After the Super Bowl, it's another long, seven-month offseason. The only significant events that occur are the NFL Draft and the Pro Bowl, where the latter takes place in less than a week. So, while the 2008 season is still fresh in our minds, why not take an extra early look at the 2009 season?
Tier 1: Elite 5
This one is really a no-brainer. This team wins with their rough, physical play and with a strong defense, running game, and passing game. This team really is the most complete in the NFL. Also bear in mind that they did this off the toughest schedule in the league.
There really is no clear-cut No. 2 behind Pittsburgh, but New England is always a safe bet. Tom Brady could be back, and if not, Matt Cassel isn't a bad consolation. Look for the Patriots to dethrone Miami in the AFC East.
People are really counting out the best team in the NFL's regular season. True, they do have a difficult schedule, but their powerful defense and commanding running game keeps them in every game. Tennessee could put together another winner.
This team is very similar to Tennessee; a commanding running game, an experienced quarterback, and tops in a tough division. I'm just not as confident in their defense, but then again, they are the best in a declining NFC.
How about some love for the team who challenged the Pittsburgh Steelers the most? Unfortunately, Arizona can really mess it up this offseason if they lose Todd Haley, Edgerrin James, Anquan Boldin, and/or Kurt Warner.
Tier 2: Making the Playoffs
Losing Tony Dungy is a dagger to the heart for this organization, but it seems as if most of the talent is returning. Reggie Wayne is developing into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Expect Peyton Manning and crew to piece together a good one.
San Diego really doesn't realize how lucky it is. The Chargers have a lock for five or six wins in their pathetic division, and have another couple of easy wins out of their division. They have to prove that they are elite, because the clock is ticking for them.
I probably shouldn't but I absolutely hate the Giants. Their running game is very effective, but there's always at least one member missing. Eli Manning has declined from his 2008 playoff run, and there are no receivers. It could be tough in New York.
Last year, I thought the Ravens' window was rapidly closing, but since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh have been so successful together, the defense has been re-energized and the window is rapidly opening.
Why Minnesota wants to fire Brad Childress blows my mind. This team is evolving, but it seriously needs a quarterback. Their defensive line and pair of running backs are probably the best combinations out there, and a passing game would really give them a boost.
Tier 3: Fightin' for a Spot
I don't have a man crush on the Eagles like most seem to do, but they do look good for a playoff spot, as the Giants are really leaving the door open for the other three teams in the NFC East. Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid did their job in 2008.
12. Miami Dolphins
Miami had a remarkable turnaround in 2008, but really were just bad in their early playoff exit. Chad Pennington was efficient all season minus the playoffs, and this team's creative single-wing offense can carry them far.
I like the Redskins a lot this season. Jason Campbell took a step forward this year, and Jim Zorn really is not a bad coach. The defense just needs to step up, as Clinton Portis keeps the running game powerful. This team is going to be a sleeper.
14. Chicago Bears
Chicago is a young team with tons of potential, but gaping needs as well. The Bears are in a weak division and should enjoy a good run for the playoffs in the wide-open NFC North. Matt Forte is a great offensive catalyst.
Jon Gruden was evidently a cancer in the Tampa Bay locker room, but whether the firing will fix the on-the-field problems remains to be seen. Jeff Garcia needs another reliable target and the defense needs to add a few players.
16. Atlanta Falcons
I don't like Atlanta this season. I really feel that they maxed out their potential last season and their defense's holes are going to be exposed. Still, the offense is capable of putting points on the board, so the Falcons will compete in the NFC.
Tier 4: On the Verge
17. Dallas Cowboys
I've already mentioned how open the NFC is, and Dallas has a beautiful opportunity to establish themselves this season. Too bad the Cowboys have become a soap opera and have forgotten how to play football. They need some serious help.
This team is so close, yet so far away. They quietly put together one of the best offensive seasons the NFL has seen, with Drew Brees at the helm. The running game needs to get started, and the defense needs to stop people.
19. Denver Broncos
Just like New Orleans: a great offense but a sad defense. Their defense and offense are just a little worse, plus they lost Mike Shanahan. They are still the second-best in a bad division, which isn't always a bad thing.
20. Houston Texans
Houston is still a young team that advanced past Jacksonville this season and should look to improve even more. I love just about everything about this team, and they should be in the playoffs in two or three years.
21. New York Jets
Personally, the New York soap opera is just as annoying as the Dallas one, but thank goodness they don't show up as much. They have a few stars, but also several holes. Brett Favre may or may not stay, and Thomas Jones is aging.
22. San Fransisco 49ers
I'm usually one of the first to dump on the 49ers, but they have really shocked me. They finished the season extremely hot, and Mike Singletary as coach is a good choice. Shaun Hill is a good temporary quarterback.
Tier 5: Maybe Next Year
23. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo has dropped from a safe second to a distant fourth as far as overall talent. Still, they seem to win games thanks to Marshawn Lynch, their halfback. Lynch is really the key to the success in Buffalo.
Green Bay was a real disappointment this season and is losing ground to Chicago and Minnesota in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers had a decent season but probably could have made better use of Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.
25. Oakland Raiders
Oakland could be a good team. They have the halfbacks: Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. JaMarcus Russell wasn't terrible this season, and the defense still needs improvement. They need some offensive linemen.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jack Del Rio's squad just absolutely fell apart this season and has collapsed in the AFC South—and it's not looking better. The team is old, with Fred Taylor over 30 years old, and David Garrard has few targets. The defense has also been a disappointment.
27. Seattle Seahawks
Mike Holmgren really didn't deserve this, but that's how it crumbles. The injuries just piled up, and poor Holmgren may have had to sign himself to play, he was running out of reserves so quickly. The Seahawks can move up.
Tier 6: The Bottom 5
28. Cleveland Browns
Eric Mangini will improve the Browns, but not immediately. The team is just bad at every position, and they may regret not trading Derek Anderson when his value was high. Mangini has his hands full, that is for sure.
Scott Pioli will help the Chiefs develop their many young players, as well as fix the off-the-field problems. Kansas City really is the worst in a terrible division, which is never good. Don't expect an immediate improvement.
If any coach needed to be fired this offseason, it was Marvin Lewis. The Bengals management is just terrible, and the players are no better. However, they caught a little fire at the end of 2008.
31. St. Louis Rams
I thought St. Louis would improve last year, but it just didn't work out. With five wins the last two seasons, St. Louis is really desperate. The Rams need everything, starting with an offensive line.
32. Detroit Lions
No comment. Seriously. No comment.