1. New Orleans (12-4) -- The Saints don't need a dominant defense in order to win with one of the NFL's elite offenses on their side. But I like everything New Orleans did to strengthen its defense, with upgrades on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. The Saints will score, and now they can slow their opponents down too.
*2.Carolina (10-6) -- With some real pressure in Carolina this year, a bunch of Panthers have a bunch to prove. It starts with head coach John Fox, but quarterback Jake Delhomme, defensive end Julius Peppers and especially receiver Steve Smith are in that category as well. Carolina seems poised to use all that motivation to their benefit with a return to the playoffs.
3. Tampa Bay (8-8) -- The Bucs have a well stocked roster and a .500 finish would clearly register as underachievement. But no one has repeated as champion in this division since it formed in 2002, and that's a streak destined to continue. The hungriest teams usually prosper in the NFC South, and I've got the Saints and Panthers ranking higher on want-to this year.
4. Atlanta (4-12) -- The Falcons just don't have the weapons to compete for anything other than last place this season, but I still like the direction new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and rookie head coach Mike Smith are heading. They're building a program, not just a team. That's the best way to ensure staying out of last place in years to come.
1. Seattle (9-7) -- We keep waiting for the Seahawks' reign in the NFC West to come to a close, but there's no end in sight this year. Seattle will send Mike Holmgren out a winner this season, just as he has been so many times before in his 17-year NFL head coaching career. The Seahawks simply have fewer holes than any of their division foes.
2. Arizona (8-8) -- It's time for people to stop talking about the Cardinals taking that long-awaited step up to playoff qualifier, and let Arizona prove it has matured enough to handle the expectations. Put me down for doubtful that this year's Cardinals will break out of the mold.
3. St. Louis (6-10) -- At least the Rams got their Steven Jackson holdout problem settled. Can you imagine how bleak things would look in St. Louis without its one legitimate game-breaker? The Rams will need good fortune on the injury front -- something they had none of last year -- and unexpected contributors just to avoid a double-digit loss season.
4. San Francisco (4-12) -- It's make-or-break time for Mike Nolan and his 49ers coaching staff, and the team's three-man preseason quarterback competition already lent an air of desperation to the proceedings. I can't find many reasons to believe this year isn't just the depressing precursor to another fresh start for San Francisco's beleaguered fans in 2009.
* -- Wild-card qualifier
Predicted playoff seeding
Super Bowl XLIII
MVP -- Drew Brees, New Orleans, QB -- The Saints potent offense will roll up huge numbers, and Brees will be the catalyst in the center of it all.
Coach of the Year -- Norv Turner, San Diego -- The Chargers might be both favored and loaded, but that doesn't mean Turner won't deserve acclaim for the best coaching job of his long career.
Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Jonathan Stewart, Carolina, RB -- The Panthers' resurgent offense will surprise in part thanks to Stewart's big-play style of running.
Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Sedrick Ellis, New Orleans, DT -- The ex-USC star should be a force in the middle of a much-improved Saints defensive front.
Offensive Player of the Year -- Drew Brees, New Orleans, QB -- Brees will have all the necessary numbers for what is a statistic-based honor.
Defensive Player of the Year -- Jared Allen, Minnesota, DE -- Allen's impact as a premier pass rusher gives the Vikings defense a lift into the league's elite.
Comeback Player of the Year -- Julius Peppers, Carolina, DE -- A move to the right end slot resurrects the skills of one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.