3) Redskins (although I wouldn't be surprised to see them at #2)
Good luck picking the winner of this division, it's a crapshoot every year because of the parity from top to bottom. Now that the Redskins have finally acquired a solid QB and fired one of the worst GM/Head Coach pairings in the last decade, they can compete. Dallas fields arguably the best defensive front in football, but they also carry a lot of pressure on them with the Super Bowl being played in their house this year. Still, they are loaded with weapons on offense, have TWO vertical threats in WR Miles Austin and WR Dez Bryant, and field a stout defense as well. However, I'll just stick with the cliché "they'll choke in the playoffs again" rationalization and pick them to win the division. The Giants are thin at WR with some tough injuries and I worry about the durability of RB Brandon Jacobs who has sustained a lot of injuries, and the animosity between him and Tom Coughlin. Even with the addition of FS Antrel Rolle, I worry about their tendency to give up the big play. Also, as John B. and Bl3ch touched on below, they are old in their offensive (avg age 30.4 years) and lack depth there. If they sustain a couple of big injuries, they could be in deep trouble. Eagles lack a solid run-game, and Kolb will have a lot on his plate this year.
1) Saints (my pick to win the NFC)
The Saints have the benefit of something that defending Super Bowl Champions rarely get the luxury of having - due to the uncapped offseason, they've managed to retain almost their entire team from last year. I love everything about their offense, lead by one of the top QBs in the game in Brees and they're loaded with balance. They stretch the field with all of their vertical threats at WR but can also punch you in the mouth north-south, between the tackles w/ RB Pierre Thomas or east-west (or via screen pass) with Reggie Bush. On defense, they have a great defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams who fields a VERY strong CB tandem in Porter/Greer (both excellent in man coverage), and as a unit they really clamp down in the red zone. DC Greg Williams' exotic blitz schemes are similar to those of Mike Pettines' -- tough to sniff out and very deceptive.
The Falcons have always been plagued by their inability to win on the road, and while I think they will be improved in their defensive front, their struggle to consistently move the football on offense/rely on big play will be the reason they finish second. Panthers have QB issues, and Bucs are still a work in progress.
The 49ers are, hands-down, the team to beat in the NFC West this year. They haven't won the division since 2002, but that will change this year. I mentioned the Cardinals in my regression article, and I think loss of QB Warner/lacking a solid QB will kill them, esp with their offensive schemes. They also field a weak WR corps and I question their run-game (27th in NFL last year), and secondary which gave up 243 ypg last year and lost FS Antrel Rolle. The Seahawks have an aging QB, weak WR corps, and cannot win away from Qwest Field. The Rams are a work in progress.
3) Bears (although I wouldn't be surprised to see them at #2)
I like the Packers a lot this year, and had to choose between them and New Orleans for winning the NFC. I think by season's end they will lead the league in passing yards (why I picked up Aaron Rodgers in fantasy). They spread the field with a deep WR corps and one of the top 3 receiving TE's in the NFL in Jermichael Finley, who presents a ton of mismatches for LB's/Safetys because of his speed. They will be entering the second year of Dom Capers' system and his 3-4 defense, and are coming off a season which entailed them suffering a lot of injuries in their secondary (as the Saints did the year before). The NFL (especially NFC) is a passing league now. The Packers excel in that. IMO, their only red flags are giving up the big play, and Mike McCarthy in 4Q situations with the game on the line. He made a couple of key mistakes last year.
I love the Bears' young WR corps and Mike Martz being brought in to run the offense, but I worry about their defensive front which is loaded with older players, and their ability to be punched in the mouth in between the tackles. I also think Lovie Smith is an awful coach and on his way out of there. I mentioned Minny in my regression piece --- Aging Favre, injuries at WR, lack of depth at RB & CB, and Brad Childress being weak links. As for Detroit, I do believe they had a great offseason, and are moving in the right direction, but are still a year or two away from the postseason and a 7 or 8-win team right now.
1) Jets (my pick to win the AFC)
4) [Poor] Bills
Not going to explain my rationalization behind the JETS. Great O-Line, arguably best defense in NFL, and can control the trenches w/ ground-n-pound. Cheats field a mediocre defensive front with DE Ty Warren loss and LB Mike Vrabel to KC, and are young at secondary/ suffer a big loss with CB Leigh Bodden injury. They have an aging WR1 in Moss who has expressed discontent towards organization as they have said they don't plan to re-sign him next year. Belicheat can't use cameras anymore, and they've never had a good run-game. Miami is a new-look team, which is why I'm not sure they have the veteran leadership/coaching staff to keep them in line and get them winning right out of the gate this year. Sparano has little head coaching experience, and now that Parcells has passed off all of his personnel/consulting duties to GM Jeff Ireland, I think they suffer a big loss there. Still a weak secondary, especially with CB Will Allen on I-R again. Buffalo is an awful team, and their only bright spot is their secondary. Maybe they could team up with Miami? lol.
Colts will take the division pretty easily again this year, like they do every year. Not going to go into depth here, as neither Titans nor Jags have complete enough teams to compete with them. Houston is an offensive juggernaut, but I don't trust their defense to get stops in 4Q late nor do I trust their O-Line in run blocking and picking up short yardage when they need it.
AFC North -
The Ravens are the team to beat here. They are an extremely deep team, and appear to be the total package. They assessed their greatest need over the years which was WR in bringing in Boldin, Stallworth, and Houshmanzadeh, and field one of most talented RB duos in the NFL in Rice/McGahee --- great balance on offense. They have one of the best defensive fronts in football, and their only red flag lies in their secondary with ballhawk FS Ed Reed on PUP list and CB Domonique Foxworth out for the year with ACL injury. I think QB Carson Palmer has suffered too many injuries and that will kill the Bengals and render them predictable (which is actually what I said about them in week 17 last year), limiting his mobility and arm strength. However, they have a great run-game and stout 3-4 defense run by Mike Zimmer. Steelers also have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, but I question all the switching around they have to do at QB with Roethlisberger out ¼ of season, and also their WR corps. Because of that, I think teams will stack the box against them. Also, their CB's struggle in man coverage. The Browns are a work in progress, if that. Eric Mangini is not a winning HC in the NFL, he's just not. We saw that first-hand.
Similar to the AFC South, not going to beat this one to death either. Chargers should win this one in a cake walk like every year, with their high-powered passing offense which brings in young RB Ryan Mathews to bolster their ground game. He runs hard, and he runs over people. This team can put up 30+ points any given night. Chiefs are improving but are still a year away from being a playoff team, they now have a coaching staff (and roster) comprised of a lot of ex-Patriots, so they know how to win. I like the combo of Charles/Jones at RB, and I think we will see the emergence of guys like WR Dwayne Bowe. Still a lot of question marks on defense though. Raiders, Also moving in the right direction, but not enough to be competitive yet. Broncos I touched on in my regression piece, as they have loads of question marks, mainly on offense. Weak at QB, RB, and brought in a lot of youth at WR so we can expect a lot of drops, fumbles, and route running mistakes by them. Also, they take a mammoth hit on defense with the loss of DE Elvis Dumervil. I see a lot of growing pains for Denver this season, as they are clearly in a 'rebuilding' year.