Previewing the AFC Divisions

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Last week, I took an in-depth look at the NFC and what may be in store for each team within their divisions.

This week, we jump across to the AFC – the conference which holds the Super Bowl trophy thanks to New England.

The competitiveness in the AFC will once again make for an intriguing season, sure to consist of many twists and turns.

Let’s jump straight into it and take a look at each of the AFC Divisions;

Former No.1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney
Former No.1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney

AFC SOUTH (Predicted Finish – 1st Indianapolis, 2nd Houston, 3rd Tennessee, 4th Jacksonville)
At first glance, this looks like a cut and dry result – Indianapolis will smack the rest of the AFC South and march towards another divisional trophy.
Andrew Luck is lightyears ahead of any of the other quarterbacks in this division and with the multitude of offensive weapons at his disposal, a monster year looks assured.
Andre Johnson and Frank Gore were added to the Colts already potent offence but it may be their veteran savvy and will-to-win that means the most for a team aspiring to reach a Super Bowl.
On defence, Robert Mathis’ return will be key for the Colts as they seriously need a quality pass rush on critical downs.
Houston is once again in the midst of a quarterback battle with Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer duking it out to take the reigns.
Defensively, this squad looks extremely talented – and not just because they have the best defensive player in the game.
Veteran tackle Vince Wilfork joins the Texans after an illustrious career in Foxborough whilst 2014 No.1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is hoping to return to the field after micro fracture surgery to his knee.
With JJ Watt making all kinds of plays and Wilfork penetrating at the line of scrimmage, anything they can get from Clowney off the edge will be an added bonus.
Arian Foster’s injury and subsequent three-month recovery period will leave a huge hole in the Texans already suspect offence.
Hoyer and/or Mallett will likely only be game-managers at best whilst there is little to get excited about on the outside and in the slot.
Tennessee has often been close to irrelevant in the NFL as they have continually battled to get get close to a winning record.
2015 will be different however as No.2 pick Marcus Mariota is asked to steer the ship. The Heisman trophy winner looks set to undergo a huge learning process as he enters an NFL huddle for the first time. Early indicators are that he is picking up everything extremely well, but regular season football is a different story. Jacksonville made a splash early in free agency by acquiring touchdown machine Julius Thomas at tight end.
Things won’t be as easy for Thomas in Jacksonville however with Blake Bortles still going through a learning process at QB.
The Jaguars also have queries at running back, receiver and have a few holes in their defence.
Anything close to six wins is a nice season for a team lacking in several areas.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis), Jadeveon Clowney (Houston), Harry Douglas (Tennessee), Allen Hurns (Jacksonville)

LeSean 'Shady' McCoy with his new jersey.
LeSean ‘Shady’ McCoy with his new jersey.

AFC EAST (Predicted Finish – 1st Miami, 2nd New England, 3rd New York, 4th Buffalo)
Finally, it seems as though we have some competition in the AFC East – thanks largely to a Tom Brady suspension.
Should the four-game ban levelled on Brady be overturned then I reserve my right to change this selection.
However, as it stands, I can’t see Brady making up enough games to catch a much improved Miami squad.
Ryan Tannehill is inching closer and closer to the franchise QB the Dolphins selected and paid him to be whilst additions to the defence will make facing the Fins a nightmare task.
Free agent signing Ndamukong Suh was the major piece of the puzzle brought to town, costing Miami over $100 million.
He will tear up the offensive lines and allow the already formidable Dolphins pass-rush to get at QB’s.
Cameron Wake is a menace so teaming him up with Suh is downright scary.
Lamar Miller has shown enough to control the backfield.
Just outside of Boston, a new banner is hanging, but controversy still lingers thanks to the ‘Deflategate’ saga.
Untried youngster Jimmy Garoppolo looks likely to carry the load in weeks 1-4 with LeGarrette Blount also suspended for week one against Pittsburgh.
Rob Gronkowski is still there though and he should immediately become Garoppolo’s best friend in the passing game.
The Patriots lost corners Darelle Revis and Brandon Browner and it is unclear who will step up the replace them.
Vince Wilfork also departed for Houston, leaving a big hole up front.
Jerrod Mayo, Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins are supremely talented but losing two elite corners will hurt any team.
The two New York squads – the Jets and Bills – are much improved on last season, at least on paper.
Rex Ryan is in Buffalo to bring his hard-nosed, in-your-face game plan to the East rivals.
LeSean McCoy will carry the bulk of the Bills’ offence whilst Matt Cassell, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor sort out who is going to be the starting quarterback.
Defensively the Bills are strong and any team coached by Ryan will be a dogged, scrappy and scrambling team.
Sammy Watkins is a great young wideout so he will need some touches to have an impact whilst Percy Harvin will look to revitalise his career after largely unsuccessful stints in Seattle and New York with the Jets.
Charles Clay slides across from Miami and should be a solid option at tight end.
Finally, the J-E-T-S.
Renowned defensive wizard Todd Bowles takes over as the head man and owner Woody Johnson has purchased him some shiny new toys on defence.
Superstar corner Darelle Revis returns to Gang Green whilst his running mate Antonio Cromartie also returns on a lucrative deal – so the cornerback position is sorted.
Up front, Sheldon Richardson’s future is unclear after a ridiculous run-in with the law, but Muhammad Wilkerson and first-round pick Leonard Williams from USC should be a more than capable D-line.
On the other side of the ball, Eric Decker was acquired from Denver last season whilst regular Pro-Bowler Brandon Marshall arrives in the ‘Big Apple’ with a point to prove.
Once again – like the Bills – quarterback issues threaten to rupture the Jets promising roster and performances.
Geno Smith was to be given yet another chance to run the show at MetLife Stadium had it not been for a broken jaw courtesy of since-released linebacker IK Enemkpali.
Smith and Enemkpali – who has not surprisingly been claimed off waivers by former Jets coach Rex Ryan in Buffalo – were involved in the physical altercation after it was alleged that Smith owed the new Bill $600 for an airfare.
It’s far from an ideal situation and with Smith sitting out the first 6-10 weeks it will be left to veteran game-manager Ryan Fitzpatrick to distribute the ball to offensive targets Marshall, Decker, Jace Amaro, Kellen Winslow and former New England back Stevan Ridley.
In both Buffalo and New York, things will live and die with the play of their quarterbacks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Brent Grimes (Miami), Jonas Gray (New England), Percy Harvin (Buffalo), Leonard Williams (New York)

AJ Green makes yet another sensational catch.
AJ Green makes yet another sensational catch.

AFC NORTH (Predicted Finish: 1st Pittsburgh, 2nd Cincinnati, 3rd Baltimore, 4th Cleveland)
This is the old fashioned, grind-it-out, defensive-minded division but slowly things are shifting toward a more uptempo style in the AFC North.
Elite offensive talents make it easier to score points and with Bengals wideout AJ Green and Steelers pair Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell doing their thing on the field, defences are at a loss to lock it down.
There are also two Super Bowl champion quarterbacks in this division with Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco guiding their teams once again.
Andy Dalton and whomever runs the show in Cleveland will need to be on point to keep up with those two squads, particularly Pittsburgh’s high-scoring offence.
For the Bengals, returning that defence to its status as an elite run-stopping unit is paramount to any planned success.
Geno Atkins was in the conversation amongst the premier defensive tackles in the NFL before he tore his ACL in 2013.
2014 was not a Pro Bowl-calibre turnout for Atkins and the Bengals D-line will go as far as Atkins carries it.
It’s a changing of the guard in Baltimore with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone and Terrell Suggs on his last legs.
Luckily, cornerback Jimmy Smith looks like a quality defender capable of covering big-time receivers, whilst CJ Mosley had one of the more remarkable rookie season’s at linebacker, earning All-Pro second team honours.
Against a dynamic offensive team like Indianapolis, Mosley displayed all his worth making 14 tackles and recording his first interception on a tipped ball.
Cleveland has been in the cellar of this division for far too long.
Unfortunately, things don’t look to be changing anytime soon with quarterback issues, a clear lack of running back and wide receiving playmakers and a stout but not match-winning defence.
All eyes will again be on Johnny Manziel to see whether the hype is again real or whether the polarising former Texas A&M standout is yet another college star unable to translate to the big boys.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Martavis Bryant (Pittsburgh), Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati), Jimmy Smith (Baltimore), Joe Haden (Cleveland)

Jeremy Maclin joins Kansas City for $55 million.
Jeremy Maclin joins Kansas City for $55 million.

AFC WEST (Predicted Finish: 1st Kansas City, 2nd Denver, 3rd San Diego, 4th Oakland)

Since legendary quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, all things AFC West went through the Broncos.
Coming to the Mile High City and topping Manning’s explosive offence has been almost impossible – at least throughout the regular season.
2014 was a different story, though with Manning suffering a niggling quad injury and beginning to show real signs of decline.
Take red zone scoring machine Julius Thomas out of the equation and there are finally a few chinks in the Denver armoury.
Damaryius Thomas – with new contract in hand – is still there and will be Manning’s favourite target whilst Emmanuel Sanders will hope to reproduce last season’s Pro Bowl-level play.
Defensively, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are veteran pass-rushers who give the Broncos a nice edge with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib often dictating things in the secondary.
CJ Anderson assumed control of the running back workload midway through 2014 and he looks to be the Broncos main ball-carrier as we enter 2015.
In Kansas City, things look very bright after some queries in the off-season.
All-Pro edge rusher Justin Houston looked likely to hold out of training camp before management came to the party and fixed him up with a $101 million deal with almost $53 million in guaranteed money.
The other vital signing came via free agency with Jeremy Maclin landing at Arrowhead Stadium from Philadelphia.
Maclin signed a five-year, $55 million deal after returning from a torn ACL in 2014 and putting up career-high numbers.
Alex Smith is regarded as an elite ‘game-manager’ without the ability to make the big plays.
Maclin will help with knocking the top off defence’s for the Chiefs whilst Jamaal Charles is still – and always will be – the team’s premier weapon.
His running and receiving combination is rivalled perhaps only by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell.
A big year should await in Kansas City providing Maclin’s performs to his payslip and the defence holds up as it looks likely.
Almost a forgotten team in the NFL, San Diego still possess enough talent to push any team on any day.
Phillip Rivers early season form in 2014 was miraculous and bordered on MVP favouritism.
His favourite target, Antonio Gates, will miss the first quarter of the season due to a PED violation meaning Rivers will need to either find a new red zone target or hand the ball to a talented running back.
That talented running back is likely Melvin Gordon out of Wisconsin – the 15th overall pick in the draft.
Gordon racked up mouthwatering statistics for the Badgers and was awarded the Big Ten offensive player of the year gong.
Keenan Allen went through a mild sophomore slump last season but looks primed to benefit from Gates’ absence, particularly close to the goal-line.
The Chargers have only been making headlines of late because of a potential move to Los Angeles but Rivers and co. will be hoping to make more positive on-field waves this upcoming season.
With the Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers success in recent season’s, Oakland have found themselves routinely bringing up the rear in this division.
The first step to improving the Raiders franchise came when pick 36 in the 2014 NFL Draft when they selected a quarterback from Fresno State, Derek Carr.
On a bad team, Carr managed to throw 21 TD’s to 12 interceptions in a largely positive rookie campaign.
The next major move the Raiders made was providing Carr with an elite talent to throw to.
Alabama wideout Amari Cooper is exactly that as they swooped to select him 4th overall in the most recent NFL draft.
Cooper lit up defences in the unbelievably strong SEC conference last season as he marched his way to 1,727 yards and sixteen scores. He was also a finalist in the Heisman trophy.
The Carr to Cooper combination should electrify fans across the NFL for a decade to come, despite many other shortcomings on the Raiders roster.
Khalil Mack is an elite defensive talent but there is still much for new coach Jack Del Rio to improve upon.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jeremy Maclin (Kansas City), Shane Ray (Denver), Melvin Gordon (San Diego), Khalil Mack (Oakland)

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