Powerhouses reigned supreme throughout the AFC in 2014, as three of the four divisions were won by at least two games. The Colts, Patriots, Broncos, and Steelers – historically winning franchises – all kept the tradition of victory alive. Meanwhile, Baltimore and Cincinnati, teams who have found success in recent years, stayed on track with Wild Card berths.
In 2015, the Patriots – defending Super Bowl champions – remain the class of the conference, but they are quickly joined by those who began making their moves last season – Miami and Kansas City, in particular. There are, of course, the Browns, Raiders, and Jaguars, who continue to sink in the deep end of the pool, but a team from Tennessee looks poised to rise to the top. With it, there may even be the emergence of a potential two-quarterback division rivalry for years to come.
Below are the full season predictions for the 2015 American Football Conference:
New England Patriots 11-5
The New England Patriots are the exception to every rule. Teams don’t win double-digit games for twelve consecutive seasons. Teams don’t take on the commissioner and win an appeal that allows a future Hall of Fame quarterback to play a full season. Teams don’t win the Super Bowl and come out firing the next seasons.
One team does.
Accepted beliefs are dangerous. The fact that the Patriots can be penciled in as ‘division winners’ year after year and hold true to that promise is a rarity. It shouldn’t happen. The same could be said for Super Bowl winners, as the drive and fire that usually accompanies a championship run is likely to weaken the following season.
The Patriots play by their own rules. They don’t fall victim to the same pitfalls that generally face other franchises. They have a Hall of Fame head coach and an all-time great quarterback. They have something to prove, again, and will thrive when it matters the most.
Miami Dolphins 10-6 (Wild Card)
The Miami Dolphins are the rare combination of ‘scary’ and ‘sneaky good.’ With the entire AFC East focus shifting elsewhere – from Rex Ryan’s Bills to New England’s deflation fight to everything Jets – the Dolphins have quietly put together one of the most solid offseasons in the league. Most notably, the signing of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and adding receiver Kenny Stills and tight end Jordan Cameron as excellent compliments for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins should have taken their next step last season, but became undone at the end of the year – 1-3 in their final four games, 3-5 in their final eight. They are in the unfortunate position of fighting the hungry Patriots in what has become a difficult division, but they will secure a Wild Card berth in lieu of a division title.
New York Jets 9-7
If all it took was one teammate punching another to turn a team into a playoff contender, head coaches would be setting up boxing rings and handing out gloves. In reality, the injury to incumbent starting quarterback Geno Smith is actually the best case scenario for the Jets franchise – the team barely hesitated before announcing that Smith’s recovery would spill into the regular season. Neither Smith nor Ryan Fitzpatrick have the skills, alone, to carry a team towards a playoff berth, but Fitzpatrick is the better fit for the system the Jets look like they want to run.
New York has featured a stout defense for years, and new head coach Todd Bowles should continue the trend. The offense – formerly neglected and left-for-dead – finally improved via the draft and free agency – Brandon Marshall is arguably the most talented Jets receiver of the last decade. Geno Smith was prone to turnovers and bad decisions. Fitzpatrick is the stark contrast – the last time Fitzpatrick threw more interceptions than touchdowns was 2009.
The veteran – insert any adjective of choice: wily, intelligent, crafty, they all fit – is the best option for a team needing something positive out of the quarterback position. Fitzpatrick brings it, and the team will see a nice rebound season, but it won’t be enough to catch the two other division giants.
Buffalo Bills 6-10
The 2015 Buffalo Bills are the 2009 New York Jets. New head coach Rex Ryan – now four full seasons removed from the postseason – continues to insist that a stout defense and rushing attack is the way to win in today’s National Football League. Quarterbacks, therefore, are expendable, as proven by the release of veteran Matt Cassel.
Fear not, Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor is at the helm.
It would surprise no one if the Bills tout the league’s best defense, this year. With that, they should remain in most games. They just won’t be able to win them.
Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
Really, when will the Cincinnati Bengals get some love? Every year, the question is asked, and every year it receives a generic response. Detractors are quick to point out their postseason woes – anyone born after January 6, 1991 has never seen the Bengals win a playoff game – but that hardly exempts them from the playoff conversation.
In a typically stout, cannibalistic division, the Bengals have managed to survive to the tune of four consecutive playoff appearances and five in their last six seasons. They are constantly overlooked, despite consistency at the head coach and quarterback positions, and they have one of the league’s best wide receivers in A.J. Green. Their rushing attack is both deep and effective, and their scoring defense has ranked in the upper half of the league during each of the team’s last five postseason years.
As the rest of the AFC North continues to churn, drowning each other, the Bengals will prevail, yet again.
Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8
How quickly the perception of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed. In the early portion of 2014, they were written off. After a few games of explosive offense, they were considered favorites to emerge from a muddled AFC North. With four consecutive wins to close the season, the Steelers delivered and walked away as AFC North champions. Only to lose by two touchdowns in the first round of the playoffs.
Perhaps the fantasy football world is driving the boat, but it seems like the Steelers are back in the good graces of the football-watching public. The same was said of the Bears last season, as offensive singular talents masked the team’s warts. Pittsburgh – without longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau – is likely riding on reputation.
In what should be another tight race through the end of the year, the Steelers defense – declining in rank each of the last three seasons – will be unable to hold and earn the team another playoff appearance.
Baltimore Ravens 7-9
There is only so long that a team can survive on the same formula. The Baltimore Ravens are not particularly stellar at any one thing – their best asset is arguably head coach John Harbaugh – yet they have managed to avoid a losing season during Harbaugh’s seven-year tenure. The ability to remain afloat in one of the league’s toughest divisions is admirable, but, in a league where adaptation is necessary, Baltimore has done little to improve its chances.
The writing was on the wall midway through last season that a ‘down year’ was emerging, but the Ravens salvaged the back end of their schedule en route to a playoff berth – and a playoff win. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the bigger catalyst for the team’s winning stretch at the end of the year was the ease of its opponents – Tennessee, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Cleveland were four of Baltimore’s wins in the final seven games. Naturally, they played well in the postseason, as the Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh-led Ravens have a tendency to do, but they will likely be going to the well one too many times.
Cleveland Browns 5-11
Throughout nearly all of 2014, the Cleveland Browns were ready to fall off the map. 7-4 and entrenched in a division race after eleven games, the Browns – previously aided by four wins with a margin of victory of less than one touchdown – reverted back to their historically losing ways. Five consecutive losses later, the Browns clinched their seventh straight losing season.
2015 will make it eight consecutive losing seasons.
The Browns have a major weakness at the quarterback position – Johnny Manziel is not, was not, and will not be the answer – and will be swallowed by the rest of the division. Last year, the Browns should have lost more games. This year, they will.
Tennessee Titans 10-6
After a while, previous season’s records mean little. The Titans were a horrific franchise in 2014, but they won the proverbial lottery by landing the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota. Maybe Mariota will end up being a ‘bust,’ or maybe the once consensus top-pick will right the ship in Tennessee.
It isn’t all about Mariota in Tennessee, however, as former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has joined the Titans as an assistant. Like Mariota, head coach Ken Whisenhunt was once the most coveted person at his position, and reversed the fortunes of the always-horrible Arizona Cardinals. As proven throughout the history of the league, a strong quarterback and coach dynamic is one of the most important keys to success.
The Titans will have their hands full competing in the same division as the powerhouse Colts, but they face little competition from Houston or Jacksonville. With out-of-division games including opponents from Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Buffalo, Carolina, and Oakland, the Titans will be in prime position to make a sneaky rise to the top of the division. With any regression by the Colts, the AFC South will be Tennessee’s for the taking.
On the arm and legs of Marcus Mariota, the Titans will capture their first division title in eight seasons.
Indianapolis Colts 10-6 (Wild Card)
The Indianapolis Colts have one of the most prolific offenses in the game, led by one of the league’s best quarterback – how little some things change over the years. As evidenced by the thrashing they received at the hands of the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, the Colts have weaknesses that are ready to be exploited. In addition, seven of the Colts’ eleven 2014 regular season wins were against teams that ended the year with a losing record.
The Colts are obviously a good team, as quarterback Andrew Luck is enough to warrant playoff aspirations every year, but their issues remain unsolved. Eleven wins won’t be as easy to accumulate again, and they will be trapped in an unexpected two-team race for the AFC South. Shocking many, they will lose out to the Titans, but secure a Wild Card berth.
Jacksonville Jaguars 6-10
Common sense, the law of averages, rock bottom; the Jacksonville Jaguars simply can’t be this bad forever. No matter what they try and where they turn for help, the Jaguars simply cannot compete against the rest of the National Football League.
As the league has shown us, one year, an unexpected team will rise seemingly from nowhere and catch a hot streak that carries them to the playoffs. It won’t be the Jaguars. Not this year.
2015 will be about the development of Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, entering his second year in the league. With a full season under his belt, he should improve his team to the tune of a few more wins than last year, but little more will come out of Jacksonville.
Houston Texans 4-12
It seems like a completely different era when Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson were leading a dangerous offense in Houston to the playoffs. In a sudden drop off the cliff, the Texans plummeted to the depths of the standings, only to rebound in 2014. Back down they’ll go.
In an improved AFC South, the quarterback carousel in Houston is usually an indication of a franchise in disarray. Unless J.J. Watt could single-handedly win games – not only is it worth consideration, but he may actually only need one hand to do it – the Texans will be left with an early draft pick for 2016.
Kansas City Chiefs 11-5
At 7-3 after a defeat of the eventual NFC Champion and then-defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, the Kansas City Chiefs were poised to steal the AFC West from the incumbent Denver Broncos. Four losses in six games later, the Chiefs could only settle for a winning season, as they would watch the playoffs from home.
In each of his first two seasons with the Chiefs, head coach Andy Reid has gotten his team off to a hot start. 9-1 and 7-3 after the team’s first ten games in 2013 and 2014, respectively, Reid and the Chiefs have struggled to finish on a high note. As the Broncos return back to earth, the Chiefs will get their opportunity to emerge.
Quarterback Alex Smith is often criticized for failing to put up prolific passing numbers, but he tallies the most important statistic of all: wins. 38-16-1 in his last four season, Smith simply wins games. The addition of former Eagles’ wide receiver Jeremy Maclin should help the passing game, and Kansas City still touts one of the league’s best running backs in Jamaal Charles.
Despite winning campaigns in 2013 and 2014, the Chiefs fell short of a division title. That changes this year.
Denver Broncos 9-7
It had to happen eventually. Finally, after neck surgeries, fourteen years of playing professional football, and the unavoidable meeting with Father Time, Peyton Manning actually slowed down. Of course, Manning ‘slowing down’ is the equivalent to most quarterbacks’ best days, but the future Hall of Fame signal caller sank ever so slightly from the stratosphere.
The 2014 Denver Broncos appeared to be one of the unstoppable powerhouses, as a stingy defense complimented a terrifying offense. As many of Manning’s campaigns have gone, however, the team stalled in the first round of the postseason, and the Broncos were sent packing. Oddly enough, former head coach John Fox was left packing his own bags, as well.
The Broncos have been due to regress for years. There is only so long that a quarterback with neck issues can continue to produce at an unparalleled level, and last year’s defense likely over-extended itself – despite a top-five defense in yards allowed, the scoring defense was around the middle of the pack. Factor in the question marks that surround the offensive line, and the 2015 Broncos will not be presenting the same Peyton Manning that has dominated for years. This time, they will slip out of the playoff picture.
Oakland Raiders 7-9
Much like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders absolutely have to put together a winning campaign, eventually. Also like the Jaguars, the Raiders will improve, but not to the level that will break their decade-plus streak of non-winning season.
The bright spot in Oakland is the possible emergence of Derek Carr as a legitimate quarterback, coupled with college standout Amari Cooper at the wide receiver position. Unfortunately, little else should be expected, as the Raiders won’t be the also-rans of seasons past, but won’t make any real noise in the playoff conversation, either.
San Diego Chargers 5-11
Philip Rivers may have received a contract extension, but the San Diego Chargers have hardly budged anywhere else. Notorious for mediocrity, the Chargers have bounced between 7-9 and 9-7 for five consecutive seasons, making the playoffs only once.
The Chargers may have locked up a franchise quarterback, but they also have no shortage of issues throughout the team. Possibly the most important roadblock for San Diego will be the four-game suspension of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates to start the season. Even after he returns, Gates has been an injury risk for years, and his career always seems to be hanging in the balance.
The Chargers will break out of their tiny bubble of average play. However, in a division that includes the Chiefs and Broncos, San Diego will likely be trending down.
The New England Patriots enter 2015 with an undeniable chip on their proverbial shoulder. Little should stand in the way of a deep playoff run. After running through the AFC – as they have been prone to do – the road back to the Super Bowl proves to be a tougher task. The Kansas City Chiefs, deep and complete, emerge from the AFC, marking their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1969.