UPDATED AUG 29, 2012 5:45 PM
Perhaps no player took New England's late collapse against the Giants
harder than Brady. Coming off another typically brilliant regular
season, Brady was the last Patriots player in uniform in a dejected
locker room after a fourth Super Bowl ring vanished. At 35, the window
is starting to close on his Hall of Fame career. The offense remains
dangerous as long as he's around, though the real issue will be if New
England's defense can improve after finishing 31st in yards allowed and
crumbling in the final moments against Eli Manning.
The New York Jets were among the NFL's most disappointing teams last
fall, sliding to 8-8 as quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a season-killing
18 interceptions and opponents stopped fearing ''Revis Island.'' New
York traded for Tim Tebow in the offseason hoping the charismatic if
erratic quarterback can make an impact both on the field and in the
locker room. Sanchez remains the starter and appears to have kept his
sense of humor. He joked the team was saving all its touchdowns for the
regular season after the Jets went three straight exhibition games
without reaching the end zone. The joke will be on Sanchez and coach
Rex Ryan if New York takes another step back.
The Buffalo Bills got off to a hot start a year ago behind quarterback
Ryan Fitzpatrick. Then the team signed the QB to a contract extension
and immediately started to get buyer's remorse. Buffalo went 2-8 after
Fitzpatrick signed the six-year, $59 million deal. He'll need to start
earning that paycheck this season, and the Bills have opened their
wallets for their defense, signing end Mario Williams to give a
toothless defense some bite.
The Miami Dolphins blew things up for the second time in five years,
bringing in Joe Philbin as coach and giving the starting quarterback
job to rookie Ryan Tannehill. To add a little appeal to a franchise
that has ceded the local spotlight to LeBron James and the Miami Heat,
the Dolphins signed wide receiver Chad Johnson and let HBO film its
popular ''Hard Knocks'' training camp series with the team. The camera
crew lasted longer than Johnson, perhaps a sign the Dolphins realize
their problems are not a quick fix.
Lewis slimmed down during the spring hoping to keep his body fresh.
Consider the weight Lewis shed now firmly on Flacco's shoulders. The
27-year-old who once proclaimed himself the best quarterback in
football will need to play like it at times for Baltimore to excel. The
aging defense will miss the presence of linebacker Terrell Suggs, out
indefinitely after tearing his right Achilles tendon while playing
Pittsburgh remains among the most stable franchises in the NFL, but
even they aren't immune to change. In addition to the retirement of
wide receiver Hines Ward and the release of linebacker James Farrior -
who have a combined four Super Bowl rings - Pittsburgh let go offensive
coordinator Bruce Arians and brought in former Kansas City coach Todd
Haley. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likened the transition to Haley's
offense to learning a new language. He'll need to get fluent in a hurry
behind an injury marred offensive line.
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis has made a habit out of turning seemingly
untenable situations into playoff berths, doing it a year ago with
rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Yet consistency
has never been the team's trademark. The Bengals have made the
postseason in consecutive years only once in franchise history.
The Browns borrowed a page from rival Cincinnati's book by going with
28-year-old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and third overall pick
Trent Richardson at running back. The Bengals rode that kind of
combination to the playoffs. The Browns would love to ride it to
somewhere in the vicinity of .500. Yet Richardson spent part of the
preseason dealing with a knee issue that could linger into September,
and there are plenty of questions about who Weeden will throw to.
The Texans could finally exhale after more than a decade of building -
and rebuilding - landed them in the playoffs. They've got so much depth
atop such a lackluster division they could stay there a while. Foster
is among the league's best running backs and Schaub was in the midst of
a career year before being brought down by injury.
Tennessee nearly tracked down the Texans in the final month of the
season despite a lackluster performance from running back Chris Johnson
as ''CJ2K'' became ''CJBarely1K.'' The Titans hope to remain tight on
Houston's heels behind second-year quarterback Jake Locker, whose
mobility gives Tennessee's offense an added dynamic that could take
pressure off Johnson.
The Indianapolis Colts felt so certain about Andrew Luck they hit the
reset button on the entire franchise. Manning is gone. So is the
coaching staff that took the team to the Super Bowl in 2010. The
precocious Luck has looked like a wise investment during the preseason,
showing the poise of a player far beyond his 22 years. Having the likes
of Reggie Wayne around helps.
Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan is a master marketer who wants to pump
some life into the beleaguered Jaguars and is so eager to do it he
committed to playing four ''home'' games in London, one a year starting
in 2013. At some point he hopes his team's play on the field - and not
it's travel schedule - is headline worthy. It just won't be this season.
Norv Turner continues to survive in San Diego despite seemingly
diminishing returns. The Chargers woefully underachieved a year ago, as
a series of injuries and a midseason slump allowed them to get Tebowed
out of the postseason. Philip Rivers tried to largely do it himself,
with woeful results. He tossed a career-high 20 interceptions; a
healthy TE Antonio Gates should provide a return to normalcy. San Diego
addressed its needs on defense by signing linebacker Jarret Johnson and
using its first three draft picks on defensive players.
Kansas City made a stunning fall from a 2010 playoff run due to a
series of injuries that gutted the roster. Running back Jamaal Charles,
quarterback Matt Cassel, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki
are all healthy. Having Romeo Crennel - as placid as former coach Haley
was fiery - should keep the Chiefs on an even keel; so should a
user-friendly schedule in the second half of the season.
The sight of Manning wearing orange and blue is going to take some
getting used to. Manning felt confident enough in Denver's ability to
compete for a title he spurned offers from other teams - Arizona most
notably. Going from Tebow to Manning is one of the most dramatic QB
changes in recent memory. The Broncos will need to adapt quickly to be
a threat in a tightly packed division.
The Oakland Raiders are so confident in Darren McFadden's health they
didn't stop reliable backup Michael Bush from fleeing to Chicago. New
coach Dennis Allen is trying to restore a sense of discipline to a
franchise that largely ignores the trait. Quarterback Carson Palmer
went 4-5 as the starter, but only one of those games came with McFadden
lining up behind him. Allen's defense could help a defense that
struggled in 2011. Still, Palmer will have to throw the ball
eventually, and the Raiders haven't had a true No. 1 receiver since
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1) New England
2) New York Jets
1) San Diego
3) Kansas City
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