The 2012 NFL season is just around the corner and—after an eventful offseason—the AFC's playoff picture is starting to come into focus.
While a lot can happen between now and the start of the season, I feel fairly confident making predictions on how things will shape up when we head into the playoffs in January.
Here is a look at the AFC playoff picture as things stand today.
The New England Patriots were AFC champions last season, and they have got decidedly better this offseason.
The Pats now have a legitimate No. 2 receiver in Brandon Lloyd and greatly improved their front seven by drafting Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette.
The New York Jets will likely be better than their 8-8 record from last season and the Buffalo Bills will certainly be improved defensively, but New England will once again be the team to beat in 2012. The Miami Dolphins are still building and won't be a factor yet.
With Tom Brady and his entire offense back for the Patriots, they should be the favorites to win not just the AFC East but the conference as well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers finished 12-4 last season and missed out on the AFC North title thanks to a tiebreaker with the Baltimore Ravens. However, the Steelers did great work in the offseason and should be considered the favorites in the North in 2012.
Ben Roethlisberger's team had serious issues along the offensive line last season, but the Steelers addressed those deficiencies in the draft. They wound up getting incredibly lucky that Stanford guard David DeCastro dropped to them at No. 24, then they grabbed Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the second round.
The Steelers also needed help at linebacker after cutting James Farrior loose, and they were able to get Miami linebacker Sean Spence in the third round.
Pittsburgh addressed serious needs in the first three rounds, and improved more than anyone else in the division this offseason.
The Steelers will win the division, but the Ravens will be right there in contention. I expect the Cincinnati Bengals to take a small step back in 2012, as often happens with young teams, while the Cleveland Browns will, once again, be disappointing.
The Houston Texans battled major injury issues in 2011, yet somehow managed to finish 10-6, win the AFC South and reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Texans are certainly the favorites to repeat as AFC South champs in 2012.
With another year together offensively and another year in Wade Phillips' defense, the Texans should be even better.
The rest of the South didn't get much better as the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts are all focused on getting younger and developing. That leaves plenty of room at the top for the Texans.
There may not be a more improved team in the AFC than the San Diego Chargers. This offseason general manager A.J. Smith went to work and made his team a whole lot better.
After losing wideout Vincent Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the beginning of free agency, Smith addressed his receiver needs by quickly adding Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish. With those three guys added to a group that already includes Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown, San Diego's offense will be more dynamic in 2012.
Smith also went out and signed outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and fullback Le'Ron McClain to add some toughness and an edge to the roster. That process went even further when the Bolts drafted linebacker Melvin Ingram, defensive lineman Kendall Reyes and safety Brandon Taylor.
The Denver Broncos won the AFC West last season with an 8-8 record, and they improved by adding quarterback Peyton Manning. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders should also be better in 2012, but as of now the Chargers look like the best team in the division.
The Baltimore Ravens went 12-4 last season and won the AFC North, but in 2012 I've got the Steelers winning the division. That will leave the Ravens in position to take a spot in the Wild Card Round. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice should be signed to long-term deals when the season rolls around and that should give the team stability for years to come.
The Ravens will be a very dangerous team in the playoffs, but they will be doing it from a wild-card spot.
The final wild-card spot will come down to a battle between the Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals. Those three teams will battle it out for the final spot in the AFC's playoff picture.