The NFL season kicks off in a few weeks. It’s that time again when predictions are made for the upcoming year.
The only constant in football seems to be the New England Patriots’ utter dominance of their division. That shouldn’t change this year, but who else will seize division titles in the AFC in 2019?
Here is a forecast of each division in the conference, including its champion.
AFC East: New England Patriots
The Super Bowl champion Patriots are the kings of the East. They have won the division 16 times in the past 18 years, including 10 consecutive seasons. The last time the Patriots failed to win the division came in 2008, when quarterback Tom Brady tore his ACL in the regular-season opener.
The Patriots’ underappreciated defense came up huge in the postseason, particularly in a masterful Super Bowl performance. Ranking seventh in scoring defense a season ago, this should remain a top-10 unit in 2019.
Despite tight end Rob Gronkowski retiring in the offseason, the offense remains loaded. Josh Gordon has been conditionally reinstated by the NFL from his fifth league-imposed suspension. Brady loved throwing to Gordon when the two shared the field last year.
🚨 Josh Gordon is BACK!
In the short time together, the Brady-to-Gordon connection resulted in 11.3 yards per attempt which is the best mark by a Brady-to-receiver duo in the PFF era, beating out notable combinations like Brady to Gronk (10.3) and Brady to Moss (9.2). https://t.co/k0I5PDECJ4 pic.twitter.com/z1x671g6dT
— PFF (@PFF) August 16, 2019
Even before the Gordon news broke, the Patriots were in good shape at the position. They bolstered their receiving corps in the offseason with talented rookies, selecting N’Keal Harry in the first round of the NFL Draft and signing undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers.
Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman leads the receiving unit, which also includes 31-year-old five-time Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas, assuming the latter is not released. Thomas must prove he is recovered from his torn Achilles.
The Miami Dolphins are in complete rebuild mode. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets possess promising second-year QBs in Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, respectively. However, they are a ways to go from challenging the Patriots for the division crown.
Until the ageless wonder Brady hangs up his cleats and the mastermind head coach Bill Belichick retires, these Patriots are seizing the East.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
Garnering the most buzz among any NFL team in the offseason, the Cleveland Browns are the favorites to win their division. That’s quite the turnaround for a club that went winless in 2017. The Browns have not made the postseason since 2002 and their last division title came in 1989, but sophomore quarterback Bayer Mayfield has reinvigorated the franchise.
Mayfield set a rookie-record with 27 passing TDs in 2018, despite not seeing any action until Week 3 and not starting until the following contest.
General manager John Dorsey managed to acquire All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham in a blockbuster trade in the offseason. He also signed embattled Pro-Bowl running back Kareem Hunt, who won the rushing title in his rookie season in 2017. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season.
With all the hype surrounding the Browns, the pressure is on first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens—the team’s offense coordinator for the final seven games (5-2 record) of last season—to deliver a postseason berth. Kitchens can lean on his strong rapport with Mayfield, but his decision-making skills will be put to the test in his new role that encompasses much more responsibilities.
Ben Roethlisberger owns the Browns until proven otherwise. The two-time Super Bowl champion QB holds a 23-2-1 record against the division rivals.
The Steelers have posted a winning record in each of the past five seasons and have never finished under .500 in 12 seasons with Mike Tomlin as head coach.
The Ravens are relying on second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson to improve as a passer. Jackson snatched the starting job from former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and went on to win six of seven starts to guide the Ravens to a division title. But Baltimore’s defense played a massive role in its playoff push and that unit lost Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and Za’Darius Smith in the offseason.
While the Cincinnati Bengals are destined for the basement of the AFC North, the Steelers and Ravens should find themselves competing for the division crown—or at the very least hunting down a wild card spot.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
All four teams in the AFC South have a realistic shot at winning the division. The South had two playoff teams in 2018—the division champion Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts. The Tennessee Titans finished with a winning record (9-7) and defeated four playoff teams (Texans, Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys) in Mike Vrabel’s first year as head coach.
The Jacksonville Jaguars endured a disastrous 2018 campaign, a season after reaching the AFC championship. Looking for a fresh start at QB, they signed former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
As long as the oft-injured quarterback Andrew Luck stays healthy (a big question mark), it’s the Colts division to lose. He is uncertain for Week 1, a concerning development for one of the league’s most dominant signal-callers.
Luck played terrific last season, accumulating the second-most passing TDs (38) in the league. He threw 3+ touchdowns in eight consecutive contests. The Colts captured nine victories over their last 10 games to become the third team in league history to make the postseason after a 1-5 start.
8 consecutive games with 3 or more passing TDs for Andrew Luck, tied with Peyton Manning for second-longest streak in NFL history (Brady holds record of 10). #Colts
— Arthur Arkush (@ArthurArkush) November 26, 2018
The Colts added more weapons in the passing attack for Luck. They signed veteran wideout Devin Funchess and drafted Parris Campbell in the second round.
General manager Chris Ballard inked Justin Houston to a two-year contract to augment a rejuvenated defense. Houston, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, should fortify the pass rush.
Expect Indianapolis to reclaim the South and win its first division title since 2014.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC West will be a two-team race, just as it was last season. The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, combining for 10 victories altogether last year, are still a step behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chiefs won the division in 2018 with 12 wins, sweeping the season series with the Chargers to earn the tie-breaker. The Chargers and Chiefs both fell victim to the eventual champion Patriots in the postseason. The Chargers got walloped at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round, while the Chiefs lost at home in the AFC championship.
Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes spearheads the Chiefs’ electric offense, which racked up a league-high 425 yards per contest last year. With wideout Tyreek Hill not expected to face a suspension, the offense could be the top unit for the second consecutive season.
The Chiefs’ maligned defense (24th in points allowed last season) should be better in 2019, in spite of losing Justin Houston in free agency. The Chiefs signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to address their weak secondary. They also acquired defensive end Frank Clark in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.
Hunter Henry returns for the Chargers after missing the entire 2018 regular season with a torn ACL. He is a top-tier tight end and should be a staple in a passing attack, which is led by eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen has made two straight Pro Bowls, shedding his label as an injury-prone player.
Star running back Melvin Gordon may sit out most, if not all, of the season due to a contract dispute. As talented as Gordon is, LA won all four games he missed last year.
The Chargers are likely to reach the postseason and are legit Super Bowl contenders. However, the devastating injury to All-Pro safety Derwin James gives the Chiefs a slight edge to snatch the West. James was the backbone of LA’s defense as a rookie last season. But the 23-year-old has a stress fracture in his right foot, which will sideline him for at least three months.
The promising #Chargers roster has taken a number of significant preseason hits, but none could be felt more than the loss of Derwin James, who is set to miss significant time this season – @PFF_Chichester examines.https://t.co/aGl2e2w6Do pic.twitter.com/qzGxHrdPmK
— PFF (@PFF) August 17, 2019
While it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising for the Chargers to supersede the Chiefs in the West, Kansas City is the best bet to win the division.