NFL Season Preview: AFC Conference
It was one of those nights that I couldn’t seem to fall back asleep. I gave up trying and eventually turned on the TV and, having school the next morning, kept the volume low enough in order to not wake my mother who would inevitably state to me what I’ve just wrote to you. Green Bay Packers were at Oakland Raiders and this was the first time I ever watched an NFL game.
As a kid who grew up in Glasgow watching a multitude of football, I couldn’t understand why they continued to stop and start every thirty seconds and why was there was an advert each time they done so. Fourteen years later and that one viewing has evolved. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few live NFL games at Wembley as well as a frequent and often addicted player of fantasy football and owner of jerseys, Pop! Vinyl and calendars of the aforementioned Green Bay Packers.
Many over this side of the Atlantic are now able to bask in the spectacle of live games as well as being able to watch more games than ever. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each division within the AFC Conference (read our NFC preview here) to discover what the 2017 season could bring.
Winning back-to-back Super Bowl trophies is no easy feat. Through 51 Super Bowls, this has only been achieved eight teams with the most recent being in 2004/2005. The team to last reach this milestone is the regaining Super Bowl champions, New England Patriots. Many believe that the Patriots could be only the second team ever to win the Lombardi Trophy back-to-back on two separate occasions. A favourable strength of schedule and possibly the greatest coach and Quarterback to have ever played the game in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady gives this prediction some great foundation.
But a plus point to the NFL over football is its competitiveness. All teams have to adhere to a strict salary cap which prevents only a few teams having the best players like we often see in football. In addition to this, the team with the poorest record of wins in the season before gets the first pick from the following year’s NFL Draft. This is where you select from a pool of College players ready to take the leap to the pros. All this means a team that struggled one year will be able to rebuild quicker to once again become a force within the game the next year.
For the AFC East teams like the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, they’re still a few years behind causing the Patriots any real problems. Miami Dolphins are the closest with a roster boosting one of last year’s biggest breakouts in Jay Ajayi (one of the NFL’s British contingent), the ever present Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry. But really, I can’t see anyone but the Pats winning this division.
Having won just 3 games during last season, Jacksonville picked up top Running Back Leonard Fournette during the draft. They followed that up by taking the talents of fellow 2017 draft member Offensive Tackle Cam Robinson, as well as free agency pickups in A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell. This should give the Jags more options on both offence and defence and although they’ll be hard pressed to win the AFC South, there is no doubt they’re counting on pushing harder than 2016’s outing.
Around March the NFL release ‘Strength of Schedule’ figures for the upcoming season. This states each team in order of how many wins their opponents for the upcoming year had during the previous season. Although not something to take as gospel, it will give us some insight into possible outcomes for a specific team.
According to these figures, Colts have the easiest road during the regular season. Already they’ve found this road to be rather bumpy as Quarterback Andrew Luck is suffering from a shoulder injury and it’s unclear whether he’ll start week 1. Having watched his backup, Scott Tolzien, play for Packers, if he gets extended playing time then he should be sufficient to pick up a few wins thanks to the strength of schedule.
Tennessee Titans had the same record of 9-7 as the Houston Texans but lost the tiebreaker due to record against divisional opponents. They’ll be back this year hoping for better and they may just get it. Including a packed roster of QB Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray, Delaine Walker and Defensive End Jurrell Casey, I expect to see Titans as one of the not surprising hits of 2017.
Lead by J.J. Watt, Houston Texans are always dangerous. The problem is the same as it has been for the last couple of campaigns, their QB play. Having just picked up Clemson QB DeShaun Watson during the 2017 draft, we’re yet to see the talented WR DeAndre Hopkins really fed with quality and if that happens things should get interesting in this tight division.
Let’s get this out the way. Cleveland Browns won only one game during last season and with the first pick in the 2017 Draft they picked up DE Myles Garrett. Browns did have a great draft so here’s hoping it can’t get any worse for them.
Antonio Brown is often referred to as the best receiver in the game and is being drafted as such within fantasy football. He recently signed a new contract worth $68,000,000 so the Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking at him to repay with on the field heroics. Unlike Houston and the Browns, there is no question who’s the QB here. Ben Roethlisberger is playing in his 13th season and will be as tough as ever.
My Wembley visit this year will be for Baltimore vs Jaguars. As for the Ravens season, it’s hard to think they’ll do anything other than have an 8-8 season. It could get wild in Maryland and finish 9-7 or 7-9. Exciting.
To round of the AFC North we have the Bengals. Cincinnati Bengals Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is currently facing a five-game suspension for an illegal hit on Kansas City Chiefs Fullback Anthony Sherman. They still have an abundance of talent lead by star wide-out A.J. Green however and I’m expecting this group to challenge for the division.
The Oakland Raiders surprised last year with tough play that rewarded them a 12-4 record. Even though they didn’t win their division they made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Had it not been for an injury to Derek Carr during the final game of the regular season they could have gone even further. Look for Raiders to battle it out in a close division that will probably come down to the wire.
One of two teams to relocate to Los Angeles, the Chargers haven’t won their division since 2009. Keenan Allen could be a monster Wide Receiver if he could just stay healthy as he has Philip Rivers throwing to him a bunch. Could the pieces finally be falling into place? It’ll be interesting to watch them fight it out with Oakland for the top spot in the AFC West.
Denver Broncos have the hardest schedule of opponents this year according to Strength of Schedule figures. But everything is to play for with Denver having one of the best defences in the AFC. We’re still to see the full potential of QB Trevor Siemian but with targets like Emmanuel Sanders and DeMaryius Thomas he has the weapons.
Spencer Ware went down in the pre-season game against the Seattle and has been since ruled out for the season, which means Kareem Hunt will now be the lead back for the Kansas City Chiefs. This could be all it takes to take them out the running for AFC West as the division is that close. You never know with the NFL and Kareem Hunt’s value in fantasy football has risen. Potential break out stars like Tyreek Hill could help fill the void and put them in contention.
The irony is not lost on me by stating at the end of a prediction article that the greatest thing about the NFL is its unpredictability. There’s the most likely to happen though and New England reaching the Conference Championship is in that category, it just leaves you wondering who will join them.