I love the NFL. I have been following the league for well over 20 years, with my first Super Bowl memory being the Bears destroying the Patriots when I was just 5 years old. I don't know what it was that drew me to it, but I absolutely loved it.
These days it feels more like an obsession. My TV is on NFL Network all the time all year long. I watch everything from the draft combine to the draft itself, then all the talk in the off-season and even most of the preseason games (at least the first half). On Sundays during the season, I am entrenched in front of my 40-inch HDTV with all my various bets laid out on the table, while flipping from game to game thanks to the best $120 I spend every year on the NFL Sunday Ticket package.
Nothing beats Sunday football for me.
There a lot of trends that people can talk about with regards to how the season will go. The one that jumps out the most is the fact that an average of five new teams have made the playoffs every year for the past ten seasons.
Think about that for a second. For 10 years, five of the 12 playoff teams have been new. Everywhere you look you can find previews written by people who follow the NFL religiously, yet they seem to pick the same 10 of 12 teams to return, if not more.
This year I'm going with four new playoff teams. It might be more. It might be less. It's interesting to note that the top four teams in the playoffs from the 2008 season (Tennessee, Pittsburgh, NY Giants and Carolina) all missed the playoffs in 2009. That's very rare. It's also proof that being the best one year means nothing the next year. The Saints went from no playoffs to Super Bowl champs. It's a tough league to figure out, that's for damn sure.
Before I start, I'll make some personal notes to catch you up since I'm assuming most reading this don't know my background as a fan.
My favorite team since I was about 5 years old was the Los Angeles Rams, who are now obviously in St. Louis. Despite the fact that I live in southern Ontario I was never attracted to the Lions or Bills.
The Rams were my team because my eldest cousin liked them, plus Eric Dickerson was so cool to watch with that Jeri curl flying in the air. He got traded to Indianapolis in 1987, but by that point I had liked the team. I stuck with them through the brutal 1990s (worst team in the NFL from 1990 to 1998) and it paid off when they won Super Bowl XXXIV during the 1999 season. I'm still bitter about losing Super Bowl XXXVI (hey Martz, run the damn ball against a dime defense!) and everything in the past five years has sucked.
Now I sit here optimistic while rocking my brand new Sam Bradford jersey. I don't expect a playoff run this year, but in two or three years you never know.
For this preview I'll run down every division with some brief comments on every team and then a breakdown on how I see the playoffs going in each conference. I don't think anybody could nail all 12 teams plus the Super Bowl matchup, but I can do my best to give informed opinions and roll with my gut instinct when necessary. I love the game, I know the game and I'll do my best to give you my takes on it.
AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
New England Patriots 12-4 (3)-As a Rams fan, I will always hate these cheaters (if they didn't cheat why'd Belicheat get fined $500,000 and not appeal it?), but I respect the hell out of Tom Brady. Last year was his first year back from his ACL injury. He was very good, but he wasn't as good as he was in that ridiculous 2007 season. Now I think he might be close to that again. I'm sensing 4,500 yards with 40 TDs for him largely because their running game sucks. Why not more than 11 wins? The defense. They aren't what they were three years ago and that's going to cost them some games. Still the best team in the AFC East, though.
New York Jets 9-7-I can feel the booing from Jets fans already. No playoffs for them. I've wavered on the Jets all off-season. For a while they were my Super Bowl team. Then I watched Hard Knocks and I realized just how cocky this team was. Either they dominate as a 12-4 type team or miss the playoffs. I don't like Mark Sanchez a whole lot, which is why they fall short of my playoffs. I know he was only a rookie, but I don't think he's got the makings to be an elite QB. They have a good running game and OL while the defense is strong (it's great that they signed Revis), but ultimately the QB is the difference. And I don't think Sanchez is good enough. I do like Rex Ryan, though. I just don't think it's their year.
Miami Dolphins 7-9-I like the way they play, especially in the Wildcat offense. It's fun to watch. They are built around their defense although it lacks true stars. Same with the offense. It's Chad Henne's first full season as the starting QB, so it's hard to know how good he will be. He doesn't have that many weapons to go to. They are a run-first team, though, so maybe the Brown-Williams combo will make it easy on him. They seem like a .500 team to me.
Buffalo Bills 5-11-They are the local team for me seeing as how I live in southern Ontario. I feel sorry for Bills fans not just because of the four straight Super Bowl losses in the early 90s, but because the last 10 years have been bad for them. No playoff games since 1999. It's not happening in 2010 either. Defensively they lack impact players, while offensively who knows what you will get out of Trent Edwards? They are below average all over the place although I really like CJ Spiller at RB. He's the first truly exciting player they've had since Doug Flutie retired. It's been such a lethargic team for so long. And it will continue. Poor Buffalo.
Baltimore Ravens 12-4 (2)-I'm loving this team. They have everything I like in terms of being a success. I like the running game with Ray Rice, the OL is solid, Joe Flacco is maturing as a QB and should thrive now that they've got a go to WR in Anquan Boldin. They needed an elite WR and they went out and got that. Defensively they are still very good although not as elite as they were 10 years ago when they won the Super Bowl. Still, Ray Lewis is the best defensive leader in football and they get pressure on the QB. On top of all that, I really like John Harbaugh as a coach. They have all the things it takes to go far, which why they are a team I'm really liking this year. How much do I like them? We'll get to that.
Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6 (5)-The Steelers are tough to figure out. In 2005 they won the Super Bowl, then they missed the playoffs the year after. In 2008, they won the Super Bowl and missed the playoffs the year after. Now they don't have that pressure on them, so they could get back to being a playoff team. I love the defense still. The front seven is great at getting pressure on the QB, while the secondary is led by Troy Polamalu, who missed most of last year after Alge Crumpler crumpled his leg. With Polamalu back they are as good as any defense in the league. Of course there's the issue of Ben Roethlisberger, who is out the first four games. Can they go 2-2 or 3-1 during that run? I think so. And I think if they do that, then Ben can carry them the rest of the way because he's an elite QB. They're back to the playoffs, in my opinion.
Cincinnati Bengals 8-8-They won the division a year ago. This year I feel like they'll take a step back mostly because I see the Steelers being better than last year. The running game is solid with Cedric Benson and the WR group is stronger with Terrell Owens there, but their offense isn't explosive enough to me. They had a lot of close games last year. They averaged 19 PPG and they gave up 18 PPG, which means they played game in the tight contests. It's a scary way to win, though. One year you win those games, the next you lose those games. I just don't see their team being as consistent as the Ravens or Steelers, nor do I see them being better than either of them. Having lots of hype doesn't mean wins.
Cleveland Browns 3-13-The Browns are rebuilding again, which isn't anything new. I'm not sure why they went after Jake Delhomme at QB considering the awful year he had with the Panthers. I guess they're looking for veteran leadership. They do have Colt McCoy to build around in the future, but that's two or three years away. They have a lot of holes to fill at WR, the OL and defensively the unit is full of holes you can call them Swiss cheese. They are going to be one of the worst teams again. It's especially difficult when you have three teams in your division that are better than you. Best case they win maybe six. Realistically I think three is a good number.
Indianapolis Colts 12-4 (1)-Last year they went 14-0 and then rested their starters in the last two weeks, finishing up at 14-2 on their way to a Super Bowl loss. The team returns intact. I'd be surprised if they don't win the division again. They know what they're doing and they've got arguably the best player in the league in Peyton Manning calling the shots. First place in the South again.
Houston Texans 9-7 (6)-Playoffs! Finally! I'm calling it. Last year they were 9-7 and would have gotten in if the Colts or Bengals tried against the Jets. This year they will do it. The offense is strong led by Schaub to Johnson (best WR in the game) while the defense is a young, emerging unit. Win the close games and they will get in. I think it's their time.
Tennessee Titans 8-8-Two years ago they were the No. 1 team in the AFC. Last year they started 0-6 and then finished the year off at 8-2. WTF right? No. That's the NFL. It doesn't make sense. They have a lot going for them thanks to the best RB in the game, Chris Johnson, and QB Vince Young has his confidence back. I just don't think the defense is what it was two years ago. They could be a playoff team, though.
Jacksonvillle Jaguars 6-10-It's going to be a rough year. This was a last-place team last year that didn't make enough changes this year. Aside from Maurice Jones-Drew, what do they really have that's above average? I think they're in the basement again and Jack Del Rio's going to lose his job. And in the future they could end up in Los Angeles. You never know.
San Diego Chargers 11-5 (4)-The class of the division again. Philip Rivers is an elite QB, while Ryan Mathews looks like the real deal at RB as a replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson. I think they'll miss Vincent Jackson at WR (probably traded) and Marcus McNeil at tackle (I think he'll sign eventually), but the teams in their division are so poor that they should be okay. Defensively they are average at best. They always seem like they should be better on that end, but they never are.
Denver Broncos 7-9-Remember what I wrote about Tennessee? They were the complete opposite last year. They started 6-0 to the surprise of everybody, then went 2-6 and finished up at 8-8. So who are the real Broncos? I think they're the guys that ended the year. Kyle Orton's an average QB, the RBs & WRs are nothing special and defensively they're really going to miss Elvis Dumervill's pass rush. He's likely out for the year.
Oakland Raiders 6-10-Ever since they lost the Super Bowl in the 2002 season they have been terrible. Bad draft picks, bad free-agent signings and bad coaching. At least they got rid of JaMarcus Russell, maybe the biggest QB bust ever, although I don't know how good Jason Campbell. It's not like they have great weapons. They'll be in their usual spot near the bottom of the league. Enjoy another top-10 pick, Raiders.
Kansas City Chiefs 5-11-When the biggest news from your off-season is that you got the Patriots coordinators from Super Bowl winning teams that are over 6 years old that doesn't necessarily mean much. There's still a lack of talent here. Sure, they can say Matt Cassel will thrive under Charlie Weis, but are the players good enough? Not yet. At least they do have one of the best home field advantages in football. That's something.
Byes: Colts, Ravens
(3) Patriots over (6) Texans
(5) Steelers over (4) Chargers
Colts over Steelers
Ravens over Patriots
Ravens over Colts
I think the Ravens are the most complete team. If I had a second choice it would be the Patriots, though the way I had the seeds they would meet in the conference semis.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (3)—I really like the team they have built. They are fast on offense and they can score a lot of points thanks to a really good QB in Tony Romo. I'm also glad they won a playoff game last year so we can stop hearing that bullshit about how they can't in the playoffs. To me the defense is the best part of the team. I think they have the best front seven in football. They need to be more stout against the run, but against the pass they are scary thanks to DeMarcus Ware. The question is can they live up to the hype this year knowing the Super Bowl is in Dallas? Never had a home Super Bowl team before. I don't know if they can do it.
New York Giants 9-7—The Super Bowl champs three years ago and No. 1 team in the NFC two years ago in terms of record. Now what are they? I'm not sure. Injuries destroyed them a year ago, especially along the defensive line, which was their strength in their best years. Now they're healthy. On offense, Eli Manning was better last year than I thought he'd be and they seem to be rolling with Ahmad Bradshaw as the #1 RB. I can see this team winning 11 or 12 games because they're under the radar now, but I have them pegged at 9 in the league's toughest division.
Philadelphia Eagles 8-8—Much like the Giants, I think they can win up to 11 or 12 games if everything goes right. They are a fast team offensively with WRs that can stretch the field as well as a quick RB in LeSean "Shady" McCoy. The key is QB Kevin Kolb. Can he replicate what McNabb has done there for over a decade? Not sure. If he can, playoffs are likely. If he can't, no playoffs. I'm going no playoffs in part because I think the defense has slipped a bit too. Still a good team, though.
Washington Redskins 7-9—The best last place team in the NFL. That's something, right? That's what I think they are. Of course it's the NFC East where any one of these four teams could win the division and I wouldn't be too surprised. I like Shanahan as a coach and McNabb as a QB, but the RBs & WRs are sub-standard. Defensively they are decent although Haynesworth isn't what he was two years ago with the Titans. Of course that was a contract year for him. Anyway, they are headed in the right direction due to the coach & QB, but the rest of the team needs work.
Green Bay Packers 13-3 (1)—They seem to be the hot pick to make the Super Bowl. Last year I actually picked them to make it against the Patriots. This year I pick them again! Why? Because I love their offense led by Aaron Rodgers and all the weapons he has at his disposal. Defensively they give up too many points especially in that playoff shootout to the Cards. However, they have a young group that should only improve. They are really good at forcing turnovers, which makes up for the amount of yards they tend to give up. I really think they will live up to the hype.
Minnesota Vikings 11-5 (6)—My opinion is they should have won the Super Bowl last year or at least made it. They had too many turnovers against the Saints. Now we have to see how they do in their hangover year. The team remains unchanged except top WR Sidney Rice is out half the year, which should hurt their passing game quite a bit. Everybody seems to think Brett Favre will regress. I don't. They still have one of the best OLs in the game and maybe the best RB in Adrian Peterson. Defensively their DL is the best in the league and it covers up the deficiencies of the other parts. The Vikes are a solid championship contender again. Their two games against the Packers will be the best divisional games in the NFL all season.
Chicago Bears 7-9—The big Bears news is that they hired Mike Martz to run the offense. We all know Martz is a QB guru who loves the passing game. Can he help Jay Cutler become less interception prone? I'm not sure. Their WRs are below average while the RB duo of Matt Forte & Chester Taylor is okay, but not great. Defensively they lack the pass rush they had during their Super Bowl run a few years back although they hope Julius Peppers is the answer. He might be. They seem like a below .500 team that will be looking up at the Packers & Vikes.
Detroit Lions 5-11—A jump from five wins from two is a lot for a team that won zero games two seasons ago. The thing is they've done all the right things in terms of improvements. The defense sucked so they drafted the top DT in "Donkey Kong" Suh and brought in Kyle Van Den Bosch to put pressure on from the end. Then they got an explosive RB in Jahvid Best to add to what they have in QB Matt Stafford—who had a good preseason—and their best player, WR Calvin Johnson. It's not Matt Millen's Lions. They have a new direction that's actually putting them on the right path.
Atlanta Falcons 12-4 (2)—Atlanta, you say? Yes, Atlanta. Why not? Playoffs two years ago, then they had some injuries last year and missed out. They remind me of the Saints, who were not a playoff team two years ago and then won it all last year. Good offense that keeps getting better, a coach that the players like and a defense that is decent enough to win some games. I like Matt Ryan's poise in the pocket and I like Michael Turner carrying the ball. They are a team that I think is going deep. And nobody should be surprised by that.
New Orleans Saints 11-5 (5)—Yes New Orleans I remember you. You're the team that threw up a lot of points, made enough big plays on defense and remained relatively injury free all of 2009. You also should have lost the NFC title game at home to the Vikings if not for their litany of errors. I don't mean to disrespect. I love the offense and I think Drew Brees is the second best QB after Peyton Manning. It's just that last year everything went right and if there's one thing I know as a lifelong NFL viewer is that crazy shit happens. I almost picked them to miss the playoffs, but it's a passing league and Brees is too good for me to keep them out of the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers 6-10—They're starting anew at QB with Matt Moore running the show. The best part of the team is the Williams/Stewart combo at RB. I think they're going to be hurting on defense without Julius Peppers there. I think giving them six wins might be gracious to be honest. I don't like a lot about this team. Have fun rebuilding in the future. Their new coach next season? Bill Cowher.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-14—Congratulations Tampa Bay, you are the worst team in football! At least to me. I'm not sure what the plan is there, or if there is a plan. I just don't like what they have. Josh Freeman begins year two as QB although not a lot of people are sold on him being an answer. They are poor all across the board and in a division loaded with some good offenses (at least the Panthers can run) they are going to have trouble.
San Francisco 49ers 10-6 (6)—The Niners are the best team in the worst division thanks to an elite defense that might be the best in the NFC. They don't give up big plays and they are good at forcing turnovers. My worry with them is at QB with Alex Smith. Is he really good enough to lead a team to the playoffs? Yes, in the NFC West he is. I don't think they'd get in if they were in any of the other NFC divisions. It's just that the other teams in the West suck so much that they should be able to win it rather comfortably thanks to the hard-nosed defensive style of football that they play.
Arizona Cardinals 6-10—How good is Kurt Warner? Good enough that the Cards have fallen from a playoff team to a group that might fall short of being .500 in football's worst division. I don't think Derek Anderson is a good QB. He had that once nice year a few years back, but that was a contract year. He has been putrid since. Like I've said all through this it's a QB league. If you don't have a good QB you're going to have problems. The Cardinals, even with a star WR in Larry Fitzgerald and a fast defense, are going to be in trouble in 2010.
St. Louis Rams 4-12—Four wins for my team! Yeah baby! After win totals of three, two, and one in each of the last three years I'd love four. Baby steps, people. I really like what I've seen from QB Sam Bradford in the preseason, but you have to take it with a grain of salt because it's preseason. Still, I saw what we (yeah I say we because I suffer) had before and it wasn't pretty. With Steven Jackson there to hand the ball off to, Bradford should be okay although I wish he had more WRs to throw to. Defensively the team has issues all over the place. It's not going to be a winning, but at least under coach Spagnuolo I know the team will play hard. Sometimes, for a bad team, that's enough.
Seattle Seahawks 3-13—I have them in last because I think their talent level is worse than the Rams. Their running game is as bad as anybody in the NFL and their WRs are nothing to get excited. Yes, Matt Hasselbeck has been good, but his best years are clearly behind him. Defensively they lack the punch that they had when they were a perennial playoff contender. I think they're headed downwards. It's going to be a while til they can fix this sinking ship. But hey Pete Carroll, at least you got out of the shitstorm you created at USC. That's something, right? Real classy.
Byes: Packers, Falcons
(3) Cowboys over (6) Vikings
(5) Saints over (4) Niners
Packers over Saints
Falcons over Cowboys
Packers over Falcons
The three teams I'm thinking are Packers, Cowboys and Falcons. I'm going Packers.
SUPER BOWL XLV
Baltimore Ravens over Green Bay Packers
I really like everything about the Ravens. They are stacked. They can probably deal with a couple of injuries too, which is inevitable in any NFL season. I like Flacco, Rice, and Boldin carrying the offense while I think Ray Lewis has another Super Bowl run left in him as the leader of that defense. They do need a healthy Ed Reed, though, which is a bit of a concern. I also think having a young, hungry head coach like John Harbaugh will put them ahead of some of the other teams. Look at the last two Super Bowl coaches: Tomlin and Payton. Both first time head coaches that knew what they were doing. Harbaugh's in the same mold. That's my pick.
MVP: Tom Brady, Patriots—I think he'll edge out Brees and Rodgers, as well as Manning, who they are probably sick of giving it to. Brady's got a shitty running game, so that will help him get votes.
OPOY: Tom Brady, Patriots—I'm forecasting 4,500 yards and 40 TDs. And I don't see Chris Johnson over 2,000 rushing yards again.
DPOY: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys—Will lead the league in sacks.
Coach: Mike Smith, Falcons—I have them making a big jump, so it's him I guess.
Offensive Rookie: Ryan Mathews, Chargers—I believe the hype here too.
Defensive Rookie: Ndamukong Suh, Lions—Never easy to pick this one. I think he's for real, though.
I'll be back every week to preview the games along with my buddy Pat Lamorte (on Twitter @plamorte). We'll have the picks posted on Thursdays. He'll give you some fantasy football tips while I'll chime in with some betting tips too.
Enjoy the NFL season, my friends. You know I will!
John Canton - firstname.lastname@example.org