ARENA: Patriots, Broncos still class of AFC

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Who needs the preseason to make NFL season predictions?

Nah, we’re not waiting on the fake games to put some real calls down on paper. As always, we’ll go conference by conference, starting with the AFC. 

1. New England Patriots. New England was a MASH unit last season and still hung with a much better Denver team in the AFC championship game while maintaining hope of gaining homefield throughout the playoffs until late in the regular season. 

Why New England over Denver this season? It’s a coin-flip if we’re talking roster for roster, really. The Patriots adding Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner were two of the biggest moves of the offseason. Denver followed suit, bringing in DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, among others. Each team will be upgraded by a returning star: for the Pats, Rob Gronkowski, for the Broncos, Von Miller. 

Schedule and coaching are my final deciders, though. If the sides are even close to even, give me Bill Belichick over John Fox (or just about anyone). More importantly, Denver has a rock-hard slate of opponents this year, ranking as the second toughest on-paper strength of schedule in the league (.570 winning percentage in 2013). New England has a tough slate, too, but at .516 its significantly less so. 

2. Denver Broncos. Still the class of the AFC, along with New England. I’d expect to see Denver lean a bit more on the ground game this season, if possible, to expose an older Manning to some of the league’s more ferocious pass rushes as little as possible. 

3. Houston Texans. Worst to first (in the AFC South)! I can’t quit the Texans. They were responsible for a sizable chunk of my losses last season in our NFL Picks section, simply because I couldn’t let go of the notion that THIS TEAM IS A SO MUCH BETTER THAN THIS! This team was up 20-3 on Seattle. This team was 12-4 (with a playoff win) in 2012! It boasts the best defensive player in football in J.J. Watt and a top five receiver in Andre Johnson. And this isn’t a two-man show. 

The Texans have some advantages entering this season. The pressure is off, for one thing, after a 2-14 campaign. Their schedule projects to be the third softest in the league. It also will pair Jadeveon Clowney with Watt in what I can only think to describe as the premise of one of those old horror flicks you’d see in the farthest corner of your local Blockbuster (RIP). Block them both? Oh my. 

4. Cincinnati Bengals. One of the NFL’s most loaded teams has had to replace both of its coordinators, but on the field this team stands to improve a lot from better health.  

The team lost a key lineman on both sides of the ball, but the talent on hand is still impressive; rookie Jeremy Hill, in particular, I think can light a fire under this offense along with second-year back Giovanni Bernard. 

5. Tennessee Titans. I like Ken Whisenhunt, I like their offensive line and I like their collection of young receivers.

This isn’t a spectacular team, but the schedule looks favorable and Jake Locker has shown enough flashes at quarterback for me to think Whisenhunt could pull a nice season out of him. 

6. Miami Dolphins. A year after “Bullygate,” I like the direction the Dolphins are headed in.

The offensive line still spells trouble, but I like uniting head coach Joe Philbin and former Eagles assistant coach Bill Lazor; Philbin was regarded as one of the league’s best offensive minds when he was Green Bay’s offensive coordinator, and adding someone from the Chip Kelly system seems like nothing but good news. Lazor was Nick Foles’ quarterbacks coach and Ryan Tannehill, like Locker, is a former first round pick with room to grow. 

Falling out: San Diego (I like Philip Rivers a lot, but I think the defense still needs help and the AFC West has a tougher slate to deal with), Kansas City (tougher slate), Indianapolis Colts (an Andrew Luck carry job last season, I think Houston overtakes them).