Archive for August, 2010

Here is the last entry in the division-by-division season preview, next Thursday morning with the postseason and Super Bowl predictions on before the Saints vs. Vikings open the season on NBC.

The AFC West is a division that has seemingly been on repeat for years. The San Diego Chargers own lease by one club for the last four years, with a relenting grasp, on first place. Then come the Denver Broncos come in right after them, followed by some order of the Chiefs or Raiders fighting it out for third place, by a long margin. During this stretch the Chargers have been led by one of the great running backs in NFL history and one of the most productive tight ends and quarterbacks ever as well. Essentially, everything runs through San Diego because only the very elite of the league have been able to derail them, and none of them are in this division.

However, things are changing in the West, even at the top. The cast of the Charger Show is losing some of its longest tenured guys. In Denver, the last of the disgruntled Broncos left town, just as the Mile High City started resembling an M.A.S.H. camp this summer. Even the Raiders and Chiefs are bringing impact guys at long last. Perhaps the run up the mountain in to capture the flag atop the West won’t be as steep.

However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not much as drastic as the spreading of power across this division changes quickly. However, anything can happen, including one of the doormats of the division starting to get up and dust themselves off. Anything could happen, maybe.

Denver Broncos (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: R. Clady-T, K. Moreno-RB, K. Orton-QB, E. Royal-WR (C)

Defense: C. Bailey-CB, B. Dawkins-SS, R.Ayers-LB (C+)

The Good: While he will never be a flashy, top flight quarterback, Kyle Orton quietly had a very solid first season in Denver. His veteran presence will be just as important this time around, because he’s the ringleader of a group of talent that’s going to need his help to develop. Knowshon Moreno approached 1,000 yards on the ground as a rookie and will have even more responsibility this season. They used their two first round picks on giving the offense more options with QB Tim Tebow and WR Demaryius Thomas. Each will play a crucial role in a team rebuilding after losing a prominent member of its offense for second straight offseason in Brandon Marshall.

With a weakened defensive front, Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary could be quite busy.

The Bad: Injuries are ravaging the Broncos very early. All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady tore knee ligaments during an offseason basketball game & will miss the beginning of the season. Elvis Dumervil went down for the season with a torn chest muscle early in training camp. He takes his league leading 17 sacks to the sideline with him. Their top three running backs have had training camp injury issues, with Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and LenDale White all limited. Even top draft picks Tebow and Thomas have been limited by early injury. The injury bug may beat the Broncos before any opponent gets a chance to.

X-Factor-Eddie Royal: The ability of Royal to make big plays is undeniable; however consistency seems to be as elusive to him as he is to opponents. He didn’t eclipse 100 yards in a game last year and only had five or more catches twice. This is a far cry from his 91 catch, 980 yards rookie showing. With all the instability around the Broncos, they need to Royal to lean much more towards his first year form to make life much easier for the ever-changing Bronco offense.

2010 Projection: @ Jax (L), Sea (W), Ind (L), @ Ten (L), @ Bal (L), NYJ (W), Oak (W), SF (W), KC (W), @ SD (L), StL (W), @ KC (L), @ Ari (L), @ Oak (L), Hou (W), SD (L)

Summary: The Broncos are full of as many question marks as any team in football, due to injuries and personnel changes. Even without these issues, they still don’t have one part of the team that jumps off the page as being an outstanding unit. Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins will lead a tough secondary, but lack of a pass rush may wear them down early. They may surprise a few clubs, but there’s not enough here to make a constant impact. RECORD: 7-9

Kansas City Chiefs (4-12 in 2009)

Offense: M. Cassel-QB, J. Charles-RB, D. Bowe-WR, T. Jones-RB (B)

Defense: D. Johnson-LB, E. Berry-S, B. Flowers-CB (C+)

The Good: They are finally landing some big play threats on both sides of the ball. Jamaal Charles caught fire after taking over as starter, including a 259 finale vs. Denver. They sport one of the most athletic receiver duos in football with Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers. They used the 5th pick in the draft to add dynamic safety Eric Berry, who was the biggest defensive player in college football over the last two years, to boost a defense that has been searching for a playmaker for years via the draft. 2nd round pick Dexter McCluster will be used every way possible in the both the offense and special teams to provide another spark.

The Chiefs have to protect Cassel better in year two if they want their investment to pay off.

The Bad: Both lines, offensive and defensive, are bad. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson have typified early draft pick errors of the last 3 years and have yet to find their way in making an impact even close to what they did in college. Underperformance by this tandem is why teams averaged over 150 yards per game versus team last season, next to worst in the NFL. Lack of impact by the offensive line limited the impact of new QB Matt Cassel, who threw both 16 touchdowns and interceptions in his first KC season. Former first rounder Branden Albert has to turn the corner at left tackle, because nothing will change if Cassel is sacked another 40 plus times.

X-Factor-Brandon Flowers: The 2008 second round pick took strides forward in his second season and became one the more physical presences at cornerback in the game. He finished with five interceptions and was the leader of a much improved secondary. He could be challenged more this year with the talented Berry lurking at free safety, and his development will play a big role in the efforts to bring stability to the entire defense.

2010 Projection: SD (L), @ Cle (L), SF (L), @ Ind (L), @ Hou (L), Jax (L), Buf (W), @ Oak (L), @ Den (L), Ari (L), @ Sea (L), Den (W), SD (W), @ StL (L), Ten (L), Oak (W)

Summary: They still have to better themselves at the critical frontlines to truly make the strides back to respectability. The offensive line is a mixture is plagued by aging vets, underperforming youth and plain low talent. Until they can get it right here, the offense will not be able rise up. The pieces are coming into place for an upswing, but even high-profile new coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel won’t be able to help Todd Haley right a ship with this many critical issues in its hull. RECORD: 4-12

Oakland Raiders (5-11 in 2009)

Offense: J. Campbell-QB, Z. Miller-TE, M. Bush-RB (D+)

Defense: N. Asomugha-CB, R. Seymour-DE, J. Henderson-DT, R. McClain-LB (B+)

The Good: The defense has huge potential. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is the least targeted defender in the game and led the Raider defense to a top ten finish versus the pass last year. They have aggressively added to linebacker unit by acquiring Kamerion Wimbley and drafting middle linebacker Rolando McClain. Add to this group a defensive line featuring Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, John Henderson and this projects to be a tough unit all the way around.

The NFL's most avoided player, Asomugha will be the star in much improved Raider defense.

The Bad: While the JaMarcus Russell era is over, there is still the matter of the inconsistencies of the remaining team. The offensive line still requires extensive work to enable new quarterback Jason Campbell to do much with this unit. Michael Bush returns as leading rusher, but he didn’t top 600 yards last year. Darren McFadden has yet to show the toughness or health to be a consistent runner. Starting receivers Darius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Chaz Schillens are not a group that strikes fear any defense, combining for only 1,010 yards in ’09.

X-Factor-Jason Campbell: When you trade a fourth round pick that doesn’t go into effect for 2 years for an established starting quarterback, you know you’ve gotten a deal. Now it’s time for Campbell to take the snaps and both prove the Raiders got a bargain. Anything should help them starting moving past the horrors of the Russell era. He has been a steady hand his first six years and while he’s not a franchise turning savior, he has the ability to give some impression of a steady offense, which is real progress here.

2010 Projection: @ Ten (L), StL (W), @ Ari (W), Hou (L), SD (W), @ SF (L), @ Den (W), Sea (W), KC (W), @ Pit (L), Mia (W), @ SD (L), @ Jax (L), Den (L), Ind (L), @ KC (L)

Summary: This is a team of two distinct halves. The defense looks ready to win, but it still sports an offense that could potentially win a few games for the opponent. There shouldn’t be a lot of high scoring affairs in many Raider contests for either team, and this is a real progression for a club that has been snake bitten by bad drafting and empty personnel moves for years. This off-season’s moves won’t shoot them into the playoffs, but it should provide for a nice start to a rebuilding effort. RECORD: 7-9

San Diego Chargers (13-3 in 2009; Division Champs)

Offense: P. Rivers-QB, A. Gates-TE, R. Mathews-RB, D. Sporles-RB (A)

Defense: S. Merriman-LB, L. Castillo-DE, Q. Jammer-CB (C+)

The Good: They brought balance back on the offense. After Darren Sporles showed he couldn’t take prolonged carries in the backfield and LaDainian Tomlinson couldn’t carry the load anymore full-time, the Chargers running game became non-existent almost. Luckily Philip Rivers easily passed them out of the problem often, but acquiring a new back was a must. In April, they moved up the Draft to select Ryan Mathews from Fresno State to handle that running load. If he continues his strong preseason showing of a speed and toughness surplus, he will be a force of a balancing act.

Mathews idolized Tomlinson growing up. Now how effectively he replaces him is huge for the Chargers.

The Bad: They have lost a lot of mainstays from a core that was very successful over the last six years. Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie and Jamaal Williams have all moved on to new clubs. All-Pros Marcus McNeil and Vincent Jackson are holding out, with Jackson demanding a trade. With new players being called upon in more critical possessions, the team could be taking on a new direction and the margin of error will be tighter. To ensure the various transitions go off easier on offense, getting McNeil back is huge.

X-Factor-Malcolm Floyd: He came on strong last season opposite Jackson as big downfield target that Rivers looked to in big play situations frequently. With Jackson having likely played his last game in SD, Floyd becomes the go-to guy for Rivers on the outside. With the responsibility of lining up versus the best corner on the other club weekly, including Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey in divisional matchups, Floyd rising to the occasion and becoming a dependable #1 receiver is a huge part in San Diego’s effort at defending their division crown.

2010 Projection: @ KC (W), Jax (L), @ Sea (W), Ari (W), @ Oak (L), @ StL (W), NE (W), Ten (W), @ Hou (L), Den (W), @ Ind (L), Oak (W), KC (L), SF (W), @ Cin (L), @ Den (W)

Summary: There’s a lot of transition in several places here. The main benefits are having strong leadership remaining on both sides of the ball in Rivers, Antonio Gates and Shawne Merriman still suiting up. This will still be one of the most productive offenses in football, definitely the best in the West, and the defense is solid won’t lose any games for them. Despite the turnover, they will easily represent the West come Playoff time again. RECORD: 11-5

The AFC South is segregated (in a not so severely, traditional way). For many years, the Peyton Manning led Colts have more often than not controlled the inside track on the division. Since the South was formed in 2002, they have won it seven of nine seasons, making it to the Super Bowl twice and winning it once. Last year was no different, as they represented the AFC on Super Bowl Sunday again. However, while they have been running thing from above, the other tenants in the division have been not so quietly preparing to knock them from their throne.

The division hosts some of the greatest individual talents in the game. Besides Manning, his record four MVP performances and laundry list of other stats and records, each other team has at least one distinct All-Pro talent to build around. In Houston, Andre Johnson has caught over 3,000 yards in the last two years alone and has become the league’s top receiver. Maurice Jones-Drew has only failed reach double digits in touchdowns once in his career for Jacksonville. All of this comes before Tennessee’s Chris Johnson is mentioned, who became a phenom in his second season, ending up with the highest single season total yardage mark in NFL history in his second season with 2,509 yards, of which 2,006 came on the ground. To put it short, every game in-division game comes against one of the NFL’s greatest threats.

However, can any of these All-Pros put it all together and come for the Colts’ and throw them from the throne? All things must pass, but it’s going to take more than one determined fighter to win the war in the South. Let’s see how the troops are looking for this go around.

Indianapolis Colts (14-2 in 2009; AFC Champions)

Offense: P. Manning-QB, R. Wayne-WR, D. Clark-TE, J. Saturday-C (A+)

Defense: D. Freeney-DE, B. Sanders-SS, G. Brackett-LB, A. Bethea-FS (B)

The Good: For the 13th consecutive year, it all starts with Peyton. In route to his record 4th MVP, he directed the 2nd best passing attack in the game and he actually adds more depth to it this year. Anthony Gonzalez returns from missing the entire year to injury last season. He joins an already deep group of receivers and gives yet another proven option to make Manning even more dangerous, if that’s possible.

Manning could have even more weapons at his already military-status disposal this year. Scary thought.

The Bad: There are cracks in some fundamental parts of the Colts’ foundation. The offensive line is shaky on the edges, and Manning hasn’t had to worry about protection for at least 10 years. The defense is solid on the pass, but standing down against the run has to improve, after finishing 24th in the league last year. Also, despite favoring the pass heavily, the running game has to give a better constant result when used, as Joseph Addai and Donald Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry between each other.

X-Factor-Donald Brown: The Colts 2009 first round pick was supposed to be used in alternation with Addai last year, but he never really got going. A chest injury took most of the end of the season away from him and he never got back into the mix. While the Colts run less than any other team, they need for Brown to become the high production, change of pace back that they drafted him to be.

2010 Projection: @ Hou (W), NYG (W), @ Den (W), @ Jax (L), KC (W), @ Was (W),  Hou (L), @ Phi (L), Cin (W), @ NE (L), SD (W), Dal (W), @ Ten (W), Jax (W), @ Oak (W), Ten (W)

Summary: Even without a fully healthy offense, they ran through the AFC and reached the Super Bowl. With those players back, they are deeper than they were after making it to the Bowl. They are controlled by arguably the game’s greatest player and have enough defensive presence to once again take the South and make another strong playoff run. RECORD: 12-4

Houston Texans (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: A. Johnson-WR, M. Schaub-QB, O. Daniels-TE (A-)

Defense: M. Williams-DE, B. Cushing-LB, D. Ryans-LB (C+)

The Good: On offense, nobody goes to the air better than them, with the league’s most productive quarterback/receiver combo in Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Andre Davis, while not getting the notoriety of Johnson, are all very effective and keep defenses from only focusing on him. On defense, they have steadily drafted well and added several impact players. Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing give them a strong youthful core that’s steadily improving.

A more dependable running game could make Schaub's frequent passes even more dangerous.

The Bad: The running game is an unknown factor and gives an inconsistent result. After a breakout rookie season, Steve Slaton became a huge possession liability to the Texans, fumbling seven times and losing five of them. He is projecting as a change of pace/receiving option (ala Reggie Bush) over a pure runner. His setbacks forced the Texans to try several different options, eventually settling on Arian Foster, who ran for 216 yards over the last two weeks of the season. Finding consistency here will be crucial to any breakthrough the Texans have this year.

X-Factor-Kareem Jackson: Counting on rookie cornerbacks to contribute immediately is a risky proposition for any team, but Jackson adapting quickly will be big for a Houston team that lost its best defensive back, Dunta Robinson, to free agency during the offseason. The 18th overall pick showcased was an athletic attacker at corner for Alabama’s BCS Championship and was seen as potentially the best overall prospect available at cornerback. Quickly playing up to expectations will make life a lot easier for a growing Texans defense.

2010 Projection: Ind (L), @ Was (L), Dal (L), @ Oak (W), NYG (L), KC (W), @ Ind (W), SD (W), @ Jax (W), @ NYJ (L), Ten (W), @ Phi (W), Bal (L), @ Ten (W), @ Den (L), Jax (W)

Summary: There is a lot to like about the Texans, they can move the ball down the field exceptionally and the defense is no longer a complete liability. They will be a tough matchup weekly, but they still have to find better balance on offense and prove the secondary can show up consistently to be considered a definite playoff team. They are on the edge of a breakthrough however, and could easily win one to two more games and be in the picture this year. RECORD: 9-7

Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9 in 2009)

Offense: M. Jones-Drew-RB, D. Garrard-QB, M. Sims-Walker-WR (C+)

Defense: K. Morrison-LB, A. Kampman-DE, D. Smith-LB (D+)

The Good: They are a tough running team with a developing young offensive line. Maurice Jones-Drew is as versatile of a back as you can hope for and they rightfully lean on him heavily. In year two, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton should be ready to step up to start fulfilling their 1st round potential at the crucial offensive tackle spot. They are the key to opening up the holes that are so critical to MJD being able to run free across the entire field.

Finishing strong: Sims-Walker having a consistent year is a must for a thin Jags passing game.

The Bad: They seemingly refuse to upgrade their passing defense, which has been a concern for several years now. After allowing 280 yards a game last season, they bring back the same group this season. They’ll continue to decline before they better themselves by continuing to ignore this issue. Despite the breakout of Mike Sims-Walker, they have a lackluster receiving group after Sims-Walker, letting defenses focus almost exclusively on limiting the rush.

X-Factor-Aaron Kampman: The Jaguars pass rush just hasn’t been able to materialize the last few years. In acquiring Kampman, they hope they have solved part of this problem. A mix of injury and placement issues kept him out of seven of the last eight games in Green Bay last year and he played out of position in their 3-4 scheme, finishing with only 3.5 sacks. They hope to get the version of him that averaged 12 sacks a season from ’06-’08 and become an immediate catalyst for an average front line.

2010 Projection: Den (W), @ SD (W), Phi (L), Ind (W), @ Buf (L), Ten (L), @ KC (W), @ Dal (L), Hou (L), Cle (L), @ NYG (L), @ Ten (L), Oak (W), @ Ind (L), Was (W), @ Hou (L)

Summary: The Jags are in a rut. They have a solid core, but the offense has little punch after Jones Drew and the defense is lacks proven impact players up front, followed by big issues in the secondary. In a division where you they wouldn’t play Indianapolis and Houston twice, that may work, but not here. They will fall victim to the improvements in around the division and remain the cellar. RECORD: 6-10

Tennessee Titans (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: C. Johnson-RB, V. Young-QB, K. Britt-WR (B+)

Defense: C. Finnegan-CB, W. Witherspoon-LB, C. Hope-FS (C+)

The Good: They have the ability to make big plays. In Chris Johnson they have the league’s most explosive player and after Vince Young’s return to prominence, a quarterback that can make plays with either his arm or feet like no other in the game. Johnson’s record setting 2009 campaign shot him into the elite of all players in the NFL and his job should be potentially easier if Young can open up the Titan passing game more. The offensive line, led by tackles Dave Stewart and Michael Roos, will give them plenty of chances to make an impact.

Will Johnson be able to provide an encore to '09's record setting campaign? The Titans will need every bit of it.

The Bad: The defense may force them away from their strength, which is running the ball. The Titans finished 31st versus the pass in ’09, giving up 258 yards per game. With few changes to the secondary, there could be a repeat performance this year. The only hope is that new help on the defensive front from Raheem Brock and rookie Derrick Morgan will create more pressure to force worse passes. The problem of playing from behind is that it forces the Titans from utilizing their greatest strength, their running attack. The defense has to enable Johnson to be used as much as possible.

X-Factor-Kenny Britt: He had a solid rookie season and provided a needed big, quick receiver to stretch the field and keep defenses who over compensated against Johnson honest. Also, he was a constant from a receiving group that struggled staying healthy all year. However, this year he was reported as showing up out of shape and slower. In order for the Vince Young to maximize his ability to keep defenses off-balance he needs a focused Britt to be a ready and available deep threat.

2010 Projection: Oak (W), Pit (W), @ NYG (L), Den (W), @ Dal (L), @ Jax (W), Phi (L), @ SD (L), @ Mia (L), Was (W), @ Hou (L), Jax (W), Ind (L), @ KC (W), @ Ind (L)

Summary: The Titans are finally getting what they drafted Young for; a game breaking dual threat QB (now if he can just leave it all on the field). Paired with Johnson they can give any defense matchup nightmares for a week. However, the defense is still in the midst of an extreme rebuilding stage and doesn’t have to ability to match up with many of the tougher offenses in the game. The fact they play two of them, in Indianapolis and Houston, a total of four times this year doesn’t bode well for breakthrough success in Music City. RECORD: 8-8

The AFC North can be summarized in one word: physical. Of all the eight sections of the NFL, no division plays a tougher and more physical brand of football. Making it out of this division is brutal affair and each team has more than enough tests under their belt by the time the season ends over to bring it to any team they face. Last season, the defending Super Bowl champs stumbled for a while and got overtook and end up in 3rd place by the end of the year. It’s real in the field over this way.

The fortunes of many of the division’s clubs are swaying in opposite directions from what they have been as recently as last year. The Steelers’ consistency on defense faltered last year and many teams attacked at this opportunity. This year the defense is back intact, but their new-found passing game will be sidelined early due to Roger Goodell’s sanctions on their star quarterback. In Cincinnati, their defense stepped way up, but the passing game declined tremendously. With a new star receiver and media personality in town (to join the incumbent one), moving the ball downfield should not be a problem any longer. In Baltimore, after years of leaning on historically tough defense, they have completed the rebuilding of their offense by offering a sanctuary of sorts for two receivers that needed restarts, of varying kinds. Even in Cleveland there were changes of sorts, but not the type that you necessarily want to have happen, but more on that later.

All in all, this will be one the toughest division to win in all of football, where an inch is a mile and one misstep or low point could have any of its combatants looking at 2011 much earlier than needed.

Baltimore Ravens (9-7 in 2009; Wild Card berth)

Offense: R. Rice-RB, J. Flacco-QB, A. Boldin-WR, D.Mason-WR (B)

Defense: R. Lewis-LB, E. Reed-FS, T. Suggs-LB, H. Ngata-NT (A)

The Good: The offense picked up new wings, finally. After years of having a questionable group of wide receivers they got aggressive this offseason and picked up the disgruntled Anquan Boldin from Arizona and gave Donte Stallworth a new, post suspension home. Along with the ageless Derrick Mason, this gives big armed QB Joe Flacco two very capable targets to play long ball with and puts a new spark in an offense that has long played good enough to let the defense win games for them. Add this to the Ray Rice led rushing attack that finished 5th overall in 2009, and there’s a potential potent offense in Baltimore.

With an expanded receiving corps to work with, Flacco's coming of age may be completed this year.

The Bad: While Ray Lewis the undisputed heart, soul and leader of the defense, Ed Reed is without a doubt its biggest impact player at this point. The biggest problem is Reed has been injured since the end of last season and his time-table for his return is a complete unknown, with him and the team on two different pages. Without the threat of Reed lurking seemingly everywhere at once at the safety spot, more quarterback will feel comfortable picking on them down the field.

X-Factor-Michael Oher: With the Ravens having more invested in the passing game, Oher job description expands as well. He has rotated between right and left tackle in his first two seasons, but now his sole job with be protecting Flacco’s blindside (pardon the old pun) as he will be expanding his game and the look of the Ravens in the process. He has proven to be an athletic and explosive run blocker, but making the jump towards making an equally big impact in the pass game is essential at this point.

2010 Projection: @ NYJ (L), @ Cin (L), Cle (W), @ Pit (W), Den (W), @ NE (L), Buf (W), Mia (L), @ Atl (W), @ Car (W), TB (W), Pit (L), @ Hou (W), NO (W), @ Cle (W), Cin (W)

Summary: The Ravens will be taking on a new look of sorts in different areas this year, some good some bad. With or without Reed, Lewis will have the defense ready to play and play well, but in the end having him available will play a huge role in how far the Ravens can play, regardless of offensive improvements. With the competition in the North, sooner is much better than later. RECORD: 11-5

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6 in 2009; Division Champs)

Offense: C. Palmer-QB, C. OchoCinco-WR, C. Benson-RB, T. Owens-WR (B+)

Defense: R. Maualuga-LB, L. Hall-CB, J. Joseph-CB, K. Rivers-LB (A-)

The Good: The offense finished 26th in league in passing last year, it’s going to be virtually impossible to repeat that in ’09. To raise that stat, Cincy drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham and went free agent shopping for Antonio Bryant. Oh, and they landed an oddly long last guy named Terrell Owens to pair up with Chad OchoCinco and give Carson Palmer an option to move the ball down field everywhere he looks. This in addition to a defense that finished 6th against the pass and 7th against the run and it’s easy to see why trips to Paul Brown Stadium won’t be much fun.

With a greatly expanded arsenal of weapons at his disposal, a return to Pro Bowl form may be unavoidable for Palmer.

The Bad: They have put together a solid overall team, but somehow still haven’t found what is needed at safety. Many of their deficiencies at the position are masked by their play at cornerback, but you can’t hide those issues forever. Roy Williams is much better attacking the ball and takes bad positions often, and that leaves open a chance for the big play a few times a game. Smarter quarterbacks are going to attack that whenever they get a chance.

X-Factor-Carlos Dunlap: Halfway through the season last year, he was being hailed as a potential top 10 pick, but after a DUI arrest, his talent was looked at secondary. Cincinnati didn’t pass on the opportunity to get perhaps the best pass rusher in the nation, and landed a guy that will be a starter much sooner than later with the 54th pick. If he plays up to his talent, there will be not greater steal in the 2010 Draft.

2010 Projection: @ NE (W), Bal (W), @ Car (W), @ Cle (W), TB (W), @ Atl (W), Mia (W), Pit (W), @ Ind (L), Buf (W), @ NYJ (L), NO (L), @ Pit (L), Cle (W), SD (W), @ Bal (L)

Summary: A mix of an already solid core with fearless drafting and aggressive free agent maneuvering makes the Bengals a team nobody wants to play. If their chemistry can withstand all of the mixture of personalities on the roster (and there is no shortage of them), this team is built to win. They have tough second half of the season, but a deep run in the playoffs is more than possible. RECORD: 11-5

Cleveland Browns (5-11 in 2009)

Offense: J. Thomas-T, J. Cribbs-KR/WR, J. Harrison-RB, J. Delhomme-QB (D)

Defense: D. Jackson-LB, S. Rogers-NT, S. Brown-CB, E. Wright-CB, J. Haden-CB (C+)

The Good: They moved out a lot of their faulty pieces and made some necessary changes. After years of wavering back and forth between the equally unproductive duo of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, they moved both out this offseason. They brought in Sheldon Brown and drafted Joe Haden and safety TJ Ward to boost a pass defense that needed a radical influx of talent, which they did.

The dismal Cleveland offense is looking for any spark it can find, including starting special teams star Joshua Cribbs at WR.

The Bad: Despite moving out some bad pieces from last year, they didn’t bring in much to replace many of their problems. They moved out Quinn and Anderson, but replaced them with Jake Delhomme, who lost a grip on the Panthers job last year after barely becoming serviceable. He is expected to somehow boost the league’s worst passing game, yet he still has an almost identical receiving group. The majority of the defensive front is still intact, which finished 28th versus the run last season, so it should not be counted on to keep games competitive at all.

X-Factor-James Harrison: After becoming the full-time last season in week 15, he instantly became the ENTIRE Browns offense, accumulating 561 yards on the ground. While he won’t keep that pace up over a full season, he can provide a big play threat that is desperately needed. If Montario Hardesty can get healthy to spell him, he has All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas to run behind and can be an invaluable option to provide some sort of consistency to this offense.

2010 Prediction: @ TB (W), KC (W), @ Bal (L), Cin (L), Atl (L), @ Pit (L), @ NO (L), NE (L), NYJ (L), @ Jax (W), Car (L), @ Mia (L), @ Buf (L), @ Cin (L), Bal (L), Pit (W)

Summary: There’s just not a lot to get excited about here, unless you’re playing them that is. They are just an unremarkable team that doesn’t have much to get excited about. A 4-0 end to 2009 is all that “saved” them from finishing among the league’s absolute worst, a trend they more than likely will stay to course of for the entire year this time around. RECORD: 3-13

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: B. Roethlisberger-QB, R. Mendenhall-RB, H. Ward-WR, H. Miller-TE (B+)

Defense: T. Polamalu-SS, J. Harrison-LB, L. Woodley-LB (A)

The Good: The defense should by all accounts be much back to its usual level of weekly consistency this season. With Troy Polamalu out of the mix for much of the season last year, teams attacked the Steelers downfield much more and found unusual success in doing so. Polamalu’s return should stop that from being as viable of an option. Everything else about this defensive unit is close to intact from their Championship makeup of 2008.

Until the offense is back at full strength, much of the load will be on RB Rashard Mendenhall's shoulders.

The Bad: Ben Rotheslisberger’s decision making. Not on the field, because he won’t get to use that for at least the first month of the season due to his bad off-field decisions. In his time away Byron Leftwich is the shot caller in Pitt, and we’ve seen how that has worked out everywhere else. Instability until Roethlisberger’s return could plague the early success of the team, regardless of a defensive revival or not.

X-Factor-Mike Wallace: In his rookie year he provided a huge downfield threat, leading the league in yards per catch with 19.4. He will move into the starting lineup with Santonio Holmes’ departure and will be counted on to produce more than just going deep. Learning to run better routes may be an early struggle, but no doubt finding ways to capitalize on his speed will benefit the Steelers more than hurt them. Getting Roethlisberger, and his eye to go deep, back on the field will bring out the best in Wallace.

2010 Prediction: Atl (W), @ Ten (L), @ TB (W), Bal (L), Cle (W), @ Mia (L), @ NO (W), @ Cin (L), NE (L), Oak (W), @ Buf (W), @ Bal (W), Cin (W), Car (L), @ Cle (L)

Summary: How they finish up will depend greatly on how they start minus the leader of their offense. They played as a team with one half for most of ’09 and they struggled to find consistency. With Big Ben’s return date uncertain (it could be 4 to 6 games in) they have to come together regardless, but in a division with such tough competition each game could end up making the difference. Pittsburgh better hope to not show up too late to the race, or they may be left behind. RECORD: 9-7

The AFC East is annually characterized by rivalries every year. There are so many subplots at work here that it seems that it’s more profession wrestling than football division much of the time. Already in 2010 the pot is getting stirred, as a result of HBO’s Hard Knocks series following the New York Jets. Tom Brady has stated he “Hates the Jets and will not watch the show.” Strong words for so early in the year, yet not surprising at all. It’s more irony than anything else, as for so long the Patriots have been the target of much of the hate in the league.

However, does the changing of the guard in target of aggression in the division also preview a changing in the rank and order of the East as well? The Jets were the surprise of the postseason last year, with two decisive wins and an AFC Championship game appearance, while the Patriots were soundly beaten by the Ravens in round one after winning the division. Add to this subplot the always pesky Miami Dolphins finally landing the go to, albeit controversial, wide receiver they have been wanting for what seems like forever, and you’ve got plenty of drama for the whole year.

Oh, and the Bills are here too…but they’re will be much more talk about concerning them come Draft season, for reason you’ll soon see.

Buffalo Bills (6-10 in 2009)

Offense: F. Jackson-RB, L. Evans-WR, C. Spiller-RB (D)

Defense: D. Whitner-SS, P. Posluszny-LB, J. Byrd-FS (C+)

The Good: The defense is capable of making some tough days for quarterbacks. They finished second in passing yardage allowed, with only 184 yards per contest. Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd are capable of getting the ball back at any point, with Byrd pulling in nine interceptions during his rookie campaign. Paul Posluszny is a bright spot in the frontlines of defense, leading the team in tackles during his 2nd year. They have a diverse ground game, with Fred Jackson returning as the club’s all purpose threat, Marshawn Lynch provides a power runner and rookie C.J. Spiller being a blazing speed threat.

Lee Evans is a big play threat, but how often will he be able to make an impact?

The Bad: They are very sub par at some critical positions: offensive and defensive line and quarterback. Neither Trent Edwards nor Ryan Fitzpatrick had more touchdowns than interceptions in ’09. And neither reached double figures in touchdowns. All of this was achieved while Terrell Owens was on board. The offensive line hasn’t offer much help to either in approving their efforts, as each was sacked over 20 times despite each splitting the season at the helm. As a whole, the defense was terrible versus the rush, giving up over 150 yards a game, ranking them at 30 out of 32 teams.

X-Factor-C.J. Spiller: When the Bills selected him with the 9th pick in this year’s draft they had other needs that could have been addressed. However, they saw Spiller’s undeniable speed and game breaking talent and couldn’t resist. The ball will be put in his hands every way possible, because the Bills don’t have much to go deep with and with both Jackson and Lynch suffering from injuries, he will get even more rushes early in the season, before most likely splitting carries and impacting the receiver and return game later in the year.

2010 Projection: Mia (L), @ GB (L), @ NE (L), NYJ (L), Jax (W), @ Bal (L), @ KC (L), Chi (L), Det (L), @ Cin (L), Pit (L), @ Min (L), Cle (W), @ Mia (W), NE (L), @ NYJ (L)

Summary: The Bills play in a tough division and will pay the price. On offense they were already one-dimensional, and then didn’t bring back TO, their top receiver. This group won’t be able to attack and win games and the defensive group has issues getting to the quarterback, which may put too much pressure on the secondary to maintain its’09 success. Long season ahead here. RECORD: 3-13

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Offense: B. Marshall-WR, R. Brown-RB, R. Williams-RB, J. Long-T (B)

Defense: K. Dansby-LB, C. Crowder-LB, J. Odrick-DE (B-)

The Good: They finally landed the big name receiver they had desperately been looking for in Brandon Marshall. He is a high volume receiver that has brought in at least 100 catches over the last 3 years and will boost the Fins 20th ranked pass game immediately. Also, he adds a new wrinkle to a Dolphins team who’s running gimmick game his still diverse, but is not catching teams off guard any longer. On defense, Karlos Dansby coming over from Arizona and joining Channing Crowder in the middle of their linebacker spread will give them two active, impact tacklers from sideline to sideline.

Having a healthy (which is rare) Ronnie Brown gives the Dolphins attack multiple weapons in one.

The Bad: This is a defense with a lot of holes still. The secondary has to get better effort from Vontae Davis and company in coverage, after finishing 24th versus the pass last year. There were no great upgrades made to this unit and there is nobody that worries opponents about forcing the turnover. To make matters worse, the departures of Joey Porter and Jason Taylor takes away their top pass rushers, a move that could give QBs even more time to pick on their lackluster secondary.

X-Factor-Chad Henne: For all of their gadget plays and trickery, the Dolphins played their best when they had a steady quarterback directing them. That’s what Henne was drafted to become in 2008 and last season he took control. He showed the expected inconsistencies of first year starter (12 touchdowns to 14 interceptions), but down the stretch he looked to be coming into his own, passing for over 300 yards in three of his last five games. His continued development and consistency means everything to pushing this club to increased success.

2010 Prediction: @ Buf (W), @ Min (L), NYJ (W), NE (L), @ GB (L), Pit (W), @ Cin (L), @ Bal (W), Ten (W), Chi (L), @ Oak (W), Cle (W), @ NYJ (L), Buf (L), Det (W), @ NE (L)

Summary: The Dolphins are both bringing in pieces that will pay off in turning their fortunes, but they still are too thin at important positions (where their division rivals are strong) to make a big splash this year. However, they will be able to shock more than a few teams this year and will be competitive week in and week out. RECORD: 7-9

New England Patriots (11-5 in 2009; Division Champs)

Offense: T. Brady-QB, R. Moss-WR, W. Welker-WR, L. Maroney-RB (A-)

Defense: V. Wilfork-NT, J. Mayo-LB, B. Merriweather-FS (B)

The Good: They have quietly reloaded at positions critical to their success when they were the class of the league. Rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez bring size and speed to a tight end position that was always a strong for the Pats. Julian Edelman’s development at receiver gives them another in-between threat to go with Wes Welker. All of these moves set up more chances for Randy Moss to slip past defenses and hook up with Tom Brady. This trend continues with the defense as well. Rookie Brandon Spikes should step in immediately at inside linebacker, a position where they had unparalleled depth in years past.

With more targets for defenses to tend to, Moss may have a chance to visit the end zone even more than the 13 times he did in '09.

The Bad: As they have added depth at some positions, there is a franchise cornerstone that is not looking to join the fold. Guard Logan Mankins is not in the fold after refusing to sign the restricted free agent contract offered to him and is holding out to force a trade. As one of the best guards in football, his absence is bound to hinder the offensive output overall, as in New England if the pass struggles, the offense as a whole does.

X-Factor-Wes Welker: In their Wild Card round loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Wes Welker suffered a terrible MCL/ACL tearing knee injury. It was said best case scenario he’d be back by the second half of the 2010 campaign, yet he was ready to suit up by the first day of training camp and will be in the fold from week 1. He appears to have amazingly returned to his pre-injury form and if he is ready, having the two-time league leader in receptions back will be huge for this offense.

2010 Prediction: Cin (L), @ NYJ (L), Buf (W), @ Mia (W), Bal (W), @ SD (L), Min (L), @ Cle (W), @ Pit (W), Ind (W), @ Det (W), NYJ (L), @ Chi (W), GB (W), @ Buf (W), Mia (W)

Summary: With Brady’s return, the Pats once again ascended to the peak of the East and will be among the league’s most steady teams again this year. They play a potentially the toughest schedule of any team this season and will be tempered by that week in, week out challenge. Also, the Jets have what it takes to meet and surpass them head on, so repeat at the top of the division will be a struggle to reach. RECORD: 11-5

New York Jets (9-7 in 2009; Wild Card team)

Offense: M. Sanchez-QB, S. Green-RB, L. Tomlinson-RB, B. Edwards-WR, D. Ferguson-T (B+)

Defense: D. Revis-CB, K. Jenkins-DT, B. Scott-LB, D. Harris-LB, A. Cromartie-CB (A+)

The Good: They have the elite defense in the league and Coach Rex Ryan knows how to unleash it, which he does constantly. No unit gave up fewer points per game last season (12.8), and they add Jason Taylor, Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson to the core of Bart Scott, David Harris and Kris Jenkins. They finished first in passing yards allowed, with only 153 per game. This was enabled by both the constant rushes by the defense and the fear of Darrelle Revis’ lurking at corner. His inevitable arrival with the team means everything to how well they perform and its potential.

If consistency finds Sanchez in his second season, the Jets may be a team with no limits.

The Bad: Mark Sanchez has to have a substantial growth in his consistency in his second year. The Jets have a deep stable of and one of the league’s best offensive lines as well, yet finished 31st passing offense last year. None of this offense’s potential will be able to be put to use if Sanchez does not improve on his game command. Also, reliable kicker Jay Feely, who was able to make up for many of the shortcomings of the pass game, was replaced by Nick Folk, whose inconsistencies forced him out of Dallas. Regardless of how good the defense is, these issues have to be fixed if the Jets want to break past their AFC Championship game finish this year.

X-Factor-Shonn Greene: The Jets finished first in rushing offense in the NFL last year, due in part to running more to lessen Sanchez’s exposure and in part because they were deep at the position. Greene broke out in the Playoffs, with two games of 135 and 128 yards. Now, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington are gone and Greene is in place to make the biggest leap forward of any back in football. While he will share carries with LaDainian Tomlinson, he is without a doubt the top option in Jet attack.

2010 Projection: Bal (W), NE (W), @ Mia (L), @ Buf (W), Min (W), @ Den (L), GB (W), @ Det (W), @ Cle (W), Hou (W), Cin (W) @ NE (W), Mia (W), @ Pit (L), @ Chi (W), Buf (W)

Summary: They turned it on in Playoffs last year, going from last second Wild Card grab to the AFC Championship Game. That momentum they started last year was built upon with several significant offseason selections and they have now built one the most complete teams in football. With the growth of their young offensive stars, this team can easily become one game better and be the best of the AFC this season. RECORD: 13-3

The NFC West is in the most turnover of any division in football. It features 3 teams that went to the Super Bowl at least once in the last decade, however for the better part of the last eight years Seattle and Arizona have reigned supreme, while St. Louis and San Francisco have watched from afar. Very far

The turnover in the division began last year when the Seahawks joined the Rams (who have won six games in the last three years) towards the bottom of the league’s standings. San Francisco finished with a .500 record for the first time since 2002 and the Arizona Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner, won the West for the second consecutive time and made it to the Divisional Playoffs.

However this turnover continued when Kurt Warner retired and sent the Cardinals into an uncertain future that they start this year. In addition to the defending champ’s new look, this year there will be a #1 draft pick on display in the division, a controversial new coach in Seattle looking to right their path and a once great franchise looking to find a bit of its old magic from its fiery coach. May the scramble begin.

Arizona Cardinals (8-8 in 2009; Division Champs)

Offense: L. Fitzgerald-WR, B. Wells-RB, M. Leinart-QB (B)

Defense: D. Dockett-DE, J. Porter-LB, D. Rodgers-Cromartie-CB, A. Wilson-S (B)

The Good: Despite everything that has been made about what they’ve lost in Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle, not enough has been made about what is still here. Joey Porter will bolster a pass rush that already has Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell in place. Adding Kerry Rhodes to Adrian Wilson at safety gives them a very physical pair of safeties. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also is on his way to becoming a premier cover corner.

Whether the Cardinals can hold their top spot depends largely on how often Leinart can find Fitzgerald.

The Bad: The offense is in a very tough transition period. Matt Leinart (14 TD vs. 20 interceptions for his career) doesn’t have the ability to step in and assume the retired Kurt Warner’s impact. Anquan Boldin’s departure creates another problem as defenses will be able to focus more on the amazing Larry Fitzgerald. The assumption that they will be able to lean more on the Beanie Wells/Tim Hightower backfield is a risky one as well as they were ranked 28th in the league in rushing in ’09.

X-Factor-Beanie Wells: He was drafted for when the team shifted its focus, which was bound to happen whenever Warner walked. The time is now in just his second season. He’s a physical, 240 pound back and after he started slow he scored in three of the last four weeks and once in the playoffs. With the likely shift in volume of passes called for, he will be an intricate part of this system.

2010 Projection: @ StL (W), @ Atl (L), Oak (L), @ SD (L), NO (L), @ Sea (L), TB (W), @ Min (L), Sea (W), @ KC (W), SF (W), StL (W), Den (W), @ Car (W), Dal (L), @ SF (L)

Summary: Arizona is tough to peg, as they are undergoing a lot of changes. However, it is safe to say there will be an early adjustment period from the Air Arizona days into a more balanced club. Everything depends how well Leinart takes to the system, but expecting the prolific Cards of the last few years is overshooting this team’s potential by far. RECORD: 8-8

Seattle Seahawks (5-11 in 2009)

Offense: M. Hasselbeck-QB, J. Forsett-RB, T.J. Houshmanzadeh-WR, J. Carlson-TE (C+)

Defense: A. Curry-LB, L. Tatupu-LB, E. Thomas-S (D+)

The Good: There is talent at the skill positions still, and new coach Pete Carroll knows what to do with talent. Justin Forsett stepped up down the stretch and gave them a running and pass catching presence out the backfield, although his touches were limited when the job was given back to Julius Jones for some reason. Second round pick Golden Tate should be a boost to receiver group that needs a quick downfield threat. T.J Houshmandzadeh can can still make the in between plays and John Carlson is continually getting better at tight end.

Fresh off his USC tragedy, will Pete Carroll be able to bring the Seahawks together to avoid another one?

The Bad: The offensive and defensive lines are in bad shape. Top pick OT Russell Okung was taken to fill in the two-year void Walter Jones retirement created, but an ankle injury could sideline him potentially for a couple of months. Lack of production from this line contributed to many of the offensive struggles and without Okung, there is really no change to it. On the defensive front, they have literally none one create any pass rush on the line and it shows, they were 30th vs. the pass in 2009.

X-Factor-Eric Thomas: Seattle was bad against the pass last year, to say the least. To help remedy this they brought in Thomas as a big upgrade at the free safety spot. At the University of Texas he made no shortage of big plays on the ball, and he’ll be asked to do that from day one in the lackluster Seahawks secondary. Much of their hope for any turnaround is based in keeping opposing quarterbacks honest, and Thomas inherited much of this responsibility as soon as he was selected.

2010 Projection: SF (L), @ Den (L), SD (L), @ StL (W), @ Chi (L), Ari (W), @ Oak (L), NYG (L), @ Ari (L), @ NO (L), KC (W), Car (W), @ SF (L), @ TB (L), StL (W)

Summary: Seattle has tumbled from dominance in the West quickly, and while they had a great draft and brought in some necessary pieces. However there is a long way to go and there isn’t enough change on the front lines to either stop anybody or let Matt Hasselbeck or the running game truly get started. Progress is still a ways off. RECORD: 5-11

St. Louis Rams (1-15 in 2009)

Offense: S. Jackson-RB, S. Bradford-QB, D. Avery-WR (D+)

Defense: J. Laurinaitis-LB, O. Atogwe-FS, R. Bartell (C-)

The Good: Slowly but surely, the tides are changing some. Landing the top pick in April’s draft gave them a chance to reboot and they used it to bring in a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford. While there will be plenty impatient waiting for Bradford’s impact, he will be aided by Steven Jackson’s presence, which is more than most QBs can count on. Jackson finished second in rushing last season, and was nearly all of the Ram offense. James Laurinaitis was one of the most active linebackers in the league as a rookie and is a much needed spark in the middle of the defense.

All eyes will be fixed on Bradford in St. Louis, but how long can the new love affair last?

The Bad: Virtually everything not named Jackson or Bradford. They are severely undermanned at wide receiver, which could stunt Bradford’s growth until approved. They are very inexperienced at offensive tackle, with rookie Roger Saffold and second year guy Jason Smith. There was little significant change to a defense that finished 25th versus the pass and 27th against the rush in 2009, but this isn’t going to be a quick fix and it may take a few more Bradford level picks to really get the ship back on course.

X-Factor-Jason Smith: In a last ditch effort to support QB Marc Bulger, the Rams selected Smith second overall in 2009 and gave him a $33 million contract. Smith only managed to play in 8 games, due to a mixture of injuries and was underwhelming when active. Now Bulger is gone and the stakes have risen in year two, as he is now charged with protecting Bradford, their $76 million investment. He has to find quick success, because the Rams desperately need him to be able to protect Bradford (who carries injury red flags himself) and give Saffold time to develop at right tackle, instead of being charged with left tackle from day one.

2010 Projection: Ari (L), @ Oak (L), Was (L), Sea (L), @ Det (L), SD (L), @ TB (W), Car (L), @ SF (L), Atl (L), @ Den (L), Ari (L), @ NO (L), KC (W), SF (L), @ Sea (L)

Summary: The hope and attention on Bradford’s rookie campaign could be quickly refocused on the continual dismissal results of the team at large. They play hard, but the talent still isn’t up to par on either side of the ball and the Rams will compete this year though….just for the top overall pick in 2011’s draft, which may actually help more than a few more immediate wins would in the long term. RECORD: 2-14

San Francisco 49ers (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: F. Gore-RB, V. Davis-TE, M. Crabtree-WR, A. Smith-QB (B)

Defense: P. Willis-LB, M. Lawson-LB, N. Clements-CB, A. Franklin-NT (A)

The Good: Coach Mike Singletary has constructed one of the quickest defensive units in football, led by the league’s best linebacker Patrick Willis. Along with Manny Lawson, Justin Smith and Aubrayo Franklin they had the league’s 6th best run defense. On offense, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree provide a big play spark in the passing game that has long been lacking, and may reduce the wear and tear on franchise back Frank Gore, by balancing out the offense attack.

Nate Clements has to bring together the 49er secondary to insure a great season by the Bay.

The Bad: The Niners had a choice to focus on upgrading their offensive line or their secondary during the offseason. In the end they choose to focus on the line, but largely left their secondary intact, which could come back to haunt them. It was night and day on the San Fran defense in ’09. While the front line was brutal on the run, the secondary was like a swinging door, allowing for 229 yards per game, 21st in the league. While that may hold up against weak NFC West passing games, it will be exploited by more talented foes.

X-Factor-Alex Smith: The struggles of the 2005 first pick have been frequent in years past, but he showed clear signs of becoming a solid NFL QB after taking over in week 7 last year. His continued improvement will play a big role in how far the Niners can go. While he will not be asked to win games on his own, how responsible he is with the ball is critical to how many games this defense can win this fall. The key to his continued success is maintaining solid accuracy, his greatest challenge thus far.

2010 Projection: @ Sea (W), NO (L), @ KC (L), @ Atl (W), Phi (W), Oak (W), @ Car (W), Den (L), Stl (W), TB (W), @ Ari (L), @ GB (L), Sea (W), @ SD (L), @ StL (W), Ari (W)

Summary: The defense will drive the fortunes of the 49ers, especially with four games versus the lowly Seahawks and Rams. If the offense can stay consistent over the course of the season, they should easily take advantage of their status as the only team in the division who is not in a major transition period to walk away with the title. RECORD: 10-6

The NFC South is another segregated division, albeit one that has a clear upper, middle and lower class. Last season the New Orleans Saints finished with a 4 game lead in clinching the division, in route to their first Super Bowl championship. This was aided by declines in both Carolina and Atlanta, and the rebuilding of Tampa Bay, who ended up as the third worst of all NFL teams.

In 2010, there hasn’t been any dramatic shakeup amongst the majority of the rosters in the division, save for the Panthers who lost franchise leaders of both the past and present in Julius Peppers and Jake Delhomme (one of which could actually help the team turn the corner, the other drastically reducing their talent, making this a push). The Saints return a core that inspired an entire city and made a dramatic rise to the NFL throne. The the extreme opposite, Tampa Bay’s the rebuilding process took impressive Draft day strides, but will it pay off immediately? As for the Falcons, good health has found them again, but will it be enough to return them to among the NFC elite? Answers await below….

Atlanta Falcons (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: M. Turner-RB, R. White-WR, M. Ryan-QB, T. Gonzalez-TE (B+)

Defense: D. Robinson-CB, C. Lofton-LB, J. Abraham-DE (C+)

The Good: The offense will get to be intact again this year. The offense never really got to get together on one accord last season, with injuries to Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood all coming at different points in the year. While Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez still put up good campaigns, they never got to play as one complete team. If they can get the whole team consistent and healthy, this will be one of the better offenses in the NFC.

If Turner is healthy enough to carry the Falcons on his back this year, they could make some noise.

The Bad: The defensive still is subpar in each level. They made a big acquisition by landing Dunta Robinson to help a secondary in need and drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is an athletic tackling machine, but there are still lots of holes. The line is shallow and John Abraham’s age in beginning to set in. At safety, there isn’t a lot of noticeable talent since Lawyer Milloy’s departure. Basically, they don’t apply much pressure to the QB and the secondary is still prone to the big play, a recipe that doesn’t mix much success into it.

X-Factor-Matt Ryan: Year two was a disappointment for the franchise cornerstone in Atlanta. He struggled with injuries and accuracy, and his numbers mostly reflected it, with a 9 point drop in QB rating and a 500 yard decrease. Accuracy was a struggle for him, and no doubt the struggles of the Falcons offensive line contributed to it, but his consistency must improve. As he declined, the fortunes of the team as a whole followed and his success is invaluable to the Falcons either soaring or crashing.

2010 Prediction: @ Pit (L), Ari (W), @ NO (L), SF (L), @ Cle (W), @ Phi (L), Cin (L), TB (W), Bal (L), @ StL (W), GB (W), @ TB (W), @ Car (L), @ Sea (W), NO (L), Car (W)

Summary: The Falcons are a team that can either sink or swim. With their cornerstones of Ryan and Turner fully healthy the offense could soar, but the defense has to rise to the occasion and not force them to score more than they can handle. They’ll play better, but another 2008 doesn’t seem to be in the cards until the secondary improves. RECORD: 8-8

Carolina Panthers (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: D. Williams-RB, J. Stewart-RB, S. Smith-WR (C+)

Defense: J. Beason-LB, R. Marshall-CB, E. Brown-DE (C+)

The Good: They are a run heavy team and use an excellent balance on the ground, smartly leaning on the best running back combination in the NFL. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 2,250 rush yards and 17 TD last year, Stewart getting only five more carries. Linebacker Jon Beason is a tackling machine, finishing with over 140 in ’09 and manned the middle of defense that was the 4th best pass protection team in the league.

In the post-Peppers Carolina defense, Beason will be leaned on even more to lead the way.

The Bad: They have the most lopsided passing game in football. Steve Smith is still a great talent, but there is nothing else after him to take away any defensive attention away from him. It’s a credit to his talent that he was able still reach 982 yards last year. Someone has to step forward to provide some sort of threat to help diversify this passing attack, both for the welfare of the continual grow of Matt Moore, who took over the QB reins late in ’09 to some success (8 TD to 2 interceptions), and to take some heat of Smith so he can return to his Pro Bowl form of years past.

X-Factor-Everette Brown: After many seasons of asking out, Julius Peppers finally got his wish this offseason and headed to Chicago. The departure of their premier player will drop the Panther sack total surely, but if 2009 second rounder Brown can step in and further develop the pass rushing prowess he showed at Florida State, the lost may not be as great as it could be. Their talented secondary was greatly benefited by Peppers’ constant pressure forcing the pass, and it needs Brown to step in and step up.

2010 Prediction: @ NYG (L), TB (W), Cin (L), @ NO (L), Chi (L), SF (L), @ StL (W), NO (L), @ TB (L), Bal (L), @ Cle (W), @ Sea (L), Atl (W), Ari (W), @ Pit (W), @ Atl (L)

Summary: The Panthers have several good parts to their approach, but have some severe lacks in others. Their lack of diversity on offense will keep them down and the uncertainty of the post-Peppers defense could be challenged by their more talented opponents this year. A potential quarterback battle in-season between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen will not help matters either. RECORD: 6-10

New Orleans Saints (13-3 in 2009; Super Bowl Champions)

Offense: D. Brees-QB, M. Colston-WR, R. Meachem-WR, P. Thomas-RB, J. Evans-G (A+)

Defense: J. Vilma-LB, D. Sharper-FS, M. Jenkins-CB, W. Smith-DE (B+)

The Good: Well, they won the Super Bowl and brought back nearly everybody. Surrounding All-World QB Drew Brees is the best offensive supporting cast in football. Receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson all surpassed 700 yards receiving. Guard Jahri Evans and Jonathan Stinchcomb lead a strong offensive line, which makes Brees’ exploits possible. Darren Sharper’s arrival in NO sparked a defensive surge that played a huge role in pushing the Saints to the next level. The defense wasn’t always technically great, but made plays when they were needed and stopped opponents enough for the offense to overwhelm opponents long enough for the win.

Sharper has become nearly everything to the Saints defense that Brees is to the offense.

The Bad: There is still much improvement that could be asked for along the offensive line. Sedrick Ellis has not lived up to expectations at defensive tackle and Will Smith (13 sacks in ’09) is the only pass rushing threat along the line. They survived on Jonathan Vilma tackling everything that got past them and the secondary making big plays last year; they have to make a bigger impact as a unit this year.

X-Factor-Pierre Thomas/Reggie Bush: Before last year, the Saints were really only a passing team, but the increased emphasis on the run, and its success, had as much to do with the Saints first Super Bowl win as anything else. Thomas and Bush will be used as the primary runners only this season, and how they stand up from a durability perspective is critical. Bush will never be an every down runner, but he will be asked to run more than the 70 times he did last year. Thomas will most likely surpass 200 rushes for the first time in his career as well, so his health is worth watch as well. With a lesser ground game, their bread and butter air game will suffer.

2010 Prediction: Min (W), @ SF (W), Atl (W), Car (W), @ Ari (W), @ TB (W), Cle (W), Pit (L), @ Car (W), Sea (W), @ Dal (W), @ Cin (L), StL (W), @ Bal (L), @ Atl (W), TB (W)

Summary: The defending champs have some uncertainties on defense, but still have the most devastating offense in football in many years. They return all of their critical pieces and all are healthy. A lot of things just worked out in their favor last year, but it wasn’t destiny. They are good and will be among the class of the NFC again. RECORD: 13-3

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13 in 2009)

Offense: K. Winslow-TE, C. Williams-RB, E. Graham-RB, J. Freeman-QB (D)

Defense: B. Ruud-LB, T. Jackson-FS, R. Barber-CB, G. McCoy-DT (C)

The Good: They continued to rebuild, drastically. They had among the best drafts of any team in April, landing several more great young building blocks in Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Brian Price to help on both sides of the ball. The still have Kellen Winslow, who had a great bounce back season last year and they have one of the best pass defenses in football led by Ronde Barber, Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib.

Winslow is the only dependable option for the Bucs, and Freeman will look to him often.

The Bad: They are still terribly young and overmatched in many places. The passing and rushing offenses finished 24th and 23rd in the NFL, respectively. This is due to an offensive line that needs upgrades everywhere. This could have been addressed in April’s draft, but they had to work on their rushing defense first, which finished dead last in yardage allowed, with 158 yards per game. They have little that is consistently dependable at wide receiver, and rookies Williams and Benn will be counted on early and often, a risky proposition.

X-Factor-Josh Freeman: The Bucs young 2009 first rounder had a rocky rookie season after being deployed in week 7. He showed flashes of brilliance, as an athletic passer that can make plays downfield and with his feet. However, he also turned the ball over, or put it in jeopardy, frequently (as 18 interceptions and 9 fumbles dramatically show). He has the tools and the Bucs are willing to let him learn on the run how to use them, but reeling him in some so he can taste more frequent success would do wonders for his psyche and the win column. His development is huge for this young team.

2010 Prediction: Cle (W), @ Car (L), Pit (L), @ Cin (L), NO (L), StL (L), @ Ari (L), @ Atl (L), Car (W), @ SF (L), @ Bal (L), Atl (L), @ Was (L), Det (L), Sea (W), @ NO (L)

Summary: Tampa is in a state of major rebuilding and it will continue past this year. They show flashes of having what it takes and will scare some teams this year, but they will be playing a lot of rookies and second year guys at critical positions, so a digression year before better times is in order. RECORD: 2-14

The NFC North was a tale of two extremes in 2009. The upper class Vikings and Packers finishing a combined 23-9 and each making it to the Playoffs. While these two squads lived in the penthouse, Chicago and Detroit had seasons characterized by mixtures of frustration and hope. Both added new franchise quarterbacks to be beacons hope, with Jay Cutler’s exile from Denver landing him with the Bears. The Lions landed Matthew Stafford as their “reward” for their 0-16 season with the first pick in ’09’s draft. However, both team’s hope quickly turned into a struggle as they failed to make much progress against either of the top teams.

Heading into this season, this may be the most constant of all divisions in the NFL. It’s going to be a tough road for the bottom teams to crack through, but will their adjust give them enough to breakthrough? As for the Packers, they have what it takes, but will will the return of their old gunslinger hold their ground? Let’s see how it stacks up…

Chicago Bears (7-9 in 2009)

Offense: J. Cutler-QB, M. Forte-RB, G. Olsen-TE, D. Hester-WR (C+)

Defense: B. Urlacher-LB, J. Peppers-DE, L. Briggs-LB, T. Harris-DT (B)

The Good: Last year is over and there is a chance to reset. Jay Cutler had rocky debut in the Windy City, high (or more appropriately, low) lighted by his league leading 26 interceptions. All of that is behind them now and with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz in town, the abilities of this offense have nowhere to go but up. The defense gets a great boost by the return of Brian Urlacher and the signing of this year’s top free agent, defensive end Julius Peppers. He averages 10 sacks per season and should be pumped to finally leave Carolina after years of pushing for it.

The Bears have to hold out hope that Urlacher's return sparks a defense that looked flat all year in '09.

The Bad: For as good as the front lines of the defense can be with Urlacher and Peppers, along with Lance Briggs and Tommie Harris, the secondary can be just as bad. They simply have nothing to fear in coverage. Nathan Vasher was the best of their corners, but he left for San Diego, leaving them with little of consequence for any QB to worry about. With all the matchups in the pass happy North, this defense could get bombed.

X-Factor-Matt Forte: As a rookie Forte blew up for the Bears and was one to best overall RBs in the NFL. Whether it was a sophomore slump, more emphasis on the passing game or struggles with injuries, he took a few steps backwards in ’09, finishing with 300 yards less in year two. Finding his form again is critical to helping the entire offense, as it will take defenses attention away from focusing only on Cutler and the Bears mediocre receiving corps.

2010 Prediction: Det (W), @ Dal (L), GB (L), @ NYG (L), @ Car (W), Sea (W), Was (L), Buf (W), Min (L), @ Mia (W), Phi (L), @ Det (W), NE (L), @ Min (L), NYJ (L), @ GB (L)

Summary: The Bears would be a solid threat in many other divisions, but playing four games versus the Vikings and Packers, who are nightmare matchups for them, will hurt their chances for a turnaround season. They’ll be competitive, but they are a few upgrades away, at critical positions, from truly turning it around. RECORD: 6-10

Detroit Lions (2-14 in 2009)

Offense: C. Johnson-WR, M. Stafford-QB, J. Best-RB, B. Pettigrew-TE (C+)

Defense: K. Vanden Bosch-DE, N. Suh-DT, L. Delmas-FS (D+)

The Good: They’re gaining more experience and the core is improving. Coming off their historic 0-16 performance in 2008, rookie QB Matthew Stafford showed expected struggles (20 interceptions), but also showed all the talent expected of him as well. Calvin Johnson is among the top talents at wide receiver in the League, and along with Stafford could become one of the best combos in football. Landing phenom defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the second pick in 2010’s Draft gives them strong building block on the defensive side of the ball, where they are woefully in need.

In year 2 of the Matthew Stafford era Detroit fans (the ones left) are counting on a big improvement.

The Bad: There is still a long, long way to go to even breaking even here. They finished dead last in passing defense and 25th in rushing defense, meaning there is tons of work to be done there. They also finished near the bottom of the league in rushing yards as well. They also have big problems along their offensive line still and this could limit the entire offense’s development at the skill positions.

X-Factor-Jahvid Best: A season ending injury to starter Kevin Smith and his uncertain status for 2010 made the need for another back high on the priority list for the rebuilding Lions. When they traded back into the first round to land Best, the hope was that he would be able to immediately fill in the role. Despite Smith rebounding and being able to participate in the preseason, Best will still be counted on as the premier back in the offense.

2010 Prediction: @ Chi (L), Phi (L), @ Min (L), @ GB (L), StL (W), @ NYG (L), Was (L), NYJ (L), @ Buf (W), @ Dal (L), NE (L), Chi (L), GB (L), @ TB (W), @ Mia (L), Min (L)

Summary: The Lions are getting better, no doubt, but they still are by and far one of the worst defenses in football and are still very much a work in progress. They have plenty of young talent, but are in an experienced tough division and still will be the among the basement dwellers in the NFL. RECORD: 3-13

Green Bay Packers (11-5 in 2009, Wild Card in Playoffs)

Offense: A. Rodgers-QB, G. Jennings-WR, D. Driver-WR, R. Grant-RB, J. Finley-TE (A)

Defense: C. Woodson-CB, N. Collins-FS, A.J. Hawk-LB, C. Matthews-LB (B+)

The Good: They flat out make plays, big ones. Aaron Rodgers is among the league’s elite QB and commands one of the deepest receiving units of any team. He became the first QB to ever pass for 4,000 yards in his first two years as a starter and both Donald Driver and Greg Jennings finished with over 1,000 yards receiving. 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson leads a secondary that had the most turnovers in football (33 interceptions in ’09). The other parts aren’t too shabby themselves, featuring arguably the best linebacker group in the game as well. The AJ Hawk/Clay Matthews/Nick Barnett led unit allowed only 83 rushing yards a game last year, tops in all the NFL.

Charles Woodson picked off nine passes found the endzone 3 times for the Pack defense last season.

The Bad: The Pack has a prolific offense that has big play potential, but too often those big plays come out of necessity created by Rodgers having to go downfield after being sacked, yet again. Rodgers hit the ground 50 times last year behind the inconsistent offensive line, and a beating like that is not what a premier QB needs. It will catch up to him sooner or later. They have to protect their most valuable asset if they want to work deeper into the Playoffs.

X-Factor-Jermichael Finley: It’s hard to rise to the forefront of such a diverse passing attack, but Finley’s talent will make a huge impact on an already impressive offense. He is among the best athletes in the game at the position and makes plays few can. After not starting the first half of ’09, he still finished with 676 yards and 5 touchdowns. With a full year in the mix constantly, Mr. Rodgers could have yet another Pro Bowl receiver at his disposal.

2010 Prediction: @ Phi (W), Buf (W), @ Chi (W), Det (W),@ Was (W), Mia (W), Min (W), @ NYJ (L), Dal (W), @ Min (L), @ Atl (L), SF (W), @ Det (W), @ NE (L), NYG (L), Chi (W)

Summary: The Pack can play with pretty much anybody and should get off to as good of a start as any team in the league, with an easy early schedule; however it picks up in the second half with matchups versus New England, San Francisco, Dallas, both New York clubs and Minnesota twice. They’ll be tested, but will be a tough playoff matchup for any team. RECORD: 11-5

Minnesota Vikings (12-4 in 2009, Division Champs)

Offense: A. Peterson-RB, B. Favre-QB, S. Hutchinson-G, S. Rice-WR, P. Harvin-WR (A)

Defense: J. Allen-DE, K. Williams-DT, P. Williams-DT, A. Winfield-CB (A)

The Good: They have as complete of an offensive offering of anybody in football. Brett Favre’s experienced hand pushed them to new levels in ’09, and they all gained experience that will pay off bigger this season. Adrian Peterson at the mountain top of backs in the NFL and the emergence of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin makes it impossible for teams to stack up defenses to just stop him. The understated key to the team is the toughness of its defensive unit. The combo of Pat & Kevin Williams is still the best interior line pairing in football and no player has more sacks over the last six years than Jared Allen, with 72. Together, they are the best defensive line in football.

After all the annual controversy has settled, Favre's return is the most important part of a repeat North championship in Minnesota.

The Bad: There isn’t much bad to say about this team as a whole, but there is some concern about how well the secondary will be able to hold up. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin aren’t young anymore and the safety spot was noticeably downgraded with Darren Sharper’s departure before last season. They would have been well served adding some youth through the Draft, but they declined that opportunity. Running the ball at their frontlines is a pointless venture, so many teams will try to go over the top and they could find success more often than not going straight at this unit.

X-Factor-Percy Harvin: The 2009 Rookie of the Year brought a brand new dimension to the Vikes offensive attack. However, once again his migraine problems that plagued him at Florida returned and limited his on-field time towards the end of the season. Once again this season, the problem has returned, with him passing out during training camp in a scary moment for the sport. His being able to stay healthy is huge for Minnesota, but his health concerns are almost equal to the level of his talent, a huge question mark.

2010 Projection: @ NO (L), Mia (W), Det (W), @ NYJ (L), Dal (W), @ GB (L), @ NE (W), Ari (W), @ Chi (W), GB (W), @ Was (W), Buf (W), NYG (W), Chi (W), @ Phi (W), @ Det (W)

Summary: They have virtually every piece of their team returning from last season, and have a relatively easy schedule compared to what their potential can be. Favre’s return, no matter how criticized, is huge for this squad and puts them a legit chance to play again exactly where they ended last season, in the NFC Championship Game.