We are t-minus, two days away from the start of the NFL regular season. This offseason provided football fans with much excitement, drama and anticipation. We witnessed several marquee contract extensions, marquee trades, and head scratching decisions. All were displayed this past weekend, when Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears. The Bears quickly gave Mack, the most expensive contract for a defensive player at 6 years, 141 million. As football fans, we are still scratching our heads on why the Raiders front office would trade their best player in his prime. I am not complaining though...
What makes the National Football League such a joy, is the unpredictability of contenders. Each year, football fans are seeking the next team to dethrone the Patriots as AFC champions.
The NFL is one of the toughest leagues to predict due to the emergence of new contenders each season. Unlike the NBA, MLB, or NHL, each football game is pivotal. One loss/tie can determine whether a team plays in January or goes home. Let's take a close look at each division and attempt to determine a division leader.
The Steelers are coming into this seasons as back to back, division champions. The Steelers hit a home run with JuJu Smith-Schuster and now pair his playmaking abilities with newcomer, James Washington. This could add a new dimension to an already potent offense. With players like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and maybe Le'Veon Bell, it's hard not to crown them a division favorite.
Last year proved to be a heartbreaking year for the Ravens. Known for great defense and mediocre offense, the Ravens could not muster consistent success. Their season came down to the last regular season game, where they were ultimately eliminated by Buffalo's new hero, Andy Dalton. This year , the Ravens bring a similar team, with new additions, Michael Crabtree and Lamar Jackson. It will be interesting to see whether Flacco operates the offense efficiently or whether Jackson becomes the eventual signal caller.
Coming from a disappointing 2017 season, the Bengals look to rebound. The Bengals success relies deeply on the shoulders of the "Red Rocket". It is expected that Dalton and Green will be the centerpiece of the Bengals offense. The X-Factor this year becomes the emergence of Joe Mixon and John Ross. Both of these players were drafted last year for their playmaking ability. With a year under their belt, there is hope the speed of the NFL has slowed down enough for them to make a difference.
Considered the "hard knocks" of this division, the Browns look to make some noise. After having three first round picks in this year's draft, the Browns look to put forth a more talented team on the field. Not to mention, they added veteran QB, Tyrod Taylor and veteran WR, Jarvis Landry to their young roster. Another X-Factor in this division will be WR, Josh Gordon. If Gordon, Landry and Taylor can execute the offense effectively, this could prove to be a recipe for success with a talented defensive group behind them.
AFC North Champion: Pittsburgh Steelers
The most anticipated return for any NFL player, is Deshaun Watson. Before his season-ending injury, Watson took the league by storm and had everyone naming him the offensive rookie of the year. If Watson returns to form, the sky is the limit for this offense. With DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and now deep threat rookie Keke Coutee, this offense will be hard to keep from going vertical.
The biggest question mark in this division, are the Indianapolis Colts. Without Luck, this team is a 3 to 4 win team. Fortunately for Colts fans, Luck made his preseason debut and seemed to struggle. On a positive note, this is expected, given more than a year long absence from the game. He did demonstrate good chemistry with newly acquired TE, Eric Ebron. Giving Luck another weapon in addition to T.Y., can be a beneficial to the offense. The success for this team will come down to the effectiveness of the defense.
The Titans are coming into the season with a new coaching staff. Former New England Patriot, Mike Vrabel was named head coach this offseason. Titans fans are hoping he brings the New England state of mind. With new coaching and new duds, this team looks to rebound from a disappointing season. Considered division favorites a year ago, the Titans are looking to unleash the Henry express. On the other side, you have the addition of newly signed, CB, Malcolm Butler. With Vrabel's experience coaching defense, improvement is expected within the Titans defense.
Sacks'onville is back! One of the NFL's most dominating defenses, a year ago is back to attempt another run at the Lombardi trophy. The Jaguars have remained intact on the defensive side of the ball but not much can be said about the offensive side. One head scratching decision, was the decision to keep Bortles, with talented QBs in the free agent market. Free agents such as Kirk Cousins, Tyrod Taylor, and Case Keenum, the Jags front office decided that Bortles gave them the best chance to repeat their success. In addition to that, they failed to resign WR Allen Robinson and released WR, Allen Hurns. They did in fact, resign Marqise Lee but recently lost him for the year, in the preseason. It will be difficult to repeat the success from a year ago, with a depleted wideout group and average QB.
AFC South Champion: Houston Texans
New England Patriots
What more can we say about the New England Patriots? Their success speaks for itself, unless God forbid an injury to Tom Brady. The Patriots hardly impress us, with their offseason acquisitions and this year is no different. Bill Belichick will have his team ready to take the field Week 1 with whichever roster he puts out. The biggest question mark going into this season is the running back group. With the departure of Dion Lewis, it is unclear who will take the lead role. They did draft Georgia RB, Sony Michel, who could be a dynamic pass catching RB. It won't surprise me if the Patriots win their division once more.
The Miami Dolphins come into this season as the 2nd best team in the AFC East. Last year, the Dolphins turned to Jay Cutler for relief from a preseason injury to Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill now seems ready to grow into the franchise QB, Miami fans have envisioned. He must do so without star WR, Jarvis Landry and must depend on their running backs for support. The Dolphins saw glimpses of a promising young RB, Kenyan Drake and now add veteran RB, Frank Gore for support.
The Bills surprisingly made the playoffs in 2017. Since then, their team has taken a new look. QB, Tyrod Taylor was traded to Cleveland and later drafted QB, Josh Allen from Wyoming. The Bills also lost WRs, Jordan Matthews and Deonte Thompson and replaced them with WR, Kelvin Benjamin (via trade) and Ray-Ray McCloud. It was projected that QB, Josh Allen would direct the offense but given his preseason struggles, Nathan Peterman was named week 1 starter. It is uncertain how effective this team will be given the uncertainty in offense. Only time will tell.
New York Jets
With strong defense in place, the Jets turn to their offense for support. The Jets drafted their franchise QB this offseason in Sam Darnold from USC. The Jets must now rely on Sam Darnold to lead them, while hoping he grows into a star. It is difficult to ask a rookie for instant success but not impossible. Darnold must work with often troubled Robbie Anderson, newly signed Terrelle Pryor Sr, Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa. If Darnold struggles, then the Jets chances of competing in this division dwindle.
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
Los Angeles Chargers
The unluckiest team of the preseason, must go on without TE, Hunter Henry and CB, Jason Verrett this season. Both were lost for the season, during this year's training camp. With Hunter Henry out, the Chargers have turned to Antonio Gates for assistance. Given his familiarity with QB, Phillip Rivers, this could benefit the offense. On contrary to the bad news, the Chargers now have last year's 1st round pick, WR, Mike Williams 100% healthy. Pair him with WRs, Keenan Allen,, Tyrell Williams, and Travis Benjamin, Rivers now has enough weapons to make some damage. The key to success remains the health of these young pass catchers.
"Chucky" is back in black. Jon Gruden was hired away from the broadcast booth to help lead a talented young team to the promised land. Given his success as former Raiders head coach, Owner Mark Davis thought it would be wise to rehire Gruden for the success he left behind in 2001. Gruden's tenure has begun in the worst possible way, as he recently traded away his superstar, DE/OLB, Khalil Mack. Gruden must win back the support of Raider nation by simply winning. If Gruden can lead his team to a division championship, then all is forgiven.
The Broncos have not been the same since Peyton Manning retired. Since then, the Broncos have been riding a quarterback carousel. Now with an aging defense, their window to win the division is NOW. QB, Case Keenum was signed this offseason to help accomplish this goal. Keenum is coming off his best statistical season of his career and is now paired with great receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and rookie Courtland Sutton. The Broncos also have a talented rookie RB, Royce Freeman. If all these pieces gel together, this could help catapult the Broncos to division champs.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have the most athletic roster in comparison to all AFC west teams. The only question mark becomes the success of the QB position. QB, Alex Smith was traded away right before the NFL Draft. This move demonstrates full confidence in their 2nd year QB, Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is a huge arm that loves to sling the ball all over the field. His inexperience becomes a cause for concern since he hasn't adjusted to the speed of the NFL. Regardless of the mistakes that will be made, the offense will remain a force in the AFC. The one weakness I notice with this team, is their defense. The loss of Marcus Peters, will prove to be too much as their secondary will struggle.
AFC West Champion: Los Angeles Chargers
It will be interesting to see who emerges as AFC contenders. The key to beating the Patriots will come down to home field advantage in the playoffs. Teams must force the Patriots to play away from Foxborough, if they plan to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII.