Analysis

NFL midseason predictions: AFC North, wild cards spawn debate

At the halfway point of the 2014 NFL season, our analysts refresh their predictions on the winners of individual awards, playoff participants and Championship Sunday/Super Bowl XLIX outcomes.

AFC EAST

Judy Battista: New England Patriots. They're flawed, but improving as the season goes on. Same as it ever was.

Brian Billick: Patriots. While the Bills are surprisingly just one game back, the Pats have still won the division in 10 of the past 11 seasons. Surely I'm not going to bet against them now.

Gil Brandt: Patriots.Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will prove to be too much for the Bills or Dolphins to overcome -- provided Rob Gronkowski stays healthy.

Bucky Brooks: Patriots.Tom Brady has found his groove with Rob Gronkowski and Brandon LaFell, giving the Patriots a dynamic offense to complement an underrated defensive unit.

Charley Casserly: Patriots.Tom Brady will lead the Pats to another division championship -- despite their vulnerability vs. the run -- because no other team in the division has enough consistency.

Dave Dameshek: Patriots. As I said when most were throwing dirt on Brady, the only thing ailing the NE offense was the lack of a healthy Gronk. That said, the East is no gimme -- especially if the Pats drop one on Sunday.

Elliot Harrison: Patriots. Going beyond Tom Brady's ridiculous play, I don't trust Kyle Orton or Ryan Tannehill to deliver as often as they'll need to in order to overtake New England.

Adam Schein: Patriots. It's the Patriots. It's always been the Patriots.

Michael Silver: Patriots. After their embarrassing loss to the Chiefs, the Pats looked like toast. Since then, they've looked like ... the typical Belichick/Brady operation.

AFC NORTH

Judy Battista: Baltimore Ravens. They already have gotten through the Ray Rice maelstrom, the offense has become explosive and this team is taking on the personality of Steve Smith. That is always a good thing.

Brian Billick: Cincinnati Bengals. One week ago, I would have confidently said the Ravens. But after watching Cincy sweep the season series against Baltimore, you have to give it to the Bengals.

Gil Brandt: Pittsburgh Steelers. The three-team race in the North will be won by some Ben Roethlisberger-fueled offensive firepower.

Bucky Brooks: Bengals.Hue Jackson has revamped the offense to better suit Andy Dalton's skills, while crafting a diverse scheme that gives the Bengals a legitimate shot to win a playoff game.

Charley Casserly: Ravens. The offense is getting better every week, as is the defense. Gary Kubiak has made Joe Flacco more efficient. C.J. Mosley will be Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Dave Dameshek: Bengals. In the league's deepest division, the division's deepest team will rise above the fray (... so long as the Bengals stay committed to the run, like they did in their defining Week 8 win vs. Baltimore).

Elliot Harrison: Steelers. Pittsburgh snatches the division title with a 9-7 or 10-6 record.

Adam Schein: Ravens. I chose Baltimore in the preseason, and I'm staying with the pick, even with Cincy sweeping the season series.

Michael Silver: Bengals. After a recent rough patch, these guys will get A.J. Green back and start outscoring everybody.

AFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: Indianapolis Colts. The weakness of this division should not detract from how dominant the Colts are with a top offense and -- stunningly -- viable defense (at least besides that Week 8 clunker). And an easy second-half schedule should help them in seeding.

Brian Billick: Colts. It will come down to the Colts and the Texans, and I like my chances with Andrew Luck instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Gil Brandt: Colts.Andrew Luck is the best young player in the NFL.

Bucky Brooks: Colts.Andrew Luck is not only pushing for MVP honors, but he is quietly guiding Indy to a top seed in the postseason.

Charley Casserly: Colts. They are better than the group that won the division last year. Getting Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw and Dwayne Allen back has made Indy better on third down and in the red zone. Bjoern Werner has improved as a pass rusher.

Dave Dameshek: Colts. Bold prediction: The Colts have lost their last game of the 2014 regular season.

Elliot Harrison: Colts. If you can tell me who in this division will take down the Colts, I'm all ears.

Adam Schein: Colts. Indy wins it without sweating.

Michael Silver: Colts. They haven't come close to peaking; when they do, it might be scary.

AFC WEST

Judy Battista: Denver Broncos. A shock to absolutely nobody, the Broncos' offense is as good as ever -- and it is paired with the fast, physical defense John Elway envisioned during his free agency shopping spree.

Brian Billick: Broncos. The Chargers are lurking in second place, but Peyton Manning is 5-1 against them since joining the Broncos.

Gil Brandt: Broncos. The most complete team in the AFC is led by the top NFL player in Peyton Manning.

Bucky Brooks: Broncos. The offseason additions to upgrade the defense have transformed the Broncos into a legitimate NFL heavyweight.

Schein: The team to beat in 2014

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Adam Schein explains why the Broncos are clearly the cream of the NFL crop -- and will deliver on the game's biggest stage. READ

Charley Casserly: Broncos. These Broncos are better than last year's installment. Offensively, the return of Ryan Clady and the addition of Emmanuel Sanders make them more overwhelming. On defense, they have improved at every level, thanks to the healthy returns of Von Miller, Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe, the additions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby and T.J. Ward, and the emergence of Brandon Marshall

Dave Dameshek: San Diego Chargers. Full disclosure: I picked the Chargers to win it in the preseason ... but now they'll need help (from the Pats on Sunday, among others) to offset their own Week 7 home loss to K.C.

Elliot Harrison: Broncos. Denver is just too strong defensively this season. The newbies have played extremely well without a lot of continuity issues.

Adam Schein: Broncos. With the NFL's most complete team, Denver wins the West.

Michael Silver: Broncos. Better than last year's Denver team, which was pretty damn good.

AFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: San Diego Chargers. A stout defense and Philip Rivers make them real postseason contenders.

Brian Billick: Baltimore Ravens. Good news for the Ravens: They don't have to play the Bengals for the remainder of the regular season. They are 0-2 against Cincinnati, but 5-1 against all other teams.

Gil Brandt: Ravens.Joe Flacco and Co. must win two of their last four road games (at Steelers in Week 9, at Saints in Week 12, at Dolphins in Week 14 and at Texans in Week 16).

Bucky Brooks: Ravens. The Joe Flacco-led offense has produced fireworks this season, but injuries to the D will keep the Ravens from claiming a division crown.

Charley Casserly: Cincinnati Bengals. They are a balanced team that has struggled with injuries. A.J. Green's health will determine whether they make the playoffs.

Dave Dameshek: Denver Broncos. The playoffs are a given, but tough road games in Foxborough, Kansas City, San Diego and Cincy and will knock them out of first place.

Elliot Harrison: Kansas City Chiefs. I like the way their schedule lays out, as well as the way Alex Smith is playing. If, unlike last year, the Chiefs' defense stays healthy. ...

Adam Schein: Chargers. I'm staying with my preseason pick, banking on the Chargers getting healthy.

Michael Silver: Houston Texans. Sticking with my preseason hunch that Bill O'Brien will prod this team to the postseason.

AFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: Cincinnati Bengals. Very little conviction here, because they just logged their first win since September, have significant injuries and could be caught if the Steelers get their act together on defense.

Brian Billick: San Diego Chargers.Philip Rivers is having an MVP-caliber season, but the Bolts are going to have to get a little more from their running game. San Diego ranks dead last in yards per carry (3.1).

Gil Brandt: Bengals. If they can take three of their last four, the Bengals can squeeze into the playoffs in a very tight wild-card race.

Bucky Brooks: Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers could enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the league behind a dynamic QB with big-game moxie.

Charley Casserly: Chargers.Philip Rivers is a potential MVP candidate. Like a number of teams, San Diego's playoff chances will be determined by the roster's overall wellness. The Chargers need to get healthy -- especially in the secondary -- to make the playoffs. The Steelers will challenge the Chargers for this wild-card spot.

Dave Dameshek: Steelers. If the offense can consistently produce even half the video-game numbers it put up in Week 8, it'll be enough to get 'em to January. (Sunday night vs. Baltimore looms large, though.)

Elliot Harrison: Chargers. The Chiefs and Chargers return as the AFC's two wild-card teams. Kansas City could pull off the in-season sweep. ...

Adam Schein: Bengals. Make it a clean sweep for me staying with every AFC prediction from August. Yes, I will stick with the Bengals, who just barely hold off the Bills.

Michael Silver: Cleveland Browns. Also sticking with this preseason hunch, though watching them lay an egg in Jacksonville was disquieting.

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