1. New England Patriots
2012 record: 12–4
Winners of nine of the past 10 AFC East titles, the Pats enter 2013 with their weakest team in years. Star TE Rob Gronkowski (11 TDs) is still rehabbing from back surgery and leading WR Wes Welker left for Denver. QB Tom Brady (4,827 passing yards, 34 TDs) must jell quickly with a new group of wideouts led by Danny Amendola, who is talented but injury-prone. Third-year RBStevan Ridley (1,263 rushing yards) will see a bigger workload, and newly acquired Tim Tebow could boost the offense in short-yardage situations. The Pats' defense ranked near the bottom of the NFL and was especially poor at defending against the pass. LB Jerod Mayo (146 tackles) is dependable, but the secondary must improve.
BOTTOM LINE: New England will win this weak division, but its Super Bowl window has likely closed.
2. Miami Dolphins
2012 record: 7–9
Miami showed signs of life in 2012 but must rebuild after the loss of RB Reggie Bush (1,278 total yards). Second-year QB Ryan Tannehill (3,294 passing yards, 12 TDs) must develop chemistry with new WR Mike Wallace (836 receiving yards with Pittsburgh). Second-year RB Lamar Miller (250 rushing yards) will lead the ground attack. Led by DE Cameron Wake (15 sacks), Miami allowed the third-fewest points in the AFC (19.8 per game) and added new starting linebackers in Dannell Ellerbe (4½ sacks with Baltimore) and Philip Wheeler (110 tackles with Oakland).
BOTTOM LINE: If Tannehill and Wallace can form a strong connection, Miami could sneak up on teams.
3. New York Jets
2012 record: 6–10
There's a QB controversy brewing in New York. Mark Sanchez (13 TDs, 18 INTs) is on the hot seat after two poor seasons and will face competition from rookie QB Geno Smith. Neither player will have much support. RB Shonn Greene left for Tennessee. He will be replaced by an average group that includes Chris Ivory, Mike Goodson, and Bilal Powell. Star WR Santonio Holmes may miss time with a left-foot injury. The defense also lost two leaders in the off-season: Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott. DE Muhammad Wilkerson (five sacks) and CB Antonio Cromartie must pick up the slack.
BOTTOM LINE: The offense will be inconsistent, but if the defense stays strong, the jets could finish over .500.
4. Buffalo Bills
2012 record: 6–10
The Bills must answer the same question as the Jets: Who will start at QB? New coach Doug Marrone will choose between newly acquired Kevin Kolb (1,169 passing yards, 8 TDs with Arizona) and rookie EJ Manuel. Buffalo does have strong playmakers in RB C.J. Spiller (1,244 rushing yards) and WR Stevie Johnson (1,046 receiving yards), and has two promising rookie wideouts in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. The defense is a big concern, but new coordinator Mike Pettine could help DE Mario Williams (10½ sacks) and DT Marcell Dareus (5½ sacks) reach their potential.
BOTTOM LINE: Buffalo last made the playoffs in 1999, the longest drought in the NFL. That streak won't end this year.
DID YOU KNOW?
The nine running backs with NFL experience on the Jets' and Dolphins' rosters combined for 1,637 rushing yards last season. That's 460 fewer than Vikings RB Adrian Peterson had all by himself.
PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRADY), TOM DIPACE (DOLPHINS, BILLS), JOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JETS)
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW ROBERTS