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New blood could emerge in NFC South and West if rivals falter

Here is one man's early picks for 2010 NFC division winners:

NFC East

The pick:Dallas Cowboys

The case for the Cowboys: They should be even stronger than the team that won the division in 2009. Tony Romo continues to make strides as a top-notch quarterback. He's more mature and focused, and was able to blossom last season as the unquestioned leader of the team. Much of the offseason discussion has dealt with the expected game-breaking complement that first-round pick Dez Bryant will provide established receiving star Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten. But the Cowboys have much more than an explosive passing attack. Their running game is among the best in the league and they have a championship-caliber defense.

The case against the rest of the division: The Cowboys' strongest challenge likely will come from the New York Giants. They, too, have a big-time passing game. Their defense received a major boost with the addition safety Antrel Rolle, but the Giants could have issues at linebacker and with the uncertain future of end Osi Umenyiora. ... The Washington Redskins have done plenty to make themselves better. They hired a first-rate coach, Mike Shanahan, and added a first-rate quarterback, Donovan McNabb. Their offensive line should be better, but probably not good enough to enhance the production from Clinton Portis and the rest of their aging running backs. ... Without McNabb, the Eagles suddenly look vulnerable. Kevin Kolb could eventually prove to be an outstanding replacement, but the fact he only has two career NFL starts is likely to be a problem. So is the fact Eagles coach Andy Reid will be relying on plenty of other young players.

NFC North

The case for the Packers:Aaron Rodgers has arrived as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. The offense looks as if it could be dominant, and that should allow the Packers to gain at least a slight edge over their closest challenger, the Minnesota Vikings, and a big advantage over the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. In making a highly successful transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 last season, Green Bay's defense ranked second in the league. With a year of experience in the 3-4, the Packers' defenders should continue to perform at a high level, although they do need to rebound from an embarrassing showing in the playoffs.

The case against the rest of the division: With Brett Favre likely returning for another season, the Vikings remain a top contender. They will probably be in a season-long battle with the Packers for the division crown. The Vikings have a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball, but Favre is a year older and is recovering from ankle surgery. Adrian Peterson is an excellent running back, but he's trying to overcome a serious fumbling problem. ... A couple of prominent offseason acquisitions (defensive end Julius Peppers and offensive coordinator Mike Martz) should make the Bears more competitive. But their offensive line is still a worry and it might be a stretch to expect Jay Cutler to show dramatic improvement over his poor 2009 season. ... The Lions did plenty to make themselves better. They'll probably win more games, but they still have a very long way to go.

NFC South

The pick:Atlanta Falcons

The case for the Falcons:Matt Ryan is poised for a breakout season, and it figures to give the Falcons just the dynamic factor they need to overtake the New Orleans Saints. This is Ryan's third year in the league, and he has shown steady growth and development since joining the Falcons as a first-round draft pick in 2008. Ryan has helped himself a great deal by spending a good portion of the offseason studying videotape of some of the game's top quarterbacks. The Falcons didn't do a whole lot of upgrading in the offseason, but did fill a key void by picking up cornerback Dunta Robinson. The Falcons' offense and defense should benefit from a healthy and driven Michael Turner.

The case against the rest of the division: It's hard to see the Saints not staying on top. They do, after all, have one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Drew Brees and should still have one of the most prolific offenses in the league. But there could be enough concerns on defense to prove costly, particularly if Ryan does the expected and elevates his game. The Saints also have spent a whole lot of time celebrating their Super Bowl victory, so a wicked hangover is quite possible ... The Carolina Panthers said goodbye to Peppers, and, after showing Jake Delhomme the door, they don't have an experienced quarterback. They do run the ball well, which helps but not enough to challenge for the division crown. ... Josh Freeman is a promising quarterback and there are some other nice pieces in place, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are likely to remain at the bottom.

NFC West

The case for the 49ers: This pick isn't based so much on the 49ers' strengths as it is on the weakness of the rest of the division. The Niners are solid. They have some difference-makers on offense. They have a good defense, although it needs to make more strides. What they don't have is a consistently reliable quarterback. And that's the struggle in choosing the 49ers to win the NFC West. Alex Smith has a long way to go to prove that he can be an upper-tier passer. However, with so many challenges facing the other teams in the division, he and the 49ers look like they could be just good enough to finish on top.

The case against the rest of the division: The Arizona Cardinals no longer have the look of a Super Bowl contender. Not after the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner. Not after the departures of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and key defensive standouts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. ... The Seattle Seahawks have a new coach, Pete Carroll, who is getting his third chance to get it right in the NFL. They have a whole lot of fixing to do and an old quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who struggles to stay healthy and has no one behind him who is ready to lead them to the playoffs. ... The St. Louis Rams used the top overall pick on quarterback Sam Bradford, but a very long and difficult road lies ahead.

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