It wasn't until a federal judge put a long-awaited end -- or at least a temporary end -- to one of the biggest controversies in NFL history before we could get a true read on what lies ahead in the AFC. But once U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman overturned Tom Brady's four-game suspension in the DeflateGate case, there was finally some clarity.
Yes, the defending champion Patriots are still the favorites to win the AFC East. Not that New England couldn't have won the division and enjoyed a realistic chance to become the first repeat Super Bowl champs since the Patriots last did it in 2003-04. But let's just say their chances are a lot better with Brady for an entire season than with Jimmy Garoppolo for a quarter of it.
But even with Brady, this will not be an easy task. The Patriots lost important players such as starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in an offseason roster makeover. Add that to the inherent pressure of any defending champion, and it's no lock the Patriots will be in position to win it all again.
The AFC East includes three other teams that are better on paper now than they were at the end of last season. Rex Ryan adds cache to the Bills. Revis' arrival back in New York helps the Jets and hurts the Pats. And Ndamukong Suh's presence in Miami is one more reason for Brady to worry about the pass rush.
The Colts also look to be improved, with Andrew Luck ready for another dominant season.
Peyton Manning is back for at least one more try in Denver after a fitful end to his 2014 season, but he faces increased pressure from his own division, as the Chiefs (Jeremy Maclin), Raiders (Amari Cooper) and Chargers (Melvin Gordon) each added game-changing players.
And in the AFC North, previous Super Bowl winners Pittsburgh and Baltimore are good enough to contend for a title. The Bengals? Well, they're playoff-good, but not Super Bowl good after four straight one-and-dones in the postseason.