***NOTE: This was written before the regular season started, but I was sick and couldn’t post it…deal with it***
Well, it’s that time of year, and I’m glad it’s happening in early September and not the middle of October. The NFL is back, and not a moment too soon; I’m ready to get the sour aftertaste of Super Bowl XLV out of my mouth. With a shortened offseason, it’ll be interesting to see how this year’s new coaches fare with a limited time to install their systems. Also, the “Dream Team” looked rather ordinary in the preseason, and the fate of the Indianapolis Colts rests on Peyton Manning’s shoulders (or rather, his neck.) With that in mind, let’s take a look at how I have this season shaking out:
This is still the Patriots’ division to lose, no matter how many receivers in their mid-30s the Jets decide to bring into the fold. Chad Ochocinco gives Tom Brady yet another talented threat at receiver, and I look for Brady to have another terrific year. Despite not acquiring Nnamdi Asomugha, the Jets’ defense is plenty talented enough to help the team earn a third consecutive playoff berth. I expect a better season out of Mark Sanchez, as he now has veteran receivers who don’t have many more chances to earn a title (or in Plaxico’s case, another title). Chad Henne sucks, but the Dolphins’ defense was one of the surprises of the league last year, so I see the Dolphins matching last season’s 7-9 mark. Buffalo brings up the rear in the division, especially without Lee Evans.
As long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers win this division. Joe Flacco is winless in games against Big Ben, and it hurts the Ravens as the Steelers will take the tiebreaker by sweeping the season series. I see Pittsburgh struggling against the passing offenses (Houston, New England) and a Monday nighter on the road at Arrowhead is no gimme. Baltimore’s 12 wins will be enough to get it into the playoffs, where a third game with the Steelers could be on the horizon – again. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid on the Browns right now; they still don’t have a true No. 1 receiver for Colt McCoy, and McCoy himself still has a lot to prove. Despite all that, they’ll finish ahead of the Bengals, who will win more games than a lot of people think they will.
This could be the beginning of the end for the Colts, who will lose the division to the emerging Houston Texans. The Texans have run out of excuses not to have made the playoffs by now, and I expect them to not only win the division, but get a first-round bye (thanks to tiebreakers). Not only will the Colts fail to win the division, but they will also fail to make the playoffs – plenty of time for Peyton Manning to heal up and make some more commercials. Tennessee will be better than a lot of people think, with veteran Matt Hasselbeck under center instead of veteran headcase Vince Young. Jacksonville says goodbye to Jack Del Rio this season, as the Jags struggle mightily, especially starting Luke McCown.
San Diego choked 2010 away, plain and simple. This will be the Bolts’ bounceback year, however, and I expect them to be very strong. Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill will play full seasons, and the special teams looked to have made some improvement in the preseason. No reason the Chargers can’t win at least 12 games. Kansas City will hit a slump after last year’s surprising run to the top of the AFC West. Matt Cassel lost a bigtime receiving threat in Tony Moeaki, which will put more pressure on the running game to move the football. Denver will do well in its first season under John Fox, and I think we could have our fair share of Tim Tebow sightings this season. And the Oakland Raiders…oh, boy. Losing Asomugha, Robert Gallery and Zach Miller will crush this team. I see two wins for the Silver and Black, and more importantly, Andrew Luck playing in Oakland at this time next year.
Philadelphia may have the “Dream Team,” but it’ll be a nightmare if Michael Vick loses any time with injury. I’m assuming he makes it through an entire season and the Eagles squeak by the Giants and Cowboys to win the division. I’m not sold on either Eli Manning or Tony Romo, and they’ll prove me right by failing to get their teams to the postseason. The Cowboys will win nine games, and New York will have a .500 year. Washington still has Rex Grossman under center, so no matter how well Tim Hightower does running the football, it still won’t be good enough.
The defending champs will win this division by at least two games, and will have the best record in the league at season’s end. The Packers finished last season on a roll with a ton of injuries; no reason to think they won’t continue that roll in 2011. Detroit will go as far as Matthew Stafford can take it; if he stays healthy, I see 11 wins and a playoff spot. If not, well, it’s back to the drawing board for Jim Schwartz and Co. Chicago takes a big fall from last season’s run to the NFC title game, and Minnesota struggles in its first season with Donovan McNabb.
This is the best division in the conference, with three legitimate playoff contenders. Just like last year, though, New Orleans and Atlanta will get in, and Tampa Bay will be left out in the cold. New Orleans is over its Super Bowl hangover and will get to 13 wins this season. Atlanta will sneak into the last playoff spot by winning 11 games (including a win over the Packers in the Georgia Dome). Raheem Morris will meet his 10-win mark from last season with the Bucs, and also will wish his team played in the NFC West. Carolina is bound to be awful next season, but the Panthers have built a solid offense around Cam Newton – this offense could have potential over the next 2-3 years.
St. Louis finishes the job this year and gets in the playoffs at 8-8. A brutal early-season schedule prevents the Rams from getting over the .500 mark. Arizona will have its struggles under Kevin Kolb, but he’ll get them to seven wins. Seattle and San Francisco bring up the rear in this division, which will be terrible in playing the AFC North and NFC East this year.
Wild Card weekend gives us the third meeting between the Steelers and Ravens, and like the previous two, Pittsburgh will win. Also advancing in the AFC will be San Diego, who will repay the Jets for upsetting them in the 2009 divisional round. Detroit will win its first playoff game in forever by knocking off the Rams, and Michael Vick will lead the Eagles over his former mates from Atlanta.
Pittsburgh hasn’t beaten New England with Tom Brady in years, and I expect that trend to continue in the divisional round. The Patriots will meet the Chargers, who will put an end to the Texans’ first playoff campaign. Green Bay will win its rubber match with Detroit in Lambeau, and New Orleans will knock off the Eagles to set up the NFC title game, a rematch of tonight’s season opener. New England will return to the Super Bowl after dispatching San Diego in the AFC Championship, and Green Bay will use its home-field advantage to beat New Orleans to set up a Patriots/Packers Super Bowl.
Fifteen years after winning a Super Bowl over the Patriots, the Packers will do it again. Aaron Rodgers will win Super Bowl MVP for the second straight year…and the big gold belt stays in Green Bay.