Everyone loves to root for the underdog.
Every season, you have your apparent favorites to walk away as division winners. Every now and then, a team rises from the ashes to surprise and win a division. This past season, we witnessed the Kansas City Chiefs walk away as division winners in the AFC West after entering the season. The defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons grabbed a division title this past season as well while coming off an 8-8 season in 2015.
My point is this, there are established division favorites and there are the occasional long shots. My duty today is to pinpoint the teams that have the best outside chance of winning the division. Let’s get started with the AFC.
AFC East – Favorite: New England Patriots
Dark horse: Miami Dolphins
Let me start off by saying this is truly a dark horse. Not because the Dolphins have little talent but more because the Patriots are fresh off a Super Bowl championship and have added the dangerous Brandin Cooks at WR and get their star TE Rob Gronkowski back healthy. Here, the Dolphins surprised many by going 10-6 last season and winning a Wild Card berth. RB Jay Ajayi captured the hearts of local Miami natives and WRs Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and Devante Parker are a three-headed trio this is overlooked for odd reasons. Adding Lawrence Timmons at LB is a nice boost for the defense and the likes of DT Ndamukong Suh and DE Cam Wake can hurt offensive lines. The Dolphins are the Patriots biggest and best competition.
AFC North – Favorite: Pittsburgh Steelers
Dark horse : Cincinnati Bengals
An ugly 6-9-1 record in 2016 has unfairly painted a picture for the Bengals. Are they elite? Nope. Do they still have a considerable amount of talent? Yes. They lost a couple of starters on the offensive line which will need addressing but a return of WR AJ Green after missing the last six games of the season will help. Rookie WR John Ross is a deep threat that will be open at times due to Green being on the field. The defense was second in scoring in 2015 and eighth this past season. Improvement is needed, especially from DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. The talent is hard to ignore in Cincy.
AFC South – Favorite: Houston Texans
Dark horse: Tennessee Titans
A team with the #1 overall defense in 2016 adds superstar DE J.J. Watt to an already elite group. So the Texans are a heavy favorite. Meanwhile, the Titans on the other hand can be a problem. On offense was the third ranked rushing offense in 2016 behind RBs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and a decent defense that looks to improve behind the additions of CBs Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson and S Jonathan Cyprien. The Titans are young and are capable of taking that next step to being a legit playoff contender.
AFC West – Favorite: Kansas City Chiefs
Dark horse: Oakland Raiders
It’s tough seeing a 12-win Chiefs team in 2016 enter the 2017 season not on top of the food chain in the division. A recent release of WR Jeremy Maclin may prove to be a significant blow to the team. Breathing down their necks are the 12-win Raiders that also stole a Wild Card spot in 2016. If it was not for a late season injury to QB Derek Carr, the Raiders may have made a deep postseason run. It’s scary to think that DE Khalil Mack will improve after an 11-sack, five forced fumble, 1st team All-Pro season. WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are a devastating one-two punch and the un-retirement of RB Marshawn Lynch gives the Raiders even more dangerous ability on offense.