Trying to rank NFL teams from 1-32 is close to impossible in September, let alone in May, but it is always a good exercise to think about where the teams are right now. I prefer to look at teams in five groupings, rather than a pure ranking from top to bottom. Of course an injury to a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady would drop their respective teams at least a tier or two.
Teams in Tier 1 (1-6) look like locks to make the playoffs. Tier 2 (7-12) consists of teams that should make the playoffs. Teams that could be in contention for a playoff spot are in Tier 3 (13-18). Tier 4 (19-25) is where a long-range surprise will come from. It happened last year when the Saints, coming off a last-place finish in their division in 2008, went all the way to the Super Bowl championship. Finally, Tier 5 (26-32) is made up of teams in the rebuilding stage that are probably at least a year away from serious playoff contention. Nothing would please me more than if a team from Tier 5 proved me wrong. I would love to see one of these teams jump right up and win a division or grab a wild-card spot with 10 wins.
Indianapolis Colts -- Peyton Manning is calling the plays and executing the passing game like a surgeon. The Colts were 6-0 in the division last year and had the top conference record in the NFL at 10-2. They went 14-2 last year without Bob Sanders or Anthony Gonzalez.
New Orleans Saints -- Drew Brees led the Saints offense to 510 points (31 per game) in 2009 and of course a Super Bowl victory. A second year in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme will make that unit even more effective.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are up this high because I believe Brett Favre is coming back and the "Williams wall" will avoid the four-game StarCaps suspensions this season. Minnesota was one of just two teams that went 8-0 at home last year and they seem to have the Packers' number.
Dallas Cowboys: Some think this is too high for the Cowboys, but their quiet offseason, quality roster depth (outside of safety), and quarterback Tony Romo finally getting a playoff win set the stage for a big season in 2010. The Cowboys' defense only gave up 250 points last year (15.6 per game).
San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers is the best quarterback in the division, the team went 11-0 to end the 2009 season and running back Ryan Mathews will have a solid rookie season replacing his boyhood idol, LaDainian Tomlinson. The rest of the division is closing in but all three teams are a year away from bringing the Chargers down.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers had the top rushing defense in the NFL last year. Aaron Rodgers has plenty of receivers to throw to and the offensive line lucked out when Bryan Bulaga fell to them in the first round. The Packers allowed 68 total points in two games vs. the Vikings last year. They have to find a way to change that or it's wild card time again.
New York Jets: The Jets are a "hot" team, but do the acquisitions of Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and Tomlinson offset the losses of Thomas Jones, Alan Faneca, Jay Feely and Leon Washington? Who wins the next chess match between Mark Sanchez and NFL defensive coordinators who studied the second-year QB all winter?
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens finally got Joe Flacco some receiver help and he is ready to get the ball to Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth when teams overplay Ray Rice and the run game. I still wonder about Baltimore's cornerbacks and the pass defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Many people have simply disregarded the Bengals and their 6-0 division record last season as a one-time event. Cincinnati established a solid running game and this year, with new weapons, the passing game should come alive.
New York Giants: The Giants defense still has question marks, but the offense has firepower. The young wide receivers were a major concern this time last year, but they developed nicely and turned a weakness into a strength.
New England Patriots: Lots of people are predicting the demise of the Patriots, but I don't see a doomsday scenario in New England. Brady led the No. 3 passing attack last season in his first year back from a knee injury, throwing 28 touchdown passes to just 13 picks. He will be better this season. The Pats have a tremendous home-field advantage (8-0 in the 2009 regular season) and an improved defense that gave up just 17.8 points per game last year.
San Francisco 49ers: The Niners are a "hot" team poised to take the next step. They play very good defense (17.6 points per game) and quarterback Alex Smith is ready to play winning football. Look for WR Michael Crabtree to have a fine season and remember the Niners beat Arizona twice last year.
Philadelphia Eagles: I think the Eagles are in for a little of what Green Bay went through when they traded Brett Favre two years ago. Kevin Kolb appears to be a fine prospect, but he will have some growing pains.
Arizona Cardinals: Kurt Warner retired and the team lost a half dozen players in the offseason during free agency. The defense needs time to gel and the QB situation needs some patience. Last year, this team was only 4-4 at home and was swept by the 49ers.
Atlanta Falcons: I like the progress QB Matt Ryan has made and with the addition of Dunta Robinson at corner, the defense should match up better against the Saints. Atlanta lost to New Orleans twice last year by a combined 11 points and should be right back in contention with the defending champs.
Pittsburgh Steelers: If Ben Roethlisberger is going to serve his full six-game suspension, then this team drops to Tier 4. I know the Steelers have a lot of pride and the defense and running game will be the focal points until Roethlisberger returns. But Pittsburgh still has issues at cornerback, and the Ravens and Bengals will go after the Steelers with their ramped up passing attacks.
Miami Dolphins: There's a lot riding on the arm of second-year starter Chad Henne down in South Florida. The addition of Brandon Marshall, a perennial 100-reception receiver, will loosen up the running lanes for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. It will be very interesting to see how the Dolphins manufacture sacks with the loss of Joey Porter and Jason Taylor.
Washington Redskins: The addition of a proven head coach, general manager and quarterback has changed everything for the 'Skins. Last year, Washington scored 17 or fewer points 11 times. Not many teams can win that way. Donovan McNabb is not going to let the offense repeat those numbers in 2010. He energizes the 'Skins the way Favre ignited the Vikings.
Houston Texans: This is the third year in a row the cries to elevate the Texans into Tier 2 are loud and clear. They lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, linebacker Brian Cushing starts the year with a four-game suspension and they let their best corner, Dunta Robinson, go in free agency. Plus, the Texans still have to clear a hurdle known as Peyton Manning if they are ever to win the division title.
Tennessee Titans: Vince Young is steadily becoming a winning QB in the NFL. I would doubt if Chris Johnson misses any real time over his contract. Jeff Fisher has a youth movement going on but the Titans don't have to dismantle the whole roster to get back into Super Bowl contention.
Chicago Bears -- My good buddy, former Bears QB Jim Miller, thinks the Bears will win 11 games this year. I'm not sure the team has that many wins in it, but I do think Jay Cutler will benefit greatly from offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Chicago is a classic Tier-4 team that could jump up and surprise people. Julius Peppers helps the defense and it's time for the current players to answer the criticism coming from retired Bears players taking shots at the team.
Carolina Panthers: Some pundits think the Panthers have been dismantled and need to be in Tier 5. Others think they are a solid Tier-2 team. Considering they will have an inexperienced quarterback under center and must replace five to seven starters with their own backups, I think they belong right here. But who replaces the backups? The answer is draft picks and rookie free agents. If the injury bug hits, that spells trouble for special teams.
Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll will energize the organization and if he gets 16 games out of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks will be competitive. The division race tightened up when Kurt Warner retired. Seattle still needs to find a pass rush after giving up 245.4 passing yards per game last year.
Denver Broncos: Broncos fans looked up one day and their favorite stars -- from head coach to quarterback and finally receiver -- were gone. Now they may be asking, "Where do we go from here?" If rookie QB Tim Tebow plays this year, the Broncos are officially a Tier-5 team.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- No one is talking about the Jaguars this offseason unless it is to speculate about their coach being on the hot seat. The Jags have been in this situation in years past and have responded to the challenge. The young wide receivers showed lots of promise last year and RB Maurice Jones-Drew told me last week he needs to be the No. 1 fantasy draft pick this year because he's ready for another big season. Quarterback David Garrard needs to improve and early reports out of Jacksonville say he's headed in the right direction.
Kansas City Chiefs: In each of the past four seasons, one team in the NFL has gone from last to first in its division. Many people feel the Chiefs have the best chance to continue the trend in 2010. Losing to Buffalo and Cleveland late in the year is a reminder that there is still lots of work to do. Coach Todd Haley is a year wiser and he told me he feels the locker room is now filled with guys who understand what it takes to win.
Oakland Raiders: Lots of optimism in Raider Nation with JaMarcus Russell out and Jason Campbell under center. Campbell is better than Russell for sure, but he is still a work in progress and isn't an instant winner. He needs lots of help from the supporting cast. The Raiders beat Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Denver last year, which, for a team that averaged 12 points per game, is no small feat.
Cleveland Browns -- If Jake Delhomme has something left, then Cleveland is a solid Tier-4 team. Keep in mind they won four straight to end the season last year and there is positive energy coming out of the combination of Mike Holmgren and Eric Mangini. There's just too much work to be done in this rebuild to think 2010 is the year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I really like the Buccaneers' second-year QB Josh Freeman, but he needs more than half a season under center to be ready for a playoff push. It will be interesting to see how the rookie defensive tackles, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, fare in their first season on the field. The Bucs are headed in the right direction and should be tougher in the second half of the season.
Detroit Lions: No doubt head coach Jim Schwartz is the right man for the job and the team is headed towards respectability, but the Lions have a long way to go. Matthew Stafford faces the second-year challenges all young QBs face and the O-line has to keep him upright. The defense will be built around Ndamukong Suh, but it takes a lot more than one rookie tackle to help the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL. They will win more games this year than they have in the past three years, but they are simply not ready to collect more wins than losses.
Buffalo Bills: I will get some negative comments about the Lions being ranked ahead of the Bills, but Buffalo has many problems. Who is the QB? Who blocks the edges in the protection schemes? Who replaces the production WR Terrell Owens delivered last year? How does a defense that gave up 156.3 yards per game on the ground get better when the front office took a running back in the first round of the draft and converted to a 3-4 scheme?
St. Louis Rams: The Rams made the right decision taking quarterback Sam Bradford in the first round, but it also means the rebuild is going to take time. No one wants to hear it, but Rams fans still have to be patient.