6. Green Bay Packers (11-5): Aaron Rodgers is the best, though losing LT Bryan Bulaga for the year hurts, and I cant forget that GBs defense got hammered out of each of the past two playoffs, or that Pack has gone 43 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher. They hope rookie Eddie Lacy gives Rodgers that ground threat he hasnt had.
7. New England Patriots (12-4): The tragic erasure of Hernandez, Welkers departure and Rob Gronkowskis injury have been handy reasons for many to hark the end of the Pats reign. Dont do it. The Belichick/Brady era isnt done, its just evolving. Ten of 11 starters return to what should be an improved defense, the running game looks better, Gronk will return sooner or later, and Brady, at 36, is still Brady.
8. Baltimore Ravens (10-6): This rank feels low for a team that won the Super Bowl, but at least 10 of 22 Ravens starters will be new, the biggest overhaul ever for a reigning champion, led by Ray Lewis retirement and departures of Reed and Boldin. All of that change and a $121 million contract heap much pressure on Joe Flacco.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6): The preceding eight teams are my top tier. Cincy, star of HBOs Hard Knocks, begins the second echelon of playoff contenders more than title contenders. The Bengals, with their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82, are hungry for their first playoff win since 1990. LB James Harrison and rookie TE Tyler Eifert are big adds. But can Andy Dalton limit turnovers?
10. New York Giants (9-7): The Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era has been a wild ride, and more unpredictability surrounds this team. A ground game in flux, an iffy offensive line, a pass rush not as strong as it once was and a tough division all are reasons to doubt NYG can make it all the way to the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
11. Chicago Bears (10-6): Marc Trestman, a former Canes (1981-1984) and Dolphins (2004) assistant, is ready for his NFL head coaching shot after five years in the CFL. Trestman and an upgraded O-line will allow Jay Cutler to flourish. And, even with Brian Urlacher retired, four Pro Bowlers return to a defense that had 44 takeaways.
12. Miami Dolphins (7-9): Yes, I do have the Dolphins just outside of my top 10. Yes, this does mean I think theyll make the playoffs. No, I have not been drinking. Id admit this optimism relies on a lot going right offensively, such as Ryan Tannehills continued improvement, Lamar Millers emergence and Mike Wallace proving worth the money. As much as anything, it relies on Jonathan Martin being at least OK at left tackle. When I look at this team, though, I see a solid defense first and enough to like on offense. Left tackle is a concern, yes. But plenty of teams have plenty more worries. It all adds up to Miami being seriously in the hunt for its first playoff spot since 2008 and first playoff win since 2000.
13. Indianapolis Colts (10-6): Andrew Luck had a good-not-great rookie season statistically, elevated because he led Indy to an eight-victory improvement. Luck will be better individually, especially if Ahmad Bradshaw stays healthy and delivers as a top runner, but the Colts will be hard pressed to better the team wins. Still too many questions on D in the post-Dwight Freeney era.
14. Washington Redskins (10-6): How Robert Griffin III returns from major ACL knee surgery was a big preseason issue, but he now seems likely to be ready for the season opener. I'd worry more about what looks like a weak Redskins pass defense.