Training camps are now open and the football season has officially begun. It’s time to study for your upcoming fantasy draft, dust off your favorite jersey, and plant yourself on the couch every Sunday for the next five months. In preparation for the start of the 2015 NFL season, I’m going to begin a series of previews that breaks down each division and I will give my predictions for the season. For part one, I will be looking at the AFC East and AFC North.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills have one of the premier defenses in the NFL under new head coach Rex Ryan. The Bills ranked in the top ten in total yards allowed, total sacks, and interceptions in 2014. They loaded up on offense in the off-season, acquiring LeSean McCoy in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles and brought in veteran WR Percy Harvin to go opposite side future superstar WR Sammy Watkins. However, Rex Ryan has the same situation as he did with the Jets; the Bills lack a definitive starting quarterback. They have enough total talent to potentially get them into the playoffs, but the ceiling for what they can accomplish can’t go any higher without a franchise QB.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins put all their faith in Ryan Tannehill, giving him a huge contract extension and providing him with new weapons at WR such as Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings. They also acquired prized free agent DT Ndamukong Suh, so opposing QBs will have to play in fear of having Suh come charging after them. If Tannehill lives up to the expectations that his contract set for him and if Suh provides a boost to an already solid defense, then this could finally be the season that the Miami Dolphins take control of the AFC East out of the clutches of the New England Patriots.
New England Patriots: The “Deflategate” scandal and the corresponding four games suspension for QB Tom Brady put the Patriots in a tough situation. They will likely start the season 1-3 or 2-2 unless QB Jimmy Garoppolo over delivers in Brady’s place. Once Brady returns however, the team will seek vengeance across the entire league and that motivation alone should carry the Patriots to the AFC Division championship for the seventh straight season. The big concern besides the off-season controversy is the Patriots’ secondary. The losses of both Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis could make the backfield a wide receivers paradise for opposing offenses.
New York Jets: With new head coach Todd Bowles at the helm, the Jets look like the squad from four years ago that made back to back AFC Championship appearances. They revived their secondary, bringing back CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie while adding veteran WR Brandon Marshall to elevate the offense. The Jets have a tough decision heading into the season, as they need to decide whether Geno Smith is their starting quarterback or if Ryan Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance at making a run at the division. They could potentially be the most improved team in the league but their QB woes still linger even with a new regime and brighter outlook.
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
Wild Card: Miami Dolphins
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens had a strong finish last season, getting the last post-season berth on the final day of the season. They upset arch-rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round and pushed the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots to the limit. However, this off-season the Ravens had more turnover than expected, losing WR Torrey Smith and trading defensive leader Haloti Ngata. The Ravens will linger around as a threat though will power and mental toughness but there aren’t enough significant upgrades to say they are one of the favorites in the division. Expect the usual hard fought battles against the Bengals and Steelers but there just isn’t enough overall talent to get the ten wins or so needed to make the post-season.
Cincinnati Bengals: A team loaded with as much talent as they have on both offense and defensive and yet can’t get out of the first round of the playoffs is infuriating. QB Andy Dalton has yet to prove he can win “the big one” despite having WR AJ Green and a 1-2 punch at RB of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard at his disposal. Eventually the bloom will fall off the rose for this squad and I fear this is going to be the season where the lack of success will come back to bite them. With no major changes to the roster and the same system in place, this team will become complacent and fall behind the rest of the conference.
Cleveland Browns: Fresh out of rehab and with expectations lowered, this might be the perfect opportunity for Johnny Manziel to emerge as the elite quarterback many thought he could be. Their defense is just as good as their division rivals and veteran WRs Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe could provide guidance to Manziel. Questions remain about whether Manziel can hang in the NFL and the Browns have a long history of not putting the pieces together despite the talent at their disposal, so it seems unlikely that the Browns will leave the bottom of the division standings this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally developed chemistry together after a rough start and the Steelers look like one of the best all-around teams in the NFL. Their defense is flying under the radar and they are loaded with quality talent on offense. Despite a two game suspension to start the season, Le’veon Bell should still be able to take some of the workload away from Roethlisberger down the stretch and WR Antonio Brown has become one of the premier receivers in the game. The Steelers should have no problems repeating as AFC North champions and a trip to the AFC Championship is potentially in their future.
AFC North Champion: Pittsburgh Steelers
Wild Card: None
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