1. Green Bay PACKERS
2013 record: 8-7-1
Coach: Mike McCarthy, 9th season.
Key players: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Eddie Lacy, DL Julius Peppers, LB Clay Matthews
What's different: Rodgers is healthy after missing eight games with a broken collarbone. Without Rodgers the Packers went 2-5-1. With him back in the fold for the playoffs they almost upset the 49ers before losing, 23-20. The offense remains largely the same though WR James Jones was no re-signed. WR Randall Cobb (31 receptions, 433 yards in 2013) and rookie Davante Adams will step in and get more opportunities. On defense, Peppers, who has 1181/2 career sacks, was added to bolster the pass rush that did not do much when Matthews was hurt last year.
The skinny: The Packers managed to win the division without Rodgers healthy for much of the season. They are heavy favorites if he can stay healthy this year. The only downside of winning the division was drawing the Seahawks and Eagles on the schedule. That might make it hard for the Packers to get home-field advantage should they make the playoffs, but it could prepare them for a deep playoff run, too.
2. Chicago BEARS
2013 record: 8-8
Coach: Marc Trestman, 2nd season.
Key players: QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffrey, RB Matt Forte, LB Lance Briggs, DE Jared Allen
What's different: The Bears defense was terrible and the front office addressed some of those issues by signing Allen and fellow DE LaMarr Houston. But the Allen signing is subbing one aging defensive end out for another. The Bears did not bring back Julius Peppers, who recorded 71/2 sacks last season. Allen (1281/2 career sacks including 111/2 last season) might be an upgrade, but he is slowing down, too. The offense returns pretty much intact, which is a plus because it was one of the best units in the league when Cutler (2,621 passing yards, 19 TD passes in 2013) was healthy.
The skinny: The offense was second in the NFL in scoring last season behind only the Broncos and still could not finish with a winning record because the defense was so bad. The Bears gave up 29.9 points per game and still have major concerns at linebacker and the secondary. They'll have to show some major improvement on defense if they are going to get back to the playoffs.
3. Detroit LIONS
2013 record: 7-9
Coach: Jim Caldwell, 1st season.
Key players: QB Matt Stafford, QR Calvin Johnson, RB Reggie Bush, TE Eric Ebron, DL Ndamukong Suh, DE Ziggy Ansah.
What's different: Defensive-minded Jim Schwartz is out as head coach and the offensive-minded Caldwell is in. Caldwell knows how to coach QBs having tutored Peyton Manning when he was an assistant with the Colts. Now he is charged with the task of fixing Stafford, another former No. 1 overall pick who has yet to live up to his billing. But the Lions are not just relying on the new coaching to help Stafford. They bolstered the offense by adding Ebron in the first round of the draft and by signing WR Golden Tate, who will be a nice complement to Johnson, the best WR in the league.
The skinny: There is talent up and down the roster, but this group has been together for a long time and it's time to produce some results. It will be difficult for Caldwell because the Lions compete in the same division as the Packers and Bears, but his most important job will be instilling a winning mentality into a losing franchise. That's a tall task and there is no guarantee he'll be able to turn it around.
4. Minnesota VIKINGS
2013 record: 5-10-1
Coach: Mike Zimmer, 1st season.
Key players: RB Adrian Peterson, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, TE Kyle Rudolph, DL Linval Joseph, DL Everson Griffen.
What's different: Zimmer, who was a top defensive coordinator for a long time with the Bengals, was hired to help fix a defense that languished near the bottom of the league's defensive rankings last season. Zimmer has some talent on offense, but he will start veteran Matt Cassell over rookie Teddy Bridgewater, at least to start the season. Bridgewater was taken in the first round of this year's draft, the 32nd pick overall, out of Louisville. Until the Vikings have a top-caliber quarterback under center the talent around him on offense or defense won't matter much.
The skinny: Even though Zimmer has a pedigree as a defensive coordinator -- the Bengals were third in total defense in 2013 -- he's not a miracle worker. The Vikings were last in the league in scoring defense (30 points per game) and second-to-last in total defense. Only the Cowboys gave up more yards per game. Look for slow and steady improvement but not enough to climb out of the basement of the division.
1. Philadelphia EAGLES
2013 record: 10-6
Coach: Chip Kelly, 2nd season.
Key players: RB LeSean McCoy, QB Nick Foles, WR Riley Cooper, WR Jeremy Maclin, DL Trent Cole.
What's different: WR DeSean Jackson was released and signed by division rival Washington. Despite his off-field issues, Jackson was a productive wide receiver who might prove difficult to replace. The Eagles are banking on Riley Cooper (47 receptions, 835 yards) and Jeremy Maclin to pick up the slack. DBs Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll were signed to improve a secondary that contributed to the defense ranking 29th in the league.
The skinny: This division is among the worst in the league so the Eagles should make it back to the playoffs with relative ease, especially if McCoy can duplicate his 2013 performance. McCoy led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards and had 2,146 yards from scrimmage overall.. They got knocked out of the playoffs at home last year by the Saints, who gained 434 yards against an overmatched defense. That defense must take a step forward if the Eagles are going to make a run in what figures to a very competitive NFC playoff field.
2. New York GIANTS
2013 record: 7-9
Coach: Tom Coughlin, 11th season.
Key players: QB Eli Manning, RB Rashad Jennings, WR Victor Cruz, WR Odell Beckham, DE Jason Pierre-Paul.
What's different: Manning has a new offensive coordinator. Ben McAdoo, a former Green Bay assistant, takes over for Kevin Gilbride, who was fired because of Manning's inconsistencies. Manning has two Super Bowl rings, but he is coming off a season in which he threw a career-high 27 interceptions. Coughlin is trying to retool on defense, too. Several free agents, including Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, were brought in to help that unit.
The skinny: Manning bottomed out last season (69.4 quarterback rating, only 18 TD passes while completing less than 58 percent of his passes) and McAdoo will make him a better player. He had success as an assistant coach in Green Bay and coached Aaron Rodgers. But the question is how long will it take Manning to click with McAdoo? The defense does not resemble the ones that helped the Giants win Super Bowls either. That unit allowed 23.9 points per game last season.
3. Washington REDSKINS
2013 record: 3-13
Coach: Jay Gruden, 1st season.
Key players: QB Robert Griffin III, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Pierre Garcon, RB Alfred Morris, DL Jason Hatcher.
What's different: The Mike Shanahan era is over after one playoff appearance in four seasons. Now it's up to Jay Gruden, the brother of former Tampa coach and ESPN personality Jon Gruden, to make the Redskins relevant again. Jay comes from Cincinnati, where he coached QB Andy Dalton. His task is much different with Griffin, who butted heads with Shanahan over the past two seasons. Griffin does have more weapons around him this year. Jackson, a deep threat who can provide big plays, was signed after the Eagles cut him.
The skinny: Gruden might be able to help Griffin, who has struggled to recapture the magic he displayed during his rookie season. After throwing 20 TDs and only five INTs in 2012, he had 16 TDs and 12 INTs last season. Even if Gruden is able to fix Griffin there are issues on defense. The Redskins gave up 29.9 points per game and players they signed to bolster that unit are past their prime. The best example of that is 35-year old Ryan Clark, whom the Steelers chose not to re-sign after a bad 2013 season.
4. Dallas COWBOYS
2013 record: 8-8
Coach: Jason Garrett, 5th season.
Key players: QB Tony Romo, WR Dez Bryant, TE Jason Witten, S Barry Church.
What's different: LB Sean Lee, the team's top defensive player, was lost for the season in the spring when he suffered a knee injury. That's a huge blow for a team that was defensively-challenged to begin with. They gave up the third-most yards in NFL history last season. On top of Lee's absence the Cowboys decided to cut DE DeMarcus Ware, who opted for a free agent deal with the Broncos. It's hard to imagine things getting worse for the defense, but it's a distinct possibility.
The skinny: Tony Romo is coming off one of his best seasons -- 31 TDs and only 10 INTs -- but he could not carry the Cowboys all by himself. It could be more of the same this season. The offense likely will flourish while the defense languishes. Romo has weapons around him that make him dangerous. Bryant has developed into one of the better WRs in the NFC and RB DeMarco Murray is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,124 yards and also chipped in with 53 receptions. But until the defense can become respectable the Cowboys won't contend for a playoff berth.
1. Seattle SEAHAWKS
2013 record: 13-3
Coach: Pete Carroll, 4th season.
Key players: QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, S Kam Chancellor.
What's different: The Seahawks lost WR Golden Tate to free agency, but Wilson might have a better overall receiver corps because of the return of Percy Harvin and the addition of first-round pick Paul Richardson out of Colorado. Harvin did not play until the Super Bowl last year and his playmaking ability might jump-start an offense that struggled at times in 2013. The offense might have to carry more of the load because the defense said goodbye to some good players, including DL Chris Clemons and Red Bryant.
The skinny: If the Seahawks own the best record in the NFC again they have a good shot to become the first team since the Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The home-field advantage the Seahawks enjoy at Qwest Field can make a difference in a tight playoff game. Of course, doing that will be hard in this division. The 49ers remain strong and the Cardinals will be formidable, too.
2. San Francisco 49ers
2013 record: 12-4
Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 4th season.
Key players: QB Colin Kaepernick, TE Vernon Davis, WR Michael Crabtree, LB Patrick Willis.
What's different: Kaepernick has some new skills players to work with. The 49ers traded for former Bills WR Stevie Johnston (301 receptions in six seasons, 28 TDs) and added Brandon Lloyd (74 receptions, 911 yards in 2013 with Patriots) in free agency. They also added WR Bruce Ellington in the draft. That should help an offense that at times was too reliant on the Kaepernick-Davis combination. The defense must adjust for a while without LB NaVorro Bowman, but he could be back by midseason after suffering a knee injury in the NFC title game.
The skinny: The 49ers have been knocking on the door for their sixth Super Bowl victory the past three years, but have come up short. They are in win-now mode after three consecutive conference title games without a Super Bowl win. The defense remains strong enough to get them to the playoffs, but Kaepernick and the offense likely will determine if the 49ers can finally get over the hump and raise the Lombardi trophy this season.
3. Arizona CARDINALS
2013 record: 10-6
Coach: Bruce Arians, 2nd season.
Key players: QB Carson Palmer, WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Andre Ellington, CB Patrick Peterson.
What's different: Veteran DL Darnell Dockett was lost for the season with a knee injury during training camp. Dockett had been slowing down, but he still had 41/2 sacks last season and has been a consistent force in the middle of that defense for years. The Cardinals also lost a couple of productive linebackers in Karlos Dansby and Darryl Washington. Dansby signed with the Browns and Washington was suspended for the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
The skinny: Despite the losses on defense the Cardinals should remain competitive. The offense should remain solid with Palmer, who is closing in on 35,000 career passing yards, and Fitzgerald., who needs three TD receptions to become the 11th in history to catch 90 However, this division is brutal and the Cardinals have to play the AFC West, which produced three playoff teams last season. Because of the schedule and the injuries and defections on defense it's tough to see Arizona duplicating its success from last season.
4. St. Louis RAMS
2013 record: 7-9
Coach: Jeff Fisher, 3rd season.
Key players: QB Shaun Hill, WR Kenny Britt, RB Zac Stacy, DL Robert Quinn, DL Chris Long.
What's different: The Rams are going to have to play another season without their franchise quarterback. Sam Bradford, the former No. 1 overall pick, suffered a torn ACL in the third preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. Fisher will turn to Shaun Hill, who hasn't started an NFL game in four years. The Rams must rely on their defense now more than ever. If it's possible, the defensive line got better. In addition to Quinn and Long, disruptive three-technique Aaron Donald was drafted in the first round after an All-American senior season at Pitt in which he swept most of the top defensive player awards for which he was eligible. That line will surely cause some sleepless nights for opposing offensive coordinators in the NFC.
The skinny: If Bradford was healthy the Rams might have contended for a playoff berth because the defense is so strong. They still might be a factor in the division because they are so stout defensively, but without their franchise quarterback it's looking like the Rams will miss the playoffs for a 10th consecutive year.
1. New Orleans SAINTS
2013 record: 11-5
Coach: Sean Payton, 9th season.
Key players: QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marques Colston, WR Brandin Cooks, S Jarius Byrd, S Kenny Vaccarro.
What's different: RB Darren Sproles, a favorite target of Brees, was traded to Philadelphia. The Saints replaced him when they drafted Cooks, a dynamic wide receiver at Oregon State who should fit in nicely alongside Colston. The Saints signed a couple of veteran defensive backs to help the defense improve. Byrd will be paired with Vaccarro, giving the Saints one of the best safety combinations in the league. In something of a surprise, the team made All-Pro CB Champ Bailey one of its final cuts as teams got down to the 53-man limit.
The skinny: Brees remains one of the top passers in the game and the offense should be as good as ever. The Saints were ranked fourth in total offense last season and Graham is entering his prime as the premier pass-catching tight end in the league. The defense rebounded from a disastrous 2012. If that unit can take the next step the Saints could challenge the Seahawks and 49ers for supremacy in the NFC.
2. Carolina PANTHERS
2013 record: 12-4
Coach: Ron Rivera, 4th season.
Key players: QB Cam Newton, TE Greg Olson, DE Greg Hardy, LB Luke Kuechly
What's different: It was a strange offseason for the Panthers, who won this division last year. Just when Newton looked like he was coming into his own they lost their top three wide receivers and brought in three free agents to take their place. WRs Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, Jr. were not re-signed. Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and rookie Kelvin Benjamin will take their place.
The skinny: It's asking a lot of Newton to carry an offense when so many of the weapons that helped to make him successful last year play elsewhere in 2014. Continuity is big in the NFL and the Panthers didn't do enough to make Newton comfortable. The defense should be strong again. Kuechly was the Associated Press NFL defensive player of the year. He is coming off a season in which he had 156 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. But without playmakers on offense the Panthers will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the Saints in the division race.
3. Atlanta FALCONS
2013 record: 4-12
Coach: Mike Smith, 7th season.
Key players: QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, WR Roddy White, DE Osi Umenyiora.
What's different: After Ryan was sacked 44 times last season, the Falcons selected OT Jake Matthews -- the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews -- in the first round of the draft out of Texas A&M and signed G Jon Asamoah to help the leaky pass protection. Future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez has retired, which puts more pressure on the wide receiver duo of Jones and White (a combined 104 receptions, 1,291 yards in 2013). On defense, the Falcons tried to bolster the defensive line by signing Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai.
The skinny: The Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game in 2012 so the drop-off last season was a surprise. If Jones and White can stay healthy and the offensive line is better there is no reason the offense cannot be one of the best in the NFC. The defense is more of a concern. The Falcons were ranked 27th in total defense and scoring defense a year ago. If that does not change the Falcons will have a hard time getting back to .500 much less the playoffs.
4. Tampa Bay BUCCANEERS
2013 record: 4-12
Coach: Lovie Smith, 1st season.
Key players: QB Josh McCown, WR Mike Evans, TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, DL Michael Johnson, DL Gerald McCoy.
What's different: Another team that has a new head coach and a new quarterback. It's hard to win when two of the most important people in the franchise are getting their feet wet in a new environment. Smith has a defensive background and smartly added Johnson (261/2 sacks in five seasons with the Bengals) to bolster his front seven. The draft brought two big-time offensive weapons in Evans and Sefarian-Jenkins. But are they read for big-time roles early in their careers?
The skinny: The Buccaneers are probably a year away from making some noise in this division. It will take some time for Smith -- 81-63 in nine seasons as head coach of the Chicago Bears, including one Super Bowl appearance, before being fired after the 2012 season -- to fully implement his program. Expect the Buccaneers to be a good defensive outfit but to have some struggles on offense. By next season, though, the Bucs could be a team to be reckon with.