In just about every NFL season, there is a team that makes the leap from worst to first inside its division. On Monday, we took a look at the 2011 cellar dwellers in the NFC. Today, we're focusing on the AFC. I've ranked the AFC's four last-place finishers from 2011, based on their chances of going from worst to first inside each of their respective divisions.
1) Kansas City Chiefs
Why it will happen: The Chiefs finished just a game out of first place in 2011, despite a ton of adversity. As a result of the injuries to RB Jamaal Charles and TE Tony Moeaki, the Kansas City offense dropped from 12th in the league in 2010 to 27th in 2011. Both players should be healthy heading into the 2012 season and the offensive output should greatly improve. On the other side of the ball, a healthy Eric Berry will combine with Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson to give the Chiefs a superstar-caliber defender at all three levels. Finally, Romeo Crennel should provide some much-needed stability after a rocky run under former coach Todd Haley.
Why it won't happen:Matt Cassel has yet to prove that he can consistently perform at a high level. His passer rating fell from eighth in the league in 2010 to 24th in 2011. Also, the AFC West should be much better in 2012. The Broncos won the division last season despite a nonexistent passing game, and now they've added four-time MVP Peyton Manning. It's highly unlikely that the San Diego Chargers will suffer another 25-turnover season from the usually consistent Philip Rivers, while the Oakland Raiders always possess a talented and physical squad.
2) Buffalo Bills
Why it will happen: The Bills started off last season by winning five of their first seven before falling apart in the second half of the season. During their hot start, they proved capable of competing with New England by handing them one of their three losses on the year. The Bills have been ultra-aggressive in the offseason. They added the NFL's marquee free agent in DE Mario Williams and also reeled in the Patriots' co-sack leader from last season, DE Mark Anderson. They should have one of the most talented defensive lines in the league in 2012. On the other side of the ball, they have a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield with RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. They also have one of the best interior offensive lines in the league, led by center Eric Wood and OG Andy Levitre.
Why it won't happen: The Patriots own this division. New England has won eight of the last nine division titles, and the lone blemish can largely be attributed to a season-ending injury to QB Tom Brady. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick started off the 2011 season red hot and was rewarded with a hefty contract extension. Unfortunately for the Bills, his play took a turn for the worse in the second half of the season and he ended up tossing a league-leading 23 interceptions. The Bills also must replace LT Demetress Bell after losing him in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles.
3) Cleveland Browns
Why it will happen: The Browns lost 12 games last season, though all but two contests were very competitive. They have several talented young defensive players, led by DT Ahtyba Rubin and CB Joe Haden. The performance of veteran LB D'Qwell Jackson (158 tackles) and rookie DE Jabaal Sheard (8.5 sacks) is also reason for excitement. However, the Browns' two first-round draft picks should provide the greatest hope for a franchise desperate to return to prominence. Trent Richardson will definitely upgrade the rushing attack with his combination of speed and power, while Brandon Weeden has the big arm to add a vertical presence to the passing attack.
Why it won't happen: Last season, the AFC North was the only division to send three of its teams to the playoffs. That is a tough hill to climb for a Browns team that went 0-6 inside the division in 2011. The 2012 schedule isn't very friendly for a rookie quarterback looking to get off to a fast start. The Browns face dominating defensive fronts in four of their first five games. Richardson is a dynamic ball carrier, but all three opponents inside the AFC North boast top-10 run defenses from last season. The defense was dealt a tough blow when DT Phil Taylor suffered a pectoral injury while lifting weights this offseason. His availability for the 2012 season is questionable.
4) Indianapolis Colts
Why it will happen: The injury to Peyton Manning proved disastrous for the Colts' 2011 season, but it just might have set them up for the next 15 years at the quarterback position. Quarterback Andrew Luck, 2012's No. 1 overall pick, is NFL-ready right now, and I expect him to have a productive rookie campaign. The offensive line should be improved as a result of several young players gaining valuable experience in 2011. On defense, the Colts still possess a dangerous pass-rush duo in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Both players will need some time to adjust to the 3-4 defense being installed by new head coach Chuck Pagano, but they are each still capable of producing double-digit sacks.
Why it won't happen: The overall roster of the Colts is still very thin and especially light on offensive playmakers. Reggie Wayne is a solid player, but they don't have anyone to stretch the field unless third-round wide receiver T.Y. Hilton emerges during the preseason. That is a lot to ask of the rookie from Florida International. The defense doesn't have all the parts necessary to immediately excel in the 3-4 scheme Pagano brought from Baltimore. While Mathis and Freeney will be assets in passing situations, I have concerns over their ability to set the edge against the run.