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Afc Divisional Preview

September 01, 2006|SAM FARMER

2006 predicted order of finish ...

West

* 1. Denver: The Broncos came within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl last season, allowing Coach Mike Shanahan to get over his post-Elway hangover. Jake Plummer had a terrific year, avoiding the mistakes that had plagued him throughout his pro career. But can Plummer do it again? It won't be easy, and now he has the psychological burden of knowing rookie Jay Cutler is looking over his shoulder. The Broncos have a brutal non-division schedule, with first-half games at New England and Pittsburgh and second-half home games against Cincinnati and Seattle. Still, Denver is the class of the division.

* 2. San Diego: Quarterback Philip Rivers finally gets his chance to run the offense, and he has looked good. Then again, he's surrounded by two of the best offensive weapons in the game -- running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. The question is whether the offensive line can provide Rivers the protection he needs to get the job done. The Charger

defense has rising stars such as linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive tackle Luis Castillo, but the secondary needs to catch up.

* 3. Kansas City: There are changes aplenty with the Chiefs, who said so long to Dick Vermeil and hello to Herman Edwards as coach. The handover from Priest Holmes to Larry Johnson is complete too, and Johnson could be the best running back in football by season's end. The Chiefs were the best team to miss the playoffs last season. Kansas City is built to score often, but the Chiefs might not be as prolific with offensive coordinator Al Saunders gone and replaced by Mike Solari, who probably won't have the same creative freedoms.

* 4. Oakland: The Raiders abandoned their running game a lot last season. Trouble is, they also abandoned their passing game and defense. Whether that will change with Aaron Brooks at quarterback, and a secondary coming off a franchise-low four interceptions, is anyone's guess. Hoping to rekindle that legendary Raider toughness, Al Davis brought back Art Shell as coach. But that's unlikely to make this team a playoff contender. As for their decision to re-sign Jeff George? Will they ever learn?

*

East

2006 predicted order of finish ...

1. New England: Despite all their off-season departures -- notably David Givens, Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri -- the Patriots still have Tom Brady, considered by many the best quarterback in the league, and Bill Belichick, the only coach to build a dynasty in the salary-cap era. All good things must end, though, and the Patriots stumbled a bit last season, going 11-7. They need some help at linebacker, especially with injured Tedy Bruschi watching from the sidelines, and they also need aging safety Rodney Harrison to reemerge as a knockout threat.

2. Miami: The Dolphins were red hot at the end of last season, winning their last six games and just missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Now they have quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who is coming off a major knee injury and is playing better than almost everyone expected. Ricky Williams is gone, but Ronnie Brown is more than up to the job at running back. He showed breakaway speed last season and is a good receiver. The Dolphins still have an outstanding defensive line and very solid linebackers, though their secondary -- Coach Nick Saban's specialty -- could use some

3. Buffalo: Owner Ralph Wilson has long complained about the difficulties of being a small-market team, and the Bills certainly thought small this off-season. They didn't make any major player moves to revive a franchise that has missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons. They did, however, hire Coach Dick Jauron and bring back Hall of Famer Marv Levy to oversee the rebuilding. It all starts at quarterback, and the onus is on J.P. Losman, who was given the starting job over Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall.

4. New York Jets: Meet Eric Mangini, 35, the Jets' seventh coach in 15 years. He has a tough task ahead and oversaw a four-way quarterback competition deep into August. A bright spot: the play of rookie tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Mangini's first big test of note comes in Week 2, when the Jets open at home against New England and the young coach tries to match wits with Belichick, his boss for the previous six seasons.

*

North

2006 predicted order of finish ...

* 1. Pittsburgh: The defending Super Bowl champions have been fantastic the last two seasons -- remember, they were 15-1 in 2004 -- and there's no reason they won't be at or near the top of the league again. Yes, they lost Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El, and yes, Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a near-fatal motorcycle accident. But the team is still loaded with talent. A key for the Steelers will be the health of running back Duce Staley, who could provide a devastating one-two punch with Willie Parker. It helps that the Steelers play so well on the road; they have tough non-division games at San Diego, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Carolina.

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