With the new season only days away I thought I would take you through a whistle-stop tour of the league starting with an AFC preview and I’ll give the NFC teams their own post before the Philadelphia Eagle and Atlanta Falcons get things under way on Thursday.
I don’t particularly like making predictions as there are too many variables and injury luck is can be such a huge part of team success so I’ll be breaking the divisions up into favourites, competitive, and likely to struggle as I work my way round the division compass so without further ado let’s make a start on the .
Much as it is painful for a Bengals fan to say it, the favourite to take the AFC North division is still the Pittsburgh Steelers. They may have questions at linebacker thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury, but the defence still finished top ten last year by DVOA in and the options in their offence are still terrifying. Time is ticking for Ben Roethlisberger but as long as he doesn’t suffer a dramatic fall off then this is going to be one of the teams of the conference who should have their eyes on the Super Bowl.
The AFC North is always a tough division, and even when the Browns are struggling they are often a tough out, but not so much under Hue Jackson. However, with a defence that has looked good in pre-season and the additions of Jarvis Landy and Tyrod Taylor as well as new offensive co-ordinator Toddy Haley it at least feels like the infrastructure for success is more solid. In a position to let rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield develop and not rush him I think the Browns will be more competitive than last season, but whether their ill-discipline (they got penalised a lot in pre-season) will allow them to win games I don’t know. I think we’ll know a lot more about this team by the end of the first four games.
The Baltimore Ravens are another team who are perennially competitive but had to do it with defence and special teams last year. With a kicker like Justin Tucker you can mask a lot of deficiencies in offence but the thing the Ravens coaches might be most happy about having drafted Lamar Jackson this year is the fire it seems to have lit under long time quarterback Joe Flacco. He may also have been helped by better receiving options and being healthy in the offseason for the first time in two years but if the Ravens’ Super Bowl winning play caller can lead the offensive to a better ranking than twenty-first by DVOA the Ravens will be right in contention for the playoffs again.
I’ve written a fair amount about the Cincinnati Bengals this pre-season and it is telling that neither of the offensive tackles two years that they drafted to prepare for a transition of talent have worked out whilst Andrew Whitworth looked great for the LA Rams last year. With new playbooks on both sides of the ball there have been a lot of changes to coaching and the roster. Whilst the Bengals have another young team there seemed to be a lot to like and if the O-line gels, then Andy Dalton should have a much easier time finding his myriad of skill players. I’m not pencilling them into the playoffs, but I’m not ruling it out and I wasn’t sure that would be the case when it was announced the Marvin Lewis was coming back.
Is this the year that the New England Patriots falter? For the first time Tom Brady was not ever present through the off-season, their first round offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn ruptured his Achillies after they let starting left tackle Nate Solder leave in free-agency, and this was a team that went to the Super Bowl with a defence ranked thirty-first in the league by DVOA so they can ill afford an offensive wobble. I think we’re all at the point where we’ll believe Tom Brady is done when he has signed his retirement papers, but what will help them is that none of the rest of the division are exactly standing up as challengers at the moment and so the Patriots look to be favourites still. This could finally change though.
The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs for the first time in eighteen attempts last seasons, but they responded to this by cutting the quarterback that got them there, not signing the linebacker that led the league in tackles and trading their left tackle to the Bengals in the draft manoeuvres required to get their quarterback of the future. Have traded away AJ McCarron they have opted to go with rookie Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman as their QBs, but whilst Peterman has looked good in pre-season and Allen has flashed, the Bengals defensive line had a field day against Buffalo’s o-line and it could be a very long season for whoever starts. I was impressed with everything Sean McDermott did last season bar benching Tyrod Taylor but I don’t think this season’s roster is better than last years and I have a nasty feeling they will struggle for a lot of the season.
If you trade away your best offensive and defensive players for chemistry reasons, you had better have an awful lot of talent coming in and I’m not sure that Miami Dolphins do. I thought they had a good draft and I would say Adam Gase is a good coach but I’m not at all sure of the roster construction and this feels like the latest in a long series of make or break seasons for Ryan Tannehill. I believe that Gase can keep the locker room together and make them competitive but it would not surprise me if they fall into a difficult season. Nothing would make me happier than to be proved wrong, if only to cheer Dan through the season.
Finally we have the New York Jets, and I though Todd Bowles did an excellent job of coaching with a lack of talent on the roster last season and not sure many other coaches would have got as many wins. The most ready of the rookie quarterbacks fell into their laps in the draft and Sam Darnold looked good enough in pre-season that the Jets traded Teddy Bridgewater to the New Orleans Saints. I think it will take another or season or two to turn things round and I don’t know if Bowles will get the chance to complete the job, but I can see the Jets equalling their record of last season. There will be ups and downs with a rookie quarterback but the real question for this season is have the Jets finally got a franchise QB. Everything else after that can wait.
The Jacksonville Jaguars continued to build their defence, stuck with Blake Bortles and their big free agent signing was a offensive guard. I thought that Bortles might have learnt a thing or two in last season’s playoff run but with the exodus at receiver and the injury to Marqise Lee this team will be as reliant as ever on their defence and the run game. The good news is that the defence will be no less scary and they should rightly be considered the favourites for this division.
The Houston Texans may have only won four games last season, but they revealed they could have a bright future as long as the young quarterback Deshaun Watson can recover his blistering form from last season before his knee injury. With the defence hoping a number of players stay healthy, including JJ Watt this could be really good team even if the offensive line looks to be a big problem. There are a lot of ifs there so whilst the Texans will start out competitively, how long they will remain so is the big question.
The Tennessee Titans ground their way into the playoffs with a run first offence and a defence that ranked twenty-first in the league by DVOA. This was not enough to save Mike Mularkey his job and there rookie head coach Mike Vraebel is hoping that Matt LaFleur can revitalise the offence and fourth year quarterback Marcus Mariota. The coaches with links to Bill Belichick have not necessary flourished as head coaches and Vraebel has limited experience as the man with ultimate responsibility so I am very curious to see how he goes. The honest answer is I’m not sure so this is one of the teams we’ll need to follow closely through the start of the season.
The Indianapolis Colts have struggled mightily with Andrew Luck being out injured but this also laid bare the problems with the rest of the roster and whilst there are signs that things are improving in the second year of Chris Ballard’s rebuild, a lot will depend on Andrew Lucks surgically repaired and extensively rehabbed shoulder. The good news is that he’s back to starting but new head coach Frank Reich will be hoping that he can get enough from his franchise quarterback that the season can be a success, but I have a feeling that being competitive would qualify as just that and would be a good place to start.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the division last year and I have too much faith in Andy Reid to see this team as anything other than competitive and I would place them as favourites to win the division. That is despite trading Alex Smith to Washington to promote Patrick Mahomes as the starter after a season where the young quarterback sat on the bench. Mahomes has the arms to make use of the myriad of skills players the Chiefs can use in their offence that has borrowed liberally from college, whilst their defence was only ranked thirtieth by DVOA last year when they won the division. It wouldn’t take much to improve that ranking and with the potential of their offence the Chiefs could be one of the most fun teams to watch this season.
The other potential favourite in this division could be the LA Chargers but it would require them to get out of their own way and they couldn’t quite manage that last season. The abiding image of Philip Rivers for me these days is a player somehow functioning as an effective quarterback despite minimal protection from his line. The defence was just outside of the top ten with a fearsome pass rush led by Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and they should be competitive again this season. The problem is that they have a nasty habit of losing close games and their ‘home’ games in LA were frequently more like home games for the opposition thanks to fan turnout. I’d like to think they can improve but I’m not willing to just outright declare it, although I’d be very willing to be proved wrong again.
I’m not entirely sure where to begin with the currently Oakland soon to be Las Vegas Raiders. The big move of the off-season would have been luring Jon Gruden out of the commentary booth nine years after he last coached except they have just traded Khalil Mack, one of the best young defensive players in the league, to the Chicago Bears. The reasoning is that the Mack’s contract demands were just too big, and the Bears wasted no time in signing Mack to a six year deal with $90 million guaranteed days after Aaron Donald signed a contract with $87 million guaranteed. The difference between the three franchises is that the Rams still have a young quarterback on their rookie contract as does the Bears, whilst the Raiders have already signed Derek Carr to a five year extension. The issue is that Gruden has been out of the league for a while, even if he was staying plugged into the NFL through his media gig, and the defence his brother Jay Gruden [I appear to have gone made, too many ex-Bengal coordinators involved as it is in fact Paul Guenther who is the new defensive coordinator – Ed.] takes over was ranked twenty-ninth by DVOA with Khalil Mack. I’m really not sure what to expect out of the Raiders this year, and whilst I can see the salary cap argument to an extent (I don’t study it hard, maybe that’s a task for next off-season) the Mack trade amongst others does nothing to help the Raiders now and I think this club will be in for a very interesting time this year.
Last year’s AFC West strugglers the Denver Broncos will be hoping that the addition of Case Keenum at quarterback will be enough of an upgrade to the offence to give the still competitive if retooled defence a chance of winning games. In the one game I saw them this preseason the offensive line still looked to be a problem but after a good pre-season from Chad Kelly, the Paxton Lynch development plan has finally been shelved. It is way too soon to question a GM who has won a Super Bowl and given his history as franchise quarterback you would think that the job is John Elway’s as long as he wants it. However, whilst he’s made a number of sharp moves in free-agency, his record in the draft is a bit patchier and his choice of Vance Joseph as head coach didn’t exactly yield the early returns that Elway would have hoped for. Still, if either Keenum or Kelly can make the offence competitive then the Broncos will be a team no one will want to face, especially at home and that could be enough for them to be in the playoff race come December.