Broncos, Pats to battle for AFC crown

After my don’t-bet-the-rent-money analysis of the NFL’s NFC teams last week, it’s now time to round things out with a look-see at the AFC.
AFC East
1. New England (12-4)
The Patriots are a guaranteed 6-0 against their woeful divisional rivals this year. Winning an average of two out of three against the rest of their foes should be a piece of cake with Tom Brady at quarterback.
2. Miami (8-8)
New wide-out Mike Wallace instantly upgrades the Dolphins’ offence. But Miami is going to need a serious pass rush to take the pressure off a leaky secondary.
3. Buffalo (5-11)
The Bills lose their only veteran quarterback and best cornerback to pre-season injuries, although the defence will be enough to steal them a couple of games.
It’s still looking like a long, cold winter in Buffalo. But not as cold as in. . . .
4. New York Jets (3-13)
Rex Ryan’s decision to play his No. 1 quarterback, Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a meaningless pre-season game behind a practice squad-level offensive line was asking for trouble.
Now he’s left with rookie Geno Smith, who doesn’t appear to understand how big his own end zone is.
This could be an all-time train wreck.
AFC Central
1. Cincinnati (10-6)
My surprise pick of the season. Quarterback Andy Dalton is ready to take the next step and that’s a vicious front seven the Bengals can throw out there.
Plus, their two main rivals in the division have suffered significant losses.
If Cincy was ever ready to roar, it’s now.
2. Baltimore (9-7)
This is far from the same group that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy back in February.
Ray Lewis is retired, Ed Reed is in Houston, Anquan Boldin is in San Fran, and the top two tight ends are out with injury.
Upon closer inspection, 9-7 might be generous. But the Ravens still are the reigning champs.
3. Pittsburgh (7-9)
The Steelers are vulnerable on many fronts. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have his favourite downfield weapon, Mike Wallace, anymore and had unproven Isaac Redman lining up as his starting tailback.
The defence, without James Harrison, is also not near as intimidating anymore.
4. Cleveland (4-12)
Perhaps the Browns can get approval to change divisions—that may be their only way to ever get out of the basement.
Non-existent defence, an offence led by mediocre quarterback Brandon Weeden, and a devoted fan base that still puts up with non-playoff season after non-playoff season.
That sums up Cleveland in a nutshell this year—and the last 15, for that matter.
AFC South
1. Indianapolis (11-5)
Andrew Luck’s rookie season at quarterback was impressive enough. Now he has a year’s experience, an impressive corps of receivers, and a returning head coach in Chuck Pagano who inspired the team to a surprise playoff appearance last year.
If the defence can hold up without departed blitz specialist Dwight Freeney, the Colts can make some noise this year.
2. Houston (9-7)
Everyone keeps waiting for the Texans to take the next step. But now star running back Arian Foster’s health is a question mark, which will put more heat on quarterback Matt Schaub to deliver when it counts—something that hasn’t happened yet.
If reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, doesn’t repeat his 2012 performance, Houston may not even make the playoffs.
3. Tennessee (7-9)
Head coach Mike Munchak is on the hot seat. For one, has a former 2,000-yard running back in Chris Johnson, who seems to be a shadow of his former self.
He also has a quarterback in Jake Locker who has yet to play like the first-round pick he was, he has a defence that is begging for a leader to emerge, and he has a cranky owner in Bud Adams.
This may not end well.
4. Jacksonville (2-14)
The Jaguars are saying and doing all the right things about becoming more respectable this season. Yet they continue to trot Blaine Gabbert out as their starting quarterback.
My guess: running back Maurice Jones-Drew changes addresses in 2014. He’s had enough of this clown show.
AFC West
1. Denver (14-2)
This seems like lofty heights for a team without its best pass rusher, Von Miller, for six games (suspension) and with two cornerbacks, Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who may be living off of their names more than their talent at this point.
But the reality is this: Peyton Manning has four bona fide lethal receivers, including 100-catch man Wes Welker, at his disposal.
Manning also is one season further removed from his neck surgery.
All this adds up to plenty of points—and plenty of wins—for the Broncos.
2. Kansas City (7-9)
A five-game improvement seems like a lot for a 2-14 team from last season. But new head coach Andy Reid and new quarterback Alex Smith already are changing the culture in the Chiefs’ locker-room.
The defence should be better and Arrowhead Stadium always is a tough crowd for visitors.
3. San Diego (6-10)
Another new head coach, Mike McCoy, may not have the same day at the beach as Reid.
Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers has lost his confidence, there is little to no running game to speak of, and the defence’s most noteworthy member is linebacker Manti Te’o—and that’s because of his fake cyber-girlfriend scandal of a year ago.
4. Oakland (3-13)
Al Davis is rolling in his grave. The Raiders are a mess in all aspects of the game.
They already have lost their starting left tackle, Jared Veldheer, to a season-ending injury and the back-up will be protecting untested sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
The illegal tattoos that ended Pryor’s Ohio State career will be nothing compared to the new set of body art that opposing defences are going to leave on him.
Just win, baby? More like just pray.

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