NFL Early Predictions on Division Winners and Wild Cards
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With the kickoff to the 2010 season only a mere 2 days away and teams' rosters set for the first week of action, let's look at early predictions of who we can hope to see playing into January (and if you're lucky, your team will play into February, too.)
This is a quick glance based off team roster moves, preperation, and strength of schedule being accounted for as well.
AFC East: The New York Jets
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The New York Jets are one of the teams looking as a clear cut favorite in their own division, and respectively so. The Jets have arguably one of the best, if not the best, defense currently in the game. The roster is filled with such play-makers as Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott, 2 of New York's finest when it comes to stopping plays dead in their tracks.
While I do see Mark Sanchez taking a slight step back this season, he has a great cast of play-makers around him. His offensive line is loaded with studs like D'Brickishaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. The run game is bolstered heavily by Shonn Greene and Ladainian Tomlinson.
The passing game features Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, although Holmes will not be available until after week 4 due to a suspension by the League.
With this collection of talent, it's hard to count them out in a division where every other team has glaring question marks surrounding core components.
AFC North: The Cincinnati Bengals
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The Bengals are in one of the toughest divisions in football, no questions. They have a tough schedule and road ahead of them to reach the playoffs, but this team made some smart additions in the off-season.
The biggest area of concern for the Bengals last year was their passing offense. They were able to reach the playoffs last year with a solid defense and a good run game, but lacked an aerial attack if the run game stalled. Since the off-season has hit, they added free agent WR Terrell Owens to help offer a second deep threat on the opposing side of Chad Ochocinco.
Additionally, drafting former Texas star Jordan Shipley will not only give them a real slot target, Shipley was a stud in the return game for Texas. He returned 4 kicks for touchdowns last year as a Longhorn. His inside speed between the hash marks will really help boost this struggling offense for QB Carson Palmer.
While this team has a huge amount of personalities, they do 2 things well to succeed in the playoffs: Run the ball well and play good defense.
They have a tough road ahead, but I believe they can do it again.
AFC South: The Indiannapolis Colts
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I don't think there's any doubt with this division. Since 4-time MVP Peyton Manning came into his own, he's dominated the AFC South in a monstrous fashion. His ability to dissect defenses and draw defenders off with his eyes puts him as the top QB in the league.
His offensive line has always been steady, but they are beginning to age. While I don't believe it's anything that will cause a hindrance this season, it can become a problem in the next couple years.
Defensively, this unit has 2 terrors on the opposite side of the ball in Dwight Mathis and Robert Freeney. No offensive lineman in the NFL enjoys going up against these guys. Coaches will game plan on how to contain these two and keep their QB upright.
With the leadership that Peyton brings and his intangibles, I think it's safe to say that Peyton will have the AFC South in a stranglehold again for the 2010 season.
AFC West: The San Diego Chargers
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San Diego has a large advantage at being such a good team in a poor division. The other remaining division contenders are largely in rebuilding fashions or have huge problems surrounding their teams.
With Pro Bowl QB Phil Rivers leading the Bolts, they have been able to become a dynamic passing team. Newly appointed #1 receiver Malcom Floyd is expected to get much more attention with the ongoing issues surrounding WR Vincent Jackson.
First round draft pick Ryan Matthews has looked stellar in the preseason and is expected to get a lot more attention when the regular season kicks off. San Diego has struggled in the run game over the past couple seasons and they'll be looking to get back to the dominant run game they possessed in the mid 2000's.
While division rival Oakland looks to have built a much stronger defense, I don't believe they'll be able to contend offensively. This offensive attack moves like a well oiled machine and Rivers will make you pay for any mistake you give him.
NFC East: The Dallas Cowboys
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The Cowboys have struggled early on in the preseason, but there's only so much that can be read in 4-5 meaningless games.
Dallas is loaded with talent and has a motive to achieve higher with their stadium hosting this year's Super Bowl. They have a renewed focus, coming off a season where they won their first playoff game in over 13 years. While they might have their own issues, I believe they have the least amount of concerns out of all teams in the NFC East.
Offensively, this team is stacked with talent in the running game and receiver depth. With draft stud Dez Bryant set to open in the lineup along with Miles Austin and TE Jason Witten, they are sure to be one of the top passing teams in 2010. This would be the best alignment of talent that QB Tony Romo has had since taking over the starting job in 2006.
What I believes truly sets this team apart from others is the defense. Dallas finished out last year 2nd in total scoring defense. They have a vicious pass rush from NT Jay Ratliff, All-Pro OLB Demarcus Ware, and LB Anthony Spencer. This team has consistently harassed QB's and I don't believe it will change this season either.
They do have a big question mark on their offensive line. With sustaining injuries to G Kyle Kosier and RT Marc Columbo, this will be a key to them taking the NFC East title for a 3rd time in 4 years. If their offensive line can not hold up, it could potentially make or break their season.
NFC North: The Minnesota Vikings
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I know the entire off-season by the Vikings has been dominated by stories surrounding veteran QB Brett Favre. While Brett's success is key to having them win the division again, I believe this team needs to get back to what they've done so well over the past few years:
Run the ball.
With Brett's health concerns and WR Sidney Rice gone for 6 weeks, help take some pressure off of him and let "All Day" Adrian Peterson do what he does best. This team has been a great running team since Peterson burst onto the scene. If they want to keep Brett upright and take the stress off him, let AP carry more of the load.
I know some people will say "Well his fumbles are a huge problem". Yes, and they said the same thing about Tiki Barber. As you can see, fumbles are a fixable issue. One which AP spent his whole off-season working on. I don't believe you'll see AP run so loose anymore. That ball will be more in a "high and tight" hold when he's breaking out through defenders.
Defensively, they're stacked. With the return of EJ Henderson in the linebacking corp, that can only help bring even more pressure to a QB hungry front 7. You can't double cover everyone, and they will make you pay for it. With that nasty front 4, featuring Jared Allen, the "Williams Wall", and Ray Edwards, they can collapse pockets quickly.
I know they have an extremely formidable opponent in Green Bay that will give them a run for their money, but I believe they have enough to fight the Pack off for the division title.
NFC South: The New Orleans Saints
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They're the defending Super Bowl Champions, how can you count them out?
Offensively, they strike fast and rack up big chunks of yards. They can run the ball well and throw it even better. The offensive line is solid. Sounds hard to beat, doesn't it?
Defensively, they are take-away hungry. They force turnovers and capitalize on them early and often. they had league high 5 interceptions returned for touchdowns last season. They can bring pressure on opposing teams and feed off that disarray to help put the ball back into their offense's hands.
This is a fast team. They move with a speed that won them the Super Bowl last season, and can keep them in contention for it again this season.
NFC West: The San Francisco 49ers
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The 49ers have a similar advantage that the San Diego Chargers have. They reside in probably the weakest division in football. Every team in the West except San Francisco is rebuilding. Couple this with a very easy schedule this year and it makes for San Fran having a real shot at getting a first round bye.
Offensively, they have some play-makers in various positions. TE Vernon Davis last year showed off and was arguably the best pass catching TE in football. The run game is strong behind Frank Gore and former Eagle Brian Westbrook.
The 9ers went very smart in the draft, getting 2 top offensive linemen with their first round picks. This will sure up and help strengthen an already solid run game. Along with keeping the run game going, they can help develop QB Alex Smith into a stable play-caller. As long as he doesn't come under pressure often, he can manage the game well and let the run game chew up yards.
Defensively, one name stands out above the rest: Patrick Willis. I feel this guy will either be Defensive Player of the Year, or be in the final drawing for it. His command over this defense has been noticeable and they are getting better each year. Coach Mike Singletary has turned this defense into a very solid unit that doesn't give up much and will make opposing teams work for everything they can. They can pressure the QB and stop the run.
With San Fran being a good team in a poor division and having an easy schedule, it's almost a gimme to see them playing into January.
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore Ravens
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I know quite a few people out there will disagree with me about having Baltimore as a wild card and not a division winner.
I won't deny, this team is stacked and looks like they are prepared to make a deep playoff run. The issues I'm seeing with this team might get them knocked out if they come across a team like the Colts or Chargers.
They have a banged up secondary. DB Webb is injured. DB Dominique Foxworth is gone for the season. S Ed Reed is out for 6 weeks. They don't have any real pass defense.
Now I know they can rush the passer better than most everyone. Ray Lewis is the general behind this Baltimore army, but quick strike teams like Indy and SD will tear them up if they can't block receivers from getting the ball.
Offensively, they really took a lot in this year which could help them stay in high scoring games. Signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a steal at $855,000 and acquiring Anquan Boldin in the off-season were great moves. The issue I see with all this though, is who is their #1 threat?
They have some great role players that will play clutch and make catches. They don't have any true deep threat on this team. That's a shame considering the cannon that Joe Flacco has. The deep target they have is Derek Mason, and he's getting old quick. His injury concerns will keep them from stretching defenses out.
They do have Ray Rice who's a monster in between the tackles, so I won't discredit their run game any. I just see more weaknesses on this team than I do Cincy.
AFC Wild Card: The Houston Texans
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Every year, a lot of people want to believe this will finally be the year that Houston cracks into the playoffs.
And like always, every year they flame out when it counts. They've always been the best 3 1/2 quarter team in the NFL. I think they finally learn how to close games out this year.
This team is a dangerous passing team. They can get in shootouts with anyone. Schaub has one of the best WR's in the game with Andre Johnson. The run game behind Steve Slaton and Arian Foster will keep pressure off Schaub and get them necessary yardage when they need it.
Defensively, Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans have helped keep QB's on their toes. They can bring formidable pressure, but they still do need help in establishing this defensive unit as something that teams should worry about.
With the loss of Dunta Robinson in the off-season, it does leave their backfield sort-of depleted. Reasons like this is why Peyton Manning has beaten them for the past 16 match-ups and running. Until Peyton retires, I don't believe that they will have a shot at winning the AFC South. Getting them into the playoffs would be a success to this team, and I think they can slide in this year.
NFC Wild Card: The Green Bay Packers
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I'll add this one to the list of people wanting to disagree with me about.
I know that Aaron Rodgers has become this stud to the media. Where his acclaim has been warranted, well I'm not sure yet. He's a great QB. He has awesome accuracy and distance.
He has 2 big problems that I don't believe have been answered. He loves to hang on to the ball too long, and still has a suspect offensive line. Those are two huge reasons why I'm not ready to anoint the Packers top of the NFC, yet.
I won't deny, they have a great WR core. I really like development of TE Jermichael Finley. I believe he can be one of the best pass-catching TE's in football. Ryan Grant is a good RB and can make defenses pay in open space. I believe, like Dallas's problem, this will fall on the shoulders of the big guys protecting Rodgers.
If they can perform like a solid unit and keep Rodgers comfortable, I believe they can overcome the Flying Favres of Minnesota. The issue with them is that I see them losing that line of scrimmage match-up. You put Jared Allen, Ray Edwards, the Williams Wall, and that Minnesota LB core against Green bay's offensive line, my money sits with Minnesota.
They face Minnesota twice, the NY Jets, Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins (Don't forget, this was a top 10 defense who knew how to sack the QB. I highly doubt they are looking forward to seeing Brian Orakpo), plus I don't think anyone would disagree that the rest of the NFC North got better along that defensive front.
Now I don't want people to think i'm forgetting about Green Bay's defense. They have one of the best LB cores in the game. But did anyone else forget they lost Jolly for the season due to his off-the-field issues? This guy was a huge reason why they collapsed pockets so much. Another real problem here is that both Al Harris and Bigby are out for the first 6 weeks. Now I know Bigby was in question to lose his starting job, but Al Harris was a big contributor to that secondary. Injuries can make or break any team, but they're racking up early against the Pack.
NFC Wild Card: The Atlanta Falcons
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I like this group but for some reason and maybe this is just me, but this team doesn't have any real "wow" players on it outside of Ryan, Turner, and White.
Defensively, they picked up Dunta Robinson from the Texans which will help their pass D. They can bring pressure, but I don't believe they can leave as solid of an impact as teams can leave on them.
Atlanta does everything good. They can run the ball, they can pass well. They can play "ok" defense. Its just that this team doesn't really do anything great. If you look at all the other teams in the NFC contention, each of them have something that they do exceptionally well. Dallas can rush the passer. Green Bay and New Orleans can air it out. Minnesota can rush the ball and the passer.
Atlanta can hang but when it comes to the playoffs and the real crunch, what you do best is typically what carries you deeper into the playoffs. I can't say they have any true strength above any of the other NFC contenders.
Roddy White and Matt Ryan have a great connection. Once you get outside of Roddy White, the only person he has left is Tony Gonzalez who's on the downside of a Hall of Fame career.
When Michael Turner went down, Jason Snelling did "ok" in the run game but wasn't lighting teams up like Turner would.
Because of their stability all around, I like them in the playoff talk. I just don't think that they can make that next step until they truly start "wowing" people in certain areas. Rushing the passer better and another strong receiver could be a good start to changing that perception
What are your picks? How do they match up? Feel free to comment below!