By Pawan Naidu
A week ago we discussed who will make the NFL playoffs from the NFC. Now we couldn’t leave the other conference out, so here’s my predictions for the AFC!
1.Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
The Steelers might have the most prolific offense of all time. They have a top three running back, receiver and quarterback. Not to mentioned young speedsters, like Juju Smith-Schuster, who are ready to prove they belong on the same stage as the big boys. This offense has a legitimate shot of scoring 30 points per game and it wouldn’t surprise me if Big Ben (QB), Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown (RB) each lead the league in their respective statistical categories.
We have to talk about the defense, which is the only thing stopping the Steelers from being the overwhelming favorites going into the season. When Ryan Shazier went out went with his horrific spinal injury last year, they lost their only marquee name and leader on defense. However, the team has acquired a bunch of young and hungry players that are ready to prove themselves. Even with some problems on defense I don’t think the Steelers will lose many games. I believe this team is going to bend and give up a lot of yards, but Mike Tomlin’s defense is going to stop them just enough from getting into the end zone.
Speaking of Tomlin, he has a lot to prove this season. While he’s never had a losing season, the team hasn’t had the playoff success the owners and fans expect. It can’t be denied Tomlin is one of the best coaches in football. He’s a proven Super Bowl champion and he might be the greatest motivator in the NFL. Tomlin is going to be an asset, not a deterrent.
2.New England Patriots (12-4)
I don’t think anyone is exaggerating when they say the AFC has been the Patriots’ invitational in recent years. They have been to the last two Super Bowls, and three of the last four. They have one of the greatest quarterback of all time, Thomas Edward Brady. An offense led by Tom Brady is guaranteed to give teams problem, no matter who he’s throwing the ball to. Mostly, Brady is throwing to unproven talents, but he’s done that before and the team’s been just fine. Brady is lucky because he’s has Rob Gronkowski (TE) to throw to as well. When healthy, Gronk might be the best offensive weapon in football and Brady will take advantage of him.
The defense doesn’t have the big names or prestige that gives you confidence that they’ll rise to the occasion. We see this lack of trust in their defense every year but I’m not falling for the banana in the tailpipe. Bill Belichick’s system is going to hide the weaknesses of individual players and the Patriots will be able to outsmart most of their opponents. The defense isn’t going to lose them most games.
Most people agree that Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach of all time. So you would think that he’d be the biggest asset with Brady this season. But there have been signs that he might be starting to lose the locker room. The coach has benched his starting cornerback, Malcolm Butler, during the Super Bowl and didn’t give an explanation. His players have been speaking out against him all offseason and his voice might not have the same effect. They’ll be fine during the season but we’ll see signs of dysfunction throughout the season.
3.Los Angeles Chargers (11-5)
I have to admit, there might not be a player I root more for than Philip Rivers. He’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for a decade but has never had a team to match him. This changes this year. The Chargers are a stacked offense with a workhorse running back unit and a committee of wide receivers led by Keenan Allen. This team is going to put up points and Rivers may finally get the recognition he’s always deserved.
The defense might match the offense. They have a tremendous defensive line, led by second year star Joey Bosa and a secondary that knows how to play as a unit. The Chargers may have a legitimate chance to be a top five offense and defense team. This is a team no one wants to play.
The reason they aren’t ranked higher is because of their coach. Nothing against him, but he’s only in his second year and is still unproven. Situational management matters in football and he might make mistakes other coaches won’t. When he’s going up against more established coaches, that will make a difference. They’ll have a good season but the coach may stop it from being great.
4.Houston Texans (10-6)
Do I need to say more than DeShaun Watson? The sophomore quarterback took America by storm last season as a rookie, shredding defenses by both passing and running. But he did tear his ACL, which is the only sign of concern for him. The Texans also have one of the most underappreciated receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins. The fellow Clemson alum is a big target and can carry a receiving core by himself. They also have Lamar Miller, who is ready to prove that he is still one of the best running backs in the league.
The defense was the achilles heel last year, but that should be different now that everyone is back healthy. The defensive line is led by bonafide star JJ Watt and number one pick Jadeveon Clowney. The rest of the defense is led by defensive coordinator Romeo Carnell. The former head coach has been around the league for a long time and knows how to motivate a his unit.
Bill O’Brien is a good coach. He has just had a bad string of luck in recent years. O’Brien has been working with a rotation of mediocre backup quarterbacks and an injured defense the last few years. However, he has Watson now and everyone on the defense is healthy. O’Brien can finally show the world what he’s made of.
5.Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
The elevation of the Houston Texans does not mean the demise of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They’re in the same division but that doesn’t mean both can’t earn a playoff spot. The Jags awarded quarterback Blake Bortles with a new contract and he will have to continue doing what he did last year to justify it. He needs to hand the ball off, throw checkdowns, and make sure to limit the interceptions. Basically don’t be the reason the team loses. Running back Leonard Fournette has to carry the load and he will rise to the occasion. As a rookie he was the offense’s primary weapon and he should be better his second year.
Along with the running game, the defense is going to have to be elite if this team is going to be successful. Led by defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, this defense has the potential to be the best in the league. It is going to be important for Fournette to sustain long drives, so the defense doesn’t get tired. This unit is going to have a lot of pressure on them.
I can’t mentioned head coach Doug Marrone without mentioning vice president of football operations, Tom Coughlin. These two work great together and have built a team ready to experience sustained success. Coughlin has two Super Bowl championships from his time with the Giants. He won those two by having exceptional defensive play, strong running game, and a quarterback that just needs to make a handful of plays a game. He’s building the same team with these Jags.
6.Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
Wait what, three teams from the AFC South?! That’s right, this division traditionally might not have the best teams in the league, but this time around the playoffs will have three. It’s not a hyperbole to say that this team will go as far as quarterback Andrew Luck will take them. Luck is coming off a year where he missed a whole season because of a shoulder injury. He just started throwing a regulation style football, and said he thought he’d never play again. Even though this offense has T.Y. Hilton as wide receiver and offensive tackle Quenton Nelson, this team is currently rebuilding. Luck isn’t going to have much to work with. I believe Luck is a generational talent, who should be good enough to lead the Colts to the playoffs.
I’m not going to mention any names on defense, because this defense is going to have to prove itself if it wants recognition. They have a shot to be one of the worst defenses in the league, so Luck and the offense are going to have to compensate for them. The days of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are long gone.
A big reason I believe Luck will be successful is because of new head coach Frank Reich. He coached Carson Wentz and Nick Foles last year and they were brilliant quarterbacks for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Reich is going to have the same effect on Luck, who is going to have a coach who can match his talents.