The NFL this year was dominated by the heavyweight teams each retaining their mantle as contenders. New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Minnesota, Dallas, San Diego. All of these teams have either been historically successful franchises or great teams over the past three to four years.
There have also been some teams that have been able to rise from the metaphorical ashes this year, such as the Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets.
My "bold predictions" this time have to do with the teams that rose to new levels and those that fell from grace this year.
Rising Stock This Year
First, the teams whose stock rose this year. They both have one thing in common—a better defense.
With the first-round pick they traded up for, the Jets drafted Mark Sanchez. This was not their best pick. Their best pick came in the third round, with the selection of Shonn Greene.
He has helped shoulder the load for an aging Thomas Jones and has quietly racked up back-to-back 100-yard games in the playoffs. The Jets did a good job of bottling up the Chargers' high-powered offense, but Greene saved the day with his late touchdown run.
The team was really transformed with the addition of old-school, hard-nosed defense. They have the best corner in the game in Darrelle Revis, and they lock teams up with their stifling D.
The combination of a good defense and a strong running game has made Sanchez's job much easier and the team able to find a way into the AFC championship game.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers finally tapped into some of their potential this year with an 11-5 record and a trip to the playoffs. This was all made possible by an improved defense and the maturation of Aaron Rodgers.
Their defense was greatly improved, even if it didn't show in the playoffs. They entered the game with the fifth-ranked defense and were greatly improved by switching to the 3-4 and adding rookie tackling machine Clay Matthews.
Matthews recorded 51 tackles and 10 sacks in his rookie season, a considerable achievement. He was also named to the Pro Bowl, replacing Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
The other factor in the improved Packers was Rodgers. He improved every facet of his game from a respectable debut in 2008 as the starting quarterback. He threw two more touchdowns and six fewer interceptions, and his passer rating went up by 10 points. He also ran for 316 yards (109 more than 2008) and five touchdowns (one more than 2008) on two more attempts.
Rising Stock Next Year
These next two teams had some bad luck this year, whether it was injuries or losing close games. They may not have made it into the playoffs, but I'll be surprised if they don't make it next year.
Their stock is like that of gas-guzzling SUVs. They were the hottest commodity and also the quickest to fall. This year the Steelers lost close games to teams they should have blown away.
I'm talking about the Raiders, Chiefs, and Browns. They had no business beating the Steelers but were able to because Pittsburgh played down to their level. Don't count on that next year; they've learned the hard way what happens when you underestimate your opponent.
They were also victims of unfortunate injuries. The key injury happened at the beginning of the season, when Troy Polamalu was hurt. He is the heart and soul of that defense, and without him they couldn't hold anyone back.
He came up with spectacular plays and could turn the tide of a game. The fourth-quarter comebacks by the Raiders and the Chiefs would have been much harder to accomplish with a healthy Polamalu leading the defense.
This team was the second biggest letdown after Pittsburgh. The Giants couldn't execute either of their hallmarks of the past few years. They played spongy defense and couldn't run the ball. They left the load to be shouldered solely by Eli Manning...not the best plan in the history of the NFL.
Manning was able to carry them for the first half of the season as they got off to a hot start, but as the season progressed Manning broke down and the team took a nosedive out of playoff contention.
Next year they will have to improve their defense, which I believe they will. A new defensive coordinator will help erase the woes of this year's soft D. The draft will also help them, with a glutton of defensive talent coming out this year.
The defense isn't the only concern. Manning is a serviceable quarterback that will effectively manage a game, but he is not like his brother Peyton and able to carry his team to the playoffs. He needs a supporting cast more than a couple of wide receivers. If the running game gets going next year and the defense stiffens up, the Giants will be in good shape.
Teams that wallowed in the bottom of the NFL this year may not become the next version of the Patriots or Colts overnight, but they sure as heck will be improved.
Volume 3 of Bold NFL Predictions is up now!!!
Volume 1 of Bold NFL Predicitons can be found at the link below.