By Derek Gonzales
We just got done with Super Bowl 50 and I’m all ready for Super Bowl 51. Will the Broncos pull a Seattle Seahawks and wind up playing in next year’s big game? You might think so, but with key players Von Miller—who led an all-time great defense and finished off his 2016 postseason with two and a half sacks and two forced fumbles on Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton alone—and Malik Jackson heading into free agency, as well as the uncertainty at the quarterback position, the likelihood of the Broncos making it to Super Bowl 51 is doubtful.
So who is likelier to make it? Let’s investigate.
Cincinnati won the division a year ago, and Pittsburgh got into the playoffs as a wild card. Pittsburgh was hobbled with injuries all season, and with the returns of Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro and center Mike Pouncey from injury, the offensive line should be among the NFL’s best. Ben Roethlisberger will come back at full strength and will have 1,800-yard receiver Antonio Brown to throw the ball to. Cincinnati lost offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who became head coach in Cleveland, and are also dealing with Andy Dalton’s surgically repaired thumb. Baltimore and Cleveland, who are reluctant to bring in new players, look like they won’t be able to make any significant leaps forward.
Division winner: Pittsburgh
Wild card: Cincinnati
New England will be primed to capture its eighth consecutive AFC East crown. Tom Brady will be 39, but is showing no signs of slowing down. The Jets missed the playoffs, losing the season finale to Rex Ryan’s Bills. But if Ryan Fitzpatrick has the season he had the year before, expect the Jets to be in the postseason. Fitzpatrick’s problem, however, is that he’s just good enough to keep his team in the game, but rarely does something that will win one. Look for Ryan Tannehill to make improvements under new coach Adam Gase in Miami, but look for New England to once again be the top dog of the East.
Division Winner: New England
Indianapolis will bounce back after a disappointing 7-9 campaign a season, where quarterback Andrew Luck was injured for the majority of it and Coach Chuck Pagano was on the verge of getting the pink slip. Instead, the Colts’ management looked at the amount of injuries at key positions, including Andrew Luck’s nine games gone from under center due to his lacerated spleen, and agreed it wasn’t Pagano’s fault, and gave him their vote of faith by awarding him a four-year extension. Look for Indianapolis to surround Luck with more weapons other than T.Y. Hilton, especially at the running back position, where Frank Gore only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and this team will return to form and win the AFC South.
Division Winner: Indianapolis
Denver has dominated the AFC West since Peyton Manning arrived to town in 2012, but many around the league believe “the Sheriff” will ride into retirement after his second Super Bowl win. That leaves the Broncos with question marks at quarterback, as Brock Osweiler enters free agency, and will have to make a decision as to who will be their guy going forward.
Whoever they chose, chances are he won’t have the upside and skill of Oakland’s Derek Carr. His 2016 season saw him start all 16 games, throwing for 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Amari Cooper was the top rookie wide receiver and made the Pro-Bowl at 21 year old, and running back Latavius Murray finished second in the league in rushing yards. Don’t forget this team beat the Broncos in Denver. It’s time to end that 14-year playoff drought for Raider fans.
Division Winner: Oakland
Wild Card: Denver
Next week, we’ll look at who will represent each division in the NFC. Will Famous Jameis take a huge step in his development under new Coach Dirk Koetter and challenge the Panthers for the NFC South crown? How will the Cowboys bounce back from their disappointing 4-12 season, and will they look to bring another quarterback into town via the draft or though trade/free agency? Read next week in the Way-Too-Early 2016 NFC Playoff Predictions.
Derek Gonzales may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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