Commentary

Plenty of concerns in top-heavy AFC

Mailbag: Chiefs, Bills among many teams in the midst of lackluster preseasons

Originally Published: August 24, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

If this weekend was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for NFL teams, the AFC had a wardrobe malfunction.

The talent-superior NFC won seven of the 13 interconference games from Thursday to Saturday, and the NFC exposed plenty of worries for AFC teams.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, were encouraging in their first two preseason games, but they looked dreadful in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday. Possibly tired from their scrimmages with the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers were unable to handle the Eagles' speed. 

The biggest concerns in the AFC rest with the alarming amount of mid- and lower-level teams that have yet to show improvement. Denver, New England and Baltimore are good shape. The Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals should be fine. Based on this preseason weekend, the rest of the conference has worries.

The Kansas City Chiefs have the biggest concerns. After going to the playoffs with 11 wins last year, the Chiefs have taken more roster hits than just about anyone in football. Free agency robbed them of three offensive linemen and a four-game suspension has right tackle Donald Stephenson out of the mix. Six of the 10 linemen who were on the roster last year won't be with the team when the regular season begins. Making matters worse is left tackle Eric Fisher -- coming off shoulder surgery -- who is struggling with his blocking.

The failure to add to their receiving corps already is causing problems. Dwayne Bowe is suspended for the opener, leaving the Chiefs with Junior Hemingway and Donnie Avery as the starters. Alex Smith hasn't generated a touchdown drive in three preseason games.

[+] EnlargeKansas City Chiefs, Alex Smith
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMIA lack of pass-catching weapons has hindered Chiefs QB Alex Smith so far in the preseason.

EJ Manuel hasn't had a touchdown drive in four preseason games for the Buffalo Bills. The New Orleans Saints looked superior to the Indianapolis Colts in their matchup Saturday night. The Cleveland Browns were dominated by the St. Louis Rams Saturday night before and after the departure of injured Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The Oakland Raiders' offense continues to struggle with Matt Schaub at quarterback. Schaub lost confidence last year in Houston and hasn't appeared to regain a lot of it in the move to Oakland.

The Browns resolved their quarterback debate by going with Brian Hoyer, but he isn't generating many points on offense.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are much more aggressive and formidable with improvements on defense and the coaching of Gus Bradley. But they don't look like a team that is going to score much on offense with Chad Henne at quarterback.

Pro football is a cyclical sport and the NFC is now in charge. The question this year is how dominant it will be this season in interconference games. If the teams in the middle and lower part of the AFC don't show better performances than what we saw this weekend, the AFC playoff races could be strange.

Last year, three AFC West teams made the playoffs in part because they won 11 of 12 games against the NFC East. Now, they face the NFC West, the best conference in football. Denver and San Diego should be able to hold their own, but Oakland and Kansas City might find it tough to go 2-2 in those interconference games.

There have been times over the past couple of years when I wondered whether there were six legitimate playoff teams in the AFC. Denver, New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati have been solid. San Diego and Kansas City made it last year with the help of easy schedules. This season, San Diego and Tennessee are good enough to be wild-card contenders, and I do think Pittsburgh and Baltimore both have a chance to win the AFC North. Because of their offensive line problems, the Miami Dolphins still have a look of an eight- or nine-win team.

From the inbox

Q: Do you see any possible last-to-first teams this year? It seems to have one you have to have a division that doesn't have a dominant team. In that case, only the NFC East (Washington), AFC South (Houston) and AFC North (Cleveland) might be possible.

Bill in Stafford, Va.

A: I was making a case for the Washington Redskins, but I have my doubts. Robert Griffin III is struggling in Jay Gruden's attempts to make him a pocket passer. The Eagles' offense is crisp and looks better than ever. I also see improvements in the Eagles' defense. Before camp, I thought the Redskins might be that worst-to-first team. When I sent my predictions in this week, I went with the Eagles as the division winner. The Houston Texans won't stop Indianapolis with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The Browns will be challenged to score points and will probably finish fourth in the AFC North.

Q: Whom do you think will be the surprise teams in the AFC and NFC that can make a run to the Super Bowl?

Desmond in Greenville, S.C.

A: I don't think the Detroit Lions are good enough to make a Super Bowl run, but I think that is the one surprise team I can push forward. They are loaded with weapons on offense. The team seems to be more disciplined with Jim Caldwell as the coach. I think the Lions can be good enough on defense to get into the wild-card round. Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and maybe Philadelphia are the top dogs in the NFC. I don't know if Detroit can get past them, but that is a team that I like for talent. I would consider putting the Bills in that category, but I'm concerned about the play of their quarterback.

Q: It was leaked that the Seahawks were not scheduled any home prime-time games (except for season opener) because their prime-time home games the past couple of years have been blowouts. With the TV contracts in the billions, how much of an influence in these decisions either directly or indirectly do you think the television networks had?

Brian in Oakland, Calif.

A: I never completely bought that leak. In fact, I believe the Seahawks are in so much television demand it limited the chances of getting good prime-time games for Seattle. The Green Bay opener was a natural. Home games against Denver and San Francisco were going to be protected by the Sunday afternoon networks. Games against Dallas, Oakland and the New York Giants could be blowouts. When you get to the rest of the slate, the options would be the home games against the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals. Because of Seattle's home-field advantage, you could understand why there might be a reluctance to commit because there is the potential for blowouts. Believe me, for television purposes, the Seahawks have made themselves a valuable property.

Q: In regards to the quarterback controversy in Cleveland, why is it that everyone is talking about Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer while leaving out the statistically better Connor Shaw? He went 8-of-9 for 123 yards against the Redskins. Even accounting for the fact he did it against second- and third-string players, those stats are nothing to ignore. Also, in a fan poll he was selected by 70.2 percent of Browns fans to be the starter. Why not Shaw?

Cam in South Carolina

A: You sound like the old ball coach, Steve Spurrier. Stats in the preseason are misleading. Shaw is going to get those stats against backups and third-stringers. Remember, what happens in practice is also a factor in who is starting. There have been no reports of Shaw outperforming either quarterback in the practices. Plus, how embarrassing would it be for the Browns to talk a good game with Hoyer, invest a first-round choice in Manziel and then go with Shaw? Not happening. Plus, if they thought so much of Shaw, why would they sign Rex Grossman?

Q: The "Manziel Mania" reminds me of the Tebow-Kyle Orton circus in Denver a few years ago. Do you see parallels in Cleveland with Hoyer-Manziel?

Patricia in St. Louis

A: I don't see the similarities. It helps Hoyer that he is a product of the area and knows the fans. Plus, there hasn't been a time he has shown any lack of confidence. The challenge for Hoyer now is catching up. The competition between the two quarterbacks took away time Hoyer could have used working more with the rest of the starting offense. He's a little behind, which is why he probably hasn't performed as well as he would have liked. I don't know if he has enough weapons if Josh Gordon is suspended. He opens the season against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore. That's a bear of a schedule for him to get a win.

Q: During the Redskins-Browns MNF game, Cleveland benefited from a defensive holding penalty on a third-and-18 that resulted in an automatic first down. Do you think that there could be a rule change that makes the defensive holding and illegal contact penalties not automatic first downs? With the increased emphasis on flagging them, maybe a middle ground solution could be lowering the impact of each penalty by stripping the automatic first down aspect of it.

Adam in Granite Bay, Calif.

A: I hope we both agree that they did too much with this emphasis. Too many flags. But, if they would not give a first down on a defensive holding or an illegal contact, it would defeat the purpose of the emphasis. Cornerbacks would be more prone to grab a receiver if the penalty would be a 5-yarder. If you are going to get beat for a 17-yard pass, the defender would rather grab the receiver and take the 5-yard penalty.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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