Wyche: NFC divisional challengers
Who are the biggest threats to the defending champions of each NFC division? Steve Wyche provides his top candidates. **More ...**
The power paradigm shifted out of the Midwest last season when Peyton Manning got hurt. Now the question is whether Manning can take his new team, Denver, to the playoffs -- a feat accomplished last season by Tim Tebow, now the New York Jets' ... ahem ... "backup" quarterback.
The draft and free agency have given teams like Kansas City and Cincinnati optimism. Meanwhile, AFC South champ Houston is hoping its depth is good enough -- and quarterback Matt Schaub is healthy enough -- for it to prove it's really on the come-up, despite losing key defenders DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams.
Let's take a look at the divisional champs in the AFC, and whether they've done enough this offseason to fend off teams targeting their perch:
Defending champion: New England Patriots.
The Patriots won the division by five games over self-destructive New York and almost came away with a Super Bowl title. New England stacked up on receivers in free agency (Brandon Lloyd, Anthony Gonzalez, Donté Stallworth, as well as tight end Daniel Fells) then went hard on defense in the draft (DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower in the first round). Nothing on paper shows that the Patriots have done anything but improve their talent.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Buffalo Bills.
This is not a joke. The Bills made the big free-agent splash by signing Williams, and then they acquired Patriots DE Mark Anderson to help Williams get after Tom Brady (there are no other QBs in the division to really fear). CB Stephon Gilmore was the top draft pick; he was highly regarded by some, not so much by others, so we'll see how he pans out. The big coup was landing OT Cordy Glenn in the second round -- good player who addresses a huge void.
Defending champion: Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore was thisclose to getting to the Super Bowl and seemed equipped to make a serious run for it this season, as QB Joe Flacco got things going toward the end of the season. Losing starting OLB Jarret Johnson in free agency hurt, but not nearly as much as having Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs injure his Achilles' tendon, putting his availability for the entire 2012 season in serious jeopardy. Top draft pick Courtney Upshaw is going to have to grow up quick.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Cincinnati Bengals.
As I alluded to in the first sentence of this column, the Steelers figure to be in the thick of the divisional hunt (per usual). But they won't be alone ... The Bengals don't tend to follow up strong seasons with better ones, but now could be the time. Free-agent cornerbacks Jason Allen and Terence Newman aren't special players, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer finds ways to resurrect DBs who fell off elsewhere. The acquisition of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is going to look very savvy come midseason. He's a reliable, do-it-all guy. Not much flash, but very sound. Few teams appeared to have killed it like Cincy did in the draft, nabbing six players in the first four rounds who could contribute right away, leading with CB Dre Kirkpatrick and guard Kevin Zeitler.
Defending champion: Houston Texans.
The Texans finally broke through to win the division. They'll have to repeat that success to convince some doubters that the path wasn't cleared by Manning's season-long injury in Indianapolis. And they'll have to do that by overcoming the loss of Ryans and Williams. First-round pick Whitney Mercilus should bolster an already-stout front seven.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Tennessee Titans.
The Jags and Colts were busier, but their questions at QB give Tennessee the edge to pose the most concern for Houston. The Titans were on the cusp of the playoffs last season. Free-agent guard Steve Hutchinson should upgrade the interior offensive line -- an area that definitely needed upgrading -- but he has to stay healthy. Veteran LB Kamerion Wimbley was brought in to help a pass rush, which is another point of concern. First-round draft pick Kendall Wright is an explosive and highly competitive player who could elevate the passing attack regardless of who wins the QB competition (Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker).
Defending champion: Denver Broncos.
Denver won this division by virtue of an 8-8 record, which was shared by the Chargers and Raiders. Tebow has been replaced by Manning; consequently, Denver will look a lot different on offense. The Broncos added tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen in free agency to complement a decent receiving corps that will look a lot better with Manning throwing the ball. Defensively, the Broncos still have room for improvement, which is why they selected Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe with their first pick of the draft in the second round.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: San Diego Chargers.
There was a lot of disdain in Bolts land when Vincent Jackson and Mike Tolbert were lost in free agency, but the Chargers quietly added nice pieces in Jarret Johnson, Le'Ron McClain, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. They went strong on defense in the draft and selected one of the projected top overall players, OLB/DE Melvin Ingram, who fell to them at the 18th pick. UConn DT Kendall Reyes was also a solid addition who could help this defense quickly regain some swagger.