It’s that time of year again, folks as football season is right around the corner. Training camps have opened and teams are preparing for the upcoming season. Questions from player statuses, competition races, team chemistry among many others will be asked before even the first regular season game kicks off. Another question that will be asked will be who will win the Super Bowl. Before we can determine who wins the Lombardi Trophy, we have to determine who will win the two respective conferences. Mike and Eddie will start by picking our respective AFC Conference champion. Here is Eddie’s thoughts along with his selection.
Now before I reveal who I believe will win the AFC, let me eliminate teams I don’t think will win the AFC. First off, the Houston Texans. Houston is currently in rebuild mode and have a lot of improvements to make under first-year head coach Bill O’Brien. Fellow AFC South teams that will not be winning the Super Bowl are the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans. No team outside the New England Patriots in the AFC East has legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl, at least not this season anyway. The Oakland Raiders are who they are and will not even make the playoffs let alone the conference title game. The San Diego Chargers will be competitive but ultimately fall short. I don’t see any team from the AFC North winning the Super Bowl this season either.
So that leaves me with the four teams I think have the best shot at winning he AFC this season: New England, Denver, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. The Denver Broncos are the reigning, defending AFC champions, but I think the opportunity to win another Super Bowl has passed them by. The Kansas City Chiefs are a team that could make a lot of noise this season, but I think the team is still a piece or two away from winning big, plus I’m not completely sold on Alex Smith. The Indianapolis Colts keep improving the more quarterback Andrew Luck improves (which is a lot), but I don’t think that team is quite ready either. My pick to win the AFC is the Patriots.
New England has won five straight AFC East titles, 10 of the last 11, and don’t really have a threat in the division this season. Last season the team finished 12-4 and lost to Denver in the AFC Title game 26-16. After giving up over 400 pass yards to Peyton Manning in that game, the Patriots needed to address its secondary and it did by acquiring cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency. Browner will miss the first four games due to a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy but once he returns to the field, New England will have arguably the best pass coverage in the league. The Patriots also can look forward to the return of playmaking linebacker Jerod Mayo from the injured list and safety Patrick Chung, who returns to the team after playing last season with the Philadelphia Eagles (Chung played his first 4 seasons with the Pats). Along with getting Mayo back from injury, nose tackle Vince Wolfork returns after tearing his Achilles in week four of last season making their defense better. New England ranks 7th in the past three seasons in points per game. In that same span, they lead the league in takeaways (101) with a +51 margin.
Offensively, Tom Brady is still under center for the Pats, so they are in good shape. The Patriots’ offense also gets a much needed weapon back in tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk missed most of last season due to an ACL injury. He returns this season healthy and ready to go, something Brady will be happy about. In the four seasons Brady has had Gronkowski as a teammate, he has 42 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions when targeting Gronk. Those numbers get even better in the red zone as Brady has 25 touchdowns to just one interception when targeting his big tight end. If Gronkowski stays healthy the entire season, he will be a huge difference maker due to the matchup problems he will cause along with his play-making ability. He will often times attract a double team which will allow wideouts Danny Amendola and free agent signee Brandon LaFell (who had a pretty good season with Cam Newtown last season in Carolina) to have more one-on-one coverage.
Bill Belichick had his work cut out for him last season with the multitude of injuries his team endured. All things considered, he did a fantastic job, but he will be looking to improve this season. Belichick is one playoff win shy of passing Tom Landry for most all time, something the Patriots have a great chance of getting him. The tandem of Brady and Belichick started off their playoff run with a 9-0 record, including three Super Bowls. However, since the Patriots last win the Super Bowl in 2004, the team is just 9-8 in the postseason, including two losses in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. This team has all the right tools to once again play for the Lombardi Trophy and I see them doing just that this season.
Eddie’s made his choice of the Patriots, but who does Mike have as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl? Let’s see.
The Broncos jumped all over the Patriots in Invesco Field last season on their way to the Super Bowl. But once they entered the Super Bowl, they ran into a buzzsaw. They were completely obliterated from the start of the game by the Seahawks. Of course the odds are against the Broncos to make it back to the Super Bowl. After all, most losing teams in the Super Bowl never sniff that game. But maybe this year can be different. Looking at the AFC, it seems like some teams are in rebuild mode while others tried to reload but did not do enough to threaten the top two teams in the AFC, Denver and New England. Both these teams definitely did some things to get better this offseason. But in my opinion, the Broncos more than solidified their stranglehold on the AFC with their additions.
Offensively, the Broncos were a well-oiled machine. They have playmakers all over the place, from Julius Thomas at tight end to Wes Welker lining up in the slot. This offseason they lost wide receiver Eric Decker to the New York Jets. But they found a replacement for him at a cheaper price in free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders formerly of the Steelers. The speedster has had trouble catching over the years, but with his talents and the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, Sanders could bring a new dynamic to the Broncos offense and make them even more explosive. The Broncos also will be replacing running back Knowshon Moreno, but that should not be as hard with the likes of Montee Ball ready to take over. As hard as it may be to believe, the Broncos may be even more explosive offensively next season.
But enough about the offense of the Broncos. Where the Broncos needed more help was the defensive side of the ball. Playmaking linebacker Von Miller was absent for most of the season due to injuries and a league-mandated suspension, so veteran pass-rusher Shaun Phillips had to step in and bring the heat on quarterbacks. Phillips performed admirably, but he alone was not able to provide the kind of pass rush the Broncos needed. And as a result, the Broncos defensive backs were left exposed at times. Sure, they made some plays, but they were left in coverage way to long due to lack of pressure on the quarterback. So to rectify that, the Broncos went out and signed defensive end Demarcus Ware (Cowboys) to replace Phillips. Considered one of the best modern-day pass rushers, Ware along with a revitalized Miller should provide that jolt in the pass rush the Broncos need. And just for good measure, the Broncos tightened up the back end of their defense with safety TJ Ward (Cleveland Browns) and cornerback Aqib Talib. In Ward, they add the best safety they have had since Brian Dawkins and an intimidator to opposing team’s offenses. And with Talib, you add one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in all of football.
With this revitalized defense along with the Peyton Manning-led full throttle offense, look for the Broncos to come out on fire. Add the sting of an embarrassing loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and this team will be ready to roll and will be on a mission.
So, who is your pick for making the Super Bowl out of the AFC? Broncos, Patriots or someone else? Let us know who you got.