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AFC preview

In the AFC, it’s the Patriots ... and then who?

Peyton Manning has changed teams and will be leading the Broncos this year as he returns from a 2011 season that was lost to a neck injury.

Jack Dempsey/AP

Peyton Manning has changed teams and will be leading the Broncos this year as he returns from a 2011 season that was lost to a neck injury.

Familiar foe Peyton Manning is back to challenge Tom Brady this season. But will he and his new Broncos teammates be serious contenders? Greg A. Bedard examines how Denver and the other AFC teams look as the 2012 season kicks off. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish: (Check out the NFC preview here.)

AFC EAST

Patriots

Outlook: Just a few plays short of winning their fourth Super Bowl, the Patriots seem to poised for another deep run after improving the depth and going with youth instead of experience. The offensive line and secondary still are big question marks, but with QB Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots will always be right up there.

TE impact ranking: 1st. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez accounted for 39 percent of the offense. Now they have more.

Buffalo Bills

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Outlook: The Bills started 3-0 last season, including an upset over the Patriots, before crumbling under injuries. Ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson should improve a terrible pass rush. The Bills have good safeties and need big years out of CBs Stephon Gilmore (first-round pick) and Aaron Williams. Are there enough weapons for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick? Can LT Cordy Glenn protect well enough?

TE impact ranking: 32nd. It’s journeyman Scott Chandler (38 catches) and then nobody.

Jets

Outlook: This is either going to be a spectacular success, or an entertaining implosion. The defense is older, offensive line is shaky in spots, running game with Shonn Green is average, and all that adds up to the Jets needing more out of QB Mark Sanchez. Don’t be surprised if No. 3 QB Greg McElroy plays at some point after a guy named Tim Tebow.

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TE impact ranking: 12th. When Dustin Keller is healthy and the QB is accurate, he’s dangerous.

Dolphins

Outlook: Another regime change with the Dolphins, while general manager Jeff Ireland is still in charge. Former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, the new head coach, is going with first-round QB Ryan Tannehill as the starter. He has no targets to throw to, so expect a heavy dose of RBs Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. But the defense should again be formidable and keep the team in games.

TE impact ranking: 30th. Anthony Fasano is a solid all-around player but not dynamic.

AFC NORTH

Ravens

Outlook: Talk about a change in Baltimore. The offense might have to do the heavy lifting, not the defense. With OLB Terrell Suggs out most of the season with an injury, and allowing Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson to leave in free agency, there’s a lot of production to make up. It will be up to QB Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice to carry the load behind a revamped offensive line.

TE impact ranking: 5th. The Ravens might climb all the way to 2nd with Billy Bajema joining the ascending Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.

Steelers

Outlook: Pittsburgh has been one of the models of consistency in the NFL for years, but rebuilding both the offensive and defensive lines could be a challenge. Former Chiefs coach Todd Haley is the new offensive coordinator and the transition must be swift behind a line that saw one rookie (G David DeCastro) go down to injury, and another T Mike Adams struggle. WR Mike Wallace must not have any holdout setbacks.

TE impact ranking: 25th. Heath Miller is descending and there isn’t much behind him.

Bengals

Outlook: The Bengals reached the playoffs thanks to an easy schedule that included victories against one team with winning record, while going 0-8 against playoff teams. The Bengals haven’t gone to the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1981-82. QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green will need to be better in their second seasons, and former Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has to carry the load on the ground.

TE impact ranking: 17th. Former first-round pick Jermaine Gresham can be a star if healthy.

Browns

Outlook: Of the 218 points scored by Cleveland last season, kicker Phil Dawson had 92, so there’s nowhere to go but up offensively. The Browns need RB Trent Richardson (knee surgery) and 28-year-old QB Brandon Weeden – both first round picks – and supplemental pick WR Josh Gordan to play like veterans. The defense will struggle with some young linebackers in prominent roles.

TE impact ranking: 7th. With former Patriot Ben Watson leading the way, there isn’t great talent but the scheme relies on TEs.

AFC SOUTH

Texans

Outlook: A strong season was derailed when the top two quarterbacks, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, were lost to injury. The defense said goodbye to OLB Mario Williams and LB DeMeco Ryans, but the team feels good about first-round OLB Whitney Mercilus, and free-agent LB Bradie James. The right side of the offensive line is new. Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson must stay healthy.

TE impact ranking: 6th. Owen Daniels led the team with 54 catches last year, and he was coming back from ACL surgery.

Titans

Outlook: Norfolk native Matt Hasselbeck lost the QB competition to Jake Locker, so the Titans will be relying on his athletic ability. There are some issues with the offensive line, and WR Kenny Britt is suspended for the season opener. RB Chris Johnson needs a big bounceback season after a holdout hurt his 2011 campaign. The Titans are in the midst of a youth movement on defense.

TE impact ranking: 23rd. Could move up the list. Jared Cook is just 25. Craig Stevens is a block-first type.

Jaguars

Outlook: Much is to be determined by how RB Maurice Jones-Drew performs after his long holdout. The league’s sixth-ranked defense should be better if some key players can return from injury. The Jaguars will go as far as QB Blaine Gabbert takes them. He was shaky, but his line is improved, and first-round pick Justin Blackmon and free-agent Laurent Robinson are viable targets.

TE impact ranking: 13th. Marcedes Lewis is a great athlete but an underachiever.

Colts

Outlook: Everything is new after Indianapolis gutted the core that made them so successful, including QB Peyton Manning. Andrew Luck looks as impressive as any rookie QB in league history but he lacks proven weapons and a good line. Coach Chuck Pagano is switching to a 3-4 so OLB Dwight Freeney will have a learning curve. The secondary looks very weak.

TE impact ranking: 20th. Dallas Clark was let go, so it will be up to Luck’s Stanford teammate, Coby Fleener, to start anew.

AFC WEST

Chiefs

Outlook: Three of the best players, RB Jamaal Charles, S Eric Berry and TE Tony Moeaki, are coming back from season-ending surgeries. If they can come back close to their original level the Chiefs will be formidable, especially on offense. Depth is a weakness on defense for Romeo Crennel’s unit, and OLB Tamba Hali’s one-game suspension is not going to help in the opener against the Falcons.

TE impact ranking: 10th. Moeaki is highly underrated, and former Giant and Raider Kevin Boss gives the Chiefs a very good duo.

Broncos

Outlook: They replaced some guy named Tim Tebow at quarterback with an aging veteran in Peyton Manning. Should be a fair swap if Manning can prove he’s past his neck problems and can last an entire season. An unstable offensive line is not going to help, neither is an incredibly tough schedule. But having DEs Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil providing a steady pass rush will make the Broncos tough on defense.

TE impact ranking: 26th. Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme are solid but unspectacular.

Chargers

Outlook: The league’s worst third-down defense should be much improved with OLB Melvin Ingram, former UConn DE Kendall Reyes and SS Brandon Taylor providing instant impact from the draft. The offense is a bit of a reshuffled mess after losing RB Ryan Mathews (collarbone) for part of the season and saying goodbye to WR Vincent Jackson, LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman and RB Mike Tolbert.

TE impact ranking: 11th. Antonio Gates should get back to elite status after shedding weight. Chargers kept three other TEs.

Raiders

Outlook: Former Packers assistant general manager Reggie McKenzie and changed everything but the carpets. A salary-cap mess left by late owner Al Davis has robbed the team of depth, especially at linebacker and in the secondary for new coach Dennis Allen’s new scheme. RB Darren McFadden must stay healthy for QB Carson Palmer to have a chance. The defensive line is one of the league’s best.

TE impact ranking: 31st. Brandon Myers, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry might be the league’s most anonymous group.

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