2014 AFC Season Preview
August 20, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
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NFC Season Preview
2014 AFC Season Preview
Thanks largely to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, and according to coldhardfootballfacts.com, the average NFL game produced 46.82 points in 2013, breaking a largely unknown 65-year-old record for scoring productivity.
The previous mark was set back in 1948 when the average NFL game produced 46.48 points. Yes, you read that right… 1948.
That was when three of the NFL’s 10 teams in 1948 averaged more than 30 PPG. Just one of 32 teams in 2013 averaged more than 30 PPG – the record-setting Broncos.
And despite Denver’s record-shattering scoring mark in 2013 (37.88 PPG), it still ranked behind the 1950 L.A. Rams (38.83).
This side bar note: NFL kickers converted 86.5% of their field goal attempts in 2013. In 1948 they converted 40.9%.
-- Houston QB’s Matt Schaub and Case Keenum combined for a 74.0 passer rating last season. It was 45.2 points lower than Philadelphia’s Nick Foles’ 119.2.
-- Denver led the league in point differential in 2013 at +207. Cincinnati and Kansas City tied for runner-up honors in the AFC at +125. Jacksonville was the league’s worst point differential squad at -202.
-- Denver’s Wes Welker and Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts led the AFC in dropped passes in 2013 with 10 each. Chicago’s Brandon Marshall – surprise - led the league with 12 drops.
-- It’s a passing league today and with it the AFC owned the three worst rushing teams in the league last season, Baltimore (1,328), Jacksonville (1,260) and Pittsburgh (1,383). Not so coincidentally, all three teams miss the playoffs.
-- The AFC stands 87-108 SU and 91-97-8 ATS in non-conference clashes against the NFC the past three seasons. They have gone 115-78-2 ‘Over’ in those games.
AFC East Division
TEAM THEME: A LONG, LONG TIME
Fifteen years, and counting… that's how long it's been since the Bills last made an appearance in the playoffs. They've also enjoyed just one winning season in the process. It’s no wonder owner Ralph Wilson finally said he'd had enough. After all, a 95-year old man can only take so much. The one upside to wallowing in mediocrity is the benefit of being able to replenish lousy talent with high draft choices. Last year's first-round pick, QB E.J. Manuel, assumed the starting duties and figures to improve with experience. He will have plenty of speedy receivers at his disposal with the Bills moving up to the 4th pick to grab the best receiver in the draft, Clemson's Sammy Watkins, to replace the departed Stevie Johnson. Watkins will team with 2nd-year wideouts Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, along with free agent signee Mike Williams from Tampa Bay. RB's C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson return, while Buffalo added Bryce Brown from Philadelphia. Former 1st-rounders Mario Williams and Marcel Dareus anchor the defensive line, while the Bills have brought in Brandon Spikes from New England to shore up the linebacker corps. Will it be enough to get them over the hump? Only time will tell.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Eleven of Buffalo's last seventeen losses have been by 7 or less points.
TEAM THEME: IN A FLINCH
It's a sad state of affairs when the majority of coverage an NFL team gets during the season surrounds antics off the field. Such was life in Miami last season where the Richie Incognito scandal dominated headlines. After the bullying disaster, the Dolphins immediately canned GM Jeff Ireland and focused their attention on bookending the offensive line, signing stud LT Branden Albert from Kansas City and drafting Jawuan James out of Tennessee to play RT. They also added RB Knowshon Moreno to fill the hole at RB and stole LSU's Jarvis Landry in the draft to complement Mike Wallace and Bryan Hartline at WR, which should make QB Ryan Tannehill a happy man. FYI: contrary to rumors, Tannehill does not suffer from a flinching disorder. It's simply the aftereffect of being sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season. On the flip side, the defense has the chance to be very good if veterans like Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas can contribute as expected. Pass rusher Cameron Wake and CB Brett Grimes, Pro Bowlers each, have done more than most people expected, and now others need to step up in order for Miami to improve on last year's 8-8 mark. A soft schedule that features only five games against foes with winning records last year should keep the focus on the field – and the undercover cops at bay this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: From 1970-2003 Miami owned the league's best September home record (42-5). They own the 2nd worst record (4-11) since.
TEAM THEME: SILVER LININGS
As Steve Merril astutely points out in his 2014 NFL Preview for PLAYBOOK, the Patriots have been one of the most consistent teams over the last decade, winning the AFC East title five straight years, and in ten of the last eleven years overall. They managed to do so last year sans the services of a quality wide receiver, along with the Aaron Hernandez fiasco and all-world TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season with a torn ACL. All in all, it was arguably the best coaching job in Bill Belichick's fabled career. The Hoodie made a crafty off-season move bringing in shutdown corner Darrelle Revis to play along with the stellar young linebacker crew of Donta' Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins. With big Vince Wilfork seemingly recovered from an Achilles injury and the selection of DT Dominique Easley with their top pick in this year's draft, a long-time questionable defense could actually change direction this season. And as pointed out above, even in the worst of times, the offense has never been an issue for this team – not with Tom Brady calling signals and disgruntled Bill roaming the sidelines. It has, however, been 10 years since the Pats last tasted a Super Bowl victory. With neither coach nor quarterback able to look in the mirror without help from their hairdresser these days, expect an all-out push this season as the Pats go for their sixth straight division title and 12th in 14 years.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Patriots are 11-1 SU all-time (11-0 last eleven) in games versus the NFC North.
NEW YORK JETS
TEAM THEME: SPLASH EFFECT
On the heels of a 3rd-straight non-winning season, the Jets made quite a splash in free agency this offseason. It started when they acquired dog-killer QB Michael Vick from the Eagles. They also added WR Eric Decker from Denver and RB Chris Johnson from Tennessee. As a result, there’s a quarterback battle brewing between Vick and last year's starter, Geno Smith, with 6th round draft choice Tajh Boyd lurking somewhere in the background. While Vick is widely recognized as a human turnover machine, his numbers – in limited opportunity – pale in comparison to Smith, whose 12 TD’s and 21 INT’s paved the way to a non-descript 66.5 QB Rating. Hence, there is surely a QB war ahead in the Big Apple. "I said from Day One, Geno will be tough to beat...but I also said, Mike's going to have an opportunity to compete, and he will," insists Jets coach Rex Ryan. Call it what you may, we see more turnovers spilling out of MetLife this year than at a Sara Lee factory. And for Ryan, it's imperative he makes a dramatic U-turn sometime soon as three non-winning seasons in a row (22-26) don't hold water to the back-to-back championship game appearances the Flyboys served up during his first two years with the team in 2009-10.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jets are 8-4 SU all-time vs. the NFC North.
AFC North Division
TEAM THEME: BAD BOYS
Just how bad did the Super Bowl Jinx affect the Ravens last season? When you lead the league in penalties with 126 for 1,196 yards, that's bad. When your starting quarterback tosses more interceptions than touchdown passes and finishes the season with a QB Rating (73.1) below Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt McGloin, that's bad. And when your star running back falls nearly 500 yards below his previous output – on 3.1 Yards Per Rush – that's bad. As a result, the Super Bowl ringleaders failed to even make it back to the postseason in 2013. A closer look, though, shows signs of a return to glory in the offing. For openers, last year's rebuilt OL figures to be much improved. There's lots of experience on defense – maybe too much as LB Terrell Suggs, NT Haloti Ngata and DE Elvis Dumervil could be past their prime years. But HC John Harbaugh injected some youth into the equation by going to the last two national champs for some new blood on defense, drafting SS Terrence Brooks and DT Timmy Jernigan from FSU and LB C.J. Mosley from Alabama. Speaking of two-deep, the Ravens have excellent depth everywhere along the ranks. A return to the norm by Flacco and Rice, along with an added infusion by the Smith bros (LB Daryl, CB Jimmy and WR's Steve and Torrey) will find the Black Birds on our play list this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Half (four) of the Ravens’ losses last season were by a field goal or less.
TEAM THEME: IT'S NOT EASY BEING ME
Talk about getting no respect, QB Rodney, err, Andy Dalton has led his team to the playoffs in each of his first three years in the league, winning 30 games in the process. And that total would be even higher had Dangerfield, err, Dalton not gone one-and-out in each of his postseason appearances. As such, the redheaded rifle continues to take a back seat to other Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the NFL. We look for that to end this year. This squad has a familiar look with Dalton throwing to A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, and talented RB’s Giovani Bernard and Benjarvis Green-Ellis carrying the football. Meanwhile, talented 2nd-round rookie Jeremy Hill (LSU) figures to challenge for playing time. One of the league's top defensive players that most fans never heard of, Vontaze Burfict (171 total tackles), and Rey Maualuga team to lead an active defense, while DT Geno Atkins will try to bounce back from a torn ACL (he still led the team in sacks despite missing half the season). The pass defense will be much improved with free agents Terrence Newman from Dallas and Reggie Nelson from Jacksonville joining Pac-Man Jones in the secondary, while Darqueze Dennard (1st-round draft choice from Michigan State) will break into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. If the Bengals look to be the team to beat in the AFC North, it's because they are.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: It's been 23 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game – the longest skein in the league.
TEAM THEME: UP TO SNUFF
It's been said this franchise chews through coaches like bubble gum. With Mike Pettine the 9th head coach since 1999, it's hard to argue. And while suffering 10 losses in ten of the last eleven seasons, they also tend to spit out quarterbacks faster than the man from Skoal. After going through seven starting QB's the last four years (including three last season), the Browns have officially cycled through 20 starting signal-callers since their rebirth in 1999 – plus 141 coaches and assistants. Or as long-suffering Cleveland fans put it best, ‘WTF.’ Brownstown was stoked when Cleveland selected Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in the first round of the draft this year. How excited was Johnny Football? “I'm going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don't care if they've had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I'm going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.” He'll battle incumbent Brian Hoyer (3-0 SUATS with Cleveland), a local product, for the starting job. Meanwhile, a strong draft, crafty off-season signings and a renewed enthusiasm have new management off on solid footing. Yes, it's been a long time between drinks of winning water but this year's bunch has the look of thirst-quenchers.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The four-win Browns sent five players to the Pro Bowl last year.
TEAM THEME: MUNCH ON THIS
Perhaps the best acquisition during the offseason was the signing of Hall of Fame OL coach Mike Munchak. It's for certain Big Ben is sleeping more these nights knowing his blocking schemes figure to better protect him. The human piñata has been sacked 386 times in his 10-year NFL career, leading to numerous injuries along the way. Roethlisberger welcomes new targets Lance Moore from the Saints and Darius Heyward-Bey from the Raiders. In addition, dynamic speedster Dri Archer, a 3rd round pick from Kent State, figures to be all over the field. Power back LaGarrette Blount comes over from New England to work alongside Le'Veon Bell, assuring a better-balanced attack in 2014. The defense, though, became a cause of concern when it slipped 61 YPG last season. Secondary veterans Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and William Gay figure to be great tutors to explosive 2nd-year man Jarvis Jones and the team's 1st round pick, LB Ryan Shazier of Ohio State. After a pair of 8-8 kiss-your-sister seasons in 2012 and 2013, Mike Tomlin will be chomping at the bit to get back to the playoffs – especially with eleven of the losses (five last year) coming by a touchdown or less. With the Steelers a stout 8-3-1 SUATS all-time in games against the NFC South, we won't bet against him.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Ben Roethlisberger is 16-2 SU in his NFL career in games played at Ohio.
AFC South Division
TEAM THEME: UPSIDE DOWN
In one of the most bizarre seasons in NFL history, Houston's football fortunes were turned upside down like a Texas twister last year. After back-to-back playoff appearances the prior two years, a puzzling 2-win season in 2013 finds HC Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub out, with new HC Bill O'Brien and who-knows-who at quarterback in this season. After passing on Blake Bortles with the #1 pick of this year's draft, it appears Ryan Fitzpatrick will apparently get first crack at the starting QB position. Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and rookie Tom Savage (Pitt) will be the candidates if that doesn't work out. RB Arian Foster will again be the focus of the offense, hoping to catch more balls out of the backfield this year, while WR's Andre Johnson and emerging 2nd-year man DeAndre Hopkins hope one of the aforementioned QB's can somehow get them the football. The defense is strong, with J.J Watt leading the way up front, and top draft pick Jadaveon Clowney rushing from the other side. In addition, Brian Cushing is back from a serious knee injury and a broken leg that limited him to just seven games last season. It all looks good on paper, but so did a stat sheet that found them winning games by 29 YPG last year. Go figure.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Texans suffered nine losses by a TD or less last season, including five by a FG or less.
TEAM THEME: STREAK OF LUCK
Proving his worth, Colts QB Andrew Luck inherited a 2-14 squad and turned them into playoff prodigies his first two years behind center with Indianapolis. And while it can be said he did it with smoke and mirrors (Indy was outstatted both seasons), the fact of the matter is he did it with several key players missing with injuries last year, including the services of star WR Reggie Wayne, who suffered a season-ending injury in Game Seven. Wayne is back from the injury list this season, along with TE Dwayne Allen and RB Vick Ballard. In addition, they've added talent in the form of Hakeem Nicks at WR to go with elusive T.Y. Hilton. There are problems on defense with Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games following his best season (19.5 sacks). It all points to a possible tough year for HC Chuck Pagano and DC Greg Manusky. The schedule maker comes to their aid, however, as the Colts take on the softest Strength of Schedule in the league, facing foes that owned a combined .430 win percentage overall, including .414 away. That's because only four foes on this year's itinerary owned winning records in 2013. We're not sure if it’s the luck of the draw or the skill of the quarterback, but one thing we know for sure: Indy is awfully lucky to have Andrew on their side.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Colts are 30-5 SU at home in division games since 2002.
TEAM THEME: JACKED UP FOR REAL
How important was the Bye Week for the Jaguars last season? We're not sure if it took that long for the team to buy into new coach Gus Bradley's schemes, or an embarrassing 1-20 skein – including a 13-game losing streak – factored into the equation, but the fact is these Cats were a different team thereafter. A 4-4 finish included three road wins, leaving Jacksonville in a positive state of mind for the first time in three years. The Jags are building for the future while they keep stockpiling talent… and getting there could happen a lot sooner than most people expect with QB Blake Bortles as the centerpiece of the new movement. RB Maurice Jones-Drew has departed for Oakland and will be replaced by former Viking workhorse, Toby Gerhart. While it appears WR Justin Blackmon is irreparable, one or more of the talented rookie crew could emerge: Marquise Lee (USC), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Damian Copeland (Louisville) and Allen Hurns (Miami). On defense, Paul Posluszny is back after finishing second in the NFL with 162 total tackles. In addition, Bradley used his past years at Seattle to attract DE's Red Bryant and DB Chris Clemons from the Super Bowl champs. Yes, the Jags are definitely moving in the right direction.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jaguars are 11-1 ATS as road dogs with same-season revenge.
TEAM THEME: GEE WHIZ
When the Titans severed ties with Mike Munchak, a majority of those in upper management were torn. Munchak had served 14 years with the team as a loyal comrade: he was the O-line coach before assuming head coaching duties in 2011 when Jeff Fisher departed. A 5-year playoff famine was the inevitable determining factor. As a result, Munchak is out and former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is in. Whiz inherits a nice blend of talent with a squad that actually improved its numbers on both sides of the ball last year. Additionally, the Titans will square off against the 2nd softest schedule in the league overall (foes .433) while hosting the cushiest opponents (foes .416), with only one foe invading LP Field with a winning record from last year. Tennessee drafted monstrous OT Taylor Lewan #1 out of Michigan after selecting Alabama guard Chance Warmack with their top pick last year, solidifying the right side of their offensive line for years to come. Despite losing RB Chris Johnson to the Jets, the running game is in good hands with Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster and star rookie RB Bishop Sankey. In addition, Whisenhunt brought in former sidekick Ray Horton to handle the defense. For a team that suffered six losses by 8 or less points last year, the playoff drought could be ending soon.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Titans are 9-1 SUATS as dogs versus the NFC East.
AFC West Division
TEAM THEME: BEATING A DEAD HORSE
Q: When is a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl not as bad as it appeared? A: when you are outstatted by only 35 yards in a minus-4 turnover performance. Be that as it may, the Broncos left SB XLVIII with their tails dragging after Peyton Manning was held to 8 or fewer points for only the 8th time in 263 career games in the NFL. The Broncos quickly became busy in free agency, picking up DeMarcus Ware from Dallas on the defensive line and CB Aqib Talib from New England. Along with returning star LB Von Miller, the defense immediately went from mediocre to good. There are several question marks about Miller, however, as a six-game drug suspension started last season, followed by weight gain upon his return and some erratic play, then an early end to the season with a torn ACL. The Broncos also must survive some losses, but a cast of veteran receivers, including Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and TE Julius Thomas – along with a stellar offensive line that remains nearly intact – and you now know why Denver is favored by most to return to the Super Bowl. We're unlike most, however, as the dreaded 'Super Bowl loser jinx' is affixed squarely to their backs. And to that we say, “riders up.”
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Denver is 2-7 SU and ATS versus the NFC West, including 0-4 SU and ATS the last four.
TEAM THEME: THE PAIN CLINIC
Andy Reid proved to be the elixir needed to take the Chiefs from their losing ways straight to the playoffs when Kansas City became only the 2nd team other than 1980 Denver to start a season 5-0 after going 2-14 the previous year. After stretching the start to 9-0, the Featherheads went 2-5 thereafter before choking like Greg Norman at the Masters in a 45-44 loss to the Colts in the playoffs – a game they actually led 38-10 in the 3Q. So what do they do for an encore after last year's painful fall from grace? Aside from being forced to rebuild the O-line, KC must face the toughest home Strength of Schedule in the league, with foes owning a .570 win percentage last season. That being said, don't look for anything close to last year's liftoff as, after opening with a home game against the Titans, the Chiefs go on the road to Denver, Miami and San Francisco for three of the next four, with a Monday-nighter against the Patriots squeezed into the middle. A winning record going into the Bye Week – and at season's end – would be quite an accomplishment. Meanwhile, two players from this year's draft look to contribute: RB De'Anthony Thomas, who fits into the mold of the departed Dexter McCluster as special teams return man and part-time slot receiver, and QB Aaron Murray, who looks to be the Chiefs signal-caller of the future.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chiefs are 10-0 SU and 9-1 ATS in their last ten games vs. NFC West opponents.
TEAM THEME: DOUBLE TROUBLE
For some reason, the Raiders seem to enjoy doing things in pairs: back-to-back 4-12 seasons the last two years, preceded by 8-8 campaigns the prior two seasons, and two 5-11 efforts before that. They have also lost eight games by double-digit margins each of the past two seasons. What better way to break the pattern than to bring in the Pick-6 King – Matt Schaub – to quarterback this year's team. Compounding matters, Oakland will take on the most difficult strength of schedule in the league with 11 games against winning teams. As a result, the Raiders hit the free agent market hard. The question is, are they a bunch of guys that nobody wanted, or will they use the rejection to motivate them into showing they have something left? Newcomers on offense include the likes of Schaub, WR’s James Jones and Greg Little, plus RB Maurice Jones-Drew, along with several offensive linemen. The defensive pick-ups are a little more exciting: Lamarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith and CB Carlos Rogers. Again, do any of these guys have anything left in the tank? The best new name could be top draft pick LB Khalil Mack out of Buffalo, who looks like a can't-miss prospect. With rookie QB Derek Carr battling Schaub, it would be no surprise to find a two-headed quarterback situation in Oakland this year. So what else is new?
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Raiders are 1-9 SU and 0-10 ATS vs. opponents off a pair of losses by 7 or more points each.
TEAM THEME: DOWNSTREAMING
After a successful 10-win playoff campaign last season the Chargers are another team that pretty much ignored the free agent market, picking up Donald Brown of the Colts to join the mix of Ryan Matthews, Danny Woodhead, and a couple of rookies, Marion Grice of Arizona State and Branden Oliver of Buffalo in a crowded backfield. The other significant signing was Kellen Clemens from the Rams to backup Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers rebounded superbly off a pair of lackluster seasons the previous two years, as his 105.5 QB Rating last season was 2nd only to Peyton Manning among starters with at least 12 starts. A lot of what happens this year, of course, depends on the mercurial Rivers, but the receiving corps is solid, as is the defense, and as a whole this team absolutely loves HC Mike McCoy. The top draft pick, CB Jason Verrett of TCU, has a good chance to step in as a starter alongside veterans Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist. It will be interesting to see how the Chargers respond after losing OC Ken Whisenhunt (new Titans head coach) considering the offense improved a whopping 84 YPG last season. This much we know for sure: San Diego's record has regressed each year seven times in a row since 1982 after winning 10 or more games the previous season. Stay tuned.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Philip Rivers is 30-6 SU during the month of December in his NFL career.
11-0 Thursdays, 27-10 +1,592 TY
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