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New York Jets (9-7 in 2009)Why So Tough:The brash Jets have been loading for bear all offseason, rallying behind Head Coach Rex Ryan, a swaggering defense, the top-ranked rushing attack of 2009 and gritty second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. Looking to christen the New Meadowlands on Monday Night Football in a big way, it's going to be tough sledding in front of a hostile New York crowd.
at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)Why So Tough:There has already been some trash talking from Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco that the Ravens aren't to be feared, so emotions could get heated this early in the season. Cincy swept the division last year with a stout rushing attack focused on Cedric Benson and a shutdown defensive backfield with two talented corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. If quarterback Carson Palmer takes another step forward and regains his old mojo, the Bengals will be dangerous yet again. Plus, the season may be on the line for both teams by Week 17 if the two are in a close race for the AFC North title like they were last year.
Cleveland Browns (5-11)Why So Tough:When nose tackle Shaun Rogers broke his leg last year, it allowed Athyba Rubin to develop into a solid run stuffer, so the Browns will be tough up front. The secondary might be one of the league's best, with underrated Eric Wright starting opposite No. 7-overall draft pick Joe Haden or Sheldon Brown. Cleveland is just hoping quarterback Jake Delhomme can revert back to his Super Bowl ways. Also, is rookie Colt McCoy under center by Week 16? Who knows if the rookie can get hot.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)Why So Tough:In Week 3, Byron Leftwich will be under center. So a big key will be if Rashard Mendenhall can carry the load behind a patchwork offensive line that lost tackle Willie Colon for the year (Achilles). By Week 13, barring any unexpected twists, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be weeks removed from his suspension and the Steelers could be clicking at this point in the season.. These battles are always knock-down, drag-outs, though, and you know the Steelers' defense will be ready to play and carry the team if it has to.
Denver Broncos (8-8)Why So Tough:The Broncos have one of the NFL's top tackle tandems in Ryan Clady and Harris, and second-year Knowshown Moreno seems to be the real deal, so their rushing attack could present problems. But defense is where Denver stands out. They finished last year ranked 12th in points allowed and have outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, an elite pass-rushing threat.
New England Patriots (10-6)Why So Tough:No doubt the Bill Belichick-led Patriots will be looking for revenge for the Ravens' convincing 33-14 win in the playoffs last year at Foxborough. The loss of receiver Wes Welker was tough to recover from, even though then-rookie Julian Edelman did his best Welker impression as Tom Brady got back into his playing rhythm. Brady's obviously back, which gives them a chance in any game. A glaring statistic is that the Ravens have only beaten New England once in six tries.
Buffalo Bills (6-10)Why So Tough:The Bills might be going through a rough patch, but this is a typical trap game, coming off a battle against the Patriots and with the bye looming. Buffalo has some solid young defenders, and word out of Buffalo is that rookie running back C.J. Spiller looks like a game-breaker.
Miami Dolphins (7-9)Why So Tough:On offense, quarterback Chad Pennington looks like he is poised for greatness, and will be helped by the ultra-talented Brandon Marshall. And defensively, the Dolphins got much better with the signing of Karlos Dansby and Coordinator Mike Nolan, who worked wonders with Denver's defense last year.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7)Why So Tough:2009 was not kind to the Falcons, as several key players, including quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, missed games. Now, those guys are healthy, and the Falcons' offense could be ready to fly. This team also beat the Jets at the Meadowlands last year, so it is resilient.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)Why So Tough:The Bucs are still a few years away on offense, although second-year quarterback Josh Freeman showed some promise last season. But their defense could be formidable, as the unit only allowed 17.7 points per game in the final six weeks of the 2009 campaign. With Tampa spending its first two draft picks on defensive tackles – including No. 3-overall Gerald McCoy – it might be tough to move the ball against this team.
Carolina Panthers (8-8)Why So Tough:Since 2008, the Panthers are 13-4 at Bank of America Stadium, so they've proven they can win at home. With talented backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams wreaking havoc on defenses, the Ravens won't have it easy stopping the run.
Houston Texans (9-7)Why So Tough:Matt Shaub led all quarterbacks in passing yardage last year, so the Ravens will be tested. The health of their secondary – which has burned Baltimore in the past – is critical. Also, Mario Williams is a beast of a pass rusher against right tackles, so the health of Jared Gaither should be monitored at this point.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)Why So Tough:The defending Super Bowl champions bring back essentially all their main playmakers from a year ago, led by quarterback Drew Brees, who might be the NFL's best at this point. And, the Saints' defensive backfield is elite and Coordinator Greg Williams is quick to employ exotic blitz packages.