EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The first full slate of regular-season games kicks off this weekend with a couple of exciting rookies under center and some memorable middle linebackers now in the broadcast booth.
Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher are hitting the airwaves instead of opposing ball carriers, while veteran quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning seek another Super Bowl moment. Buffalo’s EJ Manuel and Geno Smith of the Jets try to prove the 2013 rookie quarterback class is better than advertised.
Here’s a division-by-division look at which clubs will still be standing in January.
NFC SOUTH: Bucs
No team has repeated as division champion and this year will continue the pattern. The Falcons won a lot of close games last year and have major question marks in the trenches that will undermine all that firepower. The Saints haven’t done much to improve the league’s most porous defense and Carolina needs more weapons around QB Cam Newton. The Bucs have the talent to post double-digit wins and reward a fan base looking for a reason to believe.
NFC EAST: Giants
Only New Orleans yielded more yards than New York last season and coach Tom Coughlin won’t let that happen again. The Giants will win this division for the third time in six years because QB Eli Manning will be more efficient and the pass rush will be back to Meadowlands standards. Washington’s secondary is suspect, Dallas lacks the playmakers to implement Monte Kiffin’s defense and Chip Kelly won’t get much brotherly love in Philadelphia.
NFC NORTH: Packers
Green Bay isn’t a powerhouse, but Aaron Rodgers is as good as it gets and the Packers rarely turn the ball over. Chicago doesn’t get much respect, despite winning 10 games, perhaps because no one believes in the men protecting QB Jay Cutler. Minnesota can’t hurt you downfield, while Detroit is too overly reliant on QB Matt Stafford’s weary right arm.
NFC WEST: 49ers
St. Louis could probably contend in the NFC East, but the Rams are a young talented team stuck behind San Francisco and Seattle, two physical clubs led by young ascending quarterbacks. Arizona’s defense should keep the Cardinals competitive.
AFC EAST: Patriots
With a 126-34 record in the past decade, New England is poised for its 10th playoff berth in 11 years behind Brady and a defense that registered 41 takeaways. Miami QB Ryan Tannehill could be a keeper, but the Pats have owned the Dolphins. Buffalo and the New York Jets will struggle with rookie quarterbacks.
AFC NORTH: Bengals
This is Cincinnati’s division to lose and the Bengals could end up with the AFC’s No. 1 defense, led by DT Geno Atkins. Baltimore will remain competitive despite a flurry of veteran departures, while Pittsburgh treads water for another season. Cleveland needs more offensive weapons.
AFC SOUTH: Texans
Ranked No. 7 on both sides of the ball, Houston is a hungry team eager to go deep into the postseason. Don’t be shocked if Indy QB Andrew Luck takes a step back in Year 2. Tennessee can’t make key defensive stops and Jacksonville will be boring, as usual.
AFC WEST: Broncos
Von Miller’s six-game suspension, coupled with the loss of Elvis Dumervil to Baltimore, could cripple Denver’s pass rush, but coach John Fox will find a way. New Kansas City coach Andy Reid won’t tolerate a repeat of last year’s minus-24 turnover ratio. Philip Rivers faces a crossroads season in San Diego and Oakland continues its decade-long search for a franchise quarterback.