There is no clear favorite in the AFC. Thats right, not even the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
The champs have a major problem. Despite a roster loaded with talent and a defense that proved last postseason that it can cause nightmares for any opponent, the Broncos lack something they’ve taken for granted for so many years: stability under center.
The days of proficiency and clutch play authored by John Elway and Peyton Manning are over after Manning rode off into the sunset during the offseason, just as Elway did in 1998.
As a result, the Broncos are back to tumultuous times at quarterback. It’s a flashback to the days when Jay Cutler failed to reach his predicted potential, or when the Broncos tried to make due with the likes of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow before Manning arrived to save the day.
Two of Denver’s three quarterbacks haven’t thrown a professional pass. The other is Mark Sanchez (gasp).
In fairness, the former fifth-overall pick is actually a somewhat accomplished veteran with two AFC championship game appearances under his belt. But he’s still the man who couldn’t cut it in New York and is known more for running into a lineman’s buttocks than for managing the Jets to the brink of the Super Bowl during his first two seasons.
The good news is Sanchez has succeeded before in a similar situation. He was handed a power running game and a highly talented defense early-on with the Jets and was told not to mess things up. That strategy worked for two seasons. But as the Jets’ running game eroded and more responsibility was placed on his shoulders, the USC product failed to elevate his game and crumbled under the pressure.
Whether it’s Sanchez, 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch, or former seventh-round selection Trevor Siemian, the Broncos don’t have a clear-cut answer at the position, which opens the possibility of a wide-open AFC West and questions about who rules the AFC .
The New England Patriots might have an argument, but the Patriots have problems. Tom Brady will miss the first four games of the season thanks to the infamous Deflategate saga. The time off might actually be a blessing in disguise for the now 39-year-old Brady, assuming unproven stand-in Jimmy Garoppolo can hold his own for four weeks.
A 2-2 start certainly wouldn’t derail New England’s season. But it begs the question: How much longer can the Brady-Bill Belichick tandem continue to pull this off? Obviously, doubting the Patriots is the NFL equivalent of playing with matches around gasoline, but it’s a serious question that becomes more pertinent as the quarterback gets another year older.
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense is retooling, particularly in the trenches. If there’s a man who can get the unit playing its best football at the right time, it’s Belichick. Yet, his defensive line might have some growing pains with two new starters alongside defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who will probably miss at least the first game or two of the season with a torn triceps injury.
Offensively, New England should hum at its typical high level of proficiency, although the Pats still lack much depth at wide receiver behind Julian Edelman. That is less concerning now that the Patriots feature a tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, who was acquired from the Chicago Bears during the offseason. New England likely will find some semblance of a ground game, and based on its history it could feature some guy who was bagging groceries in May.
So, if the Broncos and Patriots, last season’s AFC title game representatives, aren’t slam dunks to get back to the penultimate weekend of the season, what teams are poised to make a run? That’s a difficult question to answer, because it feels like many of the other top AFC contenders have reached their respective ceilings.
The Cincinnati Bengals were a sexy pick to make it after an 8-0 start, but ultimately lost quarterback Andy Dalton for the season and succumbed to the same fate that has plagued the franchise the four postseasons prior. The Bengals lost in heart-wrenching fashion to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round, and a once promising season went down as nothing more than a disappointment.
The Bengals didn’t get much better during the offseason. In fact it could be argued they got worse. Cincinnati’s nasty defense remained relatively intact, but the loss of veteran safety Reggie Nelson will hurt the secondary.
Offensively, Dalton doesn’t have many options outside of A.J. Green, as last year’s No. 2 and No. 3 receivers departed. Marvin Jones is now in Detroit and Mohamed Sanu signed with Atlanta. That means the Bengals will have to replace 98 receptions from last season’s dynamic offense. Not helping matters is starting tight end Tyler Eifert is still rehabbing from an ankle injury sustained during the Pro Bowl. In other words, Dalton’s receiving corps is thin. Dalton will also be without the offensive coordinator who extracted the most out of him last season — Hue Jackson — who will now be coaching against him in Cleveland.
The Kansas City Chiefs might have peaked last season. The Chiefs are a good team, but still have to prove they are capable of knocking off the conference’s best when it matters most. Kansas City returns most of its talent from last season’s 11-5 team, but the defense could feel the absence of cornerback Sean Smith, who joined division rival Oakland during the offseason. On a positive note, Marcus Peters should only get better after a standout rookie season.
It’s tough to say how much further Kansas City can go with Alex Smith at quarterback. Jamaal Charles will return from his second torn ACL, but might not be relied upon as heavily with Charcandrick West behind him as a capable backup. Jeremy Maclin gave the Chiefs a reputable No. 1 receiver for a change, but the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver is still barren. Tight end Travis Kelce figures to be a pivotal factor in the passing game.
The Steelers are explosive enough offensively to make a Super Bowl run, but two things could hold them back. The first is Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Pittsburgh must keep Roethlisberger intact and upright, or else it can forget about its championship aspirations. The Steelers offensive line was respectable last season, allowing only 33 sacks. The unit ranked eighth in pass protection, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
Pittsburgh’s kryptonite has been its secondary. The Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL last season after allowing an average of 270 passing yards per game. This unit likely won’t make marked improvements from last season and has already lost Senquez Golson for up to four months due to a midfoot injury. That means third-year pro Ross Cockrell likely will step in as the No. 2 corner alongside veteran William Gay. Any contribution from raw but talented rookie Artie Burns would provide much-needed help.
The Houston Texans won the AFC South last season, but have a slew of questions. Nobody knows what Houston’s offense will look like with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, but the assumption is it will run much better than it did with Brian Hoyer at the helm. A motivated DeAndre Hopkins helps Osweiler at wide receiver. Longtime running back Arian Foster is gone, but Lamar Miller gets a chance to prove he was mishandled in Miami. If defensive end J.J. Watt misses any regular-season games, Houston’s defense will be in trouble.
The New York Jets finally re-signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. But consistency hasn’t exactly been the best word to describe the 33-year-old Harvard grad. New York’s defense can compete with anyone if its secondary can hold up.
The Oakland Raiders might be a sexy pick to win the AFC West, but still has a lot to prove. Derek Carr must continue to progress, as does star wideout Amari Cooper. Oakland’s defense should be quite nasty in the front seven, and a revamped secondary should provide reliability as the last line of defense. A youthful offense still has to prove it can elevate its game to the next level on a consistent basis. The Raiders might be a playoff contender, but that is most likely the extent of their potential.
Thus the state of the AFC would best be described as uncertain, and parity could reign supreme. VegasInsiders.com currently lists the Patriots as a 13/4 favorite to win the AFC. Pittsburgh is behind the Patriots at 11/2, followed by Denver at 7/1. Next comes Cincinnati (17/2), Kansas City (10/1) and Indianapolis (12/1).
The oddsmakers confirm what’s already been assumed by most NFL followers: The AFC could get crazy this season.