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2016 AFC playoff predictions: South, West appear wide open

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On the cusp of the 2016 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 NORTH

Judy Battista: Pittsburgh Steelers. The secondary might be shaky, but this could be the best offense in football. Hello, Todd Haley's goal of 30 points per game?

Jeffri Chadiha: Cincinnati Bengals. This team would've gone further last season had QB Andy Dalton not been sidelined with a thumb injury during last year's playoffs.

Gil Brandt: Steelers. Even without Martavis Bryant -- and with Le'Veon Bell suspended the first three games -- the Steelers have too much offense not to win the division, especially with an improving defense.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Steelers. This is arguably the best offense in the league, and the defense has improved.

Brian Billick: Steelers. The Steelers carry the most explosive offense in the NFL, and that is enough to win the division in this new age of football.

Gregg Rosenthal: Steelers. I am a sucker for Ben Roethlisberger having an MVP candidate season, and the defense has finally rebuilt with promising pieces throughout the front seven.

Willie McGinest: Bengals. This team went 10-2 before Andy Dalton went down last season, so if he is healthy, the Bengals will stay at the top of this division.

Adam Schein: Steelers. The Steelers' offensive firepower gives Pittsburgh the division title.

Bucky Brooks: Steelers. Mike Tomlin steers the Steelers to the AFC's No. 1 seed with both the offense and defense posting top-five efforts.

Elliot Harrison: Steelers. The suspensions of Le'Veon Bell (three games) and Martavis Bryant (full season) hurt, but the defense should be even better in Year 2 under Keith Butler. The Bengals have question marks and injury concerns on offense.

David Carr: Steelers. If healthy, this team has an improving defense and an explosive offense.

Charley Casserly: Steelers. Their offense will carry them to the division title.

Ike Taylor: Steelers. The Big Three -- Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell -- will lead this team back to the AFC North throne.

Dave Dameshek: Steelers. Keith Butler's D now features difference-making young talent in Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree to go along with Todd Haley's still-potent offense. (11-5, No. 2 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Bengals. We continue to overlook the Bengals in August and overrate the Bengals in January.

Colleen Wolfe: Steelers. Big year in Pittsburgh. I'm worried about the defense, but whatever. Details, details.

Heath Evans: Steelers. It's going to come down to the wire, but the Steelers' offense will carry them to an AFC North title.

Marcas Grant: Steelers. In a division full of flawed teams, the Steelers have the fewest questions. If the offense can survive Le'Veon Bell's suspension, they'll be just fine.

Adam Rank: Steelers. The defense is going to make things interesting, but there is still enough offensive firepower to win this division.

Alex Gelhar: Bengals. Their defense is still stacked, and the offense is built around Andy Dalton not needing to shoulder the whole loud. Given Pittsburgh's losses on offense, I'll take Cincy to win the North.

 

AFC EAST

Judy Battista: New England Patriots. Why do we still have this category? Let me know when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady retire and I'll consider other possibilities.

Jeffri Chadiha: Patriots. The Patriots will miss Tom Brady for the first month of the season. Unfortunately for their opponents, that won't be enough to end New England's reign.

Gil Brandt: Patriots. The best-coached team in football will win the division for the 14th time in 16 seasons.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Patriots. Tom Brady Revenge Tour 2.0.

Brian Billick: Patriots. The Patriots will play two divisional opponents while Brady serves his four-game suspension, but at the end of the year, it won't matter. New England is still the class of the AFC East and it's not really even that close.

Gregg Rosenthal: Patriots. It's underrated how the Gronkowski-era Patriots have been so much better than the pre-Gronk era Patriots, at least in the regular season.

Willie McGinest: Patriots. Jimmy Garoppolo will put the Pats in a good position through four weeks. Then Tom Brady takes over and we all know how this story ends.

Adam Schein: Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Again. Pats will go 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and then Brady goes on the greatest "Remember Me?" tour in sports history.

Bucky Brooks: Patriots. The Patriots continue to do what they do on their way to another division crown behind an unstoppable tandem (Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett) at tight end.

Elliot Harrison: Patriots. Even with Tom Brady out four games, there are too many issues for the Jets, Bills and Dolphins. Thought Buffalo was the top contender until they lost Reggie Ragland to injury and Marcell Dareus to suspension.

David Carr: Patriots. Who is the last quarterback to win this division not named Tom Brady? Chad Pennington in 2008, a year when Brady was injured. I rest my case.

Charley Casserly: Patriots. Despite Brady missing the first four games, they still win the division.

Ike Taylor: Patriots. The Jets will make a push, but this is still Tom Brady's division.

Dave Dameshek: Patriots. As it's been since the dawn of mankind ... and as it will remain (at least) until Tom Brady retires. (13-3, No. 1 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Patriots. The offense will be a juggernaut once Tom Brady returns from suspension to treat the AFC East like Sherman treated the South.

Colleen Wolfe: Patriots. We shouldn't even bother picking this one anymore. It should be an autofill category.

Heath Evans: Patriots. It wouldn't be very smart to pick against the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady combo.

Marcas Grant: Patriots. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Things will remain status quo in the AFC East.

Adam Rank: Patriots. Are teams really getting closer to the Patriots? Nope.

Alex Gelhar: Patriots. Until another team proves worthy, I'll pick Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to win this division every year.

 

AFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: Indianapolis Colts. If their offensive line can keep Andrew Luck in one piece, the Colts overtake the Texans, whose own offensive makeover might need time to solidify.

Jeffri Chadiha: Houston Texans. Brock Osweiler is getting all the attention, but life will be easier in Houston with the arrival of running back Lamar Miller.

Gil Brandt: Texans. Improved quarterback play from Brock Osweiler and a better running game with Lamar Miller will go a long way, backed by the third-best defense in 2015.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Jacksonville Jaguars. I think the Jags are going to return to mid-2000s form and win their first AFC South title.

Brian Billick: Tennessee Titans. The AFC South is wide open, so I'm just taking a flier on the Titans. They'll play ball-control offense with a physical running game and Marcus Mariota making just enough dazzling plays to put them over the top.

Gregg Rosenthal: Jaguars. The defense only needs to be average to put this team over the hump. And that unit's talent is better than average.

Willie McGinest: Texans. They really bulked up this offseason. With a steady offense and good defense, the Texans can repeat as division champs.

Adam Schein: Texans. J.J. Watt's back scares me, but I love the talent base and coaching in Houston.

Bucky Brooks: Texans. Jadeveon Clowney emerges as an unstoppable force with J.J. Watt recovering from back surgery. The three-time DPOY eventually returns to full strength and the Texans' D wrecks opposing offenses down the stretch.

Elliot Harrison: Jaguars. Give me the Jaguars -- although the preseason bodes well for the Texans on several fronts. Jacksonville finally has the horses on defense to at least be viable. The offense is already capable.

David Carr: Titans. I think this is going to be the best division this season. The Titans' defense should be just as good -- if not better -- than it was in 2015. On offense, Marcus Mariota has looked good in the preseason and the run game should carry this team to quite a few wins.

Charley Casserly: Texans. With the additions of Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller, they have separated themselves from the rest of the division.

Ike Taylor: Texans. The Texans won the division last year, and they have so much more talent this time around.

Dave Dameshek: Texans. Cynics scoff at the money spent on Osweiler, but he'd have to be an abject bum to not thrive with the skill-position players he's got around him. And by the way, the D will again be dominant. (10-6, No. 3 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Titans. The massively upgraded Titans have the not-so-secret formula to pound divisional foes into submission in an AFC South that is there for the taking.

Colleen Wolfe: Colts. Ugh. I don't feel good about this one. What a terrible division. Someone has to win, though. It's in the rules. I checked.

Heath Evans: Texans. Bill O'Brien has so much talent that I would be shocked if the Texans didn't win this division.

Marcas Grant: Texans. Brock Osweiler will be just good enough, while the defense and Lamar Miller will help carry this squad to a division title.

Adam Rank: Jaguars. That defense is going to make the leap, while the offense improves on its production from last year.

Alex Gelhar: Texans. With stability under center, a running game and weapons alongside DeAndre Hopkins, I think the Texans will be able to win 10 games and this division.

 

AFC WEST

Judy Battista: Kansas City Chiefs. Denver's questions at quarterback open the door for the balanced Chiefs, who have a top-three scoring defense and a deep rushing offense. Also, they can rely on Alex Smith to be steady if unspectacular.

Jeffri Chadiha: Chiefs. This is the most talented team head coach Andy Reid has had in his four seasons with the Chiefs. K.C. has to make some noise.

Gil Brandt: Chiefs. Andy Reid is a special coach. This is a veteran team with a plus defense and an offense that will be better than it was in 2015.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Chiefs. Kansas City isn't a flashy team, but the Chiefs have talent on both sides of the ball. This will be a tough division, but K.C. is the team to beat here.

Brian Billick: Chiefs. The Broncos might have the best defense in the NFL, but that's not enough anymore. You have to combine it with a dominant running game that just doesn't exist in Denver. On the contrary, Kansas City might have the deepest backfield in the NFL, and the Chiefs will lean on the three-headed monster of Jamaal Charles, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware.

Gregg Rosenthal: Chiefs. Alex Smith and Andy Reid enter Year 4 together. Smith knows this offense down cold and has much-improved weapons around him.

Willie McGinest: Denver Broncos. This defense will be great again and should lead the team to its sixth straight AFC West title.

Adam Schein: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders are getting back to the playoffs! I love the Derek Carr-Amari Cooper connection, and Khalil Mack is a star. Jack Del Rio will maximize the talent after a great offseason.

Bucky Brooks: Chiefs. The Chiefs' blue-collar offense leads a surprising run to the AFC West title. Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West pace the NFL's top rushing attack and key a "keepaway" strategy that frustrates opponents.

Elliot Harrison: Chiefs. Kansas City will have its hands full in what should amount to a tight race in the AFC West. With the Raiders ascending but unproven, and the Broncos starting Trevor Siemian, this should be Andy Reid's best shot to win the division.

David Carr: Raiders. Duh.

Charley Casserly: Chiefs. Most solid team on all fronts: offense, defense and experience.

Ike Taylor: Raiders. Surprisingly, the Broncos will be dethroned. The Raiders have been building and will finally break through this season.

Dave Dameshek: Chiefs. There won't be much room between the best and worst in the West this season, but I'll go with Andy Reid, who's fielded a winning team in 12 of his 17 seasons as an NFL head coach. (9-7, No. 4 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Raiders. Don't look now, but the Raiders have assembled one of the deepest rosters in the conference, while the Broncos hope to avert disaster at the game's most valuable position for the second straight season.

Colleen Wolfe: Chiefs. T-minus four-and-a-half months until Andy Reid swaps regular-season excitement for a catastrophic clock-management failure in the playoffs.

Heath Evans: Broncos. The defense plays with confidence and will lead Gary Kubiak's group to another division title.

Marcas Grant: Raiders. Reggie McKenzie's work provides fruit as a young and hungry roster takes advantage of a division in flux to get back to the postseason.

Adam Rank: Chiefs. Andy Reid finds a way to get it done once again.

Alex Gelhar: Raiders. Denver's quarterback issues and Kansas City's injuries on defense pave the way for the Raiders to surprise and take the AFC West crown.

 

AFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: Baltimore Ravens. Assuming that the Ravens' offense doesn't look like a MASH unit again, Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. will lead a rebound.

Jeffri Chadiha: Pittsburgh Steelers. They'll have to overcome suspensions to Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, but the Steelers will find a way back to the postseason.

Gil Brandt: Cincinnati Bengals. Aside from a lack of receiver depth behind A.J. Green, this is the most complete team in the AFC.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Bengals. Andy Dalton's elite play will give the Bengals another chance to get a postseason win.

Brian Billick: New York Jets. The most dominant defensive line in football is going to physically force its way into the playoffs.

Gregg Rosenthal: Bengals. Marvin Lewis and Duke Tobin have built an incredibly deep roster that can handle the injuries that have already come Cincy's way.

Willie McGinest: Steelers. The Steelers have a very explosive offense, which will help them lock up a playoff spot.

Adam Schein: Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck is healthy and he's a star. And Ryan Kelly will protect him. Luck's genius makes up for a questionable defense.

Bucky Brooks: Denver Broncos. The Broncos suffer a bit of a Super Bowl hangover during the first half of the season, but the defense sparks a run to the top wild-card slot with a dominant stretch run that includes three shutout performances in the final eight games.

Elliot Harrison: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders are at the doorstep of something special. Can they overcome recent history? I think they can. They are as talented as the other teams in their division. They also enjoyed a productive offseason that should get them 10 wins.

David Carr: Broncos. This defense will again carry the Broncos to playoffs, and I believe Trevor Siemian and/or Paxton Lynch will play better than the quarterbacks they had last season (Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler).

Charley Casserly: Bengals. Why not?! What would the playoffs be without Cincinnati?

Ike Taylor: Broncos. The Broncos might not win the division, but they are too good to not make the playoffs. We will see them in January again.

Dave Dameshek: Bengals. Since 2013, the Bengals have had one of the league's three or four most-talented rosters ... but during that time, they have won the same number of playoff games as the Browns. (9-7, No. 5 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Steelers. Even without Martavis Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger is good enough to carry this team into the postseason.

Colleen Wolfe: Bengals. Almost had them winning the division.

Heath Evans: Bengals. Andy Dalton is in his prime and will build off his 2015 performance. He will rally this team to the playoffs and, possibly, a playoff victory.

Marcas Grant: Jets. They might not be strong enough to overtake the Pats in the division, but Todd Bowles' squad should be good enough to sneak into a playoff spot.

Adam Rank: Raiders. Just about ready to make that next step.

Alex Gelhar: Steelers. The combination of Big Ben, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Mike Tomlin is too good to not make the playoffs -- if they can stay healthy.

 

AFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: Denver Broncos. They won the Super Bowl with middling quarterback play for much of last season. They might get even less than that from that unsettled position this year, but the defense will carry them again.

Jeffri Chadiha: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders need to follow an impressive offseason with another step towards respectability.

Gil Brandt: Broncos. This is the most wild card team I've ever seen. The defense, which dominated in 2015, should be strong again, but second-year pro Trevor Siemian is a major variable at quarterback. He's very smart, and I think his decision-making will be good, but aside from his average NFL arm, there's so much we don't know about him.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Raiders. The Raiders have been building for a few years, and I think they will make an appearance in the playoffs this season.

Brian Billick: Broncos. Their quarterback situation is terrifying, but they are still the defending champs. And it's not like Peyton Manning gave them an elite level of play at the position last season.

Gregg Rosenthal: San Diego Chargers. This is not a 4-12 roster. From Philip Rivers to a defense built with playmakers at every level, this team could compete for a title.

Willie McGinest: Kansas City Chiefs. All six of the AFC playoff teams in 2015 will get back there in 2016. But this year, I don't think the Chiefs will have to win their final 10 games to make it in.

Adam Schein: Chiefs. I love Alex Smith. I love Andy Reid. Especially in the regular season.

Bucky Brooks: Bengals. Marvin Lewis gets the Bengals into the playoffs for the sixth consecutive time with a stern approach that results in more disciplined play from the defense's problem children (Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict).

Elliot Harrison: Houston Texans. Houston takes the final spot, holding off the Broncos and Bengals. Think the Texans only lose the AFC South on tiebreakers..

David Carr: Jaguars. This team significantly improved -- offensively and defensively -- this offseason.

Charley Casserly: Broncos. Oakland has to prove it on the field first to be in the playoffs.

Ike Taylor: Jaguars. The Jags' defense should be much better than it was in 2015, giving the dynamic offense more opportunities to score.

Dave Dameshek: Raiders. It's hard to believe how relatively quickly Reggie McKenzie has transformed the Raiders' roster from barren to banner. (9-7, No. 6 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Broncos. The defense is dominant enough to keep Denver in contention while cycling through inconsistent, inexperienced quarterbacks.

Colleen Wolfe: Broncos. They're still the champs, even with Replacement Level QB TBD under center.

Heath Evans: Chiefs. Andy Reid has a solid group of players on both sides of the ball. They're going to carry the confidence they built down the stretch in 2015 over to this season.

Marcas Grant: Bengals. A strong defense and a running game led by a revitalized Jeremy Hill should earn the Bengals another postseason berth.

Adam Rank: Indianapolis Colts. People seem to think Andy Luck forgot how to play football. He's going to have a monster season.

Alex Gelhar: Jacksonville Jaguars. Perhaps I'm drinking the Duval Kool-Aid a bit too much, but I think the Jaguars could surprise in a weak division and conference overall.

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