Richard Sherman and the Seahawks defense will help keep Seattle near the top of the NFC again this season. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Teams listed by division, in predicted order of finish
Even without QB Aaron Rodgers, the Packers played well enough to win the division again last season. DE B.J. Raji (injured reserve) will be a blow, but there are more questions about whether the defense can be dependable, even with adding DE Julius Peppers. The loss of C Evan Dietrich-Smith (Buccaneers) could haunt them.
The offense improved significantly last season, but the defense regressed. Adding DEs Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young should balance things out. QB Jay Cutler, RB Matt Forte and WR Brandon Marshall are as formidable a trio as there is in the division, which should make the Bears contenders to dethrone the Packers.
New coach Jim Caldwell looks to add discipline to a moribund franchise that saw a chance at a division title evaporate down the stretch last season. All eyes will be on QB Matthew Stafford, who has a treasure trove of riches, adding WR Golden Tate and TE Eric Ebron. The defense didnít add many pieces but could raise some expectations if it holds its own.
QB Matt Cassel won the starting job over rookie Teddy Bridgewater, but the Vikingsí fortunes rest on which Cassel shows up on a week-to-week basis. Even with a healthy Adrian Peterson at RB and Cordarrelle Patterson out wide, they donít have the same firepower as other teams in the division ó and the defense will have a tough time keeping up.
If QB Drew Brees can stay healthy, the Saints will be right back in the driverís seat. WRs Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks will aid in the passing game with Marques Colston and TE Jimmy Graham. Adding S Jairus Byrd will help the secondary, but the defense will need to be more aggressive under coordinator Rob Ryan.
The Panthersí fortunes ride on QB Cam Newton, who isnít starting the season at 100 percent (ribs). Steve Smith (Ravens) was the go-to guy for so long at WR, rookie Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5), along with Jerricho Cotchery will look to fill that void. A rebuilt secondary, buoyed by a strong defensive line, could challenge the Saints, but only if Newton stays healthy.
RB Steven Jackson (543 yards in 12 games) was a monumental disappointment last season, and the Falcons finished last in rushing. Injuries decimated the offensive line, and QB Matt Ryan suffered without injured WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White. Retired TE Tony Gonzalez is a loss, and the revamped line will take time to jell while the secondary carries the team.
The Bucs ranked last in passing yards (176.3) last season and in one of the toughest divisions, will have trouble competing. RB Doug Martin missed 10 games and rushed for 456 yards. Without Darrelle Revis (Patriots), the secondary has issues ó a bad question mark to have in this division.
In what could be one of the weakest divisions, the Eagles should be able to repeat as champs easily. QB Nick Foles has energized the offense and RB LeSean McCoy (1,607 yards) led the league in rushing, but losing WR DeSean Jackson (Washington) will be the toughest deficit for the offense to make up.
After a lackluster season, the Giants are starting to show their age, especially QB Eli Manning. They will be forced to depend on unproven players such as RB Rashad Jennings, and WRs Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle. Losing DE Justin Tuck (Raiders) wonít help their anemic pass rush, but DE Jason Pierre-Paul will be healthy this year.
QB Tony Romo is 34, and following back surgery, his best years might be behind him. The offensive line is improved, and Romo still has weapons such as WR Dez Bryant and RB DeMarco Murray. Injuries have plagued the Cowboys in recent years, and staying healthy is a priority if they are to sniff the playoffs. Losing DEs DeMarcus Ware (Broncos) and Jason Hatcher (Washington) will hurt.
First-year coach Jay Gruden takes the reins and will look to develop a healthy Robert Griffin III at QB. Adding WR DeSean Jackson will help Griffin in the passing game and S Ryan Clark will bolster the secondary. How quickly all the new pieces fit together will determine their season.
All eyes will be on the Seahawks as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch will need to have another superb season; the Legion of Boom defense ó led by CB Richard Sherman and his new, $56 million extension ó will be pressed to be as dominant as last year.
The 49ers gave QB Colin Kaepernick more targets ó adding WRs Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson to the mix ó to compete with the Seahawks. Everything rides on Kaepernickís shoulders, but a stingy defense will make up for some of his shortfalls. The two games against Seattle could decide the division race.
The Cardinals, who went 7-2 in their final nine games last season, were the forgotten team in the division with the Seahawks and 49ers excelling. There are plenty of expectations on QB Carson Palmer, but with Ted Ginn, WR Larry Fitzgerald finally has help.
QB Sam Bradford will miss the season after tearing an ACL in exhibition play, leaving backup Shaun Hill to take the reins. The defense will be able to hold its own, but in the toughest division in the league, things wonít be pretty. Unless Hill plays like Kurt Warner, itíll be tough to finish any higher.
Wild card: Bears vs. Saints and 49ers vs. Packers
The Bears get a test against the pass-happy Saints, and their defense stands up. Whatís more, their offense exhibits good balance, able to run the ball with Matt Forte and throw to Brandon Marshall. The 49ers have revenge on their minds, running through the Packers toward another rematch with the Seahawks.
Divisional: Bears vs. Seahawks and 49ers vs. Eagles
The Bears will not have seen a defense like the Seahawksí all season and put up a good fight, but QB Jay Cutler canít carry them to victory. The Eagles, who feasted on a weak division schedule, canít hold up to a hungry 49ers squad thatís destined to play Seattle for the NFC title ó in whatís becoming one of the best rivalries in the NFL.
NFC Championship: 49ers vs. Seahawks
Itís tough for a team to repeat, but the Seahawks have the swagger and the talent to do it. Unfortunately, the 49ers put together a memorable performance to stun Seattle and head to the Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning wonít throw 55 touchdowns again this year, but heíll be good enough to get the Broncos to the title game in the AFC. The 49ers are a team on a mission, though, and are pumped up after dousing the Seahawks. Itís clichť, but expect a classic matchup, with the 49ers prevailing, 38-35.