Now that the draft is over, it's time to start getting ready for the 2011 season, even if the teams can't just yet. So in the spirit of that, I'm going to give you my picks for the winners of every division. After all, it's never too early to start taking wins and losses. All teams play basically the same schedule as the other three teams in their division, so I'm not going to go too in depth on the 2011 schedules.
The longer the lockout goes on, the bigger effect it will have on the way things shake out once the games get underway. With so many teams making changes in coaching regimes, you can expect some of the 2010 cellar dwellers to stay in the basement. On the other side of that coin is the possibility that teams with a steady system in place have a leg up on the competition.
Some divisions are completely in shambles, while others will have four strong teams. It should be a fun year to watch for NFL fans. Here are the teams to watch out for on the hunt for a Super Bowl trophy in 2011.
2010 division winner: New England Patriots (14-2)
The AFC East is a division with two top notch teams—the New England Patriots and New York Jets (11-5)—and two teams looking up at them—the Miami Dolphins (7-9) and Buffalo Bills (4-12). I don't see that changing much in 2011, with the exception of the Bills possibly beating out the Dolphins for the third place spot.
It's going to come down the the Patriots and Jets this season, and it's going to be much closer this year than it has been in the past. The Patriots have won the East easily for most of the past ten years, but every good thing must come to an end.
With the Jets coming back with most of their starters on defense, the strength of their team, and on-field scheme intact, they should come back stronger and better than they were the last two years, both of which ended with them playing in the AFC championship game.
I think that this is the year they get over the hump and finally beat out the Patriots for the division title. Patriots' QB Tom Brady is coming off of one of the most efficient seasons that any QB has ever had, and if he doesn't duplicate that level of play they won't be winning weak in and weak out.
The Jets showed the rest of the NFL how to beat them in the playoffs last year by locking down the short passing game and making Brady throw deep. The Pats played great last season, but they ultimately overachieved. I don't see them having the same success in the upcoming season, leaving the door open for the Jets to finally get over the hump.
2011 AFC East winner: New York Jets
2010 AFC North winners: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
This was one of the closest division races in the NFL in 2010, but just like the AFC West, it was only a two horse race all through the season. The Baltimore Ravens (12-4) lost out on a tie breaker to the Steelers, and the Cleveland Browns (5-11) and Cincinnati Bengals (4-12) were on the outside looking in for the entire season.
I expect much of the same in 2011, with the Bengals and Browns showing improvement from last year but not getting over the hump and becoming contenders. That means it's going to be the same grudge match that we've seen for the better part of the decade between the Steelers and Ravens.
Injuries to key players—specifically Troy Polamalu—have been the only real obstacle standing in the way for the Steelers, and it hasn't really held them back that much. The Steelers and Patriots have won five of the last ten NFL championships, so the Steelers are no doubt the class of this division. With Troy coming into the season healthy, the Steelers are easy favorites.
That having been said, the Ravens are no team to sleep on here. QB Joe Flacco is really coming into his own, and this will be his third season. Traditionally, this is the year that makes or breaks a QB, and with weapons like Anquan Boldin, tight end Todd Heap and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to throw to and RB Ray Rice coming out of the backfield, this offense is just waiting to explode.
Their defense isn't what it was in the recent past, but it's still good enough to back up this seemingly high-powered offense. A healthy Ed Reed will go a long way to making them my pick to come out on top of the AFC North.
2011 AFC North winner: Baltimore Ravens
2010 winners: Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
In the AFC West, there is changing of the guard going on right now. The San Diego Chargers (9-7) were the top dogs in the West since they picked up QB Philip Rivers in the 2003 draft—until the Chiefs had their biggest turnaround in franchise history and won the division last season.
The Chiefs weren't the only team in the West to make a vast improvement in 2010 though. The Oakland Raiders (8-8) actually swept the division last season but could only manage two wins against the rest of the teams on their schedule. Still, they are probably not going away any time soon, and they appear to be on the right track to actually start contending. If only they didn't have to rely on QB Jason Campbell.
The Denver Broncos (4-12) were the only team in the division that never really sniffed contention in 2010, and with a whole new coaching staff and schemes in 2011 I don't see them making a charge this season either.
That makes it an up in the air three horse race in one of the most competitive division in the NFL right now. The Chargers seem to be in disarray, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this race is going to come down to the Raiders and Chiefs in 2011.
Both teams rely heavily on their running game and defense, so I see it coming down to which of these teams' passing game comes together first. That favors the Chiefs and 2010 Pro Bowl QB Matt Cassel, 2010 Pro Bowl WR Dwayne Bowe, big sure-handed sophomore TE Tony Moeaki and rookie WR Jonathan Baldwin. Baldwin is the missing piece here, and he's going to go a long way in giving this team a chance to win their first playoff game since 1993.
2011 AFC West winners: Kansas City Chiefs
2010 AFC South winners: Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
This is another division where one team has ruled the roost for much of the last decade. The Colts have been head and shoulder favorites in this division until last season, but the Houston Texans' (8-8) NFL worst ranked pass defense left them on the outside looking again yet again.
Still, there were signs that this division is finally getting competitive. There was a four-way tie for a couple of weeks of the 2010 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) and Tennessee Titans (6-10) trying to make a run at getting a division title. Both teams eventually fell off toward the end of the season and are facing a change at the QB position in 2011, so I don't really see them coming out on top here just yet.
It'll come down to the Colts and Texans this season, and I think it's going to remain close right up until the end.Texans QB Matt Schaub is turning out to be a fine QB, and WR Andre Johnson is widely respected as one of the top three receivers in the NFL right now. Add to that RB Arian Foster, who was the league's rushing champ in 2010, and this is one of the NFL's most high-powered offenses on paper.
The Colts still have Peyton Manning though, and until someone dethrones him it's hard to imagine not seeing the Colts back in the playoffs in 2011. Peyton is the best regular season QB of this generation, and no matter what group of WRs he has from year to year, he always seems to get the most out of them. Even with one of the worst running games in the NFL, this offense is one of the hardest to get off the field.
I don't see that changing just yet, and I think Peyton will rebound this year after having an un-Peyton-like season in 2010. It's going to be a tough fought race, but until someone knocks the Colts off, I'm sticking with them.
2011 AFC West winner: Indianapolis Colts
2010 NFC East winner: Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
2011 common opponents: NFC West (Seahawks, Rams, 49ers and Cardinals), AFC East (Patriots, Jets, Dolphins and Bills)
This is always one of the hardest divisions in the NFL to predict a winner in. There is so much talent, underachieving, injuries and disgruntled players that even the national media doesn't know who's the favorite from year to year.
The Eagles won it last year by beating the New York Giants (10-6) late in the season after being down 21 in the fourth quarter. The Giants went on to lose the tie breaker and ultimately miss the playoffs.The Washington Redskins (6-10) tried and failed with the Donovan McNabb experiment, and the Dallas Cowboys (6-10) just flat out fell apart in the first half of the season.
So with the 2011 NFC East rundown looking like this—the Redskins without a starting QB, the Cowboys with a new head coach, the Giants still being the Giants, and the Eagles returning most of their players—this thing is anyone's guess as far as who the favorite is. The way I see it, the Skins are out, leaving it to be a three way fight.
The Eagles will need another Pro Bowl season from QB Michael Vick, the Cowboys will need to play up to their potential level, and the Giants just need some consistency. I look for Giants QB Eli Manning to throw less picks, Cowboys QB Tony Romo to stay healthy, the Eagles to stay tough and in the thick of it and the Redskins to stay out in the cold.
We might see three teams come out of this division and make the playoffs when it's all said and done. The running game of all three relevant teams is very good, and the defenses are tough as well. This is probably this most solid division talent-wise from top to bottom in the NFL, so it should come down to the last week. The team that comes out on top:
2011 NFC East winner: New York Giants
2010 NFC North winner: Chicago Bears (11-5)
2011 common opponents: NFC South (Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers), AFC West (Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders and Broncos)
The Bears did win this division last season, but the Green Bay Packers (10-6) were right on their heals running on a skeleton crew. The Detroit Lions (6-10) got better and are no longer the laughing stock of the NFC—that title now goes to every team in the next division I'll be covering—and the Minnesota Vikings (6-10) were dysfunctional at best.
2011 should be a little more cut and dry. Look for the Bears to falter with QB Jay Cutler having to undergo intense scrutiny after his playoff mishap last season, the Lions to get better again but not really contend yet with a ferocious front four, the Vikings to improve and get back in the hunt, and the Packers to stay healthy and contend for another title in 2011.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has distanced himself from most of the pack as far as the QB position is concerned. His leadership and overall skill level led his team to the Super Bowl championship by playing some of the best postseason football I've ever witnessed from any QB in my lifetime. It was truly remarkable.
With his defense getting healthy and his tight end Jermichael Finley returning, plus the return of RB Ryan Grant, I really can't see any team in this division taking them over this season. They're one of the best teams in football on paper, and they were good enough to win a title while being shorthanded for what basically amounts to the entire season. Good luck NFC North opponents. You'll need it.
2011 NFC North winner: Green Bay Packers
2010 NFC West winner: Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
2011 common opponents: NFC East (Eagles, Giants, Redskins and Cowboys), AFC North (Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals)
The 2010 season brought us some great football and some of the best TV ratings the NFL has ever seen. It also, however, brought us the NFC West—the first division on NFL history that gave us a division winner with a losing record. The Seahawks beat out the St. Louis Rams (7-9) by winning the tie breaker in defeating the Rams in week 17.
The San Francisco 49ers (6-10) and Arizona Cardinals (5-11) were still in the division race all the way up until week 14—that's how bad it got in this division. Being that there wasn't much to talk about in this division during the season, I'm not going to spend much time writing about them in the off-season this year.
The 49ers were picked by most of the "experts" to finally win the division, but they played so badly that their head coach is now out of a job. The Cardinals played four different starting QBs and are still without one. The Seahawks were the best of the worst, which isn't saying much, but new head coach Pete Carroll did get them into the playoffs in his first season back in the NFL.
The one bright and shining star in this division was Sam Bradford, QB for the St. Louis Rams. Last season was just his rookie year, and with no real WR talent to speak of, he managed to lead the Rams from laughable to nearly making the playoffs. This season, he gets them over the hump.
2011 NFC West winners: St. Louis Rams
2010 NFC South winner: Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
2011 common opponents: NFC East (Bears, Packers, Vikings and Lions), AFC South (Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Titans)
In 2010, the NFC South tied the AFC East for the most wins by any division with 36. The Falcons, New Orleans Saints (11-5) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6) all had double digit wins and made the NFC South the only division to boast three teams with more than nine wins. If the Carolina Panthers (2-14) could have just won more than a league low two games, the South would have had the most wins in the NFL.
The Falcons were the division leaders for just about the entire season, with the Saints and the Buccaneers battling for the wild card spot that ultimately went to the Saints. Falcons' QB Matt Ryan was one of the most efficient QBs on third down in the NFL, and WR Roddy White led the league in receiving yards as well as catches. RB Michael Turner did his part too, and the Falcons easily won the division title with the best record in the NFC.
The Saints' defense fell apart on them, and the turnovers that won them the title just a year before simply weren't there anymore. They also lost three RBs during the course of the season, leaving them with no running game to speak of. It was all up to Drew Brees, who many thought had an off year, but he played great ball and still took his team to the playoffs.
The Buccaneers overachieved by most people's standards. Even Buccaneers fans were surprised at just how well they played last year. QB Josh Freeman is coming along well and becoming a fine QB. RB LeGarret Blount really impressed as well. He was a third day pick, but he really showed up to play in 2010, and the Buccaneers were right on the heals of a playoff birth.
With a couple more division wins, the Buccaneers could see the playoffs in 2011, and the Falcons don't show any signs of slowing down, especially with the addition of rookie WR Julio Jones to compliment Roddy White. That being said though, my money is on the 2009 champion New Orleans Saints to return healthy and strong in 2011, regaining their spot atop the NFC South.
2011 NFC South winner: New Orleans Saints
There you have it: every division winner laid out for you. I put a lot of emphasis on the QB position, but that's because it is a QB driven league these days. Most teams go as their QB does. The Packers will be back in the playoffs, and the Jets might finally turn the corner and make it to their first Super Bowl appearance since Super Bowl three.
I give honorable mention to the Patriots, Texans, Chargers, Buccaneers, Falcons and Eagles as my possible wild card finalists.
Keep your head up. There will be NFL football before you know it. I'm just going to go about it like it's business as usual and get ready for the season. I hope this article helps you do the same.