Continued from page 1

Powered by its defense, New York has made it to the AFC championship game two straight years and lost both times. This season, the fate of the Jets rests largely on the shoulders of QB Mark Sanchez, who needs to put up numbers as striking as his GQ magazine shots. He’s surrounded by loads of talent, including the re-signed Santonio Holmes, former Raven Derrick Mason and former Giants Super Bowl star Plaxico Burress, who after spending 20 months in prison on a gun charge vows to be a game-changing receiver again.

Miami has one of the AFC’s most solid defenses, led by cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. The problem is the offense, starting with erratic and mistake-prone quarterback Chad Henne. Fans called for the Dolphins to trade for Denver’s Kyle Orton, but after no deal came, Henne needs to improve significantly to save his job, as well as coach Tony Sparano’s. If he can stay healthy _ a big if _ RB Reggie Bush should help take some pressure off WR Brandon Marshall as the focal point of the offense.

Tough times have become common in Buffalo, and this season might be no different, especially because Ryan Fitzpatrick no longer has Lee Evans to throw to after Evans was traded to Baltimore. A shaky offensive line could make for a long season for the quarterback and for Buffalo fans, who haven’t seen the postseason since 1999 _ along with Detroit, the NFL’s longest current streak of failure.

___

AFC NORTH:

The Steelers‘ long offseason started when they lost the Super Bowl to the Packers. Sure, Roethlisberger got married _ in 2010, he got suspended for a night of boorish carousing in Georgia _ but that was about the only good news off the field.

Rashard Mendenhall drew heavy criticism when he questioned celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death in a tweet, James Harrison called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “crook” and “the devil” in a magazine article, and Hines Ward was arrested on a drunk driving charge shortly after winning TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

The Steelers get to focus solely on football now and winning their seventh Super Bowl; they already hold the record with six. They kept their aging but solid defense intact by re-signing CB Ike Taylor, and the offense should again be productive behind Roethlisberger. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s passing game might rival its always-potent running attack as speedy receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown emerge as forces.

Baltimore got younger in some key spots, and adding Evans gives the Ravens a formidable duo with Anquan Boldin. The running back combo of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams should wear out defenses. They’ll help Flacco, one of the league’s top young quarterbacks. But as always, Lewis and the defense will set the tone.

Cleveland is on its fifth coach since returning to the NFL in 1999. This time it’s Pat Shurmur’s task to turn around the fortunes of a franchise that has missed the playoffs the last eight seasons. Good luck with that in a division dominated by the Steelers and Ravens.

Carson Palmer is gone from Cincinnati, deciding he’d rather not play anymore than deal with more losing. In his place, rookie QB Andy Dalton will likely step in and should expect a rough introduction to the NFL. Ochocinco was traded and Terrell Owens was allowed to leave as a free agent, meaning the offense will need to jell quickly. The Bengals tied the franchise record by losing 10 in a row last season, and coach Marvin Lewis still got a contract extension.

___

AFC SOUTH:

The Colts can only hope the pain in Manning’s neck eases up. The consistently dependable star has started 227 consecutive games, but just as insurance, Indianapolis signed veteran Kerry Collins. Sure, the Colts have some big-time talent with receivers Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon, but the offense _ and the team _ goes as Manning goes. If the injury sidelines him for a few weeks or affects his performance, this could be Houston’s big chance to finally make the playoffs.

The Texans have been on the verge for a few years. They’ve got a solid quarterback in Schaub and an outstanding receiver in Andre Johnson. Throw in Arian Foster, who had a breakout season and led the league in rushing, and Houston should give opposing defenses fits. The defense should be much-improved under new coordinator Wade Phillips and free-agent signings Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning.

Story Continues →