NEW ENGLAND: Competent, but lacking dominant ability. Aging at key spots. Those buzzwords accurately describe large chunks of Bill Belichick's roster and nowhere is the problem more prominent than in the running game. The offensive line is getting long in the tooth, and while they can pass block enough to keep Brady upright, they can't control the line of scrimmage. The running backs--from Laurence Maroney, to Sammy Morris to Kevin Faulk to Fred Taylor, are past their primes. In the passing game, tight end Alge Crumpler is mostly a blocker and newly acquired #3 receiver Torry Holt quickly saw his season end with a training camp injury. That leaves it to Brady to move the chains with Wes Welker and find Randy Moss for the big plays. If anyone can do it Brady can, but it's a tall order.
The picture is similar on defense. Age isn't quite as big a problem, but the lack of big play capability is more pronounced, without the equivalent of Brady-to-Moss. The front three, anchored by Vince Wolfork can tied up blockers and let the linebackers make plays. But there's really no standout linebacker to make them. In the secondary, one corner is very weak, with aging Shawn Springs slated to start, but likely to be displaced by younger, more inexperienced players. No one has emerged at free safety, creating more potential problems in stopping the big play.
NY JETS: I really don't see what all the fuss is with this team. Last year, they were 7-7, before rallying to beat Indianapolis and Cincinnati, both of whom lied down to rest starters. Then the Jets beat the fading Bengals in the first round, who played their best football in the first half of last season. So I have to assume that all the hype for this year is built entirely around the team's genuinely outstanding upset of San Diego, a win still made possible by Nate Kaeding's sudden inability to kick chippie field goals. So I start from the premise that this is a borderline playoff team with potential, but not a heavy favorite.
Rex Ryan has an excellent offensive line, particularly when it comes to establishing the run and they are competent at protecting the passer. Shonn Greene is the type of runner who fits in well, able to muscle between the tackles. LaDanian Tomlinson will get some carries as a backup as he tries to rejuvenate his career. Moving through the air is where issues will arise. Mark Sanchez is mostly a game manager, Santonio Holmes will miss the first four games due to suspension and Braylon Edwards is a notorious head case. One possible unexpected spark could come from rookie running back Joe McKnight, a good pass catcher, who played with Sanchez at USC.
The defense clearly needs Darrelle Revis back in the fold before Super Bowl talk can move forward. He's the best lockdown corner in the NFL, and Antonio Cromartie is a perfect complement on the other side. Cromartie is a ballhawk who will benefit from teams having to throw his way. The defensive line will get nose tackle Kris Jenkins back who tore his ACL in Week 6. The linebacking corps is a good group. Bart Scott's a steady anchor inside and Calvin Pace and David Harris both blitz well. My guess is the signing of veteran Jason Taylor won't work out, a the 14-year vet showed in Washington he's out of gas.
MIAMI: The Dolphins defense isn't getting the hype of the Jets and it doesn't have a renowned master like Bill Belichick overseeing it, but this is a unit that has the potential to be the best of the three this year. Last season, the Fish broke in a pair of rookie corners in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Both survived and should be back stronger, to combine with aggressive strong safety Yeremiah Ball. In centerfield, Tyrone Culver needs to make sure he keeps the game in front of him. The linebackers are very good, perhaps better than the foursome in New York that get more hype. Karlos Dansby is a good cover man inside, while Channing Crowder can stuff the run. Cameron Wake has the talent to be a game-changer on the outside. Up front, the Miami threesome can tie up blockers and Kendall Langford can make a few plays of his own at defensive end.
Offense is what will determine Miami's fate this year. The line is sound at the tackles and at center, but problems at guard make them vulnerable to inside pressure, a particular problem with a team like the Jets that's more than happy to blitz from the interior. Ricky Williams is still producing at running back, but he isn't getting any younger and Ronnie Brown is coming off knee surgery. Chad Henne lacks weapons at receiver, with tight end Anthony Fasano being a blocker and Greg Camarillo being more of a possession guy. Miami's signed Brandon Marshall to be their version of Braylon Edwards in New York--a guy who can make your offense with his talent, or break your heart with his head-case tendencies.
BUFFALO: This is another team that could surprise with its defense. Like Miami, they are very good on the corners, with Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin and both safeties are excellent, led by Jairus Byrd, a ballhawking free safety who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The linebackers have tough run-stoppers at the inside spots, and good athletes on the outside. Where problems could happen is up front. The Bills are shifting from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and Kyle Williams may not be a good fit at nose tackle. Dwan Edwards is similarly undersized, one who would be a good pass-rushing end in a 4-3, but is too small in the 3-4, where you have to draw double and triple teams and let plays be made at the second level.
Scoring points isn't going to come easily for Buffalo. They have inconsistencies at quarterback, a lack of depth at receiver, injuries at running back and an average offensive line. Other than that, everything's kosher. It's the tackles who are the problems up front. Demetrius Bell and Cornell Green have to protect the quarterback and seal off defenders in the running game. At receiver, Lee Evans is a great #1, but there's no one to take the pressure off. At running back, Fred Jackson's out with injuries, Marshawn Lynch has problems with the law and the job could fall right away to top draft pick C.J. Spiller. Even if the quarterback was named Manning, Brady or Favre, they'd struggle. And when the QB is actually named Edwards or Fitzpatrick, it doesn't exactly inspire hope. Buffalo's defense will keep them competitive and enable them to be a spoiler, but the offense will hold them back.
NOTEBOOK PICK: I'm taking Miami. As noted above, I don't see where the fuss is for the Jets and think just winning ten games and making another playoff appearance would be a nice step for the Ryan regime, to consolidate last year's improvement. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of their hat in Foxboro, it's the Belichick-Brady combo, but there's just too much mediocrity at too many spots to win a division.
The NFC East & North Previews can be found by scrolling down. The AFC North will be featured on Sunday.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Notebook Family of sports blogs, published through the Real Clear Sports blog network, offering daily commentary on baseball and previews in college football and the NFL.