Beginning with the Giants-49ers game Thursday night, the National Football League will embark on a 17-week journey toward crowning its next champion. And with each conference split into four divisions of four teams apiece, that road to glory will have a few different turns than it has in the past.

NFC East

Though Philadelphia enters the season as the clear favorite in the East, it is the Washington Redskins who have been making all the noise recently, thanks to their new head coach, Steve Spurrier. The ex-Gator boss has ruffled some feathers in the league with his laid-back style and pour-on-the-points mentality, which is a good sign for ‘Skins fans. Spurrier’s NFL debut should be a success, even if his fun ‘n’ gun offense doesn’t pump out the 40 points per game it did at Florida.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Philadelphia, 11-5

2. Washington, 10-6 (Wild card)

3. Dallas, 9-7

4. New York Giants, 4-12

NFC North

After a decade of futility, the Chicago Bears emerged out of the NFC’s basement to become one of the league’s premier teams in 2001. Unfortunately, a repeat performance seems unlikely. With Soldier Field under construction, the Monsters of the Midway will have to play more than 100 miles away in Champaign, Ill. A much tougher schedule in addition to all the extra traveling could be bad news for the Bears.

1. Green Bay, 11-5

2. Minnesota, 8-8

3. Chicago, 7-9

4. Detroit, 4-12

NFC South

No team was happier to hear the results of the NFL’s realignment than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not only did the Bucs get to leave behind their perennially tough NFC Central rivals and their frigid stadiums, but they were rewarded by being placed in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions. New head coach Jon Gruden should help Tampa get its traditionally stagnant offense into gear and beyond the first round of the playoffs.

1. Tampa Bay, 11-5

2. Atlanta, 8-8

3. New Orleans, 7-9

4. Carolina, 4-12

NFC West

If the Buccaneers got the best of realignment, then their sister franchise, the Seattle Seahawks, got the worst of it. Just as head coach Mike Holmgren was beginning to figure things out in the AFC West, the Hawks were switched over to the NFC’s western division, where they will have to face the Rams and 49ers twice each year.

1. San Francisco, 13-3

2. St. Louis, 13-3 (Wild card)

3. Seattle, 4-12

4. Arizona, 4-12

AFC East

Each and every season in the NFL, there is one team that emerges from nowhere to go deep into the playoffs. This year’s surprise team could be the Buffalo Bills, who became instant contenders with the addition of quarterback Drew Bledsoe. That is not to say he can win without weapons, but the Bills have a surprisingly potent cast of backs and receivers for a team that finished 3-13 in 2001. Add to that a young and increasingly talented defense, and you’ve got a team with a chance for drastic improvement.

1. Buffalo, 10-6

2. Miami, 10-6 (Wild card)

3. New England, 7-9

4. New York Jets, 7-9

AFC North

Though most of the talk in the AFC’s new northern division centers around the newfound strength of the Steelers and weakness of the Ravens, the most intriguing team may be the Cleveland Browns. Butch Davis has proved that his rebuilding success at the University of Miami was no fluke, making the Brownies one of the NFL’s most improved teams last season. They have the potential to make the playoffs in 2002, if quarterback Tim Couch can live up to potential.

1. Pittsburgh, 12-4

2. Cleveland, 9-7

3. Cincinnati, 8-8

4. Baltimore, 5-11

AFC South

When it comes to weak divisions in the NFL, the South has it covered. Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston make up the NFL’s weakest division, combining for just 19 wins in 2001. That said, Indianapolis should be the favorite here, given the fact that the offense is potent and that Tony Dungy was hired to fix the ailing D, something he excels at.

1. Indianapolis, 10-6

2. Tennessee, 9-7

3. Jacksonville, 6-10

4. Houston, 3-13

AFC West

The Oakland Raiders are sick and tired of hearing about Jon Gruden. Pundit after pundit has come out to say that Gruden meant everything to this team and that new head coach Bill Callahan won’t be able to handle the load. Somehow, that seems unlikely. With the most veteran squad in the league, Al Davis could probably coach the team to 10 victories by himself. That said, the aging Raiders will probably have to make their run this year or not at all.

1. Oakland, 11-5

2. Denver, 11-5 (Wild card)

3. Kansas City, 5-11

4. San Diego, 4-12

Playoff Picks

AFC Championship: Oakland over Pittsburgh

NFC Championship: St. Louis over Green Bay

Super Bowl XXXVII: Oakland over St. Louis