It’s the most wonderful time……of the year. No, we aren’t talking about Christmas. We are talking about the return of the Nation Football League! Throughout this week, we will be posting previews and predictions for all 32 teams, and we are starting today with the AFC Conference! Last year, the AFC was the weaker of the two conferences, and we don’t see that changing this year, though we do see past powers like Baltimore and Pittsburgh rising up again. We hope our previews help you out with your 2015 AFC Championship futures selection, and we hope you enjoy our previews!
1. New England Patriots: 11-5
Every year, the question in the AFC East is: when will someone knock the Patriots off their perch at the top? Well, we don’t think it’s going to happen this year. Last year was an “off” year for Tom Brady and the Pats, and they still managed to go 12-4, cruising to the division crown. With a semi-healthy Gronk, and a revamped secondary that includes Revis Island, the Patriots don’t figure to slow down this season, even with a schedule that starts out soft, then gets brutal in the middle. Look for another division crown and home playoff game for the Patriots.
While Gronk gets most of the attention on the offense, Julian Edleman might be the most valuable fantasy target for Brady. Figuring that both Gronk and Amendola miss a handful of games due to injuries, and Kenbrell Thompkins’s propensity to disappear in the middle of games, Edleman figures to rack up 6-8 catches a game, making him a viable WR3/Flex player, and even a WR2 in full PPR leagues. Also, I would steer clear of Shane Vareen and Stevan Ridley, as Bill Belichick has a new flavor of the week at RB every game.
2. Miami Dolphins: 8-8
The Dolphins are an interesting team. On paper, they look like a sub .500 club. But last year, they were virtual locks to make the playoffs before they decided to not show up against lowly division rivals Buffalo and NYJ to close out the year. I’m not a believer in Ryan Tannehill, but I do think he can manage the game well enough to let their solid defense win them a handful of games. However, 9-7 is their ceiling, and it’s likely they finish around 8-8, which is what we are giving them credit for.
I think Mike Wallace will have a solid bounce back year in this offense. A down year for him was virtually inevitable last year. Receivers often need a year in a new offense to get the hang of it, and Wallace wasn’t really a great fit in this offense as primarily a big play burner. However, the coaching staff has now had a year as well to incorporate him more into the offense, and they will do that this year. I like Wallace to have 1,200 all-purpose yards, and to flirt with 10 TD’s if he can stay healthy.
3. Buffalo Bills: 7-9
I’m a big fan of this Bills team moving forward. The offense is loaded with young talent, and Kiko Alonso took the NFL by storm last year on the defensive side of the ball. I still think they are a couple years away from a playoff spot, but they could be the team that eventually topples the Patriots dynasty in the AFC East. EJ Manuel had a quiet rookie season, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He didn’t have the amazing rookie year that Cam Newton had, but he also didn’t have the woeful season that Geno Smith had. I look for him to make big steps this year. If you are looking for a sleeper playoff team in the AFC, you might not have to look any further than this team.
While all the attention will be on Sammy Watkins in the receiving core, I think Robert Woods could quietly be a reliable flex start towards the middle of the season. The Bills will be spreading the ball around all over the field, and Woods could pick defenses apart if he lines up in the slot and runs short curl routes all day. Look for him to get more catch than Watkins, and also find a way to get involved in some trick plays for extra bonus points.
4. New York Jets: 6-10
The Jets were certainly one of the more entertaining teams to watch last season. One week they would shock the world and knock off the Saints or Patriots. The next week, teams like the Titans and the Bills would wipe the floor with them. While I think they will still struggle this year, I think they will be more consistent. The main issue is that I don’t believe in Geno Smith, and I certainly don’t believe in the weapons, or lack there of, around him. Rex Ryan is a great coach, and they still have a solid defense, but you simply can’t win consistently if you can’t put points on the board, and the Jets will struggle to do that this year.
As I mentioned, there’s not much on this offense that I like at all, but if you are going to take a risk on one Jet, it should figure to be the new addition Chris Johnson. While his 2,000 yard seasons are well, well behind him, he’s still capable of an explosive play every now and then. And we know that Rex Ryan loves to run the ball to mask the subpar play of his Quarterbacks (*cough* Mark Sanchez *cough*), so Johnson figures to get a fair share of touches. Having said that, I wouldn’t take Johnson before the 7th round, and only as a boom or bust flex option. He doesn’t figure to be a consistent RB2.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
Considering the lofty standards that the Steelers have made for themselves with their play in the 2000’s, it’s been a rough couple of years for Pittsburgh fans. The Steelers followed up a shocking playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos with an 8-8 season last year that was doomed after an 0-4 start. However, I see the Steelers bouncing back and making the playoffs this year, even in a very tough division like the AFC North. Simply put, Mike Tomlin is too good a coach, and Big Ben is too good a QB to miss the playoffs two years in a row. It will look ugly at times. It will be borderline unwatchable at times. But the Steelers, as they so often do, will get the job done.
Markus Weaton is a guy who is getting virtually no publicity, but with the departure of Emmanuel Sanders, he figures to step into the #2 Wideout roll for a team that passes the ball more than you may think. Antonio Brown will get all the love, but that also means that he’ll be getting all the attention from opposing secondaries. Look for Weaton to be a consistent WR3/flex option for you not long into the season.
2. Baltimore Ravens: 10-6
Just like the Steelers, I have a hard time believing that the Ravens are going to be missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. It wasn’t hard to predict that the Ravens would struggle last year. A regression from Flacco was inevitable after the perfect playoff run and massive contract, and while I don’t expect him to come out and play like Peyton Manning this year, I do expect him to put up some great numbers this year. Add in Steve Smith, who can still play at a high level, and I think this will be one of the more exciting offenses in the league. This division is going to produce some epic regular season matchups, and many of them will involve the Ravens.
Don’t count out Ray Rice just yet. While Flacco’s regression last year was written on the wall, no one could have predicted Rice’s collapse last year. Now you have the terrible offseason with the domestic violence dispute, and the two game suspension, and there couldn’t be more red flags surrounding Rice’s name. Having said all of that, there is often a saying in football: “this team wants above all else to get on the field and just play football,” and this couldn’t apply more to Rice in this case. I think Rice will be motivated to drown out all of the detractors and haters, and put together another fantastic season. If Rice is still around in the 5th round, take a flyer on him, especially if you have one of the 1st round running backs.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7
Three years in a row, the Bengals have gotten through one of the toughest divisions in football to make the playoffs, and three years in a row, they have laid an egg in January, led of course by their newly re-signed QB Andy Dalton. There’s no questioning this team’s talent on either side of the ball. They have an up-and-coming running back in Gio Bernard, one of the top three WRs in the game in AJ Green, and one of the best front sevens on defense in football. However, I see the Bengals “regressing” a bit this year, and likely missing out on the playoffs. I would not be shocked at all if they go 11-5 and win the division, but I think the resurgence of the Steelers and Ravens will be at the expense of the Bengals, who might be looking for a new coach if they can’t secure that elusive playoff victory.
I think Gio Bernard will produce like a first round draft pick this year. Bernard is a young, quick back who not only can run anywhere on the field, but is lethal catching the ball out of the backfield, further enhancing his value in PPR leagues. If you can pair Gio up with one of the top 5 RB’s in the first round, you will have the building blocks for a playoff season. And oh year, draft AJ Green too if you can. Dude is simply a freak of nature and won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
4. Cleveland Browns: 5-11
I actually really like what the Browns are doing, but they simply can’t seem to get out of their own ways. Everytime they build you up with potential and expectations, they seem to let you down just as quickly. Unfortunately, Josh Gordon epitomizes that this year, as he will be facing at least an 8 game suspension for a repeated substance abuse violation. I think it’s going to be a long season for Johnny Manziel if the Browns choose to throw him into the fire this year, but their defense could help keep him close in most games.
You should keep a close eye on the Wide Receiving core in Cleveland, especially if Josh Gordon is in fact gone for the full season. Greg Little is also gone, leaving a huge void outside the numbers for the Browns. Look for Andrew Hawkins to bear the biggest brunt of the work load, and even veterans like Nate Burleson and Miles Austin could become viable options during bye weeks when you need that boom or bust flex option.
1. Indianapolis Colts: 10-6
The Colts are far and away the best team in this division, but due to a tough schedule (Denver and AFC North), I don’t see Indianapolis contending for the #1 seed in the AFC. Andrew Luck is quickly rising up the QB ranks in the NFL, and not only will he be getting a healthy Reggie Wayne back, but he will also be getting Hakeem Nicks, who is looking to revitalize his career after falling off the face of the earth last year. While I love their offense, I’m not crazy about their defense, and that could cost them come playoff time.
As I mentioned above, I’m very high on Andrew Luck this year. In the QB Rankings, there is Peyton, Brees, and Rodgers, then everyone else. From my perspective, Luck could easily be 4th in that list by year’s end, and in most drafts, he’s going in the 5th or 6th round, which is a steal for me. He’s especially valuable in leagues where passing TD’s are only 4 points, but running TD’s are still 6, as his mobility is underrated.
2. Houston Texans: 7-9
Can anyone please help me understand what happened to the Texans last year? A team that looked destined to be 12-4 instead plummeted to 2-14 in one of the worst collapses in recent memory. The defense will surely rise up to it’s normal standards, getting Brian Cushing back, and oh yeah, that Clowney guy. But it’s the offense that has alot of questions, with an injury riddled Arian Foster, and an aging Andre Johnson. I expect the Texans to certainly improve off of last year, but I don’t see them getting to the playoffs just yet.
Just two years ago, Arian Foster was the consensus #1 pick in the draft. Now, he’s projected to go in the middle of the third round in most Yahoo!drafts. I’m not about to say that Foster will regain his top RB status this year, but I certainly think he’s worth taking a risk in the third round when most of the top RBs will be gone. With Ben Tate in Cleveland, Foster is the main guy again, and he’s a bruiser on the goalline. Look for a bounce back year from Foster.
3. Tennessee Titans: 6-10
The Titans are one of those teams that seems to just stay in neutral. Jake Locker hasn’t done enough to solidify himself as THE guy, and they are counting on rookie Bishop Sankey to step in and carry the load at running back. I don’t see this team being downright awful, but I also don’t see them making any sort of playoff noise. Look for another run of the mill year for this team.
Kendall Wright finally started to settle into his role as the top pass catching option for the Titans, and I see him only improving on that this year. Most people are high on Bishop Sankey, but I’ve never been a huge fan of rookie running backs. If you are going to pick an offensive Titan, go with Wright. He should be a lock for WR3 all year, and could rise up to WR2 as the year goes on.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-12
Just when the Jaguars have found something good, aka Justin Blackmon, he goes ahead and messes things up, keeping this lowly franchise at the bottom. I think Blake Brotles will be a solid QB down the road, but he’s not going to be helped by his lack of weapons on the outside. Just like the Titans, I wouldn’t expect much from this team this year.
Toby Gerhart has been waiting patiently behind the stall worth that is Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, and now, he finally has the starting job. My guess is, Gerhart is going to make the most of it, and have a very solid year in his premiere with Jacksonville. Gerhart is a bruising back who rellishes contact rather than shying away from it. I think he could get over 1,000, but more improtantly, will get double digit touchdowns, most of them from inside the 5-yard line. Gerhart is falling to the end of the third round in a ton of drafts, which in my opinion, will be a big steal.
1. Denver Broncos: 12-4
Was there ever a more shocking sports result than the Super Bowl last year? The Broncos need to pick themselves up after being decimated by the Seahawks, and luckily for them, they have the best Quarterback to do that with Peyton Manning. Add on the additions of Demarcus Ware, and the return of a healthy Von Miller, and there’s no reason to think the Broncos won’t reclaim the #1 seed in the AFC Conference once again.
All the talk in the Receiving core will be about Demaryius Thomas, and deservedly so. However, some projections of him as high as early second round are too high for me, as he could occasionally get lost in the shuffle of weapons that Peyton has at his disposal. While Wes Welker might seem like the likely #2 guy, I actually think new wideout Emmanuel Sanders will be the guy to look at. I think by years end, he will have virtually identical numbers to Welker, and you will be able to get Sanders two or three rounds later in your draft.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: 9-7
No team shocked more than Kansas City last year, shooting out to an incredible 9-0 start before eventually settling for an 11-5 record and a first round loss to the Colts. The real question was: where did their defense go? A unit that didn’t allow more than 17 points a game through 10 weeks just fell apart, allowing at least 23 points a game in every game after. If they are going to make a return trip to the playoffs, it will be on the back of Jamaal Charles on offense, and with this defense, which needs to find itself again.
There really isn’t much of anything to love for this side outside of Charles. Alex Smith isn’t a reliable fantasy QB, Dwayne Bowe doesn’t fit into this offense anymore, and Donnie Avery isn’t much of a WR2. Keep an eye on this offense though, as they are desperate for a second source of production.
3. San Diego Chargers: 7-9
Speaking of surprise teams last year, the Chargers seemingly came out of nowhere late last year to claim the second wild card spot in the AFC, which no one seemed to want to take, and they made the most of it by beating Cincinnati in the first round. However, I still don’t think they are that good. Keenan Allen will likely go through a sophomore slump of sorts, Phillip Rivers will regress a bit, and they have a huge identity crisis, with three viable but not fantastic options. Add on to that a brutal final six games of the year (STL, @BAL, NE, DEN, @SF, and @KC), and I don’t see this team making a return to the playoffs.
I’m staying far away from Ryan Mathews this year. Not only is he injury prone, but his carries and catches will be spread out amongst Danny Woodhead, and new addition Donald Brown. Ladarius Green also looks to be a solid sleeper at the TE position, a position that is very shallow this year after the big hitters up top.
4. Oakland Raiders: 3-13
As per usual, there are a ton of questions surrounding the Oakland Raiders coming into the season. Will Derek Carr eventually take over the starting role from Matt Schaub? Will it be MJD or Darren McFadden in the backfield? Who is going to be the #1 Wide Receiver? Basically, this is the recipe for another frustrating and disappointing year for fans in the Black Hole.
These questions also leaves Oakland as a barren wasteland for fantasy football options. There’s a chance MJD could find his old magic in a new city, but I’m not holding my breath on it. Denarius Moore figures to be the top receiving option, but he’s likely a WR3 or Flex at best. If you are looking for help from Oakland players, do yourself a favor, and look elsewhere.
AFC Playoff Teams
1. Denver Broncos
2. New England Patriots
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Baltimore Ravens
6. Kansas City Chiefs
What do you think of our AFC predictions? Will the Broncos reign supreme again? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to come back on Wednesday, when we will be previewing the NFC!