the St. Louis Rams. Picking up former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes from the Atlanta Falcons in free agency should help what was a porous pass secondary last year. Still, this team is taking baby steps, rather than quantum leaps. A 9-7 season under second year Head Coach Joe Philbin would be a smashing success, but an 8-8 finish is more likely.

Buffalo Bills – What can go wrong will go wrong. The Bills drafted quarterback E.J. Manuel out of Florida State in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft knowing that he would have a lot of developing to do. For that reason, the Bills wisely brought in veteran Kevin Kolb to ease Manuel's transition to the NFL. Then Kolb suffered a serious, potentially career ending concussion in the preseason. It is going to be a fast and furious introduction to the league for the rookie and probably going to be a very long year in Buffalo.

New York Jets – The Rex Ryan circus is grinding to a close in the Big Apple. The good news for the Jets is that they are the front runner in the Jadaveon Clowney sweepstakes; they're on the clock. The bad news for Head Coach Rex Ryan is that he won't be in New York to reap the benefits. This is going to end badly. Mark Sanchez is not an All-Pro, but he gave Ryan the chance to win the most possible games.

What happened? Rex Ryan went "Rex Ryan" and put his first string quarterback behind a second string offensive line in the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason finale that led to Sanchez injuring his shoulder. At least Ryan only needs to look in the mirror to figure out who is responsible for his demise.

Can you believe this is the same guy just three years ago? What the hell happened?

AFC West

Denver Broncos – It is Super Bowl or bust for Peyton Manning and the Broncos this year. They are the front runners, coming off of a bitterly disappointing end to their 2012 season with a double-overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens last January. Simply put: the AFC is Denver's to lose in 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs – I don't think I can overstate how much the trade for quarterback Alex Smith from the San Francisco 49ers is going to help this team. This team has talented players. Running back Jamaal Charles and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe are potential Pro Bowlers every year. However, they were completely bankrupt at the QB position last year. The additions of rookie Eric Fisher out of Central Michigan at right tackle and rookie running back Knile Davis out of Arkansas will offer protection and backfield depth that the Chiefs sorely lacked last year.

The biggest upgrade? At Head Coach, hiring Andy Reid, with an NFC Championship and five NFC Championship Game appearances on his resume. They were 2-14 last year. This is not a 2-14 team this year.

San Diego Chargers – This is a career defining year for quarterback Philip Rivers. He appeared to take a big step backwards last year, other offensive personnel issues notwithstanding. The bad news is that the Bolts did not make major waves in free agency and wide receiver depth is still an issue. They added rookie Keenan Allen out of California, but released Robert Meachem in large part for salary reasons. Eddie Royal was a woeful underachiever in 2012 and is suffering from a bruised lung from an injury in preseason. Royal will probably play in Week 1, but Rivers has his work cut out for him.

The Chargers' defense was already respectable and adding former All-Pro Dwight Freeney and rookie middle linebacker and Heisman finalist Manti Te'o out of Notre Dame can only help. It all points back to Rivers and the offense. Can he rally this team and overcome the team's pass catching shortcomings?

Oakland Raiders – Terrelle Pryor is starting at quarterback for the Raiders this year. That wasn't the plan when they acquired Matt Flynn from the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason. That, of course, was necessitated because Carson Palmer asked to get out of town on the next available train, a wise choice.

The Raiders looked completely hapless on defense in the preseason. Just because the games didn't count doesn't mean that they didn't matter. Everything about this team is a mess. Expect Head Coach Dennis Allen to be circulating his resume after this season is over.

Pretty much.... 1
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