Can Anyone Dethrone Matthews, Rodgers And The Packers?
Can they pull it off? And if they suffer from a Super Bowl hangover, who will be there to step in and take the title?
In the AFC, the Patriots come off a dominant regular season that ended in post-season disappointment. The Jets continue to try to back up coach Rex Ryan's braggadocio. The Steelers try to take that next step to another title.
Over in the NFC, the Packers try to defend against the likes of the Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Bears, Cowboys, and Giants. The NFC is filled with divisions that have three, or even four teams, that could contend for a division title.
But who are the true contenders for the Vince Lombardi trophy, and what are the key factors that will lead to a championship?
Read on for a team by team breakdown, with picks for each squad's finish and full playoff predictions. We'll start with the AFC and NFC playoff predictions and a Super Bowl pick. We'll then make our way through each team with a prediction on every squad's record and divisional finish for 2011.
Who Is Going To Take The Lamar Hunt Trophy?
Any way you slice it, the AFC playoffs promise to feature several intriguing, heavyweight battles this season.
Expect New England and the winner of the NFC North, likely Pittsburgh, to end up with the top two records in the conference and the first round byes.
Not sure the Steelers or Ravens will truly be the second best teams in the AFC, but their ease of schedule will make the winner of that division the number two seed.
In that case, we would finally give Houston the division and a playoff spot. Regardless, look for the AFC South champion to be the number 4 seed, with the Chargers number three.
The loser of the AFC North, we're saying the Ravens, will be the top wildcard and number 5 seed, with the Jets grabbing the final wildcard.
Under the scenario that Manning plays close to a full season, look for the Colts to pull out the AFC South but be knocked out by the Ravens in the first round.
In the other first round game, the Jets simply don't have enough offense to hang in with San Diego.
That will set the AFC divisional round as Ravens at Patriots and Chargers at Steelers.
In this case, the two high powered offenses will prevail, setting up a shootout between the Patriots and Chargers in the AFC Championship game.
In the lead up to the season, Tom Brady has been vocal about how much the playoff loss to the Jets last season truly burned him. A highly motivated Brady leading New England is not what the rest of the league wants to see.
And, again, because of that playoff loss, it can be easy to forget how dominant the Pats really were last season. Blitzing the league on the way to a 14-2 record, New England beat a who's who of playoff teams in 2010 including the Ravens, Chargers, Steelers, Colts, Jets, Bears and Packers.
The Chargers are going to be a high flying, exciting team this season. And an AFC title game between San Diego and New England could be an offensive classic. But in the end, the Patriots will have just enough to outlast the Bolts.
AFC Championship: Patriots over Chargers
It's All About The George Halas Trophy In The NFC
In the NFC, there look to be several contenders to the crown.
But it really comes down to who has enough to dethrone the Packers.
There is always the worry about the dreaded Super Bowl Hangover.
Any sort of a letdown, combined with the fact that the Super Bowl champs always get other teams' best shots, could result in Green Bay coming up short of a return to the Big Game.
With not a ton of competition in the NFC North, it's almost a certainty that the Packers will pick up one of the first round byes, which should make their road this year to the Super Bowl a bit easier than last year's.
Look for the Saints to bounce back strong this year and grab the other bye, with the Eagles and Cardinals the other division winners. The Falcons and Cowboys will round out the NFC playoff field as wildcards.
A quick aside before projecting the NFC champion.
If you're an NFC team at the end of the season battling for a divisional title that won't give you a bye and will leave you as the number three seed, and your other option is going ahead and throwing the division to end up as a wildcard and the number five seed, do you throw games so you get to play the NFC West champ in the first round instead of, say, a number six seed that could be a team like the Cowboys or Falcons?
Just a thought and one that has to be pretty scary for the NFL.
The bottom line in the NFC is that the Packers just have too many advantages over the other conference contenders.
They now know they can win.
They are more balanced than any of the other NFC heavyweights.
And the biggest advantage, they are more built to win on the road if necessary than any of the other possible NFC playoff teams.
Think about it, the Packers are built almost like a dome team. It's so much easier to imagine Green Bay going into, say, New Orleans or Atlanta or even Philadelphia and win if they have to than it is to imagine any of those teams going into Lambeau and winning.
In the wildcard round, look for Atlanta to crush the NFC West winner and number three seed Philadelphia to knock off Dallas at home.
This will leave the divisional round as Atlanta at Green Bay and Philadelphia at New Orleans.
Much like the AFC, you can expect a possible offensive shootout in the NFC Championship game, as long as it's not -47 degrees in Green Bay, as the Saints travel to play the Packers.
The Packers will repeat as NFC champs and head back to the Super Bowl to defend their title.
NFC Championship: Packers over Saints
It's All About This
We're left with the Patriots versus Packers in the Super Bowl.
This is a game that would have been amazing enough last season, and may have resulted in the Packers coming up just short of winning it all.
The Patriots beat the Packers at home in a late season match up last year that was a lot closer than many would have expected considering Matt Flynn was at the controls for Green Bay instead of Aaron Rodgers.
New England with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is not normally a team you'd want to bet against with everything on the line.
But the Packers are a team that is enormously talented across the board and now carries with them the confidence of a team that has won a championship.
This could be a game with maybe two or three huddles for the entire game.
You have to believe Brady would go with the Patriots' patented no huddle, and the Packers have shown already in the preseason that we may see a lot more no huddle from them because of Green Bay's relatively weak running game.
Really, neither team has much of a running game to speak of. But they both control the ball and the game with the short passing game and timely quick strikes.
The time of 16-13 Super Bowls is long, long gone. And although both of these teams have capable defenses, the scoreboard operator in a Patriots-Packers Super Bowl had best be limbering up his trigger finger.
A game featuring Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers could be one for the ages. And a year or so ago, it would have been hard to imagine that you could pick a Mike McCarthy coached team over a Belichick squad.
But, again, this is a Packer team that is just too loaded, is too confident, is even healthier than last season, and is now experienced. It says here that the Packers repeat.
Super Bowl: Packers over Patriots
Tom Brady Looks For Another Championship
Somewhat lost in the disappointment of the Patriots' AFC Divisional playoff loss to the Jets last season is just how dominant a season New England actually had in 2010.
Outscoring their opponents by over 200 points, the Pats finished the season 14-2, including victories over all four teams that made it into last season's conference championship games.
Read that again. The Patriots beat all the teams that made the NFL's final four last season, scoring over 30 points against each of the Steelers, Jets, Packers and Bears.
In four of their final five regular season match ups, New England scored over 30 points while giving up fewer than 10 points.
Offensively, the Patriots rolled, finishing first in points per game and fourth in yards per play. And when they were in a tight spot, New England executed with a 48% third down conversion rate, second in the league.
It was also tough to score on the Pats, as they allowed fewer than 20 points per game, good for eighth in the NFL.
What may have been New England's key stat, though, was the astounding +28 they achieved in turnover differential, almost a two turnover per game advantage.
The Patriots, of course, were again led by Tom Brady with his other worldly 111.0 QB rating and 36-4 TD to INT ratio.
While you always have to question whether a team can replicate a stat like the +28 turnover differential, there is no reason to believe that the team should experience any drop off overall.
This is a team that is primed for a title run, and in a relatively weak AFC East the Patriots will look to set themselves up for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Prediction: 1st in AFC East (13-3)
Rex Ryan Is A Laugh A Minute
In some ways, it's hard to figure out whether Rex Ryan should be labelled as a coach who has turned the Jets into a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, or whether he is falling into the category of a guy who can't win the big one.
It's probably somewhere in between, but as a coach that promises a Super Bowl every season, Ryan sets himself and his team up to be judged by a high bar.
The Jets, as everyone knows, are a team that is carried by a defense that ranks with Pittsburgh's as the best in the league.
On the other hand, the NFL has become a league where more and more only teams with elite quarterbacks are able to win championships.
And therein lies the problem for the Jets.
Sanchez, who did not rank in the Top-25 in either quarterback rating, yards per attempt or completion percentage last season, is not a quarterback who makes anyone think of Super Bowl rings.
Ryan and the Jets try to overcome their weakness in the passing game behind the stout defense and a top 10 running game. And behind that solid foundation, New York will once again be a contender in the AFC.
But this is not the 1960s and 1970s. Defense and a solid running game no longer win championships.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East (11-5)
Chad Henne Has Reason To Be Nervous
Miami, as has been the case for the last few seasons, will be fighting to keep their noses out in front of Buffalo and avoid the cellar in the AFC East.
What hope the Dolphins do have lies with an excellent defense that ranked sixth overall in total defense in 2010.
Despite this high overall ranking, though, Miami's defense will struggle to prop up an offense that could only put up just over 17 points a game last season.
The defense, of course, will remain under pressure this season as the Dolphins go with rookie running back Daniel Thomas, a potentially explosive but inconsistent Reggie Bush, and continue to count on Chad Henne and his 26th ranked passer rating.
Au unknown at running back, a weak offense overall, and a defense that will continually be tested unless the offense can put up more points leads to another long season in Miami.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC East (5-11)
The Bills Try To Hand Off Their Last Place Finish
The Bills face an uphill battle in 2011.
Not only do they come off of a 4-12 record and last place finish in the AFC East, but they also face the second most difficult schedule in the NFL this season.
In addition to Buffalo's four divisional games with the Patriots and Jets, Buffalo can look forward to match ups with the Chiefs, Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Chargers.
And when the biggest news coming out of your training camp is that Fred Jackson has been upset and demanding to be reassured that he is still the starting running back, you're probably not looking toward a 15-1 season.
We're all for a guy playing with a chip on his shoulder, and it's great that Jackson wants to stake his claim. But somebody needs to remind Fred Jackson that he's Fred Jackson.
Other than that, we'll just remind everyone that Buffalo was 25th in total offense in 2010, 24th in total defense and last in the league in turnover differential at -17.
Again, this is not a team that is marching up the standings any time soon.
Prediction: 4th in AFC East (4-12)
The Steelers Look For Another Division Title
In 2010, the Steelers battled the Ravens all season for supremacy in the AFC North.
Look for a repeat in 2011.
The stereotype for the Steelers over the years has been of a team built on defense and the running game. Last season, that was half true.
The Steel Curtain defense was as stout as ever, ranked first in the league in yards per play, while teams were only able to convert on 34 percent of their third downs against the Steelers.
Top it off with a +17 turnover differential and watching the Pittsburgh jog off the field was a familiar site for Steeler fans last year.
But at only 4.1 yards per carry, the Steeler running game was not rolling over teams as effectively as their reputation might suggest.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, ranked fifth in QB rating last season, was able to keep drives moving as the Steelers converted third downs at a solid 43 percent clip.
Pittsburgh faces an overwhelmingly easy schedule in 2011, with only games with Baltimore and New England against teams with winning records in 2010 on their home schedule.
Of course, the problem for the Steelers in 2010 was not winning the games they should win. The difficulty for Pittsburgh was in beating the elite teams, as their five losses in 2010 came against the Patriots, Ravens, Saints, Jets and Packers.
The Steelers took advantage of the Patriots playoff loss to win the AFC Championship game at home last season, and came up just short in the Super Bowl.
If the Steelers can take advantage of the favorable 2011 schedule and secure home playoff games again this season, they could see a return trip to the Big Game.
The question for 2011 is not going to be whether the Steelers will be contenders, but whether they can get over the hump against the NFL's top teams.
Prediction: 1st in AFC North (13-3)
Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin Look To Climb The AFC Mountain
The Ravens were a half away from hosting the AFC Championship game last season, only to blow a big lead in the second half against the Steelers in the divisional playoffs.
This from a team ranked 23rd in the NFL in total offense and a slightly less than Baltimore-like 10th in total defense.
The key for Baltimore was their effectiveness in close games, as the Ravens managed a stellar 8-4 record in games decided by seven points or less.
The good news for the Ravens in 2011 is that they have an even easier schedule than the Steelers, actually the second easiest in the NFL based on their opponents' 2010 records.
It's not always just about how good your team is, but often about who you match up against.
For the Ravens, it will be imperative that they take advantage of the simpler schedule and get over the top in the divisional race. Winning the division can be the difference between home and road playoff games and advancing deep into the playoffs or going home early.
It says here they come up just short again in the AFC North race.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC North (12-4)
The Browns Look To Climb In The AFC North
In a league increasingly controlled by offense, this is going to prove difficult for Colt McCoy and the boys.
Because despite having Peyton Hillis and his guns gracing the cover of Madden, this is a terrible offensive team. Only the Panthers scored fewer points in 2010 than the Browns.
And the concerning thing about Hillis is whether he can withstand the grind of running behind the Cleveland offensive line, as evidenced by his drop off in the second half of last season.
The Browns do have a defense that keeps them in games, and can point to their blowout win over the Patriots last year as evidence that they do have talent.
Just not enough. It should be no problem, really for anybody, to stay ahead of the Bengals. But that's about all the Browns can look forward to.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC North (5-11)
These Guys Can't Believe They're Bengals Fans
Where is Dennis Green when we need him? Because the Bengals are who we think they are.
Namely, with apologies to the Carolina Panthers, the worst team in the league.
Think about this. The Bengals finished 4-12 last season with Carson Palmer, T.O. and Chad Ochocinco.
Now, they come into 2011 with a running back who has to spend some time in jail, none of the above players and a quarterback in Andy Dalton who may or may not have completed a pass in the preseason.
No wonder the guys in the above photo have a look of no hope.
If we took it game by game, you'd be hard pressed to get me to pick a game that the Bengals would be favored in. But we have to believe that they'll pick up a few wins along the way.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North (3-13)
Peyton Needs To Get Out Of The Wrangles And Onto The Field
It was only the preseason, but if we ever needed evidence of the fact that Peyton Manning may be the most valuable player to his team in the league, the ineptitude of the Colts' offense leading into this season proves it.
Everything the Colts hope to do is predicated on Manning being behind center.
But if he is, Indy should be alright to win another NFC South title. If Manning is ready to go, you could argue that the already potent Colts offense could be even better this season.
A healthier Joseph Addai with a solid rookie backup in Delone Carter, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Pierre Garcon is a pretty nice nucleus to work with on offense.
In a mediocre AFC South, despite a very difficult schedule, this should be enough to allow the Colts to ride into the playoffs.
Prediction: 1st in AFC South (10-6)
The Texans Are Looking For A Playoff Spot
Houston is a team that has been a trendy pick to make the leap to the playoffs for the last couple of years.
And with the Colts aging and relying on a questionable Peyton Manning to be 100% healthy, this could be their year.
Featuring a loaded offense led by Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub that is a year more experienced, many feel this could be the Texans' year to take the cliched next step.
A couple of things will have to happen for Houston to improve enough to make the postseason.
First, this is a team that ranked third in 2010 in total offense, but they were only able to translate that into a ranking of ninth in scoring offense. And second, the Texans will have to become at least a little more stout on defense.
A lot can be overcome with an offense as potent as Houston's but you don't see a lot of playoff teams sporting a ranking of 30th in total defense, as Houston did last season.
Certainly, Houston is a team that could make the last place to playoff leap that has become increasingly commonplace in the NFL.
But they'll need to tighten up on defense and turn their offensive potential into more points to make it happen.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC South (8-8)
Jack Del Rio Is Happy With His Motorola Headset
The Jaguars have slowly come to represent the very definition of the average NFL team.
Last season, the Jags finished 8-8. They were ranked 15th in total offense. Their quarterback is David Garrard.
The most exciting thing about the Jags most season is the way star running back Maurice Jones-Drew stays engaged with not only his fantasy stats, but those of players throughout the league.
Paying more attention to real results might serve Jacksonville a bit better.
So, is Jacksonville more likely to move forward or take a step back?
Well, last season the Jaguars were outscored by their opponents by a net 66 points and still went 8-8. They managed the .500 record by going 5-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. That sort of stat tends to even out, leaving Jacksonville looking at moving down the standings this season.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC South (6-10)
Can Jake Locker Keep The Titans Afloat?
The theme for the Titans in 2011 is that of a team in transition.
With a new coach in Mike Munchak, a new quarterback in Jake Locker and a newly rich Chris Johnson, Tennessee looks to make it happen in a division that many feel is there for anyone to take.
Certainly, a team could do worse than to build an offense around the newly paid and dynamic Johnson.
But it is easy to understand why Johnson wanted the new contract, as he is charged with carrying an offense that breaks in a learning, rookie quarterback.
The problems for the Titans in 2010 were many, as they were worst in the league in time of possession, a -5 in turnover differential and amassed over 1000 yards in penalty yardage.
A team that can't keep its offense on the field, can't hold onto the ball in general and kills itself with penalties is not a team that has much hope. And with a rookie quarterback coming in, it doesn't figure to get much better in 2011.
Prediction: 4th in AFC South (5-11)
The Fiery Philip Rivers Passes The Chargers Toward A Championship
The AFC is loaded with great offenses. The Patriots, the Colts and the Texans were all dynamic offenses that lit up the score board in 2010.
But no team figures to be ready to explode more than San Diego in 2011.
Already the number one ranked offense in the league in 2010, the Chargers come back with a hopefully healthy Antonio Gates and a ready for a full season Vincent Jackson for Philip Rivers to spread the ball around to.
Only the Patriots scored more points than the Chargers in 2010. And if San Diego can tighten up on the turnovers (-6 in 2010), find the right balance between Ryan Matthews and Mike Tolbert at running back, and take advantage of the healthy Gates and Jackson, the Bolts could be nearly unstoppable.
Often forgotten is the fact that San Diego, measured in yards per game, also had the number one ranked defense in 2010. It was a 2-4 record in games decided by fewer than 7 points that kept the Chargers, after an extended, season long uphill battle, just outside the playoffs last season.
The Chargers play out of division games against the Patriots, Jets, Packers and Ravens, a brutal schedule that could be tough to overcome. But in an AFC West that figures to be there for the taking this season, San Diego should be able to win just enough games to bring home a division title.
Prediction: 1st in AFC West (10-6)
Todd Haley Looks To Keep The Chiefs Focused
The Chiefs may have been the most surprising team of 2010.
And although the season ended with a crushing home playoff loss to the Ravens, Kansas City has to feel optimistic coming into 2011.
Last season, Kansas City's style and philosophy could best be described as old school.
Throwing the ball fewer than 30 times a game, the Chiefs relied on a close to the vest, protect the ball game plan that was executed on the back of a league best running game.
And with Jamaal Charles and his lofty 6.4 yards per carry average ready to take an even larger role in the running game, the Chiefs don't figure to regress on the ground.
A key question is whether quarterback Matt Cassel can duplicate his stellar 27-7 TD to interception ratio from last season, a key factor that allowed Kansas City to control the ball and sport a +9 turnover advantage on their opponents.
Kansas City maximized their opportunities in 2010, going 4-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Again, this is a stat that normally evens out.
Along with the fact that it should be more difficult for the Chiefs to protect the ball the way they did last season, look for the Chiefs to be leap frogged by San Diego in the AFC West.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC West (7-9)
Just Do The Best You Can, Baby
After a number of years being one of the laughing stocks of the NFL, it can be a little surprising to look up and see that the silver and black was actually 8-8 in 2010.
The Raiders were ranked 10th in the league offensively and 11th defensively and managed the .500 record despite being the most penalized team in the league.
Oakland is a solid team that very, very easily could remain around the .500 mark or even move forward a bit with slippage by the Chargers and Chiefs.
The problem for Oakland is that while they appear to be becoming more solid, they're in a division with slightly better San Diego and Oakland, and face outside the division games with the likes of the Jets, the Patriots, the Packers, the Lions and the Texans on the road.
The Raiders are solid, but could end up being a team that, while seemingly improving, may take a step backward record wise with a lot of close losses to slightly superior opponents.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC West (6-10)
Broncos' Third String Quarterback Tim Tebow
Kyle Orton and, probably, Brady Quinn are both better quarterbacks than Tebow right now. OK, nobody really argued the point too vociferously.
The problem for the Broncos is that Kyle Orton, while certainly the better quarterback, led the team to a 4-12 record in 2010.
So, sure, Orton is and should be the man behind center. But that man is not leading the team to any level of greatness.
Certainly not with a shaky running back situation, the league's worst defense statistically and three other teams in their division moving forward while they stand still.
Look for the Broncos to challenge the Bengals and Panthers for worst team in the league status.
Prediction: 4th in AFC West (4-12)
Michael Vick Takes Control For A Full Season
In what promises to be not only a hyper competitive NFC, but an NFC East that is sure to be a season long battle, the Eagles push all their chips in on Michael Vick.
An argument could be made that Philadelphia gave defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay their toughest playoff battle last season.
The Eagles were driving for the possible winning score late in the game until Vick put up an ill advised pass that was intercepted in the Packer end zone.
There's really no reason to think that Philly won't be right there again this season, possibly even moving closer or even into the Super Bowl.
Vick is now 100 percent the man, Lesean McCoy ready to take over at running back, possibly the most exciting player in the NFL in Desean Jackson, and a seemingly improved defense, the Eagles should be poised to improve on a 2010 season that resulted in a division championship and home playoff game.
You know you are a talented, ready to roll team when the biggest question about you coming into the season is simply whether you can keep your players healthy. A legitimate concern, to be sure, but one all teams have to deal with.
Vick's ability to continue to overcome any defense thrown at him will be the key to the season as Andy Reid and the Eagles try to win that elusive Super Bowl.
Prediction: 1st in NFC East (11-5)
Tony Romo Hopes To Stay Healthy in 2011
Tony Romo has been waiting for years now for the chance to take the Cowboys deep into the postseason.
The dream was derailed early last season, not only as Dallas struggled to a 2-4 early season record, but also with Romo being knocked out for the season.
Dallas comes back in 2011 with a potentially explosive offense.
If Romo can remain healthy, he has the ready to explode Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to spread the ball around to.
This should be an offense that can put up points, and they will need to in a division that includes the Eagles and Giants.
The Cowboys will need Jones, especially, to step up and ramp up a running game that can keep the Dallas defense off the field as much as possible. With the Cowboy offense struggling with the loss of Romo, the defense did Dallas no favors, ranking next to last in 2010 in points allowed.
This is not a solid Dallas defense, and maybe more than any other team, the Cowboy 'D' can be helped by an offense that can stay on the field.
With Romo back and a focus on Felix Jones in the running game, the Cowboys could be one of the league's more improved teams.
The edge for the Eagles over Dallas in the division, if one is needed, comes with the fact that the Eagles play the Jets and Patriots at home, while Dallas plays the same two teams on the road.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC East (10-6)
Pretty Sure This Is What Tom Coughlin's High School Yearbook Photo Looked Like
The Giants, at first glance, are a solid team that should be right in contention in the NFC East.
A good, solid quarterback in Eli Manning who throws to a good, solid wide receiver corps with depth and can rely on a good, solid running game with depth.
A solid defense ranked 11th in the league statistically in 2010.
A 10-6 record, tied with the Eagles, but just outside the playoffs on tiebreakers in 2010.
Everything looks good.
But then you take a look at the schedule of the G-Men and see this list of teams staring them down in their final nine games: Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints, Packers, Cowboys, Redskins, Jets, Cowboys.
That is a brutal end of season schedule and unless the Giants start out hot, it could spell yet another late season swoon for Tom Coughlin's squad.
You look at those games and, while the Giants may be solid, you still have to wonder where the wins are going to come from.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC East (8-8)
Daniel Snyder Won't Be Smiling When He Looks In A Mirror And Sees The Moustache Somebody Drew On His Face
My, how times have changed. Back when Mike Shanahan was riding Terrell Davis and John Elway to back to back Super Bowl titles, Shanahan was regularly toasted as an NFL coaching genius.
Now, though, Shanahan is viewed increasingly as an out of touch totalitarian that grinds his already lacking confidence teams right into the ground as a season moves along.
The Redskins are a team that ran a decent quarterback out of town, are left not really knowing who their running back is, and come off a season where they were ranked next to last in the league in total defense.
Oh, and they play in a division with three teams that each have their eyes on the playoffs.
This just doesn't figure to add up to much. You have to wonder whether the Redskins belong in the conversation that no team wants to be a part of as worst team in the league with the Bengals, Broncos and Panthers.
Prediction: 4th in NFC East (4-12)
Aaron Rodgers Feels Good About Wearing The Championship Belt
If the Packers could sport a team cologne, they should call it "Swagger".
This was a team that looked to be if not the most talented, one of the most talented, in the NFL all season in 2010.
No team was able to beat the Packers by more than 4 points, and Green Bay outscored their opponents in 2010 by more net points than any team other than the Patriots.
Yet, while the Patriots finished the season at a sparkling 14-2, because of a 2-6 record in games decided by 4 points or fewer, the Pack barely squeezed into the playoffs at 10-6. This caused Green Bay to have to take their postseason run on the road.
This was a team that could have been understood if they didn't quite realize how good they were heading into the playoffs.
But while most up and coming teams have to "learn how to win" and take small steps along the way toward a championship, the Packers put that cliche aside, winning three road playoff games and the Super Bowl over Pittsburgh.
That brings us to 2011 and a team that should be walking with huge swagger. If anything, Green Bay will be better this season offensively. Aaron Rodgers sports a championship belt and the belief that he could be the best quarterback in the league.
The Packers have not one, but two, healthy and ready to go running backs. And stud tight end Jermichael Finely is ready to roll.
Pair this with a dominant defense that gave up fewer points than any other NFC team last season, and you would be hard pressed to figure out why the defending champs shouldn't be even better in 2011.
Prediction: 1st in NFC North (13-3)
Why Was Lovie Smith Named After Thurston Howell III's Wife?
Every year, there are one or two teams that rise from the ashes to do great things, and a couple of teams that fall from the top of the heap down the ladder.
Last season, the Bears bounced back from a 7-9 campaign to go 11-5 and host the NFC Championship.
We won't say Chicago overachieved, because in the words of the great Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.
On the other hand, the Bears put together an 11-5 record with a team that was 30th in the league in total offense and could barely muster 20 points a game. Sure, Chicago boasted their usual stout defense, but even there they really couldn't match divisional rival Green Bay.
In fact, it was just that Green Bay defense that truly exposed Chicago's limitations in the NFC Championship game.
Certainly, the Bears have to be given credit for taking what they have and even making it to that conference title game.
But, even for a second, did anybody feel at any point that the Bears could crack the 20 point barrier in that game, be it with Jay Cutler, Todd Collins, Caleb Hanie or even Bobby Layne, for that matter?
In the end, it's just too difficult to imagine that a team with an offense as bad as the Bears could even break .500 two years in a row. They should battle the Lions for second in the division, but it looks to be a long year in the Windy City.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC North (7-9)
If Matthew Stanford Eats That Chin Strap, He'll Probably Have To Go Back On IR
The Lions have a ton of upside.
If I type the line, "The Lions have a ton of upside", does that make me sound like I know what I'm talking about?
First off, Detroit will undoubtedly be improved on defense, which should help them hang in more games.
The question is on offense. The key, of course, is Matthew Stafford. Stafford has looked good in the preseason, and if he can break out, the Lions may have a shot at breaking out.
Calvin Johnson may well be the most unguardable wide receiver in the league one on one.
On the other hand, Jahvid Best is largely unproven and Nate Burleson can go either way as a number two receiver.
And even if Stafford can stay healthy, very much a big if, we don't know for sure he's ready to lead a team to the playoffs.
In admittedly very limited action last season, Stafford's stats looked fine, with six TDs against one INT. But he was 1-2 as starter. You can say the losses were against two conference finalists, the Bears and Jets, but if the Lions are going to take the next step, they are going to have to win some games against better teams.
It could happen. The Lions may be poised, but facing two match ups each with the Packers and Bears, and games against the Bucs, Chiefs, Cowboys, Falcons, Saints, Raiders and Chargers, all teams better than Detroit in 2010, it's hard to see the fans of Motown celebrating a playoff appearance in 2011.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North (7-9)
This Guy Against Bronco Fan In The Orange Barrel Would Kill On Pay-Per-View
The Vikings fell off the map in 2010, plummeting from the highs of an NFC Championship game appearance to last place in the NFC North.
Many would say the team's success and demise was tied to one guy, Brett Favre. It can argued, but #4 is gone now and so, too, is the failed Tarvaris Jackson experiment.
Minnesota pins their hopes on the idea that Donovan McNabb has just a little more left in the tank, and that he, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin can provide just enough spark to help out a defense that is starting to show signs of wear, and is not the once dominant force it was.
In fact, last season the Vikings ranked dead in the middle of the league, 15th, in scoring defense. Matters weren't helped by Minnesota's dismal -11 turnover differential.
Things will have to fall just right, with McNabb protecting the ball and providing a few big plays, Peterson staying healthy, and the defense to return to something close to its dominant self, for the Vikings to rise above mediocrity.
It's pretty doubtful that all that will or can happen.
Prediction: 4th in NFC North (6-10)
Drew Brees Is Ready To Make Another Push To The Super Bowl
In many ways, the Saints may have been 2010's most frustrating team to follow.
Coming off a Super Bowl win following the 2009 season over the Colts, New Orleans came back with high expectations.
An 11-5 season was solid, but it wasn't enough to overcome surprising Atlanta in the NFC South, causing the Saints to go on the road for a shocking playoff exit against Seattle.
It was a close but no cigar type of a year in the Big Easy, as sloppy losses to the Cardinals and Browns were the likely difference between winning the division and entering the playoffs as a wildcard.
And Drew Brees put up big numbers again, with over 4600 yards and 33 TDs. But he also threw 22 interceptions, the most in the league by anyone not named Eli Manning. This led to the Saints -6 turnover differential, again likely the difference between winning a division and not.
New Orleans is better defensively than most might think, ranking fourth overall in 2010 and allowing just under 20 points a game, a number that should almost always lead to wins with the Saints offense.
It's going to be another year long battle between the Saints, Falcons and even the Bucs for the NFC South. This should be another big year for New Orleans. A bit better job protecting the ball, and a slight drop off from the Falcons will result in 2011 being the Saints turn to take the division.
Prediction: 1st in NFC South (12-4)
Michael Turner In Overdrive
The Falcons leap frogged the defending Super Bowl champions last season to take the NFC South, jumping from 9-7 straight to 13-3 and a dominant position in the NFC.
The Dirty Birds were able to make the leap so quickly by completely dominating their close games during the regular season, going an incredible 7-2 in games decided by seven points or less.
Atlanta sported their own version of the Triplets, as quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White lit up the scoreboard to the tune of nearly 26 points a game.
Everything went right for the Falcons in the regular season. Atlanta feasted off opponents' turnovers to the tune of a +14 turnover margin, they scored the 26 points a game despite ranking 16th in the league in total offense, and they pulled out close game after close game.
As many teams were in the playoffs, Atlanta was exposed by Green Bay, suffering a humiliating 48-21 home playoff loss.
Some may suggest Atlanta's fortunes will hinge on how they bounce back from that playoff disappointment.
But more likely, the Falcons' ability to repeat as division champs and host another playoff tilt will depend more largely on whether they can reproduce the high level of statistical efficiency they came up with in 2010.
This is still going to be a very, very good team, but it is doubtful they will be able to continue their run in close games or come up with a turnover edge as large as they enjoyed in 2010. It will be a small slip for Atlanta, but just enough to give the Saints the division.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC South (11-5)
Josh Freeman Checks Joe Theismann's Peripheral Vision
Tampa Bay was the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFC without the playoff appearance.
Over 2,000 yards rushing as a team? Check.
A solid young quarterback with a stellar (Josh Freeman, 25-6) TD to interception ratio? Check.
Protect the ball to the tune of a +9 turnover margin? Check.
All this results in a 10-6 record for both teams? Check.
The difference for the Bucs, of course, is trying to fight it out in a division featuring the Falcons and Saints, versus the Chiefs having to overcome the likes of Denver and Oakland.
Unfortunately for Tampa, the task doesn't really change or get any easier this season. The Bucs will be solid again, protecting the ball and allowing Freeman to pick his spots.
But with Atlanta and New Orleans in the same division, the result will be the same. A solid season, likely with a better record than at least one team that makes the NFC playoffs. But a spot at home for the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC South (10-6)
Ron Rivera's Glasses Automatically Tint When It Gets Sunny, Which Will Come In Handy In Carolina
The Panthers start the process of moving forward, ending the John Fox Era and ushering in the Ron Rivera Regime by staking the future on Cam Newton.
As is often the case with young quarterbacks, we won't know for several years whether the Newton pick will pay off or not.
For 2011, though, the fans in Carolina shouldn't expect much. Newton is a great athlete with a big arm.
But behind an offensive line that is not exactly one of the league's best, Newton will have to avail himself of his running skills quite frequently.
Plus, until Newton can show an ability to move the team through the air, one of Carolina's few bright spots, a top 10 yards per carry running game, will be cut off as teams load up along the line and dare Newton to beat them.
The Panthers were, simply, by far the worst team in the league last season, being outscored by a massive 212 points over the course of the season.
There is always hope for lightning in a bottle with a number one draft pick at quarterback, but Panthers fans shouldn't worry about clearing their January schedules.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South (3-13)
Larry Fitzgerald Hopes Kevin Kolb Can Get The Ball Into His Hands
And so we come to the NFC West.
Reach in the hat and grab yourself a team, because one of these four has to make the playoffs. And as the Seahawks showed last year, what the heck, if you can get in anything can happen.
The case for the Cardinals moving from 5-11 and last place in this division to a possible division title is based on a few factors.
First, Kevin Kolb. Let's remember that Kolb was good enough to go into last season as the starter over Michael Vick in Philadelphia.
Andy Reid is certainly known as an offensive mind, so odds are decent that Arizona has someone in Kolb who can get the passing game going. And Larry Fitzgerald is not a bad weapon to throw to.
Next, based on last season's winning percentages, the Cardinals have the easiest schedule in the league.
Finally, remember that last season this division was won with a 7-9 record. Odds are pretty good that 8-8 will get you a division title this year.
A solid quarterback to throw to Fitzgerald and a cake schedule should be enough to get Arizona into the playoffs for that first round exit they're shooting for.
Prediction: 1st in NFC West (8-8)
Stephen Jackson Still Plays For The Rams, And He's Shell Shocked
Wow, looking at the teams in this division and realizing one of them has to make the playoffs is a scary proposition.
And one thing that has to be pretty annoying to teams like the Bucs, Giants and Cowboys—three teams that could well be on the outside looking in—while one of the teams from this division gets a home playoff game.
The Rams are the epitome of mediocre.
Sam Bradford ranked 25th in the league with a quarterback rating of 76.5 in 2010. Stephen Jackson had a thoroughly pedestrian yards per carry of 3.8.
And these are the Rams two big stars.
An offense ranked 26th in the league last season. But, hey, the defense was top 20 at 19th.
You might say it wasn't happening in St. Louis in 2010, but you'd be wrong. Because the Rams hounded Seattle for the division title right down to the end, losing only on a tiebreaker. It wasn't exactly a divisional race that brought back memories of 1978 Yankees-Red Sox.
For those of you holding out hope that it might be the Rams' turn this year, just take a gander at the schedule. Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Packers, Cowboys, Saints are six of St. Louis' first seven games.
Probably not a good start to the season for the Rams. But, hey, they probably are better than Seattle and San Francisco.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West (8-8)
Pete Carroll Still Can't Believe Seattle Made The Playoffs Last Season
The Cardinals, the Rams... now, the Seahawks.
Yes, it gets worse in the NFC West. It goes without saying that at 7-9, Seattle was one of the worst teams to ever make the NFL postseason.
You have to give them credit for cashing in on the home playoff game they "earned", but this team was terrible last year.
How bad, you ask?
Try on 28th in total offense and 27th in total defense for size.
Only Arizona, who finished last in the division in 2010, ranked that low in both categories.
The nice thing about it all was at least Pete Carroll acted the part of a coach that realized his team won the lottery, giddy and smiling all the way through the 'Hawks unbelievable defeat of New Orleans in the playoffs.
It's really pretty tough to say a whole lot about a team that was 7-9 in 2010 with the league's 28th ranked quarterback who manages to downgrade at the position going into 2011.
The great news for all these NFC West teams is the ease of schedule for each, featuring games against each other. We're just assuming they're all splitting.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West (8-8)
Yes 49er Fans, It's Alex Smith
For 49er fans, it has to be frustrating to realize that Joe Montana isn't going to ride into town to take center snaps.
Neither is Steve Young. Or even John Brodie.
No, San Francisco continues to go with Alex Smith. It's too bad, because the Niners have a decent core of receivers in Michael Crabtree, Braylon Edwards and tight end Vernon Davis.
But it's tough to catch a ball that's flying 20 yards over your head out of bounds.
And with Frank Gore back, healthy and ready to go, this could be the team to look at to win the division. As we've already said, any of these NFC West teams could make the playoffs. Just pull a name out of the hat.
Trading off Jim Harbaugh for Samurai Mike Singletary and Singletary's frothing at the mouth coaching style could provide the stability that the 49ers seem to need.
But, in the end, this is basically the same team that went 6-10 last year. Not much reason to expect anything to change in 2011.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West (7-9)
Now that we're done with the team capsules, let's get down to the meat of things. Who is going to do what in the playoffs? And who is going to win the Super Bowl?