Ranking every AFC team by projected finish
The AFC playoff picture will be as interesting as ever with some of the top teams declining on paper, and average teams getting better on paper. The fight for the top seed will be among the usual contenders, but the fight for the last wild card spots will be as competitive as ever.
Here I make my attempt at projecting the AFC standings taking into account their current rosters and their schedules. They are sorted by their projected playoff seed followed by their projected number of wins for non playoff teams. Playoff predictions for the AFC can be found below the rankings.
- Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are a team that was good enough to make it to the AFC Championship last game, and should only be better in 2015. Their star skill players QB Andrew Luck (79.9 PFF rating), WR T.Y. Hilton (83.6) and TE Dwayne Allen (81.2) should all be reaching their prime. They’ll be getting help from veteran newcomers RB Frank Gore (70.4) and WR Andre Johnson (79.4). Indianapolis isn’t known for their defense, but that is also a unit that should be on the rise. A trio of linebackers Trent Cole (83.3), Nate Irving (74.7) and Sio Moore (71.2) should all contribute. Assuming OLB Robert Mathis (86.5) can return healthy, the defense should be improved. It can’t hurt that both the Broncos and Patriots need to come to Indianapolis for their regular-season matchups rather than the other way around — increasing the chances that they will again need to come to Indianapolis for playoff matches.
- Denver Broncos
A lot for the Broncos will be riding on the health of Peyton Manning. From Week 1 to Week 8 he had a PFF Grade of +13.2, and from Week 9 on it was -7.4. Assuming Manning is somewhere in between those two extremes, Denver has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The Broncos have a number of players who are among the top five at their position. This includes LG Evan Mathis (92.9), OLB Von Miller (91.6), CB Chris Harris (91.1), LB Brandon Marshall (88.8) and RB C.J. Anderson (86.9). The biggest question mark is the inexperience at a few key offensive positions. As long as each of them can do their role and Manning is healthy, this team is as good on paper as any other.
- New England Patriots
Not having to be without QB Tom Brady for four games significantly changed the Pats’ postseason outlook. Even though the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions, they have some new areas of concern that didn’t exist last year. Their top cornerbacks from last year are no longer on the roster, and some of their projected replacements were cut or landed on injured reserve. Without Vince Wilfork, the starting defensive tackle for the Patriots will likely be Alan Branch (69.4). The loss of RB Shane Vereen will hurt them on offense, and it doesn’t help that they only have one offensive linemen with a rating above 75. It doesn’t help that during the season they won’t have home field advantage when playing the Colts or Broncos. They still have a lot of very talented players, led by TE Rob Gronkowski (94.0), which should be enough to get them the division title. Getting one of the first-round byes will be a more difficult task.
- Baltimore Ravens
In 2014 there was only a game difference between the first- and third-best teams in the AFC North, so despite a 10-6 record the Ravens finished third. Not much has changed between the 2014 and 2015 versions of the Ravens, except their secondary should be upgraded. Last year no defensive back had more than 800 snaps. CB Jimmy Smith (84.5) missed most of last year but started the season strong. When quarterbacks threw his way, they had an NFL passer rating of 51.5, which doesn’t account for his four passed defended. Kyle Arrington (72.5) should be a serviceable upgrade to their slot cornerback situation and Kendrick Lewis (65.4) is an adequate safety. The only major question mark is at receiver, where Marlon Brown (75.5) and Kamar Aiken (68.4) will see significant playing time. They have fewer question marks than their division competitors, which gives them the best chance in the AFC North.
- Miami Dolphins
In the three years of the Ryan Tannehill era, the Dolphins have been nothing more or less than an average football team. The team made enough changes this offseason that should push them from an average team to an above-average one. After Jarvis Landry (80.2) had a breakout rookie season at wide receiver, they surrounded him with solid starters in Greg Jennings (77.9) and Kenny Stills (76.3), with rookie DeVante Parker fighting for playing time as well. There are few teams that can line up two All-Pro caliber defensive linemen next to each other, and the Dolphins can now do that with Cameron Wake (85.4) and Ndamukong Suh (87.3). Add in that one of their best players, LT Branden Albert (87.5), is coming back from injury, and you have a team poised to make their return to the playoffs.
- Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are coming off of making the playoffs for their fourth straight season, and have a decent chance of making it again for a fifth straight year. They made the playoffs last year despite a number of setbacks. Three of their top six players by PFF Rating are WRs A.J. Green (85.6), Marvin Jones (81.9) and LB Vontaze Burfict (83.5). Those three played a combined 18 games last year. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (82.7) returned from injury, but didn’t return to his 2012 form when we ranked him the third-best player in the league. Quarterback Andy Dalton (74.3) is always up or down, and if he can have his hot streak happen around the playoffs like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco have in the past, Cincinnati has a chance to make it past the wild-card round. If these star players can’t stay healthy, then it could be a rough season.
- New York Jets
The Jets were on the losing end more often than not in 2014, but there is enough reason to believe they can be a lot more competitive in 2014. First there is the obvious addition of CB Darrelle Revis (88.4). What’s a less obvious move is what they did at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick (78.8) should be a big upgrade over Geno Smith (55.5) and Michael Vick (50.1). When Fitzpatrick wasn’t under pressure, he had an NFL passer rating of 109.9 last year, so as long as the offensive line can keep Fitzpatrick clean, the offense can be more effective. It also helps that he will have Brandon Marshall (82.3) and Eric Decker (82.2) to throw to. The Jets are more of an unknown since so much has changed, but they will get to fight for a playoff spot in 2015.
- Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have the star power to match up with the NFL’s best. OLB Justin Houston (92.0) had a league-leading 15.4 pass-rushing productivity in 2014. For the seventh straight year, RB Jamaal Charles (90.6) averaged over 4.9 yards per carry. They also had the emergence of Travis Kelce (84.7), who had the second-most yards per route run for a tight end at 2.26, behind only Gronkowski. The problem for the Chiefs is depth. They have had a winning year each of the last two seasons, but if a star player gets hurt, it will be more devastating for them than the average team. They should have another winning year, but without a few more players emerging, they are unlikely to make a strong playoff run.
- San Diego Chargers
The strength of the Chargers is their offense, and it’s a unit that got better over the offseason. On the offensive line the additions of Orlando Franklin (83.5) and Joe Barksdale (77.3) should help both the pass and run game. Stevie Johnson (77.6) should also help the pass game, while first-round rookie RB Melvin Gordon had 74 players miss tackles on him, which was the second-most in college football. The problem is their defense got worse. Two of the best players from their front seven — Dwight Freeney (81.9 in pass rush) and Jarret Johnson (82.9 in run defense) — both look like they might be done with football. Without them they have one of the worst front sevens in football. If their defense can step up, their offense can make them contenders. If they can’t, there should be a lot of high-scoring games in San Diego this season.
- Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have one of the best trio of skill players in the league with QB Ben Roethlisberger (87.3), RB Le’Veon Bell (88.6) and WR Antonio Brown (89.5). They were also one of the healthiest offenses, with eight of their starters playing over 900 snaps. They already don’t look as good on paper with C Maurkice Pouncey (80.6) missing the first half of the season. The defense has also been on a steady decline these past few years, and that decline should continue. They lost OLB Jason Worilds (82.6) and S Troy Polamalu (83.7), leaving them with just six players with a PFF rating above 70, which is tied for the fewest in the league. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a losing year since 2003, but 2015 could be a down year.
- Houston Texans
The Texans managed to be a winning team last year thanks to a few young players getting closer to their prime. DeAndre Hopkins (80.7) has become a true No. 1 wide receiver, and Kareem Jackson (81.6) has become a true No. 1 cornerback. The problem on offense is they lost their long-time center Chris Myers (77.1), and while they are perceived to be similar players, Brian Hoyer (53.2) is actually a big step down at quarterback from Ryan Fitzpatrick (79.3). The defense has the potential to be great if OLB Jadeveon Clowney can live up to his hype, CB Kevin Johnson and LB Benardrick McKinney have strong rookie years, and NT Vince Wilfork (81.7 in run defense) can benefit from playing next to J.J. Watt (98.9). A lot of things seem to be going right for Houston, but they will be limited to their quarterback play.
- Tennessee Titans
The team is in rebuilding mode, but there is enough to like about their defense to think the Titans can avoid being among the AFC’s worst. They already had some star power with ID Jurrell Casey (84.8), OLB Derrick Morgan (80.0) and CB Jason McCourty (75.9). In free agency they were able to add to it with OLB Brian Orakpo (83.6), S Da’Norris Searcy (81.8) and CB Perrish Cox (74.7). The offense is filled with inexperienced players who should see their fair share of growing pains. In all likelihood 2015 will not be the Titans’ year, but having rookies QB Marcus Mariota and WR Dorial Green-Beckham should be enough to keep things exciting on offense, and the impressive defensive players will be enough to keep Tennessee in games.
- Buffalo Bills
For the last several years, the strength in the Bills has been their defense. Unfortunately, all four defensive linemen looked better in 2013 than they did in 2014. On offense the right side of their line is a big liability, with third-round rookie John Miller starting at right guard, and Seantrel Henderson (40.6) starting at right tackle. While the offense seems centered around RB LeSean McCoy (72.9), it will be difficult for him to be as successful as he was in Philadelphia with a downgraded offensive line, and offenses focusing more on him. Chances are they are more talented than the two AFC South teams listed ahead of them, but their schedule will make it hard for the Bills to get as many wins as those teams.
- Cleveland Browns
The Browns have some parts of the roster that are very impressive. All five starting offensive linemen have a PFF rating of at least 80. All five defensive backs in their nickel defense also are at 78 or better, with newcomer CB Tramon Williams (78.8) rounding out the group. The problem is the Browns had all of these players minus Williams in 2014 and couldn’t manage a winning season. In order to be successful in the NFL, you need at least a passing game or run game that can scare a defense, and the Browns have neither. QB Josh McCown (62.2) isn’t much of an upgrade over their previous situation, and lead back Isaiah Crowell (50.4) averaged 1.9 yards after contact per carry last year, which was fifth-lowest among backs. If either the passing game or run game can play better than expected, this roster can be competitive. Without it, this will be another forgettable year for Cleveland.
- Jacksonville Jaguars
On the bright side, Jacksonville added a lot of pieces this offseason who can be solid role players. They added six players with a PFF rating of 75 or better in free agency. The problem is Jacksonville only had two players above 75 remaining on their roster from last year. They are also one of two teams without a single player above 85. The Jaguars should be a better team than they were last year thanks to all of their new talent, but they still lack the talent to keep up with the rest of the AFC.
- Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have a few things to be excited about heading into the 2015 season. Edge defender Khalil Mack (86.8) was one of the most impressive players of the preseason, with two sacks, one hit, six hurries and four run stops, and he’s coming off of a strong rookie year. On offense they added No. 4 overall pick WR Amari Cooper, who had 3.97 yards per route run in college, which was second-best for qualifying receivers. He’s had an impressive preseason, as well. The problem is that outside of a few star players, they lack depth. They only have seven players on the roster with a PFF rating of 75 or better, which is the fewest in the league. An argument could be made for Jacksonville being at the bottom of this list, but Oakland has the edge for the 16th spot thanks to a harder schedule.