Detroit News AFC team rankings

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Detroit News reporter James Hawkins ranks the AFC teams from top to bottom.

ELITE

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers may be without running back Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) for the first month and receiver Martavis Bryant for the season, but it will still have enough offensive firepower with receiver Antonio Brown, running back DeAngelo Williams and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The offense ranked third in the league in total yards per game (395.4) and tied for fourth in points (26.4), which will help make up for some of the defense’s deficiencies.

Le'Veon Bell had core muscle surgery Monday.

2. New England Patriots

Like the Steelers, the Patriots will be without an integral part of the offense with future Hall of Famer Tom Brady (Michigan) serving a four-game suspension for the Deflategate scandal. Brady’s absence leaves a void, but when he returns in Week 5 there should be more than enough time for New England to return to supremacy.

3. Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning may have rode off into the sunset after winning the Super Bowl, but the Broncos will still ride its terrorizing defense. Linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive tackle Malik Jackson left in free agency, but the defense returns linebacker Von Miller and shutdown corners Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby from a unit that gave up the fewest total yards (283.1) and fourth fewest points (18.5) per game.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Under coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs have gone 11-5, 9-7 and 11-5 the past three seasons and have ranked in the top five in scoring defense and rushing offense each of those years. Kansas City returns plenty of talent on both sides of the ball but the defense will be without linebacker Justin Houston, who will miss at least the first six weeks on the PUP list. The biggest questions are how running back Jamaal Charles will respond after coming off his second ACL surgery and if quarterback Alex Smith is able to take that next step and make the Chiefs viable title contenders.

CONTENDERS

5. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals been the model of consistency the past five seasons with five consecutive playoff appearances, and that trend should continue. The majority of the key defensive playmakers from a unit that surrendered the second-fewest points (17.4) are back. However, there are concerns about the receiving corps outside of A.J. Green and how quarterback Andy Dalton will fare without offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calling the shots.

Vontaze Burfict

6. Oakland Raiders

There’s plenty of buzz in Oakland as the Raiders renaissance got underway last year. The team is brimming with young talent in quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper, running back Latavius Murray and linebacker Khalil Mack, but has to learn to play better in crunch time. Oakland addressed its inferior pass defense in the offseason by signing cornerback Sean Smith and drafting safety Karl Joseph, and appears poised to record its first winning season since 2002.

7. New York Jets

The Jets' defense ranked No. 4 in yards allowed (318.6) and should once again be among one of the league’s best with a massive defensive front featuring Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, who are all 290-plus pounds, and a solid secondary led by All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. The offense remained largely intact with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick back after an offseason contract holdout and will also feature new addition Matt Forte in the backfield.

8. Houston Texans

The Texans' offense should provide a little more punch with free-agent additions Brock Osweiler at quarterback and running back Lamar Miller to go along with rookie receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. And as long as defensive end J.J. Watt is healthy, the defense, which ranked No. 3 in total yards allowed (310.2), will remain formidable.

9. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts still managed to finish .500 despite having battered quarterback Andrew Luck sidelined for half the season. Even with a subpar defense and a secondary that’s already plagued with injuries, Indianapolis will only go as far as the offensive line allows Luck to take them. With an emphasis on keeping Luck upright and healthy, the line was retooled in the offseason, highlighted by first-round pick Ryan Kelly.

LONG SHOTS

10. Baltimore Ravens

No team was hit harder with injuries than the Ravens, who had eight Week 1 starters – six on offense – end the season on the IR. As the result, Baltimore remains a bit of a mystery with quarterback Joe Flacco (left ACL), running back Justin Forsett (right arm), linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles), receiver Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles) and tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) all returning from serious injuries. With free-agent addition Mike Wallace giving Flacco a legitimate deep threat, the healed and renewed offense could help the Ravens contend for the AFC North title.

11. Buffalo Bills

The Bills finished 12th in total points scored (379) thanks to a rushing attack that led the league in yards (2,432) and tied for most touchdowns (19). The offense can be even better this year depending on the health of running back LeSean McCoy and receiver Sammy Watkins, who missed four and three games, respectively. It’s the other side of the ball where there’s more concern. Coach Rex Ryan brought in his twin brother, Rob Ryan, to help fix a defense that finished 31st in sacks (21) and 15th in total points allowed (359).

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have an up-and-coming offense with quarterback Blake Bortles and receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, and tied for the league lead with 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Jacksonville ranked 27th in rushing (92.1 yards) and added free-agent addition Chris Ivory to the backfield mix with T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson (Michigan) with the hope of establishing a more consistent run game. And no AFC team did more to rebuild its defense than the Jaguars, who signed tackle Malik Jackson, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gibson and drafted cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack to improve a unit that ranked 31st in points allowed per game (28).

13. San Diego Chargers

The Chargers are looking to bounce back after a miserable 4-12 season that saw nine of its losses come by eight points or less. San Diego had no problem racking up yards on offense but ranked 26th in scoring (20 points). Getting receiver Keenan Allen (lacerated kidney) back will help as will any improvement from running back Melvin Gordon, who struggled to carry the offense. The team will have the tough task of replacing defensive leader Eric Weddle, who signed with the Ravens.

14. Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill should get the chance to flourish with the Dolphins bringing in first-year coach Adam Gase, who has developed a reputation of being a quarterback whisperer. Tannehill will have plenty of capable receivers to throw to in Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker and should benefit from a beefed up offensive line that includes rookie tackle Laremy Tunsil. The run game is suspect, though, with oft-injured Arian Foster, who has played 25 games the past three seasons, and second-year man Jay Ajayi.

NO SHOTS

15. Tennessee Titans

It’s no secret the Titans are going to try and pound the ball more after acquiring DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry in an effort to give second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota more room to run and opportunities to throw off play-action. Tennessee will also need more consistent play from the receiving corps, which finished last in the league in receptions (130). The defense improved significantly in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s first season, jumping from 27th to 12th in total defense, and has the potential to be even better.

16. Cleveland Browns

The Browns tumbled to the cellar in the AFC and shows no signs of climbing up as first-year coach Hue Jackson takes over a roster where more than half the players are rookies and second-year guys. Jackson added quarterback Robert Griffin III in free agency but faces a difficult task to turn around a Cleveland team that ranked 29th in points allowed (27) and 30th in scoring (17.4) with so much inexperience.