With the 2009 NFL season just a month away, let’s take a look at the AFC today and seperate the men from the boys, shall we? Let’s get to it…
THE WINNER OF THE AFC EAST
New England – Tom Brady returns for the Pats, who will be hungry to get back to the playoffs after missing out last year despite going 11-5. Bill Belichick’s squad should have no problem putting up points on offense, but the back seven of the defense and the pass rush remain questionable. The offseason additions of Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs should help a secondary that was picked on last year, but the inexperienced depth could hinder New England’s chances should injuries occur to the starters. Today’s announced trade for former Raider DE Derrick Burgess should help a pass rush that was mediocre last season, but will it be enough? The Pats have a load of talent, but questions remain.
THE WINNER OF THE AFC NORTH
Pittsburgh – The Steelers, fresh off of their NFL leading 6th super bowl victory, should be in the hunt come January once again to win it all. Mike Tomlin proved all the doubters wrong(including yours truly) by leading the Steelers to the title, but he’ll have his hands full this season trying to keep the team motivated and away from all the distractions that super bowl winners go through the following season. The Steelers defense(ranked #1 in the NFL last season) should once again be the team’s calling card and the offense should be improved if Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall don’t miss as much time as they did last season. The one question nobody can answer, however, is how will the rape allegations against Ben Roethlisberger affect the 26 year-old QB on the field?
THE WINNER OF THE AFC SOUTH
Indianapolis – The curtains have come down on the Tony Dungy era in Indianapolis…..finally. While the Colts won a ton of regular season and division championships under Dungy, they failed to live up to expectations repeatedly come playoff time. The Colts should have won at least two or three super bowls this decade with the talent they’ve had. The problem for Colts fans is that the talent on the Colts in 2009 doesn’t seem to measure up to Colts teams of recent years. Sure, Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney are still around to lead the offense and defense, but the team’s running game(ranked 31st last season) is still a question mark and the inability of Bob “Always on the Shelf” Sanders to stay healthy is a constant concern for the Colts run defense. San Diego exploited both of those areas in last season’s win over the Colts in the AFC playoffs. The Colts will always be a factor with a healthy Peyton Manning, but they have many areas of concern to shore up if they expect to get past New England or Pittsburgh come January.
THE WINNER OF THE AFC WEST
San Diego – The Chargers have loads of talent on both sides of the ball. There really is no reason that they should not cruise to the division title in the AFC West and should contend for home-field advantage in the AFC. Shawne Merriman’s return should help a defense that was 25th in the NFL last season and the offense(ranked #2 in PPG in 2008) should once again be of the game’s best units. However, even with all the Chargers talent, the fact remains that Norv Turner simply hasn’t showed the ability to lead any team to the promised land as a head coach.
AFC WILDCARD FORECAST
The race for the two remaing AFC playoff spots should consist of a handful of teams. Baltimore, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Miami, and the Jets should all be in the mix. Who will ultimately stake claim to the two spots? My money is on Baltimore and Buffalo. Baltimore’s defense should once again be one of the top units in the NFL and Joe Flacco has already proven himself to be a capable NFL quarterback that won’t lose games for you. The reversal of Derek Mason’s retirement gives new life to the Ravens chances. As for the Bills, look for them to be the surprise of the AFC this season. TO was a headache for Dallas last season, but should be a nice shot in the arm for a Buffalo team starving for confidence and a swagger. The Bills were in many close games last season and TO should give them the ammunition they need offensively to get them over the hump in those tight games this season.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Look for Pittsburgh to get it done over New England in January. The Steelers defense is just too good and reliable to not like their chances come playoff time. For all the preseason hype and accolades the Patriots have received, has anyone forgotten to notice that the team’s defense is still a huge question mark? Belichick and Brady can only take New England so far and it hasn’t been good enough for a Super Bowl title since the 2004 season. Pittsburgh’s smothering defense should be too much for New England’s offensive line to handle come playoff time, much like the defensive line of the Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl. The Steelers take the AFC title game 27-20 over New England.