NFL Preview: AFC
By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff
The defending Super Bowl champions posted an 11-5 mark last year, but lost a division-title tiebreaker to Cincinnati based on division record (5-1 to 4-2). But Pittsburgh made the most of its opportunities, finishing sixth in red-zone offense (60.7% TDs) and tenth in red-zone defense (47.9% TDs allowed).
RB Willie Parker paced the NFL's fifth-best rushing attack and the Steelers' 3-4 defense stopped the run better than anyone. All-purpose threat WR Antwaan Randle El is now in Washington, so the return game may need Quincy Morgan to produce more.
QB Ben Roethlisberger's recovery will be bolstered by one of the best offensive lines in football, but can Parker be the tough inside runner Pittsburgh needs now that Jerome Bettis has retired? The defense is stout, but Pittsburgh is playing the league's fifth-toughest schedule.
A star-studded roster underachieved for a third straight season, going 6-10 and finishing just ahead of Cleveland on a division tiebreaker. The team may have committed a franchise-record number of penalties (139) but the decade-long offensive slump seemed to ease a bit.
The team ranked 16th in time of possession, which left the injury-plagued defense on the field too long. Despite the setbacks, the defense finished the season ranked fifth overall. Steve McNair, a veteran quarterback with a strong arm the Ravens haven't had since Vinny Testaverde, has the team and its fans thinking playoffs.
The defensive line got reinforcements with DE Trevor Pryce, DT Justin Bannan and DT Haloti Ngata, but the heavily criticized offensive line returned intact. Play in the trenches will determine how far this team goes.
An AFC North Division title and a playoff berth for the first time since the Bush administration (the first one) had the Queen City feeling absolutely giddy in 2005. The defense ranked only 28th, but a league-best 31 interceptions and league-high plus-24 turnover ratio kept the Bengals in plenty of games. Wideouts Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh both ranked in the AFC's top ten in catches.
Five off-season arrests and QB Carson Palmer's rehabilitation had coach Marvin Lewis concerned. Palmer does seem to be all right heading into the season, but there's no guarantee the Bengals can create that many turnovers again, especially with a defense that could add only veteran DT Sam Adams and journeyman S Dexter Jackson in the off-season. Plus, the schedule is the league's toughest.
The Browns' defense ranked fourth against the pass last season, but that's deceiving. They were the third-worst in the league at stopping the run. Their special teams play was decent, but the offense went nowhere with neophyte QB Charlie Frye at the helm; he was sacked 22 times in five games. The Browns trusted him in 2005 the way the Ravens first trusted QB Kyle Boller in 2003.
Former Ravens front-office guru Phil Savage was aggressive in free agency, going after veterans like WR Joe Jurevicius, P Dave Zastudil, C LeCharles Bentley and LB Willie McGinest. However, thanks to Bentley's knee injury and other misfortunes, they've already gone through four centers. And just how healthy are WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Only themselves could have stopped the Patriots last year. And with a minus-6 turnover ratio and five giveaways in a divisional-round playoff loss to Denver, they did. A surprisingly weak running game didn't help matters.
Neither did losing S Rodney Harrison to a season-ending knee injury. Harrison is back, but standouts such as OT Tom Ashworth, DT Willie McGinest, DB Tyrone Poole and K Adam Vinatieri aren't. Minnesota Golden Gophers product RB Laurence Maroney was drafted to boost the ground game, and coordinators Dean Pees (defense) and Josh McDaniels (offense) have made progress in replacing departed masterminds Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel.
Miami stepped up its game and replaced anonymous coordinators with more solid resumes in Mike Mularkey (offense) and Dom Capers (defense). After a stumbling start, the Dolphins won six straight to close the 2005 season, averaging 26 points per game in the process. A major trouble spot, the offensive line, improved under former Dallas line coach Hudson Houck.
The acquisition of an oft-injured veteran quarterback has coach Nick Saban feeling hopeful. QB Daunte Culpepper was acquired for a second-round draft pick and appears to have recovered from an awful knee injury. In Capers' second year with the defense, a more aggressive pass rush could be expected. That would suit veterans DE Jason Taylor and DE Kevin Carter just fine.
Tulane product J.P. Losman doesn't move well in the pocket, can't read defenses consistently and posted a 64.9 rating last year, but he'll be this year's starter. RB Willis McGahee and his 1,247 yards was this team's saving grace. WR Eric Moulds gathered in 81 passes before heading to Houston in free agency.
It's going to be up to McGahee again to inject some charisma into this team. New coach Dick Jauron is a solid football man with good credentials, but he needs players to sell his system and, ultimately, himself. The Bills need the offensive line to play well and signed former Maryland Terrapin and Minnesota Viking Melvin Fowler to play center for them.
NEW YORK JETS
Perhaps the only team that could rival the Ravens for key injuries in 2005 is the Jets. Two quarterbacks, RB Curtis Martin, C Kevin Mawae and OT Jason Fabini all missed loads of time last year as the team slumped to 4-12. DT Jason Ferguson's free-agent departure for Dallas left the Jets soft up the middle, allowing opposing rushers to run between the tackles at an alarming rate (the Jets were 29th vs. the run).
Former Ravens assistant Eric Mangini is the fourth-youngest head coach in NFL history (35), but he's rebuilding his defense with veterans such as former Steeler DT Kimo Von Oelhoffen and ex-Patriot LB Matt Chatham. The quarterback situation is in flux, but Chad Pennington will get his job back. However, he has to look over his shoulder at veteran Patrick Ramsey and Oregon product Kellen Clemens.
Yes, you read that right. Based on their consistency last year (6-2 at home and away), their penchant for creating turnovers (plus-11 in 2005) and for not committing them (only five INTs by QB Byron Leftwich), we're picking the Jaguars to win this division. Plus, their 47 sacks were tied with Pittsburgh for the most in the AFC and second in the NFL behind Seattle's 50.
Their schedule isn't that difficult and if the offensive line gets healthy with the return of LT Mike Pearson and C Brad Meester and the addition of ex-Detroit OG Stockar McDougle, this could be an offensive juggernaut. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud give this team the best DT tandem the AFC has seen since Siragusa and Adams.
The Colts stormed out of the gate, winning 13 straight games before falling to a combination of things: a determined San Diego team, their own complacency and the unfortunate suicide of coach Tony Dungy's son. But the defense did improve (11th overall) after years of bending and breaking. That gave the Colts the best point differential in the league (439 for, 237 against).
Putting the running game in the hands of rookie RB Joseph Addai may pay off in the long run, but in the short term it's going to signal a backup in the Colts' fortunes. The defense will likely be on the field longer, and Indy doesn't have much experience to deal with that. Plus, the special teams coverage units were some of the worst in the NFL.
PREDICTION: 10-6 (wild-card berth)
This team lost several close games in 2005, including one in Baltimore. How they managed to be in so many games with the third-worst offense in the league and the second-worst defense -- not to mention the worst scoring defense -- is amazing.
However, their special teams play was outstanding and WR Andre Johnson and RB Domanick Davis are two of the league's most underrated talents. New coach Gary Kubiak will get a hometown discount from the fans in his native Houston. In other words, a honeymoon period is in order for him, but it won't be a long one. After all, since this team came into the league in 2002, it has yet to post a winning season.
CB Dunta Robinson can't do it all himself on defense and QB David Carr can't keep getting hit the way he has.
The 2005 Titans ranked in the middle of the NFL pack in many major categories. Unfortunately, a whopping 125 penalties left it wallowing at 4-12, surprising for a Jeff Fisher-coached team that's usually more disciplined. Fisher, a member of the league's Competition Committee, will want to see less yellow flying and more green gained because his team didn't take care of the ball very well in 2005.
Poor Tennessee, having to face an uphill struggle while playing a schedule tied with Kansas City for the league's seventh-toughest. However, there is hope for the future at quarterback (Vince Young), linebacker (David Thornton), running back (LenDale White), wideout (David Givens) and center (Kevin Mawae). However, the Titans have to learn how to beat teams with winning records.
Many have focused over the years on the inconsistency of QB Jake Plummer, but it's important to remember that he did post a 90.2 rating in 2005 and that, along with a plus-20 turnover ratio that was second in the NFL to Cincinnati, got the Broncos a home date in the AFC Championship Game. Along with a run defense that ranked second and the best time of possession in the NFL, these trends should continue.
What could derail this team is the rather bold move of naming an undrafted rookie free agent, Mike Bell, the starting running back. Since 1995 the Broncos have only had one season without a 1,000-yard rusher (2003). Their steady play in the trenches should continue to be a hallmark of this team, one of the AFC's most consistent and best in the last two decades.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Former Maryland Terrapin LB Shawne Merriman was one of the league's top rookies last year. On the other side of the ball, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 1,462 yards and 18 TDs, has turned into one of the best in a short time, as has TE Antonio Gates. However, Tomlinson's suspension in Week One left the Chargers on the outside come playoff time.
With the loss of QB Drew Brees it's up to N.C. State product QB Philip Rivers to lead this team where it wants to go. Rivers can get rid of the ball quickly, but his three-quarters motion could lead to mistakes and batted balls at inopportune times. The secondary, a horrid 28th against the pass, needs to get a boost from first-round pick CB Antonio Cromartie.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Larry Johnson led the AFC in rushing with 1,750 yards last year and would have led the entire league were it not for Seattle's Shaun Alexander. However, Johnson, QB Trent Green and WR Eddie Kennison will be counted on once again. Defensively, the Chiefs cut down on scoring defense, going from 29th to 16th, and got better against the run, ranking seventh.
With the underrated Green behind center and the emerging Johnson in the backfield, this is a team that can go up and down the field with the best. Johnson's health will be key as Priest Holmes is on the physically unable to perform list for six weeks. Plus, the overall defense needs to get better, ranking 25th last year and still not much better against the pass.
Even with the Ravens' team-record number of penalties, Oakland outdid them by taking 147 accepted flags on the chin in 2005. Even with its own pot-stirring WR in Randy Moss, this is a team that wasn't very charismatic or exciting to watch.
Amazingly, the Raiders' 4-12 mark last year still leaves them with a .603 win percentage since 1963, the NFL's best.
Former Heisman Trophy winner and secondary standout CB Charles Woodson is in Green Bay. With Woodson gone, first-round pick S Michael Huff (Texas) has been entrusted with a starting job. The quarterback position is in bad shape due to Aaron Brooks' ineffectiveness and Andrew Walter's injury. For now, writers may have to learn to spell Marques Tuiasosopo.
Issue 1.20: September 7, 2006