And on we go to the other conference...
1. Green Bay (10-6)
In a division without a true standout team, it's probably wise to put stock in the team that's been to the top before. Brett Favre is running out of gas, so the offense will rely heavily on running back Ahman Green. The defense has precious few pass rushers led by end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. The Packers won't reach the Super Bowl, but the old dog Favre still knows the tricks of getting to the playoffs. If Favre goes dow to injury, first-round pick Aaron Rodgers gets the nod and the Packers might scale into a rebuilding mode.
2. Minnesota (8-8)
The only thing that stands between QB Daunte Culpepper and true greatness are interceptions. The loss of Randy Moss might be addition by subtraction, but I can't help but think the Vikings are going to struggle to replace his production, particularly when Culpepper is taking aim at the end zone. This team has enough firepower to be an outside-shot playoff contender, but no more.
3. Detroit (7-9)
The good: recievers Mike Williams, Roy Williams and Charles Rogers. The bad: QB Joey Harrington and anyone else the Lions will use to throw their fearsome trio of receivers the ball. The loss of backup QB Jeff Garcia means the Lions could challenge the Dolphins for the worst QB situation in the league, unless Harrington finally realizes his potential. (Side note: if any place in the league was ripe for the return of the run-and-shoot offense, this would be it.)
4. Chicago (5-11)
Head coach Lovie Smith is installing his smash-mouth defensive scheme. But even if Smith installs a system that allows the Bears to live in the opposing backfield, they still have to score points. There is a brewing QB controversy between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton here, and while that's being ironed out, rushers Thomas Jones and rookie Cedric Benson will have to carry the load.
1. Philadelphia (12-4)
Sure, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens have conducted a soap opera the likes of which are usually only seen on weekday afternoons. But both are so talented and have such a handle on winning, they can despise each other and still manage to win football games. The status of running back Brian Westbrook, now perpetually banged-up, leaves the running game in flux. But come January, this team should still be the best the NFC has to offer, along with Carolina.
2. Dallas (9-7)
The offense has big names like Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson, but the biggest producers could be tight end David Witten and running back Julius Jones, whom a major national publication recently predicted would win the NFL rushing title this year. It remains to be seen whether the concoction of veteran names and up-and-comers coach Bill Parcells has amassed will be enough to lift the Cowboys to the playoffs.
3. N.Y. Giants (7-9)
How many people outside New York have been rooting for QB Eli Manning to fail ever since draft day 2004, when he pulled his Hideki Irabu "I only want to play in New York" shtick? The offense's bread and butter is still running back Tiki Barber, but it's doubtful Barber's legs, Manning's arm, and Jeremy Shockey's mouth will lift the Giants to anything significant this year.
4. Washington (4-12)
Owner Dan Snyder whiffs again. The Redskins have Joe Gibbs, an outdated coach who was hired on the honest-to-goodness belief that he was going to be able to show up, wave a magic wand, and make things the way they were in the 1980s and early '90s, when Washington won three Super Bowls. Gibbs proved quickly to be a bad match for his roster, installing a battering-ram rushing attack for his smallish, corner-turning running back, Clinton Portis. Portis predicatbly looked nothing like the legend-in-the-making he was in Denver. And should I even bring up the failed Mark Brunell experiment?
The Panthers showed their mettle when they rebounded from a ghastly start to nearly make the playoffs last year. Now, with the return to health of recever Steve Smith, QB Jake Delhomme gets one of his primary targets back. DeShaun Foster and the much bigger Stephen Davis provide a nice change-up for the backfield. John Fox is the best coach in the league this side of Bill Belichick. Iif the Eagles want their NFC title back, they are going to have to go through Charlotte this season.
2. Atlanta (11-5)
Is Mike Vick a tad overrated, the NFL's version of the Miami Heat's Jason Williams, too much frosting and not enough cake? Probably. But the rest of Atlanta's roster makes up for it, and actually makes Vick look like a darn good field general. Much like Carolina, the rushing game is reliant on an undersized runner (Warrick Dunn) and an oversized line-basher (T.J. Duckett). The Falcons, much like last year, will be there to create waves in the end.
3. Tampa Bay (6-10)
Man, have the Buccaneers fallen fast. Three years after winning the Super Bowl, they are throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. QB Chris Simms is the latest flight of fancy for coach Jon Gruden. Michael Pittman and rooke Cadillac Williams will probably be the pillars of the offense.
4. New Orleans (4-12)
The Saints arene't actually this bad, but they are quite obviously a by-product of a tragic and very complicated situation in their home city. As have thousands upon thousands of their fans, the Saints have been forced to relocate and resume their lives elsewhere. The Saints don't really know where "home" is as of now. This team has some solid talent in QB Aaron Brooks, receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth, and running back Deuce McAllister, but their vagabond existence will probably take a psychological toll on them. Maybe things will get back to normal next year.
1. Seattle (10-6)
The grand plan of head coach Mike Holmgren never really reached fruition in Seattle the way it did in Green Bay. Of course, Matt Hasselbeck is no Brett Favre. Still, with a balanced offense and defense, and the rushing of a healthy Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks should make it back to the playoffs this year atop one of football's weakest divisions.
2. St. Louis (8-8)
The Greatest Show On Turf has been downgraded to a straight-to-video release. QB Marc Bulger still has high-octane receiver in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but the fire of Marshall Faulk has fizzled down to part-time status. Steven Jackson (not the guy who plays for the Indiana Pacers) will be the new feature back for the Rams.
3. Arizona (6-10)
Kurt Warner will probably be a better reclamation project fothe Cardinals than was Emmitt Smith. Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington will provide a solid rushing attack shold Warner be able to pilot any type of a decent passing game. First-round pick Antrel Rolle gives the Cardinals their first shutdown corner since Aeneas Williams. And did I mention the snazzy new uniforms? Yep, the Plain-Jane Cardinals are updating their look after about 60 years.
4. San Francisco (3-13)
The 49ers are a disaster. From the serious (the preseason death of lineman Thomas Herrion) to the off-color (the controversial in-house training video scandal), this is a team that can't stop getting in its own way. Running back Kevan Barlow is probably the only offensive player worth much of anything at the moment. QB Alex Smith ... we'll see. He operated primarily out of the shotgun at Utah. An under-center offense is a pretty big adjustment.