This Thursday, the NFL season kicks off in the nation's capital when the Redskins host the Jets in the season opener. To follow is my annual prediction on the way things will shake down in the NFL this season. Last season, I was lucky enough to predict Tampa Bay's Super Bowl victory over the Oakland Raiders, and I also hit on ten of the twelve eventual playoff teams. This year, I'm also adding a mock draft of the 1st round of the 2004 NFL Draft. In Part I, we're going to take a look at the AFC. Here we go…
New England Patriots (11-5): I really like what the Pats did this off-season, bringing in OLB Roosevelt Colvin, DT Ted Washington, S Rodney Harrison, CB Tyrone Poole, FB Fred McCrary, and special teams demon Chris Akins. They went defense with four of their first five draft selections, trying to rebuild a defense that was very poor against the run. The offense, which averaged 23.8 points per game last season, lost no one of significance. The team must run the ball better to win this division, and I'm banking on Antowain Smith being more like the back that helped lead the team to a Super Bowl win than the one that came into camp out of shape last season and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season. If the new parts on defense can stay healthy and come together as one, this team could be very dangerous this season and appears even more talented than the '01 version. Colvin is my pick for AFC defensive player of the year, and the rookies have looked great in the preseason.
Miami Dolphins (10-6): A trendy Super Bowl pick this season, I like Miami to win their customary nine or ten games and once again get bounced out of the playoffs early. Adding Sammy Knight, Junior Seau, and Terrell Buckley to the NFL's 4th best scoring defense from a year ago in addition to the return all the key pieces to the league's top rushing attack is the reason Miami is the odds on favorite right now to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. In the end though, I see the same problems plaguing the ‘Fins. The team struggles late (lost six of last ten), struggles away from home (2-6 last season), and struggles in their division. Also, this is not a young team, and they don't play from behind well. In the end though, this is one of the more complete teams in the AFC and they have a great chance to be in the mix at the end.
Buffalo Bills (9-7): It's all about the defense in Buffalo this season, as the offense, which got out to an incredible start a year ago before fizzling, should be even better this season despite losing Peerless Price to Atlanta. The team's young powerful offensive line may be the leagues' best by years end. New additions Takeo Spikes, Sam Adams, and Jeff Posey were brought in rebuild a defense that gave up almost twenty-six points a game last season. I feel the Bills will be an exciting team this season, improved on both sides of the ball that will just miss the playoffs due to a murderous back end of their schedule that sees them finish with Indianapolis, at the NY Giants, the Jets, at Tennessee, vs. Miami, and at New England.
New York Jets (6-10): The combination of being in one of football's toughest divisions, plus the pre-season injury to Chad Pennington puts the Jets at the bottom of my AFC East projections. Vinnie is serviceable, but no longer able to win games by himself, and Curtis Martin is on the wrong side of thirty for a starting running back in this league. The run defense, which surrendered a brutal 4.6 yards per carry last season should be improved with the additions of rookie DeWayne Robertson and vet Chester McGlockton, but the team was forced to tear apart their secondary, which came together nicely late last season. The linebackers on this team are getting old as well. Before Pennington went down, I could have seen a repeat of last year's wild card berth, which came after the team rallied late to win seven of their last nine, but now I just don't see it happening.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6): I'm not quite sure the Steelers have sufficiently repaired their secondary, and there are also some questions on their offensive line…but the team is simply too talented at the skill positions on offense and in their front seven on defense to not win the AFC North again this season. The Steelers are also a well-coached team that plays one of the easiest schedules in football this season.
Cleveland Browns (8-8): As much as I hate to say it, with the recent loss of Ross Verba for the season, this may be an optimistic projection. Though I must say, there are some factors that make me think the Browns can compete for a playoff spot again this season. One, Butch Davis keeps this team in games with 20 of the 33 games he has coached in this city coming down to the final minute. Two, even with the well publicized purge of several veterans on the defensive side of the ball, I'm not sure that the pass rush or the play of the linebackers can be any less productive than it was last season. And lastly, the young Browns should have the top special teams units in the division, and possibly the NFL. In the end though, the deficiencies the team has on the offensive line combined with their lack of experience on defense will likely be too much to overcome.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Solid personnel moves by Ozzie Newsome has successfully rebuilt a defense that was torn apart in the salary cap purge after the Ravens Super Bowl win in 2000. The defense should be even better this season with another year behind some of the kids, and with the additions of Corey Fuller and Terrell Suggs, and the return to health of Ray Lewis. If the Ravens want to take the next step back to the playoffs, Jamal Lewis will have to stay healthy, and they will have to get productive and mistake free play from the QB position, which was just handed to rookie Kyle Boller.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-12): The Bengals will be an improved team this season behind new coach Marvin Lewis, but are not yet ready to make the jump to the playoffs. The team still has many holes defensively, not helped by the departure of Takeo Spikes, who was replaced by an aging Kevin Hardy. Jon Kitna is still…well…Jon Kitna, and the team plays the toughest schedule of any team in the AFC North.
Indianapolis Colts (12-4): The Colts are another team I like this season, and the pieces may be in place for a run deep into the playoffs. The defense improved greatly last season under Tony Dungy, and the team once again invested heavily (and successfully in my opinion) in the defense in the draft. The offense lost just Qadry Ismail, and replaced him with Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark. The line is young, and improving, and the team has liked what they've seen from rookie Steve Sciullo thus far. And Edgerrin James appears to be 100% healthy once again. Oh yeah, they have these guys named Manning and Harrison too. My only question with this team is if they are tough enough to make it to Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII, and that starts with their head coach Tony Dungy…who is a borderline genius, but may be too soft to push a team to the level necessary to advance to the big dance.
Tennessee Titans (9-7): It pained me to leave the Titans out of the playoffs more so than any other team. But the long and short of it is that AFC is much deeper than the NFC, and just like last year when the Dolphins and Broncos were left out, there will be a couple very good teams that don't make it again this season. The Titans make zero free agent acquisitions of significance, and lost Randall Godfrey, John Thornton, Henry Ford, Dainon Sidney, and Rich Coady on the defensive side of the ball. Also, the team plays one of the league's tougher schedules with out of division road games at Oakland, New Orleans, Miami, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay. Steve McNair gets better each year, and the team does have some talented youngsters ready to step in for the departed veterans on defense…but this is one team I feel comes up just short this season.
Houston Texans (4-12): I'm a big fan of Charlie Casserly and Dom Capers and what they're doing in Houston. It will take them at least another couple years to get this team in a position to contend, but they will be a much-improved team this season…even if it isn't reflected in the standings. The defense was solid last season, maybe one of the best ever expansion defenses. They lost only Jeff Posey. On offense the team added Stacey Mack, and linemen Zach Wiegert and Todd Washington via free agency, and also went offense with six of their top seven draft selections…including Andre Johnson, the highly touted WR from Miami Florida. Improved play on the offensive line could lead this team to a surprising six wins this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14): The Jags could be in for a world of hurt
this season. Mark Brunell has hit the end of the road. Fred Taylor is already
banged up. And Jimmy Smith is gone until week five for failing a drug test.
And the Jags lost three of their five starters on the offensive line in free
agency. The additions of Hugh Douglas and Mike Peterson on defense were huge,
and the defense will have to carry this team under new head coach Jack Del Rio.
Making matters worse, the Jags managed to draw the 5th toughest schedule in the
league despite winning just six games a year ago.
Oakland Raiders (10-6): Just like last season, the Raiders appear to be the most talented team in the NFL this season. Unfortunately for them, they are also the oldest team in the NFL this season, and I expect that to catch up with them a bit more this season. The Raiders, with much help from selections acquired in the Gruden trade, have done a nice job infusing young talent in behind some of the vets. But it will clearly be the health of those vets that determines the Raiders ultimate success this season. Because they are most definitely talented enough to go to, and this year win the Super Bowl.
Denver Broncos (10-6): Jake the Snake. Seven years and forty million. Was it the Cardinals, or was it him? I'm guessing that with one of the league's top backs and top offensive fronts, as well as four talented receivers in Smith, McCafferey, Sharpe, and Lelie…the groundwork is there for a pretty decent season from Plummer. This is a team that had the #3 offense and #6 defense in all of the NFL, but was shut out of the playoffs a season ago due to a 3-5 second half headlined by back-to-back overtime losses to Indy and San Diego in weeks twelve and thirteen. The talent is most definitely there for a Bronco return to the playoffs this season.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-8): After playing the league's toughest schedule for two seasons in a row, the Chiefs slate looks a bit easier this season, as their schedule is ranked the 7th easiest. But the real question here is whether or not the Chiefs have improved their league worst defense from last year enough to make it into the playoffs. I don't think so. Vonnie Holiday, Shawn Barber, and Dexter McCleon were brought in, but strangely, the Chiefs used just two of their first five draft selections on the defensive side of the ball. The Chiefs still have the worst defense in the very solid AFC West, and Priest Holmes health scares me a bit. For these reasons, I have them repeating last year's 8-8 record.
San Diego Chargers (7-9): The off-season signings of David Boston, Lorenzo Neal (now injured) and Kwamie Lassiter were highly publicized, but few noticed that the Chargers also lost Curtis Conway as well as four defensive starters via free agency as well. The Chargers ranked 30th in the NFL in defense a year ago, very uncharacteristic for a Schottenheimer-led club. The team did address the defense aggressively in the draft and the offense should be better with Boston in the fold, but like the Chiefs, I feel this team will struggle to keep pace with the much more balanced Raiders and Broncos over the course of the long regular season.