1. Philadelphia Eagles
The self anointed "Dream Team" has a ton of talented players thanks to owner Jeff Lurie going all out with his checkbook. Lurie has gone all in for a franchise that hasn't won a title since 1960.
While the Eagles defense looks great in the secondary, the front seven may be an issue. The defensive line is full of pass rushers not known for stopping the run. The linebackers are pretty inexperienced and kicker and punter are rookies too.
But the Eagles were smart by getting Vince Young to backup the oft-injured Michael Vick at quarterback. The offensive unit can score points, but a suspect offensive line could be their downfall.
Philadelphia has a lot of pressure to produce in 2011. Historically, a bought team that spends heavy never realizes the successes compared to teams that mold their own talent.
Yet the Eagles are in the right division this year with two teams rebuilding and another already riddled with injury. This could be the season that the city of Brotherly Love sees their first football trophy in 41 years.
2. New York Giants
The Jints already face an uphill battle with the possibility of four cornerbacks missing the entire season, as well as a rookie defensive tackle they had high hopes for. Yet this is a veteran squad still full of immense talent.
New York may end up having to win a few high scoring affairs this year, but this can happen because they have a deep wide receiver corps.
So deep that they watched Steve Smith walk over to a division rival a few weeks ago. Eli Manning was recently quited as saying he is an upper echelon quarterback in the league. This is time for him to back up his words, because his arm will be put to the test often.
While they are still strong in the trenches offensively, it is aging. The rushing attack should still be strong for the Giants, led by the inside/ outside attack of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
The front seven of the defense is uncertain for the first time in a long time for the G-Men. Their top three defensive ends should be fine, but the rest of the front seven is a mix of inconsistent players and unknown commodities.
So it seems the Giants offense will have to carry the team, as well as Manning actually becoming that upper echelon quarterback he thinks he is. This is a team as capable of making the playoffs as they are going 8-8.
3. Washington Redskins
The "Shanaplan" enters a second season after a very forgettable first year full of dysfunction and eight games decided by three or less points. Closing out games was a big weakness for the team in 2010.
The Redskins 2011 draft looked pretty good in preseason, and several draft picks made the roster or practice squad. They upgraded the trenches through free agency, losing second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins for the year to injury.
With the question of whether John Beck or Rex Grossman starts at quarterback, the Redskins are able to temper this with a group of running backs who have the ability to be productive.
Washington has upgraded their wide receivers and tight end Fred Davis has lost so much weight that he looks like a hybrid tight end. If the Redskins quarterbacks can be at least average, the team will score points.
The defense is led by ageless middle linebacker London Fletcher. They have two young defensive ends playing outside linebacker and are getting positive results so far.
With the addition of two free agents on the defensive line, Washington expects better results after a poor showing in 2010. The secondary got a big boost by signing free safety O.J. Atogwe. Strong safety Laron Landry was the best safety in football last year until an injury ended his season early.
Washington is expecting big things from this duo. One of best offseason moves Washington made was acquiring Sav Rocco to be their punter.
This is a position at where the Redskins have seemed to struggle at for several years recently. Rocca's ability to pin opponents deep might make the difference between victory and defeat.
With electric return man Brandon Banks, a big roster upgrade on both sides of ball at most everywhere but quarterback, the Redskins can be good enough to challenge for the division. Though that is no guarantee, no matter what Grossman says.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas comes into 2011 walking the razors edge.
Despite the trenches holding back their teams from winning consistently the past few years, they got rid of a few players and lost a few more to free agency.
Felix Jones is expected to carry the rushing attack, but there are skeptics as to whether or not he is the type who can handle 20-30 touches a game over an entire season. After his first two seasons were shortened by injury. Jones had 48 receptions and 185 carries in 2010.
Without veteran Marion Barber helping Jones anymore, fourth-year halfback Tashard Choice and his 222 career carries is the main reserve. Dallas is said to be high on seventh round pick DeMarco Murray, though the rookie wassn't real impressive during preseason games.
With a trio of small backs running behind an offensive line in flux, the passing attack with be the Cowboys best weapon. Quarterback Tony Romo, who missed 10 games to injuries last year, might end up with many games where he attempts upwards to 50 passes or more this season.
The defense is pretty much the same group that was second to last in the NFL last year in points allowed. Though they are decent on pass defense, the Cowboys trenches are average at stopping the run.
1. Green Bay Packers
When you are coming off a championship season where you basically won it all with about half of the roster you expected to count on, there isn't a whole lot of need for overhauling your roster.
Green Bay stayed away from the free-agent market this season, choosing to re-sign most of their own players while continuing to build through the draft. This is the formula that brought the franchise their 13th title, the most in NFL history.
The biggest free-agent loss may have been defensive end Cullen Jenkins, but the Pack returns most everyone else on a defense that ranked second in points allowed and interceptions accrued despite all of the injuries to their back seven.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers permanently quieted any remaining critics about his replacing Brett Favre in 2008. At Rodgers' current pace, he may one day find himself with Hall of Famer Bart Starr for the title of greatest Packers quarterback ever.
One of the best news Rodgers has received this year is the return of halfback Ryan Grant. Grant missed most of last year because of injury, but his return will help the four excellent wide receivers Rodgers loves to throw to. Jermichael Finley, the Packers best tight end, also returns after missing 11 games to injury in 2010.
It is doubtful Green Bay will again experience the rash of injuries they incurred in 2010. Assuming their players stay healthy, this team will be very difficult to oust this year. If Rodgers stays on the field all season, the Packers have an excellent chance of completing the very difficult task of repeating as champions.
2. Detroit Lions *
The young Lions are just about everyone's prediction for most improved NFL team this year. After watching them lose eight close games last year, one can see why there is so much optimism for this team.
The defensive line, led by 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, is the star of this team. They are a nice blend of proven veterans and promising youth. This unit has the talent to dominate the NFL this year.
Detroit also added two new starting linebackers and a cornerback. They expect this unit to do much better than last season, where they ranked 19th in points allowed and 21st in total yards allowed.
The offensive line is the same group from last year. The onus will be on them this season to try and get quarterback Matthew Stafford to finally last a full year healthy. If Stafford stays on the field, his receiving trio of Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew has a chance to be explosive.
If there is one weakness, it is at running back. Detroit is banking on Jahvid Best to stay healthy even though much of his 2010 season was riddled with nagging injuries. There isn't much behind Best, so his health may be critical to the Lions' offensive proficiency.
A young team needs growing pains to improve. Detroit had their share of that in 2010, so they are now ready to build upon those experiences and progress even further this season. There is more than enough talent on this roster to seriously challenge for a division title.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears' big story last year was quarterback Jay Cutler leaving the NFC Championship Game with an injury. Cutler's toughness and leadership has been questioned since, setting up a season where he has a lot to prove.
Chicago's offseason saw them bring in three ex-Dallas Cowboys to upgrade the offense. While they have more depth at wide receiver now, Chicago decided to jettison their two main tight ends from 2010. The Bears are gambling Kellen Davis is ready at tight end after they spent the previous three seasons trying to mold this project.
The offensive line has been an issue the past few Bears seasons. They moved Robert Garza to center after he spent the previous six years at guard. Newly signed free agent Chris Spencer can't beat Garza out, but things could change if the current starting guards falter.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is the leader of a Bears defense that was second in run defense in 2010, as well as fourth in points allowed and ninth in total yards allowed. Defense has always been king in Chicago, and that should not change this year.
The main changes on the defense will be at safety and one defensive tackle slot. Chris Harris will now be joined by Major Wright at safety, and Henry Melton has supplanted Matt Toeaina at defensive tackle for now. The Bears also drafted Stephen Paea, who could soon replace Melton.
Mike Martz is in his second season as the offensive coordinator for the Bears, so Cutler should be much more comfortable in the system now. If the Bears can do better than the 21st ranking in points scored last year, the defense is good enough to get them to a Super Bowl.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Rebuilding a team makes for tough decisions along the way. Minnesota already had done the easy part by hiring a new head with six games left in 2010.
The team has revamped their roster by losing players to free agency and retirement especially. They also released several veterans who were once an important part to a team that never quite played up to expectations.
Some critics wonder why the Vikes are replacing one old quarterback with another, but they have had success in the past making similar moves. Minnesota is hoping Donovan McNabb can be at least as effective as Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon and Brett Favre once were for the franchise.
Though they got rid of their left tackle, the offensive line is still very solid and very experienced. This may help an older quarterback like McNabb, who is no longer as mobile as he once was.
Losing their best wide receiver to free agency now puts the tiny Percy Harvin in the spotlight as their top receiver, even though much of Harvin's career has been hampered by migraine headaches. The rest of the receiving corp is pretty underwhelming.
McNabb may rely heavily on his tight ends in the passing game. Visanthe Shiancoe is very underrated, and rookie Kyle Rudolph has a lot of promise. The Vikings may often run a jumbo package to get both on the field at the same time.
One other reason for the jumbo sets is the fact that the team is carrying just three running backs on their roster. Adrian Peterson, one of the best halfbacks in the NFL, is the starter. Any injuries to this unit could send the team reeling further.
Losing their run-stuffing defensive tackle to retirement hurt, but they will also not have Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams for a few games as he serves a suspension for ingesting a banned substance. Besides defensive end Jared Allen, the rest of the linemen are unknown as to what they will contribute when relied upon.
The linebackers may now be the strength of the Vikings. Tackling machine Chad Greenway just signed a new five-year contract, and he will be playing alongside the Henderson brothers. While E.J. Henderson is a Pro Bowl middle linebacker, his younger brother Erin is starting for the first time in his four seasons.
The secondary saw Minnesota release starting free safety Madieu Williams, but they did get back cornerback Cedric Griffin. Griffin missed much of last year with a knee injury and will be the bookend for Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield.
There is still enough talent on the Minnesota roster to reach the playoffs, but rebuilding sometimes involves baby steps. Losing the salaries of a bunch of expensive veterans was a wise move, setting up the Vikings' future to look brighter than the present.
1. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta was great in 2010, winning 13 games. They won their division for the fifth time in franchise history, reaching the playoffs for the 10th time since they joined the NFL in 1966.
Most of their players are back, especially on an offense that produced six Pro Bowlers. The only changes will be made at right guard and wide receiver. The new wide receiver is 2011 first-round pick Julio Jones, a big, sturdy, athletic receiver known for the spectacular catch. He will bookend Roddy White, who has led the team in receptions the last four seasons.
Factor in future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales, and it is easy to see quarterback Matt Ryan has some pretty fantastic weapons to play with. Ryan also is blessed to have a set of Pro Bowl running backs lining up behind him.
The defense got an upgrade by signing free agent defensive end Ray Edwards to bookend Pro Bowler John Abraham. The rest of the unit returns intact after ranking fifth in points allowed in 2010. The offense ranked fifth in points scored, showing the tremendous balance that led to their 13 victories. Atlanta also ranked 16th in yards gained and allowed.
The Falcons schedule this year will be tough, facing six teams that made the playoffs last year. But they have more than enough talent to be successful, especially if the pass defense improves upon last years number. If they get to their bye week healthy and with a decent record, the second half of their schedule could propel them back into the postseason.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Watching the Bucs 2011 preseason, it was fun to see the exuberance of a young team led by a young head coach. This team is growing up quickly during a massive rebuilding session, but they are playing well as it goes on.
After a difficult 2009 that resulted in three victories, Tampa Bay won 10 last year. Four of their 2010 losses came by seven points or less. This came with a team that averaged just 26 years old.
Quarterback Josh Freeman was spectacular last year, tossing just six interceptions the whole season. Though the Bucs passing attack ranked ranked 17th in passing, Freeman played the 2010 season like a wily veteran instead of a second-year pro.
The running attack ranked eighth in yards gained, though they did lose their primary reserve to free agency. LeGarrette Blount came out of nowhere last year to run for 1,007 yards in 13 games and seven starts. Tampa Bay is hoping for a similar season in 2011.
Raheem Morris is one year younger than future Hall of Fame cornerback Ronde Barber. Besides manning the head coaching duties, Morris is also the Buccaneers defensive coordinator.
He hired former NFL great Keith Millard to coach his up and coming defensive line. Tampa Bay's exciting trio of defensive tackles got more help when Morris used his first two picks of the 2011 draft on a pair of defensive ends with big upsides. The Buccaneers third pick gave them their starting middle linebacker.
Barber is the leader of a defense that will have possibly seven starters under the age of 25. Morris is molding a defense that could one day be on the same level of some of the past great Buc defenses.
They will play 2011 honoring true greatness by paying tribute to "The Original Buccaneer." The late Lee Roy Selmon is the only Buc in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the first to have his number retired by the team.
This team is young, but very exciting. They made a lot of progress last year, taking many by surprise. As they continue to grow, Tampa Bay will show this season they have more than enough talent to win their division now.
3. New Orleans Saints
The Saints found out in 2010 why history makes it so very hard to defend a championship title. Injuries swept through the roster, yet their dinged up quarterback stood tall and got them back into the playoffs.
New Orleans finished 11th in scoring in 2010 after leading the NFL the previous two seasons. Changes were then made along the offensive line, where they lost their starting center to free agency and cut their longest-tenured player in right tackle Jon Stinchcomb.
After the running backs corp was hit hard by injuries last year, the Saints got aggressive by signing free agent Darren Sproles, a diminutive pass catching specialist, and using their second 2011 first round pick on Mark Ingram.
With Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory returning, New Orleans has a group of running backs they expect to be an improvement over their 28th ranked rushing attack of 2010. Yet the offense will go through quarterback Drew Brees, their Super Bowl XLIV MVP.
While the Saints pass defense played well last year, their run defense was erratic at best. They signed three free agent defensive linemen, and drafted another in the first round.
This unit has not looked good in preseason, and it could be hurt further by starting defensive end Will Smith incurring a two game suspension for ingesting a banned substance.
If the Saints do not improve on stopping opponents from running the ball, it may not matter how many points their explosive offense puts up. Their revamped offensive line will also be put to the test trying to protect Brees while running the ball more effectively.
4. Carolina Panthers
Carolina is in the throes of rebuilding, though they have kept some basic foundations the organization has followed since their 1995 inception. Ron Rivera is the fourth head coach in team history, and all Panthers head coaches were former defensive coordinators.
The Panthers are hoping history repeats itself under Rivera. After going 1-15 in 2001, they hired John Fox as a head coach and reached the Super Bowl in his second year with the team. Fox was let go after the team went 2-14 last season, ushering in Rivera.
Rivera showed the team he is on a mission recently by cutting 2009 second round pick Everette Brown, a player once thought to have great potential. The team will have two rookies starting at defensive tackle, as Carolina will carry just eight defensive linemen with six having one or less years of NFL experience.
Cam Newton is the first pick of the 2011 draft. He will start right away and try to learn the game on the fly because the team has no alternatives in reserve better.
Newton has shown accuracy issues in preseason, but he is a behemoth of a man for this position. His athleticism should cover up a few mistakes as he progresses.
The tight end is typically the best friend of a young quarterback. Carolina went out and signed two productive veterans for their rookie franchise quarterback. Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen are both solid players that Newton will be very comfortable leaning on at times.
Besides wide receiver Steve Smith, Carolina knew they had to upgrade this unit in the offseason. They added two receivers fresh off the high-powered San Diego Chargers offense, a team Rivera spent the previous three seasons with, and second-year pro Armanti Edwards is a former college quarterback who showed flashes of being ready to contribute during preseason this year.
The offensive line has worked together a few years, so the Panthers are hoping their three-headed halfback can be better than last seasons injury plagued output. DeAngelo Williams was recently given a huge contract, so he is being counted on heavily. Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson are his more than capable reserves, and both should get many carries themselves in 2011.
The back seven of the Panthers defense is their strength. Led by Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason, the back of the defense did a solid job versus the pass last year. Carolina was dead last in scoring offense in 2010, as well as 26th in points allowed.
The offense should be expected to have a few hiccups this year with a rookie at the helm, so it will be the burden of the defense to keep the Panthers close in contests. If the star players stay healthy this year, which they were not in 2010, this team should show signs of progression as the rebuilding process begins.
Baby steps are needed here, because of a head coaching change in the middle of a rebuilding job, but Carolina feels they have the right young man at quarterback to lead the way.
1. Saint Louis Rams
Rebuilding a team takes time and the Rams showed this in 2010. With the NFC West title in their grasp, Saint Louis lost the last game on their schedule to Seattle. Though the Rams shared first place with the Seahawks, they lost the opportunity to reach the playoffs.
Keeping the mission to upgrade a team that has struggled the past few seasons, Saint Louis became active in the free agent market. They picked up two veteran running backs, with good pass receiving skills, to back up star Steven Jackson.
The offense then upgraded their offensive line by signing a nasty and tough guard, while adding to a passing attack that ranked 26th last year by grabbing a talented free agent wide receiver in Mike Sims-Walker. Saint Louis also drafted two more wide receivers in hopes of scoring more points.
Defense was the star of the 2010 season for the Rams, yet they still made major changes. Both safeties and outside linebackers will have newly acquired players, as will the right side of their defensive line.
They added savvy veterans like Al Harris and Pro Bowler Quintin Mikell to the secondary. The free agent signing of Mikell was important because five-year starter O.J. Atogwe left the squad after becoming a free agent.
Saint Louis is banking their defense will be better in 2011 after signing five free agents and using their first draft pick on a athletic defensive end some think will be a star one day. With the expected improvements on offense, it could be enough to get a young team on top of their division at season's end.
2. Arizona Cardinals *
The Cardinals were not happy playing four quarterbacks last year, so they gave up a Pro Bowl cornerback years away from his prime to get Kevin Kolb. Kolb spent the better part of four seasons sitting and learning, so he should be ready to go and prove he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.
Running back is an issue for the Cardinals. They will be forced to rely on oft-injured Beanie Wells after 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams was lost for the year to injury. But the Cards have Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver, one of the better players in the league.
He was just signed to a eight-year, $120 million contract a year after grabbing 90 balls from a muddled quarterback situation. Todd Heap is one of five tight ends on the roster. Arizona is hoping a return to his home state will inspire Heap to his third Pro Bowl season. Veteran Jeff King was also brought in to help the offensive block off the edge.
The offensive line will have two new guards starting. Rex Hadnot and newly acquired free agent Darren Colledge get the nods, with last year's starter, Duece Lutui, backing them up.
Arizona will have new starting cornerbacks after Greg Toler was placed on injured reserve. Tiny Michael Adams starts at one slot, despite having just 89 tackles in his four years with the club. A.J. Jefferson is the other starter, and he has one career tackle after making the team as an undrafted free agent rookie last year.
This is expected to change soon because rookie Patrick Peterson was the top defensive back in the 2011 draft and was selected fifth overall. He will be given time to learn because the Cardinals have a good safety tandem in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.
The defensive line is the best part of the defense, led by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Calais Campbell is a huge defensive end and nose tackle Dan Williams, the Cardinals top pick last year, shows promise.
The Cardinals kept nine linebackers on the roster this year. Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon are excellent inside linebackers who are backed up by veterans Stewart Bradley and Reggie Walker, along with promising rookie Quan Sturdivant.
The Big Red ranked near the bottom in both offense and defense last year. They are expecting to score a lot more points and being especially more effective in run defense. If the offense lives up to their potential, Arizona could pick up a lot of wins off a mediocre schedule in the weak NFC West.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are the defending AFC West champs despite having a 7-9 record, the 23rd best scoring offense, the 25th best total in points allowed and being 28th in points differential. Pete Carroll's first year as head coach was highlighted by a playoff win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Building on that success while rebuilding, Seattle was very active in the free agent market. They signed up a new starting quarterback, star wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle and offensive guard.
They have a new center, and both right guard and tackle will be rookies starting. They added Pro Bowl tight end Zach Miller, which was important because incumbent starter John Carlson is on injured reserve.
While Tavaris Jackson wasn't great at quarterback in the preseason, Seattle has hopes he can frequently get the ball to the tight end as well as tall wide receivers Sidney Rice and Mike Williams.
Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett ran for 1,100 yards together in 2010. Throw in dynamic return specialist Leon Washington and Seattle has a decent backfield behind Jackson.
The defense is still a work in progress. The strength of this unit is in linebackers David Hawthorne, Aaron Curry and Leroy Hill. Alan Branch replaces the departed Kentwan Balmer to line up next to Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle.
The secondary will see Walter Thurmond at cornerback in place of the departed Kelly Jennings. Kam Chancellor is now the strong safety after Lawyer Milloy retired. Both are second-year pros with not much experience.
Seattle has 21 players who are either rookies or first-year players on their roster. There are only 19 players left that Carroll inherited last year. The rebuilding job Carroll is doing takes time, but it is headed in the right direction.
4. San Francisco 49ers
It has been a rough time for the Niners since head coach Steve Mariucci was fired in 2002. They are on their fifth head coach and haven't had a winning record in that time.
Jim Harbaugh is now the coach in charge of trying to bring a winner to San Francisco. The big issue with this team starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith has done a mostly lousy job since being the first overall selection in the 2005 draft.
The writing on the wall for Smith became real clear in the 2011 draft, when the Niners used a second round pick on Colin Kaepernick. Though very athletic, Kaepernick is very raw and a few years away from being ready.
The offense runs through the amazing Frank Gore, a halfback running around with two surgically repaired knees. The 49ers receiving corp is one of the most talented in the NFL, but they don't have a quarterback who can consistently get them the ball.
Vernon Davis is one of the most athletic tight ends in NFL history. He should be going into a fifth season that has him inducted one day into Canton, but he has been held back by an organization that has poor quarterback play and spent a few years not using him correctly.
With wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree, the trio should be explosive. Yet it most likely be yet another season where Smith doesn't get the job done on his end.
The defense is going through changes as well. They lost their starting nose tackle, two linebackers, a cornerback and safety. They upgraded the strong safety position by signing free agent Donte Whitner and moved defensive end Isaac Sopoaga over the center.
Carlos Rogers was signed to start at cornerback and the versatile Madieu Williams will back up incumbent Dashon Goldson at free safety. The run defense was good last year, but the pass defense hurt the Niners often.
The 49ers have made some nice upgrades, but Harbaugh will need some time to rebuild the team and develop a quarterback. They are capable of winning the weak NFC West, but that depends on how often Smith can get the ball to the team's best weapons.
1. New York Jets
When you make two straight AFC Championship Games and lose with a team full of veterans, it is smart to not continue getting old. The Jets got rid of quite a few veterans in their quest to get younger while staying a top-notch team.
Yet their biggest free agent signing was wide receiver Plaxico Burress when he got released from prison after serving two years in jail. The Jets plan to bookend the 34-year-old Burress with Santonio Holmes, while 37-year-old Derrick Mason will be used as the third receiver.
The offensive line is the strength of the team. Right tackle Damien Woody retired, so Wayne Hunter steps in. The rest of the unit remains intact, which is important for a team so reliant on the run.
Shonn Greene was supposed to start at halfback last year, but soon saw LaDainian Tomlinson getting more playing time because Tomlinson was more effective and is a better pass receiver. Greene needs to step up this year because the 32-year old future Hall of Famer has a ton of wear and tear on his body.
Fullback Tony Richardson, the winner of last season's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and the Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award for his charitable work, has retired. New York will miss the three-time Pro Bowler known for his crushing blocking ability. John Conner now takes over as the lead blocker out of the backfield.
Defense is the Jets' best strength, as it should be with defensive guru Rex Ryan as the head coach. This defense is so good, they could afford to trade a young and solid Dwight Lowery to the Jaguars because of their cornerback depth.
Furthermore, they added 2011 first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson at defensive end to replace veteran Shaun Ellis. The rest of the starters return on a unit that ranked third best in yards allowed last season, as well as sixth best in points allowed.
Though the Jets linebackers are excellent, it is the secondary that is the star of the unit. Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis—maybe the best cornerback in the game today—who anchors a smothering Jets secondary that defends the run almost as good as they do the pass.
With a defense and offensive line like this, it is pretty easy to see why the Jets were one win away from the Super Bowl in each of the past two years. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is still a work in progress, but he showed definite improvement in his second season by tossing seven less interceptions and five more touchdowns than he did in his 2009 rookie year.
Sanchez will enjoy having two experienced receivers blended in with the players he already knows well, and having a 6'5" receiver like Burress can help reduce mistakes with his size alone. The running game ranked fourth in yards gained last year, but the passing games ranked 22nd in yards gained.
If the passing game improves, as expected, the defense and rushing attack are good enough to get the Jets back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1968.
2. New England Patriots
One thing is certain, the Patriots keep it interesting all year round. Whether it is watching head coach Bill Belichick work the draft like a maestro, delving into the free agent market, or making trades, New England is unpredictable but exceedingly interesting.
Chad Ochocinco, a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, was brought in for a couple of expendable late-round draft picks. Known for his blabbering mouth as much as his playing abilities, Ochocinco has kept his lip zipped so far in New England.
Albert Haynesworth was brought in for a fifth-round pick, a gigantic steal if the man ever plays up to the abilities that made him a two-time Pro Bowler just three years ago. The "$100 Million Slave" has taken a siesta since then, only rearing his head when complaining or going to court.
The karma is that "Fat Albert" has to continue playing in the 3-4 defense he abhors. Thus far, he has not quit on his teammates or complained to the media about the head coach, so the influence of "The Hoodie" appears to once again worked for the best.
The first player usually mentioned on the Patriots is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. While New England has a pair of interesting young prospects behind him, the 34-year-old Brady once said he wanted to play until he was 40. The two-time NFL regular season and Super Bowl MVP is the leader of this team and is coming off yet another excellent season.
Besides the addition of Ochocinco, Brady loves to spread the ball around to all of his weapons. Wes Welker is typically Brady's first option, but there are a pair of young studs at tight end and running backs who are exceptional catching balls.
They brought back a player Brady loves in Deion Branch last year after he had failed with the Seattle Seahawks. All Branch did was grab 48 balls in 11 games as an extra receiver. New England also has three young receivers in reserve.
The blocking also got a huge boost, further cementing Belichick's brilliance. Brian Waters was released by the Kansas City Chiefs in a cost-cutting move despite coming off his fifth Pro Bowl year. Coincidentally, Waters was cut by Belichick disciple Scott Pioli. Waters will be a reserve behind an already exceptional offensive line. Nate Solder, the Pats' top pick in 2011, will spend this year sitting and learning behind Matt Light at left tackle.
Yet the most interesting part of the New England offense might be at running back. BenJarvis Green-Ellis was never drafted in 2008, but he became a 1,000-yard back last year. Belichick already had the speedy Danny Woodhead behind Green-Ellis, but he drafted two more running backs who will probably contribute right away.
If Haynesworth or Mike Wright falters at defensive end, 11-year veteran Shaun Ellis is ready to go. Ellis is coming off a Pro Bowl year, so he should be a factor. The secondary looks so good that Belichick recently cut 2007 first-round pick Brandon Meriweather and 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler. Sergio Brown, an undrafted player who had 11 tackles in his 2010 rookie year, will now start at strong safety.
The rich literally do get richer when it comes to the Patriots. A team coming off a 14-2 season usually doesn't make a lot of roster moves, but New England will have seven new starters this year.
The end of the season should see this team in the running for a playoffs spot, and many fans think they will play in the Super Bowl as well. While there are several veterans on the roster who know how to win, there is a lot of youngsters that should keep this team near to top for many years ahead.
3. Miami Dolphins
The best part of the Dolphins' 2010 season was the defense. It ranked sixth best in the NFL for total yards allowed, and was equally stout against both the run and pass. Minus the sudden retirement on linebacker Channing Crowder, every starter returns.
With the offense being the weak link last year, Miami used four of their first six draft picks to help that side of the ball. All four made the team, and three figure to be a big part of the offense right away.
Mike Pouncey is the twin of Maurkice Pouncey, a center who made the Pro Bowl in his 2010 rookie year. He was the Dolphins' first-round pick, after playing at nearby Florida University, and will start right away at center.
Charles Clay, another rookie, will start at fullback. Marc Colombo was signed as a free agent and will start at right tackle, moving incumbent Venon Carey in at guard. Reggie Bush, who was acquired in an offseason trade, will compete with rookie Donald Thomas for the bulk of carries at halfback.
Brian Daboli replaces Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Henning, who brought back the single-wing offense to the NFL (dubbed "Wildcat), retired after being a part of professional football since 1964.
Daboli is from the Bill Belichick coaching tree. He earned three Super Bowl rings in various coaching positions before joining the Cleveland Browns in 2009 as an offensive coordinator. Both of his seasons there saw the Browns as one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL, so Miami is hoping he can get their offense to be better than the 30th rank they had in scoring during 2010.
Miami has the defense to carry this team to a division title. The offense worked on their passing game a lot in the 2011 preseason, and had some successes. If they get good production from there, the Dolphins could very well be in the mix for a playoff spot in the final week of the 2011 season.
4. Buffalo Bills
It seems the Bills have been stuck in rebuilding mode for awhile. Part of the reason is failed drafts. The Bills have had nine first-round picks since 2000 either fail or leave for other teams. The jury is still out on last year's top pick, but this years top pick, Marcell Dareus, has looked impressive thus far.
Buffalo ranked 28th in both points scored and points allowed last year. They cut their starting center and will have two new starters on the right side of the line. Second-year pro Donald Jones has earned a starting job at wide receiver, and journeyman Scott Chandler starts at tight end.
The defense lost their top three tacklers from 2010, and there will be five new starters this season. Nose tackle Kyle Williams is coming off a great 2010 season where he made the Pro Bowl.
The secondary ranked third in passing yards allowed in 2010. This unit is the strength of the team, with the only change being that George Wilson will now start at strong safety. Buffalo has three new linebackers starting this year, and they are hoping Shawne Merriman can be the force off the edge he was in 2007 until injuries derailed his career.
Buffalo has a good amount of youth on this roster, but there is 13 players 30-years or older. Head coach Chan Gailey will need several seasons turning over this roster, but Bills fans are tiring of this strategy that has kept the team out of the playoffs since 1999.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Though the Steelers lost in Super Bowl XLV, the fact that they played in their second title game in four seasons just further cemented a legacy of being an elite NFL team.
The defense is the face of this organization, much like it has been for the past 54 years for the franchise. Pittsburgh finished first in the NFL in points allowed and rushing defense in 2010, as well as second best in total yards allowed.
Running the ball against the Steelers is one of the most difficult chores for NFL offenses. The unit got only better with the return of 13-year veteran Aaron Smith at defensive end, a team leader who has played just 11 games the past two years due to injuries.
While Pittsburgh has long been known for their frugality, they opened up the vaults and lavished young linebackers Lamar Woodley and Lawrence Timmons with hefty contract extensions. Linebacker has long been a key position for the Steelers, and the young duo join 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, who has been named to the last four Pro Bowls, to give Pittsburgh perhaps the best unit in the league.
2010 Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu joins Ryan Clark to give the Steelers a veteran safety duo in a secondary filled with experience. The secondary gives up the most yards on defense, but that is due to the fact opponents are usually unwilling to attempt to rush the ball much.
The four game suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hurt team continuity at the beginning of 2010. Even though the defense carried the team out of the gates at 3-0, it took Roethlisberger time to catch up to the rest of the offense.
Halfback Rashard Mendenhall had his second consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2010, while adding 13 rushing scores. His excellence gives the team wonderful offensive balance with the veteran receiving corp of Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Mike Wallace.
If there is one unknown for Pittsburgh this year, it is the offensive line. This unit was beat up by injuries last year, so they return with just two starters from that team. Willie Colon would have started last year, but he was injured.
Jonathan Scott will man left tackle now that Max Starks was released. Scott's first four years in NFL was with two teams and had 14 starts, but the nine starts he had last year in place of an injured Starks impressed the team enough to go with him at this key position.
There are not many NFL teams that had the quality depth of the Steelers, let alone the quality defensive unit. There are few observers who do not believe that this team is a serious Super Bowl contender once again.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Sometimes one mans trash is another mans treasure. When the Ravens offensive underperformed in the 2011 preseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome picked up two Pro Bowlers off of the waiver wire.
Bryant McKinnie ate himself out of a job in Minnesota, so the Ravens may be his last shot at being a starting left tackle in the NFL. Andre Gurode was let go by the Dallas Cowboys as a salary casualty, but he may start because Mat Birk is battling injuries.
While the offense relies heavily on versatile halfback Ray Rice, Baltimore picked up Ricky Williams to back him up. Both will have Vonta Leach, perhaps the best blocking fullback in the game now, leading the way.
Baltimore made a lot of changes in their receivers corp. They let veterans like Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, and Donte' Stallworth go. Lee Evans was acquired in a trade, giving the Ravens perhaps their best deep threat in team history.
Evans and Anquan Boldin will have three rookies backing them up at wide receiver, while Heap's position will be filled by second-year pros Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitna. How this group of young receivers perform could be the difference between a Super Bowl or a failed season.
The defense went through changes as well, even though future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed stayed on board. They gave the starting nose tackle position to Terrance Cody, the strong safety position to Tom Zbilowski, and one cornerback position to Domonique Foxworth after clearing the positions through free agency.
The Ravens defense produced four Pro Bowlers last year after finishing third in points allowed. With their talent and experience, it is certainly feasible they are equally excellent this year.
Baltimore has made the playoffs seven times since 2000, but they have not reached a Super Bowl since 2000. Lewis has clearly stated he came back this year to win it again, and this team follows their leaders word best they can.
While having good depth at many positions, the one spot they are dreadfully thin at is quarterback. Joe Flacco never missed a game in his previous three years, but it is typical that quarterbacks get injured eventually. All that is behind him is a rookie whose best attribute is his legs.
If Flacco goes down, the Ravens will be in major trouble. If he continues to stay healthy, Ozzie Newsome has surrounded him with enough weapons to get this team back to the promise land.
3. Cleveland Browns
Ever since Mike Holmgren became the president of the Browns last year, he has slowly began overhauling a team that has made the playoffs just once since being reborn in 1999. After watching the team go 5-11 last year, changes began.
The first move he made was overhauling the coaching staff by hiring a new head coach, who also serves as the offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator. He also hired three men, from his San Francisco 49ers days, to be on the coaching staff.
The offensive line kept only Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas as starters. The defensive line has three new starters, and Cleveland has a new starting free safety.
Offensively, Cleveland got two pleasant surprises last year. Colt McCoy was a rookie quarterback forced into action after the two veterans ahead of him got hurt. He played so well that he will keep the starting job this year.
Peyton Hillis spent his first two NFL seasons as a reserve for the Denver Broncos, where he had 397 rushing yards. He exploded in the NFL in 2010 by pounding out 1,177 yards and 11 scores on the ground.
Cleveland has kept just three halfbacks and a blocking fullback on the roster this year, so they are gambling that Hillis can do the job yet again. His reserves consist of a rookie and a second-year player who sat out all of last year with an injury.
Holmgren is hoping the 2011 draft class does better than last year, where just three players helped the team.This year the team has just nine players over the age of 30-years old, while in 2010 the team averaged 27.5-years old.
Holmgren needs time, but his track record shows he gets the job done. He has overseen two teams that reached the Super Bowl in his career so far. The Browns are headed in the right direction, something the famous "Dawg Pound" is certainly aware of.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals 2011 season already was in disarray before it began. Their star quarterback demanded a trade, refusing to play in the meantime, and their star wide receiver and clubhouse headcase was traded for a few low-round draft picks.
Now they are stuck with a rookie quarterback, so Cincinnati will have to rely on their running game most likely. Cedric Benson has a good chance of surpassing the career high mark of 321 carries that he had in 2010.
A.J. Green was the Bengals first draft pick this year, so the 6'4" receiver might end up being the primary target. While Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley, and Jerome Simpson show promise, the Bengals also picked up the explosive Brandon Tate off of waivers to help the receiving unit.
The offensive line will see two new starters on the right side, mainly because guard Bobbie Williams is serving a four game suspension for ingesting a banned substance. Andre Smith has been a huge disappointment since being the sixth overall draft selection in 2009, but the Bengals plan on starting him at right tackle.
The defense will be missing linebacker Keith River and reserve defensive back Adam Jones for the first six weeks of the season. They also lost a starting cornerback to free agency. Cincinnati will have a new middle linebacker this year, and a new starting strong safety.
Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals head coach since 2003. He was drafted for his defensive expertise, but the Bengals ranked 24th in points allowed in 2010.
With a rookie quarterback with suspect arm strength, it could be a basic game plan of running the ball and hoping the defense is stout. If these factors fail, it could be a miserable season for the Bengals.
1. Houston Texans
The Texans were picked by many pundits to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2010. The offense didn't let them down, fishing third in the NFL in yards gained and ninth in points scored.
But the defense was beyond terrible. Houston was ranked 30th in yards allowed and 29th in points scored. The pass defense was the worst in the league as well, helping Houston finish a disappointing 6-10.
This might be the last chance for head coach Gary Kubiak to get his team over the hump. Kubiak enters his sixth year with the most talented team that he's had during his reign. Another letdown year could spell doom.
The offense brings back reigning NFL rushing champ Arian Foster, as well as promising backup Ben Tate. Tate missed his 2010 rookie year to injury. Both halfbacks have run wild during the 2011 preseason.
Andre Johnson, the Texans' top receiver, is coming off a 2010 season where he caught 86 balls and eight touchdowns. Tight end Owen Daniels, whose past two years have been hampered by injuries, tries to regain his 2008 Pro Bowl form.
While seven starters return from last year's defense, they will move to a 3-4 base defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. One starter, Glover Quin, moves from cornerback to strong safety.
The hiring of defensive guru Phillips, who has a long history of improving defenses, is the biggest move Houston has made this offseason. The Texans also signed two free agents in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning, while using the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft on mammoth defensive end J.J. Watt.
Mario Williams, a two-time Pro Bowler has 48 career sacks in his five seasons since being the first pick of the 2006 draft. He moves from defensive end to outside linebacker, where Phillips hopes to take advantage of his 6'6" frame and pass-rushing skills.
With the expected improvement at defense to go with an explosive offense, Houston hopes to see their first professional football team make the playoffs since the Oilers did so back in 1993. They might also win their division too.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio has been on a mission to improve the defense. He has picked up two solid staring defensive tackles and a cornerback the past two drafts, then hit the free-agent market for more pieces.
While defensive end Aaron Kampman was an injury disappointment in 2010, it did not stop Del Rio from gambling on other players with injury-filled pasts. Paul Poslusny and Clint Session will start at linebacker after just being signed by Jacksonville this year.
Dawan Landry was a solid strong safety for the Baltimore Ravens since 2006, but he will now play free safety because Courtney Greene finished third in tackles last year for the Jags despite missing two games. Dwight Lowery was just acquired in a trade, and he should be valuable in the nickel package.
Matt Roth was brought in as a free agent to start at defensive end, hopefully bookending a healthy Kampman. Roth hasn't played defensive end since 2007, having been moved to outside linebacker.
Jacksonville expects the defense to be better in 2011, especially against the run. They were 29th in rushing scores allowed last year, and 22nd in rushing yards allowed. The four veterans they just signed are expected to make a positive impact, but the fear of them staying healthy is heightened due to their track records.
Offense revolves around halfback Maurice Jones-Drew. Drew deserves some sort of medal for 2010, having a Pro Bowl year despite playing the entire season with a torn meniscus in his knee. Though he did miss two games, he still piled up 1,324 yards on the ground and was named Running Back of the Year by the NFL Alumni Association.
David Garrard has been the primary quarterback since 2006. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009, but threw a career high 15 interceptions last year. Jacksonville released him a few days before their first game, bringing back memories of the 2007 season when Garrard got the job after Brian Leftwich was cut a week before the season started.
The new quarterback will be journeyman Luke McCown. He has a couple of nice targets to throw to in Mike Thomas and Mercedes Lewis, but losing Mike Sims-Walker to free agency will hurt. Jason Hill, who has 51 career receptions in five years, will battle rookie Cecil Shorts and Jarett Dillard for snaps.
Dillard was hurt after seven games in his 2009 rookie season and hasn't played since. Undrafted rookie Jamar Newsome may be in the mix after averaging nearly 20 yards per catch in the 2011 preseason.
Jacksonville struggled to score or pass on offense last season, and it appears they could repeat this problem again in 2011 because they really didn't add any new parts. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville's top pick this year, needs time to sit and learn how to be an NFL quarterback. The rumor is he is expected to be the starter in a few weeks.
There are discrepancies over the sudden Garrard release. While some think it was a cost cutting move because he made close to $8 million a year, Del Rio claims it was based on a sub-par 2011 preseason.
Del Rio, already on the hot seat, may have sealed his fate with this move. Depite a few holes in the Jaguars 2010 roster, they still finished second in their division.
With the upgrades made on defense, Del Rio is hoping his team will win their first division title since 1999. If not, the Jags could soon be looking to hire the third head coach in franchise history.
3. Tennessee Titans
The start of the 2011 season could be tough for the Titans. Owner Bud Adams dragged his heels on giving holdout star running back Chris Johnson a raise, waiting until about a week left in training camp to do so.
While most starters from 2010 return, Johnson will have to quickly get acclimated with new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. He will also need to work with rookie Jake Locker in case Hasselbeck gets hurt. All the reps Johnson lost with those two in training camp could come back to haunt Tennessee.
The defense will have two new linebackers in free-agent signee Barrett Ruud and rookie Akeem Ayers. Fifth-round pick Karl Klug has won a starting job at defensive tackle, beating out fellow rookie Jurrell Casey despite being drafted two rounds later.
Veteran journeyman Shaun Smith will start as the other defensive tackle, moving Jason Jones back to his more natural position at defensive end. William Hayes is bookending Jones, replacing the departed Jacob Ford.
The secondary is the same as last year, except Jason McCourty replaces Alterraun Verner at cornerback. McCourty, the twin brother of New England Patriots star cornerback Devin McCourty, lost his starting job to Verner last year after getting hurt.
The defense was 26th in the NFL in yards allowed last season, while giving up over 21 points per game. There is concern that there won't be a vast improvement this year because of the new defensive line full of of uncertainties.
Tennessee was a streaky team the last two years. They started out 0-6 in 2009, then finished 8-8. The 2010 season saw them burst out with a 5-2 record, then win just one game the rest of the way.
Mike Munchak, a Hall of Famer who has been with the organization since 1982, is the new head coach and will try to find more consistency for his team. It may take some time for him to rebuild the team he wants, but the Titans have the talent to win a division that could be decided in the final week.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Ever since the NFL blatantly slanted their rules to help the quarterback, no team has relied more on this position than the Colts. As future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning goes, so goes the franchise.
Manning, who holds the record for four NFL MVP awards, has never missed a game since being drafted in 1998. He comes into 2011 with a nagging neck injury that will end his consecutive games streak, and his return is uncertain after recent surgery.
Most assumed he would be there opening day. His former coach Tony Dungy recently said Manning cares more about his being able to play than any awards he has ever received. The true leader of this team, Manning recently signed a $90 million contract for five years.
While the Colts offense should be excellent as usual whenever Manning is back at the helm, there is still some concern over who will be blocking. Indianapolis has had an inconsistent ground game recently, thanks to halfback Joseph Addai's inability to stay healthy and Donald Brown being a disappointment after being a first round draft pick in 2009.
Manning has dealt with poor offenses lines before easily. He gets rid of the ball fast and calls the right plays to avoid taking too many hits. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark are his favorite targets, but the ball gets spread around to whoever the Colts put out there.
Defense is the issue in Indianapolis for 2011. The run defense has been bad the last three years, never finishing higher than 24th in yards allowed. It has looked just as porous during the 2011 preseason.
Gary Brackett is their best linebacker, yet he has had just one healthy season since 2006. Pat Angerer, who was second on the team in tackles in his rookie season last year, will join newly acquired Ernie Sims as the other starters at linebacker. Sims, the ninth overall selection in the 2006 draft, has not played as well as once hoped.
The Colts have high hopes for a talented defensive secondary that was beat up and hurt most of 2010. Justin Tyron was picked up off waivers and started six games because injuries hit this unit so hard.
Kerry Collins was coaxed out of retirement after it became clear Curtis Painter was not ready to start at quarterback while Manning is out. Collins enters his 17th NFL season and will soon be 39 years old. Expect the Colts to run the ball more than usual with him starting, because he has been in the Colts' system less than a month.
Indianapolis can pass and stop the pass, but the ground game is nothing special on both sides of the ball. They have made the playoffs in 11 of Manning's 13 seasons at the helm, so they are capable of winning the division a third straight year.
1. San Diego Chargers
How does a team that lead the NFL in offensive yards gained and defensive yards allowed, as well as being ranked second in scoring, finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs? It is done by having journeyman head coach Norv Turner at the helm.
Turner somehow kept his job this year, just like he somehow keeps getting hired after being fired. San Diego is the sixth team he has coached since 2000, and he has been with San Diego since 2007.
San Diego brings back most of the offensive talent that made them so productive in 2010. They did lose defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, now the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Greg Manusky takes over for a unit that has many changes.
Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes might be the new inside linebackers for the Bolts. Spikes enters his 14th season, and the two-time Pro Bowler is solid. Butler spent his 2010 rookie season injured after being drafted in the third round. Steven Cooper, a Charger for eight years, is in the mix.
Seven-year veteran Travis LaBoy joins San Diego this year and is expected to start at outside linebacker, in spite of missing most of the last two seasons to injury. Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, tries to reignite his career after playing just nine games total in the last three seasons.
If the defense stays healthy and gels, the Chargers will be a dangerous team. They found out last year that Mike Tolbert could do the job at halfback after Ryan Mathews got hurt. The versatility of their offense will give opponents headaches. San Diego could very well represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
That is if Norv Turner doesn't get in their way once again.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
One of the biggest offseason moves for the defending AFC West champions was the changing of offensive coordinators. Bill Muir, who has NFL experience as both a defensive and offensive coordinator, takes over for Charlie Weiss after Weiss suddenly bolted back to the collegiate ranks.
Muir's first duty is to keep the running game going after losing their five-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters. Ownership chose not to pay the 34-year old despite a 2010 Pro Bowl year.
Kansas City will also need to find a way to use 2010 second round pick Dexter McCluster. The tiny running back wasn't used much on offense last year, mainly lining up as a kick returner.
Jonathan Baldwin, the Chiefs top pick this year, has had a tough training camp where his attitude has been questioned. He had just one reception this preseason.
Scott Pioli, Kansas City's general manager, did make some good moves. He signed Steve Breaston, an exciting wide receiver and punt returner. But veteran defensive lineman Kelly Gregg may have been the Chiefs best signing, because the veteran nose tackle has a non-stop motor and knows how to win.
Le'Ron McClain left the Baltimore Ravens, like Gregg, to join the Chiefs. He is a fullback who can block, catch, and be the feature running back if needed. These three veterans are expected to help immensely in 2011.
Kansas City had the top rushing attack in the NFL last year. The defense was average, but this mostly young unit is expected to be better this year.
3. Oakland Raiders
What AFC team has a group of running backs as good as Oakland? The depth of quality at this position might be unmatched throughout the league.
What holds the Raiders back offensively is a young group of wide receivers not playing up to their potential yet. Jason Campbell, who will be playing quarterback in the same system in back-to-back seasons in one of the few times since his high school days, had the youngsters stay at his house this summer as they worked on getting better together.
The results of this sage move will be seen in 2012, but Oakland fans want to see Darrius Heyward-Bey to show why he was the seventh overall selection in the 2009 draft. He has just 35 receptions in his career, and has showed little progress as a player so far.
The offensive line, long a sore spot for Oakland, has seen many changes. The left guard position now has rookie Stefan Wisniewski instead of the departed Robert Gallery. The best move might take a few years to notice.
Oakland hired Raiders legend Steve Wisniewski to coach the unit, a man known for being nasty, tough, and consistent in a career worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will mentor this unit, which includes his nephew Stefan, to play the game with the same attitude that he had.
The Raiders run defense has been horrible for many years, but young middle linebacker Rolando McClain is making excellent progress. He is also much better against the pass than advertised.
The pass defense, which was very good on 2010, lost the best cornerback in football, Nnamdi Asomugha, to free agency. They are confident that their anointed starters will do fine, but the reserves are the question when they use extra defensive backs.
Rookie Demarcus Van Dyke will be counted on, but Oakland may not have enough quality depth in their secondary. Joe Porter, who has bounced around the league on practice squads since 2007, will be the other reserve cornerback.
Oakland came close to the playoffs last year, and they expect to get there this season. A great running game can carry a team a long way, but the usual questions of their passing game and run defense may curtail aspirations.
4. Denver Broncos
Tim Tebow fans will get their fix on certain plays throughout the season, but Denver needs starter Kyle Orton to man the quarterback position all season if they want a chance at success. Orton, while not spectacular nor flaunted by the media, is a solid player who makes sound decisions.
Orton needs Denver to have an effective ground game. Knowshon Moreno has been good during his first two years, churning out 1,726 yards, but the acquisition of veteran Willis McGahee with save him a few hard hits around the goal-line especially.
Brandon Lloyd was one of a few wide receivers to come out of nowhere to star for their teams in 2010. He is Orton's favorite target, and also the most consistent.
John Fox was hired as the head coach this year to fix the defense. Von Miller and Raheem Moore, both drafted in the first and second rounds this year, will start at linebacker and free safety respectively.
Brodrick Bunkley was acquired in a trade to start at defensive tackle. Losing veteran Ty Warren to injury hurts the run defense, but graybeards Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey will be there to clean up any mistakes.
The run defense has looked a bit better in preseason, but time will tell. Hall of Famer John Elway was brought in to rebuild. Hiring Fox was the first step, but progress might not be blatantly seen until 2012.
Detroit Lions @ Saint Louis Rams
Doormats to the NFL no more, the Lions pull it out late thanks to the stellar play of their defensive line.
Arizona Cardinals @ Philadelphia Eagles
Kevin Kolb does a fine job against his old team, but the Eagles just have too much talent for the Big Red this day.
Baltimore Ravens @ New York Jets
This is a grueling battle that is decided by a Ray Rice touchdown run.
New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The best game of the playoffs, both teams go back and forth as bodies leave the field bruised and bloodied. Troy Polamalu deflects a ball that Ryan Clark catches to thwart the Patriots late in the fourth, preserving a Steelers victory.
Detroit Lions @ Atlanta Falcons
Detroit is happy to be here, but the Falcons already have. Their balanced attack and experience prevail.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Green Bay Packers
Those three Pro Bowl cornerbacks Philadelphia kept on the roster come up big, allowing the pass rush to reach Aaron Rodgers more often than not. Green Bay's defense keeps them in the game, but Michael Vick finds Steve Smith in the end zone with less than a minute to go for the win.
Baltimore Ravens @ Houston Texans
Houston hosts their first playoff game ever, but the Texans are no match for the veteran Ravens.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ San Diego Chargers
Norv Turner coaches his last game with the Chargers as the Steelers take advantage of a series of bad play-calling in thefourth quarter.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons
Vick returns to more jeers than cheers in Atlanta, but he has the last laugh as the Eagles pass defense shuts down the Falcons passing game.
Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had won the previous three playoff meetings with Baltimore, but they come in limping today. With few points on the scoreboard, Billy Cundiff hits a field goal as time expires to send the Ravens to the big game.
Super Bowl XLVI
Baltimore Ravens @ Philadelphia Eagles
Vick gets off to a hot start to keep Philly in the game, but Ray Rice is running wild. Down by a score late in the fourth, Vick gambles and Ed Reed picks off the pass. Flacco takes a knee three times as Ray Lewis retires at the top of the mountain holding the trophy.
NFL MVP : Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Offensive Player of the Year : Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Defensive Player of the Year : Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
Offensive Rookie of the Year : Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins
Defensive Rookie of the Year : J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Comeback Player of the Year : Ben Tate, Houston Texans
Coach of the Year : Steve Spagnuolo, Saint Louis Rams