Last season

The Buffalo Bills hit the trifecta last season. For the third straight year, they went to the Super Bowl and for the third straight year, they lost. For the second straight year, they were blown out. The Miami Dolphins were the other playoff team from the division and went to the AFC title game before losing to the Bills.


New coaches

Bill Parcells, who gave up the best coaching job in football when he left the New York Giants in 1991, now has one of the worst jobs as the coach of the New England Patriots. Parcells is an example of the old bromide that you have to be careful about what you wish for because you might get it. He's got the total control he wanted and doesn't have to deal with a general manager. But he's got a sorry football team except for rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe and is playing in a stadium that's not economically viable amid rumors that the team will move in the near future. Parcells may regret this move.


Coach on the bubble

Bruce Coslet was a respected offensive coordinator under Sam Wyche in Cincinnati, but he's had trouble making the transition to the head coaching ranks with the Jets. He's in his fourth year and is only 18-31. Now that Ray Handley is gone from the Giants, he'll become the target of the New York tabloids if the club doesn't improve on last year's 4-12 mark.

Best player

Dan Marino has been waiting almost a decade to get back to the Super Bowl and he may finally be in striking distance again. He's been a one-man band for years, but the Dolphins showed dramatic improvement to 11-5 last year and could make it to the Super Bowl if Buffalo falters.

Team on the rise

The New England Patriots can't get any worse. Parcells will field a disciplined team that will play a conservative offense to stay in games. But any improvement will be relative. The Parcells system worked in New York with Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor leading the way. He may have his Simms in Bledsoe, but there's no young Taylor there.

Team in decline

The moment may have passed for the Bills. Not only was their psyche damaged by another Super Bowl loss, but their three key players, Jim Kelly (33), Bruce Smith (30) and Thurman Thomas (27), are all a year older, and they lost Will Wolford from their offensive line. It's easy to forget that if it hadn't been for the comeback against the Oilers last year, they would have been bounced out of the playoffs in the first round and spared the Super embarrassment.


Key question

Does Miami have a defense to complement Dan Marino? In the year that Don Shula will break George Halas' all-time victory mark, it'd be appropriate for him to make his seventh trip to the Super Bowl. He's already the only coach to accomplish the feat )) in three different decades ('60s, '70s and '80s), but his defense has to improve for him to make it there this season.


This is a Big Two, Little Three division. The Dolphins and the Bills will fight it out for the division title. Miami has the edge in that it goes to Buffalo on Sept. 26 before the first snow falls and plays host to Buffalo on Dec. 19 when the heat could sap the Bills. Another interesting feature is that the Bills play all three teams that beat them in the Super Bowl -- the Cowboys on Sept. 12, the Giants on Oct. 3 and the Redskins on Nov. 1. The Dolphins play all three, too, but the Bills will have much more to prove in those three games.

The Colts, Jets and the Pats will battle for third place. One advantage the Patriots have is that they have the fifth-place schedule, which the Colts rode to a 9-7 mark last year. While the Colts and Jets are playing the Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and Eagles, the Patriots will play two games against the Seahawks and one each against the Cardinals and Lions. Although the Patriots aren't as good as the Colts and Jets, the schedule advantage gives them a shot. After all, their two wins last year were against the Colts and Jets.