2014 NFL Preview – AFC

Author’s Note: This story was originally written on August 21, 2014. It was reposted on this blog November 9, 2015.

AFC East

New England: The Patriots are just about a lock to win the division every year, having claimed the top spot 10 of the last 11 seasons. The lone exception in that remarkable run came when Tom Brady suffered a season ending knee injury in week one (2008). So as long as Brady is healthy, don’t expect anything different in 2014. The front office did little to improve his weapons, but there’s enough for the 9-time Pro Bowler to do what he always does: win. Defensively, they essentially swapped Aqib Talib for Darrelle Revis, so, at worst, that’s a wash. Brandon Browner should also help the secondary once he returns from a 4 game suspension. It’ll be interesting to see if Dominique Easley contributes much in his first year, because he was a monster when healthy at Florida. Additionally, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork will be back after suffering season ending injuries last year.

Prediction: I think the Pats will be slightly better than they were in 2013. Their number one concern this season is still the Denver Broncos. I see them winning the division with an 11-12 win season. They’ll probably have to play in Mile High again, but it wouldn’t shock me if they won this time. We’ll see.

Miami: The Dolphins should have fallen apart last season. They also should have made the playoffs. It was a rollercoaster type of season for Miami fans. Ryan Tannehill made progress, but not enough for Dolphins fans to sleep well at night. Priority #1 was improving the league’s worst offensive line, and they’ve made some upgrades. Branden Albert will protect Tannehill’s blindside and the team’s first round pick Ja’wuan James will start immediately at right tackle. But the interior of the line is a concern with Mike Pouncey recovering from hip surgery and no proven commodities at either guard spot. New Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor brings over an up-tempo style of play from Philadelphia that should put more points on the board each week. The defense was stout again last year, and could improve slightly with the additions of Louis Delmas and Courtland Finnegan, but the team’s linebacker play must get better.

Prediction: The Dolphins really should have made the playoffs last year with a pretty low scoring offense. I think Bill Lazor will improve Tannehill’s production like he did with Nick Foles. If the running game can improve and the offensive line finds a way to hold up, this team wins 10 games and claims a wild card spot.

New York: Unlike the Dolphins, the Jets exceeded expectations last year. They ended up 8-8 and it felt like a successful season. Geno Smith looked good at times, but overall he was pretty terrible. Rex Ryan knows how to draft, scheme, and develop defensive players like no one else and the unit should be even better this year. Muhammad Wilkerson and last year’s defensive rookie of the year, Sheldon Richardson, will give opposing offenses fits all season. Erik Decker and Chris Johnson will definitely help the offense, but it’s just hard to see Gang Green winning more than 8 games with Geno starting. Unless Michael Vick has some magical season in relief, it’s going to be difficult for the Jets to score enough points to make the playoffs.

Prediction: Like I said, Geno Smith was so bad last year it’s hard to see him turning into a playoff caliber quarterback just because he’s throwing to Erik Decker. If they do find a way to win 9-10 wins, it’ll be with an unstoppable running game and an elite defense. I think Rex’s squad is talented and will battle each week, but it’s a quarterback driven league and nobody on the Jets’ roster leads me to believe they’ll do enough to make it to the playoffs.

Buffalo: The Bills have quietly assembled an impressive amount of young talent the past 3-4 years. They have one of the most underrated defenses in the NFL and weapons on offense. The D-Line will be the best unit on the team again, but the losses of Kiko Alonso and Jairus Byrd will hurt the back seven. A healthy C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson should keep the running game strong despite questions along the offensive line. The biggest name of the Bills’ offseason has undoubtedly been Sammy Watkins and all reports suggest he is the real deal. The rookie from Clemson looks NFL ready, but can he possibly be a dominant number one wide out in his first season? Not likely. E.J. Manuel has to improve on his injury plagued rookie year. I think he will, but, like Geno Smith, I didn’t see enough to believe he can take his team to the playoffs. The upside is higher with Manuel, but patience is sparse in this league.

Prediction: Buffalo has too much talent to be a 6-win team two years in a row. Any prediction of their record this season will be based on E.J. Manuel’s development. If he can cut back on interceptions and get the ball to his playmakers this team could challenge for a wild card spot. More likely, though, inconsistent play will leave them closer to a .500 record.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) New England (12-4)

2) Miami (10-6)

3) New York (7-9)

4) Buffalo (7-9)

AFC North

Cincinnati: Year after year, Marvin Lewis produces a physical, balanced, and competitive Bengals team. If you don’t count the playoffs, Andy Dalton’s contract extension is a no brainer. There would be no reason for speculation on Marvin Lewis future with the team. While that talk is still limited thanks to a loyal owner, Cincy has to start winning in the playoffs to be taken seriously in this league. They have playmakers everywhere on offense and depth all over a consistently stingy defense. There’s understandably concern after losing two outstanding coordinators in Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, but both were replaced through internal promotions, so production shouldn’t dip significantly in 2014. Michael Johnson’s departure will be felt on the defensive line, but Geno Adkins and Leon Hall return from season ending injuries in 2013. The team’s first two picks last year, Tyler Eifert and Giovanni Bernard, are likely to breakout this year after their promising rookie season. Additionally, Darqueze Dennard and Jeremy Hill could contribute as rookies.

Prediction: Last year was an uncharacteristically down year for the AFC north, so the path to another division title will probably prove more difficult in 2014. It’s hard to imagine the Bengals improving on an 11-5 record with virtually the same team, but many of their best players are still young and trending upward. Perhaps the sustained continuity gets them to 12 wins, but I see them going 10-6 and claiming the North over a 10-6 Ravens team by way of a better division record.

Baltimore: It was far from a valiant Super Bowl defense for the Ravens in 2013. Joe Flacco played like a guy who just got an outrageously lucrative contract that he couldn’t possibly outperform. Amazingly, it was the first year in John Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach that the team failed to make the playoffs. That kind of consistency, and a Lombardi trophy, warrants the benefit of the doubt after a down year. The defense wasn’t ready to overcome losing Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, but they should be this year. Mixing Pro Bowl veterans like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Elvis Dumervil with promising young players Matt Elam, C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Arthur Brown, and Terrance Brooks, should lead to a much stronger unit in 2014. Gary Kubiak takes over as offensive coordinator, a definite upgrade from Jim Caldwell. The return of Dennis Pitta and arrival of Steve Smith will help Flacco regain form.

Prediction: While John Harbaugh’s Ravens have always made the playoffs (before last year), they’ve never put up dominant regular season win totals. That’s probably due to the division they play in, but regardless, I see Baltimore returning to form this year. C.J. Mosley is a franchise middle linebacker and will make an impact right away. Kubiak will help Flacco right the ship on offense and the Ravens win 10 games and make it back into the playoffs via a wild card spot.

Pittsburgh: Things got off to a rocky start for Pittsburgh in 2013 as the team began 0-4. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a similar record for the Steelers when October rolls around this year. At the same time, this team looked old and limited last season. Losing Mike Wallace really hurt the offense, and the big names on defense are well past their prime. Lance Moore is a solid addition, but he’ll have to replace Emmanuel Sanders’ production. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding third round pick Dri Archer because of his 40 time, but he’s a poor man’s Tavon Austin and Austin struggled to consistently make plays for the Rams last year. Fans have reason for optimism with young names on defense like Jarvis Jones, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier, but they are probably still too young to make major contributions to a team that needs help now. Le’Veon Bell and an oft-injured O-Line will need to be stellar for the Steel city to see their team in the playoffs in 2014.

Prediction: Although I like the Ravens roster much more, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have always been similar teams. They hang their hat on having a physical defense, a strong running game, good quarterback play, and great coaching. Steelers fans have to hope the offensive line finally stays healthy and that the young players on defense contribute right away, because they still have Big Ben and Mike Tomlin. I just don’t see that happening, so I have them going 9-7 and missing the playoffs again.

Cleveland: It seems like any preview of Cleveland sports has to begin with “poor Cleveland.” That’s not the case this year with LeBron James returning to the Cavaliers, but I still feel bad for Browns fans. Despite all the media attention and optimism surrounding Johnny Manziel, I can’t see him ever winning a Super Bowl. Perhaps that’s too harsh of a criticism to put on a rookie, but I see Johnny Football becoming a slightly better version of Michael Vick. And shouldn’t that be your mindset when trying to draft a franchise quarterback? Regardless of if Manziel plays this year, I think the Browns QB play will be average at best. That’s a shame because the rest of their team- excluding wide receiver- is pretty good. Josh Gordon will be missed and I still think passing on Sammy Watkins was a mistake because those two could’ve replicated what Fitzgerald and Boldin did in Arizona. With that duo I would’ve bought the Browns as a playoff team no matter who started at quarterback. Speculation aside, the team will definitely be better in 2014. Ben Tate gets his chance to be a feature back behind a solid offensive line. Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby can still play at a high level and drafting Justin Gilbert gives Joe Haden a dynamic partner in crime.

Prediction: It’s easy to say the Browns will be better this year because they only won 4 games last year. I see big improvements because Mike Pettine will have that defense firing on all cylinders, and Brandon Weeden is gone. Cleveland still finishes last in the division, but they should be able to scratch out 7 or 8 wins.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) Cincinnati (10-6)

2) Baltimore (10-6)

3) Pittsburgh (9-7)

4) Cleveland (7-9)

AFC South

Indianapolis: The Colts were able to consistently stay atop the AFC South through the first decade of the 2000’s because they had an elite quarterback. Well things are shaping up quite similarly these days as Andrew Luck continues to climb up the quarterback rakings. Until another franchise QB rises in the division (Blake Bortles?), the Colts shouldn’t have much trouble making the playoffs in the foreseeable future. Making some noise in the playoffs, however, will be a much taller order for this Indy team. At some point, Chuck Pagano’s squad needs to start playing defense like the one he helped develop in Baltimore. D’Qwell Jackson could be a nice addition, but 2013 first round pick Bjoern Werner will be a much bigger factor in the development of this defense. Werner struggled to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker last year, but he has the pass rushing potential to complement Robert Mathis once he returns and help fill the void in his absence. Luck should have another great season, but this offense could be special if Hakeem Nicks can regain the dominant form he once had with the Giants, or if Trent Richardson and the offensive line give their quarterback any help at all.

Prediction: People in the media love this team, almost entirely because of Luck. They definitely have some big names on offense, but most of them have proven to be bigger than their on-field production. They won’t have any trouble claiming the AFC South, but I see a 10-win team that has some work to do before they’re a Super Bowl contender.

Tennessee: The Titans might be the hardest team to predict because they rarely ever receive national media attention of any kind. They don’t have any household names on offense or defense now that Chris Johnson is gone. Still, they managed to finish 7-9 last season without their starting quarterback for most of the season. This has to be Jake Locker’s year. He was drafted in 2011 and the jury is somehow still out on him. If he can’t stay on the field this year, the Titans will be moving on. The good news for him is that Ken Wisenhunt has had success with several different quarterbacks in his coaching career. The defense is solid, but unspectacular. Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips are both nice additions. Perhaps with a talented offensive line and good running game, Locker will finally show some promise.

Prediction: Assuming Jake Locker stays healthy all season, the Titans should progress in 2014. How much they progress depends upon how well Locker plays. If he can stretch the field to Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, the running game will carry them to a winning season. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen up to this point, I can’t see Tennessee winning more than 9 games.

Jacksonville: I know it’s hard to see on a team that picked third in the most recent draft, but the Jaguars have gotten quite a makeover the past two years. Head Coach Gus Bradley and GM Dave Caldwell have been steadily building momentum after taking over a roster nearly void of NFL talent. And slowly but surely the media has been catching on and trying to be the first to predict future “Seattle-like success.” Some rash predictions have been made, but it is hard to ignore the young talent they’ve assembled in Jacksonville. To be certain, any real believer in the Jaguars future must be a believer in Blake Bortles. The Big Ben comparisons make sense to me, but I think Bortles has more potential. Time will tell, but I do think Bortles will be starting mid-season, if not earlier. Quarterback talk aside, it will be interesting to see what Toby Gerhart is capable of as a feature back. Also, can any of the Jags’ young wideouts become a playmaker with Justin Blackmon likely out for the season? Defensively, Gus Bradley brought in some familiar veterans from Seattle Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, as well as Ziggy Hood from Pittsburgh, to help sure up the defensive line.

Prediction: This team is still not ready to compete for the playoffs, but I’d be shocked if there’s not marked improvement. Watching their games should be bearable this season, and I think Bortles will play well whenever he takes the reigns. It won’t be a memorable season, but a 6-10 record could bring some promise to a franchise that hasn’t had any in a long time.

Houston: The 2013 Texans have to be one of the most talented teams to finish with the league’s worst record in recent memory. They absolutely collapsed and, as a result, Gary Kubiak lost his job. In comes Bill O’Brien, who seems to have all the makings of a successful NFL head coach. The team’s 14 game losing streak did allow them to take the best defensive prospect in years, Jadeveon Clowney. However, the biggest problem Houston had last year was poor quarterback play from Matt Schaub, and his eventual replacements. Their solution must have been to tank another season and draft one next year, because they brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick and drafted Tom Savage. Yikes. Brian Cushing returns from yet another devastating knee injury to help lead what should be a good defense, but they’ll be on the field a lot with a one-dimensional offense.

Prediction: Arian Foster will need to produce an Adrian Peterson 2012-type season for the Texans to stay competitive this year. There are studs all over this roster, so improvement is certain, but the ceiling is always low without a good quarterback. Opponents won’t enjoy playing the physical Texans defense, but they also won’t need to score many points to win. I see 5 ugly wins and some close losses in a rebuilding 2014 for Houston.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) Indianapolis (10-6)

2) Tennessee (8-8)

3) Jacksonville (6-10)

3) Houston (5-11)

AFC West

Denver: The rich get richer. After one of the most shocking Super Bowl performances in NFL history, Denver’s front office went to work fixing the very few deficiencies on their roster. They brought in Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and DeMarcus Ware on defense and Emmanuel Sanders to replace Eric Decker. First round pick Bradley Roby will probably contribute in his first season as well. Jack Del Rio will get the most out of the new defensive additions and the unit should be much better in 2014. Peyton Manning is still the best quarterback in the NFL and as long as he stays healthy this team will be dominant on offense. Montee Ball will handle the bulk of the carries with Knowshon Moreno in Miami, but don’t expect a huge dropoff. This team is even better than they were last year, and that’s a scary thought for anyone in the AFC.

Prediction: It’s hard to get much better than 13-3, so it’s fair to expect a 12-4 or 11-5 season from the reigning AFC Champs. But even with a tough schedule, I think they’ll go 14-2. Who is going to stop them? This is one of the best teams Peyton Manning has ever been on and it will be a disappointment if Denver doesn’t make it back to the Super Bowl in 2014 (2015, technically).

San Diego: East Coast bias always leaves the Chargers flying under the radar, both during the offseason and regular season. That seems to be fine with Phillip Rivers and second year head coach Mike McCoy. Rivers quietly had a bounce-back season in 2013, throwing for just under 4,500 yards, 32 TD’s and only 11 INT’s. Keenan Allen had a breakout rookie season hauling in 8 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards receiving. If Malcom Floyd can stay healthy he could be another big target for Rivers. Ryan Matthews finally stayed on the field 16 games and ran for over 1,200 yards. Melvin Ingram returns from another injury, but last year he proved he was worth the first round pick San Diego spent on him in 2012. The Chargers went defense again in the first round of the 2014 draft selecting CB Jason Verrett from TCU. They also added Brandon Flowers in free agency, so the defense should take another step forward this season.

Prediction: Despite having a mediocre 9-7 record, the Chargers found a way into the playoffs last year. Once they made it in, they made some noise beating the Bengals in Cincinnati and giving Denver a scare in Mile High. They did beat Denver in week 15, so this team certainly has potential to beat anyone, anywhere. I think they’ll be more consistent during the regular season and finish 10-6. Unfortunately being in the AFC West, they’ll have to fight for a Wild Card spot. Between Baltimore and Miami, they could be on the outside looking in this postseason.

Kansas City: Andy Reid showed why he gets so much love from the national media last season when he took over the lowly Chiefs and turned them into an 11-5 playoff team. He made it look so easy, too. Just have Alex Smith manage the game, get Jamaal Charles the ball any way possible, and play great defense. Unfortunately, as the season finished Kansas City came back to earth in horrendous fashion surrendering a 28-point lead to the Colts. After the season, they got even worse. Without putting up much of a noticeable fight, the Chiefs watched Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz, Brandon Flowers, Tyson Jackson, and Dexter McCluster walk out the door. They drafted Dee Ford and De’Anthony Thomas, but that’s about it. The defense will still be strong and Jamaal Charles is still on the roster, so they won’t be terrible in 2014, but they have a lot to overcome to make it back to the playoffs.

Prediction: Everyone knew the Chiefs weren’t the worst team in football two years ago, and it felt like they overachieved last year, so how good is this team? Probably somewhere in between 1-15 and 11-5. There’s no denying Kansas City had a good team last year, but I think they lost too much to reach the playoffs again in a strong division. Andy Reid is a great coach, but his squad will fight for a .500 record in 2014.

Oakland: Optimism just doesn’t look the same for Raiders fans as it does for the rest of the league. Last year they were excited to have Terrelle Pryor lead their team (hindsight is a funny thing sometimes). This year, their hope is in Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Schaub. Any and all Matt Schaub believers were silenced last season, but perhaps a change in scenery will lead to better things for the two-time Pro Bowler. That being said, Schaub’s best-case scenario probably looks more like 2013 Carson Palmer than 2013 Alex Smith. And the Cardinals have a much better team, quarterbacks aside. Even still, MJD and James Jones should make significant contributions to an offense that ranked 24th in scoring last year. Defensively, the front office made some substantial additions including Justin Tuck, Lamar Woodley, and Antonio Smith. You’d be hard pressed to find a football fan that doesn’t think Kalil Mack will be a star in this league, but last year’s first round pick, D.J. Hayden, needs to have a better sophomore campaign. If those two can contribute this season, the Raiders could be a much better team in 2014.

Prediction: It shouldn’t be hard to improve after finishing 4-12 last year, but it’s hard to believe in the Raiders these days. I think they’ll be much better in 2014, but winning even 2 out of 6 against division opponents San Diego, Kansas City, and Denver would be impressive. The new additions could bring this team 7 or 8 wins, but if I were a Raiders fan I’d just want to see Derek Carr get out there and find out if he has any chance to become a franchise quarterback. Even with the improvements, Oakland finishes 6-10.

Predicted Division Standings

1) Denver (14-2)

2) San Diego (10-6)

3) Kansas City (8-8)

4) Oakland (6-10)

Author: Zac Howard

Freelance Journalist based in NYC

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