Every year in the NFL, there are contenders, pretenders and hope suspenders.
Hope suspenders are playing for the future. On rare occasions, they can rise up to the next level, as the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks (a playoff win constitutes success) did. But they are still pretenders, much like approximately half the league that has a realistic shot at making the playoffs, but will be unable play for a conference championship.
Then there are the contenders. These teams can only fall from this perch, and often do. In 2010, the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys had the look of contenders, but fell all the way to the bottom.
Still, the teams at the top of the league this year all have reasons why they are at the top of the league and weaknesses that could be obstacles to their success.
Here they are, in the order of who played the latest in the 2010-2011 season...
The Green Bay Packers are the defending champions. Thus, we already know they have what it takes to win the Super Bowl.
True, the team has lost starters from both of their last two playoff seasons in Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett and Daryn Colledge. Mark Tauscher, Brandon Jackson, Brady Poppinga and Atari Bigby all spent ample time as starters, and Brandon Chillar was a frequent contributor—all are gone. (For more information on how much those moves hurt, see the free agency assessment written for PackerChatters.)
But the Packers won without Barnett, Chillar, Tauscher, Poppinga and Bigby last year. They were also without the players ahead of both Jackson and Bigby, as well as stud tight end Jermichael Finley and seven other players.
Green Bay is still led by the Super Bowl MVP with the best regular season and postseason passer rating of all time, who is also among the best at his position with his feet. The Packers also boasted the best receiving corps in the NFL last season.
They have a dominating defense with two Defensive Player of the Year finalists, and their weak special teams improved through the draft.
So how can they lose?
For one, other teams made improvements via free agency, while the Packers will not be able to sign enough players to offset their losses. Even if losses are offset by players returning from injury, those injuries make them less reliable.
The fact is Green Bay has been hit hard with injuries three seasons in a row, and there is no reason to think it will not happen again. And those players lost leave the Packers thin at defensive line, inside linebacker and the offensive line—all places they were without multiple players due to injury at times during 2010.
The Pittsburgh Steelers finished 2010 with the best defense in the NFL. They had a strong, balanced offense and fell one play short of winning their third title in six seasons.
That team is almost entirely intact. Clearly, they have the necessary players and coaching to get the job done in 2011.
But Pittsburgh has several things working against it.
For one thing, the Super Bowl loser has failed to survive the second weekend of the next season's playoffs every year since 1993. This is not simply coincidence, but happens for a reason.
A major factor in this is the narrow window for teams to be elite before players earn contracts that bring about attrition because of the salary cap. Plus, the frequency of injuries in the league is increased by the additional number of games those teams play.
However, those factors affect winners equally, and four of the 18 champions over that span played for their conference championship the next season. Still, none have since 2005 and only one has since 1998, so it is difficult.
What is more telling is that 11 of those 18 champions returned to the playoffs, four in the last nine years. Super Bowl losers have made the playoffs three of the last five years, but had missed in the previous seven.
Why is this? Sometimes a weakness is exposed, and that is true in Pittsburgh: Green Bay exploited their secondary all game long and attacked their weak offensive line.
But losing tests team unity. Under the stress and disappointment of losing, player character issues can be revealed, and there are multiple questions in that regard surrounding the defending AFC champions.
James Harrison has called out Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall this offseason, which should come as no shock given he considered quitting the game rather than dealing with the smaller adversity of not leading with his own or targeting an opponent's helmet on tackles. But that is the worst sign of trouble in that locker room.
Roethlisberger also played poorly for the second time in three Super Bowls after coming under scrutiny from successive seasons facing sexual assault accusations. Mendenhall came under fire for questioning Osama bin Laden's role in the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Hines Ward was arrested for DUI.
Thus, questions about wear and tear, personnel holes and chemistry all have the potential to be Pittsburgh's downfall in 2011.
Most of the team has been held intact. While they are getting older at some positions, that is a good thing in the case of the most important one in the game, quarterback.
This team has an elite defense, good special teams, solid running game and capable passing game. It also has a coach who knows how to motivate his team and win in January.
But their chief rival added talent in the offseason while New York simply held on to most of theirs. That team finished ahead of them in the regular season and has outscored them the past two seasons head-to-head.
For all their bravado about winning the Super Bowl after the 2010 offseason, the Jets have yet to play two good halves when a trip to it can be earned. If they could not beat competition that compared similarly in previous seasons, why should we believe they will do any better with a still-young quarterback, a supporting cast that might not even be as good and the pressure intensifying this season?
The Chicago Bears have to be on this list because they possess a great defense and were among the final four teams playing in the NFL last season. Their roster losses are too few to take them from the list.
The problem with this logic is they did not belong as serious contenders last season.
But they were one play away from tying the rival Green Bay Packers with their third-string quarterback. How can they not be serious contenders?
Because the only reason they were in that game is because they hosted the only team to ever be in the playoffs with nine losses the previous week. And because no one knew what Caleb Haney could do before that game, and he will remain behind Jay Cutler unless he is injured in 2011.
The Bears were behind in that game 14-0 with Cutler under center. He added to the pressure, as legitimate questions surround his exit from the game. (The following link predicts Cutler's response in 2011.)
Chicago's serious problems on the offensive line and receiving corps remain, and they lost depth on the defensive line. Worse, the Bears have not had back-to-back winning seasons in more than a decade.
The Atlanta Falcons were the top seed in the NFC last season and have had a winning record for three seasons in a row. They had no weaknesses last season, with good special teams backing up a good defense and balanced offense.
They even added top-level talent in the draft and have filled holes lost via free agency. Clearly, they belong in the discussion of great teams in the NFL.
Until they reach the playoffs.
Matt Ryan was dubbed "Matty Ice" by Falcons teammates and Trey Wingo of ESPN for his clutch performances at the end of games. But in his only two playoff games, Ryan has been a major reason his team has lost.
And while it was the pass-defense of the Falcons that Aaron Rodgers shredded in the playoffs last season, the Falcons mortgaged their future to grab another receiver. Since the last eight champions all had good to elite passing attacks, having questions there on both sides of the ball raises doubts about their chances.
The New England Patriots had the best record in the NFL last season. Their quarterback, a three-time champion, won the league's MVP award unanimously.
Their young secondary has gotten experience and should improve. They also added a solid receiver and talented defensive tackle without losing much in the offseason.
But both of those players are enigmatic and have a history of sowing discord.
Chad Johnson, as he was known then and has backed out of a promise to be known again since Darrelle Revis shut him down last January, has been a distraction throughout his career. He has sought attention, which is not the way of the Patriots, and he has never been part of a team that won a playoff game.
But he has also publicly challenged his own teammates and coaches. And while the Patriots handled a similar, but more pronounced problem in Randy Moss, 8-5's skill is more diminished.
Moreover, the addition of Albert Haynesworth means there are two malcontents rather than one. Worse, Haynesworth clearly put out less-than-full effort in 2010 while on the same fat contract because he did not want to play nose tackle in a 3-4. He may be needed to do just that or have to adjust to playing end.
Finally, questions have to start creeping in about how playoff-ready this team is. They have not won a playoff game post-Spygate since 2007 when the margin between them and the rest of the league was proven not only by the unbeaten record going into the Super Bowl, but also the all-time high in margin of victory over the season.
Can the Pats beat good teams without the video help they used to benefit from? Can they win without the defensive personnel that carried them to three titles? Has the rest of the league caught up to Bill Belichick?
All three are legitimate questions that could keep them from repeating.
A team similar to the New York Jets, the Baltimore Ravens have won road playoff games in successive years. Their defense is aging in key spots, but their young quarterback is developing, and their coach has proven capable of winning in January.
Baltimore probably has a better passing game than New York and nearly as good a rushing attack. Their defense is weaker against the pass, but much stronger against the run.
Unfortunately, the Ravens are also no better on paper in 2011 than they were in 2010, and they did not even get to the conference championship like the Jets did. Even if the supporting cast can avoid declining play from those long in the tooth, there is little reason to believe they stand as good a chance this season as last.
With the Colts' receiving corps returning to health and the additions to the Patriots, both of those teams join the Jets and Steelers as AFC teams that appear more ready to contend. The Ravens have matchup issues with the Colts, Steelers and Patriots because of huge holes at cornerback.
The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. They were the top-seeded Wild Card team in 2010 despite suffering numerous injuries.
They have a defense that, while it has holes, generates turnovers and sacks. They have a truly elite passing attack and a couple good running backs to provide some balance. The Saints also have had good special teams, plus the coach and quarterback have shown they are clutch.
But the defense is not as good as the one that won the title, neither is the running game nor special teams. They lack elite receivers and can be scored upon by teams that take care of the football. The Saints have the stigma of being the only team in NFL history to fall to a team with a losing record in the playoffs.
In fact, on paper, both the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers are currently better on both sides of the ball. The Falcons, Bears and Giants also appear to be at or near the level of New Orleans, giving them little margin for error.
Because the Saints are in one of the toughest divisions in football, they will likely have to win one or two road playoff games to get to the Big Dance. That is no easy task for a dome team in a conference with only one contender that does not play outside in cold weather.
The Philadelphia Eagles were good enough to win the usually-tough NFC East last season. They were within about 30 yards of beating the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Andy Reid has been to a Super Bowl before and lost in the first round for only the second time in his career last season—but the 2011 Eagles will be even better.
They found an arguably better replacement for their backup quarterback, and they traded for a cornerback capable of filling the No. 1 role on a team. They already had an even better player at the position (Asante Samuel), then signed one of the five best in the game. If they trade Samuel, they are sure to get value somewhere else to fill a need.
The Eagles added Pro Bowl and championship defensive line talent in Cullen Jenkins. Their two-time Pro Bowl quarterback may still be developing, and their young receivers and running back definitely are.
But that quarterback has still never won more than one playoff game in a season, and he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. With the major issues this team has on the offensive line, that is a big impediment to Philadelphia earning its first-ever Super Bowl title.
There may be chemistry issues as well. DeSean Jackson, who is among the game's best receivers and returners in the game, is holding out. It also often takes time for teams with so many personnel changes to gel, and that is why the winner in free agency has never won the Super Bowl that season.
If it was not as rare for Andy Reid to win more than one game in January as it is for him to win none, one might see a jump from first-round loss to three-plus victories as more likely. But if the pressure of similar "Dream Teams" in the Miami Heat and New York Jets was too much over the past six months, how much worse will it be in the unforgiving environment of Philadelphia?
Right now, the Eagles are the best team on paper, but there is no shortage of questions surrounding them. Thus, they should not be the favourites as of now.
Peyton Manning just signed a contract that will pay him $69 million over the next three years. That is almost 20 percent of the league salary cap going to one player.
It is pretty tough to surround that player with enough support to win a championship on less than $100 million these days. Sad, isn't it?
However, the Indianapolis Colts do have enough to win it all. When Bob Sanders is healthy, their defense contains the running game well enough to get their elite offense the chances it needs to outscore opponents. Once teams have to pass, the great Colts pass-rush can make it tough keeping up with Manning, who is well-protected by his line and has many offensive weapons.
The Colts struggled with injuries to their receiving corps last season and lost Sanders, else they would certainly have been contenders. The defense is questionable at best without Sanders, who has never played a full season. He has to be available in the playoffs for the Colts to advance in a difficult conference.
Tom Coughlin is back on the hot seat. If the Giants do not make the playoffs, it is likely he will not return for 2012.
The last time he was on the hot seat, the Giants won the Super Bowl.
Coughlin is in that position because his team was uncharacteristically undisciplined in 2010. Their defense forced turnovers, but their offense committed them faster. They finished 16th in both number of penalties and penalty yardage.
They were by far the best team to miss the playoffs. That is why the disciplinarian coach will get his team to return to form.
If they had been even in the turnover department, the Giants would have won at least one more game and gone to the playoffs ahead of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
They have a good, deep receiving corps, plus a quality quarterback and running backs. They possess one of the best four-man rushes in the game.
But one of those linemen is holding out, and even arriving to camp late often leads to injuries. The team still lacks a big-play threat and has some questions in their secondary.
While Coughlin can bring focus on the fundamentals, players must execute better than the poor decision-making and techniques of their quarterback and running backs, respectively. Plus, disciplinarian coaching styles tend to wear on teams and have diminishing returns in the modern era.
Thus, there is no real reason to be confident that Achilles heel will be rectified. Because the NFC East should be better this year, the margin for error is too narrow for these problems to continue.