NFL Preview: Patriots, Raiders kings of the AFC

AFC East

New England Patriots

2016 Record: 14-2, won Super Bowl LI

Outlook: The reigning Super Bowl champions had a busy offseason and return to defend their title with a roster that might be even better than last year’s. Quarterback Tom Brady (28 TD, 2 INT) will get a new Pro Bowl receiver to throw to in former Saint Brandin Cooks (1,173 rec yards), and the defense added Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy and corner Stephon Gilmore. The additions make the Patriots overwhelming favorites to not only return to the Super Bowl but to win it again.

2017 Projection: 14-2, Win Super Bowl LII

 

Miami Dolphins

2016: 10-6, lost in Wild Card Round to Steelers

Outlook: The Dolphins enjoyed a breakout year that few saw coming by winning double-digit games and earning a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The catalyst for last year’s team was head coach Adam Gase, who worked his magic on the offense and turned players like running back Jay Ajayi (two 200+ yard rushing games) and receiver Jarvis Landry (94 receptions) into big-time players. Another playoff bid will be difficult and will depend on the progression of quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Year 2 of the Gase regime, but expect contention.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

Buffalo Bills

2016 Record: 7-9, missed playoffs

Outlook: First-year coach Sean McDermott will have his hands full transforming the Bills, who haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, into a playoff contender. The Bills are a stellar rushing team with running back LeSean McCoy (13 TD) and dual threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but haven’t been able to pair strong offensive seasons with strong defensive seasons. In a conference in which all but a few teams are in the playoff hunt, Buffalo is far from a complete team and will likely be on the outside looking in.

2017 Projection: 5-11, miss playoffs

 

New York Jets

2016 Record: 5-11, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Jets entered the offseason with the worst quarterback situation of any team in the game and did nothing, ensuring that 2017 will be a rebuilding campaign. New York also cut ties with several Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball. The Jets do have studs on the defensive line in Muhammad Wilkerson (12 sacks in 2015) and Sheldon Richardson and a punishing running attack, but the best fans can hope for is the first pick in next spring’s draft.

2017 Projection: 1-15, miss playoffs

 

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

2016 Record: 8-8, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Ravens came within a yard of winning the AFC North last year, but instead found themselves out of the playoffs for the second straight year. The defense was the division’s best and should only get better with the addition of safety Tony Jefferson, but it will take an offensive resurgence to return Baltimore to the postseason. Veterans Jeremy Maclin (1,088 rec yards in 2015) and Danny Woodhead should factor into the Ravens’ passing attack, while run game coordinator Greg Roman will have a chance to jump-start the team’s previously stale running game. The Ravens should be on the playoff fringes and could be in with a strong offensive season.

2017 Projection: 11-5, lose in Wild Card Round

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

2016 Record: 11-5, lost in AFC Championship to Patriots

Outlook: Thanks to one of the best offenses in the NFL and a talented defense, the Steelers are one of the few AFC teams that pose a serious threat to New England. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to an offense loaded with All-Pros, such as running back Le’Veon Bell (1,268 rush yards) and receiver Antonio Brown (12 TD), and depth in the receiving corps and offensive line. Linebacker Ryan Shazier leads a defense that has the potential to be among the conference’s best this year. If the Steelers can stay healthy and Roethlisberger continues to play at a Pro Bowl level, Pittsburgh could do big things come January.

2017 Projection: 11-5, lose in Divisional Round

 

Cincinnati Bengals

2016 Record: 6-9-1, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Bengals’ four-year playoff streak snapped after a disappointing 2016 campaign, and as the rest of the AFC improved, Cincinnati looks further and further away from the contender of seasons ago. Quarterback Andy Dalton (4,206 pass yards) is back with a running back trio that features rookie Joe Mixon and could be the league’s best, but a shaky offensive line and spotty defense could do the Bengals in. If Cincy fails to make the playoffs, head coach Marvin Lewis could be on his way out.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

Cleveland Browns

2016 Record: 1-15, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Browns were awful last season and nearly became the second team in NFL history to go 0-16. On the brighter side, this team should be better thanks to a strong draft that featured three first round draft picks. One of those picks, #1 overall pick defensive end Myles Garrett, is the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year and should make an immediate impact. The quarterback position is up for grabs with veteran Brock Osweiler (16 INT with Houston) competing with rookie DeShone Kizer and the offensive line is the only real strength of the team, so anything more than five wins would be a surprise. But Cleveland should at least notch a couple tallies in the win column this year.

2017 Projection: 2-14, miss playoffs

 

AFC South

Tennessee Titans

2016 Record: 9-7, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Titans made a colossal leap last season and would’ve won the division for the first time since 2008 if not for an injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota (26 TD). Tennessee should continue its upward momentum this season and are the favorite to win the AFC South. Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray (1,287 rush yards) give Tennessee one of the game’s best rushing duos, while new receivers Corey Davis and Eric Decker should boost the Titans’ air attack. On defense, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Brian Orakpo (10.5 sacks) are Pro Bowl talents, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the best in the business. If Mariota can stay on the field and the defense can hold up its part, the AFC South could be the Titans’ to lose.

2017 Projection: 11-5, lose in Divisional Round

 

Houston Texans

2016 Record: 9-7, lost in Divisional Round to Patriots

Outlook: Houston may have its quarterback in first round pick Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy winner and National Champion at Clemson. If Watson has a smooth transition to the pro game, the AFC better watch out. Watson is joined by Pro Bowl talents in running back Lamar Miller (1,073 rush yards) and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (1,521 rec yards in 2015), but the team’s real strength is its defense, which will return two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Holding off the young Titans will be a challenge, but if Watson can prove he can win in the NFL, another division title could be in the works.

2017 Projection: 10-6, lose in Wild Card Round

 

Indianapolis Colts

2016 Record: 8-8, missed playoffs

Outlook: The team that everyone is sleeping on is Indianapolis, but when your quarterback has MVP potential, that’s not a wise idea. Everything in Indy revolves around quarterback Andrew Luck, who had a down year due to injuries and horrid protection. New GM Chris Ballard was hired to give some support to Luck, but outside of 34-year-old running back Frank Gore and receiver T.Y. Hilton (1,448 rec yards, 1st in NFL), this doesn’t look like a playoff roster yet. The Colts could sneak into the playoffs, but the Colts would need a lot more than Luck to do it.

2017 Projection: 8-8, miss playoffs

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

2016 Record: 3-13, missed playoffs

Outlook: Welcome to Jacksonville, Leonard Fournette! The fourth overall pick in the draft and former LSU running back has already been anointed the Jaguars’ franchise savior and he could have a stellar rookie year. But for the Jaguars to contend for a playoff spot, they’ll need their other young stars to play at a high level. That includes quarterback Blake Bortles (22 turnovers), who regressed remarkably last season, and a talented defense that includes an impressive mix of free-agent acquisitions and recent first round picks. Unless Bortles shows that he can be a franchise player, the Jaguars will likely sit in the AFC South cellar again.

2017 Projection: 4-12, miss playoffs

 

AFC West

Oakland Raiders

2016 Record: 12-4, lost in Wild Card Round to Texans

Outlook: Just a year ago, the idea of a Super Bowl for the Raiders was insane. Now, Oakland is a true contender and is aiming to win the Super Bowl before the franchise’s relocation to Las Vegas. The rejuvenation of the silver and black starts with quarterback Derek Carr (28 TD) and a superb offensive line, and the addition of a Super Bowl champion at running back, Marshawn Lynch, could make one of the NFL’s best offenses even more dynamic. On the defensive side of the ball, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack (11 sacks) is a game changer, but the unit needs to take a big step forward for the Raiders to be able to challenge the Patriots. A healthy Carr and better defense could be enough to push Oakland over the top in the AFC.

2017 Projection: 12-4, lose in AFC Championship

 

San Diego Los Angeles Chargers

2016 Record: 5-11

Outlook: As the only team under .500 in their division, changes were expected for the Chargers. But the changes were more like a transformation: the team relocated to Los Angeles and hired a new head coach (Anthony Lynn). If San Diego Los Angeles can stay healthy, this roster could contend for a playoff berth. Quarterback Philip Rivers (33 TD) has an abundance of options in the receiving corps and has benefitted from the emergence of Melvin Gordon (12 total TD) as a Pro Bowl running back. The defense could surprise, especially the cornerback duo of Jason Verrett and Casey Heyward. But for the Chargers to make a playoff run, they must overcome the toughest division in football, a new coaching regime, and a relocation to a 30,000-seat stadium.

2017 Projection: 9-7, miss playoffs

 

Denver Broncos

2016 Record: 9-7, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Broncos followed up their Super Bowl 50 win with a disappointing campaign that ended just short of a postseason berth. Now, with a new head coach in Vance Joseph and more competitive division, making the playoffs will be a difficult task for Denver. Task number one is finding a starting quarterback. Last year, Trevor Siemian (3,041 yards in 14 games) and rookie Paxton Lynch (497 pass yards in 3 games) split snaps and failed to spark the offense, so establishing one of those players as the offense’s leader will be crucial. The defense is still intact and the offense has some weapons, but it will come down to quarterbacks in Denver’s playoff chase.

2017 Projection: 9-7, miss playoffs

 

Kansas City Chiefs

2016 Record: 12-4, lost in Divisional Round to Steelers

Outlook: Quarterback Alex Smith (67.1 comp pct) and the Kansas City Chiefs won the loaded AFC West last year, but it will take all they can do to win it again. The Chiefs took a step back this offseason with the losses of receiver Jeremy Maclin, running back Jamaal Charles, and GM John Dorsey, so Smith will have a lot on his shoulders on an offense that doesn’t match up with the elite teams in the conference. The defense has two elite defensive backs in safety Eric Berry and corner Marcus Peters (6 INT), but the rest of the unit lacks youth and depth. Don’t be surprised if Kansas City sees a drop in the standings this season.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

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