The Steelers won it all last year, and didn’t really lose anyone major enough to think they don’t have a good chance of repeating. Now, that’s not to say it isn’t extremely difficult to repeat, but until we have reason to knock them off the perch, they stay at the top.
If Rashard Mendenhall can become a feature back, the offense will become even harder to stop, but Willie Parker isn’t done just yet.
Will the transition from Hines Ward to Santonio Holmes as the No. 1 receiver continue? Holmes picked last year's Super Bowl as the right game for a potential breakout performance.
No real worries on the defensive side of the ball, unless injuries pop up.
Key player for 2009: Willie Parker
New England Patriots
The return of Tom Brady to the fold can easily make the Patriots the number one team on many people’s boards. In my case, I’m going to make the Patriots earn the No. 1 spot.
That being said, this team still looks extremely talented. Similar to past years, they have added to their talent pool by bringing in vets like Joey Galloway, Fred Taylor and Shawn Springs, amongst others.
Let’s also not overlook the Belichick coaching factor. He should have this team in top form, and perhaps even motivate Randy Moss for a big season to celebrate Brady’s return.
Key Player for 2009: Tom Brady
New York Giants
Yes, I know the obvious question that jumps out is the number one wide receiver position. However, I think the Giants are extremely deep and talented in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Their defensive line rotation is second to none at this point, and with stars Tuck and Umenyoria leading the way, opposing quarterbacks will have their hands full.
The offense should produce enough to overcome any thoughts to missing Plaxico Burress, and I expect a big season from Kenny Phillips at the safety position.
On offense, I think Steve Smith will be a big help to Eli Manning this season.
Key Player: Steve Smith (or whatever receiver might step up to replace Burress)
Expecting the Falcons to continue their sudden rise is asking a lot. Especially if you believe in sophomore slumps. If Matt Ryan falters, the Falcons could potentially crumble.
Adding TE Tony Gonzalez to the mix only gives the Dirty Birds another offensive weapon, and there already is a lot of talent in place with Michael Turner, Roddy White and Jerious Norwood.
Will the defense miss the departure of Keith Brooking? Probably not as much as people would’ve thought a year ago, especially with the arrival of Mike Peterson.
The secondary here could also potentially be an issue they will have to deal with.
Key Player: Matt Ryan
The three biggest question marks for the Eagles this year are the health of Brian Westbrook, how will the team overcome the tragic death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, and will the arrival of Michael Vick create a distraction in the locker room?
I’m not certain that any of these three will become a real problem at all, although in my opinion, the loss of Johnson will be the hardest to overcome.
Look for LeSean McCoy to help carry the load at running back, and give the Eagles hopefully another option besides Brian Westbrook to run the ball. That is, if you don’t want to include the potential Michael Vick factor in the Wildcat formation.
The development of players like WR Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson will also be a key, as QB Donovan McNabb needs to develop a reliable No. 1 target.
Key player: Jason Peters
Yes, they’ve lost some of their brain trust and Marvin Harrison, both key factors to their string of success. However, Peyton Manning still remains in place, and Donald Brown could add a nice jolt to the running game when paired with Joseph Addai.
This is a team that has to show the ability to stay healthy on the defensive side of the ball. If so, they will surely be a team to be reckoned with.
Playmakers like Bob Sanders, Robert Mathis, and Dwight Freeney must not only stay healthy, but produce on the defensive side if this team is going to put together a long playoff run.
Thus far, Sanders is out for the early part of the schedule, and Mathis and Antoine Bethea are banged up. Not a good start for the defense, but there certainly is time to recover.
Key Player: Dwight Freeney
San Diego Chargers
Will head coach Norv Turner finally put it all together and have a team live up to its expectations? Up until now, Turner has struggled in the spotlight, specifically in the postseason.
Has LaDanian Tomlinson finally fallen? Darren Sproles should help overcome any potential drop-off from LT.
The Bolts also welcome back the injured Shawne Merriman to the fold, and his playmaking abilities could drive quarterbacks crazy, assuming he can remain off the police blotter.
Merriman’s return could make the Chargers defense that much better, but even without Merriman, there are still enough playmakers in place for them to stop their opponents regularly.
Key player: Antonio Gates
Will the Titans be able to replace the $100 million man? There are candidates available to share the load to replace Albert Haynesworth. Overall though, a lot of things went right for this team last year, on their way to a 13-3 season, and will they be able to repeat that same success?
Will Kerry Collins be able to repeat his great performance from last year? Will the RB tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White be able to run all over defenses?
These are some of the fair questions to bring up, and I think the defense will at least take enough of a hit by the loss of Haynesworth to come up short in trying to repeat last year’s record, but should still garner a playoff invitation.
Key player: Kyle Vanden Bosch
The Carolina Panthers feature some superstar players like DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, and Julius Peppers. They also have a sly coach in John Fox.
Is there enough depth to support their superstars, and does quarterback Jake Delhomme have enough left in the tank after injuries to lead the offense to produce?
In my opinion, this is a tough team to get a read on, as I can easily see them being either 11-5 or 5-11. Utilizing secondary passing targets beyond Smith will certainly be imperative.
Key player: Jake Delhomme
The Ravens seem to be in a very similar situation to the Falcons, as their second year quarterback will definitely have a huge impact on their prospects for 2009.
However, where the situation differs greatly from the Falcons, are they have a defense led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Those two sure-fire Hall of Famers lead what is perennially one of the toughest, if not THE toughest defense to play against.
As long as Flacco can help lead the offense to put points on the board on a somewhat consistent basis, the Ravens should be in the mix.
Key player: Terrell Suggs
I guess this year will tell us how magical their run was last year. Was it for real? Time will tell, as the offense should still put up points on a consistent basis.
Can Kurt Warner stay healthy? Based on his track record, you can expect an injury for Warner to deal with this year, leaving it up to Matt Leinart and his development.
Beanie Wells should be a nice addition to the backfield if he can stay healthy.
The defense should be pretty comparable to last year’s squad, so overall, I’d expect Arizona to be pretty good, but unable to match last year’s Super Bowl run.
Key player: Kurt Warner
A very talented team that unfortunately seems to lack discipline and passion. Look at the last two weeks from last year’s disappointing season: a huge letdown against Baltimore in the last game in the history of Texas Stadium, and then a 44-6 drubbing against the hated Philadelphia Eagles in the finale—a game that had they won, would’ve put them in the playoffs.
Now that Terrell Owens left town, many are trying to argue whether that is addition by subtraction. I’m not that convinced, because other then Felix Jones, there isn’t any clear and consistent game breaker on offense.
The defense should be solid, as long as DeMarcus Ware stays healthy, so it comes down to Tony Romo and how he leads the offense. Make no mistakes about it; this is a key season for the quarterback.
Key player: Tony Romo
It’s time for this team to finally put it together and start producing. Bringing in Albert Haynesworth in the offseason obviously gives a huge lift to the defense. Of course, that’s assuming Haynesworth comes mentally ready to play.
Ask the Cowboys’ Andre Gurode, as Haynesworth sometimes leaves his brains and effort on the sideline.
If Haynesworth tries to show the worth of his new contract, the Redskins defense should be a lot better than in recent years.
Jason Campbell will have to show that the Redskins were silly for wanting to replace him in the offseason, but he has the weapons in place to produce.
Will Jim Zorn finally put it together for owner Daniel Snyder?
Key player: Jason Campbell
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers showed last year he is the real deal. Expectations remain high for Rodgers in 2009.
I also expect a big season from RB Ryan Grant, who had a healthy training camp and seems destined to return to his 2007 success.
There is a lot of depth with the pass catchers, as Greg Jennings and Donald Driver lead the way.
Remember the name Jermichael Finley, who may turn out to be a find at tight end.
The switching to a 3-4 defense will be key for the Packers, as the secondary should be fine. It’s in the front seven of the defense where some of the question marks need answering.
Key player: Aaron Kampman (who moves to OLB)
I find the Vikings to be another difficult team to get a read on. You start with Adrian Peterson, the best running back in football. Sprinkle in the un-retired Brett Favre at quarterback, with Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, and Percy Harvin at the wide out position, and there definitely are enough playmakers on the offense.
On defense, you have Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, the Williams “brothers” and Chad Greenway leading the way, so there is talent there too.
Can coach Brad Childress put it all together? I see the Vikings doing better than this ranking, but they’ll have to earn their way up the ladder, as Favre has to show what he has left in the tank.
Key player: Brett Favre
New Orleans Saints
But, the big question is, how will they stop opponents?
Defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith must produce and a lot will be expected from MLB Jonathan Vilma in his second season with the Saints.
There is enough talent on both sides of the ball that this will be a key season for Head Coach Sean Payton.
Key player: Jonathan Vilma
The huge surprise of last year, will they be able to repeat last year’s performance? That remains to be seen, as the Wildcat formation shouldn’t be a surprise to their opponents any longer.
Also, will Chad Pennington and Joey Porter be able to repeat their performances of last year? Many questions like these remain about the Dolphins, not to mention, they won’t have the luxury of a last place schedule this time around.
Expect a one-step-back type of year for perhaps two steps forward next year as some of the young talent in place continues to progress.
Key player: Ronnie Brown
A former laughing stock of the league, the Texans have finally put together a pretty talented squad. Leading the way is QB Matt Schaub and super stud WR Andre Johnson.
Steve Slaton is coming off a breakout rookie season and there are second-tier talents like Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels, and Andre Davis to add potential production.
The key here is also the defense as guys like Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, Dunta Robinson and DeMeco Ryans lead the charge. A significant improvement from this unit should put the Texans in playoff contention.
Health and a good start will certainly be a key.
Key player: Matt Schaub
San Francisco 49ers
My one potential sleeper team this year is the 49ers. Head Coach Mike Singletary leads the charge and will hope to rally his team around a few different unusual circumstances.
First, it appears first round pick Michael Crabtree’s holdout will continue into the season.
Second, unheralded and underrated Shaun Hill takes over as the first string quarterback, taking over for former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith.
There is good depth elsewhere in the backfield with Frank Gore leading the way in front of Glen Coffee. The defense is led by super stud LB Patrick Willis and CB Nate Clements.
In the end, this team will only go as far as Shaun Hill is able to take them, but I expect Hill to do a good job “driving the bus,” and Singletary should be good at rallying the players together.
Key player: Shaun Hill
The big acquisition was bringing in Jay Cutler to man the quarterback position. While you certainly have to expect him to be an improvement over Kyle Orton, the question is will the rest of the team around him be able to improve as well?
You could argue the defense is in a bit of decline, as guys like Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris may have declined just a bit.
Will Matt Forte be able to repeat last year’s excellent rookie season? Will the acquisition of Cutler leave the Bears not even needing Forte to match that production? Who will consistently catch the ball? Devin Hester? Greg Olson? Earl Bennett? Some combination of the three?
Time will tell, but the defense must take charge for the team to even repeat last year’s record.
Key player: Brian Urlacher
Another team that is extremely hard to get a read on, the Bengals floundered last season, but look to recover in 2009.
QB Carson Palmer’s health will be a key, as WR threats like Chad Ochocinco, Chris Henry, and Laverneaus Coles will be very limited without Palmer being healthy and effective.
RB Cedric Benson will have his first full season as the feature back for the Bengals. The defense has added veterans in S Roy Williams and DT Tank Johnson, but still has plenty of question marks.
Hard Knocks on HBO has given the Bengals a lot of feature TV time, but they will require a lot of things to go right to continue to stay in the spotlight.
Key player: Carson Palmer
Another team that it is hard to get a read on, as the team was so decimated on the offensive line last season, which led to complete struggles across the board.
The line has been revamped for this year, led by the acquisition of Tra Thomas and the drafting of Eugene Monroe and Eben Britten.
David Garrard returns as the starting quarterback, and is a solid player who won’t tend to lose too many games for you.
Long time running back Fred Taylor was cut, but Maurice Jones-Drew leads the rushing attack and should expect complementary production from Rashad Jennings and Greg Jones.
Torry Holt was brought in to lead the revamped receiving corps, and Troy Williamson surprisingly had a good camp.
On defense, head coach Jack Del Rio turns to playmakers like DT John Henderson, FS Reggie Nelson, CB Rashean Mathis and DE Derrick Harvey to lead the way.
Key player: Tra Thomas (and the entire offensive line)
New York Jets
Rex Ryan is looking to bring a fresh approach to the Jets, replacing the ways of Eric Mangini. Things seem to be a little less mysterious around the team.
They will be relying on rookie QB Mark Sanchez to take over for the departed Brett Favre. The RB combo of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington will be relied upon heavily, in addition to the solid offensive line.
The defense led by Ryan’s arrival should be able to make more plays under his tutelage.
The biggest question on offense is will there be enough production in the passing game, between the likes of Sanchez and whether or not Jerricho Cotchery is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. TE Dustin Keller should continue his development as a playmaking TE.
Key player: Leon Washington
Another team that is a little difficult to get an accurate read on. The offense is especially tough to read, as key players like WR Terrell Owens, QB Trent Edwards, and the RB combo of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson are all tough to gauge.
The defense still has the likes of DT Marcus Stroud, DE Aaron Schobel, LB Paul Posluszny, and CB Terrence McGee to stop opponents.
I can’t see the offense producing enough for this team to garner a lot of success. Owens will be the key as he will not only need to produce, but also avoid becoming a disruptive force in the locker room.