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Each team’s biggest question mark heading into the 2013 season: AFC Edition

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It’s that time of year again in the NFL.

Almost all of the 32 teams have now returned for training camp and with preseason games right around the corner, it won’t be long until the new season kicks off.

Let’s see how the things are shaping up in 2013.

*AFC only

East

Buffalo Bills

Who will win the quarterback battle in Buffalo?

The Bills haven’t had the best of luck recently when it comes to quarterbacks. From the mediocre Trent Edwards to the just about average Ryan Fitzpatrick, there hasn’t been much to cheer for lately in upstate New York. After releasing Fitzpatrick in March, the team now are undergoing a fresh start at quarterback.

They signed Kevin Kolb this offseason to a two-year deal. Kolb was released after spending two years with the Arizona Cardinals and although he has the potential to be a starting quarterback, he has yet to stay healthy and complete a full season.

The other option is rookie E.J. Manuel. After impressing at Florida State, Manuel was picked with the sixteenth overall selection in this year’s draft and he is expected to compete with Kolb for the starting role.

Expect the Bills to give the starting job to Kevin Kolb over rookie Manuel.

Miami Dolphins

How will Mike Wallace perform in Miami?

Who are the fastest players in the NFL? Chances are Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace would see his name close to the top of that list.

The former Pittsburgh Steeler signed a $60 million deal with the Dolphins this offseason and he is expected to make a big impact in South Beach. Wallace is a former Pro Bowler who has averaged over 17 yards per reception in his career.

The 26-year-old should form a solid combination with quarterback Ryan Tannehill who will be looking to improve after an inconsistent rookie season. will prove to be a huge success for head coach Joe Philbin and the Dolphins.

Tannehill will certainly have plenty of opportunities to throw the ball downfield this season with Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline on the outside.

New England Patriots

Can Tom Brady and the Pats solve their tight end issues?

Now this isn’t going to come as a surprise to NFL fans or anybody who has been watching the ongoing murder case involving Aaron Hernandez, but the Patriots have serious problems at tight end. With Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski still recovering from back surgery, the team is struggling at the position.

Former New York Giant Jake Ballard currently appears to be best option with veteran Daniel Fells providing backup. Although they aren’t admitting it to the media, the team must surely be concerned about Rob Gronkowski and his long-term health following yet another surgery.

Could all this uncertainty pave the way for a position switch from quarterback to tight end for Tim Tebow?

If there’s a coach out there that can make this work, it’s got to be Bill Belichick.

New York Jets

What kind of impact will new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have in the big apple?

January 11th, 2012. That’s the date when the Jets hired Tony Sparano as their new offensive coordinator. Safe to say, that experiment didn’t work out too well.

Now with Sparano gone on former Eagles coach Marty Mornhinwg installed as the new offensive coordinator, the team is entering another make or break season.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez now faces competition for the starting job from rookie Geno Smith. Regardless of who is chosen as the starter, Mornhinweg will need to do a better job than Sparano did if he is going to keep his job and improve the Jets offense.

If the Jets fail to make the Playoffs this season, it could force owner Woody Johnson to make a change with both quarterback Mark Sanchez and head coach Rex Ryan running out of chances.

Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez in court

North

Baltimore Ravens

What will the Ravens defense look like without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed?

Just think about this for a second, Ray Lewis was the first draft choice in the history of the Ravens back in 1996. Ed Reed was a first round draft pick in 2002. Both these players are now gone and the team must move on without them.

The defending Super Bowl champions will need to adapt quickly to the loss of these two leaders. It came as no surprise when the team used their first two draft picks to find their replacements.

Florida safety Matt Elam was selected in the first round with Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown taken in the second round. Both rookies will be expected to contribute early on and replace the gap left by the departed duo of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

General Manager Ozzie Newsome proved once again why he is one of the best in the business when it comes to picking talent and Ravens fans should be excited to see these rookies compete.

Cincinnati Bengals

Is Andy Dalton ever going to step up for the Bengals in the playoffs?

After two seasons in the league, Andy Dalton has an impressive quarterback rating of 83.9 in the regular season. His performances in the playoffs have not been so impressive.

In the postseason, Dalton’s quarterback rating is 48.6 and he has an equally unimpressive touchdown to interception ratio of 0-4. The former TCU star seems to shy away from the spotlight and that must now the biggest question mark for the team.

The Bengals are never going to reach their potential if things don’t change and it’s about time their quarterback started showing more composure in the playoffs.

This could be the year that head coach Marvin Lewis leads his team to a playoff victory for the first time but it will all come down to the performance of Dalton.

Cleveland Browns

Can rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski succeed in Cleveland?

Rob Chudzinski may not be as well-known to NFL fans as other rookie head coaches this year, but the 45-year-old has an impressive coaching background. Chudzinski played on a national championship winning Miami Hurricanes team in 1987 and he also won a national championship with the school as offensive coordinator in 2001.

As a coach in the NFL, he has worked with the Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers and most recently with the Carolina Panthers where he played a major role in improving their offense and developing quarterback Cam Newton. During his time as offensive coordinator with the Browns back in 2007, he helped them to win ten games and also sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl including Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow II.

If there’s one thing he brings to the table, “Chud” will add some much needed explosiveness to the Browns offense which already has a future Pro Bowler at running back with Trent Richardson.

It doesn’t help Chudzinski that the Browns are playing in one of the toughest divisions in football but they have a roster capable of winning plenty of games this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

How will first-round rookie Jarvis Jones perform in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers are coming off worst ever season under head coach Mike Tomlin. After going 8-8 last year and with their usually dominant defense struggling, it was time to rebuild.

They have made many changes to personnel this offeseason with James Harrison, Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen all gone. The team re-signed veterans Larry Foote and William Gay before the draft and then made an impressive first-round selection in April. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones was selected with the seventeenth overall pick and the rookie is expected to fill the starting role left by James Harrison.

The Steelers are looking to bounce back this season and they will be counting on Jones to help them do so on defense.

Expect the 23-year-old to make a big impact in his rookie year playing alongside LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker.

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed

South

Houston Texans

Can J.J. Watt set a new record for single-season sacks in Houston?

Michael Strahan set the record for sacks in a season back in 2001 when he registered 22.5 sacks. Twelve years later and that record is under threat.

J.J. Watt is a special football player. At 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighing almost 290 pounds, he posses a unique mix of size, speed and strength that causes nightmares for anybody attempting to block him. If there was ever going to be a football player who could double act as a transformer, Watt is it.

The former Wisconsin standout is coming off a season in which he had 20.5 sacks, was named to the All-Pro team and also won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Even more frightening for opposing teams and quarterbacks is that at 24-years-old and entering his third season, he is going to get even better.

Watt is without doubt the most dominant defensive player in the league right now and look for him to break the NFL’s single-season sack record this year.

Indianapolis Colts

Is it going to be a sophomore slump for Andrew Luck and the Colts?

Andrew Luck was just a rookie last season and every year the NFL takes a poll of the top 100 players in the league, Luck was ranked 23rd in that poll. As in the 23rd best player in the NFL, after only one season in the league. That’s how good he is.

The 1st overall pick in the 2012 draft didn’t disappoint in his first year in the league and he set seven NFL records along the way. Putting all those credentials aside for now and it’s time to do it all over again. Unfortunately for Luck and the Colts, the sophomore slump is bound to kick in.

It will be interesting to see how #12 handles the pressure this time around.

The departure of offensive coordinator Bruce Arenas will likely cause a drop in Luck’s production this year and it will be hard for him to repeat the magic of his rookie season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

What will Denard Robinson really do for the Jags?

The Jaguars used their fifth round pick in April’s draft to select former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson set many records during his time at Ann Arbor and he was a terrific offensive player for the wolverines. Notice how I referred to him as an offensive player and not a quarterback in the last sentence and that’s because of the elephant in the room.

Denard Robinson cannot play quarterback in the NFL. He just doesn’t posses the type of arm strength, accuracy or overall awareness when it comes to passing the football that are all critical to playing the position in this league. However, that doesn’t mean he cannot succeed as an impact player on offense and that’s exactly what the Jags will use him as.

Robinson is listed as an offensive weapon on the depth chart and he is expected to play running back, wide receiver and return specialist for the team. Their plan is to give him 10-15 snaps per game but that is unlikely.

Whether they want to admit or not, there is no way that “Shoelace” will see that many touches for one simple reason and that is because this is no longer College football.

Newsflash in Jacksonville: This is the NFL and not the Big Ten.

Tennessee Titans

Will Jake Locker stay healthy and remain the starter in Tennessee?

Jake Locker hasn’t yet managed to silence the critics who doubted his ability to take a hit in the NFL. Since being drafted with the eighth overall pick by the Titans in the 2011 draft, he has played in exactly half of the team’s 32 regular season games.

After beating out veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and winning the starting job last year, Locker’s 2012 season was cut short by shoulder problems and he still faces those same concerns heading into this season. With Hasselbeck now gone, Tennessee is counting on their former first round pick to step up and put his injury issues in the past.

All the comments thus far from Locker and Titans camp is that the shoulder injury is fully healed and he is back to 100%. How long that will last however is still a question mark.

If Locker does get hurt again this year it could force team owner Bud Adams to move on from the 25-year-old.

Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck

West

Denver Broncos

Are they heading towards a decline in Denver?

The short answer to this question is yes. If you are a Broncos fan, look away now.

Last year’s second ranked defense has gone through an awful offseason. With defensive leader Elvis Dumervil being cut by the team back in March, things got even worse for the team this week.

Linebacker Von Miller faces a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Miller has claimed innocence in the case and he is appealing the suspension. It would usually be around this time that the team’s front office would step in but after two Broncos executives got arrested for separate drink driving offences, they appear to be dealing with problems of their own.

With all this ongoing uncertainty, the Broncos look as though they are heading backwards in 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs

How will Andy Reid perform in Kansas City?

Well it didn’t take long for Andy Reid to find another job. After being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles immediately after last season, the 55-year-old head coach is back at work.

The Chiefs hired Reid as their new head coach less than a week after his firing and signed him to a five-year deal. Putting aside a disastrous final year in Philadelphia, Andy Reid is a great football coach. You don’t take your team to the Playoffs nine times in 14 years by accident.

Now in his new chapter in Kansas City, the Chiefs look likely to make progress under Reid and challenge for the AFC West title.

Obviously much will depend on the play of new quarterback Alex Smith but if he can deliver and Reid makes the right coaching decisions, the Chiefs can be a Playoff team for years to come.

Oakland Raiders

What has changed in Oakland?

Often considered to be the worst team in the division, that certainly won’t be the case this season. The Raiders look to be undergoing a turnaround under head coach Dennis Allen.

On offense, not much has changed with their annual quarterback turnover and the ongoing questions surrounding the health of running back Darren McFadden. But on the opposite side of the ball, the defense are making moves.

The Raiders have signed some impressive free agents at cornerback with Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins both joining the team. Add to that their first-round draft pick D.J. Hayden along with returning veteran Charles Woodson and the Raiders are looking strong in the secondary.

If they can find a decent quarterback from the four options that they currently have on the roster, the Raiders could content for a postseason spot this year.

San Diego Chargers

Is this the end for Philip Rivers in San Diego?

The Chargers have a new head coach with Mike McCoy taking over the hot seat. The first thing on his to do list should be to address the recent problems with quarterback Philip Rivers.

Statistics don’t lie and they do not read well for Rivers. In his last three seasons he has thrown 48 interceptions and has had 63 total turnovers.

However, many fans will argue that he isn’t to blame for this decline and it is instead down to poor play from the offensive line. The team hasn’t wasted time in fixing this issue. They drafted Alabama offesnive tackle D.J. Fluker with their first round pick and also added free agents Max Starks and King Dunlap. With no more excuses, it’s now up to Rivers to deliver.

If it turns out that Rivers struggles again, head coach Mike McCoy will have an important decision on his hands regarding the future of the franchise at quarterback.

Andy Reid

Andy Reid

That was my breakdown of the AFC and my NFC breakdown will be released next week.

For more NFL updates, follow me on twitter.

Follow @PodgeOH

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Playoffs Preview- AFC Championship Game

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Bill Belichick

After one of the most exciting divisional round weekends in NFL history, the Playoffs continue this week with the conference Championship games.

The AFC Championship Game is a repeat of last year’s matchup as Ray Lewis the Baltimore Ravens travel to New England to tackle Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Now without further ado, here is my breakdown of the game with profiles of the key players for both teams.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Key Players

Ravens

Joe Flacco

  • As the old cliché goes, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and quarterback Joe Flacco is the first key player to watch for the Ravens. After claiming to be an ‘Elite quarterback’ for many seasons now, he is finally turning his off-field confidence into success on the field.
  • With five touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the Ravens last two games, Flacco is playing arguably the best football of his career as he goes in search of his first AFC Championship victory at the third attempt.
  • Key Question: Can Flacco take advantage of the weapons at his disposal and continue his impressive play against a less than perfect Patriots secondary?

Ray Rice

  • When the Ravens beat the Patriots back in the Divisional Round of the 2010 Playoffs, running back Ray Rice had over 150 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. In fact, he has rushed for 292 yards in three meetings against the Patriots and has been a constant threat to Bill Belichick and the Pats defense.
  • Despite a down year statistically compared to his 2011 campaign, Rice has seen his production increase in the Playoffs and is coming off an impressive performance in the Ravens win vs the the Denver Broncos last week. He ran the ball 30 times in that game and will likely see another large number of carries again this week.
  • Key Question: Can the Ravens running back carry the load again and have success vs a Patriots run defense that ranked ninth in the NFL in the regular season?

Ray Lewis

  • On NFL Total Access after the Ravens wildcard win over Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, former General Manager and NFL Network anaylst Charlie Casserley claimed Ray Lewis was too old and looked too slow on the field. There’s no denying his age, but his performance on the field has been spectacular for the Ravens defense if you ask me.
  • Leading your team in tackles two weeks in a row and providing the type of leadership that only he can bring is exactly why sugar Ray will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer after he retires this season. After defeating a legendary qiuarterback last week, Lewis goes up against another one of the game’s best this week vs Tom Brady.
  • Key Question: Will the greatest middle linebacker of all-time add to his legacy by reaching another Super Bowl or is this the last stand for #52?

Patriots

Tom Brady

  • As long as Tom Brady is in New England, he will always be the first key player to bring up for the Patriots. The three-time Super Bowl champion is looking to bounce back from last year’s defeat at the hands of the New York Giants and return to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season.
  • Last week’s victory vs the Houston Texans now means that Brady has the most Playoff wins for a quarterback in NFL history with 17. He will be out to prove that he is still the best quarterback in the business despite missing one of his favorite targets in tight end Rob Gronkowksi.
  • Key Question: Can Brady turn around his recent struggles vs the Ravens defense and lead his team to yet another Super Bowl?

Wes Welker

  • Wes Welker is perhaps the most underrated player in the NFL and he has been for quite some time. Standing  just 5 foot 9 inches and weighing in at just over 185 pounds, the 31-year-old veteran is after completing yet another season of over 1,000 yards and 100 catches.
  • He now holds the Patriots franchise record for receptions and also holds the NFL record for most seasons with over 100 catches after a 118 catch performance this campaign. With tighe end Rob Gronkowski now out indefinitely with a broken forearm, Welker will continue to be Tom Brady’s go to target in this game.
  • Key Question: How much of an impact will Welker have in the Patriots passing game with the Ravens pass defense fixed on stopping him?

Vince Wilfork

  • The veteran leader of the defense, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has been spectacular for the Patriots again this season and was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. Wilfork is a standout star on the Pats defensive line with his 325 pound frame providing for a consistent road block for opposing running backs.
  • He will provide a big test for the Ravens offensive line protecting quarterback Joe Flacco from pressure in the pocket. Luckily for the Ravens, Wilfork will face much of the game going up against two of the very best interior linemen in the league in Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda.
  • Key Question: Will Wilfork be a disruptive pass rushing force for the Pats defense and also stop Ray Rice in the run game?

Prediction

John Harbaugh

So just as I had predicted before the season started back in August, it’s the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots who meet in the AFC Championship Game.

This is a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game which finished with a Patriots 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a crucial field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
With rookie Justin Tucker as their kicker this time around and with veteran Ray Lewis sure to put on another inspired performance on defense, I think the Ravens will find a way to win in Foxborough.
Patriots 20 Ravens 23

So that’s my breakdown of the game. Feel free to have your say in the comment section below and for more Playoff updates, follow me on Twitter.

Follow @PodgeOH

Written by podgeoh92

January 19, 2013 at 10:00 am

Playoffs Preview- AFC Divisional Round

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Ray Lewis

After a typically dramatic wildcard weekend, the Playoffs continue this week with the divisional games just around the corner.

The first of two AFC divisional games takes place on Saturday night as the Baltimore Ravens travel to Denver to tackle the Broncos.

The second game is on Sunday with an intriguing matchup in store as the Houston Texans go on the road to New England to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Now without further ado, here are my previews and predictions for the games.

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning

Keys to the Game

When the Ravens have the ball…

Ray Rice

Ray Rice and the Ravens Run Game

  • Running back Ray Rice has seen his role in the Ravens offense reduced this season after he had only 257 carries which was his lowest total since the 2009 season. He wasn’t much of a factor in their wildcard win last week against the Colts either and he rushed for just 68 yards.
  • The Ravens will be looking for Rice to step up in this game against a solid Broncos defense. Joe Flacco can’t do it all by himself and so he needs help from Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce to provided solid support on the ground.

When the Broncos have the ball…

Demaryius Thomas

Peyton Manning vs Ravens Veterans

  • Peyton Manning may be the league’s best veteran offensive player but the NFL’s probable MVP is going up against two of the best veteran defensive players in this one. Two names immediately jump out from the Ravens and those are star linebacker Ray Lewis and playmaking safety Ed Reed.
  • Both players are Future Hall of Famers and Lewis is coming off an emotional game last week when he led the team with 13 total tackles in his final home game. Manning will have to be at his best going up aganist these two leaders in what will be a football version of a chess game featuring some of the smartest players in the game.

Prediction

Ed Reed

The Colts beat the Ravens 34-17 back in week 15 on the road in Baltimore and as the number one seed, they will be the favorites in this game at home in Denver.

However, I see the Ravens pulling off an upset led by star linebacker Ray Lewis on defense along with help from Joe Flacco and the offense.

Ravens 20 Broncos 17

Houston Texans at New England Patriots

J.J. Watt

Keys to the Game

When the Texans have the ball…

Arian Foster

Matt Schaub and the Texans Passing Game vs Patriots Pass Defense

  • It’s no secret that the Patriots pass defense is the team’s biggest weakness and it has been for a number of seasons now. They ranked as the 4th worst team vs the pass this year after giving up over 270 yards to opponents per game.
  • The Texans offense is led by star running back Arian Foster and so they can beat opponents both on the ground and through the air. However, if Foster and the rest of the Texans running game struggles, the pressure will be on Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and co. in the passing game to step up against a poor Pats pass defense.

When the Patriots have the ball…

Tom Brady

Tom Brady vs Texans Pass Rush

  • When the Patriots have the ball we will see two of the best players at their respective positions going up against each other. The headline may say Tom Brady vs the Texans pass rush but it will most likely be a battle of Tom Brady vs J.J. Watt as the Pats quarterback and the league leader in sacks go head-to-head.
  • Watt had 5 tackles and 1 sack last week in the Texans win last against the Bengals and the second year player is coming off a season in which he had an incredible 20.5 sacks. Tom Brady will need to keep a close eye on pressure coming from Watt off the edge every time he drops back to pass.

Prediction

Vince Wilfork

The Texans are back in the Playoff divisional round for the second year in a row but question marks still remain about their ability to take the next step into the Playoffs.

As for the Patriots, playing at home after a first-round bye and Tom Brady and co. will certainly be well prepared for this one by head coach Bill Belichick.

In a high-scoring game, I’m picking Tom Brady and the Pats to come out on top and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

Texans 21 Patriots 31

Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick

So those are your previews and predictions.

For more Playoff updates, follow me on Twitter.

Follow @PodgeOH