Contenders - AFC
1. New England Patriots
Led by perennial MVP candidate Tom Brady, the Patriots are right where they want to be, on top of the AFC East. As Gronk and Hernandez get healthy, so do the Patriots chances of contending for another SuperBowl in the Bill Belichik era.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans have an incredibly balanced team both on offence and defence. Rising star JJ Watt has led the re-vamped Texans defence to a level it has never been. The consistency of the offence is key with QB Matt Schaub, Pro Bowl RB Arian Foster, Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson and veteran TE Owen Daniels. These guys know how to move the chains.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Even with numerous injuries the Steelers continue to find new ways to win. QB Ben Roethlisberger can beat you through the air and the RB by committee approach has worked just fine. It doesn't matter who the Steelers throw in there you know they have quality personnel.
Pretenders - AFC
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are too banged up to make much noise this year. If they can hang on to a playoff berth they will likely have to play on the road and with the incredible amount of injuries they have it would seem to be an insurmountable task to think they can mount any kind of playoff run.
2. Indianapolis Colts
The young Colts are very impressive this season. Rookie QB Andrew Luck has proven the doubters wrong and more importantly has shortened the learning curve coming in to the NFL. The Colts franchise is setup for success, but it will still be another year or 2 before they make any hay in the playoffs.
3. Denver Broncos
Even a healthy Peyton Manning can't take the Broncos to the promise land in his first year. The defence is suspect and I have questions about their ability to run the ball when the weather turns ugly. They have been a great story, but cinderella ends when the playoffs begin.
Contenders - NFC
1. Chicago Bears
The last time I saw a defence this mean was the '85 Bears and they won it all. With a defence like that and an offence that is rounding into form led by WR Brandon Marshall, that might be an unstoppable combination. I would not want to play the Bears in the playoffs.
2. San Francisco 49ers
QB Alex Smith is a very efficient QB. He never makes the ultimate mistake that costs his team the game. He is by all means a game manager. He won't throw for 300 yards very often but he doesn't have to because the 49ers defence is dominant.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Undefeated so far this season, the Falcons have proven they can play with anyone. They should end up with home field advantage throughout the playoffs barring some major late season collapse and I think they have learned from their last 2 heartbreaking home defeats at the hands of eventual NFL Champions Giants last year and Packers the year before.
Pretenders - NFC
1. New York Giants
This isn't the year for the Giants. Bradshaw is hurt, Nicks is hurt, Eli has been terrible lately, I just don't see the perfect storm happening for them 2 years in a row. Coach Tom Coughlin should never be underestimated but I just don't think they have enough in the tank.
2. Minnesota Vikings
All Pro RB Adrian Peterson is proving everyone wrong by leading the league in rushing 1 year after ACL surgery. Unfortunately that won't be enough to hang on to a wildcard spot for the Vikes as 2nd year QB Christian Ponder can't stretch opposing defences. Soon teams will stack the box to limit Peterson and the Vikes won't have any office left.
3. Green Bay Packers
QB Aaron Rodgers can't be blamed if the Packers don't do much this year. He is having a Pro Bowl season. The problem lies with injuries and a depleted receiving corps. With both Jordy Nelson and Greg Jenning having groin issues, who will make the big plays the Packers have relied on for years?