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NFL-Preseason-AFC preview

Buffalo

After earning their first playoff berth in 16 years last season, Buffalo was obviously not satisfied. Not with QB Tyrod Taylor and not with an offense that generated a mere 300 YPG, better than only three other teams. Thus, it became their priority to land a potential franchise quarterback in this year’s NFL draft. After all, they had drafted 6 QBs since Jim Kelly, and none of the previous six had a winning record. So when they traded up to select Josh Allen with the 7th pick in the first round, they felt they finally had their man. This despite the fact that Allen completed only 54% of his passes in high school, and then 56% of his passes in college football before leaving early for the NFL. The strong-armed hopeful will likely take a seat to learn his trade behind recently acquired A.J. McCarron, who has played in a total 12 NFL games in his career, going 2-2 in his four starts. A strong draft also yielded LB Tremaine Edmunds, DT Harrison Phillips and CB Taron Johnson, while free agent acquisitions CB Vontae Davis, DE Trent Murphy and DT Star Lotuleli figure to shore up a soft stop-unit.

Miami

The foul odor blowing in from the shores of south Florida is the smell of bringing up the rear going on in Miami these days. From the Dolphins to the Heat to the Marlins, the stench of losing is stomach-turning. The Dolphins have made only one postseason appearance since 2008, that in Adam Gase’s first season with the team two years ago. It was back to 6-10 last season when starting QB Ryan Tannehill went down with a second ACL injury. After Hurricane Irma forced postponement of their season opener, the Fish opened the season 4-2 before being filleted with a 5-game losing streak. You can say playing 16 games without a bye week did them in but the fact of the matter is they were dead in the water long before the re-scheduling took place. The bottom line is Gase and Tannehill each own a losing record, with the latter owing an 86.5 career passer rating. Unloading their top talent (Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry and Mike Pouncey) signals a new era is underway. Here’s hoping the menu is palatable.

New England

Question: Is there such thing as a Super Bowl curse? Ask Tom Brady the same question and his reply would be, “You’d better believe there is.” That was confirmed last season when for the first time in his 17-year NFL career Brady started and ended the season with a loss. On top of that, Brady WAS 16-0 SU and 9-6-1 ATS in NFL playoff games in his career against teams that the Patriots did not face during the regular season – until they met Philadelphia in last year’s Super Bowl. And to make matters worse, NFL teams WERE 38-0-1 SU in games when they gained 600-plus yards until the Pats met the Eagles in SB LII in February. With all of that bad karma in the rear view mirror, according to our NFL Strength of Schedule based on opponent’s projected season win totals, the Pats (along with Houston) will take on the cushiest schedule in the circuit this season. Go figure. Meanwhile, the return of WR Julian Edelman from the IR should help steer them back to the playoffs this season provided, of course, the dreaded Super Bowl Curse fails to raise its ugly head.

New York Jets

When USC quarterback Sam Darnold (20-4 with the Trojans) fell into their lap with the 3rd pick in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, Jets fans quickly said three Hail Mary’s, sensing the bleeding was over. According to USA TODAY SPORTS WEEKLY, 20-year old Darnold becomes their highest drafted quarterback since Joe Namath. Rest assured, he will be given every opportunity to show he’s ready to start. Suddenly, with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater (trade bait?) looking over his shoulder, the Flyboys QB position has gone from spotty to hottie. Still, the Jets have enjoyed just one winning season the last 7 years, meaning there are plenty of holes to fill. A fast start against a soft slate will go a long way in mending a lot of broken hearts. A sidebar note in closing: when the fast planes travel to Chicago to meet the Bears on October 28, New York head coach Todd Bowles played for the state football championship in New Jersey in 1980. His coach was Bill Nagy, the father of then 2-year old Matt – Chicago’s new rookie head coach.

Baltimore

The big news on draft day was Baltimore trading up to secure Louisville QB Lamar Jackson with the final pick in the first round. With the former Heisman Trophy winner waiting in the wings, the heat is suddenly on Joe Flacco, the longtime ago former Super Bowl MVP. Since winning the league’s crowning achievement in Super Bowl XLVII, Flacco has been a bust – pure and simple. He hasn’t posted a passer rating over 83.5 or tossed for more than 20 TDs since 2014. You have to go back to December of 2016 to find the last time he threw for 300 yards. The feeling here is Jackson will prove to be Ozzie Newsome’s best draft acquisition since landing both Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden in the first round of the 1996 draft. And speaking of plum draft picks, veteran outside LB Terrell Suggs (a first-round pick in 2003) is ecstatic with new DC Don “Wink” Martindale moving up from LB coach to defensive coordinator. “He’s taking the handcuffs off the guys,” Suggs said. That’s good news for a team that led the league in Takeaway, Giveaways (+17) last season.

Cincinnati

It’s never a good thing when your team owns the worst offense in the league, one that generated a mere 280.5 YPG last season, or 28 YPG worse than winless Cleveland. Now on the heels of consecutive losing seasons, it’s safe to say head coach Marvin Lewis is sitting on the hottest seat in the league. It’s also fork-in-the-road time for QB Andy Dalton, whose numbers have regressed across the board each of the last two seasons as well. It’s what happens when you’re sacked 80 times over the course of two years. As a result, Lewis made major changes (5) to the coaching staff. With it Cincinnati will be changing its offensive and defensive schemes for the first time in over seven years. To better protect Dalton, the Bengals acquired LT Gordy Glenn in a trade and drafted C Billy Price, a first-round pick from Ohio State. Still, talented players dot the roster… such as WR A.J. Green, RB Joe Mixon, TE Tyler Eifert, LB Vontez Burfict, etc. Remember: the last time the Bengals endured consecutive losing seasons, they bounced back to go 10-6. Stay tuned.

Cleveland

So what does a team do with an embattled coach that has forgotten how to win games, other than bang its head against the wall? For openers, it stockpiles draft picks, reluctantly of course. With it the Browns have secured a total of 45 selections over the course of the last four NFL drafts, including 8 No. 1 picks. But through it all, they’ve become the 5th team in NFL annals to go winless in a season, and only the second to go 0-16. Heck, even the alphabet has more W’s than the Browns. The good news is there is only one place to go for this once-proud franchise. Celebrated QB Baker Mayfield will likely lead the revival, but not before learning the ropes from recently acquired Tyrod Taylor – who fits Cleveland’s M.O. to a tee with his 7-1 SU and 7-0-1 ATS career mark in games when his team is coming off consecutive losses. In addition, new OC Todd Haley and QB coach Ken Zampese figure to open up an offense that has failed to score 30 points in a contest 43 straight games (going 2-41 in the process) with newly acquired impressive targets and talent in the backfield.

Pittsburgh

Uh oh. In a three-year span from 2014 to 2017 – with 2015 being the only exception – the Steelers traveled the fewest miles of any team. For all of last year, Pittsburgh traveled only 6800 miles. In 2016, that number dropped to 5100. This year, however, that number climbs to over 13,000 miles. It’s similar to 2015 when they went 4-4 on the road that season. And what conclusion can we draw? It’s the only time since 2014 the Steelers haven’t had a winning record away from Heinz Field (5-3 in 2014 and 2016, 7-1 last year). So maybe travel had a little something to do with that. Nonetheless, you can bank on the fact that Mike Tomlin’s troops will have their visit to Jacksonville circled in red ink this season. The 45 points they allowed in a playoff home loss was the most they ever coughed up at home in the postseason. Meanwhile, we love the Oklahoma State tandem – QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington –joining the Steelers from this year’s draft. They look to be the heart of the team in the near future.

Houston

According to our NFL Strength of Schedule based on opponents’ projected season win totals, the Texans (along with New England) will tackle the softest schedule in the circuit this season. That’s good news for a team whose defense ranked last in scoring last season. Quarterback DeShaun Watson, the former College Football Playoff champion, is back from a season-ending knee injury last year. In Watson’s six starts before bowing out with the injury, he managed to toss 19 TDs with 8 INTs while beating the spread in five of those contests. More importantly, Houston went 1-11 without him (read: Tom Savage). The good news is Savage is gone. Another piece to the puzzle will be the return to health of defensive end J.J. Watt, the NFL’s highest-paid and arguably most dominant defenseman in the league who has played in only 8 games the past two seasons. Helping on defense will be S Tyrann Mathieu, who comes to Houston after an injury-plagued campaign at Arizona last season. So you can see the Texans will go as far in 2018 as their health allows, while perhaps even going from last to first in the NFC South.

Indianapolis

When the Colts hired Frank Reich as its new head coach, he was actually the 6th choice on their coaching list. Reich brings questionable play-calling skills: while he was Philadelphia’s OC last season, head coach Doug Pederson called the plays. Interestingly, Reich was a backup QB to Boomer Esiason at Maryland as well as a backup QB to Jim Kelly at Buffalo in his playing career. His claim to fame was leading the Terrapins to the greatest comeback in CFB history when he defeated Miami Florida, 42-40, after trailing 31-0, as well as bringing the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit in a 41-39 playoff win over Houston. The fact of the matter, though, is the Colts will go as far as Andrew Luck’s health permits. Note: with Luck in the lineup, Indianapolis is 46-30 (.605), with three playoff appearances. Without him they are 10-16 (.385). Meanwhile, the psyche of the Colts is likely fragile at best as they suffered 5 losses after blowing double-digit leads last season. After striking gold with a league-high 11 picks in this year’s draft, including new bodyguards for Luck in OGs Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, the transformation begins.

Jacksonville

It’s strange how one good season can cast a whole new light on a struggling situation. After enjoying its first winning campaign in 10 seasons last year, the Jaguars promptly extended QB Blake Bortles’ contract for an additional three years and $54 million… for a quarterback that is 21-40 in the NFL and ranked 20th in the league with an 84.7 passer rating last season. Talk about financial irresponsibility. It’s what happens to quarterbacks that go 4-1 against Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in a given season. Paving the way, rookie RB Leonard Fournette made his presence known in the backfield when he rushed for 1,040 yards and nine TDs in only 13 games as Jacksonville led the league in rushing with 141 YPG. Best of all, its 286 YPG defense for the regular season ranked No. 2 overall. So, yes, there were a lot of positives working for the Jags last season as the culmination of cleaning up in the past few drafts came to fruition in 2017. The question begs, however, what can they do for an encore this year? Drink it up Jags fans… while you can.

Tennessee

After tossing more INTs than TD passes last season, QB Marcus Mariota enters his fourth season with the Titans with more losses than wins. On a positive note, Tennessee won its first playoff game last season since 2009. With Mariota’s big payday coming next offseason, this becomes his critical time to stand-and-deliver. And minus their first ever trip to London, the Titans have one of the more favorable road schedules in 2018. The farthest west they have to travel during the regular or preseason is their Week 9 matchup vs. the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. With new head coach Mike Vrabel determined to tailor his spread offense around Mariota, he could put up numbers last seen at his days with Oregon. The good news is that last year’s first-round pick WR Corey Davis (the No. 5 selection in the draft) is healthy and was playing extremely well down the stretch last year. Former Baltimore Ravens DC Dean Pees retired at the end of last season, and then came out of retirement to run the Titans defense in 2018. It all points to a potentially big season by these Nashville cats.

Denver

Yes, it’s confirmed. Denver is a certified ‘mission team’ in 2018 as the Broncos suffered their first losing season in seven years – despite the fact that their overall stats actually improved on both sides of the ball. Rather than canning first-year head coach Vance Joseph, John Elway opted instead to tweak the coaching staff and add missing pieces. With it the offense welcomes QB Case Keenum, who came “this-close” to making the Super Bowl last season. And with that, remember this: Keenum is 16-6-3 ATS in his NFL career when not favored by more than 2 points. He’s also 22-12 SU in his last 34 starts. The biggest negative last year occurred in the turnover department where only the winless Cleveland Browns were worse as Denver ended the season -17 in TOs, or more than minus-two net per game. Meanwhile, Denver drooled when Cleveland passed over DE Bradley Chubb with the 4th pick in the first round of the draft. Chubb will pair with all-world LB Von Miller to cement a fierce rush defense that has surrendered less than 90 rushing yards per game three of the last four seasons.

Kansas City

Let’s cut right to the chase. The secret formula to Andy Reid’s success has been simple. Looking back over the last three seasons, Kansas City finished #2 in net turnovers in 2017, #1 in 2016, and #2 in 2015. It’s a major part of the reason Reid’s Chiefs have won 54 games during his five-year tenure – despite being out-gained -61 YPG in the process. After recently losing offensive coordinators Doug Pederson to the Eagles and Matt Nagy to the Bears, the two-time defending AFC West champs Kansas City offense will take on another new look behind QB Patrick Mahomes, and yet another new OC in Eric Bieniemy. Given the fact that Bieniemy has been coaching running backs since 2013, one might think the offense would have a more run-heavy look. Not true. In Bienemy’s two seasons as an OC at Colorado, the Bufflaoes ran a 50/50 mix of rushing and passing plays. If he can find a similar mix for the Chiefs it will greatly benefit Mahomes. With talented WRs aboard in Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, along with TE Travis Kelce and RB Kareem Hunt, Mahomes will have plenty of targets – and no excuses.

Los Angeles Chargers

Oh so close. Had the Chargers not lost out on making the playoffs by a tiebreaker last season, they would have been only the second team in NFL history to make the postseason after a 0-4 start since… the 1992 San Diego Chargers (that sounds so much better). Making matters worse, five of their seven losses were by 8 or fewer points. And when the dust settled, the worst part is that the offensive line allowed only 18 sacks in 2017 – the fewest in QB Philip Rivers’ career. In the end, it was a porous rush defense (No. 31 in the league) that was the major culprit. “Missing out on that playoff tiebreaker left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth,” said first-year head coach Anthony Lynn. Another bitter taste will be the fact that the Chargers travel over 28,000 miles this season – including a home game in London against Miami – the third-most in the league. Which leads to an interesting dilemma: the Chargers will go 6 weeks between home games from early October to mid-November. Between that and every east coast game at 1:00 PM ET, the schedule maker did Los Angeles no favors in 2018.

Oakland

When Mark Davis waved $100 million under Jon Gruden’s nose, the NFL witnessed the most celebrated coaching hire in the NFL since the Ol’ Ball Coach Steve Spurrier left the comfy confines of Florida’s finest country clubs for the Washington Redskins, where he quickly became the Clueless Ball Coach. Looking back in the rear view mirror, many forget that Tampa Bay was only 45-51 in its last 96 games under Gruden. Worse, the Raiders have gone 94-166 since he left. Only Cleveland’s 76-180 mark is worse. ‘Chucky’ has put his stamp on the program, bringing in WRs Jordy Nelson and Martavius Bryant to pair with Amari Cooper as prime targets for talented QB Derek Carr. And speaking of prime, Oakland will be featured four times on prime-time television this season. The Raiders will also travel more miles than any team in the league this season (31,716). With that, it’s worth noting the Black-and-Silver stands just 5-21 SU in games in Eastern Time zone cities since 2009. With LB Khalil Mack anchoring the defense, preparation for the eventual move to Vegas is officially underway.

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