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2014 NFL Playoff Predictions: Patriots, Steelers Return to Their AFC Dominance
Last year, I made my June predictions for the 2013 AFC playoff picture. While attempting to predict the NFL season when Organized Team Activities have only just begun can be considered foolhardy, playful discussion amongst fans is a great way to pass the time and generate anticipation for this year's football season. Plenty of questions will be answered this fall. For instance, can the Chargers make it back to the playoffs? Will the Colts defense survive without Robert Mathis for four games? How will the Broncos make it back to the Super Bowl? Let's take a look at some predictions for the American Football Conference!
1. Shiny New Defense and More Experienced Offense Leads Patriots to #1 Seed
Last year's Patriots squad was underwhelming by New England standards. After a 12-4 season in 2012 in which they boasted the league's best offense and the ninth ranked defense, the 2013 Patriots sputtered to win their first two games of the season by a mere five points combined. While they still managed to win their division and battle the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game, it was clear that the personnel in New England weren't as skilled on both sides of the ball as they had been the year before. Injuries to key performers and inexperienced rookie play deterred the Patriots from much of the dominance they were used to.
In 2014, that will change. Tom Brady's receiving corp will have a full year of experience under its belt (although Rob Gronkowski's return remains a wild card). LeGarrette Blount is gone, but a healthy Shane Vereen along with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden can nicely anchor the backfield. Vince Wilfork will be back and healthy to commandeer the defensive line.
But let's talk about the most obvious change: the secondary. While Aqib Talib was an exceptional talent at cornerback, he was injury prone. The real winner of free agency was New England; not only is Brandon Browner a Patriot, but so is Darrelle Revis. Naysayers might point to last year's film to refute his impact, but Revis was recovering from a tough ACL injury and playing for a terrible team. With an offense that can actually stay on the field, I expect the Revis-Browner duo to be one of the most terrifying defensive tandems in the NFL. The blend of offensive and defensive power under Bill Belichick will put the Patriots in a prime position to win it all in 2014.
2. Healthy Backfield and Defensive Youth Revitalize Steeler Nation
After two 8-8 seasons in a row, this will be the year the Steelers return to owning the AFC North. With a healthy Le'veon Bell and a newly-arrived LeGarrette Blount, the Steelers will be able to grind out tough yards thanks to a deep backfield. The defense is able to maintain its veteran presence in the secondary, but Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier are leading a youth movement in the front seven. Emmanuel Sanders is gone, but let's not count out Big Ben Roethlisberger to get the job done at the QB position. Antonio Brown will be back and Heath Miller will be healthy; for as long as Big Ben can stay healthy, the Steelers have huge chance to improve an offense that was sixteenth in the league last year.
The Ravens are still a bit stuck in the mud, Cleveland is Cleveland, and the Bengals have failed to capitalize on their playoff appearances; now is the time for Steelers Nation to rejoice upon reaching the top of their division once more.
3. Indianapolis Colts Struggle, but Continue Owning the AFC South
This defense is going to miss Robert Mathis, who will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As a group that largely overachieved last year, missing their most dominant player will not make the start of the season easy. However, if the Colts can win at least one of their first two games (at Broncos and home against the Eagles) then they can certainly beat the Titans and Jaguars to start off 2-2 or 3-1. After that, it should be easy for the Colts to stay in cruise control to defeat the remainder of their regular season opponents.
Andrew Luck improved by leaps and bounds last year. As long as he's on the field leading the Colts, they will easily decimate their divisional foes. While the defense and running game may struggle, look for the Colts to keep on rolling.
4. Denver Broncos Return to Playoffs to Make Their Claim
In case you live under a rock, you may be surprised to learn that the Broncos, boasting the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, were decidedly crushed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the free agency period lead to the departures of key players like wide receiver Eric Decker to the New York Jets, running back Knowshon Moreno to the Miami Dolphins, and franchise great Champ Bailey to the New Orleans Saints.
However, don't look for the denizens of Mile High Stadium to miss the trio too much. Decker was quickly replaced by Emmanuel Sanders, who many consider to be the superior player. Likewise, Moreno will most likely be replaced by second-year back Montee Ball. Look at it this way: in 2012, Moreno rushed for over 1,000 yards, caught 60 passes for over 500 yards, and scored 13 total touchdowns, and Ball's the better player. After a full offseason with the team, Ball should make an excellent contribution, provided he can reduce his fumbling.
Meanwhile, Champ Bailey's presence on defense will not be sorely missed. He is often regarded as one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, but Bailey is 35 years old and is no longer capable of shutting a receiver down with any consistency. Newly arrived free agents Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware will contribute immediately; with a healthy Von Miller, we may see the Denver defense return to its prime 2012 form.
The Broncos will also benefit from a still relatively weak division. While the Chargers and Chiefs were both good enough to make the playoffs last year, it would be a surprise to see them both return. The Raiders managed to make some decent offseason pickups, but it won't be enough to compete for the division title. Look for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to get another chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
5. Cleveland Browns: Potential for Upset
The 2014 Cleveland Browns have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs in 2014.
Now that you've read that, I'm sure you're probably thinking I've gone bonkers; heck, maybe I have. Nonetheless, it's important to acknowledge that, defensively, the Browns did quite well in 2013. When you consider that they played some high scoring opponents like the Lions, Packers, Patriots, and Bears, it's amazing that the Browns finished the season with a top 10 defense. With the defensive talent recognized, we now know the Browns can improve their chances of victory if they can establish some consistency on offense.
What we don't know now is how long Josh Gordon will be gone; it's safe for us to assume he'll be out for at least eight games, but let's say that he doesn't contribute at all this season. I believe Brian Hoyer can earn the Browns some wins, and he has a capable safety blanket in Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron. Free agent Ben Tate and underrated rookie Terrance West will give the Browns a solid running game (and perhaps contribute even more than that). While the Browns didn't blow anyone away in free agency, they may be able to gain some value from veteran presences, such as Miles Austin at the receiver position.
Here's where the wildfire comes in: Johnny Manziel. If he beats out Brian Hoyer in training camp (and I certainly think he can), look for the Browns to make some plays. The alignment of the stars is all too familiar; Kyle Shanahan is acting as offensive coordinator for a team stuck at the bottom of its division for years, with a mobile, Heisman-winning first round pick rookie quarterback. Where have we heard that one before? Oh yeah, that was in 2012 when a healthy Robert Griffin III scorched the NFL with a 5:1 Touchdown/Interception ratio, made over 800 rushing yards, and secured the Redskins a playoff berth for the first time in five years. While you may doubt the Browns for obvious historical reasons, the potential here is sky-high. Johnny Manziel has his doubters, but so did RG3; if Manziel gets the starting gig in Cleveland, watch out!
6. Kansas City Tries for One More Dance
The Kansas City Chiefs blew NFL fans away last year. With a fantastic 9-0 start, a smash-mouth defense that was among the best in the league, and the electric performances of Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs capped off a dazzling season with a thrilling but heartbreaking loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. The Chiefs aren't a perfect team, but have a pretty good chance of returning to the postseason in 2014.
While some may doubt that the defense will be able to retain its domination, Andy Reid and Alex Smith will be able to earn the Chiefs at least 9 wins to sneak into the postseason. The Chiefs have made solid draft picks to complement their offensive and defensive star power; if they can execute clutch plays like they did in 2013, we'll be seeing the red and white in January football for a second consecutive year.
Teams who have the potential to make the postseason in 2014 are:
- Baltimore Ravens: Last year's lackluster outing was a result of a Super Bowl hangover. An injured backfield and some bad play from Joe Flacco held back the Ravens, mustering only 8 wins in 2013. With a re-energized offense and a bruising defense, Baltimore may have the talent to make it back to the playoffs.
- Houston Texans: Like the Chiefs the year before them, this Texans team has too much talent to be left behind. Jadeveon Clowney, JJ Watt, and Brian Cushing on defense have the potential to obliterate their opponents. Arian Foster will be back and healthy. If Ryan Fitzpatrick or one of the other quarterbacks can show up in training camp and give some adequate performances, the Texans could make the postseason once more.
- San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have some major question marks on defense and play in a tough division. However, Phillip Rivers found a way to get it done in 2013; with an athletic offense and a little luck, the Chargers can make a consecutive playoff run in 2014.
- New York Jets: Rex Ryan's squad failed to generate any excitement on offense last year, but a rigid defense gave Geno Smith and the Jets enough chances to nearly make the playoffs. With the additions of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson, they could manage to sneak back into the postseason for the first time since 2010.
- Cincinnati Bengals: I doubt them every year, but they always find a way to make it back to the playoffs. Can the Andy Dalton/AJ Green/Giovani Bernard offensive trio provide enough firepower on offense to win? If they make execute enough plays and the defense can perform as well as they have been able to in the past, look for the Bengals to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
Which unlisted team will make it to the playoffs in 2014?
You've seen my picks, now let me hear yours. Which team am I neglecting the most from making the playoffs in 2014? Vote here and let me know what you think!
Which teams did I forget? Did you agree with my picks? Hate 'em? Share your opinions below! Thanks for reading, and let's get pumped for another season of NFL football!