As vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89, Gil Brandt helped the Cowboys grow into one of the most powerful and popular sports franchises in America. His innovative management and personnel systems are standard operating procedure today for many teams at the professional and collegiate levels nationwide. Brandt has spent the last eight years as NFL.com's main personnel guru, and today Bengals.com offers his preview of the 2003 AFC playoff race.
By Gil Brandt
Hollywood could not have written a better finish to the AFC playoff race last year. Heading into Week 17, there were 11 teams with playoffs on their minds. Eleven! The AFC only has 16 teams! And the best finish from an all-AFC game that week featured the New England Patriots beating the Miami Dolphins in overtime, only to miss the playoffs because the New York Jets won in an afternoon game. It just goes to show that now more than ever, every single win counts.
Looking at the entire group this year, there are about a dozen teams that could make a case for the AFC championship, including all four teams in the toughest division in football -- the AFC West.
Buffalo Bills : Buffalo added five veteran starters in the offseason, including defensive tackle Sam Adams and LB Takeo Spikes. It has a very good running back in Travis Henry, who stockpiled 1,438 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2002.
Miami Dolphins : The Dolphins lost four of six games in 2002 when quarterback Jay Fiedler sat out with a broken thumb. Now if Fiedler goes down, local boy Brian Griese will be ready to make good. Junior Seau and Sammy Knight should improve an already top defense.
New England Patriots : This team had an outstanding draft, and it added linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and safety Rodney Harrison to help a defense that is switching to a 3-4 scheme this season. The Pats do need to run the ball better -- they were ranked 28th overall in 2002.
New York Jets : They really lost some outstanding players this offseason (Laveranues Coles, John Hall, Chad Morton and Randy Thomas, all to Washington ). Rookie Dewayne Robertson should help an already very good defensive line.
Baltimore Ravens : Quarterback play will be key here -- can Chris Redman rebound from a disappointing 2002 season, or can rookie Kyle Boller lead the offense? Either way, running back Jamal Lewis needs another big year -- he ran for 1,327 yards in 2002. With Ray Lewis back, the defense should be primed for success. He'll have some help from rookie Terrell Suggs, who will play linebacker in the NFL after playing end in college. Coach Brian Billick will have some fun using him in blitz schemes. Remember, teams with strong defenses don't necessarily have to have great quarterbacks. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl, Trent Dilfer was their quarterback.
Cincinnati Bengals : This will be a very improved team. The offense boasts a 3,000-yard quarterback in Jon Kitna, a 1,000-yard running back in Corey Dillon and a 1,000-yard receiver in Chad Johnson. Head coach Marvin Lewis has brought a new attitude to this team, and he's known for building good defenses -- in one year at Washington, he had the Redskins ranked fifth overall in total defense, and he was the architect of the defense that anchored the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl team.
Cleveland Browns : The Browns defense ranked 21st overall and 27th versus the run in 2002. Lucky for them, new defensive coordinator Dave Campo is in charge of overhauling that unit, which will start three new linebackers. Second-year running back William Green needs to give his offense a big year. And last but certainly not least, there could be a quarterback competition between Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb -- we may see Holcomb as the starter.
Pittsburgh Steelers : The Steelers have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Plaxico Burress finished with 78 catches, Hines Ward hauled in 112 catches and Antwaan Randle El caught 47 balls. Look for a big year from running back Amos Zereoue, who should see more snaps. On the defensive side of the ball, a healthy Kendrell Bell will help the team, which finished 20th overall against the pass in 2002.
Houston Texans : The Texans are a well-run team, and they will prove that this season. Rookie receiver Andre Johnson should help, even though rookie receivers generally struggle in their first season. Houston does lack running backs (ranked 28th overall in 2002) and the team could use a speed rusher on defense. But the man who will show the most improvement in 2003 is David Carr, who finished his rookie season with 15 interceptions, nine touchdowns and a 62.8 QB rating.
Indianapolis Colts : Believe it or not, Peyton Manning had a down year in 2002 with 19 interceptions. This will not happen two years in a row. Running back Edgerrin James needs a big year after scoring only three times in 2002. Defensively, the Colts played really well under coach Tony Dungy last year, finishing the season ranked eighth overall. The team did a good job adding speed on defense for this year's campaign.
Jacksonville Jaguars : New head coach Jack Del Rio will do a good job with the defense. In fact, this entire team will be better because of Del Rio, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and a full slab of healthy players. Quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Fred Taylor and receiver Jimmy Smith are all injury free and will help an offense that ranked 25th overall in 2002.
Tennessee Titans : The key for the Titans will be Eddie George, who turns 30 in September and has never missed an NFL game. Second-round draft pick Tyrone Calico has a chance to be a contributor to the offense -- remember, first-year receivers seem to have problems in their rookie season. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz does a very good job, but let's see what he does with rookie Andre Woolfolk as well as who he'll have at middle linebacker and as his third cornerback. The return of Jevon Kearse should give a nice boost.
Denver Broncos : Since John Elway's retirement in 1998, Denver is just 34-30. The signing of Jake Plummer was big for this team; it has the whole city buzzing. The Broncos were third overall on offense and sixth overall on defense in 2002, but missed the playoffs. They have a good running game, led by second-year back Clinton Portis, and have stopped the run well defensively.
Kansas City Chiefs : Obviously, the key to this team's success will be running back Priest Holmes. Will he be recovered from a hip injury and ready to play? We'll find out. The Chiefs scored 467 points in 2002 but gave up 399 and ranked last in the NFL in overall defense. The team addressed that in the offseason by adding linebacker Shawn Barber and defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday. They should also get defensive tackle Ryan Sims and safety Jerome Woods back after missing 22 games between them last year. And as NFL.com's Vic Carucci pointed out earlier this offseason, head coach Dick Vermeil has a third-year Super Bowl charm with teams he coaches.
Oakland Raiders : So they have 11 starters over 30 years old and the starting unit's average age will be over 30. So what? The offense boasts veterans Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice and Lincoln Kennedy, all of whom helped the team finish No. 1 overall in total offense in 2002. Defensively, the Raiders lost four starters because of cap problems, but they're still relatively young on that side of the ball. They kick off the 2003 season against the Titans -- that should be a great game and it could be a key to the season. Look for receiver Jerry Porter to have a good year.
San Diego Chargers : Armed with a good young QB in Drew Brees and a great young RB in LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers finally have a solid offensive unit. Topping it off is newcomer David Boston, who should really help that offense out. They lost two veteran leaders on defense -- Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau -- but have a bunch of young defensive backs that should help the defense shut down opponents in the pass-happy AFC West.