The AFC is in full retreat. Indy has been dismantled, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are creaking with age and San Diego’s ship has sailed. Only the Patriots and Texans can challenge the National Football Conference for the Lombardi Trophy. Click here for Tom's NFC preview.
1. Patriots (12-4) — Twenty years ago, if you were dialed in to a Bob Trumpy telecast on NBC, you’d hear him going on about the “incredible resiliency of the Buffalo Bills.” The Marv Levy-Jim Kelly era, a group that won double-digit games seven times in nine years. By ’96 you were sick of them. No championships. Just strong-willed vampires, roaming the earth. “Gentlemen, we are dealing with the undead,” says Van Helsing. Eventually they expired. Now it’s Brady-Belichick in their place … double-digit wins in 10 of the past 11 seasons, nearly every team morphing and shifting in form from the prior year. Last Pats title came in 2004 but they’re still taking victims. “Children of the night,” says Count Dracula. “What music they make.”
2. Jets (8-8) —A long time ago, I went on a beach vacation with some college buddies. The place had a kitchen, and one evening this guy, Joe T., decided he was going to cook for everyone. Great, what’s for supper? “Shrimp,” he said. “Fresh Carolina shrimp!” We’re in! So Joe got his equipment together and put these things on the stove and cooked them … and cooked them … and cooked them. After 45 minutes I said, “Hey, you know it only take a minute or two. What are you doing here?” Joe, who has know-it-all leanings, assured me not to worry, that it was his dad’s recipe and they should go about an hour. What ended up on the plates was a sick pile of mush, a greyish- pink, hideous slurry. When I look at how the Jets are being run these days, I think of old Joe in the kitchen, lowering those poor shrimp into the pan.
3. Bills (8-8) — People are trying to convince themselves to love this team, one of the up-and-comers. I am not one of them. The Bills don’t know how to win. That’s cliché, Danny-lak, and you complain about clichés in your Dolphin writeup just below here. Exactly what do you mean? It means making your layups and your free throws. It means pitching strikes in the eighth and ninth innings. It means no dopey turnovers, no dopey penalties, getting heat on the quarterback late instead of laying back in some frilly prevent. It means a lot of things. Until the Bills get that side of it, I see just another team with a salary cap.
4. Dolphins (4-12) — I caught some of the Hard Knocks series on HBO, "Training Camp with the Miami Dolphins," and Lord, how this coaching staff fires around the clichés. “Give 110 percent … You get out what you put into it,” and so on.” Hoo, brother. The South Dade School of Repetitive Thought. Gimme the anti-cliché! Like the time Digger Phelps was leading a Notre Dame pep rally before a football game. He did his part, but then threw in a little swipe at the Irish record, and a ticked-off fan yelled out, “Hey Digger! Did you ever grab yourself by your own nose?” And all Digger could say was, “What??!!”
1. Steelers (11-5) — Key components slowly peeling off, and the recent drafts haven’t been strong enough to weld up the damage. Sparsest linebacking depth in decades; didn’t they always seem to have two or three young killers in queue and ready to go for the next 10 years? Uncertainty at running back (Rashard Mendenhall's knee). New offensive coordinator Todd Haley says he’ll run more to steer the abuse off Ben Roethlisberger, but I don’t know if the parts are there to do it right. I see the Steelers throwing like they have for years and Big Ben dragging himself off the turf and an old-time defense throwing up one last stand. Schedule has been kind to them lately. It is again this season.
2. Ravens (11-5) — Hoping Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw will crank up a proud defense with diminishing stars. Offense will look the same — run-based, Ray Rice ducking between the tackles, Joe Flacco making some throws and missing some. Playoffs, yes, but not sure if the QB has that great January game in him to go all the way.
3. Bengals (8-8) —Didn’t like the way they softened up in the second half of their playoff game at Houston. Zero points. They looked tired. No push in the running game. Offense should work this season if the line holds up and QB Andy Dalton doesn’t freeze in his second year, like a lot of guys do. Defense is nothing special, and hasn’t been during the Marvin Lewis era.
4. Browns (4-12) — I need to get a longer look at the 29-year-old rookie, Brandon Weeden, the new QB. Didn’t pay much attention in the exhibitions. Does he get it together fast, or is this Chris Weinke 2012? New RB Trent Richardson will have a rough intro, as teams crowd the line to see how Weeden operates. Honestly, I hope it works out Cleveland. I hope there’s finally some life this time. You get tired of the dreariness, the annual House of Usher forecast. … “And round about his home the glory that blushed and bloomed, Is but a dim-remembered story of the old-time entombed.”
1. Texans (13-3) — I caught the Bill Parcells’ preview show on ESPN a few weeks back, guest starring Keyshawn Johnson. And for nearly half the teams in football, Keyshawn’s hard, raw insight was, “the key is for this team to stay healthy.” Hey, no truer a truth then for Houston. Every year a significant name or two gets solemnly carted away. In ’08, it was Matt Schaub missing five games … next year Steve Slaton … Mario Williams and Ben Tate in 2010 … last season, Schaub, Williams and Andre Johnson. Tell ‘em, Keyshawn — an apple a day and it’s up-up-away!
2. Titans (9-7) — There was one preseason writeup that graded them straight B's in every category, QB through special teams. I brought grades like that home once and got fired off the roof. Raves over QB Jake Locker’s preseason arm. Bad news is season could start 1-5 on that hellish early schedule — Pats, Lions, Steelers, with trips to San Diego and Houston. Tough for even a solid B student to overcome.
3. Colts (5-11) — Andrew Luck enters the fight this Sunday in Chicago. I say he takes the Bears deep into the fourth quarter. Call Tony Peaches down at the bar and take the 9½ points. Luck will take a lot of teams deep this season.
4. Jaguars (3-13) — Out in Wyoming and Colorado they have this thing in the rivers called Whirling Disease. It affects the neurons, and the young trout just swirl about in circling, spiraling fashion until they drop to the bottom. Symptoms also have been noted in the greater Jacksonville area.
1. Broncos (10-6) —Drop Peyton Manning onto any of these AFC West teams and they would be the favorite, including the Raiders. Curious to see who emerges as his chemistry guy, his look-to target when he needs something downfield. Denver's linebacking probably is tops in the division, or will be when suspended D.J. Williams returns to the mix in October. If they lose Manning, backup is ex-Bear Caleb Hanie, who played like a true freshman in Chicago.
2. Chiefs (9-7) — Pinnacle of last season was picking off unbeaten Green Bay — was the team responding to interim Romeo Crennel’s cool or hooraying Todd Haley’s eviction? QB Matt Cassel has had enough time to figure things out; only a few chances left before GM Scott Pioli gets wandering eyes. High draft picks on the defensive line have disappointed repeatedly, but safetyman Eric Berry, injured last season, should be terrific.
3. Chargers (8-8) — The great erosion. Starpower continues to drift away while GM A.J. Smith backfills with so-so drafts and tepid coaching. It’s a pity. For so many years this was a championship-grade club. It was frittered away. Now, SD is in the legion of erratics.
4. Raiders (6-10) — Bursts of offense last season made them exciting … 504 yards vs. New England … 489 then 520 versus the Chargers, 477 vs. the Lions. They lost top rusher (Mike Bush) to Chicago. Can Carson Palmer cut back on the interceptions? He’s only 32 but he plays much older and stiffer. Defense needs extensive work. Still transitioning out of the musty Al Davis cloud.
AFC championship — Patriots over Texans
NFC championship — Packers over Panthers
Super Bowl XLVII — Packers over Patriots
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.