The NFL has the most interminably long off-season in sport, to the point where minor events become moments of seismic importance to try and break the monotony.
The day players’ contracts expire, the Scouting Combine, the Draft, the beginning of the training camps and pre-season matches all become vital, when in fact they have little bearing on the season ahead. But after six months of waiting, we have finally reached something that does matter – the first matches.
With that in mind, here are my division predictions for the year, starting with the AFC, perceived to be the weaker of the two conferences but the division which produced last season’s Super Bowl winner:
1. New England Patriots
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets
The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East in recent years and expect this season to be no exception. Though the Pats seem weak in their receiving corps, having allowed Wes Welker to join the Broncos, lost Rob Gronkowski for part of the season through injury, and lost Aaron Hernandez to, er, “legal issues”, they still have Tom Brady. Brady could make me look like a viable NFL receiver, and I’ve never played American football in my life. He is, to all intents and purposes, still the best quarterback in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins should have a relatively clear path to second place in the division. Though their raid on the free agency market earlier this year doesn’t guarantee success on a wider scale and, more specifically, a wildcard spot, they should have enough in hand to finish ahead of the other two teams. Much will depend on young QB Ryan Tannehill, entering his second season after a solid rookie year.
Tom Brady could make me look like a viable NFL receiver, and I’ve never played American football in my life
The Buffalo Bills are going into the season as one of only two teams with a rookie quarterback in Florida State graduate EJ Manuel, after journeyman Kevin Kolb suffered a serious concussion during pre-season. Manuel himself has struggled with injury, and until this week it seemed undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel would be starting ahead of him, which left Bills fans fearing the worst from their first match against the Patriots. The team has a certain amount of talent, most notably defensive lineman Mario Williams and running back CJ Spiller, but it’s short on star quality: even when healthy, all their QBs are unconvincing.
The New York Jets are in absolute chaos. Their quarterback situation is unstable, with Mark Sanchez injured, draft pick Geno Smith lacking in confidence, veteran David Garrard retired and Tim Tebow gone. They also traded away their star player, cornerback Darrelle Revis, and coach Rex Ryan is in the last year of his contract. The whole franchise has been engulfed by uncertainty and a large, impatient fanbase just adds to the enormous pressure.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
The Cincinnati Bengals have a talented roster which is improving every year. Last season, they surged from a 3-5 record halfway through their campaign to finish 10-6, the same record as the Ravens, but lost immediately to Houston in the wildcard game. This year, with the Ravens slightly weakened, they could justify considering themselves favourites for this division. Whether or not they can take the next step and become serious contenders for the AFC Championship remains to be seen. Much will rest on wide receiver AJ Green and his elastic arms.
This is an enormous season for the ageing Steelers and will determine their future fate
The Baltimore Ravens arrive at the 2013 season having lost the most number of players for any Super Bowl-winning team, as a result of entering the season with a huge number of players nearing the end of their contracts. This includes some key figures in the defense, such as retiring talismanic linebacker Ray Lewis and Houston-bound safety Ed Reed. Crucially, though, they kept hold of quarterback Joe Flacco, even if they had to pay up in a big way to retain his services. Flacco isn’t one of the best but he is reliable and proved he can pull out some game-winning performances on the big stage in last season’s playoffs. He just has to start pulling those out every week during the regular season too.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had their own tastes of glory in the past decade, but this is a team now on the decline. QB Ben Roethlisberger is still young enough to lead the team for a few more seasons yet – if he stays healthy. Last year, he did not. Neither did star defensive player Troy Polamalu, now 32. They lost wide receiver Mike Wallace to Miami, and tight end Heath Miller is still recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in December. This is an enormous season for the ageing Steelers and will determine their future fate.
The Cleveland Browns, on the other hand, are an improving team. Brandon Weeden enters his second year as the team’s QB and alongside him is fellow sophomore, running back Trent Richardson. They also have a new coach in Rob Chudzinski. For once, things are looking up for one of the NFL’s longest-suffering franchises, which last made the playoffs in 2002. However, there are catches – firstly, the tough division they are in, and secondly, owner Jimmy Haslam’s, er, “legal issues”.
1. Houston Texans
2. Indianapolis Colts
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Houston Texans, for much of last season, looked to be the team to beat in the AFC. They won 11 of their first 12 games, including beating the Ravens, the Broncos and the in-form Chicago Bears. With running back Arian Foster in form and JJ Watt en route to becoming NFL Defensive Player of the Year, it looked as if this might be the year the young franchise would make its first trip to the Super Bowl. But it was not to be – a late season collapse was followed by defeat against the Patriots in the playoffs. They begin this year as probably the most talented overall team in the AFC. They just have to convert it into results when it matters.
For how much longer will the Jacksonville Jaguars be called that? The London Jaguars has a nice ring to it
The Indianapolis Colts rode through last season on two waves – the impact of rookie QB Andrew Luck, and the strength of support for head coach Chuck Pagano, who battled leukaemia for much of the season. The Colts pulled out a series of dramatic late wins to reach the playoffs a year after finishing with the worst record in the NFL. Now that Pagano has returned, temporary head coach Bruce Arians has left, but the talented roster remains. Gaining another wildcard spot depends on whether they can recreate the “magic” of last season.
For the Tennessee Titans, last season was something of a setback, dropping from 9 wins to 6 as they switched quarterbacks from veteran Matt Hasselbeck to sophomore Jake Locker. Locker’s inconsistency was part of their issues, and this is a crucial season for him to see if he can establish himself as a long-term NFL QB. The team was aggressive in free agency as they tried to improve defense, Locker’s protection and his offensive options. Now he has to deliver – otherwise, he and coach Mike Munchak will be on their way after this season.
For how much longer will the Jacksonville Jaguars be called that? The London Jaguars has a nice ring to it. This year the Jags will make their first appearance at Wembley after signing a four-year deal to travel to England for one match per season. It’s a welcome distraction for a team that has failed to spark much enthusiasm on and off the field: the team slumped to just two wins last season, and it remains one of the least lucrative franchises. Though owner Shahid Khan has stated his commitment to Jacksonville, speculation has linked the team with moves either to Los Angeles or London in the next few years, but they aren’t the only ones…
1. Denver Broncos
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Oakland Raiders (**Predicted worst record in the NFL**)
The Denver Broncos winning this division is pretty much a formality. Even though they begin the season with star defensive player Von Miller suspended for a drug offence and fellow pass rusher Elvis Dumervil now at Baltimore, they should still win this division as a canter, because it is the worst in the NFL and their offense should be too powerful for most teams. But those defensive issues are the main reason why there are question marks over the early favourites for the AFC Championship. Alongside this, Peyton Manning isn’t getting any younger and this could be his last big chance.
The Oakland Raiders could be this year’s laughing stock
The Kansas City Chiefs’ 2012 season was a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong: a talented roster made numerous mistakes which kept costing them games, eventually finishing with the first pick in the 2013 draft, and linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before taking his own life in front of the head coach and general manager. But after an off-season of changes, which saw former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid arrive and a new QB in the shape of former San Francisco 49ers starter Alex Smith, there is an expectation that the team will bounce back quickly. The pressure is definitely not off.
The San Diego Chargers aren’t in a great place. This is a team that peaked in 2009, when they won the division with 13 wins and Philip Rivers was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Now Rivers and the rest of the team are in serious decline: it’s unlikely they will even repeat their seven-win record of last year. They have also signed up for the Manti Te’o circus – the rookie linebacker, a media sensation last year after his girlfriend supposedly died but turned out to not even be real, was drafted by the team in the second round and will have to work hard to convince his many doubters that he is more than just a well-known name.
The Oakland Raiders are in a black hole, both literally (as it’s the nickname of their stadium) and metaphorically. Where do you start? Finishing third in the division last year despite only winning four matches, meaning a tougher schedule this season; an unconvincing set of quarterbacks with no obvious starter; having to ditch nearly all of their talented players because they were paying them too much and risked going over the salary cap; having $50 million of dead money towards that salary cap as a result; having to limit the capacity of their stadium to prevent television blackouts; having to play British rookie Menelik Watson at the key left offensive tackle position despite his minimal experience. They could be this year’s laughing stock.[related_posts_by_tax columns="4" posts_per_page="4" format="thumbnails" image_size="medium" exclude_terms="34573"]