How the NFL divisions stack up this season, with projected record in parentheses:
Strengths: A winning atmosphere created by coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and defensive leaders Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. Strengthened receivers, including Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth. Experience.
Weaknesses: They're getting a little old on defense, and there's questionable depth in the secondary and at running back.
Players to watch: RB Laurence Maroney, LB Adalius Thomas.
Why they will finish first: Patriots won the division last year - and they're even better.

Strengths: Coaching, with Eric Mangini and staff extracting every ounce of talent from the roster. Intelligent performers in QB Chad Pennington, RB Thomas Jones, WR Laveranues Coles, LB Jonathan Vilma and S Kerry Rhodes.
Weaknesses: Must upgrade significantly the run defense and get more pressure on QBs.
Players to watch: KR Justin Miller, LB Bryan Thomas.
Why they will finish second: Tougher schedule than last year, nowhere near the talent of New England.

Strengths: End Jason Taylor comes off Defensive Player of the Year performance. Linebackers are solid. QB Trent Green should be an upgrade, and WR Chris Chambers is a nice target.
Weaknesses: Little stability, with third coaching staff in four years. Suspect running game and weak offensive line.
Players to watch: Taylor, LB Joey Porter.
Why they will finish third: Because the Bills have even more problems.

Strengths: Probably the best special teams in the NFL, led by KR Terrence McGee and P Bryan Moorman. Active DL sparked by end Aaron Schobel. Game-breaking WR Lee Evans.
Weaknesses: Loss of leadership on defense (CB Nate Clements, LBs London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes), suspect OL and linebacking.
Players to watch: Evans, Schobel.
Why they will finish fourth: Too many question marks on defense and offensive line.
Strengths: A superb offense guided by QB Peyton Manning and loaded with weapons. A defense that showed its skills in postseason. With a title in their possession, the Colts should be, well, super confident and immune to deficiencies that plagued them in the past.
Weaknesses: Uncertain run defense, absence of retired OT Tarik Glenn.
Players to watch: S Bob Sanders, rookie WR Anthony Gonzalez.
Why they will finish first: Talent, confidence, experience, strong coaching.

Strengths: The NFL's best pair of DTs, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Dynamic CB Rashean Mathis. Good linebacking. The 1-2 punch of RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Weaknesses: Inconsistencies at quarterback, receiver and tight end. Recent failures in big games.
Players to watch: TE Marcedes Lewis, RB-KR Jones-Drew.
Why they will finish second: The defense can stop anyone, but the offense won't challenge Indy.

Strengths: QB Vince Young is a creative force and winner. LB Keith Bulluck is among the league's best. Both lines are steady, with leaders in C Kevin Mawae and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Weaknesses: Who will be the main running back? Who will catch the ball? How much has the Pacman Jones situation hurt?
Players to watch: Young, Bulluck.
Why they will finish third: They'll take a step back from last year's 8-8 as they retool.

Strengths: Exciting WR Andre Johnson, Defensive Rookie of the Year LB DeMeco Ryans, CB Dunta Robinson all have yet to peak.
Weaknesses: QB Matt Schaub is unproven, as are his blockers and, aside from Johnson, his receivers. More is needed from the defensive line.
Players to watch: DE Mario Williams, QB Schaub.
Why they will finish fourth: After five seasons, Texans still are building foundation.
Strengths: After disappointing year following NFL title, team is on mission under new coach Mike Tomlin. QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and has strong receivers and runners around him. S Troy Polamalu is most feared DB in league.
Weaknesses: How will change in coaching affect them? Blocking is questionable, so are special teams.
Players to watch: TE Heath Miller, Polamalu.
Why they will finish first: The most-balanced team in a tough division, and they were embarrassed by flop in 2006.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: Big-play defense led by LBs Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, CB Chris McAlister and S Ed Reed. RB Willis McGahee adds some versatility. QB Steve McNair is in second season at Baltimore. Good special teams.
Weaknesses: Some holes have popped up on offensive line and last year's top defender, LB Adalius Thomas, left for New England.
Players to watch: Reed, McGahee.
Why they will finish second: Showing some age and they will miss Thomas immensely.

Strengths: A dynamite offense with QB Carson Palmer throwing to WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, handing off to Rudi Johnson. Solid kicking game.
Weaknesses: Lack of discipline. A defense that has few standouts and can't get off the field to let big-play offense pile up points.
Players to watch: Chad Johnson (especially after a TD), S Madieu Williams.
Why they will finish third: Defensive and coaching shortcomings will offset offensive flair.

Strengths: TE Kellen Winslow and WR Braylon Edwards can be difference makers. OL has been upgraded, although it's still mediocre. RB Jamal Lewis is running hard and with chip on his shoulder.
Weaknesses: No proven QBs, little depth anywhere. Pass rush is so-so.
Players to watch: LB Kamerion Wimbley, rookie T Joe Thomas.
Why they will finish fourth: Too many injuries, not enough depth, holes at key spots.
Strengths: The best offensive player in the game, RB LaDainian Tomlinson. A terrific offensive scheme built on LT's skills, TE Antonio Gates' being a mismatch for defenders, and precision of QB Philip Rivers. LBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, NT Jamal Williams are Pro Bowl talents.
Weaknesses: Uncertain secondary. Norv Turner has checkered history as head coach.
Players to watch: Tomlinson, Merriman.
Why they will finish first: The most talented club in the division, if not the entire league.

DENVER BRONCOS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: The best cover cornerback in football, Champ Bailey, supported by experienced defenders and emerging star linebacker D.J. Williams. RB Travis Henry should continue 1,000-yard rushing tradition. Javon Walker is elite wideout.
Weaknesses: How will death of CB Darrent Williams affect them? Special teams are mediocre, and both lines have slipped a bit.
Players to watch: QB Jay Cutler, Bailey.
Why they will finish second: If Cutler takes next step, offense will be dangerous.

Strengths: Larry Johnson is epitome of workhorse RB. TE Tony Gonzalez is mainstay. Linebacking is promising, with Derrick Johnson the focal point. Cornerbacks are playmakers.
Weaknesses: Uncertain situations at quarterback and on offensive line, which used to be a strength.
Players to watch: LJ, DE Jared Allen.
Why they will finish third: Not enough passing and the OL woes will slow them down.

Strengths: New coach Lane Kiffin, 32, has great enthusiasm and solid training at Southern Cal. Defense has some standouts in the secondary and on the line.
Weaknesses: Who will throw the ball? Even worse, can the QB stay upright behind a leaky line? Kiffin's fervor could fizzle quickly.
Players to watch: OT Robert Gallery (headed for bust-ville), CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
Why they will finish fourth: Raiders might finish last in every division.
Strengths: If healthy, Donovan McNabb is the NFC's best quarterback. RB Brian Westbrook is as versatile as they come, and the O-line is dependable. New LB Takeo Spikes and a strong secondary lead the defense, and Andy Reid is a fine coach.
Weaknesses: Where will the pass rush come from; the Eagles need to blitz too often to get pressure. Someone must emerge as the No. 1 receiver.
Players to watch: Westbrook, WR Kevin Curtis.
Why they will finish first: Eagles have improved from last season, when they rallied to win division.

DALLAS COWBOYS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: RB duo of Julius Jones-Marion Barber is first-rate, as is receiving corps. QB Tony Romo appears to be rising star. Look for big years from LBs DeMarcus Ware and Akin Ayodele, S Roy Williams and TE Jason Witten.
Weaknesses: New coach Wade Phillips has a mediocre record as head man. Offensive line is not as steady as it has been. Expectations might be a bit too high in Big D.
Players to watch: Ware, WR Terrell Owens.
Why they will finish second: Philly has the edge in several areas, including coaching.

Strengths: RBs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts are almost as good as the Jones-Barber combo in Dallas. The defense will hit hard, led by LB Marcus Washington and safeties Sean Taylor and LaRon Landry.
Weaknesses: That secondary doesn't cover very well, though, and the front four must bring more pressure. Young QB Jason Campbell will have growing pains, and the OL is unpredictable.
Players to watch: WR Santana Moss, LB Washington.
Why they will finish third: Joe Gibbs is a Hall of Fame coach working with too many ordinary players.

Strengths: DE Osi Umenyiora could become a special pass rusher. The receiving corps of TE Jeremy Shockey and WRs Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer (if he recovers fully from knee injury) can dominate games.
Weaknesses: The defense is suspect, particularly the secondary. The offensive line is in flux, although G Chris Snee is a comer.
Players to watch: RB Brandon Jacobs, Umenyiora.
Why they will finish fourth: Still too much discord and distractions, which can't help Tom Coughlin's job security.
Strengths: Big-time offense with QB Drew Brees, RBs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, WR Marques Colston. Rapidly developing offensive line. Explosive pass rush of Will Smith and Charles Grant. Topnotch special teams.
Weaknesses: Saints don't force enough turnovers. Secondary is no better than decent. If Brees goes down, they're finished.
Players to watch: Bush, S Josh Bullocks.
Why they will finish first: Last year's surge was just the beginning in the Big Easy.

Strengths: Coach John Fox knows how to turn around team after a bad season. RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams are ready to blossom. WR Steve Smith is a star. Defensive line has difference maker in Julius Peppers.
Weaknesses: Neither QB, Jake Delhomme or David Carr, puts fear in opponents. Secondary could be vulnerable without retired leader, safety Mike Minter.
Players to watch: Smith, Peppers.
Why they will finish second: Saints simply have more talent, but Panthers are a clear second.

Strengths: Coach Jon Gruden's diligence and enthusiasm, which tends to rub off on many players. RB Cadillac Williams, if healthy, and still dangerous WR Joey Galloway, can make big gains, and G Davin Joseph could be a Pro Bowler. LB Derrick Brooks and CB Ronde Barber remain formidable.
Weaknesses: The defense is aging and not as deep it's been. Short-yardage back Mike Alstott is out for season. Gruden's act might have worn thin with some players.
Players to watch: QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June.
Why they will finish third: Defense doesn't dominate any more in Tampa Bay and offense is unpredictable.

Strengths: Running game with Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood. TE Alge Crumpler is solid. All three LBs are playmakers, and CB DeAngelo Hall should be. A healthy John Abraham can be a sacks machine.
Weaknesses: QB, considering the Michael Vick situation. Secondary is so-so, special teams are worse.
Players to watch: Crumpler, LB Michael Boley.
Why they will finish fourth: Poor Bobby Petrino has walked into a hornet's nest.
Strengths: A high-impact defense led by LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, DT Tommie Harris and a cohesive secondary. WR Bernard Berrian is ready to emerge as a star, and rookie TE Greg Olsen adds a new dimension. KR Devin Hester is ultradangerous. C Olin Kreutz excels. Lovie Smith is a quality coach with a good staff.
Weaknesses: OK, can't avoid it - QB Rex Grossman is too inconsistent and must take another big step. Trading RB Thomas Jones to open job for Cedric Benson might be unwise. OL, other than Kreutz, is pedestrian.
Players to watch: Briggs (in contract year), Berrian.
Why they will finish first: This weak division makes Bears a virtual shoo-in, and their defense seals it.

Strengths: QB Brett Favre's competitiveness and WR Donald Driver's brilliance. Excellent pass rush, with DE Cullen Jenkins about to break out and Aaron Kampmann already established. If A.J. Hawk also comes on, linebacking could be special. Team should have some cohesion in second year of Mike McCarthy's regime.
Weaknesses: Suspect running game and receiving corps (outside of Driver). Inexperienced OL. Secondary has talent, but CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris are aging.
Players to watch: Jenkins, RB Vernand Morency.
Why they will finish second: Favre gives them the edge over Lions and Vikings.

Strengths: In second year under coordinator Mike Martz, offense could be explosive. QB Jon Kitna can throw to WRs Roy Williams, Mike Furrey and rookie Calvin Johnson. RBs Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell form a nice combo. Special teams are very good.
Weaknesses: The defense is a huge question mark, particularly up front and in the secondary. Does DT Shaun Rogers have anything left and does he care? Will LB Boss Bailey finally develop? Offensive line also is weak.
Players to watch: Johnson, LB Ernie Sims.
Why they will finish third: Detroit will score enough to avoid its usual spot in the cellar.

Strengths: DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams can't be budged, so Vikings succeed against the run. Rookie Adrian Peterson and incumbent Chester Taylor should provide strong running game behind good line led by G Steve Hutchinson and C Matt Birk.
Weaknesses: Vikings have trouble covering in the passing game and throwing the ball; they have inexperience at quarterback and no standout receivers. They'll need to keep scores low to win, perhaps very low.
Players to watch: Peterson, CB Antoine Winfield.
Why they will finish fourth: Minnesota has taken some serious steps backward this year.
Strengths: A team that knows how to win when healthy, which it wasn't last year. But Seahawks nearly returned to NFC title game anyway. RB Shaun Alexander, QB Matt Hasselbeck, T Walter Jones are elite players on offense and WR Deion Branch could be one. Linebacking is terrific and defensive line got an upgrade. Mike Holmgren is a terrific coach.
Weaknesses: Other than Jones, there are questions on the O-line. The secondary is suspect, as well, but will have time to develop because the schedule is kind - one 2006 playoff team in first nine games.
Players to watch: Branch, LB Lofa Tatupu.
Why they will finish first: Seahawks have been there before and know how to stay on top of a quickly improving division.

ST. LOUIS RAMS (9-7, wild card)
Strengths: RB Steven Jackson might have a Tomlinson type of season, and he's not the only top-shelf threat. WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce remain formidable, QB Marc Bulger has a new contract and loads of confidence, and TE Randy McMichael adds another dimension. Rookie DL Adam Carriker should complement star DE Leonard Little well.
Weaknesses: Linebacking and secondary have holes and Rams allow too many big plays. Special teams aren't special.
Players to watch: Carriker, Jackson.
Why they will finish second: A darkhorse to go far this year if the defense improves, which it should.

Strengths: Mike Nolan has enlivened a moribund franchise in his two years as coach. Alex Smith could be a precise QB and RB Frank Gore is a beast. TE Vernon Davis could be one, too. Addition of Nate Clements boosted secondary from mediocre to a strength. Rookie LB Patrick Willis is a keeper.
Weaknesses: Can they get a decent pass rush? Will any of the wideouts emerge? Can upgraded offensive line protect Smith?
Players to watch: Davis, Willis.
Why they will finish third: In the NFC North or East, they might contend for division. Here, the Niners will come close to wild card.

Strengths: New coaching staff under Ken Whisenhunt has brought a spark back to the desert. QB Matt Leinart throwing to WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and using RB Edgerrin James liberally will get points. S Adrian Wilson and CB Antrel Rolle could lift the defense.
Weaknesses: History of failure that must be shunted aside. Weak offensive line and so-so defensive line. No proven starters at linebacker.
Players to watch: Boldin, Wilson.
Why they will finish fourth: Cardinals will be better than under Dennis Green, but not enough to break even.

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