8. Carolina. Dangerous team. Very deceiving 8-8 record last year. While everyone tiptoed around it because everyone in the Carolinas loves Jake Delhomme, something awful happened to him in the last year and a half, and he just couldn't play quarterback for this team anymore. Check out what Matt Moore did in his last three starts: three wins, 66-percent accuracy, seven touchdowns, zero picks, and the Panthers outscored three foes 90-26. (Asterisk on the third, New Orleans, because the Saints played the JV that day.) This will be John Fox's last year with the Panthers -- the owner, Jerry Richardson, doesn't want to be in the business of laying off employees and paying a former coach $6 million a year in this economy -- and I think he'll say full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, forget next year, I'm doing everything I can to win right now. And he'll win enough to make the Wild Card.
9. New York Giants. Pick a team out of the hat in this division. In the last six years, the NFC East champs, in order, have been Philadelphia, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, New York and Dallas. The Giants have spent so much money and draft currency on the defensive line, and it simply has to be better or the natives rightfully will be able to wonder if Jerry Reese knows how to build a team, or did he just catch lightning in a bottle in his first year, the Super Bowl year. The offense will score enough, that I know. What it comes down to for the Giants is the defensive investment being smart enough, and I say it will.
10. Dallas. No other team has a better twin pass-rush threat than DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, and few teams have the multiplicity of weapons on offense. If Dez Bryant catches on quickly -- that's a big if -- the Cowboys could be the first home team to win a Super Bowl ever. But something always happens in the NFC East, something weird. The Eagles could rebound with the energy of a new quarterback to make the playoffs, but I feel pretty good about a second team making the playoffs out of the division. For five straight years, the East has produced at least one Wild Card.
11. Seattle. I don't love the division, so it's logical to give Turnaround Team of the Year to Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. "I know one thing we will do,'' he said to me a month ago. "We will increase competition at every position on the roster.'' Charlie Whitehurst, Leon Washington, LenDale White (laugh if you must, but he'll be a factor because Carroll will know how to press his buttons) and a slew of other role players will see to that. I say Matt Hasselbeck has one more sound year in him, and he'll have weapons enough to edge the 49ers and Cards for the division.
12. Pittsburgh. Surprise: They survive a month without Ben Roethlisberger to eke out the final spot over New England and Houston, assuming Roethlisberger's ban is only four weeks. -- I hope Dennis Dixon gets a shot the first four weeks, because he's good enough to win with. But they'll need defensive playmaking from LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu to win at least twice while they make do at quarterback. This is the true test of a good coach, making sure your team wins when it's not at its best. Mike Tomlin didn't do a great job at that last year. But he's young, he's still learning, and I think he'll respond better this summer in camp and in September.
ON THE PLAYOFF BUBBLE
13. Minnesota. Whether old What's His Name comes back or not will determine Minnesota's fate. Brett Favre or no Brett Favre, the Vikings have an offensive line in decline.
14. New England. I still don't know who will rush the passer, who the shutdown corner is, who the Mike Vrabel/Rodney Harrison defensive leader is, and if there's enough depth at wide receiver to survive until Wes Welker returns.
15. Philadelphia. I was in favor of going to Kevin Kolb, but that doesn't mean there's a 12-win season waiting to happen. There's likely to be growing pain, maybe with a Mike Vick replacement game or two.
16. Atlanta. The Falcons are healthier, and better. I just think there are two teams in the division better right now -- unless Matt Ryan has a Drew Brees-type year. I don't think he has one of those in him ... yet. Not many quarterbacks do.
17. Houston. Will the Texans be in it after eight weeks, with the Brian Cushing debacle and the schedule (Indy, at Washington, Dallas, at Oakland, Giants, Kansas City, at Indy, San Diego)? That offense had better rev it up.
18. Denver. Not very complicated. The Broncos have to be better than a 20.4-points-per-game team to give an OK defense a chance to hold up. To do that, one of the quarterbacks has to play well, which I think is possible under Josh McDaniels. Likely? That's another matter.
19. San Francisco. The Niners allowed just 281 points last year, 39 fewer than San Diego, and they return their solid up-the-gut unit led by Patrick Willis and impenetrable tackles. That's fine. But Alex Smith is the quarterback and Donovan McNabb isn't, and that will likely be the difference between winning a division and finishing second.
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