Analysis  

 

Broncos, Patriots among AFC teams whose ceilings are sky high

If you were paying attention Tuesday and read stuff on NFL.com beyond that story about a guard getting traded for a draft pick and a (backup) tight end, you might have noticed that I looked at the floor and ceiling for all 16 teams in the NFC. Now I do the same for all 16 teams in the AFC.

What's the best we can expect from the Chiefs or the Texans? What's the worst we can anticipate from the Steelers? Speaking of, Pittsburgh native and esteemed colleague Dave Dameshek came up with this high end/low end deal on his podcast, and I've decided to take a stab at the exercise in written form here.

So take a gander below, and let me know which clubs I'm too high on and which I'm too low on ... @HarrisonNFL is the place. One important note: Major injuries are not being predicted here. Obviously, if Peyton Manning or Tom Brady goes down, the fortunes of the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, respectively, will change greatly. Jimmy Garoppolo, anyone?

AFC East

BUFFALO BILLS

Ceiling: 10-6. For the Bills-win-10-games-and-make-the-playoffs-for-the-first-time-since-1999 scenario to come true, several things would have to occur, like Geno Smith faltering for the Jets (yes, that's possible), the Dolphins playing awfully inconsistent football (certainly possible) ... and Buffalo beating New England. And there's the rub. Too often -- as in Week 1 last season -- the Bills have been unable to close the door against the Pats. The other thing that has to happen in this 10-win deal? EJ Manuel develops into a solid pocket passer in his second year as a pro, becoming efficient enough to win games while avoiding the mistakes that lose them -- call it a low-turnover year. It would also be nice if running back C.J. Spiller were to reclaim his career.

Floor: 4-12. The absences of young linebacker Kiko Alonso -- likely out for the season with a torn ACL -- and veteran safety Jairus Byrd -- who left via free agency -- turn out to be a huge factor, and former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's departure leaves a significant scheming void. Consequently, Buffalo's defense is unable to keep the team in games when Manuel winds up falling flat on his face. Veteran back Fred Jackson can't compensate for the ineffectiveness of Spiller and others, as he finally shows his age (33).

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Ceiling: 11-5. Everything goes right. Ryan Tannehill plays with the poise of Matt Ryan, receiver Mike Wallace posts 1,150 yards at a 20-yards-per-catch clip, and Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno combine for 1,750 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, the front seven succeeds in shutting down the backs that loom on Miami's schedule, including the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, Packers' Eddie Lacy, Bears' Matt Forte and Jets' Chris Johnson (twice).

Floor: 4-12. Coach Joe Philbin loses the team as it sinks to the bottom of the AFC East. Tannehill's new offensive line fares almost as poorly as last year's edition, allowing him to be sacked 50-plus times again. Wallace can't catch a whiff, while Moreno reverts to 2011 form. Meanwhile, safety Reshad Jones' four-game suspension puts the secondary behind the eight ball early, and Miami drops close games to start the season 0-4.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Ceiling: 13-3. We can't go over 13 wins here, but if any squad is capable of pulling off the unexpected, this would be the group. Within the 13-win narrative resides Tom Brady winning another MVP award, posting a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and justifying this guy's All-Pro prediction. Shane Vereen rushes for 800 yards and catches 80 passes for another 700, while Stevan Ridley adds a second punch -- without dropping the ball on the carpet. Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski play almost a full slate of games.

Floor: 8-8. The dearth of young, reliable run-stoppers up front gets the Pats in serious trouble, much like last year, when their rushing defense ranked an underwhelming 30th. High-profile free-agency addition Darrelle Revis plays like one-time big-name corner Nnamdi Asomugha did for two seasons in Philadelphia -- as a fish clearly out of water. Speaking of fish ... the 'Fins split with the Pats, as do the Bills and Jets, while New England manages to beat just one of the following six tough opponents: Green Bay, Chicago, Kansas City, Indy, Denver and San Diego.

NEW YORK JETS

Ceiling: 11-5. Rex Ryan's secondary recovers from its many issues in time for the regular season and is able to keep opposing passers at bay ... at least well enough so that the Geno Smith-fueled offense isn't forced to put up more than 24 points per game. Former Titans running back Chris Johnson notches 1,600 yards from scrimmage, making plays in the passing game, while former Broncos receiver Eric Decker tops 1,000 yards through the air. Rookie Jace Amaro acclimates to the pro game, giving Smith a third-down option and providing 45 catches from the tight end spot.

Floor: 3-13. This is another of those teams with a very open-ended future. What if Smith throws nearly twice as many interceptions as he does touchdowns (again)? What if the Johnson experiment fails miserably? What if Decker's past success proves to have been just a product of Peyton Manning's record-breaking greatness in Denver? And what if backup Michael Vick plays decently for one game and proceeds to become a distraction? When a club is relying on this many new faces, things can go downhill very quickly. So much depends on that secondary.

AFC North

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Ceiling: 11-5. Baltimore prevails on the strength of a formidable long-ball attack anchored by Joe Flacco's downfield touch (which was missing last year), a line that provides the quarterback with plenty of time to pat the football and a solid receiving corps. Torrey Smith plays consistently, veteran free-agent addition Steve Smith looks younger and tight end Dennis Pitta suits up for all 16 games. The defense allows 20 points per contest, thus allowing the Ravens to win a few with special teams and some running game.

Floor: 6-10. Ray Rice and Co. provide no ground support for Flacco. Steve Smith plays like he's 55, not 35, and the Ravens quarterback is left to work with a one-trick pony at wideout, 35 rushing yards from his backs and a decent tight end. Veteran linebackers Terrell Suggs and Daryl Smith hit the career wall, while young safety Matt Elam takes a step back.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Ceiling: 12-4. This record is, in theory, attainable. Achieving it would start with sweeping the Browns and splitting with both the Ravens and Steelers. Then Marvin Lewis' club would need to take three of four from its NFC South opponents -- presumably, the lone loss would be at New Orleans. The Bengals also would need to sweep the AFC South and beat either the Broncos or the Patriots. It's possible, but not likely. The defense can't miss a beat under new coordinator Paul Guenther.

Floor: 7-9. The absence of Guenther's predecessor, Mike Zimmer, is felt from Day 1. The defense misses Michael Johnson, who signed with the Bucs, in its pass-rush rotation. Bengals fans and the national media learn that Jay Gruden was a better offensive coordinator than his replacement, Hue Jackson (nah). And, of course, Andy Dalton regresses, becoming complacent after signing that contract extension, shaving the goatee (with which he's played well) and throwing 20 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Giovani Bernard also falters, most decidedly failing to become a top-10 fantasy running back.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Ceiling: 9-6-1. Ah, what the heck -- some game in the AFC North always seems to end up in a tie, which would count as a win in Cleveland, the way the starting offense has been playing. Quarterback Brian Hoyer keeps his job, posting a solid 97.6 passer rating while helping tight end Jordan Cameron become a second team All-Pro (behind Saints dynamo Jimmy Graham, of course). Some combination of Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins makes up for the season-long loss of suspended receiver Josh Gordon. The defense continues its solid -- if not spectacular -- play.

Floor: 3-13. New coach Mike Pettine's defense ends up being the unit that lets everyone down. The law firm of (Paul) Kruger, (Desmond) Bryant and (Barkevious) Mingo is a disaster, with the three posting 10 sacks between them. Johnny Manziel wins the job from a confidence-vacuumed Hoyer, ultimately making exciting plays that are just enough to get Cleveland beat, then double-birds the Steeler faithful after a particularly uninspiring performance at Heinz Field. Oh, and Ben Tate finishes with 500 yards.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Ceiling: 11-5. Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier looks like the love child of Greg Lloyd and Hardy Nickerson, making plays all over the field and excelling in the pass rush, in coverage and simply making tackles. Shazier should be solid in all three aspects of the game, but coverage will be where it's at in this scenario. Le'Veon Bell rushes for 1,250 yards while LeGarrette Blount adds 500 and eight short-yardage scores. The Steelers' offense plays faster overall, with the development of second-year pro Markus Wheaton at receiver and super-quick rookie back Dri Archer.

Floor: 6-9-1. I don't see a team with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm finishing with less than six wins; consider that Pittsburgh has not had a single losing season since drafting Big Ben in 2004. In order for the Steelers to do so poorly, they'd have to split with the Browns -- after all, someone has to tie with Cleveland in our best-case scenario for that team -- and be swept by the Ravens and Bengals. Plus, 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones would have to be a certifiable bust at linebacker, while veteran corner Ike Taylor plays like he did last season.

AFC South

HOUSTON TEXANS

Ceiling: 8-8. Ryan Fitzpatrick must produce on at least a viable level for this team to sniff 8-8, unless, of course, Case Keenum takes the reins and proves he can get the ball down the field to Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. For this offense to have balance, Hopkins needs to put up 950 yards and score six-to-eight touchdowns, while Arian Foster has to play in more than 10 games and revert to the dominant form he showed a few years ago.

Floor: 2-14. No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney flops, Foster shows that his best days are clearly behind him, and we're all left wondering why rookie quarterback Tom Savage isn't running the ranch. J.J. Watt receives little to no help from the rest of the front seven, and the best player on offense (Johnson) chirps up on how he wants out. All that would spell an implosion and a repeat of last year's dismal record -- though I'm doubtful that would occur under new coach Bill O'Brien's watch.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Ceiling: 12-4. Indianapolis sweeps the AFC South, then takes three of four from its NFC East opponents and three of four from its AFC North opponents. The losses would be at Denver, at home to New England and at home to Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The offensive line and much-maligned running back Trent Richardson manage to fare a whole lot better than they have so far in the preseason.

Floor: 8-8. Given that the Colts are in the weak AFC South, the idea that they could fall below .500 is darn near improbable, if not impossible. Yet, mediocrity could befall the horseshoe if the Jaguars continue the improvement they showed under Gus Bradley last season and the Texans' defense beats Andrew Luck in Houston by itself. Speaking of, if Luck tries to win games solo and starts turning the ball over, as he has in the playoffs, an eight- or nine-win season is in the cards.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Stock watch: Rookie quarterbacks
Our resident scouts, Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, provide preseason grades for Blake Bortles and his fellow rookie QBs. READ

Ceiling: 9-7. Third overall pick Blake Bortles throws 25 touchdowns and posts an 85-plus passer rating as a rookie, starting from almost stem to stern. Free-agent addition Toby Gerhart rushes for 950 yards and 10 touchdowns. Rookie Marqise Lee becomes a 1,000-yard receiver and the fantasy waiver-wire pickup of the year. Meanwhile, the defense bends but doesn't break, and someone -- anyone -- emerges as a pass-rushing threat.

Floor: 2-14. Alan Ball and Dwayne Gratz -- and whoever else plays corner -- get yoked time and again against Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and everybody else. Chad Henne and Bortles combine to throw 25 interceptions. Lee isn't ready, while Cecil Shorts isn't enough. Jordan Todman leads the team in rushing with 541 yards. As the offense fails to score 17 points per game, Chris Clemons' body doesn't hold up at outside linebacker and nobody makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks -- meaning life is miserable in Jacksonville. And then comes the Tebow talk ...

TENNESSEE TITANS

Ceiling: 10-6. Jake Locker becomes a pocket passer who completes 70 percent of his passes ... OK, that really is pie-in-the-sky stuff there. But he has to achieve at least a 65 percent completion rate while notching 22 touchdowns and 300 rushing yards -- oh, and 16 starts. The secondary certainly would have to bring it, or at least cover for the loss of free-agency departure Alterraun Verner. And the Titans must stop Andrew Luck at least once, because in order for Tennessee to win 10, beating Indy is a must.

Floor: 5-11. Coty Sensabaugh falters in Verner's stead at corner and the Bernard Pollard signing doesn't work out, meaning the only difference-maker on defense winds up being a 3-4 end. Jurrell Casey can't do it by himself this year. If he's asked to do so anyway, Tennessee -- which was right in the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed last season -- will fall toward the back. Fantasy-hyped rookie back Bishop Sankey finishes with just 440 yards and is a nonfactor.

AFC West

DENVER BRONCOS

Ceiling: 15-1. It's possible. While the Broncos have a challenging schedule, the toughest game is, without question, at Seattle in Week 3. You think Peyton Manning will be slightly motivated to win that one? Now, beyond Manning notching 194 touchdown passes (approximately), the factor that could make this the best team in the league -- one that stumbles just once all year -- is if all the new parts on defense come together well, particularly with corner Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward making the secondary a formidable unit. It'll help if Emmanuel Sanders catches 15 touchdown passes, too.

Floor: 10-6. That stiff slate could push Denver to a win total that is much lower than expected. Consider that the Broncos face opponents from the NFC West -- the best division in football in 2013 -- while also getting the Colts at home and the Bengals and Patriots on the road. Montee Ball fails to learn from Miyagi and disappoints all those who are expecting 1,300 yards and 50 catches from the second-year pro. Worth noting is the (real) chance that the defensive additions don't gel immediately. And with kicker Matt Prater suspended four games, a missed late field goal could throw Denver off track.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS


Around The NFL previews the regular season for all 32 teams before the opening kickoff.

AFC East
» Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots
AFC North
» Bengals | Browns | Ravens | Steelers
AFC South
» Colts | Jaguars | Texans | Titans
AFC West
» Broncos | Chargers | Chiefs | Raiders
NFC East
» Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
NFC North
» Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
NFC South
» Buccaneers | Falcons | Panthers | Saints
NFC West
» Cardinals | 49ers | Rams | Seahawks

Ceiling: 11-5. This, of course, was the record with which the Chiefs finished in 2013 after starting 9-0. The problem is the 239 points Kansas City gave up over its final eight games last season, including 45 to the Colts in the playoffs. And the way the offense has played in the preseason ... Here's what needs to happen for the Chiefs to shine: Alex Smith must post a passer rating close to 100 and make some plays with his legs, Dwayne Bowe has to play lights out and the cornerbacks must show they can hold the fort.

Floor: 6-10. Because if the corners stumble, then the players who comprise the strength of the team -- the pass-rushing linebackers -- won't be able to make hay. And if the defense is once again the weak link, Andy Reid's club will be in trouble, especially if the offense struggles and there aren't any defensive return touchdowns or special teams plays to make up for it.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Ceiling: 8-8. Don't laugh. The Raiders can go 8-8. I mean, Val Kilmer still gets roles and the last Rambo movie wasn't bad -- things happen. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr taking the job and running with it would be a fantastic start. How about Maurice Jones-Drew rushing for 1,000 yards and 4.5 per carry? Or Darren McFadden giving the club 600-to-800 yards in a committee situation? The young receivers also must grow up, while getting first-round pick Khalil Mack to play like a vet from Day 1 would be absolutely huge. And Matt Schaub? Uh, OK, let's move on ...

Floor: 2-14. The Raiders are definitely not the only candidates to finish with a record this bad, but if the quarterback situation doesn't get worked out, the ship could sink fast. That is partly because the Raiders are leaning on several older veterans to lift them out of the AFC West cellar. Signing guys like MJD, James Jones and Justin Tuck can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition. If Andre Holmes, Rod Streater and David Ausberry struggle to make plays in the passing game, the Raiders won't keep up.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Ceiling: 11-5. San Diego certainly has the makings of a playoff team, starting with the head coach (Mike McCoy) and continuing on down to the quarterback (Philip Rivers) and a defense that can at least keep the Bolts competitive. That said, the Chargers certainly face a daunting schedule. In this scenario, San Diego splits with Denver, sweeps the rest of the AFC West and wins two of four against their opponents from the notorious NFC West. Ryan Mathews tops 1,000 rushing yards and Danny Woodhead catches a whole heap of balls.

Floor: 6-10. It would be quite difficult for a club this talented to win just six games -- unless Rivers regresses to his 2012 self. While we don't think that will happen, trouble will follow if veteran tight end Antonio Gates hits the wall, youngster Ladarius Green fails to step up, the other receivers contribute little and second-year pro Keenan Allen is forced to do it all by himself. Linebacker Manti Te'o can't make tackles 5 yards down the field.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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