1. New England Patriots
2011 RECORD: 13–3
After another heartbreaking Super Bowl loss, QB Tom Brady (5,235 yards, 39 TDs) is back leading a high-powered air attack. The Patriots signed WR Brandon Lloyd (NFL-leading 1,448 receiving yards with the Denver Broncos in 2010), giving Brady three of the NFL's top pass-catchers in Lloyd, WR Wes Welker (1,569 yards), and TE Rob Gronkowski (17 TDs). New England's biggest concern is its defense, which allowed 411.1 yards per game in 2011, worst in the AFC. The Patriots tried to address the problem by drafting LB Dont'a Hightower, who led the University of Alabama's top-ranked defense last season. The Pats are counting on Hightower to adjust to the pros quickly and complement promising linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo.
BOTTOM LINE: The Patriots will reign over the AFC East again, but to win their first Super Bowl in eight years, their defense will need to make some big plays.
2. New York Jets
2011 RECORD: 8–8
One thing is certain: The Jets will be in the news a lot with Tim Tebow on the roster. The popular QB was acquired from the Denver Broncos to back up Mark Sanchez (3,474 yards), but fans will push for Tebow to take over if the Jets start the season slowly. No matter who is under center, the Jets will need to shore up an offensive line that allowed 39 sacks last year and didn't open many holes for RB Shonn Greene (1,054 yards). The Jets defense has plenty of dependable veterans including CB Darrelle Revis and LB Bart Scott.
BOTTOM LINE: Unless the QB situation becomes a distraction, the Jets have enough pieces to contend for a Wild Card.
3. Buffalo Bills
2011 RECORD: 6–10
The Bills made a huge gamble by signing DE Mario Williams (five sacks) to a big contract in the off -season. Williams is an elite pass rusher, but he played in just five games in 2011 because of a torn pectoral muscle. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,832 yards, 24 TDs) is a proven leader who only has one strong receiver in Stevie Johnson (1,004 yards, seven TDs). The Bills will rely heavily on the running back duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 1,495 rushing yards last season.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bills aren't loaded with talent, but they're a gritty team that could reach .500 if another playmaker emerges on offense.
4. Miami Dolphins
2011 RECORD: 6–10
After starting last season 0–7, the Dolphins finished strong, winning six of their final nine games. Miami can hold opponents down — it gave up 19.6 points per game, sixth-fewest in the NFL. To keep up the success, the offense will have to gel. Miami lost star WR Brandon Marshall, leaving unproven wideouts Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, along with Legedu Naanee. RB Reggie Bush (1,086 yards) is coming off his best season. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill has taken the starting job from veterans Matt Moore and David Garrard, but we'll have to see how long that lasts.
BOTTOM LINE: Miami will be decent but doesn't have the firepower on offense to make much noise.