Let It Rock! 2009 NFL Season Is Ready To Take Center Stage
Six months ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on top of the world. Trailing 23-20 in the finial minutes of Super Bowl XLIII, Ben Roethlisberger entered the status of one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks when he lofted a pop up to the corner of the end zone into the golden hands of Santonio Holmes, who made a spectacular catch while getting pushed out of bounds.
The final quarter was a thriller in what had been heretofore a dull football game, and made for a fine conclusion to the 2008 season. The Steelers faced the league's toughest schedule in 2008, and, with all due respect to the New York Giants and the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers were the number one team in the league from start to finish.
Now a new season is on the horizon and with it tantilizing questions: Can the Steelers repeat as champions? Can Tom Brady return to his form of two seasons ago when he led New England to a perfect regular season? Can the Giants regain their momentum from the last year and a half and become a champion once again? How will Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez do in their initial year with the Jets? Will Michael Vick be a factor or a bust in Philly?
These questions will be answered over the next 22 weeks, with the culmination coming at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida for Super Bowl XLIV. But for now, here are my predictions before the games begin.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 12-4: Heeeeeeeeeee's baaaaaaacccckkkkkk! Tom Brady is back in town, and he is ready to wreak havoc on the entire NFL. It was a huge loss for the Patriots when Brady went down on opening day, but the fact that this team still went 11-5 without him says a lot about Bill Belichick and the depth of this ball club.
The Patriots added some key pieces to join Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Joey Galloway, the veteran speedster who made his name in Seattle years ago, will be the team's fourth wide out, as long as he and Brady can get on the same page. The two have struggled to connect in pre-season. Adding Galloway gives the Pats two legit deep threats with being the other.
Fred Taylor wasn't wanted anymore in Jacksonville, and the Patriots picked him up to help out Lawrence Maroney and Kevin Faulk, in what figures to be a very deep backfield for New England.
The one caveat is the defense. Gone are Teddy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. The Pats are moving toward a more youthful look on defense; it should be interesting to see how quickly a new group gels, and whether they can be as dominant as Patriot defenses of the past. Look for New England to feast off the AFC East this year and be in contention for a top playoff seed.
BUFFALO BILLS 7-9: I was once thinking that the Bills might have a good team this year; maybe they could compete for a wild card berth, and they still may contend, but when a team fires its offensive coordinator before the season even kicks off, the absence is quite ominous. The Bills desperately need Terrell Owens, as weird as that sounds, to return to the field and provide Buffalo with that lethal passing game that they could posses.
Owens and Lee Evans working together should give opposing secondaries headaches and furnish Trent Edwards one of the best one-two punch receivers to target.
Still, potential doesn't always spell success. The Bills will have to wait three weeks before Marshawn Lynch returns to the backfield; in the meantime, they hope that Fred Jackson can develop into a top running back that could eventually replace Lynch.
In addition, fans can't be encouraged that Dick Jouran is still coaching this team. They went 5-1 at the start of the year, and Jouran watched his club win only three games the rest of the way. He should have been fired, but he is still in Buffalo. Eventually, Bills management has to move on from one of the leagues most overrated coaches.
NEW YORK JETS 6-10: Jet fans are on pins and needles. They are ready to jump out of their seats and scream with excitement after watching Mark Sanchez torch a beat up Giants defense, and especially after listening to Rex Ryan's immodest proclamations of immediate success. Yet, they have to curb their enthusiasm a whole heck of a lot.
A young team is a young team. The Jets new 46 Defense, which figures to be incredible as the years moves by, will take baby steps in the opening weeks, especially with a difficult first month on their docket. Moreover, Sanchez will go through some growing pains this year; expect to see the Sanchez that looked lost in Baltimore rather than the Sanchez that looked like a star in the last two pre-season games for most of the regular season, as the blitzes that come at him will have the goal of taking his head off. It will be a rough year, but the future looks really bright for Gang Green.
MIAMI DOLPHINS 6-10: If you believe that Chad Pennington can have another successful season without dislocating his shoulder, or breaking a leg, or even stubbing his toe, then you might believe that pigs can fly. In other words: get a life if you are putting money on the Fish to be a playoff team again this year.
The Dolphins shocked everyone last year with their wild cat offense, but expect that to change big time this year. Teams are scheming for it this time around, so don't expect Ronnie Brown and company to have as much success running the Cat this year.
The Dolphins have a rough schedule this year with games against the Steelers, Chargers, Colts, Panthers, Saints, and two with the Patriots, so a step backwards is in the offing.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 12-4: The World Champions figure to be as good as the 2008 version; that is, if Ben Roethlisberger is fully healed from a strained Achilles tendon, and if Santonio Holmes and Willie Parker are fully healed as well from nagging off-season injuries. If all three are healthy then the Steelers will be a threat to dominate the AFC once again.
Their Blitzburgh defense is still one of the top D's in the league, and with everyone returning for another year from that unit, the Steelers D should remain among the top three defense's in the NFL.
Player to watch: Rashard Mendenhall should figure big in the Steelers offense. Willie Parker had a down year in 2008, and if he should stumble again this year, Mendenhall will see a lot more carries in 2009.
BALTIMORE RAVENS 10-6: Over the last seven years, four teams have dominated the AFC: New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. Now you can grow that list to five with the addition of the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens shocked the world last year with the outstanding play of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco; he helped lead Baltimore to the AFC title game. This year, Flacco should only get better. He has a terrific arm and size to be a Super Bowl quarterback, and if his performance against a good Panthers defense (23 for 28 for 247 yards) is any indication, then the Ravens are in for a big year.
Ray Rice, the former Rutgers running back, figures to get a majority of the carries for the Ravens but don't count out Willis McGahee, who came to camp in the best shape of his life after suffering a horrific head-to-head collision in last year's title game in Pittsburgh.
The defense? Well, even with Rex Ryan, Bart Scott, and Jim Leonhard in New York, the Ravens still have Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Enough said.
CINCINNATI BENGALS 7-9: If anyone has caught an episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Cincinnati Bengals," then one can tell that Marvin Lewis is ready to jump out of a window. In one showing, the Bengals coach is seen screaming at his players during practice because guys were coming out in sandals not cleats.
Yeah, exactly; the Bengals stink. You have to feel badly for guys like Carson Palmer, who is a very good quarterback on a terrible football team, and, yes, even Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson, who, in spite of his desire to be world famous on Twitter, is a very good teammate.
CLEVELAND BROWNS 5-11: When Eric Mangini landed in Cleveland, the first thing he did to alienate himself from everyone was paint over a mural of Cleveland Browns history; he had someone paint over pictures of Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar. To top that, Mangini proceeded to distance himself even farther by making enemies with many of his players by ignoring them and even dragging them to Connecticut for his eponymous Youth Football Camp.
Still there is some talent in Cleveland to prevent this team from going totally bust, but the worst record in the league and mutiny is not out of the question.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 11-5: Many are waiting for the Colts to completely fall apart. They were waiting like vultures last year when it became obvious that Marvin Harrison was no longer the same player, and Joesph Addai put together a horrible season. Still, Peyton Manning threw 27 touchdowns, low for him, and 4,000 yards.
With Tony Dungy out of the picture as head coach, many are wondering if Jim Caldwell can do a good enough job to keep things stable in Indy. The one thing Caldwell has going for him is Manning; as long as Peyton is around, the Colts will be a threat to win it all every year.
Expect the Colts to have a solid season once again.
TENNESSEE TITANS 9-7: The Titans were a surprising team last year, starting off at 10-0, and finishing with the AFC's best record 13-3. Even with that terrific record and a top ten defense, there was something disturbingly wrong with the Titans - their offense.
The Titans fielded a lackluster passing attack in 2008, led by the always inconsistent Kerry Collins, and receivers Justin Gage and Justin McCariens. If it weren't for Chris Johnson's breakout season on the ground, the Titans could have had the worst offense in the game. Expect Tennessee to take a natural step backwards since a lot of teams will be gunning for them. Plus, when was the last time Kerry Collins had back-to-back solid seasons as a starter? Humm ... yeah ... we are still waiting.
HOUSTON TEXANS 9-7: Everyone is pumping up the Houston Texans. After spending their first six years of existence as an NFL doormat, people are expecting the Texans and its high powered offense to drive right to the postseason.
The Texans have wonderful weapons in receiver Andre Johnson and running back Steve Slaton. Johnson is the one of the best receivers in the game; he put up 1,575 yards last season and remains the team's lone deep threat. Slaton had a terrific rookie campaign, posting 1,282 yards rushing, and he should get better with time.
Nonetheless, the big problem is at the quarterback position. Matt Schaub never stays healthy, having missed a big part of each of the last two seasons. He has to find a way to stay on the field for all 16 games for the Texans to finally show their potential. In fact, even if Schaub does complete the season, we can't predict how good he really will be.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 5-11: Which Jacksonville Jaguars team will we see this year? In 2007, experts expected the Jags to put up an uncompetitive season;,lo' and behold, the Jaguars went 11-5 behind a rejuvenated Fred Taylor and an inspired David Garrard; the Jags marched to the divisional round of the playoffs. Last season, many thought that the Jaguars were good enough to take the next step and compete for a championship, but the Jaguars fell off the map. Garrard had a terrible year, and Maurice Jones-Drew and Taylor were non-factors all year.
What will it be this year? Garrard is not a great QB, but he is accurate, having completed 61 percent of his passes in his career. As for Jones-Drew, he is one of the game's most highly touted running backs, but he faces a stiff challenge this year. Taylor no longer plays for the Jags, making it Jones-Drew's team. He must regain his form of two years ago if the Jags are to be successful.
Could the Jaguars surprise this year? Sure, they have the talent; they just have to use it.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 13-3: The Chargers had better win 13 games this year. The AFC West is the worst division in football with three teams (Broncos, Raiders, and Chiefs) all rebuilding and struggling to find an identity.
The Chargers have the most talent in the West with Phillip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates leading the Bolts on offense. The Chargers can score at will, and they should have a field day against a soft schedule. Defensively, the Chargers welcome back Shawn Merriman to the corps. Last season, Merriman went down with a season ending knee injury, and the Chargers were never the same without him.
Look for the Bolts to seek vengeance on the AFC for years of playoff failures and capture the conference's number one seed.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 6-10: Hey! After a 2-14 season the Chiefs move into second place! That is what happens when two other teams are even worse than Kansas City. The Chiefs are rebuilding; they brought in Scott Pioli, the brilliant GM that built the Patriots dynasty in this decade, to do the same in KC. He brought with him another Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick alum in Todd Haley to coach this team, and with Matt Cassel now at quarterback, it is clear that the Chiefs are looking toward better days in the future.
However, it will take time before Cassel ever steps on the field for the Chiefs. Cassel went down with a leg injury two weeks ago, and he will miss the first month of the season. In his place, Tyler Thigpen, who did a nice job as the Chiefs starter last year, will be under center on opening day.
For now, it doesn't matter who is the quarterback; the Chiefs will be bad this year, but they should only get better with time.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 5-11: We move from a team that has upside to a team that has monumental downside. When are the Raiders going to figure things out? Coach Tom Cable added to the long laundry list of embarrassments when he punched out one of his assistant coaches, UFC style, during camp. To top it, the team cut quarterback Jeff Garcia because he felt he is a better quarterback than JaMarcus Russell. I think he may have a point but don't tell that to Al Davis, or whoever is running this team into the ground.
DENVER BRONCOS 3-13: Now for the coup de grace of laugh-out loud embarrassment! Over the years, fans have gotten used to teams like the Lions, Browns, Jets, and Saints inhabiting the painful distinction of being the worst run franchise in sports; now the Broncos hold this incredible trophy.
First, the Broncos thought it was a good idea to fire Mike Shanahan after a series of mediocre seasons and decided to hire baby-face New England assistant Josh McDaniels to run the team. McDaniels, in turn, has run the Broncos into the ground in just a few months. He had a spat with Jay Cutler, and got the franchise quarterback traded to Chicago for ... gulp ... Kyle Orton!?!?!? Now, McDaniels is in a fight with the team's best receiver, Brandon Marshall since the pompous wide out wants more money and the football. I am sure owner Pat Bolen calls Shanahan every day to apologize for firing the only coach to win a Super Bowl in Denver. If McDaniels accomplishes one thing this year, he will beat out Tom Cable, Eric Mangini and Wade Phillips as the first coach to get fired before Christmas.
AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE:
NEW YORK GIANTS 10-6: Last season, the Giants came off the incredible high of winning Super Bowl XLII by winning 11 of their first 12 games, making the statement that the G-Men were the best in pro football. Then a gun at a nightclub seemed to change everything.
Once Plaxico Burress was caught with possessing an illegal fire arm at a N.Y. club a few days after Thanksgiving, the Giants offense was never the same. Eli Manning made all the throws, but the likes of Steve Smith and Dominik Hixon failed to make the catches, so much so that Big Blue was ousted by the hated Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional playoffs 23-11.
Today, the Giants still have concerns at wide receiver. Hixon, Smith and Sinorice Moss struggled throughout the pre-season, but it appears that there is some light at the end of the tunnel in rookie Hakeem Nicks, who had a spectacular pre-season. If Nicks can replace Burress, it will allow the Giants vaunted running game of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw to be even better.
Caveat: The Giants deep defense is banged up a bit. Antonio Pierce, Michael Boely, Chris Canty, Jay Alford, and Aaron Ross are a few of many players that have spent time on the DL this summer. The Giants have to get these players back if they hope to contend for another Super Bowl title.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS 10-6: My upset special is the Washington Redskins. Everyone is talking about the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys in this division, and no one is paying attention to Washington, which usually means that a surprise is in the offing.
The Redskins have heard throughout the off-season that coach Jim Zorn is in over his head, and the fact that owner Dan Snyder tried to replace Jason Campbell with either Mark Sanchez or Jay Cutler. Failing at both, Campbell will be back under center for Washington, and he must step it up this year.
The Redskins have always had the talent from Santana Moss to Clinton Portis and Chris Cooley. Now they have to put it together for the first time in a very long time. Plus, the addition of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth will give the Skins much needed bulk in the middle of their defense.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 9-7: Every year experts tag a certain team to make it to the Super Bowl, and, as a result, the team falls on its face. The Eagles are such a team. They added Justin Peters to the offensive line, Jeremy Maclin to receiver and LaSean McCoy at running back. All of sudden the Eagles were Super Bowl favorites.
With the addition of the monster otherwise known as Michael Vick, the expectations are even higher. The Eagles are a team always in constant turmoil, from Donovan McNabb's security as the starting quarterback to Andy Reid's job security. Just a hunch ... things are not going to change.
DALLAS COWBOYS 8-8: Poor Tony Romo doesn't have Jessica Simpson and Terrell Owens to kick him around anymore; now he has to put up or shut up, as does coach Wade Phillips whom owner Jerry Jones is ready to fire at a moment's notice. Another lost season, and this team will begin to rebuild ... and fast.
GREEN BAY PACKERS 12-4: The Packers have the opportunity to really become a super team. They have a good young nucleus of Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Ryan Grant and Donald Lee on the offensive side of the ball, and a solid, experienced defense with A.J. Hawk, Aaron Kampman and Charles Woodson set to make a big run into the postseason.
This year is all about Rodgers. He had a huge year, his first as Packers starter, throwing for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns; this year he can cement himself as the leader of the Pack with another big season and two wins over former Packer Brett Favre and the Vikings. If Rodgers continues to develop into a pro bowl quarterback with this high powered offense, the Packers could be off and running.
CHICAGO BEARS 11-5: With Jay Cutler now in Chicago, the Bears finally have a legit quarterback. Three years ago when the Bears went to the Super Bowl, it was the defense, Thomas Jones and Devin Hester, that took Chicago to the big dance. Now with Cutler, the Bears have a guy able to put points on the board for that terrific defense.
The caveat is the receiving corps. Devin Hester is the only decent receiver the Bears have, and he is a corner back. It will be important for the other receivers to step it up big time if the Bears want to contend.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 7-9: Oh, so now that the Vikings have Brett Favre; this means Super Bowl, right? Wrong. Favre is washed up as a football player. Even though he claims that he is fully recovered from right shoulder surgery, it is hard to imagine that a 40 year old man can just show up, having missed most of training camp and all of OTA's, to lead the Vikings to the promised land. At least the Vikings have Adrian Peterson to keep Viking fans from throwing their seats at Favre after each interception.
DETROIT LIONS 3-13: Here is one guarantee prediction this year: the Lions will win at least one game in 2009. After going 0-16 last season, 1-15 is actually an improvement. The Lions will likely start the year with Daunte Culpepper as the starting quarterback, but it will only be a matter of time before Matthew Stafford takes over. The Lions are years, upon years, away from actually being a factor in a playoff race.
CAROLINA PANTHERS 10-6: There has to be some concern for the Panthers heading into the season. Jonathan Stewart, who is the second in Carolina's vaunted one-two punch at running back, has been bothered by an Achilles tendon strain and really never practiced at all in training camp. Stewart is expected to miss the opener, putting extra pressure on DeAngelo Williams to carry the load as the primary running back. Williams had a fantastic season last year, so the Panthers are lucky that they have one of their top two backs playing.
Injuries have been the pattern for the Panthers over the years. Whenever this team seems ready to push for a championship, they sufer numerous injuries that prevents them from contending. Is the Stewart injury the beginning of a snow ball?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 9-7: The Saints have a very productive offense with Drew Brees leading the way. Brees was all world last year throwing for 5,069 yards on a team that didn't have a 1,000 yard receiver. This is a big year for Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Thomas will be the feature back with Deuce McAllister no longer on the team. Thomas has 625 yards last year and should have a 1,000 yard campaign in '09. As for Bush, he must prove that he is more than just a special team's ace. Bush has the talent to be an every down back, but he has yet to prove it.
Defense will be key. The most sacks a Saints player recorded was six, so if new D coordinator Greg Williams gets his way, the Saints will become more of a blitz happy unit than in years past. They will need to be in order to stop the high powered ground games in Atlanta and Carolina.
ATLANTA FALCONS 6-10: No one could have foreseen the success coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan had in 2008, so it should be viewed as natural that the Falcons stumble backwards a bit. Too much success is not always a good thing. This will be a challenging year for Atlanta as many teams in the NFC will be taking the Falcons seriously from the get-go. Can they handle the pressure?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 2-14: The Bucs are in transition. They hired 32-year-old Raheem Morris to be their head coach, which should prove to be quite interesting. Two things could happen here: the players may feel a very close connection to Morris to the point that they will fight hard for him every single week and may even pull off a lot of upsets, or the older players that are still on the team may eventually feel disenchanted with the inexperienced coach, and, in turn, turn him off.
Either way, this is about 2010, if not 2011 for Tampa Bay; they will look to ease rookies like Josh Freeman into the lineup.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 11-5: I like what is happening in Seattle. They have re-energized the team with Jim Mora Jr. as Mike Holmgren's replacement; they signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh away from the Bengals to become their primary receiver, and they are welcoming back a healthy Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Expect to see the Seahawks light up the scoreboard this year with Hasselbeck to Houshmandzadeh all season long; Julius Jones and Edgerrin James will provide a nice one-two running back punch in the backfield.
ARIZONA CARDINALS 8-8: Over the years, the team that looses the Super Bowl falls apart the following season. Expect the same to happen to the Cardinals for two reasons: 1) there is something to this pattern, and 2) they are the Cardinals!
Kurt Warner had another storybook year last year, but one has to wonder how many more miracles the 38-year-old quarterback has left to compose. At least he still has Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston to whom to throw. The key for the Cards is finding a ground game with Chris "Beanie" Wells and making certain that their defense regains momentum from the playoffs and actually plays well in the regular season.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 7-9: Anytime Shaun Hill wins the starting job at quarterback means that someone is in for a long season. The 49ers are still trying to figure out their identity as a football team, and with Mike Singletary entering his second season as head coach, it will be important for San Francisco to win eight or nine games, then go on to contend for a wild card. Let's hope that Singletary keeps his pants on when the Niners go on an extended losing streak.
ST. LOUIS RAMS 4-12: Steve Spagnolou, the former Giants defensive coordinator, is taking his craft to the Rams, an organization that never knew how to play defense even when they were good earlier in the decade. The Rams have to develop a killer instinct if they want to return to prominence.
It will be a long year because this offense won't score a lot of points. With Tory Holt now playing in Jacksonville, the Rams no longer have a number one deep threat to receive, and on top of that, Mark Bulger needs to show people that he can stay healthy for a full season.
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE:
GREEN BAY PACKERS 12-4
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 11-5
NEW YORK GIANTS 10-6
CAROLINA PANTHERS 10-6
CHICAGO BEARS 11-5
WASHINGTON REDSKINS 10-6
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