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Breaking down AFC picture has Dolphins making big jump

Al Behrman / Associated Press
The Bengals' chances of returning to the playoffs depend on the performance of quarterback Carson Palmer.


One of my favorite parts of the movie Forrest Gump is when Forrest is sitting on the bench telling the elderly woman about his decision to just start running -- for no real reason. He said, "When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go ... you know ... I went." That simple explanation is the best way to describe how many coaches and executives in the league feel right now. Most coaches are done with vacations. There is an internal clock inside of all of them that senses when it's time to just get up and go "run".

Examining the NFC
With training camp on the horizon, Michael Lombardi pairs his AFC preview with a detailed look at the NFC teams built for the long haul -- and those just pretending. More ...

» Lombardi: NFL's 'convenient truths'

Each coach is ready to run back to his office to start training camp. No more beach time, no more fishing, no more golf, no more naps in the middle of the day -- nothing but football 24/7. Just like Gump, every coach will know when to sleep, know when to eat and know when to ... you know ... go. But what are the expectations for these coaches? What can fans expect to see this fall?

Since my internal clock is telling me to keep running, I decided to preview the upcoming season, starting with the AFC on Tuesday, and finishing on Thursday with the NFC. Since I spent more than 20 years in the NFL grading players, I need a grading system to to preview teams. Therefore, I decided to implement one of my own:

Blue-chip team: Super Bowl contender
Red-chip team: Playoff contender
Green-chip team: Middle-of-the-pack team
Orange-chip team: Improving but still not near the playoffs
Brown-chip team: No chance to win and the year will be a long one

Teams are listed alphabetically within each grouping.

Blue-chip teams

Indianapolis Colts: Last season, the Colts had eight victories in games decided by eight points or fewer. They had to fight and grind it out to win -- but their leadership and toughness always seemed to prevail. Can they be expected to do the same this year? As long as Peyton Manning stays healthy and the defense keeps improving, the Colts will be a high a seed come January. My concern is that they have contract problems running rampant in their locker room -- much like the Chargers -- and typically those issues seem to prevent teams from winning close games. Will these problems be enough to make them a candidate to get upset in the playoffs? Something tells me yes.

Miami Dolphins: Much has been happening in Miami in recent weeks, but what should not be lost in all the hysteria of the Heat adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh is that the Dolphins are a Super Bowl contender. Last season, they were one of the best teams in the league in terms of execution, but struggled playing 2-minute defense (30th overall) and failed to make explosive plays (gains of 20 yards or more). Miami is close, very close, to becoming a Super Bowl team -- in part due to its size, mental toughness and ability to consistently execute each week. If the Dolphins stop the big plays, make a few of their own, and find a way to close out games, J-Lo and Marc Anthony might have a stake in a Super team.

San Diego Chargers: Everyone realizes Norv Turner knows how to direct a good passing game, but he also loves having a big running back who can control the game and force teams to defend the box -- which he did not have last year. With the addition of RB Ryan Mathews, Turner has his man and will make the already explosive Chargers even more dynamic. The Chargers were unable to run the ball last year, finishing 31st in the league. San Diego picked up four yards on the ground on first down yet the defenses still bit on every play-action fake. If the Chargers can work through some of their off-the-field problems, they can compete with anyone.

Red-chip teams

Baltimore Ravens: I like Baltimore's team. In fact, what I love most about the Ravens is that they don't kid around about still being a dominating defense. Organizationally, they have accepted the fact that the rules no longer allow any team to be a dominating defense. In their rebranding effort, the Ravens have given up trying to be a complete unit, and have concentrated on putting together a great red-zone defense. In the final eight games of last season, the Ravens ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, which is the only statistic that matters now on defense. Forget yards allowed, most teams can gain yards between the 20-yard lines, but these new Ravens know that in order to be considered a great defense in this era, they have to be a great red-zone team -- which is why I love them. Now, if they can get quarterback Joe Flacco to take his game up a notch against the best teams in the league and not just dominate the bad ones (seven touchdown passes were against Kansas City and Detroit), the Ravens might have what it takes to be left standing come January.

Cincinnati Bengals: These are not the old Bengals, perennial losers; these are the new Bengals that can play the game with power and toughness. From my years in the league, I never thought there was a weight room in Cincinnati, as the teams appeared physically weak, wearing down as the season went along. But all that has changed. Last year, the Bengals were a tough and physical team. With the return of defensive lineman Antwan Odom, and linebackers Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, this already-tough unit should continue to improve. For the first time in a long time, all the questions in Cincinnati center on the offense and more specifically, the passing game. Can Carson Palmer return to his old form, or even to his "almost old form"? Lack of speed or big-play ability hurt the offense. They finished 31st in quick scoring drives (four plays or fewer) and 28th in plays of more than 20 yards, which is why the Bengals must improve offensively to return to the playoffs. If they do, they can be a dangerous.

Denver Broncos: After a fast start, the Broncos failed to do much in the second half, in part due to their inability to stop the run. In the last three games of the season, they allowed 663 yards on the ground. Over the final eight games, the Broncos gave up 200 points. Bigger, stronger, faster and tougher is now the motto in Denver, on both sides of the ball. Along with being more physical, the Broncos must make deep plays in their passing game to vertically threaten the field. That will open things up for RB Knowshon Moreno, who, if healthy, might set the league on fire. The Broncos remind me of Butler University in the NCAA tournament, a dangerous team that understands the real meaning of "team" gaining confidence with every win.

New England Patriots: I laugh when people say the Patriots' window is closing fast as Tom Brady gets older. Are you kidding me? The Patriots are a team in transition, but their window is not closing. In fact, it is getting wider as they keep surrounding Brady with young talent. However, the Patriots need their young players to get tougher -- they need their team to get tougher. Last season, New England allowed its opponents to score every time they were first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line -- every time. Last year, the Patriots had chances to win games in the final drive, but turned the ball over and finished 1-3 in games decided by three points or fewer. Their window is still open, but the youngsters better start to produce.

New York Jets: If Denver reminds me of Butler University, then the Jets remind me of the University of Kentucky. The Jets, like the Wildcats, are extremely talented, with many different egos who might only play together for one year and have the potential to explode at any point during the season. Jets coach Rex Ryan and Kentucky coach John Calipari might not look the same, but they both are master motivators and recruiters who don't mind handling an eclectic collection of players. The question you must ask yourself about the Jets is the same one you ask about Kentucky when you fill out the office pool in March -- can they get past the Sweet 16? I never have Kentucky in my Final Four, so I cannot put the Jets there.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown, now with the Charlotte Bobcats, always complains after a loss that his team "played like strangers." Last year, the Steelers seemed to me like a team of strangers. Losing Ben Roethlisberger for four games will force the Steelers to bond as a team and might hurt them in the short run. However, it could make them better for a playoff run. The Steelers must find a way to get back to being a fast, explosive defense that can create turnovers from attacking the quarterback. The Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL in defending third-and-long (six yards or more) which used to be when Pittsburgh created turnovers. Along with Big Ben returning at some point, the Steelers must create turnovers. If that happens, they will return to the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans: If the Titans can build off of what they did the last 10 games of the season, assuming Chris Johnson reports on time, they can be a dangerous team in January. As a team, they have all the elements to contend, and, with an offseason to keep tinkering with the offense, the Titans will become more diversified and dangerous on that side of the ball. On defense, the challenge will be to rush the passer and take some of the pressure off the secondary, which gave up too many big plays last year. One statistic that jumps out when examining the defense is ranking 31st in giving up pass plays of more than 20 yards -- which means it pays to take shots down the field against the Titans. If they can fix this area, they can contend.

Green-chip teams:

Houston Texans: Have you ever heard Billy Joel explain his reason for writing "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"? He claims the song is about a couple (Brenda and Eddie) he knew in high school who peaked too soon in life. They were the king and queen of the prom, but 20 years later they had become fat and hairless, forcing everyone to ask -- what happened to them? Well, that is what I do with the Texans after some games. They look sensational at times, making them an easy pick to go to the Super Bowl, with their dashing offense and their ability to move the ball up and down the field. But then there's that one game that makes me ask -- what happened? The Texans became a team that could not control the line of scrimmage at crunch time or make the crucial play in the red zone. For all their beauty on offense, the Texans are the opposite of the Ravens on defense, meaning they might play well in the middle of the field, but when the ball gets into the red zone, they cave. Before picking Houston to go to the Super Bowl, remind yourself that the team allowed its opponents to score 65 percent of the time upon entering the red zone, which ranked 31st.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars' roster reminds me of a college team. They have just a few players over 30, a few salty veterans and a bunch of young, enthusiastic guys who will play hard every game. The problems last year were as basic as their team -- poor pad level on defense and really bad tackling. On offense, they struggled to convert in the red zone and when they went on the road, especially the West Coast, they forgot how to play. Being in a tough division isn't the best nurturing ground for their young players, but they will have to grow up fast to make a playoff run. I just do not see them getting there.

Orange-chip teams

Kansas City Chiefs: Business writer Jim Collins authored a book called "Good to Great", which is how Kansas City must think this year. The Chiefs need to find their identity and get back to fundamentals and execution. Schemes can't be changed each week as was the case last year. Hiring former Patriots coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel will help, but they won't be able to overcome the lack of talent on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs drop too many passes on offense, and cannot win in short yardage. On defense, they are painfully slow and have little or no pass rush. The Chiefs continue to be a work in progress and might be able to beat a playoff team from time to time, but won't be consistent enough to make a postseason run.

Oakland Raiders: Ever see the old TV show Mission Impossible, where Peter Graves is given an assignment that seems unrealistic to achieve, but he accepts the job anyway? Well, imagine the first conversation between quarterback Jason Campbell and Raiders coach Tom Cable: "Jason, we need you to help our red-zone offense. We were last in the NFL on scoring inside the 30-yard line. We need you to help our vertical passing game as we were last in the NFL in passer rating on passes over 20 yards (the league average was 64.6; the Raiders were 24.9). We need you to help us score more points, we finished 31st in that area." Now, I realize that Campbell is a huge upgrade over JaMarcus Russell, but he is no miracle worker -- he's no Peter Graves or Tom Cruise for that matter. The Raiders are more than a solid quarterback away from being a playoff team.

Brown-chip teams

Buffalo Bills: I love Bills fans because they're passionate and knowledgeable. In fact, I get more emails from Bills fans than from nearly any other team. They love their team and aren't bitter about the four Super Bowl losses. Still, fans are also realistic and know the Bills are a long way from competing for a return trip to the Super Bowl. Much of this pessimism comes from the fact that the Bills haven't won a playoff game since 1995, and haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. Right now, they're not impressed with quarterback Trent Edwards as the man to lead the team. How could they be? When your offense is the worst in the league in red-zone scoring, plays of more than 10 yards, third-down conversions, and passing first downs made, it's not an offense that can score points quickly. The Bills were also the worst team inside their opponents' 5-yard line, scoring just four times after having 13 chances. With all the problems on offense, the defense didn't fare much better. The unit couldn't stop the run, giving up more than 156 yards per game. Switching to the 3-4 scheme won't cure this problem. It will be a cold winter in Buffalo for Bills fans, unless I'm missing a reason to believe.

Cleveland Browns: My heart remains in Cleveland, in part because my two sons were born there, but also due to the passion Browns fans have. "Browns Backers" clubs are all over the country because people might leave Cleveland, but they never leave their love for the Browns. Losing LeBron James was another tough blow for the city, and this 2010 version won't make many Clevelanders forget that headache. They are a long way from winning. New president Mike Holmgren is now firmly in charge in all aspects -- but with no quarterback and a defense that fails to get pressure on the passer, what can the expectations be in Cleveland? The Browns have six starters on defense over 30, they have one legitimate playmaker in Josh Cribbs and very little else. How can they win games consistently?

» Follow me on Twitter at @michaelombardi

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