The NFL lockout threatened to wipe out the 2011 season, but all is right with the world now and we are just a day away from the regular season kicking off with the Packers facing the Saints. (I've got the Packers in this one.)
That being the case, I thought it was time to post my annual predictions for the NFL standings, playoffs and major awards. Parentheses represent the team's playoff seed.
You can check out my 2010 predictions here and 2009 predictions here, which I'm sure include its share of embarrassing prognostications.
Dolphins fans are hoping for a playoff berth this year, but I don't see it. I still expect the Patriots to be top dog, and the Jets' defense should carry them again. The Dolphins simply have too many questions marks and too many things would have to go right, so I can't justify predicting a better finish.
That being said, I don't agree with this trend of picking the Bills to finish third ahead of Miami. I fail to see what Buffalo has done to jump the Dolphins, who still have a legitimate (and improved) defense that should keep them out of the basement.
The Steelers remain the team to beat in the North, and I don't see anyone doing it. They are simply too talented up an down the roster, and really only have one challenger in the Ravens. I don't think Baltimore has done enough in the offseason to surpass them. I'm not a big fan of Cleveland or Colt McCoy as a starting NFL quarterback, but the continuity should put them ahead of a Bengals team that just isn't ready with a rookie signal-caller at the helm.
I'm sure Peyton Manning will be back at some point this season, but if he misses too much time, the Colts may not be able to earn a playoff spot. Houston's offense would them jump them ahead of Indy, especially with their defense improving under Wade Phillips. The Titans don't have the quarterback or defense to be a real threat, but Chris Johnson should secure them the third spot. Jacksonville cut their starting quarterback less than a week before the season began, and I don't see Luke McCown or Blaine Gabbert being able to clean up the mess.
San Diego had both a top-ranked offense and defense last season, but had the bad fortunate of struggling in the record department. I think that ship is righted this year, as the Chiefs are struggling with injuries right now and don't have enough talent to repeat as West champs in my opinion. Kyle Orton should keep Denver respectable, but the talent just isn't on the roster yet. I think Darren McFadden could have a big year, but I don't like the Raiders' roster otherwise.
Everyone is excited about the Dream Team, but I still only have them as the No. 3 seed in the NFC. I like Dallas' talent and I think they can make it back to the playoffs this year with a good offense and a breakout season from Felix Jones. The Giants may struggle to compete with all the injuries their defense has suffered already. Meanwhile, Washington has decided to enter the season without a plan at quarterback. I don't see that going well.
Green Bay only looks to be getting better with a good draft and a healthy Jermichael Finley. Minnesota isn't all that impressive, but Adrian Peterson and a solid defense should keep them competitive. I also think Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and the Bears will slip out of the playoffs but still be an average team. I like the talent Detroit has added, but their just aren't there yet because of their offensive line and secondary.
I expect the Falcons and Saints to be elite teams yet again, but I'm giving Atlanta slight edge this season because I think Matt Ryan takes the next step. Tampa Bay could even get in the mix as Josh Freeman continues to impress, but I don't think they have the roster talent to compete with the two powerhouses of the division. Carolina is in for a rude awakening with Cam Newton as starter and I expect a season equally as ugly as their 2010 campaign.
Just like the AFC and just like the 2010 season, the West is the division really lacking in the NFC. Seattle was a little fluky as a playoff team last year and I think the Seahawks take a major step back. Meanwhile, Sam Bradford is showing a lot of promise and could make the Rams really competitive in a soft division. Kevin Kolb should help the Cardinals be respectable. San Francisco will have trouble because their quarterbacks situation is still a unresolved.
Wild Card Round
San Diego Chargers (3) over Baltimore Ravens (6)
New York Jets (5) over Houston Texans (4)
Philadelphia Eagles (3) over Dallas Cowboys (6)
New Orleans Saints (5) over St. Louis Rams (4)
San Diego Chargers (3) over New England Patriots (1)
Pittsburgh Steelers (2) over New York Jets (5)
Atlanta Falcons (1) over New Orleans Saints (5)
Green Bay Packers (2) over Philadelphia Eagles (3)
San Diego Chargers (3) over Pittsburgh Steelers (2)
Atlanta Falcons (1) over Green Bay Packers (2)
Super Bowl XLVI
Atlanta Falcons 34, San Diego Chargers 30: When two high-powered offenses go at it, you always bet on the one not being coached by Norv Turner. In all seriousness, I like both of these teams' rosters and think they have the firepower to get here. I'm anticipating Ryan turning in a huge year and coming through when it really counts.
Super Bowl XLVI MVP
QB Matt Ryan: A year after being topped by the Packers in the playoffs, Ryan takes the next step in becoming an elite quarterback and guides the Falcons franchise to its first Super Bowl title.
QB Philip Rivers, Chargers: Rivers has been elite for a while now and puts up great numbers, but bad luck killed the team's 2010 season and not playing the playoffs takes him out of the spotlight. I expect the Chargers to make the playoffs in 2011 and Rivers to continue putting up eye-popping stats.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Philip Rivers, Chargers: See above. Rivers is an elite quarterback and could put up some serious numbers if Ryan Mathews can take the next step and Vincent Jackson gives him a whole season.
Defensive Player of the Year
LB Jerod Mayo, Patriots: Mayo has been steady ever since be entered the league, but I think he really earns some attention this year. I expect he'll continue to rack up the tackles, while adding a few more sacks and big plays this year to give him Defensive MVP consideration.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
WR Julio Jones, Falcons: Usually a quarterback or running back wins this award, but Jones looks as NFL-ready as any receiver I've seen in a while and he already had a great rapport with Matt Ryan. He's not going to put up league-leading numbers with Roddy White still the No. 1 guy, but I expect big things from Jones as a rookie.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
CB Patrick Peterson, Cardinals: I don't really like many of the highly drafted defenders to make a big impact in their first year, but Peterson seems poised to put up numbers as a starting corner and punt returner. A handful of interceptions and a return touchdown or two will land Peterson this award easily.
Coach of the Year
Gary Kubiak, Texans: I think Kubiak may finally benefit from having Peyton Manning missing time and with a high-powered offense he seems to be inching closer to a playoff berth. The arrival of Wade Phillips should hopefully improve the defense and could finally get Kubiak some notice if he can finally win the AFC South and earn a playoff spot.
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Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and currently works for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins Web site, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.