Now that every NFL team has played at least three games, it's the perfect time to take what we have seen and project which of them will rise to the top this year.
Of course, things can change as the season goes on, but in a perfect world with no major injuries, suspensions or other team turmoil, here are the teams that I believe will win each division.
The Atlanta Falcons have a pretty tough schedule, including the fact that four out of their last six games are in the division. Their last game outdoors in anything resembling a cold-weather climate, however, is when they face the Carolina Panthers on December 9th.
That game will likely decide the division, and I think the Falcons will take it.
Wide receiver Julio Jones has shown this preseason that he is primed for a breakout year. The Falcons have also shown that they are going to be more willing to take shots down the field with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The development of Jacquizz Rodgers as the backup running back will also add some explosiveness to the offense.
On defense, the Falcons add cornerback Asante Samuel, and I think that will be a bigger deal than many people have suggested. His tackling is still suspect, but he is also still a playmaker. When he has an opportunity, he picks the ball off—he doesn't just deflect it. That is huge for a defense that only has one legitimate pass-rusher in John Abraham.
With the NFL going to more of a passing league, you need at least three good corners at least to match up. Samuel gives the Falcons flexibility to move a guy like fellow cornerback Brent Grimes around while keeping their other standout cornerback, Dunta Robinson, on the outside. It will also give new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan the freedom to blitz more without the fear of giving up easy touchdowns.
The offense will put up more points, the defense is now built to play with a lead with better pass coverage, and the Falcons play 10 dome games this season.
That's a recipe for success.
The Panthers will come close, but they still need some help on defense. The New Orleans Saints looked good in the preseason, but that was before all the suspensions kicked in. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are better this year than last talent-wise. They just lost Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, however, and I think they will have some growing pains in new head coach Greg Schiano's first year.
The Falcons are definitely the team to beat in the NFL South.
The Chicago Bears acquired wide receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade, running back Michael Bush in free agency and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in this year's draft. Those three players will make a tremendous impact in the red zone, where teams will have to pick their poison to keep them out of the end zone.
Now that Mike Tice has taken over as offensive coordinator, quarterback Jay Cutler won't have to worry about running for his life so much. That's not because the offensive line has gotten much better, but instead because Tice understands the need to protect his quarterback and will leave additional blockers in on passing downs to get that job done.
Added together, this makes for an offense that will score a lot more points and won't have as many turnovers.
On defense up front, the defensive line should be even better with tackle Henry Melton having another year of experience under his belt. He should finally provide that constant pass rush from the interior to help All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers coming from the outside.
A major question mark is when middle linebacker Brian Urlacher will be ready to play after "minor" knee surgery. However, the Bears start the season with two of their first three games against the Indianapolis Colts and the St. Louis Rams. Those are two teams that don't look to be contenders this year.
The second game is against the division rival Green Bay Packers, and I'm sure most fans and coaches hope he can play in that one. If he needs to sit those first three games out to be dominant in the last 13, I think they will be fine without him, however.
Where this team is stacked right now is in their return duties.
They already have an all-world return guy in Devin Hester, who is a threat to take a punt return back at any time. They also have added wide receiver Eric Weems, who is a dangerous return man in his own right and running back Lorenzo Booker, who took a kickoff return back for a touchdown this preseason.
I have no idea if they are going to keep all three guys, but trying to decide which one of those three you want returning kicks is a nice problem to have.
The Detroit Lions secondary will continue to be their Achilles' heel. The Packers defense has gotten younger but not necessarily better yet, and they had a key injury to linebacker Desmond Bishop. The Minnesota Vikings have no idea when or how well running back Adrian Peterson will play this year coming off a torn ACL last season.
With the additions the Bears made on offense this offseason, as well as installing Tice as the offensive coordinator, they are the team to beat in the NFC North this year.
This pick was the hardest of the NFC teams, and it's for just one reason—projecting the health of quarterback Michael Vick.
The team is so solid everywhere else that they should be an easy pick. With Vick's injury history and the fact that nobody has a crystal ball, it makes it a much harder task, however.
The Eagles have impressive talent on offense at wide receiver with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, as well as at running back with LeSean McCoy and at tight end with Brent Celek.
On defense, the Eagles have two teams worth of superb talent up front on the defensive line with Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins leading the way. In fact, someone they cut before the regular season from this group may well get picked up to start for another team.
The linebacker unit is much improved with the offseason signing of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans as well as the drafting of outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. This group actually has some quality depth now with outside linebacker Brian Rolle being demoted, which definitely wasn't the case last season.
In the secondary, you couldn't ask for much better talent at corner than Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Even the safety position is better with Nate Allen finally healthy again and with the signing of O.J. Atogwe to provide quality depth should he or fellow starter Kurt Coleman miss any time.
The defense now has so much talent across the board that not even defensive coordinator Juan Castillo can screw them up.
Now we are back to where we started: talking about Vick. I am going out on a limb and saying he will start at least 14 games this season. They will need him for every one of those 14, because their schedule is very tough.
By my estimation, seven of the Eagles' eight non-division opponents will be in playoff contention. Then you have the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, who will also vie for the division crown. There is little room for error with a schedule like this one, so if I am wrong and Vick misses a significant amount of playing time this season, everything could implode fast.
I just don't think he will.
That is why the Eagles are my pick to win the NFC East.
Last year the San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere to finish 13-3 and run away with the NFC West crown. This offseason, they tried to go out and get even more talent.
They signed running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. They drafted wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James to add even more firepower to the offense.
When you combine that with what they already had on offense—Pro Bowlers like Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis—the 49ers have surrounded quarterback Alex Smith with more than enough weapons to be dominant. While Smith was a more-than-capable caretaker for the offense last season, questions still remain about whether or not he can take it to the next level.
Thankfully for 49ers fans, last year's second-round pick quarterback Colin Kaepernick has shown this preseason that if Smith falters or gets hurt, he is more than ready to come in and move the team on offense.
No matter who starts at quarterback, head coach Jim Harbaugh is going to look to get more production out of the offense and keep defenses on their heels.
It's rare in these days of the NFL salary cap to see a defense as stacked as the 49ers at practically every position. If I tried to list the stars, I'd end up naming all the starters. But the bell cows of this elite group are defensive end/tackle Justin Smith, outside linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith, middle linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson.
That defense looks every bit as good as they did last year, and maybe even better in a few spots. If their offense has finally caught up, the defense may end up one of the of the best statistically in decades.
As far as their schedule goes, the 49ers are once again fortunate to be in a watered-down division. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals won't win many games this year. That leaves the Seattle Seahawks as their primary competition in the division, but they are starting a rookie quarterback.
I don't care how much you like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, he is going to have a rude awakening facing the likes of that 49ers defense.
Out of the division is where the 49ers will face their strongest challenges. The will face both participants in the Super Bowl last year, the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. They also have the NFC North on the schedule, and three of those four teams will contend for the playoffs.
But it doesn't matter whether they are 13-3 or 10-6 because the 49ers will wear the NFC West crown again this year.
After an injury to starting quarterback Matt Schaub last season, the Houston Texans still limped into the playoffs and won in the Wild Card Round. Still, they had to be wondering, "what if?"
This year, if they can stay healthy as a team, they just may get to answer that question.
It wasn't just Schaub who missed some time with injuries last year. Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster also dealt with the injury bug. Now all three guys are healthy, and the offense should be hitting on all cylinders once the season starts.
The defensive turnaround last season under coordinator Wade Phillips in his first season with the Texans was very impressive. The rookies—defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed—were a big reason the defense was dominant. Watt has been dealing with a dislocated elbow in the preseason, but it looks like he will be able to go when the real games get started.
The only major difference in this year's Texans defense will be the replacement of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans with free-agent pickup Bradie James. James is on the downside of his career at this point, but he should be fine as a run stopper on first and second down.
The other two impact players on the defense—linebacker Brian Cushing and cornerback Johnathan Joseph—should make even more plays in their second year in Phillips' system.
Aside from the Texans, the AFC South is a pretty weak division this year.
The Indianapolis Colts will struggle some with a rookie quarterback and a transition to a 3-4 defense. The Jacksonville Jaguars may not have the services of running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is holding out, and while Blaine Gabbert has shown improvement this preseason, nobody knows what will happen when teams game-plan for him. The Tennessee Titans have a shot to dethrone the Texans, but having named second-year quarterback Jake Locker the starter, they will go through some growing pains as well.
Out of the division, the Texans will have to put their hard hat on. They play the NFC North, which has three teams that might make the playoffs. They also play the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, who are all serious playoff contenders as well.
They won't be able to afford another injury-plagued season if they want to retain their crown.
If they can stay healthy, I look for them to run away with the AFC South, however.
The Baltimore Ravens will be one of the strongest teams in the NFL this season. How far they go will largely be determined by the play of their quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens offense is centered around the running game with standout fullback Vonta Leach leading the way for Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is still money for moving the chains, and second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith looks more well-rounded this preseason. They also have two good young tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta who can make plays in the passing game.
Flacco is going to have to go out and show that he is the franchise quarterback the Ravens need to contend for the Super Bowl. He has had good success so far in his career, but he has been somewhat inconsistent. So far so good this preseason, as he has continued his momentum from a strong showing in the AFC Championship last season.
Even with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs lost for at least most of the season, the Ravens defense will be dominant. Defensive end Haloti Ngata is a beast on the defensive line. Future Hall of Famer linebacker Ray Lewis is still playing at a high level. The secondary is led by fellow future Hall of Famer Ed Reed and standout corner Lardarius Webb.
The Ravens' schedule is a tough one. In addition to having to fend off the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, they will have to face the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, all of whom I have picked to win their divisions.
The road ahead will not be easy, but I think the Ravens will be up to the task.
That's why they are my pick to win the AFC North.
They picked up wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and safety Steve Gregory in free agency. Then they drafted defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round. All of these pickups satisfied needs within the Patriots lineup.
On offense, quarterback Tom Brady is still pulling the trigger with surgical precision. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are his favorite targets and supreme matchup problems in the passing game. With Lloyd in the fold, it should also be even harder for the underneath pass defense to account for them. Second-year running back Stevan Ridley looks primed to handle the lion's share of the carries on the ground this year.
If there is one area that is worrisome for the Patriots, it is the offensive line. With the retirement of left tackle Matt Light and the fact that right guard Brian Waters still hasn't reported to camp, there are some important holes to plug.
So far this preseason, the results have been mixed at best. There is still hope that Waters will eventually come in to camp right before the regular season starts. While they haven't performed well as a group so far, there is talent on the offensive line as well.
Obviously, this could be a big deal, since the No. 1 priority on offense has to be to protect Tom Brady from getting hit.
On defense, the additions of Jones and Hightower will have an immediate positive effect. Jones has been very impressive as a pass-rusher in two out of the three preseason games. Hightower has already earned a starting position and is a good all-around player.
They will aid a defense already led by Pro Bowlers like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and outside linebacker Jerod Mayo. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes still has some issues in pass coverage, but he has looked practically unblockable against the run in the preseason. Cornerback Devin McCourty will look to bounce back to his rookie form from 2010.
As far as their schedule goes, the Patriots have something of a mixed bag. Inside their division, only the New York Jets appear to have the talent to challenge them for the top spot. However, I remain firmly convinced that the Jets will implode with a quarterback controversy at some point during the season. I doubt the Buffalo Bills or the Miami Dolphins will be in playoff contention this year.
Out of the division, there is good news and bad news for the Patriots. The good news is they get to play the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, none of whom are likely to contend for anything this year.
The bad news is that they also have to face the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, three of the strongest teams in the NFL. There are also games against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, who will also be pushing for playoff spots this season.
If the Patriots can get their offensive line problems worked out, then their schedule won't matter much, however.
I have confidence they will, and that's why they are my choice to run away with the AFC East.
The Kansas City Chiefs had so many injuries to top players last season that trying to predict how they will perform this year based on that performance would be a mistake. Every year in the NFL, there are teams that go from worst to first in their division. The Chiefs are the team most likely to make that jump this year.
The Chiefs offense suffered a huge blow when running back Jamaal Charles tore his ACL last season. If this preseason is any indication, however, he is already back in rare form. They also brought in Peyton Hillis, who suffered through an injury-plagued 2011. Those two guys will team up for a potent one-two punch in the running game.
At wide receiver, the Chiefs are blessed with two tall wide receivers who can go up and get the ball in Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin. If that wasn't enough, they have wide receivers Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster to work defenses over from the slot receiver position. Tight ends Kevin Boss and Tony Moeaki are also steady contributors in the passing game.
In short, the Chiefs have a lot of weapons on offense.
I envision the Chiefs giving the same pick-your-poison problems as the Chicago Bears near the goal line when they have Bowe and Baldwin out wide with Hillis in the backfield.
The key to their success will be keeping quarterback Matt Cassel healthy and making good decisions with the ball. Even though there are people who doubt his ability, I'm confident Cassel can get the job done.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs have outstanding players on every level of the defense. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali, middle linebacker Derrick Johnson and safeties Kendrick Lewis and Eric Berry are all big-time playmakers. Outside linebacker Justin Houston and cornerback Stanford Routt are no slouches, either.
Cornerback Brandon Flowers is another quality player, but he is sidelined for now with a foot injury.
When teams have to pass against the Chiefs, their defense is going to wreak havoc. And with the weapons they have on offense, they should be playing with a lead a lot.
In the return game, the Chiefs are also explosive with McCluster and nickel cornerback Javier Arenas. They will help change field position and put the offense in better situations to score.
The Chiefs' schedule is tough, but it's a little bit easier than that of the Denver Broncos, which is the other team I consider in position to win this division. The Chiefs will face two teams I believe will win their division while the Broncos will face four. The Chiefs also have games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, all of which will struggle a bit this year.
Aside from the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, the Chiefs will also face tests out of the division from the the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers, all of which will contend for a playoff spot.
Interestingly enough, the Chiefs meet the Broncos in the final game of the season, a game that may well be for the division crown. Even with Peyton Manning at the helm for the Broncos, I have to give the edge on offense to the Chiefs.
For that reason and the others outlined above, the Kansas City Chiefs are my pick to win the AFC West by a nose.