Dec 15, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after being sacked during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Division Champs And Their Top Challengers: AFC

The AFC division champions are hoping for a repeat in 2014.  Which NFL teams are their biggest challengers?

AFC East:  New England Patriots

No team has owned a division quite like the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East.  Tom Brady and Bill Belichick show no signs of relinquishing their control after another conference championship appearance.  The defense has improved and the receiving corps should be better and more experienced.

Challenger:  Miami Dolphins

With all due respect to the New York Jets and the job Rex Ryan has done, the Miami Dolphins trump them in one key category:  quarterback.  Ryan Tannehill showed marked progress last season despite getting his brains beat in behind a terrible offensive line.  So the team made a series of free agent and draft moves to improve it.  Together with a strong defense the Dolphins are very much a quiet threat to the Patriots’ throne.

AFC South:  Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck is by far the best quarterback in the AFC South and is becoming one of the best in the NFL.  That is why his Indianapolis Colts have reached the playoffs two-straight years and why they’re expected to do so again.  He has a strong cast of targets around him and serviceable defense under Chuck Pagano and his staff.

Challenger:  Houston Texans

Meanwhile what was a pretty good defense in 2013 for the Houston Texans could become a dominant one this season.  That is the impact of the team drafting 1st overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.  His arrival to team with J.J. Watt changes the landscape of the division.  If new head coach Bill O’Brien can get even modest production out of the offense, his team is a threat to Luck and the Colts.

AFC North:  Cincinnati Bengals

They have been the most consistent team in the AFC North over the past three years in making the playoffs and now the Cincinnati Bengals feel they have a roster capable of a Super Bowl run.  Regardless of his doubters, Andy Dalton is at least a serviceable quarterback who has an offense bursting with talent around him.

Challenger:  Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger carried his Pittsburgh Steelers on his back during the second half of last season and nearly pulled off a miracle playoff run.  If anything else the way he played showed the Steelers should have an explosive offense in 2014.  Together with the emergence of some young talents on defense, Pittsburgh is in line to unseat the Bengals and end their brief post-season drought.

AFC West:  Denver Broncos

They went to the Super Bowl last season with the best offense in NFL history.  The Denver Broncos still have Peyton Manning and on paper a vastly improved defense.  It’s nearly impossible to pick against them as the favorites to retain the AFC West title for a fourth-straight season.

Challenger:  San Diego Chargers

Not that it will be easy sledding.  The division is getting better by the year.  The San Diego Chargers are proof of that, having been one of the three teams to beat the Broncos in the regular season last year.  Philip Rivers is back to his old form and a series of daring but calculated moves has improved their porous pass defense.  If things play out as planned they won’t let the Broncos win without a fight.

Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: Cincinnati Bengals Denver Broncos Miami Dolphins New England Patriots NFL Pittsburgh Steelers San Diego Chargers

  • Speaksnow

    Every year the Dolphins improved, ha! Based on what what the experts have said they should be a dynasty by now, yet all they do is die nasty. Ha!

  • Nick Viebrock

    I think the Broncos offense won’t be nearly as potent as it was last year simply because after the superbowl everyone found out how to defeat Manning. It’ll probably be a toss up between the Chiefs and Chargers to attempt to overtake the Broncos. I’d have to lean towards the Chargers cuz they beat the the Chiefs both times last year and have proven to be a problem for the Broncos defense. Should be a great year to watch

    • Chad Jensen

      The blueprint to beat the Broncos was laid out by the Colts in week 7, still, the Seahawks were able to do it with such a magnitude because they have the players. Scheme is only half of the equation. Personnel and execution sums up the balance. Easier said than done.

    • anon76returns

      Seattle Blueprint:
      Have best CB, best FS, and best SS in NFL supported by very good & very deep DL. Also, catch Broncos when 5 starters (including two all-pros and one should-be-pro-bowler) are on IR.

      Pats Blueprint:
      Have most amazing comeback in team history, then hope punt bounces off unsuspecting Bronco in FG range in OT.

      Indy Blueprint:
      Hope that Broncos comeback is spoiled by running their most fumble-prone RB up the gut on 1st and goal.

      No other team can really replicate Seattle’s blueprint, and the Pats and Colts blueprint amounted to “play lights out and hope for a spot of luck”. Predictably, Romo and the Cowboys only got the first part of that right.

      • trinity

        Beautifully stated. People say “use the seattle blueprint” against the Broncos, but not many teams are capable. maybe only the 49ers.

      • Marcel West-Bailey

        Chargers Blueprint:
        Control the clock and don’t let Peyton get the ball.

        And I think McCourty and Whitner are better safeties than Chancellor. I think we as fans get caught up in the fun of watching him hit people that run across the middle and it makes us a little bias.

        • anon76returns

          Yeah, the Chargers game was a bit of an odd one. That was definitely the worst the Broncos offense looked up until the SB.

          McCourty I think of as more of a FS than SS, especially given his background as a CB. As for Whitner, no doubt he’s a good player, but everywhere I can think to look (bleacher report top 1000, pff top 101, NFL 100) all have him ranked considerably lower than Chancellor.

  • trinity

    You always have to be ready for a shock in the NFL, but I think the only division in the AFC that isn’t sure is the north. I think the Colts will have a pretty easy time of it, because their biggest challenger has no sure answer at QB. I think the patriots and Broncos are going to cakewalk through their respective divisions. I don’t see the patriots ever losing control of that division until Brady retires. and the Broncos to me are just head and shoulders above everyone in their division. I lean towards the chiefs, but the Broncos are just a nightmare for them because they will force them to play a way that they don’t want to play.

  • Josh Landers

    The chiefs 2nd team was one missed field goal away from beating the chargers in week 17 last year. IJS.

    • anon76returns

      Chargers beat the Chiefs not once, but twice last season, including handing them their first home loss of the season. The Chargers beat Indy and the Broncos. The Chiefs beat the Browns and Bills. The Chargers also showed they were capable of winning a playoff game, something the Chiefs haven’t accomplished in 21 years.

      • Josh Landers

        The chargers barely beat the chiefs first unit and barely beat their second unit…in overtime. #OVERRATED

        • anon76returns

          They may be overrated, but they are clearly better than the Chiefs. They beat the Chiefs twice (barely or not), they won in the playoffs, and they beat teams that won in the playoffs. The Chiefs couldn’t beat the Chargers, couldn’t win in the playoffs, nor could they beat a single playoff winner. Not to mention, the Chargers addressed their defensive weakness in the offseason, while the Chiefs got weaker in their secondary, weaker on their O line, and did nothing to address their deficiencies at WR (unless you think Thomas will play in the slot).

        • Calman21

          Scoreboard. That is all that matters or anyone really cares about. Nobody really thinks hey most NFL players are on the same level. Here is the thing Chargers prepared for their first team….and it completely screwed them up when the second team which they didn’t plan for came out. Pagano and the Chargers defense was bad…the only reason they had any success was due to planning, which went out the window.