1. New England Patriots: Surprise, surprise, the Patriots are my No. 1 choice in the AFC. I know I've been harangued over the past few weeks for my appreciation for this team, but I truly feel they are the best team in the AFC and possibly the NFL. It's hard enough to bet against Bill Belichick and his staff, but this year it's even harder because of the team's offseason acquisitions. Honestly, the Patriots' aggressiveness in the offseason caught me and a lot of others off guard. Normally the Pats are content to add a couple minor pieces through free agency and then upgrade mainly through the draft and their myriad draft choices.
This offseason the Patriots seemed to take stock of where they were in the hierarchy of the AFC and realized they were behind the Chargers and Colts and were dangerously close to being surpassed by teams like the Broncos. So instead of holding back and waiting, they went out and got the best available players at several positions to keep their streak of deep playoff runs going.
2. San Diego Chargers: On the other side, the Chargers didn't make many big changes in the offseason to augment their team. Instead, they basically are starting over with the coaching staff. Gone are the head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, strength coach, etc. The Chargers had the type of offseason exodus that is expected of a team that went 2-14, not 14-2. Obviously, some of these changes were due to the Chargers' success. That's why Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips are now head coaches elsewhere, but still it would be nice to see a team like the Chargers able to keep it together for one more season.
But as odd as the offseason was, the Chargers do still have Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo, Jamal Williams and Quentin Jammer on defense and Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates on offense. That would be hard to beat if I had the headset on and were coaching them.
3. Indianapolis Colts: It's weird putting the defending Super Bowl champions at No. 3, but the Colts didn't really upgrade anywhere except at wide receiver (they drafted Anthony Gonzalez). They lost a good portion of the defensive backfield, don't have Dominic Rhodes to split carries with Joseph Addai anymore, and now they are going to have a massive bull's-eye on their back because they won the Super Bowl.
4. Denver Broncos: This might be a surprise to some, but I think we're about to see the return of coach Mike Shanahan as an offensive genius. He finally has a quarterback who he trusts on the field and who has the physical gifts that he likes in a quarterback. Jay Cutler has the ability to run some if necessary, but he's also extremely intelligent and has a great arm.
Look for Javon Walker to have a big season with Cutler throwing to him as Shanahan is finally able to truly take advantage of the offensive balance that has become a hallmark of the Broncos offense.
5. Baltimore Ravens: The acquisition of Willis McGahee was another brilliant move by the Ravens. He gives them the big-play back they've been sorely lacking the past few seasons. Also, he'll give QB Steve McNair time to hook up with tight end Todd Heap and the receiving corps downfield, which has been a problem for Ravens' quarterbacks the past few seasons.
The Ravens have been dangerous in the past because of their defense, but they will be even more dangerous this season because the offense will be able to contribute more than just a couple of first downs per game.