Parity in the NFL is what makes it so great. Though a bit cliché, it’s true.

The Miami Dolphins are the perfect example. The Fins went 1-15 in 2007. In comes Bill Parcells. Next comes left tackle Jake Long in the ’08 draft. His main duty is to protect newcomer Chad Pennington’s
blind side. With these three ingredients, the final recipe is an 11-5
immediate turnaround and the unthinkable dethroning of the New England
Patriots from atop the AFC East.

From worst to first, just like that. In other words, in the NFL, there are no Pittsburgh Pirates.
That’s what makes it so enticing, whether a fan is from Baltimore,
Boston, Kansas City, Cleveland, New York, or even Pittsburgh.

Every September, every team is a contender, even if it just sent its
franchise quarterback behind bars, subsequently handing over the
offense to an unproven rookie — excuse the hypothetical example.

This season, any team can contend. Let’s see what AFC teams need in
order for their stars to align, followed by how their season could end
up worse than Don Cherry’s wardrobe.

Next week, we’ll tackle the NFC.

AFC East
Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins need to change nothing, needing instead to build on what
they started last season. Solid defense and a balanced offense should
do the trick. If they can expand on the Wildcat offense (perhaps
incorporating rookie Pat White) and keep Pennington from too many third-and-longs, watch out. If Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams
stay healthy, the Fins should keep the chains moving and their defense
off the field. They’ll need to catch a few breaks — like Tom Brady’s season-ending injury last year — to repeat as division champs.

The knock on Pennington his whole career has been his lack of arm
strength. The Dolphins don’t want to be in positions that force him to
put the team on his back. He’ll manage games fine, but if they expect
more, they shouldn’t plan on playing after New Year’s Day.

New England Patriots
Brady’s back. The secondary is refurnished. Joey Galloway adds depth to perhaps the best receiving duo in the league. Expect greatness. And nothing less.

Of course, injuries would be the main reason the Pats fall, especially
in the case of No. 12. Without Brady, this team doesn’t sniff 10 wins,
considering there’s no experience behind the former MVP. A lack of
leadership on defense could present some problems as well. No more Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison. And Tedy Bruschi isn’t getting any younger.

New York Jets
Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez must be this year’s version of Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco (although Clemens isn’t a rookie). You can’t make the playoffs without good quarterback play. It’s that simple. Unless Rex Ryan is the next Eric Schmidt.

Neither Clemens nor Sanchez has much NFL experience — the latter having
exactly none. Plus they’re playing for a rookie head coach. Did I
mention the significance of quarterback play?

Buffalo Bills
The Terrell Owens experiment finally works. He spreads the field for Lee Evans, and the two become Moss-Welker or Fitzgerald-Boldin. Actually, they need more than that. Aaron Maybin may need to be the heir to Julius Peppers, too. Even that might not be enough. But they were 5-1 to start 2008.

If T.O. does what he did in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas, it could be a long year in Buffalo. Trent Edwards isn’t the next Joe Montana. Marshawn Lynch will have to shake off the rust after serving his three-game suspension. And the defense will need to overachieve to Mike Eruzioni heights. A 16-0 season for the Patriots also would hurt.

AFC North
Pittsburgh Steelers

If Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy, off his motorcycle and out of trouble, they’re contenders to retain the Lombardi Trophy.

Injuries to Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and/or James Harrison would derail the Steelers. Other than that, expect the curtain to be back in full force.

Baltimore Ravens
Last year’s wild-card winners are poised for a repeat in 2009. Nothing else to it. They’ll be there at the end.

Possible road bumps include Flacco hitting an unlikely sophomore slump or Ed Reed breaking both his legs — one may not be enough to stop him. Even if Ray Lewis isn’t the player he once was, that’s why they paid Terrell Suggs the big bucks. So if Suggs goes down, then start to panic.

Cincinnati Bengals
Chad Ochocinco
transforms into the Chad Johnson of old. And Chris Henry becomes the next Randy Moss, like Carson Palmer
claims he is. And they learn to play some defense. And they get some
help from the Steelers and Ravens. And they stay out of jail.

It’s more likely that none of the above happens and they miss the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns
Brady is the next Brady. The former being Quinn and the latter being Tom, of course. Maybe Eric Mangini will have a Belichickian turnaround with his new team. Hey, Bill Belichick himself
started his head coaching career in Cleveland. Maybe the city’s a
catalyst for producing geniuses. Stranger things have happened.

Quinn will face growing pains. So will Mangini. Braylon Edwards could
get frustrated, assuming he’s learned how to hold onto the ball in the
offseason. Plus, the Browns have to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice
each. Not easy defenses for an inexperienced signal-caller to face,
assuming Quinn even wins the starting job.

AFC South
Tennessee Titans

Tennessee surprised a lot of people last year, going 13-3. Chris Johnson came out of nowhere to provide a deadly one-two punch with LenDale White. Keith Bulluck is no pretender anchoring that defense.

Though perhaps one of the most underrated quarterbacks in recent NFL history, Kerry Collins
is getting old at 36. Who’s to say he can do it again? And who’s to say
Johnson wasn’t an aberration? Doubtful, but not impossible. But then
again, defense wins championships. This we know.

Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning
makes them an automatic contender. A healthy Joseph Addai seals that deal.
No more Tony Dungy. No more Marvin Harrison. How important to Manning’s success were they? We’ll soon find out.

Houston Texans
Andre Johnson
, plain and simple. He’s right up there with Larry Fitzgerald, Moss and Calvin Johnson.

But one player, especially a wide receiver, doesn’t make or break a team. Matt Schaub isn’t there yet. Steve Slaton had a good rookie year, but is that defense stingy enough to make consistent fourth-quarter stops? Doubt it.

Jacksonville Jaguars
What happened to the Jaguars in ’08? Immediate contenders fell off
faster than a penny from the top of the Empire State Building. They
need to get back to 2007 form. David Garrard needs to be consistent and Maurice Jones-Drew must step into elite status now that Fred Taylor is gone. And that D-line must be feeling some ‘07 nostalgia. But hey, no better time than the present, right?

Jones-Drew has a lot to prove without Taylor at his side. Can he handle
the load on his own? Can Garrard take the next step? Is there enough
talent around them? What about that defense that gave up 22.9 points
per game last season?

AFC West
San Diego Chargers

They’ll need to be better than 8-8 to get there. Last year was a mere
miracle, thanks to Denver’s debacle. This team is too talented not to
contend. Shawne Merriman is back. Lights out in the West.

Is LaDainian Tomlinson still a top-tier back? If not, is Darren Sproles
an every-down back? If both of those answers are no, the Super Chargers
could have some trouble running the football and, thus, winning games.

Denver Broncos
If everyone buys into Josh McDaniels’ system and Kyle Orton pretends he’s still a Boilermaker and dominates from the pocket, the Broncos could do some damage. Keeping Brandon Marshall happy might be in their best interest, too.

There are no guarantees that McDaniels won’t struggle as a rookie head
coach. He’s got big shoes to fill.

Kansas City Chiefs

As long as Matt Cassel isn’t a Vanilla Ice-style one-hit wonder and Scott Pioli was in fact the real genius behind the Belichick-Brady era in New England, the Chiefs will have a fighting chance. If Dwayne Bowe has a breakout year and Larry Johnson throws
his throwback jersey on from 2005-06, when he rushed for a combined
3,539 yards in two seasons, Kansas City might make it to
January.

The worst-case scenario is that they find out they overpaid for Cassel.
Or maybe he just needs some time to adjust to a new system. Not
everything happens overnight.

Oakland Raiders
Oakland has hope. They trade JaMarcus Russell and a first-round draft pick for Peyton Manning and Bob Sanders. Or pigs fly.

Pigs still can’t fly come September.

Who’s hot?
Tony Romo. No more T.O. Show in Big D. A brand-new stadium. Jerry Jones wants some return on his investment. That means it’s time to win. Now.

Who’s not?
Roethlisberger. Rape allegations are never good, even if they’re not true. Kobe Bryant’s reputation hasn’t been the same, even though the case against him was dropped.

Quote of the week
“Mondays are crazy here. It’s amateur night, and it’s packed. Yup, both [Michael Vick and Allen Iverson] were here. It’s the first place I’d want to go as a free man, too.”
–A DJ at a Virginia Beach strip club, according to Yahoo Sports

What to watch for
Another chance. The return of Michael Vick could be coming soon to a football stadium near you.