The champion will not come from Cincinnati or Houston. That about covers what I can say about the AFC with any confidence.
You can make a pretty convincing argument for 11 of the 16 AFC teams getting to the Super Bowl. Some would be more convincing than others, of course, but you could make them. And you could make a kind of "Look at the 2001 Patriots" argument about another three.
Last year nine AFC teams were at or within one game of .500, and everyone except the Bengals and Texans was still in the playoff picture deep into the season. There were no obviously great teams, which I would usually argue makes things kind of dull, but last season was so damn entertaining that I'm not going to make that argument. Bring on those 8-7 teams fighting for wild-card spots! Mediocrity: It's not as mediocre as it used to be.
Speaking of which, here is my AFC preview, presented in trademark west-to-east fashion, and featuring the novel idea that having your star linebacker shot in the fanny is not a good way to start the season.
Denver Broncos: Jake Plummer was a disappointment as the quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals the last four years, and the Broncos are betting that had more to do with the Cardinals than it did with Plummer. I agree with them. I think with able coaching and in a talented offense, Plummer's going to do just fine. Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey are still good receivers, and second-year man Ashley Lelie might be ready to surpass them. Clinton Portis gained 1,508 yards last year. The problem is the defense, which was pretty good at not allowing yards last season, and not so good at not allowing points. Ray Rhodes was the Broncos' defensive coordinator last year. He's in Seattle now, where he's supposed to improve their lousy defense. If that happens, and the Broncos unit improves under new chief Larry Coyer, then Rhodes will simultaneously be last year's idiot and this year's genius. I think the Broncos will win the West without being all that good because everyone else has bigger problems than Denver does.
Kansas City Chiefs (wild card): The Chiefs are the hip pick to go to the Super Bowl this year. Everyone who points out that Dick Vermeil always takes his team to the playoffs in his third year, and this is his third year coaching the Chiefs, admits that that's a chic thing to say. And that's just wrong. I don't mean the Chiefs won't go to the Super Bowl. Maybe they will. I just mean there's no way that anyone who writes or talks about football in public has ever done anything that could be called "hip" or "chic."
Everyone also says that running back Priest Holmes, who had a bad hip last year, has to stay healthy for the Chiefs to win, which is true. They appear to have a workable Plan B with rookie Larry Johnson, but Holmes is a guy who can put a team on his back with his running and receiving, and Johnson probably isn't. Tight end Tony Gonzalez enters the year with a sore knee, and that isn't good. Also not good: the defense. Quarterback Trent Green got Vermeil to the Super Bowl once before, in 1999, when he got hurt in the preseason to make room for unknown Kurt Warner to take over the Rams. It says here that's the only way Green's ever going to get any team to a Super Bowl, but he should be good for a wild-card run.
Oakland Raiders: It's been a chaotic offseason for the silver and black, which means everything's humming along like normal in Oakland. Boss Al Davis lost his latest lawsuit, against Oakland officials, by winning it but only getting a $34 million judgment. He'd wanted about 20 times that. Meanwhile, linebacker Bill Romanowski, heretofore famous for spitting in opponents' faces, turned on his own and beat up a backup tight end. It's always nice to see a veteran showing he can change and grow late in his career. The Raiders have no shortage of veterans. And that's the problem. Last year's Super Bowl run notwithstanding, I think the Raiders have too many key guys who are old, starting with quarterback Rich Gannon, and getting all of them through the season healthy two straight years is asking too much. This is the same thing I've said about the Arizona Diamondbacks every year until this year, when it was finally true. So the Raiders will probably stay healthy and go all the way just to make me look bad.
San Diego Chargers: I picked the Chargers to win the West last year because, well, I forget why but I think for essentially no reason. Then they started the season 4-0 and 6-1 and I began to think I might actually know what I'm talking about. Then they went 2-7, including four losses in a row at the end of the year, and I'm feeling much better, thanks. If nothing else, the Chargers should be fun to watch because they're going to score and give up a lot of points. Quarterback Drew Brees, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and freed-from-Arizona wideout David Boston should provide plenty of thrills, especially if old-school coach Marty Schottenheimer opens up the offense, which isn't a lock. Plus they have great uniforms. Shame about that defense, though.
Tennessee Titans: Another trendy pick, but I'm hopping on the bandwagon for this one. I think the Titans will get back to the Super Bowl. This team's heart and soul is quarterback Steve McNair, who last year became the patron saint of both slackers and gutsy warriors by skipping practice all week while nursing injuries, then playing a great game on Sunday. The Titans famously got to the AFC Championship Game without a single player going to the Pro Bowl, which is significant, though in what way I have no idea. I think the point is that the Titans are a conservative, no-frills, no stars, everyone-pulls-the-rope kind of bunch, which just goes to show how little correlation there is between a football team and the city in which it plays, in this case Nashville. The Titans do have one big-hat guy, pass rusher Jevon Kearse, who missed most of last year with a foot injury. He's back. Even with soon-to-be-30-year-old running back Eddie George way down the downhill side of his career, the Titans are the team to beat.
Indianapolis Colts (wild card): The Colts had a nice little season last year, shaking off a midseason three-game losing streak to finish 10-6 and win a wild-card spot. Then they got their ears pinned back by the Jets in the playoffs, 41-0. In his last two years coaching the Buccaneers, Tony Dungy's teams got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Eagles, 21-3 and 31-9, meaning that in his last three playoff games, Dungy's clubs have been outscored 93-12. Is it a coincidence that the Bucs romped through the playoffs last year while Dungy's new team face-planted? As with most questions about the NFL, I don't know, but I suspect the answer is no.
Having said that, I don't see any reason why the Colts can't be as good this year as they were last year, and perhaps a little better now that star running back Edgerrin James is two years removed from knee surgery and looking like his old self. His return to form should make the Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison passing combination even better than it's been, which is very good. If Manning would just cut down on his incessant, I would say obsessive, audible-calling at the line of scrimmage and just lead the offense, it would be even better still. Dungy is a defensive guy, and last year, his first in Indy, the Colts improved from second worst to seventh best in terms of points allowed. That improvement should continue, though not as drastically. Just watch out at playoff time, Colts fans, because whatever you have to do to win in the postseason, Dungy's teams don't do it.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Aging Mark Brunell is keeping the quarterback job warm for Byron Leftwich, one of 13 rookies to make this team. The Jaguars have undergone a major personality change, replacing discipline freak Tom Coughlin as head coach with fun-loving California dude Jack Del Rio. They went 6-10 last year, with a three-game winning streak and losing streaks of three and four games. They can play some defense and they can hand the ball off to underappreciated Fred Taylor, so they're rarely out of games -- last year they lost five times by a field goal or less -- and that means that 6-10 could easily become 10-6. But this looks like a rebuilding year before the Jaguars become Leftwich's team.
Houston Texans: Nice move by the Texans to draft Drew Henson this year. ESPN.com reported Tuesday that after two frustrating years in the Yankees system the former Michigan quarterback has decided to give up his baseball career and return to the gridiron. My advice to anyone who can play either baseball or football is to play baseball. The money is better, the life span is longer, and the chances of a career-threatening and life-altering injury are lower. None of this applies to Henson, though, who doesn't fit the category. He clearly is not a baseball player, at least not a big-league one, and he's smart to get back to football now, at 23, before it's too late. The Texans, who will be lucky to win four games again this year, by the way, already have David Carr at quarterback, so Henson might be flipped for some draft choices before long. Good for an expansion team's building process.
Baltimore Ravens: Defense wins championships, the cliché goes, and they can vouch for that in Baltimore because the Ravens won the championship three years ago with virtually no offense at all. Last year they missed injured linebacker Ray Lewis something awful, and fell from 10 wins to seven. Lewis is healthy again, and the Ravens look fearsome. On offense, the Ravens rely on their running game, led by workhorse Jamal Lewis, who last year averaged 111 yards rushing and receiving on 22 touches a game one year after tearing up his knee. Rookie Kyle Boller, my homeboy from Cal, will have a rough time of it like all rookie quarterbacks who see action, but he can make plays. I think coach Brian Billick is making a mistake by rushing him, though. He should grit his teeth with Chris Redman for a while. The defense carries this team anyway.
Pittsburgh Steelers: I was going back and forth between the Ravens and the Steelers to win the North until Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter took a bullet in the backside Saturday night in Denver. Porter was an innocent bystander to a shooting after watching his alma mater, Colorado State, lose to Colorado. Reports have him missing anywhere from two games to half the season, and the Steelers are going to miss him. This is already a team with a lot of question marks, particularly on offense.
Quarterback Tommy Maddox, an Arena Football League and XFL refugee, played well last year and was a terrific story. But are we to believe the 13 games Maddox played last year or the previous 10 years, five of which he spent in the NFL, none as a starter? The backup is Charlie Batch. Oy. Maddox has a magnificent receiving corps to work with -- Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and the wondrous Antwaan Randle El, along with new tight end Jay Riemersma, late of Buffalo -- but running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis is leaking oil at 31, and Amos Zereoue is no Jerome Bettis. If everything goes right for the Steelers this year, they could be title contenders, but it hardly bodes well for that sort of thing to have one of your best players get shot in the butt a week before the opener. The weakness of the bottom two teams in this division might help the Steelers squeeze into a playoff spot, though.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns did a nice job of building themselves from a hapless expansion loser to a playoff team in four years. Their win totals in their first four seasons were two, three, seven and nine, a salubrious trend. But I think they're going to step right off the ledge this year. The quarterback controversy is settled, with Kelly Holcomb beating out Tim Couch, but that doesn't magically make Holcomb a great quarterback. He's a 30-year-old journeyman without great skills who doesn't make mistakes, but -- last year's playoff performance against Pittsburgh notwithstanding -- he's not a quarterback to lead a team to great things. Browns coach Butch Davis also made another big decision this year, firing his entire linebacking crew and installing second-year men Andra Davis, Kevin Bentley and Ben Taylor. It's the kind of bold move I love to see coaches make. It's also kind of crazy. I don't know if it'll work, and I don't know that I have a reason for thinking the Browns are going to be lousy this year. I just do.
Cincinnati Bengals: The worst team in football will be a lot better this year, but they have so far to go they'll still be pretty bad. Marvin Lewis, the architect of that Super Bowl-winning Ravens defense in 2000, finally gets a well-deserved shot at a head coaching job and it appears Bengals management -- also known as the Brown family -- is backing off of its bizarre, controlling, penny-pinching ways and giving him the power to run the Bengals like an actual NFL team. That fact alone ought to improve the Bengals from 2-14 to, oh, 4-12 or so, maybe even 5-11. It will be weird for a Cincinnati victory to be something other than a fluke. Don't be surprised if first pick Carson Palmer gets significant playing time, since the only thing standing between the former Heisman winner and a starting job is the extravagantly ordinary Jon Kitna, but Lewis would be wise to let Palmer learn from the sidelines for as long as possible. Let Kitna hand off to Corey Dillon for another year.
Miami Dolphins: The AFC East was the most balanced division in football last year, with all four teams having a legitimate shot at the title right up to the end of the season, and three of them tying for first place. It looks like 2003 will be more of the same. Until Jets quarterback Chad Pennington broke his wrist in the preseason, I was hearing all four teams touted about equally as the likely division champ. Now it's the other three. I'm picking Miami by continuing that process of deduction. The Dolphins are the only team that hasn't seemed to do anything weird or wrong lately. The knock on them is that they always start well and collapse in December. They certainly did that last year, and the schedule isn't going to be kind to them this year. They'll start December at New England, then play a Monday night home game against the Eagles, then they'll have to play in Buffalo Christmas week on short rest before finishing up at home against the Jets. This scenario sets up so obviously for a Dolphins flopperoo that I think they're going to be fine.
The Dolphins have all the talent they need. Quarterback Jay Fiedler's not going to make anybody forget Bob Griese -- and neither is new backup Brian Griese -- but Ricky Williams is the best running back in football, and the defense, led by Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas, is excellent. Linebacker Junior Seau, signed from San Diego, may be past his best days at 34, but I think his intensity, leadership and playmaking ability will make the defense even better.
Buffalo Bills: The weird and wrong thing the Bills did to put them in my doghouse was spend a first-round pick on running back Willis McGahee, who is going to rush back from reconstructive knee surgery and get hurt all over again. And this when they already had Travis Henry, who ran for 1,438 yards last year. Drew Bledsoe throwing to Eric Moulds and handing off to Henry will make the Bills plenty good when they have the ball, even though they're going to miss Peerless Price, gone to Atlanta. They'll have to be better on defense to improve on their 8-8 finish last year and save coach Gregg Williams' job. They went out and got linebacker Takeo Spikes, the plum defensive free agent of the offseason, to improve an already decent linebacking corps led by London Fletcher, and that's why a lot of people are picking them to win the East. Not me, though.
New England Patriots: The Pats are a hot, hot, hot pick to get back to the Super Bowl, which they won two years ago before dropping to 9-7 and just missing the playoffs last year. This is based on I'm not sure what. They signed pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin from the Bears, which is good, but I don't think they have the defensive talent or the running game to win this tough division, though I think they'll stay in contention all year. Never underestimate the ability of coach Bill Belichick to get the most out of his defenders, but it won't help this club to have cut safety Lawyer Milloy, a Pro Bowl regular, which they did on Tuesday. It was a financial move, but the timing of it stunned Patriots players. Antwan Harris, who will likely benefit from the cut by getting more playing time, referred to it as a "tragedy." It's not the kind of things teams do just before starting a Super Bowl season.
New York Jets: The Jets were in the mix until Pennington went down. He'll miss most of the season and the quarterback job has fallen to Vinny Testaverde, who will turn 40 in Week 11. Yowza. But he's not the only geezer. Running back Curtis Martin, who could take some pressure off the passing game, is 30, the magical age when running backs turn to dust, and he was banged up last year. Receiver Curtis Conway, the replacement for departed free agent Laveranues Coles, who will be badly missed, is 32. Fellow wideout Wayne Chrebet is 30. Linebackers Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis are 31 and almost 34. Testaverde will make for a great story if he can lead the Jets to more than a few victories in the dozen or so games he's expected to start. That's not likely. Based on last year's winning percentages, the Jets have the toughest schedule in the NFL.
Handy recap for ease of ridicule
Wild cards: Chiefs, Colts
AFC champion: Titans
Thursday: You and the experts get a turn.
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