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Peyton Manning, who missed the 2011 season with a neck injury, brings high hopes for success to the Denver Broncos.
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Gruden likes the Tebow deal more than most of his fellow pundits do. “He’ll make them one of the most difficult teams to prepare for,” he argues. “You’ll have to prepare for [starting quarterback Mark] Sanchez in a pro-style system and you’ll have to prepare for every kind of formation conceivably possible if Tebow is under center. Plus, [the Jets] are going to have Tebow as an up-back on punt protection, so there will be gimmicks and gadgets in the kicking game.”

Now You Know:

Seven different teams have won the Super Bowl in the past 10 seasons. The Giants, Patriots and Steelers have each won twice in that time.

That said, Gruden can’t see anyone passing the New England Patriots in the AFC East. He likes the upgraded receiving corps as well as coach Bill Belichick’s multiple tight-end sets, and he believes the defense has been upgraded via the selection of Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the draft’s first round. There’s also that Tom Brady guy: “He’s the best quarterback in that conference. When you have a ?quarterback like that, the pecking order doesn’t change,” Gruden says flatly.

In the AFC North, which advanced three teams to the playoffs last season, Gruden likes the Baltimore Ravens to claim a second straight division title — even with reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon during conditioning drills. Gruden does, however, add a caveat: “I expect the [Pittsburgh] Steelers to take it right down to the wire. [Those two teams] are just too physical. The [Cincin?nati] Bengals are making progress, but they’re still the third-best team in this division.”

Gruden identifies a more clear-cut favorite in the AFC South, with the Texans poised to repeat as division champs. This time around, however, he expects the team to do it with defense, despite Williams’ departure: “I give [head coach] Gary Kubiak and [defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips a lot of credit. They changed the culture of that defense.” By contrast, Gruden views the AFC West as up for grabs and has anointed a relative sleeper — the Kansas City Chiefs, who went 7–9 last season — as his pick. “I think 9–7 wins the division,” he says, pointing to the returns from injury of running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki. “I like the defense. I like their receivers.”

Switching conferences, Gruden characterizes the NFC East as the league’s toughest division, a distinction it has held for the last few seasons. “The [New York] Giants are the world champions and they’ve returned pretty much everybody from last year’s team,” Gruden says. “The [Washington] Redskins now have a quarterback [draftee Robert Griffin III from Baylor] to go with a very good defense.” Still, he picks the Philadelphia Eagles to emerge from the divisional fray, citing an improved linebacker corps — the team added former Texans All-Pro DeMeco Ryans via trade and California linebacker Mychal Kendricks via the draft — and, well, better team harmony. “Having DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy signed and happy and ready to go really helps.”