NFL Preview: Pats still team to beat in AFC, but up-and-comers emerging

Running back Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl last season, but Jacksonville is among the favorites in 2018. (Stephen B. Morton / AP Photo)

The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and here’s everything you need to prepare for the NFL season: an NFC preview; checking in around the league at some of the players from North Carolina schools; and what you can expect from the Panthers in Week 1 and beyond.

Until proven otherwise, Tom Brady and the Patriots and Tom Brady are the team to beat in the AFC. But while New England represents the established old guard, Jacksonville’s youth will present a challenge.

AFC East: New England’s dominance unlikely to end

Everyone’s still chasing the New England Patriots in the AFC East.

Many of the faces change every year in Miami, Buffalo, New York — and even in Foxborough — but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are constants in the division.

So are AFC East titles for the Patriots. They’ve won nine in a row and 14 of the past 15. It certainly appears they’re an excellent bet to add to that haul this season.

Not that Belichick is too comfortable with any of that.

“Each year is a new year, and each year has its own challenges,” said the coach, whose 278 overall victories are third-most in NFL history. “Again, each year we all have to regain our — to the best we can — our ability to perform our jobs. That’s what I’m trying to do. I think that’s what all of the players, all of the coaches, we’re all trying to do that.”

The Patriots don’t lack motivation.

After all, they’re coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and had an interesting offseason. Brady sat out workouts, tight end Rob Gronkowski hinted at retirement and skipped voluntary workouts before rejoining his teammates, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was hired as Detroit’s coach, and wide receiver Julian Edelman was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancers.

Brady turned 41 on Aug. 3 and has shown no signs of slowing, although some wonder if this might be the year he finally regresses. Well, not those who are around the five-time Super Bowl champion.

“He’s hands-down just remarkable, it’s amazing,” Gronkowski said.

AFC South: No longer the southleast

For so very long, the AFC South easily ranked among the NFL’s worst divisions.

Not anymore.

Both Jacksonville and Tennessee are coming off playoff berths, with the Jaguars a blown lead in the AFC championship game from playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. The Jaguars and Titans also have their rosters from those trips back largely intact. Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt are healthy again in Houston. Even Andrew Luck is throwing passes and ready for the season in Indianapolis.

“It’s crazy how nobody wanted to play in the AFC South a couple years ago,” Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said. “Now it seems like it’ll be one of the premier (divisions) in the league.”

The Jaguars not only are defending division champs, they are looking for a second straight playoff berth for the first time since 1998-99. The Titans changed coaches after consecutive 9-7 seasons because sweeping Jacksonville last season wasn’t enough to win the AFC South. Another postseason would be their first back-to-back berths since 2007-08. If the Texans stay healthy, they are chasing their third division title in four years.

The Colts have a lot of rebuilding ahead, but if Andrew Luck is healthy he should be good enough that Indianapolis has a chance to make some noise.

AFC North: Two-horse race between Steelers, Ravens

As long as Mike Tomlin is standing on the Pittsburgh sideline, watching Ben Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown or give the ball to Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers will be favored to win the AFC North.

It makes no difference that Randy Fichtner is the new offensive coordinator, or that Roethlisberger turned 36 in March.

The Steelers are going to score points, and they’re going to play their best against division rivals in big games.

Baltimore knows this all too well. Two years ago, Bell rushed for 122 yards and Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a last-minute touchdown in a 31-27 victory that clinched the AFC North title.

Last December, Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two TDs, Bell scored twice and the Steelers beat the Ravens 39-38.

Baltimore hopes to turn things around this year, but if the Ravens are to break a run of three straight years without a playoff appearance, it will likely be as a wild card.

There are, by the way, two other teams in the division. Cincinnati and Cleveland deserve mention only because one will likely finish in third place and the other will occupy the cellar.

In Cincinnati, coach Marvin Lewis got a two-year extension despite his NFL-record 0-7 mark in the playoffs. After two straight losing seasons, he’s getting a 16th chance to finally get it right.

Cleveland is coming off an 0-16 embarrassment and can only hope to be respectable. Since the creation of the current AFC North in 2002, the Browns are the only team never to finish in first place.

AFC West: Old, familiar faces populate wide-open division

It’s like old times in the AFC West.

Jon Gruden will be glowering on the sideline. Philip Rivers, an NC State legend, is surrounded by co-stars in L.A. Kansas City boasts an air-it-out quarterback. And Von Miller is sauntering around Denver again thanks to the arrival of a new pass rush partner in Bradley Chubb.

Entering his 15th NFL season, all with the Chargers, NC State alumnus Philip Rivers is looking to lead Los Angeles back to the postseason for the first time since 2013. (Jae C. Hong / AP Photo)

Widely regarded as the best defender in the draft, Chubb, the No. 5 pick overall out of NC State, teams with Miller, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett to form a fearsome front ready to rankle the likes of Rivers, Patrick Mahomes and Derek Carr, and reclaim the division crown they used to own when Peyton Manning was around.

The Broncos have a bona fide QB again themselves with the free agent signing of Case Keenum, who’s out to prove his breakout 2017 season in Minnesota was no fluke.

He’ll have to navigate a new division that features some of the league’s best pass-rushing duos ready to wreck game plans and quarterbacks alike.

The Chargers feature Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as bookends to an ever-improving defense. The Chiefs have Dee Ford and Justin Houston to cover warts on their defense. Oakland had both Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, but Mack was surprisingly traded to Detroit in a brandishing of Gruden’s power over the franchise.