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2014 AFC playoff predictions: Patriots, Colts, Broncos will roll

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On the cusp of the 2014 NFL season, our analysts provide their predictions, including the winners of individual awards, playoff teams for each conference and Championship Sunday/Super Bowl forecasts.

AFC EAST

Judy Battista: New England Patriots. I didn't miss the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady retirement announcements, right? OK, then.

Brian Billick: Patriots. The Pats have won the AFC East in 10 of the past 11 seasons. I surely wouldn't bet against them this year.

Gil Brandt: Patriots. Tom Brady's Pats have been almost automatic locks to take this division for more than a decade -- and with Darrelle Revis arriving to bolster the defense, there's no reason to think things will unfold any differently in 2014.

Bucky Brooks: Patriots. Bill Belichick uses the 2000s blueprint (strong defense + efficient offense) to claim the AFC East yet again.

Charley Casserly: Patriots. Buffalo will struggle at quarterback. And while Geno Smith makes positive strides, the Jets' secondary will hold them back. Miami has the best chance to challenge, but QB Ryan Tannehill and the offensive line need to improve. At the end of the day, it's the same result as always: Pats take the division.

Dave Dameshek: Patriots. They still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, right? That's enough for me in this division.

Elliot Harrison: Patriots. Brady will be the league's MVP, but going beyond that, the Pats' defense fares better overall toward the back end of the season with a healthy group and a rejuvenated Darrelle Revis.

Gregg Rosenthal: Patriots. The sneaky candidate for worst division in the league ... other than the Patriots.

Adam Schein: Patriots. It's Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's world, and we're all just living in it.

Michael Silver: Patriots. I've been looking for any excuse to pick one of the other three teams -- especially the Bills -- because I believe the Pats are vulnerable. ... But early signs have not been encouraging.

Chris Wesseling: Patriots. The Pats have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The rest of the teams in the division have question marks.

 

AFC NORTH

Judy Battista: Pittsburgh Steelers. A younger, faster defense -- plus Ben Roethlisberger finally getting his no-huddle offense -- means the Steelers can build off last year's strong finish.


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

Brian Billick: Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals have made the playoffs three seasons in a row but have not won a postseason game since the 1990 campaign. This is the year they break through and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

Gil Brandt: Steelers. Pittsburgh's defense will be better than it was last season, thanks especially to the presence of first-round pick Ryan Shazier at linebacker. This division will be very close, as you could make a convincing case for the Bengals and Ravens to finish first. But Ben Roethlisberger reminded us in the latter half of 2013 -- when Pittsburgh went 6-2 -- that we should never count out the Steelers.

Bucky Brooks: Bengals. Andy Dalton shuts up his critics with a prolific season, guiding the Bengals to a second consecutive division crown.

Charley Casserly: Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore will win the division for the third time in four years. While the defense was good enough last year, the 29th-ranked offense held the Ravens back. Improvement on the offensive line and the addition of Steve Smith will push them over the top.

Dave Dameshek: Steelers. The Bengals are a tempting choice, but in a division race that figures to be close, I'll go with the division's best QB.

Elliot Harrison: Bengals. Andy Dalton throws 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions -- enough to get the job done while his running game provides enough punch to make this an 11-5 team.

Gregg Rosenthal: Steelers. They still have the best quarterback and the best coaching staff.

Adam Schein: Ravens. The return of Dennis Pitta is huge for Joe Flacco. And so is the pickup of Steve Smith. John Harbaugh is a great coach. C.J. Mosley improves the defense.

Michael Silver: Bengals. The defense might struggle some in the wake of former coordinator Mike Zimmer's departure, but Hue Jackson's impact on Andy Dalton will be massive -- and Gio Bernard will be a star.

Chris Wesseling: Steelers. The Steelers tied for the AFC's best record in the second half of last season. They are much better this year.

 

AFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck will run more no-huddle, and the Colts have a clear talent advantage over the rest of the division.

Brian Billick: Colts. Andrew Luck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne/Blake Bortles or Jake Locker? Is this really a question?

Gil Brandt: Colts. Andrew Luck is the best young player in the NFL, but to me, his potential goes beyond that; I think he's the second coming of Peyton Manning. Luck just does so many things, from running the ball to excelling as a passer, and he is the real deal in terms of the NFL's future.

Bucky Brooks: Colts. Andrew Luck joins the conversation as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks after leading the Colts to an unbeaten mark within the division.

Charley Casserly: Colts. With Reggie Wayne back in the fold and Andrew Luck making up for deficiencies in the running game and on defense, the Colts prevail again in an improved division. The Texans are good enough in many areas to contend, but they can't win the division with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Blake Bortles will play at some point in Jacksonville, but the Jags are a year away. The Titans will be a tough out, but I am not confident enough in Jake Locker to get them to the Promised Land. (Their best QB might be rookie Zach Mettenberger.)

Dave Dameshek: Colts. A questionable defense and no running game are no problem for the Colts -- at least until the playoffs -- thanks to a marvelous collection of pass catchers and a QB ready to take it to an even higher level.

Elliot Harrison: Colts. Despite issues in the running game and some question marks defensively, the Andrew Luck-led Colts are able to hold off the improved Titans. Jacksonville and Houston just aren't there yet.

Gregg Rosenthal: Colts. The Colts' defense has serious issues, but this is the not-so-sneaky candidate for worst division.

Adam Schein: Colts. As if there were any other choice. Andrew Luck is a great player who masks areas of deficiency. Chuck Pagano is a fine coach. And I believe in Trent Richardson.

Michael Silver: Colts. Ryan Grigson is such a good GM that he can make a seemingly bad trade (for Trent Richardson) and still field a better team the following year.

Chris Wesseling: Colts. The Colts' roster has the same holes it did two years ago. It's still considerably stronger than those of their division rivals.

 

AFC WEST

Judy Battista: Denver Broncos. I didn't miss the Peyton Manning retirement announcement, right? OK, then.

Brian Billick: Broncos. Peyton Manning is the ace in the clubhouse, while DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are two of the best closers in the bottom of the ninth.

Gil Brandt: Broncos. Denver improved its defensive personnel significantly -- adding pieces like DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward -- and that will make them tough to beat. And then there's Peyton Manning. Quarterbacks tend to slow down at his age (38), but he seems to be defying the laws of gravity.

Bucky Brooks: Broncos. The Broncos claim the division title behind a defense that smothers opponents in the AFC.

Charley Casserly: Broncos. No explanation needed for the loaded Broncos. K.C. will take a step back because of its offensive line and secondary. The Chargers overachieved last year; they are a .500 club. And Oakland's a team in transition; the Raiders will break in rookie QB Derek Carr during the season.

Dave Dameshek: San Diego Chargers. The resurrection of Philip Rivers was last year's story; this year, it's the defense's turn to rise, with what oughta be a nasty pass rush, thanks to Melvin Ingram and Corey Liuget and a much-improved secondary.

Elliot Harrison: Broncos. Peyton Manning throws 49 touchdown passes, while the defense overcomes early-season issues to play as a unit down the stretch. Denver wins 13 games.

Gregg Rosenthal: Broncos. The defense threatens to be a top-10 group.

Adam Schein: Broncos. Credit John Elway -- he vastly improved the defense in the offseason. Peyton Manning is coming off the best season ever for a quarterback, and there's no reason to believe he is slowing down.

Schein: My Super Bowl prediction
Adam Schein is still ashamed of last year's Super Bowl forecast, but it's a new day! What does the crystal ball say now? READ

Michael Silver: Broncos. This team got to the Super Bowl without its best pass protector (Ryan Clady) and pass rusher (Von Miller) -- then added three defensive difference-makers (DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward) over the offseason.

Chris Wesseling: Broncos. Barring a Peyton Manning injury, I can't conceive of a scenario that involves another team winning the West.

 

AFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: Cincinnati Bengals. Two new coordinators could make for a tough transition, but Hue Jackson should get the best -- and maybe a playoff win -- out of Andy Dalton.

Brian Billick: San Diego Chargers. The Chargers made the playoffs as the third team in the AFC West last year, and they've only gotten better. San Diego added key free agents in Brandon Flowers and Donald Brown and lost little to no production from last year's team.

Gil Brandt: Bengals. Andy Dalton gets better each year, and Cincy's defense is still top-notch. Yes, there are two new coordinators (Hue Jackson on offense and Paul Guenther on defense), but both were promoted from within, which should greatly reduce the potential of any hiccups.

Bucky Brooks: Chargers. Philip Rivers plays at an MVP level as the director of a high-powered offense that notches 10 wins in a competitive AFC West.

Charley Casserly: Bengals. The defense remains very good, while the offense could improve with the addition of second-round running back Jeremy Hill. Andy Dalton has proven he can win in the regular season.

Dave Dameshek: Denver Broncos. The NFL's toughest schedule will cost the Broncos a division title, but not a playoff spot.

Elliot Harrison: Chargers. San Diego splits with the Broncos and Chiefs, sweeps the Raiders and surprises Seattle in Week 2. Philip Rivers balls out, while coordinator John Pagano's defense does its job.

Gregg Rosenthal: Chargers. They are a legitimate top-10 team led by a legitimate top-five quarterback.

Adam Schein: Chargers. The most disrespected playoff team from a year ago -- and the talent is better on both sides of the ball in 2014. Philip Rivers is a fantastic player. Healthy returns from Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney greatly aid the D.

Michael Silver: Houston Texans. Yes, I have THIS much faith in Bill O'Brien. And this roster is better than you think.

Chris Wesseling: Baltimore Ravens. I've bought into the changes on Gary Kubiak's offense. The running backs and Steve Smith are in for bounceback seasons.

 

AFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: San Diego Chargers. If freshly minted offensive coordinator Frank Reich can continue Philip Rivers' renaissance, the Chargers should be able to manage a brutal schedule and edge out the quarterback-needy Texans for this slot.

Brian Billick: Baltimore Ravens. Last year was an anomaly (the first time in the Harbaugh/Flacco era that the Ravens missed out on the postseason). Baltimore will get back on track in 2014 with a rejuvenated offense under the guidance of new coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Gil Brandt: Chargers. I was really impressed with the additions the Chargers made this offseason, in both free agency -- running back Donald Brown and cornerback Brandon Flowers stand out -- and the draft. First-round pick Jason Verrett will be a good cornerback for them.

Bucky Brooks: Ravens. Gary Kubiak helps Joe Flacco become a more efficient quarterback down the stretch, as the Ravens enter the postseason as the AFC's hottest team.

Charley Casserly: Pittsburgh Steelers. The defense still won't be absolutely dominant, but it will be solid, with the additions of rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. Ben Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance, and this year, he'll get them back to the postseason.

Dave Dameshek: Cincinnati Bengals. There's too much talent to keep Cincy out of the postseason, but at the sport's two most important positions -- QB and head coach -- the Bengals lag behind at least two of their divisional peers.

Elliot Harrison: Tennessee Titans. The Ken Whisenhunt hire might not have excited the masses, but the coach will get his team to nine wins, earning the final spot in the AFC over the Chiefs, Steelers and Ravens.

Brooks: Best offensive division?
When it comes to offensive potency, how do the eight divisions stack up against each other? Bucky Brooks provides his rankings. READ

Gregg Rosenthal: Ravens. Just getting the offense back to mediocre should be enough for 10 wins.

Adam Schein: Bengals. Geno Atkins' healthy return takes the defense to another level. Andy Dalton will once again have a strong regular season (... and then fail in the playoffs).

Michael Silver: Cleveland Browns. This team has more good players than most people realize -- and one potentially transformative backup quarterback waiting in the wings.

Chris Wesseling: Chargers. The Bolts' offense is underrated. The secondary and pass rush are much improved.

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