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Pats, Eagles gear up to challenge for conference supremacy

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The Packers are the team to beat since they're the defending champs. The Eagles, who Green Bay defeated en route to representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, have loaded up to supplant Aaron Rodgers and Co. in the NFC. In the AFC, the Jets and Patriots continue their chess match to build the better roster.

With the flurry of player movement to go with the offseason coaching changes and draft picks, have any teams altered their states enough to challenge the upper-echelon teams?

Let's take a division-by-division look at how things are shaping up after this free-agent, trading binge spurred by the end of the lockout.

AFC East

The front-runner: New England is going to be good as long as Tom Brady is upright. The defense figures to be better with so many young players gaining crucial experience last season. If defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth gets his head right, he could be a nice addition. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco could post big numbers.

The biggest threat: The Jets' toughness will get through a lot of difficult games and quarterback Mark Sanchez should continue to improve. WR Plaxico Burress was a nice free-agent pickup but expectations shouldn't be too great.

Work to do: Miami got more explosive by acquiring Reggie Bush in a trade. His durability will determine how much he helps. The defense should be good and one of the most physical in the NFL. Quarterback remains an issue. If the Dolphins had faith in Chad Henne, they wouldn't have flirted with Kyle Orton. Buffalo could be a sleeper. The Bills have holes but Chan Gailey gets this team to play hard.

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NFC East

The front-runner: The Eagles are going for broke. They've gone all Daniel Snyder on the division and snapped up some of the top defensive free agents. Corner Nnamdi Asomugha is the real deal, and folks who've never seen him because he played in Oakland are going to find that out. The key to everything is QB Michael Vick. If he improves on last season and stays healthy, the Eagles could be tough to beat. If not, the whole "dream team" thing could be a huge swing and miss.

The biggest threat: The Giants won 10 games last season despite making a ton of mistakes along the way. Those are reparable. If Eli Manning reduces his turnovers and some of the rookie defenders develop quickly, the Giants could contend for the playoffs.

Work to do: Dallas has been pretty quiet in free agency. There is still a ton of talent on the team but Dez Bryant needs to grow up and the defense must play a lot better under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Washington is putting the pieces together. Coach Mike Shanahan is steadily building but QBs John Beck and Rex Grossman don't stack up to the other signal-callers in the division.

AFC North

The front-runner: While there's been a lot of chatter that the Steelers are getting old, a lot of these guys remain in their primes. With WRs Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, they could be more explosive on offense. Defensively, there is no reason to think there will be any drop-off. They also have some nice young players up front in the rotation.

The biggest threat: It was important for the Ravens to keep some of their own free agents, like offensive lineman Marshal Yanda. Landing fullback Vonta Leach will make them even more physical on offense. He is a monster. If rookie WR Torrey Smith can adjust quickly, the Ravens might have some much-needed bounce in the passing game.

Work to do: Cleveland should be better on offense under new coach Pat Shurmur. There is still a long way to go. Cincinnati could be somewhat of a surprise here. Losing CB Johnathan Joseph hurts but Nate Clements isn't a bad replacement. If Rey Maualuga can figure things out at middle linebacker after playing on the strongside, the Bengals will be a tougher out than they look to be right now.

NFC North

The front-runner: The Packers didn't need to make many offseason moves except reinvest in the players that brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay. They are deep at nearly every position -- especially running back -- and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is ascending.

The biggest threat: The Bears look like a team that could take a step back, but as long as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers are healthy, the defense can keep them in games. They seem to be rounding up every high draft pick that couldn't cut it elsewhere and maybe some of them, like WR Roy Williams, could materialize.

Work to do: Detroit is frightening on paper. The Lions could be really good, once again, if QB Matthew Stafford stays healthy. The Vikings' addition of QB Donovan McNabb could make a playoff run possible. There is plenty of talent there and the coaching staff is solid. They just might not have explosiveness on offense, other than Adrian Peterson, to hang with the rest of the division.

AFC South

The front-runner: The Colts might look vulnerable with Peyton Manning likely to miss much of the preseason while recovering from neck surgery. However, they're getting back key players from injuries like Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. Defensively, they'll have to replace linebacker Clint Session and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (free agency) but they remain the team to beat.

The biggest threat: The Texans have the offensive weapons. Adding Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning will help the secondary and return games. If last season's first-round draft pick, CB Kareem Jackson, gets it going under Wade Phillips, the Texans might finally breakthrough.

Work to do: Jacksonville's defensive additions of Dawan Landry, Clint Session and Paul Posluszny are major upgrades. Is there enough offense to hang with Indy and Houston? Tennessee could surprise. There is a lot of talent on the offensive line and on defense. If QB Matt Hasselbeck can stay healthy, Tennessee could be a sleeper. The addition of LB Barrett Ruud will be good because in this pass-happy division, players have to tackle in space, which he does well.

NFC South

The front-runner: The Falcons should be more explosive on both sides of the ball after drafting WR Julio Jones and adding DE Ray Edwards in free agency. The safety tandem of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud could develop into something special and CB Dunta Robinson should be much better in his second season in the scheme.

The biggest threat: The Saints look stacked on offense after drafting running back Mark Ingram and adding Darren Sproles. Defensive end Cameron Jordan and OLB Martez Wilson could start as rookies.

Work to do: The Bucs had a nice draft with defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. If the front four grows up quickly and young offensive players from last season -- LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams -- stay hungry, the Bucs might win the division behind QB Josh Freeman. Carolina will be better than the two-win team from last season. Still, the Panthers might be a season or two away from holding their own against the other three, mainly because of the inexperience at quarterback.


The NFL free agency cycle is in full effect, with teams and players agreeing to terms fast as training camps open. Get the latest on all the news right here.

AFC West

The front-runner: The Chiefs went to the playoffs last season and have the potential to be one of the teams that rises and falls quickly. Depth at wide receiver is a must but this is a team being put together the right way. QB Matt Cassel looks like he might be legit and RB Jamaal Charles is a dynamic player.

The biggest threat: As long as the Chargers have Philip Rivers, they have a chance. WR Vincent Jackson will be in the mix from the get go. The Chargers went hard on defense in the draft and DT Corey Liuget and DB Marcus Gilchrist could have immediate impacts.

Work to do: The Raiders swept the division last season but didn't do enough after that. This young team is loaded with talent but coach Hue Jackson must keep it harnessed. Speedy RB Taiwan Jones, along with Darren McFadden, could make this offense scary. While Denver could be competitive, it has the potential to be a mess. The quarterback situation with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow is already off to an awkward start and the Broncos still have a lot of parts to fill on defense.

NFC West

The front-runner: The Rams' schedule is brutal, but they have the quarterback and a developing defense that, with the addition of rookie DE Robert Quinn, might wreak some havoc. There still isn't enough explosion at wide receiver and that could come back to hurt.

The biggest threat: The 49ers are tough and have a lot of pieces. If -- and it's a big if -- QB Alex Smith can simply be better than OK, San Francisco could land a playoff spot.

Work to do: Arizona QB Kevin Kolb should be fine. He might get off to a slow start because he was acquired late in the process but will be steady enough as he evolves. The Seahawks won the division last year but the situation at quarterback can't make anyone too comfortable. Tarvaris Jackson could beat out Charlie Whitehurst for the starting job.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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