The NFL season is almost upon us, and in the sport that is most heavily scrutinized and analyzed, partly due to fantasy football, I thought it was my turn to give some predictions on the 2016-17 season, leading up to Super Bowl LI.
The AFC has been dominated for years by veteran QBs such as Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers and Peyton Manning, but 2016 in this conference is all about change, as we see several young stars like Marcus Mariota, Derrick Carr, Andrew Luck and Blake Bortles all staking their claim to be the next big thing. 2015 also marked the departure of Manning from the game he dominated for 15+ years, and sees the Patriots start without their elite QB due to suspension, throwing the playoff race wide open.
While there are some lesser teams that we know won’t be contending, like the Titans or Browns (even though both look promising from the QB and skill positions for the future), this was tough to predict, as the NFL always is with its short season, which means every game is absolutely critical. Without further ado, here are the predictions for the AFC standings in the 2016-17 NFL season.
31 Cleveland Browns
Another year, another QB for the Cleveland Browns, and this time it’s the attempted career renaissance of Robert Griffin III. While the Browns won’t be as bad as many predict, it will be another tough year for fans who see the Indians in first place after the Cavs won their first championship, as they will show steady improvement, yet be no where near contention. Troubled star Josh Gordon is back, and if RG3 continues to improve the play he has shown in the pre season, this team could spoil the post season hopes of others, and win a few games, but ultimately will finish last in the AFC, while showing a glimmer of hope to Browns fans.
29 Tennessee Titans
The Titans are definitely a team on the rise, but are playing in a division with 3 teams who have young QBs and are fighting for playoff contention, and with Marcus Mariota, this team is trending upwards, but 2016 will not be their year. The Titans also drafted the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who will provide amazing assistance to DeMarco Murray in the Titans backfield, and if Mariota can stay healthy and improve his game all around, there is no telling where the Titans could go in 2017 and beyond. A quality defense with some ageing stars on the offensive side like Harry Douglas and Andre Johnson suggest the Titans are nearing a win-now stage, which means they will be testing the playoffs in 2017, but this year expect the team to pick up a few good wins, play some good football and show even more promising signs for the future.
27 Miami Dolphins
The AFC East this year will be dominated by the Patriots and the Jets, and while the Dolphins will no doubt play some good football, their inexperience and lack of success will hold them back, and as always, their play will depend on talented yet unproved Ryan Tannehill. Despite acquiring Ndamokung Suh a year ago, the Dolphins defense was just as vulnerable, despite having a talented offense around Tannehill with Jordan Cameron, Arian Foster, Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry, the defense will hamstring the team again. Also working against Miami is the fact they’re in a division with the class of the AFC in the Patriots, and are leaning way too heavily on the unproven Tannehill, for whom this may be a make or break year at the QB position, as he has shown great promise, but was expected to develop further by now.
25 Buffalo Bills
Many thought 2015 was the year that the Bills would return to the playoffs, but as is the Bills tradition, they followed a promising first half with a disappointing finish, mainly due to the struggles and injuries dealt to their QB’s. Years of QB inconsistency could be over however, as the team has signed Tyrod Taylor to a multi year deal, as he is one of the most all around gifted players in the league, and with a stout defense, this could lead to some success for Buffalo. The combination of Rex Ryan’s creative ability for defense but anemic offenses will again hamper the Bills like it did the Jets while Rex was in charge, and their season will again end in a middle of the road record, showing both plenty of promise yet disappointment.
23 San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are usually one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL, as they continue to miss the playoffs despite a talented offensive roster which includes Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates and up and coming star Keenan Allan, and unfortunately have not improved enough through the draft or free agency to improve this perception. The offseason has been a disaster for San Diego, from the departure of veteran Safety and team leader Eric Weddle, to Joey Bosa, there has been drama surrounding their entire process, and it may very well carry over to results on the field. In a division which has the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos, don’t expect too much more than 4-5 wins from the Chargers, who might have to look at entering a rebuilding phase from the 2017 season and beyond.
21 Baltimore Ravens
While the Ravens have always been around the playoffs in the AFC ever since the early 2000’s due to their tough, physical defense in a tough AFC North, they have declined steadily ever since their Super Bowl win a few years ago, and the year 2016 will be no different. Despite the Championship experience, the Raven’s roster has been getting older and weaker year by year, while their competitors the Bengals and Steelers continue to grow and improve, and playing both those teams twice a year never lends itself towards success. Joe Flacco is still a top flight QB and they are a solid team all around, but nothing about them stands out enough to expect them to challenge for the playoffs this year, but they will no doubt be a tough win for any playoff caliber team.
19 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the most promising teams in football, and in a year or two will no doubt become one of the most potent offenses in NFL history, but they will become a playoff mainstay, but in the year 2016, they will just ever so slightly miss the playoffs. Led by Blake Bortles, the team have put together a fantastic offense with TJ Yeldon, Chris Ivory, Julius Thomas, Allen Robinson & Allen Hurns, which makes them formidable against any opponent. A well coached team also, the Jags will end up with 7 or 8 wins in 2016, and while fans may be expecting more, they should be happy with the improvement the team has shown, as their future looks much brighter than any other team in the entire NFL.
17 Indianapolis Colts
Unfortunately in 2015, star QB Andrew Luck suffered an injury which forced the Colts to miss the playoffs, and despite re signing the superstar to the largest NFL QB contract in history, will again miss the playoffs because of their less than stellar defense and one dimensional offense. While the offense is good as usual, with Luck throwing to TY Hilton and others, Frank Gore is an ageing running back whose health cant be 100%, and as usual the defense looks quite suspect, and with other teams in the division equipped to win shoot outs now too, the Colts will struggle to stand out in the AFC. Look for the Colts to improve in the draft and free agency to add a more balanced team around Luck which can then attempt to replicate the success of the Peyton Manning era, but that success won’t be started in 2016.
15 Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs almost completely depend on Jamaal Charles for their success, and in 2015 he suffered a devastating injury which they could not come back from, and unfortunately, despite being quite a talented team, will not return to the playoffs in 2016 due to the sheer team depth and quality ahead of them. While Alex Smith is getting up there in age, he is more than a serviceable game manager these days, but there is just too much talent on the Broncos and the Raiders teams, and they will just be edged out by the Jets for that second wild card spot. If the Chiefs can manage to add a quality, game changing wide receiver to go along with Jamaal Charles in the backfield the team will no doubt challenge again in 2017, but are no where near potent enough as an offense in the current set up, which will cost them dearly.
13 Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals will unfortunately be the best team to miss the playoffs in the up coming season, because despite the obvious talent on both sides of the ball, the team still hasn’t shown an ability to play tough and win when the lights are on brightest. With Andy Dalton slinging the ball to AJ Green, the team always has a chance, but in a tough division dominated by the Steelers, it will be hard for the team to again be in the elite of the AFC. As always, Dalton and Green will put up fantastic numbers, but this lack of quality play in clutch time, especially the wild card game vs. the Steelers a year ago will hurt the Bengals, and may spell the end of Marvin Lewis’ reign with the Bengals, as he has been on the hot seat despite their regular season success.
11 New York Jets
The Jets have been seen as nothing more than a side show since their 2 straight AFC Championship games, mainly due to the outlandish nature of Rex Ryan, but in recent years have shown solid development, led by new head coach, Todd Bowles. Add in veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and the returning Darelle Revis, and the Jets all of a sudden look like a force to be reckoned with, a force which missed the 2015 playoffs in the final week of the season. The Jets however, have one of the toughest schedules in the AFC, and will still be chasing the Patriots, but with last year's experience and the improved confidence, there is no doubt this team will scrape through and make a wild card team.
9 Denver Broncos
The defending Super Bowl Champions are faced with the immense pressure of defending their title, but a weakened defense and a 3 QB competition (none of whom match up to last years QB’s) makes this out to be an up hill battle for the Broncos. The team should be in a fairly strong position to return to the post season, with talented players like Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller still leading the team, but with such questions at the most important position, and the loss of a leader like Peyton Manning, there is considerable doubt they make it back to the Super Bowl. The AFC West is a winnable decision, especially with Denver still being an incredibly tough away game for other teams, but with the emergence of Derrick Carr and the Raiders, the Broncos will have to go via the Wild Card if they are to repeat as Champions.
7 Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders surprised many people with their play a year ago, and now, with the help of the young ACDC connection (Amari Cooper-Derrick Carr), the team looks ready to finally return to the Promised Land. A team with a young core, a winning history and a dedicated fan base, it looks like the Raiders could be set to start a long string of playoff appearances, despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football. The team looks to be one of the deepest in the AFC, with quite possibly the most talented young core in the game, with the team built around future superstars Derrick Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack, the latter of whom was the first player in NFL history to be named to the AP-All Pro First Team at two different positions. A deep playoff run may not be on the cards, but look for the Raiders to take a massive leap forward in 2016.
5 Houston Texans
Although Houston made the playoffs a year ago, on the back of star JJ Watt and a dominant defense, due to their QB situation, they were never likely to go far, but that all changed in the off season. The team acquired young, promising star Brock Osweiller in free agency, a QB who had a winning record with the Super Bowl winning Broncos a year ago, who can hopefully give the team stability and a chance to get the ball to play makers such as Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins. In an AFC South division which is wide open and full of promising QB’s, the Texans team seems the most complete, and if Osweiller can control the game and limit turnovers, the Texans should win the division and look to go far in the playoffs, especially if Jadaveon Clowney can start fulfilling the promise he showed several years ago when he was drafted #1 overall.
3 New England Patriots
The Patriots have been the class of the AFC for over a decade now, and despite people questioning the group year after year, they manage to rise to the occasion and make deep playoff runs each time. This year however, they will start off without arguably the best QB of all time in Tom Brady for the first 4 games due to suspension, but they have a confident young player in Jimmy Garropolo ready to step up to the plate. While the New York Jets look primed and ready to make a run at the AFC East title, the Patriots still have Brady, Rob Gronkowzki and other stand out players, as well as the best coach in the NFL, so their spot as a dominant force in the AFC should be safe for the 2016-17 season.
1 Pittsburgh Steelers
Although the Steelers are without star Running Back LeVeon Bell for the first 3 weeks of the season, the Patriots are missing their QB for the first month, and that should lend itself handily to Pittsburgh sneaking through to grab the top spot in the AFC. As always, led by Big Ben and his corps of star Wide Recievers including Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, the Steelers should be able to stand out in a North Division that is weaker than it has been in the past few years. While there is still question marks on an ageing defense, the development of linebacker Ryan Shazier should significantly help the group, which are expected to reach the AFC Championship game, as time is winding down on the career of QB Roethlisberger, who has been often injured in past years.
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