By Tony Ortiz

With the NFL season set to start on Thursday, it’s time for one more set of predictions on the upcoming year. In case you were curious……last year, I got six of the eight division winner’s right. Teams are listed in the predicted order of finish.

NFC East: Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Redskins
A healthy Tony Romo plus the addition of defensive co-coordinator Rob Ryan will add up to a division title for Dallas………Like the other “Dream Team” in Miami, depth will be an issue for the Eagles this fall – which is a recipe for disaster in the NFL……….too many injuries in the pre-season will keep the Giants from challenging the Cowboys and Eagles………..the Redskins may be the worst team [along with Carolina] in the NFC.

NFC North: Packers, Bears, Lions, Vikings
Not sure about some of Green Bay’s choices for the opening day roster [FIVE tight ends, really?], but a healthy Ryan Grant gives the Pack a running game that they lacked last year…….can’t understand all the hate for the Bears. If Lovie Smith can keep offensive co-coordinator Mike Martz in check, the Bears will be a contender once again……..the Lions will finish .500 this fall, but remain another year away from being a playoff contender………the Vikings – with apologies to Simon Cowell – are this year’s X-Factor. They can be dangerous, with Pro Bowlers in RB Adrian Peterson and DE Jared Allen and a veteran quarterback [Donovan McNabb] with something to prove – always an interesting combination.

NFC South: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers, Panthers
I really like what New Orleans did in the off-season. Reducing their reliance on RB/KR Reggie Bush will improve the offense, and the defense looks rock solid – like it did two years ago, when the Saints won the Super Bowl……..I also like what Atlanta did in the off-season, but questions still remain about secondary………like the Rays in baseball, the Buccaneers would be the favorite in most other divisions – but the Saints and Falcons are just too strong for Tampa to catch……..the Panthers, with rookie QB Cam Newton, could be [like the Redskins] the worst team in the NFC this fall…………….

NFC West: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks
Just a hunch here: Arizona will struggle early, but play well late to win this weak division. Adding QB Kevin Kolb gives the Cardinals their best signal caller since Kurt Warner retired…………like the Lions, the Rams may be another year away from being a playoff contender, despite just missing out on the post-season last year………..the 49ers need a full off-season under new head coach Jim Harbaugh for me to consider them a contender. They made too many off-season changes to pull off a division title this year…………..Two words best sum up Seattle’s chances to repeat as a division winner: Tavaris Jackson. ‘Nuff said.

AFC East: Patriots, Jets, Bills, and Dolphins
Not sold on adding WR Chad Ochocinco and DT Albert Haynesworth, but QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick makes New England a contender not just for a division title, but a Super Bowl title as well…………the Jets talk a big game, but still lack a certain something to catch the Patriots, although they will make the playoffs for a third year in a row…………An improved defense will propel the Bills past the Dolphins, who still have a major issue at QB with a struggling Chad Henne.

AFC North: Steelers, Ravens, Browns, and Bengals
Pittsburgh remains the team to beat in this division, with QB Ben Roethlisberger and defensive standouts James Harrison and Troy Polamalu……..Baltimore will contend, but are aging at key spots [LB, OT, WR], which makes this the last chance for the Ravens to make a Super Bowl run…………keep an eye on QB Colt McCoy, who makes Cleveland a better team than Cincinnati, who – despite having a Pro Bowl RB in Cedric Benson – will struggle on offense with rookie QB Andy Dalton.

AFC South: Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Titans
Even with QB Peyton Manning set to miss games at the start of this season, I still believe Indianapolis is the best team in this division……..can’t understand the love for Houston. New defensive co-coordinator Wade Phillips makes the Texans defense better, but this team still lacks a consistent running game – and heart [crunch time is the Texans’ biggest weakness]………….New coach – and new starting QB – makes Tennessee an interesting work-in-progress this fall. Still, you can expect the Titans to pull off a few upsets this season.

AFC West: Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders, and Broncos
Like the NFC West, San Diego is best of a bunch of teams that all lack something………..Kansas City did it with smoke and mirrors – and a solid running game – last season. Won’t happen this year, especially with QB Matt Cassel nursing injured ribs in the early season…………Oakland is a year away from contending, while Denver is in rebuilding mode, with new head coach John Fox and new GM John Elway.


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