- Associated Press - Saturday, August 26, 2017

Let’s get it out of the way immediately: If there’s a team good enough to stop the Patriots from winning the AFC again, we don’t see it.

Of course there aren’t any locks in pro sports, especially in the NFL, where teams rise and fall annually. Well, except for New England, which appears even more stacked than last season, when it won everything.

At 40, Tom Brady might still be in his peak years. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league.

“I think it’s a lot easier now for me than it’s ever been,” Brady says of getting prepared for the season, which the Patriots kick off on Thursday night, Sept. 7, by hosting Kansas City. “I feel like my routine is better than it’s ever been. When you’re younger you don’t know what to do. After 17 years, going into my 18th year, I know what to do. I know how to prepare. I’m never sore. I could practice every day. I could practice twice a day if they’d let us do that, but that’s not the way it goes anymore.

“It’s just fun being out here competing. That’s what us football players are here for. It’s football season. That’s what football players do - we go out and compete.”

And in New England, those players go out and win, to the tune of 14-2 in 2016. The AFC East could be over by Halloween given the weaknesses of the opposition for Brady and company - even though Brady lost his favorite receiver, Julian Edelman, to a torn-up knee.

At least the conference should feature some tight races in the other divisions, particularly the AFC West and South.

AFC EAST

Brady needed a deep threat, so the Patriots brought in Brandin Cooks. They lost rushing TD machine LeGarrette Blount in the backfield, but are plenty deep there. Stud TE Rob Gronkowski is healthy again. The offensive line is among the best in football.

And now the defense, which probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves, has added key ingredients in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker David Harris. Watch for developing end Trey Flowers.

The schedule isn’t daunting, particularly intradivision. Miami has had the worst preseason imaginable with all its injuries; Jay Cutler as the answer at quarterback? Buffalo can’t seem to figure out who is staying and who should go, and its best receivers (Sammy Watkins, traded to the Rams) and Anquan Boldin (retired) are gone.

The Jets are odds-on to be the worst team in the NFL.

AFC SOUTH

Many observers believe you can put a blanket over Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis because their talent bases are that close. We demur.

The Texans have a terrific defense that gets back the incomparable J.J. Watt and could be enough to overcome a mediocre offense with an unproven QB and suspect passing game. They are well coached and rarely beat themselves - until the playoffs, that is.

No team appears more ready to make the next big step in the AFC than the Titans. They are deep at running back, secure at quarterback and on the offensive line, and have a developing D with playmakers such as Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo. The coaching staff is innovative, which fits nicely in Music City - and maybe atop the division.

Indy is a far bigger question mark because of the uncertainty of Andrew Luck’s right shoulder. Just as uncertain is the O-line charged with protecting the franchise quarterback. As for the defense, it doesn’t measure up to Houston’s or Tennessee’s. Could be a tough year for Chuck Pagano to hold onto his coaching job.

Jacksonville will be tougher with Tom Coughlin in the executive offices. Better? A bit.

AFC WEST

A three-team scramble is likely, with only the San Diego - oops, Los Angeles - Chargers unable to make a charge.

Oakland appeared headed for a showdown with New England until Derek Carr went down late in December. Should he stay healthy, the Raiders are the favorites to hold off the Chiefs, who sneaked past them to win the West last season, and the Broncos.

The Raiders have difference makers throughout their offense, and a line equal to the Patriots. Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack is by far their best defender and that unit must come through in a big way in the NFL’s best sector.

Kansas City will be stout on defense, somewhat dull but effective enough on offense, and well coached. The Chiefs’ season could be made or broken in a six-game stretch when they face Houston, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Denver, Dallas and the Giants.

Denver is the wild card out West. Its defense could carry it very far, as it did in winning the Super Bowl two seasons back. There are standouts at receiver and a deep backfield, but the quarterbacking is precarious and the protection is problematic. Never underestimate Von Miller and cohorts, though.

AFC NORTH

Everything in this division depends on whether Baltimore rebounds from a mediocre season. If the Ravens don’t - and their need for QB Joe Flacco to remain healthy is paramount - the Steelers will romp.

Baltimore added talent in the secondary with safety Tony Jefferson, but needs to revitalize the pass rush, as well as its pass protection.

Pittsburgh is the class of the North regardless. No offense is more dynamic, and the defense, while no Steel Curtain, has stoppers such as Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier. It’s not a long shot that WR Antonio Brown , RB Le’Veon Bell and QB Ben Roethlisberger will be in the running for league MVP.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis enters his 15th season in charge and needs a turnaround from 6-9-1, plus, at last, a postseason victory to secure his status. The Bengals are pretty good with the ball, not much without it.

Cleveland won’t go 1-15 again. That doesn’t mean the always-rebuilding Browns won’t contend for the top overall draft selection.

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For more NFL coverage: https://www.pro32.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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