The first week of the NFL preseason is in the books and in most games the starters saw very little action.
That should change this week with several, if not most, teams playing their starters into the second quarter.
This week we look at the AFC, the conference that has produced the last two Super Bowl champions. Denver won the most recent by defeating Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
The Gladys Knight and the Pips division of the NFL. New England remains the team to beat as they have been for more than a decade. Their current streak of 13 consecutive seasons of double digit wins is truly remarkable in the modern sports environment of free agency, salary caps and other efforts to induce parity.
Even with QB Tom Brady missing the first four games of the season due to his “deflategate” suspension, the Pats’ schedule to open the season is favorable.
The role of the Pips will again be played by Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets, who seem to continually shift their positions in the standings well behind the Patriots. I expect Miami to be improved with new coach Adam Gase taking over for Joe Philbin, who appeared to be in over his head and have lost the confidence of his team last season. The New York Jets should take a step backward this season after 10 wins last season against a very weak schedule. Buffalo may be pretty much the same as last season when they went 8-8. I do not expect a Wild Card team this season.
This has been one of the NFL’s best divisions over the past decade despite the presence of the woeful, and some might argue dysfunctional, Cleveland Browns.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh each have a Super Bowl title within the last decade. Cincinnati has made five straight playoff appearances but is yet to post a win. I expect that trio to again contend for the Playoffs. Look for Baltimore to rebound nicely from a 2015 season that was marked by key injuries, beginning with their most impactful player, Terrell Suggs.
The window may be closing on Cincinnati’s chances of making a realistic Super Bowl run. Age and player defections are working against the Bengals this season and they will feel the loss of Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson who is the new head coach in Cleveland. I expect the Bengals to fall short of their 12-4 Division winning record of last season and a drop to an 8-8 season would not be a shock.
Cleveland will be improved under Jackson but with so many weaknesses that improvement may not be readily apparent from the scoreboard.
Pittsburgh will be Pittsburgh. As long as QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy the Steelers should again contend for the Division title. I look for the Ravens and Steelers to battle for top honors in the AFC North with Cincinnati finishing third.
It has been the weakest of the NFL’s eight divisions for the past six seasons. The four teams – Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee – were a combined 13-27 outside of the Division for a second straight season. Over the past six seasons the AFC South is an NFL-worst 89-151 in non-Division games.
Indianapolis can write off last season due to the injury to QB Andrew Luck who missed nine games in 2015. But there are still concerns about the defense and the running game that, if answered positively, will have the Colts as the team to beat this season.
Houston won the Division last season at 9-7 and suffered from lackluster QB play from Brian Hoyer. Whether Brock Osweiler is a significant upgrade remains to be seen but his rather ordinary performance in starting eight games for Denver last season cause many to be more pessimistic than optimistic that he will be a difference maker this season. The injury to J.J. Watt, considered to be the best defensive player in the NFL, could have a lingering effect if he returns to action too soon, which could be the regular season opener.
Jacksonville and Tennessee both figure to be improved with each being led by up-and-coming quarterbacks, second year pro Marcus Mariota of the Titans and third season signal caller Blake Bortles of the Jaguars. Signs point to the Jaguars being the better of the two this season.
The most intriguing of any division. The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos will have neither of last season’s quarterbacks, the retired Peyton Manning and the now Houston Texans Brock Osweiler, back to help defend that title.
Kansas City had a run of 10 straight wins to end the regular season and then tossed a shutout in their 30-0 road win at Houston in their Wild Card game.
San Diego suffered an unusually high number of injuries to finish 4-12 despite the efforts of one of the less heralded quarterbacks of the past decade, Philip Rivers.
The big noise this summer has surrounded the Oakland Raiders. Their season win total has received a great deal of OVER action, opening on May 1 at the Westgate at 8.
Kansas City is an interesting team as coach Andy Reid has excelled in getting the most from his teams in the regular season dating back to his days with Philadelphia. In the 17 seasons since 1999 Reid’s teams have gone OVER their season win total 12 times, falling short 4 times and pushing their total once.
I expect Kansas City and Denver to battle for the Division title with the non-Division winner earning a Wild Card. I am taking a wait and see approach to the Raiders.