2018 AFC Outlook

Division Winners

1. New England Patriots– It’s another year with them once again entering a season as the defending champions of the AFC. They lost a few key pieces in Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Butler, but we always know that Bill Belichick will always have his football team ready to play and as long as he and Brady are there, they have more than a 50 percent chance of getting to the Super Bowl. It’s simply not playoff football without the New England Patriots and once again, they will be the top seed in the AFC and the road to Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta once again will travel through Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The offense will hold its ground through the first four games without Julian Edelman who will be serving his suspension and this is where other guys will step it up. Oh, let’s not forget that a guy named Gronkowski is still on the field, so I don’t expect them to miss much of a beat. I’ll be paying close attention to their defense as they struggled early on in the season, but picked it up as time went along. I’m expecting another one seed and a first-round bye for the ninth straight season. Unbelievable.

Projected record: 12-4, first in AFC East.

Key games: Week one vs Houston, Week two at Jacksonville, Week three at Detroit, Week six vs Kansas City, Week nine vs Green Bay, Week 10 at Tennessee, Week 13 vs Minnesota, Week 14 at Miami, Week 15 at Pittsburgh.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers– Their title window is beginning to close and the crazy thing is at one time in 2017 during the season, they looked to be the team to beat in the AFC and it would finally be the year the black and yellow get back to the Super Bowl, but those goals came to an end at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is still the team to beat in the AFC North and they’ll claim their division once again. I’ll continue to say this: Le’Veon Bell is the Steelers most important player on the offensive side of the ball and when he gets things rolling, their offense is unstoppable. I’ll really be watching their defense this year and this may be the first time that they enter a season with a ton of questions surrounding a side of the football where they’ve made the name for themselves and let’s be honest, they weren’t the same after Ryan Shazier was injured and they gave up 45 points in the playoff loss against Jacksonville. This will be their final shot at getting to the Super Bowl I feel. If they don’t get there this year or at least advance in the playoffs, I see some changes coming in Pittsburgh.

Projected Record: 12-4, first in AFC North.

Key Games: Week two vs Kansas City, Week four vs Baltimore, Week five vs Atlanta, Week nine at Baltimore, Week ten vs Carolina, Week 11 at Jacksonville, Week 12 at Denver, Week 13 vs LA Chargers, Week 14 at Oakland, Week 15 vs New England.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars– I think they are ready to take that next step and show everyone that last season wasn’t a joke. I’m still trying to get over the fact that they were a game away from reaching the Super Bowl. They have the formula to get there: They have a consistent running game, Blake Bortles can make a big pass when they need it and their defense was the best unit in the NFL last season and I see them staying on their game in 2018. Bortles got his contract extension and now, it’s time to go play. What will Leonard Fournette do for an encore in 2018? He’s the best running back they’ve had since the days of Maurice Jones-Drew. When I look at their defense, they remind me of a young Seahawks defense with the physical secondary, the nice core of linebackers and pass rushers controlling the defensive line. I’m ready to see what they do this season.

Projected Record: 11-5, first in AFC South.

Key Games: Week one at NY Giants, week two vs New England, Week three vs Tennessee, week five at Kansas City, week six at Dallas, week seven vs Houston, week eight vs Philadelphia, week 11 vs Pittsburgh, week 12 at Buffalo.

4. Kansas City Chiefs– The Alex Smith era in Kansas City has come to an end and they are ready for Pat Mahomes to lead them. After all, they traded up to get him. I’m liking the Chiefs to win their division once again and I’m intrigued by their offensive core of players. You have Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins (if he can stay healthy) and the big guy, Travis Kelce. Defensively, they will get Eric Berry back, the heart and soul of this team. Outside of the Los Angeles Chargers, I don’t see the other two teams in the AFC West challenging them.

Projected Record: 10-6, first in AFC West

Key Games: Week one at LA Chargers, week two at Pittsburgh, week three vs 49ers, week five vs Jacksonville, week six at New England, week 11 vs LA Rams, week 14 vs LA Chargers

Wild Cards

5. Houston Texans– If Deshaun Watson doesn’t get hurt last season, the Texans are a playoff team and they look like geniuses trading up to get the star in the making. I don’t think they would’ve won a game if they continued to stick with Tom Savage at quarterback. If they can stay healthy in 2018, this is a playoff team. With Watson and Hopkins handling their business, I expect the offense to pick up where they left off last year and the defense to get back to playing at an elite level. Both Watt and Mercilius return after being injured last season. It could be a fun season in Houston if everything pans out.

Projected Record: 10-6, second in AFC South.

Key Games: Week one at New England, week two at Tennessee, week five vs Dallas, week seven at Jacksonville, week 16 at Philadelphia

6. Los Angeles Chargers– Usually when a team starts 0-4, you throw the towel in on them. That wasn’t the case with the Chargers. They got into a rhythm and if they didn’t struggle down the stretch last season, they’re in the playoffs and not the Buffalo Bills (who they demolished last year, but I guess head to head tiebreakers don’t mean a thing anymore). Philip Rivers continues to play at a productive level, Melvin Gordon gave them some consistency at the running back, something they haven’t had since the days of LaDainian Tomlinson, Keenan Allen was finally healthy and when he’s on the field, he’s dominant and their defense improved. They have the best tandem of pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and in the draft, they added Derwin James at safety.

Projected Record: 9-7, second in AFC West

Key Games: Week one vs Kansas City, week three at LA Rams, week four vs 49ers, week seven vs Tennessee, week 13 at Pittsburgh, week 15 at Kansas City.

Wild Card Round

(3) Jaguars defeat (6) Chargers

(5) Texans defeat (4) Chiefs

Divisional Round

(1) Patriots defeat (5) Texans

(2) Steelers defeat (3) Jaguars

AFC Championship: I truly believe this is the matchup everybody wants to see. The New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers for a trip to Atlanta in the Super Bowl. These two teams know each other way too well and I think we’ll see a fourth ever showdown between these two in the AFC Title game. The two best coaches in the league and two of the best quarterbacks in the business will be featured in this one. The Steelers have what it takes to beat New England, but I don’t think it will happen. The Patriots have way too many offensive weapons across the board for the Steelers secondary. For the ninth time under Bill Belichick, I like the New England Patriots to win the AFC Championship and advance to yet another Super Bowl.