1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have steadily improved in four seasons under Coach John Harbaugh, reaching the playoffs each season. Assuming running back Ray Rice can stay healthy, the Ravens will send Ray Lewis and Ed Reed into the sunset of their careers with another Super Bowl appearance.
2. Houston Texans
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The Texans should steamroll through a weak AFC South, and they have the recipe for a championship team — a dependable veteran quarterback in Matt Schaub and a top defense. But consider it a gut feeling Houston won't get past Baltimore in the AFC title game.
3. New England Patriots
The Patriots are hungry after coming so close to a Super Bowl title, but their defense won't be good enough to get back to the conference title game this year.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers, 12-4 in each of the past two seasons, will be a playoff team as long as they have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their ferocious defense. But unless they can find a running game, elite defenses will shut down their one-dimensional offense.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC West is wide open, and here's betting the Chiefs grab the division title. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and running back Peyton Hillis, who had a huge season together in Cleveland, will help the Chiefs run all over teams.
6. Tennessee Titans
Every year one or two surprise teams make the playoffs, and the Titans are a good bet this year. They have all the ingredients for success: a good offensive line, a promising young quarterback in Jake Locker, a good running game and a solid defense.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals were a bit overrated last year, as they feasted on a weak schedule. This year, they fall back to earth. Playing in the same division as Pittsburgh and Baltimore is brutal.
8. Denver Broncos
The Broncos could be down and out early thanks to a brutal schedule. Unless Peyton Manning immediately returns to his old self, the Broncos may have a tough time staying afloat in the playoff race.
9. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo is getting a lot of pre-season hype, but we're not buying it until QB Ryan Fitzpatrick proves he can play well over a long stretch of time. Defensive end Mario Williams and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore will help the defense, but the Bills will be done in by an inconsistent offense.
10. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have disappointed for several seasons, and now seem cursed following running back Ryan Mathews' injury (a broken collarbone that will likely keep him out for the first game or two). The AFC West isn't strong, but San Diego might be starting fresh with a new coaching staff in 2013.
11. Miami Dolphins
Actually, despite all of the doom and gloom from above, the Dolphins could surprise a lot of doubters because of a relatively weak schedule. If rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill can avoid mistakes and one or two receivers emerge, the Dolphins could be this year's Bengals.
12. Oakland Raiders
Former coach Hue Jackson didn't leave the Raiders in great shape, and it might be a slow rebuilding process. If the defense doesn't improve dramatically, it could be a long year.
13. New York Jets
Rex Ryan was a media darling when he took the Jets to the AFC title game in 2009 and 2010, but now he's firmly on the hot seat. Unless the Jets get some early-season wins, it's going to get ugly.
14. Cleveland Browns
The Browns have virtually no chance this year with a rookie QB in the AFC North, and everyone in the building will be worried about being fired by new owner Jim Haslam.
15. Indianapolis Colts
Expectations won't be high this year, but with No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck at the helm, the future looks a lot brighter than it does in many NFL cities.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars
In Jacksonville, the buzz that the team will move to Los Angeles is stronger than new coach Mike Mularkey trying to turning the team around. Second-year QB Blaine Gabbert will get another chance to prove himself, but doesn't have much talent around him.