Division Predictions

The 2006 NFL season kicks off on Thursday with the Dolphins facing Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. So it's now or never when it comes to predicting the division races. Three teams -- New England, Indianapolis and Seattle -- repeated as division champs last year, so what will the number be this season? Here's our best guess.

AFC EAST

1. Miami Dolphins - No, this is not a homer pick. The Patriots have won this division the last three years, but the Dolphins have much better personnel than they did last season when they went 9-7. The key her is Nick Saban, who just is a tremendous coach.

2. New England Patriots - As long as Tom Brady is playing and productive, the Pats will be dangerous. But there are big questions are wide receiver and at linebacker.

3. New York Jets - Flip a coin between the Jets and Bills. We'll go with the Jets here because Chad Pennington is better than J.P. Losman.

4. Buffalo Bills - If we're wrong about Losman, this team has some potential.

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens - We're thinking the addition of Steve McNair will make a huge difference. But the offensive line better hold up.

2. Cincinnati Bengals - There might not be a better offense in the league, but the defense isn't championship caliber by any stretch.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers - Yes, the Steelers won the Super Bowl last year, but they also were 7-5 at one point. They will miss Jerome Bettis' presence.

4. Cleveland Browns - It's too bad they play in a suddenly very good division because the Browns should be a much better team in Romeo Crennel's second year.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts - It would be nice to be able to predict a change here, but we just don't see any team in the division capable of challenging.

2. Houston Texans - Yes, the Texans. New coach Gary Kubiak will have a great impact on the offense and David Carr finally will produce.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars - Great defense, but that offense is weak.

4. Tennessee Titans - In for a long year, regardless of who plays at quarterback.

AFC WEST

1. San Diego Chargers - Philip Rivers gets the job done, and a much-improved secondary makes the defense a force.

2. Denver Broncos - This is a good team, but Jake Plummer will revert to his error-prone ways.

3. Kansas City Chiefs - Those who think Larry Johnson will pick up where he left off last year need to remember this isn't the same offensive line. The defense, however, should be better.

4. Oakland Raiders - Did they really bring in Jeff George for a look last week or did I dream that?

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles just got killed by injuries last year. But they will benefit from not having the T.O. distraction.

2. New York Giants - The Giants could win this division, even though we're not a big fan of Eli Manning. It's just a good, solid team all around.

3. Dallas Cowboys - They should have a very good defense, but we're not sold on Drew Bledsoe and T.O. is bound to cause problems.

4. Washington Redskins - They also could have a good defense, but the passing game looks very weak.

NFC NORTH

1. Chicago Bears - Great defense, lame offense. But the division is very weak.

2. Detroit Lions - New coach Rod Marinelli will get this better very quickly and the Lions could even challenge for the division title. Roy Williams is a big-time receiver and Mike Martz could make that offense explosive.

3. Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings are average just about everywhere, starting with QB Brad Johnson.

4. Green Bay Packers - It could be a painful end for Brett Favre.

NFC SOUTH

1. Carolina Panthers - This is a chic pick and it's tempting to go against it, but the truth is this is just a stacked team.

2. Tampa Bay Bucs - It's easy to forget the Bucs won this division last year. Their defense should be strong again, but their offense isn't good enough to help them repeat.

3. Atlanta Falcons - It's the defense, particularly against the run, that kept Atlanta out of the playoffs last year and we're wondering how much better it will be in 2006.

4. New Orleans Saints - The Saints have the makings of a decent offense is Drew Brees delivers (no guarantee), but the defense should be weak.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks - Again, it's tempting to go with Arizona because of the addition of Edgerrin James, but Seattle is just a much more solid team all around.

2. Arizona Cardinals - The big fear we have here is that the porous offensive line will get Kurt Warner injured early and make life miserable for Edge. The defense has big-time potential, though.

3. St. Louis Rams - Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan inherits a team that has major weapons on offense but big questions on defense.

4. San Francisco 49ers - Coach Mike Nolan will make this team good at some point, but not just yet.


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