From the day after the Super Bowl to the end of the season opener, every fan in America clings to the hope that their team is going to win it all.
Hope is a good thing, but sometimes it's delusional.
Gaping holes in the way a team has been constructed – sorry, Raider Nation, the offensive line still stinks – are often overlooked. With that in mind, here's a list of issues to consider for all AFC teams, including the five or six that could easily win the Super Bowl:
Buffalo Bills: The Bills may have been 7-9 last season, but they had some serious issues that make that record look like overachievement. They had the fifth-worst run defense last season and they gave up a staggering 4.7 yards per carry. You wonder why rookie safeties Donte Whitner (second in tackles) and Ko Simpson (fourth) looked so good? The guys in front of them were that bad. Sure, Indianapolis may have won a Super Bowl with the worst run defense in the league, but that was a first in NFL history. The Colts have Peyton Manning. The Bills have J.P. Losman. You see the difference.
Miami Dolphins: The post-Marino era enters year eight. The sum total of the first seven years produced the kind of hangover you get at the frat reunion. Jay Fiedler, Sage Rosenfels, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington … ugh, where's the Bloody Mary mix? Now the Dolphins are turning to 37-year-old Trent Green and soon-to-be 26-year-old rookie John Beck to repair the present and future. It's a dicey plan, but no issue looms larger for this team. They have to do something … and fast.
New England Patriots: A busy offseason (LB Adalius Thomas, WR Randy Moss, WR Donte' Stallworth and WR Wes Welker were among those added) has made the Pats a popular favorite to win a fourth title this decade. Problem is, the defense is suspect, particularly when you consider that the starting linebackers (Thomas, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Junior Seau) have played a combined 53 years. They may know what they're doing, but they may not make it through the season. Young guys had better be ready.
New York Jets: The first year of the Man-genius era – a playoff appearance for a team that doesn't wow anyone with talent – was pretty impressive. The Jets won by playing conservative ball and staying healthy. The problem with that combination is that, with raised expectations, it will be difficult to repeat. If a player or two gets hurt, the Jets could fall into the draft's top 10. Worse, Mangini could lose the faith of the players he drives so hard.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are imaginative, lively and unpredictable when they're on defense. But as much fun as it is to watch the likes of Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs do their thing, the Baltimore offense is no treat. The franchise hopes that the infusion of younger RB Willis McGahee will do the trick, but you have to wonder. McGahee can blame the lack of "scenery" in Buffalo for his mediocre play, but great players don't let such things affect them.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have one of the league's most impressive lineups on offense – and in the police department. Cheap shots aside, it's hard enough to be successful when your team is completely focused. It's much harder when you have to wonder what stupid thing your teammate might do next. Here's hoping coach Marvin Lewis learned an important lesson: Having a bunch of criminals is too much of a distraction.
Cleveland Browns: People love the pick of homeboy QB Brady Quinn, and it was a pretty good move. The problem is that the Browns still don't have a quarterback with enough experience to mentor their three young guys (Quinn, Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson) who are competing for the top job. While there's nothing wrong with competition, without a veteran who has a little bit of perspective, this situation could tear apart the locker room. The coaching staff better be careful.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Was it the motorcycle accident? Immaturity? The appendectomy? There were a lot of things that went into Ben Roethlisberger's terrible 2006 season after his amazing Super Bowl year, but what may have hurt him most was that Pittsburgh didn't have a real running game. At least not a traditional Steelers running game. Willie Parker was fine, but the Steelers didn't have the power game that forced opposing defenses to cheat up to stop it and then leave the deep stuff open for Roethlisberger. Forced to be a more traditional quarterback, Roethlisberger showed he's still learning.
Houston Texans: Having replaced failed QB David Carr, Matt Schaub is the Texans' new darling. Schaub is unproven, and it would be amazing if any quarterback survived behind the Texans' weak offensive line. If Schaub doesn't pan out, second-year coach Gary Kubiak is going to be in hot water. His first big decision as a coach was to pass on both Reggie Bush and Vince Young to take Mario Williams and keep Carr. That blew up on him.
Indianapolis Colts: While the Colts are coming off their first title, this team has been at the top of its game for about four years. But the franchise has to replace key contributors who got too pricey, such as LB Cato June (Buccaneers), CB Nick Harper (Titans) and RB Dominic Rhodes (Raiders). The Colts' foundation is great and they'll make the playoffs again, but whether they can replace guys like the aforementioned could be the difference in their run at another title.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Coach Jack Del Rio addressed his offensive woes by changing coordinators, bringing in former Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter. But is Del Rio too late in making adjustments to his defense-first mentality? On offense, the Jaguars have plenty of great-looking athletes like Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Jones, Fred Taylor and big-armed Byron Leftwich, but the fatal flaw has been living up to their considerable promise.
Tennessee Titans: Overlooked in the Adam "Pacman" Jones fiasco is that he was showing tremendous growth as a cover corner and is a great punt returner. Replacing him will be a nightmare for coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who deserves a long look as a head coach by any team in need of an high-energy leader. Fortunately, the offense will be interesting, no matter who lines up at running back behind second-year QB Vince Young.
Denver Broncos: For the first time in more than a decade, the Broncos are getting away from their traditional cut-blocking scheme in favor of a more traditional style featuring heavier linemen. The timing is unfortunate, as new RB Travis Henry would have been perfect in the old scheme. But because second-year QB Jay Cutler isn't suited for the movement of the old system, change was essential. It will be interesting to see how it works out.
Kansas City Chiefs: The offensive line has been overhauled after losing mainstays Willie Roaf and Will Shields in back-to-back years. The coaching staff hopes unproven Brodie Croyle, a third-round pick in 2006, can beat journeyman Damon Huard in the quarterback derby after Trent Green's departure. RB Larry Johnson is unhappy with his contract after getting abused (416 carries) last season. And it remains to be seen whether the Chiefs can finally develop a big-time receiver (Dwayne Bowe is this year's hope) to take pressure off the rest of the offense. Oh, and the defense is not very good. Other than that, everything's fine.
Oakland Raiders: For those of you old enough to remember the last time the Raiders were truly great (sorry, the Rich Gannon years don't qualify), pull out your Sex Pistols album and spin "Problems." That song defines what the Raiders have become. There's hope for the future in QB JaMarcus Russell, but hope is going to have to wait while the Raiders try to deal with that horrible offensive line and general lack of offensive talent. Good luck to rookie coach Lane "Baby Face" Kiffin. He's going to need it.
San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are scary good when it comes to pure athletic talent. With RB LaDainian Tomlinson, QB Philip Rivers and DT Jamal Williams, they also have enough leadership to overcome what coach Norv Turner might lack in that department. The Chargers must remain focused through a difficult first two weeks. They open at home against Chicago and travel to New England.
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