Beacon Sports: AFC once again NFL’s strongest conference

By Clint Longenecker
Contributing Writer

This week’s preview is the first of two installments that will first give a rundown for the American Football Conference, followed by next week’s National Football Conference preview.

America’s favorite sport is back and bigger than ever this fall with the return of the National Football League to millions of televisions across the country on Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

Just five months from now, the AFC will send their representative to battle with the NFC’s top team in Super Bowl 44. So sit back, grab the popcorn and enjoy the best sports action around.

During the past decade, the AFC has been professional football’s dominant conference, winning nine out of 12 Super Bowls. That trend continued last year as the Pittsburgh Steelers captured their record sixth Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

This year looks to be no exception as six of the top nine teams, including the top three, from preseason odds in Las Vegas reside in the AFC. The AFC boasts many traditional powers that will try to continue their reign in 2009.

Dolphins dominate East

The 2008 AFC East race was the most shocking in football as the Miami Dolphins were able to bounce back from a one-win season to capture 11 victories and the AFC East crown.

Last year’s ten win turnaround was the best in NFL history. The dramatic comeback was led by first year coach Tony Sparano and quarterback Chad Pennington.

Last year’s starting unit remains largely intact, in addition to the acquisition of defensive standouts safety Gibril Wilson and longtime Dolphin Jason Taylor. But the Dolphins must also face one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year.

Patriotic comeback
Last year, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots failed to reach the postseason for the first time in six seasons. Their Super Bowl aspirations took a turn for the worst when All-Pro QB Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury. Fear not New England faithful: Tom Terrific is back and claiming he’s hungrier than ever.

Brady has a talented cast of offensive stalwarts aiding him in his comeback campaign, including wide receiver Randy Moss, underrated WR Wes Welker and the ageless WR Joey Galloway. If the defense is able to stop teams from throwing the ball, the Patriots boast enough talent to once again be one of the league’s best teams.

In their Sept. 20 game against the New York Jets, the Patriots began to show some weaknesses, especially in their passing game. This should be an interesting development as the season progresses.

Building New York
There were big changes for the Jets this offseason. Head Coach Eric Mangini was fired following a late season stumble. The team then hired former Baltimore Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan.

Future Hall of Fame QB Brett Farve took his never-ending soap opera to Minnesota, and the team selected University of Southern California QB Mark Sanchez in the draft. The Jets will look to run the football often behind a veteran offensive line.

The Buffalo Bills started strong, posting a 5-1 record. However, the season’s progress was disappointing as they won only two of their next ten games. The offseason move receiving the most headlines is the acquisition of WR Terrell Owens, who was banished from Dallas. Dick Jauron’s squad is young but talented, and must face a grueling schedule.

Tough northern teams
The AFC North will once again be a hard fought division that features ferocious defenses and strong running attacks.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the reigning division champs and return the majority of their starting lineup. It’s a scary thought for  the AFC North as the Steelers ranked second in rushing and first in passing defense last season. The offense will once again be fueled by QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Hines Ward, and Super Bowl MVP WR Santonio Holmes.

A hungry Baltimore Ravens team looks to return to the playoffs for the second straight season after finishing 11-5 last season. The Ravens are built around a defense that features plenty of start power, finishing second in total defense in 2008.

The Ravens will continue to run the ball effectively behind a massive offense line using the three headed monster of RB Ray Rice, RB Willis McGahee and FB Le’Ron McClain.

The Cincinnati Bengals finished strong in 2008 and look to keep the momentum going. Unlike years past, last season the Bengal’s offense was the worst in the NFL without star QB Carson Palmer. With longtime WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh now a Seahawk, troubled WR Chris Henry must fill the spot opposite Chad Ochocinco.

The Cleveland Browns are a team that is going to need as much help as they can get to be a factor this season under new Head Coach Eric Mangini and QB Brady Quinn.

South will rise again
The AFC South is an excellent division that could see all of its teams challenge for a playoff spot.

The Colts of Indianapolis are once again going to be tough, featuring QB Peyton Manning and WR Reggie Wayne. There are some other questions that must be answered since the retirement of  longtime Head Coach Tony Dungy and the departure of WR Marvin Harrison.

Last year’s division winner, the Tennesse Titans, are a team built on a strong defense and running game led by RB Chris Johnson. Jeff Fischer must find a way to replace All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Besides that huge loss, the Titans defense comes back  intact.

Jack Del Rio’s Jacksonville Jaguars hope to rebound from a disappointing 5-11 season after a sustained run of competitiveness.

Longtime Jaguar RB Fred Taylor is now a Patriot, leaving the load solely for bowling-ball RB Maurice Jones-Drew. One of the biggest reasons for the Jags’ disappointment last year was their subpar defense.

This year’s AFC West race appears to be one that could be over quickly.

Many regard the San Diego Chargers as Super Bowl contenders and one of the most talented teams in the league, while the rest of the division has questions marks. QB Phillip Rivers thrived in his second season under Norv Turner, throwing a career best 34 TD’s. The Bolts have one of the best backups in the league in diminutive but game changing RB/PR/KR Darren Sproles.

Josh McDaniel’s Denver Broncos have undergone a tumultuous offseason that saw Mike Shannahan and Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler leave Denver. For the Broncos to be competitive the defense will need to improve from last year’s struggles.

Both the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders feature new head coaches in Todd Haley and Tom Cable. Both of these squads are relatively young and will likely not be a factor in the playoff picture.

The AFC appears to once again be the dominant conference as many of the teams above could legitimately stick around late into December during playoffs. Once the playoffs begin its anybody’s guess who will come out alive to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

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