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AFC Preview: With Broncos, Patriots flawed, no clear favorite

Tom Brady’s suspension and Peyton Manning’s retirement make it a more uncertain race for the AFC title this season. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Tom Brady’s suspension and Peyton Manning’s retirement make it a more uncertain race for the AFC title this season. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
By Dennis Waszak Jr. Associated Press

NEW YORK – No Manning. No Brady, for the first four games. No clear-cut favorite in the AFC.

With the regular season about to kick off, it’s anybody’s guess who’ll be the conference’s representative at the Super Bowl in Houston in February.

The defending champion Denver Broncos will try to become the first team to repeat since New England in 2004-05. But they won’t have the retired Peyton Manning leading the way. Or even Brock Osweiler, who bolted from the Broncos and headed to Houston.

Instead, Gary Kubiak and the Broncos have been trying to sort out a quarterback mix that includes veteran Mark Sanchez, 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch, the team’s first-rounder this year.

“You want to see the other guy succeed, you want to see the team succeed,” Sanchez said. “So, whatever it takes to win, that’s what we’ll try to do.”

While their quarterback situation might be a big question mark, the Broncos know they’ve got one of the league’s best defenses back, especially with the return of Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.

“If we’re like last year, our team didn’t worry about the other side of the ball,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “They worried about how well they played. That’s what we want to do. We have to outplay the other team’s defense. If they hold our team to not much, then we hold them to less. That’s the way we play the game.”

New England knows who its quarterback will be at the start of the season. Jimmy Garoppolo steps in for the suspended Tom Brady, who’ll have to sit four games as a result of his role in the “Deflategate” scandal.

That might make the Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East appear looser after winning the division the last seven years. Well, not so fast on writing off Bill Belichick’s bunch.

“Belichick is Belichick,” Buffalo safety Corey Graham said. “He’s one of the best, so when it’s all said and done, you know he’s going to get those guys prepared and make sure they’re ready to go.”

Pittsburgh might have as good a chance to win the AFC crown as anyone, especially if Ben Roethlisberger remains healthy. The Steelers went 10-6 and won a playoff game last season despite a down year for their play-making quarterback because of injuries.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown, among the most dynamic offensive player in the league, broke his own franchise records by catching 136 passes for 1,834 yards. Running back Le’Veon Bell is back from torn knee ligaments and should provide a boost, but will be suspended the first three games of the regular season for missing multiple drug tests.

The Steelers will also have to contend with AFC North rivals Cincinnati, which has made the postseason five straight years.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is recovered from a broken thumb that kept him out of the Bengals’ first-round playoff loss to the Steelers. He was having a breakout season when he got hurt last December, setting a team record with a passer rating of 106.3. But Marvin Lewis’ offense will have a different look this season with coordinator Hue Jackson leaving to become Cleveland’s head coach and wide receivers Marvin Jones (Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) signing elsewhere as free agents.

The AFC South could be a toss-up, with Andrew Luck back from an inconsistent and injury-plagued season for Indianapolis. Houston has a new quarterback in Osweiler and running back in Lamar Miller, but star defensive end J.J. Watt is still recovering from back surgery. Jacksonville is coming off a surprising 9-7 season, fueled by quarterback Blake Bortles’ breakthrough season with receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who combined for 24 touchdowns catches.

Any stumbles by Denver might create an opening in the AFC West for Kansas City, which was a win away from the AFC title game despite not having running back Jamaal Charles for most of the season because of a torn knee ligament.

Oakland also appears to be a team on the rise, led by quarterback Derek Carr. The Raiders could get off to a good start because they face just one playoff team from last season (Kansas City) in their first eight games.

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