It's finally that time of year again.
There is only one week remaining until the start of the NFL regular season. Everyone from players to fans has been through a stressful offseason with the lockout. In the darkest of times, it looked like there might be no season to watch this year.
But the collective bargaining dispute was resolved and now after the shortened offseason, football is back. Now with the benefit of having seen free agency, roster changes and preseason games, I am able to make my NFL predictions for 2011.
This has not been an easy task, but after much thought, I feel confident in these predictions.
Here is how I think every division will look at the end of 2011.
Over the last decade, the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East. They have now won two consecutive division titles and seven of the last eight. However, over the last two years, Rex Ryan's New York Jets have arisen to give the Patriots a legitimate divisional rivalry.
After what has happened this offseason, it's safe to say the Jets and the Patriots are the division's contenders. It should be close, but the Patriots will come away with their third consecutive AFC East title.
Bill Belichick is still the NFL's best coach and is a master of putting together amazing NFL seasons (the Patriots have been 14-2 or better 4 times under him). 2010 MVP Tom Brady will direct an elite offensive unit, and the young defense will continue to improve.
For the third time under Ryan, the Jets finish second. Their moves this year suggest a decline after getting older at the wide receiver position and losing key players in free agency like Shaun Ellis. Still, their ferocious defense and a two-headed running game will help the Jets have another winning season.
It is unfortunate that the Miami Dolphins refuse to get rid of their coach or their quarterback. Their defense has the potential to become elite, and their offense has some young players with lots of promise. Unfortunately, Chad Henne is still their starting quarterback and, as a result, Miami will barely beat the Buffalo Bills for third place in the division.
The Bills are no strangers to the AFC East cellar, having resided comfortably there for three straight years. Although their talent has improved, they will suffer greatly from being in this difficult division.
Maybe in another division, the Bills could contend, but for now, they are ready to miss the playoffs for a NFL-leading 12th consecutive season.
1: New England Patriots 13-3
2: New York Jets 10-6
3: Miami Dolphins 7-9
4: Buffalo Bills 6-10
The NFC East has consistently been a difficult division with three perennial playoff contenders. It has also been a difficult one to predict, as every year there seems to be a different division champion. Last year, it was the Philadelphia Eagles narrowly edging the New York Giants.
The Eagles look like they should change this trend. They may not be a "dream team" yet, but on paper, they are terrifying to match up against.
Free agent acquisitions Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are good enough to make the Eagles secondary the league's best, while Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin will contribute to their pass rush.
With the signing of an enormous contract to Michael Vick, these Eagles are all-in to make a serious run for their first Super Bowl Vick-tory.
The Dallas Cowboys were bad at the beginning of last year, really bad for a team overloaded with talent. But a 5-3 finish to the season shows that this team's window has not shut yet. With Tony Romo back from injury, the Cowboys are ready to make a return trip to the playoffs.
The New York Giants are getting a reputation as choke artists. Since their Super Bowl win in 2007, they have fallen apart every December; the last two years, they choked so badly that they failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Now coach Tom Coughlin should be shown the door as the Giants fail to make the playoffs again and let the Jets become New York's team.
Could there be a sleeper team in the NFC East? There's one team I haven't mentioned yet, a team that has a underrated defense filled with playmakers, a solid running game and very little hype surrounding them.
Oh, wait, the Washington Redskins have Rex Grossman battling John Beck for starting quarterback. A fourth consecutive year finishing in last place with a high draft pick is a certainty for the red and gold.
1: Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
2: Dallas Cowboys 10-6
3: New York Giants 9-7
4: Washington Redskins 4-12
The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers have what is arguably the NFL's most violent rivalry. Every game between these two teams is all-out war, and many times, the winner emerges at the cost of several hurt players.
What makes this rivalry so good is lately both teams have been two of the best in the AFC and even the entire NFL.
Hopefully, there will be many more years of Ravens-Steelers rivalries to come. But this year the AFC North goes to the birds. The Ravens were neck and neck with the Steelers last year and their offseason movements have made them better.
Improvements at the wide receiver position, cornerback and the defensive line should be enough to give the Ravens their first division title since 2006.
My official 2011 playoff sleeper pick is... the Cleveland Browns. Go ahead and laugh, I know that I am likely the only person outside of Cleveland who is picking this team to make the playoffs.
The Browns have a confident young quarterback in Colt McCoy who has a lot of promise, they had some great upsets last year, their schedule is easy this year. So I'm going to start the Browns bandwagon now, one that will be a lot more crowded in a few weeks.
The Steelers are still a great NFL team as evidenced by their Super Bowl loss last year. But lately, teams that lose Super Bowls struggle just to make the playoffs and the Steelers struggle even after winning Super Bowls. So although they're good, a Super Bowl hangover will lead to a rare non-playoff season.
The Cincinnati Bengals barely meet the definition of an NFL team. Their starting quarterback is refusing to play, their owner won't spend money, their players are more known for getting in trouble with the law than winning.
Their troubled ways should lead to an absolutely horrendous season that might be the wakeup call this team needs to make changes.
1: Baltimore Ravens 10-6
2: Cleveland Browns 10-6
3: Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7
4: Cincinnati Bengals 2-14
The NFC North has become one of the NFL's toughest divisions. It seems like every year, this division has one team that gets a first-round bye and makes a serious Super Bowl run. Last year the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, but only after beating division rival Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship.
Given the Packers' dominant playoff run, it's surprising they were a 10-6 wild-card team. But there's reason to expect a dominant season for the Pack, especially since they had so many players on injured reserve last year. This team could be in place for the beginning of another NFL dynasty.
The Detroit Lions had a surprisingly good ending last year by winning four consecutive games and passing the Minnesota Vikings to finish third in the division. A carry-over seems possible this year with a fierce defensive line and an offense that has become explosive.
Although they're close, they're not Super Bowl contenders yet, but nevertheless, this year looks like it will be the first time in over a decade that they don't finish with a losing record.
The Minnesota Vikings were one of 2010's biggest disappointments, going from NFC Championship runner-up to fourth in their own division with a 6-10 record. There are still some good players from that 2009 team, but many new faces are there as well.
With Adrian Peterson carrying the ball, this team has a chance, but it looks like that chance won't be enough to get them back in serious contention for the NFC North title.
It is surprising the Bears made it all the way to the NFC Championship last year. Jay Cutler takes way too many hits and their offense struggles with a weak receiving corps.
Now with the new kickoff rules, the Bears look like they could be one of the few 2010 playoff teams to tank in 2011.
With the Lions and Vikings looking more competitive, the Bears will have a losing season and return to the bottom of the NFC North.
1: Green Bay Packers 13-3
2: Detroit Lions 8-8
3: Minnesota Vikings 7-9
4: Chicago Bears 6-10
One reason I had to wait to write this preview article was because of injury concerns of one player. That one player, Peyton Manning, is vital to the success of the Indianapolis Colts and really to the entire AFC South.
Since the division alignments in 2002, no team had dominated its division like the Colts have, having won seven division titles in nine years and qualifying for the playoffs every year.
But it looks like 2011 may mark the end of the Colts' dominance. Finally, the Houston Texans have put a team in place that could dethrone the Colts' reign atop the AFC South. With Pro Bowl players at quarterback, running back and receiver, the Texans offense is as good as anyone's.
Now that Wade Philips has become their defensive coordinator and they've made some good pickups, the Texans should get their first division title and first playoff appearance.
It's hard to bet against the Colts, because whenever Manning plays, they always have a chance. Last year showed a major decline, primarily caused by injuries, as the Colts dropped to 10-6 and only won the division because of the collapse of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Now that Manning is coming off neck surgery, he could struggle similarly to how he did in 2008, when he also had surgery. Since both the Colts' running game and their running defense are among the league's worst, there's just too much pressure on Manning to carry the Colts yet again to another playoff appearance.
The Jaguars are one of the league's most unattractive teams. They lack star power, play in an unrecognized city and seem to fall apart under pressure. Yet despite this, they have stayed around .500 most seasons and occasionally make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
Since their offense is so sorely lacking compared to the Colts and Texans, and their leadership has repeatedly failed to get them to the next level, the Jaguars won't be able to take advantage of the Colts' decline.
Like the Jaguars, the Tennessee Titans are going through a rebuilding phase. They are committing their future to the capable hands of Jake Locker, but for now, the starter will be veteran Matt Hasselbeck.
But even with All-Pro running back Chris Johnson returning from his holdout, the Titans are too unprepared to compete in the AFC South, much less the entire NFL.
1: Houston Texans 10-6
2: Indianapolis Colts 9-7
3: Jacksonville Jaguars 8-8
4: Tennessee Titans 5-11
The NFL is a league built on parity, and there is no better example than the NFC South. Since its creation in 2002, no team has won back-to-back titles, and the last place team has always improved significantly.
This makes predicting this division an extremely difficult task especially since last year, three NFC South teams finished with 10+ wins.
Because of the frequent turnover in the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons should definitely take warning. Even though they were the NFC's top seed last year, they will finish behind 2011's NFC South champion: the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are only two years removed from a Super Bowl victory and their strong veteran leadership was extremely valuable during the lockout. Their offense, led by Drew Brees, is full of weapons, and their opportunistic defense still has the ability to play at a championship level.
Although the Falcons won't win the division, they should definitely contend for a wild-card spot. Their draft-day trade to acquire Julio Jones shows the Falcons commitment to get better on offense and keep pace with the Saints and the Packers in the NFC. With much of the same team returning, the Falcons should make their first back-to-back playoff trip.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 2010's most improved team, winning seven more games to finish at a respectable 10-6. In most instances, that would be good enough for a playoff spot but not in a division with the Falcons and the Saints.
And 2011 looks to be more of the same as the Buccaneers play second fiddle to two of the NFC's best teams. Even though their young team should improve this year, a harder schedule will make their record worse.
Last year was absolutely the worst-case scenario for the Carolina Panthers, as they tanked coach John Fox's lame-duck year with a 2-14 record. This team should be better in 2011 thanks to two power running backs, a star defensive end in the making and the arrival of college superstar Cam Newton.
But the lockout hurt the Panthers' rebuilding effort, and although they should be good in a few years, their 2011 season figures to be much of the same as 2010.
1: New Orleans Saints 14-2
2: Atlanta Falcons 11-5
3: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7
4: Carolina Panthers 3-13
For four years, the AFC West was the San Diego Chargers' playground. They could start out slowly and still win the division comfortably since there was no other good teams in the division. That changed last year with the sudden improvement of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chargers somehow found a way to have the Np. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense, yet still miss the playoffs. It's going to be extremely difficult for that to happen again this year.
Philip Rivers has become one of the NFL's finest quarterbacks and with him starting, the Chargers should roll and regain control of the AFC West.
The Chiefs had a terrible ending for their storybook season, as they were smashed by the Ravens in the wild-card round. Now the Chiefs won't be taking anyone by surprise this year and their schedule has become increasingly difficult.
This difficult schedule, as well as the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, will lead to a non-playoff season for the Chiefs.
Change is in the air for the Denver Broncos again. After last year's 4-12 debacle, they are starting over with a new coach, a new offensive coordinator and new players that will hopefully fix their woeful defense.
In any non-lockout year, they might have a shot at competing, but not this year and especially not in a division with the Chargers. They will be hard-pressed to improve last year's record.
Only the Oakland Raiders would go 6-0 in the AFC West and still fail to make the playoffs. And only the Raiders would follow that up with an offseason where they fire their coach, get rid of their best cornerback and neglect to pick up a viable starting quarterback. So it seems natural that Al Davis's crazy bunch will take a major step backward.
1: San Diego Chargers 13-3
2: Kansas City Chiefs 8-8
3: Denver Broncos 5-11
4: Oakland Raiders 4-12
Every year since 2002, one NFL team goes from worst to first. It is but another sign of the massive amounts of parity in the NFL. And what better division to continue that trend in 2011 than the horrible NFC West?
Last year's Seattle Seahawks division title was more by default, as every other team seemed uninterested in becoming the worst team to ever make the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals were bad in 2010, but they still have Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver and are only three years removed from their Super Bowl loss.
Last year their quarterback weaknesses killed them, but with the recent acquisition of Kevin Kolb as quarterback, they should have what it takes to win the NFL's weakest division, even if that is only with seven or eight wins.
The St. Louis Rams are another team on the rise. Their early schedule is brutal and as of yet, they haven't shown sufficient improvement on the offensive side of the ball. They're on the way to greatness, but in 2011, the Cardinals will narrowly edge them for the division title.
Even though they surprisingly made the divisional round of the playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks were basically a terrible team last year. They have actually gotten worse this year with Tarvaris Jackson as quarterback and injuries on the offensive line.
The Seahawks won't be too much worse than last year, but this time there will actually be half-decent teams in the NFC West.
The San Francisco 49ers are another team severely affected by the lockout. They have a new coach, some new offseason additions, and yet they still have Alex Smith at quarterback. This spells disaster, and even in a weak division, the 49ers will be unable to contend.
1: Arizona Cardinals 9-7
2: St. Louis Rams 7-9
3: Seattle Seahawks 6-10
4: San Francisco 49ers 5-11