by Jeb Kush
#1 Seed: Patriots
This argument is somewhat unnecessary, but here it is. Not only did this team win the super bowl last year but they got even better in the offseason. It is basically the same team as last year except they added Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks. With Gilmore, the Pats now have two #1 corners with him and Malcolm Butler.
In Cooks, the Patriots now have a top 10 receiver when healthy. Brady has not worked with a receiver that is as fast and talented as Brandin Cooks since Randy Moss was in town. Teams game planning against the Patriots will be more nervous than a first time stand-up comedian.
#2 Seed: Raiders
The Chiefs and the Raiders had identical 12-4 records last year, and both teams have very similar rosters compared to last year. The Chiefs actually won the division last year but the Raiders will come back strong and take it this year. The Raiders are an overall younger team than the Chiefs which helps them in a couple of ways. First, the Raiders will have a higher percentage of their team in their athletic prime (take Alex Smith vs. Derek Carr for instance).
Second, the Raiders will have a higher uptick in production than the Chiefs will, simply because the Raiders have more second year guys getting another key year under their belt. Finally, quarterback is the most important and influential position on the field, and the Raiders have a far better quarterback than the Chiefs. Few would deny that Derek Carr’s talent level and play far outweighs Alex Smith’s talent level and play. If the Chiefs and Raiders ever go into a shootout, game-manager Alex Smith would have a tough time keeping up with Carr and the Raiders offense.
The Broncos and Chargers are no slouches in this division either as the Broncos still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they still have one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL as well. Paxton Lynch has now lost two consecutive training camp battles to Trevor Siemian. None of the quarterbacks on the Broncos roster have enough quarterbacking acumen to take this team to the playoffs.
Finally, the Chargers are deceptively competitive this year. They only went 5-11 last year; however, they had more guys on IR than any other team. Offensively, they are absolutely stacked. Philip Rivers is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Receiver Keenan Allen is a top 10 NFL receiver when healthy. Backup receivers Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman are a solid supporting cast as well. Running back Melvin Gordon is coming off a fantastic season, and it’s only his third year in the league. Lastly, the combination of tight ends Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates gives the Chargers the best TE room in the league. The Chargers’ only problem is their defense isn’t good enough to keep their offense in enough games to get into the playoffs in 2017-2018.
#3 Seed: Steelers
No one is probably going to catch the Steelers this year in the AFC North, except maybe the Bengals. The Steelers won the north last year despite Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and Le’Veon Bell all being injured during various points in the year. This year all three players are healthy and ready to tear it up. The Ravens will push the Steelers for the division title, but will ultimately come up short. The Ravens are a quality team but their major problems from last year were not addressed effectively in the offseason.
Their two major problems offensively last year were their decimated receiving and running back corps. To address those two needs, the Ravens brought in old, injured, and small free agent running back Danny Woodhead and free agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Woodhead may just still be one of the best scat-backs in the league, but what the Ravens need is an effective dependable workhorse ball-carrier. Additionally, Maclin and Woodhead are both well past their prime and it remains to be seen what kind of offensive production they can bring to the table.
The Browns actually made some smart offseason moves for once (i.e. drafting Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers instead of reaching for a QB in the first round), but they are still at least a couple years away from being in the conversation for AFC North champs.
#4 Seed: Titans
The Texans have a stellar defense, but their offense is so lackluster that the Titans will probably come away with the division. Considering the Titans defense is pretty good, Marcus Mariota is about to enter the prime years of his career, and the Titans’ offense. Also, the Jags and Colts absolutely blow so there’s really no need to worry about either of them stealing the division from the Titans or Texans.
#5 Seed (Wildcard): Chiefs
Pretty simple pick here. The Chiefs won their division, and went 12 and 4 last year and they did not lose any key players from last year. Granted, they lost receiver Jeremy Maclin to the Ravens, but Maclin was not a key contributor to the Chiefs last season. The only reason the Chiefs are here instead of up at the #2 spot is because the Raiders will improve just a bit more than the Chiefs will have improved since last season. Consequently, the Raiders will likely come away with the AFC West division title.
#6 Seed (Wildcard): Bengals
The Bengals have too much talent on their roster to not make the playoffs, if everyone stays healthy. Andy Dalton isn’t an especially exceptional quarterback, but he is probably a top 20 NFL quarterback. Additionally, with the talent around him he will probably be a 10-15 ranked quarterback by season’s end. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert are back and healthy this year. The Bengals still have Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard as well. Besides the 4 playmakers of Hill, Bernard, Green, and Eifert, the Bengals added two exciting rookie prospects by drafting running back Joe Mixon in the second round, and by drafting speedster receiver John Ross in round 1.