2016 NFL Preview: All You Need to Know About the AFC
The 2016 NFL season starts for real on Thursday night, followed by a full Sunday of games (and wings and pizza and beer and…). Here’s what you need to know about the AFC this year.
Key AFC Questions
How Will Tom Brady’s Suspension Affect the Patriots?
After what seemed like the world’s longest legal process, New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady will finally serve a four-game suspension that stretches back to his actions in the 2014 AFC title game. Unproven backup Jimmy Garoppolo will get the offensive reigns of the NFL’s most hated franchise for the first four weeks of the 2016 season. The Pats are probably good enough to start 0-4 and still make the playoffs… or are they?
Can the Broncos Repeat Without a Proven QB?
With all due respect to the now-retired Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos made last season’s Super Bowl-winning run with defense. That approach works over a short stretch, but it’s harder to do over an entire season. Untested QB Trevor Siemian will guide the Denver offense to start this season, but he may be replaced by rookie Paxton Lynch by Week 8. Who? Exactly. The Broncos defense needs to be on-point, because their offense doesn’t figure to score many.
Are the Raiders for Real?
Along with the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders have been every NFL pundit’s favorite punchline since 2003, their last postseason game. Armed with a young and talented cast led by quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper on offense and Kahlil Mack on defense, the Silver and Black seem to be back. The team needs to deliver a playoff run in 2016, even if they may take the franchise to Las Vegas in 2017.
Can the Ryan Brothers Get the Bills Back to the Playoffs?
Defensive-minded coaches Rex and Rob Ryan are together again in Buffalo. While injuries to many of the franchise’s young stars — Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland — may keep them from making a run at the AFC East this season, the talent is there for the Bills to be in the playoff chase. No team’s press conferences will be more fun.
Teams Most Likely to Win the AFC
Pittsburgh Steelers: Led by a devastating offensive attack, the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s toughest opponents. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have weapons like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell back with him, even though the latter must serve a three-game suspension to start the season. Receiver Martavis Bryant is suspended for all of 2016, though. On the bright side, the Pittsburgh defense should be much better with rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis helping out in the defensive backfield. Head coach Mike Tomlin has more than enough talent to get this team to the AFC title game.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Kansas City Chiefs flamed out against the Patriots in the playoffs, but with a break here or there, they could have just as easily been the team facing Carolina in the Super Bowl. Head coach Andy Reid returns with a team that seems ready to take the next step. Running back Jamaal Charles should return to join quarterback Alex Smith and receiver Jeremy Maclin in a potent offensive attack. The defense is slightly weaker, at least until Justin Houston returns from injury, but it can still get after the quarterback.
AFC Contenders That Will Fall Short
Denver Broncos: Led by Von Miller, coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense will once again push the Broncos into playoff contention, but it’s hard to imagine that unknown quarterback Trevor Siemian can lead this team back to the AFC title game. Head coach Gary Kubiak will emphasize the running game, but Denver likely won’t score enough points to hang with the Steelers and Chiefs.
New England Patriots: Even with quarterback Tom Brady gone for four games to start the season and some holes on defense, New England has enough talent to win the AFC East again. Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are joined by tight end Martellus Bennett in a star-studded receiving corps that should make it easy for Jimmy Garoppolo until Brady returns. However, the Pats don’t stack up as well with Pittsburgh and Kansas City this season.
Cincinnati Bengals: Is this the year head coach Marvin Lewis leads the Cincinnati Bengals to their first postseason win since 1991? Maybe, but there’s no way that Cincy wins two or three games. It’s more likely that last season’s shocking Wild Card loss against the rival Steelers sends this team into a middling year, even with a healthy Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
Indianapolis Colts: Even with the return of injured quarterback Andrew Luck, who signed a six-year, $140 million deal in the offseason, the Colts don’t have enough balance to be a true Super Bowl contender. They should score enough to win the AFC South, but it’s unlikely they can do more than one playoff win.
AFC Rookies to Watch
Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers
After a particularly ugly holdout, the No. 3-overall pick in the NFL Draft will play for San Diego this season. Bosa may take time to get into NFL shape, but he should eventually give the Chargers a stud pass rusher equivalent to Von Miller (Broncos), Khalil Mack (Raiders) and Justin Houston (Chiefs).
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
The Titans are building a roster full of exciting young players, and second-round pick Derrick Henry fits perfectly. Henry will be counted on to give defenses something to think about outside of Marcus Mariota’s passing attack. Henry will likely get fewer carries than veteran DeMarco Murray to start the season, but any Eagles fan can tell you that Henry should be starting by Week 5.
Darron Lee, LB, Jets
The Jets needed help at linebacker, and first-round pick Darron Lee will deliver it. Lee’s athleticism and ability should make him an impact rookie and future Pro Bowler. As for getting the Jets back to the playoffs… well, he can’t throw the ball, too.
AFC Player on the Hot Seat: Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans signed quarterback Brock Osweiler away from the Broncos in the offseason. While the move hurt Denver’s chances to repeat, it’s not clear if it pushed the reigning AFC South champs into Super Bowl contender status. If Osweiler doesn’t produce better than Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden or T.J. Yates — a low bar, for sure — the heat will be on for the QB and the front office. Rookie wide receivers Braxton Miller and Will Fuller should help.
AFC Coach on the Hot Seat: Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars
Truth: the Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t usually considered playoff contenders. If that’s the case in 2016, head coach Gus Bradley could be in trouble. Entering his fourth year at the helm of the Jags, Bradley must get his team to at least compete for the AFC South title. The defense must improve with highly touted rookies Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack on board, and quarterback Blake Bortles and Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson can’t regress.
AFC East: New England
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Indianapolis
AFC West: Kansas City
AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati and Oakland