Super Bowl XLV winner Green Bay kicks off the 2011 NFL season against XLIV champion New Orleans September 8.
The NFL is full of surprises. It is a league marked by parity and tested by fewer and fewer dynastic threats. This hulking professional sports coalition casts a shadow upon certain teams and players one year, then allows them to climb to the top just a season later.
In short, no one knows what to expect, but this does not stop us from speculating what the 2011 NFL season will bring us. We constantly want to know what are others are projecting for our favorite teams and players. I don't confess to knowing all the answers, but who knows?
I might get lucky.
New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis.
1. New York Jets (12-4)
Another year, another Super Bowl promise from head coach Rex Ryan. This could be the year where the Jets finally break through. Quarterback Mark Sanchez should continue to progress with the addition of Braylon Edwards, and cornerback Darrelle Revis anchors a rock solid defense.
2. New England Patriots (11-5)
Tom Brady and co. are a popular pick to dominate the AFC again, and there is no doubt the Patriots will challenge the Jets for the East crown. In my mind, two of the three best teams in the league lie in this division. To put it simply, as long as Brady and Bill Belichick are together, New England is a force to be reckoned with.
3. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
While the offensive side of the ball has some potential, Miami's defense really needs some work. Sure, Cameron Wake is one of the top young defensive players in the league, but the defensive backfield is brutal. The wheels could definitely come off this year for head coach Tony Sparano.
4. Buffalo Bills (4-12)
Expect more of the same from the Bills this year. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a solid backup NFL quarterback, but when he is the go-to guy for more than one season, you know there is something wrong with the organization. I just can't see the Bills competing, especially in this rough division.
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (7) and RB Rashard Mendenhall (34).
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
So, how has the Super Bowl hangover been for the losers the past five years? Only two teams (2006 Seahawks, 2009 Cardinals) have won a playoff game, and none have even returned to the conference championship game. Can the Steelers reverse the curse and make another deep playoff run? Common sense says that with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and playmaking safety Troy Polamalu, they have a great shot.
2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Trying to unseat the Steelers is no easy task, but Baltimore can do it. The thing is, they probably won't. It will be a close race, to be sure, but when I look at the matchups across the board, I favor Pittsburgh. Joe Flacco has to prove he is in the top tier of quarterbacks, and Ray Lewis certainly is not getting any younger.
3. Cleveland Browns (7-9)
The Browns have not won more than five games in a season since 2007. They'll make improvements, but there's no shot to take down either Pittsburgh or Baltimore. Colt McCoy looked impressive throwing the ball around this preseason, and he knows how to win from his college days. If only that defense was semi-competent. Watch for Peyton Hills to switch from running back to linebacker by midseason.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)
Another AFC North team, another unproven starter at the helm. Red-headed wunderkind Andy Dalton takes the reigns to the offense after Carson Palmer retired this offseason. Leon Hall is impressive at the corner position, but it's hard to mention the word "impressive" in conjunction with any other Bengals players.
Houston Texans WR Andre Johnson.
1. Houston Texans (11-5)
This has to be Houston's year. If it's not, then I just do not know when they are going to get to the playoffs. With Indianapolis' Peyton Manning potentially out for the season and a relatively toothless rest of the division, how can Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Mario Williams and the rest of the Texans' stars not take advantage of this gift season?
2. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
It will be a dreary fall in Indy if Manning can't return from his neck surgery this season. The Colts are built to be contenders, and who knows what kind of discord will reign if their leader can't lead them. Kerry Collins takes over a talented squad, but what does he bring to the table? We'll know in the first couple weeks of the season.
3. Tennessee Titans (7-9)
As long as Chris Johnson is on the field, the Titans will be able to put up points, and Seattle transplant Matt Hasselbeck has shown he can effectively manage the game. Tennesse could surprise this year, but my money has them just below the .500 mark for another year.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
Luke McCown is the starter for now, but he'll probably end up giving way to first-round pick Blaine Gabbert, which means that this is a rebuilding year in Jacksonville. It's a shame, too, after they spent lavishly on a whole host of defensive free agents.
San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers.
1. San Diego Chargers (12-4)
Pretty much everyone knows by now that the Chargers' offense and defense were both tops in the league last year. Everybody also knows that, despite their statistical proclivity, San Diego missed the playoffs in 2010. Expect that to change this year, as Philip Rivers and co. put the pieces together and dominate the AFC West.
2. Oakland Raiders (9-7)
The Raiders have improved their record for five straight seasons, and I see them continuing that trend. I doubt any team in history has improved their record six straight seasons without making the playoffs once in that span, but Oakland has a great shot at infamy. Has anything changed by the bay?
3. Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
Splashed in the face by an ice cold bucket of reality, the Chiefs will fade this year after an outstanding 2010 campaign. Spearheading the movement will be Matt Cassel, whose statistics were phenomenal a year ago. Despite all the weapons at his disposal, the signal-caller won't even sniff the 27-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio he posted last season.
4. Denver Broncos (4-12)
Oh, boy. Tebow drama aside, the Broncos look like a trainwreck this year. Quarterback Kyle Orton can throw for as many yards as he wants, but for the second straight year, it won't mean a thing. New coach John Fox has his hands full, and things will continue to get worse post-Shanahan.
(6) Baltimore at (3) Pittsburgh
A tightly-contested divisional game is just what we need to kick off the postseason, and these two teams should give us three hours of helmet-cracking football. The home team prevails. Pittsburgh.
(5) New England at (4) Houston
Houston finally cracks the playoffs, but Tom Brady and the Patriots give them a rude awakening. New England.
(5) New England at (1) San Diego
This game reminds me of the 2006 season, when the Chargers stormed through the season with a 14-2 record but lost to the Pats in the second round. History is supposed to repeat itself, right? New England.
(3) Pittsburgh at (2) New York
Remember these two teams' classic regular-season clash last year? If not, be prepared for another dose and some familiar results. New York.
(5) New England at (1) New York
I could not be happier if this is indeed the matchup come late January for the AFC title.
In their third straight try, can Rex Ryan and his team finally come through in the AFC Championship?
I think home-field advantage makes a difference in this huge rivalry. New York.
Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant.
1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
I won't hide it: the Cowboys are my darlings this year. Every season, the media overhypes the bejeezus out of "America's Team," but this year, they are finally under the radar. The return of Tony Romo means big things for this Jason Garrett-coached powerhouse. The defense will make immense strides with the goofy Rob Ryan at the helm. The pieces are in place for a special season in Dallas.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
The newly-christened "Dream Team" received so much hype this past offseason that they are already returning to earth before the season even starts. The Eagles certainly loaded up on talent, and they have what it takes to win it all. There's just one thing standing in the way, though: Michael Vick won't start more than 12 games for the Birds this year. Everything points to a reality check for the reborn superstar, and I don't like it.
3. New York Giants (8-8)
So what Eli Manning are we going to get this year? The Super Bowl XLII MVP or the guy who tossed 25 picks last season? Hopefully, the Giants won't let their epic 2010 collapse affect their year, but I see two teams in this division with plenty more talent, anyway.
4. Washington Redskins (3-13)
Does anybody really believe in this team? Mike Shanahan is in for some trouble this year, even after Albert Haynesworth relieved D.C. of his presence. Chris Cooley and Santana Moss aren't the offensive sparkplugs they were just two seasons ago, and with John Beck throwing them the pigskin, don't expect a revival this year.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Expectations are high for Green Bay. This is normal for a Super Bowl champion with a huge target on its back but remember that the Packers didn't even win the division last year before embarking on their memorable playoff run. Last year, I was sure the Saints would come off their championship with an equally hungry squad and represent the NFC once again, but they fell pretty short. I won't make the same mistake in 2011, even with the amazing lineup Green Bay has put together.
2. Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions are the popular pick to be Green Bay's runner-up, and I don't see why not. They are a young, talented team, and as long as Matt Stafford stays healthy (that's a big condition to make, given his injury history), the boys from Motown could make some noise and snatch the crown from their neighbors to the west.
3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
The purple are possibly the biggest question mark in the NFC this year. They have a roster full of proven veterans and a former Pro Bowl quarterback who appears to be washed up. Sounds a lot like the 2009 version of Minnesota, doesn't it? Can McNabb conjure up the spirit of Favre and lead the Vikings to (near) glory? The smart money says no, but there's something about this team. Keep an eye on them.
4. Chicago Bears (5-11)
Much like the Chiefs, I see the Bears headed for destruction this year after a surprising division championship. Lovie Smith's teams have an odd habit of fluctuating year in and year out, and this version looks no different. Jay Cutler and co. could prove me wrong, but I just don't see another playoff spot looming on the Lake Michigan horizon.
Atlanta Falcons RB Michael Turner.
1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
A lot of experts are quick to annoint New Orleans as the NFC South champion, banking on a letdown from the Dirty Birds this year. They won't match the beauty of last year's 13-3 record, but I think this young team has it in themselves to brush off the postseason debacle in Green Bay and rebound to capture another division crown.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-6)
I'll admit: the Saints broke my heart last year. I saw their Super Bowl-champion roster, chock-full of savvy veterans led by quarterback Drew Brees, and I couldn't see a way for them not to repeat as NFC champions. Of course, they didn't even advance past the wild-card game against a lowly Seahawks team, and it's been a long offseason down by the bayou. They'll get another chance to redeem themselves this year in the postseason, but I don't think they will fare much better.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
Primed for a letdown after a magical 2010 campaign (well, as magical as a season with no playoffs can be), I don't think the Bucs will dip below .500. Josh Freeman is an enigma after an impressive year, along with stud young running back LeGarrette Blount. They just don't seem to have the firepower to compete with Atlanta and New Orleans.
4. Carolina Panthers (3-13)
Cam Newton is the man in North Carolina, and that means a ton of growing pains this year. I believe Newton can be a successful quarterback, but the learning curve in this league is quite steep. Inexperience reigns supreme on the Panthers; head coach Ron Rivera is in his first stint at such a post.
St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford.
1. St. Louis Rams (10-6)
The West is just as bad as ever in the NFC, and the Rams will take advantage this year. Led by an underrated offensive core featuring young gun Sam Bradford, the Rams will make sure no team is getting into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.
2. San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
How's this for a bold prediction: Alex Smith will throw for at least 24 touchdowns and keep his interception total under 12. It won't be enough for a playoff berth in San Francisco, but it will make next year's quarterback decision even tougher for the Niners. I like what they offer athletically, with Frank Gore and Patrick Willis patrolling the field, but I'm going to cap them at eight wins.
3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)
Does Kevin Kolb scream "overrated" to anyone else? Besides a couple good efforts in his young professional career, the kid has shown us nothing, and he looked absolutely brutal in last year's opener against Green Bay before he was knocked out by Clay Matthews. Don't expect him to make a huge splash this year in the desert.
4. Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
There is next to nothing to like about this team's prospects. Pete Carroll's wave-making 2010 squad was the product of luck more than anything else. There's one thing Seattle matches up well with the rest of the league in—their fanbase.
Philadelphia will overmatch St. Louis in the wild-card.
(6) New Orleans at (3) Atlanta
What's the point of picking a team to win the division if you're not going to pick them to beat their rival in the first round? Atlanta.
(5) Philadelphia at (4) St. Louis
The Eagles are only in the wild-card spot because of a talented Cowboys squad, and Sam Bradford starts his first playoff game in front of the home crowd. Philadelphia.
Atlanta won't be able to escape the clutches of Green Bay.
(5) Philadelphia at (1) Dallas
This a classic rivalry matchup in the second round. I've contended that the 'Boys are better than the Birds, and I'm sticking with that. Dallas.
(3) Atlanta at (2) Green Bay
The venue switches for a rematch of last year's divisional round blowout. It'll be a closer game at frigid Lambeau Field but expect the victor to remain constant. Green Bay.
Dallas' Tony Romo will get the better of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers this year.
(2) Green Bay at (1) Dallas
The stage is set for an unbelievable contest at the Jerry Dome.
Many '90s NFL fans will recall a young Brett Favre struggling through multiple playoff defeats on the turf in Arlington, and the image will be eerily similar this January. Dallas.
Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Jets
The pieces fall into place for a high-scoring matchup on the turf in Indianapolis on February 5.
Mark Sanchez matches Tony Romo ball for ball, and Rex Ryan outcoaches Jason Garrett for the Jets' first title since Joe Namath promised an upset over Baltimore in 1969.
World champion: New York Jets.
Dallas Cowboys HC Jason Garrett.
MVP - Philip Rivers, San Diego
Offensive P.O.Y. - Philip Rivers, San Diego
Defensive P.O.Y. - Ndamukong Suh, Detroit
Offensive R.O.Y. - Mark Ingram, New Orleans
Defensive R.O.Y. - Von Miller, Denver
Comeback P.O.Y. - Tony Romo, Dallas
Coach of the Year - Jason Garrett, Dallas