Column: RICK SOLEM
The Broncos are good. The Jets are bad. J.J. Watt's a beast. Montee Ball could be. And Ray Lewis isn't around anymore to dance ... on the field anyway. What's the over/under on him doing it in studio, two weeks?
Here are my predictions for the AFC divisions this season. The hardest part of picking was who would be the surprise team and who would take a dive this season, since it seems to always happen.
AFC East 2012
This division may have the conference’s best and worst team. The Jets aren’t even worth talking about. Go listen/watch ESPN if you want J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets talk, because for some reason, they keep reporting on them.
There’s some talk the Dolphins make the jump, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t there yet. Everything in Miami is just OK. Maybe they make a jump, but not a leap.
The Bills are close to becoming a threat, and it looks like E.J. Manuel will start Week 1, instead of undrafted rookie, Jeff Tuel, who was 4-22 at Washington State.
The expectation for Manuel is to be the next Colin Kaepernick-Russell Wilson-Robert Griffin III. That’s a lofty expectation, but, then again, those three were spectacular last year. Upsetting the Patriots isn’t out of the cards here. C.J. Spiller is the real deal.
And the Patriots offense seemingly lost everything except Tom Brady. Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, gone. Aaron Hernandez, yikes. Rob Gronkowski is coming off four offseason surgeries, but he didn’t go on the PUP list, so maybe he’s back by Week 2 or 3.
What the Patriots do bring, aside from Tom Brady – who will make names of Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thomkins and Zach Sudfeld - is a stellar offensive line, running game and a defense that’s just good enough in this division.
Winner: New England.
AFC North 2012
The heart of the Ravens, Lewis, is gone. The Ravens return an almost different team that won the Super Bowl. The defense may be better – even with losing Lewis and Ed Reed. The offense could struggle with the loss of Dennis Pitta (injured for year) and Anquan Boldin (traded). They really only have Ray Rice to lean on.
In a way, Rice got them into the playoffs with his fourth-and-29 conversion that led to a 16-13 win in Week 12. Baltimore went on to lose four of the last five before their run to the title.
Two things have been synonymous with the Steelers: Defense and a running game. Last year, Pittsburgh had neither of those.
And the Steelers haven’t really been a smash-mouth run team since Ben Roethlisberger took over. They’re more a "three-wide team" than "run it down your throat." Hard to say whether that will change with rookie Le’Veon Bell injured. The Steelers will be hard-pressed to be better than 8-8 again this year.
Cleveland isn’t winning the division either. Not with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. It’s a shame, too, because everything else seems to be in place.
The Bengals also have everything in place, and are a little better at QB with redhead Andy Dalton. He’s the key. The defense may be the best in the league. A.J. Green may be the most consistent WR in the AFC. And the one-two punch of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard could be a dominant out of the backfield.
AFC South 2012
The obvious sleeper – if there were ever such a phrase - here would be the Colts, who made the playoffs under rookie Andrew Luck. And the offense could be better, but I think Reggie Wayne shows how old he is this year and the running game doesn’t thrive with Ahmad Bradshaw.
The problem won’t be the offense, however, as much as it will be the defense. The Colts gave up more points than they scored last season, yet went 11-5. That doesn’t happen again.
The Jaguars are hardly worth talking about, but Maurice Jones-Drew is back, Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon – when he returns from suspension – are as solid as any pair of WRs in the league. Maybe Blaine Gabbert isn’t as awful as everyone thinks. But the defense still is, and that’s why the Jaguars won’t improve much from 2-14.
The Titans aren’t a whole lot different from the Jags. A young QB with question marks. A franchise RB. New faces on the OL. And no defense. But that’s no rip on Caledonia, MN native Karl Klug, a third-year pro who had seven sacks his rookie season.
That leaves, of course, the Texans, who are all but handed the division. But that’s not to say they’re not for real. The defense sure is. Waukesha, Wis. native J.J. Watt had 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks last year. And the offense has some of the best weapons in the NFL. Houston could easily represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
They do, however, have to play Seattle and San Francisco in back-to-back games in Weeks 4-5, along with New England and Denver near the end of the season. Good thing they play in the AFC South, along with Oakland on the schedule.
AFC West 2012
The Broncos could be the AFC version of the Packers.
A ridiculous passing game led by a Hall of Fame QB (Peyton Manning), three outstanding wide receivers (Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker) and a running game looking for a rookie to take over (former Badger Montee Ball).
Ball may not be the starter yet, but he may be the difference for this team soon enough. There's a reason he is the all-time leader in the NCAA for TDs (83).
The Broncos also may be like the Packers on the other side of the ball – in a bad way. They might not be as good as advertised.
Denver lost 11 sacks in Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens and Von Miller (18.5 sacks) is suspended for the first six games. Champ Bailey is old and already missing the first game of the season. Luckily, Denver has Manning … and the Raiders on the schedule … twice.
The Raiders are also hardly worth mentioning. Terrelle Pryor should be running the show, but that’s no rip on Matt Flynn. Pryor will just be better at running from defenders when nobody is open.
Nobody is high on the Chargers, but I have a feeling they could surprise. Somebody always does.
While Denver is the AFC version of Green Bay, Philip Rivers could be the Jay Cutler of the conference. And I mean that in that he’s the biggest whiner.
That said, he could also be one of the best QBs in the league again with help. Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Brown could be solid on the outside and Antonio Gates may have one more year in him.
And, maybe, just maybe, Ryan Matthews has another breakout season. I know, you can’t have two breakout seasons, really, but we can make an exception for Matthews. He had more broken collarbones than TDs last year.
He’s only two years removed from his 1,000-yard season where he averaged 4.9 yards.
I think it's the Chargers, but a lot of people like the Chiefs to surprise. New coach (Andy Reid). New QB (Alex Smith). And Jamal Charles.
I don’t think it happens, though.