ORANGE CRUSH: The Denver faithful have a new quarterback prophet in town, but will he deliver more than Tebow did? Photo courtesy Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

We looked at the NFC yesterday and now it’s the AFC’s turn, which find themselves in a bit of a dry spell as a conference. Despite having several year-in-and-year-out title contenders, AFC teams have lost three Super Bowls in a row and have only won one in the last five years. The one, of course, was Pittsburgh over Arizona in 2009.

One of those teams that lost, New England, is responsible for two of those losses the second of which, obviously, coming last year. But before this 1/5 drought, the AFC actually had one four in a row. And three of those wins came from two teams that are very much in pursuit of the Lombardi trophy again in 2012.

Can the conference take back “the big game”? Here is a look at how their sixteen teams stack up heading into the 2012 season…

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AFC East

Buffalo Bills | 2011 Record: 6-10
They spent big bucks in the offseason, now we’ll find out how good of an investment it was

Meh. That’s the best way to describe the Buffalo Bills over the last few seasons. A mediocre defense. Meh. A quarterback from the football powerhouse of Harvard. Meh. A star receiver that might be household name if the media could ever decide whether his name is ‘Steve’ or ‘Stevie’. MEH. Even when they looked like a dark horse winner early on in 2011, they limped to yet another mediocre season.

But the Bills, like any struggling franchise, are not content with failure. And, in the offseason, they let their wallets do the talking. They signed stud defensive end Mario Williams who, outside of Peyton Manning, might’ve been the biggest “get” in all of free agency. Now, with guys like linebacker Nick Barnett and rookie Stephon Gilmore complimenting him, the Bills defense is slowly starting to look like they have an outside chance at being a Top 10 unit.

But none of this development deters the fact that the Patriots and Jets, their division rivals, are as good as they have been in recent history. The Jets continue to amass brand-name talent and the Patriots are quickly putting together a formidable defense of their own to pair up with a very high-octane offense. That inconvenient truth is the one thing still killing Bills fans’ buzz about a possible postseason run.

Miami Dolphins | 2011 Record: 6-10
They think they have a new franchise QB, but that tune is all too familiar too Miami fans

The bust rate for rookies taken in the first round of the NFL Draft stands at about 50%, depending on who you ask. When a team make a significant stretch to fill a glaring need, that number grows substantially. That’s why, in 2012, all eyes, not just the ones in Miami, will be on rookie signal caller Ryan Tannehill.

When the college football season ended, Tannehill was considered a fringe first round prospect. Yet, months later, he was taken eighth overall, higher than Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger who were all first round selections. That’s some pretty tough company to live up to.

Of course, there are glaring holes all around this team including wide receiver, where Tannehill has pretty much no one to throw to. What’s the bottom line? Even if Tannehill pans out, this team is still two or three years away from talking about playoff berths.

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New England Patriots | 2011 Record: 13-3
As loaded as ever, Tom Brady is hungry for an all-too elusive fifth Super Bowl ring

There’s an argument to be made that being the Super Bowl runner-ups is the worst way to finish a season. Are you a conference champion? Yeah, but those don’t matter as much as they used to. And, on the flip side, you get no silver Super Bowl hardware and are rewarded with the second crappiest pick in the draft. Yeah, thanks for playing.

So for the Patriots, who have now lost two Super Bowls to the Giants over five years, that sour taste in their mouth is even more fermented. Their Achilles heel in 2012 was their defense, and the front office spent a lot effort in the offseason correcting that problem. They signed safety Steve Gregory and drafted a small army of defensive rookies including Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, and Alfonzo Dennard, who was an absolute steal in the seventh round.

Now, they’ve reloaded and regrouped, and the Patriots are ready once again to make a run for Tom Brady’s fifth Super Bowl crown. The offense is still looks like it could be the top squad in the NFL and, if the defense can close the gap in the disparity between the two sides of the ball, the Patriots should find themselves in New Orleans on February 3rd of next year.

New York Jets | 2011 Record: 8-8
There’s tons of brand name power in New York, but it’s not necessarily translating into success

The big names and big egos of the New York Yankees once brought about the nickname ‘The Bronx Zoo’. Well, there are enough prima donnas and de facto celebrities on the Jets roster to create The Bronx Zoo 2. The only difference here is I’m not sure there’s a future Hall of Famer on this roster.

All the same characters that stumbled to an 8-8 record last year are back, but now they can add Tim Tebow, who is hands down the most famous backup QB in the NFL. I’m sorry, running back. Or is it wide receiver now? I can’t keep track. Hey, speaking of wide receivers, head coach Rex Ryan just came out and said second round draftee, who has been compared to Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson wasn’t his “dream pick”. Did I mention the distractions with this team?

The Jets certainly possess enough talent to make the kind of run that landed them in the conference title game in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010, but the same was true last year when they went just .500. What does it all mean? It means the Jets are one of the biggest wild cards in the NFL heading into 2012. And, with the loaded Patriots in their division, the term “wild card” is something New York should start to become more familiar with.

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AFC North

Baltimore Ravens | 2011 Record: 12-4
The fans are losing faith in Flacco but he thinks he’s the NFL’s best

After last season’s elimination in the AFC Championship, the Ravens have become one of those teams whose patience is quickly wearing thin. Much like Philadelphia a few years ago, consistently winning and making the playoffs is no longer good enough. The Maryland football fans want another Super Bowl trophy for their franchise.

Not much has changed either, which, depending on who you ask, is part of the problem. While guys like star running back Ray Rice are entering the apex of their careers, other veterans — IMPORTANT veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis — aren’t getting any younger. This, of course, only furthers the “must win now” mentality that exists in Baltimore.

For 2012, they have as much as a shot as anyone else. They’re defense is arguably still a Top 5 unit and Joe Flacco, despite receiving few votes of confidence from the fan base, has an emerging weapon opposite Anquan Boldin in Torrey Smith. Helping take the load off of the pass game, of course, will be Ray Rice, who is one of the few true feature backs remaining in the game. The clock’s ticking, now the question is can the boys in purple deliver.

Cincinnati Bengals | 2011 Record: 9-7
The youth movement is one year older and one year more potent

By most accounts, the Bengals appearance in the playoffs last year was a bit of a surprise. The team entered 2011 in turmoil with the face of their franchise, Carson Palmer, in a Mexican standoff of sorts with the management. Working around that however, the Bengals methodically put the pieces in place for life without the quarterback.

Of the youth movement, A.J. Green obviously stole the show with Andy Dalton also performing above expectations. Now, there are even more young pieces in place. Despite two first round picks (that they kept) the Bengals picked up three first-round-caliber talents in Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Devon Still, and an arguable fourth in Mohamed Sanu.

The Bengals appear to believe in their youth movement and have doubled with yet another offseason spent seeming to strive towards that goal. If the playoffs became a reality last year, they can certainly become a reality this year. But, with two very tough teams in Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the division, the battle, as always, will be an uphill one.

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Cleveland Browns | 2011 Record: 4-12
A 29-year-old rookie will look to make the Browns something they aren’t: competitive

It feels like the only difference from season to season with the Browns is the year on the season records. Ignoring that fluke 10-win season in 2007, the team has finished between 4 and 6 wins every year since 2002. There’s something to be said for consistency, but when that consistency is applied toward how absolutely awful your franchise has been for a decade, you’d probably like a little change of pace for once.

And change of pace is exactly what the Browns got when they drafted a 29-year-old rookie in Brandon Weeden to compete with Colt McCoy. The crazy thing in all this, of course, is that the move isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. In a lot of ways, Weeden is much more polished than Ryan Tannehill, who was taken with the eighth overall selection. Moreover, it looks as though he might be a legitimate upgrade over Colt McCoy who has seen his psyche destroyed sack by sack.

Don’t get too excited if you’re a Cleveland fan, though. Realistically, this team’s ceiling still sits somewhere at 8-8  and another 4 to 6 win season is a lot more likely. Weeden may be somewhat polished, but a lot about the Browns is not. Either way, they figure to finish in their division’s basement once again.

Pittsburgh Steelers | 2011 Record: 12-4
A year after getting Tebowed, the black and yellow will try to make it back to “business as usual”

Their overtime elimination to the Broncos at the hands of the enigmatic Tim Tebow brought an all too abrupt end to what was expected to be a promising season for the Steelers. They had lost the Super Bowl in a close-fought game and retained almost all the players critical to success.

But 2012 finds the Steelers on much more uncertain ground. Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a stalwart in the Steelers backfield of late, is still amongst the walking wounded and his fellow backs aren’t much healthier. Elsewhere, star receiver Mike Wallace has money, not football, on his mind entering September and the defense, much like the Ravens, continues to age.

But that won’t stop coach Mike Tomlin who doesn’t want to hear any excuses. As far as he’s concerned, they’re the Steelers, dammit, and they’re not going to let a few booboos derail a season. The fact of the matter is that this team has some impressive depth and always finds a way to turn nobodies into absolute playmakers. And, with that kind of advantage, the sky’s the limit for the Steelers once again.

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AFC South

Houston Texans | 2011 Record: 10-6
With defense to match their offense, the conversation in Houston is starting to be about Super Bowls

For the longest time, the Texans were one of those teams that were good but not great. Everyone knew they’d give you a good game, but they seemed stuck in the shadow of the division dynasty that was Peyton and his Indianapolis Colts. Well, that all changed in 2011. The Texans made the playoffs, won the division, and, had it not been for injuries, might’ve made a push for the conference championship.

Now, with everyone healthy once again, including Arian Foster now free of his “anti-awesomeness”, the goal for the Texans is that and much, much more. With a triple threat on offense and a defense that, while not flashy, is supremely effective, the Texans have what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl.

But there are a handful of teams that have what it takes. So what separates Houston from the pack? It might be the fact that everyone is sleeping on them. I already used the term flashy and, in that regard, powerhouse contenders like Pittsburgh and New England fit the bill much better. Also helping their cause is another difference between them and the Steelers and Patriots: divisional competition. Two of last year’s worst five teams are in the division and the Titans, now solely reliant on Jake Locker at quarterback, may not fair much better.

Indianapolis Colts | 2011 Record: 2-14
The Manning era is now the Luck era, but will the Luck era also be a dynasty

The 2011 Colts might’ve been the most heavily-watched 2-14 team in the history of the NFL. Never has a team taken such a dramatically negative turn in just a year. Before last season, the last time the Colts didn’t win at least 10 games in a season was 2001. The last time they lost less than three games was 1991. Maybe blaming the whole thing on Peyton Manning’s injury isn’t ENTIRELY fair, but it’s certainly MOSTLY fair.

So, in the offseason, the Colts decided this dramatic downfall was the perfect time to usher in a new era with their franchise. They let Peyton and many of his teammates move on and they started from scratch. They drafted this guy, I don’t know if you know him but he goes by Andrew Luck, and they gave him a bunch of new friends to play with.

But problems still remain. The defense is mediocre at best and the running game, troublesome ever since Joseph Addai’s body proved to have the durability of tissue paper, is in shambles with Donald Brown, who really is a sidekick at best, supposedly leading the pack. The Colts may get back to their winning ways soon, but probably not in 2012.

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Jacksonville Jaguars | 2011 Record: 5-11
It’s not pretty in Jacksonville and it may get much, much uglier before it gets better

Despite amassing five wins last year, you can make the case pretty easily that the Jaguars are the worst team in the NFL. They took a quarterback last draft that they hoped to be the face of the franchise and instead looked more like Tim Couch. Then, this April, they spent another top first round draft pick on Justin Blackmon who has already been arrested once for DUI. Now, to top it all off, the one thing even remotely resembling talent on  the team is holding out and demanding a trade.

Suffice it to say, these are dark days for the Jaguars. Their “big name” get in free agency was the insufferable Chad Henne. Oh, they did get Brandon Marshall, but the Brandon Marshall they got was a fifth round linebacker out of Nevada. Not quite as exciting, eh? Well, if you think I’m being too harsh on the Jags what about the franchise itself? Does their spending of a third round pick on a punter not indicate how much faith they have in this team?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this team probably doesn’t figure to do too much in 2012. I’m guessing they win somewhere between 3 and 6 games and look absolutely miserable in the process once again. I’m not what it’s going to take to turn this franchise around, but it might just start with a change in scenery.

Tennessee Titans | 2011 Record: 9-7
A repeat 9-7 season might be harder than it sounds

The fact that the Titans were in the playoff picture in December last year was surprising for a number of reasons. First off, their stud running back Chris Johnson was frustratingly inconsistent. Second, as soon as Kenny Britt emerged as a potential star receiver, his season ended due to injury. And then, to top it all off, that big eighth-overall quarterback they drafted, Jake Locker, hardly played ANY football.

Okay, that last one is dependent upon how well Jake Locker plays this season (if he even wins the starting job), but the fact remains that the Titans, much like the Texans a few years ago, are quietly very competitive. That’s because this team lacks any real sexiness, if you will. There aren’t big, flashy playmakers, just solid football players that the average fan probably isn’t familiar with. I mean, as I already mentioned, even Chris Johnson has lost the swagger in his game.

Of course, the Titans also had to deal with the apparent suicide of wide receiver O.J. Murdock in July. It was story, not unlike that of Andy Reid’s son to the Eagles, that caught the organization surprise and left a damper on their preparations for the upcoming season. As for that season, another 9-7 record might be possible, but I’m thinking 7-9 or perhaps even a little less is more likely.

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AFC West

Denver Broncos | 2011 Record: 8-8
Mile High goes from Tebowmania to Manningmania…maybe

The Denver Broncos were perhaps the most followed 8-8 football team of the 2011 season and 2012 offseason. After stumbling out of the gates, John Fox finally gave the people what they wanted and started Tim Tebow. His never-say-die attitude caught fire and the Broncos came back to nab the division on a tiebreaker in a 3-way tie (yes, there are only four teams in the division).

And as exciting as Tebowmania was, the man himself was sent packing as soon as the franchise landed Peyton Manning, perhaps the most sought-after free agent in the history of the NFL. But that’s only half of the equation in football. Yes, the Broncos offense last year at times looked more conservative Matt Hasselbeck’s sister-in-law, but the real sore was the defense. Time and time again, the unit was gashed for major yardage.

They’ve made some repairs and the general thought in Denver is that a repeat division title is definitely within reach in 2012. A lot of it will, of course, depend on how Peyton Manning plays. But if he looks anything like the future Hall of Famer from two years ago, anything is certainly possible.

Kansas City Chiefs | 2011 Record: 7-9
Jamaal Charles is back, but how much of his game is still there

Look at the sub-headline above. That’s the real question surrounding the Chiefs in 2012, isn’t it? How good will Jamaal Charles look like coming back from a season-ending injury in 2011? Yes, you can ask the same questions about the Broncos and Peyton Manning, but running backs rely on the welfare of their body infinitely more.

Without Charles for much of 2011, Kansas City still somehow scrounged up 7 wins. The logical statement here would be, if Charles stays healthy, at least a few more wins are possible. That sounds right, right? Then why does it feel harder than that.

The simple answer is this roster still has a lot of problems. Matt Cassel still isn’t the free agent “get” the Chiefs were hoping he’d be and the defense, not particularly jaw-dropping in 2011, will be a shell of its former self after losing talent by the boatload in free agency. It doesn’t take much to win the AFC West these days, but the Chiefs still may not have enough.

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Oakland Raiders | 2011 Record: 8-8
Does their season really solely depend on the health of Run DMC

If you expected the Raiders to finish 2011 with a .500 record, you were one of a severe minority. With a really, really good running back and virtually nothing else, was it so hard to call this team the ‘Jaguars of the East’? And yet, they performed remarkably better.

In 2012, that trend may continue upwards. Carson Palmer will have his first full season as a Raider and Darius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore are both back as wide outs. Plus, you shouldn’t sleep on late round draftee Juron Criner who could easily play his way into a premier role in the receiving corps. However, other problems do remain. The defense is still lackluster and the durability issues surrounding Darren McFadden no longer have Michael Bush as an insurance policy as he is now in Chicago.

I doubt the Raiders will cross the 8-win threshold again this year and something like 6 wins might be more realistic. There’s enough talent here for opposing head coaches to lose sleep at night, but I just don’t see Oakland being in the playoff picture come December. Of course, anything is possible. Just as Carson Palmer who probably thought he wasn’t going to play ANY football last year.

San Diego Chargers | 2011 Record: 8-8
Vincent Jackson free, it’s ever more important that Antonio Gates stay healthy

Norv Turner is a cockroach. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in the context that he just seems to survive anything and everything in San Diego. The Chargers almost are always thought to be playoff contenders and yet often fail to do much of anything past Week 17. I mean Eli Manning, remember that kid they originally drafted, has two Super bowl rings, already.

In the offseason, the big departure out of SoCal of course was Vincent Jackson who has now signed with Tampa Bay, but their offense has always been formidable. The real question mark historically has been the defense. Luckily, though, the front office found tremendous help in the draft. Incoming rookies Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor should all become impact players for the struggling defense from the get-go.

Now, I said Norv Turner was a survivor, but that may not be true long past 2012. After finishing last season just .500 and losing a divisional playoff berth on a tiebreaker, Turner is probably expected to do much, much better this year. The Chargers, once again, have the tools to make that happen but a lack of depth make it all the more important for this team to stay healthy.

NOTE: This story was originally published on SportsHead. To read this article and others click here.
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