2008 NFL Preview: The AFC

Chas Kurtz

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots: Even without Tom Brady, the Pats remain the team to beat in the AFC East. With the league’s easiest schedule, an average performance from Matt Cassell or a free agent signing at quarterback (Daunte Culpepper must be salivating) should be sufficient for the Pats to capture yet another division crown.

2. New York Jets: (Wild Card) The Favre era is officially underway in New York. Broadway Brett looked impressive in Week 1, but the Jets only managed a six-point victory against Miami, a team coming off one of the worst seasons in NFL history. With an influx of solid veterans, Favre should have time to spread the field with Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, while RBs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington should have improved seasons. Expect the Jets to contend in the Brady-less division.

3. Buffalo Bills: Perhaps no AFC team was more impressive than the Bills in the opening week. Trent Edwards looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback as Buffalo dominated every aspect of the game against the Seahawks, a team widely considered to be an NFC contender. If Week 1 was any indication, the AFC East should be a surprisingly exciting three team race in 2008.

4. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins improved during the offseason, but virtually anything would be an improvement after a 1-15 campaign. With Chad Pennington at quarterback, a healthy Ronnie Brown, and a seemingly rejuvenated Ricky Williams, Miami will be better in 2008. At this rate, after accumulating a few more top-five draft picks, Miami might be a contender by 2012.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC Champion): The Steelers suddenly look like the team to beat in the AFC. The Chargers and Colts both looked bad in Week 1 losses to second-rate NFC squads, while the Pats have their obvious issues. Meanwhile, the Steelers looked powerful in a 38-17 thrashing of the Texans. Willie Parker looked poised for another big season, while Big Ben was nearly perfect in the victory. Rookie playmakers Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed add explosiveness to an already potent attack.

2. Cleveland Browns: Was their 10-6 record last season a fluke or a sign of things to come? Their offense remains one of the league’s best, as Derek Anderson is blessed with an array of weapons, including Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth, and Kellen Winslow. If Jamal Lewis plays well and the defense improves, the Browns will contend for a playoff berth.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: This team is consistently inconsistent. Will we see Pro Bowl Carson Palmer or Week 1 Carson Palmer (10/25, 99 yards, 35.3 rating in 17-10 loss to Baltimore)? The same question applies to T.J. Houshmandzadeh (3 catches vs. BAL) and Chad Ocho Cinco (1 catch vs. BAL). After releasing Rudi Johnson, they have no proven runner, and they still have a rather porous defense. In the entire NFL, there is no greater waste of talent than the Bengals.

4. Baltimore Ravens: They beat the Bengals with a rookie quarterback and two completely unproven running backs. But don’t get too excited; it was just the Bengals. Joe Flacco might be great, but not this season. Ravens fans should start counting down to the 2009 season.

AFC SOUTH

1. Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC Finalist): The Jags will finally overcome the Colts this season and win the division title. David Garrard still lacks a go-to receiver, but the two-headed monster of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew running behind a solid line will lead the team to a solid season, despite the disappointing first week loss to Tennessee.

2. Indianapolis Colts (Wild Card): The Colts reign atop the division will come to an end in 2008, but they remain among the league’s best. With Brady out, Peyton Manning assumes the role as league’s best quarterback. Expect Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison, and emerging Anthony Gonzalez to benefit from Manning’s big season.

3. Tennessee Titans: In college it was “Vince Young!” Now, it’s “Vince Young?” Entering his third NFL season, Young has yet to emerge as a star. Rookie RB Chris Johnson was great in week 1 and can be utilized as the lightning to LenDale White’s thunder, but that won’t be enough to carry the Titans to the postseason.

4. Houston Texans: The Texans will be better than this if Matt Schaub performs well, but his options beyond Andre Johnson are limited. Rookie back Steve Slaton could be utilized like Reggie Bush, while Mario Williams will become the most feared defender in the league. The Texans have a bright future, but their potential will not be realized until next season.

AFC WEST

1. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers will compete with the Steelers, Jags, and Colts for the AFC crown. With the most talented team in the league, San Diego fought the Patriots down to the wire in the AFC Championship game last season and will look to build upon their success. If Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Gates all rebound from injuries, the Chargers will among the league’s best, but the loss of Shawne Merriman for the season significantly hampers the team’s championship hopes.

2. Denver Broncos: No team scored more points than the Broncos in Week 1 as they thrashed the Raiders 41-14. Jay Cutler looks like a budding star, while Brandon Marshall already is one. Playing in a weak AFC West, Denver could make a surprising run at the playoffs.

3. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are still in rebuilding mode. JaMarcus Russell will inevitably struggle in his first year under center and won’t win many games, but with Darren McFadden in the backfield the Raiders will be exciting.

4. Kansas City Chiefs: When Brodie Croyle is your starting quarterback, you know it’s going to be a long year. Larry Johnson is past his prime, Dwayne Bowe is unproven, and the secondary is inexperienced. The Chiefs will be in the fight for worst record in the league.