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2009 NFL Preview: Looking At The AFC

Posted on September 07, 2009 by Dean Hybl

Just as his injury did a year ago, the return of Tom Brady will have a major impact on the AFC.

Just as his injury did a year ago, the return of Tom Brady will have a major impact on the AFC.

Overview: The AFC has claimed five of the last six Super Bowls and the only one they didn’t win was when the Patriots were unable to complete a perfect season in 2007. While it appears that the top teams from the NFC have improved and is actually a deeper league top-to-bottom, the AFC still has a number of top teams that are legitimate Super Bowl picks. In addition to the perennial contenders in New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Baltimore, there are a number of other teams preparing to make a run at the top of the conference.

AFC East: The New England Patriots lost the best quarterback in football in the first quarter of their first game last season and still won 11 games. While the defense has undertaken a face-lift, as long as Tom Brady is able to return to form, it will be difficult for anyone else in the division to keep them from returning to the top of the standings. Last season the Miami Dolphins made a miraculous turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5. It will be tough for the Dolphins to match that total in 2009, but they could contend for a playoff spot. The Jets got significantly younger at quarterback with Mark Sanchez replacing Brett Favre. With four new defensive starters, the Jets are looking to address their biggest weakness from a year ago, their pass defense. The addition of Terrell Owens will make for more excitement and interest in Buffalo, but with only three games against teams that had a losing record last season, the Bills are going to need a lot more than a flamboyant 35-year old receiver if they want to contend.

Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens will look to move past the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.

Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens will look to move past the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.

AFC North: As was the case a year ago, the AFC North should be a two team race between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers won all three matchups between the two squads a year ago, including the AFC Championship Game. Don’t look for that to happen again as Joe Flacco and the Ravens are too good to continue to be stymied by the Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns both should be better than a year ago, but neither team will likely contend for a playoff berth.

AFC Central: After a decade where the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans traditionally ruled the division landscape, some are predicting that the upstart Houston Texans are ready to rise to the top. While fourth year head coach Gary Kubiak has the Texans looking like a contender, it is hard to believe they can really break through. The retirement of head coach Tony Dungy definitely changes the dynamics of the Colts, but as long as they have Peyton Manning running the show it is impossible to count the Colts out. The Titans relied on a strong defense and running game to power their way to a 13-3 record a year ago. The loss of defensive stalwart Albert Haynesworth will certainly leave a void, but there are still enough top defenders for the unit to remain among the best in the league. That the Jacksonville Jaguars are considered the fourth best team in this division speaks to the depth and level of competition. Yes the Jaguars struggled a year ago through a 5-11 season, but they were 11-5 the previous season and don’t be surprised if the 2009 Jaguars are more reminiscent of the 2007 squad than of the disappointing 2008 unit.

The trade for Matt Cassel should help Kansas City return to competitiveness in 2009.

The trade for Matt Cassel should help Kansas City return to competitiveness in 2009.

AFC West: With the return of Shawn Merriman, the San Diego Chargers have been re-anointed as a Super Bowl contender. However, Merriman has yet to truly show whether he is back to 100 percent and a recent of-the-field incident could end up serving as a distraction early in the season. The rest of the division has the potential to be a disaster. Kansas City should be much better than their 2-14 record of a year ago, but a preseason injury to Matt Cassel illustrates the fragile nature of the NFL. If he is healthy all season, the Chiefs could finish near .500, but anything above eight victories will be a stretch. To an outsider, it looks like the Denver Broncos are imploding with their former franchise quarterback engineering his exit from town and star receiver Brandon Marshall conducting a very public tantrum. However, they still have a talented core of players and will certainly be competitive. The Oakland Raiders appear destined for another poor season, but the recent acquisition of Richard Seymour gives them a strong presence on the defense and hope that they are indeed building for the future.

Peyton Manning will have some adjustments to make in 2009.

Peyton Manning will have some adjustments to make in 2009.

Players To Watch: With wide receiver Marvin Harrison no longer on the squad and the offensive coaching staff in transition, it could be a challenging year for Peyton Manning. He has been one of the best quarterbacks in football for a decade and has displayed the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The upcoming campaign could be his greatest test yet. It will be a real surprise if Tom Brady does not pick back up where he was before an injury ended his 2008 season before it really began. As the NFL MVP in 2007, Brady was as good as any quarterback ever and he returns to a team that has even more offensive weapons than the unit that went 16-0 during the 2007 regular season. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was solid, but unspectacular, as a rookie in 2008. He has shown signs during the preseason that he is ready to take a more significant role in the offense in 2009 and watch for him to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference this season. Baltimore defensive back Ed Reed had nine interceptions a year ago and remains one of the most electrifying defensive players in the game.

Mark Sanchez will learn on the job as a rookie starter in the NFL.

Mark Sanchez will learn on the job as a rookie starter in the NFL.

Key Rookies: Mark Sanchez may not be as good at the start of the 2009 season as Brett Favre was at the start of the 2008 campaign, but the New York Jets are banking on the expectation that he will be better at the end of the season than Favre was in 2008. It is probably the right move for the Jets to give Sanchez the keys to the offense right away, rather than subject the entire team to the media frenzy that would occur if he were waiting for a chance behind a caretaker starter.  Running back Knowshon Moreno of the Denver Broncos is an impressive talent and should post big numbers in his first season with the squad.

Predictions:

Will off-the-field issues hamper Ben Roethlisberger and the defending champion Steelers in 2009?

Will off-the-field issues hamper Ben Roethlisberger and the defending champion Steelers in 2009?

Out On a Limb: After winning the Super Bowl during the 2005 season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered an off-season motorcycle accident and the team seemed to lack motivation as they finished with an 8-8 record in 2006. This off-season Roethlisberger has again made headlines off the field and you have to wonder if the team will again suffer Super Bowl withdrawals and finish below expectations. One thing working in their favor is that they have one of the weaker schedules in the league with only six games against teams with winning records a year ago. My “out on a limb” prediction is that the Steelers will struggle in early season games against Tennessee, Chicago and San Diego and finish just out of the playoff mix with a 9-7 record.

Joe Flacco will look to lead the Ravens to the SUper Bowl in his season season as the starting quarterback.

Joe Flacco will look to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl in his season season as the starting quarterback.

Playoffs: While the top of the AFC is as strong, if not stronger, than the NFC, the bottom of the AFC is significantly weaker. Unlike the NFC with potentially 13 teams fighting for six playoff spots, there seems to be only nine or 10 AFC teams with a legitimate shot at the postseason. In the end, the Patriots, Ravens, Colts and Chargers will emerge as division champions with the Titans and Texans earning wild card bids just ahead of the Steelers, Jets and Jaguars. Baltimore will return to the AFC Championship Game and this time defeat the New England Patriots to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.


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