1. New England Patriots
On paper, the New England Patriots appear to be among the the favorites to win the AFC, despite the addition of two marquee players known for disturbing locker rooms. Chad Ochocinco joins Tom Brady as a wide receiver who may have the ability to fill the role of Randy Moss, who caught 47 touchdown passes from Brady from 2007 through 2009.
On defense, the Patriots add Albert Haynesworth, the notorious defensive tackle who played half a season in Washington last year. Despite another failed conditioning test, Haynesworth appears to have settled in with coach Bill Belichick and, if he stays in shape, could add depth in the trenches for a defense that finished last season with the second-most takeaways by a secondary.
Although it won't be easy to match a 14-2 overall record, the Patriots still have Brady, who went 335 pass attempts without an interception last year, and Belichick. The Patriots should overcome two straight early exits from the AFC playoffs.
2. New York Jets
The Jets may be the only team in the AFC East that can contend with the Patriots. Coach Rex Ryan's team might build on the confidence gained when they beat New England in an AFC wild-card game last season.
Mark Sanchez can be one of the better quarterbacks in the league when he settles down and makes good decisions. The offense added a few weapons during the offseason. Plaxico Burress could be the answer for the Jets' red zone woes if he can stay healthy. Burress had 70 receptions for 1,025 yards for the they year he helped them the Super Bowl. Burress joins Santonio Holmes and Derrick Mason to form the Jets' new wide receiver corps.
If Sanchez is more accurate this season, the run-first Jets, with Shonn Green and LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield, may top their 11th-ranked output of 22.9 points per game last season.
The Jets, tied for the third toughest schedule this season, must find a way to create a pass rush and defensive stops to win the close games.
3. Buffalo Bills
The perennially woeful Bills return nine starters on offense and seven on defense as they look to build on last season's 4-12 record. Four starters return to the Bills offensive line, which could help running back C.J. Spiller start the season faster than last year.
The Bils have the second most difficult schedule in the NFL despite a favorable non-division slate of games that includes includes the Denver Broncos (away), Jacksonville Jaguars (home) and the Detroit Lions (home) in the first four games.
A key defensive upgrade was the drafting of No. 3 overall Marcell Dareus. The 6-foot-3, 343-pound defensive tackle instantly strengthens the defensive front. He'll line up with Pro Bowl nose tackle Kyle Williams, Dwan Edwards and Shawne Merriman, if Merriman can remain healthy. On offense, wide receiver Lee Evans recently escaped to Baltimore.
4. Miami Dolphins
Miami scored the third-fewest points per game last season, averaging 17.1. With young quarterback Chad Henne at the controls, only a small improvement is expected.
The Dolphins moved a few pieces around during free agency and added size to help protect Henne at center, drafting Maurice Pouncey 15th overall. Miami also is younger in the backfield, with Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown replaced by Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas.
As expected, the Dolphins' defense proved to be the highlight last season, finishing with the eighth-best pass defense and the seventh-best run defense in the NFL. Miami added depth, particularly at linebacker with the additions of free agents Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. The veterans join linebacker Cameron Wake, who finished the 2010 season with 14 sacks and three forced fumbles. With few key losses and most of last season's unit still intact, Miami's defense will only improve this season.
By Shemar Woods - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 30, 2011.