NFL Nation: The Big Question AFC 51110

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

Is San Diego rookie tailback Ryan Mathews up to the task of bringing balance back to the Chargers’ offense?

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRyan Mathews should give the Chargers reasons to smile this season.
It is only May, and San Diego has just seen Mathews at a rookie minicamp. Still, the team is very pleased with what it has seen of Mathews so far.

Thus, San Diego is thrilled it gave up a bundle of draft picks to move up from No. 28 to No. 12 to snare the Fresno State running back last month. I think there is little doubt that Mathews will be an instant impact player, who should vie for offensive rookie of the year honors. The big, strong Mathews is a perfect fit for the Chargers’ offense. That’s why they gave up a lot to get him.

Expect Mathews to be a big upgrade over the LaDainian Tomlinson of the past two years. Mathews is going to extend some drives, eat clock and -- most important -- take pressure off San Diego’s great passing game. His presence will allow quarterback Philip Rivers and his receiving crew to be more dangerous because defense will have to account for the San Diego ground game.

Last season, San Diego had the No. 31-ranked run offense. Mathews’ presence also will allow change-of-pace back Darren Sproles to stay fresher and remain in the role that best suits him. The addition of Mathews is going to be enormous for San Diego for many reasons.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are realistic expectations for controversial Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who was inactive in 2009?

On one hand, the Bengals recently added a talented former first-round pick at cornerback who's known for his return skills. But on the other hand, Cincinnati also added a player with a checkered past who hasn't played in the NFL since 2008.

[+] EnlargePacman Jones
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAdam "Pacman" Jones hasn't played since 2008.
Welcome to the enigma of Adam "Pacman" Jones.

The Bengals signed the embattled cornerback to a two-year deal. But there is no way to know exactly what Cincinnati is getting next season.

Jones could quickly develop into the athletic, No. 3 cornerback the Bengals are hoping for. If that's the case, Jones would provide an immediate impact by filling a void in the secondary for the reigning AFC North champs. Cincinnati's defense struggled covering slot receivers last year.

But Jones' history also suggests that, potentially, he could become a distraction for the Bengals. Rust also will be an issue. Cincinnati is trying to make the jump to being a legitimate contender in the AFC and can't afford any problems.

The "Pacman" Jones experiment didn't work for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. Both franchises tried, then eventually felt he wasn't worth the headache and moved on.

Now it's the Bengals' turn, and they're hoping for different results.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What will the Colts’ offensive line look like in 2010?

Straight answer: We don’t know and only can speculate. There will be a new left guard, as Ryan Lilja was let go. Beyond that…

[+] EnlargeColts
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe Colts will be missing at least one member of their 2009 offensive line.
The team has added three players: sixth-year tackle Adam Terry, fourth-year guard Andy Alleman and fourth-round draft pick Jacques McClendon. They also added three undrafted tackles (one who was on the practice squads in Cincinnati, San Diego and Philadelphia last season) and an undrafted guard.

Team president Bill Polian recently said the intent is to toss all 15 offensive linemen on the roster into the OTA, minicamp and training camp mix and see what shakes out. That leaves a lot of room for a lot of scenarios including a tackle like Charlie Johnson kicking inside.

It’s my feeling that of the four remaining incumbents, only center Jeff Saturday is a lock to return in the spot he was in last season. But I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if all four -- Johnson at left tackle, Saturday at center, Kyle DeVan at right guard, Ryan Diem at right tackle -- were in place on opening day in Houston, with only Lilja’s replacement a newcomer. The group, after all, was good enough to get the Colts to a second Super Bowl in four years.

Pass protection is going to remain priority one with Peyton Manning taking the snaps, but more effective run blocking in some crucial scenarios is a factor that can help the Colts.

They need to lock in a left tackle and go from there. Charlie Johnson could remain in the spot, though some think he’s best as the sixth man who can fill in for a few games here and there at tackle or guard. Tony Ugoh needs to make his claim to the job now, and could get a clean slate with Pete Metzelaars taking over for longtime offensive line coach Howard Mudd.

A scout from another team told me recently that he thought Polian wanted to see Ugoh developed at the spot while the decisive Mudd had determined Ugoh couldn’t be effective enough for the Colts last year. We’ll likely never know if that’s the case, thought the results of the competitions could give us some degree of information.

Whoever the tackles are, they and the run game should get a boost from Brody Eldridge. He's the big blocking tight end the Colts drafted in the fifth round out of Oklahoma. He’s not going to hurt the Colts while getting in the way of an extra pass rusher either.

The Big Question: Three playoff teams?

May, 11, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Could the AFC playoffs feature three teams from the AFC East?

For the past three years, the AFC East hardly deserved to send multiple teams to the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireMark Sanchez led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game last season.
The AFC East arguably didn't warrant extra inclusion in 2009 either. The New York Jets clinched a wild-card bid with massive assistance from their last two opponents, while other contenders withered into pretenders.

But this year is shaping up differently. The AFC East could send three teams into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Anticipation already is building for what should be an ultra-competitive division shootout. The New England Patriots are defending champs. The Jets reached the AFC Championship Game. The Miami Dolphins won the AFC East in 2008 and were mathematically alive for a wild-card berth heading into Week 17 last year. They beat the Jets twice.

As respectable as those organizations were at the end of 2008, expectations have escalated. All three have improved their playoff chances through free agency, trades and the draft. senior writer John Clayton recently rated the most productive offseasons, and his Nos. 1 through 3 were the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets.

For eight straight seasons, the AFC East hasn't acquitted itself well. It qualified a lone wild-card team in 2004, 2006 and 2009 (all the Jets), but none in the other seasons. Although it should be pointed out the Patriots had an 11-5 record two years ago, but failed to get in because they lost a tiebreaker to the Dolphins for the division crown and to the Baltimore Ravens for the second wild-card spot.

But in 2010, the AFC East's strength of schedule is around the middle of the pack. The Patriots have the sixth-toughest schedule, but the Dolphins, Jets and Buffalo Bills are tied for 16th.

The AFC North has been shaky. Can anybody count on the Cincinnati Bengals to repeat as division champs? The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to make the playoffs at all last year and are experiencing serious turbulence with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The AFC West has been weak for a few seasons, producing one winning record over the past two seasons combined and two over the past three seasons.

We can pretty much pencil in the Indianapolis Colts to continue their AFC South dominance, but the other clubs have struggled off and on.

What makes the AFC South's outlook even more daunting is the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans are tied for the most-difficult schedule based on their opponents' aggregate 2009 records. The Jacksonville Jaguars own the fifth-toughest schedule. The Colts have the 10th.

Odds would appear decent multiple AFC East teams will make the tournament.