Mark Craig's look at the AFC

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 6:48 AM

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has had plenty of success in his two NFL seasons, but the Super Bowl has eluded him.

Photo: AJ Mast • Associated Press,

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In the AFC, the Broncos hope balance between offense and defense yields a title

Broncos ante up on ‘D’

Denver’s record-setting offense discovered via global humiliation that defense not only wins championships but also prevents one from being beaten silly on Super Bowl Sunday. So, with the current window of opportunity presumably closing quickly, Broncos boss John Elway has shoved all of ownership’s chips to the middle of the table for what could be one final swing for 38-year-old Peyton Manning.

Browns strong safety T.J. Ward, Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware all came aboard for a mere $60 million in guarantees.

Will it be enough? Who knows, but in a league that handcuffs its defenders with every new rule and annual points of emphasis, it’s kinda nice that Denver had to ante up to improve its defense, which ranked an eye-opening 21 spots lower than Seattle’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense.

Quick-turn newbie? O’Brien

Of the seven new head coaches, Houston’s Bill O’Brien is in the best position to be the happy guy running the team that makes everybody go, “Man, I shoulda seen that coming.”

O’Brien inherits a 2-14 team that was 12-4 the year before. Key players have returned from injuries, including linebacker Brian Cushing, and the defense features the best defender in the league, end J.J. Watt, and another playmaking pass rusher, No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, on the other side.

A year ago, Andy Reid turned a 2-14 Chiefs team into an 11-5 Chiefs team. Similar turnarounds are almost routine in today’s NFL, so it’s not unrealistic for the Texans to expect a playoff push in the softer AFC South.

Overrated? Dalton

The Bengals had never been to three consecutive postseasons until quarterback Andy Dalton came along three years ago. But heaven help this poor young man if he gets there again and lays a fourth straight stinker.

With a new six-year contract, he has 115 million reasons why a 30-18 regular-season record doesn’t offset a 0-3 postseason mark that includes one touchdown pass, six interceptions and last year’s 17-point home loss against San Diego as the No. 3 seed.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sounds all in on the Dalton deal. But it’s hard to blame Bengals fans for being leery.

Dalton has a 56.2 postseason passer rating for a franchise whose 23-year drought without a playoff win is the longest in the NFL.

Yeah, even longer than Detroit (22 years).

Is Luck (over)due?

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck would be way ahead of schedule if Russell Wilson hadn’t just won a Super Bowl or Colin Kaepernick hadn’t just been to his second NFC title game after being to his first Super Bowl the year before.

Nah, in today’s NFL, it’s not enough to inherit the league’s worst team, take it to the playoffs as a rookie and then win a playoff the game the next season. Especially for Luck, who, as the first overall draft pick in 2012, is the best of the bumper crop of quarterbacks to enter the league in 2011 and 2012.

Kaepernick was a second-rounder in 2011 and Wilson was a third-rounder in 2012. Luck has a long list of NFL records for a quarterback after one and two seasons. But he never has been to a conference title game and is nine days from turning 25. For gosh sakes, get crackin’, Andrew.

The Colts have concerns on the offensive line and in the middle of their defense. But that’s no excuse for Luck not to win the AFC South.

After all, his predecessor, Manning, won a Super Bowl while covering up blemishes on teams that were more flawed than this.

Ryan on powder keg?

There are a few AFC coaches on the proverbial hot seat. Joe Philbin in Miami, Dennis Allen in Oakland, whoever was coaching the Browns as this edition of the Star Tribune went to press.

But you have to admire Jets coach Rex Ryan’s courage. Adding Michael Vick to a tense situation and pretending Geno Smith still is your starter isn’t beyond taking your spot on the hot seat.

It’s striking a match and smoking a cigar while sitting atop an open crate of TNT. Especially when your defense isn’t good enough to extinguish the flame.

Milestone ahead

Manning is second in NFL history with 491 career touchdown passes. He needs 18 more to break Brett Favre’s mark of 508. A year ago, Manning became the first player in NFL history to throw 16 touchdown passes in the first month of a season.

MARK CRAIG





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Miami - LP: B. Morris 4 FINAL
Washington - WP: M. Grace 6
NY Yankees - LP: C. Martin 1 FINAL
Toronto - WP: R. Dickey 3
Philadelphia - WP: A. Harang 5 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: A. Wood 2
Tampa Bay - WP: J. Odorizzi 5 FINAL
Boston - LP: C. Buchholz 1
Los Angeles - LP: C. Hatcher 3 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: M. Blazek 4
Chicago Cubs 8 Bottom 7th Inning
St. Louis 6
Oakland 6 Bottom 8th Inning
Minnesota 8
Texas - WP: K. Kela 2 FINAL
Houston - LP: C. Qualls 1
Arizona 0 Delayed
Colorado 0
Seattle 0 Bottom 4th Inning
LA Angels 0
San Diego 0 Bottom 3rd Inning
San Francisco 0
Chicago 99 FINAL
Cleveland 92
LA Clippers 46 3rd Qtr
Houston 50
NY Rangers 0 FINAL
Washington 1
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