AFC East and AFC North Preview by Jason King

The AFC North and East have sent six of the last eight conference representatives to the Super Bowl. This year figures to be no different as the Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Ravens are all emergent favorites to play for the Lombardi Trophy.  

AFC East

 The AFC East has been dominated by the Patriots over the last 10 years.  Are the Jets ready to win their first AFC East crown since 2002? Will the Bills or Dolphins be competitive or just easy outs?  All of these questions and more will be answered in the next 5 months.

Buffalo Bills:  The Bills finished the 2010 season at 4-12. That earned Buffalo the number 3 pick in the draft, where they drafted Marcell Dareus, the highly touted defensive tackle out of LSU.  Chan Gailey hopes to have the Bills improve on their record from last year and factor in the division race.

Offense:  The Bills offense is where the most questions and concerns lie. The Bills offensive line is full of questions and was the team’s worst unit in the preseason. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be in for a long season if the offensive line doesn’t improve. Demetrius Bell, the Bills 2008 seventh round pick, is the teams starting left tackle. Erik Pears is the starting right tackle. He is the most experienced of the bunch. Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, and Kraig Urbik are the LG, C, and RG respectively. This group is one of the worst offensive lines in football. Stevie Johnson is coming off of a 1,073 yard and 10 touchdown season. Johnson and CJ Spiller will be the playmakers on this Bills offense that lost Lee Evans via a trade with the Ravens last month.

Defense:  The Bills defense will be a big determining factor as to how much this team improves. They had the worst rush defense in the NFL last year allowing an abysmal 169.6 yards per game on the ground.  Dareus, along with DT Kyle Williams, and now healthy with something to prove LB Shawne Merriman should help bring that number down drastically. The Bills pass defense was solid last year but that was mainly because teams had built big leads on them so they were eating the clock by running the ball and also because they ran the ball so effectively that there was rarely a need to pass.  Dareus, Merriman, and Williams will be keys to the Bills pass defense also.  If they can get pressure on the quarterback the secondary can mask some of its deficiencies. Predicted Record: 7-9 (3rd place in the division)

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins finished last season 7-9. They tried actively to trade for

Denver’s Kyle Orton after the lockout. Now they are stuck with Chad Henne. Is that a good or bad thing? The answer to that question could determine how successful the Dolphins are this season.

Offense: The Dolphins hope that the addition of Reggie Bush will bring some diversity to their offense. Bush will get the opportunity in Miami to prove all the doubters wrong. If he can make an impact on this offense, it will certainly take some pressure off of Chad  Henne. The Dolphins revamped offensive line should also help. Their first round draft pick Mike Pouncey will be the opening day starter at center. Along with the anchor of that line LT Joe Thomas, Miami has the cornerstones of the future lined up. Henne is the biggest question mark. With Bush, and WR Brandon Marshall he has a few weapons. Free agent signee WR Clyde Gates is expected to make an impact because of his speed.
The one area that needs to be improved most is fourth quarter effectiveness. The Dolphins had nine fourth quarter interceptions and only 68 fourth quarter points last year. They will have to improve those numbers if they expect to win games.

Defense: The Dolphins had a respectable defense last year. Although Mike Nolan’s group
doesn’t have many household names, it will keep the Dolphins in a lot of games this year.
ROLB Cameron Wake is a budding superstar in the NFL. NT Paul Soliai is the cornerstone of this defense. If he has another big year, the sky is the limit for this defense. They have the potential to be a top 5 defense with a coordinator like Nolan and players like Wake, Soliai, and veteran LB Jason Taylor who is looking to prove there is something left in the tank. Predicted Record: 5-11 (Last place in the division)

New England Patriots: The Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since 2007. This team is geared to win now. Will they have another great regular season only to see it fall apart in the playoffs? Or will they cap it off with the fourth ring of the Belichick/Brady era?

Offense: The Patriots got the reigning MVP more weapons (WR Chad Ochocinco) and more protection (OT Nate Solder).  They locked up Logan Mankins for the long term.  The Patriots know what they are getting with Brady.  This should be one of the league’s best offenses once again.  If Ochocinco can come anywhere near Randy Moss’ production in his first year, the league better take notice.  Those young tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez, will also make a big impact especially in the red zone.  The only concern is if this running game is good enough.

Defense: The Patriots were shaky at times on defense last year.  They had a very young defense, especially in the secondary, and it showed.  They went out and drafted Ras-I Dowling, an injury prone cornerback from the University of Virginia.  They traded for Albert Haynesworth and cut two time pro bowl safety Brandon Meriweather.  They also signed pass rushing DE’s Shaun Ellis, and Andre Carter.  The Patriots are expected to play more of a 4-3 base defense this year.  Haynesworth will help with clogging up the middle and getting much needed pressure on the quarterback.  In the Patriots loss to the Jets they gave up 120 yards rushing and didn’t sack Mark Sanchez.  The play of the veterans up front, (Haynesworth, Ellis, Carter, and Vince Wilfork) and the development of the young players in the secondary (Devin McCourty, Dowling, and Patrick Chung) could determine the Patriots fate. Predicted Record: 12-4 (2nd place in the division, wild card team)

New York Jets: Say what you want about Rex Ryan, but he has his team ready to play on Sundays.  Still one of the most feared defenses in the league, the Jets hope their offense can improve enough to get them over the hump and past the AFC Championship game.

Offense: Mark Sanchez is in his third year. It is time for him to step up.  He has a new look offense once again with the additions of Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason and the losses of Brad Smith, Jerricho Cotchery, and Braylon Edwards.  Sanchez will be expected to make more plays than ever before.  The Jets still want to ground and pound but they will like to open up the offense a little bit.  One big problem might be speed.  Outside of Santonio Holmes, the Jets lack speed on offense.  How that will affect Sanchez and his development remains to be seen.  Another problem for the Jets offense last season was red-zone efficiency.  Mark Sanchez completed only 47.7 percent of his passes in the red-zone last year.  That has to improve.

Defense: The Jets have continuity on defense. These players know Ryan’s system and execute it very well. The one main area of concern is the pass rush. The Jets hope first round pick Muhammad Wilkerson will help their pass rush improve. Mike Pettine will have to dial up some exotic blitzes to get to the quarterback.  Although they fell short of Nnamdi Asmougha, Antonio Cromartie is a hell of a consolation prize.  All in all the Jets defense will be solid once again. Predicted Record: 12-4 (1st place in the division)

AFC North

The AFC North has been dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.  That has become one of the best rivalries in the NFL the last three years. The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns are going through periods of transition. Let’s just say football in Ohio has seen better days.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have won more playoff games than any other team in football over the last three years. They have a 32-16 regular season record over that span.  If they can win this division and get home-field advantage, maybe they can improve on that lead and win a Super Bowl in the process.

Offense: Joe Flacco is the key for the Ravens offense.  He is in his fourth year in the league and in his first three years his numbers improved each year. The playoffs are where he needs to step up. The offensive line didn’t look sharp in the preseason, so the Ravens signed Bryant McKinnie. In order for Flacco to keep improving, this offensive line has to protect him. Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher have the right side pretty secure. Flacco’s blindside may be an issue. Ray Rice is coming off his second consecutive 1,200 yard season. The Ravens signed FB Vonta Leach which could help increase that number. The Ravens also traded for WR Lee Evans to get some explosiveness in this offense. Cam Cameron also needs to improve his play calling by calling plays that utilize Flacco best, and that he is most comfortable with.

Defense: Led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Baltimore put a post-lockout emphasis on improving the secondary.  New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano wants to employ an aggressive style of defense with more blitzing.  This should help improve on the Ravens franchise low 27 sacks last season, which was 27th in the NFL.  This will also put pressure on the secondary to make plays as they will play more man coverage. First round pick CB Jimmy Smith and CB Cary Williams are two young players the Ravens are very high on. They are both tall and athletic and will give the Ravens more depth at CB.  These young corners have to grow up fast because the clock is ticking on the Lewis/Reed era of defense in Baltimore.Predicted Record:   13-3 (First place in the division)

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals won’t have QB Carson Palmer, WRs Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, or CB Jonathan Joseph when the season kicks off on September 11.  They will be a different team. This is a rebuilding year for the Bengals. It may be painful for Bengals fans.

Offense: Andy Dalton takes over the reins at quarterback. The Bengals have a young offense with many of its core players drafted in the last two drafts.  WRs AJ Green (Cincinnati’s 1st round pick this year) and Jordan Shipley, along with TE Jermaine Gresham are targets the Bengals hopeDalton is throwing to years in the future.  Jay Gruden, the first year offensive coordinator, will have the chance to grow right along with his players.  RB Cedric Benson will carry a lot of the load this year for the Bengals.  He lost five fumbles last season so he really needs to protect the ball this year, especially with a rookie quarterback.  The Bengals offensive line is another big question mark.  Hopefully they can pave the way for Benson to produce his third straight 1,000 yard season.

Defense: Like the offense the defense is in transition. Along with the loss of Joseph, they also lost starting MLB Dhani Jones. Rey Maualuga is expected to take the reigns at MLB.  The third year player regressed in year two (last season) and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hopes Maualuga has a bounce back year. The Bengals secondary will look a lot like San Francisco’s did last year with the additions of CB Nate Clemens and S Taylor Mays. CB Leon Hall just signed a brand new extension and is the cream of the crop on defense for Cincinnati. One thing is for sure, Zimmer will have this defense prepared every week.  If he has the players to succeed is another story. Predicted Record: 2-14 (Last place in the division)

Cleveland Browns: Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckart, and new head coach Pat Shurmur are bringing in a new era of football inCleveland. The Browns have a favorable early season schedule that could put them in the playoff hunt. The Browns strongest unit, special teams, will be hurt by the new kickoff rule.  Can a revamped offense and defense help mask the loss of an effective return game?

Offense: QB Colt McCoy will get the chance to prove he is the Browns quarterback of the future.  He had a solid preseason. He has one of the best offensive lines in football anchored by LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack.  RB Peyton Hillis had a breakout year, and if he can stay healthy will help McCoy tremendously.  Even in the west coast offense you need good receivers that are downfield threats.  The Browns just don’t have that.  Josh Cribbs will bring some diversity to the offense but they need a big threat downfield.  Mohamed Massaquoi has not proven to be that guy.

Defense: Cleveland is making the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense.  This is a young defense that will go through many growing pains.  The defensive line is the most inexperienced in football.  The Browns were 27th against the run last season allowing 179 rushing yards per game.  The Browns drafted Baylor DT Philip Taylor to address these very issues.  On opening day though, the Browns will start three players who have zero career NFL starts in Taylor, fellow rookie DE Jabaal Sheard, and DE Jayme Mitchell.  Joe Hayden looks to build on an impressive rookie campaign at cornerback and he will be helped by the addition of Sheldon Brown.  The defense is a work in progress to say the least. Predicted Record: 7-9 (3rd in the division)

Pittsburgh Steelers: The defending AFC champion Steelers look to rebound from a disappointing loss in last year’s Super Bowl.  There biggest questions are the defensive secondary and the offensive line.  If they can address those issues the Steelers will again be one of the AFC’s top teams.

Offense: Ben Roethlisberger has as many weapons as ever this year; Antonio Brown, Jericho Cotchery, Heath Miller, Rashard Mendenhall, Emanuel Sanders, and of course Hines Ward.  This has the potential to be one of the best Steelers offenses in years.  Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career.  He is one of the game’s best quarterbacks.  If his offensive line can protect him, he could be in for a career season.  C Maurkice Pouncey is the best offensive lineman the Steelers have. Roethlisberger has to take fewer hits and sacks if this offense will reach its full potential.  Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon will replace Max Starks and Flozell Adams at the tackle positions.  How they play will be indicative of how this offense performs.

Defense: Aaron Rodgers exposed a rather weak secondary in last February’s Super Bowl.  The Steelers re-signed Ike Taylor but didn’t do much else.  They led the NFL with 48 sacks last year.  DE Aaron Smith is healthy.  They have the best linebackers in the NFL hands down.  The secondary is a big concern.  Rodgers and Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers secondary last year by using four and five wide receiver sets offsetting Pittsburgh’s strength at the linebacker position.  If there are four wide receivers the linebackers are on the bench and players like CBs William Gay, Cortez Allen, Crezdon Butler, Keenan Lewis, and Curtis Brown will be important.  The blueprint was laid by Brady in week 10 and perfected by Rodgers in the Super Bowl: spread the Steelers out, take the linebackers out of the game, and make the nickel corners make plays. Predicted Record: 11-5 (2nd in the division)

Jason King is a contributing writer at Taking It to the House and can be reached at jdk2032@yahoo.com

 

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