Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The AFC 2008

From the Cheeseheads to the Hogs. From "Squish The Fish!" to "J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS!" From "Da Bears" to "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!" Football is back.

So let's not waste any more time and dive right in and take a look at what should be heading our way this season.

New England Patriots:
Seriously. They got undefeated until the Super Bowl and they get the easiest schedule in the league? What the heck?
Well, can't complain because the Pats are back with Brady, Moss, Welker, Maroney and not a whole lot of weaknesses of the offensive side of the ball. The line is a little dinged up and the secondary is a work in progress. But if that's it, they should wake Belichek when the playoffs start.

New York Jets:
See $140 million does get you something. it gets you to second in your division. And maybe a 9-7 record.
The Jets, who were suffering a talent dearth last year, went out and shored up some holes in their team with owner Woody Johnson's E-Z Spendaroo wallet. The result is a team, that while better, still doesn't yet frighten the be-jee-bus out of anyone. Farve should be fine, and the linebackers—better suited to the 3-4 Mangini likes, should be able to attack more. But more than 9 wins is hard to see.

Buffalo Bills:
The Buffalo—not Toronto, yet—Bills are easy to like. They have a lot of young talent at skill positions, and their defense should be rebolstered with Marcus Stroud coming in to man the middle and Paul Posluszny returning from injury to take over at MLB. The draft treated them well, with both a top flight CB and WR there waiting for them on the first day, but their starting left tackle Jason Peters, a holdout, hasn't had contact with the Bills in quite a while. Not a good sign. If they can avoid the preposterous amount of injuries that killed them last season, the Bills should be a pain in the butt for any team to face.

Miami Dolphins:
Wow. The turnaround has begun already. Not to say the Dolphins will win 14 games. But already there is hope. Last year's offense, ranked 28th in yards from scrimmage has a promising new look, in draftees, Jake Long, Philip Merling and Donald Thomas, free agents Justin Smiley, Jason Ferguson and Chad Pennington, and continued growth from players such as Ted Ginn, Matt Roth and Samson Satele. And most of all, with guys like Parcells and Sparano at the helm, the team knows, that while they might not win a lot now, there's a plan. And it's probably a good one.

Pittsburgh Steelers:
This is where the Steelers have been projected for many a year now, and should be again. but there are cracks showing. An aging secondary, a suddenly shaky offensive line. However, some of the mainstays of Steeler football, a dominant running game—including rookie Rashard Mendenhall, loads of ferocious linebackers, including second year men Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, and of course, QB Ben Roethlisberger, remain. And that's enough to win the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns:
The Browns are the sexy, fan-pick for the AFC North. And there are reasons to like them. A potential Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in Derek Anderson, a bigger up front defensive line in Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. Then why aren't we picking them? For one, depth. The Browns don't have a lot of it. The Browns are one injury away from starting 12-year veteran Terry Cousin up against Hines Ward or T.J. Housmanzadah. And behind Williams and Rogers are remnants of the 27th ranked rush defense. Combine that with the fact that last year's Easy-bake Oven schedule gets a heck of a lot harder this year (starting with a game against the Cowboys and including games at Jacksonville and Philadelphia and home against Indianapolis, and the Giants), makes us conclude that the Browns will be good, but not quite there yet.

Cincinnati Bengals:
Anybody feel good about the Bengals this year—raise your hands. Anybody? Even the usual solid offensive line is leaky. Free agent Lamar Odom, signed to provide some semblance of a pass rush is injured. Rudi Johnson, spent rehabbing injuries and looked ready to return as the player from 2006, was cut as was longtime RT Willie Anderson. Despite a rededication to high-character players, the Bengals took Anthony Collins and Jason Shirley, two problem children, in the draft. And we haven't mentioned the off-season of Chad Ocho Cinco.
All in all, there is talent in Cincinnati—lots when you consider the WRs corp, the CB corp, rookie Keith Rivers and QB Caron Palmer—but there's no cohesion. No plan. And that means a barely .500 season.

Baltimore Ravens:
It's called rebuilding. And when Kyle Boller being out for the year is cause for concern, you know you're rebuilding.
An aging defense, with Ray Lewis, Trevor Pryce and Chris McAlister all on the wrong side of their careers, and an unremarkable offense that is retooling on the fly and doesn't scare anyone too much, mean Charm City will feel the pains of—that word again—rebuilding.
There's still talent here. Kelly Gregg—one of my favorite players—anchors a tough defensive line, and Todd Heap is an underrated TE. But there's not enough to seriously contend.

Jacksonville Jaguars:
Make no mistake. The Jags are hunting colts.
When their first two draft picks, including one they traded up almost 20 spots to nab, are athletic rush-the-QB-like-your-butt-is-on-fire players, you know the Jags are taking a page from the Giant playbook.
Jacksonville also went out and signed Jerry Porter (who is still injured, though) and Drayton Florence to help. With these new additions, and with Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, and—let's not forget—David Garrard, he of the 3 interceptions in all of 2007, this is shaping up to be the year, the Jaguars finally make the kill on the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts:
Too many injuries, too many defections, too many guns sighting on your head.
Don't get me wrong. The Colts are still a supity-duper elite team. Manning, Clark, Freeney, Wayne, Harrison, Sanders...heck. They have superstars everywhere. Then what gives with the 2nd place finish?
Frankly, injuries. Sanders still hasn't practiced. Manning started practicing like, half an hour ago. Jeff Saturday is out for a while on what is already a reshuffled offensive line. Are Freeney and Mathis ready to rush the passers? What about Harrison? What about linebacker Tyjuan Hagler?
They won't slip much. But it's enough for the Jaguars to take over the AFC South, for now.

Tennessee Titans:
They're partying like it's 2002 in Nashville.
How else do you explain bringing back DE Javon Kearse, coach Mike Heimerdinger and WR Justin McCareins and calling it your off-season moves?
Granted, the defense, led by uber-mensch Kyle Vander Bosch, didn't need a whole lot of help, as they were ranked fifth last year in total defense. But the offense. Peeee-yew.
Unexplainably popular quarterback, Vince Young threw twice as many interceptions as he threw touchdowns. The Titans wide receivers, as a group, caught 8 touchdowns last season, or 15 less than Randy Moss. So of course, the Titans went out and got....Justin McCareins? In the draft, instead of taking a top wide receiver, the Titans take a running back, to add to the 5th best rushing attack. What the......?
Far be it from me to question the plan here. But it sure is hard to see.

Houston Texans:
Dang. The AFC South. Really stinks to be here.
That's what the Texans must be saying . Because while they have made improvements—on both sides of the ball—its still only good enough for fourth place in the division.
Mario Williams had 14 1/2 sacks last year. Matt Schaub was 6th in the conference last year in QB rating, ahead of Carson Palmer and Derek Anderson. Andre Johnson—who averaged 95 yds per game, 1st in the league—Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels each caught more than 60 passes and Andre Davis averaged 17.7 yds per catch, third best in the league. Demarco Ryans had 128 tackles, good for 6th in the league.
No matter. It's the Texans tough luck they play in the same division as the Colts, jaguars and Titans. Sorry.

San Diego Chargers:
Just like its the Texans bad luck they play in the AFC South, its the Chargers dumb luck they play in the AFC west. Does anybody really think the Broncos, Raiders or Chiefs can compete with Ladainian Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie, Shaun Phillips, Antonio Gates, Jamal Williams, and Philip Rivers. Now, the Chargers are dinged up. Shawn Merriman is playing with a PCL tear, Luis Castillo is hurt still with a sore back and bad ankles and there is still a brace on Phillip Rivers right knee. Still, even dinged up, the Chargers are the class of the AFC West. no doubt.

Denver Broncos:
Imagine feeling relieved to find out you have diabetes.
That's exactly how Jay Cutler felt after last season—a season that saw him lose 30 pounds of weight, not to mention his stamina and his zip on passes. However, Cutler has gotten on a regimen where he has gained his weight back and says he feels fine.
Despite all this, the problem with the Broncos come on the other side of the ball, where the Broncos did little to improve on a rush defense that ranked 29th in the league. They are depending on Dewayne Robertson and his balky knees and Marcus Thomas, recently arrested after previously being kicked off the Florida Gator football team. Neither is a serious beast in the trenches. Boss Bailey and Nate Webster join D. J. Williams to make up the linebacking corp.
Not horrible, but not a group that keeps opposing coaches up at night. However, in the same division as the Raiders and Chiefs—its good enough for 2nd place.

Oakland Raiders:
The Raiders have a great running back corp. 1st round pick Darren McFadden, has been electric in his collegiate career. Add him to Justin Fargas and last year's number 2 pick, Michael Bush and that's a dynamic group. Too bad no one will block for them, where signee/retread wame Harris and Cornell Green make up the bookends to an unimpressive group.
Then there's recent free agent signee Javon Walker, whom coach Lane Kiffen has already criticized repeatedly for his lackadaisical approach. And noted malcontent DeAngelo Hall has contributed with his gripes as well. Neither has played a down yet with the Raiders.
The defensive side of the ball looks better where the Raiders have a talented set of linebackers and cornerbacks. But they might be on the field a long, long time. Figure the Raiders to draft early and often next year in the 2009 draft.

Kansas City Chiefs:
It's gonna get worse before it gets better.
Figure in a team that went 4-12 last year. Take away their best player. Add in some rookies who get injured in the preseason, a quarterback who nobody knows if he can play, an offensive line that probably can't protect him, and an opening day game against the New England Patriots. And you got the makings of a long season.
But there is hope. The Chiefs do have a talented, albeit young roster. Dwayne Bowe had a terrific rookie season, Tambi Hall, who takes over for Jarod Allen, had 15 1/2 sacks his first two seasons and should only get better now that Glenn Dorsey is playing next to him.
Add to this Brandon Flowers, Jarrod Page and big-time running back (although big running lanes might be few and far between) Larry Johnson, and the Chiefs might be exciting. If not very good.

Tomorrow: The NFC.

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