Contenders not plentiful in AFC 

click to enlarge Payton Manning and Tom Brady - STEVEN SENNE/2012 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Steven Senne/2012 AP file photo
  • Payton Manning and Tom Brady

Call the AFC the high-rent district. There are the haves and have-nots.

For every Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, there is a Blaine Gabbert and Brandon Weeden.

So while Brady's New England Patriots and Manning's Denver Broncos are virtual locks to win their division and good bets to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the rest of the conference is pretty wide open. Sure, there is a second tier of contenders that includes the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers, but the competition is pretty mediocre after that, including some shoo-in bottom-feeders.

Just ask fans in Jacksonville and Cleveland about Gabbert and Weeden.

Here is a look at the AFC:


Biggest question: While the Raiders may be the worst team in the division, will the Denver Broncos raise their elite perch?

• The paperwork snafu with lineacker Elvis Dumervil, linebacker Von Miller's suspension status and even front-office executives with DUI arrests may have caused a distraction elsewhere, but quarterback Peyton Manning is the perfect person to overcome them.

Team to watch: San Diego Chargers

• Has there been a team with more expectations that has underperformed as much? New coach Mike McCoy could invigorate this talented bunch.

Wild card: Kansas City Chiefs

• Ex-49er Alex Smith joined the Andy Reid rebuilding project in K.C. Combine that with the fact the Chiefs had five Pro Bowl picks last season and took left tackle Eric Fisher No. 1 overall in the draft and this could be a surprise team.


Biggest question: Who takes charge of this division?

• The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, but lost a lot of veteran talent and leadership in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. That could open the door for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Team to watch: Cincinnati Bengals

• After years of being known more for their off-field headlines, the Bengals appear to have turned a corner B Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green are the focus of an improving offense.

Wild card: Cleveland Browns

Rob Chudzinski and his coaching staff are looking to shake the Browns out of the cellar. The development of QB Brandon Weeden, under Norv Turner's tutelage, will be key.


Biggest question: Was last year a fluke for the Indianapolis Colts?

• No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck had a storybook rookie season, with his coach taking a sabbatical while battling cancer and using that as motivation en route to a surprising playoff berth.

Team to watch: Houston Texans

• Defensive end J.J. Watt is a beast and the defense is stellar, but the Texans should be worried about running back Arian Foster's cranky back. Losing a 1,500-yard rusher would throw off the balance of the offense.

Wild card: Tennessee Titans

• While the Jacksonville Jaguars will challenge the Raiders for worst team in the AFC, the Titans quietly upgraded their offense, but success depends on QB Jake Locker becoming consistent.


Biggest question: Can the New England Patriots brush off the Aaron Hernandez murder arrest?

• The good news is the Pats play in the weak East and have tremendous leadership in coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Finding receivers will be a bigger challenge.

Team to watch: Miami Dolphins

• Year 2 of the rebuilding project has brought an improved offensive line to protect B Ryan Tannehill, although there are questions at running back. A good defense got better.

Wild card: Buffalo Bills and New York Jets

• There are way too many questions surrounding both of these teams — especially at QB — but any blind squirrel can find a nut.

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Steve Drumwright

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