The 2015 NFL season begins with the New England–Pittsburgh game on Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET; NBC), but real football fans are already in midseason form thanks to endless mini-camp coverage, preseason games and fantasy drafts. Whether you’re a hardcore fan or just getting ready for some football, here’s all you need to know about the AFC for the 2015 season:

Key AFC Story Lines

Tom Brady
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Can the Patriots Repeat? Winning consecutive Super Bowls is hard. The last franchise to do it (in 2003–04) will attempt to repeat the feat in 2015. While New England may not lose quarterback Tom Brady to a suspension for his role in “Deflategate,” it will certainly be without defensive backs Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington. The Pats weak secondary could suspend Brady & Co.’s Super Bowl aspirations.

The Dolphins & Chiefs Rise Up: Miami and Kansas City each added big-name/big-ticket free-agent talent in the offseason. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will be stomping on AFC East teams for the Dolphins this year, and Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin will be speeding through AFC West secondaries. With the development of young stars like Ryan Tannehill and Jarvis Landry in Miami, and Tamba Hali and Eric Berry in Kansas City, both teams should contend for their division titles.

Great Ds, Bad QBs: The Bills, Browns, Texans and Jets will all field deep and talented defensive units dotted with superstars such as Mario Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Joe Haden and J.J. Watt. What none of these teams can count on is capable quarterback play. Buffalo trots out unproven Tyrod Taylor; Cleveland hopes Josh McCown is less embarrassing than Johnny Manziel; Houston tries Browns’ retread Brian Hoyer; and Ryan Fitzpatrick becomes the latest soon-to-be-forgotten name in New York’s QB history. Truth: if any of these teams gets decent quarterbacking, they could contend for a playoff spot.

Teams That Could Win the AFC

Andrew Luck
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Indianapolis Colts: Regardless of what you may have read, it was the Colts' inconsistency on offense and defense — and not reduced-air-pressure footballs — that kept Indianapolis from the Super Bowl last season. Adding running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Andre Johnson and pass-rush specialist Trent Cole to an already talented team led by quarterback Andrew Luck could be enough to get Indy to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens: A Harbaugh-led, defensive-minded team bullies opponents into submission while the offense gets production from an efficient running game and mistake-free quarterback play. Sound familiar? Baltimore’s defense boasts the impressive combination of Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Timmy Jernigan and C.J. Mosley. Running back Justin Forsett and quarterback Joe Flacco don’t have to be great, just good enough.

Which AFC Contenders Will Fall Short

Peyton Manning
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Denver Broncos: It’s easy to convince yourself that the Broncos will ride a defense led by Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib and the run-focused offense of head coach Gary Kubiak deep into the playoffs, but it’s far from certain. If aggressive AFC defenses get to the ever-more-immobile Peyton Manning, Denver could find itself playing from behind often enough to slip from elite-team status.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should have plenty of fun throwing to Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, who will be out a month for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Big Ben can also hand off to running back Le’Veon Bell — once he returns from his two-game suspension. So what’s the problem? Even the Pittsburgh offense may not always be good enough to outscore opponents who rampage through their not-quite–Steel Curtain defense.

AFC Rookies to Watch

Amari Cooper
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Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders: The rebuilding continues in Oakland, where blossoming second-year quarterback Derek Carr now has the AC to his DC. The Raiders think former Alabama wideout Amari Cooper can give their offense what stud linebacker Khalil Mack gave their defense in 2014: a superstar talent who makes the entire unit better.

Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers: With Ryan Mathews gone to Philadelphia, San Diego needs to replace its run threat next to its Philip Rivers–led air attack. Enter former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who could easily lead all NFL rookies in touches this season.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: Save for former Chargers’ star Dan Fouts, who last played when beards were fashionable in the NFL, former University of Oregon quarterbacks haven’t exactly become an NFL staple (Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Bill Musgrave = ugh). 2014 Heisman Trophy–winner Marcus Mariota could start changing that this year in Tennessee.

AFC Coach on the Hot Seat

Marvin Lewis
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Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals: Ask any NFL coach currently serving with his second (or third) team: too many playoff losses will get you canned. Though Marvin Lewis has made the formerly awful Bengals consistently competitive during his tenure, his postseason disappointments may soon be hard to ignore. While many Cincy fans might rather the team fire quarterback Andy Dalton instead of Lewis, it doesn’t work that way — especially if the team doesn’t even make the playoffs this year.

Playoff Picks

Division Champs:

  • AFC East: New England
  • AFC North: Baltimore
  • AFC South: Indianapolis
  • AFC West: Kansas City

AFC Wild Cards: Pittsburgh and Denver

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