2016 AFC Predictions

As the 2016 NFL season is about to kickoff we need to gaze into the crystal ball and see who will make it to Super Bowl LI. The very first impulse is to look in on the defending champions. However when you’re replacing a retired legend at quarterback there has to be a void in the leadership and make-up of the Denver Broncos. Its one of the reasons Taylor Blitz picked the Oakland Raiders to win the AFC West.

For the 1st time in more than a decade true optimism has hit the AFC East with Tom Brady’s 4 game suspension. Will he come back rested or rusty as he can’t practice with the team either?? The league will get a brief view of what life will be like without Brady as Jimmy Garoppolo heads under center. He has a Sunday Night opening date on the road in Arizona, then 3 home games as Belichick will dial back the game plan to keep his reads manageable.

Brady should return to guide the Patriots to an AFC East championship with a 10-6 record. The last division title for the Bill Belichick / Tom Brady era.

NFL: Preseason-Green Bay Packers at Pittsburgh SteelersAFC North Champs: Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5**

AFC South Champs: Houston Texans 10-6

AFC East Champs: New England Patriots 10-6

AFC West Champs: Oakland Raiders 10-6

Wildcards – Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars

The team to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI in Houston Texas?? The Pittsburgh Steelers

Head Coach Mike Tomlin has the most explosive player at WR in Antonio Brown and RB with LeVeon Bell. Ben Roethlisberger will make his 4th trip to the Super Bowl this February and his grit will see Pittsburgh through the first 3 games while Bell serves a suspension.

One of the hallmarks of the Steelers will have to return to make the trip to Houston, and that’s defense. They don’t have to be Blitzburgh or The Steel Curtain II. If they can rise from the NFL’s 22nd ranked unit to a top 15 defense that can come up with timely stops, they will be in Houston.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

Who do you have in the AFC??

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2016 AFC North Previews & Predictions

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

The last time we looked in on the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers were embroiled in an epic playoff battle with the Cincinnati Bengals when the unexpected happened… Vontaze Burfict sealed what looked like the first playoff win of the Marvin Lewis era. Then a Jeremy Hill fumble while trying to run out the clock opened the door, and a few senseless defensive penalties allowed the Steelers to steal an 18-16 win.

These two antagonists renew acquaintances in week 2 in Pittsburgh and a few questions arise. Will the Steelers be able to move the ball on the ground with LeVeon Bell serving a 3 game suspension?? Can QB Andy Dalton get that signature win vs. a top AFC contender??  Have the Bengals learned from last year’s meltdown in January??

2016 AFC North Predctions

steelerimage1. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5 **

2. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5 *

3. Baltimore Ravens 6-10

4. Cleveland Browns 4-12

Cincinnati has a tough beginning to their season with 4 of 6 on the road which includes trips to Pittsburgh in week 2, and to New England in week 6. How New England fares during Brady’s 4 game suspension dictates how desperate the Patriots could be for a win. Typically these are the games Andy Dalton always seems to lose. Will 2016 be different?

bell2Speaking of suspensions, the Steelers will be without LeVeon Bell for the first 3 weeks of the season. The only AFC team they play in that stretch will be against the Bengals. So they have time to catch Cincinnati with a slow start. They’ll have to run the ball with DeAngelo Williams and rely on Ben Roethlisberger (319 of 469 for 3,938 yds 21 TDs/ 16 ints) and Antonio Brown.

Last year Brown came in 2nd to Cam Newton for the Taylor Blitz Times MVP for 2016. With 136 receptions for 1,834 yds and 10 TDs, he was within reach of both NFL records for receptions and yards. He’s quick in and out of his cuts and has the speed to get deep. Barring injury he’ll have a similar season with the added attention in Bell’s early season absence

With age catching up to Adrian Peterson, Bell is arguably the best back in the NFL when he’s healthy and will be rounding into shape as the Steelers make their playoff push.

The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns will definitely be on the outside looking in. The Ravens will have Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith to lead them into battle on both sides of the ball. However the Ravens struggle to run the football and Joe Flacco will be coming off of major knee surgery himself. Before his injury he was playing like the east coast version of Alex Smith and checking the ball down too much. Now with him possibly being gun-shy expect more of the same.

One intriguing story to watch is the resurrection of Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor in Cleveland. Head coach Hue Jackson has mentored a series of NFL quarterbacks to successful seasons. This could be a perfect storm of coaches and players all having something to prove and the ability to get it done. If Josh Gordon stays with the team, this could be fun to watch. It will come to fruition in 2017 not this year. However they will be a competitive team to watch offensively.

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AFC Wildcard: Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers

When you talk about the Bengals when the season began, everyone would scoff “wait til’ the playoffs.” That held true for the team and certainly Andy Dalton. Now here we are again and Dalton has his thumb in a cast. The Bengals have to place their hope on back-up AJ McCarron.

giovanniAlmost 10 years to the day that Kimo Von Oelhoffen knocked Carson Palmer out of the 2006 wildcard, again they get to face a back-up in the playoffs.  Ironically Pittsburgh knocked out Dalton late in the regular season.  Now they are missing DeAngelo Williams who injured his ankle in the season finale.

Can AJ McCarron throw caution to the wind and look long for AJ Green (86 rec. 1,297 yds 10 TDs). Pittsburgh’s defense is 21st overall and 30th against the pass. In previous playoff games Dalton played way too cautious. They need to run solid between the 20s with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and take their shots for touchdowns when they get in close. No Dalton playoff checkdowns. McCarron needs to be daring.

One of the NFL's most electrifying players.

One of the NFL’s most electrifying players.

The shifting point is the loss of DeAngelo Williams. He had more than adequately replaced LeVeon Bell with 997 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. The full dimension Steeler offense that streaked down the stretch now has questions. Can RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (who?) keep the Bengal defense honest? Cincinnati’s defense is 7th against the run and 20th against the pass.

In this game Ben Roethlisberger is going to be the difference. He challenged Martavis Bryant (50 rec. 765 yds and 6 TDs) and we’ll see how he responds. With 2 Super Bowl rings and a 3rd appearance, Roethlisberger’s mettle is what you can hang your hat on. Bryant needs to come up big because the Bengals will be paying most of their attention on MVP candidate Antonio Brown. With 136 rec. 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns, he has to be the focal point of the Bengals coverage schemes.

In the end… you have to go with Big Ben and that passing game in a 27-24 game. It will be close but the Steelers will win.

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2015 Lessons Through Week 3: AFC North

Every NFL season takes on its own unique shape. With so many moving parts between player movement, player maturation & coaching changes, the landscape doesn’t change every year..it changes every week. By the time we sprinkle injuries in this cauldron it’s nearly impossible to forecast. This is what makes NFL football great.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance. Coming into the season they had to figure how to get through the first few games while LeVeon Bell served a 2 game suspension. With a defense being rebuilt they would have to lean on one of the NFL’s best offenses for success in 2015. Insurance policies were signed in former Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams and former Falcon / Eagle QB in Michael Vick. Williams paid off handsomely with 206 yards rushing and 3 TDs, which is good enough for 6th in the league going into week 4. Now they have a 1-2 punch that is second to none with Bell’s return.

Yet Bell’s first game back against the Rams in week 3 saw Ben Roethlisberger go down with a knee sprain. Vick is the next man up and has to produce in the 4 weeks Big Ben is expected to be gone. Vick can’t just hold the fort down in Ben’s absence. The Steelers, with all their offensive weaponry, rank 5th offensively and 14th defensively. If this insurance policy doesn’t pay off and the Steelers find themselves punting more and come back to the pack, they will  expose their defense. Tomlin’s defense needs to grow up in a hurry. Michael Vick your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Time to play Manziel.

Time to play Manziel.

In Cleveland its as if Head Coach Mike Pettine is trying hard to look for work next year. The upside to Josh McCown is he is a journeyman quarterback that will minimize mistakes. The downside is he is not a playmaker that can win you games. Just as he did with his game ending interception to Charles Woodson in their 27-20 loss to Oakland last week.

However a closer look at the numbers and Johnny Manziel has a 99.7 passer rating to MCown’s 83.2. Did you know through 3 games of this season Manziel has 3 touchdown passes of 50 yards where the rest of the NFL has 6?? That is called playmaking and is the difference between the Browns being 1-2 v. 0-3. To bookend Manziel’s week 2 heroics you have the Woodson interception and before that, the fumble at the goal line when McCown got himself knocked out against the Jets. Come on son…

It’s time to play Manziel and see what you have. If the Browns can’t turn it around they could be looking for a new Head Coach and quarterback next season. Like it or not Mike Pettine, your job’s future lies in the success of this 2015 campaign. Especially in a down year for the division, better to tie it to a playmaker like Manziel than a losing game manager like McCown.

bengals tComing in with the NFL’s 2nd best offense and 12th ranked defense is the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals. The conversation for the Bengals is the same as the last few years. They beat the teams they should beat and come up empty against the best the AFC has to offer. The combined record of the Raiders, Chargers, and Ravens was 3-6 before Thursday Night’s game. We’ll talk about this team in 3 weeks when they host Seattle then go on the road to Buffalo. They come through that 2-0 we have something to talk about.

The Baltimore Ravens won last night to earn their first win of the season. However it isn’t a season saving victory as many of the t.v. pundits would have you believe. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost that game last night due to terrible kicking with Josh Scobee and even worse play calling late in the 4th quarter. Justin Forsett broke out with 150 yards rushing but the Steelers have given up 373 yards on the ground in the last 3 weeks. This team has middle of the road rankings offensively and defensively and new playmakers have to emerge on the defensive side of the ball.

Thanks goodness they get to play against Cleveland next week, especially if Pettine stays the course to get fired starting McCown. After that they go on the road to San Francisco and Arizona. The 49ers aren’t as strong as they once were for certain.  However neither were the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos as the Ravens started 0-2 on the road traveling west. These next few weeks will definitely tell the tale.

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Ken Riley Belongs In The Pro Football Hall of Fame

There are several teams that have their best talents go unrecognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The prevailing theme that has emerged are the lack of members from franchises that haven’t won a Super Bowl or an NFL championship in their existence. Even those that compiled impressive numbers during their careers. Enter Ken Riley of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Riley was a geat cornerback for Cincy.

Riley was a geat cornerback for Cincy.

Riley was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in their last year of the American Football League in 1969. He teamed with fellow CB Lemar Parrish and FS Tommy Casanova to form one of the best secondaries of the 1970’s. Over a 15 year career ending in 1983, Riley intercepted 65 enemy passes. Good enough for 4th all time at the time of his retirement, and still ranks 5th just behind Rod Woodson.

A quiet player drafted out of Florida A & M, his career was overshadowed by other teammates and playing in a small market in Cincinnati. There were only so many Pro Bowl votes to go around. Many of those went to teammate Parrish with 8 who was also one of the league’s best punt returners… we’ll get back to this.

From 1974-1978 the Bengal defense ranked 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 3rd against the pass. The “Soul Patrol” Raider secondary of Jack Tatum and George Atkinson never yielded less yards than this group. The Steelers only outranked them once in ’74, when they were ranked #1. Keep in mind in ’75 & ’76 the Steel Curtain had two of our greatest ever defenses and Cincy was better against the pass.

As for Pro Bowl voting during this time, Parrish who deserves Hall of Fame consideration in his own right, was a mainstay. However Riley was the better pass thief. Riley pirated 22 enemy passes to Parrish’s 6 during the time ’74-77. In fact you’d have to combine all their years together dating back to 1970 to get Parrish in the race with 23 interceptions. However Riley’s number balloons to 36 when you do that.

The biggest Pro Bowl snub came in 1976 when teammate Parrish made it to LA and Riley stayed home. Riley was 2nd in the league with 9 ints which were returned for 141 yards and a touchdown. Parrish and fellow AFC Pro Bowl CB Emmitt Thomas only had 2 respectively. Are you serious?? How does this happen?? Let’s take a look back…first at Riley, then his exploits in one of the finest secondaries in NFL history.

They were the best secondary of the 1970’s. Maybe it was going against Bill Walsh and what would become the “west coast offense” everyday in practice. Walsh was Cincinnati’s Offensive Coordinator at the time and had 2 time passing champion Ken Anderson at quarterback.

kenriley2What The Chancellor of Football remembers most about Riley was his flawless backpedal. He was a tactician that used the sideline as his friend and was never out of position.

Once Parrish was dealt away to the Redskins and Tommy Casanova retired to attend medical school in 1978, Riley played on in the Bengal secondary. He played through 1983 when in his 15th and final season, was 2nd in the league with 8 interceptions. Most players would have dwindling stats that late in their careers. Riley had a combined 18 interceptions in his final 3 years alone.

Did you know Riley never made the Pro Bowl during his career?? However he was voted All Pro in 1975, 1976, 1981, and his final season in 1983. Something has to be said about that type of sustained excellence. Of the top ten interceptors in NFL history, only he and Hall of Famer Dick Lebeau did so for the same team throughout their career. He’s the only corner to have 7 seasons with 5 or more interceptions totaling 65 over 15 years.

Keep in mind it took Darrell Green 20 years to garner 53 interceptions. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders needed 14 years to net 53 picks and Lester Hayes needed 10 years to snatch 39. None of these guys came close to matching the 18 Riley had in his final 3 seasons during their careers.

Just like there is little footage of the Cincinnati Bengals of that era, there just isn’t a lot out there on Ken Riley. He was a great cornerback that played in an era before they expanded Pro Bowl voting to include more players. Yet you can’t take away his numbers. Aside from Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane no cornerback intercepted more passes.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present Ken Riley.

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SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS

Welcome to the second greatest turnaround in the history of the NFL…well next to the 1999 St. Louis Rams. Again…the question has to be asked: Can a team change its stripes?? From 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 and :34 seconds away from winning the Super Bowl…wow!! You have to realize this is before free agency where a star could be bought and brought in.

bengals headerThis team was led by a genius named Sam Wyche, easily one of my favorite coaches ever. And right before you scoff “He didn’t win a Super Bowl”. Don’t forget he was quarterback coach with a glistening Super Bowl XVI ring for coaching Joe Montana, ironically against the Cincinnati Bengals some 6 yrs earlier. So Sam Wyche is/was Bill Walsh the 2nd and I’ll explain.

Paul Brown owned and coached the Cincinnati Bengals and had Bill Walsh as his Offensive Coordinator, and Wyche was the heady backup quarterback. When Brown failed to make Walsh his successor he lost Wyche who joined Walsh in San Francisco and ironically they beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. Having been burned by not hiring his protégé’ and losing to him taught him a lesson. The next time Brown needed a coach he tapped into the Bengals past and brought back Sam Wyche, who had a keen offensive mind and unconventional ideas. So what turnaround am I speaking of?

Let’s take you back to 1987, where the Bengals had failed to live up to unfulfilled promise since Super Bowl XVI. They came close to making the playoffs in 1984 and 1986 yet failed to win on tie breakers in the last game of the season. Especially in 1986 when they drubbed the playoff bound Jets 52-21 in the finale. The Bengals went into ’87 with serious optimism yet kept being plagued with bizarre losses where the mistakes were blamed on their unconventional coach.

The most notable was in week 2, when beating the 49ers and Bill Walsh of all people, elected to run a play on 4th down rather than risk a punt block with 6 seconds left. Kevin Fagan (from the U) charged in and stopped James Brooks with 2 seconds to go. Montana hit Rice for a touchdown on the last play of the game. The 27-26 loss to San Francisco in Cincinnati cast a pall on the entire (4-11) 1987 season. Many losses when the unconventional coach had plays backfire in the 4th quarter earned the Bengals coach a nickname –“Wicky Wacky” Wyche and the team was the laughingstock of the league with reports that Wyche would be fired. He held on barely…

bengal sideEnter 1988, the mantra coined by Sam Wyche was ‘finish everything’, alluding to the 4th quarter collapses that doomed 6 Bengal games the year before. The draft brought a very important player…the talented and infectious Elbert “Ickey” Woods who teamed with James Brooks to help push the Bengals to the #1 offense in the NFL. More than anything, his touchdown dance “The Ickey Shuffle” and his personality changed the team chemistry from the doldrums of the year before.

Woods rushed for 1000 yards and 15 TDs. “Boomer” Esiason went on to be league MVP and his receivers Eddie Brown (The U) Tim McGhee and Cris Collinsworth were as effective as any trio in the league. Operating out of their “sugar huddle” and keeping opposing teams defensive specialists off the field, Cincinnati exploited mismatches to pile up points. They were the first team to play with a “no huddle” attack. On defense DT Tim Krumrie, OLB Reggie Williams, and SS David Fulcher were the undisputed leaders of an opportunistic defense. Throw in CB Eric Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl in ’88 and the late Lewis Billups made up a superior secondary along with FS and present NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots.

The team went from being a laughingstock to a 6-0 start and the league was reluctant to let go of the pigeonholed way they viewed both Coach Wyche and the team. Everyone was waiting for the Cleveland Browns and the Dawg Defense to overcome the injury to Bernie Kosar and catch them…yet no one could. The Bengals blew no 4th quarter leads and by the time they got to the playoffs they still weren’t respected.

Coach Wyche and his team that was laughed at the year before had become the scourge of the league. So much so that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before Super Bowl XXIII ruled they weren’t allowed to run their “sugar huddle”. Why? Well because other measures were tried during the playoffs by Seattle faking injuries to get defensive replacements on the field. The Bengals still won 21-7 before besting Buffalo 21-10 in the AFC Championship.

Super Bowl XXIII, what a game? Would it have been a game had the Bengals not lost Stanley Wilson to a cocaine episode the night before the game? Would it have been a game if they could use their Sugar Huddle? Before you jump up and say no…don’t forget the ’88 49ers had a 6-5 record late in the season and only finished at 10-6 (worst record ever for a Super Bowl champion by the way) before getting hot in the playoffs. They were being held by a Bengal defense without a touchdown going into the 4th quarter.

bengals logoThat also includes losing Tim Krumrie to a severe broken leg in the 1st quarter. League against them, Niners against them…Stanford Jennings took back a kick 93 yards at the end of the 3rd quarter to give Cincy a 13-6 lead and they looked like they were going to be Super Bowl champs. Alas a Lewis Billups dropped interception on the following touchdown drive led to the 49ers scoring on the next play and eventually the game winning drive with :34 seconds left to play.

For the rest of my days I’ll forever believe Pete Rozelle cheated the Bengals and altered how the game would have been disallowing the “sugar huddle” in the Super Bowl.

They were 34 seconds away….from erasing a history that they didn’t deserve. Yet they did win the 1988 AFC Championship and I applaud them for an olympian effort to force the league to give them a respect that was earned.