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AFC NORTH and AFC WEST

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens

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Last season: 7-9, third place.

Coach: Brian Billick (37-27), fifth year with Ravens.

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Pressing question: Can the Ravens reach the playoffs with a rookie quarterback in Kyle Boller and a weak receiving corps?

Feeling the heat: After four years of shuffling through retreads, Billick got the quarterback he coveted - Boller - in the draft. Now Billick needs to stop the merry-go-round at the most important position.

Key reinforcements: Corey Fuller brings a lot to the team at cornerback, and Gary Baxter has adjusted to free safety. Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson should stabilize the receiving corps.

A lot rides on: Establishing a running game. If Jamal Lewis can run effectively, it makes the QB's job easier.

Best-case scenario: If the defense takes the next step and the Ravens get solid QB play, they could return to the playoffs, perhaps even challenge for the division title.

Worst-case scenario: If Boller plays like a typical rookie, he will cost the Ravens at least a few victories. That would be enough to keep them out of the postseason.

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 2-14, fourth place.

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Coach: Marvin Lewis (0-0), first year with Bengals.

Pressing question: Will QB Jon Kitna play well enough to keep No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer on the bench and in a learning mode this season?

Feeling the heat: Returning offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. The idea is to buy time for Palmer by playing Kitna or Shane Matthews.

Key reinforcements: After losing LB Takeo Spikes, the Bengals recouped nicely by adding three players - LB Kevin Hardy, DT John Thornton and CB Tory James - to improve the defense.

A lot rides on: Whether Lewis can sweep away the cobwebs of pessimism that infest the franchise.

Best-case scenario: If Lewis can restore defensive clout after a bad year and RB Corey Dillon stays healthy, the Bengals might approach eight wins.

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Worst-case scenario: Kitna bombs, Palmer gets thrown to the wolves, the defense doesn't pick up Lewis' new system. Then the Bengals get a top-five pick again.

Cleveland Browns

Last season: 9-7, second place. Lost wild-card game to Pittsburgh, 36-33.

Coach: Butch Davis (16-16), third year with Browns.

Pressing question: Will QB Kelly Holcomb be able to generate enough points in what promises to be a down defensive year?

Feeling the heat: QB Tim Couch. The first pick in the 1999 draft has lost his job to a journeyman and will receive $6.2 million as a backup this year.

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Key reinforcements: Center Jeff Faine, the Browns' first-round pick, wasn't a flashy choice, but he may give the offensive line an attitude.

A lot rides on: The defense improving its No. 27 ranking against the run. The Browns cut all three starting linebackers and replaced them with second-year players.

Best-case scenario: Holcomb performs as he did in the playoffs last year and the Browns' defense plays well enough to reach the postseason.

Worst-case scenario: Holcomb plays like a career backup and Couch can't rescue the offense. In that case, the Browns take a serious dive.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 10-5-1, first place. Lost divisional game in overtime to Tennessee, 34-31.

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Coach: Bill Cowher (109-66-1), 12th year with Steelers.

Pressing question: Will QB Tommy Maddox match last season's strong performance and earn a contract extension, or is he a stopgap measure?

Feeling the heat: RB Jerome Bettis, who lost his starting job. There are a lot of miles - and pounds - on The Bus, and injuries finally have taken their toll.

Key reinforcements: First-round pick Troy Polamalu, a hard-hitting safety, gives the Steelers some sizzle in the secondary.

A lot rides on: Whether Marvel Smith can replace left tackle Wayne Gandy, who departed in free agency. Smith played right tackle last year.

Best-case scenario: Maddox completes the team's transition to a passing offense and guns the Steelers deep into the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl.

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Worst-case scenario: Maddox doesn't deliver and the offense struggles. That would dictate a January at home.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos

Last season: 9-7, second place.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (89-59), ninth year with Broncos, 11th in NFL.

Pressing question: Is QB Jake Plummer the solution or just another guy in the Broncos' bid to replace John Elway?

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Feeling the heat: Shanahan is just 34-30 since Elway retired, and 0-1 in the postseason.

Key reinforcements: Plummer and DT Daryl Gardener are expected to take the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. The team needs first-round pick George Foster to help shore up a shaky offensive line at OT.

A lot rides on: Plummer's presence in the locker room. The Broncos made a big stink about departed QB Brian Griese's lack of camaraderie.

Best-case scenario: With strong supporting units, Plummer finally reaches his potential and takes the Broncos back to the championship game.

Worst-case scenario: Shanahan can't harness the mistake-prone Plummer and the Broncos are left facing another QB change.

Kansas City Chiefs

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Last season: 8-8, fourth place.

Coach: Dick Vermeil (90-91), third year with Chiefs, 13th in NFL.

Pressing question: Can Vermeil duplicate his third-year successes with Philadelphia and St. Louis with a playoff berth in Kansas City this season?

Feeling the heat: The Chiefs' defense was the softest in the league and kept a great offensive unit out of the playoffs.

Key reinforcements: CB Dexter McCleon and DE Vonnie Holliday will improve the defense, but LB Shawn Barber has a chance to make the biggest impact.

A lot rides on: The return of RB Priest Holmes from a hip injury to serve as an all-purpose threat and one of the league's best runners.

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Best-case scenario: The defense doesn't get trampled and the Chiefs become the latest team to come from nowhere to make the Super Bowl.

Worst-case scenario: Holmes doesn't make it back, and neither does the defense.

Oakland Raiders

Last season: 11-5, first place. Lost Super Bowl to Buccaneers, 48-21.

Coach: Bill Callahan (11-5), second year with Raiders.

Pressing question: Will the league's defensive coordinators finally catch up with QB Rich Gannon and the Raiders' prolific offense?

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Feeling the heat: The window of Super Bowl opportunity is closing quickly for Gannon and wide receiver Tim Brown, both 37.

Key reinforcements: Strapped with bloated salary cap figures, the Raiders did well to hold on to key players. They replaced departing Sam Adams with DT Dana Stubblefield.

A lot rides on: Gannon after an MVP season and a dreadful Super Bowl performance.

Best-case scenario: With their productive passing offense, the Raiders complete the journey and win the elusive championship.

Worst-case scenario: Age, injuries and defense unravel the Raiders' season and the window slams shut.

San Diego Chargers

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Last season: 8-8, third place.

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (161-101-1), second year with Chargers, 18th in NFL.

Pressing question: When can the Chargers start playing in Los Angeles?

Feeling the heat: Schottenheimer couldn't make the playoffs even with a 6-1 start last year. Since then, he cut the team's most recognizable player, LB Junior Seau, and went with youth.

Key reinforcements: Getting WR David Boston in free agency was a major coup for the passing game. Getting FB Lorenzo Neal was a silent coup for the running game.

A lot rides on: Improved play from the secondary, which ranked last in the league in pass defense.

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Best-case scenario: Boston, QB Drew Brees and RB LaDainian Tomlinson power the Chargers into the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Inexperience and depth problems force the Chargers to take a giant step back - toward Los Angeles.

AFC NORTH

MVP candidate: LB Ray Lewis, Ravens

Impact rookie: LB Alonzo Jackson, Steelers

Best pickup: Coach Marvin Lewis, Bengals

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Biggest loss: LB Joey Porter, Steelers

Most vulnerable: QB Jon Kitna, Bengals

Best comeback: OT Orlando Brown, Ravens

AFC WEST

MVP candidate: RB Clinton Portis, Broncos

Impact rookie: TE Teyo Johnson, Raiders

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Best pickup: LB Shawn Barber, Chiefs

Biggest loss: LB Junior Seau, Chargers

Most vulnerable: C Barret Robbins, Raiders

Best comeback: RB Priest Holmes, Chiefs


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