by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

AFC EAST...New England’s FA additions DT Albert Haynesworth and WR Chad Ochocinco are just the sort of divas that Bill Belichick has historically been able to mold. If Haynesworth is right, he gives the Patriot defense perhaps the best pair of run-stuffers in the league along with Vince Wilfork, while Ochocinco is the big target Tom Brady needs to compensate for the other smurf-sized wideouts on the lineup. It would be no surprise to see the Jets regress a bit, as we remain unconvinced about Mark Sanchez as a championship QB, although Rex Ryan’s defense keeps NY in the playoff mix. Neither Miami (with Chad Henne & Matt Moore) nor Buffalo (with Ryan Fitzpatrick & Tyler Thigpen) have sufficient spark at QB to be serious threats. 1-New England, 2-NY Jets, 3-Miami, 4-Buffalo. Best bet season wins...Miami “under” 7 ½ wins.

AFC SOUTH...A changing of the guard in the South? Perhaps, with Peyton Manning’s neck surgery and slow recovery causing some angst in Indy, where the Colts have already made an emergency provision (vet Kerry Collins) in case Manning stays sidelined. Into the breach could ride Houston, with Gary Kubiak’s job on the line, but prospects for the stop unit much better with Wade Phillips back in his more-comfy role as defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, the Mike Munchak era begins in Tennessee, where the odds of fragile new QB Matt Hasselbeck making it through the season unscathed are off the board; expect to see rookie Jake Locker sometime this fall. The future of the J’ville “O” lies with Mizzou rookie QB Blaine Gabbert’s hands, but will under-fire HC Jack Del Rio really hand the reins of the offense to a rookie? 1-Houston, 2-Indianapolis, 3-Tennessee, 4-Jacksonville. Best season wins...Houston “over” 8 ½.

AFC NORTH...After seeing Baltimore’s Joe Flacco melt down in last January’s playoff loss to the Steelers, we’re not sure the Ravens can hurdle their longtime nemesis. Pittsburgh has much the same menacing look as last year and still has the now-married (!) Ben Roethlisberger at QB, who has been a crucial edge vs. Baltimore in the past. Both the Steelers and Ravens appear good bets to get back to the postseason, however. The playoffs are not in the cards for either Cleveland or Cincinnati, although we suspect the Browns, under new HC Pat Shurmur, rate an edge over Marvin Lewis’ Bengals, simply because 2nd-year QB Colt McCoy appears a better option than either Cincy QB (rookie Andy Dalton or journeyman Bruce Gradkowski) at the moment. 1-Pittsburgh, 2-Baltimore, 3-Cleveland, 4-Cincinnati. Best season wins... Baltimore “under” 10 ½; Cincinnati “under” 5 ½.

AFC WEST...San Diego could prevail by default, although the Bolts always threaten to underachieve for the emotionless Norv Turner. The Chargers might also miss last year’s fiery d.c. Ron Rivera, off to Carolina, and beware of another slow break from the gate under Norv’s watch. Keep an eye on Denver, now functioning with a real HC (John Fox). Among other things, expect Denver to run and play defense better than it did under Josh McDaniels. Many forget how the Bronco “D” was ripped by injuries last season, and the presence of a healthy DE Elvis Dumervil and star rookie LB Von Miller will help. Don’t dismiss Kansas City just because the Chiefs continue to lose in the preseason, although we wonder if QB Matt Cassel (27/7 TDP/int. LY) might miss departed o.c. Charlie Weis. Al Davis rolls the dice once more with another head coaching gamble, former o.c. Hue Jackson, a “poor man’s” Norv Turner; expect Oakland to regress after the Raiders showed occasional spark for firebrand Tom Cable. 1-San Diego, 2-Denver, 3-Kansas City, 4-Oakland. Best season wins...Denver “over” 6; Oakland “under” 6 ½.

NFC EAST...We’re not drinking the Philadelphia Kool-Aid; instead, we suspect the Eagles could be insanely overrated by those prematurely penciling them into the Super Bowl. But we’ll grant them top status in this division simply because we’re not terribly impressed by anyone else. Dallas remains full of questions after last year’s flame-out; we suspect Jerry Jones is losing patience with QB Tony Romo, and Jason Garrett remains an untested commodity as head coach. Meanwhile, the Giants are revamping both lines and have had to deal with a spate of injuries in preseason. Mike Shanahan’s Redskins, however, could be undervalued, especially if QBs Rex Grossman and John Beck prove serviceable. We like the additions of RBs Tim Hightower and Nebraska rookie Roy Helu, and the “D” figures to be more comfy in the second year of d.c. Jim Haslett’s 3-4 looks. 1-Philadelphia, 2-Washington, 3-Dallas, 4-NY Giants. Best season wins...Washington “over” 6 ½; NY Giants “under” 9 ½.

NFC SOUTH...When Atlanta pipped New Orleans for the division last year, it kept alive a curious trend in which no team has ever repeated as a winner in the South since the 2002 divisional realignment. We expect the Saints can turn the tables on the Falcons in 2011 because of upgrades via free agency and the draft, plus retaining much of the core that won the Super Bowl two years ago. We’re not as sure the Falcons helped themselves as much, and they will be dealing with an apparently more-difficult schedule than 2010. Tampa Bay improved by seven wins a year ago and won’t be sneaking up on anybody this time around, although QB Josh Freeman is arriving in a hurry. It will take rebuilding Carolina, under new HC Ron Rivera and Heisman QB Cam Newton, a couple of years to reach that level. 1-New Orleans, 2-Atlanta, 3-Tampa Bay, 4-Carolina. Best season wins...New Orleans “over” 10.

NFC NORTH...Remember that Green Bay had to scramble to simply make the playoffs a year ago before catching fire in January. And though the Packers won the Super Bowl, they didn’t win the NFC North (Chicago did instead). This year it might be Detroit, whose ascent was reflected in LY’s 13-3 spread mark. The Ndamukong Suh-led “D” is ready to dominate, and the Lions make the playoffs for the first time this millennium if QB Matthew Stafford stays healthy. The Bears will be hard-pressed to replicate LY’s success unless Mike Martz’ offense begins to carry its weight. Minnesota is a slow start from full rebuild mode under HC Leslie Frazier; QB Donovan McNabb, perhaps past his sell-by date, is unlikely to rekindle the Brett Favre magic of 2009. 1-Detroit, 2-Green Bay, 3-Chicago, 4-Minnesota. Best season wins...Detroit “over” 7 ½.

NFC WEST...Much like Detroit in the North, we expect St. Louis to emerge in the West. HC Steve Spagnuolo’s maturing defense has added key parts in every area, and QB Sam Bradford’s downfield receiving options have been upgraded. Arizona looms as the conference X-factor; HC Ken Whisenhunt must like new Kevin Kolb a lot to convince the Bidwills to pay All-Pro type cash for a QB with only a handful of career starts. Another 7-9 mark won’t win the West as it did a year ago for Seattle; Pete Carroll will be hard-pressed to win that many again with a post-Matt Hasselbeck vacuum at QB (Tarvaris Jackson? Charlie Whitehurst?). New San Fran HC Jim Harbaugh will soon know how predecessors Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary felt; the 49ers have a playoff-caliber “D” but a rubbish “O” that won’t improve with Alex Smith still at QB. Would Harbaugh really sacrifice the season to get a shot at his college QB Andrew Luck in next April’s Draft? 1-St. Louis, 2-Arizona, 3-San Francisco, 4-Seattle. Best season wins...St. Louis “over” 7 ½.

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