FACTS: Though normally you would expect that to be the case, it doesn’t hold true in some of the divisions in 2009. Though the term “team to beat” is used often, in this case I am referring to the team that division rivals cannot afford to go 0-2 against and still expect to make it to the postseason.
NFC South: Two words—Matt Ryan. He now has a Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez, the defense has gotten younger and added a new defensive tackle through the draft, and the Falcons are buzzing with optimism. They should be.
Matt Ryan is like a young Tom Brady—he understands defenses well, makes great throws, and has a phenomenal supporting cast. He is going to blossom into a Hall of Fame quarterback.
This division is Atlanta’s until further notice. You’ll have to beat them twice in the same season before you even think about winning the division. There’s still definite hope for the Panthers and Saints as wild cards, though.
AFC South: Last year there was a one-game difference between the division-winning Titans, and the wild card Colts. With a fully healthy and up-to-speed Peyton Manning, and an improved receiving corps in Tennessee, these teams will both vie for the division title.
The upstart Houston Texans, a trendy playoff pick, are better than they’ve ever been, but their schedule will make it incredibly difficult to get into the postseason.
However, they are definitely capable of an upset against their division rivals: They did it once in 2008 against Tennessee, and were four minutes away from doing it to the Colts until Sage Rosenfels fumbled twice and then threw an interception.
In their second matchup against the Colts, they were down by less than a touchdown and were marching down the field late in the fourth quarter, until Sage Rosenfels was picked off, which won the game for the Colts.
Doormats of the AFC South for years, the Texans have gone from being an expansion team in 2002 to becoming legitimate competition against their division rivals. While they are just short of being good enough to win the division, they could stage an upset or two that would greatly hurt a rival team’s chances at the postseason.
NFC West: This division’s a lot harder to predict. The Cardinals had an incredible postseason run, but they came from the NFC West, where 9-7 was enough to win the division. The NFC West plays against the brutal AFC South this year, and on top of that, the Cardinals will have to play the NFC’s other division winners. Their schedule makes it harder for them to get back into the playoffs.
The Cardinals are also very one-dimensional, relying very heavily on their passing game. Beanie Wells is unproven, the offensive line is good but not great at run-blocking, and the defense tends to struggle.
The 49ers played hard under Mike Singletary when he was promoted to interim head coach last year. His knowledge of defense should help the 49ers defensive unit, which is anchored by Patrick Willis, a budding superstar.
On offense, Singletary relies on his running game to get the job done. This should help take the load off of Alex Smith’s shoulders, allowing the 49ers to have a balanced team that could challenge Arizona for the division title.
The Rams have Marc Bulger, who is a great quarterback, and Steven Jackson, a great running back, but their weak offensive line play prevents either of the two from performing well. The Rams are a good draft or two from being truly competitive, but in this division, they still have a shot.
The Seahawks benefited for years from the worst division in football. Now the Cardinals and 49ers are both much better than in years past, making it more difficult for the Seahawks to get to the playoffs.
Last year the 49ers got off to a slow start until they fired head coach Mike Nolan. They then finished only two games behind the division winner. Had they won their Monday night game against the Cardinals, the 49ers would have been the NFC West champions.
People don’t realize it, but the division race was that close: One game away from tipping in the 49ers’ favor. With a full year under Singletary’s balance and discipline, the 49ers are the most formidable team in the NFC West.
AFC West: Denver turned into a circus act and traded away one of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks, and Kansas City traded away the game’s best tight end, depriving new QB Matt Cassell of a desperately needed weapon.
Meanwhile, Phillip Rivers has developed into one of the game’s best QBs, Shawne Merriman is back from injury and ready to prove himself in a contract year, and Darren Sproles has proven he is more than capable of picking up some slack if LaDainian Tomlinson is injured again.
Believe it or not, the second-most competitive team in this division is Oakland, who has a loaded backfield and showed some signs of life at the end of 2008, including upsetting the Buccaneers in the season finale, preventing Tampa from going to the playoffs.
If the Chargers can go 2-0 against the Raiders, then they are almost guaranteed to win the division, making the Raiders the team to beat in this weak division.
NFC East: This is tough. The defending NFC East champions have Osi Umenyiora back from injury, have added to their defense through free agency, and could possibly have a better defense than even the Steelers and the Ravens.
The return of Umenyiora allows Mathias Kiwanuka to go back to playing linebacker, enhancing the team’s linebacking corps that also now includes former Falcon Michael Boley. The signing of Chris Canty allows Justin Tuck more flexibility in sliding inside and playing defensive tackle as he did so successfully against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Defensively, there are few, if any, question marks for the Giants. On offense they are anchored by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw running the ball behind the league’s best offensive line. In the passing game, they are not so strong.
His receiving corps got even worse in the offseason, as Amani Toomer left for free agency. The Giants drafted the enormous Ramses Barden and the sure-handed Hakeem Nicks, but it is often incredibly difficult for rookie receivers to learn an NFL playbook and have an immediate impact in their rookie season. Though the Giants will always have a shot at the Super Bowl for years to come, this year brings a high probability of Big Blue being eclipsed by another team in their division.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who made it all the way to the NFC Championship last year, have a solid defense, an elite quarterback in Donovan McNabb, a dynamic running back in Brian Westbrook, and a promising young receiver in DeSean Jackson. That was before the offseason.
Since then, they’ve drafted another young stud at receiver, Jeremy Maclin, drafted a quality running back, LeSean McCoy, to back up Westbrook and take some of his carries to help keep him fresh and uninjured, and they traded for elite left tackle Jason Peters to protect McNabb’s blind side.
As if that’s not enough, Donovan McNabb has been derided for years for his inability to win a Super Bowl. With only two years left on his contract, and third-year Kevin Kolb waiting in the wings, McNabb will be hungry and extra-motivated to win the big game.
This team is scary, and, though I’ll be rooting for the Giants to win, I can envision this as being Philly’s year. The Giants are going to have to go 2-0 against the Eagles to even stand a chance of winning the NFC East.
AFC East: The Dolphins won the division last year and are the perfect model of how to run the Wildcat formation, the Bills added T.O. to form one of the top five WR duos in the league with Lee Evans, and the Jets have defensive genius Rex Ryan as their head coach.
The Dolphins still have a weak passing game due to their lack of a dominant receiver, the Bills traded away Jason Peters, weakening an already shaky offensive line, and the Jets have a rookie quarterback who doesn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. One more fact to consider:
Tom Brady is back.
He has one of the best offensive lines in football to protect him from injury. Though Matt Cassel was sacked 47 times in 2008, he also had a terrible tendency of holding on to the ball far too long while trying to read the defense. With Tom Brady under center, the Patriots haven’t allowed over 30 sacks since 2003.
Also, if Brady’s knee wasn’t completely healthy, the Patriots wouldn’t have traded away Matt Cassel, and instead would have kept him as an expensive insurance policy.
Remember the record-setting offense of 2007? That was Randy Moss’s first year as a Patriot. The same goes for Wes Welker. Entering their third year with the team, they know the offense even better and the Patriots could easily have an even better offense than they did in 2007.
Joey Galloway was incredible in Tampa until injuries slowed him down recently. If he can stay healthy and revert back to his old form, the Patriots’ receiving corps will be even better than Arizona’s.
Fred Taylor was considered one of the best running backs in the league, carrying the Jaguars in every season except 2008. Then, the Jaguars’ decimated offensive line was unable to provide him with any running room and as a result his numbers dropped off drastically.
Look for him to prove that he has plenty of gas left in the tank and split carries with Laurence Maroney, a more-than-capable running back who was held back by a broken shoulder in 2008.
Consider that one of the best offenses in history has gotten even better, a solid defense headed by second-year LB Jerrod Mayo will be more than capable of getting the job done, and the fact that Bill Belichick’s unrivaled knowledge of schemes and adjustments keeps any team of his in playoff contention every season.
Anyone trying to tell you that the New England Patriots aren’t the team to beat in the AFC East (if not the entire NFL) is simply wishing that was the case. After missing out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker, the Patriots will have to collapse completely to fall out of contention this year.
NFC North: Nothing interesting to say here. If the Lions win one game next year, it’ll be an improvement. The Bears’ defense has struggled since it dominated the 2006 season, and their offense, headed by Jay Cutler, doesn’t have the type of receivers that will help win a lot of shootouts. Aaron Rodgers is a phenomenal young quarterback in his first season as a starter, but the Packers’ defense was horrible last year, and hasn’t gotten much better over the offseason.
This article is already long enough, so I won’t waste many more words on the NFC North. It’s obvious that the Minnesota Vikings are the team to beat in this division.
AFC North: Yes, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. However, a great Super Bowl performance does nothing to change the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is inconsistent and the offensive line is suspect.
This does not change the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to beat in this division. However, it is not simply because they won the division and the Super Bowl last year.
Their record was 12-4, the Ravens’ was 11-5. The Ravens were 0-2 in the regular season against the Steelers in two very close games. Winning those two games would have put the Ravens at 13-3, tied for best in the NFL, while the Steelers would have dropped to 11-5.
A division win not only adds a win to your record; it adds a loss to your rival’s. That gives you a two-game advantage in the division race. In a close race, those intra-divisional games have a huge role in deciding who the division champion is.
For that reason, Baltimore (or any other team in the AFC North) has to be able to consistently beat Pittsburgh if they want to win the division.