AFC EASTBuffaloLast season: 10-6, 1st place.Playoffs: Beat...

August 31, 1996

AFC EAST

Buffalo

Last season: 10-6, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Dolphins in wild card, 37-22; lost to Steelers in divisional, 40-21.

AFC rankings: Offense, 10th; defense, 8th.

Coach: Marv Levy (127-96, .570), 10th season with Bills, 16th overall in NFL.

Offense: QB Jim Kelly returns with his most familiar weapons -- RB Thurman Thomas and WR Andre Reed. But Reed, who nursed a bad hamstring last year, might not play much because the Bills filled the WR spot by signing free agent Quinn Early (81 receptions, 1,087 yards) and drafting electrifying Eric Moulds. These threats will open up things even more for Thomas, who gained 1,005 yards last year for his seventh consecutive season over 1,000 yards. Thomas' backup, Darick Holmes, also is coming off of a strong season (698 yards). The offensive line, led by LT John Fina, is very good.

Defense: The loss of LB Cornelius Bennett to Atlanta may seem painful on paper, but for all of his skills he will be replaced rather easily. Chris Spielman came over from Detroit and is as hearty a gamer as there is in the league. He will be paired on the left side with LB Bryce Paup, who led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks. DE Bruce Smith, despite being double- and triple-teamed, still got 10 1/2 sacks last year. His counterpart on the left side, Phil Hansen, added 10.

Extra point: The Bills' 66 regular-season wins in the '90s are third to San Francisco's 72 and Dallas' 67.

Indianapolis

Last season: 9-7, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: Beat Chargers in wild card, 35-20; beat Chiefs in divisional, 10-7; lost to Steelers in AFC championship, 20-16.

AFC rankings: Offense, 12th; defense, 5th.

Coach: Lindy Infante (24-40, .375), first season with Colts, fourth overall in NFL.

Offense: Jim Harbaugh's amazing 1995 (200 of 314 for 2,575 yards, 17 TDs, 5 interceptions; 235 yards rushing) will be hard to duplicate, but his leadership is contagious. RB Marshall Faulk last year quietly rushed for 1,078 yards and caught a team-high 56 passes for 475 yards. Zack Crockett is a monster fullback and should spring Faulk at times. Sean Dawkins is an adequate WR, but don't be surprised if rookie Marvin Harrison breaks into the starting lineup. At tight end, look for a big year from Ken Dilger. A weak offensive line got weaker when free agent Will Wolford left for Pittsburgh.

Defense: DT Tony McCoy and DE Ellis Johnson solidify a hungry front four. LB Trev Alberts is out again with injuries but LB Quentin Coryatt is a big-timer. S David Tate and S Jason Belser are big hitters but not great cover men. CB Ray Buchanan is legit. New defensive coordinator Jim Vechiarella won't tinker much with last year's system, so expect the defense to keep the Colts in contention again.

Extra point: Dawkins' 52 receptions was the third-lowest total for any team-leading wide receiver.

Miami

Last season: 9-7, tied for 2nd place.

Playoffs: Lost to Bills in wild card, 37-22.

AFC rankings: Offense, 3rd; defense, 10th.

Coach: Jimmy Johnson (44-36, .550), first season with Dolphins, sixth overall in NFL.

Offense: QB Dan Marino will be dealing with almost an entirely new receiving corps. O. J. McDuffie is the go-to guy, with Randal Hill and Lamar Thomas battling for the other starting spot. Tight end is a question mark, but for now the job is converted-FB Keith Byars'. Hard-charging Irving Spikes enters the season as the top running back, but Johnson is giving rookies Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Jerris McPhail every opportunity to claim the job.

Defense: The Dolphins will rotate several people up front, but DTs Tim Bowens and first-rounder Daryl Gardener appear to be developing into a nice tandem. DEs Trace Armstrong and Daniel Stubbs are mainly pass-rushers. Rookie Zach Thomas is growing into the MLB spot nicely, but will need time to develop. CBs Terrell Buckley and Calvin Jackson are short (both 5-9) but looked good in the preseason. After briefly losing his starting spot, FS Gene Atkins has been a monster. Louis Oliver and Michael Stewart, both big hitters, are competing at strong safety, with Oliver opening the season with a slight edge.

Extra point: Johnson finished 1-15 in his first season with Dallas and won the Super Bowl in his fourth.

New England

Last season: 6-10, 4th place.

Playoffs: None.

AFC rankings: Offense, 5th; defense, 14th.

Coach: Bills Parcells (98-76-1, .563), fourth season with Patriots, 12th overall in NFL.

Offense: With all the hype surrounding QB Drew Bledsoe, the team's offensive star might turn out to be RB Curtis Martin, who rushed for an AFC-high 1,487 yards and 14 TDs as a rookie last year. His case could be bolstered by a solid offensive line, anchored by tackle Bruce Armstrong. Hamstrung by last year's mediocre group of receivers, led by Vincent Brisby (66 catches, 974 yards), the Patriots drafted Terry Glenn and brought in free agent Shawn Jefferson. But Jefferson didn't show much in the preseason, and Glenn was slowed by an injury, which will steer Bledsoe back to TE Ben Coates early on.

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