By Sam Spiegelman
The AFC is officially the Eastern Conference of the NFL. Aside from the Denver Broncos, which AFC team is actually elite?
Sure, the New England Patriots have made a habit out of winning AFC East titles, but do so by competing against a regularly mediocre-at-best division. Similarly, who do Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts face in the AFC South - the up-and-coming Jaguars?
The AFC North is a bit trickier, because there are teams able to contend for that division. The Cincinnati Bengals are at the top of the mountain, if you will, but has to replace both their offensive and defensive coordinators. You can't expect a quick rebound after that. Neither the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens are too far behind. Pittsburgh lost Emmanuel Sanders and is relying on a lot of young players on both sides of the ball, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Ravens are a veteran-laden team, so there's that chemistry issue.
With that being said, here is a way too early look at the AFC contenders - from a June perspective:
Not only are they defending AFC champions, but they got better in the offseason. Offensively, Denver added the aforementioned Sanders and talented rookie Cody Latimer to replace the departed Eric Decker. On defense, Von Miller and newly added DeMarcus Ware round out a formidable pass-rushing duo. And on the back end, the team added Aqib Talib from New England and T.J. Ward from the Browns to sure up their pass defense.
This is Denver's conference to win. They only have a small window with Peyton Manning getting up there in age, but the team is in a win-now mode, and no team in the AFC is in a better position to do so.
2. New England
As I mentioned early, you can pencil in the Patriots as the AFC East champs right now. All the talk surrounding New England lately is whether Tom Brady is on the downslide of his career. You tell me, if somebody said Brady could quarterback your team this season, would you say "thanks but no thanks?"
The Pats lost Talib to rival Denver, but replaced him with Darrelle Revis, who must prove he's healthy. If so, the team probably upgraded at corner. Defensively, they also added Brandon Browner and are getting a healthy Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork back. This season, the defense has a chance to make some noise, and expect the offense - which should include Rob Gronkowski - to do the same with a full year of working together under their belts.
This is Luck's year, right? The Luck-led Colts hit a wall named the Patriots in the playoffs last season, ending what looked to be a promising campaign in Year 2 of the Luck Era. But yet again, Indy's front office has restocked the roster in the offseason, and the Colts should be able to vie for the No. 2 seed in the conference due to a weak conference schedule.
Hakeem Nicks joins a receiving corps including budding talent T.Y. Hilton and wily vet Reggie Wayne, who's proclaimed himself to be healthy. Perhaps a year of learning the playbook will bode well for Trent Richardson, who leads a backfield with Vick Ballard and a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw. I don't know if the defense got that much better in the offseason, and that proved to be the team's Achilles' heal in the postseason.
I might be reading too much into their free-agency moves, or perhaps the fact that Cincy lost their coordinators, but I think the Ravens bounce back in 2014. Steve Smith and Torrey Smith give Joe Flacco legitimate weapons on the outside, and Bernard Pierce may be better suited to take over the backfield duties under first-year offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Defensively, I don't want to understate the addition to first-round pick C.J. Mosley, who rounds out a linebacking foursome of Terrell Suggs, Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw. This front seven is nasty, and the back end is among tops in the league.
5. San Diego
I don't think the Chargers' playoff surge was an accident. Mike McCoy is one of the best offensive minds in the game today, and his pairing with Philip Rivers should allow the Bolts to be dynamic on the offensive side of the ball for some time. The issue is that aside from up-and-coming Keenan Allen, Rivers doesn't have too many other weapons in the receiving game. But he does have a three-headed rushing attack that should balance out the attack and keep defenses guessing.
Through the draft, San Diego has really bulked up its front seven, which features a healthy Dwight Freeney. The secondary was the obvious weak link a season ago, but Jason Verrett was drafted to help fix it. How well he can perform in his rookie campaign will determine a lot, especially when he's forced to cover Demaryius Thomas twice a year.
Just missed: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati
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