Gerry Dulac previews the AFC

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One of the Post-Gazette's veteran pro football writers breaks down the four divisions in the AFC for 2013 with his predicted order of finish.

AFC NORTH

1 Cincinnati BENGALS

2012 record: 10-6 • Coach: Marvin Lewis, 11th season

Key players: QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Jermaine Gresham, TE Tyler Eifert, DT Geno Atkins, LB James Harrison, CB Leon Hall

What's different: Expectations are what's different in Cincinnati, where the Bengals will try to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Also, the addition of former Steelers OLB James Harrison should bring some menace to a very good front seven, though Harrison will be playing in a 4-3 defense. The addition of Eifert, their No. 1 pick, will give Dalton another target in the middle of the field.

The skinny: The Bengals made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for only the second time in their 44-year history, but have never done it three consecutive years. Still, the expectations are very high this season. Dalton and Green are the best young passing duo in the league, but Dalton has played poorly in playoff losses at Houston each of the past two years. Just making the playoffs isn't enough for the Bengals anymore.

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2 Baltimore RAVENS

2012 record: 10-6 • Coach: John Harbaugh, 6th season

Key players: QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, WR Torrey Smith, DT Haloti Ngata, DE Terrell Suggs, DE Elvis Dumervil

What's different: Like the Steelers, the Ravens continue to lose a lot of their key contributors, including three All-Pros -- Ray Lewis (retirement), Ed Reed (Houston Texans) and Matt Birk (retirement). But the addition of former Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil more than makes up for any loss they incurred in the front seven. Joe Flacco should be a different player, too, after finally taking the step to Super Bowl MVP quarterback.

The skinny: The Ravens still have a lot of their talented cornerstones in place, especially Flacco, Rice, Suggs and Ngata. But a lot of Super Bowl champions suffer a hangover the next season (no Super Bowl champion has won a postseason game in eight years), especially when there is so much turnover. Losing key players such as LBs Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbee and S Bernard Pollard will hurt. So will the injury to tight end Dennis Pitta.

3 Pittsburgh STEELERS

2012 record: 8-8 • Coach: Mike Tomlin, 7th season

Key players: QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR/PR Antonio Brown, RB Le'Veon Bell, C Maurkice Pouncey, G David DeCastro, OLB LaMarr Woodley, S Troy Polamalu, DE Jarvis Jones.

What's different: It has been another offseason of change for the Steelers, who got rid of more contributors with multiple Super Bowl appearances -- Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks and Willie Colon. And, after a season in which their running game took another step backward, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has implemented an outside zone-blocking scheme designed to make them more versatile, and hopefully more productive, on the ground.

The skinny: The team needs to improve in a number of areas, including wide receiver and running back, and they will try to do that without deep threat Mike Wallace, who left in free agency, and tight end Heath Miller, who will the miss early stages of the season after ACL surgery. But, if they can get a full, injury-free season out of Roethlisberger, something he has had just once in nine seasons, anything is possible.

4 Cleveland BROWNS

2012 record: 5-11 • Coach: Rob Chudzinski, 1st season

Key players: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, LT Joe Thomas, MLB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Joe Haden, OLB Paul Kruger, DE Desmond Bryant, WR Davone Bess, OLB Barkevious Mingo.

What's different: Everything is different about the Browns, who have a new owner, a new front office and a new coach. But, then, turnover is nothing new in Cleveland, where coaches and quarterbacks come and go. Chudzinski has surrounded himself with a pair of quality coordinators -- Norv Turner and Ray Horton -- and the defense should be better with the addition of former Ravens DE/LB Paul Kurger and No. 1 pick Barkevious Mingo.

The skinny: The Browns might be able to end their streak of five consecutive seasons with at least 11 losses, but they are playing in a tough division and are destined for the cellar again. But they have hopes with second-year QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson, who have a chance to flourish in Turner's offensive system.

AFC EAST

1 New England PATRIOTS

2012 record: 12-4 • Coach: Bill Belichick, 14th season

Key players: QB Tom Brady, R Stevan Ridley, RB Shane Vereen, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Danny Amendola, RB LaGarrette Blount, DT Tommy Kelly

What's different: The Patriots lost several of their key offensive performers, including WR Wes Welker, RB Danny Woodhead, WR Brandon Lloyd and TE Aaron Hernandez, who is in jail. What's more, TE Rob Gronkowski is injured and will miss the early part of the season. Amendola was brought in to replace Welker, but that might be easier said than done. Brady, though, can make anyone look good. The defense should improve with the addition of Kelly.

The skinny: The AFC East is one of the weakest divisions in the league, so the Patriots should have no problem winning the division for the 10th time in 11 seasons. They were the highest scoring team in the NFL last season and they seem to get better as the year goes on, going 23-1 in the second half of the past three seasons. In a weak AFC, they have as good a shot as anyone at going back to the Super Bowl.

2 Miami DOLPHINS

2012 record: 7-9 • Coach: Joe Philbin, 2nd season

Key players: QB Ryan Tannehill, WR Mike Wallace, C Mike Pouncey, DE Cameron Wake, DT Paul Soliai, LB Dannell Ellerbe

What's different: The biggest change is the addition of Wallace, the former Steelers receiver who signed a big contract in free agency. He was part of a free-agent spending spree in which the Dolphins could have new starters at 11 positions. However, they lost two key offensive performers -- T Jake Long and RB Reggie Bush. QB Ryan Tannehill enters his second season flying under the radar of last year's other rookie quarterbacks. But he has a chance of really stepping forward in his second year.

The skinny: The Dolphins haven't had four consecutive losing seasons since the 1960s. But they have a lot of young talent on offense and adding Wallace gives them a legitimate deep threat for Tannehill. Still, they might be lucky to win one more game than they did last season. It helps that they play in a weak division.

3 New York JETS

2012 record: 6-10 • Coach: Rex Ryan, 5th season

Key players: QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, T D'Brickashaw Ferguson, C Nick Mangold, ILB David Harris, TE Kellen Winslow Jr., CB Dee Milliner, S Dawan Landrr,

What's different: Well, for starters, Tim Tebow is gone, which should help alleviate the media circus. Also gone are several key players, including CB Darrelle Revis, RB Shonn Greene, NT Sione Po'uha and RB/KR Joe McKnight. But that doesn't mean there isn't a debate about the quarterbacks because the Jets drafted Geno Smith to battle Mark Sanchez. And there is always some controversy: This time it's whether Holmes, the former Steelers receiver, is milking an injury.

The skinny: Coach Rex Ryan was given a reprieve after last season and will probably be fired if the Jets go a third consecutive season without making the playoffs. With a big question mark at quarterback and little if any game-breaking talent on offense, the Jets could be hard-pressed to match last year's victory total (6).

4 Buffalo BILLS

2012 record: 6-10 • Coach: Doug Marrone, 1st season

Key players: RB Fred Jackson, WR Stevie Johnson, RB C.J. Spiller, QB E.J. Manuel, DE Mario Williams, DT Marcel Dareus, DT Kyle Williams

What's different: The Bills have had more changes than perhaps any team in the league, starting in the front office and going right on down to a new coach (Marrone) and a new quarterback. The injury to Kevin Kolb cleared the way for rookie QB E.J. Manuel to become the starter, but Manuel (left knee) is hurt, too, which thrust undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel into the starting quarterback conversation with the opener just days away.

The skinny: The Bills have the longest active playoff drought in the league (13 years) and there is absolutely no indication that is about to change anytime soon. Marrone certainly gets to start fresh with so many new players, but that also means he will have a tough time getting started. The Bills haven't had a winning season since 2004. The streak will continue for at least one more season.

AFC SOUTH

1 Houston TEXANS

2012 record: 12-4 • Coach: Gary Kubiak, 8th season

Key players: QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, RB Ben Tate, WR Andre Johnson, DT J.J. Watt, ILB Brian Cushing, CB Johnathan Joseph

What's different: The Texans had very few personnel losses in the offseason, meaning they return nearly all their key people from last year's division winner. The Texans brought in All-Pro safety Ed Reed from the Ravens to improve their big-play abilities on defense. Also, linebacker Brian Cushing returns from a knee injury, so the defense that already features defensive player of year J.J. Watt should be even better. The addition of rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins, their No. 1 pick, gives Schaub a big-time outside threat to hopefully take some of the coverage attention away from Johnson.

The skinny: The Texans continue to look like a Super Bowl contender, but Schaub has to prove he can advance his team beyond the divisional playoff round. The expectations are very high and anything less than a Super Bowl trip will be considered a disappointment.

2 Indianapolis COLTS

2012 record: 11-5 • Coach: Chuck Pagano, 2nd season

Key players: QB Andrew Luck, WR Reggie Wayne, RB Donald Brown, TE Coby Fleener, RB Ahmad Bradshaw

What's different: The Colts might not seem the same without perennial Pro Bowl DE Dwight Freeney, but coach Chuck Pagano is trying to rebuild the defense with players who fit his style. On offense, they lost receiver Austin Collie, but they signed RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Darius Heyward-Bey and T Gosder Cherilus in free agency. That should give QB Andrew Luck even more options in year two, though he will be without his mentor, Bruce Arians.

The skinny: The Colts went from 2-14 to an 11-win season that included a playoff appearance in 2012 -- their 12th in the past 14 seasons. And they did it by rallying behind Pagano, who missed 12 games because of illness. Whether they can sustain that success is debatable because they won't sneak up on teams this season. But, with Luck, anything is possible.

3 Tennessee TITANS

2012 record: 6-10 • Coach: Mike Munchak, 3rd season

Key players: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Johnson, WR Nate Washington, WR Kenny Britt, WR Kendall Wright

What's different: Injuries on the offensive line really hurt the Titans last season, so Munchak brought in 17 free agents this offseason along with eight draft picks to try to get the Titans back on track. He is hoping the hiring of Gregg Williams as assistant coach will help improve a defense that allowed more points (471) than any team in the league.

The skinny: The Titans haven't made the postseason since 2008 and owner Bud Adams is tired of losing. The Titans start with two road games (they open with the Steelers) and also have away games in Seattle and Denver, so the schedule is not very kind for them. RB Chris Johnson still hasn't come close to the 2,000-yard season he had in 2008, but if he can start to show his old form he will take some of the pressure off Locker.

4 Jacksonville JAGUARS

2012 record: 2-14 • Coach: Gus Bradley, 1st season

Key players: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Justin Blackmon, TE Marcedes Lewis, LB Paul Posluszny

What's different: Former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey got only one season as head coach before owner Shad Khan had seen enough. The Jaguars finished 30th in the league in defense last season and it might not be any better after losing most of their key secondary personnel. But they used their No. 1 pick on an offensive tackle, Luke Joeckel, and drafted Michigan QB Denard Robinson as an "offensive weapon."

The skinny: The Jaguars have missed the postseason the past five years and 11 of the past 13, and that is not going to change anytime soon. The regime change that brought in coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell should invigorate the franchise, but that won't matter on the field if Gabbert doesn't improve and Jones-Drew, the 2011 NFL rushing champ, doesn't stay healthy.

AFC WEST

1 Denver BRONCOS

2012 record: 13-3 • Coach: John Fox, 3rd season

Key players: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Wes Welker, LB Von Miller

What's different: Losing Pro Bowl OLB Von Miller, who had 181/2 sacks last season, to a six-game suspension really hurts the defense. So does the loss of DE Elvis Dumervil, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens; and C Dan Koppen to a season-ending knee injury. Miller and Dumervil accounted for 291/2 of 52 sacks last year. But Peyton Manning should be even better than he was last season when he put up MVP numbers in his first season with a team other than the Colts. And now he adds WR Wes Welker to the offense.

The skinny: The Broncos are easily the cream of an average division and should have a chance to go to the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in February. They were headed there last year until a blown coverage late in their divisional round playoff game allowed the Baltimore Ravens to sneak away with a dramatic victory that propelled them, and not the Broncos, to the Super Bowl.

2 Kansas City CHIEFS

2012 record: 2-14 • Coach: Andy Reid, 1st season

Key players: QB Alex Smith, RB Jamal Charles, WR Dwayne Bowe, OLB Tamba Hali, ILB Derrick Johnson, S Eric Berry.

What's different: The biggest change was acquiring Smith from the 49ers to lead their offense. He brings stability to a position that hasn't had any in years. The Chiefs have talent at all levels, but they need to upgrade their secondary to shore up a porous pass defense that made them one of five AFC teams to allow more than 400 points last season (425). Despite that, they have three Pro Bowl LBs -- Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

The skinny: The Chiefs reverted back to the team from 2007-09 when they won a total of 10 games in three years. That necessitated another coaching change and Reid is just the man to fix the problems. The Chiefs have a roster with as much talent as any team in the league -- they had six Pro Bowlers in 2012 -- and could be one of those teams with a dramatic turnaround.

3 San Diego CHARGERS

2012 record: 7-9 • Coach: Mike McCoy, 1st season

Key players: QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, RB Ryan Matthews, DE Dwight Freeney.

What's different: The Chargers finally decided they had enough of Norv Turner missing the playoffs with a talent-laden roster. And they seem intent on getting better protection for Rivers, which is why they got King Dunlap from the Eagles to go with rookie D.J. Fluker. Rivers should benefit from the guidance of Ken Whisenhunt, the former Steelers assistant, as offensive coordinator. The defense is suspect and the Chargers are hoping the addition of Freeney and rookie LB Manti T'eo out of Notre Dame will help.

The skinny: The Chargers are tired of missing the playoffs, which is why they brought in McCoy and rookie GM Tom Telesco to rebuild the team. Rivers remains a quality quarterback, but time is running out for him and the Chargers. If Ryan Mathews can stay healthy, he might be able to provide the punch the ground game has lacked ... and the option Rivers need to take the pressure off him.

4 Oakland RAIDERS

2012 record: 4-12 • Coach: Dennis Allen, 2nd season

Key players: QB Terrelle Pryor, QB Matt Flynn RB Darren McFadden, WR Jacoby Ford, LT Jared Veldheer, DB Charles Woodson, DT Pat Sims, CB Tracy Porter, K Sebastian Janikowski, P Shane Lechler.

What's different: With about 40 percent of their salary cap tied up in "dead money" to players no longer in Oakland, the Raiders did not have the financial viability to overhaul their roster. They did bring in Flynn to battle for the quarterback job, but the job will go to Pryor, the former Jeannette High School star.

The skinny: The Raiders have just 33 wins in the past eight seasons and regressed in their first season under Allen, who is considered one of the league's bright young coaches. But they are gambling at quarterback with Pryor, hoping his athletic skills can do for them what some of the league's other athletic quarterbacks have done in a similar-style offense.

Steelers


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