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Top of the heap

The Baltimore Sun

1 SAN DIEGO (14-2) Only Patriots WR Troy Brown's alert play -- stripping an interception from Chargers safety Marlon McCree in the divisional playoff game -- kept San Diego from the AFC title game. The Chargers return as a team with unfinished business.

2 NEW ENGLAND (12-4) The prohibitive favorites in Las Vegas to win the Super Bowl, the Patriots are clearly the team to beat. But S Rodney Harrison's suspension and DE Richard Seymour's knee injury could be problems early, and age at a few positions may wind up being a factor late.

3INDIANAPOLIS (12-4) The Colts certainly could repeat as Super Bowl champions. The questions are whether RB Joseph Addai can handle 50 percent or more touches and how rookie Tony Ugoh performs as a starting left tackle.

4RAVENS (13-3) The difference between the Ravens and the three elite teams in the AFC is on offense. That the Ravens kept the Colts from scoring a touchdown in the playoffs but still lost, 15-6, should haunt them. On paper, the Ravens have sufficient firepower, but it doesn?t translate into points consistently.

5 DALLAS (9-7) Having the distinction of being the best team in the NFC is, well, not much of a distinction. QB Tony Romo has to clear his head of The Flub and Wade Phillips has to manage WR Terrell Owens.

6 CINCINNATI (8-8) As long as QB Carson Palmer is playing quarterback, the Bengals are dangerous ? and if they can just stay out of the police blotter, they should make the playoffs.

7PHILADELPHIA (10-6) For all of QB Donovan McNabb's career, Eagles coaches and management have unconditionally supported him. Then, surprisingly, they drafted QB Kevin Kolb. It will be interesting to see how McNabb responds.

8 PITTSBURGH (8-8) As QB Ben Roethlisberger goes, so go the Steelers.

Last year, he had 23 interceptions and the Steelers didn't give him much help, allowing 46 sacks. But he?s healthier and looked solid in the preseason.

9 CHICAGO (13-3) Great defense, five TD returns by CB Devin Hester and an effective two-back attack lifted the Bears in 2006. But one of the backs is gone and QB Rex Grossman doesn?t appear to have improved.

10NEW ORLEANS (10-6) The 2006 Cinderella could be the best in ]the NFC in 2007. The Saints had the NFL's No. 1 offense last year and added help there rather than on defense where they needed it more.

11NEW YORK JETS (10-6) The Jets have done it the right way by building their offensive line (though they?re scrambling to fill at left guard). As a playoff team last year, they?re ahead of schedule.

12KANSAS CITY (9-7) The Chiefs rely almost entirely on RB Larry Johnson, a fatal flaw in the playoffs last season. That?s why they drafted WR Dwayne Bowe in the first round.

13SEATTLE (9-7) The Seahawks struggled in 2006 as injuries piled up. RB Shaun Alexander and QB Matt Hasselbeck are healthy, but the division has gotten better.

14NEW YORK GIANTS (8-8) If QB Eli Manning slips again, the fans will get vicious. How will the Giants replace RB Tiki Barber's 2,100 yards from scrimmage?

15DENVER (9-7) The Broncos' performance is entirely dependent on QB Jay Cutler's development. He'll get there; it's just a matter of how fast.

16CAROLINA (8-8) Backup QB David Carr gives the Panthers depth at that key position. In a league in which attrition is always a factor, that could save Carolina.

17TENNESSEE (8-8) QB Vince Young surprised last season by winning when his team shouldn?t have had a chance. If the Titans can run the ball, they'll be a handful.

18GREEN BAY (8-8) There is this dread that QB Brett Favre is staying a little too long. In 2006, the Pack won its last four games by giving up just four TDs.

19SAN FRANCISCO (7-9) If QB Alex Smith continues to make progress and the veterans that came in free agency are productive, they'll win nine, maybe 10 games.

20BUFFALO (7-9) RB Marshawn Lynch and LB Paul Posluszny were great picks, but the Bills aren't talented enough to compete with the Patriots and Jets in the AFC East.

21TAMPA BAY (7-9) Jeff Garcia is an upgrade at quarterback, but he's no miracle worker. The offense will stall unless Cadillac Williams regains his rookie form of 2005.

22ST. LOUIS (8-8) "The Greatest Show on Turf" is aging. The team is old in a lot of key positions and you get the feeling it has to happen now for the Rams or the team has to be imploded.

23JACKSONVILLE (8-8) It was a courageous move for coach Jack Del Rio to release former starting QB Byron Leftwich in favor of David Garrard; now, we'll see if it was a smart one.

24WASHINGTON (5-11) The defense may be solid, but QB Jason Campbell remains a question. As usual, it will come down to the offensive line and the Washington ball-carriers.

25DETROIT (3-13) If the Lions were wrong about this first-round wide receiver draft pick,

[ so was everybody else. After whiffing on a couple of receivers, Detroit selected Calvin Johnson, who is expected to be a terrific complement to Roy Williams and Mike Furrey.

26HOUSTON (6-10) Matt Schaub is a good, young quarterback, but so was David Carr. The problem was the offensive line, and only Schaub's quicker release will allow him to escape the fate of the battered Carr.

]27ARIZONA (5-11) The Cardinals are the epitome of unfulfilled promise. Blessed with great receivers and one of the game's best running backs in Edgerrin James, they continue to underachieve.

28MIAMI (6-10) If the Dolphins played in, say, the NFC South, they might be a playoff contender. Trent Green, Ronnie Brown and Chris Chambers are solid if not spectacular skill guys. But it?s not nearly enough in the AFC East.

29MINNESOTA (6-10) Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback.

Kelly Holcomb is the backup. Boy, are the Detroit Lions happy.

30CLEVELAND (4-12) Rookie QB Brady Quinn might become good enough to save this franchise someday, but not soon enough to save coach Romeo Crennel's job.

31OAKLAND (2-14) The Raiders used to take other teams' misfits and brawl their way to the Super Bowl. Now, they take other teams' failures and has-beens and play meaningless games in November.

32ATLANTA (7-9) The elder Jim Mora agreed last year that Michael Vick had the potential

[ ]to be a coach killer. But he understated the situation. Vick's legacy will be as a franchise killer.

The shattered Falcons won't get near the playoffs for the rest of the decade.

Note: Last season?s record in parentheses

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