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AFC poised to win another!

Aug 21, 2001 6:20 AM

East

Colts ”” The Colts are one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season. They have the most lethal trio of players in the league, in quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, so they should be able to score plenty of points. All three of them could be considered the top player at their position in the league, and Manning has been able to stay healthy throughout his career, thanks, in part, to a very solid offensive line. The key to the Colts season will be the play of their defense. Last year’s top pick, linebacker Rob Morris, is back from injury, and should give the Colts a solid run stopper this season. The Colts added some depth in the draft on defense, despite using their first pick on wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Second round pick Idrees Bashir could be a very important player for Indianapolis. The rookie is expected to start at free safety, and could be the most physically talented player in the secondary for the Colts.

Dolphins ”” The defending AFC East Champs did their best to improve their offense over the off-season, signing speedy wideouts like James McKnight and Dedric Ward, as well as drafting Chris Chambers in the second round. They also signed quarterback Ray Lucas, who has been competing with incumbent Jay Feidler for the starting job. Lamar Smith rushed for over 1100 yards last year, and will once again be the starter at halfback. Miami’s strength is on defense, though. The front four, led by end Jason Taylor and tackles Tim Bowens and Darryl Gardner, is one of the best in the league, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas is a football-seeking missile, who seems to be everywhere on the football field. The secondary is also outstanding, with cornerbacks Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and top pick Jamar Fletcher. With their strong defense, if the Dolphins can find a way to score 20 points per game again this season, they could repeat as division champs.

Jets ”” The Jets lost their last three games last season, going from 9-4 after their 13th game, to a final record of 9-7. Al Groh was fired as the team’s coach, and replaced by former cornerback and Bucs assistant Herman Edwards. The Jets tried to solve their biggest problem, wide receiver, by drafting Santana Moss and signing big free agent Matthew Hatchette. Moss will miss the first half of the season to injury, which won’t help, but Hatchette’s presence will certainly help Wayne Chrebet and Laverneaus Coles, to small, but talented pass catchers. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde will have to rebound from a 25-interception campaign, or young Chad Pennington will replace him as the Jets’ starter. Curtis Martin is the team’s feature back, but he’ll be helped by the presence of second round pick LaMont Jordan. Last year, Martin carried the ball 316 times, while the Jets rushed the ball just 418 times. Defensively, the Jets will be using a 4-3 alignment, to help exploit the strengths of ends John Abraham and Shaun Ellis. The Jets have enough talent to compete for the division title and a playoff spot, but a lot of things will have to go right if they’re to finish ahead of the Colts and Dolphins.

Bills ”” The Bills have failed to finish with a winning record only once over the last six seasons, but, it looks like that run may be over, at least for this season. Buffalo lost a bunch of players, most of whom went to San Diego, including quarterback Doug Flutie, linebacker Sam Rogers and defensive end Marcellus Wiley. The Bills have a new head coach in former Titans’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Rob Johnson will be the team’s starter behind center, but if the injury-prone Johnson get hurt, there isn’t much depth behind him. At running back, young Travis Henry has made a fine impression at camp, and Henry or Sammy Morris could emerge as the team’s top back. The strongest part of the offense will be the wide receivers, where Eric Moulds and Peerless Price are the returning starters. The defense probably won’t be as good as the last few seasons, but Williams is a great defensive mind, and the unit should be respectable, at the very least. End Erik Flowers will be asked to replace Wiley, and more will be expected of linebackers Sam Cowart and Keith Newman. The secondary will be good, also, led by cornerback Antoine Winfield and strong safety Henry Jones.

Patriots — While the rest of the division looks relatively strong, the Patriots figure to be the worst team of the group, if not the entire conference. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe is still one of the most talented passers in the game, but the offensive line looks like it will be horrible, the running game is a series of question marks, and the receiving corps, after the suspension of Terry Glenn, could be among the worst in the league. The story of the year for the team is probably the attempted return of running back Robert Edwards, who is trying to come back after one of the most horrific knee injuries in recent memory.  Defensively, the Patriots will be decent, primarily because of the presence of head coach Bill Belichek. Belichek is one of the top defensive minds in the league, and has cornerback Ty Law and safety Lawyer Milloy in the secondary. New England also signed veteran linebacker Bryan Cox early on in camp.

Central

Titans ”” It’s not often that a team that finished with a 13-3 record has a disappointing season, but when you’re coming off a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss, have the best record in the league and, statistically, the best defense in the league, you’re expected to win the Big Game. The Titans fell to the Ravens in the playoffs, but this veteran unit should be even more prepared for the upcoming season. Defensive end Kenny Holmes left to go to the Giants via free agency, but the Titans acquired Kevin Carter to replace him, who, along with Jevon Kearse, could form the most dominant combo of ends in the league. Cornerback Samari Rolle rates as one of the top covermen in the conference, and the linebackers will also be solid, led by Randall Godfrey and Keith Bullock. The offense will be spurred on by the running of Eddie George, although the team would like to see a bit more explosiveness from quarterback Steve McNair and his receivers, which include Derrick Mason, Kevin Dyson and tight end Frank Wychek. 

Ravens ”” The defending Super Bowl Champs got a very big blow when running back Jamal Lewis was lost for the entire season to injury. The Ravens had taken steps over the off-season to ensure their offense would be better than last season, by signing quarterback Elvis Grbac and tackle Leon Searcy. Unfortunately, Searcy was also lost to injury, but could be back toward the end of the season. Baltimore signed Terry Allen to try to replace Lewis, but the team will probably rely on Grbac’s arm and the improvement of wide receiver Travis Taylor. Scoring points is almost an afterthought for the Ravens with their defense, though. Almost the entire group is back from last year, including defensive coordinator Sherm Lewis. Ray Lewis had an event-less offseason and should have another outstanding season, with speedy outside ”˜backers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper back in the fold. In the secondary, safety Kim Herring was lost to free agency, but cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister are back, and make it very hard for opponents to find open receivers. If Baltimore can find a decent runner to replace some of Lewis’ production, they could be back in their second straight Super Bowl.

Jaguars ”” The Jags went a very disappointing 7-9 last year, a season in which they were supposed to contend for the Super Bowl. Injuries derailed the team, and they could be much improved this season, if their star players can stay healthy. Jacksonville had to cut $35 million in cap room before the season began, leaving the team short on quality depth throughout the roster. The key to the season will be the health of running back Fred Taylor. He rushed for 1399 yards last season, despite missing three games to a knee injury, and is one of the most dangerous backs in the game. Quarterback Mark Brunell is also healthy, and should have a good season. He’ll have some fine targets to throw to in wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell and tight end Kyle Brady. On defense, the frontline players are very good, including defensive end Tony Brackens and safety Donovan Darius and cornerback Fernando Bryant. Top draft pick, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, could also be an impact player by mid-season.

Steelers ”” Pittsburgh went a very surprising 9-7 last year, and are banking on the improvement of Kordell Stewart to improve on those numbers this year. Stewart played a bit better last year, but still completed just 52% of his passes and threw for just 11 touchdowns, while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Stewart will be throwing to the same group of receivers this season, so he should be able to find a comfort level with Hines Ward, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Bobby Shaw. The Steelers will rely on the running of Jerome Bettis, as well. The Bus carried the ball 355 times last year, and may match that mark again this season. The Steelers’ strength throughout the Cowher years has been their defense, and, more specifically, their linebackers, and that is true again this year, especially outside. Joey Porter and Jason Gildon are both athletic and big, and do a good job against the run or pass. The secondary is also solid with Chad Scott, Dewayne Washington and free safety Brent Alexander.

Bengals ”” A perennial doormat, the Bengals are probably facing another long season near the basement of the AFC Central. They have a quarterback controversy between Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell and Akili Smith, none of whom have looked like world-beaters in the preseason. Running back is a strength with Corey Dillon, and the wide receiver corps should be good, with the return of Darnay Scott from injury, and the continued improvement of Peter Warrick, Ron Dugans and draft pick Chad Johnson. The team’s top draft pick, defensive end Justin Smith, has yet to sign with the team at the time of this writing, and that won’t help a unit in desperate need of a pass rush. The linebackers are the strength of the unit, led by Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, who missed most of last year with a knee injury. The Bengals should be better than last year, but that might not translate into a better record. With their quarterback problems, and defensive deficiencies, as well as playing in, arguably, the toughest division in the league, the Bengals could have a tough time beating last year’s four wins.

Browns ”” The Browns are starting over with a new head coach and a decent group of young players. Last season, the losses at quarterback, with Tim Couch and Ty Detmer both being lost for the season, kept the team from improving. They finished with a 3-13 record and had players like Spergeon Wynn and wide receiver Kevin Johnson playing quarterback. If Couch or Detmer, or both, can stay healthy, Cleveland should be a bit better. Couch is the clear starter, and will look to throw to young receivers like Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, JuJuan Dawson and rookie Quincy Morgan.

Cleveland also added a decent tight end in Rickey Dudley. The running game will probably be by committee, with rookie James Jackson and Travis Prentice getting the bulk of the carries. The defense could be a lot better, as well. They took tackle Gerard Warren with their top pick, and he’ll team with last year’s top pick Courtney Brown on the line. Free agent acquisition Dwayne Rudd is the headliner of the linebackers, and he’ll have to play well to try to make up for an average secondary. The Browns should be better but, like the Bengals, they play in a brutal division, and are too young and inexperienced to win consistently.

West

Broncos ”” The Broncos went 11-5 last year, and then, over the off-season, worked wonders with the salary cap, to add a number of important veterans to an already solid team. Everyone knows about the Broncos depth at running back, with Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, but the Broncos may be the deepest team, from top to bottom, in the entire league. They’ve suffered through some injuries already, losing backup quarterback Steve Beurlein and top draft pick, Willie Middlebrooks, both possibly for the season, but the Broncos might not even notice those losses once the real games begin. Brian Griese is the team’s top signal-caller, and is backed up by Gus Frerotte. The Broncos have added depth at wide receiver, with the signing of Eddie Kennison, where Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey are two of the game’s best, but haven’t had a decent backup over the last few seasons. Denver signed cornerback Denard Walker and, along with Deltha O’Neal and Tyrone Poole, they should have plenty of quality in the secondary. The line is deep, led by Trevor Pryce, Maa Tanuvasa and Kavika Pittman, as are the linebackers. Denver signed veterans Lee Woodall and Henri Crockett, to go with returnees John Mobley, Bill Romanowski and Al Wilson. On paper, the Broncos might be the best, and most well-rounded team in the conference.

Raiders ”” Oakland got all the way to the AFC Championship Game before falling to the Ravens last season, and they could be even better this year. The Raiders brought in free agent running back Charlie Garner, wide receiver Jerry Rice and defensive end Trace Armstrong, and while none of them are spring chickens, they are all talented players that can help the team win. Garner will give the Raiders’ running game a nice compliment to the bruising style of Tyrone Wheatley, while Rice will probably flourish in the Raiders possession passing game. Quarterback Rich Gannon is extremely efficient and mobile. As long as he stays healthy, the Raiders are very dangerous. The offensive line is also a good, veteran unit. Armstrong will give the Raiders a great outside pass-rusher to go with their talented interior of Darrell Russell, who’ll miss the first four game of the season to suspension, and Grady Jackson. There is plenty of depth at linebacker with Greg Beikert, William Thomas, Elijah Alexander and Ryan Phillips, and in the secondary, which is led by Charles Woodson and Eric Allen, and improved by the drafting of safety Derrick Gibson. The Raiders are a team built to win now. Don’t be surprised if they wrestle the division away from the Broncos again this year.

Chiefs ”” Dick Vermeil is th