The 2010-11 NFL Season starts in weeks, so let's take a look at the teams that really have a chance at making the Super Bowl.
Defense has never been lacking in Baltimore. It's offense that has historically been the issue in Baltimore, but things have changed. The 2010-11 Raven, arguably, have the best offensive unit they've ever had.
The acquisition of Anquan Boldin marks the first time in years that the Ravens have a Pro-Bowl caliber go-to receiver. If Michael Oher and Jared Gaither stay healthy at the offensive tackle positions, Joe Flacco will have enough time to shred any defense apart. With speed-demon Stallworth and the tough-as-nails Boldin, and Mason-- and dump-offs to Rice, Flacco will have a Manning-like season.
Add a running game anchored by left tackle Michael Oher and led by Ray Rice who I have coined the "Best All-Purpose Back-- not named Johnson or Peterson"-- and you have a Top 5 Running Game. The greatest obstacle to their Super Bowl hopes is a Top-Heavy AFC and injury. Mark it down, the Ravens will play in the AFC Championship game.
In a league dominated by 6'5-ish quarterbacks, Drew Brees was chased out of San Diego, ostracized for his lack of stature, but like the city he plays for-- Brees bounced back and vaulted the New Orleans Saints to the top.
In 2010-11 expect the Saints to continue running and gunning. With Brees under center with his plethora of talented wide-outs, the Saints will march to the NFC title game relatively unscathed.
The greatest concern for the Saints will be a defense that allows opposing quarterbacks to put up points at will. The Saints defensive guru Greg Williams is known for unique blitz packages which cause confusions among opposing offensives. But does he have the manpower to cause enough turnovers to get the Saints back into the Super Bowl?
Expect the Saints to challenge for the NFC Title, but only time will tell if they are able to recreate last year's magic.
Peyton Manning demands an improved running game. And rightly so. With the off season pickups by the elite AFC teams who will compete for the opportunity to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the Colts are in a scramble to improve their running game. Among the Top 5 AFC teams the Colts rank 5th in rushing, which puts added pressure on the dynamic, yet aging human arm of Manning.
The Colts offensive-line have mastered the technique of pass-blocking, however, in short yardage situations they struggle in dominating opposing defensive-lines which will be an issue if they are in that situation against the massive Jets and Raven defenses.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts have the most explosive duo of ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, so the pass rush will not be an issue. If Bob Sanders is healthy, the defensive backfield should be fine. But the prevailing issue is: how will the defense fair against dominant running teams? Only time will tell.
It's "Put Up or Shut Up Time" for Tony Romo!
For the past few years, the Cowboys faithful have blamed Jessica Simpson, Terrell Owens, Roy Williams, and the Dallas Symphony Quartet for Romo's ineptness in the big game.
Romo is surrounded by Pro-Bowl level talent at WR, TE, RB, and on the offensive-line, now it's time for Tony to play like a Pro-bowler when the season is on the line. With the addition of Dez Bryant, the Cowboys offense will force opponents to drop their safeties into coverage or let Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Roy Williams, and Dez Bryant beat them.
Over the off-season, Felix Jones has bulked up and Marion Barber has tightened up. Look for Jones to take over more of a feature-back role and Barber, the short-yardage hammer. But don't be mistaken the running game will remain a three-headed monster with Tashard "The People's" Choice taking a load of the carries to keep Jones fresh down the stretch.
On defense, the greatest concern is the free safety position. With the departure of Ken Hamlin who will step up-- Mike Hamlin or Alan Ball? If the pass rush, led by Demarcus Ware is as good as last year, it won't be as big of an issue, but if injuries hit the Dallas pass-rushers, the FS position will be vital.
The looming questions regarding the Jets making the Super Bowl are: How much will the loss of Thomas Jones hurt the Jets' running game? Will Revis play this year? And if opposing defenses put 8 in the box to stop the run-- can Mark Sanchez beat opposing secondaries?
With the addition of Santonio Holmes to his arsenal, Sanchez will have speed, veteran leadership, and Super Bowl experience to turn to down the stretch. And Holmes' speed will open the middle up for tight end Dustin Keller to roam without the nuisance of pesky opposing safeties.
Shonn Greene will take over as the starting rusher, but if the injury-bug hits the stout back-- does LaDainian Tomlinson's legs have the wherewithal to lead the Jets? If last year is of indication, I say no way. That scenario should be of dire concern to the Jets. But by drafting Joe McKnight out of USC, the Jets believe they have quelled that concern.
Whenever you hear the name Ryan among NFL coaches, the first words you think of are pressure defense. My fondest and most lasting Ryan memory is of Richard Dent and Otis Wilson hoisting up Buddy Ryan in 1985 after the Chicago Bears demolished the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
When Revis returns to the team-- and he will, the Ryan name will again be stamped on a great defense, but this time it will be Rex and not Buddy. With the additions of Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson, expect the Jets to play lots of man-coverage and blitz opposing quarterbacks.
Expect the Jets to compete late into the fall.
If nothing else, the Bengals will host the most entertaining press conferences in the history of the NFL. Though he has never been accused of sexual assault, theft, driving while drunk, sipping the purple stuff, drug abuse, murder or assault, Terrell Owens has been the most ostracized player in the NFL for the past decade.
My fondest memory of Owens was after sustaining a severely sprained ankle and a fractured fibula-- Owens surprised the NFL by proclaiming, he would play no matter what, even though team doctors stated that his injury would take several more weeks to heal. Owen went on to catch 9 passes for 122 yards in the Super Bowl-- while Donovan McNabb vomited and tossed interceptions right and left.
With Carson Palmer at the helm of an all-star cast that included Chad Ochocinco, newly acquired Antonio Bryant, Cedric Benson who rushed for over 1300 yards last year, and Owens-- the Bengals should be able to score on any team. When you add the Bengals defense into the equation that ranked 4th overall last year, the Bengals could surprise everyone except themselves and their fans by taking the kit and caboodle.
Don't be surprised if Owens ends his career saying, "I'm going to Disney World," instead of his infamous-- "I love me some me," quote.