An AFC preview
By Adam Hoff
Well, it's been a rough year of predictions here at WIS Insider. My Titans over Eagles NFL pick wasn't awful last year, but neither team even made it to the title game. Over in the NBA, I went with Sacramento over New Orleans in what turned out to be one of the worst predictions ever made. And then there's baseball. While the season isn't over yet and my Cubs-Red Sox World Series pick is still possible, the rest of my guesses were awful. Let me just put it this way: I had the Mariners and Phillies as two of the best teams in baseball and I thought the Astros might win 100 games. Yeah, not too good.
So what does this mean? Only that I have clearly learned nothing from my past mistakes. Onward!
We're back around to football again, so that means it's time to take my best guesses at this sport of ultimate parity. We'll start with the AFC and tackle the NFC tomorrow.
New England Patriots. This has to be considered the best team in football. Keeping Ty Law was one of the biggest stories of the offseason that nobody talked about. He takes away an entire side of the field and allows Eugene Wilson to help on Tyrone Pool's side. It will be interesting to see how the new "no contact" rules affect the ultra-physical Law, but that goes for just about every corner in the league. I'll also be interested to see how Keith Traylor fits into New England's defensive scheme. At one time in Denver he looked like a future star. However, he's been mediocre the last couple of seasons. This is a big year for him and if he comes through, the Pats' defense could be even better than last year's version. Think of Traylor as Cam'ron of football. Killer Cam was one of the hottest rappers around in 2000, but then he put out back-to-back CD's that were just garbage (with the notable exception of "Hay Ma," which was outstanding). Now though, he's brought into a winning organization, Jay-Z's Rockafella label, and has a new chance to live up to his enormous potential. See, just like Traylor.
As good as the defense is, it is the offense that has me convinced New England is the favorite in the AFC. Brady is a stud at quarterback. The Montana comparisons and "he knows how to win" comments are great, but Brady has become more than just a steady hand and a clutch performer. He's an elite quarterback. He threw for over 3,600 yards with 23 touchdowns last year. I'll never understand how a reputable magazine such as Sports Illustrated could rank a guy like Jake Plummer ahead of Brady. What more does the guy have to do? Add in the steady maturation of young receivers like David Givens and Deion Branch and you're talking about a prolific passing game. And, of course, there is Dillon. For some reason, I get the feeling that people are viewing Dillon as a washed-up reclamation project. What? The guy is a beast. Forget about the bizarre '03-04 season in Cincinnati. Before that Dillon had averaged almost 1,300 yards per season and had missed a total of two games in his first six years. And now he's running behind a much better offensive line and playing for a great team. How is that not a monstrous upgrade over Antoine Smith?
Prognosis: I'm not going to go too crazy with the projected record. I think they'll lose their home opener to Indianapolis (just because it will get everyone all worked up and lead to the inevitable stories about the Colts taking over the power in the AFC) and get knocked off in at least two other contests (at KC and at NY Jets look like likely choices). I'll go with 12-4 and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
New York Jets. This is the team I have the best unsubstantiated gut feeling about for the upcoming season. They were a few breaks away from making a late, great run to the Super Bowl in 2003 and only sucked so badly last year because of the injury to Chad Pennington. Give this team a full season with their quarterback at the helm and good things are going to happen. Plus, with things going so badly for the Giants, it just feels like the Jets' year to own NY.
The Jets defense isn't very good; everyone knows this. However, I think that the new rules will help them. The reason? It will neutralize how bad their corners are. Other teams with physical and talented cover corners would have had a huge advantage over New York. However, if they really enforce these new receiver-friendly rules, the elite corners will come back to the pack a little bit. Because once you get past the cornerbacks, the Jets aren't that bad defensively. (Of course, the other day I mentioned that our garbage didn't smell that bad, so I'm not going to get carried away.)
Offensively, the Jets might be my favorite team in the conference. Chad Pennington doesn't get enough respect yet but after he throws for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns this season, that will change. Santana Moss and Justin McCareins provide the perfect speed/size combo at receiver, Anthony Becht is a solid tight end (and a real nice guy – I ran into him at the Long Island Marriott when I was out there on business last year and he was just a terrific person), and the Curtis Martin/LaMont Jordan should be able to get the job done at running back. I think they could lead the league in scoring.
Prognosis: I look for New York to catch everyone by surprise and run the table in their first five games (Cinci at home, at San Diego, at Miami, hosting Buffalo, and at San Fran) before they travel to New England in week seven (they have a bye in week three). With their favorable schedule and underrated offense, a surprising 11-5 season sounds about right.
Miami Dolphins. Everyone is ready to write off Miami now that Rickey has bailed, but I think it's a mistake. I think they will fall short of the playoffs, but by no means are they a 5-11, last place team either. For starters, they still have one of the best defenses in football. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain are dominant corners, Zach Thomas is one of the best middle linebackers in football, and Jason Taylor is a beast on the right end. This defense could easily be one of the five best in the NFL. And what wins games? What is that old adage? Oh, that's right ... defense wins.
Besides, they aren't awful on the offensive side of the ball. Okay, maybe they are. But who knows how things are going to turn out? I actually thought they were too predictable and boring with Rickey at running back. Too conservative. Jay Fiedler is a gritty quarterback with two big targets in Chris Chambers and Marty Booker. If Travis Minor, who averaged 4.7 yards a carry last year in a backup role, or Sammy Morris can be even decent (or if Miami can acquire a better tailback), the offense should be able to do just enough to win. (By the way, the guy that Miami should try to trade for is Greg Jones of Jacksonville. That guy is a monster just waiting to erupt as an every-down back. Then again, with Fred Taylor's trick hamstring ready to snap at any moment, the Jags probably aren't too keen to trade him.)
Prognosis: I don't really get all of the doomsday talk in Miami. They have a murderous schedule out of the gate that will keep them from reaching the playoffs (they play the Titans, Patriots, Rams, and the Jets [twice] in the first eight games), but an 8-8 season seems likely. I think they'll surprise some people.
Buffalo Bills. I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm reducing my summaries for each team as I sink lower in the standings. Two reasons for this: 1) I don't like to write about the bad teams (or, at least, the teams I think will be bad) as much, and 2) this thing is headed toward 5,000 words and I can't let that happen. So we'll just say this about the Bills: Bledsoe is pretty much done, two talented running backs (McGahee and Henry) are screwed because they've been placed in a Jamal Crawford-Kirk Hinrich pseudo feud, Eric Moulds and Lee Evans are both injury risks at wide receiver, and the defense is aging and limited. I like Henry if they would just leave him alone and let him be the guy at tailback and I like the addition of Troy Vincent in the secondary. However, I don't like the Bills.
Prognosis: Chalk them up for 5-11. You read that right.
Baltimore Ravens. Make no mistake; just because I have the Ravens sitting atop the division, it doesn't mean I think they are all that good. I just happen to think the division sucks. Nevertheless, I was extremely hard on the Ravens last year and wound up being really wrong. I'm not making the same mistake twice. With Jamal Lewis running the ball and a terrific defense (I love Ed Reed) snuffing out the opposition, they will win a whole bunch of 17-10 games.
Prognosis: Toss in a relatively easy schedule and this team looks like a lock to cruise to the playoffs. Let's say 10-6. One caveat here though: if Jamal Lewis winds up in prison for being a drug kingpin, they're done. Not even this defense can carry an offense led by Kyle Boller, Kevin Johnson, Travis Taylor, and Musa Smith. I'm sorry. I mean, I like Todd Heap as much as the next guy, but be serious. Jamal is the Lewis that makes this team go. (Note to Ray: Please don't come stomp on my head for writing that.)
Pittsburgh Steelers. This could be the upset team of the AFC in the same way that Young Buck's debut album being better than Lloyd Banks' was the upset of the summer. (Quick clarification: Banks is the far superior rapper, he just got shafted on the beats.) With depth in the backfield, talent at wide receiver, experience on defense, and a favorable schedule, the Steelers could easily put everything together and wind up going 10-6 and making the playoffs. Of course, that's could. I'm not actually picking it to happen. Not as long as Tommy Maddox is the quarterback. But the point is, things are looking up. James Farrior, Joey Porter, and Kendrell Bell make up my favorite linebacker trio in the conference, Duce Staley is the perfect running back for this team, and Hines Ward is one of the most underrated receivers in the game. If Pittsburgh would just hand the team over to rookie Ben Roethlisberger and teach Plaxico how to play, they would be the team to beat in this division by next year. We'll see how they play it.
Prognosis: There are too many things that have to go right for this team to make the playoffs. Still, I think they'll get back to their winning ways. I'm putting them down for 9-7.
Cincinnati Bengals. A lot people like this team to make the playoffs. I'd be right there with them had they just kept Jon Kitna in place as the starting quarterback. Instead, they are going with golden boy Carson Palmer. Taking a step back to hopefully take a bigger step forward down the road. I've got no qualms with that. However, if the Bengals are 3-5 at the halfway mark, the good people of Cincinnati might feel differently. They'd better preach patience in Cinci, because a team built around Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and Peter Warrick is going to be very good and very exciting in a few years ... as long as they make it there intact.
Prognosis: They will struggle early as Palmer gets the feel. By the time they find their rhythm, this conference will have left them in the dust. I've got them down for a 7-9 season.
Cleveland Browns. Yuck. They say if you don't have something nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all. So I won't.
Prognosis: 4-12 and the end of the Butch Davis era.
Indianapolis. This is going to be a brutal division this year and I think I like the Colts to win the South. The offense is going to be even better now that Edge James is healthy (and in a contract year), Dallas Clark is emerging, and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne will be running routes free and clear. Manning should be able to just sit back and pick people apart. If Dwayne Freeney and Mike Doss can come into their own this year and make this a top-10 defense, Indy might have a shot at getting past New England. If nothing else, they'll be exciting to watch and have something to say about fantasy leagues championships everywhere.
Prognosis: I think they go 11-5 and grab both a bye and home field advantage for their first playoff game.
Tennessee Titans. First of all, their placement at #2 has nothing to do with the loss of Eddie George. I've always respected George, but they are far better off with Chris Brown at running back. In fact, I remember the first time I ever watched Brown in a big game. It was that huge slaughter/upset that Colorado laid on Nebraska in November of 2001. He was unbelievable. Granted, the holes he was running through were as wide as most swimming pools, but it was the strength and explosiveness that struck me. I'm not sure what the world thinks of him, but I'm putting him down for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first full season. What worries me about Tennessee is health. McNair is always an injury waiting to happen. Young stud receiver Tyrone Calico injured both knees in the preseason. The defense is thin. Plus, they are trying to fill Jevon Kearse's shoes with rookie Antwan Odom. How is that going to work? Ultimately though, this is a winning team that goes about things in an efficient way. They will find a way to win no matter what.
Prognosis: 11-5, but they lose the division because Indy sweeps the season series.
Jacksonville Jaguars. I want to be a big fan of this team. If Fred Taylor stays healthy, I do think they go .500. However, if he tears another hammy and all the pressure goes on Byron Leftwich, they'll plummet. Their defense has big play ability and is a great fantasy sleeper, but it looks like they will give up points. They're the opposite of the "bend but don't break" style employed by the likes of the Eagles and the Titans. I think the Jags are a poor man's version of the Vikings, defensively. The only way they can even sniff the playoffs is to keep Taylor healthy, see Leftwich progress like crazy, and get huge returns on rookie wideout Reggie Williams. If those things don't happen, they'll get buried. The conference is too deep and the division too tough for anything less than perfect in Jacksonville.
Prognosis: Negative. (I had to slip that in as a Seinfeld homage. Remember the episode when they are trying to go to the movie theatre to watch "Prognosis Negative"? Classic.) Seriously, I think that while things are generally moving in the right direction in Jacksonville, the Jags and their fans will suffer through a 7-9 season of moral victories. The division is just too strong and the early schedule too tough (they get Denver, Tennessee, and Indy in the first five games).
Houston Texans. Never mind that they have the worst nickname in all of sports. This team is moving in the right direction as well, but they just don't have enough yet. They'll lose a bunch of close games, pull off some upsets, and generally be a decent team to watch. They certainly have some rising stars on offense. David Carr and Andre Johnson are on their way to being one of the best QB-WR combos in the game. With an enormous offensive line (tackles are 6'7" and 6'8") giving Carr more time to throw, they should hook up for at least 1,100 yards and 10 scores. The guy I'm not sure about is Domanick Davis. He burst on the scene last year to give my fantasy team a big boost and he's come out this season promising to run for 2,000 yards, but I still have my doubts. For starters, he was never really a dominant back at LSU. Additionally, teams were giving Houston the run last year to prevent the deep bombs to Johnson and Corey Bradford. How many seven-yard gains did Davis get running draw plays on second and 17? Top it all off with the fact that former Georgia Tech stud Tony Hollings is lurking as the backup and I just get the sneaking suspicion that Dom D isn't going to get his 2,000. Then again, I never thought Ashlee Simpson would go platinum in one week either.
Prognosis: I can't see this team winning the tough games yet. Luckily, there are only two of those in the first five weeks. If they can get out of the gates at 3-2, maybe they can make a run at .500. I'm going to play it a little more conservatively at 6-10.
Kansas City Chiefs. When it comes to the Chiefs, you have to ask the million-dollar question: have they fixed that defense? Underachieving defensive tackle Lional Dalton is the only newcomer to the unit, so on the surface the answer is no. They've got a new coordinator and are going with new schemes, but I don't think they have the players. Nevertheless, with the firepower they've got on offense, they should roll to a playoff spot. Trent Green is sure and steady in the pocket, the trio of Eddie Kennison, Dante Hall, and Tony Gonzalez provides a diverse collection of targets, and Priest Holmes is the best all-around player in the game. All he did last year was run for 1,420 yards and score 27 touchdowns. Wow.
Prognosis: It's actually kind of a boring team to discuss. Obviously they have enough talent to make the playoffs. However, it also seems obvious that they can't win it all with this defense. Why didn't they do more to fix the D? I'm going with 11-5 in the regular season and an early out in the playoffs.
Denver Broncos. Remember when the AFC West was the best division in football? Wasn't that like two years ago? Now I don't even have the wildcard coming out of the west. While the Broncos still field a competitive team capable of making the playoffs, I'm leaving them on the outside looking in. I've got a couple of reasons for this: 1) A lot of my friends are huge Broncos fans, so this should make them more than a little irritated. 2) Until Darius Watts establishes himself as a game-breaking wideout, I can't really get behind a team boasting Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie as the starting wide receivers. 3) The offensive line is incredible in the Mile High City, but Clinton Portis was still a special back and impossible to replace with the guys they've got. It's easy to look at the Davis-Gary-Anderson-Portis progression of 1,000-yard rushers and assume it's merely the system and the line getting it done. There is some truth to that, but ask anybody in the NFL if Portis is anything like Olandis Gary or Mike Anderson. Or Quentin Griffin or Tatum Bell. They will miss Portis badly. How badly is what will dictate whether they make the playoffs or not.
Prognosis: Although the defense has improved with Champ Bailey, John Lynch, and rookie D.J. Williams (man, Miami had some incredible players), I think that this team will get stuck in a transitional year. They are waiting for Plummer to get fully acclimated, for a young back to emerge, and for Watts or Lelie to become an elite receiver. I don't see all that happening in one year. I've got them going 10-6 and losing out on a playoff spot by the slimmest of margins. The schedule is very favorable though, so I'll probably be wrong.
Oakland Raiders. Man, this team got bad in a hurry. Rich Gannon went from an MVP candidate to dog meat in a matter of months. It wouldn't surprise me to see Kerry Collins starting by midseason. Tyrone Wheatley has never been a big-time NFL back and I'm going to assume that he won't suddenly evolve now. And his backup, Justin Fargas, couldn't even start at USC ... back when USC had the worst rushing offense in college football. The only hope is with the receivers. Jerry Rice may have one last gem in him and Jerry Porter is a budding start that simply needs to stay healthy. Maybe if they can get Gannon flinging the ball around again, they'll score some points. They'll need to, because the defense is a ragtag collection of aging stars and overpriced head cases (Rudd, Sapp, Ray Buchanan), with the notable exception of their fantastic cornerback duo of Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon.
Prognosis: I've never liked the Raiders, so it gives me no displeasure to slate them for a nice 6-10 season.
San Diego Chargers. Does this sum it up? LaDainian Tomlinson = good. Chargers = bad.
Prognosis: LT amassed 2,370 total yards and 17 touchdowns last year, yet San Diego still lost 12 games. Is there any reason to think things will improve? That's what I thought. We'll give them 3-13 and hope that they start wearing those powder blue uniforms more often.
Jets over Chiefs – New York's precision passing game will riddle the Chief's D the same way Manning and the Colts did last year.
Ravens over Titans – B-More shuts down young Chris Brown and gets revenge for the Titans' recent victories in the series.
Patriots over Ravens – In best game of the playoffs, the Pats hold off the red-hot Ravens as Brady engineers the game-winning drive. (You have to have some fun with these, right?)
Jets over Colts – In the upset of the postseason, Pennington out-Manning's Manning and New York drills Indy by two touchdowns. More questions await the Colts and Tony Dungy in the long offseason.
AFC Championship Game.
Patriots over Jets – I hate to pick the prohibitive favorite, but there's a decent chance that the "J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!" could miss the playoffs all together. The last thing I want to do is pick a team that might not even be there. So to cover both my gut feeling and common sense, we'll say that the Pats win on a field goal late. Again.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer's Association. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.