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Today is:
2008 American Football Conference Preview
By Clayton Ruley with Jorge Perez (AFC East)

AFC East
*New England Patriots
- The offense remains virtually intact, the one key loss being WR Donte Stallworth, but the Patriots have confidence in his replacement, Jabar Gaffney, who may have finally found a home in New England. The key loss on defense is big one, CB Asante Samuel who signed a big free-agent contract with Philadelphia. His replacement will most likely be newly signed Deltha O'Neal, who has been a ball hawk throughout his career. Rookie CB Terrance Wheatley will be in the mix as well. The linebacking corps got a much-needed infusion of youth with rookies Jerod Mayo and Shawn Crable, the kind of versatile linebackers Belichick loves. First rounder Mayo is slated to start on the inside replacing Junior Seau, while Crable will spell Vrabel and Adalius Thomas on the outside.

Depending on Brady's health the offense should remain deadly. They should continue to go with 3 wide receiver sets to let Welker operate in the slot where he is most effective. With Moss as deadly as ever and good complementary recievers in Gaffney, TE Ben Watson, and RB Kevin Faulk, the Patriot passing game will likely put up big numbers again. Look for the Patriots star studded offensive line to reassert themselves after their poor showing in the Super Bowl.

Belichick will likely reel in the offense a bit, looking to keep Brady as clean as possible for a playoff push. Look for more of an emphasis on running the ball late in games. The Patriots face a soft schedule this year and likely will have many games wrapped up by the end of the third quarter. This will also help the defense stay fresh late in the season. With Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and company, they could use the help.

The defense should again be solid, and will be helped by the addition of young legs. The only concern will be the secondary, with the loss of Samuel and the advanced age of Harrison. The Patriots will need the pass rush to be solid to help them out. Their opponents will likely be forced to abandon the running game early in the second half , which should give them many opportunities for turnovers.

The biggest question concerning this team will be how they will handle the disappointment of losing the Super Bowl. Belichick is arguably the best coach in football but this is uncharted territory. Keeping Brady healthy will be the key of course as it’s hard to picture Matt Cassel or rookie Kevin O'Connell leading this team. They should cruise through the regular season again and will look to redeem themselves in the playoffs. This team should at least win 12 games, but with all this talent an undefeated season is not out of the question.

New York Jets - The Jets spent a TON of money in the offseason, handing out huge contracts on both sides of the ball. In an effort to shore up the line they signed Pro Bowl LG Alan Faneca from the Steelers and RT Damien Woody formerly of the Lions. The Jets also signed a new fullback in veteran Tony Richardson. Rookie TE Dustin Keller could be the receiving threat in the middle of the field the team has been looking for. On defense the Jets threw money at DT Kris Jenkins and OLB Calvin Pace. Jenkins has battled injury problems and the Jets are gambling that his 350 lbs will clog the middle over a full season. Pace was a disappointment before last season, finishing with 6.5 sacks before cashing in with the Jets.

LB Vernon Gholston of Ohio State was selected with the 6th overall pick of the draft. Hopefully for the Jets he will combine with Pace to provide the pass rush the team lacked last season. LB Jonathan Vilma was traded to New Orleans. He was out of place in the Jets 3-4 alignment and has battled knee problems. Of course the biggest offseason acquisition was a certain QB from Green Bay. DT Dwayne Robertson was dealt to Denver. He never lived up to his potential and also a poor fit for the 3-4.

The Brett Favre saga finally came to an end when the Jets swooped in snatched him in a trade with the Packers. Favre showed he still had something left in the tank last season with 28 TD passes, leading Green Bay to a 13-3 record. Obviously Favre will be the key, if he can stay healthy and productive for yet another season the Jets should be a playoff team.

The Jets have gambled big, hoping the obscene amount of money they shelled out will lead to a playoff run. Feeling the pressure since their cross-town rivals the Giants won the Super Bowl, GM Mike Tennenbaum was handed the keys to the vault, which he quickly emptied. How wisely he spent those dollars remains to be seen, as most of the players he signed are on the wrong side of 30.

The offense should be much improved with Favre under center, Cotchery is an up and coming receiver and Coles can still get deep. Thomas Jones has nowhere to go but up after last season's dismal showing. Running behind Faneca should help. Look for RB Leon Washington to be a bigger part of the offense this year, as he is easily their most dynamic open field runner. The defense will need a strong push from the line to allow the linebackers to make plays. Jenkins may be the key. If he can stay healthy and anchor the middle this defense could be very good. DE Shaun Ellis needs to bounce back from a down year.

This team is tough to gauge. They could end up at one extreme or another. The free agent signings could flop and doom this team for seasons to come or they might have some life left in them and make one last run. Either way this is a team built for the present. If things don't work out, Tennenbaum and Mangini, will likely be looking for employment elsewhere. 6-10 to 10-6 is my guess.

Buffalo Bills - The notoriously stingy Bills barely dipped a toe in free agency, signing LB Kawika Mitchell from the Giants. Mitchell was had an excellent season and playoff run and brings a Super Bowl ring with him to the Bills defense. The Bills other major move was trading for DT Marcus Stroud from Jacksonville. He battle injuries last season and could be the big run stuffer this team needs. The draft brought CB Leodis McKelvin of Troy in the first round and tall WR James Hardy in the second. Both should be starters right away.

A young team that appears to be on the way up, but has several huge question marks. QB Trent Edwards is talented but was never a big time winner in college, and it remains to be seen if he has what it takes to succeed at the pro level. The addition of Hardy as a big target should help but rookie WR's rarely make a big impact. Handing off to stud RB Lynch 25 times a game will be nice but he will have to beat defense with his arm at some point.

The huge question heading into the season is the absence of LT Peters who is still holding out. Langston Walker moved over to the left side in preseason but is more suited for the right side. If Ralph Wilson refuses to open up the wallet to lock up his franchise left tackle, Edwards and the offense could be in real trouble.

The defense seriously needs a pass rush. Schobel is getting on in years and Stroud is more of a run stuffer. Someone needs to emerge to bring heat on the passer. The LB's look solid with Posluszny returning. The secondary has talent. P Brian Moorman was a pro bowler in 06. 6-10 to 9-7 appears to be the range for the Bills.

Miami Dolphins - The biggest offseason addition (literally and figuratively) was the hiring of Bill Parcells as president of football operations. He quickly dismissed Cam Cameron as coach and hired Tony Sparano of Dallas as his replacement. Sparano is a no-nonsense type in the Tuna mold, but he has never been a head coach before. The Dolphins made LT Jake Long of Michigan the number 1 pick of the draft. It remains to be seen if he has the footwork to play left tackle.

Miami also signed G Justin Smiley of San Francisco to further shore up the front line. Chad Pennington was added after being released from the Jets. He will likely hold the fort until one of the young QBs emerges, likely Chad Henne. WR Ernest Wilford was signed from Jacksonville to provide a big, veteran possession receiver. TE Anthony Fasano was acquired in trade.

On defense, Parcells added ILB Akin Ayodele from Dallas to start next to Crowder. On the outside Porter will be joined by converted DE Matt Roth. Free agent addition LB Reggie Torbor from the Giants figures to be in the mix somewhere. Up front rookie DE Kendall Langford should be a good fit for the 3-4. NT Jason Ferguson will man the nose and DL Randy Starts should rotate in to help on the pass rush. The secondary remains largely intact, which could be a problem.

This team has nowhere to go but up after the debacle last season. Parcells has a history of quick turnarounds, but he was actually coaching those teams. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to Sparano, an unknown. This team still needs at least another solid offseason or two to build the roster. The offense should at least be confident. RB Ricky Williams won the starting job at tailback, and has looked good in preseason. He should provide a solid running game as Miami will probably look to break in Ronnie Brown slowly.

The defense has some talent in the front seven, but the secondary looks weak. Sparano is a defensive coach and might be able to coach up this unit. This team will likely look to control the clock on the ground and try to stay in games and make something happen late. As it looks right now, the ceiling appears to be about 6 wins.

AFC North
*Pittsburgh Steelers – The team is the best overall team in the division and will repeat as a playoff team. Losing Alan Fanaca on the offensive line will hurt but the running combo of rookie Rashard Mendenhall and a now healthy Willie Parker will keep the pressure off of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger Complementing those backs are third year receiver Santonio Holmes, veteran Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.

On defense the team still will struggle with teams with great wideouts and give up some points (i.e. Cleveland and Cincinnati) but they will stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. Look for Lamarr Woodley to step in at linebacker and get some sacks and Troy Polamalu will return to his Pro Bowl form at the safety position. Head Coach Mike Tomlin is tweeking a nice product and will get results this year but no Super Bowl. I see a 10-6 season.

Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens think they have their quarterback of the future in former Delaware Blue Hen Joe Flacco who will start to open the season. The team is led by Ray Lewis at linebacker and the secondary of Chris McAllister, Ed Reed, Dawan Landry and Samari Rolle. The defense is solid but needs to pick it up on turnovers and big plays.

The offense has some good players but no real game breakers. Willis McGahee can be a stud at running back in his second season with the team if he can stay on the field. Todd Heap is a top five tight end in the NFL but isn’t a home run threat and Desmond Mason and Mark Clayton aren’t either.

The Ravens will keep themselves in the game with defense but unless they hold their opponents to less than 20 points per game they will finish with a 6-10 record.

*Cleveland Browns –The team missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record last season and wasn’t content grabbing Shaun Rogers from Detroit for the defensive line and wideouts Kevin Kasper and Donte Stallworth on offense to help this team get over the playoff hunt. Head coach Romeo Crennel did his best to keep his job last season and was rewarded with another year. Now the mark set will be to make the playoffs and get the oldest NFL coach a contract extension. He has an exciting offense with those previously mentioned additions joining wideout Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. and running back Jamal Lewis. Quarterback Derek Anderson will not have the same success because team will have scouted him more but will still make plays and keep Brady Quinn on the bench for the season. The key to this team is their defense, which was terrible against the run last season. Rogers should help against the run and another addition at defensive line, Corey Williams, will also help. The secondary needs to create turnovers and stop plays from happening in the middle of field especially. I see a 11-5 season and a playoff berth.

Cincinnati Bengals
– The team has lost it’s solid running back releasing Rudi Johnson before the start of the season and has been dealing with issues off the field all season starting with wideout Chad Johnson wanting to be traded and ending with linebacker Odell Thurman and wideout Chris Henry’s legal troubles. Head coach Marvin Lewis is on the hot seat and his players need to step up but I don’t think it’s enough this season.

The team still has holes on defense and needs to give up more field goals and less touchdowns. The team also released their long-time offensive tack Willie Anderson so it will be interesting to see if quarterback Carson Palmer can improve on his interceptions and stay on his two feet. I see a 8-8 season.

AFC South
*Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning is coming off of injury and will be ready for the regular season. Marvin Harrison has been low key since his Philadelphia gun incident and will try and get back into his Pro Bowl swing of things. The offense also has wideout Reggie Wayne (the new number one), Anthony Gonzalez (coming off a nice rookie campaign), resigned tight end Dallas Clark down the middle and running backs, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, who returns after one year in Oakland.

The defense returns with a healthy Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders and is based on speed and getting to the quarterback. The team can run and throw with the league’s best and will be a threat to go back to the Super Bowl but this time I think they will come up short. I see a 12-4 record this season with a home-field playoff game.

Houston Texans – Matt Schaub will look to improve on a mediocre first season as a starting quarterback and defensive end Mario Williams along with linebacker DeMeco Ryans will look to lead the team to the playoffs in a tough and diverse division. The Texans have a lot of solid players but besides Andre Johnson at wide out and the two mentioned above the team has no game breakers and that could hurt.

The team does have some help on kick return as they resigned Andre Davis and that can shorten the field but can the offensive line hold up? Can the defense get solid play from its secondary? I see this team as an 8-8 team that won’t make the playoffs again.

Tennessee Titans – Quarterback Vince Young is on to a new offensive system (Mike Heimerdinger is the new offensive coordinator) and Titans personal hope it leads to more offensive production. The team has good running back in LenDale White and recently signed tight end Alge Crumpler but seems to have no help at the wideout position and is stuck in the Donovan McNabb/Michael Vick syndrome. Young can do a lot with his feet but needs help with receivers. This will limit the team’s success.

The defense is led by Keith Bullock at linebacker and will hope defensive end Jevon Kearse can return to a decent level. This team is similar to Houston in that it has solid players and besides a superstar in Young doesn’t have any playmakers. Kyle VandenBosch is a nice defensive end that can help and the team has a good secondary led by second year safety Michael Griffin.

The team is rebuilding but still wants to put an competitive product on the field, which is a tough task. I see a 7-9 season.

*Jacksonville Jaguars – Quarterback David Garrard is the man now after the team let go of the oft-injured Bryon Leftwich. Garrard reminds me of Donovan McNabb bit and can move the ball down the field with his arm or legs. He is similar to McNabb in that he has mediocre receivers playing with him although wideout addition Jerry Porter should help a bit. The team features an awesome running game led by Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor and a solid offensive line.

The defense is going to miss Marcus Stroud on the defensive line but still has the stout John Henderson at tackle and solid players on all levels of the defense. The defense has the ability to stop offensive juggernauts cold or at least slow them down because they tackle well and are physical in an division not known for that. The added Drayton Florence at cornerback and that should help. This team has had some great battles with consistent division leader Indianapolis and will continue to. The will be a 11-5 playoff team and has a great chance to win the AFC if they can find a way to score points.

AFC West
Denver Broncos – The Broncos have a very slim chance to make the playoffs this year because they have no consistent running game, their offensive line is shot especially with the retirement of veteran Matt Lepsis and they cant generate a pass rush on defense. Fortunate for them they play in the AFC West, they have an offensive genius in Mike Shanahan still calling plays at the head coach position and their cornerbacks: Champ Bailey and Dre Bly are two of the best I see a 7-9 record this season.

*San Diego Chargers
– The offense has the pieces to be one of the best in the AFC with tight end Antonio Gates, wideout Chris Chambers, LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Phillip Rivers. Their defense has perennial all-pros Shawn Merriman at linebacker and Luis Castillo on the defensive line along with Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie at cornerback. Merriman is going to play this season despite two torn knee ligaments. I think this team goes 11-5 this season and makes the conference championship game.

Oakland Raiders – This team is in a semi-rebuilding process and they have two key positions filled in running back and quarterback in Darren McFadden and JaMarcus Russell respectively. The team also has wideout Javon Walker and second year tight end Zach Miller to throw to. On defense, longtime stalwart defensive tackle Warren Sapp retired and the team picked up cornerback DeAngelo Hall giving them a strong young secondary. Hall is joined by free agent signee Gibril Wilson, formerly of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Michael Huff at safety and Nmandi Asomunga in the other quarterback slot. I think they will win 7-9 pulling off a few upsets and setting up a playoff run next season.

Kansas City Chiefs – The team lost some of it’s best offensive linemen in the last three years and running back Larry Johnson is a down hill runner who needs solid blocking to be the 1500 yard back we all expect. The quarterback position is not exceptional with Brock Huard and Brodie Croyle fighting for time. Wideout Dwayne Bowe had a nice second season and can help either quarterback succeed but this team is the worse in the AFC West and maybe the AFC as a whole. I see a 5-11 record this season.

* indicates playoff team


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