Team: New England Patriots
2008 record: 11-5
What's the story? They went 11-5 without Tom Brady, and they have him back, assuming his recent shoulder injury is a tweak, and not a tear. They'll have a mediocre defense and a weak pass rush; their pass-rush fix is former Eagles end Derrick Burgess, a holdout in Oakland for whom they traded. But Brady's back, and while that won't mean another run at perfection — he is coming off major knee surgery — it means remaining the class of the division.
Team: New York Jets
2008 record: 9-7
What's the story? Once again, the focus won't be where it should be: on a team that could be quite good. Last year, it was Brett Favre's folly; this year, Rex in effect. Buddy Ryan's boisterous boy will steal the headlines and become more important than his team, with too much focus on his swarming defensive scheme than on, say, honest assessments of the progress made by rookie QB Mark Sanchez or the continued Pro Bowl play of RB Thomas Jones and spark plug RB/KR Leon Washington. Still, they'll make a wild-card run.
Team: Miami Dolphins
2008 record: 11-5
What's the story? With the spotlight no longer on the Tuna or his sidekick, head coach Tony Sparano, teams will find a way to limit the Wildcat offense that Miami utilized devastatingly last season. They will entrust its progress to rookie QB Pat White, a scintillating running QB at West Virginia. Chad Pennington, after a second reinvention, returns as the regular QB. But Pennington was cut by the Jets for a reason, and running QBs usually equal turnovers. You betting against Bill Belichick not stopping this Wildcat fad? You're on.
Team: Buffalo Bills
2008 record: 7-9
What's the story? One year, $6.5 million, a little bit of interest ... and a lot of misery. Terrell Owens' latest stop on his Please Hate Me NFL tour is a conservative, dying town known for losing the Big One and the best draft-beer side dish ever created. If T.O. didn't think Romo, McNabb and Garcia got him the ball enough, wait till he gets a load of Trent Edwards operating behind a totally reconstructed offensive line. Plus, he'll be playing for Dick Jauron, for whom defense comes first. This has all the makings of a fall worthy of the one just to the north of the city.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2008 record: 12-4
What's the story? Stability. Nineteen of 22 starters return. Two of the new starters, LB Lawrence Timmons and CB William Gay, might have beaten out the men they replaced, anyway. That's right: The Steelers might have gotten appreciably better. What's more, plenty of their premier players are coming into their prime, including WR Santonio Holmes and LB James Harrison. It is a versatile, deep, fearless, well-run team familiar with each other and its coaches. It is the league's best.
Team: Baltimore Ravens
2008 record: 11-5
What's the story? Quarterback. Joe Flacco was gifted with a tenacious defense, a supportive offense led by RBs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McLain, a spectacular rookie head coach in John Harbaugh, and nothing to lose. This year, with a full season under his belt and on film, Flacco will be a target. He will be blitzed and baited and forced to prove whether he was a flash or for real. When he got sacked — 32 times — it was for an average of 8.6 yards. That's too much. If he learns to use the league's QB protection rules, he could be lethal; if he doesn't, he could be poison.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2008 record: 4-11-1
What's the story? This is it. Head coach Marvin Lewis will win or be gone. He has a slew of big names and little to show for it: WRs Chad What's-His-Name and problem child Chris Henry, QB Carson Palmer, Bears RB bust Cedric Benson and a slew of retreads, rejects and reruns. Plus, playing against the two toughest teams to beat in football — the Steelers and Ravens — twice is absolute suicide. This, after losing WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency. Marv, nice knowing ya.
Team: Cleveland Browns
2008 record: 4-12
What's the story? As in so many places, the head coach, again. The Browns' epically poor finish in 2008, when they lost their last six games, called for a culture remake. Fine. So, they fired general manager Phil Savage and easygoing coach Romeo Crennel ... and hired George Kokinis to run the franchise and Bill Belichick snitch Eric Mangini to run the team. Mangini, another young coach, last year whined the league into pursuing Spygate. He also found himself unable to manage Brett Favre's comeback and was fired. He's expected to do better with this bunch?
Team: Tennessee Titans
2008 record: 13-3
What's the story? You don't lose the best player on your team and stay on top ... unless you're staying on top of the AFC South. Game-changing DT Albert Haynesworth defected for better money in Washington, and the Titans, second in points allowed last season, will feel the hit. Their plodding running and passing attacks (run by Kerry Collins), their solid offensive line and Jeff Fisher's typically tight ship will rock, but it won't founder. They have 20 starters back. Just not their best one.
Team: Indianapolis Colts
2008 record: 12-4
What's the story? This was a three-headed monster. The head with the biggest mouth (and best acting chops) remains in the person of Peyton Manning. The Quiet Men are gone. Soft-spoken head coach Tony Dungy, the best man in football, quit. Virtually mute WR Marvin Harrison quit, too. All three will end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's just that Manning, without his outriggers, will flail in his final years leading up to it. The real value of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark will be measured. And the gaping hole in character Dungy left cannot be filled; sorry, Jim Caldwell.
Team: Houston Texans
2008 record: 8-8
What's the story? Potential. QB Matt Schaub has the potential to break out. Second-year RB Steve Slaton has the potential to head to a Pro Bowl. WR Andre Johnson, an elite physical specimen, has the potential to lead the league in catches again. DE Mario Williams and TE Owen Daniels have the potential to be perennial All-Pros. Funny thing about potential, though; put it in a division where the Titans and Colts are meticulously and thoroughly prepared, and all that potential suddenly gets nullified. As it was last season.
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
2008 record: 5-11.
What's the story? The end of the black-leather jacket. Jack Del Rio's movie-star name and image seems destined for a broadcast booth after winning only one playoff game in six obscenely high-profile seasons as the head coach of a team that had no business getting so much attention. QB David Garrard became an interception machine in his first full season as a starter. The club has remade its receiving corps ... with Rams castoff Torry Holt. The offensive line is in flux; former Eagles T Tra Thomas signed to start in Jacksonville and the club promptly used its first-round pick on T Eugene Monroe. That's called picking for the future. Which Del Rio won't be a part of.
Team: San Diego Chargers
2008 record: 8-8
What's the story? The Chargers managed a playoff berth without their most crucial player, who was lost to a knee injury. That would be LB Shawne Merriman, without whom defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell found himself fired after Week 8. He was replaced by Jim Johnson disciple Ron Rivera, who shined even without Merriman. Add Merriman and the defense could be awesome. Combine that with the desperation with which this team must play — the window is closing for coach Norv Turner, QB Philip Rivers and RB LaDainian Tomlinson — and the Chargers should (finally) respond.
Team: Denver Broncos
2008 record: 8-8
What's the story? My way or the highway, and it's been the highway so far. After signing 33-year-old rookie head coach Josh McDaniel, Denver jettisoned disgruntled QB Jay Cutler and had to discipline star WR Brandon Marshall. It is an inauspicious beginning for a coach who put his first year's faith in Kyle Orton, the former Bears interception machine. McDaniel might be given the 3 years or so it will take to straighten this mess out, but he'll have a lot of losing to explain before that happens. Former Eagles S Brian Dawkins says he does not regret signing here; stay tuned to that assessment.
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
2008 record: 2-14
What's the story? Reconfigured, remade, reinvigorated ... and the same old story. The Chiefs' new general manager, Patriots lackey Scott Pioli, won't have Bill Belichick telling him what to do here. He won't have the same supporting cast for Matt Cassel, either; Pioli acquired Cassel (Tom Brady's successful 2008 replacement) to run this team. Here, Pioli has a perpetually petulant star RB in Larry Johnson, a defense that was second-worst in the league and without any front-seven push. Fortunately, the Chiefs can steal wins in football's worst division.
Team: Oakland Raiders
2008 Record: 5-11
What's the story? The joke continues. This team can't stop the run, so it reconfigured the line by adding two pass-rush ends. It can't keep a head coach; fired Lane Kiffin, who lasted 20 games, was hung out then cut loose four games into 2008, replaced by offensive line coach Tom Cable. Since his appointment as head coach, Cable allegedly punched assistant Randy Hanson, a suspected spy for bizarre owner Al Davis. It is Davis' mismanagement of a once-proud franchise that has turned it from a place where castoffs remade themselves to the land of the absurd. RB Darren McFadden, coming off a turf-toe injury, might be fun to watch, but this largely will be a disaster.