NFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks: Have the resources now to replace the Rams and 49ers of yore.

St. Louis Rams: Seattle is in trouble if the Rams change gears and resume as a passing team.

Arizona Cardinals: Could finally challenge the above with new quarterback Josh McCown, new backup Shaun King, and key receivers Anquan Boldin (who starts the season injured) and Larry Fitzgerald. They need more defense.

San Francisco 49ers: The ex-champs are entering a down year and possibly a long down era.

NFC SOUTH

Carolina Panthers: Now that they've learned that passing pays, all they have to do is keep at it.

New Orleans Saints: Against all the evidence, some of us keep expecting the Saints to emerge. Their talent load is headed by quarterback Aaron Brooks and a great runner, Deuce McAllister.

Atlanta Falcons: May have upgraded their leadership more than any other NFL team with line coach Alex Gibbs, late of Denver, and offensive coach Greg Knapp, a West Coast Offense expert, on the staff of new coach Jim Mora. But slight, slick-running quarterback Michael Vick, who doesn't like the pocket, might not be big enough or strong enough for NFL football.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: On the defensive line, Anthony McFarland is an improvement over Warren Sapp. And the offensive line is also better. The question is whether the new general manager, Bruce Allen, and the young old coach, Jon Gruden, should be relying on quarterback Brad Johnson at 36, on runner Charlie Garner at 32, on some of their receivers, and on some of their defensive people.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers: Again the class of a division they always seem to dominate.

Detroit Lions: Poised to improve if Coach Steve Mariucci doesn't hold them back. In all his years in San Francisco, Mariucci apparently didn't learn much about pass offense. He still wants to run the ball though his strength is his pass-offense talent with quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receivers Charles Rogers, Az-Zahir Hakim, Roy Williams, and Tai Streets, among others.

Minnesota Vikings: On this team, running back Michael Bennett needs some of quarterback Daunte Culpepper's immense size. And the defense needs some of wide receiver Randy Moss' immense talent. The coach, Mike Tice, is still in a learning-on-the-job mode.

Chicago Bears: New coach Lovie Smith is a clear improvement, but Rex Grossman has never seemed enough quarterback anywhere. There's also a talent shortage at too many other positions.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles: When the coach, Andy Reid, is a pass-first philosopher and when the passer, Donovan McNabb, is a big-play expert, you win. But in the NFL, it's very, very, very hard to win it all.

Washington Redskins: During Joe Gibbs' first Redskin tour (1981-92), he was the NFL's all-time top coach in a rating system devised by Peter Hirdt, vice president of Elias Sports Bureau. Along with most coaches, Gibbs favored running-play football then. And this summer, through the exhibition season, he was still practicing running plays, using his best quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, to hand off on first and second down at a time when young Ramsey and his receivers needed, above all, pass-play experience. Thus in a different era in which the best teams are passing teams, Gibbs may not start fast this fall. But he's a fast learner, and he's playing one of the NFL's softest schedules. He will finish fast, particularly if, strategically, he moves toward Walsh-Unitas football.

New York Giants: Another running-play coach, Tom Coughlin, has some of the NFL's best receivers (Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Jeremy Shockey) and a hot new passer, Eli Manning.

Dallas Cowboys: In a coaches' division, it will really be a miracle if Bill Parcells wins with this bunch.