It's that time of year again. Here are my team preview predictions barring any significant injuries or if Brett Favre retires again. Starting with the AFC...
DIVISION STORYLINES: New England's almost infinite luck ran out last year when injured Tom Brady took his infinite luck with him and seemingly ran out on his teammates as if they were a pregnant girlfriend. The team will be back in form now and Bill Belicheat—er—"check", always has a few tricks up his sleeve.
It seemed Buffalo had a tight hold on the division after a 4-0 start, but only won three more times to finish last. Terrell Owens may be the biggest acquisition of the season, not because of his play, but because of enthusiasm and perhaps some confidence for the team and its fans.
The Dolphins shocked everyone last season by winning the division and spreading the wildcat around the league. Well, the league has had a whole offseason to catch up, and Chad Pennington, who wins Comeback Player of the Year every two years because after winning it his play goes down the toilet, is due for a disappointment.
The last two first-year head coaches of the Jets led them to the playoffs, so why can't Rex Ryan? Well, those two coaches (Herman Edwards, Eric Mangini) didn't leave New York on great terms, so maybe it is a better thing for them to evolve. Give Sanchez a year under center.
DIVISION STORYLINES: The last time Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, their title defense did not go as smoothly as one might expect. This year will be different due to their competition in the division.
Of all the surprise teams last season, the one that got me the most was the Baltimore Ravens. I mean, Miami had Bill Parcells in the front office and a veteran QB in Chad Pennington. The Falcons acquired Michael Turner who burst onto the scene. But the Ravens just seemed too old and I couldn't fathom any quarterback named "Flacco" to make a difference. I don't think lighting will strike twice.
Many people, including myself, thought the Browns' time had come last season. Instead, they were just the same "ol" Browns. This year, without expectations, they'll be better, but that's not saying a lot.
Marvin Lewis is fighting for his job. Carson Palmer seems content with his injuries keeping him off the field. And Chad Johnson, I'm sorry "ochocinco" looks like he's practicing for MLS. Get ready for the old "Bungels" nickname by midseason.
DIVISION STORYLINES: At first, I thought Indianapolis's reign as the longest active playoff team was over. After all they replaced almost their entire coaching staff and parted ways with Marvin Harrison. And if it wasn't for an MVP season out of Peyton Manning, it looked like that would happen last year. But as long as Manning doesn't have a Tom Brady like injury, I think the Colts will top the division again.
The Houston Texans are definitely a team to watch. They've gotten better, not saying much, and seem primed to take the next step. As long as Matt Schaub continues developing, they should get a wild card.
Now why don't I see Tennessee going back to the playoffs? Honestly, I'm not sure. The obvious reasons would be the departure of Albert Haynesworth and their defensive coordinator. For some reason, I don't foresee another trip to the postseason for them.
The Jaguars are like Chad Pennington, they have a good year, then a significant dropoff which makes experts doubt their value, and then they prove them wrong...only to fall apart again the year after. This is the toughest division in the league, and the Jags just don't seem able to compete with the company.
DIVISION STORYLINES: It's been Super Bowl or bust for the Chargers the last two years, but this year it is definitely true. Last year, they had an awful start and seemed dead by midseason, but matching the Broncos' collapse, never gave up and won the division and a wild card game. The window of opportunity is closing. LT is getting older and many are doubting him. But I think he'll have something to prove this year. Add to the fact that Shawn Merriman will return from injury and I don't see anyone competing with them.
The Oakland Raiders are always hard to read. Their off field antics is often what we talk about. And this year it was an original one of a head coaching beating up an assistant. Well, this division really is in a transition. As long as the Raiders can keep their hand off each other, they should get better.
Now everyone is dogging on Josh McDaniels for his handling of the Jay Cutler situation. I am not. Cutler showed his immaturity and now he's Lovie Smith's problem. I think Kyle Orton is a lot better than people say (at least he's led a team to the playoffs, something Cutler couldn't do) and he was great weapons around him. It may be a tough first year, but in the long run, McDaniels will show he made the right choices.
Kansas City's biggest offseason progress might have been nabbing the player that created all the drama in Denver. Matt Cassel will long for the days of carrying the clipboard in New England though. And you can add Larry Johnson to the list of overpaid, ungrateful jerks (I could use worse words). He holds out at camp, then gets his big contract, and now wants out. The only thing they might be able to brag about is not being the WORST team in Missouri.
DIVISION STORYLINES: Towards the end of the season, the Giants were already proclaiming themselves as better than the team the year before that won it all. Then Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg and the Giants lost four out of their last five without any available receivers to take his place. (Insert cough.) Unfortunately, they haven't found a replacement for this year, hoping that two rookies and a few number three receivers will step up. The Giants will continue consistent play, a lack of a receiving threat will keep them out of a return to the Super Bowl.
Terrell Owens is gone, and Tony Romo is running out of scapegoats. As long as he wears a guard over his little precious pinky, the Cowboys should be able to at least get a wildcard. Getting their first playoff win since 1996 however is another story.
Washington has always seemed to be the team left out of discussions in this division. Could it be that they just don't have enough juicy soap opera moments? Well, with Jason Campbell upset over reports he would be replaced along with his poor preseason play thus far, that may be the reason why we don't hear from the Redskins.
I do not see why everyone is jumping on the Philadelphia Eagles bandwagon. Yes, they did get to the conference championship game. But that was only after a huge midseason tear that also saw the Cowboys and Giants collapse. Donovan McNabb says he's not threatened by the presence of Michael Vick, but for the money Vick is being paid, he can't be a backup much longer. The team also lost some notable players in the offseason, and McNabb and Andy Reid look like they're one bad game away from facing off at each other.
DIVISION STORYLINES: Perhaps the division with the most drama, the team that stayed out of the limelight will be its best. Aaron Rodgers has had a full season under center and got better as the season progressed. As long as the Packers recover defensively, the burning of Brett Favre jerseys will not only be more justified, it'll be what they'll have to do to make room for their new Aaron Rodgers merchandise.
The good news is that all of the trouble of getting Brett Favre in purple happened. The bad news is that it's now officially all or nothing this year. With the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson and a tough defense, they should have no problem with the Super Bowl or bust tag. But the so called savior may be their Achilles' heel. This is not the Brett Favre of ten years ago or even five years ago. This is the same guy who threw a pass right to a Miami Dolphins defensive linemen and then gripped his shoulder in pain to almost give himself an excuse. Still, he should be able to at least get them back into the playoffs.
Just as they're doing in Minnesota, Chicago is now claiming to be the class of the division based on the arrival of a new quarterback. But Jay Cutler will not have the same talent he had in Denver. And when things start to go sour, his lack of leadership will show.
The Detroit Lions might be in the best position of any team in the league. One win, they're automatically improved. Flirting with 0-16 wasn't able to bring enough change to the team, but now they've "accomplished" the feat, and gotten rid of Matt Millen, they might be able to get four, ah heck, let's shoot for the sky...five wins!
DIVISION STORYLINES: The New Orleans Saints had the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 quarterback last season...and still finished in last place. So why will this year be different? First of all, their division will not be as competitive. The rules of the NFC South dictate whoever makes the playoffs in the division misses the next year. Supporting that theory is the fact that neither of the playoff teams from a year ago, Carolina and Atlanta, have ever had back to back winning seasons. The Saints also lost at least two games because of poor placekicking. If the defensive improvements step up, this should be the class of the conference.
Atlanta seemed to only have gotten better by getting Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs. But I get the same feeling with them as I do with the Titans. I just don't see a return to the playoffs. Here's a stat though: in the last four instances the Falcons did make the playoffs, the following seasons they have won three, four, four, and eight games.
Jake Delhomme got the big contact in the offseason, and he will have to prove it. If the Panthers are going to return to the playoffs, they will have to rely on him.
The Bucs are basically rebuilding again. Give them a few years.
DIVISION STORYLINES: If Mike Singletary and Shaun Hill been coach and quarterback from the start of last season, things could have been much different. But getting those two into those roles late last season has prepared them for this season. They have the longest playoff drought of anyone in the division, but look for that to end this season.
The Seahawks may have been an even bigger flop than the Dallas Cowboys last season. At least the Cowboys had a winning record. After having made the playoffs every year since 2003, the Seahawks staggered to a 4-12 record. Their new coach, Jim Mora Jr., once inherited a 4-12 team in Atlanta and led them to an appearance in the conference championship game. Unfortunately there are only six spots in the playoffs.
The Cardinals finally brought some football spirit to the dessert. But even with an NFC title, they were very unimpressive in games not against their very pitiful division. Sure, Kurt Warner and company are back. But so is that defense that gave up score of 40 and 50 points at times. The Cardinals don't really have too much history to look up in terms of years after making the playoffs since, quite frankly, it happens about every ten years or so. I don't think it'll take as long for a return. But it won't be this year.
Steve Spagnuolo leaves the cushy job as Giants defensive coordinator to lead the Rams. Coming off only two wins and a ten game losing streak, there's not much pressure. But that also means there won't be too many wins.
AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS: Pittsburgh, San Diego, Indianapolis, New England, Buffalo, Houston
NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS: New Orleans, Green Bay, Giants, San Francisco, Dallas, Minnesota
SUPER BOWL XLIV: I said it in June and am going to stick with it. It'll be the Drew Brees Bowl...SAN DIEGO OVER NEW ORLEANS.