1. Denver Broncos
2012 record: 13–3
The Broncos have assembled a powerful team around QB Peyton Manning (4,659 passing yards, 37 TDs). They re-signed All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady to protect him and acquired Wes Welker (1,354 receiving yards with New England), the NFL's best slot receiver. Manning also has terrific outside threats in Demaryius Thomas (1,434 yards) and Eric Decker (13 TDs). Leading rusher Willis McGahee is gone, but Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, and rookie Montee Ball are all talented backs. Led by star LB Von Miller (18½ sacks), the Broncos allowed the fourth-fewest points in the NFL in 2012. The secondary was a weakness, but new CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will help.
BOTTOM LINE: Denver is loaded with talent. We predict Manning will ride off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl ring.
2. San Diego Chargers
2012 record: 7–9
San Diego couldn't beat the best last season — all its wins came against nonplayoff teams. The Chargers didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver and Philip Rivers (3,606 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs) had a down year. New coach Mike McCoy, the former Broncos offensive coordinator, can help Rivers break out of his slump, but the key is for TE Antonio Gates (seven TDs) and RB Ryan Mathews (707 rushing yards) to remain healthy. The defense is average other than safety Eric Weddle (97 tackles). However, rookie LB MantiTe'o has been impressive in practice and could step in as a leader.
BOTTOM LINE: Rivers should bounce back with a strong year. Nine wins are within reach for San Diego.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
2012 record: 2–14
Last season was a complete disaster, but K.C. has improved. New coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith (1,737 yards, 13 TDs with San Francisco) could provide the steady leadership the team needs. OT Eric Fisher, the Number 1 pick in the 2013 draft, will strengthen the offensive line. RBJamaal Charles (1,509 rushing yards) and WR Dwayne Bowe (801 receiving yards) are in their primes. On defense, Justin Houston (10 sacks) and TambaHali (nine sacks) are a strong pass-rushing duo. Safety Eric Berry (86 tackles) and LB Derrick Johnson (125 tackles) are underrated.
BOTTOM LINE: If Smith limits his turnovers and makes a few big plays, the Chiefs will erase the nightmare of last season.
4. Oakland Raiders
2012 record: 4–12
The Raiders are a mess. The starting QB job will go to either inexperienced Matt Flynn (two career starts) or rookie Tyler Wilson. Meanwhile, leading WRsDenarius Moore (741 yards) and Jacoby Ford don't scare anyone. Oakland has an explosive playmaker in RB Darren McFadden (707 yards), but injuries have limited him in each of his five NFL seasons. The defense that gave up 27.7 points per game last year doesn't have many bright spots. The team's leading tackler, LB Philip Wheeler (109 tackles), left for Miami and the weak pass rush wasn't fixed.
BOTTOM LINE: Oakland has not had more than eight wins in a season since 2002. That streak will not end this year.
DID YOU KNOW?
Wes Welker of the Broncos has the most receptions of any NFL player over the past five seasons (560, which is 70 more than the next-best player). Welker, who is 5′9″, is also the shortest player of the top 10 in the category.
PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRONCOS), DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CHARGERS), JONATHAN BACHMAN/AP (CHIEFS), STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE (RAIDERS)
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW ROBERTS