By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –
In predicted order of finish by division:
2011: 13-3, 1ST in East.
2011 playoffs: Lost to New York Giants, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI.
They’re going all the way: What’s not to love about these Patriots? They’re coming off a 13-3 season and, going by 2011 results, have the easiest schedule in the league. Tom Brady is still in his productive years at 35, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are at the cutting edge of receiving tight ends, and the defense will get a big boost from the draft and free agency.
They’re doomed: Break out the under-construction tape, because the New England defense is an untested work in progress. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl last season despite a 31st-ranked defense that gave up an average of 21.4 points per game. A youth movement is afoot; the team’s first six draft picks play on that side of the ball. A budding star: defensive end Chandler Jones, the first-round pick.
Now hear this: “They’re doing a great job of holding.” — Receiver Wes Welker, with a smile, on the Patriots’ defense.
2011: 6-10, 4th in East.
Last year in playoffs: 1999.
They’re going all the way: Out of the playoffs for the last 12 years and fresh off a 1-8 tailspin to end last season, the Bills needed to do something dramatic. They focused on the defensive line and built the best in the conference (and maybe the NFL) by adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to an already talented unit. This should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
They’re doomed: Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to prove he’s the long-term answer at quarterback, and his performance plunged after he signed his big deal last season. He finished with a league-high 23 interceptions. He needs a wider array of receiving targets. Fred Jackson is a talented back, but he’s coming back from a broken leg.
Now hear this: “We’ve done some things right, but it’s time for us to close it out and win some games.” — General Manager Buddy Nix, on Twitter.
NEW YORK JETS
2011: 8-8, 2nd in East.
Last year in playoffs: 2010.
They’re going all the way: Maybe last season was a statistical hiccup. After all, the Jets made it to the AFC title game two years in a row before taking a big step backward and losing their final three games of 2011 to finish 8-8. Perhaps Tim Tebow can somehow unite a locker room that was hopelessly fractured after last season.
They’re doomed: New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, father of the modern wildcat scheme, figures he can play to the strengths of Tebow and starter Mark Sanchez and create an effective two-quarterback system. That has major flop potential. This is a make-or-break year for Rex Ryan, and the Jets aren’t making it easy on themselves.
Now hear this: “Am I confident in our defense? Absolutely. Granted, I said top five. That’s a given. I don’t care who’s out there…. That’s how confident we are.” — Ryan
2011: 6-10, 3rd in East.
Last year in playoffs: 2008.
They’re going all the way: Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill has looked good so far and has earned the starting job. The plan calls for him to be the rebuilding cornerstone for a franchise that has won seven, seven and six games in the last three seasons. The Dolphins have a stout defense, led by Cameron Wake, who has 28 sacks over the last three seasons.
They’re doomed: This isn’t going to be a quick fix. The offensive line is wet cement, Brandon Marshall — who would have been Tannehill’s top target — is playing for Chicago, and it’s risky building a ground game around the undersized Reggie Bush, who has one 1,000-yard season. There’s a reason Jeff Fisher and Peyton Manning took a look at Miami and chose to go elsewhere.
Now hear this: “We don’t think it’s too big for him.” — Coach Joe Philbin on Tannehill, who will be the first rookie quarterback in Dolphins history to start in an opener.
2011: 12-4, 2nd in North.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Denver Broncos, 29-23, in wild-card game.
They’re going all the way: Defense remains the cornerstone of the Steelers, and last year’s unit finished first in yards and points given up. If LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison can stay healthy, they’ll be a nightmare for any opposing quarterback. And, of course, Troy Polamalu is always lurking. On offense, Hines Ward is gone and Mike Wallace just returned Tuesday after a contract holdout, but the Steelers still have plenty of firepower.
They’re doomed: Will Ben Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley click right away, or will the quarterback push back when the coach gets in his face the first time? Running back Rashard Mendenhall is coming back from an ACL injury, and there is no timetable for his return. The running game is a huge concern.
Now hear this: “When you sit there and think he’s the only guy who’s ever made Kurt Warner curse, that’s kind of a shocker right there.” — Roethlisberger on Haley, who coached Warner in Arizona.
2011: 12-4, 1st in North.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Patriots in AFC championship game, 23-20.
They’re going all the way: The Ravens came within an eyelash of making the Super Bowl last season, and their team remains largely intact. Quarterback Joe Flacco has taken a lot of heat, yet he has advanced to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons and twice reached the conference title game. Ray Rice rolled up a league-high 2,068 yards in all-purpose offense. That said, Baltimore is built on defense.
They’re doomed: Loaded as the Ravens are on the defensive side, they won’t be able to fully replace Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, who suffered a partially torn Achilles’ tendon in April. It’s unclear when Suggs will be ready to return. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still have something left in the tank, but both are nearing the end of their careers.
Now hear this: “Ain’t no more 250-, 260-pound fullbacks and the offense running the ball 25, 30, 40 times.” — Lewis, who showed up at camp the thinnest he’s been in years, on why he’s playing lighter.
2011: 9-7, 3rd in North.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Houston Texans, 31-10, in wild-card game.
They’re going all the way: The rookie triangle of quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden exceeded expectations last season and helped make the Bengals relevant. First-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick should be a big help as long as he’s healthy, although he missed part of camp because of a knee injury.
They’re doomed: As surprising and memorable as last season was for the Bengals, the team left a lot of room for improvement. Cincinnati was only 1-8 against teams with winning records, and was swept by Baltimore and Pittsburgh. What’s more, Coach Marvin Lewis has taken his teams to the postseason three times in his 10 years, and the Bengals have yet to win a playoff game under him.
Now hear this: “I have always been criticized about having too many plays, but I would rather have too many plays than not enough. But we are going to continue to expand.” — Gruden, on beefing up the playbook “probably too much.”
2011: 4-12, 4th in North.
Last year in playoffs: 2002.
They’re going all the way: OK, it’s a little silly talking about the Browns’ Super Bowl chances this season, but the possibility of winning more than five games is within reach. The Browns haven’t done that in the last four years. The team addressed two burning needs in the draft, picking running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden, so that’s a start.
They’re doomed: The Browns averaged less than two touchdowns a game last season (13.6 points) and were 29th in total yards. In the last four years, the Browns have ranked 30, 31, 32 and 30 in scoring. In the tough AFC North, it will be difficult for them to escape the cellar. New owner Jimmy Haslam is going to expect better than that — he’s coming from the Steelers.
Now hear this: “There’s no reason this can’t be a winning franchise. Everything is here. If they don’t, I’ll accept the blame. It’s our fault we didn’t execute like we should. Every other piece is in place.” — Haslam, at his introductory news conference.
2011: 10-6, 1st in South.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Ravens, 20-13, in divisional game.
They’re going all the way: The Texans finally broke through and made the playoffs last season for the first time in franchise history. They have an elite running back in Arian Foster, the AFC’s best receiver in Andre Johnson, and a defense that made the jump from 30th to second last season under new coordinator Wade Phillips.
They’re doomed: Houston has been ravaged by injuries in recent years, with the Texans losing quarterback Matt Schaub, defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams (now in Buffalo) and Johnson last season. Most important is keeping Schaub on the field. The Texans were 7-3 when they lost him to a foot injury. They kept rolling, surprisingly, with unheralded rookie T.J. Yates and wound up winning a playoff game.
Now hear this: “We know that window of opportunity is small in this business. The talent level here is so good, we have to embrace every opportunity we have to go play.” — Schaub, to NFL.com.
2011: 2-14, 4th in South.
Last year in playoffs: 2010.
They’re going all the way: Yes, an icon has left the building with Peyton Manning exiting. But the way No. 1 pick Andrew Luck has looked this summer, the rebuilding Colts seem to be in promising hands. Luck will have receivers Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, which is a good start, and a defense that still has pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. This season probably won’t be pretty, but it won’t be a cover-your-eyes disaster.
They’re doomed: Remember, Manning’s Colts were 3-13 when he was a rookie, and he led the league with 28 interceptions. The transition to Luck is going to take time to reach a comfortable cruising altitude. Opposing quarterbacks had an average passer rating of 103.9 against the Colts last season, so this team in many ways will be starting from scratch on both sides of the ball.
Now hear this: “We’ve seen a few misses at the No. 1 spot. He ain’t no miss.” — Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin, to NBC, on Luck.
2011: 9-7, 2nd in South.
Last year in playoffs: 2008.
They’re going all the way: With no lockout and a second year in Chris Palmer’s offense, Chris Johnson should be back on track. He had a few big games last season but was well off his typical pace. The signing of Steve Hutchinson will help solidify the interior of the offensive line, a trouble spot last season.
They’re doomed: Second-year quarterback Jake Locker has gotten the starting nod over Matt Hasselbeck, and although Locker is much more mobile, he has accuracy issues. The Jaguars and Colts have young quarterbacks too, so Locker won’t be the only one learning on the fly. But his performance this summer has to give the Titans pause.
Now hear this: “They called me to see what I thought and I said, ‘That’s my man.’ Everyone is on board with this one, and I left it that way.” — Titans owner Bud Adams, to the Tennessean newspaper, on the decision to start Locker over Hasselbeck.
2011: 5-11, 3rd in South.
Last year in playoffs: 2007.
They’re going all the way: New Coach Mike Mularkey had success in Atlanta, where as offensive coordinator he helped the Matt Ryan-quarterbacked Falcons to four consecutive winning seasons. (Before that, the Falcons had not strung together two winning seasons in a row.) There’s a lot to like about Jacksonville’s defense, ranked sixth last season.
They’re doomed: Maurice Jones-Drew missed training camp as a contract holdout. No running back is more vital to his team, especially one with a young, skittish quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, and a star rookie receiver in Justin Blackmon who already has a DUI arrest under his belt.
Now hear this: “I passionately believe the big growth now is going to come from overseas.” — Jaguars owner Shad Khan, on committing to four home games in London over the next four years.
2011: 8-8, 1st in West.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Patriots, 45-10, in divisional game.
They’re going all the way: On one side of the ball, the Broncos have the league’s only four-time MVP in quarterback Peyton Manning. On the other side, they have defensive rookie of the year Von Miller, and a likely Hall of Fame cornerback in Champ Bailey. In between? A lot of questions. But this franchise that won a playoff game with Tim Tebow at the helm has the possibility to go deep into the playoffs with Manning running the show.
They’re doomed: Good thing Manning gets rid of the football quickly, because he’ll need to behind that offensive line. The defensive line is a concern too, and specifically its ability to stop the run. The addition of free-agent defensive tackle Justin Bannan and second-round pick Derek Wolfe should help bolster that front.
Now hear this: “It’s not hanging over me. It seems to be a hot topic. I had a lady the other day say, ‘Everybody just can’t wait to see you get hit.’ Thank you.” — Manning, on his durability.
2011: 8-8, 2nd in West.
Last year in playoffs: 2009.
They’re going all the way: Philip Rivers had 27 turnovers to go with his 27 touchdown passes last season. It’s highly unlikely he’s going to have another season that shaky. The Chargers lost Vincent Jackson but picked up Robert Meachem, who can stretch the field. Early signs are Melvin Ingram has star potential as a pass rusher.
They’re doomed: Where’s the killer instinct? After finally getting off to a good start last season, Norv Turner’s team went on to lose six in a row. The Chargers have warning-track power, and they’ve never shown anything more. There have been injuries to three vital players this summer: tackle Jared Gaither (back), receiver Vincent Brown (ankle) and running back Ryan Mathews (collarbone).
Now hear this: “We’re driven by not making the playoffs, not playing to our standard and not playing consistent. We love our coach. We love this organization. But we don’t know what the future holds.” — Safety Eric Weddle, to FoxSports.com.
2011: 8-8, 3rd in West.
Last year in playoffs: 2002.
They’re going all the way: The Raiders finally feel like one of 32 teams. They now have a general manager — and it’s not their owner — and a coach in Dennis Allen who’s not afraid to make the adjustments he thinks are necessary, rather than looking over his shoulder. That has to be a good thing. Now, a major key will be keeping running back Darren McFadden healthy.
They’re doomed: Carson Palmer isn’t the prototypical fit for the rollout-based offense Greg Knapp is bringing from Houston, although Palmer says he has no concerns about making the adjustment. The Raiders have made all sorts of changes, but they weren’t able to build through the draft since their first pick didn’t come until the third round.
Now hear this: “I know at some point we’ll have some Hall of Fame players who will slide through here and come watch practice. But at the same time, that was done the way that was done, and we’re going to do it the way that we’re going to do it.” — Allen, on the Raiders in the post-Al Davis era.
2011: 7-9, 4th in West.
Last year in playoffs: 2010.
They’re going all the way: The Chiefs are getting their offensive and defensive stars back from injury, running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry, and that should give them a big boost. The team also lost tight end Tony Moeaki for the entire 2011 season. Coach Romeo Crennel thinks Kansas City got a steal in the first round, using the 11th pick on Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
They’re doomed: Matt Cassel had a strong season in 2010 but dropped off the map the following year. The Chiefs have to wonder whether he’s the answer for them. Poe was a dicey first-round pick; a lot of talent evaluators weren’t impressed with him.
Now hear this: “Look at Romeo and how he is. People misunderstand Romeo’s calmness and his kindness and the fact he’s so genuine for a guy who’s a flat-line guy. He is not a flat-line guy. He is not non-competitive. He is not Joey Chuckles. He is all business.” — General Manager Scott Pioli, on his head coach.