The NFL season is set to begin with several teams possessing championship aspirations in 2012. Among the teams in contention this season are several AFC teams who are legitimate threats to secure the Lombardi trophy. Last season saw the New England Patriots represent the conference and come up short in the Super Bowl. In 2012, the Patriots will face a tougher test as a handful of teams have made improvements to their roster with plans on dethroning the conference champions.
Here is a preview of the AFC, with each team's predicted overall record and likely playoff outcomes.
New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots have some issues to work out in the season's early going, with a patchwork offensive line, questionable defensive secondary and inexperienced backfield. The Patriots hope that their prized offensive acquisition Brandon Lloyd can bring another potent weapon for Brady to utilize, although there were not many connections made between the two during the preseason. How well Brady and Lloyd can get into sync the better the Patriots' offense will be. In addition, second-year running back Stevan Ridley will need to demonstrate consistency in protecting the football in order for the team to solidifying their unproven backfield. Last season, Ridley had 2011 cut short by a series of late season fumbles that forced him to the bench. As the team's primary running back, Ridley has looked solid in the preseason and has not yet fumbled; something head coach Bill Belichick should be pleased with.
The draft additions of Don't'a Hightower and Chandler Jones will help in transforming the Patriots' defense into more of an athletic group, something this plodding unit sorely needs. If the defensive front seven cannot put ample pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the suspect secondary could be exploited again this season. Giving conference rival quarterbacks (Flacco, Manning and Rivers) added time in pocket could lead to disastrous results. Through all of this, Tom Brady and Company will still manage a solid season, beating on the weaker division foes (Jets, Dolphins) and secure another division crown.
Buffalo Bills (10-6)
The Bills were very active in the offseason shoring up a weak defense through the acquisitions of Mark Anderson and Mario Williams. Their additions can only help improve one of the NFLs mort porous defenses from 2011, one that gave up the third most points in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, running back Fred Jackson will again be called upon to carry the ball, while the team has a solid group of receivers. For the Bills to ascend in the standings and be considered a legitimate playoff team, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will need be more consistent in order to keep pace with some of football's more potent offenses. A more consistent offense and an improved defense should be enough to secure the team's first winning season since 2004 and a playoff berth.
New York Jets (7-9)
The addition of Tim Tebow will do little to improve a faltering Jets' offense and will likely be more a distraction detriment than a performance boost. With several unproven wide receivers to throw to, quarterback Mark Sanchez will need another 1,000-yard season from rusher Shone Green to help move the chains. When the Jets need to pass, tight end Dustin Keller and diminutive wide receiver Santonio Holmes will again be the team's primary targets. The team failed to score a touchdown in their first three preseason games, although Sanchez did look solid. If the Jets hope to make the playofffs, the former USC quarterback will need to prove he is capable of cutting down on his turnover propensity. With many personnel issues to deal with, it will likely be another missed playoff season full of drama and headlines in the Big Apple.
Miami Dolphins (5-11)
The Ryan Tannehill era has begun in South Beach, but this season is likely to be a rocky one for the rookie quarterback and his Dolphins team. Like the Jets, the Dolphins also lost all four preseason games and looked shaky in the process. The jettisoning of troubled wide receiver Brandon Marshall means that Davone Bess becomes Miami's number one receiving target. Multi-faceted running back Reggie Bush will look to have another all-around season for the Dolphins; in doing so becoming a favorite receiver out of the backfield and taking some of the pressure off the inexperienced signal caller. Last season the Dolphins defense was among the league's better teams in points allowed and will look for another solid season from pass rushing specialist Cameron Wake to improve if the team hopes to contend on a weekly basis. There will be growing pains for the Dolphins in 2012 but the team's decision to build around Tannehill is a step in the right direction.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
The Ravens are traditionally known for their physical defense and that will again be a main reason for their success in 2012. Despite an offseason Achilles injury to linebacker Terrell Suggs that may keep him out of the lineup through at least the first six games, there is more than enough talent on the defensive side to keep opponents' scoring down. The preseason experimentation with a no-huddle offense gives some indication that head coach John Harbaugh will free up the reigns for quarterback Joe Flacco and elite rusher Ray Rice to move the chains. The Baltimore Ravens' window of opportunity with this defensive unit is beginning to close, but their talent and style of play should be enough to be in the mix come playoff time.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
The Steelers will miss the production provided by running back Rashard Mendenhall, but if reserve back Isaac Redman can hold up physically as the primary back, the team will not slide too far. A solid running game will help free up time for rugged but slow-footed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to find talented receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. The defense will again be as good as Troy Polamalu can remain healthy, although even a slight drop-off to last season's best defense in points allowed should still be enough to secure a playoff spot. In a very competitive division, the Steelers will be challenged to win enough games to secure a high playoff seed.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Second-year quarterback Andy Dalton will be challenged to improve on his rookie campaign, while the switch at running back to sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis will help in protecting the ball but not enhance the ground attack. The defense will have to improve in forcing turnovers, where the Bengals ranked near the bottom in the NFL in interceptions and forced fumbles. If the Bengals offense can get additional possessions, the team will remain in the hunt throughout the season.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The 2012 season may go down as the year of the quarterback, as not only are elite passers key to their respective teams success, but several newcomers will take over the reigns of their teams. In Cleveland, rookie Brandon Weeden becomes one of three rookies to start at quarterback for an AFC team as he replaces Colt McCoy as the team's starting signal caller. The team returns a solid but not spectacular receiving corps and will look to former Alabama running back Trent Richardson to carry much of the offensive load. As it has been of late for the Browns, their best intended plans have hit a snag as the talented Richardson is rehabbing a knee injury and will likely be limited in the season's opening weeks. When the Browns look to pass, expect last seasons top receiver Greg Little to be the primary target again. On defense, the team will look to newcomers Frostee Rucker and John Hughes to improve on the league's third worst rushing defense. Even in the best of scenarios, the Browns will again battle to get out the division basement as they look to build around some young offensive talent.
Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans will look to prove last season's playoff appearance was no fluke and will benefit greatly from a healthy season from Arian Foster in the backfield. Last season saw reserve Ben Tate carry the ball more than prior campaigns; and will now fall back to his more accustomed role of short yardage / change of pace specialist. Health was a concern for quarterback Matt Schaub last season, as the veteran missed the season's last six games; but when healthy is one of the league's better passers. If healthy, the Texans' offense is one of the most potent in the league and will look for much of the same in 2012. Defensive leaders Connor Barwin and Brian Cushing return to solidify a defense that allowed the second fewest yards in the league in 2012. When healthy, this team will be formidable in 2012.
Tennessee Titans (8-8)
Another team in 2012 means another rookie quarterback, as the Titans begin the Jake Locker era. The Titans have quality depth at the quarterback position as former Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselback returns to play a reserve role. Even though Locker has been a focal point in the preseason, this team will go only as far as the legs of Chris Johnson can carry them. Last season was somewhat of an off year for the explosive rusher, although he still managed to rush for over 1,000 yards after a lengthy offseason holdout. Despite the off year, Johnson did still manage games of 190, 153, and 130 yards in the second half of the season. More of that in 2012 will go a long way in keeping this team in the playoff hunt. The fact that the team's leading tackler in 2011 was a cornerback speaks to the need for the defense to improve on forcing turnovers and putting pressure on the quarterback left much room for improvement.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10)
Few teams can boast that the end of one elite quarterback era coincided with the start of a new one, as Andrew Luck takes over for future hall-of-famer Peyton Manning. The Colts made a major decision last season to move on from their franchise star that has been slowed by neck issues in recent years. With Luck, the Colts have a refined passer who showed signs of understanding the pro offense during the preseason. There are few areas for the Colts that do not need improvement, as the team ranked 28th in points scored (15.2 ppg), 30th in point differential (-11.7 ppg) and 26th in turnover differential (-12). With such poor production, change was inevitable, although there are few carry over players on the offense for the Colts. Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie return as prime receiving weapons for the Colts while Donald Brown becomes the team's number one back looking to produce a 1,000 season.
The defense last season was abysmal, as their 26.9 opponent's points per game was the third worst in the league. Perennial pass rush specialists Dwight Feeney and Robert Mathis anchor a new-look defense in Indianapolis. Despite providing pressure on the quarterback, the results were not seen on the scoreboard, as the Colts ranked dead last in pass interceptions (8) in 2011 and among the worst in the league in total sacks (29). With so many changes, it will be tough in the early going to competitive in 2012; but with a talented quarterback running the offense, improvement in just this one area will likely lead to many more wins this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
The Jaguars hope to get a better season from quarterback Blaine Gabbert in 2012, but have provided minimal talent to their receiving corps to assist in that vein. Laurent Robinson has shown glimpses of promise during his stops in St. Louis and Dallas, but is not considered an elite talent to stretch the field. This team's offense hinges on their ability to run the ball and the absence of Maurice Jones-Drew will significantly hamper the Jaguars in the season's early going. As a holdout for all of training camp, the perennial 1,300 yard rusher's shoes will be hard to fill. That challenge lies at the feet of backup Rashad Jennings who has only 123 carries in his two seasons in Jacksonville. The lack of potency in this season's offense puts the team at a huge deficit, as improving on the anemic 15.2 points per game in 2011 will be a tough task without an extended absence from Jones-Drew.
Denver Broncos (10-6)
It is still strange to see Manning donning a Broncos jersey, but thus far has looked solid in the pocket for Denver. The team's success rides solely on the team's ability to keep Manning upright and healthy. Having a solid running back like Willis McGahee and an inconsistent change of pace back in Knowshon Moreno will help take the opposing defense's attention off of attacking Manning. The defense in Denver improved as the season went on and was a key contributor to their playoff appearance in 2011. With several key defenders returning this season, there is little doubt that the Broncos' defense will be solid throughout 2012. Having Manning pace the offense and the Denver defense keeping opponents offenses stalled should be enough to overcome a challenging first third of their schedule and result in a division title.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
Kansas City has a solid running attack with Jamaal Charles and top receiver in Dwayne Bowe. The success of the offense lies in the hands of former Patriots' quarterback Matt Cassel, who has yet to live up to the promise shown when he filled in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008. His best season with the Chiefs was in 2010 where Cassel passed for over 3,000 yards and only seven interceptions. Kansas City will need more of the 2010 Cassel if they plan on making the playoffs in 2012. The defense will have to improve on stopping their opponent's rushing attack if this team expects to become a serious contender this season.
Oakland Raiders (8-8)
The Raiders look for their first winning season since 2002 and have a good chance of making that happen in 2012. Former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer entered the lineup in week six after missing all of the preseason and his rust showed all season. With a full training camp, the Raiders expect a more productive season from the former USC Trojan. To lighten the load, the Raiders turn to Darren McFadden as their primary rusher in 2012. Assuming a larger bulk of the carries due to the departure of 2011 leading rusher Michael Bush, McFadden is a powerful and quick back who is capable of producing a comparable season to 2010, where he ran for over 1,100 yards for the Raiders. No matter what the team does on offense, if the Raiders cannot improve on their 27.7 points per game allowed, they will miss the playoffs yet again this season. Key to their improvement will be focus on forcing turnovers, where their minus four differential last season was among the lower third in the league.
San Diego Chargers (7-9)
Once a perennial division power, the Chargers will likely slide back in 2012. On offense, San Diego will miss the services of deep threat wide receiver Vincent Jackson who led the team with over 1,000 yards. In his place, the team will look for Malcolm Floyd to fill the deep threat role and new arrival Robert Meachem to take on the intermediate routes. The team's evolution will center on a ground game anchored by 1,000 yard runner Ryan Mathews, but the Chargers will have to wait for him to return from a broken collarbone.
Despite scoring the fifth most points in the league (25.4 ppg), the defense allowed the 22 nd most (23.6 ppg). For the Chargers to be competitive in 2012, they will need greater production from the defense, which had a negative six turnover differential and allowed 122 rushing yards per game last season. Despite an 11 sack performance from Antwan Barnes, the Chargers' sack total was among the lowest in the season in 2011. For the Chargers to contend for a playoff spot, they will need to have better pass pressure in order to take the pressure off the offense from having to carry the load yet again. In a competitive division, the Chargers will be in the mix but will be challenged to avoid their first losing season since 2003.
New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos
Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots @ Baltimore Ravens
Unfortunately for New England fans, there are far too many question marks to start the 2012 season for me to see them cruising to another Super Bowl appearance. The play of the offensive line puts Tom Brady in jeopardy, as the number of times hit has been increasing in recent years. While the defense has improved, they are still not an elite group in the same light as the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Patriots are certainly in the hunt for another conference title, as the potent offense is more than capable of outscoring any team in the league. The Ravens have a well-rounded team that pushed the Patriots to the limit in the conference championship in 2011 and are poised to ride their physical defense and balanced offense one more step in 2012.
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
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