After seven months, which seemed like seven years because of the Lockout, professional football is back. Tonight, as the Saints and Packers get set to kick off, those seven months of waiting, watching and hoping that America’s Winter Game would return, we face the happy reality – it finally is here!
The front-runners, we all know about by now. We know how the Eagles grabbed all of the off-season headlines by trading and signing two of the best cornerbacks in the game. We know that Tom Brady and the Patriots are a mainstay in the AFC East and how the New York Jets would love nothing more than to knock them off their throne. Silently, the Steelers and Saints, who were mostly quiet in free agency, are as stacked as ever to make another postseason run.
We know that there are some teams that are just a lost cause. The Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins may not be doing a lot this year. For some teams, they have finally been rebuilt. The Lions and Rams look to have their young quarterbacks – Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford – lead their team back to the playoffs. For the Lions, their defense is hoping to prove themselves. Last year’s defensive rookie of the year, Ndamungkon Suh, is joined by the Lion’s first round pick, Nick Fairley, who was regarded as one of the top defensive linemen in college.
Already, injuries have played a factor. Just ask the Manning brothers. Peyton, for the first time, will miss an NFL start due to a neck injury that has not healed. Eli, meanwhile, has watched his defensive unit be sent off all too often during the pre-season. Last year’s top running back, Arian Foster, tweaked his hamstring in a pre-season game and is listed as questionable for week one.
But the glorious thing about Opening Night is that, despite how bad things may look, everyone is undefeated. For at least one week, every team has the dream of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and be crowned Champions of the NFL.
Here we go for predictions.
Champions – Patriots: Tom Brady had one of the best statistical seasons in quarterback history last season. In nearly 500 passing attempts, Brady threw only four interceptions. And he did it with relatively no big play receivers on his receiving corp. Tight Ends, Rob Gronkowsi and Aaron Hernandez did have very impressive seasons, and the fact that opposing defenses didn’t have a big play threat to key on only serves to enhance what Brady did with them. Now, with Chad Ochocinco as a threat from out wide and Wes Welker as dangerous of the middle as ever, this is a team with weapons, serious weapons on offense. The Patriots defense, as young as it was last year, needs to improve. As Bart Scott so infamously pointed out in a postgame interview, “25th in the league, can’t stop a nosebleed”. And while that may be an exaggeration (8th best in points allowed, 1st in interceptions), the defense could be better, having let the team down in two out of three games against the Jets. Despite the defensive issues, the team is coached by one the the all-time greats and still the best active coach in the NFL. Bill Belichick, as he always does, will get the team to the postseason. The question for the Pats doesn’t lie in the regular season, but in the postseason, where they haven’t won a playoff game since the 2008 AFC Championship game. That is a long time in Emperor Bill’s domain.
Wild Card – Jets: The New York Jets will make the playoffs in 2011, but once again will be the bridesmaid in the AFC East. The positives are there. Mark Sanchez had another successful postseason run, and nearly rallied his team to a second half comeback in the AFC Championship game. Shonn Green and LaDanian Tomlinson return as the running backs, and although the Jets lost Braylon Edwards and cut Jericho Cotchery, they signed Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Burress has been impressive in pre-season and Mason fits in to replace Cotchery as a quality slot receiver on third down. I think the coaching staff with now-veteran Brian Schottenheimer, will start to open things up for Sanchez in the passing game. The defense is stacked. Even though the Jets lost out on the bidding war for Nnamdi Asomugha, they still have the best shutdown corner in the game with Darrelle Revis, and a very good cornerback in Antonio Cromartie. Expect Kyle Wilson to improve from a mediocre and penalty-filled rookie campaign and good play from their linebackers. Special teams could be an issue, with an inconsistent Nick Folk as the kicker. But what really separates the Pats from the Jets is the quarterback position. There will still be some hiccups from Sanchez – not too many – but enough to cost the team the division.
The rest: Buffalo gave up on 2009 first round pick, Aaron Maybin, and still have question marks at quarterback. They also lost a very good wide receiver when Lee Evans departed. Steve Johnson should be a considerable replacement and Fred Jackson is dangerous running the ball, but not good enough to compete in the AFC East. For the Dolphins, their defense will be solid, with Jason Taylor returning. But their offense, unless Reggie Bush plays as well in South Beach as he did in Southern Cal, will struggle against most defensive units.
Champions – Pittsburgh Steelers: They easily won their division even without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season. The team returns nearly all of last year’s AFC Championship squad, and there is no reason to believe that anyone will knock them off. Jericho Cotchery is the team’s biggest addition, and will give Big Ben even more to work with. The defense is deadly. Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are the NFL’s most feared defenders. Their offensive line was banged up in last year’s playoffs, almost costing them the AFC championship against the Jets and, in the Super Bowl, it clearly affected Roethlisberger. If they can remain healthy, it’s solid enough to lead Pittsburgh to another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Wild Card – Baltimore Ravens: A very solid group of all-around. We all know the defense, although it is getting older, still can scare opponents into submission. Joe Flacco has had three very good years as quarterback, but has not been able to get the Ravens to their first Super Bowl since 2000. They will, with Ray Rice and Lee Evans, have good options for Flacco to go to. But it isn’t enough to contend with the AFC elite defenses, and certainly not with Pittsburgh.
Contender – Cleveland Browns: Maybe contender is a stretch, but I do think they will be more competitive than in years past. Colt McCoy showed promise as the quarterback last year, and Peyton Hillis was one of the best at running back. There are still a lot of question marks on defense, as I can not think of one starter off the top of my head, and will be the reason why they don’t make the playoffs. But a 7-9 record, or even .500 may not be impossible.
The Bengals: The reason why the Browns will compete is because they will play the Bengals twice. They have proven to be the NFL’s misguided child. They lose Ochocinco, and Carson Palmer chose to retire because he simply did not want to play for them. The team’s first round draft pick, Andy Dalton, will start at quarterback, and unless he pulls off his best Sam Bradford act, the team will go nowhere, despite having a not-too-terrible defense. Marvin Lewis doesn’t survive past mid-November.
This may be the most unexciting division.
Champions – San Diego (Super) Chargers: By virtue of the rest of the division being lackluster, the Chargers will win it. But they have a lot of weapons, starting with one of the premier quarterbacks, Phillip Rivers. They did lose Darren Sproles, who was very dangerous on special teams and as a running back, but Ryan Matthews should fill in nicely. Bob Sanders, if healthy (always a big if), can be deadly on defense. Even if he isn’t, the team has a solid front seven and good corners. Weakness is head coach, Norv Turner, who has underwhelmed throughout his tenure. The team is notorious for bad starts, which with Kansas City banged up early, is something to avoid.
Contenders – Kansas City Chiefs: I liked them to win the division because of their deadly running game, which features Jamaal Charles. But then Matt Cassel got injured. He is slated to start the team’s week one game against the Bills, but I have doubts whether or not he will be at a hundred percent for the first few weeks of the season. They also did not do much to improve during the off-season, mainly focusing on keeping the same core group that got them to the playoffs last year. The problem with that is that they were severely outplayed by Baltimore in the playoffs. They will play well against their division, but against the best, there will be struggles.
The rest: Oakland had a solid season in 2010, but lost their cornerstone defender when Nnamdi Asomugha left. Now that teams can attack them by passing the ball, they could be in trouble. They have a solid, but not great offense, quarterbacked by Jason Campbell and they do have a solid running game. They will be average, but lose out to most teams. Denver has absolutely no idea what they are doing. One minute they like Tim Tebow, the next, they want Kyle Orton to start. Orton, although he has the quarterback tools that Tebow lacks, has a history of failing to produce. I get why the Broncos (and people) dislike Tim Tebow, but the guy was a winning player at college and wasn’t terrible as a rookie last year. Denver doesn’t realize that, and although Knowshon Moreno will be good, the rest of the team will not.
Champions – Indianapolis Colts: Yes, Peyton Manning is banged up and will not start the season opener. Yes, they have a lot of question marks on defense. Yes, the offense is way too complex for Kerry Collins, or anyone but Peyton Manning to comprehend. But they have way to many weapons on offense to go down quietly. A stacked receiving corp that, if healthy (which they weren’t last year), is deadly. A lot of that was Manning’s doing, but they are good receivers nonetheless. The organization, from management to coaching to players, is a winning one.
Contenders – Houston Texans: The same can not be said about the Texans. They did a lot to improve their team, primarily by signing a lot of decent defensive backs (instead of one great one) to help fix a porous passing defense from last season. The offense is good, Matt Schaub quietly has good seasons and Andre Johnson is perhaps the game’s best receiver. But Arian Foster’s health is a concern and they lost their top blocking fullback, Vonta Leech to the Ravens. And still, they have not proven anything. There is no history of success with this franchise, no playoff berths to go to, not even many wins against the Colts to point out. They will be good, but if and when Peyton Manning comes back healthy, the division will belong to Indianapolis.
The rest: Tennessee and Jacksonville will compete for the cellar, although I don’t think either team will be brutally bad. Tennessee will have a new coach – Mike Munchak – and new quarterback – Matt Hasselbeck – to try and lead the team. If Hasselbeck can stay healthy, he can have success, and he has Chris Johnson at running back to help him. But a lack of quality targets to throw to is an issue. This team can win games, but not enough to contend for a playoff spot. Jacksonville may be worse off. They cut David Gerrard, who had been the quarterback for the past five seasons, just this past week and will start Luke McCown in Week One. They do have Maurice Jones-Drew running the ball, which is always a positive, but I don’t think they have many more positives. It could be another disappointing year in Northern Florida.
AFC Playoff Seeds
Champions – Philadelphia Eagles: That pains me to type. But they will be a very good team. I’m not sure if they will be great, but with injuries to the Giants and an otherwise mediocre division, they will have no problem. It begins with Michael Vick and a bevy of speedy receivers to throw to. They add Steve Smith (late of the Giants), to give them a possession receiver for third downs. The defense, particularly the secondary, is loaded with Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel. They also have one of the best coaches, Andy Reid, who is looking to give this team its first Super Bowl title.
Contenders – I think the Giants and Cowboys can both contend, but neither of them will make the playoffs. For the Giants, they have been decimated on the defensive side. If they can do anything on that side of the ball, it will be a testament to Tom Coughlin’s coaching staff and ability. The offense isn’t terrible, but it is mostly the same from last year, but minus Kevin Boss and Steve Smith. That’s not a good thing, especially for a receiving corp that looked like their hands were made of bricks, at times last year. The Cowboys will be decent as well, especially if Tony Romo can stay healthy. Dez Bryant had an impressive rookie season, and their receivers are solid. Felix Jones takes over as the featured back, and Marion Barber is out. Although they have a very good front seven, their defensive backs were dreadful last year, and did not impress in pre-season. That, especially against the Eagles, will be the difference.
The Redskins: This could be another brutal season in our nation’s capitol. Rex Grossman will start the season at quarterback, although I’m willing to guarantee he won’t finish it. A top draft pick will be the only thing to look forward to.
I think this is the most intriguing division in football.
Champions – Green Bay Packers: They won the Super Bowl last year, and they did it with most of their team banged up for the entire season. Now healthy, this team is deadly. Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the best quarterback in the game and has good receivers to work with, namely Greg Jennings. On defense, they are deadly in the front seven, and they have one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Charles Woodson. Everything is in line for this team to make another run in Title Town.
Wild Card – Detroit Lions: Gotta pick them. They finished 6-10 last year, and the games they lost were by small margins. They add Nick Fairley to the defensive line, who was regarded as the top defender in college. If the secondary can be better (and it’s not that hard to improve from abysmal), they should be fine, defensively. If Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, the team is a no doubt playoff lock, with Calvin Johnson being a deadly receiver. Jahvid Best returns as running back, after a very good rookie season, and he’s also a threat to catch the ball. If this isn’t the Lions’ year to make the playoffs, I don’t know when it will come.
Wild Card – Chicago Bears: Chicago has Jay Cutler, who ought to be quite hungry to win after leaving the NFC Championship game with an injury. The receivers are decent, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester return, and are joined by Roy Williams. That could be more bad than good. The defense is very strong, as it always is in Chicago. The Bears are going to be one of the teams negatively affected by the NFL kickoff rules, which places kickoffs at the 35 instead of the 30 yard line. This means less chances for Devin Hester to return kicks and set up the Bears with good field position, or score.
Contender – Minnesota Vikings: They made a solid move picking up Donovan McNabb as the quarterback, but there are too many holes. They do have Adrian Peterson, which means they can run the ball, but a lot of question marks. They lost Sidney Rice to the Seahawks, and the offensive line underwhelmed last season. They’ll avoid being a disaster, even win a decent amount of games, but ultimately lose out.
Champions – St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford nearly led them to the postseason last year, and there’s no reason why he won’t improve. They also have a very strong running attack with Stephen Jackson and a solid offensive line. The defense isn’t great, but good enough to win in a sub-par division.
Contender – Arizona Cardinals: They fixed their quarterback woes by trading for Kevin Kolb, and they have one of the best receivers to throw to. But they lost Tim Hightower in the off-season, who was a quality running back. I don’t think they’ll run the ball well enough with Beanie Wells to have a offense good enough to make the playoffs. The defense took a big hit when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was traded, and that will hurt them too.
The rest: Seattle will not, I think, repeat their magical run from last season. It won’t be terrible, but there will be no playoffs for them. Probably a 5-11 team. They’re another team hurt by the kickoff rule, as one of their seven wins last year was due to Leon Washington’s returning ability. But never count them out at home, where they still have the loudest fans. The 49ers will continue to struggle. Colin Kaepernick, the team’s 2nd round draft pick, is waiting in the wings should Alex Smith continue to disappoint. Another long season in the Bay Area.
Champions – New Orleans Saints: Credit Drew Brees for organizing team practices during the lockout, which will be a huge advantage in the early weeks of the season. Brees is still a top 5 quarterback, and they are a better team than last year’s wild card team. They made a significant improvement at running back, drafting running back and former Heisman winner, Mark Ingram and adding Darren Sproles to replace Reggie Bush as a return specialist and speed threat out of the backfield. Their receivers, led by Marques Colston, are dangerous too. An aggressive defense that forces turnovers (a third best 16 fumble recoveries in 2010) is also a highlight. Sean Payton is poised for another return to the playoffs.
Contenders – Atlanta Falcons: There are some playoff losses that have a ripple effect, and I think last year’s playoff loss to the Packers is one of them. Matt Ryan is very good, but he still has not won a playoff game. He gets some help with rookie wideout, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White return as quality targets too. I just think that New Orleans improved more than the Falcons, and there are other teams, like the Lions and Bears, that are just better.
The rest: Tampa Bay will be solid, but did nothing in the off-season to improve. Mediocre year for them. Carolina will be like most teams that start a rookie QB, which is to say, dreadful.
NFC Playoff Seeds
- Green Bay Packers
- New Orleans Saints
- Philadelphia Eagles
- St. Louis Rams
- Detroit Lions
- Chicago Bears
#5 Jets vs. #4 Colts – Defense will triumph over Manning and the Colts. Sanchez has been deadly in past playoff games, this one should be no different.
#6 Ravens vs. #3 Chargers – Tough to call, but I’ll say Chargers by way of Phillip Rivers have a monster game.
#5 Jets vs. #1 Patriots – Another tough game between these two teams, but I still don’t like picking against Brady or Bill in these games. Definitely a close game, wouldn’t be a surprise if the Jets ended their season again.
#3 Chargers vs. #2 Steelers – The Steel Curtain shuts down San Diego and gets back to the title game.
#2 Steelers vs. #1 Patriots – In a thrilling game, the Patriots squeak by, mainly because Brady spreads the ball around and picks apart the defense with laser accuracy. Steelers control the ball for a longer amount of time by running it down their throat.
#5 Lions vs. #4 Rams – In a battle between two young quarterbacks, it is the Lions defense that is they key by shutting down Stephen Jackson. Stafford manages the game well enough.
#6 Bears vs. #3 Eagles – Speed against brute strength. Chicago, with a better running game, ends up coming out on top and forcing the dream team to wake up.
NFC Divisional Round
#6 Bears vs. #1 Packers – Green Bay just has too many weapons – and home field advantage – to lose this game. Linebackers shut down Matt Forte, Rodgers has big day passing.
#5 Lions vs. #2 Saints – Without a doubt, the Saints win this game. Too much experience, too much talent. It will be a brutal game for Detroit, but an important lesson for a young team.
NFC Championship Game
#2 Saints vs. #1 Packers – In a rematch of tonight’s game, Drew Brees returns to the Super Bowl by letting Mark Ingram have a big game on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. When he has to, Brees will make a play. A blitz-heavy defense will force Rodgers to lose the ball at least once.
Super Bowl XLVI
New Orleans Saints vs. New England Patriots
I have to admit, in January 2007, this was my Super Bowl Pick. It ended up being the Colts vs. the Bears. I’m not sure what to expect, but I think the Saints survive. Very hard to pick against Tom Brady, but if anyone can beat him, it’s a combination of Drew Brees and an aggressive defense. Saints win two out of three and begin the talk of a dynasty.
Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements? Send them here, or follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo. Enjoy the football!