The NFL landscape will likely look a lot different by seasons end.
When things kick off with Week 1 Thursday night — and later Sunday afternoon several top contenders like the Patriots and Steelers will be without their top players.
Over the course of a 16-game season, the cream will rise to the top. Here's a look at how we think things will pan out this year in each division, and in January/February:
NFC East — Giants
The Giants sort of get the pick by default, but the level of competition is the thinnest of every division. Philadelphia boasts one of the NFL's most improved defenses, but will likely be held back by the learning process that will be Carson Wentz' rookie season. Washington is the defending division champ, but will need the run game to be just as good as it was last year, without Alfred Morris. The Cowboys... well, the Cowboys have a rookie quarterback (Dak Prescot playing in place of injured Tony Romo) and an explosive but still rookie running back. The Giants, led by Eli Manning and his slew of weapons, will prevail with a 9-7 record.
NFC North — Packers
This pick is not as hard to make as the East was. It really comes down to two teams, the Packers and Vikings, and each will likely make the playoffs with the Bears and Lions following behind. A healthy array of weapons for Aaron Rodgers and decent defense gives the Packers the edge. Minnesota has a better defense — and rushing champ Adrian Pederson — but Sam Bradford's average quarterback play will hold the Vikings back.
NFC South — Panthers
The defending NFC champs lost Josh Norman but should be better on offense with Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchessacting as legitimate weapons for Cam Newton. The Falcons, Buccaneers and Saints each have outside shots at Wild Card berths, with Tampa boasting the highest ceiling should their young talent produce.
NFC West — Cardinals
This division will provide the NFC's other playoff Wild Card team in the Seahawks, but the Cardinals — last year's playoff shortcomings aside — have a complete and balanced offense led by David Johnson and Carson Palmer and a very good defense. Seattle has the same, but will finish just behind their rivals to the south after 16 games.
AFC East — Patriots
Jimmy Garoppolowill keep the Patriots afloat until Week 5 when the flood waters will unleash a fury on the NFL that could land Tom Brady an NFL MVP award in just 12 games. The Jets, looking to bank on a winning record last year, are favorites to make the playoffs as a Wild Card as the Dolphins and Bills meddle in mediocrity once again.
AFC North — Steelers
Similar to the Patriots early season woes, Ben Rothlesberger will have to wait for LeVeon Bell to hit the field after he serves his suspension. But once he does, Bell and Antonio Brown will lead the Pittsburgh offense to a division title. The Bengals will be a popular pick for a Wild Card position, especially if Andy Dalton can continue his high level of play from a season ago.
AFC South — Texans
Finally, a competitive division. The Texans — winners of the division last year are favorites but only slightly. Andrew Luck has the chance with T.Y. Hilton and DonteMoncrief to piece together a comeback player of the year kind of season and lead the Colts to at least the playoffs if not the AFC South crown. The Jaguars are a year older, a year more experienced and a year more jam-packed with potential superstar talent, led by the wide receiving duo of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Tennessee has an outside chance but still is a year away from playoff contention.
AFC West — Chiefs
Really, Kansas City gets the nod by default, as the potent Broncos defense was enough to carry an elderly Peyton Manning, but not rookieTrevor Siemian. The Raiders, much improved, will be contenders for a Wild Card spot if Derrick Carr can surprise again, and even the Chargers have the chance to contend. This division is the most wide open.
AFC Wild Cards — Jets, Colts
NFC Wild Cards — Vikings, Seahawks
AFC Champions — Patriots
NFC Champions — Cardinals
Super Bowl Champions — Patriots
We think the wrathofTom Brady, paired with much of the same team that has gone deep into the postseason over the last two seasons (including a Super Bowl title in 2015) will lift New England to — eye roll — yet another championship season.