AFC Division Preview

AFC Division Preview

AFC Division Preview
By Marc Lawrence
Playbook.com

In an ominous survey of NFL players arrested since the Super Bowl, as we head into the 2013 season, the good news for the AFC is they lead the NFC - by a thumbprint.

That’s because, as of August 10th, of the 35 players booked by the police in that span, the scorecard read: NFC 18, AFC 17. This compliments of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s NFL Arrests database.

Flash: this just in ... Denver LB Von Miller’s arrest on August 11 evened the score at 18-18.

The most famous of all, unfortunately, was Aaron Hernandez, the 29th player to be arrested for his role in a murder in Connecticut. As a result, Tom Brady and the Patriots find themselves short-handed of receivers, a dilemma of which leaves New England head coach Bill Belichick working overtime as he prepares to defend the AFC East division title.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens not only find themselves with a Super Bowl Bull’s-eye on their back but must also overcome a roster which find’s many of their heroes missing from last year’s squad.
The Houston Texans will look to take advantage with Vegas posting a season win total of 10.5, two wins more than the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.

The AFC West finds the Denver Broncos with the highest season win-total, 11.5, in the NFL this season. The question begs whether coaching changes in Kansas City and San Diego will thwart Peyton Manning’s return to the postseason.

In closing on a good note it’s positive that, according to Jay Leno, crime in the city of Los Angeles is actually down. "We are proud to say that Los Angeles has one of the lowest crime rates of any major city. You know why? We don't have an NFL team."

Ouch.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

AFC East Division

BUFFALO


Team Theme: HEADLINES IN THE MAKING

The last time Buffalo enjoyed a winning season, a typhoon ripped through a cemetery, leaving hundreds dead, while a ring of debris was found around Uranus. All three factoids were actual headlines in 2004. It’s 10 years later and the playoff desert looks larger than ever to a team with a rebuilding season ahead in a tough division. The revamp starts at the top where the Bills followed in Tampa Bay’s shoes by raiding the Big East and bringing in Syracuse’s Doug Marrone (25-25 in four seasons) and his 33-year old offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was immediately dispatched replaced with Kevin Kolb and first round draft choice EJ Manuel. Second and 3rd round WRs Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin join Stevie Johnson at the wide out positions while RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson supply grunt out of the backfield. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine comes over from the Jets. He’ll take over a stop-unit that, after surrendering more than 400 yards in eight games during the 2011 season, chopped that number in half last year. For a team that hasn’t made it to the playoffs in 13 years – the NFL’s longest active drought – it’s no wonder there’s a chill in the air in Buffalo.

Stat You Will Like: The Bills own six division wins the last five seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. NY Jets (11/17)

IN THE STATS: The Bills allowed more than 400 yards in one of their final 10 games of the season last year.

MIAMI


Team Theme: A MIAMI MAKEOVER

With a cache full of money to spend and five of the first 82 selections heading into the draft, GM Jeff Ireland was like a kid under the tree on Christmas Day this offseason. After some wheeling and dealing, he came away with pass rusher Dion Jordan with the No. 3 pick in the draft after acquiring the services of free agent WR Mike Wallace, LB Dannell Ellerbe and TE Dustin Keller (lost for the season with preseason knee injury). He unwrapped his final gift when he secured the services of Pro Bowl OT Tyson Clabo from Atlanta to fill the hole left by the loss of Jake Long. And if you feel QB Ryan Tannehill is due for a case of the Sophomore Blues that figures to be running rampant this season by the five rookie starting quarterbacks in 2011, you’re not on the same page with Mike Sherman, the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. “He will be the most improved quarterback in the NFL from year one to year two… I promise you that.” Further validating the claim is the fact his teammates raved about how Tannehill ran offseason voluntary workouts. “He works like he hasn’t made it yet,” said WR Brian Tyms. However, unless a wide receiving corps that failed to score more than one touchdown pass last season steps up, the gap that includes: 13 years since a playoff win, 21 years since reaching the AFC championship game, 29 years since making the Super Bowl and 40 years since a most recent NFL title, could continue in 2013.

Stat You Will Like: The Dolphins are 4-15 SU versus AFC North opponents, including 0-6 ATS as favorites.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Cincinnati (10/31) - *KEY as a favorite

IN THE STATS: The Dolphins are 5-11 ‘ITS’ at home the last two years.

NEW ENGLAND


Team Theme: NOSTRADAMUS OR NOSTRADUMBASS?

The coaching genius that he is, Bill Belichick dipped under .500 last year for the first time since 2003. In fact, when his Patriots were sitting at just 3-3 to start the season, Belichick’s critics were so gay they began coming out of the closet. It’s been eight years since the Pats last won a Super Bowl they argued. And they are just 8-7 in their last 15 playoff games said others. A lot of the luster has worn off of late and is certainly due to the fact New England’s defense has ranked 25th, 31st and 25th the past three seasons. Making matters worse, four of last year’s top five receivers — Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and RB Danny Woodhead — are gone. Complicating matters, Pro Bowl TE Gronkowski could miss start of season after surgeries on his forearm and back. As a result it forced the Pats’ hand when they signed Danny Amendola and LeGarrette Blount as the new replacements. Compounding matters, the Patriots will go up against the toughest non-division slate of all teams in the league this season with non-AFC East foes owning a 98-72 (.576) mark last season. Yes, the mastermind has his work cut out for him in 2013.

Stat You Will Like: Bill Belichick was 67-0 straight up at home with Tom Brady with a lead at halftime until they lost to Baltimore in the AFC championship game last season.

PLAY ON: at Baltimore (12/22) - *KEY if a dog

IN THE STATS: The Patriots have allowed season-high, or 2nd-high, yards in 12 games the L2Y.

NY JETS

Team Theme: LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

The Gang Green circus returns for another performance this fall and if this year’s troupe resembles last year’s tumultuous act, it will leave fans calling for heads. It was said the best offensive play by the Jets last season was calling a timeout. And that was without the NFL’s most famous backup quarterback, Tim Tebow, taking any snaps. Saint Tim was released in the offseason, paving the way for Mark Sanchez to make one last stand. However, don’t look for him to be released this season. If they were to hand Sanchez his walking papers this year, they would take a $12.8M salary cap hit. If they release him next year, it would become a $4.8M hit. Regardless, Sanchez is guaranteed $8.25 this campaign whether he plays or not. Hence, it would be no surprise to find much ballyhooed QB Geno Smith performing before the act folds up its tent by season’s end. Yes, new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has work cut out, with new RBs and a mostly inexperienced WR corps, especially with Santonio Holmes still recovering from foot injury and uncertain to be ready for regular season. Despite taking on only one foe with a winning record last year over the second-half of the season, it’s looking like all-world CB Darrelle Revis got out of town just in the nick of time.

Stat You Will Like: QB Mark Sanchez is 14-17 the last two years with a league-high 52 turnovers.

IN THE STATS: The Jets have gained more than 400 yards only three times in the last 41 games.

AFC North Division

BALTIMORE


Team Theme: THE WIZARD OF OZ

Say what you will about the retirement of future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis and the loss of three free agent defections in LB Dannell Ellerbe, DE Paul Kruger and S Ed Reed – GM Ozzie Newsome did not panic. Instead, he made the signing of QB Joe Flacco priority-one, then went out and signed Pro Bowl DE Elvis Dumervil before attacking the draft with a defensive makeover plan that infused the unit with playmakers and speed. Remember, this team actually allowed more yards than it gained last year, no thanks to a declining defense that slipped 73 YPG from the previous season. They will be forced to pay the price for winning last year’s Super Bowl, however, as the Ravens’ 2013 non-division opponents were 94-74 (.560) last season, 2nd most difficult schedule in the league… all while wearing a major Bull’s-eye on their back. Say what you want, this isn’t same team that won Super Bowl, but the Ravens are confident additions they made will compensate for loss of several key players and enable them to contend for division title. In closing, while lauding Lewis’ career, our favorite sports columnist, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, insists “He was so good his statue will lead the Ravens in tackles in 2013.”

Stat You Will Like: The Ravens are the only NFL team to make the playoffs each of the last five years.

PLAY ON: vs. Green Bay (10/13) - *KEY as a dog

IN THE STATS: The Super Bowl champs held zero foes to season-low yardage last year.

CINCINNATI

Team Theme: CATS ON THE PROWL
   
You knew it was coming. It was just a matter of how long it would last. As expected last year, like a bad case of the flu, a dreaded case of Sophomore Blues attacked Bengals QB Andy Dalton. To his credit, he shook it off in time to lead his charges back to the postseason for a 2nd-straight year when Cincinnati turned a 3-5 start into a 7-1 finish in 2012. A superlative draft that landed TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard figures to compliment Jay Gruden’s hybrid West Coast offense while taking double-teams away from star WR A.J. Green. The second-half improvement last year was keyed by a defense that allowed 12.8 PPG while totaling 31 sacks, en route to a team record 51 sacks overall. The addition of Pro Bowl LB James Harrison is like the icing on the cake. Making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1982 – and first back-to-back winning seasons in a non-strike year since 1976 – has these Cats licking their paws. Now they want to break a streak of futility in the postseason, with the last win coming in the 1990 season, tied for seventh-longest such streak in NFL history. Considering they have never reached the playoffs three years in a row, the pressure is on.

Stat You Will Like: Andy Dalton is the only quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in his first two seasons while throwing for at least 20 touchdowns each year.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Green Bay (9/22)

IN THE STATS: The Bengals were 3-1 ‘ITS’ in non-conference games last season.

CLEVELAND

Team Theme: CH-CH-CHANGES

Under new ownership, Toledo native Rob Chudzinski becomes the 6th head coach in 10 years for Cleveland this season. After scoring more than 20 points in only six games over two seasons, the Browns saw all they wanted to see from Pat Shurmur. Chudzinski served as Browns offensive coordinator in 2007, the last time they enjoyed a winning season. After inking Chudzinski, Cleveland immediately signed former San Diego head coach Norv Turner as its new offensive coordinator. He will implement an up-tempo attack that should benefit QB Brandon Weeden, a strong-armed shotgun passer. The addition of WR Davone Best and added production from a healthy RB Trent Richardson should provide an added boost to the offense. Meanwhile, Arizona’s fiery former DC Ray Horton will reconstruct the defense, transitioning to 3-4 with multiple attacking fronts. The best news is the Browns will take on the easiest non-division strength-of-schedule this campaign, with foes going 72-93 (.436) in 2012. For a team that has averaged more than 11 losses per season the last five years, those changes are welcome.

Stat You Will Like: The Browns held the Steelers to season-low yardage in each of the two meetings last year.

PLAY ON: vs. Baltimore (9/15)

IN THE STATS: The Browns are 19-61 ‘ITS’ in all games the last five seasons.

PITTSBURGH

Team Theme: SOUND THE BELL

If there is one thing you can count on year after year, it’s Santa Claus working overtime on Christmas eve – and an impregnable Steelers ‘D’. And like clockwork, Saint Nick once again delivered as promised while, behind DC Dick LeBeau, the league’s No. 1 ranked injury-marred defense held seven opponents to season-low, or 2nd-low, yards last year. And speaking of injuries, Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year last season before he injured his ribs and the Steelers staggered to a 2-5 finish thereafter. One can only imagine what happens when or if Big Ben and Troy Polamalu return to health. Help starts with more options on offense and that’s where the selection of RB Le’Veon Bell in this year’s draft kick starts the new plan. OC Todd Haley insists Bell has ‘Eddie George physical traits,’ so he should become the workhorse back they’ve missed since the retirement of Jerome Bettis. LeBeau knows finding a replacement for Pro Bowl – and major head case – LB James Harrison will become a main priority but believes Jason Worilds can be the man. Remember this: Pittsburgh hasn’t endured consecutive non-winning seasons since Bill Clinton was president (1998-99). Get the Terrible Towels out...the Steel Curtain is back.

Stat You Will Like: Teams are 37-55 SU and 32-57-3 ATS facing Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, including 12-33-2 ATS when favored.

PLAY ON: vs. Tennessee (9/8)

IN THE STATS: The Steelers are 53-15 ‘ITS’ in all games since 2009, including 12-4 LY.

AFC South Division

HOUSTON


Team Theme: TALL TALL TEXANS

Riding high in the saddle following back-to-back AFC South titles, the Texans are once again the class of their division and arguably the entire AFC. After ascending to new heights last year, Houston did not stand still during the offseason when they acquired Hall of Fame FS Ed Reed and P Shane Lechler. They will combine with reigning NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt (81 tackles and 20.5 sacks) to form one of the best stop-units in the league, all under the lead of DC Wade Phillips. Its no coincidence the Texans’ defense has improved an average 73.5 YPG the last two years since it flamed out in a 6-win season in 2010. On the offensive front, coordinator Rick Dennison gobbled up dynamic WR DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson in the first round of the draft. He’ll work in tandem with star WR Andre Johnson. Along with thoroughbred RB Arian Foster, a tantalizing trio of skill players surrounds QB Matt Schaub. It’s like we mentioned on these pages last year: between Gary Kubiak’s playbook, Dennison’s offensive mind and Phillips’ stingy defensive schemes, the Texans are standing extra tall with sights on the Super Bowl these days.

Stat You Will Like: The Texans are 0-4 ATS away versus NFC West opponents in their franchise history.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Tennessee (9/15)

IN THE STATS: The Texans are 24-12 ‘In The Stats’ the last two seasons.

INDIANAPOLIS

Team Theme: WHAT GOES UP...

When the Colts jumped from 2-14 to 11-6 after selecting QB Andrew Luck with the first pick of the draft last year they recorded the 2nd biggest turnaround in NFL history. Only the 2008 Dolphins, who went from 1-15 to 11-5, made a larger leap. It should be noted that the other two teams in NFL annals making this much of an improvement regressed four and three games respectively the following year. The feeling here is regression is likely this season: despite their improvement, last year’s 11-win Colts actually allowed 12 YPG more than they gained. That and a case of Sophomore Blues appear to be lurking in the offing for Luck. Helping matters, Indy will face the 3rd softest strength-of-schedule opponents in 2013 (last year’s foes .461 overall), including four games with the NFC West (Colts are 7-1 SU against the division since 2005). Then again, Peyton Manning put up those numbers. The return of head coach Chuck Pagano, back from a bout with cancer, could offset a ton of history. Don’t forget: the Colts have made the playoffs 11 times the last 13 seasons. Stay tuned.

Stat You Will Like: The Colts own the weakest rushing attack in the AFC the last four years, averaging just over 95 RYPG.

PLAY AGAINST: at Kansas City (12/22)

IN THE STATS: The Colts were 0-5 ‘ITS’ during the final five games of the season last year.

JACKSONVILLE

Team Theme: SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE A SIGN

Despite a fall from 5 wins to 2 last year, the worst in franchise history, signs of improvement abound. Consider: after being outgained in 11 of their first 12 games of the 2012 season, the Jaguars refused to raise the white flag when they won the stats in three of their final four games. In addition, after failing to gain more than 325 yards in any game in 2011, Jacksonville bettered that mark on seven different occasions last year. Toss in the fact that of the 17 teams who won 2 or fewer games the previous season, 16 of them have improved on their win total this millennium (witness the Colts and Rams last year) the following season. New head coach Gus Bradley brings a defensive pedigree to Jacksonville, a team that ranked 30th in total ‘D’ last season while allowing 444 points, a franchise-record. He was Seattle’s defensive coordinator the last four years and his unit allowed a league-low 15.3 PPG last season. New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch returns to the NFL after two years at the University of Miami, banking on first-round pick OT Luke Joeckel’s ability to plow open running lanes for a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew.

Stat You Will Like: The Jaguars are 10-6 SU all-time versus the NFC West with only three losses by more than 4 points.

PLAY ON: at Seattle (9/22)

IN THE STATS: The Jaguars are 15-33 ‘ITS’ the L3Y, but 3-1 ‘ITS’ the L4 games of 2012.

TENNESSEE

Team Theme: BLUE COLLAR NETWORK

It was no surprise whatsoever to witness the blue-collar moves made by Mike Munchak and the Titans this offseason. After all, Munchak is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and he did what he knows best – rebuild the offensive line – in order to keep his job a while longer in Tennessee. A three-game slippage with falling numbers on both sides of the ball sent Munchak into desperation mode when he signed G Andy Levitre (Bills) and selected G Chance Warmack (Alabama) in the first round of this year’s draft. The moves should benefit QB Jake Locker and RB Chris Johnson who, despite rushing for 1,000-plus yards in each of his five seasons in the league, has seen his numbers fall appreciably since his 2,006-yard performance in 2006. As a result, Johnson expects the Titans to become a ground-and-pound ‘run-first’ offense. It’s safe to assume that if Munchak is gone at the end of the year, so too will be Locker - a top-10 pick two years ago who, after witnessing last year’s successful rookie crop of quarterbacks, suddenly finds the clock ticking. After having last made the playoffs in 2008 and spending $100 million dollars on free agents, owner Bud Adams is expecting results...now.

Stat You Will Like: The Titans have allowed season-high, or 2nd-high, yards in 7 of their first 14 games under Munchak.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Houston (12/29)

IN THE STATS: The Titans won the stats in 4 of their final 6 games last season.

AFC West Division

DENVER


Team Theme: PEYTON’S RACE

Realizing star QB Peyton Manning is not getter any younger (who is?), the Broncos were busy in the offseason making moves to bolster a run to the Super Bowl now. WR Wes Welker moves over from New England while G Louis Vasquez leaves San Diego’s starting lineup for Denver’s. In addition, VP of Football Operations John Elway slapped the franchise tag on OT Ryan Clady. Meanwhile, former Broncos QB coach Adam Gase assumes the new offensive coordinator role with Mike McCoy taking over the reins in San Diego. Jack Del Rio returns as the defensive coordinator, the first time Denver has had the same DC in consecutive seasons since 2005-06. The selection of Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in the 2nd round of the draft could be a coup as the workhorse running back also blocks and has excellent hands, prerequisites for working in a Manning backfield. It all works provided Denver’s offensive line stays healthy. So does the schedule with the Broncos facing, by far, the softest strength-of-schedule opponents in 2013 (last year’s foes .430 overall). It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Broncos.

Stat You Will Like: Peyton Manning’s 37 TD passes and his 105.8 QB rating at the end of the season were the 2nd best numbers of his career.

PLAY ON: as a dog at New England (11/24)

IN THE STATS: The SU stat winner was 15-2 SU in Broncos games last season.

KANSAS CITY

Team Theme: ON THE CORNER OF 12TH ST AND VINE

Much like the two-win Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chiefs are resigned to the fact that there is no place to go but up in 2013. After turning over half the roster, the pieces are in place with Andy Reid, the lone new coach in the league this year with previous NFL head coaching experience. His team sports a downy-soft non-division strength-of-schedule in 2013, with Chiefs’ opponents going 74-90 (.451) last season. In addition, Reid is 140-102-1 overall in his NFL career with five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance. An upgrade at the quarterback position (Alex Smith in; Matt Cassel out, and pistol-guru Chris Ault on board as a consultant), along with the top pick in this year’s draft (OL Eric Fisher) and offensive weapons Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe indicate certain signs of improvement on that side of the ball. The defense was bolstered by the free agent signings of CBs Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson, plus DE Mike DeVito. Along with talented pass rusher Tamba Hali, LB Derrick Johnson and DB Eric Berry, Andy is feeling just dandy about his move from Philadelphia to Kansas City. Look out Kansas City, here he comes.

Stat You Will Like: The Chiefs had six Pro Bowlers last season.

PLAY ON: at Buffalo (11/3)

IN THE STATS: After going 5-0 ‘ITS’ to start 2012, the Chiefs went 2-9 ‘ITS’ the final 11 games.

OAKLAND

Team Theme: BUY A PROGRAM

In a season of makeovers, the Raiders are laying down a new foundation. QB Carson Palmer and his favorite target, TE Brandon Myers, are gone along with WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. On the defensive front, DT Tommy Kelly and S Michael Huff have departed. In fact, only ONE player from the front seven returns. (That’s what happens after tying a franchise low with 25 sacks last season.) It’s likely nine of 11 positions on defense will find players with new names on the back of their jerseys. Meanwhile, free agent QB Matt Flynn replaces Palmer but it should be noted Flynn, after inking a big free agent contract last year, failed to beat out 3rd-round QB Russell Wilson at Seattle. However, don’t be surprised if Flynn isn’t pushed for the starting job by Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) who highly respected QB coach-guru Terry Shea insists, “makes all the throws and will be a good player in this league for a long while.” And if all this isn’t enough, the Raiders signed free agent WR-KR Joshua Cribbs, a three-time Pro Bowler. Finally, in an effort to avoid blackouts, Oakland removed 9,882 seats from the O.co Coliseum, reducing the seating capacity to 53,250 (the lowest in the league).

Stat You Will Like: The Raiders are 15-3 ATS as division road dogs the last six seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Pittsburgh (10/27)

IN THE STATS: The Raiders have allowed over 400 yards in 10 of 16 home games the L2Y.

SAN DIEGO

Team Theme: JUST IMAGINE

When new head coach Mike McCoy, Denver’s former offensive coordinator, interviewed for the San Diego job, he brought along binders full of detailed plans and visualization and won over the Chargers’ top brass. It wasn’t hard, considering San Diego has missed out on the playoffs each of the last three years. Make no mistake: this is as close to a major overhaul as the Chargers have seen in quite a while. Included was a plan to build a fortress around Philip Rivers to better protect the franchise quarterback. Rivers was sacked 49 times last season, trailing only Aaron Rodgers (51) for most takedowns. The Chargers immediately signed two free agent guards and used their first pick in the draft on OT D.J. Fluker of Alabama. Just as important, they named former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt as the new offensive coordinator to call the plays, a marked difference from former coach Norv Turner who handled both duties. Whisenhunt has coached QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner and figures to revive Rivers’ career. Newest additions to the Chargers defense, which improved 20 YPG in 2012, are Pro Bowl DE Dwight Freeney and Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o, who fills a need at ILB. We can only imagine he will.

Stat You Will Like: The Chargers were 6-13 SU and 7-12 ATS in Eastern Time Zone cities with Norv Turner.

PLAY AGAINST: at Oakland (10/6)

IN THE STATS: The Chargers were outgained in each of their last seven games in 2012.

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