Going into the 2010 season, there are three questions each team needs to ask themselves; Do we have a quarterback who can stay headstrong for 16 games? Do we have a defense that can stay healthy, especially the front seven? Do we have the intangibles (coach, special teams and desire) to win that extra game or two when the season is on the line?
There are so many teams that can legitimately claim they are a contender for Super Bowl XLV. The teams that make that cut can then ask those three important questions. Here are the teams that can claim they are contenders this season:
NFC - Minnesota, Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, New York.
AFC - Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston, Tennessee, Denver, San Diego, New England, New York, Miami.
Obviously, the AFC has better overall teams than the NFC. The NFC, however, has more top-heavy power teams. Listed above are 18 teams in my mind going in to this season who can potentially book a February trip to Dallas.
Now, take those 18 teams and ask the three questions. First, which teams have a headstrong QB?
Minnesota, Green Bay, New Orleans, New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, San Diego, New England.
Of these eight teams, which defenses are designed to play strong through December?
The thing is, all these teams have great front seven's, along with at least one stud in the secondary to keep opponents passing games in check.
What separates these eight teams will be intangibles. Which teams can stay focused, motivated, have a special teams' unit that can make the extra play and a coach that can put it all together?
Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England.
I have narrowed it down to five teams who I truly believe can call themselves Super Bowl contenders.
Sure, there will be a team that comes out of nowhere to be the media's choice of a "Cinderella" team. This year, that team could be Houston, St. Louis, or Chicago. However, when push comes to shove, it's the teams with the mindset and grit to get through the tough times to overcome the odds and raise the Lombardi trophy.
Starting with the NFC...
I see the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers emerge as the front runners in not only this division, but the entire conference. The Vikings' window closed on them last season in their NFC title game loss to the Saints. With a depleted receiving corps, an aging and beat-up Brett Favre, it's hard to see the Vikings surviving the rigors of an NFL season to advance much farther than the first round of the playoffs.
The Chicago Bears will take strides with a revived defense and healthy offense. But I don't see Lovie Smith taking the Bears to the next level this season. And with Matt Stafford still adjusting to the NFL, I like Detroit to improve greatly, but are still a season or two away from contending for a playoff spot.
This is a two team sprint to a first round bye. The defending Super Bowl champion Saints look to do something never seen before in the NFC South division, repeat as division champions. After a disappointing 2009 campaign, the Falcons look to ride the back of Michael Turner and a soon to be elite passing game this season. The Falcons face a great test week one, traveling to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. Monday, December 27th will decide this division as the Saints travel to Atlanta in a pseudo NFC South title game. In the end, I like the defending champs to do the unseen and repeat.
With the retirement of Kurt Warner and loss of Anquan Boldin, the Arizona Cardinals will take a great step back in 2010. A team that was one Santonio Holmes tip-toed touchdown away from a Super Bowl championship two seasons ago, the Cardinals are now a shell of their former selves.
With that said, break out the San Francisco 49ers!
With a tough-minded head coach in Mike Singletary, and stout running back in Frank Gore and a defense that takes the attitude of their leader, the 49ers are poised to make a run to Dallas.
The team to watch is the St. Louis Rams. Yes, the St. Louis Rams. Led by rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the Rams have some pieces in place to be that Cinderella. If head coach Steve Spagnuolo can infuse some of the defensive magic he gave the New York Giants when he was their defensive coordinator, the Rams will be a .500 team.
It will be interesting to see what new head coach Pete Carroll can do in Seattle. In his first NFL go-around with the Patriots in the mid 90's, Carroll didn't do much, and that's an understatement. I believe he is an overrated coach, from an overrated team in an overrated college football conference. I think this experiment will go terribly wrong.
This is the toughest division to handicap in the NFL. The Cowboys look so dominant on paper, but haven't the looked that way since 1991?! This year though, the Cowboys, with the playoff monkey off their backs, look to play for the Super Bowl in their own stadium.
The Eagles and first-year starter Kevin Kolb have the offensive weapons to play with the best, but the teams defense sputtered towards the end of last season. I think the Eagles have shot, but their only shot is to make the playoffs as a division winner.
With the move to Washington, Donovan McNabb looks for a fresh start, with a new team, with a new coach. With so many NEW pieces to the puzzle in the nation's capital, I find it difficult for the Redskins to mesh well in year number one.
The most under-talked team seems to be the all of a sudden forgotten New York Giants. If the defense can stay healthy, look for the Giants to challenge the Cowboys for the East.
Teams 1-6 in the NFC
Green Bay, New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York.
On to the AFC
If they don't take each other out in the regular season, the winner of the AFC North will be the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
If the Steelers can survive the first four games of the season without suspended QB Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have a revamped defense to win Lombardi number seven.
The Ravens, and newly acquired T.J. Houshmandzadeh, along with Anquan Boldin, now have a prominent offense to score enough points to support a great defense. But my question is, is it too late? Have the Ravens lost a step on the defensive side of the field? The players they've kept have aged, been injured and are tired. Tired of holding teams to 16 points per game and NOT winning games.
The Bengals are the sexy pick to win the North. But sexy is better in person than in a picture, and the Bengals are as sexy as the Cowboys on paper. I just don't see it.
The Browns, yeah, the Browns.
Have the Colts ever NOT won 12 games in a season? This year, they won't. But they will win 11 and they will win the South.
The Houston Texans are coming on strong. I like the Texans. I think the Texans are to the Colts as the Packers are to the Vikings. I don't think the Texans will win the South, but they may.
I think the Titans have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, but I don't think Vince Young will bring the goods.
Jacksonville- that's their reference in this section.
Rex Ryan... my oh my has he put the pressure on the Jets. And I could go on forever about how good the Jets' defense is, but just like his former Ravens, his Jets defense won't have the offense to come through. At some point this season, it won't be Sanchez, but Brunell as the Mark of the Jets.
The Patriots like where they stand at this point of the preseason. Underrated, cornered. Tom Brady and his soon to be new contract, Randy Moss and his need to prove himself for a new contract along with a defense that is consistent and ready to payback an offense that has made them look good for so many years, is a dangerous recipe for all.
The Dolphins are better, but not good enough.
With the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills select Jake Locker, Quarterback, Washington.
Year in a year out, the Chargers are the team picked to win a dozen games. Come playoff time, they are picked to win none. This year may be the final year the Chargers are going to be given the green light in the West. I like them, again, in the regular season. But Denver, Oakland and Kansas City may decide to rise to the occasion and take down the underachieving Chargers.
Pittsburgh, San Diego, Indianapolis, New England, Baltimore, Houston
NFC Wild Card round... Dallas over New York, Atlanta over San Francisco
NFC Divisional round... Dallas over New Orleans, Green Bay over Atlanta
NFC Championship game... Green Bay over Dallas
AFC Wild Card round... Indianapolis over Houston, Baltimore over New England
AFC Divisional round... Baltimore over Pittsburgh, Indianapolis over San Diego
AFC Championship game.. Baltimore over Indianapolis
SUPER BOWL... Baltimore over Green Bay
NFL MVP - Aaron Rodgers
Offensive POY - Drew Brees
Defensive POY - Troy Polamalu
Coach of the Year - Steve Spagnuolo
Rookie of the Year - Sam Bradford