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Cover-Two: Predicting NFL division races

Seahawks or 49ers? The battle for the NFC West crown will certainly be one to watch. Seahawks or 49ers? The battle for the NFC West crown will certainly be one to watch. (John W. McDonough/SI)

The road to Super Bowl XLVIII starts Thursday. Which teams will make the postseason? Which won't? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar forecast the order of finish in every division.

NFC East

Chris Burke:

1. New York Giants

2. Dallas Cowboys

3. Washington Redskins

4. Philadelphia Eagles

Four years in a row now, this division race has come down to the last weekend of the season. I expect no less in 2013, because at least the top three teams -- in my mind, the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins -- are pretty interchangeable. That the Giants close at home vs. Washington is not the only reason I've bumped New York to the top here, but it's in the mix. If the Redskins surrounded RGIII with as much talent at receiver as the Giants and Cowboys have with Eli Manning and Tony Romo, respectively, I'd be a lot quicker to jump back on their bandwagon.

Doug Farrar:

1. Washington Redskins

2. Dallas Cowboys

3. New York Giants

4. Philadelphia Eagles

Even if Robert Griffin III misses time this season, I still think the Redskins are the division's best team. The Cowboys are set to make tracks on offense, but I'm not sure about Monte Kiffin's 4-3 conversion. The Giants are long on fundamentals but relatively short on skill players. While the Eagles may have the league's most exciting offense in fits and starts, that defense will struggle mightily.

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NFC North

Burke:

1. Green Bay Packers

2. Chicago Bears

3. Detroit Lions

4. Minnesota Vikings

There are a lot of uncertainties in this division, but Aaron Rodgers is not among them. The Packers' QB is the NFC North's best player at its most important position, so it's hard to bump Green Bay down as long as he's around. The Bears, Lions and Vikings all could be in that second-place slot. If Chicago's new offense clicks, that's a team that could make a deep playoff run.

Farrar:

1. Green Bay Packers

2. Chicago Bears

3. Detroit Lions

4. Minnesota Vikings

It's my belief that people are sleeping on the Packers, especially on a defense that could be much-improved in 2013. The Bears are a very talented team going through a change in organizational mindset, and there's a lot resting on Jay Cutler's shoulders. The Lions will blow one opportunity for every two their talent gives them. The Vikings? I see a defensive regression and Christian Ponder's implosion.

NFC South

Burke:

1. Atlanta Falcons

2. New Orleans Saints

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

4. Carolina Panthers

What this pick basically comes down to is this: I don't know how the Saints, Buccaneers or Panthers are going to get enough defensive stops, particularly when facing Atlanta, to knock the Falcons out of the top spot. The team with the best shot, Tampa Bay, has the most unsteady situation at quarterback -- an issue that presents a host of other problems.

Farrar:

1. New Orleans Saints

2. Atlanta Falcons

3. Carolina Panthers

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I think the Saints will go through the 2013 season like the Patriots went through '07 -- pissed off at the NFL, and showing it every week with an explosive offense. The Falcons are more consistent on both sides of the ball, but the defense looks a bit iffy. Though I might be underselling the Panthers, especially their front seven, I'm not sure about Cam Newton or the secondary. The Bucs won't be bad, but they're in a brutal division and I think they'll cut the cord with Josh Freeman after this season.

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NFC West

Burke:

1. Seattle Seahawks

2. San Francisco 49ers

3. St. Louis Rams

4. Arizona Cardinals

What more is there to say about the Seahawks and 49ers right now? They both should be Super Bowl contenders, behind superstar quarterbacks. Just don't count out the Rams. I nearly picked the West to be a three-playoff team division, but thought the in-fighting would be too fierce for that to happen. Arizona, meanwhile, could be leaps and bounds ahead of its 2012 self -- yet may not be favored in a game all year.

Farrar:

1. Seattle Seahawks

2. San Francisco 49ers

3. Arizona Cardinals

4. St. Louis Rams

Welcome to the Terrordome. The Seahawks and 49ers have many strengths on both sides of the ball; I'm just a bit more positive about Seattle's offensive playmakers and I want to see how healthy Justin Smith is before going all in on San Francisco's defense. Look for Carson Palmer to enjoy a small renaissance in Arizona -- not enough to make the playoffs, but enough to leapfrog the Rams.

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AFC East

Burke:

1. New England Patriots

2. Miami Dolphins

3. Buffalo Bills

4. New York Jets

If the Bills had a more settled situation at quarterback, I'd elevate them into second place as a wild-card contender. Maybe EJ Manuel makes me eat my words here, but I think that position will keep them from a real breakthrough. Though Miami has the talent to get to the playoffs in a weaker AFC, it still doesn't have enough to topple New England.

Farrar:

1. New England Patriots

2. Buffalo Bills

3. Miami Dolphins

4.New York Jets

This division hasn't been so unsettled since Tom Brady blew out his knee at the start of the 2008 season. The 2013 Pats aren't world-beaters after an offseason they'd like to forget, though I believe they have enough in the tank to take the division again. I won't be entirely sold on the Dolphins until I see how the Ryan Tanehill-Mike Wallace connection plays out. The Bills, however, seemed to be a functional quarterback and some offensive targets away from a nice run, and I think they now have both. The Jets? Quel désastre.

AFC North

Burke:

1. Baltimore Ravens

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

3. Cincinnati Bengals

4. Cleveland Browns

This is such a difficult division to call, because there are so many variables. Will any Cincinnati receiver emerge opposite A.J. Green? Can Troy Polamalu play all 16 games? Will Baltimore be able to overcome the absences of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the locker room? In the end, I think the top three teams all finish at nine wins or above.

Farrar:

1. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Baltimore Ravens

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

4. Cleveland Browns

Many props to the Super Bowl champs, and I do think they have long-term replacements for the obvious losses on defense. It's just that I think the Bengals are going to be that much better this season. The newly-re-signed Geno Atkins is the best interior lineman not named J.J. Watt, and there's enough on the roster even with Andy Dalton's limitations. The Steelers seem to be in a re-tooling program right now. Defensively, the Browns might be the division's best ... we'll see how that whole Brandon Weeden thing works out.

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AFC South

Burke:

1. Houston Texans

2. Indianapolis Colts

3. Tennessee Titans

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

Nothing that happened this offseason convinced me that the South is in store for any real changes. The one potential flip-flop could be Tennessee over Indianapolis -- the Titans' run game ought to be much more dangerous in 2013. Houston upgraded where it needed to upgrade, solidifying its hold on this division.

Farrar:

1. Houston Texans

2. Indianapolis Colts

3. Tennessee Titans

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

After years of near-misses, I think the Texans finally have the talent and focus to make a serious dent in the conference, which is why they're my pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Indy's Andrew Luck won't be as explosive as in his rookie season, but he'll be more efficient in a Stanford-like offense. I like some things the Titans are doing, though Jake Locker may be what holds them back at this point. The Jaguars are rebuilding intelligently, but it's a pretty big process.

AFC West

Burke:

1. Denver Broncos

2. Kansas City Chiefs

3. San Diego Chargers

4. Oakland Raiders

The top of this division appears set in stone, as does the bottom. What happens in the second and third spots, between Kansas City and San Diego, could be very entertaining. And that's especially true if one of those two teams makes a run at 9-7 or so, enough to stick in the playoff chase. Even though the Chiefs should be much improved, I think they're legitimately a year away from being a true contender, leaving the Broncos relatively unchallenged.

Farrar:

1. Denver Broncos

2. Kansas City Chiefs

3. San Diego Chargers

4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos win this by default -- Peyton Manning has never had such a receiver trio as Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. While I do agree with those who see a major reversal of fortune for the Chiefs, Alex Smith's limitations will keep them out of any worst-to-first considerations. The Chargers have a lot to fix, though they've got the right people to do it. As for the Raiders? Well, I feel for GM Reggie McKenzie. It will be a rough season for a team woefully bereft of talent.
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