Part 2 of the AFC Season Preview. This time looking at the South and West divisions.
After blazing a trail through the field to third seeds in the AFC playoffs last season, the Houston Texans will have a great deal of expectation to deal with. While quarterback Matt Schaub has notched up two consecutive playoff seasons, he has undoubtedly been helped by the mercurial running and receiving ability of Arian Foster. Meanwhile, the breakout season in 2012 by JJ Watt in the defence marked him and the Texans out as one of the most challenging teams in the AFC. Meanwhile, after more than a decade in the NFL, wide-receiver Andre Johnson remains a viable threat for the youngest franchise in the league, as does linebacker Brian Cushing. The play-action model blended with the running-game will once again set the side apart from the rest of the division, but the gap between Gary Kubiak’s side and their rivals will not be as vast in 2013.
The most promising of those rivals is the Indianapolis Colts under the stewardship of sophomore Andrew Luck. Fulfilling his potential resulted in the Colts making a burst for the wildcard spot in 2012, and that team has been improved upon in the intermission, both through Luck’s own development and the addition of premier running-back Ahmad Bradshaw. In the receiving corps there is depth combined with intrigue as both T.Y.Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey line-up alongside the grizzled Reggie Wayne. However, despite a bustling roster in offence, there is less of a familiarity with the defence, with the biggest enhancement coming in the form of rookie defensive-end Bjorn Werner. This apparent imbalance may well be the deciding factor in the Colts just missing out on a wildcard run, but they are likely to secure second spot in the division.
With the prospect of at least four games in London to come, the drive to make the Jacksonville Jaguars the favourite team of NFL fans in the United Kingdom and Europe would be enhanced immeasurably by a respectable campaign for the Jags. The main counter to that optimism, however, is the early-season absence of their top 2012 draft pick Justin Blackmon through suspension and the injury woes of running-back Maurice Jones-Drew. Yet perhaps the confidence shown in the team by the league to be the main export for the brand in international terms will spur the organisation on to the point where they can toil to the next level. In any case, they are likely to end up in a two-way fight for third place in the division.
Completing the quartet in the southern section of the AFC is the Tennessee Titans. While the arrival of Harvard alumni Ryan Fitzpatrick after a spell in Buffalo has provided an alternative to Jake Locker in the quarterback position, it is the rookie wide-receiver and Tennessee graduate Justin Hunter who could make or break the attacking success of the Titans. Should Hunter struggle to find his feet early in the season, the Titans can always rely on the run-game and Chris Johnson, but in a division where each team has a recognised runner, Johnson is perhaps the third or fourth best of the group. That is reflected in the chances of the team itself, who may struggle to make much of an impact in 2013.
AFC SOUTH PREDICTION: 1.Texans; 2.Colts; 3.Jaguars; 4.Titans
After an agonising defeat at home to the eventual SuperBowl winner the Ravens, it’s a season of atonement ahead for the Denver Broncos. A healthy season for illustrious quarterback Peyton Manning is expected after his successful return from a major neck injury went accident free in 2012. Manning now has the opportunity to develop an understanding with Wes Welker to complement his existing links with Eric Decker and Trindon Holliday in the wide-receivers. On the ground, the introduction of Montee Ball may mean a multi-dimensional composition in what has been a relatively traditional setup since Manning took over as signal-caller. Shorn of the charismatic Von Miller for at least four games, subject to appeal, the Broncos defence will have to adapt somewhat to compensate for his formidable contribution to the team, but this will not be a major concern. It is not unwise to assume the Broncos may be looking well-ahead to the playoff picture already, with the intention of clinching the AFC title. It is hard to argue against such an eventuality.
It is a new era in coaching terms for the San Diego Chargers, and it may prove to be so in the running-back stakes. While Ryan Matthews is still a potent force for the Chargers on the ground, both Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will be justified in staking their own claim for a fair-share of running snaps. For Philip Rivers, it should be a testing season. Though the departure of Norv Turner would appear to be a positive, the receiving weapons and running assets at his disposal could determine his true value as a team leader with freedom to experiment. The Chargers should have enough to work towards a decent season, but will not have enough to catch the Broncos.
Revolution is underway at the Kansas City Chiefs with Andy Reid in the hot-seat after over a decade as head coach in Philadelphia. After losing the unpopular duo of Matt Cassel and John Skelton, the Chiefs now have the creative, if limited, Alex Smith as quarterback. This will add an element of jeopardy for opposing defences with Smith likely to utilise some of the footballing intelligence he gained under the coaching of Harbaugh at the 49ers mixed with the Reid brand of the game topped off by his mobility as a runner. There is at least one factor of continuity in the figure of Jamaal Charles, who remains one of the better running-backs in the AFC. The season will be the foundation for progress, but the Chiefs are unlikely to show enough tangible improvement to unsettle the AFC West order in 2013.
Another season and yet another experiment for the Oakland Raiders as Matt Flynn takes the reins at quarterback. Securing the long-term future of a placekicker may appear to be a menial task, but in the case of the Raiders it is a guarantee of competitiveness with Sebastian Janikowski contributing a significant portion of their points scored in 2012. Shrewd signings such as Jacoby Jones and Josh Cribbs at wide-receiver and intriguing additions such as a Rashad Jennings at running-back to partner Darren McFadden will mean it’s another entertaining and energetic roster. Yet much like the Jets in the East, the Raiders will find a way to spontaneously combust and dysfunctionality will win out. Another thankless season awaits for the Raiders.
AFC WEST: 1.Broncos; 2.Chargers; 3.Chiefs; 4.Raiders
Next up, the NFC…
A fan on fitba, NFL and ruggerby league in that order. Dundee exile, based in Perth. A journalist as well apparently.