Richard Martin
Author

AFC North Teams To Make Strong Playoff Bids

Jul 18, 2014 2:11 PM EST

Which non-playoff teams in the AFC are most likely to find their way back to the postseason?

Two of the most obvious candidates are in the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals lost defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and players Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Their quarterback, Andy Dalton, is unproven (at best). They have a long losing streak in the playoffs.

And then, set against that, remember that the Ravens and Steelers both have good quarterbacks, excellent coaches and winning traditions. Both teams also retooled during the offseason. Let’s take a close look at the two teams, which each finished 8-8.

The Ravens, built on strong defense, have seen that pillar erode during the past couple of years. Even during their Super Bowl-winning season, the defense had weakened. 

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone from that team, and only two starters (most prominently Haloti Ngata) return. But the Ravens have brought in some studs on defense:  Matt Elam as strong safety, nose tackle Brandon Williams, linebacker C.J. Mosley and free safety Terrence Brooks.

Their pass-rushers? Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They have strong corners in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

But is their offense good enough? The jury’s still out. They scored only 20 points per game in 2013. Joe Flacco had a mediocre season. And what about their rushing?

Here the Steelers have them. The team was 8-4 in the final eight games after a disastrous start. Their offense was pretty good, but the defense was unexpectedly weak.

But the Steelers have brought in new blood. They signed LaGarrette Blount and drafted Dri Archer in the third round. On defense, they selected Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. And they signed Cam Johnson.

I love what they’ve done. Mike Timlin and Dick LeBeau are top-notch. They had personnel issues in 2013, but that won’t be true this season. 

But I also like what the Ravens have done. I give the Steelers a slight edge because of balance. Still, both teams might reach the postseason, especially if the Bengals slip even a little bit -- which I think will happen.

Many are seeing the Dolphins as playoff contenders. They have some talent, but they’ve been unable to score enough points to be competitive. They scored 317 points in 2013. Ouch. Like the Jets, Miami has serious quarterback questions. Ryan Tannehill is a journeyman, like Andy Dalton and most starters in the league. He might yet join the ranks of franchise quarterbacks, but he better start proving it. The clock’s ticking, just as it is for Geno Smith in New York.

I like Smith a bit more. He was a rookie last year. I think the Jets have more chance to make the playoffs, partly because I love Rex Ryan. Players go all out for him. As for the Dolphins, well, they put up with a bizarre player situation. 

The Patriots will win that division again. Easily. They had serious injury issues yet still made it to the AFC championship. 

The AFC lacks the killer defenses of the NFC, but the Ravens and Steelers are like NFC teams in that regard. Good signal-callers, check. Good defense, check. Mark them down as playoff teams. And as rivals that will hate each other until the end of time.

I see the Broncos and Chargers also making the playoffs, along with the Colts in the AFC South and the Patriots in the East. 

Who might break through? 

Houston is a strong possibility. They have an easy schedule. They’re starting over. Unlike virtually all that bad teams last season, they have a strong defense. 

Last year they lost some weird games. They had some horrible quarterback play in a season of abysmal signal-calling throughout the league. Matt Schaub kept throwing pick-sixes; he got hurt and Texans fans cheered. But then backup T.J. Yates did the same thing. 

It’s the same voyeuristic hell fans of long-suffering teams such as the Browns, Vikings and Jets can relate to. Check out ESPN to see which team moments are most memorable. For Jets fans, it’s the “butt fumble,” when Mark Sanchez ran into Brandon Moore’s ample rear end, leading to a Patriots TD, a humiliating loss, and the end of all playoff hopes. For Vikings fans, it’s Gary Anderson’s missed field goal against the Falcons, his first after a perfect season ... when success would’ve put the Vikes’ best team ever in the Super Bowl after some of their earlier, weaker renditions made the Big Game. For the Browns, the most memorable play was Matt Bynar’s fumble against the Broncos in the 1987 playoffs.

For the Texans, it’s all about quarterbacking. Is Ryan Fitzpatrick good enough to take the team to the playoffs? What about rookie Tom Savage?

You think football is chess? Well, sometimes it is. But when it comes to quarterbacks, it’s poker. If you had some cards face down and didn’t look at them. 

NFL scouts and coaches have a vast amount of information on every quarterback, yet finding and developing one is an art, not a science. Because with that position more than any ever, it’s now what you are when you enter the league but what you will become in a few years. 

You can bet there will be an X-factor. Bengals? Maybe, but they haven’t played well in the postseason and have quarterbacking problems. 

That’s true of many other AFC aspirants. Jets? Not with Geno Smith. Dolphins? Not with Ryan Tannehill. 

I’d bet on the Chargers and Broncos in the West, then the Ravens and Steelers in the North, Patriots in the East and Colts in the South.