Predicting the AFC

The AFC will have many of the same contenders, but others will rise up to challenge.

Editor’s Note: Over the next two days, Viking Update will preview the 2015 season and make projections how we see the season unfolding. Today we look at the AFC and who will be the contenders and pretenders. Tomorrow we look at the NFC

For the last few years, there have been teams that have effectively dominated their divisions. The Patriots have held sway over the AFC East, the Colts have dominated the AFC South and since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, nobody in the AFC West has been able to touch the Broncos. The only truly competitive division has been the AFC North, where the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have all been playoff teams in recent years.

But, with the exception of the AFC South, where Indianapolis remains head and shoulders better than the competition, the other divisions would appear to be more up for grabs than they have been in a long time.

AFC EAST – Regarded by many as one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, the other three teams are gunning for the champs and, in the process, have created one of the craziest arms races in recent memory. New England is still the top dog, but, as many fans know, the schedule for a champion is always filled with distractions – playing the defending division champs from their conference and having a lot of games in prime time that disrupt their routine. The Patriots are likely to remain the class of the division, but the road to another division title won’t come easy.

Nobody has questioned that Buffalo’s defense can get the job done, but Rex Ryan has moved upstate to show that the Bills can be a complete team. Buffalo will have a former Vikings connection with Matt Cassel challenging E.J. Manuel for the starting QB job and Percy Harvin coming with Rex from the Jets, but perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition has been running back LeSean McCoy. A year removed from being the NFL rushing champion, the Bills have themselves a bona fide go-to bell-cow running back who can control the clock and control the game. Miami has a young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill that can do a lot of damage, and with Greg Jennings, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills, he has been given weapons. But the biggest change will be in the middle of the defense, where former Lion Ndamukong Suh has stepped in and is ready to make some noise in the East. The Jets have gone old-school in their approach to winning, bringing back Darrelle Revis, adding Antonio Cromartie and trading for Brandon Marshall. It is hoped their veteran influence and the gift draft choice of Leonard Williams falling into their laps will make them more successful.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. New England 10-6; 2. Buffalo 9-7; 3. Miami 8-8; 4. New York 6-10.

AFC NORTH – Three teams won 10 or more games in this division last year and produced three of the six playoff teams last year. That may happen again because none of them have taken a step back. Pittsburgh has finally unleashed a passing game and may have the best young running back in the NFL in Le’Veon Bell. The Ravens are a team that has always drafted well and maintained the status quo while other franchises rise and fall. They are going to be in it to the end because they have perhaps the best balance of offense and defense in the division and can win games with either one.

The Bengals have made the playoffs each of the last three years and are primed to make another run at the postseason to erase the lack of success they have had once they’ve got there. Last year, every time they held an opponent to 23 points or less (eight times), Cincinnati won, so don’t be shocked to see them make a run again. As for Cleveland, it would appear that the song remains the same for them.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Cincinnati 10-6; 2. Baltimore 9-7; 3. Pittsburgh 9-7; 4. Cleveland 4-12.

AFC SOUTH – The Colts have held domain of the division since Andrew Luck arrived and there’s no reason to think that will change this year. In addition to the usual cast of suspects, the Colts have added veterans Andre Johnson and Frank Gore to give the offense more firepower. The Colts have all the looks of a team primed to make a Super Bowl run and there doesn’t look to be a team that knock them off the division perch.

Houston has a strong defense led by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and they’ve added future Hall of Famer Vince Wilfork to the mix. The Texans may have the best defense in the NFL, but with too many questions at quarterback they are likely going to keep them from making the playoffs. Tennessee rolled the dice on Marcus Mariota and his learning curve will take a while. Jacksonville may be the worst team in the AFC – look out Cleveland! Both of them are building around young quarterbacks, but they likely will take too much time to be factors in 2015.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Indianapolis 12-4; 2. Houston 9-7; 3. Tennessee 5-11; 4. Jacksonville 4-12.

AFC WEST – The Broncos have dominated the division ever since Peyton Manning arrived and he came back for one last ride in 2015. The Broncos can get the job done on both sides of the ball. However, with changes on both sides of the ball, Manning’s last run may require more work to achieve success, but this team is built to win this year and hope for the best in 2016.

It won’t be easy for the Broncos because Kansas City and San Diego will both be nipping at their heels. As his team is growing accustomed to his system, Andy Reid has the Chiefs poised for a playoff run. If Jamaal Charles stays healthy, they can get it done. San Diego has done it with smoke and mirrors. They invariably get a four- or five-game winning streak at some point during the season and rise from the dead, but they’re getting old at too many key positions. Oakland’s Commitment to Mediocrity continues.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Denver 10-6; 2. Kansas City 9-7; 3. San Diego 8-8; 4. Oakland 5-11.

PLAYOFF TEAMS – New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver, Baltimore, Houston.

AFC CHAMPION – Indianapolis Colts.

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