In predicted order of finish by division:
2013 | 13-3, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013
Going all the way: The last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles was New England in 2003 and ’04, so the Seahawks have quite a challenge. Then again, Pete Carroll won consecutive national championships at USC, so he can tap into that experience. Seattle did a good job of hanging on to most of its core players, and largely keeping a dominant defense intact.
They’re doomed: The offensive line is a significant concern, having lost some key components. If that line has problems opening holes, it puts more pressure on back Marshawn Lynch, whose bruising style has defined the franchise. Losing Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald on the defensive front could prove costly.
Now hear this: “I always said at ’SC, ‘We’ll look back someday and tell you how we did.’ Getting that Super Bowl ring to me was not the ultimate. I don’t think our players think about it that way. It’s ‘That’s what happened. Now, what’s next?’ ” — Carroll
2. SAN FRANCISCO
2013 | 12-4, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013
Going all the way: Colin Kaepernick has more receiving weapons, with a healthy Michael Crabtree, and the addition of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and others. Defensive tackle Justin Smith played with a shoulder injury last season, and underwent surgery in the off-season, meaning he could be closer to his dominating form this fall.
They’re doomed: With three new starters in the secondary, including both corners, the 49ers could be vulnerable on the back end. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season recovering from his knee injury, and Aldon Smith is suspended for nine games for violating league policies. Offensive line is a concern too, with guard Alex Boone holding out, right tackle Anthony Davis (shoulder) missing training camp, and center Jonathan Goodwin now in New Orleans.
Now hear this: “We know we have the team to win a Super Bowl, we have the talent to win a Super Bowl. But there’s a lot of urgency to get it done.” — Joe Staley, tackle
2013 | 10-6, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2009
Going all the way: No one wanted to play the Cardinals in the second half of last season. They won seven of their final nine games, and were the only visiting team in two seasons to win at Seattle. Carson Palmer got hot, and so did Arizona’s defense, which was 28th against the run in 2012 but No. 1 in that category last season.
They’re doomed: The Cardinals were dealt a devastating blow in training camp when they lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending torn ACL in practice. Typically, the offensive line remains a work in progress, and the right side of this one is particularly suspect.
Now hear this: “The way we finished last year is something we can definitely build on. Obviously, we fell short of our goals of making the playoffs. But the way we finished left a solid taste in guys’ mouths that we were on the right track and have the right people to make a run.” — Larry Fitzgerald, All-Pro receiver
4. ST. LOUIS
2013 | 7-9, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2004
Going all the way: The Rams had a trio of standouts on the defensive line in Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, and they added a fourth first-rounder to that group in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. They will present big problems for every offensive line they face. St. Louis is strong on special teams too, with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker.
They’re doomed: Losing quarterback Sam Bradford cripples designs on a big year. Shaun Hill is an experienced journeyman, but faces long odds to succeed. With Jake Long and Rodger Saffold rehabbing injuries, the pressure is on No. 2 pick Greg Robinson to bolster a shaky offensive line.
Now hear this: “I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish. At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I really didn’t know what was going on.” —Tavon Austin, receiver and No. 8 pick in 2013, on the difficulty of learning the Rams’ playbook
1. GREEN BAY
2013 | 8-7-1, 1st in North
Last year in playoffs | 2013
Going all the way: For years, the Packers have looked to establish a running game to complement the All-Pro play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It looks as if they have their answer in second-year tailback Eddie Lacy, who is both bruiser and breakaway threat. If Rodgers and Lacy are at the top of their game, the Packers will be tough to beat.
They’re doomed: Losing nose tackle B.J. Raji for the season to a torn biceps is a huge blow to the defense, which figured to be significantly stronger up front with the addition of Julius Peppers. The offensive line has been reshuffled, so it should take that unit some time to mesh.
Now hear this: “You look at my last year. Was it one of my better years? Probably not, statistically. But if you compare it to a lot of the guys who played last year, it was better than a lot of guys. So, I don’t really think I need to revitalize anything.” — Julius Peppers, who had 7 1/2 sacks for Chicago last season, fewest in six years
2013 | 8-8, 2nd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2010
Going all the way: For once, quarterback Jay Cutler has all the pieces around him in place — a Pro Bowl running back, good receivers, and a line with five returning starters. The defense is looking to be far more like the 2012 version than 2013, and part of that hinges on the conversion of Shea McClellin from defensive end to linebacker. The defensive line is significantly upgraded with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston.
They’re doomed: Yes, all five linemen are back, but right tackle Jordan Mills suffered a broken foot in the 2013 finale, and that’s still bothering him. Backup tackle Eben Britton is hobbled by a bum hamstring that has sidelined him at camp. The Bears are groping for answers at both safety spots.
Now hear this: “He’s the first one in the building, last one to leave, his leadership is through the roof. He’s correcting the coaches. I mean, this is his offense.” — Brandon Marshall, receiver, on Cutler
2013 | 7-9, 3rd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2011
Going all the way: The Lions have the firepower to hold their own in any shootout. In Golden Tate, they’ve got a suitable sidekick for Calvin Johnson. With his 86-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville this summer, Reggie Bush showed he still has that explosiveness. All five starters are back from an offensive line that played well last season, and quarterback Matthew Stafford has a talented stable of tight ends to target.
They’re doomed: Same old story — the Lions can’t seem to fix their secondary. Darius Slay is so-so, and fellow corner Rashean Mathis is in the twilight of his career. Ndamukong Suh is a dominant defensive lineman, but Ziggy Ansah is coming off shoulder surgery, and Nick Fairley has been a disappointment.
Now hear this: “It wasn’t easy going through it, that’s for sure, but I think coming out of it on the other side we’ll be better for it.” — Stafford on losing six of the final seven games last season
2013 | 5-10-1, 4th in North
Last year in playoffs | 2012
Going all the way: Adrian Peterson didn’t play in exhibition games, but he’s reliably dominant as the NFL’s best back. Tight end Kyle Rudolph comes in 15 pounds lighter and he’ll be a big part of Norv Turner’s offense. Cordarrelle Patterson had a spectacular rookie year, and he’ll be an offensive centerpiece. New Coach Mike Zimmer is going to move rookie Anthony Barr all over the place, and the UCLA standout should ratchet up the pass rush.
They’re doomed: Matt Cassel is the man of the moment, but finding an answer at quarterback is still an issue for the Vikings, who are hoping rookie Teddy Bridgewater ultimately will be that player. Finding a third cornerback is a major issue, and strong safety is up for grabs too.
Now hear this: “If we can get better at that, being unselfish, and allowing other guys to make plays within the play we make, we can be a really good football team.” — Greg Jennings, receiver