AFC preview time.
No idea if any of these predictions will hit, but I can promise you this: What follows will be an escape from bitching and moaning about how long a Red Sox-Yankees game takes. Why is this suddenly a story again? Is it any different than, say, 2006, or 2009? Yes, Josh Beckett takes forever and both lineups drive up the pitch count. We get it. Is either going to change? Nope. So let's move on.
But again, let's leave that world for now -- and also think of this as an intermission from postseason third starter talk (though I think my vote would probably be for the guy without the 6.11 ERA) -- and look at my best guess as to what will happen in 2011 for all 16 AFC teams (NFC preview -- and all postseason picks -- to come tomorrow).
1. New England Patriots (13-3)
I know, I know. Total homer -- Credibility Airlines is now departing. But if the offensive line isn't what we saw in Detroit and the defense can get to the quarterback, I think this is the easily the best team in the AFC. I mean, if things go wrong could they go 10-6? Sure. But looking at the schedule I just don't see it. Ready for the three losses? I've got Week 2 at home against the Chargers, Week 4 in Oakland -- There's always one of those "How did we lose to THEM?" kind of games, plus the Raiders can get to the quarterback -- and Week 10 at the Jets.
2. New York Jets (11-5)*
Look, it comes down to Mark Sanchez. He's been terrific -- in spots -- in the postseason, but is he going to make the leap into the top half of quarterbacks in his third season? Last season he was 27th in passer rating (one spot behind Chad Henne), 29th in completion percentage and 19th in TD passes. If he's a Pro Bowler (a real one -- not the 11th QB added) this season? The Jets could win 13 games. But it seems to me that 11 wins is the ceiling for a team with mediocre play from the most important position in sports.
3. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
Tony Sparnao is going to get fired after this season. (When this happens, just brace yourself for a buffet of brutal "Sparano whacked by Dolphins" headlines.) It's all about wins and losses, of course, but I'd ask this: Tony Sparano -- in his first season -- took the Dolphins from 1-15 to 11-5 in 2008. Do you think Sparano suddenly lost 120 football IQ points over the last three years? The difference is that he had a quarterback playing at an All-Pro level (Chad Pennington led the NFL in completion percentage and was second in passer rating in 2008) and currently has a quarterback playing at an All-Zolak level -- Chad Henne was the worst fourth-quarter QB in the league last year -- three touchdowns against eight interceptions, good for a 55.7 passer rating. Is it Sparano's fault that he's stuck with Henne? Nyet. But instead of holding on to a coach that has proven he can win when given the right talent, the Dolphins will take the ol' path of least resistance and show Sparano the door.
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)
From 1988-93 the Bills played in 16 playoff games, or 16 more than the Patriots during that span. Since 2001 the Patriots have played in 19 playoff games, or 19 more than the Bills during that span.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
My favorite tweet of the offseason, courtesy of the great Neil Best of Newsday: "Since merger, Steelers have had three head coaches. Jets have had four head coaches who currently work for ESPN."
2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)*
OK, they never beat the Steelers when it matters. Agreed. But this is still a team with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis (Think about this: Ray Lewis was in the same draft as Terry Glenn. This guy has been around since Bill Parcells was coaching the Patriots and he's still an All-Pro. As good as any linebacker in the history of the league) and Terrell Suggs. They've won 33 regular-season games the last three years and have a quarterback that has improved in each of his first three seasons. Sure, the key defensive guys are aging (or plenty aged) and there are offensive line questions, but I'll go with recent history and pencil the Ravens in for a fifth trip to the playoffs in the last six years.
3. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
I didn't think Browns 34, Patriots 14 was a referendum on either team, but at the very least -- a week after Browns 30, New Orleans 17 -- it seemed to suggest that Eric Mangini was close to figuring it out. Let's be fair about this: Mangini took Belichick to the shed in that game. Beating a team with the best record in the NFL by 20 points with a QB starting his third NFL game and a seventh-round pick rushing for 184 yards? A defensive game plan that silenced one of the five best QBs in history and a couple of trick plays that hit? We didn't know it at the time, but what we were watching wasn't the beginning of a turnaround in Cleveland, but instead very probably the peak of Eric Mangini's career as a head coach in the NFL. So now it's Pat Shurmur and more of the same, which for the last decade-plus has basically been this: Who the hell knows?
(I'll say this, though: Very favorable schedule, particularly at the start. First eight games? Home vs. Bengals, at Indy (maybe no Manning), home Miami, home Tennessee, at Raiders, home Seahawks, at 49ers, home Texans. Isn't 4-4 a pretty reasonable expectation?)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
What's the over/under on the amount of Bengals games the impossibly inept duo of Don Criqui ("Xavier Hernandez is in at tight end for the Patriots") and Randy "Todd Light" Cross call this season? I'll set it at 4.5 and take the over. You could literally pick any two people in America, put them in a booth, and they would produce a broadcast that matches these guys (well, unless one of those people is named Joe Buck and the other is named Joe Theismann). Put it another way: While watching Criqui and Cross I found myself hoping they would cut away to Steve Burton interviewing somebody, a thought I'm confident has never before entered the mind of a human being.
1. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
More an anti-Texans pick than any real belief in this Colts team. Even if Peyton Manning was completely healthy I still didn't believe this was a team that was going to be a serious Super Bowl threat.
(Manning's streak of consecutive starts -- maybe you heard about it, think ESPN mentioned it once -- began on Sept. 6, 1998, against a quarterback (Dan Marino) who will turn 50 in a week and has been in the Hall of Fame for six years. I understand people around here don't like Manning and I get why, but 208 consecutive starts at that position is remarkable stuff.)
2. Houston Texans (8-8)
What is this, the third straight year this is the trendy pick? I'll pass this time. Wade Phillips is a lousy head coach but a swell defensive coordinator. No arguments here. But I think I need to see Phillips turn this Texans defense -- 29th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed -- around before I put them in the playoff six.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
How did I get the Jaguars to 7-9?
Week 1: Home Tennessee (win, 1-0)
Week 2: At Jets (loss, 1-1)
Week 3: At Carolina (win, 2-1)
Week 4: Home Saints (loss, 2-2)
Week 5 Home Bengals (win, 3-2)
Week 6: At Pittsburgh (loss, 3-3)
Week 7: Home Baltimore (loss, 3-4)
Week 8: At Houston (loss, 3-5)
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: At Indianapolis (loss, 3-6)
Week 11: At Cleveland (win, 4-6)
Week 12: Home Houston (loss, 4-7)
Week 13: Home Chargers (loss, 4-8)
Week 14: Home Tampa (win, 5-8)
Week 15: at Atlanta (loss, 5-9)
Week 16: at Tennessee (win, 6-9)
Week 17: Home Indianapolis (win, 7-9)
There you go. Anything seem unreasonable there? Sure, maybe they beat the at least split with the Texans or lose to the Colts in Week 17, but that's picking nits.
4. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
If healthy -- and he has played 14 games in each of the last two seasons -- Matt Hasselbeck will be fine as a Hold The Fort Guy. This could be a team that surprises and wins eight or nine games, but a first-year coach (it'll be interesting to see how these rookie coaches do without an offseason) and some serious offensive and defensive line questions will probably lead to last place.
1. San Diego Chargers (11-5)
By default, really. I saw Peter King picked them to get to the Super Bowl, which is stunning if only because it means the most famous football writer in America evidently doesn't know that Norv Turner is head coach of the San Diego Chargers. If there was another team in this division somewhere close to frisky I'd run with them, because I think (even while picking them to win 11 games) the Chargers are on the decline. The Super Bowl window? Closed. The defense is all reputation at this point, and this is a group that never made the big play when they needed to (see the Jets game two years ago or Maroney running out the clock in the AFC Title Game). But Philip Rivers is a top five QB squarely in his prime, and he still has some weapons (Antonio Gates, Ryan Mathews, Vincent Jackson). In this terrible division that'll be enough to go wire-to-wire, but this is an eight or maybe nine-win team in the AFC East.
2. Oakland Raiders (9-7)
Yup, Nnamdi Asomugha and Zach Miller are very real losses, but this is a team that A) can run the ball (155.9 yards per game last season, second in the NFL) and B) has a top-10 defensive line with Matt Shaughnessy, Lamarr Houston, Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour. If Jason Campbell 2011 is Jason Campbell 2010 (13-8 TD/INT, 84.5 passer rating in 12 starts), the Raiders will be playing meaningful football games in December.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Zero wins last season against teams with a winning record, and it's an awfully big ask to expect Matt Cassel (27-7 TD/INT) or Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards rushing, 6.4 yards per carry) to repeat 2010 performances.
4. Denver Broncos (5-11)
I understand the Bears made the NFC title game last season, but it's hard to make the case that -- two years in -- they are ahead in the Orton-Jay Cutler trade. Orton has thrown for 41 touchdowns against 21 interceptions in 1,039 pass attempts (his passer rating is 87.2). Cutler has thrown 50 touchdown passes in 987 attempts, but with 42 INTs, twice as many as Orton (passer rating: 80.9). Forgetting for a moment the Bears gave up two first-round picks and a third-rounder (an early verdict would indicate that the Broncos haven't exactly turned these picks into the foundation of a dynasty), the play of these two guys has been a wash at best.
Tomorrow: NFC preview and playoff predictions