There may not be an easier division to sort out than the AFC East this season. As it has been for more than half a decade, there's the New England Patriots and everyone else is playing for second place ... and a distant second at that.
New England may not be quite as dominant as it was a year ago, but that is primarily because once you go 16-0 everything is a step backward, including 15-1. Having said that, the division has become more competitive in Buffalo, New York and Miami, with the biggest change being that New England's opponents have greatly improved themselves at the game's most important position -- quarterback.
Under the radar
NFL.com's Gil Brandt has identified four underrated players in the AFC East, one from each team, who will bear watching this season:
Missed most of his rookie year due to injury, but showed enough athleticism and smarts to indicate he'll be a productive, every-down player.
Second-year player who has a very strong leg and is also good at directional punting. Can handle kickoff duties if needed and is the holder for placekicks.
LB, New England
First-round pick who has great speed and strength -- but it is his recognition skills that will help him start as a rookie and make an impact early on.
With Brett Favre under center, the Jets have to be seen as dangerous every Sunday regardless of their other problems. The arrival of reliable Chad Pennington upgrades Miami's offense if for no other reason than the fact that the Dolphins had no starting quarterback before he showed up. And Buffalo's second-year starter, Trent Edwards, figures to be improved because of his experience and the presence of new and more daring offensive coordinator Turk Schonert.
In the end, it's unlikely any of those challengers will end the Patriots' divisional dominance, but New England may have to sweat just a bit more than usual to get the job done this year.
Team on the rise
Buffalo. Bills' head coach Dick Jauron did a remarkable job last season getting his team to seven wins. Things should be greatly improved defensively this year if newly acquired nose tackle Marcus Stroud stays healthy. It seems fair to assume the offense will do more because it could hardly do less than it did a year ago under departed offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.
Team in transition
Miami. New head honcho Bill Parcells claimed in a recent interview he now thinks of himself as "a guidance counselor." As executive vice president of football operations Parcells is working on his fifth reclamation project. His approach is tried and true and is represented by the fact he had 44 new players, including 22 rookies, on his preseason roster and likely will see at least eight new starters under first-time head coach Tony Sparano. They'll lose a bunch but they won't lose 15 of 16. By this time next year they'll be a problem for their opponents.
Coach in the spotlight
Eric Mangini. He went from Mangenius to Ignoramus in one season. He's neither but he is on the hot seat in New York, where the Jets are trying to rebound from a 4-12 disaster with a new old quarterback and a rebuilding team. Mangini knows he needs to win now or he may not be around when the Jets enter their new stadium in a year.
Star on the rise
Jerod Mayo. Normally rookie inside linebackers do more watching than playing in Bill Belichick's system but circumstances and Mayo's nose for the ball are dictating a different scenario this season. The Patriots need youth and speed at inside linebacker and Mayo has both. He also has Tedy Bruschi next to him and Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork in front of him so he should be free to roam and make some big hits under constant guidance.
Count on it
New England will not go 16-0. It also won't be challenged for the division title in any significant way ... unless Tom Brady's foot remains a problem.
Don't be surprised if
The Bills are in the wild-card hunt. Their defense should be significantly better. If their offense follows suit they could make a run at it.