Ravens poised to take next step in crowded AFC

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The New York Jets were among the NFL’s most disappointing teams last fall, sliding to 8-8 as quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a season-killing 18 interceptions and opponents stopped fearing “Revis Island.” New York traded for Tim Tebow in the offseason hoping the charismatic if erratic quarterback can make an impact both on the field and in the locker room. Sanchez remains the starter and appears to have kept his sense of humor. He joked the team was saving all its touchdowns for the regular season after the Jets went three straight exhibition games without reaching the end zone. The joke will be on Sanchez and coach Rex Ryan if New York takes another step back.

The Buffalo Bills got off to a hot start a year ago behind quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Then the team signed the QB to a contract extension and immediately started to get buyer’s remorse. Buffalo went 2-8 after Fitzpatrick signed the six-year, $59 million deal. He’ll need to start earning that paycheck this season, and the Bills have opened their wallets for their defense, signing end Mario Williams to give a toothless defense some bite.

The Miami Dolphins blew things up for the second time in five years, bringing in Joe Philbin as coach and giving the starting quarterback job to rookie Ryan Tannehill. To add a little appeal to a franchise that has ceded the local spotlight to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the Dolphins signed wide receiver Chad Johnson and let HBO film its popular “Hard Knocks” training camp series with the team. The camera crew lasted longer than Johnson, perhaps a sign the Dolphins realize their problems are not a quick fix.

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AFC NORTH

Lewis slimmed down during the spring hoping to keep his body fresh. Consider the weight Lewis shed now firmly on Flacco’s shoulders. The 27-year-old who once proclaimed himself the best quarterback in football will need to play like it at times for Baltimore to excel. The aging defense will miss the presence of linebacker Terrell Suggs, out indefinitely after tearing his right Achilles tendon while playing pickup basketball.

Pittsburgh remains among the most stable franchises in the NFL, but even they aren’t immune to change. In addition to the retirement of wide receiver Hines Ward and the release of linebacker James Farrior _ who have a combined four Super Bowl rings _ Pittsburgh let go offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and brought in former Kansas City coach Todd Haley. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likened the transition to Haley’s offense to learning a new language. He’ll need to get fluent in a hurry behind an injury marred offensive line.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis has made a habit out of turning seemingly untenable situations into playoff berths, doing it a year ago with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Yet consistency has never been the team’s trademark. The Bengals have made the postseason in consecutive years only once in franchise history.

The Browns borrowed a page from rival Cincinnati’s book by going with 28-year-old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and third overall pick Trent Richardson at running back. The Bengals rode that kind of combination to the playoffs. The Browns would love to ride it to somewhere in the vicinity of .500. Yet Richardson spent part of the preseason dealing with a knee issue that could linger into September, and there are plenty of questions about who Weeden will throw to.

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AFC SOUTH

The Texans could finally exhale after more than a decade of building _ and rebuilding _ landed them in the playoffs. They’ve got so much depth atop such a lackluster division they could stay there a while. Foster is among the league’s best running backs and Schaub was in the midst of a career year before being brought down by injury.

Tennessee nearly tracked down the Texans in the final month of the season despite a lackluster performance from running back Chris Johnson as “CJ2K” became “CJBarely1K.” The Titans hope to remain tight on Houston’s heels behind second-year quarterback Jake Locker, whose mobility gives Tennessee’s offense an added dynamic that could take pressure off Johnson.

The Indianapolis Colts felt so certain about Andrew Luck they hit the reset button on the entire franchise. Manning is gone. So is the coaching staff that took the team to the Super Bowl in 2010. The precocious Luck has looked like a wise investment during the preseason, showing the poise of a player far beyond his 22 years. Having the likes of Reggie Wayne around helps.

Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan is a master marketer who wants to pump some life into the beleaguered Jaguars and is so eager to do it he committed to playing four “home” games in London, one a year starting in 2013. At some point he hopes his team’s play on the field _ and not it’s travel schedule _ is headline worthy. It just won’t be this season.

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