AFC WEST: CHARGERS COAST TO DIVISION TITLE
First place: San Diego Chargers (12-4). This year, no team in the AFC West will have a shot at challenging the Bolts. If LT is as productive in ’08 as he has been in his past three seasons, the San Diego should have no problem winning games this year. After being bumped in the AFC title game last year, the Chargers will come back this year and prove that if LT was in that game, who knows what the outcome could’ve been. Player to watch: Vincent Jackson. Jackson looks to be the number one or two receiver for Rivers this year. Can he produce the numbers to edge out Chris Chambers? Non-divisional game to watch: October 12th- New England (at home). This is a grudge match for San Diego, and may be one of the best NFL games of 2008.
Second place: Denver Broncos (8-8). Jay Cutler will continue to grow as an NFL quarterback this year, and he looks to be a promising fantasy starter. Although Cutting Travis Henry leaves a bit of a question at running back for the Broncos. Player to watch: Darrell Jackson. After a fairly unproductive year with the Niners, Jackson will try to rejuvenate his career with the Broncos this year. Non-divisional game to watch: September 21st- New Orleans (at home). This game will be a tester for a Denver team that should be gracious to have the Saints at home. Cutler vs. Brees should keep you on the edge of your seat.
Third place: Oakland Raiders (6-10). Six wins would be big for the Raiders this year. Adding McFadden has solidified the future of the franchise, and now they’ll play the rebuilding game for a few more years. Player to watch: Jamarcus Russell. After basically not playing his rookie season, this year will be the ultimate test for Russell. Non-divisional game to watch: November 9th- Carolina (at home). The battle of the running backs of the future- Stewart vs. McFadden.
Fourth place: Kansas City Chiefs (5-11). Herm Edwards is definitely on the hot seat already, and if the Chiefs perform as poorly as expected, the Chiefs may be looking for a new skipper come next spring. Figuring out who’s playing QB is an issue as well. Drafting Dorsey was a very wise pick for the future. Player to watch: Larry Johnson. After upsetting many fantasy owners last year, a lot of questions surround LJ. Can he ever bounce back to being one of the elite backs in football?
AFC NORTH: STEELERS GET THE EDGE
First place: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6). Pittsburgh will win the tie-breaker with the Browns and get the division crown. Willie Parker is getting better and better every year, and as Mike Tomlin gets more experience under his belt, the Steelers have a good shot to be at the top of the division for a couple years. Player to watch: Rashard Mendenhall. With tons of talent, following Mendenhall will be entertaining. Non-divisional game to watch: September 21st- @ Philadelphia. Two of the top quarterbacks in the game duking it out in week 3 has excitement written all over it.
Second place: Cleveland Browns (8-8).Last year, both the Browns and the Giants won ten games. The Browns missed the playoffs and the Giants won the Superbowl. Along with Pittsburgh, the Browns have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year. People seem to be thinking that Cleveland will be a bust this year, however if they had an easier schedule, they could be a wildcard contender. Player to watch: Derek Anderson. It was a smart decision to hold on to Anderson, who truly led the Browns last year. It’ll be fun to watch him grow into one of the league’s elite. Non-divisional game to watch: October 13th- New York Giants (at home). As I said earlier, both teams won ten games last season. Seeing these two play on Monday night looks like a gem.
Third place: Baltimore Ravens (6-10). Brian Billick left some pretty big shoes to fill. Regardless of the fact that they stunk last year, Billick’s Ravens were a contender in the past, and this team really doesn’t seem too far from success. Although they lack one of the most important positions in the game- the quarterback. Player to watch: Joe Flacco. Whether or not he earns the starting role over Troy Smith, watching the development of Flacco will be interesting. Will he blossom into a stud, or will he be the next Alex Smith? Non-divisional game to watch: October 19th- @ Miami. Baltimore was the only team to lose to the Dolphins last year. Will it happen again?
Fourth place: Cincinnati Bengals (6-10). I see another lowly year for the Bengals. It doesn’t matter how good the individuals on the team are. When you have a guy like Chad Johnson causing commotion in the media all off-season and a guy like Chris Henry getting in trouble all of the time, it makes it really hard to win football games. Player to watch: Carson Palmer. Through all of the hard times both on and off the field that this team has seen, it will be interesting to see if Palmer can make a season out of the wreck he’s been given this year. Non-divisional game to watch: October 12th- @ New York Jets. I think these two teams match-up pretty well. They both have a ton of talent at the receiver and quarterback positions. And anytime you bring two guys like Favre and Palmer together, it’s going to be fun to watch.
AFC EAST: PAT CAKEWALK
First place: New England Patriots (14-2). The Patriots were blessed with the easiest schedule in the NFL this year. I think New England’s only real threats of losing are at Seattle, at Indy, and at San Diego. I don’t think this team should have any problem rebounding from their Super Bowl disaster. Player to watch: Laurence Maroney. Maroney was injured for a good portion of the 07-08 campaign, and will probably make this team even better than they already are. Can he bounce back from the time he’s missed? Probably. Non-divisional game to watch: November 2nd- @ Indianapolis. When these two teams play, I always think of it as a playoff preview. Always a great match-up to see who the best team in the AFC is.
Second place: New York Jets (8-8). Two years ago, the Jets were in the playoffs. Last year, the Jets won four games. What’s it going to be this year? I think New York’s success is going to rely a lot on how Leon Washington and Thomas Jones play. Sure, Favre’s performance will be a big factor too, but we also need to remember that he wasn’t the only good play the Packers had last year; their defense was phenomenal. The Jets will be nothing more than average this season. Player to watch: Alan Faneca. The Jets paid top dollar for Faneca. He’s one of the top guards in the league, and the performance of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington will be how we can grade Faneca’s season. Non-divisional game to watch: November 30th- Denver (at home). This game stands out as one of the best non-divisional teams the Jets will get at home this year. Good teams can win games like this.
Third place: Buffalo Bills (7-9). The Bills are on the right track. Winning nine games in the NFL is a huge accomplishment. Buffalo also has one of the most talented young backs in the game in Marshawn Lynch. If he can stay out of trouble off the field, the Bills will continue to improve. Player to watch: Trent Edwards. Edwards is a guy that I don’t really think has proven he deserves to start over J.P. Losman. This will be Edwards’ time to show everyone that he should be the number one in Buffalo. Non-divisional game to watch: September 7th- Seattle (at home). This will be a tough road game for the Seahawks, because Bills fans know that they have a contender this year. The Bills may shock some people in week one and get off to a great start by beating the Seahawks.
Fourth place: Miami Dolphins (3-13).It’s going to take more than Jake Long, Chad Pennington, and Tony Sparano to get the Dolphins out of the hole. Miami did get Ronnie Brown back this year, and maybe he can pick up where he left off. However, when you’re number one receiver is Ted Ginn Jr. you kind of have a problem. Player to watch: Ricky Williams. Who knows what this return to the game will bring for Williams. My guess is we’ll be seeing another suspension, but he may surprise us. Non-divisional game to watch: November 16th- Oakland (at home). Oakland and Miami are both teams trying get back to where these franchises traditionally are, so it should be a fun mid-season match-up and a game that the Dolphins have a chance to win.
AFC SOUTH: PEYTON POWERS COLTS
First place: Indianapolis Colts (13-3). I think the Colts are probably one of the most complete teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. When you look at the offense, almost every play is one of the best in the game: Obviously Peyton at QB, Addai, Dallas Clark, Harrison and Wayne, and the list goes on for defense too. Experience is ultimately what will give the Colts the edge over Jacksonville. Player to watch: Anthony Gonzalez. He had a good rookie year, and I think watching Gonzalez from a fan and fantasy player perspective is a good idea. He caught three touchdowns last year, with 576 yards. You can count on those stats going up this year. Non-divisional game to watch: November 23rd- @ San Diego. This is a grudge match for Indy, and these are two of the top teams in the league, giving it potential as one of the best games of the year.
Second place: Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5). The Jags are a very talented team, but just not quite as talented as Indianapolis. Watching these two division rivals play twice this year could be a big determining factor in who deserves the South crown. Mo Jones-Drew is emerging as a solid NFL back, and some questions still surround David Garrard, but 11 wins seems appropriate for the Jaguars this season. Player to watch: Fred Taylor. He’s now a 30-something back. This is Taylor’s year to prove he can still be a number one option. Non-divisional game to watch: November 23rd- Minnesota (at home). Adrian Peterson and Jones-Drew will be the guys to watch in this game. It would be a good win for either team to have on their resume'.
Third place: Tennessee Titans (9-7).Even though the Titans snuck into the playoffs last year, Vince Young got a little taste of the Madden curse, and didn’t play all that great. His performance could be Tennessee’s Achilles Heel. The Titans did add Alge Crumpler, and in one of the toughest divisions in football, the Titans will be okay. Player to watch: LenDale White. He’s the starter now. This is his job. Is he ready to be a number one running back? We’ll see. Non-divisional game to watch: November 2nd- Green Bay (at home). Both of these teams will be average (or slightly better) this year, but a victory for either team could spark a run in the second half of the season.
Fourth place: Houston Texans (7-9). The Texans will regress a little bit this season. After posting their best season in franchise history (8-8), they have a pretty tough schedule in 08-09. They’ll face Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Cleveland, and Green Bay on the road. Player to watch: Kevin Walter. Walter is the number two receiver, but had somewhat of a break-out year in 07-08. Non-divisional game to watch: September 7th- @ Pittsburgh. Early in last season, the Texans surprised everyone. Playing at Heinz Field isn’t easy, but don’t count Houston out.
NFC WEST: HAWKS WIN FIFTH STRAIGHT
First place: Seattle Seahawks (11-5). Every year, we hear how either the Cards or Rams will replace the Seahawks at the top of the NFC West. It never happens. The Hawks will look a little different this year with Julius Jones replacing Shaun Alexander. Look for the offense to be weak for the first half while Deion Branch and Bobby Engram are out, but the defense should carry Seattle to a first round Bye. Player to watch: Marcus Trufant. Fresh off his first Pro Bowl, Trufant got a new contract. Non-divisional game to watch: November 2nd- Philadelphia (at home). This game will be the battle of the two best teams in the conference. The winner could grab the edge in the post-season.
Second place: Arizona Cardinals (7-9). Last year, Kurt Warner played pretty good when he filled in for Matt Leinart. Now that the starting job appears to be his, he has his work cut out for him. The Cards have talent at both running back and wide-out. However, they have a relatively tough schedule, and Warner is just getting too old. Player to watch: Levi Brown. Brown was a top draft pick in 2007, and he’ll keep developing into one of the top right tackles in the game- a position that is underrated. Non-divisional game to watch: September 21st- @ Washington. Arizona seems to be a better team than the Skins this year, and could be heading into this game 2-0 (Arizona opens against San Francisco and Miami).
Third place: St. Louis Rams (6-10). This is a team that a lot of people had winning the West last season. This year, the Rams have virtually the exact same team. If Orlando Pace and Steven Jackson stay healthy, they could have potential, but St. Louis will struggle this season. Player to watch: Randy McMichael. This is a guy that the Rams paid a lot of money for last season. He had just an average year. McMichael could be a surprising X-Factor for the Rams. Non-divisional game to watch: October 19th- Dallas (at home). The Cowboys will be going into this game expecting it to be a cake walk. Don’t be surprised if the Rams show up for this one and shock Dallas.
Fourth place: San Francisco 49ers (5-11). The Niners were a team that seemed to be rising towards the top of the division. After going 8-8 in 2006, it appeared as if Alex Smith wasn’t such a bad way to waste a first pick after all. Two years later, some guy named J.T. O’Sullivan will be behind center in week one and Frank Gore is pretty damn close to being considered overrated. Player to watch: Vernon Davis. Davis hasn’t quite had his chance to live up to his full potential. He may be one of the only bright spots in a lame Niners campaign. Non-divisional game to watch: September 28th- @ New Orleans. Gore vs. Bush. I expect the Saints to win generously, but you have to love to see two great backs playing against each other.
NFC NORTH: A.P. IN THE PLAYOFFS
First place: Minnesota Vikings (10-6). Without a doubt, Adrian Peterson is Vikings football. The big question marks are Tavaris Jackson and Bernard Berrian. Berrian will be Jackson’s number one receiver this year, and a lot depends on them, regardless of the fact that Minnesota has one of the most talented running backs in the game. Player to watch: Jared Allen. Allen adds a lot to the Vikings defense, and will most likely complete the team of the defensive side of the ball. Allen coming over from the Chiefs may be looked back at as one of the wisest off-season acquisitions of the year. Non-divisional game to watch: November 16th- @ Tampa Bay. This game will be a tester, because it’s the type of game that division winners win.
Second place: Green Bay Packers (7-9). The first year after saying bye-bye to Brett won’t be easy. Even if Aaron Rodgers develops into a solid QB, it will most likely take him more than one year of starting all season. The defense is amazing, and don’t get me wrong, Favre wasn’t the only reason the offense was so good last year, but he had a big role in the success. Player to watch: Ryan Grant. It will be interesting to see how heavily the Pack will need to rely on Grant, and also if he was more than a one-year wonder. Non-divisional game to watch: October 12th- @ Seattle. Mike Holmgren plays his old team for the last time. Two of the league’s best defenses match-up in a Seahawk grudge match.
Third place: Detroit Lions (7-9). See ya’ Coach Marinelli! After three (entering the fourth) seasons of absolute failure, the Lions will have no choice but to look for a new hea d coach. Last season started good, but it’s all about how you end it. Don’t get me wrong, the Lions have talent. What they lack is winning experience. Jon Kitna is probably entering his last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Roy Williams is ready to start somewhere new next season. Player to watch: Calvin Johnson. Johnson dominated in college, and this is his chance to prove that he can do the same in the NFL. Hopefully he isn’t just another wasted top draft pick receiver that the Lions went with. Non-divisional game to watch: November 27th- Tennessee (at home). The Lions have to play on Thanksgiving, and even when they suck, it’s a great tradition.
Fourth place: Chicago Bears (6-10).All memories of XLI have disappeared. This is just a bad football team. Although Chicago’s defense is still extremely scary, the other side of the ball is weak. Orton beat Grossman as the starter, and either way, it was a bad choice. Personally, if I was Coach Smith, Brian Greise would still be on my roster, suiting up in week one. Player to watch: Lance Briggs. He returns to the team after saying he would never play another game as a Bear. He is one of the juggernauts that fuels Chicago’s fierce D. Non-divisional game to watch: September 7th- @ Indianapolis. Earlier I said there were no memories of the Super Bowl… This is about as close as the Bears will get to remembering Grossman’s gross game in Miami.
NFC EAST: EAGLES? YOU BETCHA
First place: Philadelphia Eagles (13-3). With McNabb healthy, the Eagles are the best team in the NFC. I think this is the year where he finally makes it through the year and into the playoffs. They added Asante Samuel to play corner back along with Sheldon Brown, with Brian Dawkins looking to have a big year at free safety. The defense is stacked, the offense is stacked- the Eagles will win the NFC East. Player to watch: DeSean Jackson. Jackson comes in at wide receiver after having a great career at Cal. He may be a diamond in the rough that McNabb can add to an average list of wide-outs. Non-divisional game to watch: December 15th- Cleveland (at home). The Eagles get the AFC North this yea- a somewhat weak division. But the Browns are one of the better teams in the AFC, and this Monday night battle will be a great one.
Second place: Dallas Cowboys (10-6).The Cowboys are pretty much everyone’s favorite to win the division if not the conference if not the Super Bowl. That’s exactly why I have them here. Tony Romo plays bad under pressure. Who knows how Pacman Jones will adapt to his new “good” behavior, and will the running game be able to pick up after losing Julius Jones? Yeah, Marion Barber is good, but he always had Jones there to help him out. Regardless, Dallas wins 10 this year and snags a wildcard. Player to watch: DeMarcus Ware. Ware was a beast last year, picking up 14 sacks. If he can have similar numbers this year, look out opposing QB’s. Non-divisional game to watch: November 27th- Seattle (at home). Two of the NFC’s best duking it out while we stuff our faces with bird and potato. Sounds like good watchin’.
Third place: New York Giants (8-8).They’re your average Giants. They were your average Giants last year too…But New York won when it counted. This year, no such luck. Eli is still a quality quarterback but having Osi Umenyiora (out all year) and Michael Strahan disappear, they aren’t so tough on defense, and the Giants offense is slightly above the bar of mediocrity. Player to watch: Justin Tuck. He stands out as probably the best defensive player on the G-Men’s roster. Although Tuck has his work cut out for him if he plans to repeat his 10-sack season of ’07. Non-divisional game to watch: September 21st- Cincinnati (at home). I know this game seems irrelevant, but if the Giants beat the Bengals in week three, they go into their Bye week at 3-0, which could be a confidence booster.
Fourth place: Washington Redskins (5-11). One of the more disappointing campaigns of the season will come from the nation’s capital. Jim Zorn has never been a head coach. He was a quarterback coach, he should be a quarterback coach. Jason Campbell seems to be healthy this year, but Clinton Portis and Campbell are always out, and newly acquired Jason Taylor is injured as well. And let’s not forget who led the ‘Skins at the end of the year in ’07 to get to the playoffs- Todd Collins. Player to watch: Shawn Springs. Every year, Springs puts up decent numbers at corner, and has a great chance to have a huge year. Non-divisional game to watch: October 12th- St. Louis (at home). If both Steven Jackson and Clinton Portis are healthy, they’ll run the show. If not, it may be one of the only chances that Redskins fans get to see a W at home this year.
NFC SOUTH: NEW ORLEANS RETURNS TO GLORY
First place: New Orleans Saints (10-6).The magical run in 2006 probably isn’t in their minds. The lackadaisical limp through 2007 probably is. The Saints slow start last year won’t repeat this year. Drew Brees will have a great year, and McAllister and Reggie Bush will get back to where they should be- the post-season. Not to mention the addition of troubled tight end Jeremy Shockey will bring a surprisingly positive addition to an already talented team. Player to watch: Marques Colston. Both of Colston’s first two seasons have been great. Expect his success to carry over into 2008. Non-divisional game to watch: November 26th- San Diego (in London). This has “game of the year” written all over it.
Second place: Carolina Panthers (10-6).The long awaited return of Jake Delhomme is finally here. However, he’ll be overshadowed this year by rookie running back Jonathan Stewart. The kid has wheels, and has rookie of the year potential. Steve Smith and MushinMuhammad returning to Carolina gives Delhomme two great targets for a winning season- something the Panthers haven’t seen since 2005. Player to watch: Jonathan Stewart. Although he was already mentioned above, it will be essential to keep an eye on Stewart, especially if you like fantasy football. Non-divisional game to watch: November 9th- @ Oakland. Okay, I’m going to talk about this Jonathan Stewart guy one more time. McFadden (Oakland) and Stewart are two of the top rookie running backs this year- ‘nuff said.
Third place: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8). I think Jeff Garcia might be getting too old for this, and so is Joey Galloway. Although Garcia fits in pretty well with Jon Gruden’s West Coast offense, he’s always 40 years old. And it seems as though we’re never going to see a healthy Cadillac Williams again. Player to watch: Earnest Graham. A surprising year from Graham last year has people wondering if he can do it again. Non-divisional game to watch: October 26th- @ Dallas. This game will mark the mid-way point in the season, and at that point, I believe that both of these teams will still have something to prove.
Fourth place: Atlanta Falcons (2-14). Although the Falcons have begun to rebuild, it’s going to take a while. The additions of both Matt Ryan and Michael Turner look to be quality long term investments. However, head coach Mike Smith has never coached an NFL game, and as his players gain experience, so will he. Player to watch: John Abraham. Abraham should be putting up stats similar to the ones he put up in New York with the Jets. He has a chance to be a leader and make a real impact on a young team. Non-divisional game to watch: December 28th- St. Louis (at home). I’ll be blunt here- this is probably one of the only wins the Falcons will have this season.
WILDCARD TEAMS: JACKSONVILLE, TENNESSEE
BYE WEEK TEAMS: NEW ENGLAND, INDIANAPOLIS
SAN DIEGO (3) OVER CLEVELAND (6)
Phil Rivers and LT escape a close one and overcome Vince Young’s near late game heroics.
PITTSBURGH (4) OVER JACKSONVILLE (5)
Pittsburgh gets back at the Jags for beating them in this game last season at Heinz. Jacksonville kept it close, but Big Ben and Willie Parker proved too strong.
NEW ENGLAND (1) OVER PITTSBURGH (4)
Tom Brady and co. don’t allow Pittsburgh to win in Foxborough. This one won’t even be close.
INDIANAPOLIS (2) OVER SAN DIEGO (3)
Regardless of the fact that many people think San Diego is a better team than Indy this year, this game will crush any of those doubts. Avenging last year’s defeat in the Divisional Round, the Colts triumph to victory on their home field.
INDIANAPOLIS (2) OVER NEW ENGLAND (1)
In one of his Peytonesque fourth quarters, Manning leads the Colts past their biggest rival. This game will be neck and neck, but I see Peyton Manning proving that this year, he’s the better quarterback. The Colts will have a shot to win their second ring in three years.
WILDCARD TEAMS: DALLAS, CAROLINA
BYE WEEK TEAMS: PHILADELPHIA, SEATTLE
MINNESOTA (4) OVER DALLAS (5)
Tony Romo’s streak of losing in the playoffs continues. The Vikings prove that they deserved to win the NFC North, and Tavaris Jackson has the best game of his young career. Look for the Vikings defense to intercept Romo to end it.
NEW ORLEANS (3) OVER CAROLINA (6)
These two rivals play for the third time of the season, and the Saints obliterate the Panthers. A solid year by Drew Brees marches on to the Divisional round, while Jake Delhomme watches for yet another year from home.
PHILADELPHIA (1) OVER MINNESOTA (4)
A great battle by both teams is won by the QB who has been here before. McNabb moves on to the Conference title game, a place where he has found success only once in his career.
SEATTLE (2) OVER NEW ORLEANS (3)
Remember one thing about the Seahawks- They don’t lose at home in the playoffs. Matt Hasselbeck has been the most underrated quarterback in the NFL for years now, and this convincing victory over a good opponent will propel Hasselbeck and his teammates into Philly for a shot to play in the Super Bowl.
PHILADELPHIA (1) OVER SEATTLE (2)
In considerable fashion, the Eagles defeat Seattle. Brian Westbrook will make Seattle’s defense look like a Pee Wee team, and the Hawks offense gets little production in frigid Philadelphia. The Eagles will face the Colts in the big one.
SUPER BOWL XLIII
COLTS 24, EAGLES 14
MVP: PEYTON MANNING
The Colts will come out early on offense, and put the Eagles down quick. Indy’s defense, fueled by Bob Sanders will make it hard for Philly to get back. Tony Dungy’s Colts win their second ring.
MVP: Donovan McNabb (Eagles)
Rookie of the Year: Jonathan Stewart (Panthers)
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chris Long (Rams)
Coach of the Year: Andy Reid (Eagles