Gerry Dulac's 2012 AFC Forecast
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(In order of predicted finish)
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 record: 12-4
Coach: Mike Tomlin, sixth season.
Key players: QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Mike Wallace, WR/KR Antonio Brown, C Maurkice Pouncey, NT Casey Hampton, OLB James Harrison, OLB LaMarr Woodley, S Troy Polamalu.
What's different: The Steelers went outside the organization for the first time in the past 22 years to hire an offensive coordinator -- Todd Haley. And, for the first time since 2002, they have a team that does not include WR Hines Ward, DE Aaron Smith and ILB James Farrior.
The skinny: Despite the changes and departures, the Steelers still have the necessary ingredients to be a playoff team. With a quarterback such as Roethlisberger and a defense annually among the league's best, they are never out of any game, never out of any season.
2. Baltimore Ravens
2011 record: 12-4
Coach: John Harbaugh, fifth season.
Key players: QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, WR Torrey Smith, WR Anquan Boldin, DT Haloti Ngata, MLB Ray Lewis, S Ed Reed.
What's different: The injury to LB/DE Terrell Suggs, coupled with the departure of OLB Jarret Johnson and DT Cory Redding, leaves big holes in the defense. So does the departure of defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who left to become head coach in Indianapolis.
The skinny: The loss of Suggs will be a big blow for a once-proud defense that is beginning to age and break down. That will put even more pressure on Flacco and the offense to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season under Harbaugh.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
2011 record: 9-7
Coach: Marvin Lewis, 10th season.
Key players: QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Jermaine Gresham, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, DT Geno Atkins, CB Leon Hall
What's different: The Bengals sneaked up on a lot of teams last season with their dynamic rookie combo of Dalton and Green. That won't happen this year. The AFC North was the only division to boast three teams with a winning record in 2011. Still, the Bengals were 0-8 last season against teams that reached the playoffs. They need to find a No. 2 receiver after losing Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley.
The skinny: The Bengals never have had consecutive winning seasons under Lewis and have made the postseason in consecutive years only once in their 44-year history. The biggest question will be if Dalton can do it the second time around.
4. Cleveland Browns
2011 record: 4-12
Coach: Pat Shurmur, 2nd season,
Key players: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, LT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack, WR Greg Little, WR/PR Joshua Cribbs, DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Frostee Rucker, MLB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Joe Haden.
What's different: The Browns will begin the season with their 11th starting quarterback in 16 years -- Weeden, who has been handed the offense because he has a stronger arm than his predecessor, Colt McCoy. The addition of Richardson, taken with the fourth overall pick, looks good. But the Browns passed up some good WRs in the first round, and that will really hurt.
The skinny: The Browns still lack the talent to compete with the other teams in the division, especially at the skill positions. They are investing a lot of hope in a pair of rookies -- Weeden and Richardson -- to be respectable.
1. New England Patriots
2011 record: 13-3
Coach: Bill Belichick, 13th season.
Key players: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez, WR Wes Welker.
What's different: The Patriots lost their top running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but on a team where Brady attempted 611 passes in 2011, that's like Donald Trump selling one of his houses. Josh McDaniels returns to run the offense, replacing Bill O'Brien, and he has a new receiver to go with Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez -- Brandon Lloyd.
The skinny: The Patriots are accustomed to having outstanding regular seasons. But they are also accustomed to losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. There is no reason they can't land there again ... and win this time.
2. New York Jets
2011 record: 8-8
Coach: Rex Ryan, fourth season
Key players: QB Mark Sanchez, QB Tim Tebow, RB Shonn Green, WR Santonio Holmes, TE Dustin Keller, T D'Brickashaw Ferguson, C Nick Mangold, ILB David Harris, CB Darrelle Revis, S LaRon Landry.
What's different: The addition of Tebow could be more distraction and disruptive than beneficial, especially for Sanchez, who will not have WR Plaxico Burress this season. And remember, former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano was brought in to run the offense, and he introduced the wildcat offense to the NFL.
The skinny: The Jets had a late-season meltdown in '11, losing their final three games to miss the playoffs after back-to-back appearances in the AFC championship game
3. Buffalo Bills
2011 record: 6-10
Coach: Chan Gailey, 2nd season,
Key players: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Fred Jackson, WR Stevie Johnson, RB C.J. Spiller, DT Marcel Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, K Rian Lindell, P Brian Moorman.
What's different: The Bills spent $100 million to lure DE Mario Williams with the hope of improving their pass rush and, ultimately, their defense. But Williams has battled injuries his whole career and could be a financial risk. The Bills really didn't do a lot to help Fitzpatrick in the passing game. He is smart and reads defenses quickly, but the only target he has is Johnson, and he is limited as a No. 1 receiver.
The skinny: The Bills have missed the playoffs for 12 consecutive years. The reason is fairly simple: Lack of talent. They still don't have enough on offense to end that miserable streak in '13.
4. Miami Dolphins
2011 record: 6-10
Coach: Joe Philbin, 1st season.
Key players: QB Ryan Tannehill, C Mike Pouncey, LT Jake Long, DE Cameron Wake, DT Paul Soliai, LB Karlos Dansby
What's different: The offense always struggled through most of Tony Sparano's four-year tenure, so former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin was hired as head coach. Defensively, the Dolphins are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense and got rid of two secondary starters -- S Yeremiah Bell and CB Vontae Davis -- in the process.
The skinny: For the first time since the 1960s, the Dolphins have had three consecutive losing seasons. And, with all the changes and not a lot of offensive firepower, they likely are looking at a fourth. Especially with a rookie at QB.
1. Houston Texans
2011 record: 10-6
Coach: Gary Kubiak, 7th season.
Key players: QB Matt Schaub, QB T.J. Yates, RB Arian Foster, RB Ben Tate, WR Andre Johnson, DT J.J. Watt, ILB Brian Cushing, CB Johnathan Joseph.
What's different: Free agency wasn't kind to the Texans, who lost DE Mario Williams, LB DeMeco Ryans, FB Lawrence Vickers and TE Joel Dressen. One thing is for sure: The Texans don't want to mess with the attacking, one-gap defensive system installed last year by Wade Phillips, who turned one of the worst defenses in the league into one of the best. With another year to absorb the scheme, the Texans could be more menacing.
The skinny: Injuries to Schaub, Foster and, most especially, Johnson derailed what was a good season for the Texans, who made the postseason for the first time in franchise history. If they can stay healthy, the Texans have a chance to a make a run at the Super Bowl.
2. Tennessee Titans
2011 record: 9-7
Coach: Mike Munchak, 2nd season.
Key players: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Johnson, WR Nate Washington, WR Kenny Britt, G Steve Hutchinson, T Michael Roos, K Rob Bironas.
What's different: The Titans keep hoping that Locker eventually will be the player whom they used the eighth overall pick in the '11 draft to obtain. He will replace Matt Hasselbeck, who led the Titans to four victories in the final six games last year.
The skinny: The Titans have missed the playoffs the past three seasons, but they have tried to improve their offense by giving Locker another talented receiver, Kendall Wright. They have a tough opening schedule, several holes in their defense and an uncertainty with Locker that will keep them from challenging the Texans in the AFC South.
3. Indianapolis Colts
2011 record: 2-14
Coach: Chuck Pagano, 1st season.
Key players: QB Andrew Luck, WR Reggie Wayne, RB Donald Brown, TE Coby Fleener, DE/LB Dwight Freeney, DE/LB Robert Mathis, DE Cory Redding, CB Vontae Davis.
What's different: The Colts are starting over after the Peyton Manning, and they're doing it with Luck -- the most-talented, can't-miss quarterback since John Elway. Former Steelers coordinator Bruce Arians was brought in to run the offense, and that will mean instant production for Luck. The defense is switching to a 3-4, which moves DEs Freeney and Mathis to outside LB.
The skinny: The Colts have a good chance to more than triple their victory total from '11 because Luck has enough help around him and a good coordinator to utilize him. But too many holes in the offensive line and on defense will keep the Colts below .500 -- at least for this year.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 record: 5-11
Coach: Mike Mularkey, 1st season.
Key players: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Justin Blackmon, LT Eugene Monroe, LB Paul Posluszny, CB Aaron Ross, K Josh Scobee.
What's different: The biggest is the change in the coaching staff, with Mularkey replacing Jack Del Rio after four years of missing the playoffs. And the Jaguars are hoping Gabbert will take a big step in his sophomore season. How fast Jones-Drew regains top form after a lengthy holdout likely will play the biggest role in their season.
The skinny: The Jaguars have missed the postseason the past four years, and chances of that streak ending are not very good. Jones-Drew's holdout was not a good way for Mularkey to begin his first season. Neither was the DUI and holdout by Blackmon.
1. Denver Broncos
2011 record: 8-8
Coach: John Fox, 2nd season.
Key players: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, DE Elvis Dumervil, LB Von Miller.
What's different: Fox did an amazing coaching job in his first season -- building a strong defense, changing the offense to suit Tim Tebow and getting the Broncos into the postseason. Now, he gets Manning, a future Hall of Famer, to run his offense. That will make his job infinitely easier.
The skinny: If the Broncos could win the division, weather all the Tebowmania nonsense and beat the Steelers in the first round last year, anything is possible this year. Manning and a good defense make the Broncos a postseason threat.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
2011 record: 7-9
Coach: Romeo Crennel, 1st season.
Key players: QB Matt Cassel, RB Jamal Charles, RB Peyton Hillis, T Eric Winston, WR Dwayne Bowe, LB Tamba Hali, LB Derrick Johnson, S Eric Berry.
What's different: Probably the best thing the Chiefs did was keep Crennel as head coach, something the Browns should have done a few years ago. He was the defensive coordinator for 29 games before replacing Todd Haley late last season. Crennel has a lot of talent to work with on defense, and he gets Berry back after a season-ending injury. But he needs to get more production from Cassel and a second receiver to take the pressure off Bowe.
The skinny: The Chiefs are still trying to determine if they are the team that won just 10 games in three seasons from 2007-09 or the one that won 10 games in '10 under Haley? They certainly have the talent to look more like the team that beat Green Bay and Denver late last season
3. San Diego Chargers
2011 record: 8-8
Coach: Norv Turner, 6th season.
Key players: QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, RB Ryan Matthews, RB Ronnie Brown, FB Le'Ron McClain, WR Robert Meacham, LB Jarrett Johnson.
What's different: After winning five division titles in the previous six years, the Chargers had just 17 victories and missed the postseason the past two years. Turner's job was spared after an 8-8 finish in '11, so the Chargers had to restock their offense in the offseason with receivers Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish and RB Ronnie Brown. And they added Johnson, a former Ravens LB, on defense.
The skinny: The Chargers added some offensive pieces to go with Rivers, Mathews and Gates. But Rivers needs to cut down on his turnovers, and the defense has to do better than allowing 24 points a game. If not, it will be another non-playoff season in San Diego.
4. Oakland Raiders
2011 record: 8-8
Coach: Dennis Allen, 1st season.
Key players: QB Carson Palmer, RB Darren McFadden, WR Darius Heyward-Bey, WR Jacoby Ford, DT Richard Seymour, ILB Rolando McClain, OLB Aaron Curry, K Sebastian Janikowski, P Shane Lechler.
What's different: The Raiders went through an offseason housecleaning after the death of Al Davis, hiring a new coach, new general manager and two new coordinators. If Allen is to last longer than any of his predecessors, he will need to show even more improvement after back-to-back 8-8 seasons. But the Raiders did little in the offseason to facilitate that.
The skinny: The Raiders have shown improvement each of the past two seasons, especially after winning just 29 games the previous seven seasons combined. So much will depend on Palmer and the ability of the talented McFadden to stay healthy.
First Published September 6, 2012 1:25 am