AFC East Projected Order of Finish:
New England Patriots
Last Year: 14-2, Super Bowl Champs, yada, yada, yada
This Year: Any discussion of the Patriots must begin with their stellar defense. In 2003 they finished 1st in points allowed and last season they were a close 2nd to Pittsburgh. The loss of LB Teddy Bruschi will be a tough void to fill. The Patriots will attempt to replace him with newly signed LBs Chad Brown and Monty Beisel. Brown comes over from the Seattle Seahawks with a reputation as a fine defender. The only downside is that Brown is hardly a spring chicken. He will be 35 when the season starts. Beisel on the other hand comes to New England from the Kansas City Chiefs. I think it’s safe to say that any LB coming over from Kansas City is a significant downgrade. Chiefs’ LBs appeared to follow Smithian principles and follow a ‘hands off’ approach to opposing running backs. However, in the secondary, New England should be stronger. In the off-season they acquired CB Duane Starks, CB Chad Scott, and drafted Ellis Hobbs from Iowa St. This should prevent them from running help-wanted ads in the Boston Globe for defensive backs. On offense, the Patriots still have Tom Brady, who despite being overrated is still a top 5 quarterback. Corey Dillon also returns to anchor the running game although he may start to slow down as he is 31 this year. The receiving corps should be just as strong as last season. The Patriots lost David Patten, but acquired David Terrell to take his place. While Terrell is no star, his addition should keep the passing game on par with last season.
Summation: New England’s run defense should get worse, but this will be somewhat offset by a better pass defense. The offence should remain about the same; unspectacular, but consistent. The running game may falter somewhat if Corey Dillon shows his age, but Kevin Faulk should be a serviceable back-up. There is no reason to expect any significant gains or losses in the special teams department. Put New England down for 11-13 wins, a 3rd straight AFC East title, and another year of contending for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
New York Jets
Last Year: 10-6, lost to Steelers in Divisional Round
This Year: They rode an easy schedule to a wildcard berth last season. To upgrade in the off-season, they added CB Ty Law to embolden the secondary. On offense, they traded Santana Moss to the Washington Redskins in exchange for Laveranues Coles. This trade appears to be a wash for both parties. Coles and Moss are basically the same receiver, and this trade neither strengthens or weakens the Jets passing game. A significant loss for the Jets on offense was RB LaMont Jordan. Jordan has spelled Curtis Martin the past 4 years in New York and had done an admirable job. A back-up running back is what the Jets will be in need of this year as Curtis Martin is due a serious decline. Not only will he be 32 this year, but he also lead the league is rushing attempts last season. The Jets did address this need by acquiring Derrick Blaylock from Kansas City. It remains to be seen whether Blaylock’s rushing stats were a product of the dynamic Chiefs’ offensive line, or if he is indeed a solid starting running back. Chad Pennington should improve upon last season’s performance as his shoulder appears to be fully healed.
Summation: The Jets defense should improve somewhat with the addition of Ty Law, and pending the running situation with Martin and Blaylock, the offense should also improve with a healthy Chad Pennington. However, this season’s schedule appears to be more difficult than last seasons. Hence, although the Jets may actually be a better team, they will win fewer games. 8 wins sounds about right, which would put them in the playoff hunt until the last few weeks of the regular season.
Last Year: 9-7, no playoffs
This Year: Last season, the Bills were done in by an inept offense and poor luck. Their defense and special teams were top notch, but their offense prevented them from making the playoffs. They also lost 3 games by 3 points or fewer. A few lucky bounces here or there and the Bill could have been 10-6 or 11-5 and a playoff team; and suffered the same fate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the late 90’s and early 00’s (great defense that couldn't get over the hump thanks to a high school level offense). The defense remains virtually intact with the only significant loss being that of DT Pat Williams. On offense, the Bills decided to change conductors as they let Drew Bledsoe go and promoted J.P. Losman to starting quarterback. If Losman develops the Bills could surprise as he has a very talented backfield mate in Willis McGahee and solid receivers in Eric Moulds and Lee Evans.
Summation: Despite all the potential, 2005 much like 2004, will be a lost season for the Bills. Again, a very talented defense will be wasted while the offense undergoes a Buddhist-type journey to find itself. The defense and special teams should remain strong, but not quite as strong as last season thanks to simple regression to the mean. However, Losman will struggle on offense as most young quarterbacks do (remember, Roethlisberger is the exception, not the rule). McGahee will improve on his sold rookie campaign, but in the end it will not be enough as the Bills will win 7-8 games and miss the playoffs.
Last Year: 4-12, no playoffs
This Year: The biggest off-season acquisition may have been coach Nick Saban. Personally, I have no idea why Saban would leave LSU for the pro ranks. No matter how well he performs in the pro game, in 10 years he probably will not be employed by the Dolphins, and that’s just the nature of the pro game(Bill Cowher has the longest current tenure; this season will mark his 14th with the Steelers). On the other hand, at LSU he could have built up a collegiate power and stayed there until he was ready to retire. But to each his own. Ricky Williams returns, but he will not make much of an impact. Look at his rushing average for the 2003 season (3.5 yards per carry). The year off may actually do him so good in the future as he was likely to break down from overuse. Ronnie Brown is the runner to watch. He won’t have nearly as many holes as he had at Auburn behind Miami’s pitiful line, but as long as he stays healthy, he can be the foundation for the next good Dolphins team. It has recently been reported that Gus Frerotte and A.J. Feeley will alternate turns at quarterback. I don’t understand this move. Neither one exhibits markedly different skills from the other. It’s not like you have to prepare a different gameplan for each of these guys. You simply plan for crap and crappier. On defense Miami loses two stalwarts in CB Patrick Surtain and S Sammy Knight. The defensive line and linebacking corps remain mostly intact.
Summation: Miami will experience some growing pains as they make steady progress back to respectability. They will win more game than in 2004, although not many more. 5-6 wins is the limit for this team.
AFC South Projected Order of Finish:
Last Year: 12-4, lost to Patriots in Divisional Round
This Year: The offense with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley will remain one of the best (if not the best) in the league. Expect some regression from the record-setting year the passing game had last year. The defense also remains mostly the same from last season. The only significant addition is CB Marlin Jackson. Of course, some turnover on defense may have actually helped because that is the one crucial area where the Colts have been lacking in the Peyton Manning era. It has been steadily improving under Tony Dungy, but it is not yet at an elite level. Incidentally, with the Colts offensive prowess, it may never have to reach elite status for the Colts to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
Summation: The Colts run roughshod over this division on their way to 11-13 wins. The holes in the defense prevent them from garnering the AFC’s top seed and they eventually lose a playoff game on the road where Peyton Manning is again unjustly vilified for ‘failing to win the big one.’
Last Year: 7-9, no playoffs
This Year: The honeymoon is over for 4th year coach Dom Capers. In order to keep his job, he probably has to get the Texans into the playoffs. Can he? The offense seems on the verge of a breakthrough. David Carr is entering his 4th season as the starting quarterback. Domanick Davis has proven himself to be a capable runner and a threat in the passing game as well. The receiving corps is also young anchored by big-play threat Andre Johnson. However, there is one problem. When most prognosticators look at offenses, they look mostly at the skill positions (QB, RB, WR), but often overlook the offensive line. And lets just say, the Texans line is certainly not a strength. They gave up 76! sacks in 2002 (last in the league), improved to 35 sacks in 2003, and regressed to 49 sacks last season (27th in the league). If the line gives Carr time to throw and opens up holes for Davis, the offense can be explosive. The defense should be improved with the addition play-making CB Phillip Buchanon. He will team with 2nd year man CB Dunta Robinson to form a formidable duo in the secondary.
Summation: The Texans will do as they have done throughout their existence and improve upon the previous year’s performance. However, it will not be enough. The AFC is very strong (if they played in the NFC they would probably be a Super Bowl contender) and they will finish just out of the playoff picture with 8-9 wins.
Last Year: 9-7, no playoffs
This Year: The one thing you should take away from the Jaguars 2004 season is that they were damn lucky. They scored 261 points and allowed 280 for a Pythagorean projection of only 7 wins. The Jaguars first 2 games were vintage Deus Ex Machina performances. In Week 1 against Buffalo, they converted several 4th down opportunities on their final drive culminating in a TD pass on the last play of the game. In Week 2 against Denver, despite being outgained by almost 200 yards, they won 7-6 when Quentin Griffin fumbled with under 2 minutes to go and the Broncos within field goal range. To improve their offense in the offseason, Jacksonville drafted Matt Jones in the first round. However, the odds of Jones making a significant impact in his rookie season are small for two reasons. One is obvious, he is a rookie, and the other is because he played quarterback in college. On defense, the Jaguars added Reggie Hayward at DE to improve their pass rush, and added CBs Scott Starks (draft) and Kenny Wright (free agent) to improve their pass coverage.
Summation: The Jaguars are a playoff team if: Byron Leftwich improves dramatically from a caretaker QB to a playmaker QB, Fred Taylor stays healthy *snickers*, and Matt Jones develops into a competent receiver. The offense must improve from their dismal showing last year (29th in the league) especially in a division with such potent offenses. All these thing won’t happen and the Jaguars will win 7-8 games and be utterly mediocre.
Last Year: 5-11
This Year: This could be one of the more exciting teams to watch in 2005. No they probably won’t be very good, but their offense could be very high-scoring. The addition of Norm Chow and the healthy return of Steve McNair could be a prolific combination. I for one am very anxious to see how Chow performs in the pro game as his offense was at times unstoppable at the collegiate level. The much ballyhooed addition of RB Travis Henry will not be of much consequence. He simply wasn’t that good in Buffalo, although he was far from bad. As long as he cuts down on his fumbles, he will give the Titans an average performance from the running back position. The defense on the other hand would love to be league average. The Titans were 30th in the league in points allowed and 30th in yards per pass attempt allowed. Things will get a little better with addition of Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, but no matter how well he plays or how many ghosts he eats, Tennessee will still likely be on the wrong side of the points allowed distribution.
Summation: Perhaps the movie Unbreakable was a biography for Steve McNair? McNair will lead the offense down the field time and again only to have the Titan’s defense extend the same courtesy to the opposing team. 6 wins and 16 very exciting games are in store for Titan’s fans in 2005.
AFC West Projected Order of Finish:
Kansas City Chiefs
Last Year: 7-9, no playoffs
This Year: In what could be a case of ‘too little, too late’; the Chiefs bolstered their defense in the off-season with the additions of CB Patrick Surtain, S Sammy Knight, and LB Kendrell Bell. With these trimmings, the Chiefs’ defense should improve from horrid to mediocre. The Chiefs high-powered offense remains intact. There is but one problem. Almost every member of the offense is old enough to join the AARP. QB Trent Green is 35, RB Priest Holmes is 32 and played in only 8 games last season, WR Eddie Kennison is 32, G Will Shields is 34, T Willie Roaf is 35, and C Casey Wiegmann is 32. The Chiefs strength is their offensive line and if any of the gentlemen miss significant time, the offense will struggle. If Priest Holmes is out for an extended period, Larry Johnson has proven to be a capable runner in his stead.
Summation: This is the last year that this Chiefs’ core has a chance to contend for the NFL championship. One of 2 things will happen this year: The offense will continue to roll and the defense will improve making the Chiefs one of the leagues top teams, or the offense will collapse with age like the 2003 Oakland Raiders and the defenses marginal improvement will not be enough to stave off a 5 win season. I believe the Chiefs’ offense has one more good year left, and they will capitalize on this opportunity. 11-13 wins and a Super Bowl berth are in the cards.
Last Year: 10-6, lost to Colts in Wildcard Round
This Year: This off-season, the Broncos imported almost the entire Cleveland Browns defensive line to the mile high city. Ebenezer Ekuban, Gerard Warren, and Courtney Brown all made the trek westward. Consequently the front four should not be as strong as last season. The Broncos still have CB Champ Bailey to shut down opposing receivers. They also attempted to give Bailey some help in the secondary by using their first 3 draft picks on CBs (Darrent Williams, Karl Paymah, and Domonique Foxworth). On offense the Broncos should remain relatively stable. QB Jake Plummer should remain erratic yet effective. WR Rod Smith should start declining as he is 36 years old, but WR Ashley Lelie should improve in his 4th season resulting in a wash. Whomever Mike Shanahan decided to plug in a running back should generate solid production.
Summation: Broncos fans should expect more of the same. Another 10 win season, and another loss in the Wildcard Round.
San Diego Chargers
Last Year: 12-4, lost to Jets in Wildcard Round
This Year: Is Drew Brees the answer? This season will go a long way toward determining the correct response. Brees, TE Antonio Gates, and RB LaDainian Tomlinson all return. Tomlinson should improve upon his 2004 numbers (a low 3.9 yards per carry) and Gates should continue to improve. Brees should remain an above average QB, but expect a marginal decline from last years tremendous numbers. On defense, the young secondary remains intact. A good thing too, considering the offenses that exist in this division. Expect marginal improvement from CBs Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis and S Terrence Kiel. Donnie Edwards should continue to anchor a strong linebacking core that may regress somewhat thanks to age and injury.
Summation: The offense should be similar and suffer only a minor decline and the defense should be somewhat better than last season. So why are the Chargers picked to finish 3rd? Look at the schedule. Non-division road games at New England, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New York (Jets), and Washington make this schedule a killer. Expect 7-8 wins, but in actuality a better team.
Last Year: 5-11, no playoffs
This Year: The offense added Randy Moss. This instantly makes Kerry Collins a bonafide fantasy stud. The Oakland offense should be spectacular in 2005 with Moss drawing coverage away from Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry. They also added RB LaMont Jordan who performed admirably in relief of Curtis Martin in New York. On defense the Raiders lost one of their best playmakers in the secondary, CB Philip Buchanon. This means that CB Charles Woodson will have to anchor the secondary with rookies Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt. Not a good thing in a division with so many talented offenses. On defense, the duo of DT Ted Washington and DE (in the 3-4) Warren Sapp would do well in an eating or hyperventilating contest, but not stuffing the run or sacking the quarterback. They are simply too old to be effective.
Summation: The Raiders will play in a number of high-scoring affairs, and will even win some of them. The Raiders will win 6 games in 2005, and if they improve the defense could be legitimate contenders in 2006. On a side note, the 2005 edition of the AFC West should be as fun to watch as the old AFL West. Instead of John Hadl, Len Dawson, and Daryle Lamonica, we have Drew Brees, Trent Green, and Kerry Collins.
AFC North Projected Order of Finish:
Last Year: 8-8, no playoffs
This Year: QB Carson Palmer, WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Whosyourdaddy, and RB Rudi Johnson are ready to make a quantum leap forward and take Cincinnati to the playoffs for the first time since the fall of the USSR. On defense the Bengals drafted LBs Odell Thurman and David Pollack from Georgia. The secondary should build on its improvements in 2004. CBs Deltha O’Neal and Tory James will lead the way and youngsters CB Keiwan Ratliff and S Madieu Williams will be much improved in their second year.
Summation: An explosive offense and a resurgent defense will lead the Bengals to 12 wins (their first double digit win season since the Berlin Wall fell).
Last Year: 9-7, no playoffs
This Year: The Ravens D will remain stout as always. In the off-season, they added CB Samari Rolle to compliment S Ed Reed and CB Chris McAllister. On paper this appears to be an absurd pass defense. The linebacking corps is again lead by Ray Lewis who, although he may be slowing down, is still one of the best in the game. They also drafted DE/LB Dan Cody from Oklahoma who could become a dynamite pass rusher to compliment DE/LB Terrell Suggs. The offense will be what makes or breaks this team. More specifically, QB Kyle Boller. The addition of Derrick Mason should improve the passing game and the running game should remain relatively strong with Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor.
Summation: Any type of offensive contribution should have the Ravens looking at 10-11 wins and a Wildcard berth.
Last Year: 15-1, lost to Patriots in AFC Championship Game
This Year: The Steelers went 15-1 last year but only had a Pythagorean record of 12-4. Of the other teams that went 15-1, the 1985 Bears had a 14-2 Pythagorean record and the 1998 Vikings had a 13-3 Pythagorean record. The Bears team won 14 games the next year, but the Viking only won 10. Therefore, there is some precedent for a large dropoff in wins after winning 15 games. Combine this with the fact that the Steelers lost WR Plaxico Burress and may have a less than 100% Hines Ward after his hold-out, it is not inconceivable for the Steelers to drop out of the playoff picture. The Steelers defense was great last year, but it consisted of many of the same players who were part of a merely average defense the year before. QB Ben Roethislisberger showed he was a rookie at times down the stretch last year. Expect some growing pains in his second season especially of Jerome Bettis or Duce Staley declines or misses significant time.
Summation: The Steelers had their Super Bowl chance last season. They are almost a mirror image of the 1998 Vikings (remember mirrors exchange the right and left side in their refelction). The Vikings went 15-1 with a great offense and above average defense. The Steelers went 15-1 with a great defense and an above average offense. The Vikings slumped to 10 wins the next year and won 11 games the next year in a division that is weaker than the one the Steelers currently occupy. Greatness is hard to maintain, and the Steelers defense will again be solid, but to expect a repeat of last year is foolish. The competition is stronger with the Bengals and Ravens both improving. Pittsburgh will not be bad by any stretch, but they will only win 8-9 games and barely miss out on a playoff berth.
Last Year: 4-12, no playoffs
This Year: A new coach and A New Hope come to Cleveland. Just as Luke Skywaler had it rough at some points in his journey, so too will Romeo Crennel. The Browns lost almost their entire defensive line to the Broncos, which may not exactly be a bad thing. The Browns also rid themselves of QB Jeff Garcia who didn’t fit into the system Butch Davis was running. In his stead they signed Trent Dilfer and drafted Charlie Frye from Akron (I guess MAC is the new black). On defense, the Browns added CB Gary Baxter to improve their secondary. However, there is not much else to like about this squad.
Summation: I believe Crennel is the right man for the job, but he may have to go through a few Empire Strikes Back hardships before he turns this franchise around. 3 or 4 wins and that’s it.