1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens believe they have the goods to make a Super Bowl run and they might be right. The only weak spot appears to be a secondary that was banged up last year and needs a return to health led by safety Ed Reed. Linebacker Ray Lewis may be a year older and not as fast and agile as he once was but he's still Ray Lewis. What gets Baltimore fans excited is the expected offensive upgrade in the addition of receiver Anquan Boldin. Add that to a more experienced and confident Joe Flacco and the ground game of Ray Rice and Ravens' fans see a Cowboys Stadium game Feb. 6.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals surprised a lot of folks last year including this scribe who took them the opening week in a suicide pool only to see them blow a game to Denver in the dying seconds on a goofy tipped ball play. The Bungles went on to make the playoffs thanks to a hard-nosed defence and punishing running game led by Cedric Benson. To move up they need more from QB Carson Palmer who had just one 300 yard passing game in '09. Then there's the Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco sideshow which should be worth a few laughs.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
This is a team that is up against it before the first ball gets snapped. The immediate problem, of course, is the absence of Ben Roethlisberger for the opening four games due to his boorish off-season behaviour. How they fare without Big Ben will determine which way the season goes. The problem for the Steelers is there are more question marks beyond Roethlisberger. For the Steelers to have any chance they needed a healthy Troy Polamalu. When he went down last year, so too did their season. And good luck to their passing game with an aging Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes now a Jet.
4. Cleveland Browns
Ah, where to begin? How about with their coach Eric Mangini, who for most of 2009 looked like Dead Man Walking. Could be that the worst thing to happen to the Browns was winning their final four games which helped Mangini stick around. Big things are expected from new team president Mike Holmgren but it's hard to see how he pulls a rabbit out of this hat. Aging interception guru Jake Delhomme is their new pivot while waiting and learning in the wings is Texas QB Colt McCoy. If the Browns can squeeze out four wins it would be a miracle.
1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have had seven consecutive seasons of 12 or more wins in the regular season and this year should be no different. Mark them down for 12-plus and right into the playoffs. In Peyton Manning the Colts have the best quarterback in the game and at 34 and in his 13th season there is no sign of letting down. The Colts had no running game to speak of last year and won't do wonders on the ground again in 2010. So, once again it comes down to how Manning plays and in the regular season there's none better. The playoffs? Well that's another story.
2. Tennessee Titans
What a goofy 2009 season. Six consecutive losses then 8-2 the rest of the way. Along the way the Titans and the NFL got a jolt by the resurfacing of Vince Young. Young was close to being as down and out as JaMarcus Russell until he took over for Kerry Collins following the horrific start. Oh yeah, the Titans also sport the best running back in the league in Chris Johnson. So if Young continues where he left off, the offence shouldn't be a problem. Defensively the Titans were a mess, especially against the pass. If they tighten up in the secondary they could be sniffing for a playoff spot.
3. Houston Texans
For the past few seasons, many a NFL pundit has fallen in love with the Texans and predicted a playoff berth only to be disappointed. We think the Texans should set their sights a little lower. How about starting with trying to beat the Colts, a team, they've gone 1-15 against in their history. The Texans open the season with a home date against the Colts and a victory there would do wonders for their confidence and psyche. Matt Schaub can throw it and Andre Johnson can catch it. Defensively they are strong against both the run and the pass. It shapes up to be their breakthrough season.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Here's a team that always seems to be operating on the other side of the moon, out of sight, out of mind. Although they've made the post-season in two of the past five years, they have been a franchise of little account with a small fan base. Head coach Jack Del Rio could or should be on the hot seat. Look around the Jaguars roster and mediocrity abounds starting with quarterback David Garrard. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is the lone above average player on the offensive side of the ball. Their defence is even more undistinguished. Not much to get excited about here.
1. New York Jets
In the city that never sleeps, the Jets have replaced the Giants as the No. 1 team in New York. It has nothing to do with the players on the field and everything to do with their coach Rex Ryan, the mouth that roared. They've also strengthened themselves by the additions of LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes. Now the expectations have been hyped to the point where if the Jets don't make it all the way to the Super Bowl the season will have been a failure. All this on the shoulders of QB Mark Sanchez.That's a pretty big load to pile on anyone much less a sophomore QB.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots aren't dead just yet. Yes, they didn't make it past the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs but it's way too early to suggest that the demise of the Patriots and the less-than-likeable Bill Belichick is at hand. Any team that has the ball in quarterback Tom Brady's hands is a good bet to make the playoffs and the return of speedy receiver Wes Welker will do wonders for the offence. If the Patriots have worries it's on defence, a unit that was middle of the pack last season and hasn't seen much in the way of significant upgrades. Still, it's probably a little early to be dancing on their grave.
3. Miami Dolphins
It's hard to get a handle on this team, one that was such a surprise and hit in 2008 and such a disappointment last year when they stumbled to 7-9. This year their season will be defined before the leaves fall off the trees as following their opener at Buffalo they play Minnesota, the Jets, New England and following a bye week, Green Bay. Good luck to that start. QB Chad Henne has yet to show he's up to the task at a high level. But they are big and tough and have smart guys running the team. Nobody will be looking forward to playing them.
4. Buffalo Bills
Trent Edwards looked good in the pre-season and surely this isn't what any fan of the Bills expected or for that matter wanted. An Edwards revival under the stewardship of offensive-mined head coach Chan Gailey may aid the win-loss column this season but also help doom the Bills to continued mediocrity. Instead, the goal for the Bills this season should be to try and somehow finish the season with fewer wins than the Cleveland Browns which would give them a good shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft. On the plus side, running back C.J. Spiller from Clemson should provide some thrills.
1. San Diego Chargers
Given the total lack of opposition, the Chargers could moon walk to the division crown. No LaDainian Tomlinson, no problem, the Bolts will still march to their fifth consecutive title. They are counting in rookie Ryan Mathews to fill the running gap. In quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers have one of the best in the business and getting to the playoffs will be no problem, winning in the playoffs is another thing. The Chargers have a history of closing out the regular season in flashy style then going flat in the post-season. Can Norv Turner get them over that hump? Don't think so.
2. Oakland Raiders
How bad are things in the AFC West? For starters, just about everyone is picking the Raiders to finish second. No, Al Davis is still with us but even on that note optimism is sprouting out on the bay. The JaMarcus Russell experiment is finally over which is an exorcism all by itself. Maybe coach Tom Cable is next. Running the offence this season is Washington castoff Jason Campbell who compared to Russell is the second coming of Kenny Stabler. They even received some kudos for their draft. The Raiders are young but have some talent and should be pointing upwards.
3. Denver Broncos
The big news in Denver is about a guy who probably won't play much if at all -- Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Blown pick or great gamble -- take your pick. But then the Broncos has been a franchise that isn't afraid to roll the dice what with the trading away of rifle-armed Jay Cutler. In Kyle Orton you have to think the Broncos have a warm body waiting to be replaced. The Broncos have made a habit of late of dropping quality players such as Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler and replacing them with lesser talent. This is progress? Hard to see how Denver is going anywhere but down.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Charlie Weis ran Notre Dame into the ground and now he's the new offensive co-ordinator for the Chiefs, a team that has modest expectations given the fact that they've managed just 10 wins over the past three seasons. The Chiefs believe there is still upside to be found in QB Matt Cassel and in running back Jamaal Charles, they like to think they have plucked a plum. They selected Tennessee safety Eric Berry with their top pick and he is ticketed to be a stud. This season the Chief will be looking to solidify themselves and along with it, a flirtation with an eight-win season.
1. Green Bay Packers
It's taken a while but the Packers and Aaron Rodgers should finally get their due over the Vikings and Brett Favre to say nothing over the disappointment and shock of losing to the Cards in that wild 51-45 playoff shootout. Rodgers has matured into a fine talent and with receivers such as Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and third-year tight end Jermichael Finley, he has plenty of surehanded receivers. However, the offensive line needs to improve. Defensively the Packers are one of the best led by defensive player of the year Charles Woodson. They could end up in the big one.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Brett Favre, give it a rest. The old gunslinger should have hung up his spikes following a glorious 2009 season despite the poorly timed interception he threw in the NFC title game against the Saints. Favre was terrific in leading the Vikings to a 12-4 record and their one-sided win over Dallas before their heartbreaking overtime loss to the Saints. But is there anybody on the planet who believes he can find the mojo and duplicate last year's numbers of 4,200 yards passing and 33 TDs against just seven picks? Didn't think so. Like so many others, Favre and the Vikings will have pushed it one year too many.
3. Chicago Bears
Question for Jay Cutler, what the hell was that? After the big trade with Denver, Cutler and his rifle arm was supposed to lead the Bears into the promised land but instead the Chicago faithful got a quarterback who rifled 26 interceptions and seemed to try and force the ball on just about every other throw. Now Cutler has offensive whiz Mike Martz running the attack for head coach Lovie Smith, who is on the hot seat to produce a contender. The big addition over the winter other than Martz was defensive end Julius Peppers who should add some zest to the pass rush.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions will once again be lousy in 2010 even though they reached rock bottom two years ago and are making a slow climb back to mediocrity. On the plus side they have a young talent in QB Matthew Stafford and a terrific wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. But that's where the gifted player list ends. The Lions have big hopes for rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh but they need help at just about every defensive position as the Lions D has been ranked as the worst in the league for three years running. The Lions still don't look like they can stop teams from putting up a ton of points.
1. New Orleans Saints
To the victor go the spoils and although the track record for Super Bowl contestants going back to the big show in repeat performances is low of late, don't discount the Saints. But repeating in the deeper NFC may prove to be a daunting task. The Saints have a lot going for them from Drew Brees to Tracy Porter and back again. They also are guided by one of the more original thinking coaches in Sean Payton. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did wonders with his troops last year and they will be a formidable crew again this season. And the offence is simply explosive.
2. Atlanta Falcons
This is still a young team on the rise and if things go their way, they could finish ahead of the Saints. So much of their season will live and die on the performance of QB Matt Ryan and his key receivers Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Defensively the Falcons still have a ways to go before it can claim equal footing with the offence. Even though they didn't make the playoffs, last season, the Falcons could boast producing consecutive winnings seasons for the first time in franchise history. Anything shy of a playoff berth this season would be viewed as a disappointment.
3. Carolina Panthers
Head coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract and clearly on the hot seat. The Panthers will be hard pressed to match their 8-8 record of '09. Jake Delhomme, the interception machine, was sent packing and in his place inexperience and optimism abound. Largely untested Matt Moore or rookie Notre Dame star Jimmy Claussen will be the starting pivot. Thankfully for the Panthers they can pound the ball on the ground led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Defensively they shed Julius Peppers so the D-line could be problematic. Same goes for their season.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After plummeting to three wins last season the Bucs won't have to do much to show improvement. The Bucs believe they drafted a future star in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who grew up worshipping former Buc great Warren Sapp. Offensively the Bucs are challenged as they don't have much of a running game -- and who knows how quickly young quarterback Josh Freeman will grow or if he even will? Last season they averaged just 15 points a game and scoring looks to be a major issue again in 2010. The Bucs shouldn't expect anything more than a five-win season.
1. Dallas Cowboys
The Super Bowl is set for Cowboys Stadium and you better believe that meddlesome owner Jerry Jones will have a meltdown if his Boys aren't in it. The problem is the Cowboys are still being coached by Wade Phillips and there's nothing in his resume to suggest he can lead a club that deep into the playoffs. Ditto for quarterback Tony Romo who has yet to prove he can get the job done when it counts. Speaking of which, Dallas has another brutal test in the final third of their season as they face New Orleans, Indianapolis, Philly and Washington . The bottom line is if there's no Super Bowl, there's no joy in Dallas.
2. New York Giants
It was a dud year for the Giants last season as they came out of the blocks looking like champs after they raced to a 5-0 record. But then the wheels came off after being destroyed 48-27 by the Saints on Oct. 18 and the G-Men never recovered as they went 3-8 the rest of the campaign. It got so bad that the Giants are no longer the darlings of Manhattan, being replaced by Rex Ryan and the Jets. But it's not as bad as it looks as the Giants were crushed by injuries last season and should be a much improved unit this season. A key to their season will be the performance of their defensive line.
3. Washington Redskins
There has been more off-season buzz about the Redskins than all the other teams combined and for good reason. Impatient owner Dan Snyder did a housecleaning of the front office and ended up with new GM Bruce Allen and new head coach Mike Shanahan. They followed that up by making the biggest splash in the off-season pool by trading for veteran Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. In the U.S. capital, visions of a Super Bowl appearances were dancing in their heads. McNabb, though, will be entering the season on the limp. With all the veterans Shanahan brought in, it's now or never.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
Someone has to finish last in what is easily the toughest division in the NFL and we're going with the Eagles. By moving McNabb it signalled a rebuilding year for the Eagles who have handed the reins of the offence to Kevin Kolb. Backing up Kolb will be the quickly fading Michael Vick. Defensively the Eagles will attack the quarterback relentlessly with a variety of blitzes. If they can't get to the quarterback, the Eagles are in trouble as the linebacking crew and secondary is vulnerable to the pass. This season is all about Kolb and his development. The payoff may not come for a year or two.
1. San Francisco 49ers
In the worst division in the NFL somebody's got to finish first and thanks to Kurt Warner retiring from the Cardinals, the honour will fall to the 49ers. But San Francisco has a lot going for it as well beyond its scenic vistas, lounging sea lions on the docks and snazzy restaurants. Alex Smith is showing signs that he's a legitimate starting quarterback and they sport a terrific running back in Frank Gore. The passing game has got to succeed to lessen Gore's load. Defensively, they are like head coach Mike Singletary, as tough as they come. The 49ers need to start posting wins against quality opposition.
2. Arizona Cardinals
This one's easy -- no Kurt Warner, no Anquan Boldin, no playoffs. There is no chart yet established to properly show the gap between Warner and Derek Anderson, who looks like he inherited the No. 1 job after the petulant and unworthy Matt Leinart blew another shot to be the starting QB before being cut. With Warner and Co., the Cardinals were never out of any game and could strike from any spot on the field. Under Anderson they figure to be hard pressed to put up points and will leave the defence on the field for long stretches which leads to fourth quarter fade outs. The reign is over.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Welcome to USC north and the Pete Carroll show. The Seahawks were a disappointing 5-11 last season and could improve to a .500 season this year. Carroll, in his third stint in the NFL, likes to do things his way with his players so expected a big turnover in the roster. Matt Hasselbeck is adequate at best at quarterback while their running game should benefit from the addition of Leon Washington. Notre Dame's Golden Tate is expected to be a big play receiver. Carroll doesn't have to do much to get this team into contention given the lack of quality in the division.
4. St. Louis Rams
3-2-1, blast off. That's the number of wins the Rams have churned out in the past three seasons (2007-2009). So things can't get much worse for the Rams who selected Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the top pick in the draft. Bradford should bring some excitement back to the franchise which not so long ago was billed as the Greatest Show on Turf. They may not be the greatest this season but they will be improved. At running back they still have one of the best in Steven Jackson. Defensively, though, they've been porous and still need a lot of help on the defensive line.