NFL Previews

It is almost time to launch the NFL season. The AP published its preview capsules (you can read all of them below), but here are some previews for the predicted division winners. I tend to agree with them, but I’m not so sure about the Colts.

Here is a quick sample of each of the predicted division winners from the AP:
AFC EAST
New England Patriots

Few teams seem on the surface to have as many givens as the Patriots. We know Tom Brady is an all-world quarterback and winner; that Randy Moss is as dangerous as any receiver and Wes Welker as reliable as any; that the offensive line is a stone wall; that the defense will be stingy and make big plays; and that Bill Belichick is a coaching genius.

Well, Brady didn’t set the NFL afire last year in his comeback season — he missed all but the first half of the opener in 2008 with a knee injury. Moss has not gotten a contract extension. Welker comes off a severe knee injury himself, although his quick comeback has been impressive. Outstanding guard Logan Mankins wants out. The defense is being rebuilt before our eyes, with questionable leadership and depth. And Belichick hasn’t won a championship in five years.

But guess what: New England still should have enough to win a tight three-way division race, particularly if the running game is better. Brady easily could return to his previous stratospheric playing level, helped by Welker’s stunning recovery. Jerod Mayo is an outstanding linebacker and Vince Wilfork is among the top nose tackles in the game. And PK Stephen Gostkowski has made Adam Vinatieri a long-ago memory.

AFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens

One team looking up with good reason is Baltimore, which eliminated the Patriots — at New England, no less — in the playoffs last season. RB Ray Rice had a breakout season and QB Joe Flacco made great progress. Both should benefit from the addition of WR Anquan Boldin, the most dangerous receiver the Ravens have had in years, and slot man T.J Houshmandzadeh.

This still will be a run-first team with Rice, Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain. But with Boldin, the ageless Derrick Mason, Houshmandzadeh, Donte’ Stallworth (when he recovers from a broken left foot), and TE Todd Heap, Flacco has plenty to work with on offense.

If the Ravens solve some issues in the secondary, which has been hit by injuries, they should be a Super Bowl contender. Their front seven is terrific, and great linebacker Ray Lewis isn’t even their best player. DT Haloti Ngata is.

AFC SOUTH
Indianapolis Colts

Hard to find much to fault here. Sure, they lost the Super Bowl, but the Colts were the NFL’s elite team over the 17-week season. Had new coach Jim Caldwell — talk about successful transitions — not rested his regulars in the final 1 1/2 games, Indy might have gone into the playoffs undefeated.

The Colts might challenge their 14-2 mark of a year ago if the offensive line comes together; right now, with center Jeff Saturday’s status uncertain after right knee surgery, it’s a question mark.

Peyton Manning sets the pace for all quarterbacks. Make that all players. The NFL’s only four-time MVP is a favorite for a fifth award, surrounded by the strongest cast on offense in the conference. That cast will be deeper with the return of WR Anthony Gonzalez from a knee injury, and with the further maturation of RB Donald Brown to complement Joseph Addai. The line allowed just 13 sacks in 2009, and Manning will weave his magic to WRs Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, and TE Dallas Clark.

Nobody can expect the Colts to keep that pace on defense, but if they rank in the middle of the league overall and improve their 24th-rated run D, home-field advantage for the playoffs easily is within reach. Key defenders Dwight Freeney, Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea must stay healthy and Brackett has a right hand injury.

AFC WEST
San Diego Chargers

Few teams win 13 games and then have such an overhaul. The Chargers won’t have LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Williams and Antonio Cromartie this season, and they are battling with holdouts WR Vincent Jackson and LT Marcus McNeill. They added five veterans who have started elsewhere in TE Randy McMichael, WR Josh Reed, CB Donald Strickland, OT Tra Thomas and CB Nathan Vasher, but Thomas retired last month.

After ranking 31st, San Diego’s running game now belongs to first-round draftee Ryan Mathews and spark plug Darren Sproles, who also excels on kick returns. QB Philip Rivers helped Pro Bowler Jackson emerge and has excellent targets in TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd. Legedu Naanee could take advantage of any prolonged absence by Jackson.

San Diego needs better health and more big plays on defense. Shawne Merriman was a prime victim of the uncapped season, which prevented him from becoming a free agent. He needs to play up to his nickname, “Lights Out.”

NFC EAST
Dallas Cowboys

Jerry’s ‘Boys have but one mission this season: to represent the conference in next February’s Super Bowl in the owner’s Arlington palace. Jerry Jones fully expects the Cowboys to be the first team in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. It could happen.

Dallas is loaded in the backfield with QB Tony Romo and RBs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Jason Witten is among the league’s best tight ends. If Doug Free can handle being the full-time left tackle, the line should be solid, although it’s struggled in the preseason. Rookie Dez Bryant and the breakout player of last season, Miles Austin, give the receiving corps plenty of buzz, but Bryant missed all but three games of his final year at Oklahoma State while suspended, and got hurt in training camp.

DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer all are defensive playmakers. Only a potentially leaky secondary could hold back the D, which was 20th against the pass in 2009.

NFC NORTH
Green Bay Packers

It took Green Bay half a season to truly adapt to the 3-4 alignment of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Then the Packers were dynamic — at least until Kurt Warner and the Cardinals tore them apart in the playoffs.

That D should be even tougher in 2010, anchored by a rapidly rising group of linebackers (A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, Nick Barnett and Clay Matthews). Aaron Kampman left for Jacksonville, but he didn’t fit last season anyway. The main question marks will be in the secondary, which was ravaged by injuries last year, and every aspect of special teams.

Still, the Packers were 11-5, mainly because they scored 461 points and Aaron Rodgers further proved he can be an elite quarterback, similar to that unretiring type who preceded him in Green Bay. The Pack must solidify their shaky offensive line, behind which Rodgers was a standout despite Green Bay yielding 51 sacks. Rodgers’ receivers are first-rate, and watch for tight end Jermichael Finley to break out.

NFC SOUTH
New Orleans Saints

Coming off a heavenly season, the Saints again will be the NFL’s most dangerous team with the ball. Drew Brees throwing to Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Jeremy Shockey, Lance Moore and Reggie Bush makes fans of big-play attacks salivate. Not to mention fantasy footballers. As long as the line stays steady and RB Pierre Thomas is healthy, the 500-point mark is reachable again.

Defensive leader Scott Fujita left the linebacking corps for Cleveland, while DE Charles Grant was released. But key safety Darren Sharper, an All-Pro safety, was re-signed — he’ll miss six games with a left knee injury — and LB Jon Vilma, DE Will Smith and CB Tracy Porter are around to keep the Saints respectable on D.

Coach Sean Payton has warned his players about a Super Bowl hangover. If the Saints avoid it — and they certainly have all the elements to do so — the only hangovers will be from the partying on Bourbon Street after a steady stream of victories this season.

NFC WEST
San Francisco 49ers

Don’t look for a return to the halcyon days of Montana, Lott, Rice, Young and Walsh. If these Niners have any Hall of Fame talent, it has yet to develop, with the possible exception of All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis.

Mike Singletary’s defense has some solid players surrounding Willis, especially Justin Smith at end and tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Only Dallas allowed fewer points in the NFC last year.

The offense is in the hands of Alex Smith, who has shown more Steve Bono than Steve Young thus far. But he can finally be comfortable as an entrenched starter, and in Frank Gore he has a workhorse running back. Wideouts Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr. add some spark, if not consistency, and TE Vernon Davis is a threat. If Brian Westbrook is over his series of concussions, he’s a solid addition to the attack.