Predicting the 2006 AFC Division Winners

Training camps are closing down, the baseball pennant chase is heating up, kids are going back to school, it can only mean one thing: Football is coming. With the regular season starting in a couple of weeks its high time for a predictions column, filled with wild and often unsubstantiated guesses; I mean predictions. Let’s get this thing going.

AFC East: In this division there are two options. You could go with the sexy pick or the reliable one. The Bills can be eliminated because whoever wins their QB job, their names will still be either Kelly Holcombe or JP Losman. Buffalo fans will continue to lobby for Jim Kelly to unretire. The Jets can be eliminated because they flat out stink. No good QB, questions with running game, and a so-so defense will doom Jets fans to another Top 10 draft pick, hopefully it won’t be a fullback or a kicker. Now back to the sexy pick and the steady pick. The sexy pick is the MIami Dolphins. After finishing last season by winning six straight games and adding a former All Pro Quarterback in Daunte Culpepper, many “experts” have picked the Dolphins to win the AFC East and some have even picked the Fins to have homefield advantage in the Superbowl. I’m not quite ready to jump on this bandwagon. Daunte must convince me and other doubters that his pre-2005 numbers were not caused by Randy Moss and that he is an All Pro QB in his own right. Other than their QB situation the Dolphins look like a good team. They have a fast, attacking defense, a smart head coach in Nick Saban, and a stud receiver in Chris Chambers. If Daunte is able to post his 2004 numbers, look for the Dolphins to make the wild card. If 2005 Daunte shows up, look for the Dolphins to be spending alot more time on South Beach. That is why I am making my pick conditional. If Daunte has a good, not great, but good year and throws at least 25 TDs the Dolphins will make the postseason, if not they will just miss out. Now for the steady pick. There has been some “drama” in New England the last few weeks, but most is just overhyped nonstories intended for the panicky fans of the Northeast. Ignore the stories about Tom Brady calling Greg Anderson six years ago, Bill Belichick’s love life, and Deion branch’s holdout. Branch will eventually sign with New England and all will be fine and the other two stories are way too rediculous to say anything about. The Pat’s veteran defense is smart and well coached. Their starting linebackers are the best in the league, the D-line will put tremendous pressure on the quarterback with All Pro Richard Seymour, and the seconday was solidified with free agent signing Ernest Warfield. A healthy Pat’s team will rebound after a disapointing 2005 campaign and will contend for the championship once again.

Predicted AFC East Standings:

New England Patriots: 12-4
Miami Dolphins: 9-7 if Daunte Culpepper passes for more than 25 tds 11-5 and Wild Card #2
Buffalo Bills: 7-9
New York Jets: 4-12

AFC South: By far and way the easiest divison to pick in the AFC. The Texans should be better with a new coaching staff and a revamped defense and offensive line. That said they will still finish last in their divison, but not as miserably as last year. The Titans will feauture a gun slinging offense, but less defense than France in 1940. With either Vince Young or Billy Volek tossing the rock the Titans should put up some points but their atrocius defense will blow many games late. Following their salary dump of 2005 the Titans lost many defensive starters and have still not filled many of those holes. Look for a team like the Colts to drop fifty points on the Titans this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a very solid team with no obvious flaws. Their defense is firm with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson anchoring a fierce defensive line, Marcus Peterson leads a talented corps of linebackers, and big hitting Donovan Darius spearheads a hardhitting secondary. Byron Leftwich, by far the toughest player you will ever see, is protected by a good offensive line and has three talented young receivers looking to break out this year. Reggie Williams has the potential to be a superstar in this league and Matt Jones is an athletic freak. Last year’s surprise Ernest Wilford is the number one receiver in an offense that should increase in production this year. Also, look for Fred Taylor to finally stay healthy and have an All Pro year. The only thing stopping the Jags is their tough schedule, as they play nine out of their sixteen games against teams that finished last year over .500. Look for them to sneak into the second wild card spot. The Colts should easily win this division. With a high powered offense led by Peyton Manning and their improved defense look for the Colts to easily win their division once again.

Predicted AFC South Standings:

Houston Texans: 6-10
Tennessee Titans: 7-9
Jacksonville Jaguars: 10-6 (Wildcard #2) only if Daunte throws less than 25 tds.
Indianapolis Colts: 13-3

AFC North:
The most talented divison in all of football is the AFC North. Home of two of last year’s playoff teams and a much improved Raven’s team, one team in this division is going to get shafted out of the playoffs. A long time ago somebody on the Browns must have done something to anger the football Gods. With yet another big free agent acquisiton/rookie going down with a season ending injury (LeCharles Bentley) the Browns have looked at eight centers in the last month. That coupled with a young QB and a poor defense will keep the Dawg Pound from cheering in the playoffs. When asked about their disastrous 6-10 season last year, quoth the Ravens “nevermore”. Acting on this they signed All Pro QB Steve McNair to turn their weakest position into one of their strongest. Jailbird running back Jamal Lewis should be more focused after last years 906 yard, 3.4 ypc debacle and return to his All Pro form. Their defense, as always, is tremendous and Ray Lewis will vastly improve on last year’s numbers because a revamped D-line will free him up from the double teams. However, these unfortunate birds will just miss out on a playoff spot courtesy of some obscure tiebreaker with the Jaguars. The Bengals have a fast, attacking defense and a flashy, yet top tier receiver in Chad Johnson. The only question for the Bengals involves Carson Palmer’s knee: Will he or won’t he be able to play at last year’s level. If yes, look for the Bengals to cruise in the playoffs, if not look for a return of the Bengals of old. In reality, Palmer will play well but not at last year’s level, allwoing the cats to squeeze into the first wildcard spot. Finally there is the defending Super Bowl Champs. The Steel City is home to the best defense in the league and a great passing and rushing attack. Fast Willie Parker should have a tremendous year and Ben Roethlisberger will be able to air it out to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Look for the Steelers to win this highly competitive division, but just barely.

Predicted AFC North Standings:

Cleveland Browns: 2-14
Baltimore Ravens: 10-6
Cincinatti Bengals: 11-5 (Wild Card #1)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4

AFC West: The AFC West is another highly competitive division, with three playoff caliber teams. The Raiders will have another disapointing year due to a lack of defense and turnover machine Aaron Brooks at QB. The Chargers are a good team with an improved defense, the top tight end in the league with Antonio Gates, and the best running back in the league in LaDanian Tomlinson. However, inexperienced quarterback Phillip Rivers will have trouble against tough defenses like Denver’s and their poor wide receivers will hamper their playoff run. Look for the Bolts to start strong but lose steam late and miss out on a playoff bid. The Kansas City Chiefs are a very good team, but will barely miss out on the playoffs for a third straight year. Their running game is going to be spectacular once again and their passing game should improve with star wideout Eddie Kennison and All Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez. Unfortunately for the Chiefs they have several questions on offense. First, how will the loss of offensive coordinator Al Saunders affect the offense and how will All World tackle Willie Roaf’s retirement affect running game and pass protection. These two problems will hamper the Chief’s offense. Also, the Chief’s defense is improved, but still run of the mill compared to other playoff caliber teams. The winner in this competitive division will be the Broncos. They return most of their defensive and offensive starters. However, the one thing that could ruin their chances of another championship run is Jake Plummer. If Jake the Snake implodes, as he has done before, the Broncos will miss the playoffs and the next Joe Montana, Jay Cutler, will be leading the Broncos next year.

Predicted AFC West Standings:

Oakland Raiders: 4-12
San Diego Chargers: 8-8
Kansas City Cheifs: 9-7
Denver Broncos: 11-5

Closing Words:
Alright, I know that all the teams I picked also made the playoffs last year. In fact, I just realized it as I finished. However, top to bottom the AFC is much stronger than the NFC and leaves little room for Cinderellas. In my NFC predictions column, which will come later, there will definitely be a few surprises.

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