For what has to be the millionth straight year, you can expect the AFC to run through New England.

The rules of logic and age thus far do not appear to apply to sir Tom Brady. If last year was any indication, he might even be getting better as he inches closer to 40. If last year did teach us anything else, it was that father time is undefeated in sports, with its latest victory over Brady’s greatest rival, Peyton Manning. But as unforgiving as time is, it is still on number twelves side. So like as the Patriots field the greatest coach, quarterback, and tight end in history, they are a near lock to appear in their sixth straight AFC Championship, suspensions be damned.

But what about the rest of the conference? The NFL is all about parity, and with the salary cap and the structure of the NFL Draft, it’s tough to stay too good for too long. The reality of the NFL is that there is a thin line between a 10-6 team and a 6-10 one. This year, there seems to be a massive middle group vying for a chance to knock New England off of its throne, but only so many of them will have a chance in January with only six playoff spots to go around, with one of them reserved for those Patriots. This year, nine teams look like they are poised to duke it out for them. Nine teams, five spots.

Teams are listed in order of how strong they look headed into the season. Any one of them could be a breakout away from a Super Bowl trip or an injury away from blowing up the machine. Today I’ll look at just how life could go so well or so wrong for them. Let the games begin.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Luck never seems to favor the Steel City. If not for the absence of Pro Bowl talent in Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers would be considered immune like New England behind the best quartet of offensive talent the NFL has seen in years.

Poll Points

  • Can Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown stay healthy all year?
  • Will DeAngelo Williams be able to carry the ground game over the first month?
  • Can someone step up in the young, patchwork secondary?

Prediction:12-4, 2nd Seed in AFC, Super Bowl Berth

Cincinnati Bengals

Oh the Bengals. Five straight playoff trips, five straight one and done trips. Just when it looked like Andy Dalton was ready to take the next step, he suffered a key injury down the stretch and the team fell at the hands of their most hated rival. This year, they have to prove to us all that they deserve to be taken seriously.

Poll Points

  • Will Dalton sink the team with the inconsistency of his first four years?
  • Who will step up to fill the void with Tyler Eifert injured and Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu gone?
  • Is this a team that can win big games?

Prediction: 11-5, 5th Seed, Wild Card Loss

Chiefs

The Chiefs certainly seem to have taken on the personality of their third year coach, Andy Reid. Quiet, not flashy, but good enough to get the job done. They don’t get the talk of the Broncos or Seahawks, but this defense has the potential to take over games week in and week out. The offense just has to keep afloat.

Poll Points

  • Will Justin Houston be the same player coming off of an ACL tear?
  • Is Marcus Peters ready to jump into the upper echelon of cornerbacks?
  • Can Jamaal Charles carry an offense with a vertically challenged passing game at age 30 after a torn ACL?

Prediction: 11-5, 3rd Seed, Wild Card Loss

Colts

In a Super Bowl or Bust season, the Colt’s face planted publicly and horribly and somehow escaped with their dignity, as well as front office stability. After being trendy picks to win it all a year ago, Indianapolis is flying under the radar in what looks to be a more competitive AFC South. They may be the single least balanced team in the conference, with an offense set to return to its 2014 heights and a defense suspiciously void of playmakers.

Poll Points

Can Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski finally scheme up a way to protect Andrew Luck?

Who is rushing the passer on this talent-challenged defense?

Is Frank Gore still a viable starting running back at age 33?

Prediction: 11-5, 4th Seed, Divisional Playoff Loss

Broncos

The Broncos have faced more offseason turnover than any other Super Bowl Champion in recent memory. New quarterback, retooled offensive line, and out their top inside linebacker and defensive lineman, with their number one cornerback in question. John Elway deserves all the credit for building a championship roster on the fly with an aging Peyton Manning, but even he might not be enough to get this team back to January.

Poll Points

  • Umm….quarterback?
  • Can the defense rely on as many points off of turnovers as it did last year?
  • Can Bradley Roby live up to the billing as a top tier corner with Aqib Talib potentially gone?

Prediction: 8-8, Out of the playoffs

Texans

30-0. That score haunted the Texans all offseason as they completely reinvented their offensive identity, injecting a dosage of speed and name-recognition into an offense that relied on gadget plays and 50-50 balls to Deandre Hopkins last year. It could be argued that the team would have changed less if they missed the tournament altogether. General Manager Rick Smith is pushing all of his chips to the center, and nothing less than another division title is acceptable.

Poll Points

  • Can Brock Osweiler do enough to justify the massive contract that the team gave him?
  • Will Lamar Miller justify the offseason buzz and become a centerpiece of the new-look offense?
  • Can JaDeveon Clowney stay healthy and play up to his potential as a former number one overall pick?

Prediction: 10-6, Out of the playoffs

Raiders

The Raiders have been a model of patience, draft and development, and how all of the lies that teams tell their fans through their teeth in the offseason can actually work. Like the Vikings a year ago, a promising young quarterback and a now exciting defense have lead this downtrodden franchise to be a trendy playoff pick among analysts. They’ve put together the best offensive line west of Dallas, added chess pieces on defense, and suffered no major losses. What could go wrong?

Poll Points

  • Is Latavius Murray the kind of running back that can carry a running game for sixteen weeks?
  • How soon can Karl Joseph become a difference maker on defense?
  • Are Derek Carr and Amari Cooper the players from the stars of the first half of last year or the ones who sunk the offense down the stretch?

Prediction: 10-6, 6th Seed, Divisional Playoff Loss

Jets

As if any of us cared in the first place, the tiresome Ryan Fitzpatrick negotiations have finally come to an end and we as the public have finally been freed from this nonsense. General Manager Mike Maccagnan remade a depressing roster in a year, but it’s easy to forget that this was a 4-12 team in 2014 that is relying on 30-something stars to headline their team and repeat last years performance. As the season finale reminded us, these may be the Same Old Jets.

Poll Points

Can teams catch up to Chan Gailey’s spread offense in year two?

Is Darrelle Revis still a shutdown cornerback after being burned one too many times last year?

Can Matt Forte still be a high end playmaker on his second team and third contract?

Prediction: 7-9, Out of the playoffs