Dec 15, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after being sacked during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Division Champs And Their Top Challengers: AFC

The AFC division champions are hoping for a repeat in 2014.  Which NFL teams are their biggest challengers?

AFC East:  New England Patriots

No team has owned a division quite like the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East.  Tom Brady and Bill Belichick show no signs of relinquishing their control after another conference championship appearance.  The defense has improved and the receiving corps should be better and more experienced.

Challenger:  Miami Dolphins

With all due respect to the New York Jets and the job Rex Ryan has done, the Miami Dolphins trump them in one key category:  quarterback.  Ryan Tannehill showed marked progress last season despite getting his brains beat in behind a terrible offensive line.  So the team made a series of free agent and draft moves to improve it.  Together with a strong defense the Dolphins are very much a quiet threat to the Patriots’ throne.

AFC South:  Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck is by far the best quarterback in the AFC South and is becoming one of the best in the NFL.  That is why his Indianapolis Colts have reached the playoffs two-straight years and why they’re expected to do so again.  He has a strong cast of targets around him and serviceable defense under Chuck Pagano and his staff.

Challenger:  Houston Texans

Meanwhile what was a pretty good defense in 2013 for the Houston Texans could become a dominant one this season.  That is the impact of the team drafting 1st overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.  His arrival to team with J.J. Watt changes the landscape of the division.  If new head coach Bill O’Brien can get even modest production out of the offense, his team is a threat to Luck and the Colts.

AFC North:  Cincinnati Bengals

They have been the most consistent team in the AFC North over the past three years in making the playoffs and now the Cincinnati Bengals feel they have a roster capable of a Super Bowl run.  Regardless of his doubters, Andy Dalton is at least a serviceable quarterback who has an offense bursting with talent around him.

Challenger:  Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger carried his Pittsburgh Steelers on his back during the second half of last season and nearly pulled off a miracle playoff run.  If anything else the way he played showed the Steelers should have an explosive offense in 2014.  Together with the emergence of some young talents on defense, Pittsburgh is in line to unseat the Bengals and end their brief post-season drought.

AFC West:  Denver Broncos

They went to the Super Bowl last season with the best offense in NFL history.  The Denver Broncos still have Peyton Manning and on paper a vastly improved defense.  It’s nearly impossible to pick against them as the favorites to retain the AFC West title for a fourth-straight season.

Challenger:  San Diego Chargers

Not that it will be easy sledding.  The division is getting better by the year.  The San Diego Chargers are proof of that, having been one of the three teams to beat the Broncos in the regular season last year.  Philip Rivers is back to his old form and a series of daring but calculated moves has improved their porous pass defense.  If things play out as planned they won’t let the Broncos win without a fight.

Tags: Cincinnati Bengals Denver Broncos Miami Dolphins New England Patriots NFL Pittsburgh Steelers San Diego Chargers

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