Thirty-two teams, 32 predictions. That’s what you’ll find in our 2011 NFL Season Preview, which consists of division-by-division breakdowns, playoff projections and of course, a Super Bowl prediction. (Let’s see if I can’t make it two in a row after correctly predicting the Packers to win last year.)
Let’s get nasty…
Go ahead and pick against the Patriots but it won’t help you sleep better at night. Fact is they addressed their biggest weakness in the offseason by adding more pass-rushers and they’ve improved as a whole. I wonder if releasing James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather will hurt their depth in the secondary but Bill Belichick knows what he’s doing on that side of the ball, even if others don’t see it…Mark Sanchez needs to be just as good in the regular season as he has been in the postseason so that the Jets can win this division and host a couple of playoff games (as opposed to having to win on the road every year). I don’t think the Jets will surpass the Pats this season but Rex Ryan is once again at the controls of a Super Bowl contender…The Dolphins have a real nice linebacker corps and I love their young cornerback duo of Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. But they’ve got a real problem at quarterback in Chad Henne and outside of left tackle Jake Long, their offensive line is shaky as well. What’s the over/under for number of days before Brandon Marshall blows a gasket?…Chances are the Bills are going to be better than their overall record indicates but they play in a tough division, their offensive line is still a weakness and Ryan Fitzpatrick will only take a team so far. That said, Buffalo is slowly getting better each year and it has a couple of playmakers on defense in Shawne Merriman and George Wilson.
I contemplated having the Ravens win the division but in the end, the Steelers are just too strong. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is seemingly an issue heading into the season but it was also a problem in 2008 when they won the Super Bowl and it was supposed to hold them back last year, too. The bottom line is that defense is still a dominating force and as long as he can stay healthy, Ben Roethlisberger will lead this team back to the playoffs and beyond…The Ravens (whom I predicted to represent the AFC in last year’s Super Bowl) need to play with more consistency throughout the season, especially against top competition. They lost a couple of good defensive players in Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson and all things being equal, I don’t think they’re better than the Steelers. That said, this is still a solid football team and I envision the Ravens making the postseason again…The Browns have something good brewing in Cleveland. Colt McCoy is the perfect fit for the West Coast Offense and his blindside is protected by the NFL’s best left tackle in Joe Thomas. Defensively, former top 10 pick Joe Haden looks like a stud in the making and the same can be said for safety T.J. Ward. Still, the defensive end and wide receiver positions are question marks and the Steelers and Ravens are just too good for the Browns to make the playoffs…The Bengals have big-time issues. They’ve got a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, they lost one of their top cornerbacks in free agency (Jonathan Joseph/Texans), the safety position is a mess, and their running back just got out of jail. If Cincy wins five games this year it would be a miracle.
It’s the Texans’ year, plain and simple. I love the hiring of Wade Phillips, who has a track record of turning teams around in his first year as either head coach or defensive coordinator. They also addressed one of their biggest weaknesses with the signing of corner Jonathan Joseph, and Kareem Jackson should be much better in his second year as well. As long as Matt Schaub can stay healthy and be consistent, and running back Arian Foster’s hamstring won’t be an issue all season, the Texans will make the playoffs. They just have too much firepower…The Colts’ season hangs in the balance, as Peyton Manning’s neck injury continues to be a concern. This team has looked really bad without Peyton under center in the past and Kerry Collins (while a better option than Curtis Painter) won’t be able to keep them afloat if Manning misses more than a couple of weeks. It’s usually not wise to bet against Colts but they have a real problem on their hands with Manning’s injury…I almost moved the Jaguars up to second place after they bolstered their defense with the additions of Paul Posluzsny, Matt Roth and Dawan Landry this offseason. But after the team jettisoned David Garrard I updated this paragraph and moved them down to fourth. Nobody is going to mistake Garrard for Peyton Manning but he certainly could have kept the Jaguars in contention throughout the year. An eight or even nine-win season was in reach with Garrard under center but not now. Not with Luke McCown or rookie Blaine Gabbert. The coaching staff in Jacksonville has seemingly wanted Garrard out of there for years and they finally got what they wanted. Well good luck with that decision…It’s hard to know what to make of the Titans. Will Matt Hasselbeck’s back be a concern? Will Chris Johnson be injury-prone after missing all of camp and preseason due to a holdout? Does the defense have enough playmakers? The Titans aren’t bad by any means. But are they a contender? They have way too many question marks heading into the season, especially seeing as how they have a new coaching staff.
This is a better division than people think but as long as the Chargers don’t get in their own way, there’s no reason they shouldn’t return to the top of the AFC West Mountain. They have an outstanding quarterback in Philip Rivers, who will have a healthy Antonio Gates and a less-disgruntled Vincent Jackson at his disposal all season. The defense might not be as talented as it has been in past years but it’s a solid unit nonetheless and if this team can start fast this season (for a change), the Bolts should win the division…Not many people are picking the Chiefs to repeat but it’s not like they’ve gotten worse. In fact, they may have gotten better in some areas and they certainly have enough offensive firepower thanks to guys like Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe. Where the doubt comes in is at quarterback, as many observers don’t expect Matt Cassel to play with the same consistency as he did a year ago. Either way, this team will compete with the Chargers and it wouldn’t be shocking if they won the division again…The Raiders swept the division last year but for some reason people still view this team as one of the doormats in the AFC. If Jason Campbell can turn in a steady performance and young guys like Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey have career years, there’s no reason to think the Raiders couldn’t win this division. That said, losing Nnamdi Asomugha could dramatically change the way Oakland plays defensively. If they still want to go man-to-man the majority of the time without Asomugha locking down one side, then good luck…Outside of his final year in Carolina, John Fox always got the most out of his players, which is why the Broncos will be better than people expect. That said, Knowshon Moreno needs to stay healthy all season, the offensive line has issues with the exception of Ryan Clady, and a number of young players are expected to start on the defensive side of the ball. Just like the Titans in the AFC South, this isn’t a bad Denver team but it’s unlikely that they finish higher than third in the West.
In 2004, Michael Vick was coming off a devastating leg injury that he suffered the season before so the expectations for him and the Falcons were rather low. But he led them to the NFC Championship Game anyway. In 2005 when many people were picking the Falcons to head to the Super Bowl, Vick didn’t play consistently enough from week-to-week and was ONE OF the reasons the Falcons fell flat on their faces. The same thing happened in 2006 when many analysts were predicting a rebound year for Vick and Co and instead, he was only marginal. My point is that when the expectations for Vick’s teams are high, he doesn’t deliver. Granted, Andy Reid is ten-times the coach Jim Mora was in Atlanta and Vick says he has a better worth ethic now than he did earlier in his career. But I’m not totally convinced. I think he’ll either get hurt or he won’t play with enough consistency (or both) and with that, the Eagles will fail to live up to the hype…On top of having a healthy Tony Romo back under center and a full year of Jason Garrett at the controls, I like the Cowboys this year for the opposite reason I don’t like the Eagles: because the expectations are low. The ‘Boys have issues at cornerback but the roster is otherwise chockfull of talent and I see a major bounce back year for this team, which includes them making the playoffs…The Giants are going to struggle to finish 8-8. Injuries keep piling up and their limited cap space had a major impact on what they were able to do in free agency (or weren’t able to do, that is). Tom Coughlin will have his team ready to play most Sundays but it’s hard to envision the Giants making the playoffs…Thanks to Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins will have a sound rushing attack. But 16 games of either Rex Grossman (the current starter) or John Beck (the possible starter if Grossman falters) sounds terrifying.
The Packers have the most talent in the NFC and they’ll welcome back a healthy Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant to an already Super Bowl-winning roster. They’ll also get James Starks involved from Week 1 and if he runs as well this season as he did in last year’s playoffs, Aaron Rodgers will once again have another weapon at his disposal. The Pack didn’t win the division last year but they should have no problems this season as long as Rodgers and Co. stay healthy…The Lions are many people’s chic playoff pick but they still have too many question marks to overtake Green Bay in the division. For starters, can Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best stay healthy? Will the secondary and offensive line hold up? This is an ever-improving team and their defensive line is one of the best in football. As long as Stafford stays healthy, I like the Lions to finish 8-8 but to miss the postseason…The Bears’ offensive line and receivers scare me. Granted, their O-line improved over the course of the preseason but I think we’re going to see a repeat of Jay Cutler’s performance in 2009 when his sack and interception totals were high. That’s not a knock on Cutler, whom I think is a better player than his critics make him out to be. That is a knock, however, on the Bears’ inexperienced offensive line and inconsistent receiver corps. (Signing Roy Williams was your answer at wideout, Jerry Angelo? Wow.) Granted, Julius Peppers was incredible for the defense last year and this team still has playmakers at linebacker. I just don’t see Chicago having the same success it did a year ago…The Vikings lost Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Pat Williams and Bryant McKinnie this offseason and they failed to restock their cupboard. Their front seven is still strong defensively and in players like Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield, the Vikes have enough on both sides of the ball to be dangerous. But the offensive line is a major issue, the depth at receiver is thin, and Donovan McNabb’s play has digressed for years. Minnesota will struggle this season.
Everyone seems to be falling asleep on the Saints this year, which is a mistake. Outside of Drew Brees’ inconsistency woes, the biggest reason the Saints weren’t as explosive as they were in 2009 was because Sean Payton lost his offensive balance. That’s what made his offense so good the year New Orleans won the Super Bowl and it wasn’t the same last season because of all the injuries the team suffered in its backfield. But after adding good depth at the running back position this offseason with the selection of Mark Ingram in April’s draft, and the signing of free agent Darren Sproles, Payton’s offense should go back to putting opponents on their heels. I also love the depth the Saints added to their defensive line and I think they’ll wrestle the South away from the Falcons this season…Speaking of the Falcons, Atlanta is a solid football team from top to bottom. They added an explosive playmaker in receiver Julio Jones and signed Ray Edwards to complement John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux on the defensive line. Atlanta is also moving away from its ball-control offense, so if Matt Ryan is as good as he was a year ago this team could soar. That said, the Falcons need big contributions from Jones and fellow youngsters Sean Weatherspoon, Garrett Reynolds, Joe Hawley and Peria Jerry if they’re going to take that next step. It’s going to be battle between the Saints and Falcons all season…The Bucs have a quarterback in Josh Freeman who is on the rise, an improving defense under head coach Raheem Morris, and a solid young core on both sides of the ball. That said, the Saints and Falcons are still a notch above and I’m concerned about the Bucs’ offensive line. I also didn’t like the moves the front office made this offseason, including overpaying punter Michael Koenen and not heavily pursuing Nnamdi Asomugha despite the fact they had the cap space. This team will compete, but they’re still a year or so away from making the playoffs…The Panthers could once again be a total disaster. Cam Newton will be fun to watch, but he’ll also want to make fans beat their head against the wall as he learns the nuances of being an NFL quarterback. The game will likely be too fast for the young QB and if Carolina isn’t picking in the top-5 of next year’s draft, I’ll be shocked.
Flip a freaking coin. The Rams are probably the most intriguing team, but their schedule is brutal and Sam Bradford will suffer through some sophomore slumps. The 49ers should be better now that they have an actual head coach instead of an assistant posing as a head coach, but it’s hard to put a lot of faith in Alex Smith. (I was burned by him and the Niners last year.) Pete Carroll, meanwhile, is the only person on this planet who thinks Tarvaris Jackson should start over Charlie Whitehurst and the Seahawks’ defense has a plethora of issues as well. That leaves the Cardinals, who have plenty of question marks themselves but the addition of Kevin Kolb should dramatically improve the offense. Granted, Kolb will struggle in his first year but I think he’ll do just enough for Arizona to sneak into the playoffs.
AFC Division Winners: Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Chargers
AFC Wildcard: Ravens, Jets
NFC Division Winners: Cowboys, Packers, Saints, Cardinals
NFC Wildcard: Falcons, Eagles
Jets over Texans
Ravens over Chargers
Falcons over Cardinals
Cowboys over Eagles
Patriots over Jets
Steelers over Ravens
Packers over Cowboys
Saints over Falcons
Patriots over Steelers
Saints over Packers
SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Bill Belichick and the Patriots won’t make it three-straight years of losing in their first postseason game while the Saints will win an absolute battle royal against the Packers in the NFC title game (and a rematch of the season opener). It’s hard to repeat, which is why I think the Packers and Steelers will fall short and why we’ll have two new representatives from each conference. In Belichick and Payton, I think it would be fantastic to see two of the best minds in football go head to head. In the end, I like Brees and Payton to overtake Brady and Belichick.
2012 Super Bowl Prediction: Saints over Patriots