Time for the season predictions…suicides are over, two-a-days long forgotten, and the final cuts are made. It’s GAME TIME!!!
Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore finally has the mix of offense and defense they’ve never had not to mention a balanced offense that can strike from anywhere. Here’s a crazy stat for you…QB and “game manager” Joe Flacco somehow managed to throw for 3,613 yards last season without a receiver the caliber of Anquan Bolden. The addition of TJ Houshmandzadeh will open the passing game further and make the ground game that much more effective.
Cincinnati Bengals: Believe it or not I think T.O. will find a home in Cincy where he fits in with the rest of the NFL second-chance star talent. Carson Palmer will light up some defenses with T.O. and OchoCinco and those he can’t will get a heavy dose of Cedric Benson. The Bengals will get to double-digits in wins and a wild-card slot but come up just short of the division.
Pittsburgh Steelers: They’ll start the season in a 1- 3 or 2 – 2 hole and not be able to dig their way out of it. While the absence of Big Ben will force Pittsburgh to focus back on Steeler football the resurgent ground attack and opportunistic defense will not be enough to catch either Cincy or Baltimore.
Cleveland Browns: I honestly believe Eric Mangini is the right man for this job and his slowly shaping the team into the image of a ballclub he wants. Jake Delhomme will rebound from a terrible year to lead a surprisingly explosive offense. The defense, however, will be their undoing. Their will be glimmers of hope and maybe an upset or two along the way.
New England Patriots: I have learned never to question Darth Belichick and with each passing preseason game I have come away with one feeling about the Patriots; there is a storm brewing in New England and a suspect defense will be the only thing that keeps the Pats from the Super Bowl. Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and a cast of role players (to include an impressive and unselfish running game by committee) will not blow your mind offensively but they will put up points, enough to support a defense that will be spectacular at times.
New York Jets: Rex Ryan may be the next great sideline motivator and his defense can be down-right impenetrable but this team slipped into the playoffs last season and has a schedule that includes division rivals New England and Miami along with Baltimore, Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. I believe the loss of Thomas Jones will affect the ground game more negatively than expected and I don’t think Mark Sanchez is there just yet. The defense will carry many games but the Jets could just as easily end the season 8 – 8 as they could Super Bowl champions; I think they fall short and miss the playoffs.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are starting to look like a Parcels-style team with a solid ground attack and harassing defense; with the inclusion of Brandon Marshall the offense gets the boost to the passing game they needed. One problem though, questions are already starting to emerge regarding which Chad will be under center. Henne is the heir apparent but Pennington is the perennial comeback player of the year who fans (and coaches) love…he’s a winner and if Henne falters the media will be screaming for Pennington. Florida knows a thing or two about controversies involving chad’s and it’s not good.
Buffalo Bills: Trent Edwards may be the leader the Bills are searching for but he’s no Jim Kelly and the fans will forever be restless about the QB until one pulls off at least a playoff victory…sorry Bills fan but that’s a few years away and it might come from the Los Angeles Bills. Buffalo will have a solid defense and an effective offense which will feature some explosive moments by C.J. Spiller but the schedule is brutal and features teams with better talent week in and week out making this a long cold winter in Buffalo.
San Diego Chargers: Despite the loss of icon LT the Chargers offense will remain as explosive as ever. Newcomer (and rookie of the year candidate) Ryan Mathews will complement a passing attack that can come at you from all angles. The defense will be suspect at times keeping San Diego out of the conversation regarding elite teams but it will be enough to win the division.
Oakland Raiders: The addition of Jason Campbell will be exactly what the Raiders needed and his veteran presence will add maturity to an offense that will improve in all aspects; more importantly Campbell will help Heyward-Bey and McFadden begin to live up to their potential. The defense which started to show flashes last season will keep the Raiders in games late and that’s all Tom Cable and Co. can ask as the Silver and Black begin to climb out of the cellar.
Denver Broncos: Kyle Orton is a winner but even his 29 – 19 career win record won’t keep the calls for the Tim Tebow-era to begin. The ground game will be in good hands with Knowshon Moreno and a resurgent Correll Buckhalter but the passing game will be marginal. The biggest impact on the Broncos will be the loss of Dumervil whose loss will expose a pass defense that gets thin beyond future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey.
Kansas City Chiefs: One would think the Patriots have moved to the plains but just because the bulk of the Super Bowl winning coaching staff is now in Kansas City don’t expect immediate results. Matt Cassell has yet to show he’s the QB the Chiefs are searching for and with Chris Chambers and Dwayne Bowe as his primary targets there is no reason to think he’s going to take the next step; Chambers and Bowe are talented but they’re not among the league elite. The Chiefs will win some games, though, thanks to their ground attack. The most underrated RB in the league is Thomas Jones who has quietly (very quietly) put together 5 straight 1,000+ yard seasons (29<sup>th</sup> all-time and likely moving into the top-25 by season’s end) will provide the punch to the explosive Jamaal Charles’ flash; the two may rival Carolina’s duo of Williams/Stewart as the best RB tandem in the league. The defense will again be the Chiefs downfall as Romeo Crennel struggles to get the most out of an underperforming unit.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts will continue to lead the most balanced division in the AFC. As long as Peyton Manning is under center the Colts stable of receivers will provide too many targets for defenses to stop. Joseph Addai will have the best season of his career as David Brown and Mike Hart keep him fresh and bolster the Indy ground attack. On defense Bob Sanders will stay healthy and Dwight Freeney will continue to terrorize QB’s allowing the colts D to cause havoc and give the offense great field position. The downfall of the Colts will be physical offenses that stay on the field.
Tennessee Titans: Jeff Fisher is an amazing coach, the most underrated in the league if not history of the game. For an unbelievable 15 seasons as coach of the Titans (he’s been there so long they were the Oilers when he was hired) Fisher has constantly pulled winners out of a team that didn’t always have the best talent posting only 4 losing seasons in his career. The Titans are loaded with Fisher-style talent and will challenge the Colts for a division crown but be content with a wild-card spot. Vince Young has matured and will only get better throwing to solid pass catchers in Bo Scaife, Justin Gage, Nate Washington, and Kenny Britt (my candidate for break-out receiver of the year) but it will be Chris Johnson who makes the offense lethal. If Johnson can avoid injury he just might top 3,000 yards in total offense. The defense will again be a physical bend-but-don’t-break unit that lives off turnovers.
Houston Texans: The Texans are an explosive offense that deserves a playoff shot but just can’t seem to catch a break. In the AFC even a 10 win season might keep you from the playoffs and HC Gary Kubiak knows the only way to assure a playoff spot is to win your division and I don’t see that happening. Matt Schaub is one of the best passers in the league and with targets like Andre Johnson (arguably the best WR in the game) and Arian Foster out of the backfield the Texans will have a high powered offense. The defense will again show signs of dominance but the lapses in coverage will haunt them against division rivals. I like the Texans to keep the race close but key losses to the Colts and Titans will doom them to 3<sup>rd</sup> place.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville has Maurice Jones-Drew but little else on offense. While the hammer that is Jones-Drew can put the fear of God into defenses the remaining talent on Jacksonville’s grind-it-out offense is average at best. The defense has underperformed and will likely continue that trend. The Jags will finish out of the playoffs and will fire Jack del Rio.
AFC Championship: Baltimore over Indianapolis
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers will exercise any remaining ghosts of Brett Favre-past. The Packers are balanced on both offense and defense; they can score from anywhere on the field and have a defense that creates turnovers which is key against division rival and fumble prone Adrian Peterson. The Packers don’t have the flash of the Cowboys or the Saints but they can play with either.
Minnesota Vikings: The return of The Favre has everyone talking Super Bowl but I predict a season of adversity in Minnesota. This will be the season Favre shows his age and despite his yardage totals and TD’s it will be the fumbles by Peterson that shape the season. The defense is as dominant as there is in the league and will alone win them games but the offense won’t be able to repeat the magic of last season and losses to Green Bay, New Orleans, Dallas, and New England will relegate the Vikings to a wild card spot.
Chicago Bears: The Bears have the talent to run a Mike Martz offense and be successful but it will take time for the team to gel. The ground game will be vastly improved as Matt Forte regains his rookie form and will emerge as one of the best receiving back in the league. Johnny Knox will become a star in the passing game and Jay Cutler will return to Pro Bowl form but the O-Line will struggle at times and the offense will falter. The defense is aging and while Julius Peppers will help rejuvenate Tommie Harris and a once dominate LB unit there isn’t enough talent to stop division rivals green Bay and Minnesota. A 3<sup>rd</sup> place finish is likely and Lovie Smith may be out by season’s end.
Detroit Lions: The Lions are improving but that really isn’t saying much after going 2 – 30 the past 2 seasons; there are signs of hope, however, in Mathew Stafford, Chris Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies Jahvid Best and Ndamukong Suh. Suh may turnaround the defense all on his own and has shown a nasty streak that is much needed in Detroit. Best should combine with Kevin Smith to provide a reliable ground attack to balance the emerging passing threat led by the gutsy Stafford. The Lions are still a few years away from playoff contention but with 6 very winnable games on the schedule Detroit will flirt with .500.
Dallas Cowboys: The hype has already begun as the Cowboys look to return to Super Bowl glory and do so in their home stadium. The defense is built on speed and power, forged to create havoc and confuse opposing offenses. Tony Romo is poised to lead an offense unit stocked with deep strike weapons. Dez Bryant, when healthy, will make an immediate impact as a rookie making a perfect complement for Miles Austin. The versatile ground attack featuring Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, and the bruiser Marion Barber will beat up defenses and then blow past them but the heart of the engine is Romo to Witten. The Cowboys will win a ton of games, get the hype machine reviving, and fall one game short of their goal.
New York Giants: New York will return to Giant football; the offense will smack opponents in the mouth with a combination of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs while Eli Manning mixes in effective passes to the “other” Steve Smith, star-in-the-making Hakeem Nicks, and the underrated Kevin Boss. The defense will once again focus on front-four domination at the point of attack with Tuck, Canty, Cofield, and Kiwanuka; Osi Umenyiora will return to the starting line-up by season end. That being said the Giants won’t have enough to stay with Dallas and with tough losses to Indianapolis, Houston, and season splits with Phily and Washington the Giants will come up short of the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Kevin Kolb-era in Phily has begun and Eagles fans will be happy with what they see right up until the week 4 loss to Washington and former Eagles QB Donavan McNabb. The Eagles have young and explosive weapons but are an injury away from being sub-.500 as depth is the biggest issue on offense. The defense will be opportunistic at times and flat out lost at others; the pass defense will be exposed often as they face Aaron Rodgers, McNabb, Matt Ryan, both Manning’s, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, and Brett Favre during the season.
Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan is one of the best coaches in NFL history and his offensive style fits the Redskins personnel but questions on defense will linger all season as Washington rebuilds in a tough division. Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson may have their best seasons in years running behind Shanahan’s zone blocking offense and McNabb is a proven winner who will find several scoring opportunities with Santana Moss and Chris Cooley but the ‘Skins just don’t have enough firepower.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers aren’t going to fool anyone; they’re going to line up and smack you in the grill on offense and defense. In a weak division the Niners have the most balance on both sides of the ball. Alex Smith will continue to develop into a dependable QB who will flash a few 300 yard passing games, Frank Gore will continue to punish defenses, and Michael Crabtree will complement Vernon Davis (if they can keep from fighting) as the two provide San Fran a solid over-under pass attack. The defense, led by Manny Lawson, may not have the overall talent to stop the Saints, Falcons, Eagles, Packers, or Chargers but they should dominate their division along with non-divisional opponents like Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Oakland; 9 – 6 should give the Niners the division crown.
Arizona Cardinals: The cardinals are going to miss Kurt Warner. As the Cardinals transition from pass happy offense to churn-it-out ground attack there will be growing pains. At times Bennie Wells and Tim Hightower will show flashes of ground domination and Derek Anderson will remind folks of his Pro Bowl season but it won’t be enough to win the division. The Cardinals do have one thing going for them…a fairly weak schedule. They’ll compete with San Fran for the division crown but a season sweep by the Niners will keep Arizona home for the post season.
Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll is a good coach and the talent he has in Seattle could emerge enough to get Seattle to 8 – 8. Matt Hasselbeck still has plenty of game left in him and he’ll get the most out of Mike Williams, Deion Branch, and rookie Golden Tate. The ground attack will start slow but eventually Leon Washington and Justin Forsett will produce enough to keep defenses off balance. The defense will be led by Lofa Tatupu who will return to form. While the defense isn’t going to shutout anyone but the fairly weak schedule should produce 6 to 8 wins.
St Louis Rams: Sam Bradford is going to show everyone why he was the #1 pick overall in this years draft. His poise and confidence, however, will not be enough to save him from a season long beating. Steven Jackson will continue to churn out the tough yards and show why he is among the NFL elite but that’s where the weapons stop. On defense the holes are huge and Steve Spagnuolo will need to dial up blitzes in order to hide their porous pass defense which will be difficult with underperforming talent like DE Chris Long. The Rams can pull out 5 if everything clicks for them but it’s going to be another long season in St Louis.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints will repeat…as NFC South champions; this is no small accomplishment when you consider this division has never had a repeat champion. The offense led by Drew Brees remains among the most explosive and diverse in NFL history and the defense will continue to create turnovers. The questions will be, however, if the Saints can handle being on everyone’s radar especially with a schedule that features Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Baltimore.
Atlanta Falcons: After a sophomore season filled with adversity Matt Ryan will reassert himself as an elite QB. With a solid ground game and weapons in Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Tony Gonzales the Falcons will challenge the Saints for the division crown, falling short but content with a wild card. The defense will step up at times but lacks the balance to stop offenses like the Saints, Ravens, Bengals, and Packers.
Carolina Panthers: In his first season as starter Matt Moore will benefit from the most lethal ground attack in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will both, again, rush for over 1,000 yards as the Panthers stuff the ball down opponent’s throats; without a significant balance to the offense, however, the Panthers will fall short to Atlanta and New Orleans in the division race. The loss of Peppers on defense will be felt as the pass rush declines and the pass defense slips with it. In a season of transition it is likely HC John Fox will not be around after the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers will rely on Josh Freeman and a healthy Cadillac Williams to keep the pressure off a very young defense and that is a lot to ask from a 2nd year QB and oft-injured RB. Tampa has the look of a division champion in about 3 years but they’re just too young and lack the overall talent to compete within the division let alone the NFC. Freeman will continue to grow as a starter in this league and the defense will slowly begin to develop as the season wears on but lack of productivity and victories may eventually be too much for a team needing time to mature.
NFC Championship: Green Bay over Dallas
Super Bowl: Baltimore over Green Bay