With the NFL season just under a week away, I find myself somewhere between anxiety and madness. Countless hours of my summer have been spent reviewing teams' rosters, schedules, off-season acquisitions or departures, and all for the unlikely quest of predicting who will win Super Bowl XLIV.
Taking into consideration new additions, players coming back from injury, MVP-caliber performances, schedule strengths, and last year's performance, I'll break each team down to find out who'll be the last standing in Miami.
I'll go division-by-division breaking down who's the best (and worst), then go to each conference declaring the winner, and then of course, prediction the two contenders for Super Bowl glory. Without further adieu, here's my predictions for the 2009 NFL Season.
We'll begin with the AFC East. Last season, the division produced two 11-5 teams, but had room for only one playoff spot, which belonged to the Miami Dolphins. This year, however, will be slightly different.
1. New England Patriots, 13-3
Only 11 passes into the 2008 season and Tom Brady was gone. Sixteen weeks later, the Pats found themselves with 11 wins and not in the playoffs due to an NFL tie-breaker rule. This season won't be that close, not by a long shot.
First things first: Brady is back. He alone will make a huge difference as Randy Moss and Wes Welker find themselves back into the mix. However, don't think Brady will put up the numbers he did in 2007, as he's without Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth.
Secondly: That defense looks better, particularly in the area where they struggled in last season: secondary. I think this team will force much more interceptions than last year, as they're going to be pressuring quarterbacks left and right.
Lastly: Their schedule. They'll play six games against the AFC East (Miami, Buffalo and the New York Jets), which should make them a 4-2 team at worst. Aside from the division, they've got home games against Denver, Carolina, and Jacksonville and road trips to Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Houston, which equals up to another 4-2 at-worst situation. I see only three games on the schedule that could be losses to the Patriots: Baltimore and Tennessee at home, and a road trip to Indianapolis.
2. Miami Dolphins, 8-8
Miami implemented a rarely-used offensive scheme in the Wildcat last year, and it resulted in a division championship. This year, however, will be much different.
First: The Wildcat is no longer a surprise. Teams across the league are also implementing the Wildcat into their game plan, which will take away what worked so well for Miami last year: the element of surprise.
Lastly: Their brutal schedule. Two games against New England, trips to San Diego, Carolina, and Tennessee all including rough games against New Orleans, Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh isn't what I'd call a "walk in the park."
Miami will prove within the first half of the season whether or not they're contenders with a schedule looking like this: Atlanta, Indianapolis, @ San Diego, Buffalo, New York Jets, Bye Week, New Orleans, @ New York Jets, @ New England. Even if they start off with a 3-5 start (which I'd consider a great start), the second half doesn't look much better. Tampa Bay, @ Carolina, Buffalo, New England, @ Jacksonville, @ Tennessee, Houston, Pittsburgh. I sense an 8-8 season at best.
3. New York Jets, 7-9
New head coach. New star quarterback. Better defense. Same old losing New York Jets. Right? Not quite. In fact, the Jets have a lot of things going for them.
First: Rex Ryan has this team cooking as their defense does look much improved. In the preseason, they rank 8th in total yards allowed per game and are monsters of the pass-rush, getting to the quarterback with more efficiency (1st in NFL with most preseason sacks with 52, next closest team is Seattle with 27). Let's see if they can continue this into the regular season.
Second: Offensively, they're not too shabby. They rank 11th in total yards, 1st in total points, 17th in passing, 8th in rushing, and 20th in turnover ratio. Again I will stress, it's only preseason, but this gets me thinking that they could end up making some noise.
Finally: A favorable schedule. Though the first four games will be tough (@ Houston, New England, Tennessee, and @ New Orleans), if they can get out of the gate without starting 0-4 or 1-3, they could end up having a winning season.
4. Buffalo Bills, 5-11
T.O. or no T.O., this team still isn't that great. Everybody's Cinderella pick a few years ago will once again fall back to obscurity in 2009.
First: I give T.O. until Week 10 against the Titans when the Bills lose again dropping to 2-7 when he finally comes out and bashes quarterback Trent Edwards for "not throwing it to me enough, not allowing me to make enough plays, costing us the win." I'm sorry T.O., but your track record won't allow me to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you can't refrain from bashing McNabb after he took you to a Super Bowl, bashing Tony Romo after consecutive playoff appearances, I can't imagine you not bashing Trent Edwards for losing.
Watch this be the final season of the Dick Jauron era, and perhaps the short-lived T.O. era.
It's hard for me to imagine a world in which the Steelers don't win the AFC North. Though, they will have tougher competition this year as Baltimore looks ready to contend again, and Cincinnati may make a run (as long as Carson Palmer can stay healthy).
1. Pittsburgh Steelers, 12-4
Quarterback going through another controversy? No problem. Aging receivers? Big deal. Offensive line that allowed 49 sacks last season, the 4th most in the NFL? We'll handle it. Tough schedule? So what. The Steelers have seen it all over the past decade, so nothing you throw at them will be foreign.
First: Yes, that offensive line is pretty bad, and it doesn't look much better. But the Steelers are going to dominate the same way they've been dominating lately: run often, pass heavy, and let your defense go to work. Last season, the defense ranked 1st in yards per game, 8th in total tackles, 6th in interceptions, 7th in interceptions returned for a touchdown, and 18th in fumble recoveries. Now, Pittsburgh may not be the most complete (I'd even bet they may not be the best defense in the division), but they're going to be able to contain their offense-heavy opponents this season such as San Diego and Minnesota.
Lastly: Schedule. It's tough. Again. But in the words of Marv Levy, "When it's too tough for them, it's just right for us." Pittsburgh had the hardest schedule in the NFL last season, and still managed 12 wins. I say they stay the same with 12 wins. They're up against teams like Minnesota, San Diego, Baltimore twice, Green Bay, and Chicago.
2. Baltimore Ravens, 10-6
Remember when I said the Steelers may not be the best defense in their division? I now present to you, that team.
First and foremost: Baltimore's defense is nasty, and it's going to come in handy. Ngata will provide tons of pass rush, as well as assisting in containing such runners as Adrian Peterson (@ Minnesota, Week 6) and LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego, Week 2). Not to mention, with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis lurking, pass-first teams such as Indianapolis (Week 11), Green Bay (Week 13), Cincinnati (Weeks 5 and 9), and of course Pittsburgh (Weeks 12 and 16), they're all going to have to adjust that game plan.
Secondly: Perhaps the only downside is the offense. Joe Flacco enters his second season, and will try to avoid the all-to0-common "Sophomore Slump." Willis McGahee is no longer the starting running back, and the wide receiving core looks a little weak.
Lastly: I think they decline by a win-or-two this season simply because of their schedule. Trips to Minnesota, Green Bay, and New England will be hard-earned victories or blow-out losses. Two games against Pittsburgh is never fun, and also scattered around the schedule is Indianapolis, Denver, and San Diego. I see six losses somewhere in this schedule.
3. Cincinnati Bengals, 6-10
Child please! Cincy's getting six wins this year? It's very possible. As long as Carson Palmer hurries back from his ankle injury, and Chad Ochocinco has a better year than last season (53 catches for 540 yards and four touchdowns, a career worst aside from his rookie season). There going to be without T.J. Houshmanzadeh, and a lack of a powerful run game (you must produce Cedric Benson). So why might they win six games?
Reason No. 1: Rey Maualuga. After watching Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, coaches are convinced that Rey will make the biggest impact of any rookie in 2009. The former Trojan is already the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year as he's racked up 11 tackles in just two preseason appearances.
Reason No. 2: Cedric Benson. He should be able to repeat his 747 yard season as he only played in 12 games last season. Benson was considered a bust by the Chicago Bears, and was released during the 2007 season following legal troubles. Since coming to Cincinnati, he has flashed some of his skills that we used to see every Saturday when he was a Texas Longhorn.
Reason No. 3: I know six wins isn't much of a high goal, but for a team that went from winning the AFC North in 2005 to number of lackluster seasons (8-8 in 2006, 7-9 in 2007, and 4-11-1 last season). With a schedule that includes Pittsburgh twice, Baltimore twice, trips to San Diego, Minnesota, and Green Bay, it seems that six wins is considered a winning season.
4. Cleveland Browns, 3-13
What to do with the Cleveland Browns? Some had them going to the AFC Championship last season, others had them going 5-11. Half of those people were somewhat right. But this year, I think it gets even worse for Cleveland.
Why? Whose their quarterback? Unless the team itself already knows, and the "Man-Genius" is keeping it secret, it's never good when a team doesn't even know who their starting quarterback is with less than a week until kickoff. They've lost Kellen Winslow, Donte Stallworth, and pretty much everything that made that team click during the magical season of 2007.
And the schedule. Oh that schedule. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati twice. Ouch. Minnesota, Chicago, and Green Bay. More ouch. San Diego, Oakland, and Jacksonville. All three are winnable, but not likely. Long story short, it's going to be a long season for Cleveland fans. Get ready for the LeBron and Shaq show!
Last season, Peyton Manning and the Colts watched as Jeff Fisher's Tennessee Titans cruised to a 13-3 season, winning the AFC South. This year, Manning and Co. looks poised to regain their thrown atop the AFC South.
1. Indianapolis Colts, 11-5
Forget the fact that for the first time in seven years the Colts will be without Tony Dungy, because if there's any more prepared quarterback in the league it's Peyton Manning. However, this may be Manning's most difficult year behind center in a long time because he'll be without Marvin Harrison. But don't be fooled. Look for Dallas Clark's six touchdowns last year to expand even further as Clark will see more balls now that Harrison has departed. Also, expect to see more production out of Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai.
The defense looks re-charged as Bob Sanders returns for his 6th season, and he expects to play much more than the six games he played last year. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Antonio Johnson return for more pressure on the pass rush, while Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea anchor the linebackers and secondary.
The schedule also seems favorable with six games against the AFC South, a division they've had much success beating throughout their history, trips to Arizona, Miami, St. Louis, and Buffalo all should equal victories. But it's games like Baltimore, Tennessee twice, and of course the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl Patriots at Colts on November 15.
2. Tennessee Titans, 10-6
In 2008, Head Coach Jeff Fisher battled back from Vince Young's bizarre Week One disappearance to starting veteran Kerry Collins who guided the Titans to an improbable 13-3 season, only to lose to Baltimore in the divisional round. This season, however, they won't cruise to the division title nearly as easily as last season.
First things first: They no longer have Albert Haynesworth who accounted for 8.5 sacks last season, tied for 15th in the NFL. Haynesworth not only was a sack machine, he also forced three fumbles the 22nd most in the NFL. It wasn't so much his ability to rush the quarterback and force fumbles, it was his ability to stuff up the running holes making Tennessee the 6th best team against the run last year and the 7th best defense overall. Now, Haynesworth would've really come in handy as the Titans play the likes of run-first teams such as Jacksonville twice, San Diego, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.
Their schedule will be tougher last year (that's what happens when you're the No. 1 in the AFC after the regular season), which I see losses scattered all throughout the schedule this year.
3. Houston Texans, 9-7
Everyone always asks "is this the year the Texans have that break-out year?" Well, will they get a winning season? Yes. Is it good enough for the playoffs? Still no.
They are, however, making huge strides to quickly become a contender. Mario Williams is more and more making a believer out of me that they made the right choice passing up the likes of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Vince Young in the draft. Williams finished 7th in the league in sacks last season with 12, putting his career sack number at 30.5.
Andre Johnson continues to be a beast, leading the lead in receiving yards last year with 1,575, 9th in touchdowns with eight, and 2nd in yards per game with 98.4. Owen Daniels is also becoming a top notch tight end hauling in 70 catches last year and two touchdowns.
Matt Schaub continues to take strides at becoming a better quarterback. Last year he ranked 7th in overall rating with a 92.7, 18th in passing yards, 17th in passing touchdowns, and 4th in completion percentage.
But what's keeping the Texans from a playoff birth? Once again, in factoring in the schedule, that's what makes the difference. Four games against Tennessee and Indianapolis makes them easily an 0-4, 1-3, or at best 2-2 team. The rest of their schedule is quiet easy, however in the AFC South it comes down to tiebreakers, and that's something Houston won't get as they continue to lose to Indianapolis and struggle against Tennessee.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-11
It's obvious that the Jaguars took a huge step backwards last season, right when it seemed like they would get over the hump and become a Super Bowl contender.
Last year was a combination of a lot of things going wrong. Firstly, David Gerrard's touchdown:interception ratio skyrocketed from just 18:3 in 2007 to 15:13. Then Maurice Jones-Drew showed improvement, but still wasn't enough. The defense completely collapsed from a year prior slipping to 17th in yards per game, 12th in most points allowed and points per game allowed.
What concerns me is I don't think they've done enough to improve from last year. They went out and got Torry Holt, an 11-year veteran who never returned to form after Kurt Warner left St. Louis in 2002.
Furthermore, the schedule is brutal. They could very easily start out 2-6 with games against the Colts, Cardinals, Texans, Titans, Seahawks, Rams, Titans and Chiefs. Even if they get out with a 4-4 record (which I think would be miraculous), the second half entails match-ups against the Jets, Bills, 49ers, Texans, Dolphins, Colts, Patriots, and Browns. Again, I think it'd be a miracle if they went 5-3 down the stretch. The best possible record the Jaguars can have is 9-7, but I smell something more around the ballpark of 7 wins or less.
The AFC West is the Chargers' division to lose. Can they prevent a usual rough start and cruise to a division championship, and possibly the Super Bowl?
1. San Diego Chargers, 11-5
The Denver Broncos might as well have gift-wrapped the AFC West division title and handed it to the Chargers last season. With three games left in the season, and only needing one win, they collapsed and watched as the Chargers advanced to their 3rd straight division title, and fourth title in five seasons. This season, the Chargers will have a much easier time getting to the playoffs... trust me.
Philip Rivers is slowly becoming perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL. Last year he was 1st in the NFL in quarterback rating (105.5), tied for 1st in touchdown passes (34), and was ranked 7th in completion percentage (65.3%). This year should be no different.
Rivers finds his receiving unit stacked, much like last year. With Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson in the receiving position, as well as Antonio Gates in the tight end position, San Diego once again has a top-tier passing unit. A unit that last season ranked 8th in receiving yards, tied for 1st in touchdown receptions, and averaged 12.8 yards per catch...3rd in the league.
But it's in the backfield that many are having doubts. Not me. Yes, they only ranked 20th in total yards rushing and 19th in rushing touchdowns last season. But LaDainian Tomlinson played hurt for all 16 games and still managed 1,100 yards rushing.
Defense is where they lack. It's obvious that the loss of Shawn Merriman effected them negatively last year, but with him back, this defense should return to the form they showed in 2007.
Schedule-wise, it's fairly smooth. The AFC West should be a walk in the park as I see a 4-2 record at worst (they were 5-1 against the division last year). But it's games like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Philadelphia, and Tennessee that I could see more losses than I'd like. Even so, if San Diego rolls through those teams, particularly the Steelers, Giants, and Titans look for San Diego to be a Super Bowl threat.
2. Denver Broncos, 6-10
The rest of the division is a toss up. I don't see any team able to even break .500, regardless the best of the three bad teams is still Denver.
OK defense, decent running game, and young talent is still good enough to make them the 2nd best team in the AFC West.
Knowshon Moreno is one of the better talents coming out of the draft this season, which should help account for the offense's absence of Jay Cutler. Also, the addition of Brian Dawkins could make this defense more of a threat when it comes to playing San Diego and such opponents as New York and Pittsburgh,
The reason why no team other than the Chargers will finish over .500 is because all the teams are facing harsh schedules. For Denver, they play the AFC North and NFC East, as well as the Patriots and Colts.
3. Kansas City Chiefs, 5-11
The addition of Matt Cassel no doubt makes them better, yet the Chiefs still have a long way to go before they can get back to the top of the AFC West. Losing Tony Gonzalez surely won't help them either, and hopefully Larry Johnson can last the whole season.
Still, the Chiefs have a lot of work to do before becoming a contender again.
4. Oakland Raiders, 5-11
JaMarcus Russell enters his third season at the helm of Oakland, yet he still doesn't look like a top-notch NFL quarterback. Perhaps is his surrounding teammates that haven't helped him, but Russell was supposed to be the Raiders' savior, yet he hasn't helped much.
Richard Seymour may help on defense, but there's still holes all around.
They come into this season with high hopes of turning around a 5-11 season from last year. It's my assumption that they won't be able to improve that record.
The Giants ran away with the division last season, but I think this year will be much closer.
1. New York Giants, 12-4
Last season New York was the mid-season favorite to win the NFC. That is until the night their star wide receiver walked into a nightclub and shot himself. Prior to Plaxico Burress's departure the Giants were 10-1, then fell to 1-4.
The biggest difference between last season is this defense looks healthier, and they no longer have to depend on one receiver. With Dominik Hixon and Hakeem Nicks, the receiving core looks good.
New York should be the best team in the NFC so long as they stay healthy.
2. Philadelphia Eagles, 10-6
T-minus three days until the Michael Vick experiment kicks in. My prediction: McNabb and Vick's "friendship" begins to falter around mid-season when Vick starts coming in on key situations. However, the Eagles are still good enough to make the playoffs.
Westbrook looks like he may last a bit longer, the receivers looks good, and as does that defense.
3. Dallas Cowboys, 8-8
4. Washington Redskins, 6-10
1. Chicago Bears (11-5)
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
3. Green Bay Packers (8-8)
4. Detroit Lions 5-11
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
1. Seattle Seahawks (8-8)
2. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
3. San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
4. St. Louis Rams (3-13)
1. New York Giants (12-4)
2. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
3. Chicago Bears (11-5)
4. Seattle Seahawks (8-8)
5. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
6. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Bears def Falcons
Vikings def Seahawks
Bears def Saints
Giants def Vikings
Bears def Giants
1. New England Patriots 13-3
2. Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
3. Indianapolis Colts 11-5
4. San Diego Chargers 11-5
5. Baltimore Ravens 10-6
6. Tennessee Titans 10-6
Colts def Titans
Ravens def Chargers
Ravens def Patriots
Colts def Steelers
Ravens def Colts
Bears V.S. Ravens