Gone are the days when you could rely on an NFL team being as strong — or as weak — as they were the previous season.
With free agency and the fluid changes in coaches and personnel, the makeup of a team can change dramatically from season to season.
The result is parity like we’ve never seen before in the NFL. We’ve also seen how expansion teams can become competitive from the opening bell, and even vie for playoff spots.
Keeping in mind how a team’s prospects can change quickly with an injury or key trade, here are the top two contenders in each NFL division.
New England Patriots: The Pats are still the class of the division, if not the conference. Their defense remains solid (they shut out three teams last season and held two to 6 points or less), and could actually be better. The offense will be workmanlike, but Corey Dillon could add a little pizzazz.
New York Jets: This will be a make or break season for head coach Herman Edwards. Another losing season (he was 6-10 last year) will probably send Edwards packing. Keep in mind that seven of the Jets’ 10 losses last year were by 7 points or less, so the unit is not far from respectability. Offensively, expect a big year from Chad Pennington.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher scrambled to put together a new offensive attack after last season’s 6-10 campaign, which followed three solid playoff seasons. There are lots of newcomers on the offensive roster, so improvement may not be dramatic or instantaneous. But the Steelers’ relatively easy schedule should help. Plus the team’s defense remains solid, a Cowher trademark.
Baltimore Ravens: Brian Billick will probably squeeze another great year out of his aging defense, which added a couple of nice draft choices. The real changes will be on the other side of the ball. The offense may get a quick boost from quarterback Josh Harris, who has star power written all over himself.
Indianapolis Colts: Last year was a breakout season for coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning. Not only did they go 14-5, they exorcised some demons with nice playoff victories against Kansas City and Denver. Equally important, the Colts defense is finally showing Dungy’s stamp of approval.
Tennessee Titans: Jeff Fisher is simply an outstanding coach. Over the last four seasons, the Titans have won 13 games twice and 12 games once, sandwiched around a 7-9 campaign. The team gets a perennial boost from Steve McNair, whose image should be found in the dictionary under "gutsy."
Kansas City Chiefs: If you follow Dick Vermeil’s modus operandi at both Philadelphia and St. Louis, the Chiefs should have been in the Super Bowl last season. But their defense was a sieve (it allowed more than 5 yard per rush!), helping KC lose four of their last eight games. But teams find a way of fixing glaring problems, and the offense remains potent.
Oakland Raiders: The Silver-and-Black’s collapse last season (4-12), which followed two solid seasons capped by Super Bowl runner-up, forced Al Davis into a slew of changes. Perhaps the best was hiring Norv Turner as the team’s new head coach. Few coaches live up to the moniker, "offensive genius," but Turner comes close.
Philadelphia Eagles: Just how a team can lose three straight conference title games and remain at a peak is bewildering. But the Eagles will have to improve this year to keep up, and they just might do so through key acquisitions, Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse.
Dallas Cowboys: Coach Bill Parcells simply knows how to get the most from his players. With a solid defense, the Cowboys need improvement on offense. They may actually get it with the departure of Quincy Carter.
Green Bay Packers: The numbers indicate that Brett Favre’s magic seems to be fading. Maybe it is, but coach Mike Sherman is making the necessary changes to keep the Pack on a roll (they’ve had 13-, 12- and 11-win seasons the past three years).
Chicago Bears: The Bears were outstanding in their new lair last year (6-2), but won only one game on the road. New head coach Lovie Smith seems to have the team back on track. For some reason, the players appear ready and willing to run through walls for the guy.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers run to the Super Bowl last season was no fluke. This is a solid team — on both sides of the ball — and they’ll actually be a little more motivated because of their tough Super Bowl loss. Moreover, Jake Delhomme and company have a year of experience and confidence-building.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Last year’s meltdown forced a lot of changes to the Bucs’ roster: seven new starters on offense and two on defense. Head coach Jon Gruden is simply too intense to allow another losing season.
Seattle Seahawks: There were few changes in the team roster, so Seattle will look very similar to last year’s team. That’s a good thing, as the team made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The key was the acquisition of defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes.
St. Louis Rams: Losing defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to the Chicago Bears hurt the Rams. And a mediocre year for quarterback Marc Bulger caused observers to question the trade of Kurt Warner to New York. But keep in mind the Rams lost in overtime in the NFC title game, a game they could have won.