2009-13 HISTORY: It's no secret Green Bay's dominance has coincided with Aaron Rodgers' ascendance. Since 2009, Rodgers (pictured) has boasted a league-best 107.9 quarterback rating. But also, in 2009 they hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who switched the team to a 3-4 defense, and also drafted Clay Matthews, who's become one of the NFL's elite defensive players. 2014 MYSTERY: The NFC North, which Green Bay won with a paltry 8-7-1 record last year, will be better. Still, with the always-potent passing offense now balanced by a formidable, Eddie Lacy-led rushing attack, the Packers should have no trouble scoring. On the other side of the ball, where Julius Peppers was added to a unit that ranked 25th in yards allowed in 2013, coach Mike McCarthy said in May, "We'll be a better defense this year." And likely in the playoffs again.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY SportsJasen Vinlove
STREAK NO. 2: PATRIOTS, 5 years
2009-13 HISTORY: Since winning the Super Bowl in 2001, New England has missed the playoffs just twice (2002, 2008). The main ingredients in the Patriots' playoff chowder recipe have been Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, as the team has transformed from a defensive powerhouse to an offensive juggernaut. No matter the quality of receiving weapons around Brady, the quarterback's right arm has guided New England routinely into the postseason. 2014 MYSTERY: Despite ranking seventh in total offense and 26th in total defense last year, the Patriots went 12-4 -- the fourth straight season they won at least 12 games. New England has infused its aerial attack with an improved ground offense. Despite a dearth of star-caliber skill players, Brady and Belichick ought to find themselves atop a woeful AFC East and once again back in the playoffs.
David Butler II-USA TODAY SportsDavid Butler II
STREAK NO. 3: BENGALS, 3 years
2011-13 HISTORY: The Bengals have been the most consistently successful AFC North squad the past few years. They've made the playoffs in each of Andy Dalton's first three years, complementing the quarterback's steady command with a havoc-wreaking defense that ranked in the top-seven each of those seasons. 2014 MYSTERY: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is gone, having taken the Vikings' head coaching job, but the defense could actually be better. Tackle Geno Atkins is back after a 2013 ACL injury, and Cincinnati used its first-round draft pick on talented cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The Bengals rewarded their QB this summer with a hefty contract extension to keep throwing bombs to A.J. Green. In a diluted division, they can expect to still be playing in January.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAChristopher Hanewinckel
STREAK NO. 4: BRONCOS, 3 years
2011-13 HISTORY: After two seasons of Peyton Manning (pictured) putting up video-game passing stats, it's easy to forget that the quarterback who led Denver to its first playoff appearance in five years was the inimitable Tim Tebow in 2011. A sack-happy D, combined with the league's most dangerous passing offense, got the Broncos to the Super Bowl last year. 2014 MYSTERY: For a team that came within a loss of a championship last year, Denver certainly shook up its personnel. Gone is longtime standout cornerback Champ Bailey, as well as receiver Eric Decker, a Manning favorite. To fortify a defense trashed by Seattle, the Broncos signed cornerback Aqib Talib and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to multiyear deals. All that considered, the Broncos will be title contenders again this season.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsKelley L Cox
STREAK NO. 5: 49ERS, 3 years
2011-13 HISTORY: During Jim Harbaugh's three seasons in charge, the 49ers have gone 37-10-1. Midway through the 2012 season, Harbaugh made the then-controversial decision to replace Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. The move has paid off big time, as the versatile QB has proven to be a star. Oh, and also the physical, snarling defense has been a top-five unit each of the past three seasons. That's helped, too. 2014 MYSTERY: The NFC West has turned from the worst bunch in football to the best in recent seasons. The 49ers return virtually the same offense, driven by Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore. The defense could be without Pro Bowl linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith for about two months. Still, Harbaugh will lead another playoff team.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
DROUGHT NO. 1: BILLS, 14 years
2000-13 HISTORY: Buffalo longs for those heartache years of losing four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. The Bills haven't had a winning season since 2004 but also haven't completely bottomed out and rebuilt with a top draft pick, as they've won at least four games every year the past decade, frequently finishing in no man's land around 6-10. 2014 MYSTERY: There were glimpses of potential in quarterback EJ Manuel, Buffalo's 2013 first-round pick who missed five weeks last year with a knee injury. Now, Manuel has already been announced the 2014 starter. The Bills have a dangerous running-back duo in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, and took Sammy Watkins, the top receiver in the draft, with their first pick. And the defense, despite losing Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, is still strong. Buffalo, remember the postseason?
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY SportsJason Bridge
DROUGHT NO. 2: BROWNS, 11 years
2003-13 HISTORY: Since returning to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have had just two winning seasons -- in 2002 and 2007. Other than that, there's been little to cheer about around the Dawg Pound, especially recently, as first-round-pick busts and star receivers' off-field hobbies have decimated the offense, spoiling the work of a quietly competent defense (ninth in yards allowed last year). 2014 MYSTERY: The most ballyhooed mystery of Browns training camp has mercifully been solved, as coach Mike Pettine announced that veteran Brian Hoyer would start over rookie Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Still, with an impotent running game and Josh Gordon's potentially lengthy suspension looming, it doesn't much matter who's throwing the ball because the Browns will struggle mightily to score. Looks like another season sans playoff berth.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
DROUGHT NO. 3: RAIDERS, 11 years
2003-13 HISTORY: It's sad that, after leading the Raiders to so much success for so many years, Al Davis' lasting impact on his franchise before passing away in 2011 was driving it into the AFC West cellar with wasted draft picks, failed free-agent signings and a carousel of coaches. Last year, Oakland finished 4-12. 2014 MYSTERY: The Raiders haven't had a winning season in over a decade. That streak will almost certainly continue. While the offense is improved with free agents Matt Schaub and James Jones, as well as the return to health (at least temporarily) of running back Darren McFadden (pictured) -- and Maurice Jones-Drew backing him up -- and the defense gets infused with the destructive dynamism of rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, the division is just too good for the Raiders to contend.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
DROUGHT NO. 4: RAMS, 9 years
2005-13 HISTORY: Since the Greatest Show on Turf left town a decade ago, the Rams have been starved of both talent and intrigue. After a 1-15 2009 season, Sam Bradford was drafted first overall to be the franchise quarterback -- and given the largest rookie contract in NFL history -- but he's struggled to stay healthy. Under coach Jeff Fisher, St. Louis finished last in the ultra-competitive NFC West a year ago. 2014 MYSTERY: Bradford hasn't yet shown he's a capable NFL quarterback. His only real receiving weapon is 5-foot-8 speedster Tavon Austin. And running back Zac Stacy is largely unproven. The defense has talent, particularly ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long and playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins, but the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals will keep St. Louis out of the postseason for a 10th straight season.
USA TODAY SportsKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
DROUGHT NO. 5: JAGUARS, 6 years
2008-13 HISTORY: The past half-dozen years were marked with erratic-to-awful quarterback play, the wasting of Maurice Jones-Drew's prime, one of the NFL's worst defenses, paltry attendance and TV blackouts and a rebuilding era where nothing was ever really built. When you're annually choosing between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne (7), you've lost. 2014 MYSTERY: Gabbert is gone. So, too, is Jones-Drew. Receiver Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville's 2012 first-round pick, may have smoked himself out of the league. Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles (5), the third overall pick in the draft, offers a glimmer of optimism and has intriguing fellow rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson as receiving weapons. But the moribund defense is still very bad, and the Jaguars are a long way from realistic playoff hopes.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsMike Dinovo
DROUGHT NO. 6: BUCCANEERS, 6 years
2008-13 HISTORY: Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden was fired after his 9-7 Bucs team missed the playoffs in 2008, getting replaced by Raheem Morris, who went 3-13 and then, surprisingly, 10-6 in 2010. That season, in which Josh Freeman seemed to have become a proficient quarterback, proved anomalous, as Tampa went 4-12 the next year and fired Morris. The divisive Greg Schiano replaced him, clashed with Freeman and now both are gone. 2014 MYSTERY: Tampa Bay has talent, it's just also had turmoil, too. Owner Malcolm Glazer passed away in May, and Schiano has been replaced by steady former Bears coach Lovie Smith. Veteran QB Josh McCown should be solid, young running back Doug Martin can be a stud, receiver Vincent Jackson is one of the league's best and rookie wideout Mike Evans provides another weapon. The Bucs have hope in 2014.