The end of the 2017 NFL season may end up much like last year as seven of the eight division winners from a year ago are expected to repeat. The only team not favored to win their division again is the Pittsburgh Steelers in the super-competitive AFC North.
AFC off-season moves
NFC off-season moves
In Buffalo, the Bills traded away LB Kiko Alonso (who missed all of last season with a knee injury) to the Eagles for RB LeSean McCoy. The Bills offense instantly improved despite the fact that they are still trying to figure out who will lead the unit at the quarterback position. E.J. Manuel, Tyrod Taylor, Matt Cassel, and even Matt Simms have a shot at the position in Buffalo. With new head coach Rex Ryan at the helm, you know the defense and the running game will be solid. If Ryan can find a QB that will not make mistakes, Buffalo could surprise some teams.
Both Miami and Buffalo made some noise in the offseason by adding some big name players. The Dolphins picked up the biggest in DT Ndamukong Suh, the former Detroit Lion. Suh wound up with the richest contract ever for a defensive player in the history of the NFL. Will he be enough to lift the Dolphins above mediocrity? It’s possible. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill gets a new weapon in RB Jay Ajayi, a surprisingly versatile runner and receiver.
Last year’s Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have won the last six consecutive AFC East division titles. In fact, the Pats have won 11 of the past 12. Don’t expect that to change even though quarterback Tom Brady will miss the first four games over the whole Deflate-gate scandal. Backup Jimmy Garrapolo will start and give the Patriots just enough to come away at the very worst 2-2. New England will open the season against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Sept. 10, face the Bills and Jaguars, and then play at Dallas on Oct. 11. Brady will be back to face Andrew Luck and the Colts in a Sunday night matchup on Oct. 18.
Todd Bowles is the new head coach of the New York Jets and is in a similar situation with Ryan and the Bills. Bowles had a quarterback in Geno Smith until he got into a locker room altercation that resulted in a broken jaw. While the Bills running game is firmly in the hands, or legs, of McCoy, the Jets ground attack could feature any one of Zac Stacy, Chris Ivory, or former Patriot Stevan Ridley. Safety Calvin Pryor is the only returning starter from the defense a year ago. To say Bowles has to build a winner is a huge understatement.
The Steelers went 11-5 a year ago, a half-game better than Cincinnati (10-5-1) and a full game ahead of Baltimore (10-6). The Steelers then lost to the Ravens in the first round of the AFC playoffs last year. This season, it is Baltimore with its physical defense, a solid ground game, and an able quarterback in Joe Flacco that has added some weapons to the offense including WR Steve Smith and rookies WR Breshad Perriman and TE Maxx Williams.
Cincinnati’s roster will closely resemble that of last year and LB Vontaze Burfict returns to make the defense even better. Head coach Marvin Lewis will work to get the Bengals to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year only this time he is looking for a postseason victory. Cincinnati became the first team in NFL history to lose their first round playoff game in four consecutive seasons.
Cleveland returns for the second season under head coach Mike Pettine. The Browns were 6-3 at one point last season but faltered down the stretch and finished last in the division. Pettine and the Browns may find this season much the same albeit with some new personnel. Quarterback Brian Hoyer was sent packing and Josh McCown inherits the starting QB job. Johnny Manziel continues to improve and may once again be called upon to run the Cleveland offense. Former Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor was working at wide receiver in the preseason. While the Browns will be competitive, they are still a few players away from making a splash in the AFC North.
The Steelers will still make the AFC North competitive with its highlight-reel offense led by QB Ben Rothliesberger, RB LeVeon Bell, and WR Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh will struggle on defense without the likes of longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau and veterans Troy Polamalu and Jason Worilds, both of whom retired in the offseason. Bell will miss the first few games of the season while serving a suspension for an arrest last season. Pittsburgh added veteran DeAngelo Williams who is expected to get the majority of the carries while Bell is out.
The best team in the AFC South other than Indy is Houston. Head coach Bill O’Brien nearly had the Texans in the postseason in his first year at the helm. In 2015, the Texans will welcome back former No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney who will pair with league MVP candidate J.J. Watt to give Houston the best defensive end tandem in the league. Don’t forget about Jared Crick either. It was Crick who took over for Clowney last season and helped Houston record 38 sacks overall. The Texans will be without RB Arian Foster who had to have surgery on his groin and will likely miss the season. Alfred Blue will likely get most of the carries in an offense led by new QB Brian Hoyer.
Is there any question as to who will win the AFC South Division? There shouldn’t be. Indianapolis is the best team in a division that lacks quality competition. The Colts prolific offense, led by QB Andrew Luck, got even better in the offseason when it added veteran running back Frank Gore and former Houston WR Andre Johnson. Luck has plenty of weapons around him. The question for the Colts is their defense, especially versus the run. In each of Indianapolis’s big games last year including the AFC Championship, the Colts defense was shredded on the ground. In order to make a Super Bowl run, that will have to change.
The same is true in Jacksonville where head coach Gus Bradley has hired a new offensive coordinator in Greg Olson to work with QB Blake Bortles. Olson helped turn Raiders QB Derek Carr into a solid NFL quarterback in his first year in the league and the hope is that he will help Bortles develop into an elite level signal-caller. The Jags did pick up former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas to help upgrade the offense. Thomas and wide receiver Allen Robinson offer Bortles solid targets in the passing game. The ground game, where Toby Gerhart will start at RB, is another story.
Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota gets his shot at becoming an NFL starter in Tennessee. The Titans are young, but talented. Mariota will have to get used running an NFL offense and do so with the likes of rookies David Cobb at running back and Dorial Green-Beckham at wide receiver. Despite the talent, the Titans are at least a year away from a winning season.
The Denver Broncos have won the AFC West the past four seasons. This year, they have a new coach in Gary Kubiak, but the results will likely be the same. With future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at quarterback, wide receivers Demaryious Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and running backs C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball, the Broncos offense should once again put up gaudy numbers. The defense should still be strong with pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on the outside in the Broncos 3-4 scheme. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are lockdown corners. If the Broncos can improve upon their run defense, another Super Bowl run is definitely possible.
Kansas City and San Diego will offer the toughest battles for Denver in the division. The Chiefs finished 9-7 a year ago and just missed out on the postseason. They also became the first team since the merger of the AFL and NFL to not record a touchdown pass to a wide receiver the entire season. That should change with the addition of Jeremy Maclin, a former Missouri All-American, in the offseason. Quarterback Alex Smith enters his 11th NFL season and has ample weapons – TE Travis Kelce and RB Jamaal Charles – on the offense. The Chiefs defense is solid and features one of the game’s most overlooked stars in OLB Justin Houston, who almost broke the NFL sack record last year when he finished with 22.
The team in the AFC West with the most to prove is Oakland. New head coach Jack Del Rio takes over a team that has some serious offensive talent. Quarterback Derek Carr has proven that he can excel at the NFL level and Oakland added No. 1 draft pick Amari Cooper, college football’s best receiver a year ago. The Raiders also added former 49ers WR Michael Crabtree. The question mark for Del Rio is on his defense. Last year’s top draft pick, LB Khalil Mack, is an emerging star but Charles Woodson is entering his 18th NFL season and there are plenty of other positions on the defensive unit that are shaky at best.
The Chargers just signed their quarterback, Philip Rivers, to a multi-year extension so that he can finish his career in San Diego. He’ll need solid production from those around him including rookie running back Melvin Gordon. The Chargers traded up to get Gordon, who will battle Branden Oliver for the starting job. All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates returns to give Rivers another receiving threat along with WRs Keenan Allen and Malcolm Floyd. San Diego finished 9-7 and a season-ending loss to division rival Kansas City kept them from going to the playoffs.
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2020 NFL Football Season