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They begin this season without QB Ben Roethlisberger, and his suspension could damage their chances of getting into the playoffs again. With Byron Leftwich injured, Dennis Dixon is the nominal starter. But he doesn’t have the winning experience of a Roethlisberger. At least he has some nice helpers in WRs Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, TE Heath Miller, RB Rashard Mendenhall and the returning WR-KR Antwaan Randle El. Losing OT Willie Colon for the season hurts.

Pittsburgh’s meltdown in pass defense was directly attributable to the absence of S Troy Polamalu, one of the league’s five most valuable players. He’s healthy now and ready to rock opponents, with the help of fellow safety Ryan Clark and LBs LaMarr Woodley (13 1/2 sacks), James Harrison (10) and Lawrence Timmons (7).

Cleveland Browns

Once Mike Holmgren took charge of the sputtering Browns, things began looking up. The breakthrough might not come for another season _ when, perhaps, Holmgren returns to coaching. For now, the team president is giving Eric Mangini one more chance.

Cleveland won its last four games in 2009, although only Pittsburgh was a decent opponent. Still, the Browns were a mess in all areas but special teams, where All-Pro Joshua Cribbs is among the league’s most dangerous performers.

Jake Delhomme has replaced Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn at quarterback, trying to resurrect his career. He doesn’t have much talent surrounding him, and the defense could be just as bad, although LB Scott Fujita must have seen something he likes _ he left the Saints for Cleveland.

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AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts

Hard to find much to fault here. Sure, they lost the Super Bowl, but the Colts were the NFL’s elite team over the 17-week season. Had new coach Jim Caldwell _ talk about successful transitions _ not rested his regulars in the final 1 1/2 games, Indy might have gone into the playoffs undefeated.

The Colts might challenge their 14-2 mark of a year ago if the offensive line comes together; right now, with center Jeff Saturday’s status uncertain after right knee surgery, it’s a question mark.

Peyton Manning sets the pace for all quarterbacks. Make that all players. The NFL’s only four-time MVP is a favorite for a fifth award, surrounded by the strongest cast on offense in the conference. That cast will be deeper with the return of WR Anthony Gonzalez from a knee injury, and with the further maturation of RB Donald Brown to complement Joseph Addai. The line allowed just 13 sacks in 2009, and Manning will weave his magic to WRs Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, and TE Dallas Clark.

Nobody can expect the Colts to keep that pace on defense, but if they rank in the middle of the league overall and improve their 24th-rated run D, home-field advantage for the playoffs easily is within reach. Key defenders Dwight Freeney, Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea must stay healthy and Brackett has a right hand injury.

Tennessee Titans

One reason Jeff Fisher is the longest-tenured coach with the same team is he knows how to listen to the owner. And Bud Adams made a good call last season.

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