Giants in the mix, but five others might be stronger

The New York Giants have the makings to be a top Super Bowl XLIII contender, but it's hard for a team to repeat as champion.

Eli Manning has become an elite quarterback with four playoff wins, including Super Bowl XLII on Sunday. And as long as the Giants don't lose Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator, their defense should improve. In addition, the offense has a great running attack that complements Manning's passing.

But bad things happen to Super Bowl champions. The Indianapolis Colts lost left tackle Tarik Glenn to retirement after Super Bowl XLI. And injuries tend to increase after a Super Bowl season.

So who are the top five contenders to earn a trip to Tampa, Fla. for a Super Bowl XLIII berth?

1. New England Patriots: The Patriots should be no worse than 14-2. Why? They have the easiest schedule in football. In fact, their .387 opponents' winning percentage for the 2008 schedule is one of the easiest slates in the modern era. Their division is easy, and they play the AFC West and NFC West.

Coach Bill Belichick has to keep the receiving corps together, and that starts with re-signing Randy Moss. The team also has to decide if it wants to keep Donte' Stallworth. Tom Brady wants Moss, so you figure he will be back.

On the downside, five trips to the West Coast could wear down the team. Another concern could be "Spygate." If former team employee Matt Walsh has proof of video spying during past Super Bowls, Belichick could be in trouble.

2. San Diego Chargers:
This could be their year. They have the best collection of talent in football. Philip Rivers is coming off ACL surgery, but he should be ready for the season. And general manager A.J. Smith has all the top players signed.

To make matters better, the Chargers have an easy schedule. At .422, it should allow them to be a 13- or 14-win team. The AFC is pretty easy to figure out. The Patriots and Chargers should have the top two seeds and get the bye weeks. Both teams have the talent. Both teams have the schedules. The Chargers showed they can respond to coach Norv Turner. Now that they have won playoff games, they will be dangerous for 2008 and years after.

3. Indianapolis Colts:
As long as Peyton Manning is around, the Colts are a Super Bowl contender. This will be the team's best offseason in recent history in the sense that it won't lose key defensive free agents. The Colts do have to solidify a few things on the offensive line, but it is pretty well set as long as they re-sign either Jake Scott or Ryan Lilja.

Tony Dungy's agreement to return for another year is a big boost to the team's morale. But despite that positive development, it will hard for the Colts to be a top-two seed. They play in the toughest division in football, the AFC South. Their schedule includes a dozen teams with .500 records or better; at.584, it is one of the toughest in the league. Still, as the Giants proved, you don't have to be a top seed to go to the Super Bowl. Heck, the Colts did it as a third seed in Super Bowl XLI and came away with a ring. Don't write off the Colts if they finish 11-5 or 10-6.

4. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are loaded. They have 13 Pro Bowlers, and Tony Romo has established himself as an elite quarterback. However, he needs to grow up a little. His vacation with Jessica Simpson turned into a disaster. He is entitled to his personal life, but he needs to more responsible as a leader on a team.

Wade Phillips should only make the defense better in his second year as head coach. Although the Cowboys' 3-4 is talented, it didn't maximize its potential. The Cowboys need to get better against the run and not bite on as many play-action fakes. Still, they are the most talented team in a very tough NFC East race.

5. Green Bay Packers: Obviously, this is contingent on Brett Favre coming back. He had too much fun in 2007-08 to retire. The Packers are one of the youngest teams in football, and the receiving corps is extremely talented. Running back Ryan Grant gives Favre the ability to use play-action passes, and general manager Ted Thompson should be able to find another young back to pair with Grant. Also, the defense is aggressive and talented.

Where the Packers have an edge over the Giants, who probably are the sixth-best Super Bowl contender, is that they don't have to play in an impossible division. The Packers were the only team in the NFC North to have a winning record.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.