It just occurred to me that I didn’t publish my AFC preview.  The Power poll 2.0 kind of encapsulates my current feeling about how the AFC will shake out though. Even with a couple of massive upsets in the opening weekend, don’t put any stock into the New York Jets, and I would be leery of betting on Kansas City as well.

There aren’t going to be too many surprises of teams rising, even though several teams have greatly improved.  The separation of the elite teams and talents is still wide enough to tap down playoff hopes for half of the teams in the American Football Conference.  It may take another year or two to start to see some real turnover, and rebuild projects start to bear fruit.  Health, schedule and questionable front office decision making continues to plague certain teams from elevating to annual playoff status.

AFC East

It’s pretty unbelievable how far this division still continues to lag behind the New England Patriots after 17 years.   I thought that teams like Buffalo in this division, Tennessee and Houston in the South and especially Kansas City in the West, would start to challenge New England for conference superiority, or take the necessary steps.  But all those teams have taken huge steps back for this season with the possible exception of Houston.

The Patriots continue to reload, year after year, with skill position talent that they just plug in and start.  They may never win another Super Bowl with this group, but will be a threat until Brady or Belichick moves on.

Buffalo disrespected quarterback Tyrod Taylor in season last year, and still managed to make the playoffs.  Now in their infinite wisdom, they traded Taylor to Cleveland.  They also traded their starting left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati for draft capital to further improve their defense.  They now have a raw rookie QB in Josh Allen, who will be starting shortly, and an offensive line that is considered one of the worst in football to protect him.  They are deliberately taking a step back to eventually move forward, when it appears Brady/Belichick will be gone.  A year away from playoff return.

Miami and the New York Jets will scrape along the bottom of the division this year.  Yes Miami won their opener over Tennessee, but they have filled holes in their roster with aging talent.  That maybe gets them to sniff 8-8 with a healthy, tradable Ryan Tannehill at quarterback.  They should trade him.  This team isn’t built for the future, they are made to be mediocre now.  Not sure if head coach Adam Gase will survive to rebuild the roster.  They should keep him, but give him 2-3 more years.  When Belichick is gone, Gase could be divisions best coach.  When losing starts Miami should be trading.

The Jets are in their 4th year of leadership under Todd Bowles.  No coach has ever been dealt this bad a hand.  They have given him nothing to work with in all his time there.  After this season he will be shown the door, set up to fail with a rookie quarterback who is going to take a beating this year.  QB Sam Darnold has looked better at times than I thought he would in the preseason.  As a rookie starter, I hope he survives this season.  The win against Detroit in the opener was an outlier.  Downhill from here.

PREDICTION:  New England 12-4,  Buffalo 7-9,  Miami  6-10,  New York Jets 3-13

AFC West

A year ago I predicted Kansas City Chiefs for the Super Bowl over New England.  They choked in the playoffs thanks to the Bears new head coach, former Chiefs off. coordinator Matt Nagy, and started to rebuild their roster with an emphasis on youth.  Gone is most of the high priced defensive talent, retired, cut, or traded to other teams.  They also traded All Pro starting quarterback Alex Smith, while he had value, to Washington.  2nd year quarterback Patrick Mahomes gets his shot, maybe a year too early.  Chiefs have taken a big step back with these moves, in spite of their win over division rival Los Angeles Chargers.  Teams will learn to double team Tyreek Hill, then Mahomes will become an interception machine.  Give them a year to draft for defense.

You wouldn’t know it by the score, but the Chargers dominated Kansas City statistically in their home opening loss.  Two long touchdowns by Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill put the Chargers in a hole they couldn’t erase from the scoreboard.  Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback played a near flawless game to beat Los Angeles.  The Chargers also played without two of their best defensive players in All Pro def. end Joey Bosa and cornerback Trevor Williams.  Chargers 547 total yds. of offense and 33 first downs, to the Chiefs 362 and 19 first downs.  Chargers 20 more plays but two turnovers, which is why they lost.

Denver also won their opener over Seattle and may finish better than I expected when I picked every game on the schedule.  Free agent QB Case Keenum will be forced to win a lot of shootouts.  Parity will be the norm in the AFC and Denver will be right in the middle of the pack with decent quarterback play and fewer turnovers.

Oakland is rebuilding under head coach Jon Gruden who has a lot of holes to fill, but has the divisions best or 2nd best quarterback in Derek Carr.  Traded pass rusher Khalil Mack before he became a free agent.  Mack wanted to be the top paid defender in the league, and had not reported to any team activities since Gruden was re-hired.  Making it easy to trade him to the Bears for a package of draft picks.  Oaklands defense was ranked 23rd with Mack.  With Carr making over $23 million, the Raiders couldn’t afford two players taking one fifth of the cap space.  Gruden is already rebuilding, drafting Mack replacement Arden Key in the 3rd round, and def. tackles Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall.

PREDICTION:  Los Angeles Chargers 10-6,  Oakland 7-9,  Denver 7-9,  Kansas City 5-11

AFC North

The best rivalry division in football gets tougher as Cleveland’s rebuild finally starts to arrive and Cincinnati improves their offensive line.  Pittsburgh and Baltimore battle it out for the division crown every year, this year will be no different.  They are clearly above their Ohio counterparts, but the gap is starting to close, as evidenced by Cleveland playing the Steelers to a tie in the season opener.

Cleveland’s trade for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and drafting Heisman winner Baker Mayfield is a major step up.  The Browns can now compete with any team in the AFC as  former Steelers off. coordinator Todd Haley calls the plays as the Browns coordinator.  Not drafting for their offensive line is where Cleveland erred though.  They passed on a foundational guard in Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame, who went instead to Indianapolis.  That was a big mistake.  Taylor and Mayfield are mobile quarterbacks, but shouldn’t have to run for their lives.   Running back Carlos Hyde is a great pickup.

Cincinnati traded for Buffalo’s left tackle Cordy Glenn, a year after they let theirs’ walk to the Los Angeles Rams.   The Bengals also drafted center Billy Price from nearby Ohio State in the first round of the draft.  Those upgrades might give QB Andy Dalton and the Bengals receiving corps time to shine.  Not to mention open holes for 2nd year back Joe Mixon, who has so far matured, and kept himself out of trouble under the watchful eye of head coach Marvin Lewis.  Maybe the Bengals start back toward the playoffs and respectability this year.  They’ll have to do it by winning within the division.  Next year.

Even though Pittsburgh and Baltimore are known for being among the most physical and violent teams in the league.  Their offenses are what really win the big games for them.  To that degree Pittsburgh has had more success, drafting the league’s best receiver Antonio Brown in the 6th round in 2009, best running back in LeVeon Bell, and a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.  Baltimore has always stressed defense as way to keep up with Pittsburgh.  That will only get you so far when you have no decent receivers to speak of.  Baltimore remedied that this off season signing Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead and drafting TE Hayden Hurst..

PREDICTION:  Pittsburgh 10-5-1,  Baltimore 10-6,  Cincinnati 6-10,  Cleveland 6-9-1

AFC South

Has been one of the weakest divisions in football going back to the days when Peyton Manning was in his prime.  Indy parlayed a year that Manning missed because of injury into drafting Andrew Luck number 1 overall.  Luck looked like Manning’s 2nd coming, but he too got injured with a separated shoulder a few years ago.  Now that Luck is back, the coaches and general manager are gone, and the Indianapolis Colts are in a total rebuild under former Bears director of Pro Scouting Chris Ballard.  Just as well, because after a decade of being terrible, the Jacksonville Jaguars have rebuilt through the draft, installed 2-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlan as team President, and assumed the role of division bully.

The Jaguars possess a defense built on size and speed, and might be the next great team and Super Bowl winner.  With one of the league’s best offensive lines and 2nd year All Pro running back Leonard Fournette, the pieces are in place for an extended run atop the American Football Conference.  Need to acquire better backup quarterback.

I’m picking Houston to be 2nd, solely based on the immense talent of DeShaun Watson their 2nd year quarterback.  Watson threw 19 touchdowns in 5 games last year, 3 times throwing 5 touchdowns in a game, including against New England.  Watson, if healthy, is poised to become the next superstar quarterback in the league.  It helps that he throws to All Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and plays with several All Pro defenders like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.  Health is everything for Houston.  If their big 4 stay healthy, playoffs.  With backup QB Brandon Weeden , they’re in bottom quarter of the league.

Tennessee is one of the more puzzling teams in the league.  Their ownership is known for their disloyalty and impatience.  They fired head coach Mike Mularkey after having beaten the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card game, and losing to New England in the divisional playoffs last year.  Most coaches don’t get fired after going to the playoffs and actually winning a game.  In fact the Titans were negotiating a contract extension for Mularkey when they abruptly fired him.  They replaced him with Mike Vrabel a former New England Patriots linebacker, who was a defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans for one year.  A new inexperienced head coach, the Titans 3rd in four years, guiding a young quarterback in Marcus Mariota, who will learn a 3rd system, without the benefit of veteran receivers, is a recipe for disaster.  Mariota also got hurt in the opener.  At least they have Indianapolis in their division.

The Colts are in complete rebuild mode with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck returning from injury, after nearly two years.  With Houston another DeShaun Watson injury away from disaster, and Tennessee in denial.  Do the Colts try to speed up the rebuild process or stay the course?  And do they keep 29 year old Luck around for the rebuild?  Or sell him to the highest bidder at the trade deadline?  There are a number of teams that would take a healthy Luck, and for the Colts it would help speed a rebuild that Luck may not want to wait for.  Rebuild likely to take at least 2 more years after this one.

PREDICTION:  Jacksonville 13-3,  Houston  10-6,  Tennessee 6-10,  Indianapolis  3-13

You may have noticed that I only picked 6 teams with winning records in the AFC.  There is clear separation among the best teams all having defense’s that are playoff caliber.  All of the other teams have defensive secondary issues that will result in a lot of shootout games in the inter-conference AFC games this season.  And because there are better defense’s and secondaries in the NFC, there is an obvious tilt to overall records.  Some 9-7 teams in the  NFC won’t make the playoffs.  And if Houston sustains injuries, an AFC team among Denver, Oakland and Cincinnati might make the playoffs at 8-8.

Jacksonville Jaguars defeat Baltimore Ravens in AFC Championship.

Los Angeles Rams defeat Atlanta Falcons in NFC Championship

Jacksonville defeats Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl.

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