Unabated to the Quarterback: The Last Judgment in the Preseason, AFC

In case you missed yesterday’s Part I, discussing the NFC, here’s a helping hand.

16. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

If any team is going 0-16 this season, it is the Buffalo Bills. Aside from C.J. Spiller, they have little discernible talent, and they just made arguably the least inspired coaching hire in the history of the NFL.* They play in a division with three strong to quite strong playoff contenders, and they will almost certainly lose five of their six division games. And they still have the ugliest uniforms in football.

*Chan Gailey? Really? I know multiple Bills fans who were more depressed by the Gailey hiring than they are by living in and around Buffalo.

As for Spiller, though, that guy is going to be GOOD.

15. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Cleveland showed some life down the stretch of last season, and then they showed some sort of death wish by going after Jake Delhomme in the off-season. The signing of Delhomme to play quarterback is what I refer to in sports as a “Royals Move;” in other words, it’s a bad team signing a bad veteran for too much money, when it could be handing that playing time over to a younger player who needs the experience (hey there, Colt McCoy!). The Browns are going nowhere with Delhomme; they could go somewhere more quickly in the future without him.

Remember when Cleveland played Buffalo in the snow in that crazy 8-0 game in 2007? These teams competed for a playoff spot then. Now they’re indisputably the AFC’s two worst teams, without much reason to hope for the future.

14. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

And the Jaguars were a playoff team in 2007! A good one! Maurice Jones-Drew is good, but Jacksonville is another team stuck in a division where it’s simply too difficult to make headway. I don’t think the Jags are necessarily a bad team, with David Garrard, Jones-Drew, and Mike Sims-Walker* as a decent threesome. But there’s just not enough there to imagine them winning a road game in their division or doing much damage against the NFC East.

*Can’t Garrard add a hyphen to his name just to complete the trio? And can’t it be David Alan-Garrard; you know, to resemble the “comedian”?

On the plus side, though, Jacksonville has far and away the coolest helmets in the NFL.

13. Denver Broncos (6-10)

I know, I know. I killed the Broncos last season. I said they would win four games, and they started 6-0. I said they were the worst undefeated team after Weeks 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 last season. And I still believe it!

This season, my pessimism for the Broncos season is not Denverfreude. It’s, well, simple pessimism, forged by the loss of Brandon Marshall, the season-ending injury to Elvis Dumervil, and the fact that they won’t be wearing those spectacular vertically striped socks this season. If you think the Broncos can make hay against the terrible AFC West, I’ll remind you that they lost all three home division games last season, and the Raiders and Chiefs seem to be improved this year.

Finally, there’s the Tim Tebow Mess. This doesn’t refer to anything specifically, but I get a bad feeling there’s going to be some locker room turmoil surrounding Friar Tim when Kyle Orton gets off to a justifiably poor start and Josh McDaniels looks Tebow’s way.

12. Oakland Raiders (7-9)

What am I basing this drastic two-game improvement on? Simple: JaMarcus Russell isn’t around.

In case you forget, JaMarcus Russell is pretty bad, and Jason Campbell is borderline competent as a starting quarterback. Remember, this team beat Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Denver down the stretch last season with Bruce Gradkowski at QB. Say what you will about Campbell, but the man is better than Bruce Gradkowski.

The defense is chippy, with Nnamdi Asomugha headlining and Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly on a strong D-line. Rolando McClain was that rare first-round pick Oakland got right, and he can become a tackling machine at middle linebacker right away.

Just how good Oakland can be (as in, can they be a playoff contender?) hinges on either Darrius Heyward-Bey or Chaz Scilens becoming a No. 1 receiver for Campbell OR Darren McFadden living up to what we all (me especially) thought he would be out of Arkansas. I don’t think either of those things happen, or at least not to the extent they need to for the Raiders to make serious noise in the West. But hey, for the first time since 2002, they won’t lose 10.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

Every year, five or six playoff teams fail to make the playoffs the next year. Half the battle in these NFL predictions is knowing who will jump up, and the other half is knowing who will fall.

The Bengals were the clear first pick in that latter group, as I decided Cincinnati would not be headed back to the postseason sometime between Carson Palmer’s eighth and ninth airmailings of an open receiver against the Jets last January.

To be fair, the Bengals are getting some key defensive pieces back healthy, namely Antwan Odom and Keith Rivers. They have a strong cornerbacking corps with Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph (with PacMan Jones potentially adding depth).

My questions surround the offensive side of the ball and Palmer in particular. His performance against the Jets was mind-bogglingly bad. The only reason he didn’t throw a Delhomme-like number of interceptions was because he missed his receivers by so wide a margin, even the defenders weren’t close. So was that an aberration? Or is Palmer legitimately starting his post-injury decline?

That Cedric Benson won’t be able to repeat his 2009, that Chad Ocho Cinco and Terrell Owens are a good receiving duo in name and past alone, and that they won’t be going 6-0 in the division again anytime soon only complicate matters.

10. Houston Texans (7-9)

People–and by this, I mean the liberal mainstream media, of course–are saying this is the year Houston makes the leap to the playoffs. More people said this last year, with a slightly smaller number of people saying it the year before.

But last year was the year. Last year was the year when the Texans received 16 healthy games from Matt Schaub and a terrific season from Andre Johnson. The Jaguars and Titans were down in the AFC South, and there weren’t clear Wild Card teams in the AFC for the first time in a few years.

I don’t think those things are true this season. And that’s why, even though Owen Daniels is back healthy and Arian Foster should stabilize the running game, the Texans postseason drought will extend into 2011. It’s tough to ask for 16 more from Schaub. The Texans get the NFC East instead of the NFC West, meaning that 3-1 non-conference record will likely be inverted. They could very well be 0-5 in mid-October, especially with Brian Cushing suspended. They’ll make another late charge, but it won’t mean anything.

Remember the words of Men in Black, “A person can be smart. People are stupid.”

9. San Diego Chargers (8-8)

The first upset on the board! Why? Because unless you’re the Colts, you don’t make the playoffs that many years in a row in the NFL. San Diego has made it four years in a row; the only teams to make it five in a row this decade are Indy (8), New England (5), Seattle (5), and Philadelphia (5). All those teams appeared in the Super Bowl at least once.*

*It should be noted Seattle and Philly did it in their fifth season.

But the Chargers were a very one-dimensional team in 2009, and the lingering holdout status of Vincent Jackson threatens the efficiency of their passing game. Ryan Mathews will be an improvement over LaDainian Tomlinson, so long as Marcus McNeill plays on the O-line.

More than anything, I expect the Chargers to hit some bad luck–the kind that almost kept them out of the playoffs two seasons ago (when 8-8 was good enough to win the West). And with an improved division around them, that won’t fly this year.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)

First four games will cost them.

Look, I understand Troy Polamalu is back, and that Pittsburgh can win a lot of games without Ben Roethlisberger on the strength of its defense and its running game. The problem is the particular games Roethlisberger will miss, and I’m focusing specifically on the opener against Atlanta and a Week 4 home date with the Ravens. With Big Ben, Pittsburgh wins those games. With Dennis Dixon, I don’t think they do, and that’s the difference between making the playoffs with this team and falling one game short.

7. New England Patriots (10-6)

Bad luck with tiebreakers strikes! I don’t expect the Pats to be any worse than the Dolphins or Jets in the AFC East, but I do expect the malevolent tiebreaker to keep them home in January for the second time in three years.

The big issues surround the New England defense, a unit so porous in 2009 that Bill Belichick started randomly going for it on 4th down (at least, that’s how I recall it). They were simply run over by the Ravens in the playoffs, and it’s unclear if they’ve improved at all (aside from, possibly, Brandon Meriweather being better).

Further, their offense isn’t good enough to carry the load to a 12-win season. At this point, no one really knows what New England can expect out of either of its star receivers in the recuperating Wes Welker and the occasionally apathetic Randy Moss. They still have no running game to speak of.*

*I want to call it now, though: Rob Gronkowski is gonna be GREAT.

6. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

Someone’s got to win that division if not the Chargers, right? I was all over the KC bandwagon in 2009, and I see no reason (yep, not even a 4-12 season) to hop off now.

I still believe in Matt Cassel as an NFL quarterback, and I really like the Jamaal Charles/Thomas Jones duo, provided they don’t give Jones too much of the load. Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers are serviceable wideouts. The defense should be better under Romeo Crennel and with Eric Berry stepping in as a playmaking safety. All those high draft picks have to start paying off eventually, right?

The Chiefs have a great scheduling start to the season, with San Diego and San Francisco at home sandwiching a trip to Cleveland. They should be 2-1 by that point with a chance–a chance–to be 3-0. Throw in home games with Jacksonville, Buffalo, Denver, and Oakland with trips to Seattle and St. Louis, and you’re looking at a team that can get some confidence, get Arrowhead rocking, and make some noise in December.

5. New York Jets (10-6)

Ooh, boy. Another team I was not kind to last season. And they, unlike the Broncos, came back to burn me. And burn me. And burn me again.

The Jets now enter this season proclaiming the Super Bowl as the only sufficient goal, to which I say, “You went 9-7 last season. With a soft schedule. And a better running game. And no camp issues.” Yes, it seems easy to forget given their playoff success, their enjoyable bravado, and their Hard Knocks exposure that the Jets, essentially, lucked into the playoffs by playing the Colts and Bengals late in the year when neither team tried to win. And their off-season improvements all come with minor (and in one case, major) caveats: Santonio Holmes is suspended for four games. Antonio Cromartie is a big-play cornerback, with those big plays going both ways; frequently leaving him on an island could be detrimental. And LaDainian Tomlinson is a marked downgrade from Thomas Jones.

All this said, New York will be better in 2010. Mark Sanchez will have a TD-to-INT ratio of better than 3:5, and the addition of Holmes and a full season of Braylon Edwards give the quarterback the playmakers he didn’t really have last year. But I’m not crowning these guys yet. For all they did accomplish last season, they couldn’t beat the…

4. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

…the Miami Dolphins. The Wildcat as the kryptonite to Rex Ryan’s defensive scheming. The dramatic return of Ronnie Brown to create the AFC’s best running back combo with Ricky Williams. The addition of Brandon Marshall to add a passing threat to the offense. The continued improvement of Chad Henne. The signing of Karlos Dansby to add a defensive playmaker to the mix.

Yes, like the Falcons in the NFC, the Dolphins will reprise their surprise 2008 season two years later with a division title (again, tiebreakers). Miami plays the type of ball possession, defensive style that will keep it in any game, except that now it has Marshall, one of the league’s preeminent playmakers on the outside. Throw in a healthy Brown, and the Dolphins could have their best offense in a decade.

Not only will they make the playoffs, but the Dolphins will make some noise, giving a top-two seed all it can handle in the second round.

3. Tennessee Titans (12-4)

I have to admit: I am VERY surprised, and borderline STUNNED, that no one else is on the Titans’ bandwagon with Chuck Klosterman. Tennessee has Chris Johnson, whom we have no reason to suspect can’t approximate his 2009 season. Vince Young has settled in at quarterback, and if there’s one thing we know about Vince Young, it’s that the dude wins. Last I checked, resident cool coach Jeff Fisher was still at the helm, just two years removed from a 13-3 season.

They finished 8-2 after their 0-6 start, with the only losses coming in Indy and to San Diego. (Let’s overlook that they beat only one playoff team, Arizona, in that stretch, because that game was awesome.*)

*Seriously, it was the second-best game of the season, behind only Super Bowl XLIV. Check out Jim Trotter’s excellent anatomy of the final drive from last week’s SI.

True, the Titans face a daunting schedule–tied for the hardest in the NFL. But they get Pittsburgh at home sans Roethlisberger before traveling to the Meadowlands to battle a Giants team particularly ill-suited to defend their kind of offensive speed. I don’t just think the Titans can start 4-0; I think they will start 4-0. Furthermore, they get three consecutive divisional home games in December in front of a trip to Kansas City–winnable games all. And unless they’re breathing down the Colts’ necks heading into Week 17, they get a date with Curtis Painter.

A great Wild Card team, and we’ve seen Fisher work magic with one of those before.

2. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)

I tried to knock the Colts out of the playoffs last season. I played the whole “Bad things happen sometimes in the NFL” card that I tried to with San Diego earlier. In fact, part of why it came off so unconvincingly with regard to the Chargers is because it was the same argument I made last year with Indy, and I knew I was wrong then.

I’ve given up. The Colts will make the playoffs so long as Peyton Manning has a right arm. It’s just a matter of who they’re going to lose to in the playoffs.

1. Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

I had them as my Super Bowl XLV champion on the day after Super Bowl XLIV. The Ravens have added the necessary playmaker in Anquan Boldin, who when healthy, will be the best receiver Baltimore has ever had.* Derrick Mason moves from a suspect No. 1 to an above-average No. 2, with Todd Heap providing support from tight end. Joe Flacco threw for over 3600 yards in his sophomore campaign, and there’s no reason to doubt he’ll go over 4,000 this time around.

*Not saying much. Michael Jackson (not that one) currently holds the “distinction.”

And all this is to say nothing of Ray Rice, who will be the NFL’s best running back in 2010. Rice just got better and better last season, culminating his breakout year with a dominant performance against the Patriots in New England in January. With Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain spelling him, Rice should be able to run for 1,500 yards and catch 60+ balls out of the backfield.

Oddly enough, Baltimore’s question marks are on the defensive side of the ball, in particular a secondary that won’t have Ed Reed for at least the first six weeks. The trade for Seattle corner Josh Wilson, however, helps add depth to the secondary and, while it remains a legitimate concern, it’s one that can be concealed if the front seven plays to its potential.

That secondary will be tested–big-time–in an AFC Championship with Indianapolis and a Super Bowl matchup with Green Bay. But, just like I said at the end of last season, it’ll be the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.*

*Not by a score of 23-10, though. Much higher than that. 30-23.

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