Sure, the Indianapolis Colts are the easy favorite to win the AFC South and go back to the Super Bowl in 2010. But will they be challenged at all by emerging divisional opponents like the Titans or Texans? Will the New York Jets overtake Tom Brady and the Patriots for the AFC East title? Will Cincinnati repeat as AFC North champions or will other divisional rivals like the Ravens or Steelers top them? And is the AFC West a wide open field, or is there a clear favorite?
Here below are short essays by four Blogcritics Magazine writers on who they think will reign supreme in each AFC division in the 2010 regular season.
AFC East: Charlie Doherty
Pats QB Tom Brady has recovered from a broken finger and three broken ribs suffered late in ‘09. And WR Wes Welker’s left knee is healthy. With Randy Moss by his side, and with the same running back attack that finished 12th in the NFL in ’09, the reigning AFC East champion Patriots and its offense is primed to have another big year.
Secret weapon: Julian Edelman, who is looking to be the next Kevin Faulk, with his notable pass-catching, punt return and rushing abilities.
Brady will soon have a new longterm contract, so besides guard Logan Mankins holding out, the only big concerns the Pats have to resolve this year are on defense. Ty Warren is now out for the season, and the Pats are already suffering from lack of defensive depth (especially at linebacker). They also need to tackle much better and fill a void in defensive leadership now that Junior Seau is retired.
For the Jets, all this talk by head coach Rex Ryan about how he sees his Jets as Super Bowl-bound is laughable. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs last season if Indy hadn’t rested its starters against them in the last regular season game. Remember, the Jets finished ’09 as a 9-7 Wild Card team.
Did they do enough in the offseason to possibly win the division in ’10? WR Braylon Edwards is a key addition, but I don’t see it, as QB Mark Sanchez threw 20 picks last year as a rookie and could cause more headaches this year, WR Santonio Holmes will miss the first four games of the season, RB LaDainian Tomlinson and LB Jason Taylor are past their prime, and star CB Darrelle Revis may sit out the season as he looks be the highest paid cornerback in the NFL.
Miami saw Chad Henne emerge as QB last year and added troubled but highly talented WR Brandon Marshall this season. But I don’t see the Dolphins winning the AFC East either, nor will the Bills, who are without a clear franchise QB. Therefore, I see the Patriots as the only team in double digits in wins in 2010 and thus, AFC East champions once again, with the Jets and Dolphins tied for second place but the former team winning a tiebreaker to earn a Wild Card spot, and the poor Bills in the cellar again.
AFC North: Victor Lana
In arguably the division with the most intense rivalries in the AFC, I think we are going to have a relatively exciting and in some cases dramatic season for these four teams. I have listed the teams in the order I think they will finish, the records I believe they will attain, and give some thoughts on how I came to these conclusions.
1. Baltimore Ravens 13-3
2. Cincinatti Bengals: 10-6
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-8
4. Cleveland Browns: 5-11
The Ravens had a very good draft this season, picking up DE Sergio Kindle and DT Terence Cody. They also made significant additions to their offense with WR Anquan Boldin, who will no doubt become the go-to guy for QB Joe Flacco along with amazing RB Ray Rice. In addition to Boldin, the Ravens picked up free agent Donte Stallworth and resigned their lone 1000-yard WR from ’09, Derrick Mason. With a notably improved defense and offense, the Ravens should finish first in the AFC North, barring injuries to any key players.
The Bengals had a strong ’09 season, finishing first in this division. They improved their offense with WR Terrell Owens and WR Dezmon Bricos, who join super talented WR Chad Ochocinco and promising draft pick Jermaine Gresham at TE, giving QB Carson Palmer plenty to work with this year. The bump in the road here is a simply adequate defense. Antwon Odom is returning from another serious injury, though DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap offer bright spots. That said, the Bengals should attain the same record as last year, and maybe get into the playoffs as a wild card.
The Steelers are in quite a predicament going into the 2010 season, with QB Ben Roethlisberger’s six-game suspension (though there are rumors of a “reduction” of games from the commissioner’s office). Byron Leftwich does not, as Roethlisberger’s fill-in, inspire much confidence. Can coach Mike Tomlin get his players to focus and forget about all this drama? It looks like even with the super talented Rashard Mendenhall, the best years being past for WR Hines Ward, and Santonio Holmes being traded to the Jets, the Steelers’ offense is in for a rough time even after Roethlisberger returns. The defense is solid enough (tops in the AFC last year) and that should continue this year with LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Casey Hampton in the mix. Despite this apparent strength, the first games played will set the tone for the season, and that does not bode well for a better than .500 record this year.
The Browns have a great defense, and that will be their strength this year with the addition of Sheldon Brown, T.J. Ward, and Joe Haden. Along with guys like Brandon McDonald, Eric Wright and Abram Elam, this looks to be the best thing coach Eric Mangini has going for him this season. The offense will be his biggest headache, and the future QB Colt McCoy will be waiting in the wings (and give Browns fans some hope for another day). This results in a situation where Jake Delhomme will probably be the anointed one this year, and with a basically green and unproven offense, it does not look good for this team. Besides predicting a tough season for the Browns (achieving the same dismal record as last year), I also see the end coming yet again for “Man-genius,” but his departure would also give the fans more hope for the future as well. Did someone say team president Mike Holmgren’s name? Bet on him replacing Mangini, perhaps even during this season, if things get really ugly.
AFC South: Josh Mandell
The Colts didn’t lead the NFL in any major statistic except one in 2009: wins. They won their first 14 games of the season, but didn’t dominate. Six of their wins were by four or fewer points. With Peyton Manning leading the way, the Colts came through under pressure week after week. It’s this tendency that makes the Colts an overwhelming favorite to win their seventh division title in eight years. Reggie Wayne is still one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. If young wideouts Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie continue to develop, Manning’s passing attack will be hard to stop.
I don’t see any changes from last year’s standings, but there is one wrinkle. The Texans should once again place second, but this time make the playoffs for the first time and be a potentially great team. Their offense centers around QB Matt Schaub and his favorite target, Andre Johnson. Schaub led the NFL in passing yards last season, but he hasn’t yet proved that he can excel in close games. Yet, Drew Brees faced similar criticism before he joined the Saints and dominated the second half of last year’s Super Bowl. Schaub has that kind of talent. I also think that RB Steve Slaton will return to the production of his rookie season (1282 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and that Mario Williams is a beast on defense who could be a potent weapon against the Titans’ athletic QB Vince Young.
The Titans sure looked good in their last 10 games, winning eight of them. But they only did that after losing its first six games, capped off by a 59-0 embarrassment against the Patriots. The awful start can partly be blamed on the loss of defensive stronghold Albert Haynesworth to the Redskins. But NFL isn’t kind to teams that are slow to adapt. Tenessee will finish third unless Chris Johnson can somehow rush for 2,000 yards again.
The Jaguars are one of the most lackluster teams in the NFL, and I can’t see them improving from last year’s 7-9 record. The hyphenated duo of RB Maurice Jones-Drew and WR Mike Sims-Walker is strong, but the rest of the team can’t compete with this tough division.
AFC West: Josh Hathaway
The AFC West is at once the most obvious and most mysterious division in the NFL. The Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders are all under construction while the Chargers have the most pieces assembled and have owned the division recently. They should again this year, but three crucial players – Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson, and Shawn Merriman – are holding out, embroiled in nasty contract disputes. Even so, they’re the team to beat.
Where it gets interesting is in Oakland and KC. Oakland did something very un-Raider-like, subtracting JaMarcus “Lunchbox” Russell and importing Jason Campbell at QB, while drafting Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston to help a sagging run defense and taking two tackles who have NFL potential to help the offense. KC is still missing pieces, but they got a lot faster in the draft with Eric Berry, Javier Arenas, and Dexter McCluster, three kids from the SEC who can fly. They also got smarter, adding Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel at the two coordinator positions.
Denver took steps backwards, running off troubled-yet-productive Brandon Marshall and replacing him with a rookie at WR and drafting a QB in Tim Tebow, who doesn’t figure to help immediately. Last year’s first round pick, Knowshon Moreno, is already hurt and Denver’s awful defense has lost its best player in Elvis Dumerville for the season. So they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.