Back here on the campus of SUNY Oswego, where I have been for the past ten days, fall is already in the air. Warm afternoons, a chill in the air in the evening, and a constant breeze. Its the classic football atmosphere. 215 days after the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in a thrilling Super Bowl, America’s most popular sport begins anew.
The offseason was much less dramatic than the tense, lockout spring and summer of 2011. The sport may be entirely different than last season. Rookies have had more time to spend with their professional team, coaches stayed in contact with personnel, and conditioning and game preparation should be on a higher level than it was last season.
Some teams will go through adversity. The New Orleans Saints are without their head coach, defensive coordinator and a few key defensive players. The New York Jets have had a media frenzy surrounding their summer camp. The Jacksonville Jaguars did not have Maurice Jones-Drew in camp until the holiday weekend, and they are still, regrettably, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Teams will look to cement themselves. The Giants begin their championship defense by looking like the team that is most ready for the dress rehearsals to end. The Patriots, still looking for a fourth championship under the Brady-Belichick dynasty, return as favorites to once again win the AFC. The Texans are looking to prove that last year was not a fluke, as are the 49ers. Baltimore looks to finally get past the Conference Championship game, where their season has twice been ended while Joe Flacco has been quarterback.
How do I see the season breaking down? Here’s the divisional breakdown.
Champions – New England Patriots: The runner-ups from last year are back with a vengeance, once again bringing the most talented aerial attack in the AFC. Tom Brady, reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, is surrounded by Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski. The newcomer, Brandon Lloyd, only gives Brady another option out wide, and should be a bigger presence than either Deion Branch or Chad Johnson (neè Ochocinco (neè Johnson)) was last season. Their running attack won’t bring much, and may actually be less than it was last year due to the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but with the firepower in their passing game, they don’t need much to get out of their backfield to make it far. Defense, where the Patriots were abysmal in 2011, gets a bit of an improvement, but not much. Dont’a Hightower, the standout Alabama linebacker, was the Patriots’ first pick in the 2012 Draft. Belichick, usually solid with finding solid players from the draft, was able to get a gem. Still, the secondary, which was the worst of the Patriots defense last year, remains mostly the same. I like the Patriots to win the division, quite easily, and march on to yet another long run through the playoffs.
Record – 13-3, #1 Seed in the AFC
Contender – Buffalo Bills: The Bills started out 2011 by surprising everyone, starting out 5-2 before dropping all but one of their last 9 games. Injuries to Ryan Fitzpatrick and many others, ended their chances for their first playoff appearance since the Music City Miracle. The team revamped the defense in the off-season. Mario Williams signed a mega-deal in the offseason, and the team used four of their draft picks on defenders, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 10th overall pick. The defense will need to be stout in order to threaten New England for the division, but when you compare the Bills to the Jets and Dolphins, Buffalo may be the only true threat to New England’s crown. Still, I don’t think there’s quite enough to this team to make them a playoff team – yet. Give them this year to improve, give them another solid off-season, and give them time to learn from this season, and there will be a playoff appearance down the road.
Record: 9-7, miss playoffs
The Rest: The Jets and the Dolphins will be the two teams at the bottom of the division. Let’s begin with the Jets, whose camp has been a media explosion since the trade for Tim Tebow back in March. However, Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense has not looked sharp during the pre-season, having not scored a touchdown with their starting unit. The wide receiver core has no punch to it, aside from (a questionably happy) Santonio Holmes. Unless the Jets can find a way to run the ball effectively, and also use Tim Tebow as a Brad Smith type of player that made their wildcat formation so effective in 2009 and 2010, the Jets offense will struggle. Granted, their defense will be as strong, if not stronger than last season, thanks to the addition of LaRon Landry, but they’ll still need to put up points. I don’t see them doing enough of that to be contenders. Final Record – 6-10
The Dolphins, who traded away Brandon Marshall in the off-season, are in a similar position that the Jets are. They, too, lack offense, but their defense is less talented than the Jets. Joe Philbin takes over for Tony Sporano and has a lot of work to do. Ryan Tannehill, the rookie quarterback out of Texas A&M, will be given the reins when the team takes the field against Houston. However, he will have limited weapons to work with. After the team cut Chad Johnson, the Dolphins never were able to make a move to sign another high caliber wide receiver. Thus, they go into the season with Devon Bess as their best option. The division is too tough, the quarterbacks (Matt Moore is the backup) are too inconsistent. Perhaps they can see how Tannehill develops and use it as building tool for future seasons, but it feels as if that’s been said too often around Miami these days.
Final Record: 3-13
Champions – Baltimore Ravens: A missed field goal away from potentially reaching the Super Bowl last year was heartbreaking. In fact, many of the ways the Ravens have lost in the playoffs the past five years have been. But they are still one of the top three teams in the AFC. Ray Rice anchors an offense that is above average as long as he touches the ball twenty times per game, Joe Flacco is a very solid quarterback, and the receivers are the best that Baltimore has had in a while. The defense is older, but they still have firepower enough to knock around most of the teams in the league. I like Baltimore a lot, and I think they’ll have a fine season. The question is what can they do in the post-season.
Record: 12-4, #2 Seed in AFC
Contenders – Steelers and Bengals: The Steelers will still be a threat in the AFC, but not as much as they have been in the past. Rashard Mendenhall will be ready to play when the season begins, but coming back from an ACL tear is always tricky, especially for running backs. But the strength of Pittsburgh lies in their defense, which returns nearly all of its talented personnel from last season. I just don’t think they have the tools on offense to match the Ravens. Mike Wallace missed time during training camp because of contract disputes, and it may take him time to get into the flow of the offense. Ben Roethlisberger is still there, and still one of the best in the game, but he’ll need to have a great season if the Steelers want to take the division from Baltimore.
Record: 11-5, #5 Seed in AFC
The Bengals had an inspiring season in 2011, and they might come back down to earth just a little bit this season, but I don’t think by much. However, I also don’t see them being much better. They return Andy Dalton, who with a full year of OTAs and training camp under his belt, should improve from his solid rookie campaign. A.J. Green also returns, giving the Bengals a solid passing game. The defense, which has always been quietly good for the past five seasons, didn’t receive too much of an overhaul, but they did spend their first draft pick (which they traded for) on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. I think the Bengals will be good and have to fight with Buffalo for that final Wild Card spot, but I do think they’ll get it.
Record: 9-7, #6 Seed in AFC
The Browns – Well… there’s always next year.
Champions – Houston Texans: One of the best teams last season, and still have a lot of firepower. Granted, their defense did lose Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, but J.J. Watt proved to be a solid pass rusher down the stretch in 2011, and also in the playoffs. Matt Schaub needs to stay healthy, which was what cost them a first round bye last season. Even if he does go down, they have a solid back-up in T.J. Yates, who didn’t play badly in the postseason. And then there are the weapons. Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are two of the best skill position players in the game, and when both are healthy, both are deadly. There are injury concerns about Johnson, but the rest of the receivers (Kevin Walter, and tight end, Owen Daniels) are above average. The secondary, which was mended in the summer of 2011, needs to have just as good of a year for the team to win the division, but I think they will. There is also not much in the division to threaten them, with Tennessee being the only true threat, and the Colts and Jags rebuilding (or relocating).
Final Record: 12-4, #3 Seed in AFC
Contender – Tennessee Titans: I don’t even see them being a big threat. Their quarterback will be Jake Locker, who the Titans have named the starting quarterback. Like others, Locker will benefit from having a complete off-season of being around the team. Chris Johnson, now that his contract issues are behind him, should not get off to the slow start that hindered his 2011 season. The defense, which was eighth best in the NFL last year in fewest PPG allowed, needs to have just as good of a season. The offense may not be all that great. Kenny Britt, who is already suspended for the season opener, is coming back from a torn ACL injury. If he can be the receiver he was the first few weeks of 2011, the Titans may be fine for the season, and probably threaten to make the playoffs over Cincinnati. I don’t think they have the offensive firepower to do that, and despite being in an easier division than the Bengals, I don’t see the Titans making the playoffs.
Final Record: 9-7, miss playoffs
The Rest: The Colts will improve with Andrew Luck, but that team needs a lot of help defensively. But they’ll be much better than the Jaguars. I’ll say 5-11 for the Colts, and 3-13 for the Jags.
Champions – Denver Broncos: I think the signing of Peyton Manning makes this a very dangerous regular season team. But they’re going to have to win a lot of games early in the season. The strength of the Broncos is still their defense. Von Miller had an incredible rookie season, and a lot of the tools from last season are still in place. Their defense won them games where Tim Tebow couldn’t score for the first three quarters. It was a remarkable run. With Peyton Manning at the helm, they should be even better. Eric Decker and Demaryus Thomas will have to drop fewer passes than last year if this team wants to score, but they should mostly improve with Manning. Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee return as a formidable backfield. I don’t think this team will play well later on in the season, as Manning’s iffy record in outdoor winter games has shown, but they should be able to win enough games early on to win the division.
Final Record: 11-5, #4 Seed in AFC
Contenders – Chargers, Chiefs
The Chiefs are my sleeper team in the AFC. They hung on to Romeo Crennel, which makes for an old time New England feeling with Scott Pioli as their general manager. I believe Crennel can be a successful coach in the NFL, and I believe Matt Cassel can be a successful starting quarterback, as he proved in 2010. Injuries decimated KC last year, and it was perhaps wrong that Todd Haley took the blame and punishment for it. Cassel needs to stay healthy, Jamaal Charles needs to be healthy, and Dwayne Bowe needs to show consistency. I think Crennel can shape the defense back into the gear it was in 2010. They could challenge Denver for the division, but I think a Wild Card fight is more likely. Still, I think they’ll be on the outside looking in when we get to January.
Final Record: 9-7, miss playoffs
The Chargers continue to be unable to get out of their own way. Phillip Rivers has all the physical tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but still is the only one from the 2004 QB class to yet win a Super Bowl (or even reach one, for that matter). Ryan Matthews should anchor a solid running game, and Robert Meachem should shine brightly as a number one target. The defense is solid. Nothing about their team is bad. But Norv Turner just seems unable to produce a winning team. There is something about him that prevents the Chargers from taking the next step. He, more than any of the on field personnel, is the blame for a lot of their struggles. I think again, they miss the playoffs, but will hang around in the race.
Final Record: 7-9, miss playoffs
The Raiders: Sadly, I think the trade for Carson Palmer will continue to haunt them. I do not think he, or any of his backups (Matt Leinart, Terrell Pryor) will be able handle the load. Injury problems with Darren McFadden prevent him from being a top-tier back. There’s speed at the receiver position, but without consistency at QB, it is mostly wasted. The defense is good, and that will prevent Oakland from being miserable, but I think they are the weakest team in the division.
Final record: 5-11, miss playoffs
Champions – New York Giants: The reigning NFL champions return in top form. Eli Manning, brimming with confidence after his second magical run to the title, has talented weapons of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to help him hold on to the title. The backfield introduces David Wilson to the fold as a second option to Ahmad Bradshaw. The defense, returning nearly all from last year, has the best pass rush in the league. Perhaps weak in the secondary, the pass rush was so strong in the playoffs that it never really was able to be exposed. If they can get that sort of play from their defense this year, this will be a great team.
Final Record: 13-3, #2 Seed in NFC
Contenders – Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys: They’ll be much better than last season, now that their team has had time to gel. They traded for DeMeco Ryans in the off-season, which gives their defense an added boost. They steadily improved last season, and now that they learned how to win, perhaps they will win. The offense, even if Michael Vick can not stay healthy, is loaded with options. It starts with LeSean McCoy at tailback, and goes to their talented receiving core. Perhaps DeShawn Jackson needed an off-season to clear his head, and should be more motivated than he was at the end of last season. It’s a very fine team overall, but I don’t trust Vick enough to stay healthy or be consistent. Still, they should make the playoffs.
Final Record: 9-7, #6 Seed in NFC
The Cowboys will be where they always are – somewhere in limbo. Tony Romo still hasn’t proven to be able to lead this team to greatness, and I still think there are too many personality issues for the team to be successful. Dez Bryant is one of those issues. The offense is mostly solid when you talk about just skill, but much more goes into sports than skill alone. It just doesn’t seem to be a cohesive unit that is able to win. The defense is solid in the front seven, but still weak in the secondary, which will continue to be a problem. At the end of it all, I see them being 8-8 and out of the playoffs with questions surrounding Jason Garrett’s future.
Washington Redskins: Give Robert Griffen III a year or two to develop. Then talk to me. Potential greatness down the road, 3-13 for the time being.
Champions – Green Bay Packers: Still one of the conference’s best, they’ll probably drop off from last year’s 15-1 record. But Aaron Rodgers still leads the best passing attack in the conference, and has plenty of weapons around him. The defense, which was brutal last season, needs to be better. However, Anthony Hargrove will be suspended half the season because of the Saints Bounty scandal, which hurts their defensive line. In the secondary, Charles Woodson moves to safety, and their third draft pick was used to draft Vanderbilt cornerback, Casey Hayward. The team should still be good enough to win a lot of games, but the defense will be tested in the playoffs. For now, I still see them being the best team in the NFC.
Final Record: 13-3, #1 Seed in NFC
Contenders: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions
I like what Chicago did in the off-season, particularly picking up Brandon Marshall. It gives Jay Cutler a legitimate number one receiver, who Cutler remembers well from their days in Denver. Matt Forte is back, and Michael Bush is backing him up, giving them a very solid one-two punch. Their offensive line is the only question mark. Defense is always very solid, and special teams is always a threat with Devin Hester. If their offensive line can give Cutler enough time to find Marshall, this is going to be a playoff team and Super Bowl contender. If not, you’re probably looking more towards 9-7 or 8-8. But I do think Cutler and Marshall will find that magic.
Final Record: 10-6 #5 Seed in NFC
I still like Detroit, but I don’t think they’ll be better than they were last season, and I do think it’s a tough division to play well in, year after year. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson will put up astronomical numbers, and the running game should be better, but the secondary is still miserable, even if their front seven is terrific. That will end up hurting them. I think they’ll be 8-8, with a chance to take that playoff spot away from Philly or Chicago.
Minnesota Vikings: Too many questions about the development of Christian Ponder, Adrian Peterson’s ACL, and a bad defense against the pass. Probably another season around 4-12.
Champions – New Orleans Saints: Say what you will about the Bounty scandal, but I don’t think it hurts this team that much. Even without Sean Payton, Drew Brees can effectively run this offense. He should, because he helped create it with Payton when the Saints brought both of them to the team in 2006. Their offense might not be the same as it was in Brees’ record breaking 2011, but that was a season of historical proportion and to assume it would happen again would be brash. The defense, without Jonathan Vilma, might be even worse than it already was. But defense was never their strong suit. As long as their offense scores, they’ll be in the game. That will work for a regular season run, but again probably cost them in the playoffs.
Final Record: 12-4, #3 Seed in NFC
Contender – Atlanta Falcons: I don’t think they’ll end up making the playoffs, but I do like what they’re going to be doing to their team. A more aggressive offense is needed. Matt Ryan has shown he can do well with a conservative offense, now he has the reigns and the tools for him to air it out. That might take a little bit getting used to. But Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones should fit well with more freedom. There is still Michael Turner in the backfield, which is a great threat to have. The defense remains basically the same from last year, which since it wasn’t a problem, is a good thing. The question is can Matt Ryan finally win a playoff game, and can Mike Smith’s spotty coaching decisions end up going right for him. If so, playoffs or even more can come Atlanta’s way. But it won’t be an easy road.
Final Record: 9-7, miss playoffs
The Rest – Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Carolina, probably somewhere between a six and eight win team, still needs another year with Cam Newton developing and the team being fine tuned before making the playoffs. The Buccaneers, now coached by Greg Schiano, probably won’t do much in their first season unless Josh Freeman has a stellar season. I’ll say the Bucs go 4-12
Champions – San Francisco 49ers
This is probably my least confident pick. I think the 49ers have the best defense aside from the Giants, but I just don’t know if Alex Smith can replicate last year’s magic. Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and (he’s back) Randy Moss will give him a lot of targets. If Moss truly is the physical spectacle he is, and is motivated, then I think he’ll help the offense get by. Defense is of no concern.
Final Record: 11-5, #4 seed in NFC
The Rest: I don’t see anyone else contending. Seattle, who gave Matt Flynn a hefty contract to be their quarterback, will be on the bench for the first game. The Rams will have to try and form an offense with Brian Schottenheimer as their coordinator. The Cardinals continue to run in circles with quarterback issues and a lack of a running game. If any of these three teams finish above .500, I will be very surprised.
Super Bowl Prediction: New York Giants over Baltimore Ravens
I know its very tough to defend a title, but I think of all the team, the Giants are the most dangerous team. Remember, they were well on their way to defending their Super Bowl crown in 2008 until Plaxico Burress shot himself. Barring no injuries or freak accidents, I think the Giants are the team to beat. I also think that Baltimore gets another great year out of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the Super Bowl will be a great farewell moment for them, even if they don’t get it done.
Check back here throughout the season for more sports. I’ll try and post more, but it has been crazy having moved back up to Oswego, and still trying to find a rhythm for this semester. You can also follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo