NFL Predictions 2011: 50 Predictions for the Much-Anticipated 2011 Season
For four months, we worried that there wouldn’t be a football season this year, and I relied on my daily Adam Schefter tweets to tell me what the owners did and what the players did and if there was any progress made.
Now that we are having a football season this year and it is not even 24 hours away, it’s time to break out 50 NFL predictions. Feel free to comment and leave your own opinions below.
50. Brett Favre Won’t Go Away
Since the NFL was founded in 1920, there hasn’t been a season in which Brett Favre wasn’t a starting quarterback in this league. He’s like Al Davis, in that he’s always been here and always will be here. Favre isn’t slated to play anywhere this year, after retiring (again) this past offseason, but that won’t keep Favre out of the news.
Somewhere, some starting quarterback will get injured and immediately rumors will surface that Brett Favre will be coming out of retirement to fill in. Whether he actually comes back, only Favre knows. But just because he’s not in the league this season doesn’t mean his name will go away.
49. Chris Johnson Will Win the NFL Rushing Title
After rushing for over 2,000 yards in ’09, Chris Johnson followed it up with 1,364 yards last year and 11 touchdowns, on a team that had shaky quarterback play and no other weapons to take the focus off of Johnson.
Johnson has managed to stay healthy for 47 of a possible 48 games in his three-year career, and he’s as explosive as any running back in the history of the game. Oh, and he also signed a new contract that will pay him $53 million over four years, $30 million of that guaranteed. I know Tennessee will probably have a shaky quarterback situation this year—whether it’s the veteran Matt Hasselbeck or the rookie Jake Locker—and teams will focus on CJ2K, but I think he’s that good.
Look for him to top 1,500 yards this year and win his second rushing title in four seasons.
48. Grooming a Quarterback To Trade Away Will Be the New "In" Thing
Andy Reid hit it big with Kevin Kolb. He drafted him in the second round of the ’07 draft to be Donovan McNabb’s successor, found a resurrected talent in Michael Vick and shipped his four-year backup to Arizona for a Pro Bowl cornerback and a second-round pick.
Look for other coaches to take note of Reid, who has now done this with two quarterbacks (remember the Eagles shipping off A.J. Feeley for a second-round pick?) and is working on a third (Mike Kafka). New England has Brian Hoyer in the waiting, and Ryan Mallett will surely be a starter sometime in the future. Green Bay could probably get something similar to what the Eagles got for Kolb in exchange for Matt Flynn. And Dallas may be able to trade away Stephen McGee sometime down the line.
Head coaches like Reid, Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy, who are quarterback gurus, will be looking to draft guys in later rounds with the idea to one day trade them away.
47. Cam Newton Will Shock and Amaze…in Both Good and Bad Ways
The Carolina Panthers are hoping they’ve found a Daunte Culpepper protégé in Cam Newton, an incredibly talented quarterback who is blessed with astounding size, speed and a rocket arm. Newton will likely be under center in Week 1 this year, since he’s certainly a better option than either Jimmy Clausen or Derek Anderson.
Newton will definitely experience some growing pains this year, but he will undoubtedly win some games purely on raw talent. He has the physical skills to take over a game with his arm and his feet; then again, against a top-notch defense, he could get his world rocked. I expect a year from Newton similar to that of Vince Young’s rookie campaign in 2006, with higher ups and lower downs.
46. The New Kickoff Rule Won’t Cut Down on Concussions
One of the NFL’s goals by changing the kickoff mark from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line was to cut down on concussions. While this will definitely increase the number of touchbacks—thus decreasing the number of return touchdowns from explosive returners like Joshua Cribbs and Devin Hester—it won’t help the alarming rate of concussions the league has seen recently.
Five yards on a kickoff won’t make or break the number of concussions in the league. Simply put, players these days are bigger, faster and stonger, and with 300-pound linemen who now run 4.9 40-yard dashes, it’s a frightening world for 170- and 180-pound running backs and receivers.
45. The Indianapolis Colts Are as Good as Done Without Peyton Manning
Kerry Collins is a much better quarterback than Curtis Painter, but so are 99 percent of quarterbacks in the game and probably most guys who have played the position within the last five years. Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark are a good enough receiving crew, but the Colts offense runs through Manning. Not anyone else. No one knows how long Manning will be out but the Colts better be praying that he recovers quickly because they’re not going anywhere without No. 18.
Oh, and I have a feeling Manning may not play much this year…if at all.
44. The Patriots Will Steamroll Through the Regular Season…Much Like 2007
In 2007, the New England Patriots added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth to their offense, and watched the unit put together a league-record 589 points en route to a 16-0 season. This offseason, the Patriots didn’t add quite the group of receivers—although they did get Chad Ochocinco—but their offense will be dynamic.
Tom Brady is quite possibly the best quarterback in the game today, maybe in the history of the game, and he is coming off his best season (36 TD, four INTs). BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are a solid running duo, and Wes Welker is now fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered at the end of the 2009 season. Expect the Pats to put up 500 points again and finish with at least 13 wins.
43. The Miami Dolphins Will Be This Year’s Sleeper Team
No one is giving the Dolphins a chance this year and it’s not difficult to see why. Miami plays in a division that includes Super Bowl candidates in the Patriots and the Jets, Chad Henne hasn’t proven much in his two years as a starter and both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams left in the offseason.
The Dolphins could easily finish with five or fewer wins this season but I’m picking them as the NFL’s sleeper team. I have the Dolphins going 8-8, still missing the playoffs but making a statement with their season. A lot of people forget that Henne showed promise in his first year as a starter in ’09, winning seven of his 13 starts. He does have a top-five receiver in the game in Brandon Marshall and the defense is better than people realize, as Miami finished in the top half of the league in total defense last year despite just a 7-9 record.
42. The Arizona Cardinals Will See Positive Results from Kevin Kolb
The word on the street about Kevin Kolb ranges from a guy with Pro Bowl potential to a guy who deserves to be a backup on any team in the league. The Arizona Cardinals apparently felt the former more accurately described him, as they shipped a second-round pick and an elite cornerback for a guy with 11 career touchdown passes.
Kolb was given $63 million over five years, including $22 million guaranteed, and he will have a lot of pressure on him to live up to those expectations. He inherits a team with All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald, and he will be competing in a division that literally belongs to any of the four teams. Kolb will be good for Fitzgerald and he is definitely an upgrade over Max Hall and John Skelton. He’ll throw for over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in year one.
41. Michael Vick Won’t Stay Healthy for 16 Games but Vince Young Will Step In
Michael Vick staying healthy for 16 games is a long shot. So Andy Reid went out and got the NFL’s right-handed version of Michael Vick in Vince Young, a quarterback with extremely similar tendencies: Both are runners, both were high draft picks, both have had legal issues and both went to Philly hoping to resurrect their career.
My prediction is that Vick starts 13 games and Young thrives in his three starts, winning two and keeping the Eagles offense rolling. VY certainly didn’t look good in training camp and he’s not nearly as accurate as Vick, but he’s a dangerous playmaker who won’t force the Eagles to adapt their system too much should Vick get hurt.
40. Matt Ryan Will Finally Be Mentioned Among the NFL’s Elite
The NFC is stacked with quarterbacks—Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Michael Vick to name a few—and somehow Matt Ryan seems to get overlooked, even though he was the third overall pick in the ’08 draft and has been nothing but a stud in his three seasons so far. In fact, almost every analyst seems to put the following quarterbacks on the list of best active QBs: Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Rivers, Roethlisberger and Vick. Ryan is every bit as deserving to be mentioned.
Last year, he threw 28 touchdowns against just nine interceptions, and with the addition of big-play wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft, Ryan should top 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
39. Andre Johnson Will Finally Catch Double-Digit Touchdowns
How in the world has this guy never posted 10 receiving touchdowns in a season? This shouldn’t take away from Johnson’s incredible playmaking ability, but still, it’s surprising that he’s never reached a total that 10 different receivers (plus three tight ends) reached just last year. He’s caught 100 passes three times, led the NFL in receiving yards in consecutive years and averaged over 1,100 yards per year during his eight-year career.
Yet he’s caught just eight, eight, nine and eight touchdowns, despite having Matt Schaub to throw to him. This year is the year Johnson catches 10 touchdowns. I’ll go with 12.
38. No One Will Sign Tiki Barber
Tiki Barber was an extremely efficient, extremely underrated running back during the prime of his career…five-plus years ago. Now he’s 36, he’s been out of the league for four years and it's been speculated he's in it because he needs the money to pay off a divorce settlement with his wife.
Why would a team take a chance on a guy like that?
37. The Chicago Bears Won’t Look Anything Like Last Year’s NFC Runner-Up
Last year, the Chicago Bears finished in the annual Philadelphia Eagles spot—advancing to the NFC Championship Game but ultimately falling short. In my opinion, the Bears were extremely fortunate to make it as far as they did, and the opportunity to host the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round was the chance of a lifetime.
Most people would probably rank Jay Cutler among the top half of quarterbacks in the league, and the signing of Marion Barber will help Matt Forte in the run game. I don’t think the wide receivers are good enough though and allowing Greg Olsen to leave won’t help Cutler, plus the offensive line is enough to make Cutler run for his life.
The Bears are playing in a division with a Super Bowl-caliber Packers team, an up-and-coming Lions team and a Vikings team that could be much better than people expect. The Bears will finish 6-10 and in last place in the NFC North.
36. Pete Carroll Won’t Be Able To Recapture Last Season’s Magic
In his first year back as an NFL head coach, Pete Carroll took the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks and knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions in the playoffs, before a tough loss to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. That doesn’t negate the fact though that the Seahawks were probably the worst team ever to make the postseason in the NFL; a minus-97 point differential suggests they should have won 5.5 games.
Carroll is planning to start Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, and backup Charlie Whitehurst isn’t much better of an option. Sidney Rice was a good signing, but it’s not enough to make the Seahawks the favorites in the NFC West anymore. And with the continued improvement of Sam Bradford and the Cardinals’ signing of Kevin Kolb, the Seahawks are relegated to a backseat status in this division.
35. Josh Freeman Will Take a Step Back
I was really impressed by Josh Freeman last year. He reminded me of Donovan McNabb in 2000, making plays without a terrific surrounding corps and taking a last-place team to double-digit wins. His numbers were exceptional—3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions—and he ended the season strong, throwing nine touchdowns to no picks in his final four games.
I still think Freeman is on the verge of becoming an elite quarterback in this league and he has the physical tools to succeed. Expecting a repeat of his numbers from last year is unreasonable. This is in no way to say that Freeman is a bust or anything but a great quarterback. I expect him to drop off like Matt Ryan did from ’08 to ’09—fewer touchdowns, more interceptions but overall more experience in the game that should put him among the league’s elite by his third or fourth season.
34. Watch out for Tony Romo
The Cowboys Pro Bowl QB is fully healthy from an injury that forced him to miss the final 10 games of last year, and he is poised to have a monster season. Romo threw for 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter back in 2007, and now that he has Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten, the sky is the limit for this guy.
As much as it utterly pains me to say it, I predict Romo tops 4,500 passing yards and sets his new high with 38 touchdown passes.
33. JaMarcus Russell Will Spend the Year Watching Football
Remember JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft just four years ago? After three highly unproductive seasons with the Raiders, Russell was mercifully cut, having set the Oakland franchise back several years. He was last heard from weighing in at 300 pounds around last year’s draft.
Russell has the size, arm strength and physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but he lacks the motivation to work hard and any team that gambles on him is flat-out foolish.
I would bring Akili Smith out of retirement over Russell.
32. Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio Can Start Sending Their Resumes Around the NFL
In the NFL, a coach can’t go more than about two, maybe three years, without making the playoffs or he’s gone. Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio are the rare exceptions. Each has coached eight years in the league and made the postseason twice, but neither has won a playoff game (combined 0-4 record).
Lewis was just given an extension for some reason unbeknownst to man, but the Bengals will be doomed for another miserable season in 2011 and that should give Lewis the ax.
As for Del Rio, he has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, and maybe the only reason he wasn't fired is that the lockout would have made it extremely difficult to overhaul their entire coaching staff, plus there would have been a $10 million buyout.
31. There’s No Way the Kansas City Chiefs Repeat as AFC West Champions
I don’t think too many people are expecting the Kansas City Chiefs to win the AFC West again, but this division belongs to San Diego, as long as Philip Rivers is quarterback. Rivers is an MVP candidate every year, and he did much of his work last year without Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates.
Matt Cassel won’t duplicate his career year and the fact that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left for the University of Florida doesn’t help matters. Expect the Chiefs to be around the middle of the pack.
30. Brandon Lloyd Will Prove He Was a One-Year Wonder
After seven seasons as an underachieving wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and three other teams, Brandon Lloyd broke out to lead the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) last season on 77 catches, plus 11 touchdowns.
Don’t expect that again. Josh McDaniels is gone, so the Broncos won’t throw as much and now teams will be targeting Lloyd like never before. His Pro Bowl days are done.
29. The Cincinnati Bengals Will Battle with the Buffalo Bills for No. 1 Overall
…And the Bengals will win this one by finishing with the worst overall record in the game, which means the Bills may then take Andrew Luck at No. 2 overall (or trade up).
Bengals fans are headed for a rough season, as Carson Palmer is planning to sit this one out, Chad Ochocinco is now in New England and Dalton will be thrown to the wolves from day one. The Bills are the Bills, which means we can expect anywhere from three to seven wins from them.
28. LeSean McCoy Will Be the NFC’s Top-Scoring Fantasy Running Back
Much like his predecessor Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy is a multidimensional threat who can make plays both running the football and catching passes out of the backfield. He ran for over 1,000 yards last year and led NFC backs in receptions out of the backfield (78).
McCoy will accumulate over 2,000 total yards from scrimmage and score double-digit touchdowns, and he will beat out Adrian Peterson for most points among NFC backs.
27. Pull Your No. 84 Jerseys Out: Randy Moss Will Sign Somewhere
Randy Moss retired in the offseason, but I don’t expect the most explosive wide receiver of my generation to stay away. Some contending team will experience an injury to a No. 1 or 2 wide receiver, and enter Moss.
Moss struggled immensely last year with three teams (Patriots, Vikings, Titans), even becoming almost a non-factor with Tennessee late in the season. He has too much talent and too much pride to allow that to happen again.
26. The Philadelphia Eagles' Big Three Cornerbacks Will Be as Good as Advertised
No team in NFL history has ever had a trio of cornerbacks like the ones the Philadelphia Eagles will be putting out on the field this season.
Free-agent signee Nnamdi Asomugha is one of the top two cornerbacks in the game (take your pick, him or Darrelle Revis), and he is a true shutdown corner if there ever was one. Asante Samuel is a straight-up ball hawk with a nose for the football and a penchant for winning (he’s never played on a losing team). And Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is an up-and-coming star who is probably near the top 10 to 15 corners in the game.
The Eagles will lead the NFL in defensive passer rating and interceptions this year. I’ll go with Samuel having the most picks of the three players at six.
25. The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions Will Make Great Strides
Neither of these two teams will make the postseason, but expect to see good things from these teams in 2011. The Browns are led by Colt McCoy, a rookie last year who didn’t put up great numbers (six touchdowns, nine interceptions) but showed enough potential to instill confidence in Browns fans. The division will be tough, especially a brutal five-game stretch late in the season that covers all the Steelers and Ravens games, but the Browns will emerge as a playoff candidate for 2012.
The Lions will go as far as Matthew Stafford will take them, and he will finally stay healthy in 2011. He put up outstanding numbers in limited play last year and the defensive line will be almost un-blockable with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley anchoring the middle. The Lions also get to play the AFC West, so they could win as many as nine games.
24. Wes Welker Will Lead the NFL in Receptions
Last year, Wes Welker caught 86 passes despite playing at less than 100 percent due to a torn ACL he suffered late in the previous season. Now with the three-time Pro Bowler at full form, he is poised for a tremendous season.
The Patriots use Welker about as well as any team in the league uses any one player, and as Tom Brady’s dump-off option, Welker will lead the NFL in catches for the third time in his career. The NFL record for most catches by a receiver in a five-year span is 563 by Marvin Harrison (1999-2003). Welker needs 132 to break Harrison’s mark. While that might be pushing it, 115 or so sounds reasonable.
23. Chad Ochocinco Will Be a Pleasant Surprise for the New England Patriots
Chad Ochocinco probably isn’t as good as Chad Ochocinco thinks he is, because that would make him the world’s greatest athlete. But for those who think the six-time Pro Bowler is washed up, he’s got a lot left still.
Ochocinco will end up with solid numbers for a No. 2 receiver—around 70 catches, 900 yards and close to 10 touchdowns. He has the league’s reigning MVP throwing to him and he has a head coach that will get the most out of his talents.
22. The Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles Will Have the Most Pro Bowlers
These are arguably the two best teams in the NFL—at least the NFC—so it makes sense that they will make up a great majority of the Pro Bowl squads, sending seven players each.
The Eagles will send QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, OT Jason Peters, DE Trent Cole, CB Asante Samuel and CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
The Packers will send QB Aaron Rodgers, TE Jermichael Finley, OT Bryan Bulaga, NT B.J. Raji, LB Clay Matthews, CB Tramon Williams and S Nick Collins.
21. Donovan McNabb Will Be Better Than Expected in Minnesota
Just two years ago, Donovan McNabb was a Pro Bowl quarterback, throwing for 3,553 yards, 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions while taking the Eagles to the playoffs. Last year, his numbers dropped off, as he threw a career-high 15 interceptions against just 14 touchdown passes, but it may have been more due to a weaker running game, mediocre wide receivers and a shaky offensive line.
The Vikings let go of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie in the offseason and the line certainly won’t be a strong suit, but I think McNabb will rebound and have a solid season for the Vikings. AP is a playmaker, Michael Jenkins is a solid No. 2 receiver for McNabb and Percy Harvin is a legitimate deep threat. Surround McNabb with a capable line and he could have three years left of being a steady performer. I’ll go with numbers similar to his final year in Philly, and a better-than-expected 8-8 finish for the Vikings.
20. Ryan Fitzpatrick Won’t Come Close To Repeating His Numbers from Last Year
Last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick was (quietly) a very pleasant surprise for the Buffalo Bills, throwing for exactly 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Not bad for a former seventh-round pick (’05) who began last season as the backup to Trent Edwards.
Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick won’t duplicate his numbers this coming year. The Bills traded away playmaking wide receiver Lee Evans to the Baltimore Ravens, and Fitzpatrick won’t benefit from playing some tough defenses—the Patriots and Jets twice each, the entire NFC East and last year’s top-ranked D in the San Diego Chargers.
19. Mike Shanahan Will Be the Next Joe Gibbs, Part Two in Washington
What do I mean by this? Not that Mike Shanahan will win three Super Bowls, as Joe Gibbs did in Washington. But that Shanahan—a highly successful NFL coach much like Gibbs was after he retired the first time—will have a similarly difficult comeback attempt in D.C.
Gibbs was 30-34 in his four years back with the Redskins, plus a 1-2 record in the playoffs. Shanahan won’t even be that successful. He will regret the decision to go with John Beck, an unproven quarterback who hasn’t taken a regular-season NFL snap since 2007. And if he goes with Rex Grossman instead, it won’t make much of a difference. The Redskins will struggle to a 5-11 finish, good for last place in the competitive NFC East.
18. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Aren’t Ready Yet
The Buccaneers were the NFL’s most shocking team in 2010, riding quarterback Josh Freeman to a 10-win season and a near-playoff spot, just a year removed from a miserable 3-13 season.
Five of their wins were by a combined 11 points though and the Buccaneers play in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions. The Panthers should be an easy enough opponent, but the Saints and Falcons are four extremely tough games and the Buccaneers will end the year at 8-8 and on the outside looking in.
17. Philip Rivers Will Win the NFL MVP Award
Rivers has often been regarded as a quarterback who puts up great stats but doesn’t win the big one. I’m picking that trend to continue this year but the MVP is based on regular-season numbers, and with that in mind, I’m picking Rivers to bring home the MVP award.
He put up 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns last year despite not having Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates for much of the season. It’s tough to put up a higher passing yardage total but I’m expecting 4,500 passing yards and 35-plus touchdowns from Rivers, who will benefit from playing subpar passing defenses within his own division—the Chiefs ranked 17th in passing yardage, the Broncos were 25th and the Raiders are now without Nnamdi Asomugha.
16. Ndamukong Suh Will Win the Defensive Player of the Year Award
You could make a legitimate case that Suh should have won this award last year. He put up 10 sacks, an amazing total for a defensive tackle—and a rookie one at that—and he will benefit from the addition of Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick who will team with Suh to give the Lions a dominating interior defensive line.
Suh is already un-blockable and he’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare. He nearly decapitated Jake Delhomme a year ago and he body-slammed Andy Dalton into the ground earlier in this preseason. If Suh can keep from getting suspended, he will be the Defensive Player of the Year. And he has a chance to be one of the greatest defensive players to ever put on a uniform.
15. Mark Ingram Will Win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award
The Offensive Rookie of the Year award used to primarily go to running backs, but a recent slew of quarterbacks have taken home awards—Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Vince Young (2006), Matt Ryan (2008) and Sam Bradford (2010). I don’t see any rookie quarterback starting regularly enough to win the award, except for Cam Newton, but I don’t think he will be good enough.
Ingram takes this because he should get the lion’s share of the workload for the Saints, and he was a former Heisman Trophy winner who projects to be a successful NFL running back. He has the talent to rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie and he will beat out Julio Jones of the Falcons for this award.
14. Von Miller Will Win Defensive Rookie of the Year Award
The Broncos are pretty high on Miller to be successful, as John Elway, the team’s executive vice president, said Miller is the type of guy “that comes around once every 10 years.” Miller had 17 sacks as a 3-4 linebacker in his senior year of college and he has been compared to Derrick Thomas, Joey Porter and DeMarcus Ware.
Miller will go on to rack up double-digit sacks for the Broncos, claiming this award over Nick Fairley of the Lions.
13. The Philadelphia Eagles Will Win the NFC East
And they will do so pretty solidly. The Eagles have some of the game’s most dangerous playmakers in Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, to go with an upgraded defensive unit that now includes Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and All-World cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Factor in the addition of two legendary line coaches—offensive line guru Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn to coach the defense—and the Eagles take this at 13-3.
The Eagles’ patchwork offensive line does scare me, but I think it will get them through the regular season without too many problems. That being said, the Dallas Cowboys will be a force this year, and while I have them finishing two games back of the Eagles, 11 wins would be enough to win many divisions.
Philadelphia Eagles 13-3, Dallas Cowboys 11-5, New York Giants 8-8, Washington Redskins 5-11
12. The Green Bay Packers Will Win the NFC North
You probably won’t have too many people arguing with this pick. The Packers have all the tools to repeat as Super Bowl champions, although it’s interesting to realize they still haven’t won an NFC North title under Aaron Rodgers (the Bears won it last year, the Vikings the two years before).
Rodgers is a stud, and the Packers will have both Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley back from injuries. Clay Matthews is as good of a defensive player as there is in this league and Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are a pretty fine cornerback trio. The Packers will cruise to a 12-4 finish.
Green Bay Packers 12-4, Detroit Lions 9-7, Minnesota Vikings 8-8, Chicago Bears 6-10
11. The Atlanta Falcons Will Win the NFC South
Matt Ryan was everything the Falcons hoped he would be when the team drafted him third overall in 2008 and he will take the Falcons to an 11-5 finish and division title in 2011. Last year, the Falcons probably overachieved at 13-3, winning seven games by one score or fewer, but I think they will hold off the New Orleans Saints to take their second straight division title.
Ryan is on the verge of being universally considered an elite QB. I really like Michael Turner’s style of running, and Roddy White and Julio Jones (not to mention Tony Gonzalez) will be a tough matchup for opposing defensive coordinators.
Atlanta Falcons 11-5, New Orleans Saints 10-6, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8, Carolina Panthers 4-12
10. The St. Louis Rams Will Win the NFC West
It’s tough to remember that the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West last season, and behind a thunderous Marshawn Lynch touchdown run, even won a playoff game. Their fairytale run ended the day they made Tarvaris Jackson their starting quarterback.
Actually, it may have ended the day the Rams drafted Sam Bradford, because this is a guy who will have the Rams in contention for years to come. Bradford looked simply phenomenal as a rookie in 2010, especially considering the talent (or lack thereof) on his supporting cast. Bradford will continue to show the Rams that they made the right pick, and at 9-7, the Rams will win their first division title since 2003 when Marc Bulger was behind center.
St. Louis Rams 9-7, Arizona Cardinals 8-8, San Francisco 49ers 6-10, Seattle Seahawks 5-11
9. The Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints Will Win the NFC Wild-Card Spots
The Cowboys are a sleeper team for 2011, and I think they could click. They play in a tough division, but Tony Romo is underrated, and Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten are mismatch nightmares for defenses. Rob Ryan will be able to fix the defense, a unit that does include All-Pros in Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware. Look for the Cowboys to win at least 11 games.
The Saints are still just two years removed from their Super Bowl title, and Drew Brees is in the prime of his game with a brand-new running back (Mark Ingram). The Saints won’t make too strong of a push for the NFC South title, but they will win 10 games and put up over 425 points of offense.
8. The New England Patriots Will Win the AFC East
The Jets are good, and they’re getting a lot of hype, but Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan don’t match up to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback who ever lived, and Belichick manages to get the most out of players—look at Danny Woodhead as the prime example.
Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty are forces on defense, and both Chad Ochocinco/Johnson and Albert Haynesworth could go down as steals. The Patriots will roll through the regular season en route to a 14-2 finish and the NFL’s best record.
New England Patriots 14-2, New York Jets 11-5, Miami Dolphins 8-8, Buffalo Bills 4-12
7. The Pittsburgh Steelers Will Win the AFC North
The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is as good as it gets in pro football, and these two teams squaring off on Opening Day will set the tone for the season. Ben Roethlisberger and Co. have had the upper hand on the Ravens over the past three years (two Super Bowl appearances, one championship and a 6-2 head-to-head record, including 2-0 in the playoffs). That trend will continue in 2011, as the Ravens are without Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, and the Steelers have the keys to be a Super Bowl contender for years to come.
Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace give the Steelers a trio of playmakers, and the defense is as good as ever, with Troy Polamalu and James Harrison leading a star group of linebackers. The Steelers will finish 12-4 and sweep the Ravens in the regular season.
Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4, Baltimore Ravens 10-6, Cleveland Browns 8-8, Cincinnati Bengals 3-13
6. The Houston Texans Will Win the AFC South
I had the Colts winning this even as word came out that Peyton Manning may miss the opening week, but with there being doubts as to just how many games he will play, I have to take the Houston Texans.
The Jaguars will be starting Luke McCown and Blaine Gabbert this season, which certainly doesn’t give them the competitive edge, and the Titans are much better with Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. The Texans have the division’s most reliable quarterback in Matt Schaub (since Manning’s health is in jeopardy) and Wade Phillips should be able to store up a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2011.
Houston Texans 9-7, Indianapolis Colts 6-10, Jacksonville Jaguars 6-10, Tennessee Titans 5-11
5. The San Diego Chargers Will Win the AFC West
The Chiefs had their lucky break in 2010, taking advantage of the Chargers’ miserable special teams play all year to capture the AFC West. That won’t happen again. Philip Rivers has both Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates back, and he will help the Chargers to a 10-6 finish and an AFC West title.
Don’t forget that the Chargers—who had the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense last season—also had the league’s top defense, and bolstered that unit in the offseason by signing veterans Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders.
San Diego Chargers 10-6, Oakland Raiders 8-8, Kansas City Chiefs 5-11, Denver Broncos 4-12
4. The New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens Will Win the AFC Wild Card Spots
This means five of the six AFC playoff teams will be the same from last year, and that looks about right to me. The Jets are a franchise quarterback away from being my Super Bowl pick, but they still have a fantastic defense, a strong offensive line, and a tremendous head coach in the outspoken Rex Ryan, who boldly predicted a Super Bowl title in his recent authobiography. That won’t quite happen, as the Jets won’t make it past the wild card round of the playoffs, and it may be time for Mark Sanchez to start looking over his shoulder.
I initially had the Ravens winning the division and the Steelers taking the wild card but I switched it because I think the Steelers basically are a better football team. The Ravens are still a borderline elite team with a strong quarterback and a competent defense, but Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are in the twilight stages of their careers, and time is running out for them to win it all.
3. The Green Bay Packers Will Beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game
Every single ounce of me wanted to pick the Eagles to win this and as recently as a few weeks ago, I would have. But not after the latest news about the offensive line for the Birds.
These two teams met twice last year, and the Packers won them both, but not by much. The Eagles have all but said they are designing their team to match the format of the Packers last year, with the three-cornerback set being a key factor. The Birds took some major strides, but it will end with the Eagles’ fifth championship game loss in the Andy Reid era.
While the Eagles offense will be fantastic, there is a growing concern over the Eagles offensive line—Jason Peters is an All-Pro at left tackle and I think Todd Herremans will be fine at right tackle, but the interior three spots will be the downfall of this team. Evan Mathis and Kyle DeVan are great backups, but neither deserves to start and Jason Kelce may be a promising player in the future, but I question offensive line coach Howard Mudd’s decision to go with Kelce over the proven Jamaal Jackson.
The Packers pass rush will get to the Eagles. Last year, Clay Matthews massacred Kevin Kolb in Week 1. He will be a major factor in this game as well, and Aaron Rodgers and the offense will make the most of a couple of costly Michael Vick fumbles.
Packers 24, Eagles 20
2. The New England Patriots Will Beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game
This will put two of the game’s best quarterbacks against each other and two of the best head coaches head to head in the AFC’s biggest game. Tom Brady will be playing in his sixth conference championship game, and it will be Ben Roethlisberger’s fifth. From a purely football standpoint, this game is about as good as it gets.
These quarterbacks have met in the playoffs previously, with Brady and the Patriots outlasting Roethlisberger and the Steelers, 41-24, in the ’04 AFC Championship Game. They have managed to avoid each other since, but they will meet this year. Each quarterback has a penchant for big-game comebacks and I think this one comes down to the final drive, but the Patriots D holds off Roethlisberger.
Patriots 28, Steelers 24
1. The Green Bay Packers Will Beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI
In 16 seasons as the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre won one Super Bowl with the Pack. Aaron Rodgers will have his second ring in just his fourth year as a starter, and this one will be his most impressive yet, as he will knock off future Hall of Famers Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, each of whom will be making their fifth appearances on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Brady hasn’t forgotten that letdown loss to the Giants in the ’07 Super Bowl, but it will be a similar situation in this Super Bowl. The Packers pass rush, led by arguably the best defensive player in the game, Clay Matthews, will sack Brady four times and the defense will pick him off twice. Rodgers will throw for 300 yards and play smart, efficient football—and when it’s all said and done, the trophy will stay with the Pack.
Packers 23, Patriots 17
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