NFL 2008: A look at the season, by division Print
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Thursday, 21 August 2008 08:12
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 A look at the NFL divisions this season, with 2007 record in parentheses:
AFC EAST
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (16-0, 18-1 including postseason)
Strengths: Quarterback, with reigning NFL MVP Tom Brady; wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker; a solid offensive line coming back from a poor performance in the Super Bowl loss; and a deep defensive line led by Richard Seymour. Experience and outstanding record this decade, including three NFL titles.
Weaknesses: Secondary, which lost star cornerback Asante Samuel to free agency and has been battered by preseason injuries. Backup quarterback. Age at linebacker could be a problem.
Players to watch: CB Fernando Bryant; first-round draft pick LB Jerod Mayo; record-setting Moss, of course, both on and off the field.
Biggest change: The loss of Samuel and the addition of veteran and rookie cornerbacks competing to replace him.
Schedule key: Four games on the West Coast: San Francisco (Oct. 5), San Diego (Oct. 12), Seattle (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 14).

BUFFALO BILLS (7-9)
Strengths: Defensive front seven significantly bolstered with additions of DT Marcus Stroud and LB Kawika Mitchell, plus return of MLB Paul Posluszny, who missed most of 2007 (broken arm) CB depth with rookies Leodis McKelvin (first-round pick) and Reggie Corner (fourth-round), and veteran William James.
Weaknesses: Offensive line unsettled with Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters' holdout, forcing RT Langston Walker to move to left side and reserve Kirk Chambers in for Walker.
Players to watch: Second-round pick WR James Hardy being asked to make immediate impact opposite Lee Evans. McKelvin, still a backup but likely team's top returner. QB Trent Edwards needs to develop after winning job as rookie last year.
Biggest change: Team's mood. Young Bills' core growing in confidence: S Donte Whitner guaranteed they'll make playoffs after eight-year drought. Revamped defense has added depth and experience after finishing 31st in yards allowed.
Schedule key: Bills need fast start, facing three NFC West teams and Oakland in first five weeks before playing division rivals. Did Buffalo lose wintry home advantage when scheduled to ``host'' Miami at Toronto's dome Dec. 7?

NEW YORK JETS (4-12)
Strengths: Special teams and offensive line. Leon Washington and Justin Miller returning kicks. Additions of G Alan Faneca and T Damien Woody, combined with promising C Nick Mangold and T D'Brickashaw Ferguson give Jets big, athletic line to protect QB Brett Favre.
Weaknesses: Receivers. After Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, Jets looking for someone among unproven group, Perhaps first-round pick TE Dustin Keller will step up as No. 3 option.
Players to Watch: Favre, of course, along with Faneca, Cotchery, Keller, LB David Harris, NT Kris Jenkins and rookie LB Vernon Gholston.
Biggest Change: Was defensive front seven with additions of Jenkins, Gholston and LB Calvin Pace and trade of LB Jonathan Vilma. Then Favre came to town with his rifle right arm and gave Jets instant boost to position that was huge question mark.
Schedule Key: Pressure's on early as Jets will be hoping to go into bye in Week 5 at least 2-2 after games at Miami, New England home, at San Diego, Arizona home. Come out of bye with five straight against 2007 non-playoff teams: Cincinnati, at Oakland, Kansas City, at Buffalo and St. Louis.

MIAMI DOLPHINS (1-15)
Strengths: RB Ronnie Brown returns from knee surgery after totaling 991 yards rushing and receiving in seven games last year. Backup is Ricky Williams, the mercurial 2002 NFL rushing champion.
Weaknesses: Dolphins are unsettled at receiver and in offensive line. Secondary has been problem for years, and front seven must be revamped following offseason departures of stalwarts Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas.
Players to watch: New QB Chad Pennington; top overall draft pick Jake Long at offensive tackle; Brown and Williams.
Biggest change: New football czar (Bill Parcells), new GM (Jeff Ireland), new coach (Tony Sparano).
Schedule key: Opener at home against Brett Favre-led Jets will offer Pennington a chance for revenge. A win in this closely watched game would be big momentum-builder.
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AFC SOUTH
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (13-3, 13-4 including postseason)
Strengths: Indianapolis remains one of the NFL's highest-scoring teams and now has a defense, which returns 10 starters, that allowed the league's fewest points in 2007.
Weaknesses: Injuries. The health of QB Peyton Manning (knee), safety Bob Sanders (shoulder), the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, and DE Dwight Freeney (foot) will be key questions. All three opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list after surgery.
Players to watch: Manning, Sanders, Freeney, WR Marvin Harrison, returning from a lost season with a knee injury.
Biggest change: Jim Sorgi, Manning's backup, has been running the offense since July 25.
Schedule key: Four-game November stretch includes dates against three of AFC's top contenders: New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego, all division winners in '07. The round-robin could determine which team gets home-field advantage in playoffs.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (11-5, 12-6 including postseason)
Strengths: Overall defense. Running game led by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who combined last season for nearly 2,000 yards rushing and nearly 5 yards per carry. QB David Garrard, running controlled offense, had 18 TD passes and just three interceptions last season.
Weaknesses: Receiving. Ernest Wilford led Jaguars with just 45 catches, lowest for a team leader in NFL.
Players to Watch: Taylor, who is 32 but had injury-free season last year. WR Jerry Porter, who signed $30 million deal after injury and discipline problems in Oakland. He's been plagued by hamstring injury.
Biggest Change: Receivers. In addition to Porter, Jaguars traded for Troy Williamson, a top-10 draft pick in Minnesota who had trouble holding the ball.
Schedule Key: Jags have designs on ending Colts' five-year run of NFC South titles and go to Indianapolis in Week 3, early opportunity to show their strength.

TENNESSEE TITANS (10-6, 10-7 including postseason)
Strengths: Defense that ranked fifth in NFL in 2007 could be even stingier with All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth playing for big contract in free agency. Gone are ends Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy, but Jevon Kearse has looked quick enough to replace them opposite Pro Bowl end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Second-round DT Jason Jones could have immediate impact.
Weaknesses: For all the offseason work on Vince Young's footwork and recognition of defenses, Titans need receivers to be consistent for passing game to ease pressure on running game.
Players to watch: Kearse; rookie RB Chris Johnson, who brings speed team hasn't had in years. TE Alge Crumper looks revitalized away from Atlanta, and FS Michael Griffin is primed for big second season.
Biggest change: New offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has revitalized unit that managed nine touchdowns passing in 2007.
Schedule key: Titans have chance for fast start. Three of first four game are at home, starting with Jacksonville in opener, and they get Indianapolis first in Nashville on Oct. 27.

HOUSTON TEXANS (8-8)
Strengths: Receivers. Andre Johnson is healthy again after missing seven games last season with knee injury. Texans have playmakers around him in Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Andre' Davis.
Weaknesses: Secondary. Texans ranked 25th in pass defense last season and tied for the fewest interceptions (11).
Players to watch: Johnson, LB DeMeco Ryans, DE Mario Williams.
Biggest change: Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Former Denver assistant brings his zone-blocking scheme that helped Broncos lead NFL in rushing between 1995-2003.
Schedule key: Texans play three of first four games on road, including trips to Pittsburgh (Sept. 7), Tennessee (Sept. 21) and Jacksonville (Sept. 28), and then face Indianapolis at home.
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AFC NORTH
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-6, 10-7 including postseason)
Strengths: QB Ben Roethlisberger, who won Super Bowl in his second season and is one of NFL's best in his fifth year. He makes passing game strongest element on team historically dependent on running and defense.
Weaknesses: Offensive line, which must be revamped following departure as free agent of G Alan Faneca, who has long been the anchor. Linebacking corps, another strength, is starting to age.
Players to Watch: G Chris Kemoeatu, who is slated to replace Faneca. Rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall, who gives Steelers inside complement to Willie Parker they haven't had since Jerome Bettis retired after 2005 season. WR Santonio Holmes, first-round pick in 2006, who could emerge at Pro Bowl level.
Biggest Change: Revamped offensive line.
Schedule Key: Steelers' schedule is toughest in league and includes home games against Cowboys, Colts, Chargers and Super Bowl champion Giants.

CLEVELAND BROWNS (10-6)
Strengths: Offense that can score from anywhere on field. QB Derek Anderson threw 29 TD passes in first year as starter, but if he struggles early, club will not hesitate to insert Brady Quinn. WR Braylon Edwards (16 TDs) is one of game's top playmakers, and TE Kellen Winslow should be better after offseason knee surgery. RB Jamal Lewis ran for more than 1,300 yards last year behind top offensive line.
Weaknesses: Defense. Browns ranked No. 30 overall and need to develop pass rush. Newcomers NT Shaun Rogers and DT Corey Williams should help plug middle, but secondary is glaring weakness.
Players to watch: OLB Kamerion Wimbley should benefit from new beef up front. Return specialist Josh Cribbs can score any time he touches ball and might be used more on offense.
Biggest change: For first time in ages, the Browns are expected to be good.
Schedule key: Home opener against Dallas and Week 2 matchup at home with Pittsburgh could set tone for season.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (7-9)
Strengths: Offensive line allowed only 17 sacks last season. Carson Palmer can make every throw. PK Shayne Graham is one of most accurate in history on field goals.
Weaknesses: They just can't stay away from troubled players. Decision to bring back WR Chris Henry left them depending on player who has been arrested five times and is already suspended for first four games.
Players to watch: CBs Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, a pair of first-rounders who will be left on their own much more in new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's tight man-to-man schemes.
Biggest change: Zimmer's new defense, which will get tested early by Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Brett Favre.
Schedule key: Bengals play at Baltimore, at Giants, at Dallas and at Jets in first six weeks.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (5-11)
Strengths: As always, Ravens will rely on defense. Linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, and safety Ed Reed are stars of unit led by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Weaknesses: As always, Ravens will struggle on offense. Quarterback position is muddled, RB Willis McGahee is hobbled with sore knee and no decent replacement for LT Jonathan Ogden has emerged.
Players to watch: Rookie RB Ray Rice has starred in emergency starting role. CB Fabian Washington, a draft-day acquisition from Raiders, and QB Joe Flacco, whose development could be most important facet of entire season.
Biggest change: First-year coach John Harbaugh takes over for Brian Billick, who stumbled at end of his nine-year run.
Schedule key: If Ravens don't start well, it won't matter how they finish. Three of first four games are against division foes.

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AFC WEST
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3, 15-4 including postseason)
Strengths: One of most talented, deepest lineups in NFL. Fans will be satisfied with nothing short of Super Bowl victory. Same with players, who are trying to cut down on smack talk regarding Super Bowl.
Weaknesses: Five key players are coming off injuries. QB Philip Rivers (knee), TE Antonio Gates (foot), center Nick Hardwick (foot) and NG Jamal Williams (knees) all had surgery. Rivers and Williams are good to go, Gates hopes to be ready by opening day and Hardwick could miss as many as first six games. RB LaDainian Tomlinson sprained left knee during playoffs but didn't need surgery.
Players to watch: Rivers, to see if his knee holds up, and Tomlinson, NFL's two-time rushing champion.
Biggest change: Rookie Jacob Hester will take over as L.T.'s backup from Michael Turner, who left as free agent for Atlanta.
Schedule key: Generally considered easy, with five of last eight at home. Chargers will face Patriots and Colts at home.

DENVER BRONCOS (7-9)
Strengths: QB Jay Cutler has regained 35 pounds and zip on his throws he lost when his Type 1 diabetes went undiagnosed late last season. His receiving corps is led by Brandon Marshall and rookie Eddie Royal.
Weaknesses: PK Matt Prater will have to replace Jason Elam, franchise's leader in points and games, who bolted for Atlanta.
Players to watch: Cutler, Marshall and TE Tony Scheffler; CB Champ Bailey and LB D.J. Williams.
Biggest change: Revamped offensive and defensive lines.
Schedule key: Broncos need to at least split first two games with AFC West foes Oakland and San Diego while Marshall is serving suspension for violating league's personal conduct policy.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (4-12)
Strengths: Running back, tight end.
Weaknesses: Inexperience at key positions and suspect veterans, especially at linebacker and on offensive line.
Players to watch: TE Tony Gonzalez, QB Brodie Croyle, RB Larry Johnson, WR Dwayne Bowe, DT Glenn Dorsey, OL Branden Albert, DB Brandon Flowers.
Biggest change: New offensive coordinator, new offense and an entirely new philosophy of throwing out the old and rebuilding with youth.
Schedule key: Season opener. Lucky Chiefs get to be the first team to play at New England since Super Bowl loss ruined Patriots' perfect season. How well this young team rebounds from blowout everyone logically expects could go long way toward determining what kind of year it is in KC.

OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12)
Strengths: DeAngelo Hall joins Nnamdi Asomugha in one of best cornerback tandems in league. Team is also deep at running back with 1,000-yard rusher Justin Fargas and rookie Darren McFadden.
Weaknesses: Javon Walker got paid like No. 1 receiver but hasn't shown the ability in training camp. Other receivers haven't been much better, leaving JaMarcus Russell with few options to throw to. Offensive line is strong in running game, but tackles Kwame Harris and Cornell Green have problems protecting QB.
Players to watch: Russell, McFadden, TE Zach Miller, LB Thomas Howard, DT Tommy Kelly.
Biggest change: Russell opens season as starter after Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper split most of duties last season. Russell started only one game as rookie following holdout.
Schedule key: Only one of first 12 games comes against team that had winning record a year ago, giving Raiders chance to get off to decent start.

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NFC EAST
NEW YORK GIANTS (10-6, 14-6 including postseason and Super Bowl win)
Strengths: This is tight-knit team looking to prove winning Super Bowl wasn't a fluke. QB Eli Manning is improving and playing behind same offensive line. With Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck at ends, team that led NFL in sacks might do it again under second-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Weaknesses: Neither David Carr nor Anthony Wright is answer if Manning is hurt. Depth on defensive line without retired Michael Straham. With loss of Kawika Mitchell in free agency, weakside linebacker is iffy with Danny Clark, Gerris Wilkinson and Brian Kehl.
Players to watch: Safety Kenny Phillips, first-round draft pick, will be starter soon. R Brandon Jacobs is in contract year. Manning needs to maintain development he showed in postseason. WR Plaxico Burress can be exceptional if his ankle gets better.
Biggest change: Defense without seven-time Pro Bowler Strahan. Kevin Boss at tight end instead of four-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Shockey.
Schedule key: Stretch in late October and early November with road games at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia sandwiching home game against Dallas.

DALLAS COWBOYS (13-3, 13-4 including postseason)
Strengths: Cowboys return all of their NFL-record 13 Pro Bowlers. Two-time Pro Bowl QB Tony Romo set team records (4,211 yards passing, 36 TDs) in first full season as starter. WR Terrell Owens is content after NFL-high 28 TDs the past two years and contract extension.
Weaknesses: Lack of recent postseason success. Can they win in January? Cowboys are viewed as legitimate Super Bowl contender, and were NFC's top seed last season. But they've gone 11 seasons without playoff victory, with heartbreaking losses the last two.
Players to watch: Romo, Owens, RB Marion Barber, TE Jason Witten, LB DeMarcus Ware, CB/kick returner Adam ``Pacman'' Jones (if reinstated by NFL).
Biggest change: Barber starting instead of finishing. Bruising runner nicknamed the Barbarian, who made Pro Bowl without starting a game in regular season last year, got new contract and new role. He is clear No. 1 runner after Julius Jones left in free agency, without any attempt by Cowboys to keep their former top pick.
Schedule key: As NFC East champions, Cowboys drew tougher schedule than Super Bowl champion Giants. First three weeks: on road against Cleveland and Green Bay, sandwiching home opener against Philadelphia.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (9-7, 9-8 including postseason)
Strengths: Roster continuity. All but one of 22 starters were on team last year. Exception is six-time Pro Bowl DE Jason Taylor, who gives pass rush much-needed upgrade. Players seem to have bought into new coach Jim Zorn's upbeat approach.
Weaknesses: Spotty depth on offensive line, in secondary. Muddled situation at receiver due to slow development of high-round draft picks Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly.
Players to watch: QB Jason Campbell, who needs to master yet another new offense. Emerging S LaRon Landry, who moves into the late Sean Taylor's free safety spot. Jason Taylor, who needs another season of double-digit sacks.
Biggest change: Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs retired and was replaced by first-time head coach Zorn, whose previous job was quarterbacks coach with Seattle.
Schedule key: Three of first five games are on road against NFC East rivals.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (8-8)
Strengths: Eagles have three legitimate starters at cornerback, including two Pro-Bowl players in Asante Samuel and Lito Sheppard. If Sheppard can adjust to splitting time with Sheldon Brown, trio could be best in NFL. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is entering season healthier than he's been in years, and All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook is dynamic weapon.
Weaknesses: Offense lacks playmaking wide receiver, especially with Kevin Curtis sidelined, and there's instability on offensive line. Injuries have plagued defensive line and free safety Brian Dawkins is on the decline.
mp because he's battling depression, so he'll be monitored closely.
Biggest change: Sheppard a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, won't be full-time starter for first time in five years.
Schedule key: Three of last four games are against NFC East rivals, including two on road.

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NFC SOUTH
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-7, 9-8 including postseason)
Strengths: Young, improving offensive line; deep linebacker corps; trio of capable running backs, none of them injured Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams.
Weaknesses: Lack of playmaking receivers; inconsistent pass rush. Players To Watch: CB Aqib Talib, DE Gaines Adams, LB Barrett Ruud, WR Antonio Bryant.
Biggest Change: C Jeff Faines. RB Warrick Dunn returns to Tampa Bay.
Schedule Key: Face four playoff teams from a year ago, three (Green Bay, San Diego, Seattle) at home. More critical is how Bucs fare within NFC South. They were 5-1 against Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta in 2007 and won second division title in three years.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-9)
Strengths: Passing game featuring QB Drew Brees and WR Marques Colston, which has produced more than 8,800 yards during past two seasons. TE Jeremy Shockey has been added and RB Reggie Bush could become more frequent receiver now that Deuce McAllister has returned and second-year RB Pierre Thomas has trust of coaching staff in ground game.
Weaknesses: Pass defense ranked 30th last season. Saints are hoping better defensive line will mean more pressure on quarterbacks and make secondary's job easier. Saints also added new players in secondary, including former Patriots CB Randall Gay and second-round draft choice Tracy Porter.
Players to watch: Brees, DE Will Smith, DT Sedrick Ellis, Colston, McAllister, Bush, Shockey, LB Jonathan Vilma.
Biggest change: A additions of Shockey, Ellis and Vilma.
Schedule key: Because their Oct. 26 home game against San Diego was moved to London, Saints will go five straight weekends, including three road games and bye week, without playing in Louisiana Superdome.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-9)
Strengths: Secondary is solid and deep with S Chris Harris and CBs Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Much stronger at WR with Steve Smith and offseason acquisitions Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett.
Weaknesses: Defensive line. With Kris Jenkins traded to Jets and Mike Rucker's retirement, Panthers have many questions after putting little pressure on QBs in 2007. No experienced QB after Jake Delhomme, who is recovering from major elbow surgery. Porous returning and covering punts and kickoffs last season.
Players to watch: Delhomme. How he performs after ligament-replacement surgery will determine direction of season. DE Julius Peppers, trying to recover from career-low 2 1/2 sacks last year. Smith, three-time Pro Bowl pick, but suspended for first two games for punching Lucas at training camp.
Biggest change: Offensive line has different starters at all five positions, with rookie Jeff Otah at RT. With rookie RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers hope to return to power running game absent since team's only Super Bowl appearance in 2003 season.
Schedule key: Visit San Diego and host Chicago to open season while Smith serves his suspension. Need to avoid 0-2 start which would put even more pressure on embattled coach John Fox.

ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)
Strengths: RBs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood provide big-play potential. WR Roddy White enjoyed breakout season in 2007 despite turnover at quarterback. DE John Abraham and LB Michael Boley are solid if healthy.
Weaknesses: Big questions at almost every spot on offensive line. No receiving threat at tight end.
Players to watch: QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, DT Grady Jackson, LB Curtis Lofton, LT Sam Baker.
Biggest change: Offense goes back to run-first philosophy of Dan Reeves and Jim Mora eras.
Schedule key: Team plays five of its first eight on road and finally plays first home game against a division rival on Nov. 9 against New Orleans.

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NFC NORTH
GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-3, 14-4 including postseason)
Strengths: Underrated, veteran defense and dynamic receivers.
Weaknesses: Injuries and uncertainty in interior offensive and defensive lines.
Players to watch: QB Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre has been traded to Jets, but only Rodgers' play can quiet inevitable comparisons.
Biggest change: Packers parted ways with one of their most popular and productive players, knowing Favre could have another strong season. They're also waving goodbye to his exhausting diva act and tendency to make big mistakes.
Schedule key: Sept. 8 vs. Minnesota. Rodgers' first real start comes on national TV against division rival who Packers suspect tried to tamper with Favre. If league won't punish Vikings, Packers certainly want to.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-8)
Strengths: On ground, both sides of the ball. Adrian Peterson gives Vikings game-changing running attack. On defense, Pro Bowl tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams anchor stout front seven.
Weaknesses: In air, both sides of the ball. Passing game benefits from new receiver Bernard Berrian, but quarterback Tarvaris Jackson is still unproven. Neck injury to safety Madieu Williams was bad start for mediocre secondary.
Players to watch: Berrian, Jackson, rookie safety Tyrell Johnson.
Biggest change: Defensive end Jared Allen, NFL's reigning sacks leader, was brought in for big money to upgrade pass rush.
Schedule key: Three of first five are on road, including opener at rival Green Bay. Six days later, Indianapolis visits Metrodome.

CHICAGO BEARS (7-9)
Strengths: Bears will rely on their defense. Question is: Can it stay healthy? If so, group led by LB Brian Urlacher, DT Tommie Harris and LB Lance Briggs could rank among league's best, as it did in 2005 and 2006.
Weaknesses: Quarterback. Unproven Kyle Orton beat out inconsistent Rex Grossman in preseason even though neither particularly shined.
Players to watch: Urlacher, bothered by an arthritic back last season, he underwent minor neck surgery when it was over. Orton, who started 15 games as rookie in 2005 while Grossman was hurt. Back then, Bears simplified offense for him.
Biggest change: RB Cedric Benson is gone after two alcohol-related arrests in a month, replaced by second-round draft pick Matt Forte of Tulane and Kevin Jones, coming off serious knee injury while with Detroit.
Schedule key: Bears will be tested right from opener at Indianapolis on Sept. 7, followed by trip to Carolina.

DETROIT LIONS (7-9)
Strengths: WRs Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, half of the first-round receivers drafted by Matt Millen, seem to stack up with any receiving duo. DBs Leigh Bodden, Dwight Smith, Brian Kelly and Kalvin Pearson - all newcomers - add experience and depth to unit that needed it.
Weaknesses: Lions want to run after parting ways with pass-happy coordinator Mike Martz, but offensive line and backfield appears shaky. First-round pick OT Gosder Cherilus might not crack starting lineup, and third-round selection Kevin Smith's upright running style might not work as it did when he ran for 2,567 yards - 62 short of Barry Sanders' NCAA record - at Central Florida.
Players to watch: Williams, Johnson, DE Dewayne White, LB Ernie Sims, Bodden.
Biggest change: New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto, replacing Martz.
Schedule key: A strong start - at Atlanta, vs. Green Bay, at San Francisco and vs. Chicago - might set up Lions to be respectable, especially if they learned from last year's second-half flop.

NFC WEST
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-6, 11-7 including postseason)
Strengths: Pro Bowl QB Matt Hasselbeck; defense returning all 11 starters, including Pro Bowlers end Patrick Kerney, LBs Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson, and CB Marcus Trufant; motivation to make coach Mike Holmgren's final season special.
Weaknesses: Major injuries and inexperience at WR; age, injuries and ineffectiveness on OL; shared, unsettled RB situation with potential for bruised egos.
Players to watch: Hasselbeck, trying to duplicate team-record setting '07 with skeleton receiving crew; rookie TE John Carlson; RBs Julius Jones and Maurice Morris; DE Kerney, recently injury prone.
Biggest change: Shaun Alexander era is over. Jones and Morris are his more slashing co-replacements, promising to make pass receiving by RBs more viable weapon - though Holmgren for now doesn't have single feature back he prefers.
Schedule key: Relatively soft start (at Buffalo, home for St. Louis) becomes gantlet of '07 playoff teams: Giants, Packers and Buccaneeers, plus trip to division rival 49ers and home against Eagles. If Seahawks get through that 5-3 or better, fifth straight NFC West title is likely - even with consecutive games against Dallas and New England later.

ARIZONA CARDINALS (8-8)
Strengths: Receiving tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, although Boldin is unhappy with contract compared to Fitzgerald's four-year $40 million deal with $30 million guaranteed signed after last season. S Adrian Wilson and revamped secondary. Weak NFC West that Cardinals could win.
Weaknesses: History. Last year's .500 record marked only third non-losing season since Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. Management has history of stepping on its toes, as it did with Fitzgerald's first contract, which forced it to give him huge money and antagonize Boldin.
Players to Watch: QB Matt Leinart, 10th overall pick in 2006 draft, who is going into his third season with very little experience. Leinart missed more than half of last season with broken collarbone.
Biggest Change: Leinart. If he's up to task, he gives Cardinals their first premium QB. If not, 37-year-old Kurt Warner, still efficient but also mistake-prone, will fill in again.
Schedule Key: Five trips to East Coast could take a toll.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (5-11)
Strengths: LB Patrick Willis was top defensive rookie last year, making tackles all over field. RB Frank Gore has topped 1,000 yards and 4.0 yards a carry in his two seasons as starter.
Weaknesses: Usually a team that has three quarterbacks competing for starting QB job doesn't have any worthy of holding it. That could be case here as journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan might beat out former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, and Shaun Hill. There are questions at receiver, where Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle and Bryant Johnson have been injured for much of camp.
Players to watch: Willis, Gore, CB Nate Clements, TE Vernon Davis, DL Ray McDonald.
Biggest change: San Francisco has its sixth offensive coordinator in as many years, going from inexperienced Jim Hostler to Mike Martz and his intricate offenses.
Schedule key: October is brutal, with games against two Super Bowl teams: New England at home on Oct. 5 and at Giants on Oct. 19. Niners also have home games that month against Philadelphia and Seattle.

ST. LOUIS RAMS (3-13)
Strengths: Defensive line fortified by first-round picks last two years, including second overall pick Chris Long this year, plugged into veteran group featuring Leonard Little and La'Roi Glover. WR Torry Holt leads NFL in receptions and yards since 2000. Bruising RB Steven Jackson ended holdout and is among league's best.
Weaknesses: Quarterback Marc Bulger had more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (11) in injury-plagued 2007, and might be a bit shellshocked after years of punishment. He'll be taking snaps behind unproven line led by tackle Orlando Pace, who has ended last two seasons on injured reserve and didn't make it out of opener last year. Backup QB Trent Green has history of concussion-related woes. Defense is undersized and can be pushed around if forced to play too much.
Players to watch: Jackson will likely have reduced work in early going. Long is being pushed by James Hall, starter he replaced moments after being taken with second pick of draft. Kicker Josh Brown, one of NFL's most accurate, is biggest offseason acquisition.
Biggest change: Al Saunders, assistant coach on franchise's lone Super Bowl championship team in 1999, has installed offense that recalls that high-flying era. It failed to click early in preseason.
Schedule key: Four of first seven games are against teams that won 10 or more games, with Super Bowl champion Giants in home opener, and 13-win Cowboys and 18-win Patriots in consecutive weeks.

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