NFL GOES AWOL

AFC West

Broncos: Peyton Manning hates the talk about him being back to normal. Well, I hate all the talk about Denver’s defense playing so spectacular last season. They had a handful of standout games, but were nowhere near a top-10 defense. We can debate about Tim Tebow all day, but you can’t deny the fact that their best defense was their #1 running game last year.

Chargers: It’s great to see San Diego adding some solid veterans to the roster. They have offseason competition and depth, but they lack the impact players and I think they will struggle to reach 8-8. If the offensive line and running game step up, not only will that help Philip Rivers but also that very questionable defense.

Chiefs: Right now this is the team I’m picking to take the division. Two years ago they won the division and made the playoffs. Last year they lost their best players: QB Matt Cassel, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Tony Moeaki, and S Eric Berry. Under new coach Romeo Crennel this team beat the Packers, and still only missed the playoffs by one game.

Raiders: After Tebow takes over the Big Apple, I could see Mark Sanchez joining fellow USC QBs Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. On a serious note, Oakland was also in the playoff hunt last year and their season definitely hinges on the health of RB Darren McFadden. They’re hoping new coach Dennis Allen can shore up the defense and minimize the penalties.

AFC East

Bills: Last year they started hot but cooled off and then suffered a few key injuries. They believe in coach Chan Gailey’s ability to use players on the offensive side of the ball, but it was their opportunistic defense that made them competitive and they’ve certainly improved with prized free agent Mario Williams and the return of DT Kyle Williams.

Dolphins: We know this team will have another top-10 pick. They were 3rd against the run last season, but they’ve got a ways to go. We’ll see how new coach Joe Philbin has this offense running with rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. No, they shouldn’t waste their time with Matt Moore and David Garrard, put the #8 pick of the draft to work and let him grow with the team from day one.

Jets: Since they traded for Tim Tebow I’ve been vocal about the first 2-QB system in NFL history. Tebow and Mark Sanchez have the ability to step up in the clutch and win games. The defense will make you play and they’ll lean on the run game, but I’d minimize the cons of the QBs and maximize their strengths by riding the hot hand and keeping defenses off-guard.

Patriots: Already talk about an undefeated season? New England will put their heads down and say the right things, that’s usually not the problem. They should take the division again and make another deep playoff run with Tom Brady leading the offense. Bill Belichick will have his moments with the young defense, but to win it all the players on the field have to make the plays.

AFC North

Bengals: The rookie combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green made waves last season. The defense shot itself into the top-10 and Marvin Lewis had the Bengals in the playoffs. In a tough division they got playoff experience. Cincinnati isn’t fading away and we’ll see if BenJarvis Green-Ellis is really an upgrade over Cedric Benson.

Browns: Cleveland has been in the cellar of the division, and that probably won’t change throughout the rebuilding process. With a new QB-RB combination, hopefully the offensive line and receivers grow with them. The pass defense ranked second believe it or not, they just didn’t address stopping the run. Trent Richardson should be used heavily as the face of the franchise.

Ravens: Joe Flacco is on the hot seat, another QB that has to elevate his game. They have good but not great passing targets, but that offensive line is good and Ray Rice will continue to be the go-to guy. Defensive Player of the Year Terrelle Suggs got injured and Baltimore will miss him. The defense adds another year to their bodies but they should remain in the top tier.

Steelers: This is their division to win. The best defense in football fell victim to the Mile High Miracle but they’ll be back. Ben Roethlisberger was hobbled the last half of the season, so hopefully the young Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro can anchor the line. The ground game has fallen off as of late, and they need both Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace on the field.

AFC South

Colts: In a blink of an eye, Super Bowl contenders wound up with the top pick in the draft, hence Andrew Luck and a rebuilding project. Everything fell apart after Peyton Manning went down which is understandable, and new coach Chuck Pagano has the task of turning the Colts into a defensive-minded team. We’ll see how Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis perform in a 3-4 defense.

Jaguars: I like Jacksonville more than most. They quietly ranked as the 6th best defense in football (9th vs. run, 8th vs. pass). A formidable defense in a mediocre division, they just need the NFL’s leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew to buy in. QB Blaine Gabbert will have to stand tall in the pocket and be a game manager under new coach Mike Mularkey.

Texans: The favorite to win the division and make a playoff run, they’re loaded offensively. Arian Foster has played himself into the elite category with versatility and consistency. Houston was down to their 3rd QB when they got edged out by Baltimore in the playoffs. Wade Phillips worked wonders with the defense, but they did lose Demeco Ryans and Mario Williams.

Titans: I think they have a healthy QB competition between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. Chris Johnson is still one of the better players, expect him to bounce back. Kenny Britt needs to get healthy but more importantly, he guy has to get his head straight because he can play. You won’t sell me on their defense, but they made improvements in the pass rush and secondary.

NFC West

49ers: San Francisco is a legitimate contender. Not only do they play in a weaker division, but they have the recipe for success in almost every aspect. We witnessed the magic John Harbaugh unveiled. The running game and defense compare to the best of them, and they allocated countless passing targets. Alex Smith will decide the 49ers fate, and his future with this season.

Cardinals: It’s never good to see a QB competition if you want to compete for your division. With a mediocre offensive line, the QB is going to get hit. The defense should keep the Cardinals in games, with a tough defensive line and talented secondary. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams aim to put the run game on the map, as Michael Floyd tries to help Larry Fitzgerald move the chains.

Rams: Jeff Fisher is trying to turn St. Louis around. Stephen Jackson carries the offense, but it’s Sam Bradford who has to make plays for the Rams to put points on the board. It will certainly be challenging without a featured passing target. Defensively they are led by James Laurenitis and revamped defensive line, with hopes that the secondary is much improved with new cornerbacks.

Seahawks: Here we have a 3-QB competition, except in this case I think it can work. Pete Carroll has his way as a players’ coach, creating a competition at every position. Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, and Kellen Winslow form a promising supporting cast for whoever starts at the helm. The other side of the ball consists of a nice pass rush, with tall and physical secondary.

NFC East

Cowboys: Same thing every year for the Cowboys. They have the talent and improved the secondary as needed, but that offensive line has to catch up with the rest of the offense and their mentality isn’t the strongest. They need the running backs to stay healthy. For as good as DeMarcus Ware has been, the defense hasn’t followed his lead and his stats don’t have much game impact.

Eagles: After a disappointing season and losing all-pro lineman Jason Peters, the team caught stride at the end of last season and they feel the individual standouts are coming together as a cohesive unit. Each unit has been upgraded or revamped in such little time. They don’t have many holes, but the offensive gameplan needs to start and end with Pro Bowler, LeSean McCoy.

Giants: The champions are the division favorites as they should be. Eli Manning can bring the Giants back from any deficit, and Tom Coughlin is pressing the right buttons on this football team. The defensive line continues to be the strength and envy of the entire league. Don’t expect them to plow through teams because they don’t play consistently in the regular season.

Redskins: Robert Griffin III puts a face to the Washington Redskins. He will lead from day one while bring excitement to the fan base. Mike Shanahan will have him on the move, but he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast. The defense is ahead of the offense with a good pass rush, as well as attempting to improve the secondary in a division full of playmaking receivers.

NFC North

Bears: Chicago is a force to be reckoned with. Two years ago they hosted Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Last year the Bears were 7-3 before QB Jay Cutler got hurt, followed by RB Matt Forte. Adding Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, and Michael Bush, has them well-rounded with a gritty defense and playmaking special teams unit. They won’t be hibernating.

Lions: Detroit had their coming out party led by Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Stafford will have to play at a high level again, and the run game should help now that the running backs are healthy. The defensive line will be a handful, although the back-7 of the defense isn’t something to write about. They don’t have the best offensive line, and they might be taking a step back.

Packers: Aaron Rodgers is all that and a bag of chips. The receivers are great in the system, but the blocking was finally exposed at the end of the year. They need some form of a running game to show up, as well as a pass rush which they hope they solved by drafting Nick Perry. You know they’ll be an elite team again, the defense will decide if they return to the promised land.

Vikings: Minnesota is rebuilding and who knows what to expect from Adrian Peterson. The All-Pro running back is coming off a knee injury and is the majority of the offense, sprinkle in some Percy Harvin. Christian Ponder is the QB who will be running for his life despite drafting left tackle Matt Kalil. Their defense features a few standouts, but they should remain in the cellar.

NFC South

Buccaneers: Offensively they added some Pro Bowl players, I just don’t think Josh Freeman will take this team to the postseason. Don’t get me wrong he’s versatile with a clutch gene, and new coach Greg Schiano will have Tampa Bay running the ball and playing physical. Defensively they have a ways to go, and they did finish last in the division a season ago.

Falcons: This should be the team to beat in the division. Atlanta just doesn’t seem to have “it.” Matt Ryan has the blocking, solid ground game, and passing targets, but he has to take the next step without throwing 40 times per game. The defense ranked 6th against the run, with hopes that Asante Samuel brings leadership and coverage to the secondary.

Panthers: After the two-man game we witnessed between Cam Newton and Steve Smith, Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have to get that ground game in gear again. The offensive line needs to make strides, something I expect their defense to do with under coach Ron Rivera. For now the linebackers are healthy and they added a starter in Luke Kuechly.

Saints: Drew Brees got his contract, but he should lead his team and step away from the headlines from here on out. Put the bounty scandal in the rear-view because the last 2 seasons, he threw 36 interceptions. New Orleans faces an uphill battle without coach Sean Payton, and I question if they will even be in the playoff picture with that defense. That’s why they play the game.