2011 NFL Season: The Top 5 Contenders from Each Conference
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
With free agency winding down and big time trades unlikely, most NFL rosters are set heading into the preseason. We all know there are bound to be injuries in the weeks leading up to the regular season, but let's hope there are few.
This year, teams will be gunning for the defending champion Green Bay Packers, who, after underachieving for most of the season, turned it on down the stretch to win their last two regular season games and sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed. There, they won three straight road games just to earn a spot in Super Bowl XV, where they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25.
Let's take a look at the top challengers from each conference heading into the 2011 season...
AFC No. 5: Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Colts are relatively intact but, star quarterback Peyton Manning endured two offseason neck surgeries. It remains to be seen how this will affect Manning, but I'd be surprised if it hinders his play at all.
The Colts still have firepower on offense, led by the four-time MVP at quarterback and veteran Reggie Wayne at receiver. Dallas Clark and Austin Collie are coming off injury plagued seasons. Clark had wrist surgery and missed the last 10 games of the season, while Collie suffered two scary concussions and missed seven games.
The defense is a bit suspect after losing Clint Sessions to the Jaguars, but if Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can stay healthy, they should be fine. Both posted double digit sack seasons in 2010.
The division will be even tougher with a revamped Houston Texans defense led by coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston may finally get over the hump after the additions of Jonathan Joseph and Daniel Manning to the worst secondary in football. But the Colts are consistent and thus, will be the favorites heading into the season.
Through it all, you can never count out the elder Manning (you can count on Eli to fold down the stretch), so expect the Colts to win around 10 games and be a threat come playoff time.
AFC No. 4: New York Jets
Al Bello/Getty Images
The team added wideout Plaxico Burress but lost Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith and Jerricho Cotchery, all valuable members of the offense. They lost out on the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes, then re-signed Antonio Cromartie. They lost Damien Woody on the offensive line and Jason Taylor and Shaun Ellis on the d-line.
They added 37-year-old Derrick Mason to try and replace Edwards' production, but their success may largely depend on how effective Burress is, because they lost those three contributors on the offense.
The defense is strong backed by corner Darrelle Revis and linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott. The expectations are as high as any, and the Jets will contend once again in 2011. In order to have another deep playoff run, they must rely heavily on the running game and a stout defense. I expect New York to compete with New England for the division title (but fall short).
AFC No. 3: Baltimore Ravens
Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Baltimore Ravens are 32-16 in three seasons under John Harbaugh but have fallen short of the Super Bowl each time. They are 4-3 in the postseason, with all seven games played on the road because they have not been able to win the division. That could change this season.
With the addition of Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Davis, the Ravens offense may lean heavily on the run. Davis helped Arian Foster win the rushing title and should open up holes for Ray Rice. After losing Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain to free agency, Baltimore is very thin at receiver behind Anquan Boldin.
With all the veterans leaving, the Ravens are much younger on offense. However, the defense is aging. This unit will again be led by Haloti Ngata causing chaos on the line of scrimmage, Ray Lewis in the middle at linebacker and Ed Reed in the secondary. Despite missing the first six games due to injury, Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions and 183 return yards. He is injury-prone and will be 33 on opening day, so the team will be ready should Reed go down.
The Ravens will continue to be a postseason staple but could benefit tremendously from winning the division and possibly getting a first round bye.
AFC No. 2: Pittsburgh Steelers
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Can the Steelers make their third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons? The team hasn't done anything to improve this offseason but remain one of the most talented teams in football.
They are explosive on offense led by third year wideout Mike Wallace, who has a career average of 20.3 yards per catch. Hines Ward is up their in age but is still a solid No. 2 guy. Rashard Mendenhall is one of the better running backs in the league, but the offensive line is a question.
On defense, the Steelers are littered with quality players, which makes them a dangerous bunch. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the only set of teammates to each have three straight double digit sack seasons. Troy Polamalu may have lost a step, but he is still one of the top safeties in football.
Expect Pittsburgh to be at, or near, the top of the conference by season's end and be one of the favorites to get to Indianapolis in February.
AFC No. 1: New England Patriots
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
After losing to the division rival Jets in the playoffs, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have re-tooled, adding Chad Ochocino on offense and the much maligned Albert Haynesworth to the defense.
If either of these guys pan out, the Patriots should run away if with the division. Either way, they are the favorites in the AFC. Tom Brady is coming off a MVP season in which he threw for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns to just four interceptions. I expect Ochocinco to have a nice year, as does everyone who catches balls from No. 12.
The defense is young in the secondary but very talented, led by cornerback Devin McCourty. Jerod Mayo is a stud at linebacker, and Vince Wilfork is a beast along the defensive line (imagine dealing with him and Fat Albert next season).
The one weakness the Pats have is their ability to rush the passer. End Mike Wright (who?) led the team with 5.5 sacks, but the team released veteran Tully Banta-Cain (five sacks). Can they generate enough heat on the quarterback? It remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The Patriots are one of the best teams in football and will be a popular pick to win the AFC in 2011.
NFC No. 5: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Led by quarterback Josh Freeman (25 TDs, 6 INTs), Tampa went 10-6 last season and nearly found themselves in the playoffs. Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount ran for 1,007 yards in just seven starts, while rookie receiver Mike Williams caught 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns (tied for third in the NFC). Veteran Kellen Winslow Jr. is a premier threat at tight end.
The defense lost its leading tackler Barrett Ruud to Tennessee, but they have some young talent along the line. Gerald McCoy was the third pick in the 2010 draft, and rookie Da'Quan Bowers is a talented pass rushing threat. If these guys can have impact seasons, the Bucs will be a force to reckon with in the toughest division in football.
NFC No. 4: New Orleans Saints
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The second team from the NFC South, the 2009 Super Bowl champions will be in the hunt for another title in 2011. After a disappointing end to their season (a first round loss to the 7-9 Seahawks), Drew Brees and the Saints will challenge the Atlanta Falcons for the division title.
Although they traded Reggie Bush, New Orleans picked up the versatile Darren Sproles. The pass happy offense has arguably the deepest receiving corps in football (Colston, Moore, Henderson and Meachem).
The problems arise on defense. The pass defense was very good and the run defense was middle of the pack, but they gave up 41 points in the playoff loss to Seattle. The Saints allowed only 19.6 points per game during the regular season, so we'll see what defense shows up this year.
With Drew Brees surrounded with a ton of weapons, this team will be tough to stop once again.
NFC No. 3: Atlanta Falcons
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
The Falcons traded a boat-load of picks to acquire Julio Jones (left) with the sixth pick in the draft in the hopes that he can help them be "number one" in the upcoming season.
The Falcons went 13-3 to clinch home-field advantage but got shellacked 48-21 by the Packers in the Divisional Round. Matt Ryan is 20-2 all-time at home in regular season play, and that trend figures to continue in 2011 as the Falcons look to take that next step.
Atlanta is balanced on offense boasting a 1,300 yard rusher in Michael Turner and a 1,300 yard receiver in "Rowdy" Roddy White, while tight end Tony Gonzalez is still putting up big numbers. We'll see how Jones fits in, but he should be inserted into the starting lineup after the departure of Michael Jenkins.
John Abraham led the team with 13 sacks, and Curtis Lofton is a very good linebacker. But the difference last season was the emergence of Brent Grimes at cornerback and William Moore at safety. With all the talent at receiver nowadays, teams need two or three corners, and Grimes and fellow corner Dunta Robinson were rock solid...until the playoffs.
Matt Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs, and if he stays winless with all the talent around him this year, people will begin to question whether he can win in January.
NFC No. 2: Philadelphia Eagles
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
The Eagles have made their intentions quite clear. They are going "all-in" this season, and the expectation is to bring a title to Philadelphia.
The front office was unbelievably aggressive in free agency, reeling in pass rushers Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, shutdown corner Nnamdi Asomugha and the talented Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to help a pass defense that gave up a franchise record 31 touchdowns. The red zone defense was historically bad, allowing 33 touchdowns in 43 red zone penetrations, good for 76.7 percent. That red zone inefficiency was by far the NFL's worst. These four additions should help the Eagles become one of the most feared pass defenses in football.
The offense is as dangerous as any and starts at quarterback with Michael Vick. Vick had a career year in 2010 and should be just as good this season. LeSean McCoy rushed for over 1,000 yards last season while the team's trio of receivers are one of the best in the league. The big question is whether the right side of the offensive line can keep Vick upright.
This team is scary good on paper, but we all know you've got to play the games. The Eagles will be one of the most talked about teams this season as they look to end their 51-year championship drought.
NFC No. 1: Green Bay Packers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Packers are the defending champs and thus are the team to beat in 2011. Anybody who says different is wrong.
They stayed relatively quiet this offseason, other than re-signing James Jones and releasing Nick Barnett. The big additions were through injuries, as Green Bay returns starting running back Ryan Grant and rising star Jermichael Finley at tight end who both went on I.R. last season (Grant after Week 1, Finley after Week 5). If healthy, these two guys will combine with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson to give defenses fits.
Defensively, the group is led by the ferocious Clay Matthews III and veterans Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams in the secondary. B.J. Raji is a force in the run defense.
So with Grant and Finley back, I believe the Packers may be even better than last season, and if their core can stay healthy, they have a chance to make a run at multiple Super Bowls.