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The NFL is set to kick off the 2004 season with a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game — the Indianapolis Colts at the New England Patriots — on Thursday night. The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, who are shooting for their third NFL title in four years, are the team to beat. The question is who can beat the Pats and grab the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6, 2005, in Jacksonville, Fla.?.

AFC East

New England’s chances of winning the AFC East again certainly improved when it acquired Corey Dillon to be the heavy-duty running back the Patriots haven’t had since Curtis Martin left after the 1997 season.

After winning two Super Bowls in three seasons, New England was set to enter the season as the AFC East favorite in any case, probably a good bet to become only the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years.

The previous time it won the Super Bowl, after the 2001 season, New England slumped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

That’s not likely this time — coach Bill Belichick, who continues to mix veteran role players and youngsters, just won’t permit it.

It starts for the Patriots, of course, with Tom Brady, the sixth-round draft pick in 2000 who has been the MVP in New England’s two Super Bowl victories, both won on last-second field goals by Adam Vinatieri. Brady has become a facsimile of his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, a quarterback with seemingly unspectacular physical skills who does nothing but win.

The Jets would just be happy to keep Chad Pennington healthy.

He wasn’t last season, breaking his hand and wrist in an exhibition game and missing the first six games. So New York started 2-6 en route to a 6-10 season, a record it hopes to reverse this year.

The key to the Jets’ season is the defense, which was in the bottom third in the league last year and 28th against the run.

Buffalo expected a lot last year and got little, falling from 8-8 to 6-10, costing Gregg Williams his job as head coach. Mike Mularkey, Pittsburgh’s former offensive coordinator, replaced him.

The offense and Drew Bledsoe could get some help from Lee Evans, the Bills’ first pick, who could be the speed receiver they lost when Peerless Price was traded to Atlanta before last season.

Everything went wrong in Miami.

Miami lost running back Ricky Williams to retirement, wide receiver David Boston to a knee injury and was forced to trade defensive end Adewale Ogunleye after failing to reach an agreement on a contract.

Travis Minor, who ran for 193 yards last season to Williams’ 1,372, is his designated successor, but only by default.

Predictions: New England 13-3; Jets 9-7; Buffalo 7-9; Miami 4-12.

AFC South

One of the things the Colts learned last year is that even with a prolific offense led by Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Marcus Pollard and a strong line, it isn’t necessarily enough to make a championship charge. Indianapolis went 12-4 to win the AFC South and scored 447 points, behind only Kansas City. Then the Colts beat the Chiefs in a postseason shootout for Manning’s first playoff win.

But a mediocre defense hurt the Colts in the AFC title game against New England, and it’s that defense the team must improve to give Indy a better shot at its first Super Bowl.

Both starting cornerbacks from last year’s playoffs are gone and there is uncertainty at safety.

Steve McNair has far less help on offense than Manning, particularly with question marks at running back now that Eddie George is in Dallas. Second-year RB Chris Brown and veteran Antowain Smith must take some of the load off McNair, and several other key contributors (TE Frank Wycheck, WR Justin McCareins) also are gone.

Both Jacksonville and Houston are on the rise.

Houston is doing things the right way, patiently building from its 2002 expansion season. The emphasis on youth has taken hold offensively with David Carr, WR Andre Johnson and RB Domanick Davis.

If the Jaguars avoid being punished in their brutal early schedule, they could finish ahead of Houston and close to Tennessee.

Prediction: Indianapolis 11-5; Tennessee 10-6; Houston 7-9; Jacksonville 7-9.

AFC North

Despite an inexperienced quarterback, so-so receivers and a star running back who could miss practices, even games, in midseason because of a criminal trial, the Ravens are strong favorites to repeat as AFC North champions.

The offense will try to assert itself by handing the ball to 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis most of the time. Last season’s Offensive Player of the Year with 2,066 yards, second most in NFL history, also set the individual game record with 295 yards against the Browns.

Lewis needs to be just as effective because Kyle Boller still is growing at quarterback and there is no star receiver.

Pittsburgh has a superb trio of wideouts: Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. It also has versatile Duce Staley supplanting Jerome Bettis as the prime running back.

Where the Steelers will look somewhat different is defensively. Although not a lot of the personnel has changed, Cowher promises they’ll be more aggressive, boosted by a return to full health by LB Joey Porter and the insertion of safety Troy Polamalu into the lineup.

Cincinnati comes off a turnaround season, the first of Marvin Lewis’ head coaching career. He got the Bengals to 8-8 — they still haven’t had a winning record since 1990, the last time they made the postseason — and they were in contention for the playoffs all season.

But with Carson Palmer replacing last year’s top comeback player, Jon Kitna, at quarterback, there could be a backslide.

Palmer does have quality receivers in Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick.

Cleveland is even more inconsistent, racked by front office turmoil and some strange managerial decisions. Coach Butch Davis had total control, which means any blame for a poor record should fall on his shoulders.

Jeff Garcia is the new quarterback, and he has some weapons in young runners William Green and Lee Suggs and wideouts Andre Davis and Quincy Morgan. But the line is a sieve.

Predictions: Baltimore 10-6; Pittsburgh 8-8; Cincinnati 8-8; Cleveland 5-11.

AFC West

The NFL’s most explosive offense served the Kansas City Chiefs well in the 2003 regular season. Then came the playoffs: Manning and the Colts knocked them out in their first game because their defense didn’t stop the Colts at all.

They kept the same players and brought in Gunther Cunningham, their former head coach (and defensive coordinator before that), to fix the schemes that weren’t working under the fired Greg Robinson.

The Chiefs scored 484 points last season, or more than 30 a game as quarterback Trent Green, running back Priest Holmes, and tight end Tony Gonzalez had their way behind a standout offensive line. Return man Dante Hall, meanwhile, terrorized opposing special teams with four early touchdown returns, plus one in the playoffs.

The Chiefs lost three of their final seven, then failed to stop the Colts and lost 38-31 in their first playoff game.

This year, the Broncos are concentrating on defense, especially in the secondary.

They were willing to give up Clinton Portis to get Champ Bailey — contract issues on both sides also came into play — and signed veteran Pro Bowl safety John Lynch after he was released by Tampa Bay.

Also in Oakland are Warren Sapp and Ted Washington, veterans obtained to bolster the middle of the defensive line. Tim Brown was released and signed with Tampa Bay, but Jerry Rice, who will turn 42 on Oct. 13 — he led the team with 63 catches in 2003 — is back for his 20th season.

On paper, San Diego did well in the draft, getting a bunch of extra choices in the trade with the Giants that brought them Philip Rivers for Eli Manning. But typical for the Chargers: Rivers was a holdout until three days before the third exhibition game and is to start the season behind Drew Brees.

Predictions: Denver 11-5; Kansas City 10-6; Oakland 6-10; San Diego 4-12.

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