Six of the eight divisions will be won by teams that didn't even make the playoffs last season. The Chiefs and the Panthers are emerging powers, while the defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers will be on the outside looking in. What follows is my projected playoff lineup, with conference seedings and predictions for the postseason, which begins on Jan. 3.
1. CHIEFS (14-2)
They're unbeaten but vulnerable. Four of their games went down to the wire. Who will knock them off? I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bengals upset them this Sunday. If not then, I say it'll be the West-rival Broncos on Dec. 7, provided quarterback Jake Plummer is back at full strength.
2. TITANS (14-2)
Steve McNair is staking a mighty claim as the NFL's best quarterback. The Titans have won four straight, and I see them running the table to nip the Colts in the South.
3. PATRIOTS (12-4)
They keep on winning, even with as many as 13 key players missing. Now that people are getting healthy, New England will be battle-hardened for the stretch run in the East.
4. RAVENS (10-6)
Let's face it, the North is there for the taking, now that the Steelers have fallen off. Plus, once Baltimore gets past the Dolphins in Miami this Sunday, the schedule is soft.
5. COLTS (13-3)
The offense remains high-powered. The defense specializes in the quick strike, as the Dolphins found out on Nov. 2. But then the Colts were upset by the Jaguars on Sunday, losing the edge they had on the Titans for the South title.
6. BRONCOS (10-6)
The bye last week came at just the right time, to give Plummer the extra week to heal. Their defense and running game are solid enough to keep them in the playoff chase. But having to go with a third-string quarterback ( Danny Kanell) is a crusher.