1. San Diego Chargers
Last year took the perfect storm of their top three targets being suspended or hurt (Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and Antonio Gates) along with historically unprecedented special teams collapses and it was the only time in five seasons as San Diego head coach that Norv Turner failed to win the AFC West. If they get Steve Smith or Steve Breaston – or if they re-sign Floyd – San Diego will have the 2nd-best RB depth (behind the Raiders), the best WR corps and the only elite QB in the division. They will have to account for the loss of DC Ron Rivera. There’s no AFC team with more of its best players in their prime and no team with a surer route to homefield. Additionally, Philip Rivers is poised for a breakout playoff run.
2. Baltimore Ravens
I may be biased because this is my team but I firmly believe there is no team more talented than the Ravens. They have a phenomenal all-purpose back, a future Hall of Famer at tight end, two 650-reception WRs, the best safety in the NFL, the best linebacker in NFL history in his twilight, a ferocious OLB with 10 sacks and a hand in 2 defensive TDs in 7 playoff games, and they added the most best defensive player in the draft, Jimmy Smith. What holds them back is Cam Cameron. Flacco and others have been voicing their displeasure but this team will need to be more diverse and aggressive on offense if they can finally get back to the Super Bowl.
3. New England Patriots
New England beat the other four teams on this list and the notable snub last season (while also losing twice to New York). They have the most feared and highest-scoring offense on this list – that will surely be improved with Wes Welker being more than a year past his ACL surgery – but easily the most suspect defense. It seems like Belichick has mostly shored up the secondary (they didn’t have Leigh Bodden or rookie Ras-I Dowling of their talented trio of corners last season), Wilfork is still anchoring the D-line and Mayo has emerged in the middle. They will certainly grow beyond their 32nd-ranked 3rd down percentage from last season.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year’s AFC Champions were the oldest defense in the NFL last year but have showed no signs of slowing down. It’s important for Troy to stay healthy this year but the Steelers can beat anyone on this list with Ben in the lineup. He’s good enough to take the team on his shoulders and to defeat anyone, anywhere. However, Ben’s inconsistent playoff play is a bit worrisome. He gets the clutch plays when he needs them but needs to make fewer mistakes in big games and needs better protection, too (the O-line and Ben combined to allow defensive touchdowns vs. BAL and vs. GB; Ben went 10-19 for 133 yds, 0 TD, 2 INT and was sacked for a safety vs. NYJ).
5. New York Jets
The Jets missed Kris Jenkins (missed 15 games) and Jim Leonhard down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. The Jets are always going to be a well-coached, physically and mentally tough squad with a commitment from the first day of the offseason onward to continually be innovative and effective running the football. The pick-up of Bilal Powell was interesting because most teams – especially one that always has at least one FB active like the Jets – don’t carry four running backs all year. They’ve run for 5130 yards in the last two seasons. Right now, I place them at #5 because I think Mark Sanchez needs to get more consistent – and they need to get at least Santonio Holmes back in free agency.
They’re getting too old. The one thing that works to their advantage is that they’re still appreciably better than anyone in their division – unless Wade Phillips’ playcalling has improved in on year -, so they’ll get into the dance.
Tell me who you think the contenders will be in the AFC battle for supremacy.
(Follow me at: http://twitter.com/Chris_M_Bach )