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Answering hard questions (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 1:31PM; Updated: Saturday September 2, 2006 12:24AM
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AFC East

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has looked very sharp during the preseason.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has looked very sharp during the preseason.
David Bergman/SI

Key question: Will the Patriots make everyone pay for that divisional playoff loss at Denver?

Answer: New England gets motivated by disappointment. The last time the Patriots were coming off a season that didn't end the way they wished, they used 2002's non-playoff 9-7 finish as a springboard to go 34-4 and win consecutive Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004. That's not going to happen again, but the Patriots won't squeak into the playoffs with a measly 10-6 record this season.

1. New England (12-4): This time it's the receiving position that looks like it'll be the Patriots' trouble spot, but as in the past, New England's whole will somehow wind up being greater than the sum of its parts. Count on it.

2. Miami (10-6): Here's what it boils down to for me in the AFC East: Do I see Daunte Culpepper outplaying Tom Brady in the two Miami-New England matchups? No, apparently I don't.

3. Buffalo (7-9): My hunch is that running back Willis McGahee is going to like Steve Fairchild's offensive philosophy. Look for the Bills to ride McGahee's back considerably more than J.P. Losman's arm. Smart move.

4. New York Jets (4-12): The Jets at least are taking the correct approach. They're trying to build from their lines out, laying a foundation for better days ahead with draft choices like D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold.

AFC North

Key question: Will Ben Roethlisberger rebound from his crash-test dummy role this offseason?

Answer: The Steelers' third-year quarterback still has plenty of improvement to make, and now he has some tailor-made motivation. He wants to prove to the critics that his ho-hum Super Bowl performance was a fluke, and that he's no worse for the wear after taking a header off his motorcycle in June. He's determined to take a larger leadership role this season, but the formula for success in Pittsburgh will continue to include defense and a running game.

1. Pittsburgh (11-5): The Steelers didn't lose any critical pieces of their Super Bowl team, but it's going to be hard to recapture the momentum they produced during that memorable eight-game, season-ending winning streak.

2. Cincinnati (10-6): The Bengals appear to have Carson Palmer put back together again in correct fashion, thus avoiding their doomsday scenario. Now if it can keep the focus on the field, Cincinnati looks poised for another playoff season.

3. Baltimore (8-8): The Ravens are an intriguing team that could cause real trouble in this division. If Ray Lewis truly is interested in playing again, Baltimore is a shrewd sleeper pick.

4. Cleveland (6-10): The Browns are further along in Year 2 of the Romeo Crennel era, but the results may not show up right away in the NFL's deepest division.