Patriot games in AFC
By Mark Polishuk
These teams are so evenly matched (three teams were 9-7 last
year) anyone could win. Expect the New England Patriots
to come out on top, as newly acquired safety Rodney Harrison
should thrive under defensive-minded coach Bill Belichick.
Miami should take second.
They're probably the best team on paper, but they always seem
to fade during the latter weeks of the season. Still, the likes
of Ricky Williams and Zach Thomas make the Dolphins a definite
The Buffalo Bills should
improve on their 8-8 record last year, but it hinges on whether
Josh Reed can replace Peerless Price as Drew Bledsoe's top receiver.
The New York Jets won the
East last year, but that was before they lost four free agents
to Washington. Quarterback Chad Pennington is injured and to
quote Wyclef Jean, will be gone `til November. That should be
long enough to scuttle any playoff hopes for the Jets.
Quarterback Jake Plummer is going from the pitiful Cardinals
to John Elway's backyard in Denver. If Plummer
can keep it together, the Broncos have enough to take the division.
The Oakland Raiders made
the Super Bowl last year thanks to great years from grizzled
vets like Jerry Rice and Rich Gannon, but one has to wonder
if that was their last hurrah. Oakland's window of opportunity
is just about closed.
The Kansas City Chiefs scored
more points than any other team last year, but a horrible defense
kept them out of the playoffs. The D isn't much improved, so
the pressure is on the O to match or even better their 2002
San Diego is probably a
year away from contention, but there's enough talent for the
Chargers to cause some upsets.
Pittsburgh was the favourite in the AFC before
a few days ago, but then star linebacker Joey Porter was shot
in the thigh. Porter should be back by November, but the Steelers
will be hurt without one of their team leaders.
With Porter out, Cleveland
could sneak into the Central title, but the Browns have their
own problems on defense. The Browns seem to have every game
come down to the last play, so they'll need some luck on their
side to get back to the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens were
much better than expected last year and are solid at every position
except quarterback. If QB-of-the-moment Chris Redman can play
well, Baltimore is a playoff team.
Thanks to new coach Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati
Bengals will make the big jump from awful to merely
Tennessee is relying on the fragile bodies
of quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George. If
they have enough left in the tank, the Titans might be in for
a Super Bowl run.
Indianapolis, on the other
hand, is always exciting, but that's because their games are
always 34-33. If the defense can be just average, the Colts
have the guns to make the playoffs.
The Jacksonville Jaguars
are in a rebuilding phase, but might yet raise a few eyebrows.
They may get a boost since their dictatorial coach Tom Coughlin
is now unemployed.
The Houston Texans got four
wins in their first year, exceeding expectations. No playoffs
yet, but the next step is to finish at least 5-11.
WILD CARDS: Cleveland, Miami
AFC CHAMPION: New England