2014 NFL team previews and predictions: AFC

XN Sports

Football season is right around the corner. If you slept through the draft, free agency or the preseason, you'll need this refresher course on every team.

XN Sports previewed every team in the AFC from an offensive and defensive standpoint, and has provided fantasy outlooks for each team.

Here's your 2014 cheat sheet for the AFC:

2014 NFL AFC Predictions
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2014 NFL team previews and predictions: AFC

Baltimore Ravens


After what was a down year for the entire offense, the team brought in Gary Kubiak to run the show and help the Ravens return to a ground-and-pound system. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce both struggled behind a porous offensive line, while the loss of Anquan Boldin as a possession receiver left Joe Flacco without a go-to target.

Steve Smith is as perfect a fill-in for Boldin as it gets, and we’ll see how much the veteran has left in the tank. Dennis Pitta will be healthy to start the year and Rice has looked especially spry in preseason action. Flacco is a strong fit for Kubiak’s offense, and as long as the offensive line plays well the Ravens are primed for a bounce-back year.


Baltimore finished just outside the top 10 NFL defenses in 2013, but it felt like the unit had taken a major step backward. The losses of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left gaping holes at middle linebacker and at safety, but the moves the team made this offseason should fix that.

C.J. Mosley was drafted in the first round and will be plugged in at middle linebacker, and the team paired Darian Stewart with 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam to sure up the back end of the D.


If all goes to according to plan, the Ravens should be competing with the Steelers and Bengals for the AFC North. We’re not even two years removed from Flacco being a Super Bowl MVP, and the team has plenty of talent in place to return to the postseason.

What the veterans contribute will determine how far this team goes. Steve Smith, Daryl Smith,Terrell Suggs and Rice — they are all being counted on to play major roles. If they’re up to the task, don’t sleep on Baltimore.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Buffalo Bills


This year is essentially a rookie season for second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who was sidelined with a knee injury in 2013. Thus far, Manuel has looked shaky in the preseason. But all the former first-round pick has to do is be a game-manager in order for the Bills to have a chance.

The Bills traded up to draft Sammy Watkins and traded for Mike Williams to bolster a receiving corps that includes Robert Woods. The team also traded for Bryce Brown to create a three-prong rushing attack featuring the veteranFred Jackson and explosive C.J. Spiller.

The team has talent and depth at the skill positions, and a very solid offensive line. Manuel will determine how far the offense goes.


Buffalo quietly finished with the AFC’s fourth-best defense in 2013, but the team lost coordinator Mike Pettine to the Browns, ballhawking safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and Kiko Alonso to injury.

Jim Schwartz takes over the unit with a reputation for assembling stout D-lines, which he has again with Kyle and Mario Williams. His big task will be getting production from his depleted linebacking corps and inexperienced secondary.

The Bills have a chance to surprise people again with their defense, so long as Schwartz can plug-in the right players.


There’s talent on both sides of the ball, but the team will only be as good as its play at the quarterback position. The bill is out still on Manuel, but this year will be a major indicator of whether he has what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.

Even a Mark Sanchez-esque season might propel the Bills into second place in the AFC East, but it probably won’t be enough to sneak into the postseason.

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bengals


Andy Dalton got paid like a top quarterback in the offseason, and subsequently drew plenty of criticism. But the Bengals actually had the fourth-best offense in the AFC in 2013.

Coordinator Jay Gruden is now the head coach in Washington, leaving Hue Jackson in charge. Jackson has a rich history of getting the most out of his players, and now has weapons like Gio Bernard and A.J. Green to work with. Perhaps Jackson will find a way to get the most out of Dalton.


The AFC’s top defense a year ago, the unit should be strengthened by the return of Geno Atkins, as well as the addition of first-round pick Darqueze Dennard, who coach Marvin Lewis said was the best rookie corner he’s ever seen.

But the unit will be without coordinator Mike Zimmer, now at the helm of the Vikings and top pass-rusher Michael Johnson signed with Tampa Bay in free agency, while parts of the secondary are on the downside of their careers.


The rest of the AFC North should be much improved in 2014, and it’s going to be difficult for Cincinnati to overcome the loss of both coordinators. But the Bengals should be vying for a division crown, largely because of how much talent is up and down this roster.

The offense has more firepower, and there’s a lot of optimism around Jackson calling the plays. This outstanding defense has some questions, which begin with how healthy Atkins is. But the Bengals are a playoff team; how much Dalton progresses throughout the year will determine how far the team goes.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Cleveland Browns


Despite drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round of May’s draft, the starting quarterback job belongs to Brian Hoyer to begin the year. And Hoyer will have a talented backfield tandem of Ben Tate and rookie Terrence West, and a receiving corps that includes vets Miles AustinNate Burleson and tight end Jordan Cameron, who’s in a contract year.

The team’s most explosive player, Josh Gordon, will not be a part of the team this season due to a suspension, and that’s a tough blow for a young offense that lacks playmakers. Nonetheless, the situation at quarterback — where Manziel will be waiting in the wings should Hoyer slip up — will limit how productive the unit will be.


Defense will be the heart of the Browns this season, and first-year coach Mike Pettine has a dynamic collection of talent to work with. The team drafted Justin Gilbert with the No. 8 overall pick to fill in opposite one of the league’s elite corners, Joe HadenKarlos Dansby and Donte Whitnerwere added via free agency to strengthen a core that already features Phil Taylor and budding talent Tashaun Gipson.

Without question, the Browns have a chance to be one of the league’s top defenses in 2014. The development of last year’s first-rounder, Barkevious Mingo, and Gilbert will be major factors in just how high the unit’s ceiling will be.


While the defense should be stellar right off the bat, the offense is a work in progress, one that’s going to be hindered by the absence of Gordon. With legitimate contenders in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division, the road is all the more difficult for Cleveland this season.

A successful 2014 for the Browns would be solidifying the quarterback position for next season. The Hoyer-Manziel competition this summer is solved, for now, but Manziel will take over at some point this year. How much Johnny Football can show by season’s end will give us a better glimpse of what this team is capable of down the road.

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Denver Broncos


The NFL’s top-ranked offense a season ago,the Broncos have re-tooled for this year and perhaps will be even better. Knowshon Moreno is gone, but in his place is the younger Montee Ball, a 2013 first-round pick who is more of a downhill runner. Eric Decker is now in New York, and in his place the team signedEmmanuel Sanders from Pittsburgh and drafted highly touted Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft.

More importantly, the offensive line is healthy again, meaning the Broncos could rely more on a balanced attack — not that Peyton Manning isn’t capable of single-handedly directing this offense. With so many ways to beat you, there are few defenses that’ll actually force Manning and Co. to sweat this year.


While the Denver offense steals most of the attention, the defense is arguably tops in the AFC. The unit added DeMarcus Ware opposite a healthy Von Miller, and Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward improve the secondary.

With young talent like Derek WolfeSylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better front seven in football. The loss of Danny Trevathan hurts, but he’ll be back sooner rather than later, and the team’s depth eases the loss.

If Talib continues to be as solid as he was in New England, the Broncos should have the best unit in the conference.


The Broncos aren’t just preparing for the playoffs, their sights are set on the Super Bowl. The team actually improved on both sides of the ball, making the offense more balanced and the defense deeper and more talented.

The window for Manning and the veteran-laden Broncos is small, so the time to strike to now. It’s Super Bowl or bust at this point, but there’s little doubt that those expectations are realistic.

(Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Houston Texans


What has the chance to be the worst offense in the AFC and possibly the NFL, Houston is breaking in a new offensive scheme with a journeyman signal-caller, oft-injured running back and disgruntled wide receiver. What’s there to be optimistic about?

Ryan Fitzpatrick has a very limited ceiling under center, and neither backup Case Keenum nor rookie Tom Savage has done anything to provide much hope. Coming off an injury plagued 2013,Arian Foster has missed time this preseason due to nagging injuries. Andre Johnson already wanted out of town, and when he doesn’t get enough catches, where will his mindset be in mid-November?


What the Texans lack in defense they should make up for on defense. Jadeveon Clowney teaming up with J.J. Watt gives the unit a formidable pass rush. If Brian Cushing can return at 100 percent, the run defense should return to form.

The questions are in the secondary, where both corners Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have disappointed in recent years. A solid effort from the front seven should allow the pass defense to improve, though.


The Texans might be picking in the top five again in May 2015. The offense has little potential, and despite Bill O’Brien‘s reputation for molding quarterbacks he doesn’t have much to work with this year. If Foster gets hurt again, where does that leave the offense?

Defense and defense alone should keep the Texans in games, but probably not enough to push the win total beyond four or five games. If the defense winds up being among the league’s best, it’ll only be a year or two away from the offense catching up, if O’Brien is as good as he’s expected to be.

(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Indianapolis Colts


Andrew Luck has elite written all over him, and this offense has the chance to be among the league’s best for 2014. Reggie Wayne was his go-to target early in his career; now he’s healthy and is a solid option opposite the explosive T.Y. Hilton. In addition, tight endsCoby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are solid receivers to create mismatches for opposing defenses.

Trent Richardson and Hakeem Nicks are the names to keep an eye on. Richardson needs to better familiarize himself with the playbook in order to regain that form he showed his rookie year. If Nicks, too, can round into shape, he can be a solid No. 3 option out wide to further perplex opposing secondaries.


Top pass-rusher Robert Mathis will miss the first four games of the season, putting added pressure on second-year player Bjoern Werner to exceed expectations right off the bat. Antoine Bethea is now in San Francisco, so Delano Howell needs to grow up quickly. Free-agent signeeD’Qwell Jackson was brought in to solidify a very shaky run defense.

At best, Chuck Pagano’s defense will be mediocre in 2014. It doesn’t have to be great; it just has be solid enough to make stops when need be.


The Colts should have no issue maneuvering through the weak AFC South. Their playoff run will be dictated by how clutch Luck proves to be against the best of the AFC, and how well the defense can progress throughout the year.

This is a championship-caliber offense, but a defense of a team that would hover around .500. A second-round playoff exit is the likely fate of Indianapolis barring an unforeseen turn of fortune.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Jacksonville Jaguars


Given what’s transpired in the preseason, there’s no question in my mind that first-round pick Blake Bortles is showing enough to warrant the starting job over the very limited Chad Henne. Bortles has looked sharp, giving Jacksonville fans reason to believe they’ve finally stumbled upon the team’s first franchise quarterback in more than a decade.

The team has a new workhorse in Toby Gerhart, plus Denard Robinson is shaping up to be an excellent change-of-pace candidate. Justin Blackmon won’t be a factor in 2014 and maybe beyond, but Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee will be hauling in passes from Bortles for a long time.


Gus Bradley is trying to replicate what Seattle did in Jacksonville, and stole Chris Clemons and now Red Bryant away from the ‘Hawks and brought them to his D. Jonathan Cyprien is one of the NFL’s best young safeties, bringing the same sort of skills to the table that Earl Thomas does.

Despite a few solid pieces, the Jags’ D has a lot of holes to fill. The interior line, linebacking corps and cornerbacks are average at best, but some pieces are also young and could develop like they did for the Seahawks.


Nobody is counting on the Jaguars to be a playoff team in 2014, but they showed last year under Bradley they’re no longer a pushover. The need to continue on that ladder, win a few more close games, and most importantly the future building blocks of the organization need to grab headlines for the right reasons.

Bortles should be starting by October. Gerhart needs to prove he’s capable of being a workhorse-type back. And this defense needs to be competitive, especially against mediocre AFC South offenses. A six-win season would be a great way for Bradley to end his second season in Jacksonville.

(Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images)

New England Patriots


It’s no coincidence that the loss of Rob Gronkowski in 2013 resulted in a down year for the New England offense. Tom Brady was relying on an oft-injured Danny Amendola and youngsters Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, while learning to cope with the losses of Wes Welker and Gronk.

This year, Amendola should be better acquainted with the playbook, Thompkins and Dobson are more experienced and Gronk returns as the key playmaker. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the Pats offense looks much like it did when they were winning Super Bowls.


The Pats swapped Aqib Talib for a healthy Darrelle Revis, then added former Seahawks cornerBrandon Browner. The return of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo cannot be understated, as they will solidify the defense up the middle.

The loss of veterans set the stage for players like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins to grow up quick. Now New England has a strong mix of young and experienced talent, which could propel the unit to the one of the best in the AFC.


Yet again, the Patriots should be the favorites in the AFC East, and if all goes according to plan they should see the Broncos in late January with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

The major “if” is whether Gronk, Revis, Amendola, Wilfork and the other veteran role players can stay healthy for the course of the season. As we saw with Gronk and Wilfork, one major injury can result in a major setback.

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

New York Jets


It was a shaky first NFL season for Geno Smith, to say the least, but the Jets front office has surrounded the sophomore signal-caller with talent as he enters Year 2. Eric Decker is now a go-to target, while Chris Johnson adds some lightning to a backfield with a thunderousChris Ivory.

With a strong running game to lean on and more weapons in the passing game, Smith is poised to progress in 2014. However, any slip-ups may result in Michael Vick taking over.


Despite injuries to rookie Dexter McDougle and setbacks for Dee Milliner and Dimitri Patterson, Gang Green boasts arguably the best front seven in all the NFL. The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon RichardsonMuhammad Wilkerson and David Harris perfectly fit the Rex Ryan defensive mold.

Milliner needs to round into that shutdown corner form, and rookie Calvin Pryor needs to help solidify the back end of the defense.


The Jets defense alone is good enough to have the team in contention for a Wildcard spot. The unit should be the anchor of this team, while Smith and the offense have to “just do enough” to put them over the top.

How well Smith — or potentially Vick — performs under center and whatever Johnson can contribute at this stage in his career will be major catalysts for the Jets in 2014. If the offense can make enough strides as the season goes on, the team has a lot of potential.

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Oakland Raiders


Before Week 1 even rolls around, it appears as if Oakland already whiffed on its trade to acquire Matt Schaub. The veteran has failed to impress in the offseason and in the preseason, giving us more and more reason to believe it’s only a matter of time before rookie Derek Carr steps in.

Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drewsound like a strong running back duo, but McFadden has never stayed healthy for a 16-game season and Jones-Drew has a lot of tread on his tires. The offensive line remains suspect, and the team has about three No. 2 wide receivers.


The Raiders loaded up on veterans in free agency to solidify the defensive side of the ball. Antonio SmithJustin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley are now rushing the passer, while former 49ers Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are starting at corner.

The addition of first-rounder Khalil Mack gives the Raiders a solid unit, but one that may be overmatched by the likes of the Broncos and Chargers in their own division.


If coach Dennis Allen’s job is on the line, quarterback will be the biggest decision he has to make. Starting Schaub and leaving him in place for the first month could result in four straight losses, which they may not be able to overcome over the course of the season.

Allen is a defensive coach, though, and if this veteran-laden group winds up being as good as he anticipated then he should salvage his job. But Carr also must prove he’s a starting quarterback in this league.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Steelers


It’ll be a young nucleus of players being counted on in Pittsburgh. Le’Veon Bell has taken the reins of the running game, while a host of unproven receivers will try to step up and replace Emmanuel Sanders.

The Steelers are seemingly moving back to a ground-and-pound attack, where Bell is a bellcow and LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer offer unique skill-sets. If Big Ben can do his thing when it comes to making plays down the field, this offense could resemble their recent Super Bowl-winning teams.


There has been a youthful infusion on the Steelers’ defense, with Jason WorildsLawrence TimmonsJarvis Jones and first-round pick Ryan Shazier now comprising a very athletic linebacking corps. The defensive line is now leaning on Steve Mclendon, Stephon Tuitt andCam Thomas, while Cortez Allen is shaping up to be the new No. 1 corner.

In the matter of one offseason, Pittsburgh’s defense again looks like it’ll be a force, one that could not only be the best in the AFC North but maybe the entire NFL.


The Steelers nearly snuck into the postseason a year ago, and have a strong shot at returning there in 2014. The difference will be whether these young players being counted on will thrive in these big positions.

It’s bound to be a great race in the AFC North with Cincy and Baltimore, but is there a quarterback in the division to trust more than Roethlisberger?

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Tennessee Titans


Ken Whisenhunt is now the head coach of the Titans, meaning the offense has a chance to begin turning a corner. Whis has a reputation as a quarterback guru, having helped the likes of Big Ben and Kurt Warner. His next task is Jake Locker, who’s entering a make-or-break year in Tennessee and must overcome a history riddled with injuries.

Rookie Bishop Sankey is expected to eventually take over in the backfield, while Justin Hunter andKendall Wright are two budding stars at wide receiver. It may take a few months or even until next year, but this group has serious firepower.


Coordinator Ray Horton was looked over for a handful of head coaching jobs, but if he can transform this defense he should be on deck for one next offseason.

Top corner Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay, while the bill remains out on former first-round pick Derrick Morgan, who has been moving all over the field in search of finding a niche.

Bernard Pollard and Jason McCourty are underrated, but Horton needs them to step up. He also has to get the most of the role players. This unit is destined to struggle in 2014.


This season the Titans are going to be learning Whisenhunt’s offense and Horton’s defense, while the coaches figure out which players will be a part of the franchise going forward. Tennessee has a chance to score a lot of points, but also give up a lot.

In the AFC South, they have a chance to win some games. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the team finish second in the division.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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