There's a new football season coming up! Training camp begins at the end of this month, and fans of all 32 teams are excited! It'll be like Christmas in July once players report to camp!
Unfortunately, I am the bearer of bad news: Not every team will do well this season. Pay attention to what I say, because it is true, and any statement made contrary to mine is false. Here's how each division will stand by January 2010, and how the playoffs will play out.
Remember, you heard it here first...
1. New England Patriots (12-4): Expect major contributions from players who failed to make an impact last season, particularly Tom Brady. You may have heard of him. He's only the best QB in the NFL, and should do a good job covering for a defense that's solid, but not as dominant as it was five years ago.
2. New York Jets (9-7): Ladies and gentlemen, the best defense in the AFC East will be in East Rutherford, N.J. this season...err, excuse me; New York! With a son-of-a-Buddy for a head coach, expect their defense to emerge as a powerhouse, and make life a little bit easier for the rookie QB, Mark Sanchez.
3. Miami (8-8): They're heading in the right direction, but that doesn't change the fact that they overachieved last season. Their schedule will be tougher this season, and they're still a few pieces away from being complete, so expect the Dolphins to take a step backward this season before continuing forward again.
4. Buffalo (6-10): There's some talent in Buffalo. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of coaching, with Dick Jauron standing on the sidelines showing all the emotion of Art Shell. Can Terrell Owens handle being the No. 2 WR behind Lee Evans? Pardon me if I'm skeptical.
1. Pittsburgh (13-3): The Steelers won 12 games last season in spite of facing one of the most severe schedules in the league. Two role players have departed, but they're easily replaceable. The schedule is much lighter this season, and the offensive line should only improve—which means Ben Roethlisberger's statistics should, too.
2. Cincinnati (9-7): Carson Palmer should be healthy again, and they've taken steps to remedy their offensive line situation. Their defense is underrated as well, particularly their secondary. Expect the Bengals to surprise some people this season.
3. Baltimore (8-8): Joe Flacco will improve in his second season, bringing an extra dimension to the offense that the Ravens have almost never had. Unfortunately, they've lost some key components on defense, most notably the son-of-a-Buddy who was their defensive coordinator. Ray Lewis is entering the twilight of his career. Don't be surprised if the defense enters decline.
4. Cleveland (2-14): The Browns don't know how to build a team properly. They overachieved in 2007, but instead of building the team for the long term, they wasted money on short-term solutions, only one of which gave them any return on their investment, and traded away valuable draft picks in the process.
After ending up back in the division cellar, owner Randy Lerner fired both Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage—and then hired his new head coach before hiring his new GM. This ass-backwards approach, plus the fact that several Browns players already dislike Eric Mangini, ensures the Browns won't be viable for at least a few more years.
1. Tennessee (10-6): Consider this division won by default. The Titans no longer have Albert Haynesworth to anchor their defensive line, and it's not clear if the interior can hold up for 16 games without him. Then there's the QB dilemma: Kerry Collins is the new Vinny Testaverde, a career journeyman who puts up decent statistics but doesn't really elevate his team. As for Vince Young, he was a highly-sought-after QB who was drafted No. 3 overall—just like Akili Smith.
2. Indianapolis (9-7): Peyton Manning is the face and brains of the Colts, but Tony Dungy was the heart and soul. It's not evident right now, but he will be missed as the season wears on. I know they still have Manning, but in spite of his hard work and intelligence, he still has a tragic flaw: A complete lack of instinct when the game isn't going his way. This is it, ladies and gentlemen. The window has closed on the Colts.
3. Houston (9-7): The Texans will earn their first winning record in franchise history, but they're still missing some pieces that would propel them to the top of their division. Their defense is at least a year away, and they ought to try establishing the running game more, especially since Matt Schaub is an injury liability. They're a team for a decade that hasn't yet arrived.
4. Jacksonville (5-11): Last season, injuries to their interior offensive line had a tremendous impact on their offense. So why won't the health of that unit make a difference? Because Jack Del Rio is alienating his team, just as his mentor Brian Billick did in Baltimore, and just as Billick's mentor, Dennis Green, did in Minnesota and Arizona. Beware the fruit of a gnarly coaching tree.
1. San Diego (11-5): Expect the Chargers to improve on defense with Shawne Merriman returning, and first-round draft pick Larry English making a splash. However, do not expect Philip Rivers to replicate his 2008 performance, with LaDainian Tomlinson returning to health, plus a much harder defensive slate. The good news is, the AFC West is such a lightweight division that the Chargers can finish .500 outside of it and still make the playoffs.
2. Oakland (6-10): JaMarcus Russell has his share of critics, but he did improve toward the end of last season. With guys like Russell, Darren McFadden and Zach Miller, don't be surprised if the Raiders score points. They'll have to, thanks to their defense.
3. Kansas City (6-10): I expect the Chiefs to become a powerhouse in the coming decade thanks to Scott Pioli. Pioli was the GM who put together the dynastic Patriots, and now he faces a similar challenge as he did 10 years ago: Trying to resurrect the fortunes of a franchise that has become a laughingstock. Don't be surprised if the Chiefs make some noise.
4. Denver (4-12): Apparently Pat Bowlen has let his pet cat, Toonces, take the wheel of this team. How else can you explain an apparent playoff contender being driven off a cliff so quickly? Nothing has gone right for this team since last November. They choked away their division lead, fired Mike Shanahan, hired a new coach who considered shopping the franchise QB—who turned out to be quite a crybaby himself—and replaced said QB with somebody who once lost his job to Rex Grossman.
The Broncos are all about scorched earth and burnt bridges right now, which will send them stumbling to the bottom of the division.
1. Philadelphia (12-4): Donovan McNabb finally has more than one weapon to play with on offense, and the line in front of him has been fortified with the addition of Jason Peters. The defense loses Brian Dawkins, but they still have options, plus a lot of talent waiting to become the next leaders of an excellent defense.
Apparently the Eagles realize that the clock is ticking for McNabb, so they're trying to build a true championship contender in the short term. It just might work.
2. New York Giants (10-6): From December 2007 to November 2008, the Giants were riding high, having only lost one game during that entire period. Then Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg—and the fortunes of the Giants square between the eyes.
Eli Manning is a good QB, but he clearly needs a reliable go-to WR to meet his expectations. Do the Giants have one in lieu of Burress, though? That's a question that remains to be answered.
3. Dallas (7-9): Yes, the Cowboys have a lot of talent. Too bad they also have the most overbearing owner in the NFL, plus a head coach that does less with more than most. The worst thing that happened to this team was losing Bill Parcells. As long as Wade Phillips is their head coach, opportunities for success will be wasted.
4. Washington (7-9): The Redskins are Cowboys lite: They, too, have an overbearing owner and a thoroughly uninspiring head coach who appears to be in over his head. They just don't have quite as much talent as the Cowboys, which will earn them the bottom spot in the division.
1. Minnesota (11-5): The Vikings are a headless horsemen: an otherwise complete team lacking a reliable QB, with or without Brett Favre. Be that as it may, they're still the most complete team in their division, which means that they will finish on top again. Just don't expect Favre to do magic in the playoffs.
2. Chicago (10-6): Jay Cutler will give the Bears offense an extra wrinkle it hasn't had in almost 25 years: The forward pass. They already know how to run the ball well, so Matt Forte will be a key contributor, but no longer will he be the sole contributor.
The defense is still solid, but is neither as dominant nor as consistent as it was a few years ago. Still, the concept of footballs being thrown through the air should make the team better.
3. Green Bay (8-8): The problem with the Packers last season was the defense's utter inability to protect a lead. Most of their losses were by less than a touchdown, and much of this can be attributed to the growing pains of a defense making a fundamental switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This is the second of what should be a three-year rebuilding phase on defense, so the Packers should not expect a miracle resurgence.
Instead, what they should expect is for the struggles to continue early in the season, and then gradual improvement toward the end. With Dom Capers and Kevin Greene on hand, don't be surprised if this defense becomes a model 3-4 in the future. It just won't happen this year.
4. Detroit (4-12): In spite of all the holes, there is some talent on the Lions—namely Calvin Johnson and the LBs. The secondary can't possibly be any worse than it was last season, and Matthew Stafford should have some fun throwing to Johnson. They'll steal a few games, but this team still has a long, long way to go.
1. New Orleans (11-5): My gut is talking to me on this prediction, as opposed to my brain. With Drew Brees at QB, plus a sturdy offensive line and solid WRs, the Saints will hang points on plenty of teams. The question is, can their defense step up, too? They have a talented front seven, but are a bit leaky in the secondary. Expect a lot of shootouts, with the Saints emerging victorious for the majority of them.
2. Atlanta (9-7): The Falcons are Miami's doppelganger in the NFC. Both teams overachieved last season, and both will likely take a step backward this season before moving forward again in the new decade.
On offense, the Falcons are stacked, especially now with future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez giving wunderkind Matt Ryan a handy red-zone outlet. Conversely, their defense is still at least a year away, so between that and a harder schedule, the Falcons might not earn consecutive playoff berths...yet.
3. Carolina (8-8): Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are the best one-two RB punch in the league. Unfortunately, everything else about the Panthers reeks of mediocrity, from their tepid head coach to their maddeningly-inconsistent QB to their overrated defense. Don't be surprised if John Fox and his staff are shown the door after this season.
4. Tampa Bay (4-12): The Buccaneers are now dealing with both a leadership void and an identity crisis. From Jon Gruden to Monte Kiffin to Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks, there are no familiar faces left on this team. What they have now is a head coach who can't legally consume alcohol yet, plus a three-headed monster at QB, and a RB that hasn't done much since his rookie season.
On defense, if a new leader steps up, I hope it's Stylez G. White. Let the rebuilding begin...
1. Arizona (10-6): The Cardinals will not suffer the Super Bowl loser curse. They will win their division once again, and with Chris "Beanie" Wells at RB, they'll have a more balanced offense, which ought to be a scary thought for even the best defensive coordinators.
As for their defense, the firing of Clancy Pendergast was an overreaction which could arrest its development. But with such an explosive offense, the Cardinals can still win plenty of games even if the defense deteriorates.
2. San Francisco (9-7): Now that Mike Singletary finally has a head coaching job, expect him to make the most of it. The 49ers still lack a viable QB, but they're stacked at the other skill positions on offense. Their defense will be a proud unit worthy of Singletary's stamp of approval, and Patrick Willis could soon resemble Ray Lewis in more than just his jersey number.
3. Seattle (6-10): Lots of people are hopping back onto the Seahawks bandwagon, but I'm not one of them. Yes, Matt Hasselbeck is healthy again, and yes, they have some good talent on defense, but you know what else they have now? A frickin' Mora for a head coach! Like the Colts with Tony Dungy and the Cowboys with Bill Parcells, the Seahawks will look back at Mike Holmgren's departure as the end of a successful era.
4. St. Louis (3-13): Forget climbing a mountain. Rebuilding the Rams will be like scaling a cliff for Steve Spagnuolo. Expect the defense to improve somewhat with some decent young talent, but the offense needs a total overhaul.
Steven Jackson will carry a disproportionate load, because Marc Bulger is past his prime and Torry Holt is gone. With Georgia Frontiere's death, the Rams are rebuilding with an entirely clean slate.
1. Pittsburgh (13-3)
2. New England (12-4)
3. San Diego (11-5)
4. Tennessee (10-6)
5. New York Jets (9-7)
6. Cincinnati (9-7)
AFC Wild Card Playoffs:
San Diego over Cincinnati
New York Jets over Tennessee
AFC Divisional Playoffs:
Pittsburgh over New York Jets
New England over San Diego
AFC Championship Game:
Pittsburgh over New England
1. Philadelphia (12-4)
2. New Orleans (11-5)
3. Minnesota (11-5)
4. Arizona (10-6)
5. New York Giants (10-6)
6. Chicago (10-6)
NFC Wild Card Playoffs:
Minnesota over Chicago
New York Giants over Arizona
NFC Divisional Playoffs:
Philadelphia over New York Giants
Minnesota over New Orleans
NFC Championship Game:
Philadelphia over Minnesota
SUPER BOWL XLIV
Pittsburgh 21, Philadelphia 20
A potential Super Bowl matchup that's been years in the making finally becomes reality. Since 2001, the Steelers and Eagles have been consistent championship contenders, but have never met in the NFL's ultimate game.
With a score of 20-14 in favor of the Eagles with four minutes left to play, Ben Roethlisberger puts together an 80-yard TD drive, ending with an eight-yard TD pass to Heath Miller in the middle of the end zone.
The Steelers hold on to win, 21-20. With all three of Pittsburgh's TDs coming from Roethlisberger's arm, including the game-winner, Roethlisberger wins the Super Bowl XLIV MVP award.
Remember...you heard it here first!