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2011 NFL Preview: Jets, Patriots, Steelers Among AFC Elite

Mark Sanchez hanging his head after throwing his fifth interception versus the Buffalo Bills. (Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger)

Here’s a look at the AFC this upcoming season as we bring you from No. 16 to No. 1.

Is it the Draft yet?

16. Cincinnati Bengals

For starters, Carson Palmer is not playing, but even if he was playing, I’m not so sure they wouldn’t be ranked at the bottom of the league anyway. The Bengals have a whole lot of issues: Cedric Benson’s jail sentence, and most importantly Andy Dalton looks to be starting Week 1 throwing to an inexperienced group of wide-receivers, yikes. They are a decent defensive team, but one has to wonder if they’ll be able to score enough points to even compete on most Sundays.

15. Denver Broncos

The Broncos were dead last in NFL in points allowed per game (29.4). They allowed a whopping 390.8 yards per game, also last in the NFL. The Broncos brought in a defensive-minded coach, John Fox, to try and solve their defensive woes. The hire of Fox coupled with second overall pick Von Miller are an upgrade defensively but it’s hard to envision getting them much better than last year’s horrendous defense. The offense can do some nice things; Kyle Orton to Brandon Lloyd is a good combination, but their lack of a consistent running game isn’t going to help their defense stay off the field. A bad defense and bad running game are not a good recipe for success.

14. Buffalo Bills

I like Ryan Fitzpatrick. That doesn’t mean he’s a great quarterback, but he’s gutsy and is capable of winning you a game or two by himself. The defense was not very good last year (that’s an understatement), and the loss of Paul Posluszny isn’t going to help matters. There may be a lot riding on the Week 16 when the Bills host the Broncos. By a lot riding on that game, I mean the loser will likely get a higher draft pick when April comes along.

Teams on the Decline

13. Jacksonville Jaguars

Let’s be frank, the Jaguars were lucky to contend for the AFC South crown last year, they were outscored by 66 points for the season. Even with a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew, I still don’t see the Jaguars contending for the division this year. They don’t play defense particularly well, nor do they throw the ball very well. They rely so heavily on MJD and I’m just not sure how much heavy lifting he can do with a bad wheel.  Don’t be shocked if you see quarterback of the future, Blaine Gabbert, start some games for the Jags this year.

12. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins were the pioneers of the pro-style Wildcat offense. Chief Wildcat operator, Ronnie Brown, has relocated to Philly to back up McCoy. Trading for Reggie Bush was a gamble, but there is a lot of upside in the move. We’ve all seen the highlight reels and we know what Reggie Bush is capable of, in college at least. Can he do it as a pro? There are certainly promising signs last year for the Saints, prior to his injury. He was beginning to run more North-South, running with more of an attitude. A big year from Bush can help Chad Henne a great deal, especially given his receiving prowess. In the end, I simply do not trust Henne.

The Pretenders

11. Tennessee Titans

They just re-signed Chris Johnson to a 4-year, $53.5 million deal ($30 million guaranteed). They also added veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, which was a smart and good move. It’s clear that the Titans believe they can compete this year but also have an eye on the future, as they drafted Jake Locker in the first round. The Titans can contend for the AFC South title, but they’ll need the 2009 version of Chris Johnson to do so. Missing all of training camp and so far, most of preseason could either help him or hurt him late in the season. Their pass defense has not been very good the last two years, which is a far cry from the 2008 unit that held teams’ under 200 yards a game in the air. The only teams worse defensively against the pass last year were the Patriots, Redskins, and Texans.

10. Oakland Raiders

They were the second best rushing team in the NFL in 2010 (155.9 yards per game), led by the two-headed monster of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. The problem is they are limited at quarterback with Jason Campbell. While they have an improved defense, there are serious question marks about their secondary. After watching them get shredded by the Saints, where receivers were running wide open all over the field, we need to seriously consider whether letting Tom Cable go was the right move. Particularly troubling was the play of the safeties: Michael Huff at this point is a complete bust and Tyvon Branch isn’t known for his coverage skills. They also haven’t addressed the departure of Nnamdi Asomugha either. Along with a relatively quiet draft, it looks like all the progress they Raiders made last year has come to a halt this year.

In With the New, Out With the Old

9. Cleveland Browns

Call me a believer in Colt McCoy, yes, I’d admit to that. There’s more to Cleveland’s projected success than just confidence in their young quarterback. Taking a quick look at the schedule and you can see them competing and possibly winning every game besides at Indy, and the four games vs. Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Of course, they are the Browns and are equally likely to lose any of those other 11 games as well. But did I mention, I’m a big fan of the new West Coast offense they’re running in Cleveland; it fits McCoy’s toolset like a glove. No one’s ever going to mistake him for having a cannon for an arm, but he is very precise and accurate. Every year some team comes out of seemingly nowhere has a good year, and this year my pick is the Cleveland Browns. I can see them finishing 8-8 or 9-7.

8. Indianapolis Colts

First, Peyton Manning’s injury concerns me. I don’t care that he got taken off the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list recently. Their run defense is atrocious. They got torched on the ground by the Redskins, led by Tim Hightower, and the Rams in their first two preseason games, not exactly elite rushing teams. They had a bounce-back effort against the Packers in their last preseason game, but not even Colts fan can have confidence in their run defense coming into 2011-12. Look no further than the two games Arian Foster had against the Colts (48 rushes for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns). This brings us to my pick to win the AFC South…

7. Houston Texans

This isn’t an overreaction to their 3-1 preseason. The division is completely wide open, the Colts have dominated for years but as I’ve said before, Manning’s injury concerns me enough to pick the Texans to win the South. People have been raving about their offense for years, rightfully so, and I think this is the year they piece it all together and finally overtake the Colts. The chips seem to all be in place for the Texans to win the division (feels like we say this every year).  The difference might be that the Texans got the Dolphins, while the Colts make their seemingly annual trip to Foxboro. When teams are this close, a single game makes a huge difference. The defense has not gotten any better, but they have the ability to outscore anyone.

The Contenders

6. Kansas City Chiefs

Why are the Chiefs ranked sixth and listed as contenders but will fail to make the playoffs? Simply because they are better than any team the AFC South has to offer. Ten wins will likely not be enough for a wildcard. So it’s up to the Chiefs and Chargers to battle for the division. The Chiefs may be a better team than last year, but they beat one team with a winning record last year. I like the addition of Steve Breaston, which gives Matt Cassell another option alongside Dwayne Bowe, and the running game led by Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones is very good. The defense also is very solid but the Chargers are simply the better team.  The Chiefs are a very good young, up and coming team, but the schedule just looks too daunting for them to overcome. Success this season should not be equated with making the playoffs, but with the continual development of Matt Cassell. They’re going to need him to contend in the West going forward.

5. Baltimore Ravens

I think we learned a lot last year about the Ravens. One, the defense isn’t what it once was. The defense is still capable dominating in spurts, especially when Ed Reed is healthy and playing, but largely, the defense looks old, a shell of the polarizing defenses of Ravens past. Particularly troubling is that their fourth quarter defense was poor last year. The blew a 15-point lead on the Texans, a 10-point lead on the Bills (though they won in OT both times), and a 7-point lead on the Patriots (they lost that one). Their season ended by blowing a 14-point halftime lead against their bitter rivals, the Steelers. That being said, they still finished third in the league in points against (16.9).

The second thing we learned about the Ravens is either Joe Flacco isn’t that good of a quarterback, or Anquan Boldin isn’t that good of a wide receiver, or both. I don’t know for sure what the answer is, but I tend to lean towards Flacco because Boldin has put up some monster seasons playing with Kurt Warner in Arizona. It’s a big reason why they Ravens are blowing these second half leads. The offense is not putting together enough long drives to keep the defense off the field in the second half. At the end of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore Divisional Round game, the defense of the Ravens looked absolutely gassed. If the Ravens want to win a title, Flacco and Boldin need to get in sync because with the departure of Heap and Mason, Flacco is going to need a new go-to target under duress.

The Elite

4. New York Jets

The difference between teams in this category and the teams prior is one thing; teams here dominate on at least one side of the ball. The Jets return pretty much the same team as the year before, substituting Braylon Edwards for Plaxico Burress. Expect to see a lot of Shonn Greene this year; he’ll be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Jets. They have an elite defense, featuring possibly the best secondary in football. That being said, ultimately what it comes down to for the Jets will be Mark Sanchez. He needs to shed the “game managing” label and elevate his game. He’s entering his third year in the year and in the modern age, a passing league, you need a quarterback to win you games, not manage them. Can he lead this team to a Super Bowl? I say yes. Will he? I wouldn’t bet on it, contrary to what Rex Ryan may think.

3. San Diego Chargers

With Vincent Jackson back for a full season, and Antonio Gates and Ryan Matthews healthy, there’s no reason to think that Philip Rivers won’t have an MVP caliber season. Recent history has shown that you can ride a hot quarterback to a Super Bowl title. The Chargers allowed the least amount of yards per game last year (271.6) and they were largely undone by their often comically bad special teams. It’s more of a coaching problem and less of a personnel problem, and I expect the coaches to work diligently to correct the problem. If the Chargers decide to actually show up for the first five weeks of the season, they should be 4-1 heading their Week 6 bye, and should have enough to win the division.

2. New England Patriots

Yes Chad Johnson, or Ochocinco, is on the decline, but if Tom Brady can revive the career of Deion Branch, there’s every reason to believe Johnson too can have a big year. We all know what Brady is capable of-he’s mainly the reason why the Patriots are ranked so high on this list. The problem with the Patriots is their defense. They have a young core, and although I liked the trade for Albert Haynesworth, it’s really difficult to predict what you’re going to get from him. The positive is the defense is talented, if it can improve and play above league average, the Patriots have a shot at another ring.

The Favorite

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

For starters, I don’t expect the Steelers to get the #1 seed in the playoffs. These rankings are based on which team has the best chance to win the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh is the best team in the league. They have a balanced offense with Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, and Rashad Mendenhall. They also have the leagues’s premiere defense. They can simply beat you in so many different ways. They are a team built for the playoffs, dominant defense, good running game, and a clutch, proven fourth quarter quarterback.

About A Lee

I'm as happy as the Mets, Knicks, Lions, and Devils allow me to be.

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    Posted by Sports of New York | September 5, 2011, 4:12 pm

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