As the season closes in on two weeks away, every team has multiple questions that separate it from the successful year it envisions. They can also be boiled down to one key concern.
Some questions are too big picture and obvious, such as those relating to health and whether a unit can live up to potential. We’re focused more on the questions teams can answer themselves, the ones they hold in their own grasp.
Here’s one burning question for each team in the AFC:
Bengals: Can Andy Dalton still perform like a franchise quarterback without Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu?
Dalton enters 2016 coming off a career year, but he needs to prove this is closer to the norm than it is an anomaly. He doesn’t have to replicate his 2015 success, as it’s always hard to live up to career marks in every single per-game category. What he does need is to show he’s grown from the player who threw six interceptions to one touchdown in four postseason losses prior to last season. It won’t be as easy without his long-time offensive coordinator and Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers, so this season should provide the test to see if the Bengals really have the components to make a long-awaited playoff run.
Steelers: Can Bud DuPree become the feared pass rusher he was drafted to be?
The Steelers return the makings of a championship-level team except for one area. They have to fix the league’s No. 30 pass defense, which has been their Achilles’ Heel for years now in a passing league. Since Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme is as hard to pick up as any, it’s unrealistic to expect the rookie defensive backs it drafted in the first two rounds to make the sudden impact. The onus will instead fall on the pass rush and specifically 2015 first-rounder DuPree. He showed flashes last year, but most of his sacks came in uncontested situations. This season, he’ll need to shorten the leash on the secondary and serve as a long-term replacement for ever-aging James Harrison to give the Steelers a chance to finally knock off the AFC big boys.
Ravens: Can Steve Smith return to pre-injury form?
Baltimore has a few health questions along its offense, with quarterback Joe Flacco (ACL) and 2015 first-round receiver Breshad Perriman (PCL) working back from season-ending injuries. Health can be tricky to control, but Smith is battling age as well. If the 37-year-old can bounce back to being a No. 1 receiver from his Achilles tear, which is his first major injury in more than a decade, the burden on the other players of a limited offense should lessen, especially since Flacco seems to be the most sure bet of the three returning banged-up players.
Browns: Can the Browns keep Robert Griffin III and Josh Gordon on the field?
Hope is scarce in Cleveland, which went 3-13 last season and then shipped out a number of key veterans. What the Browns do have is a quarterback and a wide receiver who have both put together unbelievable campaigns in this league before falling off track for different reasons. How Griffin III translates to Hue Jackson’s balanced pro-style offense and what kind of shape Gordon is in after a season off are in their control, but the Browns need to establish the support system to at least keep them on the field for once. That means solidifying the right side of the league’s second-worst pass-protecting line and finally keeping Gordon around positive influential teammates.
Texans: Can Brock Osweiler perform like the franchise quarterback he’s paid to be?
At more than $5 million per career start, Osweiler is the biggest bet in football right now, especially since he plays the position that controls more of the team’s success than any other. With a quarterbacks guru in head coach Bill O’Brien, a rising star receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and a star new running back in Lamar Miller, Osweiler has the pieces to deliver more than he did for seven starts last season in Denver, where the giant, mobile quarterback mostly managed games. If he can, Houston can be a real contender for the first time in franchise history.
Colts: Can the Colts finally limit the hits on Andrew Luck?
After kidney, abdomen and rib injuries knocked Luck out of nine games last season, the Colts finally got serious about protecting one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. They could wind up starting two rookies on the offensive line in first-round Alabama center Ryan Kelly and third-round Texas Tech tackle Le’Raven Clark. Rob Chudzinski took over as offensive coordinator for the last game Luck played in November, and it’ll be on him to dial back the slow-developing plays that only added pressure. For the sake of competing this year and remaining a force long-term, Indianapolis has to finally start protecting the star quarterback it invested almost $123 million in to be a difference maker.
Jaguars: After a big payday and a scheme switch, can Malik Jackson repeat his 2015 breakout play?
Perhaps no player’s stock rose more in 2015 than Jackson, who became a full-time starter, won a Super Bowl and received $42 million guaranteed. Now, the Jaguars need some return on the investment. Jackson will play in a 4-3 defensive tackle spot for the first time as a pro, but his responsibilities will change only a bit. His ability to continue to deliver on stunts and command double teams should only help 2015 first-round defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. as he returns from missing his rookie season with an ACL tear. It would also help a team that’s figured out the passing game to finally start turning the corner toward a winning season.
Titans: Can Marcus Mariota be an under-center, pro-style quarterback?
It’s not the hurry-up, pistol system he ran at Oregon and at times last season, but Mike Mularkey’s under-center, pro-style attack is what Mariota will have to try to master in Year 2 of his NFL career. He’ll have all the investments in the running game to work with, but it’ll be imperative on him to keep it steady while creating something out of nothing outside the numbers. It’s a lot to ask out of a second-year quarterback with such lacking wideout talent, but it’s what will determine whether Mularkey’s potentially outdated approach has any chance of success in Tennessee.
Patriots: Will the offensive line changes preserve a 39-year-old Tom Brady?
The answer won’t come until at least the fifth game after Brady finally serves his four-game suspension for the Deflategate scandal. By then, it might be even clearer how much he means to this Patriots team. Brady did a remarkable job fighting through the injuries that decimated everything around him in last year’s offense, propelling the Patriots to yet another AFC Championship Game. But the league-high 20 hits he took in that loss to the Broncos highlighted how badly the Patriots need to start protecting their aging future Hall-of-Famer. The return of left tackle Nate Solder from injury and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia from retirement should help, as should the trades for former Cardinals first-round guard Jonathan Cooper and former Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. If they can all work despite the loss of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to injured reserve, a couple more runs could be in this group.
Jets: Does Matt Forte have enough left in the tank?
After a bizarre, drawn-out fiasco, the Jets finally have Ryan Fitzpatrick back as their quarterback for this season, meaning what got New York within a Week 17 win of 11 victories and a playoff berth is back, except for the running game. New York let Chris Ivory depart to Jacksonville in favor of Forte, a 30-year-old the organization believes has plenty left to deliver. Forte is in impeccable physical shape for his age and is one of five players to post at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage in his first five seasons. However, he is 30, missed three games with a knee injury last season and was let go by the only organization he’s ever played for. Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson are good complements at running back, but that’s what they are. If Forte is able to deliver the consistency he’s always brought, the Jets are a legitimate playoff contender again. If not, they’re suddenly more than just a long-term quarterback away.
Bills: Can Tyrod Taylor get on a consistent page with Sammy Watkins?
Watkins’ first season playing with Taylor was a strange one considering it resulted in a long-term extension for his new quarterback. Watkins did break the 1,000-yard barrier and had nine touchdowns in 13 games, but he was wildly inconsistent. He finished with four games in which he was held under 50 yards, leading him to criticize his coaching staff for a lack of targets. Taylor still has accuracy questions to answer, and it’s imperative he establishes a connection with the receiver the Bills traded up to take at No. 4 in 2014. It’ll decide plenty for the Bills for this season, considering their injury and suspension issues on defense, as well as the remainder of Taylor’s time in Buffalo.
Dolphins: Can Adam Gase elevate Ryan Tannehill’s play the way he did Jay Cutler’s?
Thanks to a deal that will pay Tannehill more than $40 million guaranteed over the next five seasons, the Dolphins are tied to their quarterback for the foreseeable future. Tannehill hasn’t yet displayed the poise to lead the Dolphins anywhere significant. Gase is here because he only needed one season to find the right system for a stubborn Jay Cutler. He limited Cutler’s responsibilities while playing up his underrated mobility, and the result was the best year of Cutler’s career. If the same happens for Tannehill, Miami might finally be moving places.
Broncos: Will the defense remain as dominant despite personnel losses?
It’s an incredibly high bar, considering the Broncos led the league in defense in the regular season and then held offenses led by Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton to a total of 44 points in three postseason games. They won the Super Bowl despite throwing the most interceptions in the NFL in Peyton Manning’s final season. This year’s group of quarterbacks isn’t any more inspiring. Whether it’s Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian eventually handing the torch to first-round rookie project Paxton Lynch, the onus will stay on the defense to deliver. It’ll now have to do so without inside linebacker Danny Trevathan or defensive end Malik Jackson.
Chiefs: Can Kansas City rehab Justin Houston back to All-Pro form?
With Houston set to return sometime in 2016, the Chiefs really do have an injury situation that’s much in their control this year — and it’s a big one. Houston is in a class of all-around edge rusher that perhaps only Von Miller and Khalil Mack can claim, and his skill set is paramount to a position that offers an aging Tamba Hali and what has so far been a disappointing first-round selection in Dee Ford. Given Kansas City’s conservative approach on offense, boasting a game-wrecking defender like Houston is its only legitimate shot at contending in the AFC.
Raiders: Do Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph have it physically?
You’ll know it when you see it. The Raiders finished 26th against the pass last season, and Charles Woodson was arguably the best member of the secondary before he finally retired after 18 seasons. The Raiders’ under-26 trio of David Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack should theoretically have them surging toward the playoffs, but whether they make it will come down to the secondary and specifically the safety play. First-rounder Joseph is a blow-up hitter and former Bengal Nelson just led the league with eight interceptions. However, Joseph is repairing an ACL tear and Nelson will turn 33 in September. The talent is there, and if the physical abilities still are, the Raiders might finally be in line for their long-awaited next step.
Chargers: Will a healthy and reformed offensive line spring Melvin Gordon?
Last year’s Chargers weren’t a bad team on film, but they just didn’t have the available talent down the stretch to be anything but a club picking at the top of the draft. That was especially true up front, where tackle King Dunlap and guards Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker all missed at least four games. Gordon had a dreadful rookie year, with 3.5 yards per carry and no touchdowns to go with six fumbles. Gordon’s skill set is as a one-trick breakaway runner, so he’ll need the offensive line to spring holes for him to have success. The return of the injured starters and the addition of former Bear Matt Slauson at center could do it, and with a steady and durable quarterback like Philip Rivers, it could spell the kind of growth San Diego needs after such a bad season.