Since the NFL is starting their season on Thursday night, I guess I need to at least put up my AFC picks today. If you want to find out what Mr. Carroll's picks are for 2005, go to the footballoutsiders.com. To make things more interesting, please put your playoff selections in the comment sections, as this is the best way to claim scoreboard.
In case you were unaware, the AFC has been the dominant conference for the past few years and 2005 is no exception. I have 9 teams in the conference with winning records and 4 others with .500 seasons, with only Tennessee, Miami, and Cleveland sporting losing records. Outside of Indianapolis, I don't see any AFC team topping 10 wins, as the conference's depth will make road games extremely difficult.
New York Jets
New England is still one of the top 5 teams in the NFL, but with their BRUTAL schedule, they are going to have a hard time even making the playoffs. (7 of the 8 teams the Pats play on the road are potential playoff teams and outside of playing an improved Miami team twice this year and New Orleans, I would rate 13 of their 16 opponents with .500 records or better.)
Buffalo might be the most difficult team to judge, as just like last year, most of their games will be decided by a touchdown or less. The lack of experience behind center is a tough thing to deal with, especially when you play a style that is low-scoring.
The Jets are team a lot of people is predicting great things for, but questions about Pennington's health and a rough schedule make them a .500 squad. Note: The AFC East and AFC West, arguably the 2 best divisions in football, drew each other as schedule opponents, which will cost both in overall records.
The Dolphins are improved, as Saban is a much superior coach to Wannstadt and remember that 2 years ago this team was being thought of as a Super Bowl contender. If they had just an average offensive line, I would rate them right with the Bills and Jets.
Considering that I have the top 3 teams in this division all with 9-7 records, it's complete guesswork to say what order I see the North, but I think the Ravens are the best of the 3 teams. The Ravens have spent the past 3 years now going with second rate QB (Boller), which has undercut Billick's credibility and is going to leave them like the 80's Bears teams, with a great defense only playing in one Super Bowl. The Bengals, Chargers, and Texans are the 3 best young teams in the AFC, with Cincinnati's offense next best to the Colts in all the NFL. 2004 was a magical year for the Steelers and I suspect they will come back down to earth, as the Staley/Bettis battering ram is already showing splinters.
Cleveland is the worst team in the AFC, by about 3 games.
With the addition of All-Pro defensive tackle Corey Simon, the Colts have the most overall talent of anyone in the NFL, so no more excuses for Manning and Dungy. Throw in a schedule that has them playing the NFC West, this team should win at least 13 games. If the Colts don't have the home field advantage, they will have underachieved.
Houston and Oakland are the two most improved teams in the AFC and they will be in the mix for a wildcard berth. If Fred Taylor can stay healthy for the whole season, the Jags could be a wild card team, but that is highly unlikely. Stroud and Henderson are the best set of defensive tackles in the NFL. Jeff Fisher just might be the best coach in the NFL not named Belichek, but the Titans are still recovering from past salary cap issues.
Not much difference between any of these 4 teams, as this is the NFL's most balanced division. Off-season additions tell the story of why I expect Kansas City to wind up on top, while Denver will sit at the bottom. The Chiefs added 2 excellent defensive free agents, Kendrick Bell and Patrick Surtain, while the Broncos "fixed" their defensive line by raiding the Browns' roster. Now who do you think had the better off-season? Oakland added the most dominant player in the NFL in Randy Moss and with the addition of Lamont Jordan, the Raiders might have the most talented offense behind the Colts. Their defense can't be any worse than last year and if they didn't have Norv Turner as head man, I would say the Raiders are a playoff team. Even with this coaching deficiency, I see them as a 9-7 squad. San Diego's schedule gets a lot more difficult in 2005, so they could be better than last year, but be lucky to get over .500.
Wild Cards: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh These 2 teams have easier schedules than Oakland, Buffalo, and Houston, who I also have with the same 9-7 records, so I'm going with them for that reason, more than any other.