Saturday, January 31, 2015


Bengals cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris defends as Colts wide receiver Josh Lenz makes a catch. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)
Bengals cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris defends as Colts wide receiver Josh Lenz makes a catch. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)
Bengals cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris defends as Colts wide receiver Josh Lenz makes a catch. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports) Gallery: AFC PREVIEW

AFC East

New England Patriots

Last season: 12-4.

Coach: Bill Belichick (163-61, 15th season with the Patriots; 199-105 overall in 19 seasons).

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  • Continuing their dominance: The Pats have won five straight AFC East titles and 10 in the last 11 years, and the string doesn't look as if it will end this season.

    Outlook: Any team with Tom Brady is a Super Bowl contender, but his 87.7 passer rating last year was his lowest since 2003. Adding Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gives the Patriots one of the better secondaries in the AFC, and if tight end Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy, New England will make its traditional Super Bowl run.

    New York Jets

    Last season: 8-8.

    Coach: Rex Ryan (42-38, 6th season).

    QB question: Geno Smith had a rocky rookie season (18 TD passes, 27 interceptions) and former Eagle Michael Vick is in the bullpen. The guess is that the starter will have a short leash.

    Outlook: The Jets have secondary concerns, although safety Calvin Pryor could be in contention for rookie of the year. New York appears to be an outside playoff contender, but much depends on whether Smith can regroup from a difficult first season.

    Miami Dolphins

    Last season: 8-8.

    Coach: Joe Philbin (15-17, 3d season).

    Watch out: That was the phrase heard by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked an NFL-high 58 times. The reshaped line, led by former Chief Brandon Albert, should be improved.

    Outlook: The Dolphins were in playoff contention until dropping their final two games by a combined 39-7 score to Buffalo and the Jets. Former Eagles assistant Bill Lazor is the new offensive coordinator, and if Tannehill can show improvement the Dolphins should vie for a playoff spot.

    Buffalo Bills

    Last season: 6-10.

    Coach: Doug Marrone (6-10, 2d season).

    It's about E.J.: Many thought the Bills reached for quarterback E.J. Manuel last year with the 16th overall pick, and his 77.7 passer rating didn't inspire much confidence. He must take a huge step for the Bills to even be competitive.

    Outlook: New receiver Sammy Watkins, who has banged-up ribs, should spice up the offense, but the loss of last year's leading tackler, linebacker Kiko Alonso, to a knee injury hurts the defense. It will be difficult for Buffalo to improve on last year's win total.

    AFC North

    Cincinnati Bengals

    Last season: 11-5, lost to the Chargers in the wild-card round.

    Coach: Marvin Lewis (90-85-1, 12th season with Bengals).

    Playoff puttering: Quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs each of his first three seasons, but the Bengals lost all three games. Dalton has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions in the postseason.

    Outlook: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL with 171 tackles and he heads a strong defense. The key will be Dalton, who should guide the Bengals to a playoff spot, but after that, it's subject to question.

    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Last season: 8-8.

    Coach: Mike Tomlin (71-41, 8th season).

    Empty postseason: The Steelers have gone 8-8 and missed the postseason each of the last two years. It's the first time since 1998-2000 that Pittsburgh has gone consecutive years without making the playoffs.

    Outlook: Rookie Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) should be an immediate impact player at linebacker. The question is whether Ben Roethlisberger (28 TD passes, 14 interceptions) has enough weapons beyond Antonio Brown (110 receptions, 1,499 yards, 8 TDs). This will be a playoff contender, but one that looks as if it will fall short.

    Baltimore Ravens

    Last season: 8-8.

    Coach: John Harbaugh (62-34, 7th season).

    Left out of the postseason: After winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, Audubon's Joe Flacco and the offense took a step back. Flacco (73.1 passer rating) missed the postseason for the first time in his six years.

    Outlook: The Ravens hope that embattled running back Ray Rice (3.1 yards per carry) can improve and that 35-year-old receiver Steve Smith, a free agent from Carolina, can give Flacco some help. The defense isn't as formidable as it once was, but the Ravens should make a run at the division title, although Cincinnati is clearly the favorite.

    Cleveland Browns

    Last season: 4-12.

    Coach: Mike Pettine, first season with the Browns.

    Johnny Football: Quarterback Brian Hoyer has won the starting job, but it should be only a matter of time before first-round pick and celebrity signal-caller Johnny Manziel takes over. No matter who is behind center, that player will be working with one of the least accomplished set of receivers, especially since Josh Gordon will miss the season because of a suspension for his latest violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.

    Outlook: With additions such as linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner to join cornerback Joe Haden, the Browns will have one of the top defenses in the division. The problem is the offense, and Pettine, the Central Bucks West product, will have trouble moving out of the cellar in his first season.

    AFC South

    Indianapolis Colts

    Last season: 11-5, lost in the divisional round to the Patriots.

    Coach: Chuck Pagano (22-10, 3d season).

    Good luck: While Andrew Luck (23 TDs, 9 interceptions) has excelled in his first two seasons, he has played behind a shabby offensive line and meager running game, both of which need improvement.

    Outlook: The return of veteran receiver Reggie Wayne from a knee injury, the continued emergence of T.Y. Hilton, and the addition of former Giant Hakeem Nicks give the Colts a strong receiving corps. The defense will miss NFL sack leader Robert Mathis (191/2 last year) for the first four games because of a PED suspension. Indianapolis won a playoff game last year and could advance further in the postseason after clearly being the favorite.

    Tennessee Titans

    Last season: 7-9

    Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (first season; 45-51 overall in six seasons).

    It's about the QB: Jake Locker has been injury-plagued and inconsistent for three years in Tennessee. He hopes to benefit from the tutelage of Whisenhunt, who last year helped Philip Rivers rebound as offensive coordinator at San Diego.

    Outlook: Since 2009, the Titans have never won more than nine games or fewer than six in missing the playoffs five straight seasons. More of the same should occur this season: The Titans should be a competitive team that doesn't have enough to make it in the postseason.

    Jacksonville Jaguars

    Last season: 4-12.

    Coach: Gus Bradley (4-12, 2d season).

    Impressive rookie: Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall selection, had a strong preseason. Even though Chad Henne begins the season as the starter, the rookie from Central Florida should eventually claim the job. This means the Eagles will deal with Henne because they open with the Jags.

    Outlook: Bradley seems to have this program ready to improve, but the receiving corps is below average and the defense may have to carry things in the early going. A best-case scenario is Jacksonville's doubling its win total from last year.

    Houston Texans

    Last season: 2-14.

    Coach: Bill O'Brien (first season).

    QB guru: Bill O'Brien left Penn State for his first head coaching job and is known as a developer of quarterbacks. That skill will certainly be tested since the starter is Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose career quarterback rating is an underwhelming 77.5.

    Outlook: The defense, especially with J.J. Watt (31 sacks the last two years) and first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, should put plenty of heat on opposing passers. While the win total should increase, the Texans still have a long way to go offensively before they can think about approaching .500.


    AFC West

    Denver Broncos

    Last season: 13-3, lost in the Super Bowl to the Seahawks.

    Coach: John Fox (34-14, 4th season with Broncos; 107-85 overall in 12 seasons).

    High-flying: The Broncos averaged an NFL-best 37.9 points per game and looked unbeatable until being pushed around by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

    Outlook: Peyton Manning (5,477 yards passing, 55 TDs, 10 interceptions) remains on top of his game although he looked mortal in the Super Bowl. The hope is that with additions such as defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aquib Talib, the defense will be upgraded. The Broncos have what it takes to return to the Super Bowl, but winning it could be another matter.

    Kansas City Chiefs

    Last season: 11-5, lost in the wild-card round to the Colts.

    Coach: Andy Reid (11-5, 2d season with Chiefs; 141-98-1 overall in 15 seasons).

    Rebounding from playoff fade: The Chiefs held a 38-10 third-quarter lead before losing, 45-44, in their wild-card playoff game to Indianapolis. Will Kansas City be haunted by that major collapse?

    Outlook: Running back Jamaal Charles (1,287 yards rushing, 12 TDs) must stay healthy for an offense that is light on receivers and is run by capable but not dominant Alex Smith (89.1 passer rating). The defense remains the strength, but while a contender, K.C. should struggle to return to the postseason.

    San Diego Chargers

    Last season: 9-7, lost to the Broncos in the divisional round.

    Coach: Mike McCoy (9-7, 2d season).

    Strong behind center: Philip Rivers had a resurgent season, with 32 TD passes, 11 interceptions, and a 105 passer rating.

    Outlook: Wide receiver Keenan Allen (71 receptions, 1,046 yards, 8 TDs) was a steal in the third round last year and is an offensive leader. The defense was 23d in the NFL in points allowed (21.8 ppg.) and must improve, but all ingredients are there for a return to the postseason.

    Oakland Raiders

    Last season: 4-12.

    Coach: Dennis Allen (8-24, 3d season).

    Loading on veterans: The Raiders are in a win-now mode and brought in several veterans such as West Chester East product Matt Schaub (who lost the quarterback battle to rookie Derek Carr), along with running back Maurice Jones-Drew and defensive lineman Justin Tuck, just to name a few.

    Outlook: The Raiders should be improved, but anything except last place would be a surprise. Linebacker Khalil Mack is a contender for rookie of the year, but a lot of older players may have trouble holding up during the second half of the season.

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