AFC Roundup (Long Post)
Confucious say: O-line barely acceptable performance all year result in ... Superbowl win!!
HERE WE GO STEELERS, HERE WE GO!!
August 30, 2008, 4:23 pm NY Times
A.F.C. Scouting Reports
By Judy Battista
Playoff Teams: 1. Patriots 2. Steelers 3. Colts 4. Chargers 5. Jaguars 6. Browns
Safety John Lynch is the type of veteran who should fit in with Bill Belichickís Patriots. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)Just another quiet off-season here.
The NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, last seen losing the Super Bowl in the final seconds to wreck a perfect season, claim they are not thinking about the debacle in the desert anymore and how it will affect this season. Riiiight. The last time the Patriots got mad, they went 16-0.
There was no significant off-season overhaul, as there was in 2007, but there is not much to overhaul when you have the best offense in football, a defense that is getting younger and faster, a quarterback and a head coach at the peak of their abilities, and a five-season stranglehold on the division. The secondary is a concern without Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, and considering that a certain division rival began employing a guy who can throw the ball 65 yards without even trying, it figures to be a focus early in the season. During training camp, the veteran safety John Lynch was signed. Lynch does not have the range he once possessed, but few people do a better job squeezing the last bit out of smart, veteran players than Coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots are about the last team in sports to need a break, but they got a big one: the easiest schedule in the league. As usual, the midseason showdown with the Colts figures to be their biggest test until the playoffs. And rest assured, the Patriots will make the playoffs. They may not be perfect again, but for all the hoopla their division rivals generated in the last few weeks, no team is close.
This is all you need to know about how the JETSí season was shaping up: the cover of their media guide features an artistís rendering of their new practice facility. Thatís what you promote when youíre coming off a 4-12 season. Think they may want to change that now? The Jets, of course, made the biggest player acquisition this side of Joe Namath, trading for Brett Favre. You would have thought Elvis (Presley, not Grbac) had joined the team. But how much does Favre really help? Even his good friend Steve Mariucci predicts the offense will be a mess for at least the first four to six weeks. If that is true, it may be too late. The Jets open at Miami, but then are at home against the Patriots. (One member of the Jetsí front office, less than 24 hours after Favre had been acquired, said he figured Belichick had already begun planning for that game.) Then the Jets go to San Diego.
But Favre puts a scare in opposing defenses that neither Chad Pennington nor Kellen Clemens ever could, and his arm, capable of throwing touchdown passes from somewhere in the parking lot, may keep the Jets in shootouts. That is, provided the rebuilt offensive line jells quickly. Favre at least moves the Jets into the conversation for a wild-card spot, even though the threshold in the A.F.C. is at least 10 victories.
Pity the BUFFALO BILLS. They are a good team with a very real chance at a wild-card spot. Anybody heard anything about them this summer? One big obstacle to the Billsí making the playoffs: they donít play a division opponent until midway through the season, so they wonít get to take advantage of good health or the Jetsí and Dolphinsí growing pains.
This will be an unsightly season for the MIAMI DOLPHINS, but no also-ran has ever been so interesting. Signing Pennington made them better because the quarterback situation before was awful. There is little talent around him, but Bill Parcells has a way of working magic under these circumstances. Imagine the things he must already be whispering in Penningtonís ear. Miami will be more competitive and it will win more than one game, then watch out. In another year or two, this should be Parcellsís latest reclamation success.
At 28, San Diegoís LaDainian Tomlinson is most likely at the apex of his stellar career. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)Once the most competitive division in football, the A.F.C. West has devolved into the SAN DIEGO CHARGERS and everybody else. The Chargers arenít just ahead of the Broncos, the Chiefs and the Raiders, though. They are ahead of almost every other A.F.C. team. This season, they may finally be in position to give New England a run for the conference championship, even if they end up losing the superb pass rusher Shawne Merriman to a knee injury. The Chargers lost to the Patriots in the playoffs last season with running back LaDainian Tomlinson out for most of the game, and with quarterback Philip Rivers gamely playing on a badly injured knee. The Chargers still have one of the most talented and balanced rosters in the N.F.L., but their safety net behind Tomlinson, Michael Turner, left for Altanta. Tomlinson, the gameís best runner, enters his eighth season, which means he is probably at the peak of his career. The defense is fantastic, and the offense is multidimensional. Rivers has the respect of his teammates after fighting through the injured knee last season and becoming a team leader. The Chargers should run away with the division, and they could pile up enough victories to beat out the Patriots for home-field advantage. But anything less than a Super Bowl berth with this much talent will be a letdown, and it will raise questions about whether the window is beginning to close on this group.
The DENVER BRONCOS are second in this division, which isnít saying much. They dismantled the coaching staff after a losing season, but when receiver Brandon Marshall sustained a serious arm injury in March while wrestling with a family member you had to wonder if the Broncos were doomed. (Marshall will miss one game after being suspended for violating the leagueís player conduct policy.) The offensive line is in transition, which is a problem for a team that has always had a superb running attack. The defense was a mess last year, too. The good news is that quarterback Jay Cutler is the real thing. The bad news is that there wasnít enough of an overhaul in personnel to make a big difference this season, not when the Broncos were outscored last year by the Chargers, 64-6. A finish above .500 is certainly possible, especially because four of the first six games are at home. The Broncos will need a few breaks to get to 10 wins, which will probably be the minimum for a playoff berth in the A.F.C.
Remember how the games between the KANSAS CITY CHIEFS and OAKLAND RAIDERS used to be nasty, meaningful affairs? Get over that. The Chiefs are in full-on rebuilding mode. The offense was dreadful last year, so there are new coaches, but that still doesnít answer the question of whether Brodie Croyle is the right quarterback or if he was just hamstrung by the lack of talent around him. The defense was O.K., but Jared Allen, the sacking star, was traded to the Vikings. The rookie defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey will have to make an immediate impact, even though he sprained his left knee in training camp. Still, this is a young team that will require lots of patience and T.L.C. before it returns to the playoffs.
The Raidersí Lane Kiffin looked to be a dead coach walking all off-season only to return to the sideline, and the new receiver Javon Walker was apparently kidnapped and beaten in Las Vegas and later had to be talked out of retiring by Al Davis. Inspires confidence, right? Kiffinís fate is linked to JaMarcus Russellís development, and they will catch a break with a soft opening schedule. The addition of the rookie running back Darren McFadden should reduce some pressure on Russell, but progress is about all the Raiders can hope for.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the N.F.L. this season. (Kyle Ericson/Associated Press)The PITTSBURGH STEELERS will always be built around their defense ó it was ranked No. 1 last season ó but this may be the year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joins Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the elite at the position. He performed well in spring practices and in training camp, and Santonio Holmes provides a maturing deep threat. The Steelers remain in the top echelon of the A.F.C., and they would seem a lock to make the playoffs, but winning the division could be a struggle against Cleveland. The Steelers and the Browns each went 10-6 last season, but the Steelers went to the playoffs because they beat the Browns twice. The Steelers, who lost the Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca to the Jets, have a brutal schedule this year, the toughest in the N.F.L. In the first five weeks, they play at Cleveland, at Philadelphia and at Jacksonville. Later, they play the Giants, Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Cowboys ó all playoff teams last season. If the Steelers make the playoffs, they will have earned it.
Derek Anderson ó premier quarterback or one-season wonder? If itís the former, the CLEVELAND BROWNS will be a formidable A.F.C. team for quite a few years. This is Andersonís first year as the designated starter ó Charlie Frye started the opener last year, before being quickly replaced by Anderson and then traded ó and a full off-season of preparation should allow him to flourish in the Brownsí downfield passing offense. Cleveland signed Donteí Stallworth to be a downfield threat and to take some of the heat off Braylon Edwards. If the Browns can stay healthy, itís hard to imagine them missing the playoffs again, even in a crowded A.F.C. field. But the Steelers have beaten the Browns nine consecutive times, and the Browns cannot go anywhere until they get over that obstacle. They open against the Cowboys and the Steelers, so they should know early if this is their breakthrough year.
Shouldnít the CINCINNATI BENGALS, who were 7-9 last season, be better by now? Carson Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the N.F.L. If Chad Johnson can keep his head (and shoulder) together, the offense will be productive, particularly because the Bengals have vowed to run the ball more than they did last year. But Coach Marvin Lewis has been unable to get the defense together in five years. Enter the new coordinator Mike Zimmer. The defense had just 22 sacks last season, and with Anderson, Tony Romo, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning on the schedule, thatís not enough. Still, with some difficult schedules, nobody is going to pull away early in this division. So if the defense can improve quickly, the Bengals could be in the thick of the division race. The Bengals have a five-game stretch starting in September that includes Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville that could determine their fate.
The BALTIMORE RAVENS hit rock bottom last season, and this could be construed as a rebuilding year. The new coach John Harbaugh brought a tougher training camp and more discipline, which should pay off ó in a few years. The defense, if aging, is still great, and it will probably keep the Ravens in games all season. Ray Lewis is especially worth watching. This is the final year of his contract. If he plays well, the Ravens will most likely outbid any other interested parties. If not, this will be the final year of the Lewis era. The offense is starting over with that perennial issue: have the Ravens finally found a quarterback? The new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will tutor the rookie Joe Flacco. Flacco is the quarterback of the future, and they would prefer not to start him for a while. Thatís O.K., because the Ravens are going nowhere this season.
Peyton Manning, with the assistant coach Ron Meeks, is recovering from knee surgery. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)Paging Peyton Manning. The quarterback was barely seen during the INDIANAPOLIS COLTSí training camp, after having an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee in July. The cloak of secrecy fueled speculation that Manning could be unavailable ó or at least not as good as usual ó when the season starts and that the Colts could slip out of the leagueís upper echelon. Donít count on it. Itís hard to imagine Manning, who has never missed a start, missing the first one in the Coltsí new stadium. And a less-than-perfect Manning is still better than most quarterbacks. The Colts are still one of the most loaded, balanced teams in the N.F.L. If receiver Marvin Harrison is back to form after the knee injury that short-circuited most of last season, and defensive end Dwight Freeney comes back from the foot injury that ended his year, the Colts will again battle the Patriots for supremacy in the A.F.C. Incredibly bad health doomed the Colts last season, but this was the only division in the N.F.L. that had three teams with 10 or more victories. As Jacksonville, Tennessee and even Houston close in, the Colts ó and whoever else makes it to the playoffs ó will get beaten up more and more in the division, endangering their chances for a top playoff seed.
The JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS were the hottest team entering the playoffs last season, but their loss to the Patriots reflected their biggest problem: no pass rush. They need it to beat Tom Brady, but first they have to get past Manning to secure a home-field postseason game. That was why they went after two of the draftís best rushers: Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. Itís always dicey to rely on rookies, but just as important may be how well the new receivers Jerry Porter, who is returning from an off-season hamstring injury, and Troy Williamson get up to speed with quarterback David Garrard. This was the first time Garrard had an entire off-season to prepare as the starter ó he was superb last year after winning the job in training camp ó and if the passing game can meld with a superb running attack, the Jaguars may make a deep playoff run.
Vince Young of the TENNESSEE TITANS had an unimpressive preseason, which was bad news considering he struggled last season, too. The Titans scored one touchdown or fewer in 9 of 16 regular-season games, relying on defense to get into the playoffs. But the lack of offense kept them from getting further. If the new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger canít get more out of this group, the Titans will have no shot at getting any closer to beating out the Colts in the division. Heimerdinger wants to loosen the reins on Young, allowing him to throw downfield and to get out of the pocket, where he is most dangerous. Enough of the players who won 10 games last season are back, which makes another playoff run possible, but the Titans will go only as far as Young takes them.
For the HOUSTON TEXANS, progress will be measured in a winning record. They still havenít had one, and last season, they won only one game in the division ó over the Jaguars, who were resting players in preparation for the playoffs. The Texans had huge injury issues last season, which hampered their progress. This is definitely an improving team; defensive end Mario Williams is turning into one of the best past rushers in the league, validating the decision to pass on Reggie Bush in the 2006 draft. But the schedule does them no favors this season. They open at Pittsburgh, and also visit Minnesota and Cleveland, in addition to their tough division schedule. A winning season would be cause for celebration, and thatís a good thing, because a shot at the playoffs still seems unlikely.
We got our "6-PACK" - time to work on a CASE!
HERE WE GO STEELERS, HERE WE GO!