NFL Nation: The Big Question AFC

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What players in the division qualify as the most important, emerging second-year guys?

We’ll steer away from guys who were major contributors as rookies last year, looking for breakout sophomore candidates.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Caldwell
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe Texans need Antoine Caldwell to step up and claim a starting spot on the interior line.
In Houston, we know Brian Cushing can play and we know the Texans love Glover Quin. Antoine Caldwell, the Texans' 2009 third-round lineman, needs to be part of the solution on an interior offensive line that suffered serious injuries early last season. It was particularly ineffective in the run game. He looks like he might be the guy at right guard, but there is still quite a bit to sort out. (Correction: Caldwell was taken in the third round, not the second.)

For the Colts, halfback Donald Brown needs to pass protect better to earn time on the field. But our choice is defensive tackle Fili Moala. The 2009 season amounted to a redshirt season for him as he tried to make the adjustment from USC to the NFL. But they drafted him as part of a push to be bigger and more physical inside and it would be good for them if he earned a slot in the rotation.

The 2009 Jaguars were loaded with rookie contributors, and Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Mike Thomas, Terrance Knighton and Derek Cox all did too much to still qualify as candidates here. Zach Miller's a great candidate, but with Marcedes Lewis and Ernest Wilford having good springs, the need at tight end doesn’t compare to safety. With a shaky corps of veterans at safety, Courtney Greene has room to earn the faith of the coaches and time on the field. He was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers last year.

The Tennessee Titans are looking to their 2009 draft class for a giant contribution. Receiver Kenny Britt and linebacker Gerald McRath are going to get significant playing time. While Jason McCourty or Ryan Mouton will get the spotlight as a second corner, I’m not sold on either DB yet. But I do expect defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks to break out. He’s gotten stronger, and should be a key interior piece. Maybe he will take snaps away from the disappointing Jovan Haye?
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals overcome a first-place schedule to duplicate last year's success?

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireCan Marvin Lewis coach the Bengals through a first-place schedule?
Coming off a division title and their first playoff appearance in four years, the Cincinnati Bengals have even higher expectations in 2010. But to repeat a run to the postseason, Cincinnati will have to accomplish the feat against a brutal first-place schedule.

Will the Bengals hold up against the NFL's elite?

Cincinnati has the league's fourth-toughest strength of schedule this season and will play 10 games against opponents that had winning records a year ago. Four will be within the AFC North division against the Baltimore Ravens (9-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7).

On paper, this is the deepest and most talented team head coach Marvin Lewis has had in eight seasons in Cincinnati. The defense was ranked No. 4 last season, and the offense added weapons to the passing game to balance its already stout rushing attack.

By all accounts, the Bengals appear to have better chemistry than the 2005 playoff team. That group tasted one year of success and unraveled. Cincinnati suffered through three consecutive non-winning seasons from 2006-08, before finally turning it around last year.

"First and foremost, the teams are totally different," Bengals captain and offensive guard Bobbie Williams said recently. "The maturity on this team, even though it's a younger team, is phenomenal. Guys are way more focused, more hungry and way more professional. The hunger never dies. So it's totally different."

It has been well-documented that the Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. The talent is there to end Cincinnati's streak, but a first-place schedule could be the team's biggest hurdle.

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How will Patriots QB Tom Brady handle his contract issues?

In New England, it’s all about team. Bill Belichick and the organization have stressed the team concept in winning three Super Bowls during the 2000s. Because it’s a team, the Patriots have asked their players to take a little less in pay in order to keep this team together. Like most Patriots, Brady took less and thought little about it.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jerome Davis/Icon SMITom Brady is entering the last year under his contract.
Now, everyone is doing a lot of thinking. Brady is in the last year of his contract at a time it is very hard to do a long-term deal because of the league’s current labor woes. With Peyton Manning having some of the same difficulties in Indianapolis, the chances of a contract extension getting done for Brady before the start of camp would seem to be impossible.

Brady has a decision. Does he simply report and hope something gets done or does he try to make a statement with a holdout? A Brady holdout could be the biggest story of the NFL this summer. Over the past couple of years, Brady and his teammates have watched a few key members of the Super Bowl teams -- such as Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour -- leave in free agency or trades.

The Patriots face a potential holdout from Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who arguably is the team’s best blocker. Top guards get $8 million a year, and the Patriots are offering $6.5 million.

Mankins hasn’t signed his restricted free-agent tender; it’s possible that tender will be reduced to 110 percent of his 2009 base salary, or $1.54 million. He can hold out without getting fined.

Odds favor Brady showing up in good faith and hoping for a deal, but he has made it clear he doesn’t want to take a discount in this next contract. No one knows where the salaries of Brady or Manning could end up. Some think Manning could end up commanding more than $20 million a year.

In the meantime, Brady has to decide if he wants to create controversy by making this a big story by not showing up for the start of camp. The ball is in his court.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Have the Chiefs done enough on defense to make the team a viable playoff contender?

There is renewed hope in Kansas City, where the Chiefs have won a total of 10 games the past three seasons. There is hope that the Chiefs can make a run at a .500 record and perhaps better.

[+] EnlargeEric Berry
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesTop pick Eric Berry will help the Chiefs defense, but the team needs more pieces.
Much of the excitement is because of what the team has done on offense. Quarterback Matt Cassel, in his second season in Kansas City, has a revamped offensive line, more receiving options, veteran running back Thomas Jones to go with young star Jamaal Charles and the group is headed by guru Charlie Weis, who is back in the NFL where he enjoyed his greatest success.

That is reason for hope. But what about on defense?

I’m not sure if Kansas City has improved enough on that side of the ball to make a serious playoff run. There are two new, significant pieces in coordinator Romeo Crennel and safety Eric Berry, who was the No. 5 overall pick. I think Crennel will make the defense better just because of his presence and I think Berry will be an impact player. Every great defense needs a stout safety and Berry should be just that.

But the Chiefs had a lot of holes on defense and need another significant addition or two that can help right away. I’d like to see an experienced pass-rusher and perhaps another linebacker.

If Crennel and Berry make big impacts and if young players such as Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson (two defensive linemen who were Kansas City’s No. 1 picks the past two years) make big strides, there is hope. But they need more impact personnel than just Crennel and Berry.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

After recent charges of allegedly punching a bar worker, will Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson be suspended this season?

At the conclusion of last month's mandatory minicamp, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis praised his team for having a quality -- and quiet -- offseason.

Cedric Benson
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesThen Bengals were having a quiet offseason until Cedric Benson allegedly punched a bar employee.
Lewis lauded the strong participation and how there weren't the distractions many other teams faced around the NFL. In Cincinnati's division alone, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to deal with Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, the Baltimore Ravens had the Jared Gaither saga, and there were several unhappy restricted free agents with the Cleveland Browns.

But last week that silence ended with charges against Benson, who allegedly punched a bar worker in Austin, Texas, following a barroom brawl. These charges bring into question whether Cincinnati's leading rusher will face a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

Right now it's too early to provide a definitive answer, because the details are unclear. Benson was not charged until nearly a month after the incident.

That this isn't Benson's first run-in with law enforcement is probably the biggest factor working against him. Benson has had two previous incidents while in the NFL. Charges were cleared in both cases, but a third incident -- while Benson is on the league's "watch list" -- is never a good thing in the eyes of commissioner Roger Goodell.

Another issue: Why didn't Benson report the incident to the NFL and the Bengals in May when it first occurred? According to Benson's lawyer, David Cornwell (who also represents Roethlisberger), Benson called Lewis and the commissioner's office only after his release from jail on June 29.

Interestingly, Benson's representatives recently approached Cincinnati about a contract extension. The Bengals were open to the idea, in all likelihood without knowing about Benson's alleged altercation. Expect those talks to be put on ice until the legal system runs its course.

After getting through minicamp and organized team activities without incident, expect Benson's legal situation to be the biggest story facing the Bengals heading into training camp.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What will it take to pry Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson from the San Diego Chargers?

Vincent Jackson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireVincent Jackson had 68 catches for 1,167 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday that the Chargers are not actively shopping Jackson and a trade of the receiver, who is expected to hold out for several weeks into the regular season in a contract dispute, is a long shot.

I agree. Trading Jackson won’t be easy for San Diego.

That’s because the Chargers are not just going to give him away. A trade is unlikely because his price tag would be high.

Jackson is becoming one of the NFL’s best receivers. But there is baggage involved. He is facing a NFL suspension after two drunken driving arrests and he will want a huge contract from any team that deals for him. Jackson probably will be looking for a contract slightly north of the five-year, $50 million deal Brandon Marshall got from Miami after he was traded from Denver in April.

In addition to Jackson's desire for a new deal, the cost to obtain him in a trade would be steep. That brings us back to Marshall. Denver received a second-round pick in 2010 and a second-round pick in 2011 from Miami for Marshall. The Chargers probably will be looking for something in that neighborhood for Jackson, who is a comparable player to Marshall.

Perhaps San Diego would take a second-rounder and a conditional mid-round pick. But if teams think San Diego will simply punt Jackson and his headaches away for a fourth- or fifth-round pick, they are sadly mistaken.

It will cost a lot to get Jackson. That’s why a trade will be difficult to pull off.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Which AFC South rookie will have the biggest impact?

There are plenty of opportunities for first-year players in the AFC South, and it makes sense that a high draft pick who fills a need and will get time on the field will be the choice here.

[+] EnlargeTyson Alualu
AP Photo/John RaouxTyson Alualu made a positive impression during Jacksonville's offseason workouts.
I expect Derrick Morgan to start, but the Titans' defensive end will need some time to find his rhythm. The Titans have some other rush options at end in William Hayes, Jacob Ford and even Dave Ball. In Indianapolis, first-round defensive end Jerry Hughes will work behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and I suspect he will be eased in as the third guy.

At this point, I’d say the highest impact guy in the division will be one of three candidates: Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson, Houston running back Ben Tate or Jacksonville’s Tyson Alualu.

Jackson will be relying on the pass rush and the play of the rest of the secondary to help him succeed, and Tate starts off behind Steve Slaton and Arian Foster and needs better blocking than the Texans were able to provide last season.

Alualu’s not as reliant on others and has no veteran in front of him, so he’s my choice.

He showed an explosive first step and good hand action in OTAs. The Jaguars are hell bent on better penetration that will get quarterbacks off their spot and off their timing.

If Alualu beats the guy in front of him or even makes him retreat a bit, he’ll have an impact from the start and all season.

Big Question: Top AFC East move?

July, 6, 2010
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What was the top offseason move in the AFC East?

We've hit a rare dead period in the NFL, when all the teams have sent their players home to enjoy the summer for a few weeks. Offseason programs are complete. Training camps will begin at the end of the month.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall's trade to Miami was one of the biggest offseason moves in the AFC East.
Perfect time to review all of the offseason moves. With activity slowed to a crawl, we can safely evaluate the ones that should have the most impact on the upcoming season.

I've taken five decisions from each AFC East club and ranked them based on how important they'll prove to be in 2010.

But this list merely is to provide a reminder of what has happened the past few months. I'd like to see your list in the comments section below. Nominate your favorite move, give me your top five or rank them all.

NOTE: I was remiss in leaving out one of the bigger moves, but thanks to some friendly reminders in the comments section, I have corrected the list by inserting the Dolphins' switch at defensive coordinator at No. 4.

1. Dolphins trade two second-round draft picks for receiver Brandon Marshall.

2. Jets trade a third-round pick for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

3. Patriots use franchise tag to ensure nose tackle Vince Wilfork's return.

4. Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hire Mike Nolan.

5. Dolphins sign inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

6. Bills name Buddy Nix general manager and hire head coach Chan Gailey.

7. Jets trade a fifth-round pick for receiver Santonio Holmes.

8. Bills switch to 3-4 defense.

9. Jets pass on re-signing kicker Jay Feely and sign pass-rusher Jason Taylor.

10. Bills draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall.

11. Patriots clean house at tight end, sign Alge Crumpler, draft Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

12. Dolphins move Randy Starks from defensive end to nose tackle.

13. Patriots sign defensive end Gerard Warren.

14. Jets sign safety Brodney Pool, trade Kerry Rhodes.

15. Patriots release outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

16. Dolphins release outside linebacker Joey Porter.

17. Bills sign defensive end Dwan Edwards.

18. Jets replace running back Thomas Jones with LaDainian Tomlinson.

19. Bills sign inside linebacker Andra Davis.

20. Patriots sign receiver Torry Holt.

Big Question: Patriots cornerbacks

June, 29, 2010
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets improving at receiver, will the New England Patriots' cornerbacks be good enough in 2010?

The AFC East will be up for grabs this year. With the Jets and Dolphins making acquisitions that could open up the passing game for their young quarterbacks, strong cornerback play will be vital.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden and Lee Evans
AP Photo/Mike GrollAdding veteran Leigh Bodden should help solidify the New England secondary.
The Patriots have an interesting situation at cornerback. They re-signed veteran Leigh Bodden to play on the right side, but released Shawn Springs, who they trusted enough to start nine games, including their final five, at the all-important left cornerback spot.

The Patriots otherwise are young and relatively unproven. Plus, their dubious pass rush could put added strain on the secondary.

In each of the past three drafts, they have selected a cornerback within the first two rounds. Darius Butler, the 41st overall pick last year, looks like the left corner and has the potential to be a force in the division for years to come. But he has started only five games, two as a nickel or dime back.

Jonathan Wilhite, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has surpassed second-round classmate Terrence Wheatley. Wilhite started eight games last year, four on the left side, three on the right side and one at nickel. Wheatley has played in only 11 games because of injuries.

The Patriots drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick in April.

I asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson if the Patriots' cornerbacks will be up to snuff in a division that added Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes in the offseason.

"My initial impression is no, but that mostly stems from a below average pass rush," Williamson said. "I don't dislike the Pats' cornerbacks as a whole. There is a lot of very young talent that should be on the upswing.

"Wilhite and Wheatley worry me. They seem like nickel cornerbacks or even dime guys, but if everything goes as planned with McCourty and Butler, those two will be fine in such roles. Butler is a little more of a finesse player than Bill Belichick really seems to like, but there is a ton of ability there. It would be surprising if he doesn't bring more to the table as a cover man this season."

Despite doubts about being able to get after quarterbacks, Williamson mentioned another way the Patriots can assist their cornerbacks. If the offense can light it up, then the Patriots will have the advantage of defending obvious pass situations for significant portions of the game.

"I do think Tom Brady and company are going to score a ton of points," Williamson said. "So, in a way, that balances things out. That pass defense does not have to be elite in order for New England to win games."
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

San Diego's Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson may stage contract holdouts. Is there a chance San Diego general manager A.J. Smith will cave in and give the two players new contracts to avoid the holdouts?

[+] EnlargeAJ Smith 100627
AP Photo/Denis PoroyExpect Chargers general manager A.J. Smith to play hardball with holdouts Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson.
Let’s get to the meat of this quickly. I don’t see any chance that Smith will give in to these two guys.

I think that is the big reason why there is such a dire feel here. I believe everyone involved realizes that Smith is ready to play hardball.

This is a man who doesn’t blink.

If we get to early September and McNeill, a standout left tackle, and Jackson, a Pro Bowl receiver, are still staying away, Smith will simply move forward.

Jackson is well aware that Smith is entrenched and knows if he does stay away from the team (which he plans to do) Smith will be ready for a fight.

There is little chance Smith will give McNeill and Jackson new contracts before training camp to avoid this mess. His stance: If these players don’t want to play for him, he doesn’t want them to play for him.

That’s why he signed Tra Thomas as insurance for a McNeill holdout and Josh Reed as insurance for a Jackson holdout. That’s why when McNeill and Jackson didn’t sign their restricted free-agency tenders by the deadline, Smith said things like “we lost two players today.” He acted as if McNeill and Smith left the league. And if they hold out, they might as well leave the league as far as Smith is concerned.

Smith is a calculated, smart man who is not going to be bullied. He is going to fight his fight.

So, if you think Smith will cave, think again. It won’t happen.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How do the AFC South safety tandems rank?

[+] EnlargeBob Sanders
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireBob Sanders helps form the AFC South's most formidable safety tandem.
In a division with Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub, pass defense is at a premium, and division teams need pass rush and coverage to beat those two quarterbacks.

Beyond the Colts, who are three deep with Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt -- there are far too many questions about the safety tandems than teams can afford.

Houston is second-best, though it’s hardly cause for celebration. The Texans got excellent production and leadership out of strong safety Bernard Pollard when he joined the team and settled things down. But Eugene Wilson didn’t make it through the season. He seems less than an ideal match for Pollard, but the Texans don't have any good alternatives unless Troy Nolan, a draft pick from last year who was hurt, can step up.

Tennessee’s Chris Hope and Michael Griffin were Pro Bowlers two years ago. Last year they were quite shaky. Hope is aging and often seemed indecisive in 2009. He took some blame for not getting on Griffin enough, allowing their friendship to get in the way. Griffin admitted personal stuff was getting in the way last year. Can he compartmentalize better? That may be the biggest question for the defense.

Jacksonville has no real idea if Reggie Nelson will bounce back -- he also played some bad corner and nickel last season. Presuming he starts, Gerald Alexander is most likely the other guy, but Sean Considine and Anthony Smith are in the mix. Some scouts say all four are merely “guys,” a way of saying the team can do better. Second-year man Courtney Greene could earn a chance.

I stack them in that order, but after the Colts, it’s moveable ground based on camp and preseason performance. If things don’t get better, however, look for Manning and Schaub to shred the deep middle.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension, will Pittsburgh Steelers third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon get a fair shot to win the starting job?

[+] EnlargeDixon
James Lang/US PresswireDennis Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the starting quarterback spot while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension.
If there's a quarterback competition going on in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have an odd way of showing it.

Byron Leftwich received a majority of the first-team reps this offseason. Roethlisberger also got some first-team reps when he returned late for organized team activities.

Meanwhile, Dixon -- last year's No. 2 quarterback -- is being iced out. He was relegated exclusively to the second team this spring, making Pittsburgh's quarterback competition appear anything but "open."

Is there a reason Leftwich has dominated the first-team reps? Does Dixon have a realistic chance to earn the starting job in Week 1? If Dixon is to get a fair shot, it will have to come in training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers have a culture of making young players earn their keep, and Dixon is no different.

With a decent performance on the road last year against the Baltimore Ravens, many thought Dixon could be the favorite to be under center for Pittsburgh in September. He accounted for two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens. But the Steelers aren't letting Dixon get comfortable with his moderate success.

Coming off a chaotic offseason, perhaps Pittsburgh feels more comfortable with a stable veteran at quarterback. Leftwich knows the offense well and filled in admirably for Roethlisberger during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run in 2008.

Leftwich may very well be the best option for Pittsburgh. But Dixon at least deserves a fair chance this summer to prove otherwise.

Big Question: Most dubious AFC East call?

June, 22, 2010
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What's the worst call to have spoiled the result for an AFC East team?

In the past few weeks, Koman Coulibaly and Jim Joyce made two of the most infamous officiating blunders.

On a global stage, Coulibaly's no-goal gaffe might cost the U.S. soccer team a place in the knockout round of the World Cup. Joyce spoiled baseball history when he blew a call at first base on what should have completed a perfect game.

[+] EnlargeSnow Plow Dolphins Patriots game 1982
AP Photo/Mike KullenJohn Smith had better footing after a plow cleared away the snow for his game-winning kick.
At least they're not alone in sports history. Plenty of other officials have made dubious calls that have changed the outcome of a big game.

The AFC East has seen its share. With help from my Facebook friends, I came up with a short list of controversial calls to consider.

We'll steer clear of the calls that helped an AFC East team win. So forget the Tuck Rule or Vinny Testaverde's phantom touchdown plunge. We're looking for heartbreak here.

With 52 seconds left in their 1976 playoff game, New England Patriots defensive lineman Ray Hamilton was called for a highly questionable roughing penalty on Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. The Patriots were up by four points. The Raiders faced a third-and-18 from New England's 27-yard line. Stabler's pass was incomplete, but the flag gave the Raiders a first down, and they eventually punched into the end zone.

The Patriots defeated the Miami Dolphins in the Snow Plow Game in 1982. On a winter wonderland of a field, Patriots coach Ron Meyer ordered a plow onto the field to clear kicker John Smith's placement for a 33-yard field goal with 4:45 to play. Officials didn't prevent it. Final score: Patriots 3, Dolphins 0.

In 1998, a questionable fourth-down conversion immediately followed by a wild penalty in the end zone as time expired infuriated the Buffalo Bills so much they didn't line up for the extra point in a vexing loss to the Patriots. A Hail Mary pass interference gave New England the ball on Buffalo's 1-yard line. Down by four points, Drew Bledsoe tossed to Ben Coates for the touchdown.

Bills fans bemoan the Music City Miracle, one of the most controversial plays in NFL history. The Tennessee Titans pulled off what I believe was a perfect lateral to eliminate the Bills from the 1999 playoffs. Despite a video review that seemed to have more interpretations than a Salvador Dali painting, the touchdown stood. The Bills haven't returned to the postseason.

Last year, a Sports Illustrated photo showed Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn stripped New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper shy of the goal line. The ball bounded out of the end zone for what should have been a Dolphins' touchback, but a review upheld Sharper's pick-six, a critical play in a dramatic Saints' victory. Had the Dolphins won, it might have helped them get into the playoffs.

There are so many others to choose from. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Chargers still be a serious Super Bowl contender without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill?

Earlier in this saga, I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he thought San Diego could make a deep playoff run without Jackson and McNeill. Williamson didn’t think so.

McNeill
McNeill
Jackson
Jackson
I agree that it would be tough. The AFC is stacked and any team that wants to make a serious run will need its full arsenal of players. Having McNeill and Jackson sitting on their couches on Sundays in the fall certainly won’t make San Diego a better team.

Still, if those two players really do hold out into November (the current expectation is that both McNeill and Jackson will hold out for the first 10 games of the season unless they unexpectedly get long-term deals), the Chargers will be tremendously challenged. But barring any major injuries, the team could still stay afloat and regroup for the stretch run.

San Diego (which added tackle Tra Thomas and reserve receiver Josh Reed as insurance for potential holdouts) is pretty loaded on offense. While Jackson is the team’s go-to receiver, quarterback Philip Rivers has plenty of options. He can lean on star tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee while Jackson is out. If Thomas is solid and he keeps Rivers upright, the Chargers can maintain. They won’t be as good as they would be with Jackson and McNeill, but, yes, they can survive.

San Diego plays only two teams (Arizona and New England) that made the playoffs in 2009 during the first 10 games of the season. Five of San Diego’s first 10 games are against teams that had losing records last season.

So, it’s manageable. Playing without Jackson and McNeill for the majority of the season is certainly not ideal, but it may not be devastating to San Diego, either.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Is this the year the Colts, who've won at least 12 games seven years running, finally make a dip in the standings?

The Colts' sustained regular-season success is unparalleled. They have a great talent evaluator at the top of the organization in Bill Polian. They have a four-time MVP quarterback in Peyton Manning. They have an all-time great pass-rusher in Dwight Freeney. They have a core of veterans who simply know how to win, and an expectation level everyone buys into.

[+] EnlargeJeff Saturday
Larry French/Getty ImagesJeff Saturday leads an offensive line that has many questions heading into next season.
But, critics and devil’s advocates say, at some point things are bound to start to come apart.

The offensive line, keyed by aging center Jeff Saturday, has some questions and lost long-time coach Howard Mudd, who retired. Veteran offensive coordinator Tom Moore has a reduced role and Clyde Christensen, whose stint as coordinator in Tampa Bay was disastrous, has moved up into the role.

Young players like receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie and cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey will play key roles. What if they suffer slumps instead of jumps?

Freeney is getting older and the team suffers when he’s hurt. And although the team has good alternatives in place, safety Bob Sanders has not proved he can hold together for a long stretch. If they or another key guy goes down, won’t there be a time when the next man up proves unable to sustain the level of play?

Special teams regularly have failed to help the cause. While the team is optimistic things will improve, sometimes it feels like there is an acceptance that there just won’t be a big contribution. Adam Vinatieri doesn’t have the leg he used to and is coming off a year in which he fought injuries.

Jim Caldwell did some outstanding work in his initial season as an NFL head coach, but stumbled with some key decisions in the Super Bowl.

Like every team in the league, the Colts have issues. Scenarios like these could arise and make things awfully difficult for them.

And yes, at some point later in Manning’s career, it will become harder for them to win their standard 12 games.

But that time hasn’t arrived yet.

The Colts still are the safe bet to win the AFC South. With Sanders, receiver Anthony Gonzalez and draftees like defensive end Jerry Hughes and tight end Brody Eldridge primed to help, they stand to be better than they were in 2009.

So I’ve asked the big question, and now I’m answering it: No.

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