Predicting the AFC for 2017

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After choosing the Seattle Seahawks to take the NFC last week, it’s time to pick who they will meet in the Super Bowl. The AFC is a little easier to get a good grasp of heading into the new season than the NFC was.

The conference starts with the cream of the crop in the eastern division. The New England Patriots are coming off a fifth championship under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Despite losing receiver Julian Edelman to a torn ACL in the preseason, the Patriots are stacked on offense with tight end Rob Gronkowski and newly acquired homerun threat Brandin Cooks. No matter who is on his side of the ball, Brady has proven he can turn any offense into a well-oiled machine.

Brady aside, New England will once again boast one of the best defenses in football. Former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore joins Malcolm Butler at cornerback in a secondary that’s sure to cause opposing quarterbacks nightmares all year.

The Miami Dolphins also qualified for a playoff spot last season and I analyzed their addition of Jay Cutler a couple of weeks ago. I believe Cutler is arguably an upgrade in a high-powered offense that includes Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry. Still, a harder schedule might make it difficult for Miami to claim another wild card spot. Look for the Dolphins to be competitive but just miss the playoffs.

In the AFC North, the Steelers are poised to prevail with the top spot once again. Pittsburgh owns as capable of an offense as anyone with skill start Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The Steelers should be able to come away with a playoff spot again, but their shot at a conference title will depend on the health of the team. This includes starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The veteran has already flirted with retirement and 2017 could be one of his final shots at a third Lombardi.

The AFC South is one of the more wide-open divisions in the NFL. Last year, the Houston Texans were able to win it with a record of 9-7 despite the poor play of former quarterback Brock Osweiler. This year, Houston has named Tom Savage as their starting signal caller, but have Deshaun Watson for the future. Watson played well in the preseason and could very well see significant time in his rookie year.

Last year proved that the Texans have a defense capable of winning this division no matter who plays quarterback. Joining the mix includes the up and coming Tennessee Titans as well as the Colts and Jaguars. I see the Titans making a playoff run in the south and just barely scraping by Houston. The team features Marcus Mariota at quarterback with an extremely effective running back in Demarco Murray. Regardless, I see the champion of the south winning 10 games or less and making an early exit in the playoffs.

Finally, we have the AFC West. The Oakland Raiders held the lead in this division for the majority of 2016, but surrendered the crown to the Kansas City Chiefs at the end of the year after losing MVP candidate Derek Carr at quarterback. If he can stay healthy this year, Carr should lead this team to the second seed in the conference.

The team added Marshawn Lynch to their backfield to compliment a strong passing attack. If Lynch somehow got back to his Seattle form, this is obviously an unbelievable addition. However, I can’t see Lynch dominating this time around. Still, if Carr is the real deal, Oakland should still post impressive offensive numbers again.

The Chiefs will have a legitimate shot at the division again but will likely settle for a wild card spot. The Broncos have a defense capable of keeping them in the hunt, but their lack of a quarterback will prove their demise. The Los Angeles Chargers will be competitive as always but fail to qualify again as well.

As for the playoffs, there’s no evidence suggesting New England won’t advance to conference championship for the seventh straight time, barring further injuries. If they do claim the top seed, it could set up a potentially interesting matchup between the Steelers and Raiders in the divisional round.

Regardless of who they play, the Patriots are poised to win this conference and play in yet another Lombardi. In this scenario, I see a rematch from Super Bowl 49 with Seattle. This would set the stage for another unforgettable matchups between two of the all-around best squads in the game. Look for the Patriots to be just a little too much once again and claim their sixth championship.

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