AFC’s elite: Kansas City figures to bounce back

Sep 6, 2005 1:29 AM

The pro football season kicks off Thursday when the new-look Raiders travel to Foxboro to battle the defending champs. Here’s a look at the best of the AFC.

Steelers (16-2 SU, 11-7 ATS in 2004): Bill Cowher got the Steelers back to the power running game (No. 2 in the NFL). Combined with a physically tough defense, the combo proved deadly in a brilliant season that took them to the AFC Championship game. With so much success, don’t look for that formula to change. RB Duce Staley (830 yards) and workhorse Jerome Bettis (941) lead the way. Both are back, though they suffered injuries in preseason and might not be 100 percent yet.

Their production is essential, because the strong ground game took the pressure off rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,621 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs. The only concern is that Big Ben stumbled in the second half of the season. Was it youth, a sore thumb, or defensive coordinators catching up with him? The Steelers were a sizzling 7-1 SU, 5-3 ATS on the road!

Colts (13-5 SU, 11-7 ATS): While the Steelers are old-fashioned power football, the Colts couldn’t be more opposite. Their strengths: A 21st century speedy air attack led by MVP QB Peyton Manning, who set an NFL record with 49 TDs and just 10 interceptions. Weaknesses: The defense is suspect, especially against the run, and this is a finesse team. That’s a problem that has been significant in playoff losses to the physical Patriots the last two seasons.

Manning, RB Edgerrin James (1,548 rush yards), and a talented trio of receivers lead this brilliant offense. The defense, however, ranked 28th overall, 23rd against the run. Indy gave up 129 yards rushing per game, including a whopping 4.78 per carry. The bottom line is this team really needs to get home field advantage for the playoffs. The Colts were 8-1 SU, 6-3 ATS at home where they rolled over opponents by an impressive 38-23 average.

Chargers (12-5 SU, 13-2-2 ATS): The Chargers were quite the money-maker last season. That can happen when you go from 4-12 to 12-4. Coach Marty Schottenheimer likes a balanced offense, and he has the perfect cast with QB Drew Brees, star RB LaDainian Tomlinson, TE Antonio Gates and WRs Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell.

The Chargers offense ranked 10th in the NFL (16th passing, 6th rushing). The run defense was third, led by 348-pound Jamal Williams and DT Igor Olshansky. San Diego was 5-3 SU, 7-0-1 ATS on the road last season, a difficult feat to top. The good news is the Chargers are the only team in the NFL that returns all 22 starters on offense and defense, plus their punter, kicker and long snapper.

Chiefs (7-9 SU, 6-10 ATS): Is this a bounce back season? After a 13-3 2003 campaign, injuries and a terrible defense killed the Chiefs a year ago. Last year, the Chiefs finished No. 1 in total offense and No. 31 in total defense (dead last against the pass). The Chiefs revamped the ”˜D’ through the draft and free agency. Former Miami Dolphins star CB Patrick Surtain and free agent safety Sammy Knight are aboard, along with DE Carlos Hall (Titans) and LB Kendrell Bell (Steelers).

If the offense stays healthy, this is going to be a high scoring machine again. In 2004, KC was No. 1 in offense, with 143 rushing yards per game (5th) and 275 passing yards each game (4th). QB Trent Green (4,591 yards, 27 TDs, 17 INTs), TE Tony Gonzalez and RB Priest Holmes lead this veteran group in Dick Vermeil’s spread attack. The Chiefs are 32-16 "over" the total the last three years!

Patriots (17-2 SU, 13-5 ATS): Two straight Super Bowls, three in four years, a 34-4 record the last two seasons. What else is there to say about this organization? No team has won three straight Super Bowls and the Pats have some holes to fill. Both top coordinators to Bill Belichick moved on, and two inside linebacking leaders — Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson — retired. Bruschi was a fiery, heady leader and Pro Bowl CB Ty Law was also let go.

The Pats have loaded up with considerable depth, however, adding LBs Chad Johnson and Monty Beisel, and CBs Duane Starks and CB Chad Scott. The defense still has star power with DE Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Rodney Harrison. Most impressive is an offense that features new WR David Terrell and last year’s first round pick TE Ben Watson joining QB Tom Brady, RB Corey Dillon (1,635 yards, 12 TDs, 4.7 ypc) and Super Bowl MVP WR Deion Branch. Throw in two-time Super Bowl hero kicker Adam Vinatieri and this is still a team in the running for another title. The Patriots are 27-9-1 ATS the last two years!