Matt Nielsen outlines the AFC playoff picture for the 2013 season.
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
The Bills are already in trouble and the season hasn't even started yet. Starting quarterback Kevin Kolb suffered another concussion and this one could be career ending. Backup first round draft pick EJ Manuel was also injured this preseason which leaves the starting job to Jeff Tuel who wasn't even drafted out of Washington State. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999 which is the longest drought in the league. It doesn't look like this will be the year for that streak to end either. The Bills will finish third in the AFC East with a record of 6-10.
Miami Dolphins (9-7)
The Dolphins seem like a team in limbo right now. They have the potential to be a good team this year but not a great team. Second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a solid rookie year and is looking to improve on his success. Wide receiver Mike Wallace comes over from Pittsburgh and will be a huge asset to Miami. He has mad speed and will be a deep threat all season long. The one thing that could hinder the Dolphins this year is their running game. Reggie Bush signed with Detroit in the offseason which will be a tough loss for the team. Bush was just short of 1,000 yards rushing last year which was almost 700 more yards than second year running back Lamar Miller. Miller only put up 250 yards rushing last year so he will have big shoes to fill as the starter. The Dolphins have a mediocre defense which won't win them games but also won't lose them games either. The fact that the Jets and Bills will have pretty bad teams this season will help the Dolphins out. I don't see them passing New England in the AFC East but I do see them making a Wild Card spot.
New England Patriots (10-6)
The Patriots have owned the AFC East for the past decade. No team has even come close to taking away the AFC crown from New England which is pretty rare in the NFL, especially during the salary cap era. The Patriots lost a lot of talent in the off-season including Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead. New England will also go some time without star tight-end Rob Gronkowski due to injury. It is still uncertain how many games Gronkowski will be out for but it sounds like he will miss week one for sure. It will be a tougher road for the Patriots this year but as long as Tom Brady is your quarterback you are in good hands. I see the Patriots going 10-6 this season and winning the AFC East.
New York Jets (4-12)
The Jets have fallen off the face of the planet over the past couple of seasons. They went to two straight AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010 but fell to 8-8 in 2011. 2012 saw them fall even further with a record of 6-10. Look for the Jets to finish last in the AFC this year with a record of 4-12. They might be the most dysfunctional team in the NFL right now. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith was just named the starter for the season opener against Tampa Bay which means that Mark Sanchez could be out of the big apple by the end of the season. Sanchez has been inconsistent his whole career and has never proved that he deserves to be a starter in this league. The Jets traded away Darrelle Revis this offseason who is one of the best, if not the best cornerback in the NFL. There are really no upsides to this Jets team this year and I expect that it will be a long season for Jets fans everywhere. Look for them to finish 4-12 and in last place in the AFC East.
Denver Broncos (12-4)
The Broncos should easily run away with the AFC West once again this year. The Chiefs have improved but there is no team in this division that will give the Broncos any trouble. With Peyton Manning at the helms, it should be pretty safe to say that the Broncos will have the AFC West won by around week 14. The addition of Wes Welker this offseason gives Denver's already powerful offense even more weapons. Receivers Erik Decker and Demaryius Thomas are both coming off stellar seasons and don't expect anything less in 2013. These three receivers might be the best trio in the league. Denver will finish with a 12-4 record which will be the best in the AFC.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
I had the Chiefs doing great things last year and like many I was dead wrong. They finished with a 2-14 record which was due in large part to the play of Matt Cassel and the injury bug. The acquisition of former number one pick Alex Smith already gives the Chiefs more wins than last year. He has proven that he can play in this league and should have a solid first season in Kansas City. The Chiefs are a team that have a lot of potential and could either end up winning 9-10 games or falling again like last year and only winning a few games. I think head coach Andy Reid will have success with this club and and I see them finishing just below five-hundred with a record of 7-9 which will be good enough for second place in the AFC West.
Oakland Raiders (6-10)
The Raiders have been bad for a long time and don't expect anything different from this years team. Former Ohio State Buckeye Terrelle Pryor will start the season under center. Pryor has little NFL experience and even admitted that he didn't know how to throw a football in college. There are not many bright spots on this Raiders team and I feel like I am being generous by having them finish 6-10. The one bright note for Oakland is that eight of their games are against teams who had a losing record in 2012. Don't expect much from the Black Hole once again this year as they will finish in last place in the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers (7-9)
San Diego is an average team at best. Their dominance in the mid to late 2000's has gone down the drain and they don't have the team or talent that they used to. Phillip Rivers has always been good and has plenty of talent. The problem for him is that he doesn't have a whole lot of talent around him. Ryan Mathews was the teams leading rusher last season with only 707 yards. Malcom Floyd led the team in receiving with only 814 yards. Adrian Peterson had more rushing yards alone then the two top performers on San Diego. The good news for Chargers fans is that they play in one of the worst divisions in football. They can beat Oakland and Kansas City but it won't be easy. San Diego has a favorable schedule which is why I see them finishing third in the AFC West with a record of 7-9.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
The defending Super Bowl champions will have a hard time repeating this year. They lost star linebacker Ray Lewis (retirement), center Matt Birk (retirement), linebacker Paul Kruger (Browns), safety Ed Reed (Texans), receiver Anquan Boldin (49ers via trade), and Dennis Pitta (IR). It will be a tough road for the Ravens who will have one of the toughest schedules in the league this season. Baltimore had a terrific season last year but with the loss of so many talented players I don't see them even making the playoffs this year. The AFC North is always one of the roughest and toughest in the league. I have Baltimore finishing with an 8-8 record.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Bengals have been very consistent over the past few years. They have made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons but haven't had any luck in advancing past the Wild Card round. Cincinnati has a lot of talented young athletes on their team including third year quarterback Andy Dalton, third year receiver A.J. Green and sixth year running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Cincinnati will be a team under the radar this year but I believe they can come out as AFC North champions. The previously dominate Ravens and Steelers have lost a lot of talent which is why I'm going to crown the Bengals AFC North champions with a record of 10-6.
Cleveland Browns (8-8)
Cleveland has a history of being bad. They have only had two winning seasons and one playoff birth since rejoining the league in 1999. One of the problems with the Browns over the years has been the lack of a starting quarterback. Brandon Weeden is coming off a sub-par rookie season and expectations are high. Weeden will turn 30 halfway into the season which means he has to prove himself this year or otherwise he could be gone. Cleveland has one of the best offensive lines in the league which will help power running back Trent Richardson improve in his second year. Richardson had a solid rookie year but he was plagued with injuries which kept him short of the 1,000 yard rushing mark. One of the bright spots on this Browns team is their defense. They have one of the best corners in the league in Joe Haden and added Paul Kruger at linebacker via free agency from division foe Baltimore. If the Browns offense can click early in the year this team could surprise some people. I have the Browns going 8-8 this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
Pittsburgh seems to have a good team every year. I can't even remember a stretch of time when they were bad. Last season showed that they might finally be on the downward spiral of the AFC North. I still believe they will have a good team this year but not as good as they have had in recent memory. Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback but has a history of injuries. If he can stay healthy I expect the Steelers to have another solid season which is why I have them finishing 9-7. The road back to the playoffs won't be easy for Pittsburgh and the loss of receiver Mike Wallace will hurt. It will be an interesting season to say the least for the Steelers and their fans but I think the Steelers will make it back to the playoffs as a Wild Card.
Houston Texans (11-5)
Houston and Denver are in similar divisions. They are the cream of the crop and then there are the three other teams. Indianapolis should be competitive once again this year but I don't see them having the success that they had last year. Two games against Jacksonville and Tennessee already gives the Texans four wins. They also play the NFC West and AFC West which gives them a pretty nice schedule. Three of their four toughest games (Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Denver) are at home with the lone road game being against the 49ers. The Texans need to stay healthy which has hurt them in the past. Even when they weren't healthy they had a good team so it will be interesting to see what a healthy Houston Texans team can do. I have them finishing 11-5 and winning the AFC South.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
Andrew Luck had a huge rookie year last year which made Colts fans forget about the departure of Peyton Manning pretty quick. The Colts had a pretty magical year last season by winning nine of their 11 games by seven points or less. They reminded me a lot of the 2011 Detroit Lions. Indianapolis won't be so lucky this year. I see them falling off the map a little bit but nothing too drastic. They have a fair schedule which includes home games against Oakland, Miami, Seattle, Denver and Houston. The Colts will beat Miami and Oakland and I believe they could steal a win against the other three opponents. The number one concern for Colts fans should be if Andrew Luck can avoid the sophomore slump. Indianapolis should put up another solid team this year but I see them falling short of a playoff berth with a record of 8-8.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
The only positive on the Jaguars team right now is Maurice Jones-Drew. He is an animal and sums up Jacksonville's offense. Blaine Gabbert will improve this year and I think that Justin Blackmon could have a breakout year at receiver. Cecil Shorts almost had 1,000 yards receiving last year which gives Jaguars fans hope for a young offense. Jacksonville won't be as bad as last year which is a pretty hard task to live up to considering they only won two games. I predict a 4-12 record for the Jags with a huge improvement from their offense. If Gabbert, Shorts, Blackmon, and Jones-Drew can put a solid offensive season together, look for the Jaguars to improve dramatically in a couple of seasons.
Tennessee Titans (7-9)
The Titans are coming off of a six win season which is what most were probably predicting last year. They really didn't do anything to get better but they didn't get any worse either. Quarterback Jake Locker has shown potential and it looks like this will be his year to prove himself after splitting time with Matt Hasselbeck last season. Running back Chris Johnson will be either a hit or miss. He rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2009 but hasn't had anywhere near the success since. The Titans are going to be an interesting team this year. They play tough but I don't see them improving much from last year. I have them going 7-9 and missing the playoffs.
The Denver Broncos will defeat the Houston Texans to advance to their first Super Bowl since 1998.