AFC PREVIEW: Broncos, Pats, Ravens and Texans the cream of this crop

September 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Division-by-division, team-by-team, the Star breaks down the AFC's big picture. Who do you think will win your favorite division? Which relatively-unknown player will star in 2013?

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  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. DENVER BRONCOS: Peyton poised, but defense faces adversity

    • How they did in 2012: 13-3 (6-0 vs. West); in playoffs, lost to Ravens 38-35 in 2OTs in Divisional round.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Peyton Manning (Pro Bowl, 4,659 yards, 37 TDs, 11 INTs)
    • Key losses: RB Willis McGahee, C Dan Koppen
    • Key additions: WR Wes Welker, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
    • Why we picked them here: With Manning possibly poised to have his greatest season, Denver should be a favorite for the Super Bowl. But will the absence of defensive stars Elvis Dumervil (fax error resulting in termination of contract) and Von Miller (six-game suspension, drugs) hurt the Broncos’ chances. Will new WR Wes Welker be less productive because he’s a complementary player in Denver, and no longer a go-to guy? No, Manning loves his slot guys.

    2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: New QB Smith gives team better chance

    • How they did in 2012: 2-14 (0-6 vs. West); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Jamaal Charles (1,509 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 6 total TDs)
    • Key losses: QB Matt Cassell, OT Eric Winston
    • Key additions: QB Alex Smith, OT Eric Fisher
    • Why we picked them here: New QB Alex Smith should make fewer mistakes than Matt Cassel, and Dwayne Bowe might become the star that was expected of the 2007 first-round pick. Bowe has topped 1,000 yards three times in his career, but never 1,200 yards. This should be the year. RB Jamaal Charles is one of the best, but he needs to stay healthy.

    3. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Offensive line holds Rivers back

    • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (4-2vs. West); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Philip Rivers (3,606 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs)
    • Key losses: OT Jared Gaither, CB Antoine Cason
    • Key additions: RB Danny Woodhead, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney
    • Why we picked them here: San Diego always has a better perception than reality. Their Vegas over/under line is 7.5 games. Might they win eight? Maybe, but the guess here is that new coach Mike McCoy gets the Chargers to six wins. Philip Rivers could be great, but the offensive line needs to do a better job; Rivers was sacked 49 times last year. Injuries to WR Danario Alexander (torn ACL, out for season) and Malcom Floyd (knee sprain, might be ready Week 1) have already taken a toll.

    4. OAKLAND RAIDERS: QB woes part of why Oakland should struggle

    • How they did in 2012: 4-12 (2-4 vs. West); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Carson Palmer (4,018 yards, 22 TDs, 14 INTs)
    • Key losses: QB Carson Palmer, DT Richard Seymour
    • Key additions: CB D.J. Hayden, S Charles Woodson
    • Why we picked them here: This is the beginning of the Terrelle Pryor/Matt Flynn era in Oakland. Contain your excitement, please. Don’t be surprised if rookie QB Tyler Wilson (who was cut and passed waivers) ends up back on the team and starting sometime this season. This could be the worst team in football. Even referring to star RB Darren McFadden, we can no longer say, “Yeah, but when he’s healthy ... ” Last season, McFadden played in 12 games and averaged 3.3 yards per carry.


    • Why we like him: Third-year receiver Brown missed all of 2012 (broken ankle) but could be the team’s top WR after others have fallen to injuries this preseason. Also keep an eye on rookie RB Knile Davis of the Chiefs because starter Jamaal Charles is starting to look brittle.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. BALTIMORE RAVENS: Key defenders gone, but Flacco has weapons

    • How they did in 2012: 10-6 (4-2 vs. North); in playoffs, beat Colts 24-9 in Wild Card round, beat Broncos 38-35 in 2OTs in Divisional round, beat Patriots 28-13 in AFC Championship, beat 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Ray Rice (Pro Bowl, 1,143 yards rushing, 478 yards reciving, 10 total TDs)
    • Key losses: WR Anquan Boldin, LB Ray Lewis
    • Key additions: DE Chris Canty, S Matt Elam
    • Why we picked them here: Much is made of the team losing LB Ray Lewis (retired) and S Ed Reed (to Houston), but the most damaging loss for the Super Bowl champs might be WR Anquan Boldin (to San Francisco). QB Joe Flacco returns, having signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract. RB Ray Rice, who gained 1,621 yards from scrimmage, is back, and third-year WR Torrey Smith returns to be Flacco’s go-to guy. The defense, despite the loss of two possible future Hall of Famers, is retooled with younger players.

    2. CINCINNATI BENGALS: Dalton & Co. poised for a playoff breakthrough

    • How they did in 2012: 10-6 (3-3 vs. North); in playoffs, lost to Texans 19-13.
    • 2012 top performer: WR A.J. Green (Pro Bowl, 1,350 yards receiving, 11 TDs,)
    • Key losses: LB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements
    • Key additions: LB James Harrison, RB Giovani Bernard
    • Why we picked them here: The team has taken some hard knocks over the years: 22 seasons without a playoff win, but there are signs that streak might be coming to an end. Cincinnati has made the postseason the past two years, losing to Houston each time. Last year, it was a respectable 19-13 setback. QB Andy Dalton can throw to one of the best WRs in the game, Green. Dalton has average arm strength but does own this distinction: He is the only QB to make the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and throw 20 or more TD passes each season. Rookie RB Bernard is exciting to watch carry the ball, but at 5 feet 9 inches and 208 pounds, he can’t block a pass rusher. That often dictates how much a RB plays.

    3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Big Ben must carry load again

    • How they did in 2012: 8-8 (3-3 vs. North); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Ben Roethlisberger (3,265 passing yards, 26 TDs, 8 INTs)
    • Key losses: LB James Harrison, WR Mike Wallace
    • Key additions: RB Le’Veon Bell, DE/OLB Jarvis Jones
    • Why we picked them here: The Steelers hoped to get back to their glory-days style of play based on a strong running game and a solid defense. Enter RB Le’Veon Bell, drafted in the second round. But Bell suffered a sprained foot injury during the preseason, and it’s not known how long he will be out. QB Ben Roethlisberger always gives the team a chance to win. The defense, which ranked 17th last year, lost mainstay LB James Harrison (to Cincinnati).

    4. CLEVELAND BROWNS: Offense improved, but .500 may be ceiling

    • How they did in 2012: 5-11 (2-4 vs. North); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Trent Richardson (950 yards, 11 TDs)
    • Key losses: KR/WR Josh Cribbs, TE Ben Watson
    • Key additions: DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB Paul Kruger
    • Why we picked them here: Cleveland has some exciting playmakers, notably RB Trent Richardson and WR Josh Gordon. QB Brandon Weeden has the physical tools to succeed, and WR Greg Little will put up big numbers if defenses double-team Gordon. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton will stress pressuring the quarterback. Despite this cheery outlook, an 0-4 start is a distinct possibility, and 8-8 would be a great season.


    • Why we like him: As a rookie last year, Gordon had 805 receiving yards. More than that, he just looks the part of a star ready to bloom. He will miss the first two games because of a substance-abuse suspension, but that could drop his value significantly, perhaps, and you could swoop in.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. HOUSTON TEXANS: Defense should shine with addition of Reed

    • How they did in 2012: 12-4 (4-2 vs. South); in playoffs, beat Bengals 19-13 in Wild Card round, lost to Patriots 41-28 in AFC Divisional round.
    • 2012 top performer: DE J.J. Watt (Pro Bowl, 69 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a partridge in a pear tree. We swear.)
    • Key losses: DE/OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin
    • Key additions: WR DeAndre Hopkins, S Ed Reed
    • Why we picked them here: Can 34-year-old safety Ed Reed help Houston take the next step? Will Arian Foster stay healthy AND reverse his yards-per-carry average decline (4.9 in 2010, 4.4 in 2011, 4.1 in 2012)? The good news is with backup Ben Tate around, the Texans have the best 1-2 RB punch in the league. QB Matt Schaub completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 4,008 yards and he has a 4,770 (2009) on his resume. With Reed around, Houston’s fourth-ranked defense in 2012 should be even better.

    2. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Luck tries to avoid sophomore jinx

    • How they did in 2012: 11-5 (4-2 vs. South); in playoffs, lost to Ravens 24-9 in Wild Card round.
    • 2012 top performer: WR Reggie Wayne (Pro Bowl, 106 catches, 1,355 yards)
    • Key losses: OT Winston Justice, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney
    • Key additions: DE/OLB Bjoern Werner, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
    • Why we picked them here: Can the team build on its success from 2012, Year 1 of QB Andrew Luck? Normally we would assume a natural progression of improvement, but last year’s success (11-5) was fueled by great emotion concerning coach Chuck Pagano, who missed 12 games while receiving cancer treatment. Ageless WR Reggie Wayne had a career-tying best of 1,355 yards. He will be 35 by the end of the season, but we can probably count on another 1,000-yard campaign. Despite the 11-5 record, Indy was outscored by opponents.

    3. TENNESSEE TITANS: Chris Johnson gets help from Greene

    • How they did in 2012: 6-10 (1-5 vs. South); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Chris Johnson (1,243 yards, 6 TDs)
    • Key losses: TE Jared Cook, OLB Will Witherspoon
    • Key additions: G Chance Warmack, G Andy Levitre
    • Why we picked them here: RB Chris Johnson has raised his bar so high that when he runs for 1,243 yards, as he did in 2012, it is considered a down year. The playbook has been adjusted to get the most out of Johnson, but the Titans also brought in Shonn Greene to share the load. The defense was 29th in the league last year and allowed 144 yards rushing per game.

    4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Jones-Drew provides lone bright spot

    • How they did in 2012: 2-14 (2-4 vs. South); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: WR Cecil Shorts (979 yards, 7 TDs)
    • Key losses: DT Terrance Knighton, S Dawan Landy
    • Key additions: OT Luke Joeckel, CB Marcus Trufant
    • Why we picked them here: Jacksonville doesn’t have many positives. RB Maurice Jones-Drew supplies most of the optimism. He is two years removed from a 1,606-yard season, but last year he missed 10 games with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. He appears to be 100 percent, and although it seems he has been around forever, he’s only 28. The defense dropped from a top-10 unit in 2011 to No. 30 last year.


    • Why we like him: If the rookie from Clemson is cleared to return after suffering a concussion in the preseason, he should start opposite Andre Johnson in next Monday night’s opener. You also can’t go wrong with backup Texans RB Ben Tate; even as a backup, he puts up some big numbers.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish.

    1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Who will Brady throw to? Does it matter?

    • How they did in 2012: 12-4 (6-0 vs. East); in playoffs, beat Texans 41-28 in Divisional round, lost to Ravens 28-13 in AFC Championship.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Tom Brady (Pro Bowl, 4,827 yards passing, 34 TDs, 8 INTs)
    • Key losses: WR Wes Welker, TE Aaron Hernandez
    • Key additions: WR Danny Amendola, DT Tommy Kelly
    • Why we picked them here: It’s popular to ask who will be catching Brady’s passes this year, with Welker (Broncos), Hernandez (jail), Brandon Lloyd (out of football) all gone and the return of former Arizona Wildcat Rob Gronkowski (back and arm surgery) uncertain. But Brady will complete passes, and some or all of these names will be better known at this time next year: Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Zach Sudfeld. In this division there is still very little competition for the title. 

    2. MIAMI DOLPHINS: Tough early schedule could put team in a hole

    • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (2-4 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: DE Cameron Wake (15 sacks, three forced fumbles)
    • Key losses: RB Reggie Bush, OT Jake Long
    • Key additions: WR Mike Wallace, DE/LB Dion Jordan
    • Why we picked them here: This is the very little competition New England is facing. Miami seems to be on the rise. Ryan Tannehill appears to be the right QB to move the Dolphins to the next level. The team brought in a major addition for Tannehill, Wallace. A tough schedule in the first five weeks (at Browns, at Colts, vs. Falcons, at Saints, vs. Ravens) could kill the team’s morale.

    3. BUFFALO BILLS: Another long year in store despite Spiller

    • How they did in 2012: 6-10 (2-4 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB C.J. Spiller (1,244 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards, 8 total TDs)
    • Key losses: QB Kevin Kolb (head injury), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
    • Key additions: QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods
    • Why we picked them here: The Bills are quickly becoming sad-sack perennial losers (think Lions of old, Browns of old ... and present). Adding Kolb sounded like a good move. Drafting Manuel in the first round gave fans reason for optimism. Now both are hurt, and the Week 1 starter Sunday could be undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, who played a year at Salpointe Catholic High. RB C.J. Spiller will put up amazing numbers if he can keep up his per-touch average when given a heavier load.

    4. NEW YORK JETS: QB, RB positions a mess for sinking team

    • How they did in 2012: 6-10 (2-4 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Shonn Greene (1,063 yards, 8 TDs)
    • Key losses: RB Shonn Greene, TE Dustin Keller
    • Key additions: RB Chris Ivory, CB Dee Milliner
    • Why we picked them here: Someone has to be the worst team in football, right? The QB situation is a mess: dinged-up veteran Matt Sanchez or rookie Geno Smith. The RB situation is a mess: injury-prone Ivory or (fill in the blank) at RB. Ninth overall draft pick CB Dee Milliner boosts the defensive backfield. Maybe 2014 top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney will join Milliner on New York’s defense next year.

    FANTASY FRIENDLY AFC EAST SLEEPER: WR, Tom Brady’s favorite target, Patriots

    • Why we like them: We don’t know who it is yet, but injury-prone Amendola has already suffered his first injury of 2013. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are contenders. Based on the preseason, the guess here is Thompkins. Any of them, as well as rookie TE Zach Sudfeld are probably available in your league.
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