And the winner will be …

OK, who among you had the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots playing in the Super Bowl last season? <br><br> Sure, the Patriots were one of the favorites, but more often than not, the Panthers were picked to finish last in the NFC South. <br><br> But there's a surprise team nearly every year now in the NFL, where there are few very good teams, lots of average ones, and the Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.

Of course, for years the Cincinnati Bengals would have been included with the Cardinals and Chargers, but head coach Marvin Lewis took them from two wins two years ago to eight wins last year.

But Lewis will find this season that improving from two wins to eight is a lot easier than going from eight to 10, something the Bengals are still a couple of years away from doing. Who will be this year's surprise teams? There are plenty of candidates.

Here's a look at how the divisions will break down:

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh (10-6), Baltimore (9-7), Cincinnati (7-9), Cleveland (5-11)

The only way signing Deion Sanders would have helped the Ravens is if he played quarterback. Since he doesn't, the Steelers are the most complete team in the division and should reap the benefits of the league's emphasis on defensive holding penalties. The Ravens are better on defense and at running the ball, but the Steelers are better at the most critical position. Cincinnati will take a slight step back as Carson Palmer takes some lumps in his first season as quarterback. Cleveland? The same day the Ravens signed Deion Sanders, the Browns signed Lewis Sanders. Enough said.

AFC East
1. New England (12-4), N.Y. Jets (9-7), Buffalo (8-8), Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The Dolphins were poised to challenge the Patriots this season until Ricky Williams decided to go on a world tour. The Patriots are the class of the AFC, while the Bills and Jets will contend for wild card spots. The Jets will be better as long as Chad Pennington stays healthy.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis (11-5), Tennessee (8-8), Jacksonville (8-8), Houston (6-10)

The Titans are one of the biggest offseason losers this year and should take a slight step backward. Jacksonville is nearly ready to become a playoff team again, while Houston is still a couple of years away from contending. Indianapolis is the class of the division.

AFC West
1. Kansas City (11-5), Denver (9-7), Oakland (6-10), San Diego (4-12)

Kansas City has at least one more good season left before the Chiefs and head coach Dick Vermeil head south. Denver really needs Jake Plummer to stay healthy, while Oakland is rebuilding. San Diego seems to be stuck in the rebuilding mode.

NFC East
1. Philadelphia (11-5), Washington (9-7), New York Giants (7-9), Dallas (6-10)

The Cowboys in last place? Bill Parcells must be reading all of his press clippings if he thinks 40-year-old Vinny Tesaverde can get it done. Testaverde wasn't reliable when he was young. But hey, Parcells is a genius, right? He'd better be. The Eagles are good, while Washington will finally have a winning season under Dan Snyder's ownership, something it has not yet done. The Giants are rebuilding, though they still have some talent.

NFC North
1. Minnesota (12-4), Green Bay (10-6), Detroit (6-10), Chicago (5-11)

The Vikings and Packers benefit from playing in the same division as the Lions and Bears, oh my. Detroit is two years away from being a contender, while this may be Green Bay's last hurrah with Brett Favre at QB. Minnesota is an interesting club.

NFC South
1. Atlanta (10-6), Carolina (10-6), New Orleans (8-8), Tampa Bay (7-9)

The Falcons need Michael Vick to stay healthy to contend, while Carolina needs to get healthy on its offensive line. Tampa Bay is starting to divest itself of some aging veterans from its Super Bowl run - Warren Sapp and John Lynch - and will take a step back. Jim Haslett gets fired in New Orleans this year.

NFC West
1. Seattle (12-4), St. Louis (8-8), San Francisco (4-12), Arizona (2-14)

Seattle will benefit from playing in the worst division in football. St. Louis' offensive line is in disarray, while San Francisco has divested itself of all of its offensive stars, save running back Kevan Barlow. The Cardinals will have the No. 1 pick in next year's draft. They're that bad.

Playoffs
AFC Championship - Kansas City over New England
NFC Championship - Seattle over Minnesota
Super Bowl - Kansas City over Seattle

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