The NFL preseason is drawing to a close. Each team now has one game remaining in the glorified scrimmage period. With the regular season set to begin in less than two weeks, the games are about to start counting.
Every year, it seems it takes at least 13 wins to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Last year, the Patriots and Falcons, with 14 and 13 wins respectively, secured their conference's best record.
It's never too early to start thinking about the playoffs. After evaluating offseason moves, NFL fans generally have a good idea of which teams will contend for the division title.
So, which teams appear ready to win at least 13 games and contend for home-field advantage in the playoffs?
The Atlanta Falcons were the class of the NFC last season with a conference-best 13 wins. They did nothing this offseason to lower their standing among the league's best teams.
The Falcons had a fairly quiet offseason. They resigned a few key pieces from last year's team, most notably left tackle Tyson Clabo and solid running back Jason Snelling.
Their two biggest additions were first-round draft pick Julio Jones and defensive end Ray Edwards. These two players will greatly improve the Falcons chances of repeating their 13-win season. Jones has impressed in the preseason and gives the Falcons another dynamic weapon.
With Roddy White, Michael Turner and Matt Ryan already in the fold, the Falcons will have one of the best offenses in the league.
Edwards gives the Falcons an upgrade over the disappointing Jamaal Anderson. With John Abraham aging, the signing of Edwards gives the Falcons a pass-rushing presence for the future.
Atlanta does have a tough schedule. They face the Eagles and Packers in non-divisional games, and will have to deal with the rapidly improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the always tough New Orleans Saints.
If the Falcons can get through their divisional slate with only one loss, their chances of winning 13 games will greatly improve. This is a team that addressed its needs in the offseason. There is no reason to doubt their ability to reach the 13-win plateau in 2011.
The Baltimore Ravens won 12 games a year ago. That is no small feat considering they are forced to play the Pittsburgh Steelers twice every year.
The Ravens managed to win 12 games with many gaping holes in their roster. They lacked a deep threat at receiver, their secondary was a shambles and they suffered from spotty offensive line play.
They addressed all of those needs during the offseason.
Lee Evans was added at receiver. He gives quarterback Joe Flacco an excellent deep-ball target. Former Pro-Bowl tackle Bryant McKinnie was brought in, a move that allows the Ravens to slide Michael Oher back to the right side, a side where he experienced much more success.
As for the secondary, the Ravens were able to steal Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith late in the first round due to character concerns.
If all these players are able to perform at the level Baltimore's coaching staff expects them to, this team will win at least 13 games. The schedule sets up very nicely this season. Besides playing the Steelers twice, the Ravens do not face many formidable opponents.
Their biggest challenges will come from the Jets and Colts. Both of those games are at home.
The Ravens' defense will be strong as ever, and Joe Flacco will continue to improve. With the Steelers in the division, it will probably take 13 wins to capture the AFC North crown, but the Ravens are poised to do just that.
Despite being without the services of Ben Roethlisberger for four games last year, the Steelers still won 12 games. Having Big Ben around for an entire season makes it likely that number will increase in 2011.
This is a team coming off a Super Bowl loss, so expectations will again be high in Pittsburgh. The only thing that might hold them back is their shoddy offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger running for his life was an all too common sight last season.
The defense will be strong as ever in Pittsburgh this season. There were no key losses from last year's unit which lead the league in sacks during the regular season.
As I previously stated, I believe it will take at least 13 wins to take home the AFC North crown this year. You have to believe the Steelers and Ravens will split their two games. The Steelers face a more formidable schedule than the Ravens do.
They are forced to travel to Indianapolis and Kansas City and also draw the Patriots at home.
Despite the difficult schedule, 13 wins is easily within reach for the Steelers this year.
Obviously the so-called "Dream Team" was going to make this list.
It would be practically impossible to have followed football this offseason and not know all about the talent that has been assembled in Philadelphia.
The Eagles now have three Pro-Bowl caliber cornerbacks to go along with their star-studded offense. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Asante Samuel and the prize of the free-agent class, Nnamdi Asomugha, give the Eagles one of the best secondaries ever assembled.
The only problem is the defense is devoid of linebackers. How well the Eagles hodge-podge of linebackers is able to stop the run will be the biggest question for the defense.
The offense will be prolific as always for the Eagles. Michael Vick has finally found an offense that allows him to use his full array of athletic gifts. LeSean McCoy is as good catching the ball as he is running it, and DeSean Jackson is quite possibly the most exciting wide receiver in the NFL.
Some are saying it's Super Bowl or bust this year in the City of Brotherly Love. Those expectations may be unfair. This team still has flaws, and an injury to Vick would all but end talk of a Super Bowl.
If all goes well, the Eagles could very easily win 13 games. They benefit from playing in a division of unsettled or struggling teams. The Redskins are a mess, the Giants have a ton of injuries and the Cowboys always seem to implode.
Their biggest tests will come from the Falcons and Patriots. If the Eagles can win at least one of those games, they should finish with 13 wins this season.
The Patriots seem to win at least 13 games every year. This year should be no different.
This is never a team with many flaws to address during the offseason, and any moves they do make usually pay off.
This year, their biggest acquisitions were players who would not seem to fit into the Patriots style of football at first glance. Me-first guys like Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson would not appear to be ideal players for the New England Patriots, but Bill Belichick has them buying in.
The offense was explosive before the addition of Ocho Cinco. He only makes it better. In Cincinnati, he suffered during Carson Palmer's decline. The wide receiver can still play, and the results could be deadly when paired with Tom Brady.
Haynesworth hated playing in Washington's 3-4 scheme, but he is back in his preferred 4-3 defense. Pairing him with All-Pro Vince Wilfork could make it impossible to run on the Patriots. The two space eaters will draw blockers like magnets, freeing up a very good linebacker corps to shut down the run.
If I had to choose one team that would most certainly win 13 games or more this year, it would be the New England Patriots.
Last but not least are the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
The Packers won only 10 regular season games last year before setting off on a playoff journey where they looked unbeatable. This year, if the Packers find themselves battling for the Wild Card spot, something will have gone seriously awry during the regular season.
The Packers offense, led by Aaron Rodgers, has become the best in the NFC, and if you wanted to call them the best in the whole NFL, there would not be much argument outside of New England. What has the rest of the league shaking is the fact that the Packers have actually improved their offense during the offseason.
Aaron Rodgers has pushed himself into consideration for best quarterback in the league. Jermichael Finley, a wide receiver in a tight end's body, is back from injury, and Jordy Nelson emerged as a slot threat in the postseason.
Rodgers has amazing chemistry with All-Pro Greg Jennings. The offensive line gelled during the playoff run. Rogers will not be scraping himself up off the frozen tundra very often this season.
The defense will miss Cullen Jenkins, a space-eater at defensive tackle, but that is hardly a concern for a unit that finished one behind the Steelers in the NFL sack race last season. Clay Matthews is an absolute beast of a pass rusher and A.J. Hawk is a very capable linebacker.
If there is a secondary that could challenge the Eagles, it would be the Packers.
Charles Woodson is still one of the best playmakers in the game. He is a threat to take an interception back for six at any moment. On the other side, Tramon Williams is as good if not better than Woodson.
Outside of New England, no team has a better chance to win 13 games than the Green Bay Packers.