It is hard to imagine that a Super Bowl champ might be better the following season. But if you look at what New England did this offseason, the front office just may have assembled a better team. The controversy surrounding Ty Law will be an added incentive to keep the team focused. And the Patriots added two quality No. 1 picks through the draft – defensive end Vince Wilfork and tight end Ben Watson. The future looks bright.
New England Patriots (Last season: 14-2, 1st)
Player to watch: Corey Dillon
Can New England's prize offseason acquisition dominate the way he did with the Cincinnati Bengals? Will he re-emerge as an elite running back? If he does, defenses will have an even harder time stopping the Patriots. Last season their offense was extremely effective even though it was one-dimensional. Now quarterback Tom Brady has a running attack. Brady excels because of his great decision making, especially in the big games. Dillon could make some of those decisions easier.
Burning question: Is there a Super Bowl jinx?
And if so, can the Patriots avoid it this season? The team's approach, from the front office and coaching staff to the players, makes me think that it won't be a big problem. Given that the Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls, the newness to success shouldn't be as big of an issue. And they didn't lose a lot of players this offseason, a rare thing for a defending champion.
The Patriots are the favorites based on coaching, talent and how well they play as a team. Football is the ultimate team sport, and New England has set the standard.
As long as they return this season with the same amount of drive and intensity, they are the team to beat.
Buffalo Bills (Last season 6-10, t-3rd)
Players to watch: Offensive line
The Bills are in a tough situation. Their inability to protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe last season led to a very average season. This season you have to look at the offensive line as a collective unit. Can it protect Bledsoe? Because I think he is ready for a big year.
Burning question: Can Buffalo steal a game from the Patriots?
If so, the Bills may compete for the division title. You never can count out how difficult it is to play a game in Buffalo as an opposing team, Super Bowl champ or not.
New coach Mike Mularkey may surprise some people with his offensive philosophy. He threw the ball the majority of the time as the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that was mostly because of his personnel. He loves to run the football, and he has a great opportunity in Buffalo. The combination of Travis Henry and Willis McGahee could turn out to be the best 1-2 punch in the NFL and lead a strong offense.
New York Jets (Last season: 6-10, t-3rd)
Player to watch: Chad Pennington
Everything with the Jets starts with their young quarterback. Can he continue to grow as a passer and a leader? Pennington missed most of last season after an injury in the preseason but was fairly effective when he returned at the end of October. Can he add to an already exciting resume?
Burning question: Has the Jets' defense improved?
As a former defensive player, coach Herman Edwards puts a lot of emphasis on the defense. The unit struggled last season, and the team made a push to get younger on defense over the offseason. Will the rebuilt linebacking corps be enough to help the defense keep them in games?
The defense holds the key to Edwards' future in New York. He already is under quite a bit of pressure to get better, and it is up to some young guys to take the heat off their head coach.
Miami Dolphins (Last season: 10-6, 2nd)
Players to watch: Travis Minor and Derrius Thompson
Two players that were solid backups have now become the focal points of a weak Miami offense after the retirement of Ricky Williams and the tendon injury to David Boston.
Going into camp, the position to watch was quarterback. Was A.J. Feeley good enough to unseat Jay Fiedler as the starter? But now you have to look at the running game with Williams' departure. The Dolphins always have been conservative on offense but may have to open it up if Minor doesn't step it up in Williams' absence. Thompson also has big shoes to fill, replacing the big productivity that the Dolphins were expecting out of Boston.
Burning question: Can the Dolphins bounce back mentally?
What is the mindset of the Dolphins? You have to wonder what else bad can happen to the team after losing its top offensive weapons. It will be tough for this team to recover.
I have a hard time imagining the Dolphins regrouping in time to save the season. Before my last season with the Minnesota Vikings, we lost a couple of players to free agency. Then our running back Robert Smith retired and we experienced the tragic loss of Corey Stringer in training camp.
Our situation was a little different because of the added emotion involved, but as far as the impact to the team, it is similar. The Dolphins did not have the time or ability to replace Williams and Boston with players of their ability. I understand what the players in Miami are going through, and it's going to be tough for them to recover.