With the 2015 season just around the corner, now is the time where teams come in with a renewed sense of optimism. Teams finally get to see the players they acquired in the off-season on the field for the first time. The New England Patriots will be looking to fend of all challengers in search of their 5th Super Bowl title and attempt to repeat as champions for the 2nd time in team history. There will be plenty of challengers coming from both conferences, so the Patriots have to keep their guard up.
#1 Seed: New England Patriots (13-3)
Despite all the high profile losses in the off-season, the Patriots' young core is still intact. Rob Gronkowski is healthy going into the offseason for the first time since 2011 and is the greatest pass catching threat in the AFC, if not the entire NFL. Shane Vereen is gone too, but the 3rd Down/Receiving Back role has plenty of quality players vying for that job. Rob Ninkovich, Tom Brady, and Sebastian Vollmer are the only starters over the age of 30 (I have Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler as the starting corners with Robert McClain and Patrick Chung splitting slot duties). The Patriots offensive personnel from 2014 is coming back and has been bolstered with the addition of Scott Chandler as another red zone weapon. While the offense lacks the marquee name on the outside since the Randy Moss days, their receiving corps is one of the best in the game if you include running backs and tight ends. Defensively, the Patriots have bolstered their front 7 and increased competition at the cornerback position (the only question mark heading into 2015) through free agency with the additions of DE Jabaal Sheard, CBs Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain, and Tarell Brown. If the Patriots can amp up the pass rush and figure out the CB situation, they should be the best team in the AFC if not the entire NFL.
#2 Seed: Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The #2 seed in the AFC is up for grabs between the AFC North division winner, the Indianapolis Colts, and the AFC West winner. Overall, I do think the conference has taken a step backwards compared to where they were last year. This year, I predict that the Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North and the #2 seed in the conference. When John Harbaugh isn't complaining about something, he does a good job of preparing his team for games (especially against the Patriots, those games are always dogfights). Joe Flacco doesn't quite reach the elite tier, but boasts a strong arm along with sneaky athleticism. Aside from the interception he threw to Duron Harmon (Torrey Smith had gotten past Logan Ryan, but Harmon did a good job of anticipating the throw and beating Smith to the spot for the interception), Flacco has done a good number to the Patriots. The Ravens also feature a formidable running game with that annoying version of the zone blocking scheme where OL cut at the DL's legs and a very formidable Front 7 that gave Brady fits in that game (throwing 50 times a game with no running game to keep the DL honest, you're getting hit a lot) and forced Bill Belichick to run some college style formations and a double pass play. Last year proved that you can never count out the Ravens, this year I'm not making that mistake.
#3 Seed: Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts don't play the Ravens this year, but I have Baltimore finishing ahead of them because of a better conference record (AFC North plays NFC West). Houston is going to be a lot tougher for the Colts this year now that Bill O'Brien has larger fingerprints on the roster. However, I don't see Houston overtaking the Colts quite just yet without their own franchise QB. Andrew Luck is still a very good QB (still prone to careless mistakes) who is not afraid to throw the ball downfield. Their receiving cast is pretty formidable for teams to deal with and Luck will make teams pay for not intercepting his careless mistakes. In addition, the Colts defense features one of the best CBs in the game (Vontae Davis) and can be a problem to beat on the road unless you play great football. I still see the Colts run offense and defense as question marks and I'm not impressed with the big name additions they made in the off-season (It's 2015, not 2010). I still think their offensive line and Front 7 are suspect and easy for good teams to take advantage of. In other news, I'm going to set the O/U for LeGarrette Blount rushes to 25.5, rushing yards to 135.5, and rushing touchdowns to 2.5 for Week 4.
#4 Seed: Denver Broncos (11-5)
I really want to put the San Diego Chargers or Kansas City Chiefs in this spot, but I really can't justify it based on how their teams have performed down the stretch the last couple seasons. The Broncos look like a mess relative to the other AFC contenders, but I'm not counting out Peyton Manning (for at least the regular season). With all the talk of how Manning is done and should retire, I'm sure that may have re-ignited his passion for football. Like Tom Brady last season, Peyton is burning to get back on the football field and prove his detractors wrong again. The Broncos were able to re-sign Demaryius Thomas to a 5/$70M deal (it's definitely possible that they colluded with Dallas for the Thomas and Bryant contracts, but I'm not revisit that accusation unless the NFLPA does something about it). Despite being crushed by injuries, I think Manning will be able to lead his team into the playoffs for another Peyton One & Done Special.
#5 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
The Steelers may have one of the most well-balanced offenses in the NFL with a premier QB, RB, and WR trio and likely top 3 picks for a lot of fantasy teams. Ben Roethlisberger is tough as nails and is unfazed by pressure (his QB rating was over 100 when under pressure) thrown at him. Le'Veon Bell is a top 5 RB in the NFL and is excellent as a runner, receiver, and pass protector. Antonio Brown is arguably the toughest cover in the NFL because of his great hands and precision route running abilities and requires double teams. The Steelers will likely finish in the Top 5 for a lot of offensive categories, but that's not their problem. The problem is defense and the turnover that occurred from the elite defense of the 2000s. Now there are a lot of young and unproven talents in the Back 8, but their Front 3 (Heyward, McCullers, Tuitt) is very formidable and not to be taken lightly. If the Steelers defense can keep their opponents under 30 points, they have a very good chance of winning because the killer B combo (Big Ben, Bell, Brown, bumblebee unis that I often refer to as prison stripes) can be very deadly when it's clicking.
#6 Seed: Houston Texans (9-7)
The #6 seed comes down to Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Houston. I don't have any confidence that Andy Dalton can win the big game (prime time, playoffs, marquee teams) and it's possible he could be out the door after this season. Since the Bengals play the NFC West, they're going to have a tough time compiling more than 9 wins. While the Texans best options at QB are former Patriot backups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett (HC Bill O'Brien was their OC in New England), their team should be strong enough to ride their defense and running game into contention. All the QB has to do is not get in the way. JJ Watt (best defensive player in the game, hands down) is a game changer who can completely turn around the game with one big play with a big sack or turnover. They have a solid cast of receivers who may not be marquee names (other than RB Arian Foster), but can attack you in multiple ways (tell me if you heard about this style of offense before). In some situations, not making a mistake is equally as important as making a big play and that's what they're going to have to do in order to win this. Houston gets in on Head-To-Head wins over Cincinnati and Kansas City.
Just Missed the Cut: Cincinnati Bengals (9-7), Kansas City Chiefs (9-7), San Diego Chargers (8-8), Miami Dolphins (8-8)
Playoffs!? Don't Talk About Playoffs!: Oakland Raiders (7-9), Buffalo Bills (7-9), New York Jets (7-9), Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10), Cleveland Browns (6-10), Tennessee Titans (4-12)
Every year, there is a team that takes advantage of a weak schedule and goes from worst to first. That means keep a watch on Tennessee, Cleveland, Oakland, and the Jets. The two teams from that group to be most leery on is the Raiders. There isn't a clear-cut frontrunner in the AFC West and the Raiders finally have a franchise QB in Derek Carr, who turned in a solid rookie season and is primed for a break out in his 2nd year with a better receiving cast. The only thing that will hold him back is trying to learn a new system with a new HC. The Playoff Picture will be revisited in Week 9, because we can't predict injuries and how certain players perform.