Despite debate over the value of a lengthy pre-season schedule, all fans of the National Football League can agree that it at least indicates that competitive gridiron is merely a month away. However, the narrative of the 2013 preclude to the regular season has been one of serious injuries to marquee players. The nature of the competition for roster spots during the 32 training camps means that there are likely to be even more injuries for fans to pore over.
Another abundant occurrence in pre-season is the volume of season preview features which fans can consume to whet their appetites in the build-up to the real thing. With that in mind, Goatsport contributor Michael Donnelly previews one half of the NFL, the AFC.
Traditionally the preserve of the New England Patriots, the AFC East has undoubtedly been made a more open affair for the coming campaign. With a depleted core of tight-ends, which has been such a key part of the almost irresistible Pats offence under Bill Belicheck, and the departure of security blanket Wes Welker to a conference rival, the confidence of cruising to the division title may not be so healthy in Foxboro. However, Tom Brady remains a potent weapon as a dynamic quarterback, and has the chance to work with wide-receiver Danny Amendola, whose only major fault has been his injury report during his time with previous franchise the Rams.
Meanwhile in Miami, a revamp of the brand, including a new logo and uniform has given fresh impetus to the Miami Dolphins organisation. In sophomore signal-caller Ryan Tannehill there is great potential and valuable experience of a debut season in the pocket. Developing further chemistry on offence with wide-receiver Brian Hartline would be useful for the ‘Fins, but they also made a shrewd acquisition in veteran Mike Wallace which may help to give their attacking threat a boost. Though Wallace was ultimately far from his best in his final year at Pittsburgh with the Steelers, he is a well-regarded receiver and should be able to garner a decent number of touchdowns for his new employers. The main concern will be adapting from a running-game which was centred on running-back Reggie Bush, who is now a Detroit Lion to a less seasoned group.
The main issue of jeopardy in Buffalo is not the future of the ‘Toronto Series,’ but more significantly the battle between former Cardinal Kevin Kolb and rookie E.J.Manuel as to who will be starting quarterback. While this formula is worked out, the Bills can rely on the ingenuity of running-back C.J.Spiller and the agile guile of wide out Stevie Johnson. Yet both have their limits, so it will be interesting to see what the eventual starting quarterback can add going forward. On the other side of the ball is the defensive ability of defensive-end Mario Williams who racked up a commendable ten-and-a-half sacks in the 2012 season.
In drafting one of the most talked about draft prospects in Geno Smith, the New York Jets appeared to have chosen this season to begin a marked change from the chaotic and bemusing team NFL fans have become accustomed to, and instead looked to progressively construct an offence capable of challenging for the AFC title in the coming years. However, the murmurs over Smith’s likely role in the Jets playbook, and the insistence of continuing with Mark Sanchez as starting quarterback would suggest that eccentricity is still alive and well in the green section of the MetLife Stadium tenants.
AFC EAST PREDICTION: 1. Patriots; 2. Dolphins; 3. Bills; 4.Jets
The victory in New Orleans which sealed the SuperBowl for the Baltimore Ravens was the culmination of a season in which they built upon strong home advantage with industry and effort. Yet good fortune also played a part in the run to the title. Since then they have rewarded quarterback Joe Flacco with a bumper new deal, but also lost their inspirational team leader Ray Lewis to retirement. The departure of Anquan Boldin to San Francisco will also force the Ravens offence to wager more on the abilities of Torrey Smith to make more of the spectacular catches which became a hallmark of his, and the team’s season as a whole in 2012. The pint-sized powerhouse that is Ray Rice is still close to his best and the re-signing of fullback Vonta Leach will ensure some consistency in the offence, though the long-term absence of tight-end Dennis Pitta may affect Flacco’s pass completion stats somewhat. On the defence, the big-game instincts of both Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs will pose a threat to even the most audacious of attacking setups, though they are both a year older and longer in the tooth.
A stacked training camp roster is both a benefit and a burden to the Cincinnati Bengals as they await arguably their best chance of an AFC title run since 2009. It is a benefit in that they have clear strength in depth, but it is also a burden in that they will have to most certainly omit some talented players from their final roster, with the proviso that should they re-consider their decision on a player, it may be too late as another NFL team snaps them up. The nucleus of the 2012 team remains relatively healthy, though there have been injury scares in the cases of both A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins. With the weakening of heated rivals the Steelers, the Bengals can expect to aim for another second-placed finish at the very least. Yet with the Ravens going through something of a transition, it could be that the Tiger Stripes have enough in the tank to seal top spot in the AFC North. Yet with expectation comes the necessity to avoid complacency. The early signs are that the team is determined and focused enough to ensure that will not be the case.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the season, it is their veterans who will once again shoulder the burden. After the holdout by Mike Wallace concluded in him leaving Heinz Field, and Rashard Mendenhall released to become a Cardinal, the Steelers offence will now at least be concentrated on a set collective of running-backs and receivers such as rookie Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Though there is no doubt that battle-scarred quarterback Ben Roethilisberger and Heath Miller will be keys to the Steelers effectively over-achieving by making the playoffs this year. An interesting prospect is the chance to see Guard David DeCastro finally slot into the system off the back of a serious injury in his rookie year. Defensively, Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel remain in place, but are in much the same position as the Ravens old-guard in that age is catching up with them.
Of all the four teams in the division, it is the Cleveland Browns who have the biggest question mark over just what they can achieve. While there is arguably enough for the Browns to push the Steelers into fourth place, it remains to be seen if second-place is beyond them. Exciting prospect Barkevious Mingo was the highlight of an austere draft, but there are a number of players in the squad with useful experience to improve the team as a whole. Whether it is second year Brandon Weeden calls the shots behind the offensive line, or the journeyman Jason Campbell, it is Trent Richardson who will remain the focal point of the Browns. As one of the best in the league in his position, the biggest question is perhaps whether he can replicate another premier running-back Adrian Peterson in leading his team somewhat single-handedly to a prospective post-season.
AFC NORTH PREDICTION: 1.Ravens; 2.Bengals; 3.Browns; 4.Steelers