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September 8, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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On Target

BY Sean Lahman
September 8, 2004

History tells us that about half the teams that make the NFL playoffs in any given season fail to return the following year. But this year's AFC may provide an exception to the rule: At least four of last season's playoff teams look poised to repeat as the season kicks off this week.

Starting at the top, the Patriots are again favored to reach the Super Bowl after capturing two of the last three titles. The Pats didn't lose any major players to free agency, boosted their running game, and still enjoyed two first round draft picks. Their opponents in last season's AFC Championship game, the Colts, retained the core of their high-scoring offense, and could again challenge for AFC supremacy. The Chiefs and Ravens both made key off-season moves that they hope will get them back to the playoffs.

If history is right, though, two or three of last year's also-rans will make playoff runs. The Jets, with a rebuilt offense and a healthy Chad Pennington, could be the most talented team of the Herm Edwards era. The Jaguars and Bengals both have exciting young quarterbacks and second-year coaches with a history of success.

The following preview lists the AFC teams in predicted order of finish. Look for the NFC preview in Thursday's New York Sun.

AFC EAST

Patriots

STRENGTHS The addition of RB Corey Dillon gives the Pats the dominant rusher they have sorely lacked since Curtis Martin departed. QB Tom Brady doesn't put up gaudy numbers, but he has an uncanny ability to find ways to win. The defense has no stars, but has great depth and plays exceptionally well as a unit.

WEAKNESSES The undersized offensive line may make it difficult to run the ball successfully. Adam Vinateri made clutch field goals to win the AFC Championship game and the Su per Bowl, but he missed half his attempts from beyond 30 yards last year. There's reason to be concerned about the secondary, which gave up 252 passing yards in the second half of the Super Bowl.

X-FACTOR Nine of the Patriots' 17 wins in 2003 were by a touchdown or less, a feat they'll be hard pressed to repeat. An inability to win close games was a big reason why they missed the playoffs in 2002.

Jets

STRENGTHS When healthy, Pennington looks like one of the elite QBs of his generation; only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have thrown more TDs per game over the last two seasons. The defense has added youth and speed, both of which they lacked in 2003. Martin is one of the NFL's most reliable running backs - once he gets going.

WEAKNESSES The offensive line underperformed last year, and pass protection was a problem during the preseason. In three seasons, Paul Hackett's West Coast Offense simply hasn't worked. The Jets hope that the addition of WR Justin McCareins and a healthy Pennington will make the difference this year. It's now or never.

X-FACTOR The Jets have started each of the last two seasons with a 2-5 record, but the schedule is their biggest friend this year. In their first 13 games, they play only two teams that went to the playoffs last year. They can't afford to stumble out of the gates.

Dolphins

STRENGTHS Seven of Miami's starters on defense have played in the Pro Bowl. This talented unit ranked second in the NFL in sacks (44) and fewest TD passes allowed (12). WR Chris Chambers had a breakthrough season and led the AFC with 11 TD receptions.

WEAKNESSES The off-season was disastrous. Turmoil gripped the front office, and the losses of RB Ricky Williams and WR David Boston appear to have crippled the offense. It doesn't help that Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley will continue to battle for the starting QB job, even if Fiedler has it for the time being.

X-FACTOR The Dolphins have to somehow craft a running game, but that doesn't appear likely with either journeyman Sammy Morris or the untested Travis Minor. If neither of those two can pose a threat, defenses will relentlessly blitz whoever's back there at QB.

Bills

STRENGTHS The defense, led by safety Lawyer Milloy, LB Takeo Spikes, and run-stuffer Sam Adams, will be even tougher with the addition of four-time Pro Bowl CB Troy Vincent. Rookie WR Lee Evans should help revitalize the passing game, and the pairing of Willis McGahee and Travis Henry gives the Bills' running attack a formidable one-two punch.

WEAKNESSES The excitement of the Drew Bledsoe era fizzled just as quickly as it began. Bledsoe threw just 11 TD passes last year, averaging nearly 100 fewer passing yards per game than he did the year before. The Bills hoped their first-round pick, Tulane's J.P. Losman, could be groomed to replace Bledsoe by mid-season, but Losman's broken leg leaves Blesdoe as the only option.

X-FACTOR The offense fell from 11th to 30th last year, but could still be effective if the play of the line improves. Veteran line coach Jim McNally thinks they'll be better at both run blocking and pass protection.

AFC NORTH

Ravens

STRENGTHS The Ravens play smash mouth football on both sides of the ball. The defense, led by Ray Lewis, continues to be one of the toughest in the league. On offense, they grind it out with RB Jamal Lewis. The formula is simple, but the Ravens are hard to beat when it's working.

WEAKNESSES The offense won't work without Jamal Lewis, and there are two reasons for concern. First, Lewis has been indicted on federal drug charges, with his trial slated to start November 1. Second, Lewis endured an extremely heavy workload last year (387 rushes); historically, 57% of backs with more than 380 carries break down the following year.

X-FACTOR Kyle Boller is the latest in a long succession of QBs on whom the Ravens have pinned their hopes. He was wildly inconsistent in nine starts last year. Ex-Giants coach Jim Fassel was brought in to work with Boller, and if he can make the offense more balanced, the Ravens could make another Super Bowl run.

Bengals

STRENGTHS The Bengals have assembled a very good offensive line, and the backfield tandem of Rudi Johnson and rookie Chris Perry will be very productive. New QB Carson Palmer was impressive during the preseason. He has talented receivers like Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick to work with, which should help ease the transition.

WEAKNESSES Eight of 11 starters return from a defense that struggled last year. Needing a December win to make their first playoff trip since 1990, the Bengals gave up 801 rushing yards over their final four games. Head coach Marvin Lewis earned a reputation as a defensive genius, but it didn't show last year.

X-FACTOR While the preseason focus has been on Palmer, the defense will determine the Bengals' fate. They upgraded their secondary during the offseason, adding veterans Deltha O'Neal and Kim Herring. If the run defense can improve and the Bengals get consistent pressure on opposing QBs, this will be a playoff team.

Browns

STRENGTHS There is youth and speed on defense, which will eventually gel into a solid unit. RBs Lee Suggs and William Green have both shown flashes of brilliance, and the addition of TE Kellen Winslow gives QB Jeff Garcia a formidable receiving corps.

WEAKNESSES The Browns traditionally ignore the offensive line on draft day, and the results show on the field. The defense was inconsistent last year. In eight of their first 10 games they held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. In the other two, they gave up 343 and 228.Until they learn some discipline, they're too susceptible to the big play.

X-FACTOR Jeff Garcia was cast aside by the 49ers despite posting impressive numbers for a mediocre team. Even at 34, he's the best QB this incarnation of the Browns has had. If he can stay healthy, he will help the Browns offense finally get moving.

Steelers

STRENGTHS Despite a constant drain in free agency, the Steelers' defense keeps finding new contributors at linebacker and along the defensive line. They put good pressure on the quarterback and are very tough against the run. The offensive line, a sore spot last year, appears to be significantly improved.

WEAKNESSES QB Tommy Maddox was clearly not up for the challenge of running the pass-happy offense last year. First-round draft pick Ben Roethlisberger will take over eventually, but the transition will probably be messy. The secondary continues to be a source of worry, despite an influx of high draft picks.

X-FACTOR Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt inherits a talented crop of receivers and a promising young QB, but he must revive the Steelers running game. Their 1,488 rushing yards last year was their lowest total since 1967.With Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley in the backfield, the Steelers should run the ball more often.

AFC SOUTH

Colts

STRENGTHS Since Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison first teamed up in 1998, they've been the NFL's most productive duo, averaging 104 receptions for 1,395 yards and 11.5 TDs a year. The running attack is improving with a solid offensive line and a revitalized Edgerrin James. Quality receivers Reggie Wayne and Marcus Pollard round out what could be the league's most potent offense.

WEAKNESSES There are a lot of new starters on the defense. DE Dwight Freeney is one of the best speed rushers, but he'll face constant double teams until the Colts can find someone to pressure the QB from the other side.

X-FACTOR Kicker Mike Vanderjagt ended the season by converting an NFL-record 41 straight kicks. Given the Colts' high-scoring offense and porous defense, Vanderjagt could end up deciding a lot of games.

Titans

STRENGTHS Despite missing two games due to injury, QB Steve Mc-Nair had a career year in 2003, sharing MVP honors with Peyton Manning. The offensive line is solid, and McNair throws to a great group of receivers.

WEAKNESSES The secondary has long been a concern, and preseason injuries to starting CBs Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson don't help. The pass rush also looks weak, since the Titans haven't replaced Jevon Kearse.

X-FACTOR Eddie George was a fan favorite, but his 3.2-yard rushing average over the last three years kept them from getting back to the Super Bowl. The big question is whether his replacement, Chris Brown, can be a dominant running back while carrying the ball 20-25 times a game.

Jaguars

STRENGTHS Up the middle, the Jacksonville defense is as tough as any in the league. They've also put together a young, powerful offensive line that can control the line of scrimmage. Their game plan is simple: Run the ball and keep opponents from doing the same.

WEAKNESSES A thin receiving corps will limit young QB Byron Leftwich's effectiveness, and even the addition of rookie WR Reggie Williams isn't enough to make the difference. On defense, Jacksonville will have difficulty generating a pass rush, which puts tremendous pressure on their secondary.

X-FACTOR RB Fred Taylor rushed for 1,572 yards last year, but he has a history of injuries. A strained foot has slowed him during the pre-season, and the Jaguars can't make a playoff run without him.

Texans

STRENGTHS A rash of injuries wrecked the defense last year, but the return of veterans like DT Seth Payne and CB Aaron Glenn and the addition of rookies Jason Babin (LB) and Dunta Robinson (CB) should make this an above average unit. RB Domanick Davis and WR Andre Johnson emerged as stars last year, giving the offense a pair of dangerous weapons.

WEAKNESSES Sacks are a concern, on both sides of the ball. Problems with the offensive line haven't been resolved, and it's un clear whether the addition of Babin will be enough to generate more pressure on opposing QBs. The Texans play in what may be the league's toughest division, and the out-of-division schedule is brutal. They could improve significantly and still finish in last place.

X-FACTOR QB David Carr was only sacked 15 times last year (compared to an NFL-record 76 times in 2002), but he was knocked out of three games and missed four others with a variety of injuries. If the offensive line can give him time to throw, Carr should be able to get the ball down the field to Johnson and Corey Bradford. Until then, the offense will be stuck in low gear.

AFC WEST

Chiefs

STRENGTHS The offense seems to score at will. Opposing teams have trouble defending the Chiefs because their primary weapons in the passing game aren't wide receivers. TE Tony Gonzalez and RB Priest Holmes each had over 70 catches and the pair combined for 37 TDs. Special teamer Dante Hall returned two punts and two kickoffs for TDs.

WEAKNESSES The run defense was exposed in a Week 11 loss to the Bengals last year. Over the last eight games (including the playoffs) the Chiefs surrendered an average of 173 rushing yards per game. It was a little surprising, then, that the team didn't look for defensive help in free agency, traded away their first round draft pick, and used four of the seven remaining choices on offensive players.

X-FACTOR Former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham returns after a three-year absence, bringing an attacking style that seems to be ideally suited for the personnel at hand. Kansas City had a top-10 defense when Cunningham was at the helm, and the team thinks they have the talent to get back.

Broncos

STRENGTHS The Broncos addressed one of their biggest problems by trading for CB Champ Bailey. He's a shutdown corner who should make a big difference. The defense line has been revamped with the addition of free agents Raylee Johnson and Luther Ellis. Their offensive line is one of the league's best.

WEAKNESSES The passing game is a huge question mark. QB Jake Plummer struggled during the preseason, and there are serious questions about his receiving corps. Shannon Sharpe re tired, Rod Smith is slowing with age, and third-year man Ashley Lelie has yet to step up. As we saw when he played in Arizona, Plummer can't be productive in a one-dimensional offense.

X-FACTOR Losing a RB like Clinton Portis would be a big blow for most teams, but the four different Broncos backs have topped the 1,000-yard mark in the past six seasons. Quentin Griffin is quick and elusive, and should excel in the Broncos' system.

Raiders

STRENGTHS The offensive line has dramatically improved with the addition of rookies Robert Gallery and Jake Grove and veteran Ron Stone. The run defense should also get an immediate boost with the addition of defensive ends Warren Sapp and Ted Washington.

WEAKNESSES The release of safety Rod Woodson leaves a huge void in the secondary. The loss of Charlie Garner also casts a cloud of uncertainty over the Raiders running game. The Raiders will try to fashion a ground at tack using three unproven RBs: Tyrone Wheatley, Amos Zeroue, and Justin Fargas.

X-FACTOR Injuries ravaged the Raiders last year, and could be equally devastating this year. Their cast of veterans is more likely to break down, and the free agent signings made it difficult to build up any significant depth. If they're to compete, the Raiders must stay healthy.

Chargers

STRENGTHS The Chargers are blessed with one of the best all-around players in the game - as long as they don't burn him out. Last year LaDainian Tomlinson became the first player in NFL history with 100 rushes and 100 catches. He rushed for 1,645 yards (3rd in the NFL) and led the Chargers in receptions.

WEAKNESSES Everything else. There are gaping holes at receiver, linebacker, and on both lines. They've got a rookie kicker and a punter who has never punted in the NFL. An extended holdout by first-round pick Phillip Rivers forced the Chargers to stick with QB Drew Brees, a guy in whom they have publicly expressed a lack of confidence.

X-FACTOR The Chargers boast good young talent in the secondary, and things could look up if CBs Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis can force more turnovers.

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