1. Saints 13-3
Even with the element of surprise gone and teams gunning for them, the Saints are good enough to maintain a chair at the grown-up table, if not carve the turkey again this year.
Any team with Brees under center is dangerous, particularly with Sean Payton dictating the pace.
There is enough talent on this roster, on both sides of the ball, to make them our favorites entering the season.
2. Colts 14-2
The Indianapolis Colts enter this season as the favorites to win the AFC South for the 198th year in a row. Coming off of one of his best seasons (career highs in completion % and 300 yard games), Peyton Manning will have as many weapons as ever at his disposable.
Reggie Wayne, emerging stars Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, along with returning slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez, elite tight end Dallas Clark and running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown, combined with a pretty good offensive line should keep defensive coordinators up at night.
On defense, the Colts may be vulnerable to the run with all DTs weighing less than 310 pounds, but edge rushers Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, and the new rookie Jerry Hughes can make a pocket disappear instantly.
The Colts once again will be among the NFL’s elite in 2010.
3. Ravens 9-7
The Baltimore Ravens come into the 2010 season being a favorite to win their division and becoming a contender.
They have long been known for their hard-hitting defense, but with the progression of their young QB Joe Flacco, their star RB Ray Rice, and bringing in a valuable receiver in Anquan Boldin, the NFL competition better be ready for their offensive power.
With all that said, they do have some concerns.
It doesn’t appear that their All-Pro safety Ed Reed is going to be ready to play until mid-season. They just lost Dominique Foxworth all season to injury. The rookie Sergio Kindle just fractured his head.
Each year it seems that a team considered a favorite goes through devastating injury problems crippling the team’s chances for success. Will that be the 2010 Ravens?
4. Vikings 12-4
The star-studded Vikings are expected to be a strong NFC contender again this season, that is if Brett Favre comes back to take the reins for his 20th season.
Even Favre’s most vocal critics cannot deny the excellent production from the gunslinger last season, perhaps his best season ever at age 40.
As great as he was, is it possible for him to repeat that performance?
Whatever his numbers this season, he will have a lot of help around him. Adrian Peterson has been working on his fumbling issues this summer and will likely be out to silence the talk of Chris Johnson being the best RB in the league.
Jared Allen and the defense have all the tools to be the best defense in the NFC.
The Vikings look to have some strong divisional competition in their bitter rival Packers, but right now we have the Vikings edging them out for first place in the NFC North.
5. Cowboys 11-5
The Dallas Cowboys are trying to be the first team to play a Superbowl in its home stadium.
Jerry Jones got rid of the headache Terrell Owens two years ago and drafted a new toy in the talented, yet headstrong, rookie Dez Bryant to work with Tony Romo (although just yesterday Bryant sprained his ankle which will keep him out of commission, and pad carrying, for the next four to six weeks).
The Cowboys won their first playoff game in the Romo era last season and believe that to be a jumping point for a successful 2010 campaign.
With a questionable offensive line and secondary concerns, they are not a lock as division champs and NFC champions as some would have you believe.
But, they are talented and if they come together and play to their potential (is Wade Phillips capable of extracting it?), they have the potential to host the biggest game of the year.
6. Packers 11-5
The Green Bay Packers are projected to be a team competing for a Superbowl berth.
Don’t let the defensive collapse in the playoffs last season fool you. The Packers defense was ranked 2nd overall in 2009 and the collapse can be contributed to backups playing due to injuries.
The Packers boast one of the best offenses in the league, led by rising star QB Aaron Rodgers and his plentiful stable of receivers.
The Packers would love nothing more than to give the bird to their rival Vikings and Brett Favre by taking over the top spot in the division and perhaps taking the top spot in the conference.
If injuries to the offensive line and secondary are held in check, there is no reason to believe this team will be anything other than dominant in 2010.
7. Jets 9-7
The J-E-T-S, Jets. Jets. Jets. are the darling of NFL analysts and a popular pick to represent the AFC in the Superbowl this season.
With the brash Rex Ryan proclaiming their superiority, they have definitely retained the swagger picked up as they rolled to the AFC Championship game last season from the wild card spot.
Tannenbaum has brought in a cast of big names and the Jets are putting all their money on the table to win big and win now.
Will it work? If the 2009 #1-ranked defense can replicate their dominance from 2009, if someone emerges to pick up the lost yardage from the departed Thomas Jones, and if Mark “Sanchize” Sanchez does not have a sophomore drop-off, then there is every reason to believe the Jets could be in the mix in the playoffs.
8. Patriots 10-6
This is the first time in awhile that the Pats are in the lower part of the top ten to start a season.
The image of Ray Rice still running on that defense seems to be in the back of our minds. But, the fact is that the Patriots still won the AFC East last season and their young defensive players have had some time in the system.
Tom Brady was apparently hampered by injuries at the end of last season which should be gone by now and is another year removed from his knee injury.
With Welker still a question mark to start the season, the Patriots likely will be spreading the ball around more than they have the last couple seasons.
Their schedule is brutal and it is not clear yet how they are going to manufacture a pass rush, but never count out the Flying Elvis as Superbowl contenders as long as they have Belichick calling the shots.
9. Dolphins 7-9
The Miami Dolphins come in as the third team in the top 10 representing the projected toughest division in the league in 2010.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan should help the defense tighten up against the big plays they gave up last year.
After winning the AFC East in 2008, the Dolphins only went 7-9 in 2009. Much of that can be explained by major injury issues and an extremely difficult schedule.
The Dolphins believe they have found their QB of the future in Chad Henne and brought in superstar receiver Brandon Marshall to be his number one target.
If Ronnie Brown is fully healthy and returns to his 2008 production level, the Dolphins will be a sleeper pick for a potential playoff team.
10. Falcons 9-7
Injuries played a major role in their modest decline last year.
If they can avoid that bug, regain some of their 2008 stride and Ryan continues to develop, this team can be a force in the NFCS and possibly the playoffs.
A healthy Michael Turner alone may be the extra push they need. They are still a young team whose star should continue to rise, and 2009 may have made them hungrier.
11. Chargers 13-3
The Chargers seem to be caught in a vicious annual cycle of high preseason expectations, followed by disappointment at some point in the season/postseason.
Maybe their slightly diminished expectations this year will be the shove they need to finally get over the hump, but it is doubtful.
There are several reasons why they have slipped out of their typical top five initial rating, starting right in the trenches.
Will the O-line be able to protect Rivers, and run block for rookie Ryan Matthews as he tries to re-establish San Diego's flagging rushing attack?
On the defensive front, will they be able to solidify nose tackle in the wake of Jamal Williams?
At a minimum, the offense should be effective enough to cover any defensive shortfalls to the point where they'll walk out with another division title in a relatively soft AFC West.
12. Bengals 10-6
Last season the Bengals won the AFC North and swept all their division rivals. This was accomplished through great defensive play and good rushing production.
With the drafting of TE Gresham and bringing in Terrell Owens to line up opposite Ochocinco, this may be a put up or shut up year for the once-considered-elite QB Carson Palmer.
If the Bengals can control the theatrics of their attention-seeking WRs, they have a good chance to compete for division supremacy for the second straight year.
13. Texans 9-7
Coming off of their first winning season in franchise history, the Texans look to improve and seek their first ever playoff appearance in 2010.
Elite WR Andre Johnson teams with Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub to form an elite passing attack, which will be aided by returning TE Owen Daniels.
The Texans will need rookies CB Kareem Jackson and RB Ben Tate to shore up weaknesses in the Texan secondary and backfield. RB Steve Slaton will look to improve on his disappointing season last year.
The Texans have solid DEs in Connor Barwin and Pro Bowler Mario Williams, but the middle of the DL is lacking with two unimpressive DTs in Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody.
The strength of their defense is the LB corps, which boasts Rookie of the Year and All Pro Brian Cushing and newly re-signed Demeco Ryans.
This may be the year the Texans finally break through after years of being predicted to do so.
14. 49ers 8-8
San Francisco is the pundits' favorite to win the NFC West this season, due in large part to their promising competitiveness last year and Arizona's personnel losses this offseason.
The 49ers should remain a fearsome defensive squad led by Patrick Willis, but their ability to take the next step to a division crown and a return to the playoffs after a seven-year drought relies on their offense.
Was Alex Smith's solid play down the stretch in '09 a mirage or a sign of the former number one overall pick finally coming into his own?
The team invested two first round picks on the O-line to find out.
If Smith continues to make strides in his development and develops good chemistry with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, the 49ers just might live up to these preseason expectations.
15. Giants 8-8
The New York Giants were decimated by injuries last season resulting in a .500 record in 2009.
We expect the Giants to rebound from their down year and at least give the Cowboys some competition in the division.
Head coach Tom Coughlin again appears to be on the hot-seat for his job. New York is a city not known for its patience and the collapse last season is firing up the talk of his removal.
The Giants have a deep well of talented receivers for Eli Manning to work with and the defense enters training camp healthy.
The question is have they done enough in getting healthy and bringing in additional talent to compete with their division rivals? Stay tuned.
16. Steelers 9-7
The Steelers are the wildcard team of the AFC North.
It is hard to predict what this team will look like when their full complement of players are in the game.
Will Roethlisberger’s off-field issues have any effect on the field (beside him missing at least the first month of games)?
Can the defense return to the dominance of 2008 with the return of Troy Polamalu?
Will the offense return to the traditional Steelers run, run, and run some more instead of flinging the ball around in the air?
How will the season-ending injury to Willie Colon affect the already questionable offensive line?
Questions abound about the Pittsburgh Steelers and it will be interesting to see the answers as the season unfolds.
17. Titans 8-8
The Titans finished 2009 as one of the hottest teams in the NFL after starting the season in abysmal fashion.
The Titans averaged around 27 points per game with Young as the starting QB. Though a threat to beat you with his legs, Young will have to focus on getting the ball to receivers Kenny Britt and the rest of the receivers to spread out the defense for the Titans’ phenomenal running attack.
Although running backs tend to see a major decline after leading the NFL in carries, Johnson will be running behind one of the top offensive lines and there should be no reason he should not be among the league’s top RBs in 2010.
Tennessee’s defense needs to bounce back.
The pass defense looks to improve one of the league’s worst attacks. A healthy Finnegan and Griffin should help, but they need another CB.
The front seven is also a major question mark needing rookie Derrick Morgan to generate some sort of pass rush in order for the D to succeed.
With question marks on D and going against the Colts and Texans four times this year, the Titans may need some luck to make the playoffs.
18. Panthers 8-8
A lot more losses than gains on a team that was even par in 2009.
Even with some addition by subtraction, there is no denying the Panthers are in the midst of a youth movement with what is probably a lame-duck coach.
If they focus on the run and the defense can find a way to be noticeable on the line of scrimmage, they could be competitive most weeks.
But this is a team in transition in a lot of ways, and thus we have no great expectations.
19. Eagles 11-5
The Philadelphia Eagles are projected to be a middle-of-the-pack team this year.
While Eagle fans may disagree, many of us believe it was a mistake to trade away Donovan McNabb to a division rival and it could bite them in the end.
We will get to see if the long-tenured success of the last decade was more Andy Reid or more Donovan McNabb with newly appointed starter Kevin Kolb taking over the QB reins.
The defense is expected to be bolstered by the loading up of defensive draft picks this offseason, but we project that the Eagles will have a down year by their standards and miss out on the playoffs.
20. Redskins 4-12
Dan Snyder is tired of owning the doormat of the NFC East so he brought in Mike Shanahan to head the team and Donovan McNabb to lead the offense.
Shanahan is making his authority known by putting his foot on the neck of the grossly well-paid Albert Haynesworth to start training camp. Hopefully, this hard line with keep the star DT in line and bring out the talent on a defense that underachieved in 2009.
Donovan McNabb comes in as the long under-appreciated QB from the division rival Eagles.
Although McNabb has less weapons to work with on the Redskins, he does immediately upgrade the QB position and perhaps Shanny’s magic with veteran QBs will bring many joyful Sundays to Redskins fans.
The rumor is that the Skins are trying to pry the malcontented but very talented WR Vincent Jackson from the Chargers.
If they are successful in nabbing a talent like that, this team has a shot to compete in this tough division.
21. Bears 7-9
Highly lauded QB Jay Cutler was a major disappointment in 2009 after the fanfare from his arrival in a blockbuster trade with the Broncos.
To remedy the failure of last season, Mike Martz has been brought in as offensive coordinator. Martz is known for his high-flying “greatest show on turf” offensive strategy from his stint in St. Louis.
This marriage of Martz and Cutler should provide some highlight reel plays if they can find a consistent threat at wide receiver.
Head coach Lovie Smith appears to be on the hot-seat with an impatient Bears fanbase after three years of missing the playoffs following their 2006 season Superbowl appearance.
The defense should be bolstered by the arrival of DE Julius Peppers.
The Bears will have a tough road to go through if they are going to make the playoffs this year because of the strength of division rival Vikings and Packers.
If the Bears do end up surprising us and are still playing mid-January, they will have earned it.
22. Broncos 8-8
It is hard to know where this team stood overall by the end of a very uneven 2009.
I don't think their true status was accurately represented by either the nearly bulletproof team that opened 6-0, or the completely hapless team that finished out 2-6.
One thing is sure though, defense was their stronger suit and likely will remain so.
Their biggest offseason transactions were the loss of Brandon Marshall, and the acquisition of rookie QB Tim Tebow, a polarizing figure in terms of public opinion, and a very big question mark in terms of onfield potential.
Even if Tebow's critics are wrong and he does eventually succeed in the NFL, I do not think he is a ready made starter, which tells me their offense will keep them out of the competitors circle this year, even if their D is up to snuff.
23. Cardinals 10-6
Talk about getting hit hard in the offseason.
Losing Antrel Rolle isn't that big a deal, especially with Kerry Rhodes replacing him, but losing Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, and Anquan Boldin is huge.
Questions remain about Matt Leinart's work ethic, maturity, and leadership; if he isn't ready to step into the spotlight, this team's decline will be fast and unforgiving.
Arizona did manage to get a bit lucky in the draft, with NT Dan Williams falling to them in the latter half of the 1st round, and picking up LB Daryl Washington from TCU. Arizona's strength this season just may be its defense.
24. Seahawks 5-11
If there's one number that might illustrate how much change has occurred in Seattle this offseason, it is 97. That's how many transactions new GM John Schneider and HC Pete Carroll have overseen as Seattle's new braintrust.
In the spirit of competition, they have churned the roster from top to bottom, and whether the team sees results is anybody's guess.
There have been some obvious positives: the hiring of Jeremy Bates as OC and Alex Gibbs as the O-line guru, a fantastic draft weekend in which the Seahawks addressed two of their most glaring holes (LT and FS) in the first round, the possible resurrection of Mike Williams.
But there have also been some negatives: Charlie Whitehurst looking pedestrian after Seattle invested in him, the LenDale White gamble not paying off, the loss of last year's best three DEs.
There are some pundits who see Seattle as a dark horse, but there remain too many questions about this team (anemic pass rush, Hasselbeck's health, mediocre run game) for them to be anything but a team in transition.
25. Raiders 5-11
Lately it has been hard to track this team’s general strengths and weaknesses.
Behind coaching controversies, Al Davis’ eccentricities, and their roster’s sucking chest wound JaMarcus Russell, it has been hard to focus on anything else.
If you can though, you will find the team has been quietly improving.
Though they will likely lean immediately on some rookies to start, the defense should be solid even while muscling through the often treacherous shift to the 3-4.
The offense should see immediate improvement as well with a functioning quarterback in tow, and a presumably better organized rotation of their RB platoon.
Any early opponents coming in and expecting the same old 5-11 (or worse) Raiders may be in for a shock.
26. Jaguars 7-9
The Jaguars appear to be the weak link in the AFC South.
One the bright side, RB Maurice Jones Drew is one of the elite running backs in the NFL. Unfortunately, he is running behind one of the worst offensive lines.
The Jaguars need second year OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton to improve on unsettling rookie campaigns. If OG Justin Smiley stays healthy, he can be a key component on the Jaguars offensive line.
Although QB David Garrard made the Pro Bowl last year (after the first 42 selections declined their invite), he must improve to spread the defense.
WR Mike Sims-Walker looks to return to the player he was during the first four games of the year.
After finishing last in the league in sacks, the Jags are counting on newly acquired DE Aaron Kampman and number 10 overall draft pick DE/DT Tyson Alualu to get pressure on the QB.
The Jags secondary is full of holes, but there is some hope as second year CB Derek Cox did improve as his rookie season continued.
Jacksonville’s LB unit will be interesting to watch with the trade for Kirk Morrison, but it may not enough to make up for other holes on the defense.
The Jaguars may once again be in contention for a top 10 draft pick next year.
27. Lions 2-14
The Detroit Lions are projected to again come in last in the NFC North.
While they have good young stars in Matt Stafford and Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, we believe they still have a couple years of additions to erase the tenure of the Matt Millen era.
Rookies Best and Suh are both projected to be excellent assets to the team.
We don’t believe that the 2009 32nd ranked defense will be able to elevate much from the bottom third of the league and it would be very surprising to see this team end up anywhere except for last place in the division.
28. Buccaneers 3-13
The Bucs are in the midst of a total rebuilding job and the jury is out whether they have truly hit bottom.
There are potential bright spots. But overall, there are a lot more “ifs” than we are comfortable with even to predict mediocrity.
But any improvement should be noticeable in something more than their three wins of 2009.
29. Chiefs 4-12
We like what the Chiefs did in the draft this year.
Though it's obviously all speculation for a while, it would not be surprising to see at least four long-term starters come out of this class for them, most notably in the secondary with safety Eric Berry and corner Javier Arenas.
The Chiefs appear to be headed in the right direction, particularly on defense, however they are starting from a very low point and not all or even most of these promising new players can be expected to have an immediate impact.
For 2010, prospects of success will be severely stunted when Matt Cassell once again fails to duplicate anything near his meteoric success of 2008, and no one behind him will do much better if it comes to that.
Look for them to draft in the top 10 again.
30. Browns 5-11
Cleveland fans have had a rough summer with the middle finger given to them from their Miami-headed hometown son and they aren’t likely to find solace with a winning NFL team.
The Browns are projected again to come in fourth place out of four in the AFC North division.
But, keep hope alive Brownie fans because the front office made a smart decision bringing in Mike Holmgren to take charge and we believe this franchise is headed in the right direction.
2010 seems to be a stop-gap year at the QB position with the Browns FedEx-ing Brady Quinn to the Broncos and bringing in the struggling veteran Jake “Interception” Delhomme.
With a likely good draft position in 2011, perhaps they can target a much-needed franchise QB to go with their young and talented offensive line.
31. Bills 6-10
While the Bills campaigned diligently for the last spot in the order by one of our AFC East contributors, they still managed to stay one spot above the bottom of the barrel.
However, there have been many that are of the mind that the Bills will be drafting in the number one slot come April 2011.
There really is no position of strength on this team starting with the most important position of QB.
Trent Edwards has had talent at his disposal in Lee Evans and Terrell Owens in the past and has not been able to do anything with it.
The Bills front office appears to be unconcerned.
They did draft a good RB in CJ Spiller but with that offensive line, it will be miraculous if he shines.
The 19th ranked defense doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
The verdict on the Bills is that they will exceed expectations if they get more than five wins this season.
32. Rams 1-15
It looks as if the Rams have finally decided that they want to improve themselves.
They cut loose the albatross of Marc Bulger (who looked like he'd given up caring/trying three years ago) and sent their two biggest O-line headaches (Alex Barron and Richie Incognito) packing.
They picked up Roger Saffold in the draft to bookend with Jason Smith (who has hopefully recovered fully from the concussion-related issues that sidetracked his rookie season), and both of them will work to protect St. Louis' shiny new star, QB Sam Bradford.
As long as expectations are kept reasonable in St. Louis, Bradford can develop into a pro-caliber QB sooner rather than later.
Luckily for Bradford, expectations in St. Louis have been lowered about as low as they can go.
If he shows flashes of competence and leads the Rams to four wins, he'll be the toast of the town.
Thanks go out to several members of the Helmet2Helmet community: Cats, Ben, SMGC, Dwill, PhillyPride, metalmilitia, GFC, Dtexan, Stigmata, ceterusparibus, Sideshow, FourthStooge, and any for helping put together these rankings. Please come join us in our community forum (www.helmet2helmet.net/forums ) to discuss your opinions on where we ranked your team.