AP/Press Association Images Will the Patriots overcome the loss of Tom Brady for four games?
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Even without Brady, the Patriots remain the best of the bunch in the AFC
The four-time Super Bowl winner will sit out the first four weeks of the season.

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT which is probably why the fans of the 15 other teams in the American Football Conference hate the sight of the New England Patriots.

For five years in succession, they’ve reached the AFC Championship Game, a feat only achieved by one other team — the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders — in the 46 years the conference has existed.

This year they go into the season without four-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady for 25% of the regular season as he serves a suspension — that most right-minded NFL fans would consider unfair — for his alleged role in the deflategate scandal.

But will it impact the AFC standings come the end of the season?

AFC East

Bill Kostroun Bill Kostroun

The Patriots – shorn of Brady, with injury concerns around Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, no deep threat on offence and bereft of much of a pass rush on defence — will still go into the season as favourites for the AFC East. If they come out of their opening four games with two wins or more, it very difficult to see how anyone beats them to a 14th title in 16 years.

Buffalo present the most likely challenge to their dominance of this division though they will be relying on Rob Ryan continuing his streak of producing his best work on defence in his first year in the role. If the Bills start 4-0 and the Pats struggle with Jimmy Garoppolo, this division could become very interesting.

It’s never good for a team to have their quarterback hold out in a contract dispute for most of the offseason but the Jets will be hoping Ryan Fitzpatrick can regain the Fitz-magic he had last season throwing for a franchise record 31 touchdowns. The key for Gang Green, however, is navigating six road trips in their opening nine games.

It’s difficult to know what to expect from the Miami Dolphins with the NFL’s youngest head coach, Adam Gase (38), on the case for the first time. Already acknowledged as one of the best quarterback coaches in the game, the big question mark for the Fins is how the offensive line helps a run game that’s amongst the worst in the NFL.

AFC North

When they’re all on the field, there’s no more potent offence in the NFL than the Pittsburgh Steelers, but between injury, missed (and failed) drug tests, the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant — not to mention new signing Ladarius Green — won’t see action together this year. The defence, which recently signed all-time Draft bust Justin Gilbert, also has a lot of questions over it.

Frank Victores Frank Victores

You’d sometimes wonder what is the point of being a Cincinnati Bengals fan. Last year they became the first team in NFL history to lose in their first-round playoff game for five seasons in succession, dropping head coach Marvin Lewis to an equally unwanted record of seven trips to the playoffs with zero wins. It’s very likely they’ll make the postseason once more this year but there are massive doubts as to whether or not they’ll even take the next step.

The Ravens won’t be as bad as last year when they managed just five wins after an injury curse saw no fewer than eight starters make their way to injured reserve over the course of the season. Jim Harbaugh’s men will be there or there abouts come the business end of the season.

It’s also quite likely the Browns will be better this season but they could hardly be much worse. Robert Griffin III will be Cleveland’s 25th starting quarterback in 17 seasons but, with Josh Gordon finally back from suspension after four games, there’s ever chance he could revive his career in the Dawg Pound. In Hugh Jackson, they have one of the best coaches in the NFL.

AFC South

The Tennessee Titans set about rebuilding their offensive line this offseason to help protect promising young quarterback Marcus Mariota who took a massive 54 sacks last year. Between that and the so-called exotic smashmouth run game they’re planning, there’s no reason to feel that Mike Mularkey’s men can’t challenge for the divisional title.

There are few teams generating as much buzz in the NFL heading into the 2016 season as the Jacksonville Jaguars and it’s easy to see why. With an already potent offence, the team set about building a solid defence through the draft and free agency and pairing Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack with the likes of Malik Jackson and cornerback Prince Amukamara gives the Florida outfit a shot at the postseason.

Tony Gutierrez Tony Gutierrez

The Texans somehow managed to win nine games, and the division, last year with Brian Hoyer as quarterback and though they quite clearly overpaid for Brock Osweiler to replace him — and added Lamar Miller though free agency to the back field — the strength of this team remains JJ Watt and the defence. However, in a more competitive division, nine wins may not be enough.

Can the Colts keep Andrew Luck on his feet? That’s the biggest question mark going into the season for Indy after what proved to be a very disappointing 2015. While the former number one overall pick should have a better season than last, the team he plays for is just not very good on offence, defence or special teams.

AFC West

From top to bottom, the AFC West is now probably the best division in football and the team best equipped to come out on top is the Kanas City Chiefs. Andy Reid’s side won 11 games in a row last year but question marks remain over the health, and age, of their defence. There’s a slim Super Bowl window open in Missouri though, and the Chiefs will look to make a real challenge this year.

The Broncos come into the season as defending Super Bowl champions but part of what made their defence so historically good last season — being able to rush the passer on both the inside and outside — slipped away when they let Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan go in free agency. On offence, Trevor Siemian is the man to replace the ghost of Peyton Manning but is he just holding down the fort for Paxton Lynch?

The Oakland Raiders come into this year with almost as much hype as the Jags and while it’s easy to see why when you look at the likes of Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack — not to mention the second best offensive line group in the league — it might just be a season too early for the Silver and Black to take that next step. Derek Carr needs to show he has the mental traits to match the physical ones this year if the Raiders are to end their long playoff drought.

Lenny Ignelzi Lenny Ignelzi

Pretty much anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Chargers last season and that continued this offseason when their first round Draft pick Joey Bosa sat out most of camp in a contract dispute and the defensive line lost Sean Lissemore to a season-ending injury before even taking a snap in anger. San Diego may register eight wins this season and still finish fourth in the West, that’s how competitive it is.

Playoff Predictions

Bengals (wildcard)
Broncos (wildcard)

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