Season preview

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AFC North 

Pittsburgh Steelers — After coming off a relatively disappointing season by Steelers’ standards, the team is hoping for a big bounce-back season. Much of their success will rely on the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed part of last season with a rib injury. The Steelers’ offence will also need to find a way to maintain the effectiveness of their run game, after losing Rashard Mendenhall in the off-season. The loss of veteran linebacker James Harrison begins the rebuilding process for an aging Steelers defence— one that was set in motion through the drafting of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Steeltown should expect its team to return to its winning ways, but that may not be enough to guarantee post-season success in a tough division.

Baltimore Ravens — The defending Super Bowl champions will have their work cut out for them after an off-season that saw the retirement of Ravens legend Ray Lewis, as well as the departure of fan favourites Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin.  In order for the Ravens to have any hope of defending their title, Joe Flacco will have to prove that he is worth the six-year, $120 million contract that he signed in the off-season. Despite mutliple off-season departures, Baltimore is a supremely talented squad on both sides of the ball with emerging superstars ready to fill the void left by departing legends. The Ravens will have a fighting chance at reclaiming the AFC North title.

Cincinnati Bengals — Coming into the 2013 season, the Bengals are the favourite to win the division. After two consecutive seasons of early playoff exits, the Bengals are hungry to finally make a playoff run. The addition of first round draft pick Tyler Eifert will help young quarterback Andy Dalton take the next step in his promising career. The Bengals also added veteran linebacker James Harrison. With the Ravens and Steelers both re-tooling their aging rosters, the Bengals are primed to capture the AFC North crown, and potentially make some noise come January.

Cleveland Browns — The Cleveland Browns continue to face an uphill struggle as they scratch their way back to relevance. Expectations are low once again coming into this season, as the organization failed to make any drastic off-season moves. Cleveland did, however, add solid young players that should help lay the foundation of a rebuilding organization. Rookie defensive end Barkevious Mingo will be a centrepiece in the Browns’ defence for years to come. They also poached linebacker Paul Kruger from the Ravens in an attempt to increase the talent level on defence. Offensively, the team will struggle to score, but running back Trent Richardson has the potential to be elite.

 

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts — The 2012 Indianapolis Colts were a team of rebirth. The dismantling of the Colts as they entered the post-Manning era was spearheaded by new General Manager Ryan Grigson. He drafted a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck, who went on to shatter the rookie record for passing yards, along with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight ends Dwyane Allen and Coby Fleener. Entering the 2013 season, Grigson beefed up the roster by spending liberally in free agency on defensive veterans to shore up the youthful core. Look for the Colts to snag another playoff berth off of the improvements of Luck, Allen, and Fleener.

Houston Texans — Even taking into account the rash of injuries that marred the roster, the Texans arguably underachieved in 2012. However, there were a number of bright spots in the season, most notably second-year defensive end J.J. Watt winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The return of linebacker Brian Cushing will bolster the team both physically and emotionally. Offensively the running game will continue to be one of the league’s best with Arian Foster leading the charge. If rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins proves to be a consistent threat opposite star Andre Johnson and the roster manages to stay healthy, this may be the year that the Texans finally break through.

Tennessee Titans — The Titans entered the off-season with a firm idea of their roster priorities. They selected All-American Chance Warmack with the 10th pick in the draft, hoping to boost an offence that ranked 26 in the league. Beyond the draft, the Titans’ brass came out spending in the off-season, managing to lure top lineman Andy Levitre away from Buffalo, as well as acquiring a number of other free-agents. The Titans also have a bright young linebacking core, but the team’s success hinges on the development of young quarterback Jake Locker. If Locker improves, it could mean job security for Head Coach Mike Munchak in a make-or-break season for Tennessee.

Jacksonville Jaguars — All eyes are trained on Blaine Gabbert as the Jaguars enter the 2013 season. The 10th pick in 2011, Gabbert had been tagged early on as the future franchise quarterback before prematurely stumbling into the media annals of failed first-round draft picks. New General Manager David Caldwell establised a new spread-formation offence and brought in draft picks Luke Joeckel and Denard Robinson to maximize Gabbert’s success. Defensively, new Head Coach Gus Bradley hopes to bring his vaunted defensive principles to Jacksonville. After a number of tempestuous personnel years, the Jaguars need to find stability to escape 2012’s disastrous 2-14 record.

 

AFC East

New England Patriots — Although New England is not the powerhouse it once was, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will lead a squad that should top the weak AFC East. The biggest question this season surrounds the receiving personnel. Brady’s favourite options are either injured, on different teams, or facing criminal trial. If new signing Danny Amendola can remain healthy, the offence will remain potent. The Patriots were stout in the run game, but their 29th ranked pass defence proved consistently leaky. They tried to overcome this weakness by resigning cornerback Aqib Talib. Even then, their efforts seem more like a Band-Aid than a long-term solution for contention.

Miami Dolphins — The Dolphins are on the rise with a promising young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a potential star in running back Lamar Miller. They bolstered their receiving corps with Mike Wallace, who provides a much-needed deep option that the Dolphins lacked last year. Slot receiver Brian Hartline is coming off a career year and will form a tandem with Wallace that should help the running game. If Miami is going to have success, their strong defence, which finished seventh in points allowed, will need to continue to be elite. Miami opted to bring in younger talent to help in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, but it may not be enough to secure a playoff spot.

Buffalo Bills — The Bills have been mired in mediocrity for over a decade now but hope can be found in their first round draft pick— quarterback EJ Manuel. If he can be the latest rookie success story at the position and connect with receiver Stevie Johnson, then star running back C.J. Spiller will be able to anchor the offence. On the defensive end, Buffalo let go of aging and ineffective players and hired the respected Mike Pettine as their new defensive coordinator. Despite changes and optimism, a playoff spot seems unrealistic.

New York Jets —No matter who the Jets choose to select as quarterback, the future looks bleak. With no proven offensive weapons, this team will hardly light up the scoreboard. The defence is the only saving grace of this team, but even then the unit has been trending downwards. The loss of star defensive back Darrelle Revis only hurts them further. Rookies Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson will inject youth and talent in hopes of returning the team to its glory days. Rex Ryan can talk the talk but it looks like the Jets will be far from walking any walk this season.

 

AFC West

Denver Broncos — At age 36 last year, Peyton Manning led the Broncos to one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history. Manning returns with a loaded group of wide receivers with the addition of veteran Wes Welker, who has averaged over 1000 yards and 100 receptions over the past six years. This offseason, the Broncos lost star defensive end Elvis Dumervil to, of all things, a clerical error. This puts added pressure on the defence to generate stops, as star linebacker Von Miller is suspended for violating NFL’s substance policy. If the defence holds up its end of the bargain, the Broncos should once again be  contenders.

Kansas City Chiefs — Head Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith were brought in to help right the ship after the worst season in Chiefs history. Star running back Jamaal Charles returns to the fold and has the luxury of running behind bookend tackles, Branden Albert and Eric Fisher— this year’s first overall draft pick. The defence returns an AFC-leading four Pro Bowl picks, all of whom are still improving. The Chiefs acquired cornerback Sean Smith, creating a back seven that can match up well with any in the league. Look for the Chiefs to bounce back after a disappointing and unlucky season, as a weak schedule might mean a playoff spot. ‘

San Diego Chargers — The Chargers enter the season with limited talent but modest aspirations tied to the arrival of new Head Coach Mike McCoy. A patchwork offensive line was rebuilt to provide embattled quarterback Philip Rivers a chance to succeed. However, Rivers has little help from the running game and wide receiver Malcom Floyd was the only player to top 50 catches or 700 yards. Defensively, the Bolts have star safety in Eric Weddle, but have surrounded him with marginal talents. This will ultimately lead to anonther mediocre showing.

Oakland Raiders — Simply put, the Raiders will be awful. However, General Manager Reggie Mackenzie and the leadership team realize that reversing years of ineptitude will take time. If enigmatic running back Darren McFadden can stay healthy, he will provide offence for a team that lost two of its top three receivers and its starting quarterback. Defensively, the Raiders defensive backs D.J. Hayden and Charles Woodson lead a solid secondary that will attempt to mask an otherwise mediocre unit. The Raiders will lead the race for the No. 1 overall draft pick.