NFL preview: AFC team capsules

DeMarcus Ware
Denver has added DeMarcus Ware among others to help with defense.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

In predicted order of finish by division:

AFC West

2013 | 13-3, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Offense-minded Denver beefed up on the other side of the ball, adding end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety T.J. Ward. Peyton Manning looks as sharp as ever. Deep threat Emmanuel Sanders more than makes up for the loss of receiver Eric Decker.


They’re doomed: Manning has had two great seasons in Denver, but does he have another at age 38? The defensive additions might look better on paper than in reality. Several key players are coming off injuries, among them linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris, defensive end Derek Wolfe and tackle Ryan Clady. No obvious choice to return punts or kicks. And the schedule is tough, with games against the NFC West and at New England.

Now hear this: “I think [Manning] has got more weapons around him than he’s ever had. There’s more depth behind him. The offensive line is probably the best he’s ever played behind.” — John Elway, executive vice president of football operations

2013 | 9-7, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Philip Rivers was back to form last season, leading the league in completion percentage. Pass defense was a major area of concern last season, although that improved late in the year. That should be better still with the addition of two good cornerbacks — first-round pick Jason Verrett and free agent Brandon Flowers.


They’re doomed: The Chargers need to generate a pass rush, and their two biggest threats are coming off serious injuries, linebackers Melvin Ingram (torn ACL) and Dwight Freeney missed (torn quadriceps). Depth on the defensive line is a problem, as is tackling.

Now hear this: “I’ve watched that playoff game in Denver so many times. Some of it is watching it for fun, not that all of that game was fun, and some of it’s for, man, how close were we? We were right there. Let’s get back right there.” — Rivers, on the 24-17 loss to the Broncos in a divisional playoff game.

2013 | 11-5, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Not only did Andy Reid execute a brilliant makeover of the Chiefs in his first season — the franchise went from 2-14 to 11-5 — but also he guided an NFL franchise to the playoffs for the 10th time in 15 seasons. The defensive front seven is loaded with talent, and Eric Berry is among the NFL’s best safeties. On offense, there’s the steady hand of quarterback Alex Smith, and the speed of running back Jamaal Charles.

They’re doomed: Yes, the Chiefs got off to a great start in 2013, but they won only two games in the second half of the season. They lost a lot to free agency, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary.

Now hear this: “I’m still not over it. Of all the games I’ve played, two AFC championship games, losing in those AFC championship games, I don’t know if I’ve ever hurt more than after that game. Then to have to sit on that for 3 1/2 months....” — Defensive end Mike DeVito on blowing a 28-point lead in the third quarter to lose to Indianapolis, 45-44, in the playoffs.

2013 | 4-12, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2002

Going all the way:  The Raiders don’t lack for experience. They loaded up this off-season with onetime stars who have lost their luster: quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and defenders Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Carlos Rogers. If they can make the impact the Raiders are expecting, the club can avoid a third consecutive four-win season.


They’re doomed: Seldom does an influx of expensive, thirtysomething free agents produce the desired results. Schaub was in a downward spiral last season, and the Raiders could have to turn to rookie quarterback Derek Carr sooner than they hoped.

Now hear this: “Schaubby’s getting his mojo back. He’s getting his confidence back. He’s starting to believe in himself again. He is starting to throw with confidence.” — Smith on Schaub, his former teammate in Houston.

AFC North

2013 | 11-5, 1st in North
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: With Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator, the Bengals won’t be paying lip service to the running game as much as they did under Jay Gruden. That means an enhanced role for back Giovani Bernard, and less pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins anchors a terrific front, and linebacker iVontaze Burfict is a tackling machine.

They’re doomed: Everybody’s looking to see how the Bengals will do in January, as the team is 0-5 in playoff games under Marvin Lewis. But it would be just as instructive to watch how Cincinnati performs in prime-time games and division games on the road. With Dalton playing all four quarters, the Bengals are 1-7 as visitors in the AFC North, 2-4 in prime time.

Now hear this: “The people who are the critics, they look at all of the negatives. They don’t look at all of the stuff that I’ve accomplished.” … All that matters is what everyone believes in this organization and what I believe in myself. That’s how I go about my business.” — Dalton, via the Cincinnati Enquirer.

2013 | 8-8, 2nd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2011


Going all the way: Ben Roethlisberger has shown increasing efficiency in Todd Haley’s offense and was sacked only seven times in the final seven games last season. With Mike Munchak on staff, the running game should be improved with bruisers Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount bashing inside. Center Maurkice Pouncey is back after missing all but eight plays last season because of a knee injury. Rising stars on defense are end Cam Heyward and linebacker Jason Worilds.

They’re doomed: Despite being younger and quicker on defense, the Steelers haven’t proved they can stop the run. The Steelers are ultra-thin at corner. Four of Roethlisberger’s top five receivers are essentially new faces to him, the only familiar one being Antonio Brown.

Now hear this: “Hopefully I’m not one of them.” — Mike Tomlin, Steelers coach, in reference to having three fired head coaches on his staff: Haley, Munchak and Dick LeBeau.

2013 | 8-8, 3rd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: The run game will be a staple with Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Baltimore was ranked 29th in offense last season. Steve Smith is another capable target for Joe Flacco, and Smith will finally have a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy. The offensive line is improved, although it had nowhere to go but up.

They’re doomed: The defense that once had the quintessential center fielder in Ed Reed no longer has a menacing safety patrolling the back end. (Matt Elam is better playing closer to the line of scrimmage.) Pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both on the wrong side of 30. Tailback Ray Rice is suspended for the first two games, critical division games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Now hear this: “I expect our offense to be a lot better. We haven’t performed up to our standards, statistically. This offense is going to be pretty tough to handle. We’ve got a lot of weapons and we’ve got a lot of tough guys. I expect us to be up there at the top of the league.” — Flacco.

2013 | 4-12, 4th in North
Last year in playoffs | 2002

Going all the way: Defensively, the Browns are in good shape. They were ninth in yards allowed last season, and feel they can get more pass-rush productivity from linebackers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo. They have two talented press corners in Joe Haden and rookie Justin Gilbert.

They’re doomed: The jury is still out on Johnny Manziel, but his decision making hasn’t been stellar. He’s attracted the wrong kind of attention for his off-the-field antics, and losing his cool and flipping off Washington players cost him $12,000. Brian Hoyer will start as the No. 1 quarterback, but he’s coming off an ACL injury and has little experience. Browns are also minus standout receiver Josh Gordon, suspended for the season for failing a drug test.

Now hear this: “Johnny’s still the man. … Johnny being the No. 2, as you want to call it, we got arguably the best No. 2 in the NFL.” — Nate Burleson, receiver, on Manziel, to the Akron Beacon Journal.

AFC South

2013 | 11-5, 1st in South
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Quarterback Andrew Luck is unquestionably elite, and now his receiving corps is bolstered by a healthy Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, and free-agent addition Hakeem Nicks. The Colts weren’t overly active in free agency, but picked up difference makers in  defensive end Art Jones from Baltimore and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson from Cleveland.

They’re doomed: Some major questions heading into camp — Will the young interior of the offensive line be an issue? Who will replace safety Antoine Bethea? — still linger. The Colts have a rookie starting at left guard and a first-year starter at center, and the safety job (opposite LaRon Landry) remains up for grabs. Trent Richardson averaged only 2.9 yards a carry, and sacks leader Robert Mathis is suspended for the first four games.

Now hear this: “Trent, he needs to answer the bell.… We’re all accountable here.” — Ryan Grigson, general manager, on Richardson.

2013 | 7-9, 2nd in South
Last year in playoffs | 2008

Going all the way: Ken Whisenhunt helped get the Chargers back on a playoff track last season, so maybe he can resurrect a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason game since 2003. The Titans have a good foundation with a solid offensive line, and some defenders who can pressure the passer in Akeem Ayers, Shaun Phillips, Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley.

They’re doomed: This is a prove-it year for quarterback Jake Locker, who has missed 14 of 32 games since being named the starter. The Titans cut the inconsistent but occasionally spectacular Chris Johnson in April, and parting ways with Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner could be costly. There figure to be some hiccups as the Titans switch to Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense.

Now hear this: “It’s a different mood when you come here. You’re just excited and ready to play football. [Before] you just had a lot of guys that had other things on their minds.” — Michael Griffin, safety.

2013 | 2-14, 4th in South
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: The Texans don’t have all the pieces to win consistently now, but they’ve got enough to start building. Receiver Andre Johnson finally has a capable sidekick in DeAndre Hopkins, and there’s ample depth behind running back Arian Foster. On defense, everyone’s looking at what kind of damage the dynamic duo of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney can do. They figure to give fits to opposing offenses.

They’re doomed: The quarterback position is a big question mark for Houston, as Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t look like a long-term answer. The Texans are shaky at safety, and aren’t great in coverage in general. The offensive line is solid at left tackle, center and right guard, but it looks as if left guard and right tackle will be problematic.

Now hear this: “He better have his head on a swivel, because I’m coming and I know J.J.’s coming.” — Clowney, on pass rushing against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

2013 | 4-12, 3rd in South
Last year in playoffs | 2007

Going all the way: Yes, he’s faced vanilla defenses in exhibition games, but rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has looked excellent and has a hint of Ben Roethlisberger in him, even though he’s lankier than the Pittsburgh’s star. Bortles isn’t expected to play the first month, but he could become the club’s first franchise quarterback.

They’re doomed: This team will be better than the one that started 0-8 last season. The top four receivers are promising but ultra-young, basically three rookies and Cecil Shorts, who has played three seasons. New Coach Gus Bradley imported some defensive help from Seattle, ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, so the Jaguars are bigger and deeper up front.

Now hear this: “We do feel good about where Blake’s at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good in the end result.” — Bradley, on the decision to start Chad Henne instead of rookie Bortles.

AFC East

2013 | 12-4, 1st in East
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Tight end Rob Gronkowski is (almost) back; he’s still favoring his recovering right knee and is said to be 50/50 for the season opener against Miami. Regardless, Tom Brady finds a way to win. The Patriots addressed their defensive shortcomings with some impressive additions, among them cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Even with the 26th-ranked defense last season, New England won 12 games.

They’re doomed: New England has an aging defensive front, notably with Vince Wilfork coming off surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Patriots’ first-round pick, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, suffered ACL tears to both knees during a three-season span at Florida.

Now hear this: “Nah, I ain’t changing that one bit. I’m going to go full speed when I’m out there and I’m going to keep smashing and dashing in everything I do.” — Gronkowski, on whether he’ll change his style after a slew of injuries and surgeries.

2013 | 8-8, 3rd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2008

Going all the way: Even though the Dolphins are a so-so 15-17 with quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm, he has shown flickers of promise — and that’s playing behind a terrible line and without a big, go-to receiver who can help bail him out of trouble. Maybe Knowshon Moreno will be the player he was in Denver last season and resuscitate Miami’s running game.

They’re doomed: With Mike Pouncey still recovering from hip surgery, the Dolphins will open with five new offensive linemen. While that’s a necessity for a team that gave up 58 sacks last season, it’s tough to see that group meshing right away. Miami’s on its fourth offensive coordinator in five years, and head Coach Joe Philbin has yet to prove he has a winning system.

Now hear this: “I heard a rumor that some people have reported we’ve made it hard for him on the field. That’s on purpose. That’s how you build a quarterback. He’s coming.” — Bill Lazor, offensive coordinator, on Tannehill.

3. N.Y. JETS
2013 |8-8, 2nd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2010

Going all the way: The strength of these Jets is a young, athletic defensive line, and front seven — led by Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison — that will smother the run and generate a solid pass rush. Quarterback Geno Smith appears to be a better decision maker than last season (hard to imagine him being worse) and now has the pressure of Michael Vick waiting in the wings.

They’re doomed: As good as the defense is up front, it is lousy on the back end. Several injuries hit the secondary, but this unit is suspect even when healthy. The Jets are scrambling for answers in the secondary, with No. 1 corner Dee Milliner injured, Dimitri Patterson suspended for going AWOL, and rookie Dex McDougle now out for the season (ACL).

Now hear this: “I never said I had to have the best corner in football. That’s not it. My defenses work, period. I don’t care what it is. We take what we have, and then we work around it.” — Rex Ryan, coach

2013 | 6-10, 4th in East
Last year in playoffs | 1999

Going all the way: Buffalo’s defensive line will give opponents problems. The front four features three players who made the Pro Bowl last season — Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus — and the one who didn’t, Jerry Hughes, had 10 sacks. The Bills also might have the deepest cast of running backs: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown.

They’re doomed: It has been a steady stream of bad news this off-season. From the death of owner Ralph Wilson, to the cancer battle of Jim Kelly, to the issues that could directly affect the 2014 team — among them the separate arrests of Dareus for illegal car racing and drug possession, and a season-ending ACL injury to second-year defensive star Kiko Alonso.

Now hear this: “We’ve got a lot to prove.… We haven’t been in the playoffs in a long time. We owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner and everybody in this business.” — Doug Whaley, general manager.