Steelers, plenty of others seek supremacy in AFC

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The Steelers were a team in flux a year ago, their star quarterback about to sit out a four-game suspension.

Ben Roethlisberger returned after Pittsburgh went 3-1, leading the team to its third AFC championship in six seasons. Now the bitter taste of a Super Bowl loss to Green Bay and a controversy-filled offseason have the Steelers itching to defend their AFC title. After keeping the core of their roster together, they’re loaded to make another run.

But so are plenty of other AFC teams.

Just ask Rex Ryan, who says this is the most talented Jets roster he has had since becoming New York’s coach. Oh, yeah, he guarantees _ again _ this is the year the Jets bring home their first Lombardi Trophy since the days of Broadway Joe.

“Everything that I’ve said in the past,” Ryan said, “is still in play.”

Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots might have something to say about that. After all, they’ve been the kings of the AFC East for eight of the last 10 years. And Tom Brady _ the NFL’s MVP after 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions _ has a dangerous new target in Chad Ochocinco.

“The Jets, well we’ve heard that for a few years,” Brady said. “You don’t ever hear us talking too much about that. I think there is a long way to go between now and the regular season.”

While Jets-Patriots should make for an intense matchup in the AFC East, watch for the Baltimore Ravens to ramp up the volume _ and violent hits _ with the Steelers in the AFC North. Ray Lewis is still the fiery leader of an always-dominant Ravens defense, and quarterback Joe Flacco has improved in each of his first three seasons.

Peyton Manning’s neck, even more than his arm, will have a big impact not only on the AFC South, but the entire conference.

It’s strange to be concentrating on an injury for the game’s most durable quarterback, but the Indianapolis Colts‘ four-time MVP had offseason surgery and was only activated Monday from the physically unable to perform list. If he’s sidelined at the beginning of the regular season, that could give Matt Schaub and the Houston Texans a head start in the division.

The AFC West could be a free-for-all, with Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers‘ quick-strike offense looking to get back to the playoffs after a year away. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have a new offensive coordinator, and the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos are playing under new head coaches.

“I wouldn’t want to think what it would be like with a new coach or a new system,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said, expecting the lockout to have an impact on teams in that position. “We’re very fortunate.”

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AFC EAST:

As always, Brady is the key to the Patriots‘ success, and adding Ochocinco to a receiving corps that includes Wes Welker and Deion Branch makes an already dangerous offense potentially unstoppable. New England also became a surprising landing spot for solid veterans looking for changes in scenery: Ochocinco, the volatile Albert Haynesworth, former first-rounder Andre Carter, and a pair of former Jets in Shaun Ellis and James Ihedigbo.

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