AFC Football: Six Storylines To Watch

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series previewing the NFL season by contributor Isaac Huss. Please also check out his 5 Key Storylines in the NFC.

Peyton “All-American Dude” Manning v. Andrew “Articulate Intellect” Luck
Nobody wanted it to happen this way.  Peyton Manning has godlike status in Indianapolis, but his multiple neck surgeries combined with the Colts’ opportunity to draft Andrew Luck spelled the end of his tenure in Indy.  It wasn’t without awkwardness, especially before Manning’s trade to Denver became official.  However, Manning handed the whole process with nothing but class as usual, and Luck was basically handed the keys to the city.  It seems like a win-win situation for everyone involved.

And by all accounts, Andrew Luck is going to be an excellent quarterback.  Rating “intangibles” in a quarterback can be a nebulous proposition at times.  Hard work, intelligence, competitiveness, etc. can be overblown and/or feted upon quarterbacks regardless of any exceptional trait he possesses which will actually translate into exceptional quarterback play.  That being said, if ever there ever was a quarterback that seemed destined to succeed based on physical as well as intellectual qualities, it’s Luck.  His postgame news conferences are almost as compelling as his quarterbacking.

The only thing Luck doesn’t have at his disposal is Hall-of-Fame genes.  Which, of course, his predecessor does.  Manning seems to have regained much of his pre-surger(ies) form, but it remains to be seen how his neck holds up over the course of a season worth of hits.

Of course, it’s unfair to compare Luck to Manning, who’s already one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, if not ever.  However, because the Colts essentially chose to start over with Luck rather than continue the Manning era, Luck’s and Manning’s careers will be forever intertwined, and Luck will have the burden of living up to Manning’s stature, or at least his performance with the Broncos.

Meanwhile, John Elway and company jettisoned a local hero of their own in order to bring Manning to the Broncos, as they traded the immensely popular (albeit polarizing) Tim Tebow to the NY Jets.  Nobody’s pretending Tebow is going to make the Manning trade look foolish, but if Peyton isn’t his old self, or worse, if his health keeps him off the field, Elway is going to have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Did somebody say Tim Tebow?
The quarterback battle between Mark Sanchez and… blah, blah, blah.  Let’s be honest, Sanchez hasn’t done much to assure himself of a starting quarterback position so far in his career, but his job is safe.  What’s far more compelling is observing the media’s obsession with Tim Tebow and how long it will take to cool off if Timmy becomes nothing more than provide a fake punt threat and/or goal line running option.

Is Tebow capable of leading a team to victory?  Absolutely he is, as he proved last season, most sublimely in the Broncos’ upset win over Pittsburgh.  But unless Sanchez goes down with injury and/or self destructs, Tebow will be left to work on his spirals in practice.

Rookie QBs: Everybody’s doing it
In addition to the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and RG3 in Washington, three AFC teams have named rookies to be their starting quarterbacks.  Luck was essentially assured a starting job from day one.  However, both Brandon Weeden (Cleveland) and Ryan Tannehill (Miami) are somewhat surprising choices, although for different reasons.

The Browns drafted the 28-year-old graduate Weeden of Oklahoma State in the first round to replace the disappointing Colt McCoy, the latest attempt at finding a franchise quarterback in the draft, following McCoy (3rd round) in 2010, Brady Quinn (first round) in 2007, and Tim Couch (first overall pick) in 1999.  The lingering question with Weeden is how much room for improvement he has, or even how long he’ll be able to play at a high level given his unusually advanced age.  After spending five years playing professional baseball, he became the oldest player ever drafted in the first round.

So while Weeden is being told that he’s already too far along his career arc, Tannehill is facing the opposite kind of scrutiny.  Tannehill played receiver for two and a half years before getting the chance to play quarterback for the final seven games his junior year as well as his senior year.  Tannehill’s raw athleticism and ability are unquestioned, but it remains to be seen whether he’s ready to lead an NFL team.  The Dolphins are willing to take a risk, especially since they’ve tried 17 quarterbacks since Dan Marino without finding a mainstay.

Patriots: Same old, same old.
The Belichick era rolls along in New England, a year removed from an improbably impressive run which included a 13-3 regular season and a near-miss in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants.  Improbable because they did it without a defense to speak of which could keep teams from piling up yards, and eventually points, early and often.

So what did Bill do?  He spent his first six draft choices on defense.  Not to mention bringing in WR Brandon Lloyd into a receiving corps that already includes Wes Welker and the two headed TE monster, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  If the defense can offer any sort of resistance, another run to the Super Bowl seems easily within reach.

Holdout Hope
One team that is a continual threat to New England’s postseason aspirations is the Steelers, losers to Tebow and the Broncos a year ago in the first round of the playoffs.  They were and are without RB Rashard Mendenhall, who tore his ACL in the last game of the regular season and is still on the PUP list.  Adding insult to injury, literally, is Pro Bowl WR Mike Wallace’s continuing holdout.   While it appears Wallace will blink first, it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be given his long layoff, much less his diminished role due to the emergence of Antonio Brown as Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target.

Less clear is what will become of the Maurice Jones-Drew saga.  Also holding out for a better contract, MJD revealed to reporters that he was open to a trade from the only team he’s known the London Jaguars of Jacksonville.  Whichever team was to acquire the RB via trade would be instantly adding a top-5 running back in his prime.  Perhaps the Jags’ unwillingness to negotiate with their franchise player is a sign that they don’t see themselves being competitive over the next couple of years and would be better served letting him walk than shell more money for a team going nowhere soon.

Given their compromised position, they would be hard-pressed to get full market value for Drew, but perhaps they are willing to let him go to save money until they become more competitive.  However, regardless of how serious they are to be able to compete immediately, if they are serious about their intentions of developing the second year Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, they would be well-served to have a legitimate weapon out of the backfield to keep defenses honest.

A Texas-sized question mark at quarterback
Peyton Manning isn’t the only high-profile quarterback looking to bounce return from injury in 2012.  Matt Schaub of the Texans is no superstar, but he throws to one in Andre Johnson, and along with Arian Foster leading the running attack, makes Houston a much more dangerous offensive team.  Coupled with a defense which Gary Kubiak has molded into one of the league’s best, and the Texans are again the favorites to win the AFC South.  With a healthy Schaub (and Johnson), the Texans pose a legitimate threat to compete for an AFC Championship.

AFC North
: Baltimore
AFC East:
New England
AFC West:
San Diego
AFC South:
Wild Cards:
Pittsburgh, Denver

Wild Card round:
New England over Pittsburgh, San Diego over Denver
Divisional round:
New England over Baltimore, Houston over San Diego
NFC Championship:
New England over Houston

Super Bowl: New England over Green Bay