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The Bigger Picture: AFC Playoff Predictions

Believe it or not, there are teams outside of the AFC North. In fact, there is a whole other conference called the NFC, but that's still too far out there to discuss in any great detail. However, the rest of the AFC means a great deal to the future of our Bengals and is worth examining.

The best team, the crème de la crème, the crown jewel of the conference, is still the Indianapolis Colts. As long as Peyton Manning can lift his arm above his head and move a football through the air, I will not bet against his team. Yes, that philosophy hurt me somewhat during last year’s Super Bowl, but apparently Manning is of mortal material and is subject to fallibility—shocking, I know. Nonetheless, he is of high-grade football pedigree and works his craft with unquestionable mastery. In a time of parity and cut-throat competition, Manning stands far and above anyone else in shoulder pads.

Yet, all is not roses in Indy. Unfortunately, there is a force that drives the NFL even further than great quarterbacks, a force that stays out of sight on the field, but is forever nearby: money. There are contract questions popping up in Colts Country. Mr. Everything himself is set to become a free-agent after this season, and any dumbbell could figure that he'll receive a record-setting contract. Regardless, he is so good, that no matter the asking price, he will be well worth resigning and is guaranteed to do so once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is agreed upon.

Then there is Manning's ace target, Reggie Wayne, who is two years from another payday and demands to move that event up to the present. Wayne is following a number of players league-wide who are dissatisfied with their contracts and threatening holdouts. With the impending labor doom approaching the NFL, it makes sense that so many players would like to secure their futures before the uncertainty hits home. It also makes sense why owners are weary of whipping out their check books and payinf players the big bucks. Wayne is a proven commodity recording six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons; the question in a Wayne-less offense is how much can Manning make a lesser receiver produce like his best weapon? Two years ago, when Marvin Harrison's criminal allegations picked up steam and his overall health depreciated, the Colts cut him. The offense purred along undeterred in his absence. When Anthony Gonzalez went down with sprained knee ligaments last season, no-names like Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon stepped in like veterans who had played in the system for years. If Reggie Wayne wants to maximize his money-making potential before he retires, he would be better suited on another team; Indianapolis will have to make cuts elsewhere to pay Manning his expected silly-big contract and it doesn't seem that they’ll need Wayne with the backups playing so well. 

Robert Mathis, another unhappy Indianapolis Colt, is a smallish, but very quick lineman who registered 63 sacks in seven years. His downside is that he is 29-years old and plays opposite of sack-master, Dwight Freeney. His upside is that he hasn't been as frequently injured, playing in at least 13 games every season. Indianapolis may need to pay him big to maintain the pass rush that has been so important to that defense for so long. With the concern surrounding safety Bob Sanders and the possible inability to continue his career, the Colts should retain as many stars as possible. It seems Indianapolis is always rebuilding their defense, and therefore, should value the important pieces already in place to prevent a perpetual band-aid approach to the problem. I see Mathis staying put with a nice new contract soon.

Still, even with the contract gripes, the Colts are top-shelf and remain the team to beat.

Once you cast your eyes down to the second-shelf or below, however, the picture becomes murkier and is wide open for interpretation.

The next best, in my mind, are the men in stripes. There's no need to delve into why I think so, because one can read the many, many blogs written this offseason on that very subject for themselves. But I will summarize the many points here: Cincinnati's biggest weakness last season was their passing game, which they aggressively addressed this offseason in free-agency and the draft. They return a formidable and still improving defense to couple with the team's powerful rushing attack in the mold of their new smash-mouth style, and their sterling cornerback tandem give them the advantage in the ultra-competitive AFC North.

Moving on.

After that, I like the Ravens—well, perhaps not like, but rank them next in the AFC.  Baltimore General Manager, Ozzie Newsome, simply knows what he's doing. Drafting Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody this year makes a perennially dominant defense even better.  Joe Flacco should continue improving, Ray Rice remains a dynamic threat (especially in the passing game), and Anquan Bolden is a huge talent injection into a maturing offense. 

The Ravens do have questions though. Legendary safety, and pirate-bearded lurker, Ed Reed, has what sounds like a new robotic hip and is likely to miss the season's first six games as a result. Ed Reed is a gambler who can read Carson Palmer's mind and he will not be missed in Week two. Ray Lewis is, in theory, aging too, but the physical toll on this superhuman is invisible thus far. Still, one wonders when Ray might slow down, if ever; we could see it this season, but I wouldn't count on it.

And, of course, Baltimore acquired Shuga Shayne Graham. Good luck with the short kick-offs, the clutch misses, and the uncertainty to hit from 40-yards or longer. While the Bengals kicking situation looks dubious at best, Graham was simply run out of town after missing two short, and critical, conversions during last year’s Wild Card game. Let's hope he makes himself at home and misses a key field goal; preferably during Week two in Cincinnati.

For more Baltimore analysis, click here.

The surprise this year will be the Miami Dolphins winning the East. In order to make that statement, however, I must explain the demise of the New England Patriots.

Since the Patriots rent an apartment in the AFC Playoff picture, they are there every year. One season, Tom Brady went down, and they let Miami crash instead (they still almost ended up there anyway with Matt Cassell), but have been there every other year for what seems forever. Sadly for the Patriots, however, I think they should start hunting for a new apartment because they won't be there come this January. 

As for Mr. Brady, well, he's still great. To me, all the Joe Montana comparisons are true enough. His favorite target, Randy Moss, is also still great. In the last three seasons, Moss has recorded 3,500 yards and 47 touchdowns. Their offensive line isn't what it once was and the next generation of Patriots linemen haven't proven to gel with the dinosaurs of the past. Then there are questions about a backfield with several injury problems last year.  Baltimore feasted on Brady early in last year's wild card game because they were not concerned with a Patriots rushing attack. 

But it's the defense that worries me most with the Patriots. As more and more veterans leave this unit, the consistency becomes an issue, and their secondary—especially the corners—seem suspect. Bill Belichick is a sour-faced wizard who sees NFL games like Neo sees the Matrix and will probably prove me wrong once again. For now, I say the Patriots can be thrown on with a limited pass rush and suspect corners giving them roughly eight wins this season.

Now as for the Dolphins, the biggest reason I think they will win this season is because Bill Parcells is in the third year with the franchise. Like Belichick, and Newsome, Parcells has an unprecedented track record that includes Super Bowl championships and turning around struggling franchises. The calling card of a Parcells team is that they are usually oversized. The Dolphins roster is one of the beefiest in the league that will help the grind inside a tough division. Ronnie Brown gets hurt a lot, but Ricky Williams still appears to have plenty in the tank and one, or both, will power run over much of their schedule this year. Their quarterback, Chad Henne, doesn't blow many away with his play, but he too is a big guy with a strong arm who looked better as the season went on last year. Their defense lacks star-power but is a deep and physical unit that reminds me very much of the Bengals defense, only in 3-4 form.

In the West, San Diego continues to enjoy a cream-puff division. The Chargers shouldn’t be challenged much by its rivals—I expect Denver to be worse—but they too are not without concerns. Drafting Ryan Mathews with their first pick demonstrates their worry about employing an every-down back. After letting LaDainian Tomlinson go to the Jets and franchise-tagging Darren Sproles, the Chargers were left without a running back with the size to "carry the load". Mathews has the right ingredients, but every rookie must prove themselves before expectations can fairly be applied to them. 

Also gone from San Diego is cornerback Antonio Cromartie, leaving the Chargers secondary with the veteran Quentin Jammer to lead an inexperienced defensive backfield.  The Bolts had a hard time stopping the run last year too, finishing 20th in the league against the rush,and hotheaded linebacker Shawn Merriman wants more money as well . A team once considered the most talented in the league seems a bit lopsided on offense these days, and the defense has some questions to answer.

Finally, the New York Jets. On paper, this team appears awfully impressive. Their defense is led by head coach Rex Ryan, who continues to bring in veterans from across the league. This year, that includes the new acquisitions of Jason Taylor and Cromartie.  They are solid across the board and appear firmly seated within the NFL's elite defenses. 

The Jets also added to their offense by bringing in Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes.  They employ a rugged offensive line, an up-and-coming running back in Shawn Greene with whom I consider the best offensive coordinator in the league, Brian Schottenheimer.  Quarterback Mark Sanchez started off well last year, hit a mid-season rut but bounced back nicely late in the year and in the playoffs. While I don't expect Sanchez to end up in the Pro Bowl this season, I do think he will continue to improve into a nice game manager for the Jets.

So with all this praise showered upon New York, why don't I have them ending up farther in the playoffs? First, there’s some dissent in the Jets camp regarding contract squabbles.  Center Nick Mangold wants more money, Darrelle Revis wants more money, David Harris wants more money. The team recently inked D'Brickashaw Ferguson to a $60 million contract extension. While the Jets cant pay all of these guys in the same year, this will mean someone will have to play this year at what they likely consider a discount rate, and some feelings will be hurt.

But aside from hurt feelings, I think the Jets are too limited in their passing game.  Castaways like Holmes and Braylon Edwards don't scare me much—Jericho Cotchery is their best receiver. Tight end Dustin Keller killed the Bengals last season, but early in the year he was considered something of a disappointment. Greene has yet to prove he can carry the load for a whole season, and LT is wearing down fast. Schottenheimer calls a great game, but he can't make the throws and catch passes himself. I see this offense struggling at the wrong times to make a deep push into the playoffs.

So there you have it. The AFC will once more be ruled by Indianapolis, followed by Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, San Diego and the New York Jets.  Obviously all of this analysis is based off of names on paper and something will not transpire as predicted, but it's nice to get a rough outline of what to expect this season. We're only six weeks away from the real deal; time to lose our composure and freak out with excitement!

Mojokong—chomping at the bit.