The San Diego Chargers were a mystery last year, explosive offense and tenacious defense; but no play-offs. The Chargers should right the ship in '11. The Oakland Raiders looked impressive inside their division in 2010 (6-0) but horrid outside the AFC West, 2-8. Al Davis fired a very capable coach and as usual, will continue to have the team in disarray. Denver is still in search of a quality QB and has been in a constant state of flux since starting the 2009 season at 6-0 and losing their last 8 of 10 games to finish at 8-8, followed by a 4-12 '10 campaign. Kansas City shocked everyone last year, winning a number of games they could have very easily lost. The AFC West had the luxury of playing the NFC West last year. This year they face a much-tougher NFC North, not to mention the AFC East. The Chiefs should contend for a wild-card, but fall short.
The New England Patriots should (yawn) capture the AFC East. As long as Tom Brady is healthy, the Patriots are still the team to beat. The New York Jets stood toe-to-toe with the Patriots last year and prevailed in the divisional play-offs. The Jets have lost the last two AFC Championship games. They will not make it to a third. The Jets should start fast out of the gate but fade in November, still keeping them in play-off contention. A large reason will be their schedule against the always tough NFC East. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills will again, battle for third place.
The Houston Texans were everyone's pick to finally erase Indianapolis' stronghold in the AFC South the last two years. This year will be that year. Whether Manning returns for Week 1 or not, the Texans will claim the South. The Jacksonville Jaguars faded late in '10 and it was a sign for the '11 season. The Jaguars have a strong running game but QB David Garrard is not capable of leading a team to the play-offs. The defense has slipped and coach Jack Del Rio's job will be on the line this season. The Tennessee Titans will be headed by QB Matt Hasselbeck, a player past his prime. If RB Johnson does not settle his contract dispute, the Titan offense will be in trouble. The Colts will contend, whether Manning starts Week 1 or sits out until Week 3 or 4. Manning is at his best when he has doubters, as was the case in 2008. The AFC South will play the NFC South and AFC North, each with at least two solid play-off contenders. The Texans should not fold late in the season, as in years past, but the Colts will be in the running for a wild card position.
The AFC North should be a usual two-team race, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The Cincinnati Bengals are set to face life without Carson Palmer and the Cleveland Browns are on the rise with young QB Colt McCoy. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are solid play-off contenders and possible Super Bowl caliber. I saw Cleveland as the surprise team last year and as usual, I was one year too early. The Browns will contend for the play-offs in 2011 but will have to get past the big two before it can be a reality. The AFC North faces the very weak NFC West and not-so-strong-anymore AFC South.
The NFC West was won last year with a 7-9 record; while the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shut out of the play-offs with a 10-6 mark. 2011 should be a bit different. The St. Louis Rams almost won the division with rookie QB Sam Bradford. The Rams will win the West in '11. The San Francisco 49'ers should be contenders this year, but only for the division. The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals have new QB's and will experience difficult times in '11 with a schedule including the AFC North and NFC East. The stout schedule may show the Rams as an average team, but beware the Rams come January. If the Seahawks can knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in '10, just imagine what the Rams could do this winter.