Capsules compiled by Associated Press for the 16 AFC teams for the 2005 season, listed by record for last season:
New England Patriots
2004: 14-2, 3-0 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Can become first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls and four out of five. Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch leads Tom Brady’s WR group that also includes David Givens, Troy Brown and newcomer David Terrell. Young DL is solid, led by two-time All-Pro Richard Seymour. Aggressive S Rodney Harrison leads defense. Coach Bill Belichick keeps reminding players they’ve done nothing yet this season. Addition of Terrell, LBs Chad Brown and Monty Beisel and several experienced DBs helps. First-round draft pick OL Logan Mankins has had strong training camp.
PESSIMISTIC: Patriots lost both coordinators: Charlie Weis (offense) became head coach at Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel (defense) took over Cleveland Browns. Former DBs coach Eric Mangini replaces Crennel, but no offensive coordinator has been hired and Belichick will have greater input. LB Tedy Bruschi plans to sit out following minor stroke last February and LB Ted Johnson retired after series of concussions. DB Ty Law, hurt most of last season, signed with Jets, and G Joe Andruzzi went to Browns.
ON THE RISE: NT Vince Wilfork, DE Ty Warren, DBs Randall Gay and Asante Samuel, Givens, TE Benjamin Watson, who missed most of his rookie season after being taken in first round. He is part of strong group with Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver.
ON THE DECLINE: Brown and backup QB Doug Flutie, a newcomer to the team at age 42.
EXPECT: Should win AFC East despite tough early-season schedule with two home games in first six games. One of favorites.
2004: 15-1, 1-1 in playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: QB Ben Roethlisberger still hasn’t lost a regular-season game and has looked sharp in camp, seemingly motivated by talk he’s destined for sophomore drop-off. Addition of pass-catching TE Heath Miller in draft. NFL No. 5 career rusher Jerome Bettis was talked into coming back after just missing another 1,000-yard season despite starting just half the year. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau always seems to have people in right spots and got career year from ILB James Farrior. Another AFC title game defeat – the fourth since 1995 – has prevented any loss of motivation from team that still has something to prove.
PESSIMISTIC: RB Duce Staley and OLB Joey Porter needed knee operations and neither figures to be in peak shape when season starts. That could leave running game mostly in Bettis’ hands in September, and he’s already said he can no longer be premier back for full season. CB is potential trouble spot, though athletic Ike Taylor is pushing Willie Williams, a 13-year veteran who hadn’t started in two seasons before last year. Roethlisberger lost favorite receiver, 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress (now with Giants), and both possible replacements (Cedrick Wilson, Antwaan Randle El) are shorter than 6-foot-0. Is Roethlisberger truly a gifted player who can carry a franchise for years or simply enjoyed a stars-in-perfect-alignment season that can’t be repeated.
ON THE RISE: OT Max Starks, WR Randle El, CB Taylor, TE Miller and RB Willie Parker, a college backup at North Carolina who could play a lot early.
ON THE DECLINE: RB Bettis, CB Williams, DE Kimo von Oelhoffen.
EXPECT: Steelers look primed to win another division title, even though Ravens and Bengals seem improved. They won’t go 15-1 again, but will take 10-6 if it gets them to Super Bowl for first time in 10 years.
2004: 12-4, 1-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Proficient offense should continue to pile up points with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. Manning could become only second NFL player to win three straight MVP awards. Colts could capture third straight division title for first time since 1975-77. With ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Colts have one of AFC’s top sack tandems. A more physical defense can be key to Super Bowl run.
PESSIMISTIC: Need unproven linebackers to make major contributions and young secondary to force turnovers. Must replace both starting guards and TE Marcus Pollard. No proven backup to Manning. Have avoided season-ending injuries to top players in 2002, 2003 and 2004; will that luck continue? Still have to get through New England.
ON THE RISE: WR Troy Walters, RB Dominic Rhodes, DE Mathis, LB David Thornton, rookie DB Marlin Jackson, S Bob Sanders. Sanders is healthy after injury-plagued rookie season and Colts believe he can be big-hitting safety they need.
ON THE DECLINE: S Mike Doss, suspended for first two regular-season games after pleading guilty to misdemeanor gun charges.
EXPECT: Another AFC South title and a couple more run-ins with Patriots that they must win if they hope to finally reach Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers
2004: 12-4, 0-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Drew Brees, 2004 Comeback Player of the Year, will try to show skeptics he’s more than one-year wonder. RB LaDainian Tomlinson is looking forward to healthy, productive year. Chargers think they’ve beefed up anemic pass rush with first-round picks OLB Shawne Merriman and DT Luis Castillo.
PESSIMISTIC: Brutal schedule, with four East Coast trips and road games against Patriots, Eagles, Colts and Jets. Will be missing All-Pro TE Antonio Gates for season opener due to holdout-related suspension. Then there’s coach Marty Schottenheimer’s 5-12 playoff record and penchant for going conservative in January, which contributed to OT playoff loss to Jets. Coaches of his stature, who constantly preach poise, don’t draw unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for running on field at critical time in playoff game.
ON THE RISE: TE Gates, CB Drayton Florence, WR Eric Parker, OLB Shaun Phillips, P Mike Scifres, RB-KOR Darren Sproles.
ON THE DECLINE: K Nate Kaeding, LT Roman Oben, WR Keenan McCardell, CB Sammy Davis.
EXPECT: A return to playoffs, but certainly not at 12-4.
New York Jets
(10-6, 1-1 playoffs)
OPTIMISTIC: Chad Pennington says he feels better than ever following offseason shoulder surgery. If that is case, Jets could score some points with new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, and Pennington has his favorite receiver back in Laveranues Coles. Curtis Martin, 32, won rushing title last year, and Jets upgraded at tight end with Doug Jolley. Defensively, LB Jonathan Vilma was top rookie and Ty Law could help solidify unit if his foot holds up for entire season.
PESSIMISTIC: If Pennington and Law cannot stay healthy, Jets are in serious trouble. Martin, going into his 11th season, might start slowing down after 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Jets could have problems on defensive line: Jason Ferguson is in Dallas and Pro Bowl end John Abraham has held out.
ON THE RISE: LB Vilma, LB Eric Barton, S Erik Coleman, rookie S Kerry Rhodes, RT Adrian Jones.
ON THE DECLINE: WR Wayne Chrebet.
EXPECT: Jets should have shot at another wild-card berth.
2004: 10-6, 0-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Core of fifth-ranked offense and fourth-ranked defense returns, including Jake Plummer, who set franchise record with 4,089 yards last season and tied another with 27 touchdown passes. WR Jerry Rice has been signed, Trevor Pryce is healthy and DLs Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren are in from Cleveland with plenty to prove.
PESSIMISTIC: Plummer also led league in interceptions with 20. Brown has already suffered preseason elbow injury, although he should be back by September. Rice has looked good, but his presence could simply be masking fact Broncos haven’t developed anyone behind Rod Smith. For second straight year, Broncos failed to win division despite good stats — mainly because they haven’t made enough big plays.
ON THE RISE: RB Ron Dayne, WR Ashley Lelie, TE Stephen Alexander, DL Pryce.
ON THE DECLINE: OLs getting older and lacking depth. Smith has been great, but Broncos need to get serious about finding his replacement
EXPECT: This team will go the way Plummer goes. In eight years, he has won one playoff game.
OPTIMISTIC: Anchored by Pro Bowl tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, defense should be one of best in league. Unit also added DE Reggie Hayward, who was third in the AFC with 10 1/2 sacks last season. Offense, which finished 29th in league and last in AFC in scoring last season, returns all but one starter (fullback Marc Edwards) and expects to be better under new coordinator Carl Smith. QB Byron Leftwich could put up big numbers and WR Reggie Williams, first-round pick in 2004, could blossom.
PESSIMISTIC: RB Fred Taylor and LT Mike Pearson are still recovering from knee injuries and need time to get back to full speed. First seven games include six opponents that advanced to 2004 postseason. Tough early stretch includes road games against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
ON THE RISE: QB Leftwich, WR Williams, CB Rashean Mathis and rookie RB Alvin Pearman.
ON THE DECLINE: WR Jimmy Smith and RB Taylor.
EXPECT: Contend for AFC wild-card spot with defense that has potential to be as good as Baltimore’s in 2000.
OPTIMISTIC: Ravens moved to improve passing game by adding WR Derrick Mason, drafting WR Mark Clayton and installing former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator. Defense has been enhanced by addition of CB Samari Rolle and LB Tommy Polley, and 4-6 alignment under first-year defensive coordinator Rex Ryan should enable LB Ray Lewis to run free along line of scrimmage.
PESSIMISTIC: If Baltimore doesn’t get production from QB Kyle Boller, then offense will again turn one-dimensional, allowing opposition to focus on stopping RB Jamal Lewis. Boller is OK when given time to throw, but will be operating behind thin offensive line that has provided shaky protection this preseason.
ON THE RISE: WRs Clayton, Clarence Moore and Patrick Johnson have provided Boller with more options, and S Will Demps has lifted his play to fit into standout defensive backfield that includes Rolle, Chris McAlister and Deion Sanders. DT Anthony Weaver has improved with experience.
ON THE DECLINE: OT Orlando Brown and TE Todd Heap, who missed much of last season with an ankle injury and sat out training camp with shoulder and ankle injuries.
EXPECT: Ravens should contend for playoff spot, but need strong season from Boller and minimum of injuries on offensive line to make run at Super Bowl berth.
OPTIMISTIC: Willis McGahee is ready to build off strong first season in which he sparked sputtering offense with 1,128 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in only 11 starts. Bills were 7-0 when McGahee had 100 yards rushing and 9-2 in games he started. Veteran defense, which generated league-leading 39 turnovers, returns mostly intact. Second-year quarterback J.P. Losman shows grasp of offense in replacing Drew Bledsoe. Second-year coach Mike Mularkey has shown ability to keep players focused through adversity, able to rally team after last year’s 1-5 start.
PESSIMISTIC: Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger aside, few first-year starting quarterbacks are successful making transition in first season. Gambling that McGahee can establish ball-control offense and defense can stymie opponents to take pressure off Losman. Offensive line must continue showing growth with two new starters, LG Bennie Anderson and LT Mike Gandy. Have struggled against AFC East, going 10-20 against division rivals in last five seasons.
ON THE RISE: WR Lee Evans, CB/KR Terrence McGee, coach Mularkey.
ON THE DECLINE: WR Eric Moulds, a 10-year veteran whose numbers are expected to decline with Bills’ run-first philosophy and Evans’ emergence. DT Sam Adams — how long can perennially banged-up knees hold up?
EXPECT: A lot has to go right for Bills to overcome Losman’s initial growing pains and end five-year playoff drought.
OPTIMISTIC: Can break one of longest streaks of futility in NFL history by securing first winning record since 1990. Brought entire offense back intact, and QB Carson Palmer has gone through first-year growing pains. Young defense should improve as season goes along under new coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. Bengals have gone 8-8 in each of Marvin Lewis’ first two seasons as coach, and are overdue for breakthrough season.
PESSIMISTIC: Top draft pick David Pollack missed training camp in holdout that will slow his development and cost the club initially. Four of first six games are on road, and Bengals have history of slow starts that put them too far behind to catch up. Plus, they have yet to shake habit of playing their worst when it matters most.
ON THE RISE: Pollack will start when he’s ready, playing linebacker next to former Georgia teammate Odell Thurman (second-round pick). Palmer can join game’s elite QBs in his second season as starter. RB Chris Perry, who missed virtually all of rookie season with injuries, is ready to start contributing as first-round pick.
ON THE DECLINE: WR Peter Warrick started only one game last season because of cracked bone in leg, dropping former first-round pick to reserve role this season. If he doesn’t have big season, he could be gone.
EXPECT: Anything less than winning season will be major disappointment. Lewis has transformed “Bungles” into contender in only two years, raising expectations of playoff appearance. If high-powered offense can carry them while young defense develops, Bengals will be in position to take that final step.
OPTIMISTIC: Have improved slowly in first three years, winning seven games last season, five in 2003 and four in first season. QB David Carr is more comfortable as team leader and has 1,000-yard receiver (Andre Johnson) and 1,000-yard rusher (Domanick Davis) to lean on. Coach Dom Capers hopes revamped defense that is both younger and faster will improve unit that ranked 23rd in league, allowing more than 341 yards per game last season.
PESSIMISTIC: If Texans are to get over hump and into the playoffs they’ll have to figure out how to beat AFC foe Indianapolis. They’re 0-6 against the Colts. To do that they need to generate legitimate pass rush. Will also have to better protect Carr with virtually same line that allowed league-high 49 sacks last season.
ON THE RISE: Entering his third season, WR Johnson is coming off of an 1,100-yard year and his first Pro Bowl. Texans expect big things from CB Dunta Robinson, who started every game as rookie last season and had 85 tackles and six interceptions. Free agent LB Morlon Greenwood should help with pass rush.
ON THE DECLINE: OT Seth Wand.
EXPECT: Expansion team has good shot at making playoffs in its fourth season.
Kanas City Chiefs
OPTIMISTIC: Return all but two starters on offense that led the league in total yardage and was No. 2 in scoring. Help may finally have arrived on beleaguered defense which hasn’t finished higher than 29th in past three years. No. 1 draft pick Derrick Johnson looks like future star at OLB and newcomers Patrick Surtain and Sammy Knight could turn weak secondary into strength. Rookie P Dustin Colquitt could shore up another persistent problem.
PESSIMISTIC: Dominant offense is getting old. QB Trent Green, RB Priest Holmes, TE Tony Gonzalez and Pro Bowl blockers Will Shields and Willie Roaf were given a half-day off in camp. While LB and DBs were upgraded, DL was not. Breakthrough season is desperately needed from unproductive DT Ryan Sims, taken sixth overall three years ago. Shields, like Roaf a 10-time Pro Bowler, must shake off nagging back problem.
ON THE RISE: P Dustin Colquitt, T Kevin Sampson, RB Larry Johnson, LB’s Kawika Mitchell, Derrick Johnson. Coach Dick Vermeil flatly says D.Johnson will be a star after being a big first-round question mark.
ON THE DECLINE: G Will Shields.
EXPECT: Much-improved defense and offense still capable of putting up big numbers. But AFC West is tough.
OPTIMISTIC: Randy Moss! The star receiver considers himself best in the game and is ready for new start after seven seasons in Minnesota. Quarterback Kerry Collins has strong enough arm to exploit Moss’ strengths and Raiders are embracing Moss’ do-it-my-way approach, unconcerned with his offbeat antics. Four-time Pro Bowl CB Charles Woodson returns despite speculation he would sign elsewhere during off-season. And he was in camp after holding out in 2004.
PESSIMISTIC: Raiders will need to score a lot of points to stay in games with defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed last season. Young OL must protect turnover-prone Collins.
ON THE RISE: WR Jerry Porter and RB LaMont Jordan. Porter, re-signed with five-year deal in February just before Moss came aboard in trade with Minnesota. Jordan finally gives Raiders a No. 1 back after playing behind Curtis Martin during his first four seasons with Jets.
ON THE DECLINE: Warren Sapp, Ted Washington. Both DTs were disappointing in first season in silver and black.
EXPECT: Raiders will make things interesting. Hard to figure but could stay in playoff chase down to final weeks.
OPTIMISTIC: Steve McNair’s achy sternum has been surgically repaired, and he’s slimmer, faster and more driven to perform after his worst season as pro. A team that lost 18 players for at least five games and starters for a combined 136 games in 2004 has healed up, and Titans replace only three starters from offense that ranked 11th.
PESSIMISTIC: Team that went 61-35 since 1999 and reached playoffs four times in that stretch is in full rebuilding mode. Only 11 players on roster have four or more years experience, and five starters are being replaced on defense.
ON THE RISE: WRs Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico, who missed most of 2004 with knee injuries. Rookie RT Michael Roos, TE Ben Troupe, LB Keith Bulluck, DT Albert Haynesworth.
ON THE DECLINE: DE Travis LaBoy must stay healthy to show why he was Titans’ top draft pick in 2004.
EXPECT: Coach Jeff Fisher has pulled out .500 seasons with lesser talent.
OPTIMISTIC: Can’t get much worse. Romeo Crennel’s first head coaching gig is tough one: turning around once-proud franchise that has lost NFL-high 66 games since returning to the league in 1999. QB Trent Dilfer gets fresh start after four seasons in Seattle. Offense has weapons, including RBs Reuben Droughns, William Green and Lee Suggs and rookie WR Braylon Edwards, as well as more experienced line. CB Gary Baxter should help defense with some major holes and one slow to embrace new 3-4 scheme. Underrated K Phil Dawson is one of league’s most accurate.
PESSIMISTIC: Crennel could be in over his head. New England’s ex-defensive coordinator doesn’t have half the talent as with Patriots. Browns GM Phil Savage will need another round or two through free agency and drafts to get club up to speed. Early road games at Indianapolis and Green Bay could set tone for another long year.
ON THE RISE: Edwards, WR Antonio Bryant, TE Steve Heiden and C Jeff Faine. Rookie QB Charlie Frye has opened eyes during camp, challenging for backup job. DT Orpheus Roye doesn’t get much publicity, but quietly gets it done. LB Andra Davis is solid.
ON THE DECLINE: DL/LB Kenard Lang dropped weight and dropped back to outside linebacker.
EXPECT: A rough rookie season for Crennel, who has five Super Bowl rings and no shot of adding a sixth anytime soon.
OPTIMISTIC: New coach Nick Saban, a winner everywhere he has been, offers fresh hope for franchise coming off worst season since 1960s and first losing season since 1988. Saban brought in new staff, lured back RB Ricky Williams and acquired reinforcements for talented but aging defense. He also drafted RB Ronnie Brown with Dolphins’ highest pick since 1966 and signed well-traveled QB Gus Frerotte as alternative to A.J. Feeley.
PESSIMISTIC: OL might be no better than last year, when Dolphins ranked next-to-last in rushing and gave up 52 sacks. QB situation remains unsettled, and 34-year-old Frerotte is hardly long-term solution. Defense is aging and will miss CB Pat Surtain, traded in salary cap move.
ON THE RISE: WR Wes Welker, TE Lorenzo Diamond, T Vernon Carey, LB Channing Crowder.
ON THE DECLINE: Feeley, RB Lamar Gordon, TE Donald Lee.
EXPECT: Offense is bad, defense is in transition and schedule is difficult. But new coaching staff offers sense of fresh start, and with much better situation at RB than a year ago, Dolphins could improve to 6-10.
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