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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

NFL Preview 2012 (AFC Conference)

It does only feel like yesterday that we saw the New York Giants knock off the New England Patriots to win the SuperBowl, but the new season is upon us and I can't wait for the kick off.

I actually think the NFC is the stronger Conference of the two and I wouldn't be surprised if they pick up their fourth straight SuperBowl win and their fifth in the last six seasons. There are a number of teams that look capable of going all the way in the NFC, but that just makes it harder to pick a potential winner before the season starts.

Below I will have a brief look at all the teams in the AFC Conference and how I think their prospects are for the new season. Of course things are always likely to change with injuries being a major part of the sport and, depending on who is unfortunate to miss time, that can change the prospects of teams dramatically.

My forecast for how teams do is obviously based on how the teams look at this stage. For example, I think New England are going to win a bunch of games, but that would not be the case if Tom Brady was injured for the season as he was in 2008. So any forecast I have made for teams have to be taken with that pinch of salt in mind.

My preview of the teams in the NFC Conference can be found here.

AFC East

New England Patriots (13-3) Record last year in bracket

Last years SuperBowl Runners-Up remain one of the elite teams in the AFC and they look head and shoulders above the rest of their rivals in the AFC East as far as I am concerned.

Tom Brady has been given a new deep-threat with the signing of Brandon Lloyd, while I expect the two Tight End set to pose plenty of match up problems for Defenses they face. The running game will be governed by Steven Ridley since Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis was allowed to move on, but the key to their whole Offense remains Brady and I have no doubt they will continue racking up the points.

The biggest question mark on the team remains a Defense that finished 31 in yards per game last year, one that will now be missing the pass rushing ability of Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis. That means Number 1 Draft Pick, Chandler Jones, will be expected to fit straight on to the Defensive Line, but they definitely look a little weaker if trying to get to the opposition Quarter Back.

The Secondary are capable of turning the ball over, but they may have a hard time if there is a lack of pressure up front. However, this deficiency is unlikely to stop them winning the AFC East as I don't think any of the teams they face have a consistent passing game to take advantage, but they will need to improve play if they are to get back to the big game in February.

New England do not face a horrible schedule and only meet four teams that made the Play Offs last season, three of those coming at home. Looking through their schedule, I am expecting the Patriots to win at least 13 games, and they could finish with an even better record if the Defense improves a little from last year.

Buffalo Bills (6-10)

The Buffalo Bills haven't made the Play Offs since 1999, but they do look a team on the rise and may be in contention for a Wild Card spot with a bit of fortune and better health this season.

My biggest issue with the Bills is an Offense that struggled in the second half of last season after Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a huge contract extension. However, they do get Fred Jackson back this season and I think they will be capable of running the ball with either him or CJ Spiller coming out of the backfield.

My problem is the Quarter Back and the Receivers as I don't particularly rate them highly, but the Offensive Line should be improved and Fitzpatrick may get a little more time to make the right decisions. Stevie Johnson and David Nelson don't exactly get the blood rushing in the receiving areas, but they do seem to have some sort of chemistry with the QB and that can be enough to keep things ticking over.

While the Offense may struggle for consistency without the big play-makers at receiver, the Defense is vastly improved this year and could be one of the better ones in the NFL if they can maintain some health.

Mario Williams was the big off-season signing and he is going to help provide a stronger pass rush with Mark Anderson and their additions to the Defensive Line gives Buffalo one of the best in the NFL when teamed with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Stephon Gilmore will be a starter at Corner Back after being picked up as the first choice in the Draft and the Secondary may just be helped out by the front four that should be able to put plenty of pressure on the opposition Quarter Back.

The Buffalo Defense looks very capable as long as the front four can stay healthy and get the pressure on the opposition Quarter Back as I expect they can. The Linebackers have experience, while the Secondary will only be helped if the front four are as good as they look like they can be.

I would have projected Buffalo as a definite Wild Card team if the schedule had been kinder and if I had full faith their starting Defense can stay healthy. Their first nine games are tough, but if the Bills can get out of that at 4-5, there is a chance they can finish with a 10-6 record with full health and may possibly be enough to move into the Play Offs.

New York Jets (8-8)

The New York Jets fell apart from inside the dressing room last year and that saw them fail to make the Play Offs after getting to the AFC Championship Game in each of the previous two seasons.

Bringing in Tim Tebow to the mix looks like a move that will either bring these players together or one that will see the Jets fall apart and end the Rex Ryan era in New York.

Mark Sanchez is the current starting Quarter Back and Tebow is expected to run certain packages for the Offense. Sanchez has struggled for consistency in his three seasons in the NFL and it will be interesting to see how long the crowd give him before they start calling for Tebow to start.

The Offense struggled altogether last season and I don't see enough improvements to them this season. The Wide Receiver position looks weak, while Shonn Greene is inconsistent running the ball.

Last year the Defense struggled against the run, but they do look better equipped to deal with that this year, while the Secondary remains one of the better ones in the NFL. There will be hope that Quinton Coples can help generate a more effective pass rush from the Defensive Ends this season and I do expect the Jets to have one of the higher ranked Defenses in the League.

I don't particularly like their schedule, especially in the early weeks of the season, and it may be tough for them to make a return to the Play Offs. Personally I think they may end with the same record as last season and finish 8-8, but it could get worse if they have the same infighting as last season as I don't see them being better than 4-4 at their bye week.

On the other hand, if the Jets surpass expectations, their two games against Buffalo may decide which of these AFC East teams, if either, gets into the Play Offs as a Wild Card team.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

It hasn't been the best few years to be a Miami Dolphins fan and I don't foresee too much changing in 2012 with plenty more questions than answers about their team.

In the off-season, Miami missed out on picking up Peyton Manning and then decided to deal Brandon Marshall just before the Draft. Ryan Tannehill was the Number 1 Draft Choice, but he looks like being kept out for the year to get up to speed with the NFL.

Miami look like a team that is going to have a hard time on Offense as they just don't have the receiving playmakers needed to be competitive in this tough Division. The Wide Receivers are Brian Hartline and Davone Bess with Anthony Fasano at Tight End, while there are serious questions over whether Matt Moore or David Garrard start behind the Offensive Line, which should be stronger than last year.

There is some hope that Reggie Bush can continue running the ball effectively and he will be joined by Daniel Thomas in the backfield.

The Defense remains the strength of the team and they were very effective against the run last season and I expect they will be the same again this year. However, there is a lack of depth in the Defensive Line and the loss of Jason Taylor will still be an issue. The Dolphins have a solid set of Linebackers, but they will want to get more pressure on the opposition Quarter Back and not just rely on Cameron Wake to get the job done.

Miami's Secondary could have been upgraded with the signing of Richard Marshall who will likely be the starter opposite Vontae Davis with Sean Smith backing them up.

The team have had just one winning record in the past six seasons and I don't think they are ready to have one this season as they are still rebuilding the Offense. The new Head Coach is Joe Philbin, who was the Offensive Co-Ordinator at Green Bay last season, so he should be able to get something out of the team, but they are limited in terms of talent on the Offensive side of the ball as far as I am concerned.

I initially thought Miami could at least get up to 6 wins in the Division, but moves since I first wrote this has changed my expectations completely, while they will be starting the rookie Ryan Tannehill at Quarter Back... There is every chance that the Fins may finish with the worst record in the NFL, but my heart is looking at a 4-12 record with a bit of luck.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win the AFC North last season, but they were the favourites to win their Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos before losing in a shocker to Tim Tebow in Overtime.

Pittsburgh remain one of the favourites in the AFC, but the defence is a year older after struggling at times last season and they did really have a hard time earning turnovers. However, they did finish as the Number 1 Ranked defence when it came to points per game and they remain a tough team to score upon.

The bigger question for this squad may be on the offensive side of the ball as they bring in Todd Haley as Offensive Co-Ordinator... This move has not been well received by Ben Roethlisberger as Bruce Arians, a good friend of his, was removed from that post for Haley and there could be a chance in how Pittsburgh attack defences with more emphasis likely to be on the running game.

Mike Wallace continues to be a hold out as he wants a much larger contract and that will take down the quality of the receiving corps if it is not resolved, while Rashard Mendenhall is expected to open the season on the PUP list.

The Offensive Line has at least been upgraded with a couple of Draft Picks and I expect the more balanced offense to protect Roethlisberger a little more as he takes far too many sacks and can be a little beaten up as the season draws into Play Off time.

I have pegged Pittsburgh to reclaim the AFC North title with them having a slightly easier schedule than Baltimore and I wouldn't be surprised if they can get back to the 12 win table after reaching that total in three of the last four years. The Steelers will need to win a couple of really tough road games if they are to reach that total (games at Denver, Tennessee, Cincinnati and Dallas).

Baltimore Ravens (12-4)

Baltimore were literally a slip of a catch away from winning the AFC Championship Game at New England last season and playing in the SuperBowl (also missed a game tying Field Goal from around 27 yards at the end of regulation) and now they arrive into the 2012 season a year older on defence and missing a monster of a component in Terrell Suggs.

Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year last season but tore his achilles in the off-season and is not due back before November at the very earliest, while the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are another year older (even if they haven't looked like missing a step). There will be some expectation on Courtney Upshaw, their top pick in the Draft, to come in and play immediately in place of Jarret Johnson who signed with San Diego in Free Agency, while Paul Kruger should start in place of Suggs.

The Ravens have also had to replace Defensive Co-Ordinator Chuck Pegano who has taken over as the Head Coach of Indianapolis, but Dean Pees is another internal promotion so I expect the defence to be as tough as ever.

Joe Flacco will be still be looking for a little more consistency in his Quarter Back play, but he showed he has the big game temperament with three solid games against Pittsburgh (twice) and New England in the AFC Championship Game. The Offensive Line remains strong, although the loss of Ben Grubbs to New Orleans could affect the run game as it did when he was injured last season and the Ravens will be using a rookie at Left Guard.

Ray Rice is still one of the most versatile backs in the NFL as he is a real threat in the passing game out of the backfield and he should be ready for a big season after signing a new contract. As long as the Ravens can adjust to running the ball without Grubbs, they remain one of the favourites in the AFC.

I have got them finishing behind Pittsburgh mainly because of the schedule as they have trips to Philadelphia, Houston, San Diego and a potentially improved Kansas City to deal with while also hosting both SuperBowl teams from last season as well as being in this tough Division. I still think the Ravens get into double-digit wins, but that may not be enough to retain their title from last season although I do think they will get into the Wild Card spots for the Play Offs.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)

Not many people would have tipped Cincinnati to have finished with a winning record last season, and even fewer would have picked them as a Play Off team as they were set to start a rookie at Quarter Back and they were losing their best player in the Secondary (Jonathan Joseph).

It was a surprising season all around and the expectations have been raised as Andy Dalton and AJ Green (WR) move into their second seasons- Green may find it tougher as teams will be aware of his ability and had already began double-teaming him last season and there isn't another receiver opposite him that will take those away.

The defence may have given up 20.2 points per game last season (24th in the NFL), but they didn't give up many yards (7th) and are expected to be amongst the leaders again this season. It also has to be said that outside of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, only Denver (pre-Tebow) managed to score 24 points against the Bengals.

Cincinnati made some additions to the defence, particularly top pick in the Draft Dre Kirkpatrick, and they should be just as strong as last season if not improved.

Even with that in mind, Cincinnati may actually regress in terms of wins this season as they are in the tough AFC North that has to also play the NFC East which is one of the toughest, if not THE toughest, Divisions in the NFL. Their games before their bye week could see the Bengals as good as 5-2, but their schedule is very tough after that and I believe they will finish without a winning record this season.

Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Cleveland are still in a process of rebuilding and have also just been bought by Jim Haslem, a '1000 percent Steeler fan'.

They spent their first couple of picks in the Draft in bringing in an upgrade at Quarter Back, Brandon Weeden, and Trent Richardson at Running Back in a bid to get the offense going after failing to average more than 17 points per game in any of the last four seasons.

Richardson has had surgery on his knee, but is expected to start in the first game of the season. Weeden's accuracy at the QB position should at least get the likes of Mohamed Massaquoi, Greg Little and Benjamin Watson going.

There has to be better play from the Offensive Line who gave up 39 sacks last season and didn't open up the running lanes, but their improvement at QB and RB should help both of these numbers.

The Browns defence is perhaps a little under-appreciated, but they will be missing Phillip Taylor with injury, while Scott Fujita and Joe Haden are both likely to be suspended and will miss three and four games respectively.

Dick Jauron is the Defensive Co-Ordinator here and I expect them to be stronger in the second year in his system, but the team is unlikely to move out of the basement in this tough Division.

While I do think Cleveland are moving the right way, they still have some ways to go and their schedule has not done them any favours which means I think they struggle to surpass last seasons 4 wins. There are some winnable games on the schedule this season, but I can't see more than 3/4 wins without a couple of surprise results heading their way.

AFC South

Houston Texans (10-6)

It won't be a surprise to anyone that I am projecting the Houston Texans to win the AFC South for a second season in succession as they return some familiar players to the starting line up, although losing a couple of key pieces.

Matt Schaub actually missed the end of last season as Houston looked capable of really challenging for the AFC Championship and a place in the SuperBowl, and his presence will be key to once again powering this Offense that is capable of scoring plenty of points.

The Quarter Back play is pretty good, but is aided by playmakers like Andre Johnson, Arian Foster (as long as both can stay healthy) and Owen Daniels. The Offensive Line has lost Eric Winston this season and that leaves some question marks on them on that side of the ball, but there is too much talent to prevent them averaging more than the 23.4 points per game they managed last season.

Wade Phillips came in as Defensive Co-Ordinator last season and he worked wonders in helping them to the Number 2 defence in terms of yards per game and Number 4 in terms of points per game allowed.

He changed the formation into a 3-4 defence, although some may be concerned by losing Mario Williams in Free Agency. However, Brook Reeds managed 6 sacks as a rookie in place of an injured Williams last season and he will now be a starter opposite Connor Barwin, who had 11.5 sacks last season, at the outside linebacker positions.

Bradie James has been brought in to replace DeMeco Ryans as an inside linebacker and should fit in to the system having played for Phillips in Dallas and the defence looks capable of being one of the better ones again in the NFL as they continue to have the ability to rush the Quarter Back with their front 7.

The Texans are in a weak Division and look capable of reaching double-digit wins again as they are given a schedule that is similar in strength to the one they faced in 2011. They would have finished with more than 10 wins in 2011 if they hadn't started looking ahead to the Play Offs (losing their last 3 games), but I have them getting back to that total this time and hosting a Wild Card game in the Play Offs.

Tennessee Titans (9-7)

The Tennessee Titans were a surprise team to me last season as I didn't expect them to finish with a winning record, but it could be tough for them to repeat that in 2012 despite being in a Division with Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

I expect Chris Johnson to have a much better season after he just cracked 1000 yards for the season at an average of 4 yards per carry in 2011 a year after going for 1364 yards at 4.3 yards per carry and then being rewarded with a big contract extension.

A lot of the offense will go through Johnson with Matt Hasselbeck likely to keep his starting job despite the Titans making a big effort to bring in Peyton Manning in Free Agency. There is a chance that Jake Locker will take over as the starter at some point in the season, especially if the Titans are struggling.

Kendall Wright (WR) may be a bigger part of the offense in his rookie season than he might have expected with Kenny Britt once again in trouble with the law and likely to miss some time through suspension and he is also coming off a ACL tear that prematurely ended his 2011 season.

The defence was the real strength of this team, although they did struggle to get to the Quarter Back in 2011 and they have brought in Kamerion Wimbley from Oakland with that in mind. Cortland Finnegan CB) has moved on so they have got younger in that position, although they could have a tough time if there is not enough pressure from the front 7.

Tennessee face a really tough schedule on slate in 2012 and I can't see how they get back to a winning record- in fact, they may just struggle to even get back up to 8 wins and I foresee them having a losing record for only the second time in the last seven seasons.

Indianapolis Colts (2-14)

The Indianapolis Colts 'won' the chance to pick Andrew Luck in the NFL Draft and that means it is the end of the Peyton Manning era here as he was allowed to move on. There has been a total in-house clearance in Indianapolis as Jim Irsay got set to move onto this new era in the Colts history.

Chuck Pegano, Baltimore's former Defensive Co-Ordinator, has taken over as the Head Coach and the vast majority of the Coaches are in their first year at the Colts. This means a change in systems and getting new ideas across that will surely lead to a rebuilding year.

Andrew Luck will get Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Donny Avery as potential receivers and he also has Coby Fleener at Tight End, his team-mate and safety blanket at Stanford last year. However, the Offensive Line is being rebuilt, while Indianapolis will look to their running backs to keep the pressure off their rookie Quarter Back.

The defence will now have to learn a new system as they move to a 3-4 formation, a situation that can only lead to more struggles following last season when they finished 29th in yards per game allowed and 28th in points per game allowed.

There have been a lot of goings from the roster, but the schedule will provide them an opportunity to maybe double the wins from last season as they get to play Jacksonville (twice), Tennessee (twice), Cleveland, Miami and Minnesota (all at home). That schedule may also see them finish above Jacksonville in the Division if they can get to 4 wins.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Shahid Khan took over as the new owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars last season and has promised to keep the franchise here and not move to Los Angeles, although he will be hoping they can attract fans to the stadium to support the team.

That won't be easy considering how bad they looked last season, despite the 5 wins, and the team with the worst offensive yards per game in the NFL are unlikely to have improved much this season. Maurice Jones-Drew is their main, and some would say only, weapon in this offense, but he has been holding out in the off-season as he wants a new contract and that may have set him back... How much will depend when he returns.

The Jaguars did try to increase their production by bringing in Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon as receivers for Blaine Gabbert, but the Quarter Back will really need to have upped his game in the off-season after a terrible rookie season when he looked lost at times.

Jacksonville do have a decent defence that can keep them in games and the signing of Aaron Ross (CB) in Free Agency will make their Secondary that little bit tougher. They are tough to run on having held teams to 3.8 yards per carry last season, but the pressure on the Jaguars will be in keeping games as close as they can and that will mean the offense at least finding a way to move the chains with consistency and giving the defence a chance to rest.

The schedule looks a tough one to negotiate and I think they will fall short of the 5 wins they managed last year and, if things fall a little badly, they may have their worst season since joining the NFL (4-12 record).

AFC West

San Diego Chargers (8-8)

The San Diego Chargers haven't won the AFC West in the last couple of seasons, but they are still the best team in this Division as far as I am concerned. They have had 6 seasons with a winning record in the last 8 years and it was only a collapse in the middle of the 2011 season that cost them a chance of making it back to the Play Offs for the first time since 2009 (the Chargers went 1-6 after a 4-1 start that saw them lose their way in the Division).

Philip Rivers is still the best Quarter Back in the AFC West even though the Denver Broncos have brought Peyton Manning into the mix. Rivers continually denied having an injury last season as he made a lot of mistakes, but I am sure there was something not right with him and he is someone that is still within the elite at this position in the NFL.

He no longer has the option of throwing to Vincent Jackson as he moved on in Free Agency, but the Chargers brought in Robert Meachem who will provide the deep threat, while Malcom Floyd is a huge target that may have his best season in the NFL as long as he can stay healthy. Antonio Gates is still a top receiving threat although there are some depth issues with Vincent Brown breaking his ankle in the pre-season.

Ryan Mathews will carry the workload from the running back position now Mike Tolbert has left in Free Agency, but he has to be a concern with numerous injuries affecting him in his first two years in the League.

The Defense has been upgraded in a bid to improve their form from a season ago and they have brought in Jarret Johnson from the Baltimore Ravens to provide another pass rusher opposite Shaun Phillips from the outside linebacker spot, while they also spent their first draft pick on Melvin Ingram who had 19 sacks in his last 2 seasons at South Carolina.

San Diego should also have a stouter Defensive Line and the players in the front 7 may just cover up the deficiencies in the Secondary, giving the Chargers the edge in the AFC West.

This is a tough Division, but the Chargers schedule has given them a chance to have a winning record and that may be enough for them to take it. San Diego need to make a fast start like last season and they will need to go into their bye no worse than 4-2. If they can get to there, I see them getting 9 or 10 wins this season and we have seen a winning record take this Division in 5 of the last 6 seasons.

The Chargers are also 5-1 against Peyton Manning in his career.

Denver Broncos (8-8)

Last season, the Tim Tebow story captured the imagination of the nation as he led the Denver Broncos into the Play Offs and through to the Divisional Round in the Play Offs. However, Tebow never sat well with John Elway, the Hall of Fame former Quarter Back of the Broncos and the current Executive V-P of Football Operations here in Denver, and it was no surprise when they made a play for Peyton Manning in Free Agency.

Manning turned down the chance to go to Tennessee and San Francisco to play here (I was very surprised he didn't pick the 49ers, but he didn't want to play in the same Conference as little brother Eli).

There are still a lot of question marks about Manning and his health and that is either going to make, or break, the Denver Broncos season.

IF Manning is healthy and get back to anything like his old self, the entire Denver offense has been upgraded and I expect better numbers from the Wide Receivers. The Broncos have been smart in bringing in two players that will know Manning's plays, and I expect the likes of Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley to have positive impacts on the rest of the receiving corps.

Willis McGahee should help keep Manning upright if he can run the ball as effectively as he did last season, but the Offensive Line does have some question marks and have to improve markedly from the 41 sacks they allowed last season if they are to help the Quarter Back avoid any serious hits.

Last season, Tim Tebow was getting all the attention, but the Defense was playing at a very high level down the stretch and keeping the Broncos in games and allowing the magical 4th Quarter comebacks to be made. While it is has been possible to use the running game against them, the hope will be that Peyton Manning can build leads and force teams to throw.

That will bring in to play the likes of Von Miller, DJ Williams and Elvis Dumervil who are all very capable at getting to the opposition Quarter Back in passing downs, while Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter can make plays in the Secondary.

Denver do face a really tough schedule and that is why I have projected the Chargers to finish above them in the AFC West and I also think the Broncos may just miss the Play Offs. They have a very difficult start as they host Pittsburgh and Houston while travelling to Atlanta (all Play Off teams in 2011) and I think it would be a real achievement for them to be better than 2-4 at their bye week as they also travel to New England and San Diego in that time.

The schedule is a little more manageable after the bye, but visits to Cincinnati, Kansas City and Baltimore are still on slate and it wouldn't be a massive surprise to me if they finish with the same 8-8 record as last season.

Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

There have been a number of changes from 12 months ago as Todd Haley is no longer the Head Coach here having been replaced by Romeo Crennel. There is also a new Offensive Co-Ordinator and Special Teams Co-Ordinator, while the expectations are massively reduced after finishing with a losing record the year after winning the AFC West with 10 wins.

Injuries really took their toll on the Chiefs last season as Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry were four of the big names that missed much of the season.

Cassel will once again be the starting Quarter Back for the Chiefs and will be expected to manage the game, while making a few big throws to the likes of Dwayne Bowe (who has signed his franchise tag tender) and Tony Moeaki.

Charles will share time at the running back position with Peyton Hillis as they look to replicate the one-two punch of a couple of seasons ago when Charles was paired with Thomas Jones. The running game should improve their numbers as the Offensive Line has also been upgraded with Eric Winston being signed as the new Right Tackle.

The Defense has lost a key component in Brandon Carr in the Secondary, but they did sign Stanford Routt from Divisional rivals Oakland to take over one of the Corner Back spots opposite Brandon Flowers, while Eric Berry's return from injury will strengthen the unit.

Kansas City have upgraded the Defensive Line by choosing Dontari Poe as their first pick in the Draft, and only 1 team scored more than 16 points against them in the last 5 games of the regular season in 2011.

There does look to be a lot of upside in the Chiefs this season and I have had a hard time separating them and the Denver Broncos if I am honest. If they are still in contention after their first 9 games, the games do get 'easier' down the stretch and they may just surprise everyone by taking the AFC West for the second time in three years.

I think they will surpass the 7 wins from last season, but they may have to settle for the same 8-8 record as Denver although there is a real possibility they do finish with a winning record if they are better than 3-6 after 9 games.

Oakland Raiders (8-8)

Oakland bet the house on Carson Palmer last season as they traded two Number 1 picks in the Draft and a Number 2 to bring him in from the Cincinnati Bengals, but they lost 3 of their last 4 games to lose control of the AFC West and ended with an 8-8 record.

Palmer has not had an off-season to work with the Oakland Raiders staff, but there has been a huge turnover in staff and new systems need to be put in place. There is some real speed in the Receiving areas and I think the off-season will have given them a chance to work on some real chemistry in this area.

And those receivers may just find a little more space to use their quickness as Darren McFadden will be back running the ball for Oakland after missing 10 games with an injury. McFadden has the ability to take the ball to the house from any position on the field and that threat is going to force defenses to respect the running game here and that should help the passing game no end.

While I do think the Offense will be improved, the Defense will be missing Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt from a year ago, and there are some real depth issues which means they will have the pressure of staying healthy to keep the Raiders involved in the Division.

There are still some talented players on the Defense like Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Rolando McClain, but they have to have a lot more success in pressurising the Quarter Back in passing situations if they are to cover up a weaker Secondary, while also improving a rush Defense that gave up 5.1 yards per carry in 2011.

Oakland do not have the kindest schedule and I think they are unfortunate in playing the more 'winnable teams' on the road. The Offense has the capabilities of being really explosive this season so they may just surprise me, but they have a new Head Coach, Offensive Co-Ordinator and Defensive Co-Ordinator and that means I have them falling short of the 8 wins they recorded last season and I think they will get around 6 wins and have their first losing record since 2009.

I still think all roads in the AFC are going to pass through New England, although there are some credible threats in the Conference through Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston.

I do really like the Texans, but I wouldn't want to back them having to go to a cold New England in January and unfortunately I think the Patriots are going to have the best record in the Conference with the schedule on slate.

Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh could provide much sterner tests to the Patriots, even on the road, but I do think New England are the right favourites to win the Conference as we stand right now. However, they may have to beat both the powerhouses from the AFC North in consecutive weeks and that may be enough to see them knocked off before the SuperBowl.

These four teams do look the pick of the Conference and I expect one of them will be playing in the SuperBowl, although that is hardly pushing the envelope in making a prediction.

AFC Play Off Team Prediction: New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego, Baltimore and Buffalo

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