New England Patriots expected to dominate AFC East

Baltimore and Pittsburgh will lead the AFC North as Schaub and the Texans take the South

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)

3. New York Jets (9-7)

4. Miami Dolphins (2-14)

As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around, the Patriots will be one of the most dominant teams in the NFL. They’ve upgraded their receiving corps with the acquisition of Brandon Lloyd and hope to build on Rob Gronkowski’s record-shattering 2011 campaign. They also play in one of the easier divisions in the AFC, so they should have no problem cruising to the playoffs.

Buffalo started out last season strong on the legs of Fred Jackson until he suffered a leg injury that ended his year. The Bills proceeded to fade out of the picture, as they just could not replace Jackson’s production. This year, Jackson is healthy once again and Buffalo’s offense should put up a lot of points with Steve Johnson and ever-improving Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick. They upgraded their pass rush in the offseason by signing one of the premier defensive ends in the league, Mario Williams. He will immediately improve a defensive front that only amassed 29 sacks last season, which was good for 27th in the league.

The media circus that is the New York Jets added perhaps one of the most polarizing players to ever play in the NFL, Tim Tebow. Considering he will primarily be the team’s backup, he has garnered much media coverage this summer and seems to have the locker room split as to what his role should be. Just know that if Mark Sanchez doesn’t improve significantly this season, fans will be clamoring for Tebow. No team can compete at a high level with the level of distraction and disorder the Jets have in their locker room, so this year may be another one filled with underachievement.

Miami drafted their quarterback (QB) of the future last April, as they selected Ryan Tannehill, eighth overall from Texas A&M. Tannehill has many skeptics, however, and it remains to be seen whether or not he will be able to run an NFL offense. The Dolphins have more problems than their quarterback, however. With no receivers to speak of, Tannehill will not have many reliable targets to stretch the field and make plays, so the Dolphins may be in for another year of rebuilding.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

4. Cleveland Browns (2-14)

The AFC North always seems to come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Baltimore has been known for the past decade for their suffocating defense, with the main figurehead being middle linebacker (LB), Ray Lewis. Lewis is entering his 13th season, but even at 37, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. The loss of Terrell Suggs will definitely impact the Ravens’ going forward, but not enough to stop them from fighting it out for the division crown. Joe Flacco has now proven that he can win in the playoffs, and the Ravens have one of the best runningbacks (RB) in the league, Ray Rice.

The Steelers always seem to be involved come January. Like the Ravens, they also pride themselves on strong defense and power running. QB Ben Roethlisberger will be aiming to make up for his awful performance in the 2012 playoff game against an inferior Denver Broncos team. With much of the team returning this season, the Steelers will continue to search for their seventh Super Bowl victory.

Cincinnati was one of the surprises last season, led by rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. With a full year and a full training camp (last season, training camp was canceled due to the lockout), they should both see massive improvements on their already impressive rookie seasons. It will remain to be seen whether or not their defense will be able to keep up with the bruising style of the Ravens and Steelers, but they should be able to hold their own and be in prime position to make their second consecutive playoff appearance.

There isn’t much to look forward to in Cleveland this season. The only real bright spots on the team are offensive lineman Joe Thomas, cornerback (CB) Joe Haden, and new rookie RB Trent Richardson. Other than Thomas, however, the Browns don’t have much of an offensive line to speak of, and they also have no QB to force defenses to respect the pass. This may mean that Richardson is in for a rough rookie season. Especially in this division, which is considered by many to be the best in football, Cleveland has no chance to compete this year.

AFC West

1. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

2. Denver Broncos (9-7)

3. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

4. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)

Last season, Oakland made a huge splash by trading many of their future draft picks for former Cincinnati pro-bowler Carson Palmer. Palmer was fairly effective for the Raiders, even with his 16 interceptions in 10 games, and he brings some stability to a position that has lately been filled by the likes of Jamarcus Russell, Jason Campbell, and Bruce Gradkowski. They also have a promising young stud RB in Darren McFadden who should be able to loosen up the passing game for Palmer by forcing the defense to respect the run. In this incredibly weak division, the Raiders may have just enough to sneak into the playoffs and make a run.

Denver has been a media circus for the past 12 months. First, it was Tim Tebow’s magical run to lead the Broncos to their first playoff win since 2006. Then, in the offseason, news broke that Denver had signed Peyton Manning after coming off multiple neck surgeries. This was an incredibly risky move, but it may just pay off. Denver’s success last season was due in large part to their stifling defense and clutch kicking. They seemed to be winning in spite of Tebow (even though he was receiving the majority of the credit for the wins). If Manning can provide even half of the production that he did in Indianapolis, the Broncos could be a very formidable team this season. This is moot, however, if Manning’s neck isn’t completely healed or affects his throwing motion too much.

The Chargers are an enigma. They seem to be favored every year, and every year they start off slowly and come around too late. They certainly have enough talent to be a Super Bowl contender, anchored by QB Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates, but they never are able to take advantage of all their talent. There is no reason to believe this season will be any different. They lost their best wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, to Tampa Bay, which will really slow down their passing attack which used to be so deadly . Without one of their biggest playmakers in Jackson , San Diego will probably be another middle-of-the-pack team.

Kansas City (KC) is another team with plenty of talent to succeed, but they never seem to be able to compete at a high level. It may be due to the quarterback play of Matt Cassel. After filling in admirably for Tom Brady when he went down with a knee injury, Cassel signed with the Chiefs in hopes that he would revive the franchise. He showed promise in 2010, amassing over 3,000 yards and earning a quarterback rating of 93.0 (league average is between 75.0 and 85.0), but he was not performing well in 2011 before he got injured. The Chiefs also lost their star RB Jamaal Charles to a season-ending ACL tear, which could sap some of the speed and quickness that he is known for. With Dwyane Bowe on the outside, this offense has incredibly high potential to be dangerous if Cassel can replicate his 2010 season. On defense, LB Tamba Hali and CB Brandon Flowers are some of the most underrated and underappreciated players in the league. In the end, KC just has too many holes, including questionable QB play, to compete this year.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

2. Tennessee Titans (6-10)

3. Indianapolis Colts (6-10)

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

The Houston Texans are my personal pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season. If QB Matt Schaub hadn’t gotten injured at the end of last year, this Texans team would have been poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. They have very few weaknesses at any position, although the loss of Mario Williams will hurt this ferocious pass rush. Defensive end J.J. Watt will have to fill the gap left by Williams, but he should be up to the challenge. They have one of the most athletically gifted wide receivers (WR) in the league in Andre Johnson, and Schaub has the ability to pick secondaries apart if given the time.

The Titans have decided to turn the offense over to second-year QB Jake Locker, who was very impressive last year in four starts, going undefeated and having a passer rating near 100. They hope to get more production from star RB Chris Johnson this season as well, as he had a number of rough games last year. The addition of Kamerion Wimbley should help a very young and inexperienced defense, but Tennessee will struggle to pick up wins this season.

Indianapolis is going through a complete rebuilding of their roster. With the loss of a player of Peyton Manning’s caliber, many organizations would spend years attempting to replace the production lost. But like the Packers a few years ago with Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre, the Colts seem to already have solidified their new quarterback of the future in first overall pick, Andrew Luck. Luck has been highly touted by draft experts and football analysts alike. His career at Stanford was extraordinary, and he is said to be the most complete quarterback prospect since none other than Peyton himself. It will be interesting to watch Luck develop this season, but until the Colts surround him with more talent, I don’t see them making much of a splash in the very tough AFC.

Jacksonville simply lacks the talent to compete. Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars really do not have any offensive weapons. They signed former Cowboys WR Laurent Robinson, who had a good year last year, but that may be because most of the defense’s attention was diverted to Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten. They also drafted Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon, but he was shortly thereafter arrested for a DUI. There is no doubt that he has talent, but these off-field distractions may cause more problems for the Jags in the long run. Second-year QB Blaine Gabbert looked absolutely horrendous at times last year, but for now he is all Jacksonville has. They hope that he can develop some this year and cut down on the interceptions, but this already has the makings of a lost season.