With every day that passes, we move one day closer to the start of the NFL football season. Last season, the AFC won the Pro Bowl, but it was the NFC and the Philadelphia Eagles getting the last laugh and knocking off the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
In our last installment, we broke down the one question hanging over every NFC team. This time around, it’s the American Football Conference’s turn.
Here is the one burning question for every AFC team:
Baltimore Ravens: How much more does Joe Flacco have?
The Ravens drafted tight end Hayden Hurst 25th overall, then traded up to No. 32 to select Lamar Jackson. They signed Michael Crabtree from Oakland, John Brown from Arizona, and Willie Snead from New Orleans. At 33 years old, Flacco may only have a season or two of mediocrity before Baltimore pulls the plug and inserts Jackson as the future. Big Joe has 48 touchdown passes against 28 interceptions over the last two seasons, and had his worst season in terms of Quarterback Rating since his rookie season in 2018. The window is getting smaller on ‘Elite’ Joe Flacco.
Cincinnati Bengals: Will Marvin Lewis ever win a playoff game?
Marvin Lewis led Bengals teams are 0-7 in the postseason. Despite another average season in 2017, Cincinnati owner Mike Brown extended Lewis’ reign as head coach through the 2019 season. Cincinnati returns Andy Dalton and A.J. Green once again, and the emergence of Joe Mixon means the Bengals offense has the tools to be a top-tier unit again. Vontaze Burfict’s suspension will last the first four games of the season, but otherwise, Marvin Lewis’ defense remains solid. The AFC North is always a tough win, and this iteration of the Bengals is Lewis’ last hope at that coveted playoff run.
Cleveland Browns: Can they turn the corner?
More so than any year in recent memory, the defending all-defeated Cleveland Browns made major upgrades in the offseason. Signing Jarvis Landry to pair with Josh Gordon, bolstering the running game with Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, and gathering quarterback options in Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield is creating a buzz in Cleveland not seen in a long time. The defense should be solid signing Mychal Kendricks and adding Denzel Ward via the draft. Don’t be surprised if the Browns steal a few wins this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Is it Super Bowl or bust?
Pittsburgh returns almost the entire roster in 2018, with the notable exception of linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers bolstered their safety position by signing Morgan Burnett and drafting Terrell Edmunds in the first round. The big question mark this season isn’t Ben Roethlisberger’s commitment, but running back LeVeon Bell’s. Bell enters season number two of contract disputes, but seems optimistic of a deal getting done. If Bell and the Steelers cannot reach an agreement, then he’ll walk after the season, and the Steelers will not have capitalized on having the two best players at their position in the league on one team; the other being Hall of Fame wide receiver Antonio Brown. It’s all or nothing in 2018 for Pittsburgh.
Houston Texans: How healthy are they?
Houston is littered with injuries ahead of the team’s training camp. The following players, and their accompanying injuries, are all questionable to be full-participants in camp: Deshaun Watson’s knee, J.J. Watt’s back, Jadeveon Clowney’s knee, Nick Martin’s ankle, D’Onta Foreman’s achilles and Bruce Ellington’s hamstring. It’s one thing to have a few players start camp on the mend, and be able to get their conditioning up to speed when Week 1 rolls around, but that’s a lot of key cogs for Bill O’Brien’s team. B.O.B. is on the hot-seat to make 2018 a success in Houston. He has the pieces, but does he have the health?
Indianapolis Colts: Does Andrew Luck have help?
Reports indicate that Luck’s injured shoulder no longer is giving him pain, as he works his way back to full strength following a year off. The Colts drafted Notre Dame guard Quentin Nelson in the first round, and he’ll probably be an All-Pro in the NFL. But as far weapons? Luck gets friendly faces T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle, then it’s Ryan Grant (Washington’s No. 4 receiver from last year) and Detroit Lions castaway Eric Ebron. The current starting running back is Marlon Mack, who’s rookie year in 2017 was in a receiving role. Luck’s health, and the team learning new offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni’s system, means Indy’s season is already off to shaky start.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How high is the Jags’ ceiling?
Jacksonville blew the doors off the AFC last season on their way to an AFC Championship game, only to squander a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the Patriots. A power running game paired with a defense that sent six players to the Pro Bowl in 2017 is reloaded for another run in 2018. But how far can they go? Jacksonville lost its two top receivers in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in the offseason. Blake Bortles completed over 60 percent of his passes for the first time in his career last season without largely without Robinson and Hurns in the fold, but not much was done to bolster the passing game. Jacksonville will ground and pound teams into submission, but will that be enough to send them to the franchise’s first Super Bowl?
Tennessee Titans: Will Marcus Mariota rebound?
Tennessee had the top-ranked rushing attack in the league last season. They also had one of the worst passing attacks in the league thanks, in part, to Mariota’s 13:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2017. Derrick Henry takes over lead back duties with the departure of DeMarco Murray. Dion Lewis joins the Titans as the foil to Henry’s size and power, and should keep Tennessee in the conversation as one of the league’s premier rushing attacks. Cornerback Malcolm Butler comes to Tennessee from New England to help a passing defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL. It’s year four of the Mariota experiment, and this one will lay the foundation for the former Heisman Trophy winner in Tennessee.
Buffalo Bills: Whose team is it?
For now, all eyes are on A.J. McCarron as the new starter in Buffalo. Drafting Josh Allen 7th overall puts the pressure on McCarron, a career backup before getting this first shot as a starter with the Bills. Facing assault allegations, LeSean McCoy is the most important piece of Sean McDermott’s offense, but it’s the quarterback who will have the final say whether or not Buffalo contends for a Wild Card in 2018. Star Lotulelei comes over from Carolina to play a key role in Buffalo’s 4-3 defense, which should be one of the better units in the AFC. The NFL is a quarterback league, and having a solid one in the cold winter months of Buffalo will determine their season.
Miami Dolphins: Can they find their 2016 form?
Dolphins fans probably don’t want to reminisce on the 2017, $10 million Jay Cutler debacle ever again. Losing Ryan Tannehill, after a 10-6 year in 2016, led the Dolphins into a weird year. They signed Cutler from his couch, then lost their Bye Week after having to reschedule Week 1 following Hurricane Irma. Sixteen brutal weeks later, Miami finished 6-10, and Cutler walked off into the sunset. In the offseason, Miami traded for Robert Quinn and landed Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 11 in the draft. Adding Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki in the second round, plus grabbing Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola will cover the loss of Jarvis Landry to Cleveland. Miami has pieces in place, but can they rebound from a down year?
New England Patriots: Will they ever stop winning?
Rumors swirled and spun this offseason like a tornado in Kansas, and yet, New England is still the favorite to win the Super Bowl. Tom Brady is an ageless wonder, and the mad scientist Bill Belichick doesn’t seem phased by any of the outside noise. New England’s splash draft pick was Georgia running back Sony Michel at No. 31. The Patriots added former running back Jeremy Hill and wide receiver Jordan Matthews into the mix of players Belichick will turn lose on the NFL this year. The defense boasts the McCourty twins in the secondary and a solid front seven giving New England a solid foundation to build on as they make another Super Bowl run.
New York Jets: How long until we get Sam Darnold?
The football gods smiled down on the Jets and delivered them the best quarterback prospect in the draft at No. 3. For the time being though, the offense is Josh McCown’s to run. Isaiah Crowell comes over from Cleveland to carry the ball along with Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire, and former Seahawk Thomas Rawls. The Jets will be run heavy in 2018, but if the season slips away, how long will it take before Todd Bowles is forced to insert Darnold into the starting lineup? Both the offense and defense ranked in the bottom third of the league in 2017. There’s so much work to be done, it only seems like a matter of time before Darnold gets his shot to captain the sinking ship.
Denver Broncos: Is Case Keenum the missing link?
The three-quarterback carousel landed Denver at the bottom of the division in 2017. The defense was one of the league’s best units, while the offense was one of the worst. GM John Elway went out and signed Case Keenum, fresh off his run to the NFC Championship game with Minnesota. Devontae Booker will be the lead running back in 2018, and the receiving duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders should see an uptick in production. And if you want to throw on Denver’s defense? Good luck getting a pass off with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb bearing down on your quarterback. Denver will be better than the five-win team they were a year ago.
Kansas City Chiefs: Can they trust Patrick Mahomes?
Sure, Mahomes threw for 11,252 yards and 93 TDs in three seasons at Texas Tech. Kansas City dumped Alex Smith like a bad habit after a career year. Smith was 50-26 as Kansas City’s starting quarterback in the regular season, but the Chiefs decided it was time to give the keys to the untested Mahomes in his second season. The offense is loaded with weapons Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill, so there’s no shortage of help for the young quarterback. Rest assured though: if Kansas City falls apart, you can guarantee the blame will fall on Andy Reid now that Alex Smith is gone. This season will be an important transition year for the Chiefs’ mustached leader.
Los Angeles Chargers: Will LA breakout in 2018?
After an 0-4 start, Los Angeles finished up a 9-7 season on the outside looking in of the playoffs. They did, however, send six players to the Pro Bowl, including striking gold with the defensive end combo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. After leading the NFL in interceptions in 2016, Philip Rivers rebounded to throw his fewest INTs (10) since 2009. A healthy compliment of weapons, a second full season in Los Angeles and a division where they’re the only team not in transition, sets up the Chargers with an opportunity to win a wide open AFC West and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Oakland Raiders: What does Jon Gruden bring?
In his first draft as Raiders head coach, Gruden drafted four straight linemen, two offensive and two defensive, signaling a shift in culture for the Raiders. Gruden’s 10-year deal, $100 million tenure starts with reworking the roster to fit his style, and continuing to groom Derek Carr, fresh off his third straight Pro Bowl selection. Bringing in running back Doug Martin helps save Marshawn Lynch from carrying the load. Adding Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant adds value to the wide receiver position along side Amari Cooper, who will hope to rebound after a down season. Future Hall of Famer Khalil Mack leads a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2017. Jon Gruden is loud and mean, and it’s just what the Raiders needed.