NFL season preview: Who are the teams to beat in the AFC, NFC?

By Sam Farmer
Los Angeles Times

Here’s a quick look at the predicted order of finish for every NFL team this season:

AFC East

►1. Buffalo Bills: Could be season Buffalo hoists the Lombardi Trophy. Josh Allen has arm and receiving weapons to strike fear in the division and league.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) rushes past Seahawks' Bruce Irvin (51) and Jayson Stanley (29) for a touchdown during the second half on Sunday.

►2. Miami Dolphins: Defense is a strong suit for Miami, which led the NFL with 29 takeaways last season. Is Tua Tagovailoa the answer at quarterback? We’ll see.

►3. New England Patriots: Bill Belichick has upgraded his defense, which should be faster and even more stout. Mac Jones is the team’s first rookie to start QB since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.

►4. New York Jets: Robert Saleh has fans excited, but team already has lost defender Carl Lawson for season. Lots of hopes riding on QB Zach Wilson.

AFC North

►1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is 39, but that’s not a disqualifying age for QBs (See: Brady, Tom). His elbow is healthier and he has a lethal cast of receivers.

►2. Cleveland Browns: This could be the year Cleveland turns the corner … but we’ve heard that before. The Browns unquestionably are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.

►3. Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore led the league in rushing the last two seasons, but they haven’t been able to throw. Injuries are already an issue.

►4. Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow is back and playing on a reconstructed knee. Will be interesting to see him reestablish a rapport with former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones (2) runs a drill during NFL football training camp Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

AFC South

►1. Tennessee Titans: With Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and now Julio Jones, the Titans check the box on offensive productivity. Now they need the retooled defense to match.

►2. Indianapolis Colts: If Carson Wentz can get/stay healthy, he’ll enjoy the benefit of one of the NFL’s best lines. This defense is improving and plays hard.

►3. Houston Texans: Houston’s running game has improved, and it better. The drop-off at quarterback from Deshaun Watson to Tyrod Taylor warrants others stepping up.

►4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville won one game last season, so at least improvement is a low bar for No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. Last year’s defense was worst in team history.

AFC West

►1. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback and will be playing behind a retooled offensive line. Secondary could be a problem.

►2. Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert was phenomenal as a rookie and, barring a sophomore slump, should be fun to watch. As in years past, team is still looking to get offensive line right.

►3. Las Vegas Raiders: Derek Carr is coming off an excellent season and has some dangerous targets. Defense needs to step up for first winning season under Jon Gruden 2.0.

►4. Denver Broncos: Denver is still looking to find a quarterback but the team is able to establish the run and has a stout defense. Is that enough for more than two wins in this tough division?

NFC East

►1. Dallas Cowboys: With Dak Prescott leading the offense, Dallas drafted a club-record eight defensive players in hopes of balance.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott bobbles a snap as running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) stands nearby in the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020.

►2. Washington: With the NFL’s second-ranked defense and the seasoned Ryan Fitzpatrick, this team could surprise some people.

►3. Philadelphia Eagles: Philadelphia rolls the dice with an unproven second-year QB, Jalen Hurts, and a converted rugby player at left tackle.

►4. New York Giants: Saquon Barkley is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and the Giants once again struggling to get the offensive line right.

NFC North

►1. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, the returning league MVP, gave Green Bay heartburn this offseason but he’s back … behind a patchwork offensive line.

►2. Minnesota Vikings: Two playoff wins since 2014 means the pressure is on coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Speilman. Running back Dalvin Cook is outstanding.

Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears on the sidelines during an NFL preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on August 28, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.

►3. Chicago Bears: Rookie quarterback Justin Fields is exciting, but the Bears first are going with Andy Dalton’s experience. Defense dropped off sharply last season.

►4. Detroit Lions: No doubt Detroit will miss Matthew Stafford, although Jared Goff could surprise some people. Goff and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn have something to prove.

NFC South

►1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tom Brady is in his second year in the Bucs offense, and the team is getting all its starters back. Lots of weapons on this offense.

►2. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees is retired and the door is open for Jameis Winston to prove himself. Will receiver Michael Thomas come back in top form?

►3. Atlanta Falcons: Trading places: Coach Arthur Smith went from Tennessee to Atlanta, and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones went from Atlanta to Tennessee.

►4. Carolina Panthers: Quarterback Sam Darnold gets a fresh start, and he has one of the league’s most versatile backs in Christian McCaffrey. The offensive line is shaky.

NFC West

►1. Los Angeles Rams: The addition of QB Matthew Stafford is huge for the Rams, but they were hoping to give him a running game at last. With Cam Akers hurt, time for Sony Michel to step up.

Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Ramslooks on as players warm up before an NFL preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on August 28, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.

►2. San Francisco 49ers: Ravaged by injuries last season, the 49ers are relatively healthy again. Rookie quarterback Trey Lance is waiting in the wings to replace Jimmy Garoppolo.

►3. Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson to DK Metcalf is a potent fantasy football connection, and Bobby Wagner is fantastic, but Seahawks need to return to production in playoffs.

►4. Arizona Cardinals: Arizona has some of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Now, that needs to translate into wins.