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2017 NFL Preview: All You Need to Know About the AFC

Divisional Round - Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots
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The 2017 NFL season starts Thursday when the New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s all you need to know about the AFC heading into the 2017 season.

Key AFC Questions

New England Patriots v Detroit Lions
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Can the Patriots Replace Julian Edelman?
The last time we saw New England wide receiver Julian Edelman in an NFL game that meant something, he was making a catch that seemingly defied science — and helping his team rally to a Super Bowl title. Problem is, Edelman played in a few NFL games that meant nothing this preseason — and tore his anterior cruciate ligament during one of them. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady haven’t won five titles with the Pats by allowing injuries to stop them, but they aren’t likely to find a wideout as in sync with Brady as Edelman was. Holdover Chris Hogan and new acquisitions Brandin Cooks (free agent; New Orleans) and Phillip Dorsett (trade; Indianapolis) will try to fill the key role.

Is Derek Carr Fully Healthy?
After more than a decade of futility, the Oakland Raiders rose to a 12-4 record and nearly won the AFC West title last season. The Raiders incredible run was derailed when Derek Carr suffered a broken leg in a Week 16 win over Indianapolis. How important was Carr?Oakland dropped its season finale to Denver, 24-6, then got hammered in the wild card round by Houston, 27-14. While Carr has looked solid in his team’s winless preseason, he still must face first-string defenses at regular-season speed. We’ll know sooner than later if he’s truly back.

How Long Until Andrew Luck Starts?
Another NFL season; another injury report on Andrew Luck. Indianapolis’ franchise quarterback will miss at least the first week of the regular season while he continues his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. It’s no great shock: Luck missed all of training camp and the preseason. Backup Scott Tolzien will start against the Rams, but he won’t ever be able to “replace” Luck. Ever. The longer the Colts are without Luck, the closer they come to being an also-ran in the ever-mediocre AFC South. When he’s healthy, they are a playoff contender.

Most Likely to Win the AFC

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers
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Pittsburgh Steelers: Sure, running back Le’Veon Bell held out of camp, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got a year older and wide receiver Martavis Bryant has had trouble ‘playing on grass’ in the past. Who cares? The Steelers are an elite-level offensive team that upgraded its defense with youth (and recently signed former Browns cornerback Joe Haden). If any team in the AFC can unseat New England, it’s Pittsburgh.

New England Patriots: Do you seriously want to bet against the Patriots winning it all (again)? That’s a good way to lose. Between the pathetic excuse for a division that is the AFC East, the continuing excellence of execution that has defined the Belichick/Brady era and the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, it’s hard to imagine New England not getting a bye into the second round of the playoffs. It might be more difficult from there with the Steelers, Chiefs, Titans and Raiders lurking, but this team could go 9-7 and still make a Super Bowl run.

Tennessee Titans: Perhaps the Titans are further away from a title run than this, but why not? If quarterback Marcus Mariota is fully recovered from his broken leg, he now has free agent receiver Eric Decker and newly drafted wideouts Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor as targets. AFC rushing leader DeMarco Murray and backup running back Derrick Henry add more firepower. Sure, the defense will give up lots of points, but the Titans should rule their division. If they can figure out how to stop a few teams in the playoffs, they have as much offensive talent — and perhaps the best offensive line — of any team in the game.

AFC Contenders Who Will Fall Short

Oakland Raiders v Dallas Cowboys
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Oakland Raiders: When Super Bowl-winning running back (and Oakland-native) Marshawn Lynch comes out of retirement to play for the team that he was born to play for, it’s easy to get swept up in the romance of the Raiders winning it all (before abandoning their fans for Las Vegas). The truth: they won a lot of close games last year thanks to Derek Carr’s magic, and the team often benefitted from other teams’ mistakes. The defense, especially the linebacking corps, has to keep pace with All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack and the defensive line before the Silver & Black will truly be back.

Kansas City Chiefs: As usual, the Chiefs will be talented and experienced enough to win 10 games or more. And, as usual, they’ll flame out in the playoffs. With running back Spencer Ware gone for the season with a knee injury, Kansas City will rely on quarterback Alex Smith to shoulder more of the offensive load. If Smith isn’t up to it, rookie Patrick Mahomes and his rocket arm seem like they may be ready sooner than later. The defense, led by Justin Houston, Marcus Peters and Eric Berry, is tough as ever.

Houston Texans: There’s an old Bear Bryant adage about offense selling tickets, while defense wins championships. Bless your houndstooth hat if you think that still holds true in modern-day football. As good as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Houston defense has been/is, the Texans won’t make a deep postseason run until they have a quarterback who can lead them there. Maybe rookie Deshaun Watson is the guy, but he couldn’t beat out Tom Savage this preseason.

AFC Rookies to Watch

New Orleans Saints v Cleveland Browns
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DeShone Kizer, QB, Cleveland Browns: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: the Browns have a new starting quarterback. OK, we’ll say it: DeShone Kizer deserves his shot at leading Cleveland out of eternal double-digit loss seasons. The second-round pick out of Notre Dame won’t have a lot of weapons around him, but he will have left tackle Joe Thomas protecting his back. If the Browns can land a real running back and some receiving help with all their draft picks in the next two years, they may finally not suck (in 2019). Till then…

Leonard Fornette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jacksonville Jaguars have to get better one of these years. When they do, this year’s rookie running back Leonard Fornette figures to lead the charge. The first-round pick out of LSU won’t have as much success as Ezekiel Elliott did last year in Dallas — his line isn’t as good — but he will be a welcome distraction to Blake Bortles’ errant third-down tosses into the parabolic mics on the sidelines.

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: For now, Jeremy Hill is the starting running back in Cincinnati, but it figures to be only a matter of time before second-round draft pick Joe Mixon out of Oklahoma runs past Hill to the top of the Bengals depth chart. Backsliding Cincinnati figures to get by on the strength of its offense, and Andy Dalton and A.J. Green need a complementary running game. A first-round talent that dropped because of ugly off-field issues, Mixon has the explosiveness that can add to the Bengals weapons.

Player on the Hot Seat: Jay Cutler, QB, Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins v Minnesota Vikings
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What, exactly, does Jay Cutler need to be happy? A middling quarterback who played well enough to cash in before flaming out with the Bears, Cutler has millions of dollars, a beautiful wife and plenty of time to smoke cigarettes. Apparently, that was not enough for Cutler, who has un-retired to play for his former Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase in Miami this season after the Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill to a preseason knee injury.

Needless to say, Cutler will be watched closely, since he was supposed to be providing color commentary on televised broadcasts this season, not comic relief under center. Receiver DeVante Parker and running back Jay Ajayi will help (but they can’t run down every interception return).

Coach on the Hot Seat: Todd Bowles, N.Y. Jets

New York Jets v Detroit Lions
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No one envies Todd Bowles. As head coach of the New York Jets, Bowles has what could be the worst high-profile job in pro football. The Browns, Bills, Rams and Niners might all be worse teams than the Jets this season, but at least those coaches aren’t in the largest media market in the country. Bowles’ hopes to not get canned will rest on the arm of Josh McCown. Yeesh. If (when) McCown falters, Bowles can go to Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg in relief. Maybe he should offer Dellin Betances a contract?

Playoff Picks

Division Champs:

AFC East: New England
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Tennessee
AFC West: Oakland

AFC Wild Cards: Houston and Kansas City

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