The pressure is on, I told Sean Payton last week. I correctly picked the past two Super Bowl champions. The Saints are my early favorite.
"Oh, my gosh," Payton said. "...I love knowing that somebody has picked us. I'm kind of excited."
The teams with continuity in their coaching staffs and with a veteran quarterback are the teams that have the best chance to win it all. Realistically, there probably are only eight to 10 teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl.
"I think this obviously has been a unique off-season," Payton said. "There is no doubt that those teams with the veteran leadership and with the more continuity are the ones with the early advantage. I look back and recognize the challenges we would have had had this been '06 instead of '11. So many decisions have to be made with your roster and your scheme. The challenge is for the teams that have had the turnover in their coaching position or at quarterback to try to catch up."
Here are my rankings before free agency:
1. New Orleans Saints: The Saints still have the core that won them the Super Bowl two years ago, including QB Drew Brees, and they got better in the draft with DE Cameron Jordan and RB Mark Ingram.
2. Green Bay Packers: The Packers overcame losing a league-high 91 games by starters because of injury to win the Super Bowl. RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermichael Finley are among the players who will return from the injury list to try to help the Pack repeat.
3. New England Patriots: They still have Tom Brady, and now he has first-round pick OT Nate Solder to try to keep him upright in the playoffs.
4. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers ranked first in total offense and first in total defense, but their special teams kept them out of the playoffs. San Diego replaced special teams coach Steve Crosby with ex-Bucs coach Rich Bisaccia, and they loaded up with special teams players in the draft.
5. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went 13-3 and earned a first-round playoff bye last season, but they lost a divisional home game. They believe WR Julio Jones is the difference-maker, which is why they traded their draft for him.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: How much damage has LB James Harrison caused to this team? Harrison and an aging team could bring down the Steelers, who are consistently in the hunt.
7. Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick, who had never had a better than 56.4 completion percentage, completed 62.6 percent of his passes. He threw for a career-high 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns and made his fourth career Pro Bowl despite starting only 12 games. Can he do it again, without an off-season of work with Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg?
8. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens ranked 22nd in total offense. Baltimore, which drafted WR Torrey Smith, will have to give the defense some help for the Ravens finally to get to where they want to go.
9. New York Jets: While Las Vegas has the Jets with 12-1 odds to win Super Bowl XLVI, coach Rex Ryan has them as favorites. He's no Joe Namath, but he does have the team to be right this time.
10. Houston Texans: It's playoffs or bust for Gary Kubiak, who is 37-43 in his five seasons in Houston. He is trusting in Wade Phillips, turning over the defense to the former Cowboys head coach.
11. Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning, at 35, isn't the quarterback he used to be. And he is coming off neck surgery. Does he have one more Super Bowl run in him?
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are building one of the best defensive lines in football, and Josh Freeman has the look of a franchise quarterback. The only drawback for the Bucs is they are in the same division as the Falcons and the Saints.
13. New York Giants: Eli Manning had a league-high 30 turnovers, which is what doomed the Giants last season. They have big questions in the offensive line and at outside linebacker heading into free agency.
14. Detroit Lions: The Lions are 48-128 since their last playoff appearance in 1999, but Jim Schwartz is building a winner in Detroit. They will have one of the best defensive lines in football, and if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, 2011 could be the year they turn the corner.
15. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys could have used an off-season for new coordinator Rob Ryan to install his defense. The defense gave up a team-record 436 points last season, so there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
16. Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler helped the Bears to the NFC Championship Game, but that might be as far as he can ever take this team. He had one 300-yard passing game last season.
17. St. Louis Rams: The Rams were known as the Greatest Show on Turf when Kurt Warner was the ringmaster. After a long wait, it appears the Rams finally have found Warner's replacement in rookie of the year Sam Bradford, and thus, rediscovered their winning ways.
18. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs ranked first in rushing and last in passing last season. Matt Cassel, who gets help in new WR Jon Baldwin, needs to take the next step for the Chiefs to take the next step.
19. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders changed coaches after an 8-8 season. They no longer are one of the worst teams in the NFL, but they still have a ways to go to be among the best.
20. Jacksonville Jaguars: The plan is for first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to sit behind David Garrard, but that won't help save Jack Del Rio's job.
21. Miami Dolphins: Twelve years later, the Dolphins still are looking for Dan Marino's replacement. Chad Henne, who threw 15 touchdowns and 19 interceptions last season, isn't the answer.
22. San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh took over a 1-11 Stanford team and quickly turned around the Cardinal. The 49ers will use 2011 to lay the foundation.
23. Buffalo Bills: The Bills helped their defense in the draft, and will improve a unit that ranked 25th overall, including 32nd against the run. They should win more games than they did last season, but they still need a franchise quarterback.
24. Seattle Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck is a free agent. Charlie Whitehurst isn't going to get Seattle back to the playoffs, and neither is Matt Leinart, if the Seahawks opt to sign him.
25. Minnesota Vikings: The Brett Favre era is over. The Christian Ponder era is about to begin.
26. Denver Broncos: The Broncos ranked 32nd in total defense last season and have no idea who their starting QB is. At least they have options in Tim Tebow, Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn.
27. Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals could trade for Kevin Kolb, which would give them a chance to win the NFC West this season.
28. Washington Redskins: The Redskins could get better in free agency. They better find a quarterback, because they aren't going to win with John Beck.
29. Cleveland Browns: Colt McCoy will be helped by the hiring of head coach Pat Shurmur, but the defense, which ranked 22nd last season, isn't likely to improve. It needed the off-season to adjust to the scheme change.
30. Cincinnati Bengals: Welcome to the NFL, Andy Dalton.
31. Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton is the future, but the present is bleak for this team.
32. Tennessee Titans: The Titans are starting over with a first-time head coach in Mike Munchak and a rookie quarterback in Jake Locker.
Charean Williams, 817-390-7697