The 2012 NFL season is just a couple days away from kick off. After a long and interesting off-season, football is finally back. Let's look at the AFC.
New England (13-3): While there have been a lot of moving pieces on this Patriots team over the last decade, one thing has been a constant for the Pats: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Those two alone are the sole reason why this Patriots team will once again remain atop the AFC East. However, their run of consistent Super Bowl success might be coming to an end, if it hasn't already.
Last season, the Patriots were exposed all year as a terrible defensive team, and they have drafted heavily on the defensive side of the ball; nonetheless, it remains to be seen if that will make the difference this time around. The Pats will win the division, but if they run into a physical team in the playoffs, they will be eliminated quickly.
Buffalo (9-7): The Bills are one of those over-hyped teams coming into the 2012 season and for good reason. Buffalo got off to a sizzling start last year only to collapse down the stretch. Part of the reason for Buffao's late season woes was the absence of Fred Jackson. They will have him healthy this year, which will take pressure off Ryan Fitzpatrick. For the Bills to have success though, Fitzpatrick has to do a better job with ball control.
Defensively, the Bills will have a fierce pass rush with Mario Williams installed at defensive end. Look for the Bills D to keep them in it all season long.
N.Y. Jets (7-9): What a nightmare. As has been discussed on this site and many others throughout the off-season, this team is a disaster waiting to unfold. They gave Mark Sanchez a five-year contract, only to go out and trade for Tim Tebow days later. The Jets tried to sell the idea that Sanchez is their guy, but, in reality, they are getting ready for Tebow to be the quarterback. Sanchez didn't help himself by turning the ball over 26 times last year and lacked leadership. Tebow is a leader, but not a good quarterback.
Other than that, the Jets have offensive line issues still, even with the trade of Wayne Hunter. Shonn Greene is not a franchise running back, and the receiving corps is a total mess. The Jets defense might be good this year, but Gang Green will be "leading from behind" most of the year because the offense is a joke. This summer the Jets first and second units didn't even score a touchdown!
Marvelous start. Look for Mike Tannenbaum to pay the ultimate price if this season goes down the drain.
Miami (5-11): The Dolphins are rebuilding. There is not much to get excited about here. Joe Philbin, after staring on "Hard Knocks" this summer, seems to have a very steady hand on this franchise, but it will be a long, grueling process for Miami. The Dolphins feel that Ryan Tannehill is ready to be their starting quarterback, which means more growing pains for the young fish.
Baltimore (11-5): How the Ravens respond to the hangover from last season's hideous loss in the AFC title game will go a long way in determining their fate in 2012. The Ravens were a Lee Evans catch away from going to the Super Bowl, yet, as we all know, Evans dropped an easy touchdown pass, and Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal, killing the Ravens dreams.
Offensively, this is Joe Flacco's year (isn't every year supposed to be Flacco's year). He has to show that his effort in the AFC title game was no fluke and move this team over the top. They have the talent from Ray Rice to Torrey Smith, now they have to finish.
Cincinnati (10-6): Watch out for the Bengals. Some will say that Cincy is destined to be disappointing this season, since they surprised so many in 2011. Not so fast. The Bengals have a franchise quarterback in Andy Dalton, who is the real deal, and they finally have a number one receiver, who is not a nut case, in A.J. Green.
That said, there are concerns about the Benglas running attack. Cedric Benson is now in Green Bay, and the Bengals are now relying on the inconsistent BenJarvis Green-Ellis to carry the load. While Green-Ellis ran for 1,000 yards two years ago in New England, he ran for only 600 + yards last season. Granted the Patriots rely more on passing the football; however, this will be the first time that Green-Ellis has played on a team that will ask him to carry the rock 250-300 times this season. The one positive is that Green-Ellis has a nose for the end zone, having scored 24 touchdowns over the past two years.
The Bengals don't jump out on paper when it comes to defense, like the Steelers and Ravens do, but the unit was a top 10 defense in 2011; nonetheless, injuries to Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap remain issues. Expect Cincy to push for the division title with the other two rivals in this division.
Pittsburgh (10-6): Who are the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into 2012? Asking this question in years past would be considered blasphemous, but this is truly a serious question coming into 2012. Last season the Steelers watched the Baltimore Ravens sweep them clean in the division, and their once vaunted defense was exposed by Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the playoffs.
The issues: Ben Roethlisberger's health. Can Big Ben remain healthy for an entire season is a huge question for this team. While Roethlisberger has played through injuries in the past, he has not played a complete season since 2008.
Add Roethlisberger's health issues to the fact that the Steelers ground attack has been handicapped by injuries to Rashard Mendenall and Issac Redman and health looms as a major concern coming into 2012. Mendenhall has been the biggest concern since he suffered an ACL tear in Week 17 last year, but he is still slowly on his way back to regaining full strength. He will not be available for Week 1 at Denver, and if he should miss more time, it puts that much more pressure on Big Ben to get it done.
Also, the addition of Todd Haley as offensive coordinator could be a problem since Haley is hated everywhere he goes.
Defensively, the Steelers have shown age. James Harrison, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu and company are not spring chickens anymore. 2011 could have been the sign that Pittsburgh is on the downside of their great run; 2012 could be the final act.
Cleveland (3-13): Umm. Okay, what can I say about the Browns with the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. You've got it: nothing to be excited about here. Trent Richardson, the new hope at running back is already battling injuries, and the placid Pat Shermer is surely to be the next coach fired. Sorry Browns fans.
Houston (12-4): This is supposed to be a big season for the Texans. They have the pieces offensively with quarterback Matt Schuab, wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster. They also had the second ranked defense in football last year, which stunned many.
However, like all teams, the Texans are not perfect. The Texans will need for Schaub to remain healthy. Houston played the final drive of the season with Tyler Yates at quarterback. While Yates acquitted himself well, if the Texans had a healthy Schaub, who knows how far they could have gone last year. Keep in mind, Houston was on its way to a first round Bye before Schaub was hurt. Schaub is one of the game's top quarterbacks; he only makes Houston better, as does Andre Johnson, who missed time last year with injury. When healthy, Johnson can be the best wide receiver in football.
Defensively, the Texans did lose some depth on the front with the departures of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, and they lost cornerback Jason Allen to the Bengals in the off-season. The Texans will have to come up with a fresh pass rush, which means more will be expected from Conner Barwin, who recorded 11.5 sacks. If the Texans can rush the passer with as much fervor as they used to when Williams was around, this could make the Texans into a true Super Bowl contender.
Tennessee (7-9): Okay, let's face it, the Titans stunned us all when they went 9-7 last year with a rookie coach and a team that was rebuilding. They will not surprise this time. The big headlines here are the health of running back Chris Johnson, and the move to quarterback Jake Locker. The Titans feel that Locker is ready to be a full time starter, but I, for one, have a hard time accepting this move when veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who won nine games last year, is sitting on the bench. As for Johnson, expect him to have a bounce back year, but he is nowhere near the player he was three years ago.
Indianapolis (6-10): A new era is taking hold in Indy. With Peyton Manning out of town, the Colts look to similar success with rookie Andrew Luck. The kid is the real deal. He looked really good in the pre-season, and now we have to see him translate that to the regular season. Luck will suffer his bumps and bruises this year, but expect the Colts to win more games in his rookie year than in Manning's rookie year back in 1998. Luck has the advantage of having Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Donald Brown with him on offense. The Colts also play in the NFL's weakest division. Six wins is not out of the question.
Jacksonville (4-12): Refer to the Cleveland Browns. Another disaster. Maurice Jones-Drew ended his long holdout, but he will suffer the consequences and will not put up big numbers this year, unless he is traded by the October trade deadline. Rashard Jennings is the man now in the J-Ville backfield. The only thing interesting other than this drama is how long owner Shahid Khan grows his mustache. In other words, get back to me when and IF the Jags move to L.A.
Denver (11 - 5): Oh goody, Peyton Manning is back! Let's be honest, doesn't Manning look weird in a Broncos orange and blue jersey? Just a teeny bit? Either way, John Fox and John Elway are happy that they don't have to answer questions about Tim Tebow anymore, but if both expect Manning to be the same Peyton Manning from 2010, they will be greatly mistaken. While Manning is a great player, his skills will be diminished by the amount of time he missed because of neck fusion surgery. Also, every hit Manning takes will be under a heavy media microscope.
Keep in mind, Manning had the good fortune of playing games in December and January in a dome in Indy over the past 14 years; now he will have to play in the cold-thin air of Denver which could be an issue for a quarterback who always struggled outdoors in the bitter cold.
Unlike past seasons, Manning will have to rely on a strong running game to help him out; that is where Willis McGahee comes in. Fantasy owners pay attention: McGahee is going to have a big season with Manning in Denver.
If everything goes according to plan, and the Broncos don't suffer the same fate the N.Y. Jets faced when they acquired Brett Favre in 2008, then Denver should win this division and get into the playoffs.
San Diego (10-6): This is it for the Chargers and coach Norv Turner. The players know it. The coaches know it. For years the Chargers have come into a season with Super Bowl expectations only to be disappointed by a mediocre regular season or a bitter post-season defeat (Google Nate Keading and Jets).
For the Bolts to be successful, they need Ryan Matthews to return from injury at 100 %. Matthews has game breaking ability on the ground and is a serviceable receiver too. While Phillip Rivers is one of the game's best quarterbacks, he is playing with an injured Matthews, an aging Antonio Gates, and a missing Vincent Jackson (FA to Tampa Bay) to throw to anymore. This could get rough for the Chargers and could cost Turner his job if 2012 is another 9-7/8-8 finish.
Kansas City (8-8):A lot of people have jumped on the KC bandwagon mostly because of the team's strong finish under Romeo Crennel, and their upset victory over the then unbeaten Green Bay Packers last December. Let's take it easy. Last time I checked, Crennel did a horrible job as head coach of the Browns, and the KC offense is 110% predicated on the running of Jamal Charles. Charles missed most of the season last year, and if KC does anything in 2012, they need Charles to reclaim his role from two years ago. Matt Cassel is an nice quarterback but not one that strikes fear into opponents. At best, this Chiefs team will push the Chargers and Broncos all season but won't get past .500.
Oakland (4-12):Another year, another new coach for the Raiders. The Raiders named Dennis Allen head coach after letting go of the popular Hue Jackson at the end of 2011. Not sure what Allen can bring to this team other than the fact he is young. Jackson was a better coach and should not have been fired, in my opinion. The question in Oakland is: can Carson Palmer return to his old fo...oh, wait, we have been asking this question about Palmer for six years now; excuse me.
AFC Playoff picture:
1) New England (13-3)
2) Houston (12-4)
3) Baltimore (11-5)
4) Denver (11-5)
5) Cincinnati (10-6)
6) San Diego (10-6)