The Big Question: Three playoff teams?

Could the AFC playoffs feature three teams from the AFC East?

For the past three years, the AFC East hardly deserved to send multiple teams to the playoffs.

The AFC East arguably didn't warrant extra inclusion in 2009 either. The New York Jets clinched a wild-card bid with massive assistance from their last two opponents, while other contenders withered into pretenders.

But this year is shaping up differently. The AFC East could send three teams into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Anticipation already is building for what should be an ultra-competitive division shootout. The New England Patriots are defending champs. The Jets reached the AFC Championship Game. The Miami Dolphins won the AFC East in 2008 and were mathematically alive for a wild-card berth heading into Week 17 last year. They beat the Jets twice.

As respectable as those organizations were at the end of 2008, expectations have escalated. All three have improved their playoff chances through free agency, trades and the draft. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently rated the most productive offseasons, and his Nos. 1 through 3 were the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets.

For eight straight seasons, the AFC East hasn't acquitted itself well. It qualified a lone wild-card team in 2004, 2006 and 2009 (all the Jets), but none in the other seasons. Although it should be pointed out the Patriots had an 11-5 record two years ago, but failed to get in because they lost a tiebreaker to the Dolphins for the division crown and to the Baltimore Ravens for the second wild-card spot.

But in 2010, the AFC East's strength of schedule is around the middle of the pack. The Patriots have the sixth-toughest schedule, but the Dolphins, Jets and Buffalo Bills are tied for 16th.

The AFC North has been shaky. Can anybody count on the Cincinnati Bengals to repeat as division champs? The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to make the playoffs at all last year and are experiencing serious turbulence with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The AFC West has been weak for a few seasons, producing one winning record over the past two seasons combined and two over the past three seasons.

We can pretty much pencil in the Indianapolis Colts to continue their AFC South dominance, but the other clubs have struggled off and on.

What makes the AFC South's outlook even more daunting is the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans are tied for the most-difficult schedule based on their opponents' aggregate 2009 records. The Jacksonville Jaguars own the fifth-toughest schedule. The Colts have the 10th.

Odds would appear decent multiple AFC East teams will make the tournament.