Now that the preseason is officially over and the lockout has passed, we can get our hands around which teams are contenders and pretenders. With such a short time for free agents and signed players to practice, it will be hard to get a feel for which team will surpass their expectations. While some teams are expected to flourish, other teams will surprise fans with some upsets.
The AFC Conference has tons of talent, but there are a few teams that will prove to be the cream of the crop.
The AFC North is the slobber-knocker division. The Pittsburgh Steelers will try to get back to the big dance with many of the same stars who helped last season. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have to deal with any controversial headlines, but James Harrison will surely be in the radar of NFL officials still. The Baltimore Ravens are trying to become a more offense-oriented team while still being in the shadow of Ray Lewis and the defensive reputation that he brings. The Cleveland Browns are learning how to become a winning franchise under the leadership of Mike Holmgren, which will help Colt McCoy become a better quarterback. The Cincinnati Bengals are the Bengals. Mike Brown might become most hated man in Ohio besides Jim Tressell.
1. Steelers 2. Ravens 3. Browns 4. Bengals
The AFC South has tons of questions. The Indianapolis Colts are wondering if Peyton Manning’s neck injury will cost them wins early in the season. The Houston Texans are waiting in the wings with a high-powered offense, but the defense has to catch up to make a run at anything. The Tennessee Titans have a new QB in Matt Hasselbeck, and an overworked and recently paid RB in Chris Johnson. The Jacksonville Jaguars don’t have anything and their consistency will be in question even from the quarterback position.
1. Texans 2. Colts 3. Titans 4. Jaguars
The AFC East has some bright spots. The New England Patriots are a well-oiled machine with some young talent as well as the addition of Chad Ochocinco. The New York Jets might have a great defense, but they lack a true pass rush and Mark Sanchez has to develop to get out of the AFC. The Miami Dolphins are still trying to find a replacement for Dan Marino, but hopefully a renewed Reggie Bush and Brandon Marshall will help take the weight off any quarterback. The Buffalo Bills are wondering if their franchise will even stick around with a team in L.A. being rumored.
1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Dolphins 4. Bills
The AFC West is a developing division. The Kansas City Chiefs are the kings on the block with Matt Cassell and Jamaal Charles leading an offense that will lead the AFC in production. The San Diego Chargers are the “paper champs” every year, but this year they actually could do something in the playoffs with a dominant offense and defense. The Oakland Raiders have to deal with the mind of Al Davis who drafts players like JeMarcus Russel and Terrell Pryor, so they will be in limbo once again. The Denver Broncos might figure out who their QB is come midseason, which will be their demise.
1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Broncos 4. Raiders
The NFC is the conference that is most up for grabs. With so many teams vying for supremacy, nobody can put their finger on who is king.
The NFC North has improved from last year. The Green Bay Packers are once again full of talent (even more than last year), which is bad for the rest of the division. The Chicago Bears have problems on the offensive line and an aging defense. The Detroit Lions are the new kids on the block with a devastating defensive line and a potent passing offense. The Minnesota Vikings will have to deal with 8-10 in the box until McNabb shows that he still has the goods.
1. Packers 2. Lions 3. Bears 4. Vikings
The NFC South is looking to rebound from tons of potential. The New Orleans Saints look to be even better than they were in their Super Bowl run. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found a QB in Josh Freeman, but have to deal with the NFC North during the season. The Atlanta Falcons have the offense, but they will have to play in shootouts until the defense follows suit. The Carolina Panthers will be running the ball and throwing to the Tight Ends.
1. Saints 2. Falcons 3. Bucs 4. Panthers
The NFC East used to be the most competitive division in the NFL. Now that the Philadelphia Eagles are labeled by Vince Young “The Dream Team”, fans will see if all the new faces can gel and if Vick can stay upright and healthy. The Dallas Cowboys are turning a new leaf and look to make a turnaround from last season’s debacle. The Washington Redskins will have a 2-back scheme and zone blocking, which are the only things ‘Skins fans can count on. The Giants have lost players to free agency and injury, so they are still a work in progress.
1. Eagles 2. Cowboys 3. Redskins 4. Giants
The NFC West is the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals are hoping Kevin Kolb can bring the passing game back to Kurt Warner’s level. The Seattle Seahawks will have to hope that home field advantage will give them 8 wins. The San Francisco 49ers have a new coach and a new outlook which will help them improve. The St. Louis Rams will be the surprise of the division with Sam Bradford looking like a veteran already.
1. Rams 2. 49ers 3. Cardinals 4. Seahawks
Remember one thing; this season is up for grabs. Injuries, especially hamstring and achilles problems will hamper teams come Thanksgiving. If you use these picks for wagering, feel free to badger me come January when your broke!! Playoff teams in AFC: Steelers, Texans, Patriots, Chargers, Ravens, Jets. Playoff teams in the NFC: Packers, Saints, Eagles, Rams, Cowboys, Falcons. Super Bowl: Packers/Ravens with Green Bay coming out on top.