1. New England — You can say that the offensive line looks shaky and that the defense still must prove itself. Fine — no arguments there. But when it comes down to it, there are weapons on both sides of the ball (have you seen rookie DE Chandler Jones yet?), strong special teams and a Hall of Fame head coach and quarterback. Throw in a softer schedule for good measure, and it adds up to a 12-4 or 13-3 kind of season.
2. Buffalo — The preseason performance hasn’t exactly matched the hype, and I am not convinced that Ryan Fitzpatrick is the type of quarterback you ride to a championship. He’s too up and down week to week, month to month. But a nice mix on offense, better play in the trenches and a newfound confidence in a down year for the division could get them on the cusp of the postseason.
3. N.Y. Jets — A sluggish, incongruous offense and an aging defense do not make a winning formula. Consider that the vibe around this team is not very strong right now, and head coach Rex Ryan at this point seems to be trying to convince himself that this whole thing can work. Too many issues, too many ill-fitting parts and a tough early schedule add up to six or seven wins and a giant mess in Jetsdom.
4. Miami — Ryan Tannehill looks like a good prospect, but the fans will crow if Brandon Weeden or Russell Wilson (both drafted after him) have more first-year success. It’s not really fair to Tannehill, because the skill-position players in Miami are mostly poor outside of Reggie Bush. The Dolphins’ defense can keep games close, and the special teams are solid, but neither is a dominant unit. Joe Philbin has had a rough start to his coaching tenure, but he’ll have things working better — a year from now.
1. Baltimore — The offensive line is a big worry for me, thin and old inside, and I don’t think the hurry-up offense is a season-long solution for that. Joe Flacco looks defiant and confident, and I think he’s due for his best season. Ray Rice remains a great weapon. But I worry more about the O-line long term than I do the shorter-term concerns about missing Terrell Suggs or the leaky pass defense. The Ravens can win double-digit games and the division, but beyond that it’s maybe asking too much.
2. Pittsburgh — It’s not going to be pretty (is it ever in Pittsburgh?) and it might take a while to get going, but they can win this division. Or come darned close. The Ravens appear to have the Steelers’ number head to head, though, which could be the difference. A lot of unknowns here, and the Todd Haley move is a full-fledged, hairy risk. But it’s gutsy, too, and some good will come from it. Bigger worries include the sustainability of a well-aged defense (six starters over age 32) and an offensive line that suddenly looks as vulnerable as it did a year ago.
3. Cincinnati — First, the positives. A.J. Green might be the second-best receiver in the NFL, the coordinators are excellent, Andy Dalton has upside and the defense has a few playmakers and some depth. But beyond that, there is not a ton to get excited about. They lost some subtle but important players via free agency in the offseason and in preseason to injury. Those will hurt down the stretch when they face a brutal December schedule. Don’t be stunned if Dalton takes a small step backward.
4. Cleveland — Six rookies could start, and many of them have the look of future anchors. But right now, Trent Richardson’s health is a worry, and you’d have to think it will take the better part of the season for Brandon Weeden and his young receivers to mesh properly. There are good signs to be sure, but I don’t like the fact that the fifth-ranked scoring defense from a year ago has been stung by injuries and really lacks quality depth. Another year, more patience required from the fans.
1. Houston — On the one hand, the Texans look like a Super Bowl-caliber team capable of running through the AFC and getting all the way to New Orleans. But on the other, we are right to ask if their losses this offseason will end up hurting too much and whether Matt Schaub is a championship QB. We’ll find out. The prediction here is that they will fall short of the Super Bowl after a playoff run, much like last season.
2. Tennessee— This is an underrated team. No one expects Jake Locker to be a 60-percent passer, but it’s his time. The coaches will live with a few missed passes knowing that they have so many big-play weapons — WRs Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington, TE Jared Cook and RB Chris Johnson all can zoom. Defensively, it’s an underappreciated group, and the special teams look excellent, although don’t lose sight of the loss of RS Marc Mariani. They’ll push the Texans but again fall just short.
3. Jacksonville — I am not completely down on this team, and I easily could see a run at a .500 record. The defense is in good shape, and the passing game clearly has made strides this offseason without the benefit of the team’s best offensive player (Maurice Jones-Drew) and with the late inclusion of maybe its second best (Justin Blackmon). If Blaine Gabbert shows a little more gusto, they could challenge for second place in the South.
4. Indianapolis — You’ll be amazed at how much Andrew Luck can compensate for. By the end of the season, we’ll marvel at how well he worked with an incomplete WR group, a bad offensive line, no real run game and with a defense that put him behind a lot. He has the pulse of a marathoner, and Luck knows that even as the No. 1 pick, he’s not expected to run through the schedule all by himself. Still, anything more than six wins would be amazing.
1. Kansas City — They are sneaky solid across the board, and the calm of Romeo Crennel could have a strong short-term boom. QB Matt Cassel knows he’s at a crossroads season, and WR Dwayne Bowe will want to cash in with a monster season. The offense looks incredibly balanced, and the additions of ORT Eric Winston and RB Peyton Hillis (plus return of Jamaal Charles) will make the run game a real force again. Defensively, there are questions, and the depth has taken hits in the preseason. But it’s a solid scheme, and the return of Eric Berry helps a ton.
2. San Diego — Injuries have been the unfortunate preseason theme, and the pressure on Norv Turner and Philip Rivers is undeniable. But they have a DROY candidate in Melvin Ingram, a deeper D-line, a healthy Antonio Gates, a motivated Rivers and a schedule that features four of their final six games in San Diego. If they can get Vincent Brown back after the Week Seven bye and keep Ryan Mathews healthy once he returns, the offense could be great again by season’s end.
3. Denver — Heresy picking Peyton Manning third? Hang with us here. First, Manning’s return features a relentless gantlet that includes six 2011 playoff teams and four other legitimate ’12 contenders in the first 11 games. Second, the Broncos’ defense looks spotty at best, even with a few standouts, making Manning’s job tougher, even if he’s close to full health. The Broncos will expend so much energy early on, they could fade down the stretch to around the .500 mark.
4. Oakland — Great special teams and a strong front seven should serve them well, there might be a few surprise contributors on the roster and fresh blood on the coaching staff and in the front office have been needed for years. But it’s also terribly difficult to forecast a surprise run this season when the team’s best players, such as RB Darren McFadden and DT Richard Seymour, are injury concerns and the secondary still stands as a worry. Too tough to predict a great season from Carson Palmer and Co., even if his offensive line looks more solid.
1. N.Y. Giants — Is it suddenly uncool to pick them to do well? If so, sue me. They need to settle on their offensive line and Nos. 3 and 4 receivers, but they have options. There is less depth at tight end and in the secondary, but they’ll manage those issues with so much firepower elsewhere on offense and defense, respectively. Remember: Tom Coughlin had the 2008 Giants looking even better than the ’07 champs before Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. This team is going to be even better than last regular season, although repeating will be a tall order.
2. Philadelphia — The talent is undeniable, but something about them still makes me a bit skittish. It goes past the health of Michael Vick, although that’s clearly a huge factor. They can survive short stretches if Nick Foles is pressed into duty, but Vick has to be out there for the big games. You’re likely to see some surprise contributors — DT Derek Landri and SLB Mychal Kendricks are two — on defense, leading to better, more consistent results on that side of the ball. Could the Week 17 game at the Giants determine the division crown?
3. Dallas — Jerry Jones says they can win now, but from this vantage point the Cowboys appear caught in a weird place between being competitive and rebuilding. The offensive playmakers are great, and DeMarco Murray has clear bust-out potential. But the depth on offense is a huge worry, and the O-line is a hot mess now. On defense, there are stars sprinkled throughout and improvement is in the offing. I love that the schedule finishes with five of the final seven games at home, but will they be in too big a hole by then? Watch for a cold start and a hot finish.
4. Washington — Too many areas of concern, namely a bad offensive line and secondary, to predict a major improvement. Sure, the Packers and Patriots were able to manage those things last season, but the Redskins are not as talented as those teams were and Robert Griffin III will be prone to mistakes along the way. The division schedule is back-loaded, which is nice for a rookie QB, but there will be too many landmines along the way to be more than a .500 team.
1. Green Bay — This appears to be one of those seasons where it’s best not to be too cute with predictions. The Packers and Patriots look like the two best teams on paper, and they have great head coaches, quarterbacks and easy schedules, so why complicate things? The O-line, the running backs, the pass rush and secondary — those things will work themselves out. Aaron Rodgers and a supersonic passing game will wreck most of the defenses they face, even with a tricky first four games. This is a Super Bowl-caliber team bent on cleaning up last season’s disappointment.
2. Chicago — I have my worries about a few trouble spots (offensive line, defensive tackle, Brian Urlacher’s health, secondary), but the offense should be the best it has been since Jay Cutler was traded here. Brandon Marshall could lead the NFL in receptions. Matt Forté will see fewer defenders in the box, as a result. Alshon Jeffrey could surprise. This isn’t a dominant defense anymore, but there should be a few vintage performances sprinkled in, even if Urlacher has to manage his knee all season. A good team, but maybe not a great one.
3. Detroit — They were 10-6 last season without a run game or an effective secondary, so the odds are that they can produce similar results this season with no definitive upgrades to either spot. There’s so much to like on offense, which — scary enough — has better personnel, and a D-line slathered in talent. But the pieces of this roster sometimes don’t add up, and we’ve seen the players’ emotions undermine their collective talent at times. It says here they’ll take a small step backward overall.
4. Minnesota — Maybe in other divisions they’d stand to improve by three or four victories, but the sledding is just so tough in the North. The Vikings would have to be thrilled with a 2-4 mark against the North, which features three heavyweights. Christian Ponder looks more consistent, and the passing game will be in better shape once TE John Carlson gets healthy and WR Jerome Simpson returns to the lineup Week Four (suspension). Expect Adrian Peterson back in good form for most of the season, but the defense is just so weak up the middle. Jared Allen and a strong pass rush only can do so much.
1. Atlanta — Does every contender have issues on the offensive line? It’s a worry here, too, although the scheme and talent help compensate some. It’s just that the Falcons will be dominated by the Giants, Lions and 49ers of the world, teams with dominant defensive lines. I fully believe that Matt Ryan is an excellent quarterback and the receivers will be dominant. The defense might even be a shade better than a year ago. But this team still feels a few pieces short of true greatness across the board.
2. Carolina — They’ll be gunning for a wild-card berth, and I am convinced that Cam Newton (even if his stats dip slightly, especially the rushing TDs) is not going to slump at all this season. Everyone has been asking if Newton has enough weapons around him to take the next step, but that’s just media fodder and not the real concern. That’s on defense, which has to improve over the dreary results from a year ago. It will, but just how much?
3. New Orleans — There are just too many concerns for me. There’s no question that Drew Brees can rally this team and carry more on his shoulders than almost any one man in the NFL. But he can’t make up for what I think is going to be a questionable defense that has to face maybe the best quarterback division in the NFL six times, plus Robert Griffin III, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Woof. They’ll rack up the yards, but the Saints will lose some close games and fall back to the 9-7 range in a season that was stacked against them.
4. Tampa Bay — Look out for the Bucs, who will start their top three draft picks and stand to be among the more improved teams in the NFL. Greg Schiano has had to deal with a few things, such as the obvious roster cleansing (a good thing) and injuries (especially to OG Davin Joseph, a bad thing), but he appears the right man for the job. There is some explosive talent with Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Doug Martin, and the defense (mark it down) will be much better by season’s end.
1. Seattle — My first big upset call. A top-five defense, a fearless rookie QB and enough juice from the playmakers will make the difference. Plus, they have a formula to beat the 49ers, able to stop their run with big bodies such as Red Bryant up front. Russell Wilson will be the talk of the league early on, but it’s the “D” that will make the difference.
2. San Francisco — I love this defense, too, but I worry a little about the depth. They got so lucky last season with injuries — almost none of real note — that I think that fortune won't shine on them again. Alex Smith is who he is: a perfectly fine game manager who will not take a step forward in his game this season. And the new offensive weapons will not prove to make enough difference. They’ll vie for a wild card in a deep NFC field.
3. St. Louis — Jeff Fisher has had less talented teams in Tennessee, and he always managed to scrape out five or six victories in even the leanest of years, when the Titans were cap-stricken after they lost a lot of veteran talent. This Rams' defense has some difference makers that will tighten things up, and Sam Bradford and the offense will show measured improvement.
4. Arizona — This season will prove the bottom line in the NFL now: If you don’t have a difference maker at QB, you don’t have a chance. Talented roster, sure, with some truly elite talents. But the Kevin Kolb-John Skelton mess will lead to a season-long yo-yo at QB and too big a hole to dig the team out of. They’ll be among the favorites to be in line for Matt Barkley next spring.
Offensive MVP — Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Defensive MVP — Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Super Bowl XLVII — Packers over Patriots