Houston Texans (10-6) - JJ fricken Watt. As if he isn’t a big superstar now, HBO Hardknocks will make him world famous. He is an incredible athlete who will surely break the single season sack record one year (and the all time record if he stays on this pace). His workouts are incredible and he sacrifices a social life to be the great player that he is. We all wish we had a player like that on our teams, one who truly puts the team ahead of himself and finds any way possible to be the best player he can be. And with the combination of a healthy Jadeveon Clowney, that defensive line could be filthy. The Texans desperately need to find out who their starting quarterback is though. It is impossible to go anywhere in this league with an average player under center, especially when your star running back keeps going down with injuries. Brian Hoyer has looked pretty decent this year and DeAndre Hopkins has looked fantastic. Time for Bill O’ Brien to step up his offensive genius and find ways to utilize Hopkins. JJ Watt just might find a way to carry all of Houston into the playoffs.
Indianapolis Colts (12-4) - When you have a quarterback that is of the caliber as Andrew Luck, every year is Super Bowl or bust. Last year Luck proved that he is the best young quarterback and will be mainstay for years to come and with the signings of Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, the Colts got older but they gained a veteran presence. The run defense needs to improve still. Through 19 games last year they gave up at least 100 rushing yards 12 times, including 423 yards in the two games against the Patriots. And in the AFC, the road to the Super Bowl goes through New England so Chuck Pagano has to get back to his Baltimore defensive roots and shut down opposing offenses. But watching the speedster duo of TY Hilton and Philip Dorsett will be an exciting one to watch.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) - I am beyond tired about hearing how this team has “potential” and that they are a young team and still need time. A fan can only take so much losing before they become beyond irritated. I want the playoffs and even though I know that is still a year away, I would be beyond ecstatic if they finish .500 this year. Led by second year players like Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson, the Jaguars offense might put up enough points and TJ Yeldon might help them stay on the field long enough to help out the defense and start to look like a successful team. The young team already lost first round pick Dante Fowler for the year but they still have Yeldon, safety James Sample, guard AJ Cann, and defensive tackle Michael Bennett. The defense needs to be better this year too. The sacks are starting to get there (45 last year) but oddly enough the turnovers haven’t bounced their way yet (6 interceptions). Telvin Smith is a young rising star linebacker who could be that difference maker and playmaker, much like the Jaguars are hoping Julius Thomas will be on offense. Time to step up Jags!
Tennessee Titans (3-13) - The Titans are a few years away from being a playoff team. Ken Wisenhunt is a decent coach who rode Kurt Warner to the Super Bowl but his career win loss record is 47 and 65. Average numbers just like Jeff Fisher, but if he be that quarterback whisperer which he is proclaimed to be, then maybe he can help Marcus Mariota transition into this league with ease, lord knows Tennessee needs help. So far through preseason Mariota has looked like a legit quarterback, but that is expected because if you don’t look good throughout training camp something is horribly wrong. I expect them to be in contention for the first round pick again this year.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) – This will be an interesting year for the Ravens. They came within an incredible play last year of beating the Patriots and going to the AFC Championship game against the Colts. Their biggest addition this year was hiring offensive mastermind Marc Trestman as offensive coordinator. Joe Flacco is going to be airing the ball out a lot and Steve Smith Sr. could have a hell of a year but the development of rookie offensive weapons Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams will be a big factor. Rookie tight ends never come out of the gate firing on all cylinders but wide receivers can make an instant impact, either way Flacco needs one of them to come up big. The defensive side of the ball still has Terrell Suggs and last year rookie sensation CJ Mosley. The Ravens are once again a solid team that will really make their noise in the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) – Another year, another season with Andy Dalton and that can only mean one thing: first round knockout in the playoffs. All kidding aside, once again this team will only go as far as Andy Dalton can take them. Having two great running backs like Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard helps take the pressure off Dalton as well as having a monster receiver like AJ Green. Then getting back a healthy Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones and adding a tight end/ receiver hybrid like Tyler Kroft, there are no excuses now. The skill players are there, it’s a matter of Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict overachieving and using their weapons around them to create plays. But barring something unforeseen they just don’t have that special magic to make them an actual contender. I think the Bengals will just miss out on the playoffs this year.
Cleveland Browns (7-9) – The Browns are in an impossible division again this year. The other three teams all have a shot at making the playoffs and Browns fans are awaiting their quarterback savior. Too bad their quarterback Jesus is not on this team as Josh McCown is the stopgap player and Johnny Manziel is not a professional quarterback. The Browns defense will keep them in many games this year but it will be a tough feat to overcome if the running back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West don’t average 150 yards rushing a game. Sorry Browns fans.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – I expect big things from the Steelers this season but unlike most years, the offense will be leading the charge. We have become so numb to the way things are that we expect the Steelers to have a great defense and then to run the ball, but the defense will be mostly unproven this year. Longtime Steeler greats Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel retired so it’s a good thing that Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger are still around to lead this highflying, quick paced offense. Bell will be the best running back in the league again this year and Antonio Brown and Big Ben will tandem up and combine for at least 1700 receiving yards. This team is definitely a Super Bowl contender.
Buffalo Bills (8-8) – If there is one thing that Rex Ryan is great at, it’s being a marketing genius. Whether it be by his words or just because he is an enthralling figure, his teams are fun to watch. That grind it out style of play complimented by a great defense is an old fashioned but effective way of playing. Now with Tyrod Taylor beating out Matt Cassel and the inept EJ Manuel this could be an interesting team to watch. I feel as though they will play a run and gun kind of offense using a hopefully healthy LeSean McCoy. Rex will have that defense ready to play but I think they will need another year if they aim to be in contention to make the playoffs.
Miami Dolphins (10-6) – I am a huge proponent of Ryan Tannehill this year. After improving the past few years, the former Texas A&M quarterback is ready to take the next step to become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Jarvis Landry is an impressive wide receiver and Devante Parker could be a stud, when healthy. I look for the Dolphins to make some big strides with Ndamukong Suh, Reshad Jones, Cameron Wake, and others playing at a high level on defense and the offense putting up an impressive amount of points once they figure out the situation at running back (but that may be a good situation to have with Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi).
New England Patriots (11-5) – Insert Deflategate joke and we are off. Tom brady is back and is pissed off. He beat the unbeatable and now he ahs motivation to come back and crush anybody in his path. After Legarrette Blount’s one game suspension is done I expect him to be a bell cow and receiver plenty of carries. This defense should be better this year than it was last year especially with all of those high contract “superstar” players gone. This year, the defense is full of non-selfish players who fit the Belichick mold. Chandler Jones could wind up with 13 sacks while the combination of Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Don’t’a Hightower might be one of the best linebacker groups in the league. Having a stout defensive line and sure tackling linebackers will allow the former Rutgers defensive backs, Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan, and Patrick Chung and Malcolm Butler to fly around and make plays. This team, along with a fired up Tom Brady could be looking at a repeat.
New York Jets (5-11) – What started off as a promising off-season has turned ugly and sad. First, one of the most dominant players in the league in Sheldon Richardson performed a heinous act of racing at 143 mph while stoned out of his mind with a loaded pistol AND a 12 year old kid in the car. If Adrian Peterson got suspended a whole year for disciplining his child in public, I can’t imagine what kind of hell Roger Goodell will rain down. Then Geno Smith decided not to pay back one of his teammates $600 so he then got Rocky’d in the face and wound up with a broken jaw. This leaves Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw to an upgraded receiving core but will that be enough for newcomer head coach Todd Bowles? With the Dolphins and Bills getting better and Tom Brady still around, the Jets need some stability at quarterback if they ever aim to compete in the AFC East.
Denver Broncos (11-5) – Call me old school but I really hope Peyton Manning wakes up and realizes something; he NEEDS a running game. Now that the Broncos have a good core of running backs, they can actually pull a move out of John Elway’s career playbook and run a balanced attack. Elway did this in the latter years of his career. Use the run, with Terrell Davis, to set up the pass and then throw deep to players like Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe (too bad Julius Thomas is gone or the comparisons could be eerily similar with CJ Anderson and Demaryius Thomas). Run the ball with CJ Anderson and this team could definitely wind up in the AFC Championship Game. That offensive line needs to find a way to gel together and keep Peyton upright while opening up holes for Anderson to run. I expect Von Miller to have a big season, racking up about 15 sacks, with Demarcus Ware adding in another 11. Will this be enough for Peyton to reach his Holy Grail again?
Kansas City Chiefs (8-8) – Some “experts” are high on the Chiefs this year. I honestly can’t see why. Alex Smith still cannot throw the ball and while they added Jeremy Maclin, he and Smith cannot connect on deep balls. Jamaal Charles is another year older and still only 28 years old; he has a lot of miles on those legs. The one player I am rooting for is Eric Berry. One of my favorite players coming out of the University of Tennessee, Berry has beat out Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is ready to return to play. Two years removed from micro fracture knee surgery, Travis Kelce is ready for his coming out party. While Smith can’t throw the deep ball, he can throw those intermediate outs and flat routes like a champ. The Kansas City defense looks to build on from last year. Yes the pass defense was phenomenal last year, 2nd in the NFL with 203 yards per game allowed, did not allow a 300 yard passer once, and allowed 17.6 points per game last season. All this while facing Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ryan Tannehill. If only they had a legit signal caller, then maybe they could make a push in the playoffs. Enjoy being mediocre another year.
Oakland Raiders (5-11) – This once great franchise has fallen so far. At least when Al Davis was alive they were winning games until his later years. Derek Carr has breathed a little bit of fresh air into this lackluster franchise. They seem to have a somewhat competent quarterback for the first time since Rich Gannon was around and they even helped him out by giving him a receiver who I think could have a pro bowl year as a rookie in Amari Cooper. Cooper torched Patrick Peterson when he dropped his hips and came back on a comeback route. He ran the route as good as a pro who has been in the league for years. While his numbers didn’t quite show the body of work, Khalil Mack is going to be a star in this league. They have a good mix of young players and seasoned veterans so I believe this team is on the upswing. The wins and loss record may not be there yet, but they are on their way.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) – While supporting a team that has constantly been talked about moving elsewhere (Jaguars), it is frustrating, annoying, and just plain sad. So could this be the Chargers last year in San Diego? It seems like the arrow is pointed in that direction. This could be a big enough distraction to affect the Chargers this year in their quest to make the playoffs. As long as Melvin Gordon can pick up the offense fast enough, he could have a very strong second half of the year. Melvin Ingram has looked fast around the edge on defense and the secondary looks to be a strong bunch again led by Eric Weddle. I believe this season comes down to the Chargers grinding out some wins against teams and to have Keenan Allen re establish his connection with Philip Rivers. This will allow the ground game to prevail and keep Rivers upright and healthy. I think the Chargers just miss out on the playoffs and then move to Los Angeles.