OTA's are over, and we generally know what the rosters will look like. With that in mind, let's take a look at each division and predict the records.
1. New England Patriots 13-3: New faces in the secondary, youth at linebacker, and the return of Tom Brady are all signs of big things to come in New England. I really like the addition of Fred Taylor, who will be a solid complement to Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney, and Joey Galloway, who will be a reliable target opposite Randy Moss and Wess Welker. The schedule isn't exactly what I'd call easy, but there are at least 12 wins on the schedule and I'll personally go with 13.
2. New York Jets 9-7: Let the Sanchez era begin. I think Mark Sanchez has the moxie, experience in big games and skill to be a decent starter. But I don't like the Jets' receivers, and there are still questions in pass protection. The Jets could go 10-6, but I see at least one trap game pulling them to 9-7. They'll be ready to challenge the Patriots in 2010.
3. Buffalo Bills 8-8: Eight wins may be giving this team too much credit, but the addition of Terrell Owens to an already intriguing offense will help things. The deep threat of TO will push safeties back, creating opportunities in the passing game for Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. However, unless Aaron Maybin can be an immediate contributor, that pass rush is not taking them to the playoffs.
4. Miami Dolphins 7-9: Perhaps my biggest surprise, I have the Dolphins going from first-to-worst. Why? The Wildcat should certainly generate some excitement, particularly with the addition of Pat White. However, there are too many question marks (Ronnie Brown's health, Chad Pennington's health/consistency) and I just don't see them repeating the success from a year ago. I don't trust Pennington for the whole year, and I expect the Chad Henne era to begin next year. This will be a step back type of year for the Dolpins.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4: The Steelers return everyone from their Super Bowl team and could go for 13 wins. However, there are a couple of trap games (I'm looking at you, Green Bay) and the pass protection is still iffy. However, Ben Roethlisberger and the defense will carry them back to the playoffs.
2. Baltimore Ravens 11-5: The Ravens could win most other divisions in football. They are just unfortunate to play in the AFC North. The loss of Bart Scott hurts, but they have a young offense, while the defense should be solid enough to get them to the playoffs again.
3. Cincinnati Bengals 8-8: The Bengals recovered nicely at the end of last year. The return of Carson Palmer should help them, as will some nice improvements on defense. Expect Ochocinco to have a big year, as well as Jerome Simpson. Inconsistency, injuries, and a tough division will keep them out of the playoffs though.
1. Indianapolis Colts: 11-5: With the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans improving, it only make the AFC South that much tougher. However, for my money, I don't think there will be a better offense in the NFL this year. Donald Brown and Joseph Addai should be a lethal combination, while Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, and Dallas Clark will create headaches for other defenses. However, their run defense will continue to be mediocre. I don't like the linebackers and I don't like the D-Line besides Dwight Freeney.
2. Houston Texans 10-6: The Texans get their first playoff berth on the backs of an improved defense, a healthy Matt Schaub, a lethal passing attack, and a great sophomore effort from Steve Slaton. They'll put points on the board and do enough on the defensive side of the ball to win. The Texans remind me of last year's Falcons.
3. Tennessee Titans 8-8: The Haynesworth loss hurts. Big-time. The Titans will no longer be able to dominate teams in the running game, and Kerry Collins will be forced to win games. The defense is still good, but won't be great. This reminds me of the Jaguars last year, where the loss of Marcus Stroud did severe damage to the defense.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars 8-8: They made some improvements at wide receiver, tackle, and on the defensive line. However, they play in a tough division. But the Jaguars are a sleeper and have some talent at key positions. Look for Maurice Jones-Drew to have a monster year. But, David Garrard does not have the consistency to lead this team to the playoffs.
1. San Diego Chargers 12-4: This has been a talented team for a while, and this year it should come together. The secondary has underachieved, but the talent is there. Shawne Merriman is back, and despite a tough schedule (NFC East, AFC North), there are 12 wins on the table. The Chargers will put some points on the board and put some quarterbacks on their backs.
2. Kansas City Chiefs 7-9: After a good draft, expect KC to improve. But that defense and the offensive line are still questionable. Matt Cassel will help, but this is not a playoff team.
3. Oakland Raiders 6-10: They will sweep the Denver Broncos. Though the pick has been questioned, Darrius Heyward-Bey will at least stretch the field for JaMarcus Russell, allowing Darren McFadden and the backs some breathing room. However, the defensive line was not improved, and the run defense will be poor.
4. Denver Broncos 3-13: I hope the owner is kicking himself right now. Josh McDaniels has no idea what he's doing, and for him the Broncos fired a two-time Super Bowl winning coach, a Pro Bowl quarterback with a cannon arm, and angered their top receiver. There is some talent, but the offense has regressed and the defense is still poor (Brian Dawkins is not the same player he once was). This is a playoff team that has been run off the tracks by poor personnel management. Too bad for Brandon Marshall. Too bad for Eddie Royal. Too bad for Knowshon Moreno. Too bad for Brian Dawkins, who probably thought he would have a shot at the Super Bowl before this mess happened.
1. Philadelphia Eagles 12-4: This team should win the Super Bowl. Jeremy Maclin has the size, speed, and athleticism to be a No. 1 receiver, DeSean Jackson could be the next Steve Smith. Combine that with a Pro Bowl-laden offensive line, the best quarterback in the division, a healthy Brian Westbrook spelled by LeSean McCoy, a Pro Bowl fullback, and improvement at tight end; there are no holes in this offense. On defense, free safety is a question mark, but only in the sense that we don't know who will start there. Between Quintin Demps, Rashad Baker, Sean Jones, and Quintin Mikell, the competition should give way to two quality starters. Asante Samuel is the best cornerback whose name I can pronounce in the NFL, Sheldon Brown, Joselio Hanson, and Ellis Hobbs represent great depth, and Stewart Bradley is ready to be the next Brian Urlacher. Provided they stay healthy, you can write this down: The Eagles are THE team to beat in the NFC.
2. New York Giants 10-6: That front seven is scary, and the secondary has improved. However, there are still issues offensively. The top-tier teams will beat the Giants by loading the box, and forcing Eli Manning to beat them on third down. The Giants' receivers are young, but none of them demand double teams. The Giants will be able to dominate teams into submission by controlling the ball, but against a team like the Eagles, this advantage will be neutralized.
3. Dallas Cowboys 9-7: The early part of the schedule certainly bodes well. They'll get off to a good start, but the back end is brutal and I could see them losing five in a row to end the season. The talent is there, but that secondary is in shambles. Aside from the aging Terrence Newman, there is no proven commodity. Tony Romo, Marion Barber, Jason Witten, Roy Williams, and Felix Jones will win plenty of shootouts, but they'll lose some too. DeMarcus Ware can only do so much to make up for the holes in the secondary.
4. Washington Redskins 9-7: It won't be good enough in the toughest division in football, but I like the Redskins more than most other people. Jason Campbell isn't a gamebreaker, but he's solid, especially when Clinton Portis is having a good game. I think Portis, Chris Cooley, Santana Moss, and the emergence of (hopefully) one rookie receiver could make the Redskins' offense better than average. The O-line still has question mark at right tackle, but that defense is scary. If he is motivated (which I think he will be), Albert Haynesworth will be a force both against the pass and the run. Carlos Rogers leads an underrated secondary; however, they don't have the ability to dominate any one area that other teams do and the Redskins will find themselves losing a lot of close games. Maybe in a different division they're a playoff team, but not this one.
1. Minnesota Vikings 11-5: People forget that even without consistency at quarterback, this team made the playoffs last year. The Williams' are aging, but the run defense will still be excellent, and the secondary will be good enough with that pass rush. Adrian Peterson is an offense all by himself, and I think the passing attack (with or without Brett Favre) will be good enough to win games. They're not going to come from behind a lot, but with big plays and ball control from AP, and constant pressure on the other team's quarterback, they'll keep control of the NFC North.
2. Green Bay Packers 10-6: Nobody is talking about these guys, but they have quietly made a lot of good moves. BJ Raji will be able to contribute immediately, and I think the 3-4 will be an improvement from last year. Aaron Rodgers is better than Phillip Rivers, and probably should have made the Pro Bowl over Eli Manning last year. My one question: Can they run the ball? Ryan Grant wore down last year. The Packers need to use Brandon Jackson more effectively to spell Ryan Grant. However, I think the talent they have passing the ball will open things up for Grant, and the improved defense will help them win some of the close games they would have otherwise lost last year. They will sneak into the playoffs.
3. Chicago Bears 9-7: This is not what Bears fans will expect, but I don't see them getting to the playoffs. Jay Cutler is a great player, but Devin Hester is not a proven commodity. Their offense will be better. Pounding the ball to Matt Forte to set up play action will be good enough to beat a lot of teams, but not the heavy hitters. The Bears' offense will be a poor man's version of the Giants' offense (except for Greg Olsen, he's a beast). The reason they won't make the playoffs is the inability to generate pass rush. They did nothing to improve this during the offseason.
4. Detroit Lions 3-13: Year one of the Stafford era will have some ups, but their O-Line is going to be leaky. Matthew Stafford will find some kind of a rhythm with Brandon Pettigrew and Calvin Johnson, but they won't be able to run the ball and they won't be able to stop the run. However, they are moving in the right direction.
1. Atlanta Falcons 10-6: They have a tough schedule, but the offense should be in the top five. I don't know how one game plans for Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez (all elite players at their position) and Jerious Norwood. Matt Ryan will find that it's easy to break out with so many weapons. The defense has improved, but teams will still be able to run on them, as Peria Jerry will need to improve in this area. However, they are good enough to win this division.
2. New Orleans Saints 9-7: Another tough schedule, but the secondary will be better with Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins. Reggie Bush should bounce back, and a healthy Marques Colston-Drew Brees combination will be lethal. However, they have a tough schedule, and I think the defense will let them down in big games.
3. Carolina Panthers 8-8: The run offense sets up big plays for Steve Smith, but Jake Delhomme isn't good enough to win games on his own. The defense was not great last year, and I think Atlanta and New Orleans' upgrades will push them past the Panthers.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-13: Purely a rebuilding year. They've got to hope that Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, and Antonio Bryant take some pressure off Josh Freeman. That defense will give up a lot of points.
1. Arizona Cardinals 11-5: They'll lose some games at the beginning of the year, but this team is simply too talented to lose this division. The offense should be two-dimensional this year. They ran the ball effectively at the end of the year and added Chris Wells. On defense, Adrian Wilson is a Pro Bowler, and Darnell Dockett will head a stronger run defense. On paper, the Cardinals should definitely win the division, but don't be surprised to see them at .500 as late as week 11 before they turn up the jets and win a few games in a row.
2. Seattle Seahawks 7-9: This is a talented team, but TJ Houshmandzadeh is not the answer at wide receiver. They don't have a running game, Matt Hasselbeck has been inconsistent. The defense will keep them in a lot of games, but they aren't a playoff team right now.
3. San Francisco 49ers 5-11: I hate to say it, but that schedule is too tough for this team. It's a shame, because the 49ers have a good coach, a franchise running back, a couple of explosive receivers in Josh Morgan and Michael Crabtree, and a pretty good defense. But at Philly, Arizona (2), Atlanta, at Houston, at Indy, at Green Bay, make for seven guaranteed losses. the 49ers would still have to face Chicago, at Seattle, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and at Minnesota. Mike Singletary has this team a year and a quarterback away from the playoffs, though.
4. St. Louis Rams 3-13: Purely a rebuilding year. Marc Bulger has tailed off, and Donnie Avery is his only weapon. Jason Smith will not immediately stop the bleeding in pass protection, and that defense is still porous.
1. New England Bye
2. Pittsburgh Bye
Wild Card Games
6 Houston @ 3 San Diego: San Diego wins
5 Baltimore @ 4 Indianapolis: Indianapolis wins
4 Indianapolis @ 1 New England: New England wins
3 San Diego @ 2 Pittsburgh: San Diego wins
3 San Diego @ 1 New England: New England wins
1. Philadelphia Bye
2. Arizona Bye
Wild Card Games
6 New Orleans @ 3 Atlanta: Green Bay wins
5 New York Giants @ 4 Minnesota: Minnesota wins
Green Bay @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia wins
Minnesota @ Arizona: Arizona wins
Arizona @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia wins
Super Bowl XXXXIV:
Philadelphia over New England.
Super Bowl MVP: Donovan McNabb.
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