NFC forges power shift

Finally, the NFC has balanced the ledger.

After years of the AFC dominating the season-opening edition of the power rankings, the top 12 features an even split among the two conferences. Thanks to some heavy-hitting offseason additions (Terrell Owens in Dallas, Julian Peterson in Seattle, LaVar Arrington with the Giants and Maake Kemoeatu and Keyshawn Johnson in Carolina) the NFC's elite look stronger than ever and more than capable of competing against the AFC. And for the first time in three years, an NFC team starts the season in the No. 1 slot. Seattle follows New England's nod in 2004 and Indianapolis' perch in 2005.

As usual, not every fan will be happy with where their team is slotted. And the mailbag is eagerly awaiting the fury that's sure to come. So we'll start this season's rankings with the traditional form letter of complaint that we have adopted to open the season. Special thanks to reader John Lubic of Pittsburgh, who sent us the letter long ago. For those who have complaints, feel free to cut the time spent on your rants with the following form.

Dear Charles:

You are an __________ (insert fourth-grade level insult here). I can't believe how much you disrespect the __________ (insert hometown football team here). Obviously __________ (insert low-level free agent signings here) were HUGE pickups that are going to boost the __________(team's) __________(Pick one: offense/defense). Every week you write something glorifying the __________ (insert hometown team's main divisional rival here). But what did they do this offseason? You are clearly biased against the (team). For the last __________(insert made-up time frame here), you've written __________ (insert made-up number) articles about how __________ (insert 36 year old player's name here) is all washed up. I'll write back this season when the __________ (team) make the playoffs.

Signed,

__________ (made-up name)

__________ (real city)

Thanks again, John, for cutting down on the time it takes for readers to flame the rankings. Without further ado, on to the carnage …

THE TOP 12

Seattle
Seattle

1.Seattle Seahawks (13-3 last year) – Seattle's defense should be ready to shine, but the offense is opening with plenty of question marks. Unless Darrell Jackson and the rest of the wideouts can prove they're reliable, Seattle may not hold the throne in the rankings for very long.

Indianapolis
Indianapolis

2.Indianapolis Colts (14-2) – The first eight games should be a passing bonanza for Peyton Manning as the running game finds a groove.

Carolina
Carolina

3.Carolina Panthers (11-5) – The defensive line might be the best in the NFL. If Kris Jenkins gets back to even 90 percent of his previous form, he and Kemoeatu could both be Pro Bowlers.

Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh

4.Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – No Ben Roethlisberger and no Hines Ward? Willie Parker will have to tough it out on his own against the Dolphins.

 Cincinnati
Cincinnati

5. < Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) – Losing Chris Perry for the first six games of the season hurts, but with Carson Palmer healthy, this offense is still in the league's top three.

Dallas
Dallas

6.Dallas Cowboys (9-7) – Facing Jacksonville in one of the best games of the weekend, we get to find out right away what this offense can do against one of the league's top defenses.

Miami
Miami

7.Miami Dolphins (9-7) – With Travis Daniels limping, it looks like the starting cornerbacks will be Will Allen and Andre Goodman. Not a good sign for what many are billing as a Super Bowl-caliber team.

Denver
Denver

8.Denver Broncos (13-3) – Jay Cutler was impressive in the preseason, but if the Broncos have to look to him as a starter, they've got big problems.

Chicago
Chicago

9.Chicago Bears (11-5) – That defense might have gotten a little too cocky in the preseason, but ultimately should be fine. And there's nothing better for a mediocre offense than a season opener against Green Bay's defense.

N.Y. Giants
N.Y. Giants

10.New York Giants (11-5) – Eli Manning is still developing, but with Tiki Barber on the wrong side of 30, there is some urgency to compete for a Super Bowl right now.

Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay

11.Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) – Chris Simms might be the nicest guy in the NFL, but this is a pivotal season for him in Tampa. Particularly after rookie Bruce Gradkowski showed he's got the skills to eventually develop into a starting quarterback.

New England
New England

12.New England Patriots (10-6) – No Deion Branch? It could spell Pro Bowl numbers for tight end Ben Watson.

RISING

Baltimore
Baltimore

Baltimore Ravens (6-10) – With nine current or former Pro Bowlers on the roster 28 or older, the Super Bowl window is still open, but it's a sliver.

THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)

Arizona
Arizona

Arizona Cardinals (5-11) – Shoulder injury aside, Matt Leinart shouldn't push Kurt Warner for the starting job. And if he does, the Cardinals are in for another season of hard knocks.

Atlanta
Atlanta

Atlanta Falcons (8-8) – This team could easily become one of the conference's elite teams, but we need to see steady production from Michael Vick as a passer before we believe.

Buffalo
Buffalo

Buffalo Bills (5-11) – Talk about J.P. Losman, Willis McGahee and the defense all you want. This team rises and falls with the mediocre offensive line.

Cleveland
Cleveland

Cleveland Browns (6-10) – Finally, we get to see Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Reuben Droughns on the field together. But if Charlie Frye doesn't find some consistency, this offense is still going to sink into the lower third of the league.

Detroit
Detroit

Detroit Lions (5-11) – Who would've thought it: Matt Millen's tenure as CEO of the Lions outlasted Bill Ford's tenure as CEO of Ford Motor Company.

Jacksonville
Jacksonville

Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4) – If Matt Jones can't become a big-play, 1,000-yard wideout this season, this offense is in deep trouble.

Kansas City
Kansas City

Kansas City Chiefs (10-60) – Larry Johnson should have a monster season, but that 2,000-yard mark isn't happening without Willie Roaf.

Minnesota
Minnesota

Minnesota Vikings (9-7) – He's not ready for stardom just yet, but Troy Williamson looks like he's poised to take a big step forward.

New Orleans
New Orleans

New Orleans Saints (3-13) – The good news is that the Saints are on the verge of a season-long sellout. The bad news is, unless the business community rebounds in New Orleans, the team could still be looking at financial problems.

Philadelphia
Philadelphia

Philadelphia Eagles (6-10) – Donte' Stallworth was a great pickup, but he has yet to show he can use his immense talents to be a legitimate No. 1 wideout. If he gets into a groove with Donovan McNabb, he's capable of putting up career numbers.

St. Louis
St. Louis

St. Louis Rams (6-10) – Stephen Davis should be a great mentor to help Steven Jackson hone his game. With that in mind, Marshall Faulk won't be back in St Louis.

San Diego
San Diego

San Diego Chargers (9-7) – The shooting of Steve Foley is the first ominous cloud hovering over the franchise. He's a huge loss on the field, but his presence as an emotional defensive leader will run even deeper.

Washington
Washington

Washington Redskins (10-6) – Clinton Portis might be back, but it's a stretch to assume this team can just open up the playbook and flip a switch after a terrible preseason. Particularly on defense where Shawn Springs' absence will be huge.

FALLING

Oakland
Oakland

Oakland Raiders (4-12) – The team is a mess, but on the bright side, Randy Moss looks like he's ready to resume his previous dominance.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

N.Y. Jets
N.Y. Jets

28.New York Jets (4-12) – The curtain is going up on Chad Pennington's last shot in New York.

Houston
Houston

29.Houston Texans (2-14) – If Ron Dayne can't win a starting job in Houston, he can't win one anywhere in the NFL.

Tennessee
Tennessee

30.Tennessee Titans (4-12) – The Kerry Collins and Billy Volek argument is irrelevant. Ultimately, the only thing that matters this season is developing Vince Young.

Green Bay
Green Bay

31.Green Bay Packers (4-12) – Keep this in mind for later in the season: If Brett Favre says playing elsewhere isn't impossible, then maybe benching him in favor of a developing Aaron Rodgers isn't, either.

San Francisco
San Francisco

32.San Francisco 49ers (4-12) – Alex Smith looks like he's got a long way to go, and a lot of hits to take along the way. But forget the physical aspect. You have to wonder if he can hang in there mentally.