2011 NFL Season Preview & Predictions

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…


New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches his team play the Chicago Bears during the second quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on December 12, 2010. The Patriots won 36-7. UPI/Brian Kersey

1. Patriots
2. Jets
3. Dolphins
4. Bills

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.

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Bradford, Rams could take a step back in 2011

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford hands the football off to running back Steven Jackson in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on November 21, 2010. Atlanta defeated St. Louis 34-17. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The Rams make an easy choice for NFC West champions this year, don’t they? They’re like the Almond Joy in a candy bowl that’s also hosting Tootsie Rolls, Spice Drops, and those black and orange-wrapped pieces of awfulness that people hand out at Halloween.

Coconut? Yeah, I can deal with coconut.

But while most media members are predicting the Rams to win their division this year, I actually envision them taking a step back. In fact, I think 8-8 would be quite an accomplishment for a team that is definitely on the rise but has some major hurdles to overcome to make the postseason.

Have you checked out the Rams’ schedule this year? It’s freaking brutal. They open up at home against everyone’s chic pick the Eagles before heading to New York to play the Giants in Week 2. They come back to St. Louis for two home games and while one of those contests is a Week 4 matchup with the Redskins, the other is a Week 3 tilt against the Ravens.

After they come back from their BYE in Week 5, the Rams travel to Green Bay and Dallas before hosting the Saints in Week 8. So in six of their first seven games they play the entire NFC East, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the team that won it all in 2009 and might be poised to do it again in 2011.

Thanks, schedule makers!

Another problem, of course, is the dreaded sophomore jinx for Sam Bradford. In all honesty, I think it’s foolish to believe that all young players are destined for failure in their second seasons, as if life always warns us when we’re about to fall on hard times. But while the jinx itself is a rather juvenile way of looking at the situation, there is something to a quarterback struggling in his second year. The playbook expands, responsibility grows, and now defensive coordinators have 16 or so games to dissect your weaknesses. It’s not a jinx – it’s maturation.

Bradford had an impressive rookie campaign and I do believe he’ll only get better. But I’m willing to bet he’ll suffer through different kinds of hurdles than he did as a rookie, especially seeing as how he must learn a new offensive system under Josh McDaniels and as expectations continue to rise. (Keep in mind that this is a team that many people believe is a playoff contender, circumstances like a weak division be damned.)

There are plenty of reasons why some observers have fallen in love with the Rams. The spotlight is on Bradford, but this team has also built an impressive-looking defensive line and acquired one of the most productive safeties in the NFL this offseason in Quintin Mikell. The Rams vastly upgraded the right guard position with the signing of free agent Harvey Dahl (who replaces the highly ineffective Adam Goldberg), and gave Bradford another weapon in Mike Sims-Walker.

But the schedule stinks, Bradford will suffer more growing pains in his second year and it’ll be interesting to see how long Steven Jackson continues to rumble on as the Rams wear him down to the treads. Outside linebacker, depth in the secondary, and uncertainty at the wide receiver position are three other causes for concern heading into the season.

So who will win the West? My guess would be the Cardinals, although I don’t write that with much conviction. I just have a hunch it won’t be Bradford and the Rams.

Ten Predictions for the 2011 NFL Season

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick stumbles during first half against Minnesota Vikings in their NFL football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 28, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Pre-season predictions are rather silly, aren’t they? I mean really, we haven’t seen any of these teams play and yet we’re all ready to predict who will appear in the Super Bowl. Ridiculous. Just ridiculous, I say.

But damn it they’re fun. You can’t deny that. If we as fans don’t partake in a little pre-season shenanigans then I ask you, what are we doing with our lives?

My regular season and Super Bowl predictions won’t be released until next week, but here’s a little something to whet your appetite in the meantime.

Ten Predictions for the 2011 NFL Season:

1. The Eagles won’t win the Super Bowl.
I’m not a big believer in Michael Vick. I used to be. I used to believe that he could walk on water and was going to lead the Falcons to not one, but about 16 Super Bowls when he was in Atlanta. Then I realized the guy was completely fine with not putting in the work to raise his game to the next level. I realize he was complacent and was fine with being an extraordinary athlete but not a championship-caliber quarterback. I don’t know Michael Vick personally so maybe I have him all wrong. And maybe he really has grown as a player and a person in Philadelphia. Hey, Andy Reid is 10-times the coach Jim Mora was, so maybe all Vick needed was better guidance. That said, I don’t think Vick will win a Super Bowl this season with the Eagles. He’s never done well when the expectations were high and if you want proof of that, look at his 2005 and 2006 seasons in Atlanta. (Pundits were more than willing to hitch their wagon to Vick back then, just as they are now.) There were no expectations for him at the start of last season because it was Kevin Kolb’s team. But now it’s his team and I don’t think he’ll see the Eagles through to the end. This prediction may look foolish for most of the regular season, but let’s see what happens come January and February.

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Could the Lions actually contend for a playoff berth in 2011?

Detroit Lions guard Manny Ramirez (L), quarterback Matthew Stafford (2nd L), and their teammates celebrate with fans their victory over the Washington Redskins after their NFL football game in Detroit, Michigan September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every morning I have a routine when I log onto the computer for the day. I read as much NFL content from beat writers, columnists and bloggers that I can, and then I outline story ideas that I want to develop for my own articles.

For a couple of weeks I’ve thought about tackling the Detroit Lions and the possibility that they could contend in 2011. But every time I look down at the Lions on my list of ideas, I bypass them because I believe they’re still a year or two away from competing.

But today, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write about them. Maybe it was because of their impressive performance against the Patriots on Saturday night or the fact that I’m sick of reading about Peyton Manning’s neck, but today was the day I chose the Lions as a topic. And after getting a shocking phone call from an old friend in Detroit, I’m glad I did.

After graduating from Central Michigan University in 2004, I moved to Detroit and lived there for about four years. During that time, I got a job on the promotions team and as a nights and weekends producer for WDFN Sports Radio AM1130. Passing out free swag to people in bars wasn’t the ideal job for a college graduate, but I felt very fortunate to even have a foot in the door at a sports radio station and was more than happy to do the work.

One of my favorite promotional events that I looked forward to every week during the football season was a Monday evening Lions recap show with WDFN host and MLive.com beat writer Tom “Killer” Kowalski. While driving out to the bar and setting up the show together, on-site engineer Albert Dale and I used to talk about our fantasy teams or football games from the previous weekend. When Killer arrived, he and Albert would often trade friendly barbs and I would try to get both of them to bet me on the Monday Night Football game. (I don’t remember Tom ever partaking in my sharking, but Albert and I always had something insignificant on the line.)

Killer was a smart ass but he was funny and extremely likable. He was also kind and generous, and most importantly he cared about people whether his exterior expression showed it or not. He was also a little quirky and it never ceased to amaze me how the big guy always wore shorts, even during the coldest of Detroit winters. Lion fans didn’t always agree with him, but he had a big following because he often told it like it was and yet, he had a way of providing optimism even in the darkest of times (which have come all too often for Detroit fans). He was also a damn fine reporter and always provided quality content, which isn’t the case for every beat writer around the country.

In the middle of writing today’s column, I listened to a voicemail that Albert left for me on my cell phone and I could tell by his tone that something was wrong. Apparently Tom passed away this morning after his fiancé found him unresponsive in his home. The long-time Lions beat writer was only 51-years-old.

When I called Albert back, we both expressed our shock over the news but eventually started talking about all of the nights spent with Tom putting on his show. When I eventually got off the phone, I looked back at my computer screen and saw the half-finished Lions column that I had started.

Yeah, today is a good day to talk Lions football. This one is for you Killer, may you rest in peace.

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If defense improves, now is the time for Texans to overtake Colts

Houston Texans defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (99) tackles Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Indianapolis November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Brent Smith (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

It’s now or never for the Houston Texans. Either they win the AFC South this season or spend the rest of their miserable existence in NFL purgatory.

All right, so that was a little extreme. But you’d have to be a corpse not to feel the sense of urgency that is surrounding the Texans as we draw closer to the 2011 regular season.

Peyton Manning’s neck injury has cast a cloud of doubt around the Colts. Tony Dungy was probably right when he recently said that unless Manning is dead, he won’t miss Week 1. But even if he does suit up, Manning, or Mr. Preparation as his poker buddies call him, hasn’t done much prepping for the 2011 season. How effective will he be early on? Will this be an injury that nags him the entire season? Will he be Peyton Manning? Because if he isn’t, then it’s fair to say that the Colts are a rather average team.

Nevermind that though; the Texans can’t be worried about what Manning and the Colts are doing. They need to focus on themselves because their moment to shine is here. Besides re-signing running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels to keep their explosive offense intact, the biggest move Houston made this offseason was hiring Wade Phillips to be its new defensive coordinator. Say what you will about Phillips’ inability to be a head coach, but the man knows how to run a defense. And he knows something about quick turnarounds, too.

The last seven times that Phillips has taken over as a head coach or defensive coordinator, his new team has reached the playoffs in its first season. And only once in those seven years has Phillips taken over a club that was coming off a winning record, which is a testament to the impact he can have on new teams. That’s a good sign for Houston, which finished 6-10 last year largely because of a defense that finished third to last in yards allowed and fourth to last in points per game.

The Texans also signed a key piece this offseason to help Phillips turn around the team’s defensive misfortunes. While they heavily pursued corner Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, the Texans did well to land the second-best DB on the market in Jonathan Joseph. Still in his prime at 27, Joseph flashed shutdown corner ability in Cincinnati and should dramatically improve the league’s worst secondary from a year ago.

Of course, the defense wasn’t the only problem last year. The Texans have been a team that has struggled against divisional opponents the last two years. After going 1-5 in 2009, the Texans did finish 3-3 against the AFC South last season, but 3-3 usually doesn’t win divisional crowns. In fact, the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs have been the only team in the last four years to win their division despite having a losing record, which shines light on how important it is that the Texans take care of business against Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee this year.

I joked earlier about this season being a “now or never” opportunity for the Texans to win the AFC South. Unless owner Bob McNair abruptly folds the franchise after this year, the Texans may be favored to win in 2012 or beyond. That said, when are the Texans going to have a better opportunity than now? Phillips was the right man for the defensive job, Manning’s injury leaves a lot of uncertainty in Indy, and Jacksonville and Tennessee are largely devoid of talent.

Now or never? Not quite. But then again it might as well be.

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