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2015 AFC playoff predictions: Three-team race in rugged North

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On the cusp of the 2015 NFL season, our analysts provide their predictions, including the winners of individual awards, playoff teams for each conference and Championship Sunday/Super Bowl forecasts.

AFC NORTH

Judy Battista: Baltimore Ravens. If they can survive playing five of their first seven on the road, the Ravens will enjoy significant continuity from the team that lost two 14-point leads to the Patriots in the playoffs.

Jeffri Chadiha: Cincinnati Bengals. There's a lot of talent in Cincinnati. As usual, a lot hinges on the play of Andy Dalton.

Brian Billick: Ravens. I don't have some fancy analysis -- it's just a gut feeling -- but there is something special about this Ravens team.

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Michael Silver: Bengals. With a full set of offensive weapons, the Bengals will attack opponents early and often, and Geno Atkins is BACK.

Colleen Wolfe: Pittsburgh Steelers. Has to be. Cleveland is essentially a CFL team. The Ravens have a suspect receiving corps. And poor Marvin Lewis (still there!) and the Bengals are always one step away. This is an easy one.

Steve Wyche: Bengals. Best overall talent. Overlooked. Could very well be one-and-done in the playoffs (again).

Gil Brandt: Ravens. The Bengals and Steelers also have a chance here, but the Ravens get the edge because they have the best defense.

Adam Schein: Ravens. This team is complete and well-coached. Joe Flacco never gets enough credit.

Charley Casserly: Steelers. Pittsburgh will overcome early-season suspensions and injuries to win the best division in football.

Elliot Harrison: Steelers. Pittsburgh narrowly edges the Bengals and Ravens based on an explosive offense and a back seven that is much better with a healthy Ryan Shazier.

Marc Sessler: Steelers. The defense concerns me, but Pittsburgh still has the most offensive talent in the division and the North's finest quarterback.

Dave Dameshek: Steelers. Toughest division to call ... but if the defense can survive early-season growing pains, Roethlisberger & Co can sneak past Cincy and the Birdies. [Note to those who call this a homer pick by a Steel City native: Allow me to point out I've correctly called the Steelers' record three years running.]

Bucky Brooks: Steelers. Pittsburgh wins the division behind a high-powered offense that features the best set of triplets (Big Ben, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) in the NFL.

 

AFC EAST

Judy Battista: New England Patriots. It doesn't matter who they lost from their secondary. The Patriots are the pick until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick retire.

Jeffri Chadiha: Patriots. You can't pick against them as long as Brady and Belichick are together.

Brian Billick: Buffalo Bills. New England has won the division in 11 of the past 12 seasons, but ... In Rex Ryan's first season in Buffalo, I like him to do what he never could in New York: win the AFC East.

Michael Silver: Bills. Fifteen years is long enough. Sexy Rexy, Fly Ty and Super Shady take these loyal fans on a long-awaited thrill ride.

Colleen Wolfe: Patriots. Has to be. I don't want to go with the Patriots, but how do I not go with the Patriots?

Steve Wyche: Patriots. There are holes -- but not in motivation, coaching or Tom Brady's focus and execution.

Gil Brandt: Patriots. The other teams in the division have improved, but the Pats will maintain their supremacy. This is a quarterback's league, and New England's doing pretty well in that department. But it's also a coach's league, and the presence of Bill Belichick counts for a lot.

Adam Schein: Patriots. Tom Brady is about to embark on the greatest middle-finger tour in sports history.

Charley Casserly: Patriots. Still the class of the division. It's just a fight for second place.

Elliot Harrison: Patriots. New England wins the division with a healthy -- if not sterling -- 10-6 record. The Patriots will find the opposing defenses in their division are all top-10-caliber (at least).

Marc Sessler: Patriots. Super Bowl winners often struggle for motivation, but the Deflategate-addled Pats roll into September with an us-against-the-world mentality. Look out.

Dave Dameshek: Miami Dolphins. My only concern is Joe Philbin losing the locker room with a slow start to the season, but a relatively breezy early slate reduces that risk.

Bucky Brooks: Dolphins. Miami's stifling defense sparks a surprising run to the division title. The stellar D-line, featuring Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and Olivier Vernon, is simply too much for opponents to handle.

 

AFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: Indianapolis Colts. The offensive line and defense are still concerns, but ... Division opponents with significant holes + Andrew Luck with more offensive weapons = another Colts breeze to the playoffs.

Every game, all season

Jeffri Chadiha: Colts. Andrew Luck has too much talent around him for this to not be a magical year in Indy.

Brian Billick: Colts. Indy wins its third straight division championship on the right arm of league MVP Andrew Luck.

Michael Silver: Colts. They have more talent than most observers realize, and it will overwhelm people in 2015.

Colleen Wolfe: Colts. Also easy. Andrew Luck has the division locked up for the next half decade.

Steve Wyche: Colts. Won't be as easy as it's been, as all three division opponents -- even the Jags -- will be tough outs.

Gil Brandt: Colts. With Andrew Luck leading the way and offseason additions Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Phillip Dorsett making this outstanding offense even better, the Colts will take their third straight division title.

Adam Schein: Colts. I loved the savvy veteran additions to this team in the offseason. And Andrew Luck is special.

Charley Casserly: Colts. Luck and his new weapons on offense will present too much firepower for the Texans to compete with.

Elliot Harrison: Colts. Indianapolis rules the day in the AFC South due to less competition than any of the other AFC divisions. Frank Gore rushes for over 1,000 yards, but the key here is an improved front seven on defense.

Marc Sessler: Colts. All sorts of weapons on offense. An MVP candidate in Andrew Luck. And Frank Gore replacing Trent Richardson. You do the math.

Dave Dameshek: Colts. I had the Texans winning the division ... until Arian Foster got hurt. One opinion that's remained unchanged: I'm certain Luck's offense will be near-unstoppable.

Bucky Brooks: Colts. Andrew Luck and his stellar supporting cast obliterate opponents behind a high-octane aerial attack that lights up scoreboards around the league.

 

AFC WEST

Judy Battista: Denver Broncos. A new offense will ease some of the wear and tear on Peyton Manning -- and so will Wade Phillips' defense, which should be more aggressive and contend for the league's top rank.

Jeffri Chadiha: Kansas City Chiefs. The passing game should be better with the addition of Jeremy Maclin and the continued rise of Travis Kelce.

Brian Billick: Broncos. The window is closing in Denver, but it's not completely shut just yet.

Michael Silver: Broncos. Unless Peyton Manning has truly lost it -- which I don't believe he has -- they'll win at least 10 games.

Colleen Wolfe: Broncos. I guess. The Raiders are the Raiders. Maybe the Chargers or Chiefs give Denver a run, but this is Peyton Manning's last ride.

Steve Wyche: Chiefs. I don't get why they aren't being talked about as Super Bowl contenders. Oh, Alex Smith? Get over it. This is a good team with good chemistry.

Gil Brandt: Chiefs. The Chiefs knock off the Broncos and hold the Chargers at bay with improved defense, given the returns to health of Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry and the addition of Marcus Peters.

Adam Schein: Broncos. I think the competition is going to be intense in this division, but with Peyton Manning (and the recent Evan Mathis signing), Denver survives.

Charley Casserly: Broncos. The defense will be the surprise of the team, as the offense will take time to find it's rhythm.

Elliot Harrison: Chiefs. Kansas City edges Denver and San Diego on tiebreakers with an improved passing game and the inspired return of Eric Berry.

Marc Sessler: Broncos. I still have faith in Manning. This won't be the Broncos of recent days, but they'll squeeze into January for Manning's final playoff defeat.

Dave Dameshek: Chiefs. Sacrilegious/crazy as it might sound, I like K.C.'s offense (and S.D.'s, too) in 2015 more than the one helmed by the Sheriff.

Bucky Brooks: Chiefs. The snickers about Alex Smith's game subside after the veteran leads the Chiefs to a division title. The former No. 1 overall pick shows more playmaking skills directing a diverse offense that packs a surprising punch.

 

AFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: Kansas City Chiefs. The defense allowed the second-fewest points last season, Jamaal Charles is still excellent and Alex Smith might throw downfield more -- now that Jeremy Maclin is in town -- to give them just enough offense to get into the playoffs.

Jeffri Chadiha: Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning is playing behind an offensive line that is both young and inexperienced. Not a good sign.

Brian Billick: New England Patriots. I was crazy enough to pick Buffalo to upset the Patriots in the division, but I'm not stupid enough to completely leave Tom Brady out of the playoffs.

Around the NFL's Dan Hanzus is following the drama on HBO's Hard Knocks closely. Check out his takes on the entire season.

Michael Silver: Houston Texans. Bill O'Brien will be dropping F-bombs of joy after leading Houston back to the postseason.

Colleen Wolfe: San Diego Chargers. Philip Rivers and the front office made nice. Melvin Gordon is there to help the run game. And they rebuilt the offensive line, which ultimately led to their demise last season.

Steve Wyche: Pittsburgh Steelers. Too much offense and too many playmakers.

Gil Brandt: Cincinnati Bengals. A.J. Green and Andy Dalton lead an excellent offense, and the defense, which added A.J. Hawk and reacquired Michael Johnson, should be better than it was last season.

Adam Schein: Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown form the best "Big Three" on offense in football.

Charley Casserly: Baltimore Ravens. The defense and Flacco will lead them into the playoffs.

Elliot Harrison: Broncos. Denver fails, barely, to take the AFC West, but Wade Phillips' defense is too stout for the Broncos to miss the postseason entirely.

Marc Sessler: Ravens. Joe Flacco isn't flashy, but he's won 10 or more games in five of seven seasons. Baltimore will be there in January.

Dave Dameshek: Patriots. Yeah, they'll play with a huge chip on their shoulder -- like they did after Spygate -- but they aren't as talented this time around.

Bucky Brooks: Buffalo Bills. Rex Ryan not only gives the Bills some much-needed swagger, but he brings an attack-style defense that'll batter opponents from all angles on the way to a 10-win season.

 

AFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: Pittsburgh Steelers. They have the league's toughest schedule and will be without Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), Le'Veon Bell (suspension) and Martavis Bryant (suspension) at the start. The defense is undergoing a massive transition, so the Steelers will rise and fall with Ben Roethlisberger.

Jeffri Chadiha: Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore isn't the sexiest team, but the Ravens find ways to get the job done.

Brian Billick: Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals will go to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, but the question remains: Will they finally be able to survive wild-card weekend?

Michael Silver: New England Patriots. Martyred and written off after a midseason swoon, Belichick and Brady will rise again -- and scare the heck out of everyone in the playoff field.

Colleen Wolfe: Miami Dolphins. What? Yes. Not a typo. The defense was really good last year and it added Ndamukong Suh. Oh, and Joe Philbin finally knows who Dr. Dre is.

Steve Wyche: Denver Broncos. Might end up with the best defense in the NFL.

Gil Brandt: San Diego Chargers. With Melvin Gordon leading an improved running game and the defense playing at a higher level, the Bolts claw their way back to the playoffs.

Adam Schein: Dolphins. Suh will make a gigantic impact. And I believe in Ryan Tannehill and think he takes a step forward. I'll take Miami just ahead of Houston.

Charley Casserly: Dolphins. They edge out Cincinnati and Buffalo, as Suh and Tannehill lead the Dolphins to postseason.

Elliot Harrison: Bengals. The Bengals lose out on the AFC North late in season, just like 2014. Yet, Andy Dalton makes it 5-for-5 in leading his club to the playoffs.

Marc Sessler: Dolphins. Ndamukong Suh will change the defense. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will exit the season as a hot head-coaching candidate -- maybe even for the Dolphins.

Dave Dameshek: Buffalo Bills. This team is loaded ... and Rex is worth an extra win or two.

Bucky Brooks: Chargers. The Bolts' D sparks a run to the playoffs behind the emergence of Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett as budding stars. With Philip Rivers thriving down the stretch, the Chargers get hot at the right time to claim the final postseason spot.

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