You can go ahead and write down New England and Baltimore as two AFC teams that will be in the 2012 playoffs. They’re so experienced and rich with talent that it won’t be a surprise to see these two in the AFC Championship again (I like Baltimore all the way this year). However, turnover being what it is in the NFL, there will be three new teams in the AFC playoff mix this year because it’s damn near the law at this point. I’m thinking injuries, inspired performances and the unlikely hot streak have as much to do with making the playoffs as talent on offense, defense and special teams. These three have the inside track in my opinion.
Oakland Raiders - A pair of 8-8 seasons haven’t convinced many of Oakland’s legitimacy, but you have to look at this squad in the context of climbing out of the basement and into mediocrity. That’s a huge leap for a team with so much instability at quarterback, head coach and now, after Al Davis’s passing, in the organization as a whole. Davis may have been unconventional, but he was there for 50 years. You knew he would do things his way. Now with a whole new regime, the Raiders can focus their uncelebrated talent and surprise a lot of folks. The matchup against the NFC South this year will play to Oakland’s favor. Tremendous speed on offense means gamebreaking plays are just a snap away and a renewed focus on defense will simplify things and let players simply run straight at the ball. This is a team poised for a feast-or-famine type of season: all the new faces can succeed because none of them knows any better or they can fail miserably because not enough culture/infrastructure/know-how is in place. I’m going with the former.
Tennessee Titans - Jake Locker is the future and Matt Hasselbeck will continue to be one hell of a mentor, so TEN’s offense will be its strength. Chris Johnson has learned to be effective enough as a running back that he doesn’t have to rush for 2000 yards --he just has to stop talking about running for 2K. These Titans aren’t the smothering type like in the Jeff Fisher days, but they still play well enough as a team unit to keep games from getting out of hand. All that said, if Locker takes a leap forward in his development and Chris Johnson quietly continues to produce (he caught 57 passes in 2011), the Titans are in a division where they can pick up the win or two they need to grab a final playoff spot in Week 16 or 17.
New York Jets - I’m not going to worry about the blabbering going on with New York’s offense. These Jets have not been built to play with a lead and put up 24 points a game. That’s New Orleans or New England’s job. The Jets will keep games close, both because they have to and because they’re built to suffocate opponents with pressure and sure tackling. Too many sportswriters are too enamored with too many QBs these days and so we get clichés like “the NFL is a quarterback driven league” replacing “defense wins championships.” Patriot fans know one broken up pass by Sterling Moore in the AFC Championship was the difference between them and the Super Bowl. Defense will always make the difference and the Jets still have the best defensive talent outside of Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Winning 10-games by 3 points counts the same as 10 blowouts and Rex Ryan’s defensive unit will lead the way for New York this season. And by New York, I mean the city, not just the team in green.