© Tommy Gilligan

Chelsea’s AFC Playoff Predictions

Big Bad Morning Show
August 09, 2018 - 10:01 am

By Chelsea T. Johnson 

No. 1 New England Patriots
The New England Patriots hope to follow up last year’s disappointing campaign in the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles and change the “In Brady and Belichick We Trust,” narrative. That all starts with the face of the defense. The Patriots will be without former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia who took on a head coaching job for the Detroit Lions. He is replaced by Brian Flores, New England’s current linebackers coach, who will be handling the play-calling duties for the defense. I don’t worry too much about this transition for the Patriots. Doug Kyed of NESN.com quoted numerous players who have said how much “easier,” things have been with Patricia’s replacement. 

A primary concern for this Patriots offense is the loss of Tom Brady’s blindside protector Nate Solder who signed a 4-year $62 million contract with the New York Giants making him the highest paid offensive linemen in NFL history. Obviously, that position will be hard to replace considering Solder has started at that position since 2012. Despite that, the New England Patriots are still a lock to the number 1 seed in the playoffs, but if they can’t fill in that huge gap in their offensive line, 40-year old Brady may find himself recovering from another Lombardi-less season.

No.2 Pittsburgh Steelers
A lot of questions are looming around the “Steel City,” and that can either serve as a distraction or motivation for the Pittsburgh Steelers. We’ll start with the quarterback position. Big Ben Roethlisberger is entering his 15th season in the NFL with two years left on his contract. The Ohio native said his primary concern is to play football and not worry about his contract, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to stay focused with rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph waiting to make his NFL debut. Luckily for the Steelers, this will serve as motivation for Ben who has a lot to prove to secure his future under center. 

The future of running back Le’Veon Bell in a Steelers uniform is also up for grabs. Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term agreement again, and he’ll play under the franchise tag for a consecutive year. Bell was the league’s third-leading rusher last season, and I’m sure that’ll continue in order for things to move in his favor next year. All in all, pressure builds diamonds or steel in this case, and when you have the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown, the journey to the playoffs gets easier and easier. 

No.3 Oakland Raiders
The return of Jon Gruden to the head coach position of the Oakland Raiders has all of Raiders nation in angst for the start of the season. Gruden’s first stint with the Raiders started in 1998 where he coached for three seasons until heading to Tampa Bay where he won the Super Bowl in 2003. 

A motivation for Gruden to return to Oakland was the chance to coach defensive end Khalil Mack who currently hasn’t reported to training camp in hopes of securing a long-term deal with the Raiders. Gruden refuted reports that he and Mack haven’t spoken since his hiring and that general manager Reggie Mackenzie is in charge of negotiations to get Mack to return to camp.

The Raiders will also be without receiver Michael Crabtree who signed a 3-year $21 million with the Baltimore Ravens. He was replaced by former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson who signed a 2-year $15 million deal with the Raiders. Nelson will be a great addition to their wide receiver group and offensive coordinator Greg Olsen spoke highly of his catching abilities and speed after the catch.

Nelson’s veteran presence will be the perfect substitution for this offense and with stiff competition in the AFC West, last year’s 6-10 Raiders team will return back to its 2016 form.

No.4  Houston Texans
The Houston Texans are no strangers to injuries and after star rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson left his MVP campaign season early with a torn ACL, the result of a 4-12 season didn’t come as a surprise. To make matters worse, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, J.J Watt, wasn’t on the field for the majority of the season either. 

But now things are different in Houston. The “Wat,” brothers appear to be back to full form at training camp, and a man who knows about playoff success too well has made his return to the defensive coordinator position. 

Romeo Crennel, known as “RAC,”  will be making his return to the defensive coordinator position while handling his current assistant head coach duties. Crennel was the mastermind behind the Texans’ defensive success in 2014-16, wherein each year the Texans’ defense improved from middle-tier to being ranked No.1 in total defense in 2016. 

With health on their side and Crennel at the helm of the defense, the Texans will get back to playoff nostalgia and on their way to an AFC South division title.

Wild Card: Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars 
The pressure is on for 33-year old quarterback Joe Flacco to take the Baltimore Ravens out of a five-year playoff drought. But that pressure comes with ease. Peter King, a columnist for Football Morning in America, describes Flacco’s training camp performance as “far and away the best he’s looked in camp in his 11 years as a Raven.” That’s pretty comforting for a team that knows it’s a “make or break” season for the veteran quarterback who has a Heisman trophy winner in Lamar Jackson waiting for his first rep. 

The Ravens also made a few offensive acquisitions to provide Flacco with more support. The highlight of those acquisitions includes wide receiver Michael Crabtree from the Oakland Raiders who ESPN’s Mike Clay and NFL Nation rank as the league’s No.1 wide receiver based on target share projections for the upcoming season.

Moving to the defensive side of the ball, the Baltimore Ravens elevated Don “Wink” Martindale from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after the retirement of Dean Pees, who is in now in charge of the Tennessee Titans’ defense. 

Wink’s experience at the position includes a one year stint with Denver in 2010 in which the Broncos went 4-12 and gave up the most points and yards per game in the league. Despite those numbers, his prior experience doesn’t trouble me or indicate that the Baltimore Ravens’ defense won’t continue to lead the league in takeaways. 

Wink has had experience coaching Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs and C.J Mosely, and I’m sure that leadership will carry on to lead the Ravens to a wild-card spot in the playoffs.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are coming off of a fiery 2017 campaign, going all the way to the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. Their playoff journey ended in Foxborough, but it was a new beginning for this storied franchise. It was also a new beginning for first-year head coach Doug Marrone. 

Coach Marrone took a franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2007 to a mere game away from the Super Bowl. It took time to gain the trust of his players, but according to defensive tackle Malik Jackson, the team is more open to Marrone because they saw the results. Luckily for Jacksonville, those results landed quarterback Blake Bortles to a 3-year $54 million contract extension. 

The Jaguars' defense also provided results for this team. Last season, they were ranked second in points (16.8) and yards allowed (286.1) and first in yards per play (4.61) passing yards (169.9), third down rate (33.6 percent) and red zone rate (39.3 percent). 

This fresh Jags team certainly has the pawns to make it to the playoffs and considering their tied for 25th in terms of strength of schedule a wild card spot seems pretty doable. 

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