Arian Foster (23) and the Texans could emerge as a challenger for the AFC… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)
In predicted order of finish by division:
2011: 13-3, 1st in East.
2011 playoffs: Lost to New York Giants, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI.
They're going all the way: What's not to love about these Patriots? They're coming off a 13-3 season and, going by 2011 results, have the easiest schedule in the league. Tom Brady is still in his productive years at 35, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are at the cutting edge of receiving tight ends, and the defense will get a big boost from the draft and free agency.
They're doomed: Break out the under-construction tape, because the New England defense is an untested work in progress. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl last season despite a 31st-ranked defense that gave up an average of 21.4 points per game. A youth movement is afoot; the team's first six draft picks play on that side of the ball. A budding star: defensive end Chandler Jones, the first-round pick.
Now hear this: "They're doing a great job of holding." — Receiver Wes Welker, with a smile, on the Patriots' defense.
2011: 6-10, 4th in East.
Last year in playoffs: 1999.
They're going all the way: Out of the playoffs for the last 12 years and fresh off a 1-8 tailspin to end last season, the Bills needed to do something dramatic. They focused on the defensive line and built the best in the conference (and maybe the NFL) by adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to an already talented unit. This should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
They're doomed: Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to prove he's the long-term answer at quarterback, and his performance plunged after he signed his big deal last season. He finished with a league-high 23 interceptions. He needs a wider array of receiving targets. Fred Jackson is a talented back, but he's coming back from a broken leg.
Now hear this: "We've done some things right, but it's time for us to close it out and win some games." — General Manager Buddy Nix, on Twitter.
NEW YORK JETS
2011: 8-8, 2nd in East.
Last year in playoffs: 2010.
They're going all the way: Maybe last season was a statistical hiccup. After all, the Jets made it to the AFC title game two years in a row before taking a big step backward and losing their final three games of 2011 to finish 8-8. Perhaps Tim Tebow can somehow unite a locker room that was hopelessly fractured after last season.
They're doomed: New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, father of the modern wildcat scheme, figures he can play to the strengths of Tebow and starter Mark Sanchez and create an effective two-quarterback system. That has major flop potential. This is a make-or-break year for Rex Ryan, and the Jets aren't making it easy on themselves.
Now hear this: "Am I confident in our defense? Absolutely. Granted, I said top five. That's a given. I don't care who's out there.... That's how confident we are." — Ryan
2011: 6-10, 3rd in East.
Last year in playoffs: 2008.
They're going all the way: Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill has looked good so far and has earned the starting job. The plan calls for him to be the rebuilding cornerstone for a franchise that has won seven, seven and six games in the last three seasons. The Dolphins have a stout defense, led by Cameron Wake, who has 28 sacks over the last three seasons.
They're doomed: This isn't going to be a quick fix. The offensive line is wet cement, Brandon Marshall — who would have been Tannehill's top target — is playing for Chicago, and it's risky building a ground game around the undersized Reggie Bush, who has one 1,000-yard season. There's a reason Jeff Fisher and Peyton Manning took a look at Miami and chose to go elsewhere.
Now hear this: "We don't think it's too big for him." — Coach Joe Philbin on Tannehill, who will be the first rookie quarterback in Dolphins history to start in an opener.
2011: 12-4, 2nd in North.
2011 playoffs: Lost to Denver Broncos, 29-23, in wild-card game.
They're going all the way: Defense remains the cornerstone of the Steelers, and last year's unit finished first in yards and points given up. If LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison can stay healthy, they'll be a nightmare for any opposing quarterback. And, of course, Troy Polamalu is always lurking. On offense, Hines Ward is gone and Mike Wallace just returned Tuesday after a contract holdout, but the Steelers still have plenty of firepower.
They're doomed: Will Ben Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley click right away, or will the quarterback push back when the coach gets in his face the first time? Running back Rashard Mendenhall is coming back from an ACL injury, and there is no timetable for his return. The running game is a huge concern.
Now hear this: "When you sit there and think he's the only guy who's ever made Kurt Warner curse, that's kind of a shocker right there." — Roethlisberger on Haley, who coached Warner in Arizona.
2011: 12-4, 1st in North.