NFL preview: Steelers strive to rebound in crowded AFC

After four teasing weeks of preseason while only getting glimpses of the starters, we finally get some real football. This weekend saw the start of the NFL season, and predictions abound as to how each NFL division will finish come January.

AFC East

For the past decade, this division has been dominated by the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The Miami Dolphins represent the only real threat to their reign, but even with their high-profile free-agent acquisitions of wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, they still appear to be a few years and few playmakers away.

The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are starting rookie quarterbacks E. J. Manuel and Geno Smith, respectively. Both teams rely heavily on their defense, but neither looks to be a serious contender.

AFC North

Home to the Super Bowl champions Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is shaping up to be the toughest division in the AFC yet again.

The Ravens, Steelers, and Cincinnati Bengals are likely playoff contenders. The Bengals look to be in the driver’s seat to win the division with third-year quarterback Andy Dalton and his top target A. J. Green. Combined with the best defensive line in the league, these assets have turned the Bengals into a Super Bowl threat. The Ravens are dealing with major losses on both sides of the ball with leader Ray Lewis retiring and veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin being traded away. The Steelers are still aging and returning many of the same pieces that produced a disappointing 8–8 season a year ago. The Cleveland Browns, while improving, are still easily the worst in this division.

AFC South

The Houston Texans look to make another appearance as division winners under defensive lineman J. J. Watt and running back Arian Foster. The only major addition is former Ravens safety Ed Reed, who is starting off the season with an injury. The Indianapolis Colts surprisingly made the playoffs last year under then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and look to repeat the feat this year. It may be difficult, though, as many expect the team to hit a sophomore slump and take a step or two back. The Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are both trying to evaluate their young quarterbacks, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, in an attempt to decide whether or not to move on from their young projects.

AFC West

The Denver Broncos have put the division in their rear-view mirror as they focus solely on winning the Super Bowl. Quarterback Peyton Manning knows he only has a year or two left and is giving it everything he’s got. The Kansas City Chiefs are a completely new team after trading for quarterback Alex Smith and signing former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid. The San Diego Chargers are under new management with a new coach and general manager, but most of the personnel remains the same and thus so will their record. Unsurprisingly, the Oakland Raiders are in disarray with quarterback Terrelle Pryor coming out of nowhere to steal the starting quarterback job.

NFC East

Every year the fate of this division comes down to the last game, and this year seems to be no different. The New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins each had a chance to win the division in the final game of last year’s season and all come back with virtually the same teams. With some substantial injuries to Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and the Cowboys and Giants lines, this will likely be a war of attrition. The only major changes come with the Eagles, where Chip Kelly has replaced Andy Reid as coach. Kelly brings a very up-tempo college offense with him and looks to shake up the NFL, but is likely not to be competitive this season.

NFC North

This is another division that looks to be a dog fight with all four teams having legitimate playoff aspirations. The Green Bay Packers look the best on paper, but their rookie-based running games and sketchy secondary could be their downfall. The Minnesota Vikings’ hopes rest solely on the shoulders of MVP Adrian Peterson, with quarterback Christian Ponder acting more as a facilitator than a playmaker. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions both underperformed last year and have serious questions specifically concerning the offense for Chicago and the defense for Detroit.

NFC South

With the return of coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints are looking to bounce back from a disappointing season. The Atlanta Falcons are returning a very similar team to last year’s division-winning squad with veteran running back Steven Jackson replacing Michael Turner. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers are both trying to evaluate their young quarterbacks, Josh Freeman and Cam Newton, who are not quite living up to expectations they set after their first few years in the league.

NFC West

This is by far the most stacked division in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are debatably the top two teams in the NFL and will be slugging it out for the division. Both feature young mobile quarterbacks and very strong defenses. The St. Louis Rams look to make major strides under their second season with coach Jeff Fisher, and they have hope after finishing 4–1–1 in the division last season.

The Arizona Cardinals are the wild card with new coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer. If Palmer can find his timing with all-pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, look for the Cardinals to have a good season.