- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

With some rookies already having donned the pads, and with most teams set to open training camp next week, let’s take a tour of the AFC to review the biggest questions facing its 16 teams before the season starts in September.

EAST

• New England: The last time the Patriots entered a season not as defending champions — in 2003 — they won the next two Super Bowls. Such a repeat comeback won’t happen without stalwarts Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest and David Givens, who haven’t been replaced.

• Miami: The Dolphins won their last six games to finish 9-7 and they’ve added quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was all-world (non-Peyton Manning version) in 2004 before tearing a still-healing knee in 2005. Is Culpepper his pre-injury self?

• Buffalo: The Bills changed coaches (defensive-minded Dick Jauron succeeding offensive-minded Mike Mularkey). But the big question remains the same: Is the quarterback 2004 first-rounder J.P. Losman or streaky veteran Kelly Holcomb?

• New York Jets: Quarterback also will be the focus for new coach Eric Mangini, 35. Is Chad Pennington’s patched-up arm right? Will a change of scenery allow ex-Redskin Patrick Ramsey to blossom? Will second-rounder Kellen Clemens get a shot?

NORTH

• Cincinnati: Will quarterback Carson Palmer recover by the opener from the major knee injury he suffered in the Bengals’ first playoff game in 15 years? Has coach Marvin Lewis finally turned the Bengals into winners or was 2005 a fluke?

• Pittsburgh: Until Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident last month, the champs’ biggest concern was overconfidence. Still, the Steelers were very lucky their quarterback wasn’t more seriously hurt and could be ready in September.

• Baltimore: Can quarterback Steve McNair, 33, prove Tennessee was wrong to dump him? Was running back Jamal Lewis’ down year at 26 an aberration? Is linebacker Ray Lewis still the man at 31 after missing most of 2005 with injuries?

• Cleveland: Is second-year passer Charlie Frye ready? Can top picks Kellen Winslow (2004) and Braylon Edwards (2005) stay healthy and give Frye dangerous targets? How much do McGinest (34) and nose tackle Ted Washington (38) have left?

SOUTH

• Indianapolis: The Colts have to shake off yet another dispiriting playoff defeat, this one at home. And no rookie on a top team is under more pressure than running back Joseph Addai, who’s supposed to replace the departed Edgerrin James.

• Jacksonville: Can anyone step up and succeed the retired Jimmy Smith as a legitimate No. 1 receiver? Were the Jaguars that good last year or just the beneficiary of an easy schedule?

• Tennessee: How long will career backup quarterback Billy Volek keep Vince Young, the third choice overall, on the bench? How much time does Jeff Fisher, easily the NFL’s longest-tenured coach without a ring, have left to turn the Titans around?

• Houston: Can defensive end Mario Williams, for whom the Texans bypassed Young and Heisman winner Reggie Bush, justify being the top pick? Can new coach Gary Kubiak coax the maximum from quarterback David Carr, the first choice in 2002?

WEST

• Denver: How worried should Jake Plummer (1-3 playoff record with Denver) be about the Broncos’ trading up to choose quarterback Jay Cutler 11th overall? Is Tatum Bell ready to be the clear No. 1 back?

• San Diego: How rusty is 2004 first-round quarterback Philip Rivers after watching Drew Brees for two years? How much will losing three of their last four and missing the playoffs carry over into this season for the Chargers?

• Kansas City: How much will the Chiefs miss retired coach Dick Vermeil and departed offensive whiz Al Saunders? Is this truly running back Larry Johnson’s team or can Priest Holmes make a comeback? Can new coach Herm Edwards fix the defense?

• Oakland: Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell, out of coaching for six years, is the Raiders’ third coach in four years. Will the players respect him more than his predecessors? Is new quarterback Aaron Brooks an upgrade from Kerry Collins?

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