Quarterback Peyton Manning is back, with new targets as the Broncos try to return to the Super Bowl (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Teams listed by division, in predicted order of finish
Is QB Andy Dalton worth his big contract? He’ll have to make it out of the first round of the playoffs without a meltdown to prove definitively that he is. But with RBs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill along with WR A.J. Green on the wing, the offense will be fine. With Geno Atkins healthy and Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals have the defense to contend.
There are question marks on offense, with the departures of WRs Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Mike Wallace. Now, QB Ben Roethlisberger has TE Heath Miller and WR Antonio Brown, but Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey are not as good. The secondary is older, and younger players such as Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Timmons will have to carry the load.
Adding WR Steve Smith will help a lagging offense and TEs Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels will be key pieces for QB Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. With RB Ray Rice’s suspension, they’ll have to make do for the first two weeks. There’s a short shelf life with this group, with most of the key defensive players, such as LB Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, aging.
The first year will be a test for coach Mike Pettine. Rookie QB Johnny Manziel might not be the right answer, but he’s probably better than Brian Hoyer, which the Browns will find out later in the season. The season-long suspension of WR Josh Gordon makes TE Jordan Cameron that much more important, and if WR Miles Austin has anything left, he’ll have to contribute.
The Colts and young QB Andrew Luck showed a lot of moxie in reaching the divisional round last season. The running game (Trent Richardson, anyone?) will need to balance out the passing game, which added WR Hakeem Nicks. Robert Mathis will miss four games because of a positive drug test, but the defense should be able to hold on.
After a miserable 2-14 season, the Texans netted Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick in the draft, strengthening a defense that already had a strong front seven. Passing on a top-tier QB in the draft has super WR Andre Johnson unhappy — and Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the long-term answer.
First-year coach Ken Whisenhunt will have his hands full with the retooled Titans, who got RB Dexter McCluster to replace Chris Johnson (Jets). QB Jake Locker doesn’t have enough weapons, and the secondary will be weakened by the loss of CB Alterraun Verner (Buccaneers) in free agency.
The Jaguars scored on less than one in four offensive drives last year. That made drafting QB Blake Bortles a smart choice, but starting Chad Henne over Bortles won’t hasten any turnaround. With the team’s No. 2 career rusher, Maurice Jones-Drew, gone (Oakland), Toby Gerhart will get most of the carries. The defense is good but won’t be able to keep them in games for long.
The Patriots shouldn’t have a problem winning the division, but their sights are on the Super Bowl, with QB Tom Brady’s window of opportunity closing. Adding CB Darrelle Revis to replace Aqib Talib (Broncos) was an upgrade. TE Rob Gronkowski, who has battled injuries, says he’ll play in the opener, and a healthy WR Danny Amendola should help as well.
QB Geno Smith raised some eyebrows when he won the starting job over Michael Vick, but he’ll have to shine if the Jets are going to rise from a middling team to a contender. With WR Eric Decker and RB Chris Johnson new to the fold, the offense could develop into a strength. Coach Rex Ryan could be on his last chance if the Jets can’t make the playoffs.
Third-year QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season. The offensive line should be better, and Tannehill has a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor. RBs Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno could be a great tandem, if Moreno stays healthy. The defensive line has some weapons, led by DE Cameron Wake.
All eyes will be on rookie WR Sammy Watkins — and his sore ribs — to see if he and second-year QB E.J. Manuel can improve the passing game. Manuel was good as a rookie, but he’ll need to make another leap. The defense had eye-opening numbers with 23 interceptions and 57 sacks last season, but it needs to maintain those numbers under new coordinator Jim Schwartz.
The Broncos put all their chips in the middle of the table to try to get QB Peyton Manning (55 TD passes last season) some help, grabbing WR Emmanuel Sanders and drafting Cody Latimer to replace Eric Decker. The defense is aging, and staying healthy will be a key to getting back to the Super Bowl. Poaching CB Aqib Talib from the rival Patriots was big.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich brings a new no-huddle scheme and RB Ryan Mathews is back after an injury-free season. QB Philip Rivers has been steady, and adding RB Donald Brown provides some depth. LB Melvin Ingram and DE Dwight Freeney form a good pass-rushing tandem, which gets the Chargers to the playoffs.
After losing a heartbreaker to the Colts in the wild-card round last season, the Chiefs are looking to bounce back. RB Jamaal Charles is healthy and will get help carrying the load on offense from rookie De’Anthony Thomas. But a tough schedule will make last year’s 11-5 record tough to repeat.
Rookie QB Derek Carr will start, meaning the Raiders’ faithful won’t have to hear the words that would even scare the "Black Hole" fan section — “starter Matt Schaub.” Getting LB Khalil Mack in the first round could prove fruitful, and if RB Maurice Jones-Drew has anything left, he could help save Darren McFadden. DE Justin Tuck is a good addition, and C.J. Wilson could help add a pass rush.
Wild card: Bengals vs. Chargers and Colts vs. Steelers
QB Andy Dalton has a chance to get the Bengals over the hump and finally comes through with a playoff win. The Bengals stay healthy enough all season to make a postseason run. The Steelers aren’t the Steelers of old and fall easily to the Colts, with a big game from QB Andrew Luck.
Divisional: Patriots vs. Colts and Broncos vs. Bengals
The stars are aligning for another Peyton Manning-Tom Brady showdown, and the upstart teams in the AFC won’t stand in the way. The Patriot face a tough test from the Colts, who fall short in the fourth quarter. The Broncos breeze past the Bengals, who are happy to get that far.
It’s the last hurrah for a Manning-Brady Bowl. The Patriots are hungry to get back to past glory, but the Broncos have added enough pieces to get back to the Super Bowl and avenge last year’s loss to the Seahawks. Unfortunately, Seattle won’t be there.
Manning won’t throw 55 touchdowns again this year, but he’ll be good enough to get the Broncos to the title game. The 49ers are a team on a mission, though, and are pumped up after dousing the Seahawks. It’s cliché, but expect a classic matchup, with the 49ers prevailing, 38-35.