In Texas, this is the time of year that matters: FOOTBALL SEASON. Between whinging A&M fans who think their team actually matters in the real world of college football, to Texas fans somehow convinced that their program isn't dirty, to the innumerable Cowboys fans who all know exactly what's wrong with the team after its 10-10 tie in the final (and most meaningless) preseason game. People here are so football crazy that some high school fields seat 30,000 and when the Rangers were fighting for their first-ever playoff spot in 1996, the talk radio was all about the middling Cowboys.
This year there are, or should be, expectations galore because the Cowboys are potentially one of the two best teams in the NFC. More about that later. The Monk works east to west, alphabetically in his picks.
What's the possibility of Miami and New England rolling up 5-1 division records by sweeping the two stiffs (Jets, Bills) and splitting their matchups? How about the potential that the Jets and Bills do the same in reverse (1-5 each)? Both are highly likely.
Ultimately, this is the Patriots' division to lose because they have the best player (Brady), the best coach (Belichick) and both an offense and defense that are solid. If Corey Dillon plays better than he did last year, the Pats are 12+ game winners even without their top two receivers from 2005. Brady is the type of QB who can make chicken salad from the chicken droppings at his disposal. How else to describe a three-time Super Bowl winner with no top flight offensive talent around him (Deion Branch? Be real -- he's a #2 at best with any other team). The Pats should be a game or two better than last year, especially considering that the AFC East has an easy schedule -- each of its teams plays each team from the NFC North and AFC South.
The Dolphins are a serious wild card contender thanks to second-year RB Ronnie Brown and the signing of Daunte Culpepper. They still have a top-level defense and Belichek Jr as a coach. If Culpepper is the QB he was in 2004, the Dolphins win the division and 13 games; if he's the pre-injury Culpepper of 2005 (which was absolutely awful), the Dolphins replace him with Sage Rosenfels or the stiff du jour and scrap out 7-8 wins. If Culpepper fits somewhere in the middle of that, the 'Phins win a wild card berth.
The Jets have a new coach, no longer have their Pro Bowl center and have QB questions with no end. They passed on Matt Leinart. They will regret that for years just as they did when they picked Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino. The Bills lost their best receiver, still have no worthwhile QB option, passed on Leinart (dopes) and . . . supposedly Willis McGahee looks like the RB who rolled up huge numbers in college. If so, the Bills could win 7-8. The Jets will struggle to get more than 6.
This division is all about the quarterbacks -- is Palmer fully healthy mentally, how much will McNair bring to the Ravens' offense, what will the Steelers get from Roethlisberger? The Steelers have had numerous injuries and issues in the off-season, the Bengals have an explosive offense but questions on defense, the Ravens have a deadly defense that needs an offense. The whole division has a tough schedule: round-robins with AFC West and NFC South.
Prediction: Bengals, Ravens, Steelers. The latter two will be in a fine race for the wild card spots. The Ravens have an edge over the Steelers because they get the Chargers and Chiefs at home.
The Browns will field a team. They will draft high next year.
No, The Monk doesn't understand how Indianapolis is in the AFC South any more than Arizona used to be in the NFC East. That said, this division is so weak, the Colts could win it fielding nine players per play. They lost Edgerrin James, but that only matters so much. Remember, an NFL back only needs to average 56 yards per game to run up a 1,000 yard season, and Dominic Rhodes and his understudies can easily do that. Indy will be more pass-first this season, but that just means Manning will rack up bigger numbers.
Jacksonville will again have a solid season because it should sweep the other two stiffs in the division, should crush the Jets and Bills, and winning half of its other contests would mean an 11-5 record. That's wild-card worthy. Nonetheless, the Jags could be set for a fall because they play the NFC East this year and each of those teams can beat them. Overall, the Jags will again be better on paper than on the field (see AFC wild card match at New England, 2005).
The Titans are still recovering from their salary cap disaster, which they self-imposed by keeping the nucleus of their Super Bowl runner-up team from the 1999 season together as long as they could. With Kerry Collins manning the controls while Vince Young serves his apprenticeship, and an influx of some new vets, the Titans should be competitive as they prepare for next season.
The Texans stink. They passed up on Reggie Bush to sign a pass-rusher who is of questionable efficacy. They lost their starting running back. They have no offensive line. They'll be picking high in the 2007 draft.
The Chiefs have a new coach but still lack a solid defense; the Chargers have a new QB; the Raiders brought in Jeff George. There are the three best reasons that the Broncos will win the division again.
The Broncos have everything they need to win the division, and still lack something necessary to win the AFC title -- defensive dominance, intangibles from the QB, a dependable runner (note to Mike Shanahan, the system means only so much -- you still miss Clinton Portis). That doesn't change this year. It might when the Jay Cutler era begins in 2007.
Herm Edwards is a fine motivator and practice coach, but as a gameplanner and strategist he is one of the worst in the NFL. The Chiefs have great talent: a QB who threw for 4000+ yards with no top-notch receiver and with TE Tony Gonzalez having a down year, a solid offensive line, and the best running back in the NFL. Think not? Larry Johnson scored 20 TD and rolled up 1760 yards running and didn't even start five games! And unlike Shaun Alexander, LJ is a solid receiver. Once again, the defense is subpar. And this year, the Chiefs have Edwards as their coach, not Vermeil -- and Herm will prove to be a negative in close games (just ask Jets fans).
The Chargers will end up as one of the best teams in the league, but expect a struggle early on as Phillip Rivers learns his job. Having the second best RB in the division (and conference) helps, but the defense will still be a weak spot.
The Raiders stink. Again. At least Art Shell may restore some pride and help them run off 6 wins.
AFC Champion: Patriots. The Monk is drinking the Belichick Kool-Aid.