The lockout is over and football is upon us. The Green Bay Packers, winner of Super Bowl XLV, are set to defend their title from the rest of the league.
Now that the dust of a frenetic free agency period has settled, teams are in the process of finalizing their rosters for the regular season.
Anything can happen in the NFL, so it is difficult to predict how many teams have a realistic shot at booting the Packers from their pedestal. Let's look at ten teams that are threats to the Packers.
Baltimore has been seemingly on the verge of a breakout for a few years now. Quarterback Joe Flacco is entering his fourth season as a starter. The Ravens need him to take another step forward if they are to advance in the AFC playoffs. Baltimore has given him plenty of weapons, drafting wide receivers Tandon Doss and Torrey Smith and also trading for veteran Lee Evans.
The defense will once again be stout. Linebacker Ray Lewis is hungry for another ring and he may not have more than a couple seasons left. The time is now for him and the Baltimore defense.
If Joe Flacco can step up and become more than an above-average quarterback, the Ravens might surprise in the AFC North and make a run for the Super Bowl.
The Bears have not garnered much attention this offseason. They didn't make any significant signings in free agency. They did lose a few key players, with defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Danieal Manning leaving Chicago, but the Bears still have much of last year's team intact.
Many people forget that the Bears were only one game away from Super Bowl XLV. Although quarterback Jay Cutler takes a lot of heat for sitting out the second half of the NFC Championship game, he is still a playmaker at the position. Whether he has what it takes to lead a team to the top remains to be seen, however.
The Bears had two chances to beat the Packers when it counted last season and failed. Maybe they can find redemption in 2011.
Things are looking up in Tampa.
The Buccaneers finished last season 10-6 and are still developing as a team. Quarterback Josh Freeman broke out last season and should take his game to a higher level this season. Wide receiver Mike Williams was stellar as a rookie and should be even better this season. Running back LeGarrette Blount was a nice surprise last season and will be counted on to provide the rushing attack.
The Bucs addressed the defense in the draft in hopes that the unit can continue to progress. An upgraded pass rush is hoped for with the addition of defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers.
Drew Brees was not himself in 2010. Brees threw an alarming 22 interceptions in 2010—the highest total in his career. Little did we know that Brees was playing through a sprained MCL. He is now healthy and ready to redeem himself.
The Saints' roster experienced quite a bit of turnover this offseason. However, they didn't lose anyone significant. They did add running backs Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles to an already potent backfield. They should more than make up for the loss of Reggie Bush.
If Brees and wide receiver Marques Colston can stay healthy this season, the Saints have an outside shot of taking out the Green Bay Packers if they meet in the playoffs.
The 2010 season did not exactly go as planned for the Indianapolis Colts. Injuries decimated the offense, with running back Joseph Addai, wide receiver Austin Collie, and tight end Dallas Clark all missing significant time with ailments. Now it seems that the injury bug has bitten quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning should be fine, but the neck surgery he underwent in the offseason has every Colts fan holding their breath.
The offensive line is a question mark at this point. Otherwise, as long as Manning stays healthy the offense will be top-notch. The defense loses safety Bob Sanders and linebacker Clint Session, but they have the potential for a good pass rush, and should be able to do the job.
If the Colts can stay healthy in 2011, they could very well win the AFC and give the Packers a run for their money.
So close, yet so far.
The Jets made it within one game of a Super Bowl berth, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game last January. The Jets have the contents necessary for a Super Bowl run: A balanced offense, a ferocious defense and the passion to succeed. Coach Rex Ryan has a way of getting the most out of his players.
The Jets seemed to have dropped the ball in free agency. They let wide receiver and kick returner Brad Smith and receiver Braylon Edwards leave. New York also failed in its bid to sign CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez is now 24 and must take a giant leap forward if the Jets are going to reach the Super Bowl. He is the largest variable for New York. If he can elevate his game in 2011, the Jets may finally get over the hump.
The Falcons seem to be going all in this year.
Atlanta started the offseason by paying a king's ransom in draft picks for former Alabama star wide receiver Julio Jones. His addition now gives Matt Ryan an awfully explosive tandem of wide receivers to throw the ball to.
The Falcons then made some noise in free agency, signing defensive end Ray Edwards, formerly of the Vikings. Edwards gives the Falcons defense another premier pass rusher opposite John Abraham. Whether the Falcons defense is good enough remains a question to be answered. The unit was blown out by Green Bay in the playoffs a year ago.
Are the Falcons a team that simply needed a few more pieces to complete the puzzle? We should find out this season.
Philadelphia made like the U.S.S.R. in Cuba during free agency, stockpiling weapons and reinforcements at a dizzying rate. The Eagles brought in running back Ronnie Brown and wide receiver Steve Smith to bolster the offense.
More changes came on the defensive side, where the Eagles picked up defensive ends Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin. The Eagles also now have the most talented group of cornerbacks in the league with the addition of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha. However, there is a concern with team chemistry, as there are many players to keep happy.
Come January, the Eagles could possibly be the biggest threat to take the throne away from the defending Super Bowl champs. Anything short of a Super Bowl title would be a bust for Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh must still feel the pain of losing last year's Super Bowl to Green Bay.
The Steelers remained quiet during free agency, opting to re-sign their own players than chase after any prime time players.
The offense could be better this season than in 2010 with the continued development of young wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Running back Rashard Mendenhall will lead the rushing attack.
The defense is always stout in Pittsburgh. Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' organization as a whole has found a great formula for success. Many of their players have plenty of Super Bowl and big game experience.
The Patriots were dominant last season until the Jets shocked everyone in the football world by eliminating New England from the playoffs. The AFC East should again be a dogfight between the Jets and Patriots.
New England did not lose much last season, and even made a few additions in wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and DT Albert Haynesworth. How effective those two veterans can still be remains to be seen. Ochocinco could turn into a viable weapon for quarterback Tom Brady.
The defense was young as a whole last season. They should show marked improvement in 2011. If Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots will likely be the Packers biggest threat this season.