2017 AFC Preseason Playoff Predictions

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back, NFL!!

In this article I’ll explain my picks for the 2017 NFL playoffs.

This year, the AFC is a very diverse conference, containing the league’s best (Patriots) and worst (Jets) teams within the same division. As always, there are teams on the rise (Raiders), teams who peaked last season (Dolphins), perennial contenders (Patriots), and dark horses (Titans).

In making these predictions, I’ll try not to fly too close to the sun. I hope to make these interesting, but in a makes-me-look-smart way, not a makes-me-look-stupid way. I want to look over the NFL landscape, like Icarus did when he built his wax wings, but not make his same mistake (predict something that completely backfires).

Here are my picks for this year’s AFC playoffs. You can view the spreadsheet that contains my record predictions for each team here.

AFC East

DIvision Winner: New England Patriots: 13-3
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Come on now, did you really think it would be any other team? Belichick and Brady have continued to dominate, and the duo won their fifth Super Bowl in February.

After that dramatic win, the Patriots improved their squad tremendously in the offseason by signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore and trading for receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks should cover for the loss of Julian Edelman to a preseason ACL tear.

The Pats look as invincible as ever. Anything less than a Super Bowl berth will be a disappointment for this juggernaut of a club.

Other teams:

Miami Dolphins: 5-11

After losing their starting quarterback to an ACL tear, the ‘Fins were forced to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement and don’t figure to participate in the postseason.

Buffalo Bills: 4-12

The Bills fired much of the front office in the offseason, and this lost organization will most likely add to its 17-year playoff drought.

New York Jets: 1-15

New York has the least-talented roster in the league by a large margin, and will struggle to win a single game.

AFC North

Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4

Pittsburgh’s already-lethal offense added a new component this offseason in Martavis Bryant, who will join Antonio Brown in a loaded receiving corps. Bryant, one of the NFL’s best deep threats and most athletic players, returns to the team after a year-long suspension for substance abuse.

In addition, the Steelers have continued to select defensive players early in the draft — this was their fifth straight year taking a defender in the first round. This approach has led to a very young defense (six starters are 25 or under).

The Steelers have a great mix of veteran talent on both sides of the ball in addition to many talented young players. Now that they are finally healthy, they have a great shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

Other teams:

Ravens: 9-7

Baltimore has been mediocre since their Super Bowl victory in 2013. That level of performance will not likely change any time soon.

Bengals: 8-8

The Bengals roster — especially the offensive line — was depleted severely in free agency, making it difficult for them to remain competitive in a difficult division.

Browns: 4-12

The Browns improved one of the league’s most talent-barren rosters by selecting ten players in this year’s draft — including three in the first round.

AFC South

Division Winner: Tennessee Titans: 10-6
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I believe this is “the year” for Tennessee, a squad that probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for an injury to Marcus Mariota in week 16. The Titans saw incredible growth from their star quarterback last season and should contend in the playoffs this year.

Tennessee also upgraded their receiving corps and defensive backfield in the offseason, both in the draft and in free agency.

If the young Titans can defeat contenders like the Seahawks (week 3) and the Steelers (week 11), they will prove that they are ready for the playoffs.

Other teams:

Texans: 9-7

Houston’s great defense will always keep them in games, but I think their offense improves just enough for them to squeeze into the playoffs as the sixth seed.

Colts: 8-8

Andrew Luck has not practiced yet after offseason shoulder surgery, and if he misses the first few weeks, the Colts will not be able to reach the playoffs.

Jaguars: 4-12

Without a clear-cut starting quarterback, the Jags will fail to top five wins for the seventh consecutive season.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: 11-5
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Now, here is where I get a little bit unconventional. The AFC West is a very crowded division, a division that I believe is the best in football. All four teams have the potential to make the playoffs — the Chiefs and Raiders reached the postseason last year, the Broncos won the Super Bowl two years ago, and the Chargers made the the playoffs in 2013.

In 2017, I predict that the both the Broncos and the Raiders finish 11-5, but Denver wins the division thanks to a tiebreaker (better division record). The Broncos still have a dominant defense, and I believe that Trevor Siemian will improve enough to allow the Broncos to recapture the division title.

Other teams:

Raiders: 11-5

Derek Carr contends for MVP, leading the Raiders to a playoff berth.

Chiefs: 7-9

Kansas City has lost their number one receiver and number one running back from last year — and face the third-hardest schedule in the league — meaning they’ll miss out on the 2017 playoffs.

Chargers: 5-11

After hiring a new coach and moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers have taken a leap forward, but their unsteady defense will hold them back.

Final Conference Standings

Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
1 Patriots 13-3
2 Steelers 12-4
3 Broncos 11-5 Better division record
4 Titans 10-6
5 Raiders 11-5
6 Texans 9-7 Head to Head Record

Non-Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
7 Ravens 9-7
8 Colts 8-8 Head to Head record
9 Bengals 8-8
10 Chiefs 7-9
11 Chargers 5-11 Head to Head record
12 Dolphins 5-11
13 Bills 4-12 Conference record
14 Browns 4-12 Head to Head record
15 Jaguars 4-12
16 Jets 1-15

Special thanks to Pro-Football Reference for each team’s schedule, NFL.com for tiebreaker information, and ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger picture credit: By Keith Allison – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51367937

Stay tuned for my NFC Preseason Playoff Predictions, which will be released soon.

Burning Questions for Each AFC Team

By Connor Pignatello

As the NFL Preseason approaches, each team in the league has a different agenda. Some teams are hoping to stay on top (Patriots); others are hoping to turn a young team into a playoff contender (Buccaneers); still others are just trying to make it to .500 (Vikings); and a few are simply trying to get a high draft pick and rebuild (Jets). Some teams have enormous make-or-break questions that need to be answered, while other teams have it all pretty much figured out.

No matter the team’s aspirations, each team has a player or concept that will decide their fate.

This post will explain the most substantial questions for each team in the AFC, while the next post will deal with the same for each NFC team.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

AFC East

New England Patriots

Key Players: Dont’a Hightower, Tom Brady, Malcolm Butler

Key Question: Can Brandin Cooks and Tom Brady develop chemistry?

The Patriots have reloaded this offseason in an attempt to stay on top of the NFL. Their X-factor this year will be Brandin Cooks, a new receiver they acquired in a trade with the Saints. It will be vital for Cooks to settle down in New England alongside Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. If he can develop chemistry with Tom Brady, the rest of the NFL will have to bend a knee to the almighty New England dynasty.

Miami Dolphins

Key Players: Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Jay Ajayi

Key Question: Who starts at quarterback?

The Dolphins are scrambling after Ryan Tannehill went down with a potentially serious knee injury in training camp last week. Last year was Tannehill’s breakout season, as he proved the critics wrong and delivered the Dolphins their first playoff berth since 2008.

In a true panic move, Miami convinced Jay Cutler to come out of retirement on a 1-year, $10 million deal. Another option at quarterback is Matt Moore, who started in Tannehill’s stead last season. Moore is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, but isn’t starting material. If the Dolphins want to build on last season’s success, they need to find an answer at quarterback.

Buffalo Bills

Key Players: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Lorenzo Alexander

Key Question: How will the new staff help the team?

The Buffalo Bills ownership has done nothing this offseason to suggest that they will be able to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought: 17 years (!).

They fired their head coach, Rex Ryan, with one week still to go in the season. Then they renegotiated Tyrod Taylor’s contract, amid rumors that they wanted him out of Buffalo. And in the most confounding move of all, Buffalo ownership fired the entire scouting department and general manager the day after the draft.

The Bills have made head-scratching move after head-scratching move, all but guaranteeing the continuation of their playoff drought.

New York Jets

Key Players: Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Matt Forte

Key Question: How committed are they to a rebuild?

The Jets have gutted their roster this offseason, releasing veteran players like Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris.

This signifies a changing of the guard in New York, and the Jets are hoping to rebuild around young players like Christian Hackenberg and Jamal Adams. If the Jets build through the draft instead of adding veteran players in ill-fated win-now moves, they will secure a bright future.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Players: Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier

Key Question: Can Le’Veon Bell stay on the field?

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The Steelers, one of the most dangerous teams in the league, depend on Le’Veon Bell to do the heavy lifting on offense. Bell has the highest career yards from scrimmage per game average (128.5) in NFL history. But he has been limited by two drug suspensions and a knee injury, which have forced him to miss a combined fourteen games over the past two years. Bell has only one 16-game season in his four year career, but if he can stay on the field, the Steelers have a chance of dethroning the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Baltimore Ravens

Key Players: Zach Orr, C.J. Mosley, Joe Flacco

Key Question: Contend or tank?

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Ravens have defined mediocrity. They’ve gone 31-33 in the four years since while ranking 16th out of 32 teams in point differential. The team is too old and simply not good enough to contend for a championship. They do have some stars on the team, but this unfortunately discourages them from rebuilding. Last season’s 8-8 campaign should encourage the Ravens to try a rebuild and start anew.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Players: Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, A.J. Green

Key Question: Is Marvin Lewis Head Coach of the future?

After losing in the Wild Card game a record five times in a row, the Bengals took a step back last year, finishing 6-9-1. They lost their two best offensive linemen, Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, in addition to defensive line stalwart Domata Peko in free agency. After the team was raided in free agency, the Bengals failed to make movements to either contend or rebuild.

Marvin Lewis is in the final year of his contract, and the league’s second-longest tenured head coach may not see a contract renewal at the conclusion of the season.

Cleveland Browns

Key Players: Jamie Collins, Joe Thomas, Isaiah Crowell

Key Question: Who will be the starting quarterback?

The Browns, the laughing stock of the NFL for so many years, are now suddenly a promising franchise. They had an excellent offseason, using their three first-round picks well, and making value signings in free agency. They took on Brock Osweiler’s contract in a salary dump that netted them a second-round pick. But Osweiler will have to compete with rookie DeShone Kizer and last year’s primary starter Cody Kessler for the starting job. Osweiler was announced as the starter for the first preseason game and he appears to have the inside track to the job. Even though Osweiler may be the starter for this year, Kizer looks to be the long term option at quarterback.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Key Players: Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt

Key Question: Is Deshaun Watson ready?

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The Texans won the South last year thanks to their defense, which ranked first in yards allowed. Jadeveon Clowney broke out last year, and with J.J. Watt opposite him, the Texans should scare opposing teams.

However, the Texans ill-fated Brock Osweiler experiment cost them next year’s first and second round picks. The first was used to trade up in the NFL Draft and select Osweiler’s replacement, and the second was employed as an incentive for the Browns to take Osweiler’s contract.

Watson is expected to start for the Texans, but if he’s not ready, the Texans will be forced to play Tom Savage. The Texans need Watson to perform well if they want to win their third consecutive AFC South title.

Tennessee Titans

Key Players: Jack Conklin, Marcus Mariota, Jurrell Casey

Key Question: Are they ready to contend?

Marcus Mariota and the Titans improved by six wins last season, and if it wasn’t for a late-season injury to Mariota, they probably would have made the playoffs. Mariota broke out last year, Demarco Murray bounced back, and the Titans flexed their ‘exotic smashmouth’ offense in wins over playoff teams like the Packers, Chiefs, and Texans. The Titans also boosted their previously weak receiving corps by selecting Corey Davis in the draft and signing Eric Decker in free agency. The Titans play in the easiest division in the league, and they have a great chance to make the playoffs this year.

Indianapolis Colts

Key Players: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, David Parry

Key Question: Can the Colts keep Andrew Luck on the field?

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Andrew Luck, the Colts franchise quarterback and possibly the best young quarterback in the NFL, has struggled the last two years due to inadequate talent around him. Last year, he was sacked 41 times, more times than any other QB besides Tyrod Taylor. The Colts rank 26th in the league in money spent on their offensive line, and don’t have a single Pro-Bowl offensive lineman. Because his offensive line can’t keep him upright, Luck has missed ten games in the past two years due to kidney, shoulder, and head injuries. If the Colts can’t find a way to protect Luck, they’ll waste their young star’s prime.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Players: Blake Bortles, Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson

Key Question: Is Blake Bortles really their QB?

In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Jaguars took Blake Bortles third overall, but he has struggled with decision-making since coming into the league. Bortles showed promise after a solid 2015 year in which he threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns. However, he regressed last season and threw for 529 fewer yards and 12 fewer touchdowns. Since entering the league, Bortles’ interception per pass attempt ratio ranks worst in the NFL behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick. In the final year of Bortles’ rookie deal the Jaguars have a decision to make — is Blake Bortles their quarterback of the future?

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

Key Players: Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, Alex Smith

Key Question: Will Tyreek Hill repeat his success?

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Tyreek Hill had an astounding 2016 season, and proved his worth as one of the best all-around weapons in the league. Last season, Hill became the first player in NFL history with at least three return, rushing, and receiving touchdowns. But after Jeremy Maclin’s departure, Hill became the Chiefs’ number one receiver — a move that will reduce his return duties, according to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. Recent return aces like Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson have struggled mightily when their teams tried to mold them into receivers. It remains to be seen whether Hill can move to full-time receiver, but the Chiefs’ success depends on it.

Oakland Raiders

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Kelechi Osemele

Key Question: Can they improve their defense around Khalil Mack?

Last year, the Raiders’ top ten offense carried them to a 12-4 record, but their bottom ten defense held them back. Their star defender, Khalil Mack, won Defensive Player of the Year and became the first player ever to receive first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions: defensive end and outside linebacker. However, the rest of the defense suffered, and Oakland ranked 26th in yards allowed. The Raiders took defensive backs Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu in the first two rounds of the draft, showing a commitment to building their defense. If the Raiders can improve their defense, they will be able to challenge the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Denver Broncos

Key Players: Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Trevor Siemian

Key Question: Is Paxton Lynch ready?

During the 2016 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected their QB of the future in Paxton Lynch after Peyton Manning retired. But they were forced to start seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian because Lynch wasn’t ready for NFL competition yet. The Broncos retained their top-five defense, but their bottom-five offense held them back and they finished third in the AFC West. Paxton Lynch acted like a deer in headlights during the three games he played in last year, averaging a dreadful 165.7 passing yards per game. If Lynch can grow up and improve, the Broncos will contend in the AFC West.

Los Angeles Chargers

Key Players: Philip Rivers, Casey Hayward, Melvin Gordon

Key Question: Are we going to see the 2015 Melvin Gordon or the 2016 Melvin Gordon?

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Melvin Gordon broke out last season, justifying his selection as the fifteenth overall pick in 2015. However, in 2014 Gordon had possibly the worst rookie season imaginable. He failed to score a touchdown despite touching the ball 217 times. But in 2016, his fortunes reversed completely, and he scored 12 total touchdowns, good for seventh in the league. Gordon also averaged 108.9 yards from scrimmage per game, which ranked fourth in the NFL.  If Gordon continues his brilliant 2016 form, the Chargers have a great chance of escaping the basement of the AFC West.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference and Spotrac for all of the statistics that I used in this article.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Stay tuned for Part II which will include burning questions for each NFC team.

To be continued…

Brandin Cooks Picture Credit: By Paul Perillo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons