By David Mullen
Heads up! It’s time for NFL football.
Actually, it is heads down. The confusing new tackling rule regarding using your head is proving be a headache. Players remain perplexed as to what is a legal tackle and what is not. Referees, calling penalties in droves during preseason, seem confounded as well.
One more reason to keep your head down is if you think that there will be any surprises in the AFC this season. It looks like more of the same. Stop me if you have heard this one.
It appears that the New England Patriots are again the class of the AFC East and the entire AFC. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have nothing in common except winning. The Pats will assemble some no-name offensive weapons (save Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski), win the division and get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Buffalo Bills earned their first playoff berth in 16 years last season, and then decided to blow the team up. They dumped quarterback Tyrod Taylor and signed free agent defenders Vontae Davis, Trent Murphy and Star Lotuleli. One step forward on defense, but two steps back on offense is not an equation for returning to the playoffs.
The Miami Dolphins will be fishing for wins this year behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is returning from a knee injury. The New York Jets will be juggling quarterbacks before overall third draft pick Sam Darnold takes over the reins. It will be frustrating for Jets fans until the inevitable happens.
The AFC North again looks like nothing will change. Led by the aging Ben Roethlisberger, this could be the final years of the Pittsburgh Steelers as we knew them. But like the Steelers of old, they have a fearful pass rush and enough offense to win the division. It is easy to take shots at Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, even if he led Baltimore to Super Bowl XLVII, because he has accomplished little since and there is no reason for optimism here. But as long as they compete with the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, they remain the division’s second best team.
Cincinnati has the worst offense in the league. Cleveland has the worst coaching staff and front office in the league. They had two of the first four draft picks this year. Logic said take running back Saquon Barkley with the first pick and the best quarterback available with the fourth. Instead, they reached for quarterback Baker Mayfield with the first pick and took cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth. No wonder the Browns have won one game in the last two seasons.
They are not very sexy, but the Jacksonville Jaguars of the AFC South are good. They led the league in rushing last season, fueled by Leonard Fournette. Quarterback Blake Bortles got a contract extension for leading the Jags to their first winning season in 10 years. It will be two in a row this season.
The Houston Texans hope that quarterback DeShaun Watson returns to health and shows some of the spark he had before getting injured. Plus, with the Patriots, the Texans have the softest schedule in the league this season based on last season’s records.
New Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich inherited the same old situation: Can Andrew Luck stay healthy? With Luck in the lineup, the Colts are 46-30 with three playoff appearances. Without Luck, the team is 10-16. The Tennessee Titans could be a surprise team as quarterback Marcus Mariota enters his fourth season and is ready to gel.
There is no clear-cut favorite in the AFC West. The Denver Broncos are coming off of a rare losing season, but are sticking with head coach Vance Joseph. They made a big change at quarterback by acquiring Case Keenum, but adding defensive end Bradley Chubb through the draft to team with Von Miller may prove to be the best move.
The Los Angeles Chargers just missed the playoffs last year. This could be their year. In a sign of consistency, quarterback Philip Rivers is now the NFL ironman with 201 straight starts. The Kansas City Chiefs look extremely strong on offense, with receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce teaming with RB Kareem Hunt. The Oakland Raiders look simply offensive. Unless I am missing something, this is a team in total disarray under retread head coach Jon Gruden and his new 10-year, $100 million contract. Without holdout linebacker Khalil Mack, the Silver and Black have no chance.
So take the Patriots, Steelers, Jaguars and Chiefs as division winners, with the Chargers and Ravens as the Wild Card representatives. And if any team other than the New England Patriots represents the AFC in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, football fans everywhere will be shaking their heads.
Next week, we look at the NFC and the Dallas Cowboys.