1. Indianapolis (10-6) -- I've heard some reports of the Colts' imminent demise and believe them to be somewhat exaggerated. But this much is true: The rest of the rough and tumble AFC South has narrowed the gap on Indy considerably, and I don't see more than a two-game gap separating first place from last place.
*2. Jacksonville (10-6) -- The Jaguars in the second half of last season proved they can score with the elite offenses in the league. But I still can't get them into anything other than the top wild-card position, right on the Colts' heels this year. Maybe the difference will be the pass rush they hope they've upgraded significantly.
3. Tennessee (9-7) -- It's simple, really. The Titans can't take a step up in this division unless third-year quarterback Vince Young becomes a play-making threat with both his arm and his legs. Tennessee has plenty enough defense to win its share of games. The offense just can't conspire to get the Titans beat.
4. Houston (8-8) -- The Texans are a team on the come, especially on a defense studded with young talent. Another .500 finish might feel disappointing in Houston, but remember the 1996-97-98 Oilers/Titans, who went 8-8 three years in a row before going to the Super Bowl in 1999.
1. San Diego (13-3) -- Nowhere will the gap between the first and second-place team be more pronounced than in the AFC West, which San Diego in essence has owned since 2004. With those two playoff victories of last January under their belts, the Chargers are much more confident, less mercurial team. And did I mention they're driven to beat the Patriots?
2. Denver (8-8) -- We'll know plenty about these Broncos right off the bat, because they have home games against San Diego and New Orleans -- my two Super Bowl teams -- in Weeks 2 and 3. If they've made improvement, it's only marginal. The Broncos are 16-16 since winning the division in 2005, and more of the same .500 dance is on the way.
3. Oakland (5-11) -- If second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell blossoms in what will amount to his rookie season, the Raiders could surprise some people this year and make a move toward the middle of the pack in the AFC. But for a team that has had the reverse Midas Touch on personnel for the past five years, that's a bit to ask and hope for.
4. Kansas City (3-13) -- Yes, it was a draft to remember, but then the preseason started and reminded everyone just how far Kansas City's rebuilding effort has to go. This year I can't even see the last-place Chiefs getting off to a hopeful getaway like last season's team, which was 4-3 en route to 4-12. It could be brutal from Week 1 on, when K.C. draws the dubious assignment of opening on the road in Foxboro.
1. Dallas (11-5) -- First, the good news for Cowboys fans: There will be a playoff victory for the first time since 1996. But alas, not two, and thus head coach Wade Phillips might find a two-year regular-season record of 24-8 (our projection, of course) and a pair of NFC East titles isn't enough to stave off the dawn of the Jason Garrett era. Don't say we didn't warn you.
*2. Philadelphia (10-6) -- I like the Eagles. I really do. That three-game winning streak to end last season was no mirage, and Donovan McNabb is back to being a quarterback who can beat anyone when he's on his game. But while I don't see a glaring weakness on this roster, I just can't picture Philly's season avoiding a speed bump or two.
3. New York Giants (9-7) -- The Giants are correct in their supposition that most people have not factored their magical postseason run into the projections for the NFC East this season. It's a valid point, and I'm guilty of it myself. But magic like the Giants exhibited is rarely duplicated the next season. I don't consider it a form of disrespect, as much as disbelief.
4. Washington (6-10) -- The Redskins are one of the tougher teams to peg because much of their season seems to hinge on how quarterback Jason Campbell transitions to new head coach Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. If you believe Campbell is a perfect fit for the system, there's reason for hope. If not, and you believe Campbell may struggle initially, you agree with me.
1. Minnesota (10-6) -- The pieces are in place for a return to the playoffs in Viking-land, but check out that early schedule: at Green Bay on Monday night of Week 1, home against dangerous Indy and improved Carolina, and then at Tennessee and New Orleans. If Minnesota makes it through that at no worse than 2-3, a double-digit win season is still very much in play.
2. Green Bay (9-7) -- The Packers have an impressive collection of young talent, likely the division's finest. But somehow I can't shake the feeling the club's nightmarish Brett Favre saga of this summer will loom over the entire season, robbing Green Bay of its 13-win mojo of a year ago.
3. Detroit (7-9) -- The Lions didn't do much to inspire much buzz this offseason in terms of personnel moves, and I can't find reason to change their slot in the NFC North from last year's 7-9 third-place finish. While Detroit has looked sharp this preseason, I sense we're all a little hesitant to buy into another fast start by the Lions, who were 6-2 at the turn in '07.
4. Chicago (5-11) -- Was this team really in the Super Bowl just two short years ago? If Devin Hester doesn't score, I don't know where the points are going to come from, no matter which quarterback plays.