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Football Relativity: Wild-card weekend

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. But this week, we go from comparing all 32 teams to focusing on the 12 playoff teams. All of these teams were at the 7 level or higher last week.

Broncos QB Tim Tebow makes his playoff debut this week, via orlandosentinel.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers closed out the season with a win even after sitting QB Aaron Rodgers and CB Charles Woodson, among others. At 15-1, Green Bay is not a perfect team, but they have a dynamic offense and a defense that causes turnovers. We’ve seen in recent years that this is a potent combination in the postseason. Green Bay may not be built to win a slugfest, but there aren’t many teams that could force the Packers into that kind of game.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints – The Saints closed with a flourish to finish 13-3, but it wasn’t enough for them to get a bye week. The Saints are nearly the Packers’ equal, and are built in much the same way. But the path New Orleans will have to take – a home game against a dangerous Detroit offense, followed by a road trip to San Francisco – may be too much. We see the Saints winning this week (something like 45-31), but we’re not sure they’ll even get to Green Bay for a rematch of Week 1.

The Ravens, meanwhile, earned a bye by locking down the AFC North. That’s key, because it takes away the possibility of laying an egg in the first round. We rate the Ravens above the Patriots because we like their ceiling more, but Baltimore hasn’t always been the most consistent team. But we can certainly see them gearing up for two big games and making it to the Super Bowl.

8 – New England Patriots – The Patriots earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but their defense once again showed major holes against Miami in Week 17. New England won’t be able to survive against Baltimore or Pittsburgh if they fall behind early like they have in the last two weeks. But we’re not sure those problems can be solved during a single bye week.

7 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are unlike any of the other top teams in the NFC and maybe even in the league in that they’re built around an elite defense. If they can turn their divisional-round game (likely against the Saints) into a slobberknocker, they might be able to get a playoff win. But Alex Smith, Frank Gore and company don’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Saints and Packers and Patriots. The 49ers simply aren’t good enough on red-zone offense to make a long playoff run.

6 – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are an odd team. They have the look of a contender, since they are coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season and have a championship pedigree. But it will be interesting to see if the Steelers really are at that level. While the offense has incredible punch with WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, we don’t think the Steelers can beat the Patriots or Ravens on the road. But they should have enough firepower to get through a trip to Denver this week.

5 – New York Giants, Detroit Lions – We put these teams above other wild-card weekend participants because of ceiling. The Lions have a high ceiling because of offensive firepower. The defense can’t stop the pass, which is a bad omen heading into a game against the Saints, but if the Lions somehow create a few turnovers, they could outscore the Saints.

The Giants, meanwhile, looked like a team that’s finally getting healthy against the Cowboys. With playmakers like WR Victor Cruz on offense and DE Jason Pierre-Paul on defense, the Giants can put together a peak performance. We see them winning this week against Atlanta, and if so they’ll challenge the Packers because they always seem to rise to the occasion.

4 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are a good team but not a great team. They can beat lesser teams, but they really haven’t risen to the occasion to beat a better team at any point this year. That’s enough for a playoff berth, but it’s not enough to advance now that the postseason has arrived. We see them being one-and-done again this year.

3 – Houston Texans – The Texans aren’t the team they could have been without major injury problems, but they still have enough upside to get a home win this weekend. Who knows who will play quarterback, but with a strong running game and an attacking defense should be enough for a feel-good moment in the franchise’s first playoff game.

2 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are a junior version of the Panthers, beating lesser teams but never rising to the occasion against a better opponent. They even lost to the T.J. Yates-led Texans a month ago. Credit to Cincinnati for making it to the good level in QB Andy Dalton’s rookie year, but the run ends this week.

1 – Denver Broncos– The bloom seems to be off the Tim Tebow rose after a three-game losing streak, but the real problem is that the defense has also declined. We believe Tebow has shown enough to earn an offseason of development as the starting quarterback, but that doesn’t mean we expect him to overcome the Steelers this week. At least Broncos fans get to enjoy the buildup to a home playoff game.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 15

Each week, we look through the Sunday NFL results to find one team that’s rising, one team that’s sinking, and one team that stays at the same level. You’ll see these changes reflected in our weekly Football Relativity comparison of all 32 teams.

DT Tommie Harris and the Chargers took down QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens, via baynews9.com

Rise – San Diego Chargers – The Bolts dominated the Ravens at home on Sunday  night, posting a 34-14 win. Whatever their midseason problems were, San Diego appears to have figured them out. It may still be a case of too little, too late, because San Diego remains a game behind the Broncos in the AFC West. But they are playing much better, and that has them on the rise.

Sink – New York Giants – The Giants followed up a key win in Dallas in Week 14 with a stinker at home against Washington in Week 15. As a result, they once again fall a game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. If the Giants were going to be a playoff game, Sunday’s game was one they had to win. Instead, they fell apart at the least opportune time.

Float – Green Bay Packers – Yes, the Packers lost for the first time all season. But that doesn’t change our belief that they’re still the class of the league. Now Aaron Rodgers and company must show that they can decipher and overcome the strategies the Chiefs used against them so that they can avoid being limited to 14 points in future games. We have every belief that the Pack will be able to do that.

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Preja Vu: Packers/Giants

For National Football Authority, we preview the matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. Can the Giants end the Packers’ unbeaten run and get back in the NFC East race? Or will the Packers protect Aaron Rodgers and get another win? Click here to find out.

The Packers and WR Jordy Nelson visit S Antrel Rolle and the Giants, via washingtontimes.com

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 11

Each week, we look through the Sunday NFL results to find one team that’s rising, one team that’s sinking, and one team that stays at the same level. You’ll see these changes reflected in our weekly Football Relativity comparison of all 32 teams.

OLB Von Miller (58) and the Broncos celebrated against the Jets, via kfoxtv.com

Rise – Denver Broncos – You may call it the power of Tim Tebow, but the reason the Broncos are rising into the AFC West race is a defense that is playing lights-out right now. Rookie OLB Von Miller is a force, but the entire defense excelled once again in the Thursday-night 17-13 win over the New York Jets. Tebow may be 4-1 as a starter, but that’s in large part due to the defense that allowed 15, 10, 24, and 13 points in those four wins. If the defense can keep games low-scoring, Tebow doesn’t have to be dynamic – he just has to make a play or two. That will be enough for Denver to make a run at 9-7, which could be enough to win a competitive but mediocre division.

Sink – New York Giants – We floated the Giants last week after a road loss to the 49ers, but falling at home to the Michael Vick-less Philadelphia Eagles is inexcusable. Eli Manning has had some great games this season, but Sunday night wasn’t one of them, as he completed just 18-of-35 passes and threw an interception. Now the Giants face a full-on dogfight from the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, and chances are just one of those teams can make the postseason.

Float – Detroit Lions – The Lions fell behind to the Carolina Panthers at home by 17 points, but rallied for a 49-35 win. While Detroit has a high-powered offense, the Panthers’ performance again raises questions about whether the defense is built for the long haul. Still, at 7-3 the Lions are in the playoff hunt, and a few more offensive explosions will get them there. The question this week is whether they can explode against the Packers on Thanksgiving and keep up with Aaron Rodgers and company on the scoreboard.

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Football Relativity Week 7

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week.

Packers WR Greg Jennings and company beat the Vikings, via greenbaypressgazette.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers were tested in Minnesota – until CB Charles Woodson took advantage of rookie QB Christian Ponder not once but twice. Meanwhile, QB Aaron Rodgers was pitching a near perfect game. The Pack enters their bye 7-0, and they’ve served notice that the title defense is on in Titletown.

9 – New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints – The Patriots were on bye. The Saints broke out the whooping stick in a 62-7 home win over the Colts. It was a complete performance that highlighted what the Saints can be at their best. They’ll have a great chance at an encore next week in a visit to St. Louis.

8 – Atlanta Falcons (UP A LEVEL), Baltimore Ravens (DOWN A LEVEL), Houston Texans (UP A LEVEL), Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers – We’re temped to dock the Chargers after a poor offensive performance in New York against the Jets, but we’ll leave them be for now since that road trip was a tough game. But the Bolts need to bounce back and play better soon, because the Chiefs are on the charge in the AFC West. The Steelers took care of business in Arizona with a 32-20 victory, setting up huge home games against New England and Baltimore in the next two weeks. The Falcons got a win in Detroit and seem to have found themselves the last few weeks. That’s a good feeling as the Dirty Birds head to their bye. The Texans won a big game in the AFC South and did so in convincing style, 41-7 over the Titans. They have a chance to knock off another division foe next week at home against the Jaguars. The Ravens played those Jaguars this week and lost on Monday night. It was a horrific offensive performance as, for the second time this season, Baltimore laid a major egg on the road. They must bounce back against Arizona this week before facing off against the Steelers the following week.

7 – Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys (UP A LEVEL), Detroit Lions (DOWN A LEVEL), New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – We covered the Cowboys’ nice win and the Cowboys’ disappointing loss in Rise/Sink/Float. The 49ers, Giants, and Bills were on bye.  The Buccaneers lost in London to the Bears, and they were wracked by injuries to RB Earnest Graham and others. The bye is coming at a key time for the Bucs. The Jets put together a comeback win against the Chargers to move to 4-0. Gang Green has been up and down, but after the bye they need to learn to win on the road. The Raiders were embarrassed against the Chiefs, but they hope the upcoming bye week will help new QB Carson Palmer get ready to contribute.

6 – Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles – We covered the Bears’ win in London in Rise/Sink/Float, and the Eagles were on bye.

5 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals were on bye.

4 – Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs (UP A LEVEL), Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans (DOWN A LEVEL), Washington Redskins (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Chiefs went into Oakland and took advantage of bad quarterback play to shut out the Raiders. Suddenly, despite injuries, the Chiefs are 3-3, and if they can beat the Chargers next Monday night, they’ll control their own destiny in the AFC West. It’s an impressive turnaround after an awful start. The Browns beat the Seahawks 6-3 in a terrible aesthetic game. But the Browns are 3-3, which is a nice feat – even though the schedule has been favorable. The Seahawks competed on the road, but while the defense is pretty good, the offense ain’t. The Titans got blasted by the Texans in a key AFC South matchup, and there’s no question they’re now a step behind Houston in the division. The Redskins missed an opportunity in Carolina, falling to 3-3 and losing ground in the NFC East.

3 – Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars (UP A LEVEL) – The Panthers finally got a win with a 33-20 decision over the Redskins. They have a chance to build on that momentum at home against the Vikings this week, which would put them at 3-5 entering the bye. That would be a nice step forward for QB Cam Newton and company. The Broncos also got a win thanks to last-minute heroics from QB Tim Tebow, who isn’t pretty but still finds a way to deliver in the clutch. Denver hosts Detroit this week. The Jaguars followed a competitive performance in Pittsburgh with a win against the Ravens at home. Jacksonville’s defense is coming on, and that’s a good sign. Now rookie QB Blaine Gabbert must start to make progress too. Amazingly, if the Jaguars can win in Houston this week, they will be 3-4 with wins over both of their main division rivals – basically in the thick of the race.

2 – Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings lost to the Panthers, but Christian Ponder’s starting debut showed promise. The Vikings have an easier draw in Carolina this week. The Cardinals stuck around but ultimately fell victim to the Steelers. A trip to Baltimore this week is no easy place to bounce back.

1 – Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams – The league’s winless crew embarrassed themselves again. The Dolphins blew a 15-0 lead in the final three minutes of regulation against the Broncos. The Colts were blasted 62-7 in New Orleans. The Rams fell to Dallas 34-7. We don’t see any wins on the horizon, either.

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Football Relativity: Week 4

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week.

Texans OLB Mario Williams took down Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, via behindthesteelcurtain.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers hammered the Broncos 49-23 to move to 4-0. When Aaron Rodgers is on his game, no team in the NFL can compete with the Packers. The champs are off to a great start in their title defense, and are in great form entering a Sunday-night showdown in Atlanta.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots – The Ravens won a weird game against the Jets thanks to three defensive touchdowns. While Joe Flacco’s performance has been up and down, the Ravens are still a solid 3-1. The Patriots rebounded from a loss in Buffalo by beating the Raiders 31-19 on the road. Now the Pats face the reeling Jets in Foxboro with a chance to grab control of the AFC East.

8 – Detroit Lions (UP A LEVEL), Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – We covered the pride of the Lions in Rise/Sink/Float. The Texans got a statement win at home against the Steelers, and their defense bounced back after a debacle against the Saints in Week 3. Houston now hosts the Raiders with a chance to start the second quarter of the season strong. The Saints got a solid if unspectacular win in Jacksonville to move to 3-1 as well. They’re playing better than any other NFC South team, but a trip to Carolina next week is no gimme. The Chargers have avoided their typical September struggles and have moved to 3-1. They go to Denver this week with a chance to open an even bigger division lead. We’ll have much more on the Bucs’ win over the Colts in a post later today.

7 – Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants (UP A LEVEL), New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles (DOWN A LEVEL), Pittsburgh Steelers (DOWN A LEVEL) – This is the group of 2011 playoff teams that are on the verge of falling out of contention. We covered the Eagles’ descent in Rise/Sink/Float. The Falcons won in Seattle, but nearly blew a big lead. Still, getting a road win in the tough environs of Seattle is a credit. The Jets looked awful against the Ravens, and their offense is really struggling without C Nick Mangold. But the Jets often start slow and still bounce back. The Steelers lost in Houston, and given the injuries on the offensive line and signs of age on the defensive line, it’s hard to see them as elite anymore. The Super Bowl loser’s hangover is definitely in effect in Pittsburgh. The Giants move up to this level, because while we’re not sold on them, they’re playing fairly well so far. They found a way to win in Arizona and now return home to face Seattle with a chance to move to 4-1.

6 – Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins – We covered the Bears in depth in this game post, and we focused in on the Redskins in Rise/Sink/Float. The Bills lost a lead in Cincinnati, which isn’t shocking. Buffalo’s offense is good, but the defense needs work and will likely be what keeps them out of the playoffs. The Cowboys lost a huge lead at home against Detroit, and while the Lions are good,  that’s a blow. Despite talent, the Cowboys are likely outside of the playoffs. The Raiders lost at home against the Patriots, and at 2-2 they’re at a crossroads. Their trip to Houston this week will be fascinating to watch.

5 – San Francisco 49ers (UP A LEVEL), Tennessee Titans (UP A LEVEL) – We aren’t really believers in either the 49ers or the Titans to make a serious run at contention, but both teams move to 3-1. The 49ers won in Philadelphia, and in a weak NFC West, they’re in a fine position so far. Now the Golddiggers return home to host the Buccaneers, who travel across the continent on a short week. The Titans thrived despite Kenny Britt’s absence, throttling the Browns 31-13 in Cleveland. They have an opportunity to capitalize vs. a struggling Steelers team this week. Matt Hasselbeck has to be among the league MVP candidates through the first quarter of the season.

4 – Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns (DOWN A LEVEL), Jacksonville Jaguars – The Browns got blasted at home against the Titans, so they fall a level to join other game teams who don’t win often in the Cardinals and the Jaguars. Jacksonville played decent defense but lost at home to New Orleans, while the Cardinals couldn’t hold a lead at home against the Giants.

3 – Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks (UP A LEVEL) – We covered the Panthers’ loss to Chicago in this game post. The Bengals won at home against the Bills, while the Chiefs got their first win at home against the Vikings. The Broncos predictably got blasted in Green Bay. Seattle moves up a level because their offense showed some life in a near-comeback against Atlanta. We’ll have much more on the Colts in a post later today.

2 – Miami Dolphins (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Dolphins were game in San Diego against the Chargers, but they ultimately fell 26-16. They enter their bye with vultures circling over head coach Tony Sparano’s head.

1 – Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams (DOWN TWO LEVELS) – The Rams continued to be as listless as any team in the NFL in their 17-10 loss to the Redskins, so we have no choice but to put them at the bottom level. They’re joined by the Vikings, who fell to 0-4 as well in a road loss to the previously punchless Chiefs.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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