One of these days, the Patriots AREN’T going to play in the AFC Championship game.  Hell, one of these days they aren’t going to win this division or even make the playoffs, but that’s not likely to be any of the days that comprise the 2014 season or postseason.

The Pats will still be kings of the East, but they probably don’t have the juice to get back to the Super Bowl.  On offense, the loss of LeGarrette Blount will pose a challenge to the running game to maintain its solid performance in 2013.  Rob Gronkowski’s health issues (not to mention the long-since-gone Aaron Hernandez’ absence) will be mitigated by the presence of Tim Wright, who caught 54 balls for Tampa Bay last season, but overall the receiving corps still lacks punch.

The defense will be better with the acquisition of Darrelle Revis and several other key upgrades, but enough to overtake Denver?  Probably not.

Instead, I look for New England to remain the second-best team in the AFC, but no more than that.

As expected, the Miami Dolphins focused on improving their offensive line, which was both awful and got decimated last season.  It figures to be better this season, although the first year together for a revamped offensive line is rarely perfect as it takes time for players to gel.  I’m unimpressed with the addition of Knowshon Moreno too.

Moreover, the Dolphins got worse on defense, especially in the secondary, and my prediction of 8-8 for them is less a function of my belief in Miami’s ability than it is a comment on how pedestrian the rest of this division is.

I may not be predicting a leaps and bounds type improvement for the Buffalo Bills this season, but I do like the direction this team is headed in.  They gave up too much to get Sammy Watkins, but that doesn’t mean Watkins won’t turn out to be a great addition to the offense.  His presence, coupled with a needed upgrade to the offensive line, should help EJ Manuel continue to develop at the QB position.  Look for good things from this unit.

On defense the Bills have probably taken a step back, but not a giant one.  Moreover, they were probably smart not to spend huge bucks to keep Jairus Byrd when they weren’t going to contend with or without him.  If I had to pick one team I’d like to be BESIDES New England in this division, it would be the Bills.

The New York Jets are a team that is likely headed for a complete rebuild.  Michael Vick will either make Geno Smith or he won’t, but either way the Jets lack weapons on offense, and the big money they spent for an aging Chris Johnson is a head scratcher.

On defense, the team continues to sink talent-wise and it is a tribute to coach Rex Ryan’s scheme that the unit continues to outperform expectations.  That can only get you so far.  The Jets take a couple more steps back this year.  Bank it.

Predicted Finish:

New England Patriots (11-5) (3rd seed; AFC Championship game)

Miami Dolphins (8-8)

Buffalo Bills (7-9)

NY Jets (6-10)

Games to Watch:

Week 3 – Kansas City @Miami:  You will learn a lot about the Dolphins from a game like this one, taking on a good-but-not-great Chiefs team at home, early in the season.

Week 7 – NY Jets @New England:  The first Jets/Patriots game of the year is almost always a barn burner, no matter where it’s played.

Week 9  – Denver @New England:  I don’t know how many more times you will get to see Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but you’re crazy if you miss any of them at this point.

Week 13 – Cleveland @Buffalo:  The Bills got spanked at Cleveland last season.  The Browns will be a tough out again this year, and by week 13 you may well see Johnny Football under center.