“To be the man, you gotta beat the man” – Ric Flair
For the NFL, more importantly in the AFC, the team to beat this upcoming season is the reigning, defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Last season, Denver was able to ride the coat tails of a stout defense and mediocre at-best quarterback play to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for a third time in franchise history.
The biggest question for the Broncos in 2016 is whether or not they can replicate that same success with relying on a defense and hoping for the best from the quarterback position. Peyton Manning retired after winning his second Super Bowl. Brock Osweiler departed for greener pastures in Houston. Mark Sanchez looked like he was going to be named the starter, but a not-so-good camp saw him get released.
Now, Denver will put second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian under center to start the season, while rookie Paxton Lynch will serve as the backup. There is little to know about Siemian other than the fact he has never thrown a pass in the regular season. Lynch was drafted 26th overall with John Elway hoping to mold him into the franchise quarterback.
With the uncertainty at the quarterback position, look for a heavy dosage of CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Anderson picked up his play in the second half of last season and can really take some pressure of Siemian while he learns the ropes.
The defense was elite last season, but took some hits during the offseason. Defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan were both lost in free agency and with the loss, the Broncos are losing 18.5 sacks from a season ago. Despite the contract distractions, Elway and defensive end and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller agreed to a long-term deal. Miller’s partner in crime, DeMarcus Ware, has had back issues throughout camp, but if healthy will be key for the Broncos again.
The gap in the AFC West is closing with the Chiefs being a good football team and the Raiders slowly putting their puzzle pieces together. Denver has a good shot at making the postseason, but it will be even tougher to repeat as champions.
The odds-on favorites to win the AFC and the Super Bowl is the New England Patriots. The biggest concern for the Pats is how they weather the storm of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension. Jimmy Garoppolo will get the nod while Brady is forced out of action. Garoppolo has served as Brady’s backup and understudy for the past three seasons, so that could be a good sign for the Pats. Remember, Aaron Rodgers sat under the learning tree of Brett Favre in Green Bay and it’s safe to say, that worked out for the Packers fairly well.
Another thing to note regarding the play of Garoppolo is the fact that this is a contract year for him. If he can prove that he can play and excel through the first four games, he should be rewarded in the offseason. He doesn’t have to replicate what Brady does on the field, he just has to make the right throws. He has weapons in all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski and tight end Martellus Bennett, who was acquired in the offseason. He also has Julian Edelman to throw to in the slot. If worse comes to worse, he can always turn and hand the ball off to running back LeGarrette Blount.
When Brady returns from suspension, he will be hell-bent on avenging the time he missed in a case that he originally had won. That’s not good for the opposition, a pissed off Tom Brady.
On the defensive side of the football, New England will look to replace the production of defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. That will be no easy feat, but if anyone can get the most out of a defense, it’s Bill Belichick. The defense will still be good, but it will be interesting to see how Jones’ production gets replaced. Also, the Pats will have to overcome another four-game suspension, to Rob Ninkovich.
New England should have no problems winning the AFC East yet again or getting one of the top-two seeds in the AFC. If the Patriots can go 2-2 or better in Brady’s absence, it will be a lot easier for them to dominate the AFC.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, have arguably the NFL’s most explosive offense, when they are all on the field. Ben Roethlisberger will enter his 13th season and injuries have not been kind to the 34-year old quarterback, as he’s only played in all 16 games twice since 2008. If he is able to avoid the injury bug, he and wide receiver Antonio Brown will need to be even more prolific during the season.
Brown is the best wide receiver in football due to his ability to run routes and create plays with his athleticism. Double teams don’t always work when defending Brown. He is able make a short play turn into a home run. He will see even more coverage this season as fellow receiver Martavis Bryant will miss the entire season due to suspension stemming from violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Speaking of suspensions, Pittsburgh will have to get past the first three games without stud running back Le’Veon Bell who was also suspended for violation of the substance abuse policy. Bell will be coming off an ACL tear he suffered last November and is also in a contract year. He will look to prove to the Steelers he has his off-the-field issues put to rest and the ability to bounce back from a gruesome knee injury. DeAngelo Williams will be the starter in Bell’s absence, which last year he proved he can handle the load.
For as good as the offense is, the biggest question mark will be the secondary. This has been an area of concern for the black and gold for some time now. They drafted Artie Burns and Sean Davis with the hope of them producing at the NFL level. Their front seven isn’t bad, but they’re missing the marquee name to rush the passer. James Harrison is 38-years old, so how much does he really have to offer?
The schedule makers did the Steelers a huge favor and if the offense can stay on the field, opposing teams will have to put up 30-plus points in order to beat them. Regardless of how much of a question the secondary will be, this team has the makings to make another Super Bowl run.
The Steelers will have to deal with the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals twice and possibly a third time this season. Last season, after winning the division, the Bengals choked away a golden opportunity to knock the Steelers out of the playoffs in the first round. That has been the Achilles’ Heel of the Bengals; not being able to get past the first round.
Cincinnati has been in the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, yet can’t get over the hump of Wild Card weekend. In the loss to Pittsburgh a year ago, the Bengals had an opportunity to put their first round woes being them, until a costly turnover and two boneheaded penalties did them in. This has to be the year that if the Bengals can’t win a playoff game, Marvin Lewis could find himself looking for a new gig.
The offense took some hits in the offseason with the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but replaced them with free agent Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd. AJ Green is still an explosive threat and when tight end Tyler Eifert returns from injury, he will add depth to theDalton led attack. Can the Red Rifle finally lead this team over the hump?
In the backfield, Cincinnati has the luxury of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Hill will look to be the workhorse and bounce back from a down 2015 campaign after tearing up his rookie season. Bernard provides an explosiveness on the edge and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. If this tandem can return to form, Cincinnati can mask some issues they run into on offense.
As most of the above mentioned teams, defense will be the biggest x-factor for this team. They lost safety Reggie Nelson and corner back Leon Hall in free agency, but still have enough talent to compete. The Bengals will be without linebacker Vontaze Burfict for three games due to a suspension and even when he returns, that won’t mean a lot unless he shows he has changed. Burfict committed one of the penalties last year against the Steelers, which is why he was suspended. If he can show signs that he has matured, Cincinnati will be better off.
The Kansas City Chiefs are the biggest threat to the Broncos in the AFC West. If running back Jamaal Charles can return to form from a week five ACL tear, the Chiefs will get back one of the bet playmakers in football. He has the ability to take the football to pay dirt on any given play. He is 29-years old, which is when running backs start to slow down, but his health will be key for Kansas City.
If Alex Smith can continue to be the ultimate game manager, the team will yet again enjoy success. The 32-year old has never thrown for more than 3,500 yards or 24 touchdowns, yet has a record of 30-16 as the Chiefs starter. Kansas City signed right guard Mitchell Schwartz to give Smith some much-needed help on that side of the line. Smith has two key weapons in wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelcie, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance a year ago.
Going into the offseason, the Chiefs had a lot of questions on whether or not they could keep the core intact. They were able to retain outside linebacker Tamba Hali, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Jaye Howard. Safety Eric Berry was in a contract dispute, but agreed to the franchise tender. Bringing back all four of those players is huge for the Chiefs. Outside of Smith’s play and Charles’ health, another x-factor for the Chiefs is how soon outside linebacker Justin Houston can return from offseason ACL surgery. He had the surgery in February and was expected to miss 6-12 months. If he can come back healthy, he will be able to add even more depth to this explosive defense.
The Indianapolis Colts shouldn’t be ruled out, especially if quarterback Andrew Luck can bounce back from an injury-filled 2015 season. The Houston Texans have the defense, but is Brock Osweiler the answer under center to win the AFC South? The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are on the rise, but are still a year or two and a piece or two away from contending for a Super Bowl.