NFL Nation: 2012 More or Less AFC

AFC North: More or Less

June, 19, 2012
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

CINCINNATI BENGALS: The Bengals didn't sit pat after last season's surprising 9-7 season and a trip to the playoffs. Cincinnati had one of the most productive offseasons in the league, even though it didn't make a splash with a big-name signing. The Bengals' prize in free agency was former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who provides more ball security and a bigger punch in the red zone than Cedric Benson. There was a significant upgrade at both guard positions with free agent Travelle Wharton and first-round pick Kevin Zeitler.

The biggest question is who will start at the No. 2 wide receiver spot opposite A.J. Green. After losing two of their top three wide receivers from last season (Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell left in free agency), the Bengals didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency and didn't draft one in the first two rounds. Cincinnati will likely go with either Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu or Armon Binns.

The Bengals' defense returns nearly intact after finishing No. 7 last season. Leon Hall, the team's top cornerback, is looking to get back on the field by training camp after an Achilles injury ended his 2011 season. But the Bengals don't need to rush him back after drafting Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round and signing three former first-round cornerbacks in free agency: Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Allen. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is looking to become an every-down player this year and could have a Pro Bowl-type season.

More or less? The Bengals are determined to put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82, so they'll surpass Clayton's forecast. Cincinnati can reach a double-digit win total and make a run at the division title if quarterback Andy Dalton takes the next step in his progression.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Fixing the NFL's 29th-ranked offense was the priority this offseason. The Browns used their first three draft picks on offensive players, and all three should start immediately as rookies. Running back Trent Richardson brings a hard-nosed style, quarterback Brandon Weeden adds much-needed arm strength and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz upgrades the weakest spot on the offensive line. Not to be overlooked is the hiring of Brad Childress as the team's offensive coordinator. But coach Pat Shurmur will still call the plays for the Browns.

Despite these additions, there's some major doubts whether the Browns will take the necessary step forward on offense because of their wide receivers. Cleveland lacked speed and dependable hands (Cleveland was tied for the most drops in the NFL) at this position last season, and the Browns did very little to change that. The only new receiver who might make an impact is Travis Benjamin, a rookie fourth-round pick. Defenses aren't sweating over Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs.

The Browns' defense has to figure out how to stop the run this year. Cleveland gave up 147.4 yards on the ground per game, which was an average of 43 yards more than any other team in the division. The addition of free-agent defensive end Frostee Rucker should help in this area, but the injury to defensive tackle Phil Taylor is a big blow to the defense. Taylor is trying to return by the first half of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle this offseason. Scott Paxson, John Hughes and Billy Winn are competing for Taylor's spot.

More or less? Clayton is spot on with four wins, although I will put an asterisk by it. The Browns will be a much better team despite not improving on last season's win total. A challenging schedule, a tough division and a lack of playmakers in the passing game will lead to the fifth straight season of at least 11 losses.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: The Ravens came within a dropped pass of getting to the Super Bowl, and nothing has gone right since that painful AFC Championship Game. The key is how the AFC North champions respond to the loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year partially tore his Achilles in April and is expected to miss a significant portion of the season. Suggs, who had a career-high 14 sacks last season, will be replaced by Paul Kruger, who has 6.5 sacks in his three-year career.

Baltimore is also dealing with the expected no-show of running back Ray Rice (franchise tag) this offseason, the unexcused absence of safety Ed Reed at mandatory minicamp, the weight issue with offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and the loss of guard Ben Grubbs in free agency. The Ravens' hope is Reed will report to training camp on time and McKinnie will lose the 9 pounds needed to get back on the field. There is no timetable for Rice, who could sit out most of training camp if he doesn't get a long-term deal by the July 16 deadline.

The area of concern is the offensive line. Baltimore is looking to replace a Pro Bowl left guard in Grubbs with veteran Bobbie Williams, a soon-to-be 36-year-old lineman coming off ankle surgery. If McKinnie struggles with his weight, the Ravens are going to have to think about shifting Michael Oher from right to left tackle and starting Jah Reid at right tackle.

More or less? It's difficult to go against a team that has gone to the playoffs every year under coach John Harbaugh (including two AFC championship games in four seasons), but this is the year when the off-the-field distractions cause the Ravens to drop off a bit. Baltimore will fall just shy of Clayton's predicted total and finish with nine wins.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: A salary-cap purge and a need to get younger forced the Steelers to say goodbye to several long-time leaders in wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith. The biggest change, though, was replacing Bruce Arians with Todd Haley at offensive coordinator. This meant a new system for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has repeatedly talked about the challenge of adjusting to Haley's scheme. It isn't known what direction Haley will take with the Steelers, but he should take advantage of an explosive and deep receiving group with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. That is, when Wallace decides to report to the team after protesting his restricted free-agent status.

The two injury concerns are running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton, both of whom had ACL surgeries in January. General manager Kevin Colbert said he anticipates both to be played on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means they'd miss the first six weeks of the regular season. Isaac Redman, who had 121 yards rushing in a playoff game last season but not much experience beyond that, will take over for Mendenhall. The Steelers would replace Hampton with either backup Steve McLendon or rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu.

The biggest improvement for the Steelers came on the offensive line. Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks on guard David DeCastro and offensive tackle Mike Adams, which is a significant improvement over two undrafted players who started last season (Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster). These additions will move Willie Colon to guard. This should reduce the hits on Roethlisberger, who has been sacked an NFL-high 261 times since 2006.

More or less? Clayton is in the right neighborhood, but the Steelers will get one more win than his forecasted total. As long as Roethlisberger remains healthy and the Steelers have a top-five defense, Pittsburgh will contend for a Super Bowl every season.

AFC South: More or Less

June, 19, 2012
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

HOUSTON TEXANS: If injuries have a way of evening out, then the Houston Texans should have a relatively healthy season, though they certainly don’t want anyone saying that out loud. Last year they lost Mario Williams after five games, Matt Schaub after 10 and Andre Johnson for nine. And those were just the headliners.

The Texans were 4-2 in the AFC South last year. I don’t buy that they should run through the Titans, Jaguars and Colts this season, but I do expect them to fare at least that well. This year’s AFC East will be a bit easier than last year’s AFC North was. But Houston was 2-2 against the NFC South, and I think the 2012 Packers, Lions and Bears will prove tougher opponents than the 2011 Saints and Panthers were. And the Texans draw the Ravens and Broncos as a result of finishing atop the AFC South last year.

A healthier Houston should be a better team and could rate with the very best in the AFC. But a schedule I view as more difficult prevents me from thinking the Texans will fare more than a game better and they could very well be the same.

More or less? I’m going to give Clayton a bull’s-eye on this one and say he’s right on it.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Last year’s 9-7 record was padded by a Week 17 win in Houston that meant nothing to the Texans. Can the Titans in Mike Munchak’s second year turn around and match or surpass it? I’m skeptical.

While the Titans' offense looks like it can be filled with playmakers, it’s also filled with question marks. Can Kenny Britt bounce back from a reconstructed ACL? Can Chris Johnson bounce back from an uninspired season? Can the team consistently steer the ball to Jared Cook and can he make plays regularly instead of in spurts? Can Kendall Wright catch on quickly and become an immediate impact guy? Can Nate Washington be the guy he was in a great 2011? At this point it’s difficult for me to answer yes to enough of those to give the Titans a high-flying offense, especially without knowing who the quarterback is and how he performed to win the job.

And that’s the good side of the ball. The defense is loaded with guys in roles where they’ve not yet proven they can excel over 16 weeks -- from lead cornerback Jason McCourty as the top dog to Tommie Campbell or another unknown as the third corner, from Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan as the lead pass-rusher in Jerry Gray’s system to Akeem Ayers as a strongside linebacker who’s supposed to contribute to pass pressure.

More or less? Clayton’s a touch high. My general sense and my run through of the schedule are having trouble getting me past 7-9 right now.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: While the Texans’ injuries got the headlines in the AFC South because of the way Houston survived them, the Jaguars also had a defense that may have been in line to be very good. Theirs got ripped apart by injuries, particularly at cornerback, and they simply didn’t have the sort of depth they needed to hold up. A one-dimensional offense simply couldn’t do enough to help out, and five wins was all the team could muster as Jack Del Rio was fired before it was over.

Beyond staying healthy, this team needs three things to happen to get past the prevailing outside opinion. The Jaguars need Blaine Gabbert to be far closer to an average NFL quarterback than the 34th best one in the league as he was a season ago. They need the receivers starting with Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon to consistently dictate defenses pay attention to them outside. And they need some combination of guys on the edge, including second-round draft pick Andre Branch, to mount a much better pass rush.

I think it’s possible they get those things, and I think Mike Mularkey and a fresh-start coaching staff can put people like Gabbert, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Robinson and Blackmon in position to make a lot more plays, while a linebacking corps of Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Session anchor a much-improved defense.

More or less? Call me crazy, and I know a lot of you might join Clayton in doing so, but I think the Jaguars will be at least a touch better than Clayton thinks and could even land in second place.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: In their first eight games, the new-look Colts face Minnesota, Jacksonville, the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Titans. While all of those teams will expect to beat a rebuilding team, none of them is a lock to do so. If the Colts can play well over the first half of the season, they could well be in position to make a significant step forward from last year’s total of two wins.

Andrew Luck will have some good days and the Colts will have some leads. Their tight ends, while young, and at least their top receivers will be solid threats for him. He’ll be good enough quickly enough that if the patchwork offensive line and run game can’t protect him, he will get rid of the ball and avoid a lot of potential blows.

The trouble is, even if the Colts get to play from ahead, which will allow them to be exotic in the ways they rush Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and anyone else, the secondary looks to be an issue. I’m not certain Tom Zbikowski will solve the problem opposite Antoine Bethea at free safety and beyond Jerraud Powers no one outside the organization would covet their corners. If I have to throw to get back in a game against the Colts, that might be just fine -- I might want them to be in nickel and dime to take on those matchups anyway.

More or less? More, but probably only one more.

AFC West: More or Less

June, 19, 2012
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

DENVER BRONCOS: I’m not surprised Clayton has Denver pegged to win the most games in this division. I think the Broncos will be the favorite to win the division nationally. That’s what happens when a team adds a legend like Peyton Manning.

I think it is a fair number, since the team around Manning is getting better. John Fox is a premier coach and this program is on the rise. I can see Manning being the difference from an 8-8 team in 2011 becoming a 10-6 outfit in 2012.

The biggest challenge is Denver’s schedule. It is the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, behind the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

More or less? I think this a fair number.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: The Chargers have been a difficult team to gauge in recent seasons. They have been considered a Super Bowl contender the past several years, but have failed to make the playoffs the past two years.

Because of that, they have fallen off the national radar. I don’t think much more than an 8-8 season is expected from San Diego. But I like Clayton’s number.

Any team with Philip Rivers at quarterback has a puncher’s chance. The Chargers were aggressive in free agency and they had a productive draft. If the defense can bounce back, Clayton’s number is very attainable.

More or less? I can’t complain about this number, either.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: I have to respectfully -- but vehemently -- disagree with Clayton on this one. While Manning overshadowed the Chiefs this offseason, I think Kansas City had a top-five offseason in the NFL. This roster is stacked.

There are a few holes in Kansas City, but it did get better and it will get back Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki from season-ending knee injuries.

I know why Clayton went low on this one. He probably doesn’t believe in quarterback Matt Cassel. But the Chiefs are so strong around Cassel that I think he should be able to succeed. If this team isn’t decimated by injuries, I see it having a winning record and making a strong playoff run.

More or less? This is way too few wins.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: From 2003-09, the Oakland Raiders lost at least 11 games, which is an NFL record for futility. However, in the past two seasons, Oakland has finished a respectable 8-8. I have a difficult time thinking the Raiders will revert back to their 11-loss days.

I realize the Raiders have taken a step back in the division. They have lost some talent, and their additions have been modest. Overall, the Raiders are on the track for the long term, but they may have taken a step back for the short term. Yet I don’t think they will be 5-11. There is too much talent on the roster for Oakland to go to 5-11.

More or less? I’d go a game or two higher.

AFC East: More or Less

June, 19, 2012
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: New England, 13-3 last season, made several upgrades this offseason -- particularly on defense and at wide receiver -- to patch up its few weaknesses. On paper, this year's team should be even better than the 2011 version.

Clayton expects the Patriots to again be one of the NFL's elite. New England is tied with the Green Bay Packers (12-4) for Clayton's highest projected win total. No other teams will have more than 10 wins, according to Clayton's projections. The Patriots also have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL.

New England's key is dominating the AFC East. I often call this the "Brady and Belichick" division, because quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick have won nine of the past 11 division titles since 2001. The AFC East should be more competitive this season. But the other three rivals are still significantly behind New England, mainly because of inconsistent quarterback play.

More or less? It's hard to argue with 12 projected wins. It's a safe number for the Patriots. But I'm going to go slightly higher and peg New England for 13 victories. This team is deeper than last year's group that went 13-3. It also doesn't hurt that the Patriots have a cupcake schedule. Injuries are the only thing I see stopping New England from matching or exceeding Clayton's win total.

BUFFALO BILLS: It's no secret Buffalo is my sleeper pick for 2012, but Clayton took it a step further by projecting the Bills as the final wild card in the AFC. I was one of the first media members on Buffalo’s offseason bandwagon. Coming off a stellar offseason, Buffalo will end its 13-year postseason drought, according to Clayton. Bills fans would be ecstatic if that were the case. But I have two concerns about Buffalo.

First, is starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a franchise quarterback? Fitzpatrick must prove he can be consistent over 16 games, something he has never been in his career. Second, Buffalo has struggled within the division. The Bills were 1-5 last year against the AFC East, getting swept by the Dolphins and Jets, teams the Bills must beat to get to the next level.

More or less? I agree with Clayton that nine is a good number for Buffalo. This is a good year for someone to surprise and make a move in the AFC East. The Patriots will be a juggernaut. But second place is wide open, and Buffalo has as good a chance as anyone.

NEW YORK JETS: The Jets are one of the hardest teams to gauge. They have the talent on paper to make a playoff run, as evidenced by their back-to-back AFC title game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But, like last year, New York also has the personalities to implode.

I liked some things I saw last week from the Jets in mandatory minicamp. The vibe and camaraderie in Florham Park were much better than I expected, especially compared to the divided locker room I witnessed last season. New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is making a big impact on cleaning up the offense, and the quarterbacks (Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow) appear to be in the best shape of their careers.

A brutal stretch to start the season could define the Jets. They play three playoff teams (Pittsburgh Houston, San Francisco) and two division rivals (Buffalo, Miami) in the first five weeks. But the Jets were humbled last year and have toned down their bragging ways. They are much more workmanlike this offseason, and that can only help.

More or less? I doubt the Jets are going to hit eight wins this year. This is a boom-or-bust team that could finish 5-11 or 11-5. The Jets are capable of imploding or exploding on their opponents.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Clayton, like many people, has a lot of questions about the Dolphins. Any team with a wide-open quarterback competition could struggle; QB will be the focal point of training camp. The Dolphins also are going through regime change under head coach Joe Philbin, who is installing a new West Coast offense and a 4-3 defense.

The Dolphins did a decent job plugging holes in the draft. But overall this is a team lacking star power and big-time playmakers. Miami traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall (81 receptions, 1,214 yards in 2011) and signed Chad Ochocinco (15 receptions, 276 yards) to replace him. The Dolphins also cut leading tackler Yeremiah Bell and have questions at safety.

But really it comes down to the quarterbacks. If Matt Moore or David Garrard wins the job and goes on to have a great year, the Dolphins have a chance to surprise. But if the Dolphins get shoddy production from their quarterbacks and play musical chairs with Moore, Garrard and perhaps rookie Ryan Tannehill, it will be another tough year of football in South Florida.

More or less? I think Clayton's projection is too low for Miami. I have been as critical of the Dolphins as anyone this offseason. But this is a tough group that usually plays hard. Miami lacks dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball but should be a tough out most weeks. I think another 6-10 season is possible.