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AFC EASTBuffaloLast season: 10-6, 1st place.Playoffs: Beat...

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AFC EAST

Buffalo

Last season: 10-6, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Dolphins in wild card, 37-22; lost to Steelers in divisional, 40-21.

AFC rankings: Offense, 10th; defense, 8th.

Coach: Marv Levy (127-96, .570), 10th season with Bills, 16th overall in NFL.

Offense: QB Jim Kelly returns with his most familiar weapons -- RB Thurman Thomas and WR Andre Reed. But Reed, who nursed a bad hamstring last year, might not play much because the Bills filled the WR spot by signing free agent Quinn Early (81 receptions, 1,087 yards) and drafting electrifying Eric Moulds. These threats will open up things even more for Thomas, who gained 1,005 yards last year for his seventh consecutive season over 1,000 yards. Thomas' backup, Darick Holmes, also is coming off of a strong season (698 yards). The offensive line, led by LT John Fina, is very good.

Defense: The loss of LB Cornelius Bennett to Atlanta may seem painful on paper, but for all of his skills he will be replaced rather easily. Chris Spielman came over from Detroit and is as hearty a gamer as there is in the league. He will be paired on the left side with LB Bryce Paup, who led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks. DE Bruce Smith, despite being double- and triple-teamed, still got 10 1/2 sacks last year. His counterpart on the left side, Phil Hansen, added 10.

Extra point: The Bills' 66 regular-season wins in the '90s are third to San Francisco's 72 and Dallas' 67.

Indianapolis

Last season: 9-7, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: Beat Chargers in wild card, 35-20; beat Chiefs in divisional, 10-7; lost to Steelers in AFC championship, 20-16.

AFC rankings: Offense, 12th; defense, 5th.

Coach: Lindy Infante (24-40, .375), first season with Colts, fourth overall in NFL.

Offense: Jim Harbaugh's amazing 1995 (200 of 314 for 2,575 yards, 17 TDs, 5 interceptions; 235 yards rushing) will be hard to duplicate, but his leadership is contagious. RB Marshall Faulk last year quietly rushed for 1,078 yards and caught a team-high 56 passes for 475 yards. Zack Crockett is a monster fullback and should spring Faulk at times. Sean Dawkins is an adequate WR, but don't be surprised if rookie Marvin Harrison breaks into the starting lineup. At tight end, look for a big year from Ken Dilger. A weak offensive line got weaker when free agent Will Wolford left for Pittsburgh.

Defense: DT Tony McCoy and DE Ellis Johnson solidify a hungry front four. LB Trev Alberts is out again with injuries but LB Quentin Coryatt is a big-timer. S David Tate and S Jason Belser are big hitters but not great cover men. CB Ray Buchanan is legit. New defensive coordinator Jim Vechiarella won't tinker much with last year's system, so expect the defense to keep the Colts in contention again.

Extra point: Dawkins' 52 receptions was the third-lowest total for any team-leading wide receiver.

Miami

Last season: 9-7, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: Lost to Bills in wild card, 37-22.

AFC rankings: Offense, 3rd; defense, 10th.

Coach: Jimmy Johnson (44-36, .550), first season with Dolphins, sixth overall in NFL.

Offense: QB Dan Marino will be dealing with almost an entirely new receiving corps. O. J. McDuffie is the go-to guy, with Randal Hill and Lamar Thomas battling for the other starting spot. Tight end is a question mark, but for now the job is converted-FB Keith Byars'. Hard-charging Irving Spikes enters the season as the top running back, but Johnson is giving rookies Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Jerris McPhail every opportunity to claim the job.

Defense: The Dolphins will rotate several people up front, but DTs Tim Bowens and first-rounder Daryl Gardener appear to be developing into a nice tandem. DEs Trace Armstrong and Daniel Stubbs are mainly pass-rushers. Rookie Zach Thomas is growing into the MLB spot nicely, but will need time to develop. CBs Terrell Buckley and Calvin Jackson are short (both 5-9) but looked good in the preseason. After briefly losing his starting spot, FS Gene Atkins has been a monster. Louis Oliver and Michael Stewart, both big hitters, are competing at strong safety, with Oliver opening the season with a slight edge.

Extra point: Johnson finished 1-15 in his first season with Dallas and won the Super Bowl in his fourth.

New England

Last season: 6-10, 4th place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 5th; defense, 14th.

Coach: Bills Parcells (98-76-1, .563), fourth season with Patriots, 12th overall in NFL.

Offense: With all the hype surrounding QB Drew Bledsoe, the team's offensive star might turn out to be RB Curtis Martin, who rushed for an AFC-high 1,487 yards and 14 TDs as a rookie last year. His case could be bolstered by a solid offensive line, anchored by tackle Bruce Armstrong. Hamstrung by last year's mediocre group of receivers, led by Vincent Brisby (66 catches, 974 yards), the Patriots drafted Terry Glenn and brought in free agent Shawn Jefferson. But Jefferson didn't show much in the preseason, and Glenn was slowed by an injury, which will steer Bledsoe back to TE Ben Coates early on.

Defense: With the arrival of head-coach-in-waiting Bill Belichick, there is little doubt this unit will be improved. Although still somewhat thin up front, the switch to a 4-3 could benefit DE Willie McGinest and LB Chris Slade -- both potentially prolific pass-rushers. The secondary will be better as second-year CB Ty Law looked very good in the preseason. Former Lions FS Willie Clay has a great knack for getting to the ball.

Extra point: Of the team's six victories last year, five came in the AFC East. The Patriots swept the Bills and split with the Dolphins.

New York

Last season: 3-13, 5th place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 15th; defense, 4th.

Coach: Rich Kotite (39-41, .488), second season with Jets, sixth overall in NFL.

Offense: The $25 million man, Neil O'Donnell, left a possible return trip to the Super Bowl to maybe become the most harassed man on the Jets (maybe that's why his predecessor in that department, Kotite, brought him in). Free-agent acquisitions Jumbo Elliott and David Williams greatly improve last year's tissue-paper line, which allowed 47 sacks. Adrian Murrell (795 yards, 1 TD) will be the starting RB again, but who cares? This team is going to throw the ball. First overall pick Keyshawn Johnson and potential star Alex Van Dyke join Jeff Graham at wide receiver, and TE Kyle Brady is solid. New offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt will figure out how to best use the tools at his disposal.

Defense: DE Hugh Douglas was a bright spot on a defense with talent but plenty of holes. The trio of super-athletic, bone-jarring LBs -- Mo Lewis, Bobby Houston and Marvin Jones -- is the core to a unit that recorded three or more sacks in 10 games last season. The secondary, led by emerging star CB Aaron Glenn, isn't bad, either. The defense ranked first in the league against the pass last year and No. 6 overall -- though just No. 25 against the run.

Extra point: Of the last 23 games Kotite has coached, he has lost 20.

Division glance

Best quarterback: Dan Marino, Dolphins.

Best runner: Thurman Thomas, Bills.

Best receiver/tight end: Ben Coates, Patriots.

Best defender: DE Bruce Smith, Bills.

Best acquisition: LB Chris Spielman, Bills.

Rookie to watch: WR Keyshawn Johnson, Jets.

First quarterback benched: Neil O'Donnell, Jets.

Coach on hot seat: Rich Kotite, Jets.

Sleeper team: Jets.

AFC CENTRAL

Baltimore

Last season: 5-11, 4th place, as Cleveland Browns.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 11th; defense, 12th.

Coach: Ted Marchibroda (71-67, .514), first season with Ravens, 10th overall in NFL.

Offense: Much-maligned QB Vinny Testaverde had his best season last year, and with Don Strock as his personal tutor and the offense-minded Marchibroda as his coach, he may improve still more. A better running game (the Browns were 22nd in the league in rushing last year) would help greatly. The excellent performance of WR Michael Jackson (16.2 yards per catch, 9 TDs) helped make up for the disappointing season of high-priced Andre Rison, who was released before training camp. Starting with Jackson will be Derrick Alexander. Top draft choice Jonathan Ogden joins an already strong offensive line.

Defense: DEs Rob Burnett and Anthony Pleasant are the best members of a solid line, but linebacker is a problem. The Ravens are counting on Ray Lewis, a first-round pick this year from Miami, to step right in at middle linebacker, with Mike Croel and Mike Caldwell at the outside spots. FS Eric Turner might be the team's best player, and SS Stevon Moore has averaged 143 tackles the past three seasons.

Extra point: At 65, Marchibroda is the oldest head coaching hire in NFL history.

Cincinnati

Last season: 7-9, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 9th; defense, 15th.

Coach: Dave Shula (18-46, .281), fifth season with Bengals.

Offense: With last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Ki-Jana Carter, healthy, and with Garrison Hearst picked up off the waiver wire, the Bengals are hoping to add balance to the potent passing game that features QB Jeff Blake throwing to WRs Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott. The offensive line has been a problem, which is why three of the Bengals' seven draft picks were blockers, including No. 1 selection Willie Anderson. The trio weighs a combined 955 pounds.

Defense: Yuck. Next-to-last in the league against the pass last year and dead last overall, the Bengals signed three free agents who all could start in the secondary, CBs Ashley Ambrose and Jimmy Spencer and FS Bo Orlando, and also added free-agent LB Gerald Dixon. DE John Copeland and LB Steve Tovar are solid. DT Dan Wilkinson, the first pick overall of the '94 draft and a disappointment so far, was ripped by Shula publicly for showing up to spring minicamp out of shape but responded with a decent preseason.

Extra point: The Bengals have done better in draft's second round (Scott, Pickens, Ickey Woods) than the first (Carter, Wilkinson, David Klingler, Alfred Williams, Darryl Williams).

Houston

Last season: 7-9, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 13th; defense, 3rd.

Coach: Jeff Fisher (8-14, .364), third season with Oilers.

Offense: The Oilers added three key players: third-down RB Ronnie Harmon and WR Willie Davis via free agency, and Heisman Trophy-winning RB Eddie George with their No. 1 draft pick. Chris Chandler is the No. 1 QB, but perhaps not for long. Steve McNair, who went 2-0 in his rookie starts last year and excited everyone, will be breathing down his neck. Another rookie made his mark last season, WR Chris Sanders, who led the NFL with a 23.5-yard average on 35 catches, nine for TDs. The offensive line is strong up the middle with Gs Bruce Matthews and Kevin Donnalley and C Mark Stepnoski.

Defense: The strengths of a defense that ranked fifth in the league last season were the linebackers and defensive backs. One starting LB, Eddie Robinson, was lost to free agency, but another, Al Smith, is back from injury to rejoin Joe Bowden and Micheal Barrow in what should be a powerful unit. Standouts in the secondary are CBs Darryll Lewis and Cris Dishman and SS Blaine Bishop. After two injury-marred seasons, FS Marcus Robertson hopes to regain his fine form of '93.

Extra point: The Oilers' five-victory improvement from 1994 to '95 was the best in the NFL.

Jacksonville

Last season: 4-12, 5th place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 14th; defense, 11th.

Coach: Tom Coughlin (4-12, .250), second season with Jaguars.

Offense: An offense that finished 28th in the league last year has added four veterans -- RB Natrone Means and WR Andre Rison, both signed from the waiver list, and two free agents: OT Leon Searcy and WR Keenan McCardell. Means will take the starting spot from James Stewart. QB Mark Brunell showed improvement in his first season as a starter last year, and could improve with better protection, balance and receivers (after last year's disappointing effort, Rison has had a good preseason; he will start alongside Willie Jackson, who led the team with 53 catches for 589 yards). The offensive line gave up a league-high 57 sacks, but with Searcy joining Tony Boselli, last year's top draft pick, the Jaguars should have one of the NFL's best tackle tandems.

Defense: Five significant newcomers have been added to bolster a defense that finished 21st in the league last year. Three are free agents -- DT John Jurkovic, LB Eddie Robinson and FS Dana Hall -- and two are draft choices, LB Kevin Hardy (top pick) and DE Tony Brackens (second pick). The Jaguars finished last in the league in sacks with 17.

Extra point: Brunell ran for 480 yards last year to lead all NFL quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh

Last season: 11-5, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Bills in divisional, 40-21; beat Colts in AFC championship, 20-16; lost to Cowboys in Super Bowl, 27-17.

AFC rankings: Offense, 2nd; defense, 2nd.

Coach: Bill Cowher (43-21, .672), fifth season with Steelers.

Offense: The defending AFC champions must make up for three key losses. QB Neil O'Donnell and OT Leon Searcy left via free agency and RB Bam Morris was released after being arrested on a drug charge. Youngster Jim Miller beat out Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart for the starting QB job, and burly RB Jerome Bettis was acquired in a trade. He should get most of the carries, with Erric Pegram (team-high 813 yards) serving a complementary role. WR Yancey Thigpen set a club record with 85 catches. As for replacing Searcy, the Steelers signed free agent Will Wolford, who can play guard or tackle, and used their No. 1 draft pick to take 315-pound OT Jamain Stephens.

Defense: The only loss from the league's third-ranked defense was free-agent LB Kevin Greene, who will be replaced by Jason Gildon, who, at 24, is exactly 10 years younger. The Steelers get a future Hall of Famer back with the return to health of CB Rod Woodson, which allows SS Carnell Lake to move back to his natural spot.

Extra point: Playing three positions last year, Stewart had a QB rating of 136.9 and averages of 5.7 yards per carry and 16.8 yards per catch.

Division glance

Best quarterback: Jeff Blake, Bengals.

Best runner: Jerome Bettis, Steelers.

Best receiver/tight end: Carl Pickens, Bengals.

Best defender: LB Greg Lloyd, Steelers.

Best acquisition: OT Leon Searcy, Jaguars.

Rookie to watch: RB Eddie George, Oilers.

First quarterback benched: Jim Miller, Steelers.

Coach on hot seat: Dave Shula, Bengals.

Sleeper team: Oilers.

AFC WEST

Denver

Last season: 8-8, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 1st; defense, 9th.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (16-20, .444), second season with Broncos, fourth overall in NFL.

Offense: Aside from Hall of Fame QB John Elway directing the AFC's top-rated offense, there could be little to smile about in Denver. Elway is 36, but he had such a fine season last year he was rewarded with a five-year, $29 million contract. WR Mike Sherrard (44 catches, 577 yards with Giants last year) was picked up to start alongside Anthony Miller and replace the disappointing Mike Pritchard (off to Seattle), and RB Terrell Davis had a superb rookie season with 1,117 yards. TE Shannon Sharpe is a pass-catching stud. The offensive line is good but aging somewhat with tackles Gary Zimmerman (34) and Broderick Thompson (36).

Defense: The Broncos were next-to-last in the league last season in take-aways and 23rd in rush defense, which explains why three of their first four draft choices, including No. 1 pick LB John Mobley, are defenders and why free-agent LB Bill Romanowski and DE Alfred Williams were signed. Mobley could be a sensation on defense and possibly returning kicks, but he won't be enough to shore up a porous unit.

Extra point: Since 1975, the Broncos are 120-42-1 at Mile High Stadium, best in the NFL over that span.

Kansas City

Last season: 13-3, 1st place.

Playoffs: Lost to Colts in divisional, 10-7.

AFC rankings: Offense, 7th; defense, 1st.

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (116-66-1, .637), eighth season with Chiefs, 13th overall in NFL.

Offense: QB Steve Bono played like Sonny Bono late last season and must bounce back strong. He'll throw to two young starters, WRs Tamarick Vanover and Lake Dawson, but hand off again to an ancient (for the position) RB Marcus Allen, 36, though there is considerable depth behind him in Kimble Anders and Greg Hill. A veteran offensive line helped the Chiefs lead the league in rushing last year and permit only 21 sacks, but right tackle is unsettled and LT John Alt is 34 with a history of back troubles. Trading for K Pete Stoyanovich could prove to be the club's best move.

Defense: Four Pro Bowlers -- DE Neil Smith, DT Dan Saleaumua, LB Derrick Thomas and CB Dale Carter -- highlighted a defense that ranked first in the AFC last year and second overall in the league. All starters and most key reserves are back, but age at tackle and safety is a concern. Also, Kansas City will have to overcome the loss of versatile DE Darren Mickell, who joined the Saints as a free agent.

Extra point: Schottenheimer has made the playoffs in 10 seasons, but is 5-10 in postseason games and has never made the Super Bowl.

Oakland

Last season: 8-8, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 4th; defense, 7th.

Coach: Mike White (8-8, .500), second season with Raiders.

Offense: The six-game losing streak with which the Raiders closed 1995 was caused, in large measure, by the loss to injury of QB Jeff Hostetler. A return to health and productivity is essential but hardly assured, considering Hostetler is 35, coming off surgery and generally worn and torn from too many collisions. Already, he is out for tomorrow's opener against the Ravens. The team has mounds of talent and depth at running back with Harvey Williams and Napoleon Kaufman and at wide receiver with Tim Brown, James Jett and Darryl Hobbs. But the ability of a rebuilt offensive line will make or break the offense.

Defense: This unit has a ton of depth on the line but a questionable set of linebackers behind them. DTs Chester McGlockton, Russell Maryland and Jerry Ball will pound the run with DEs Nolan Harrison and Pat Swilling generating a pass rush. The front line will support a good-looking, rebuilt secondary led by Pro Bowl CB Terry McDaniel and ex-Cowboys Super Bowl MVP CB Larry Brown. The Raiders are happy with a trio of young linebackers, especially Rob Fredrickson.

Extra point: Tim Brown had 89 catches for 1,309 yards and nine TDs in 1994, 89 for 1,342 yards and 10 TDs in '95.

San Diego

Last season: 9-7, 2nd place.

Playoffs: Lost to Colts in wild card, 35-20.

AFC rankings: Offense, 8th; defense, 6th.

Coach: Bobby Ross (39-25, .609), fifth season with Chargers.

Offense: Questionable. Gone are RBs Natrone Means and Ronnie Harmon and WRs Shawn Jefferson and Mark Seay, and there's a hole at left tackle, which protects QB Stan Humphries' blind side. Tony Martin (90 catches, 1,224 yards last year) will start at wide receiver and will be joined by Andre Coleman, who caught just four passes last year. The No. 3 receiver is rookie Charlie Jones, and Alfred Pupunu is the mainstay at tight end. Third-year RB Aaron Hayden finished the season strong (470 yards in last six games). Terrell Fletcher takes over for Harmon as the third-down back.

Defense: The Chargers believe they've strengthened a unit that finished sixth in the league in scoring defense last year with the addition of three free agents, DE Marco Coleman, LB Kurt Gouveia and FS Kevin Ross. Coleman steps into the hole created when Leslie O'Neal left to join the Rams as a free agent. DT Shawn Lee is a run-stuffing force on the line, and perennial All-Pro LB Junior Seau anchors the linebacking corps.

Extra point: Martin's team-record catch total was more than Hall of Fame Chargers Lance Alworth, Charlie Joiner or Kellen Winslow ever had in a single season.

Seattle

Last season: 8-8, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 6th; defense, 13th.

Coach: Dennis Erickson (8-8, .500), second season with Seahawks.

Offense: Much depends on the development of QB Rick Mirer, the second overall pick in the 1993 draft but a disappointment last year with 13 TD passes vs. 20 interceptions. He'll be pushed by John Friesz, whom many feel is more talented. Other skill positions are in good hands with RB Chris Warren (1,346 yards, 15 TDs), one of the game's best, and WRs Brian Blades and Joey Galloway both turning in 1,000-yard seasons (Galloway's 67 catches for 1,039 yards were better rookie numbers than Jerry Rice's). The line is in transition.

Defense: Needs improvement, as evidenced by low league rankings last year in rushing defense (28th), sacks (28th) and points allowed (23rd). The Seahawks traded for DT Glenn Montgomery in hopes his presence would keep opponents from constantly double-teaming five-time Pro Bowl player Cortez Kennedy. LBs Terry Wooden and Winston Moss are solid. S Darryl Williams, a free-agent acquisition, adds speed. DT Sam Adams, the eighth player picked in the '94 draft, was considered a bust but played well this preseason.

Extra point: The Seahawks won six of their last eight games last season, averaging 34 points in the victories.

Division glance

Best quarterback: John Elway, Broncos.

Best runner: Chris Warren, Seahawks.

Best receiver/tight end: Shannon Sharpe, Broncos.

Best defender: LB Junior Seau, Chargers.

Best acquisition: K Pete Stoyanovich, Chiefs.

Rookie to watch: LB John Mobley, Broncos.

First quarterback benched: Steve Bono, Chiefs.

Coach on hot seat: Mike White, Raiders.

Sleeper team: Seahawks.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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