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As we get ready for the 2014 regular-season to kickoff, once again the AFC revolves around Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The duo has combined to play in eight of the last 13 Super Bowls, a remarkable accomplishment by two of the best.
While the best player rivalry since the turn of the century goes to Brady and Manning, the best team rivalry goes to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Both the Ravens and Steelers have appeared in their share of Super Bowls, with the Ravens winning two since 2000, and the Steelers playing in three (winning two) over the same span.
As good as these teams and players are the AFC is aching for new blood.
Will the conference get it?
Let’s breakdown the AFC and find out.
Key Games: Week 3 vs. San Diego, Week 6 vs. New England, & Week 10 vs. Kansas City
Breakout Player: When the Bills traded away a future first-round pick to move up to secure the rights to receiver Sammy Watkins, they placed a big portion of their future in his hands. Watkins is a playmaker. He’s tremendous downfield, but he can also take a short slant and turn it into a 50-yard gain. The coaching staff is excited about what he brings to the table. The only concern is whether he can stay healthy, after an injury-riddled August.
Fantasy Impact: After a disappointing ‘13 season, Buffalo looks to get running back C.J. Spiller back on track. Early indicators suggest the Bills intend to use Spiller in space more, which suits his skill set. Look for him to settle in as a No. 2 running back in standard leagues, with backend RB1 upside in PPR leagues.
Prediction: Talent isn’t an issue in Buffalo, especially on defense. What may hold them back, though, is the development of quarterback E.J. Manuel. The second-year quarterback is coming off an underwhelming August, and did not particularly play well down the stretch last season. All Manuel needs to do is play efficient. The defense is good enough to keep games close and the players around him are good enough to bail him out of a tough jam. If he tries to do too much, he risks costing Buffalo a game or two. That could be the difference in what should be a tight race for the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
Key Games: Week 1 vs. New England, Week 2 at Buffalo, & Week 9 vs. San Diego
Breakout Player: Only center Mike Pouncey returns from last year’s starting offensive line, and Pouncey may not play the first month of the season. All eyes will be on right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who reportedly held his own against some of Miami’s top pass rushers in training camp.
Fantasy Impact: With the exception of tight end Charles Clay, Miami doesn’t offer much fantasy value with their starters. Maybe Mike Wallace could push for WR2 status, but don’t expect an upper-tier finish from anyone.
Prediction: When allegations surfaced that guard Richie Incognito bullied tackle Jonathan Martin, the reputation of the Dolphins’ organization took a major hit. Neither play for the Dolphins now, as the team is looking to move forward. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks incredibly ordinary, though it’s hard to develop when you’re playing behind a woeful offensive line. The running game is non-existent and the defense doesn’t seem much better. A few years from now, when Miami fans reflect on the Joe Philbin Era, they’ll look back to the bullying scandal as the moment the wheels came off the wagon.
Key Games: Week 5 at San Diego, Week 7 at New England, & Week 12 at Buffalo
Breakout Player: The Jets expect second-year cornerback Dee Milliner to emerge as a No. 1 cornerback. Milliner is coming off an underwhelming rookie year, but he demonstrates all the skills needed to become a major NFL corner. He’ll need to overcome a pesky high-ankle sprain at the start of the season.
Fantasy Impact: As long as running backs Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory remain in a timeshare, there’s not going to be any Jets worth starting on a consistent basis.
Prediction: The lone bright spot for head coach Rex Ryan is his front seven. The Jets should cause problems for opposing offensive lines, especially with Ryan’s reputation for scheming pressure. Nonetheless, even if Milliner progresses, the backend of the secondary is vulnerable. More worrisome is the offense, which has holes across the board. The Jets may win their first game against Oakland. Fans should savior the taste, as wins are going to be hard to find.
New England Patriots
Key Games: Week 5 vs. Cincinnati, Week 9 vs. Denver, & Week 11 at Indianapolis
Breakout Player: Toward the end of last season, linebacker Jamie Collins began to produce as a pass rusher. While he didn’t register a sack until the playoffs, the rookie linebacker did a nice job of putting pressure on the quarterback. He also held up well in coverage. You could be hearing a lot about him, if he’s able to sustain his play over the course of this season.
Fantasy Impact: No running back projects to catch as many passes as Shane Vereen does. The Patriots line him up all over the field, including outside at wide receiver. If your league uses PPR scoring, then lock him in as a RB1.
Prediction: In recent seasons, perhaps no team has benefited from their divisional schedule as much as New England has. The Patriots aren’t a team without flaws. Yes, they’ve played in the AFC championship each of the last three years, but that has more to do with the state of the conference than their ability. The passing game hasn’t been as crisp in recent years and the defense is allowing too many yards (373.1 per game last year). Despite these flaws, because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots will win five or all six of their divisional games. All they have to do is win four non-divisional games and they get to 10 wins. Given their schedule, another 10-12 wins is likely, but so is another playoff letdown.
Key Games: Week 1 at Baltimore, Week 5 at New England, & Week 17 at Pittsburgh
Breakout Player: Many expect running back Giovani Bernard to elevate his game to the next level. The second-year player can influence the game as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. A total of 300 touches and 1,500 total yards are within the realm of possibility.
Fantasy Impact: One of the top receivers in the game, A.J. Green is one of three receivers projected to finish with 215-plus points in standard leagues. His value is also high in PPR leagues, as he’s a good bet for 90-100 catches.
Prediction: For the last several years, Cincinnati’s coaching staff was among the best in the league. That’s no longer the case, after the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Their departures could be enough to slide the Bengals down a game or two in the standings, opening the door for Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Regardless, the future is bright in Cincinnati. The league is kind of waiting for Brady and Manning to ride off into the sunlight, so the door opens for younger teams. The Bengals are among those teams in waiting. Perhaps they just need to take a step backward before taking two steps forward.
Key Games: Week 5 at Tennessee, Week 6 vs. Pittsburgh, & Week 15 vs. Cincinnati
Breakout Player: Motivation won’t be hard to come by for Jabaal Sheard, as the pass rushing outside linebacker is entering a contract year. He’s improved his sack total in each of his three NFL seasons, and playing for Mike Pettine -- a defensive minded coach -- will have a positive affect on his development.
Fantasy Impact: With wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the entire 2014 season, Cleveland needs a pass catcher to emerge as a viable No. 1 receiver. Enter tight end Jordan Cameron. The Browns can use him in a variety ways, including out wide or in the slot. He’s also the team’s top red zone target with Gordon out of the picture. He’s a legit No. 1 tight end, with the upside to finish top five overall.
Prediction: The Browns are in rebuilding mode, so they’re not winning 10 or 11 games. They could make a run at eight, if they’re able to upset a few divisional rivals. Cleveland fans are going to need a little patience, though. They have a nice young nucleus. They just need to develop a quarterback. Is Johnny Manziel that guy? We probably won’t know until early 2016.
Key Games: Week 1 vs. Cincinnati, Week 2 vs. Pittsburgh, & Week 9 at Pittsburgh
Breakout Player: After underachieving as a rookie, safety Matt Elam will elevate his play in year two. In fact, Elam has taken on a vocal role in Baltimore’s secondary, suggesting the second-year safety is more comfortable in the system. His imposing presence should have receivers worried when crossing the middle.
Fantasy Impact: New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak once coached Owen Daniels to a TE1 season. Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta is a superior player to Daniels. Now that he’s healthy, he should settle in as a top 10 fantasy tight end, especially in PPR leagues.
Prediction: Continuity is more important than advertised in the NFL and the Ravens simply lacked it a year ago. Contracts expire and players age, so Baltimore had to gut a significant portion of their 2012 Super Bowl winning team. This year, though, they feel good about where they’re heading. They’ve injected youth into the defense, while adding veteran leadership (Steve Smith) to the offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco, of course, is the key to the season. He was downright bad at times in ‘13, but Kubiak is looking to steer him back in the right direction. Flacco once said he was elite. It’s become an overused term when describing quarterbacks. Still, Flacco clearly considers himself to be in the same league as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. Despite winning a Super Bowl two seasons ago, he needs to play better to prove himself right. A return to the postseason is likely if he holds up his end of the bargain.
Key Games: Week 2 at Baltimore, Week 9 vs. Baltimore, & Week 17 vs. Cincinnati
Breakout Player: Running back Le’Veon Bell is Pittsburgh’s bell cow. The coaching staff doesn’t even hide it. Bell rushed for 860 yards as a rookie, despite missing the first three games. He’s healthy this year and prime for his first career 1,000-yard season.
Fantasy Impact: Another 100-catch season is quite likely for Brown, who is among the best receivers in both PPR and standard leagues.
Prediction: Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert has done a nice job accumulating talent through the draft. In fact, Bell, Brown, and linebacker Ryan Shazier are good examples. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads Pittsburgh’s offense. The two-time Super Bowl winner is coming off one the best statistical seasons of his career. With a good receiving corps back and a running game to take pressure off him, he should have a fine season. Defensively, the Steelers are betting on outside linebacker Jarvis Jones living up to his first-round billing. Jones, who was disappointing as a rookie, has begun to flash his talent in the latter half of August. If he and Jason Worilds can be to the defense what James Harrison and Lamar Woodley once were, then Pittsburgh is a dark horse Super Bowl contender.
Key Games: Week 1 at Denver, Week 8 at Pittsburgh, & Week 11 vs. New England
Breakout Player: A lackluster rookie season has some beginning to doubt linebacker Bjoern Werner. Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of his in the 2013 draft, but Werner flashed his pass rush prowess in the preseason, and will receive ample amount of playing time while outside linebacker Robert Mathis serves a four-game suspension.
Fantasy Impact: Quarterback Andrew Luck’s progression as a passer and ability to score with his legs makes him a viable starting fantasy quarterback, with significant upside.
Prediction: The Colts will only go as far as Luck takes them. This was evident against Kansas City in the playoffs last season. Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns en route to leading the Colts to a come-from-behind victory. Despite what they’re saying, the coaches surely took notice of how productive the offense was when they let Luck loose. In his third season, look for him to receive more reign over the offense. Nevertheless, the team needs running back Trent Richardson to live up to his first-round billing. Indianapolis traded a first-round pick for Richardson, who has a career-average of 3.3 yards per carry. Defensively, the Colts should continue to improve under Chuck Pagano, though they remain a couple of impact players away from becoming the unit Pagano envisions. Ultimately, that might be what prevents them from advancing deep into the playoffs.
Key Games: Week 3 vs. Indianapolis, Week 6 at Tennessee, & Week 17 at Houston
Breakout Player: The Jaguars envision a long, healthy future with quarterback Blake Bortles connecting with wide receiver Marqise Lee often. Because of injuries, the rookie receiver got in a lot of work with the first-team offense. Not only will he start, but also he may overtake veteran receiver Cecil Short as the team’s No. 1 receiver.
Fantasy Impact: Look for the Jaguars to ride running back Toby Gerhart often this season. The former Minnesota Viking signed as an unrestricted free agent last off-season. The Jaguars immediately penciled him in as their starter. He’ll have to overcome defenses stacking the box, but he should receive enough carries (300-plus) to emerge as a RB2 across the board.
Prediction: Bortles is the future. Let’s not mince words about it. If Gus Bradley is going succeed as a head coach in the NFL, then Bortles must succeed as a quarterback. The Jaguars want to take it slow with the rookie, suggesting that ownership intends to give Bradley a fair amount of time to rebuild the franchise. The defense did some good things in preseason and the receiving corps could take shape with Lee and fellow rookie Allen Robinson. The Jaguars will win 3-5 games, but the record is mostly meaningless. What matters most is whether Bortles plays well when he gets his opportunity. If he does, then this time next year, we could be talking about Jacksonville winning eight or nine games.
Key Games: Week 1 vs. Washington, Week 6 vs. Indianapolis, & Week 12 vs. Cincinnati
Breakout Player: There’s talk that linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and defensive end J.J. Watt will emerge as a modern day version of Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. This is something I actually mentioned in the spring, when the Texans took Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick. Clowney certainly looks the part and learning from Watt will only help him stay engaged.
Fantasy Impact: Assuming he stays healthy, running back Arian Foster will re-emerge as one of fantasy football’s top players. The Texans don’t have a running back that catches the ball as well as Foster does, so a majority of the receiving looks will go his way. Combined with his running ability, Foster has a chance to surpass expectations, making him a potential top five fantasy player.
Prediction: There’s a lot to like about Houston. They play an easy schedule on paper, their defense is talented, and they feature several talented skill players. The glaring hole is at quarterback, which they failed to address this off-season. As a result, they’re stuck going into the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. The Texans will be a dangerous team when they address the quarterback position, but until then, they’ll continue to underachieve.
Key Games: Week 1 at Kansas City, Week 4 at Indianapolis, & Week 11 vs. Pittsburgh
Breakout Player: Poised for a breakout season, second-year receiver Justin Hunter’s size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and athleticism gives him tremendous upside. A strong preseason only reinforces that notion.
Fantasy Impact: Starting receiver Kendall Wright is coming off his first 1,000-yard season. His arrow continues to point upward, especially in PPR leagues, as he has the potential to surpass 90 receptions again.
Prediction: New head coach Ken Whisenhunt has a positive history of developing young quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger) and revitalizing veterans (Philip Rivers and Kurt Warner), so the Titans hired the right man to fix Jake Locker. The offense is young, talented, and ready to breakout. It’s really all on Locker. Defensively, the Titans are slowly transitioning to a 3-4. There will be some bumps in the road, but defensive coordinator Ray Horton tends to get the most out of his players. Overall, depending what happens with Locker, the Titans could finish with six wins, or they could challenge Indianapolis for the divisional title.
Key Games: Week 1 vs. Indianapolis, Week 9 at New England, & Week 15 at San Diego
Breakout Player: The Broncos gave running back Montee Ball a major vote of confidence when they opted to let fellow running back Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. Ball demonstrates the ability to bounce outside and he’s tough enough to run between the tackles.
Fantasy Impact: Quarterback Peyton Manning (38) is showing no signs of regression entering his 17h season. He’s coming off an MVP season that saw him set single-season records for passing touchdowns and passing yards. However, history shows that quarterbacks coming off a record-setting seasons tend to come back to earth the following year. Most recently, it happened to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who set the single-season record for QB rating in 2011. In fact, following his epic ‘04 campaign, Manning saw a significant drop in his statistical output the next year. Even with a modest decrease, he remains a top five fantasy quarterback.
Prediction: The Broncos are all-in for the 2014 season, as they made aggressive moves in free agency to help their defense. They hope the addition of defensive end DeMarcus Ware boosts the pass rush, while the addition of safety T.J. Ward should shore up the secondary. The offensive line could be problematic, especially inside. Additionally, receiver Wes Welker’s concussion issues make him an injury risk. Nonetheless, the Broncos are perennial Super Bowl contenders so long as Manning is under center.
San Diego Chargers
Key Games: Week 7 vs. Kansas City, Week 8 at Denver, & Week 13 at Baltimore
Breakout Player: With excellent size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and athleticism, San Diego is grooming tight end Ladarius Green as the heir apparent to Antonio Gates. Preseason suggests the Chargers may bring Green along slowly, but given Gates’ durability red flags, Green should see the field sooner rather than later.
Fantasy Impact: Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen is coming off an outstanding season. As a rookie, despite a limited role in the first three games, he finished with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a WR1.
Prediction: The Chargers are a good team, but their schedule also doesn’t do them any favors. In addition to playing Denver twice, San Diego plays Baltimore, New England, Seattle, and San Francisco. Overtaking the Broncos in the AFC West is unlikely and a tough schedule could allow a lesser team (Buffalo or Tennessee) to finish ahead of them for the final wild card spot.
Kansas City Chiefs
Key Games: Week 2 at Denver, Week 4 vs. New England, & Week 7 at San Diego
Breakout Player: All eyes are on the offensive line, particularly second-year left tackle Eric Fisher. He struggled at right tackle last season, but the team decided to move him to the left side anyways. The Chiefs knew Fisher was a bit of a project when they made him the top pick in the 2013 draft. They’re just hoping to see some steady progress.
Fantasy Impact: Running back Jamaal Charles is coming off an excellent season. He clearly fits Andy Reid’s scheme well, so there’s no reason to expect him to slow down anytime soon. He’s an obvious RB1.
Prediction: The last time Kansas City won a playoff game, Joe Montana was their starting quarterback. That was over 20 years ago and this fan base is desperate for postseason success. They may have to wait at least one more year, though. The Chiefs won’t catch Denver for the division title and a difficult schedule may cost them a wild card spot. Their best bet is to ride Charles all season long and hope the defense plays as well as it did in the first half of last season.
Key Games: Week 6 vs. San Diego, Week 10 vs. Denver, & Week 15 at Kansas City
Breakout Player: Expectations are high for rookie linebacker Khalil Mack. Athletically, the first-round pick translates to the NFL well, as he possesses a unique combination of size and speed. He wasn’t spectacular in the preseason, but the Raiders are confident he’ll have a big rookie year.
Fantasy Impact: If quarterback Derek Carr plays well, maybe James Jones emerges as a WR3. It’s best to avoid drafting any Raiders until the later rounds, though.
Prediction: The pressure is on head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie to win now. This off-season they signed several veterans to bolster the defense, but how much left does defensive ends Justin Tuck (31) and Lamarr Woodley (29) have in the tank. Based on his preseason performance, Carr will eventually take the reigns at quarterback, though the skill players around him could make it a difficult transition. Not only will the Raiders finish at the bottom of the AFC West, but they also could finish with the worst record in football.