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Jan 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (28) blocks for quarterback Peyton Manning (18) against the New England Patriots during the 2013 AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bold Predictions: Picking 2014 AFC Playoff Teams

Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos were overwhelming favorites to win the AFC in 2013, and I don’t expect the balance of power to change in 2014. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are always in the thick of things in the AFC, so don’t be surprised if they are still around come January. The AFC South appears to be one of the weakest divisions in football, with the exception of Indianapolis, who have one of the brightest young stars in quarterback Andrew Luck. The North on the other hand is one of the most physical and wide-open divisions in the NFL, giving Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cleveland a chance to make a playoff appearance.

AFC North

Aug 16, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) throws the ball in the first quarter against the New York Jets at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals have the tools and the talent to compete in the AFC. They have an extraordinary defense and a very balanced offense. The only possible downfall of this squad is the curse of giving your quarterback a huge contract. See Tony Romo and Sam Bradford. Andy Dalton is a talented quarterback, so don’t misquote me. He hasn’t done it in the postseason yet though. He needs to make it past the Wild Card round this season with the talent around him.

The Baltimore Ravens can’t miss the playoffs two seasons in a row, right? Like the rest of their division, their defense is fierce. Quarterback Joe Flacco has proven that he can win the big games, but last season was a struggle. With a healthy Dennis Pitta and newly acquired veteran Steve Smith to throw to, look for this team to bounce back in a big way.

Pittsburgh must get back to the aspect of football that they know best, laying down the law on defense. Classic Steeler squads were predicated on defense, and last year that wasn’t on display. The offense certainly struggled, but the defense has to improve. Ben Roethlisberger has the best season of his career in 2013 and the Steelers failed to miss the playoffs. Something must absolutely change in 2014 for Mike Tomlin’s team.

Cleveland has had all of the spotlight on them in 2014, and the season hasn’t even begun yet. Johnny Manziel, the biggest celebrity in the NFL at this time won’t even be the opening day starter. Wide receiver Josh Gordon has a lengthy suspension looming too. I don’t see the Browns being the talk of the town this year. Leave that for Lebron and the Cavs.

AFC South

The Indianapolis Colts are the class of the AFC South. Quarterback Andrew Luck has proven to be everything that was advertised coming out of Stanford, and more. If you don’t believe that, then just watch last season’s playoff game against the Chiefs. Offensively, this team can be one of the best if Trent Richardson learns to hit the holes better. Their challenge will be keeping points off of the board.

Aug 16, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (90) celebrates after making a sack during the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars have a young squad, and coach Gus Bradley is the perfect guy to be in charge. Don’t go predicting the Jags will make the playoffs just yet, but this team and its fan base have every reason to be excited. Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles looks phenomenal thus far, even though he’s unlikely to start opening day. The Jags also acquired two talented receivers via this year’s draft in Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee. If not this season, look out for Jacksonville in the future.

Houston was undoubtably the surprise team of 2013 for all the wrong reasons. Starting off 2-0 and then finishing 0-14 isn’t something to brag about. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for former coach Gary Kubiak. The team added former-Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, which doesn’t really solve their dilemma at the position. The defense has the makings of something special, with JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney paired opposite one another, but the offense will heavily depend on Fitzpatrick or possibly one of the young quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart.

On paper, the Tennessee Titans may not be the sexiest team, but it is quite possible that they can make a push for the playoffs in a weak division. That is of course incumbent upon Jake Locker remaining healthy. When healthy, Locker has the dynamic ability to produce spectacular plays. The Titans have a talented backfield as well, despite the departure of Chris Johnson for New York.

AFC East

Aug 16, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; New York Jets running back Chris Johnson (21) runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East, winning the division each of the past five seasons. Bill Belichick’s team have the makings of another deep playoff run in 2014. Led by ever-youthful Tom Brady, New England are revamped with the return of Rob Gronkowski looming and the additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

The New York Jets made several big splashes this offseason, adding key free agents like Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. Despite the “competition” at quarterback, the Jets have the makings of a playoff team if things fall the right way. Injuries will ultimately make or break Rex Ryan’s season.

Miami was on the verge of a playoff appearance in 2013, despite the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal. Like the Jets and Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins are right on the cusp of catching the New England Patriots. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will have to take the next step though if Joe Philbin’s team wants to make a playoff run. The offensive line will feature five new starters in 2014, and dictate whether the Dolphins go 10-6 or 6-10.

Geno Smith isn’t the only second year quarterback in the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills are in the same boat as the Jets. Both teams will rely on young signal callers to carry them to January. The addition of first round draft pick Sammy Watkins will be a huge boost for Manuel and the Bills in the passing game.

AFC West

The Denver Broncos are the class of the AFC West. After the beating that the Broncos took in the Super Bowl, the team hit the free agent market and added key pieces to their defense. Demarcus Ware, TJ Ward, and Aqib Talib are all quality, established players that will help sure up Denver defensively. With Peyton Manning and the rest of the talent on offense, it’s hard to believe that this team won’t make another Super Bowl run in 2014.

Jan 12, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) reacts to his touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Chargers have a high-powered offense, making them a huge threat in the AFC. Phillip Rivers is coming off of one of his best seasons as a pro, and even though he doesn’t have the abilities of Peyton Manning, his team will still be in the mix this season.

Andy Reid had an impressive debut season with the Kansas City Chiefs, jumping out to a 10-0 start and making a playoff appearance. His team will want to build on that in 2014. Quarterback Alex Smith needs to take that big step from being a game manager to a gun-slinger if the Chiefs want to make noise in a talented division.

The Oakland Raiders quietly went about their business this offseason, but adding quality pieces in the process. The three names to watch offensively will be quarterback Matt Schaub, Maurice Jones-Drew, and former-Packer James Jones. The defense made great strides in improving as well, with the additions of rookie linebacker Khalil Mack and veteran lineman LaMarr Woodley. Oakland are likely to fall under the radar, but the team has the necessary players to succeed.

 

AFC Playoff Seedings

1 Denver

2 Indianapolis

3 Cincinnati

4 New England

5 San Diego

6 Baltimore

Teams Just Missing Out

Miami Dolphins

Kansas City Chiefs

New York Jets

Pittsburgh Steelers

Good, But Not Good Enough

Oakland Raiders

Buffalo Bills

Jacksonville Jaguars

Doomed From The Start

Tennessee Titans

Cleveland Browns

Houston Texans

 

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