2010 NFL Preview: Power Rankings for All 32 Teams
Every year, I make my picks for the NFL season. I often see narratives that others don't, or correctly predict the direction of a team.
Last year, I correctly highlighted the New Orleans Saints before the season, after the Saints had finished 8-8 in 2008. I had the nagging thought that the Saints had the talent to win the Super Bowl, yet lacked an "it" factor.
The Saints seemed like a talented team that was "mentally weak" as Ron Jaworski says, but as we now know, the Saints overcame their erratic performances and won the Super Bowl.
In May of 2008, I correctly picked the Miami Dolphins to contend, after Miami was reeling from a 1-15 showing in 2007. People called me crazy, while the folks at ESPN still refuse to acknowledge it.
It grinds my gears when someone says "no one" picked Miami or "only Dolphins fans" picked Miami. If push comes to shove, they'll say I was just lucky or that the NFL is easy to predict.
Yet, I also correctly predicted the collapse of the St. Louis Rams in 2002, that Steve Spurrier would flop as coach in Washington, the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl in 2002 (a lot of good that did) the resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys in 2003, and the Patriots repeat as champions in 2004, amongst others.
Let's just say that a Bill Parcells team is safe bet, even if Parcells has been the enemy of Al Davis (read about that in Sean Payton's book).
Though it was an awesome achievement for me to pick Miami, it lacked some luster. The reason why is that I thought the same thing about Atlanta, but was unwilling to defend both.
I must admit, however that I have had my share of whiffs, but I have also had my share of proverbial home runs.
So now that I have finished gloating, I expect the 2010 season to be a changing on the guard in many cases, even if the Colts will likely win the AFC South once again.
I look for teams that are functional in the three phases of the game: Offense, defense, and special-teams.
I don't want to dissertate (yes, I concocted a verb) on the matter, but yes, special teams is as important as the offense or defense, and it's precisely because, fans and media alike take it for granted.
Special teams however is a catch-22. Unless you're Al Davis, the paradigm has been an avoidance of kickers and punters in the first and second rounds of the draft, while few teams (if any) target players (or pay them) that specialize in coverage.
It's not because special teams is less important, it's because the expectations and evaluation process for special teams players is different than it is for offense and defense.
Yet, field position will directly affect and dictate clock management; play calling, which is affected by the strengths and weaknesses of personnel; and in effect, the physical attrition of personnel.
And when all clubs are hindered by salary caps, someone will get low-balled.
NFC North: With Brett Favre In Minnesota, Here Come the Packers
"Favre mark" is a question that must be answered with an esoteric riddle that is wrapped within an enigma. For example: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Answer: Brett Favre!
(Should be said aloud in your best impersonation of John Madden).
Even though Favre finally ended his perennial "Decision" that torments the hearts and souls of media and fans alike, the Vikings may be caught with their "pants on the ground" by season's end.
Even without much help from the quarterback in 2008, the Vikings still racked up 10 wins, thanks to tailback Adrian Peterson.
Yet, without receiver Sidney Rice for the season and Percy Harvin hampered by migraines, I think that is just enough for the Packers to surpass the Vikings in 2010.
I wouldn't sleep on the Bears because they have all the right pieces, which is exactly why coach Lovie Smith is on the hotseat in 2010.
Until the day that Jay Cutler is not a Pick Machine and a tackling dummy in the pocket however, I would not count on Cutler to out duel Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Brett Favre in Minnesota, and yes, even Matthew Stafford in Detroit.
I'll show some love for the Lions as relatively improved, but that won't be enough to escape the doldrums of fourth place. The Lions still need a left-tackle. With pass-happy offenses in the division as well, the Lions will need more help from the cornerbacks.
Green Bay Packers: 12-4
Minnesota Vikings: 10-6
Chicago Bears: 8-8
Detroit Lions: 6-10
NFC East: I Don't See a Favorite; Is Washington a Sleeper?
I think the Giants are the most complete team in the NFC East, but I also like Washington as a wild card team.
Eli Manning surpassed 4,000 yards passing, thanks in part to the NFL's rules to protect the passing game. Between Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks and Kevin Boss, Manning has plenty of targets to throw too.
Plus, the Giants have two running backs that can score touchdowns in Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
The problem for the G-Men in 2009 was the front seven, which should be functional once again in 2010.
Here's a thought that has terrified me about Washington: Can Mike Shanahan do with Donovan McNabb what Shanahan did with John Elway?
In that, Shanahan helped the long-time also-ran quarterback, Elway, become a Super Bowl winner. Washington's current talent with Chris Cooley, Fred Davis and Santana Moss is comparable with what McNabb had in Philadelphia.
The main question is whether the 'Skins can establish a running game. If history is any indication however, methinks that Shanahan can produce a running game.
Just for kicks...
I remember Rush Limbaugh once telling a story about his now ex-wife and how she thought the Broncos would, "win one for John" in 1997. Limbaugh of course, once called McNabb over-rated. So clearly, Limbaugh does not know as much as he thinks he knows about football.
The Cowboys have deficiencies on the offensive line and have been one-dimensional in the passing game.
The Eagles seem good but not good enough. Quarterback Kevin Kolb still needs a full year before I would count on him. Please save your rants about how quarterbacks have succeeded in their first year, because each of those teams had a lights-out defense, or a beast at running back; the Eagles have neither of which.
I could be wrong, but I don't think so.
New York Giants: 11-5
Washington Redskins: 10-6
Dallas Cowboys: 8-8
Philadelphia Eagles: 8-8
NFC West: Could be the Beginning of a New Era for the 49ers
The wild, wild west is wide, wide open.
St. Louis is in transition. Despite Steven Jackson's "Never Say Die" attitude, the Rams have a ways to go.
The Seahawks were dealt a blow with an injury to rookie tackle Russell Okung. Personally, I thought that Seattle should have taken o-lineman Bryan Bulaga with their second pick in the first round rather than safety Earl Thomas.
Seattle's defense lacked a pass-rush of any kind and has not changed much in the offseason.
Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck produced average numbers, but I think that Seattle must establish the running game with Justin Forsett, rather than put the onus of the offense on Hasselbeck because of his age and injuries.
Arizona must hope that Derek Anderson can fill the void left by Kurt Warner's retirement.
I think Arizona would be best suited to make the running-game the focal point with Tim Hightower and Chris Wells, rather than put the burden on Anderson.
San Francisco however has been on the bubble for the last few years, just like the Cardinals had been before the Super Bowl run. The former bust, Vernon Davis, is now a beast. I believe that he never wants to see Mike Singletary's "pants on the ground" ever again.
Last year, I wrote that the Niners should still consider quarterback Alex Smith as a potential starter. Smith seemed and seems like a Chad Pennington-type of a player.
Not everyone is on that bandwagon, primarily because they once called him a bust. Yet, for a team that took a former bust, Steve Young, it seems only reasonable that the Niners can salvage Smith's career into something serviceable.
The irony is that when Young struggled in Tampa, it was a reflection of how bad the Bucs were, not Young.
Just as, when Smith struggled in San Francisco, I think it reflected how bad the Niners were at that time, and a good case for why a team should avoid making rash judgments about a quarterback when the team is rebuilding.
In 2009, Smith compiled about 2,300 yards, 18 touchdowns to 12 picks in 11 games. With a full year of wideout Michael Crabtree and an improved offensive line, I think Smith could be a solid fantasy pick.
On paper, the Niners have only a few tough looking games.
San Francisco 49ers: 11-5
Arizona Cardinals: 9-7
Seattle Seahawks: 7-9
St. Louis Rams: 5-11
NFC South: Yes, I'll Say it. New Orleans Overachieved
The Saints defense relied heavily on turnovers in 2009 en route to victory in the Super Bowl. Yet, turnovers are very difficult to duplicate the next season, plus, opponents will now target the Saints and dissect their every weakness.
The Panthers aren't as bad as people think, but without certainty at quarterback, the Panthers will continue to struggle. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine even rookie Jimmy Claussen or Matt Moore being as bad as Jake Delhomme was in 2009.
Yet, the Panthers have only one go-to in the passing game and that's Steve Smith. Without a lights-out defense though, I don't see Carolina's monster running-game as being enough to compensate for the transitional passing-game.
The Buccaneers are on the right track by drafting d-tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with top picks.
Quarterback Josh Freeman though still needs time to grow, as do the rookie wideouts, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, while the running game has suffered from the lack of a balanced offense.
The Bucs could return to their classic style: Stingy defense, erratic offense.
I like the Atlanta Falcons to win the division. The defense is more experienced, while running back Michael Turner should be once again ready to be go for a full season.
The only significant question mark is the pass rush, which relies on John Abraham and Kroy Biermann, and rookie d-tackle Corey Peters.
Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
New Orleans Saints: 10-6
Carolina Panthers: 7-9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-10
AFC North: Steelers are Under-Rated But Can They Last 'Til QB Returns?
It seems that most people have written off the Pittsburgh Steelers due to the suspension against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Lest we forget that the reason Roethlisberger succeeded is because of Pittsburgh's defense, which suffered in 2009 from the absence of safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu will be back in the Steel City, as such, I expect Pittsburgh's defense to return to form.
The Steelers also feature capable weapons on offense with sophomore receiver Mike Wallace, Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller, the return of Antwaan Randle El, and who I think is a legit Hall of Fame candidate in receiver Hines Ward.
The emergence of Wallace, I think, is what made Santonio Holmes expendable for the Steelers.
The fact is also that Pittsburgh finished 9-7 in 2009, despite getting burned in the secondary. In the first half of 2009, the Steelers looked dominant before going to the other extreme in the second half of the season.
If the Steelers can start 3-3 or even 2-4 before Roethlisberger returns, I like Pittsburgh's chances of making a playoff run. The big question in my mind is whether running back Rashard Mendenhall can carry the load in the offense so that Byron Leftwich (or Dennis Dixon) does not need too.
The Bengals have an inside track for the division because of Roethlisberger's suspension.
I also like Cincinnati's defensive backs more than Baltimore's; a weakness that could hurt the Ravens in the now pass-happy NFL.
Baltimore is offensively deep, but what good does depth do when you can't have each player on the field?
Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and Le'Ron McClain can carry the load as a running back, but the mathematical fact is, only one player can carry the ball at a time.
The Browns are staring down the barrel of what could be the NFL's toughest division. Eric Mangini will likely be looking for work in the offseason, while the Browns will likely pursue Bill Cowher or John Fox (if available).
Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6
Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
Baltimore Ravens: 9-7
Cleveland Browns: 3-13
Note: Obviously, the division winner will be decided by tiebreakers. I'm guessing that it could go either way.
AFC East: Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Which Team Do I Hate Most of All?
The Jets seem like the most complete team, on paper. We'll see how that fares in the regular season.
Those who bag on Mark Sanchez for paltry numbers as a rookie are dimwits. After all I've written about JaMarcus Russell, I actually met a Jets fan that claimed he'd rather have Russell over Sanchez.
Unfortunately, I never found out whether or not he was high.
Sanchez lacked a legit wide receiver for most of 2009, but will now have Braylon Edwards, Jericho Cotchery, and Santonio Holmes. I don't expect Sanchez to be Peyton Manning, but that group seems capable of being functional.
Charger fans that think the loss of free agent LaDainian Tomlinson is addition by subtraction should get their heads checked.
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense still has Belichik calling the plays, but without a defensive line that can free up the linebackers and d-backs, I don't see that as being enough to compensate for the deficiency in talent.
Without linebacker Tedy Bruschi and defensive end Richard Seymour, the Patriots looked like mere mortals in 2009. Now, the Patriots will be without defensive end Ty Warren, due to injury.
And let's face it.
Regardless of what I think about Tom Brady, the fact is, he isn't getting any younger.
He looked defeated against Baltimore in the postseason. Unless Brady's goal is to put himself in the same breath as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw (or out of spite for the anti-fans), I just don't see anything that would motivate Brady this year.
I could see the Patriots taking a flier on Matt Leinart, but that's another story.
The Dolphins and Bills seem like intriguing dark-horse teams that rely on the Big Ifs.
If quarterback Chad Henne can emerge...
If the Dolphins can adjust after several changes in the front seven...
If quarterback Trent Edwards can rebound...
If the Bills can find a left tackle...
New York Jets: 12-4
New England Patriots: 8-8
Miami Dolphins: 8-8
Buffalo Bills: 6-10
AFC West: Oakland Can Challenge For Wild Card If Not Division
Now time for my annual dissertation on "Why the Raiders aren't as Bad as they Seem."
Obviously that has been an exercise in futility the last several years, but as I always maintain, a fan gets one exception. One team that he or she can say anything about and not be ridiculed for it.
Because the fact is that, all fans are wishful thinkers about their team.
If this and if that, a little over here and little over there. The outcomes of the games however will determine the fans that have their wish fulfilled.
Thus, I devised the, "Raider Rule."
You cannot impugn me for what I say about the Raiders, as I cannot impugn you for what you say about your team. You can however rip me for what I say about your team. Choose wisely however, because you only get one immunity (of any sports).
Thus, I cannot make this exception for say, the Oakland Athletics. Just the Raiders.
My evaluation of the Raiders is simple.
No more JaMarcus, "Pop Rocks" Russell.
Many Raider fans wanted Jeff Garcia to start, because we wanted to see what the Raiders could do with an experienced quarterback.
Had the Raiders kept Garcia rather than try to motivate Russell by cutting Garcia, the Raiders would have been a solid team.
Maybe not a playoff team, but easily an 8-8 team (plus or minus a win). Either Jason Campbell or Bruce Gradkowski has shown that the Raiders a different team with a quarterback that is in it to win it.
San Diego has dumped talent in the past and still held up the next season, although the Chargers did part with quarterback Drew Brees and tailback Michael Turner, in exchange for nothing.
I'm not convinced that the Bolts are automatically re-loadable.
I think of the Rams in 2002 after St. Louis parted with wideout Az-Zahir Hakim and right tackle Ryan Tucker. The Rams went from dominant to doormat, merely by subtraction of their weakest links.
In part because, defenses no longer had to account for the big play potential of Hakim, even with the drops. That in turn allowed defenses to double team Tory Holt and single cover the veteran Isaac Bruce.
Thus, the receivers were slowed down, which gave the defense more time in the pass rush to chase the immobile Kurt Warner, especially when the rushers could blow by the inexperienced John St. Clair.
Without Vincent Jackson keeping defenses honest in 2010 and Marcus McNeill to protect the blindside, the defending rushers will have extra time to chase the immobile Philip Rivers.
According to statistics, Rivers is less mobile than Warner. Rivers has averaged 2.0 yards rushing per game, while Warner averaged 2.3 yards rushing per game.
Moreover, defenses can dedicate their preparation to dissecting the weaknesses of Rivers, whereas opponent's still had to account for LaDainian Tomlinson. Even a slowed down LT could still burn a defense for a big run, and he still produced 12 touchdowns in 2009.
I'm not going to say the San Diego will have a monumental collapse, but I expect them to decline.
But if anything, the Chargers have performed better in the postseason when they were 11-5 (2007) and 8-8 (2008) in the regular season. The Chargers choked when they were 12-4 (2004), 14-2 (2006), and 13-3 (2009).
Chiefs fans can all rejoice because their chances improved by default, thanks to the numerous injuries in Denver.
San Diego Chargers: 11-5
Oakland Raiders: 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs: 6-10
Denver Broncos: 2-14
AFC South: One Day the Colts will Fall, But I Don't See it this Year
Along with the AFC North, the AFC South is hard to call.
I favor the Colts for one reason and one reason only, Peyton Manning.
Despite the first winning season in franchise history, there's no guarantee that the Texans will duplicate that record in 2010. The Texans were dealt a blow to their offense with the season ending injury to tailback Ben Tate.
The defense looks sketchy to me.
Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing (suspended) are excellent defenders (Amobi Okoye is okay) and rookie Kareem Jackson has potential, but that does not compensate enough for the unit's overall deficiency in talent.
Unless the pass defense comes together, Manning should be able to carve up the Texans on Sunday afternoon.
The Titans could be better than the Texans, but who knows? The Titans were a different team with Vince Young back at quarterback.
The Jaguars look about the same and that was good enough for seven wins.
Indianapolis Colts: 11-5
Tennessee Titans: 10-6
Houston Texans: 7-9
Jacksonville Jaguars: 7-9