15. New Orleans Saints (7-9): The chaos of BountyGate is past, coach Sean Payton is back and cheap tipper Drew Brees is still really good. That alone will have the Saints improved and back in the playoff hunt. But can new defensive chief Rob Ryan turn around a unit that allowed more yards than any team ever?
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): After consecutive 8-8 seasons, Jerry Jones Cowboys look mid-pack and just shy of the postseason once again. With only two playoff games in the 17 years since their last Super Bowl win, the Americas Team days are long gone. That $108 million contract extension only turns up the heat on Tony Romo.
17. Minnesota Vikings (10-6): A healthy Adrian Peterson gives Minny a chance, and adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson will make Christian Ponder better. Tough for Vikes to get back to 10 wins, though, with defensive issues including an inexperienced secondary in a pass-happy division.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): The preceding teams are my main hunters for the 12 playoff spots. The Steelers begin my third tier of teams with less chance. Ben Roethlisberger alone gives Pitt a shot, but this is an aging roster and Big Ben has less talent around him than usual, with Wallace gone and a shabby blocking front.
19. St. Louis Rams (7-8-1): I believe in Jeff Fisher, who exhumed a 2-14 team and made it respectable last year, including a 2-1-1 mark against the 49ers and Seahawks. The Rams are young and faster, rookie Tavon Austin will help Sam Bradford, and the defensive front seven is really good. San Fran and Seattle are huge division roadblocks, though.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14): Underperforming KC should be much better under Andy Reid. They have talent, with six Pro Bowlers, and a strong pass defense. If Alex Smith sees a career revival and Jamaal Charles stays healthy, both plausible, this could be a wild-card contender.
21. Detroit Lions (4-12): The Lions took a six-win tumble last season and should be better. Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson and excellent defensive tackles are a good starting point. But can Reggie Bush carry the load? Will an overhauled O-line and special teams jell?
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): Tampa was smart to make a big trade for Darrelle Revis in a division where pass-D must be a priority. (The Week 1 matchup against the Jets is one youd circle in red.) But doubts remain whether Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman (who didnt get a contract extension) are the coach/QB combo to make the Bucs special.
23. Carolina Panthers (7-9): Cam Newton enters his third season coming off four consecutive wins to end last season, so theres a bit of tailwind here as Ron Rivera tries to keep his job. And Cats have a solid front seven on D. But the weakness, the secondary, must have division-mates Matt Ryan and Drew Brees licking their lips.
24. San Diego Chargers (7-9): New coach Mike McCoy cant but be better for the Bolts and for Philip Rivers than was departed Norv Turner. Question is whether Rivers can stay upright behind a shaky line. Vet Dwight Freeney ands rookie Manti Teo should help the defense.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (4-12): The preceding teams were my third tier of playoff long shots. The Eagles begin my bottom feeders: Teams with little real hopes for 2013. New coach Chip Kelly, from Oregon, could prove to be an NFL wunderkind on offense. But rolling the dice with Michael Vick at QB and and losing top receiver Jeremy Maclin for the season give him a rough start. The overhauled defense also will need time.