Check out Pt. 1,if you haven’t already.
The next tier of contenders have yet to demonstrate their full potential on the field. If any of the teams listed under this “Prove-It” section can live up to the hype, they can absolutely go toe-to-toe with, and perhaps even outshine, the aforementioned “Shoo-Ins” (NE, JAX, PIT).
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 1-4: KC, at BUF, at LAR, SF
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 8-11: BYE, at SEA, at OAK, DEN
The Bolts have assembled a fantastic roster via the draft and free agency over the last handful of years. They also have a reasonably paced schedule, and should finally be considered true front runners in the AFC West.
Unfortunately, true to form, they’ve already lost their promising young TE, Hunter Henry, for the season due to a knee injury. The injury bug certainly seems to have it out for this franchise. Health may be more paramount to the Chargers than any other contender, simply because they must believe this year will be different than all the others in which they held great potential and didn’t capitalize. Philip Rivers is running out of at-bats in his quest for a Super Bowl appearance/ring. If they can’t get it done this year, there won’t be much hope left.
Schedule: Link Early match-ups with two in-state “rivals” (at Rams, week 3 and vs. 49ers, week 4) should give us a glimpse at the ceiling of the redheaded stepchild of LA pro football. It will be imperative for the Chargers to hit the ground running this year, as they experienced firsthand last year how a slow start can come back to bite. To really send a message that times have changed for this team, they will also need to throw their weight around in their division. I don’t expect any of the other AFC West members to be awful, but none of them possess the supremely balanced offensive and defensive arsenal that LA does.
Speaking of Arsenal—How about that for a segue?—the Chargers and Titans square off across the pond at Wembley Stadium in week 7, just before both teams’ bye weeks. That contest could very well have playoff implications later in the year, and with two fairly even rosters, it may be decided based on which team can maintain more energy and focus after a long flight to London. A week 13 face-off with Pittsburgh highlights a somewhat more middling second half of the season for LAC.
Roster: Position group to position group, the Chargers can make as strong a case as any AFC team that they field the most balanced roster within the conference—it’s tough to find a weak spot. The loss of Hunter Henry hurts tremendously, as he was fairly certain to be a key cog in their passing game. Never mind the targets he was slated for, his mere presence in the middle of the field would have steadily “parted the sea” for the Chargers’ other pass catchers. They may elect to bring back Antonio Gates, but he won’t have near the same effect at this stage of his career.
Which Philip Rivers are the Bolts going to get in 2018? After showing signs of slowing down in 2016, he rebounded with one of his better overall statistical seasons last year. Barring any further injury losses, he still has a top-tier group of weapons including Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.
Defensively, the Bolts are locked and loaded. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are not only the best pass rushing duo in LA, but the entire NFL (don’t @ me). In fact, think of their defense like poutine: the DL is the cheese curds (already good on their own), the LBs are the french fries (no one’s complaining). If that wasn’t enough to stuff your face with, their loaded secondary tops things off, like gravy, in uber-gluttonous fashion.
Semi-Obligatory Record Prediction: 11-5
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 9-12: at DAL, NE, at IND, at HOU
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 13-16: NYJ, JAX, at NYG, WAS
The main attraction (duh). I’ve said it plenty and I’ll say it again: based solely on a paper depth chart, this is somewhat handily the most talented Titans roster ever. That being said, our fan base knows more than most how much that counts for once the games matter. With so many shiny new toys, the future feels incredibly promising (and it should). It must be kept in mind, though, that we have no true bearing on what to realistically expect from the Titans’ new coaching staff, or a large portion of their roster. The odds that all of the unknowns fulfill expectations are non-zero, but also unlikely. Still, there are enough “sure things” on the roster—notably, Taylor Lewan, Delanie Walker, Jurrell Casey and Kevin Byard—to comfortably place this team within the upper half of the AFC. Even if only a few of the Titans’ ifs pan out in their favor, they should still be competitive against any of the upper-echelon teams in the conference.
Schedule: Link Whether they can consistently take care of the teams they’re supposed to beat will likely be the main forecaster of the Titans’ regular season record. I expect Tennessee to be favored in roughly half of their non-division games. From there, at least earning a split against each of their AFC South rivals should leave them in a position where stealing a game or two against Philly, New England, LA(C), Dallas and Washington will be enough to make the postseason. Thanks to my chronic BFS, I have a hard time envisioning them taking the “easy” path to success—something they simply haven’t been able to “accomplish” during the Mariota era. Three years in, maybe JRob’s culture rebuild is at a stage where that can change. MM8 has dealt with a multitude of obstacles outside his control (questionable coaching, injuries, youth) up to this point in his career, but coming into year 4, he (we) can no longer pass responsibility if and when the Titans fail to win as favorites. It’s time for the killer instinct we saw in week 17 and the Wild Card round to show up every week. Great QBs don’t let bad teams hang around.
Roster: The question marks I have surrounding this year’s outfit aren’t the ones most seem to have. I’m not overly worried about the WR group. If you’ve watched the Rams, Redskins, Falcons and 49ers as they’ve deployed Shanahanian offenses in recent years, you’ve seen them get plenty out of their receiver groups regardless of talent level. I personally expect Marcus Mariota to put up dark-horse MVP (or at least AFC OPOY) numbers. I think Johnathan Cyprien and Bennie Logan will be serviceable in their roles.
My ?s: Despite the surplus of available bodies, outside of Taylor Lewan, do the Titans really have a reliable offensive line? Jack Conklin is more mauler than mover, and while I acknowledge that he’s proved doubters wrong at every stage of his football career, and may do so again, I don’t see his level of play in 2018 matching that of his first two years (obviously, his return from injury plays a role in my line of thinking as well). Josh Kline, Ben Jones and Quinton Spain are all unknowns for me based off last year. The OL’s adaptation to the new scheme will have a huge impact, for better or worse, on everything the Titans hope to do offensively.
On defense, will Tennessee get enough from the ILB group? Simply replacing Avery Williamson’s impact won’t be good enough. To me, the ILBs present the widest spectrum of potential level of play on the roster. Wesley Woodyard has been a beast, but Father Time is undefeated, as we all know. Is Will Compton simply a negligible downgrade from Williamson? As a rookie, can Rashaan Evans mentally be at a level at which the Titans can depend on him in coverage in crucial moments against quality vets? Can Jayon Brown take the next step? With all due respect to Woodyard and Compton, the best case scenario is Evans and Brown earning the most snaps out of the group. This defense can’t be considered reliable until it can minimize the impact of running backs and tight ends in the passing game.
Record Prediction: 10-6
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 1-4: at NE, at TEN, NYG, at IND
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 12-15: TEN, CLE, IND, at NYJ
According to most of NFL media, the Texans’ hopes of contending in the AFC rest squarely on the shoulders of young Deshaun Watson. No one can deny his unbelievable statistical output over 7 games last season. Whether he can even come close to reproducing that in 2018 comes down to a few things: 1) Was he able to improve his processing, decision making and accuracy while also rehabbing this off-season? 2) Can his receivers continue to win on 50-50 balls at a ridiculous clip? 3) What version of Bill O’Brien’s offense will be called and how will defenses adapt to it? 4) Does he just have “it”—something magical that just wunz?
To be fair, he didn’t exactly just wun. The Texans went 3-4 in his 7 appearances, despite those gaudy numbers. Houston’s defense will have just as much to say about their team’s Ws and Ls in 2018. As much fun as Watson is to watch, the Texans don’t have a winning formula if opposing offenses can march up and down the field at will. The pieces on defense are mostly there, and Romeo Crennel (who returns as DC after spending 2017 as “Assistant Head Coach”) has gotten good years out of relatively similar personnel in the past. In my opinion, though, he will have to devise a way to compensate for a major deficiency at likely the most crucial defensive position in the modern game.
Schedule: It was challenging to pick out a toughest/easiest block of 4 games within the Texans’ schedule. They have difficult “doubleheaders” at both the start and end of their 16-game slate: at NE/at TEN in weeks 1 and 2, and at PHI/vs. JAX in weeks 15 and 16. Beyond that, things are spread very evenly, and there are lots of seemingly winnable games. As compared with the Jags and Titans, the Texans avoid more difficult AFC West/North opponents thanks to their last place finish in the South last season. Depending on how you feel about the Cowboys and Redskins, you can make an argument that, outside of the aforementioned “end caps” at both ends of their schedule, the only match-ups the Texans wouldn’t be favored in based on what we know right now are their mid-season games against the Jags and Titans. However, I could absolutely see the Texans being up and down in 2018— trading a couple wins against “superior” opponents for a couple of head-scratchers—due to a leaky secondary and a young QB behind a crap OL. At this point in the “rankings”, we are entering the territory where things feel more amorphous. Anything from 7-9 to 11-5 feels at least semi-realistic for Houston.
Roster: Link This feels like one of those times you might ask someone, “Do want the good news or the bad news first?” The good news, if you’re a Texans fan (I know no one here would degrade themselves in that manner), is Watson, a currently healthy defensive front seven that could be the best in football if it stays that way, DeAndre Hopkins, and a playmaking safety group (Andre Hal and newcomer Tyrann Mathieu). The bad? A god-awful offensive line, and one of the worst cornerback groups (on paper) in the NFL. Houston traded the farm to land Watson in the 2017 draft, so they lacked any means to secure cheap, effective OL or CB help this off-season. Both BOB and Crennel are going to have to focus scheme and play calling on masking these weaknesses, or things could get ugly in a hurry against stiffer competition. Outside of Hopkins, the Texans’ skill players are an unproven bunch, but that isn’t intrinsically good or bad.
Record Prediction: 9-7