The 2011 NFL season kicked off Thursday night as the past two Super Bowl champions met in Green Bay. The Packers started their title defense, while the Saints began their attempt to rebound from a disappointing playoff loss to Seattle.
This is just the beginning of what will surely be an exciting year. Here are 50 predictions for the upcoming season.
The Bengals won't surprise anyone by not winning a lot of games this year. Throughout the preseason, Andy Dalton hasn't shown that he's ready to take the reins of the offense and I'm not sure that the offense around him will give him a lot of help. Rookie receiver A.J. Green is their No. 1 target, and while he has immense talent, he too may not be ready to perform at that level immediately. And the Bengals may not be able to rely on a solid running game either, with Cedric Benson coming off a year where he only ran for between two and three yards per carry.
The Bengals may show promise in the future, but this year, they are relying too much on rookies and an aging running back to carry their offense, which I believe will be their downfall. And while people may not be surprised by this, they will shock many when they decide to pass on Andrew Luck in the draft, giving Dalton and Green another chance to shine in 2012.
Andrew Luck's fall in the draft won't last long when the Miami Dolphins select him with the second pick in the draft after finishing the season with a 4-12 record.
While the Dolphins certainly have the pieces to be a great team, they are missing two big things: a consistent quarterback and a good head coach. Add this to the fact that the Dolphins publicly tried to replace both of them.
The Dolphins had a rough season already by failing to get both Jim Harbaugh and Kyle Orton, and their public search to replace Chad Henne and Tony Sparano could add to their problems since both are still in Miami. One repercussion of this could be that Henne's confidence could take a hit, as a struggling quarterback needs his team to support him, not to publicly try to replace him and then settle with keeping him.
The Dolphins have the misfortune of being in a tough division with the Jets and Patriots, but maybe next year things will be better when Andrew Luck takes his talents to South Beach.
...But they will be the worst team in the NFC.
The Redskins certainly looked good in the preseason, and may win two or three more games than I originally thought, but I still do not buy them as a legitimate contender. The decision to go with Rex Grossman and John Beck will come back to haunt them, as Grossman has proven himself an inconsistent and inaccurate quarterback in the past, while John Beck has had very limited experience as a starter and has had mixed results when he has been on the field.
What is worse for them is that neither of them really have any weapons to throw to. The Redskins passing game is still quite weak, with an aging veteran in Santana Moss and a bunch of young, inexperienced receivers. The running game certainly has potential, but it's hard to hang your hat on another group of young, inexperienced players. Tim Hightower might be their best option, as he certainly looked good in the preseason.
The Redskins may not be quite as bad as some people think, and they may be better than the 4-12 record I am giving them, but for now, I just can't put a lot of confidence on a team largely comprised of young, inexperienced players with a coach that has already had problems related to his players.
In Minnesota, it was clear that Tarvaris Jackson was not the answer, despite the many chances that Brad Childress and Darell Bevell gave him, so I cannot understand why Bevell is giving him yet another chance. Predictably, Jackson performed poorly in the preseason and while he is still holding onto the starting job, he won't for long.
In the first five weeks, the Seahawks face San Francisco, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Arizona and the New York Giants. This is a tough first five games, especially when you have an inconsistent quarterback taking center. The Seahawks will go into their bye week with an 0-5 record, and will then hand over the reins to Charlie Whitehurst, who will lead the Seahawks to two straight wins against Cleveland and Cincinnati, but will fall to difficult opponents in Baltimore, Dallas, Chicago and Arizona.
However, Whitehurst will take the Seahawks to a 5-6 record as a starter, giving them a 5-11 record on the year, but still showing the Whitehurst is the better option over Tarvaris.
Many people were impressed with some of Cam Newton's plays in the preseason, as he had flashes of brilliance, but many may not realize that he completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Newton will certainly make some great plays in Carolina, but I just don't think that he is going to lead Carolina to consistent success.
That being said, I do think Carolina improves. They certainly have some solid pieces on offense and defense, but with a new head coach and a rookie quarterback that I believe is going to struggle, I feel that they will go no better than 5-11 this year.
When I originally made these predictions, I predicted that 2011 would be David Garrard's final year in Jacksonville. However, I wasn't expecting him to get cut in the 2011 preseason. I feel that this was a big mistake by Jacksonville, as while Garrard wasn't necessarily a great quarterback, he's a solid quarterback who has won games for them and is certainly a better option than Luke McCown or rookie Blaine Gabbert.
The Jaguars should have stuck to their plan and started Garrard this year, letting Gabbert sit for a year and learn the offense. Now Gabbert may be thrust into the fire sooner than later, depending on how McCown plays.
The stock went down on the Jaguars for me after letting go of Garrard, and as a result, I believe that they will finish last in the AFC South with a 5-11 record.
The Bills played much better than I expected last year, as I thought them to be the easy choice to get the first pick in the draft. And while they didn't win many games, they played tough in almost all of them. However, they have the misfortune of being in a difficult division, with a team that has some good players, but overall, are still a work in progress.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will have another solid year at quarterback, but much like Kyle Orton is with the Broncos, he will be a game manager who won't make many mistakes, but also won't necessarily lead the Bills to many wins.
I believe that Colt McCoy is going to be a very solid quarterback in the NFL, and he showed that in the preseason. He is certainly the best option the Browns have had at quarterback in a long time. However, I'm not so sure that they have the pieces around him on offense or defense to make a legitimate run.
Being in a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore will make it tough for them, and while they will not be in the cellar of the AFC North, I have them going at 6-10, with the suspicion that Peyton Hillis may succumb to the Madden Curse and have an injury that will sideline him for the year.
Alex Smith has been given way too many chances in San Francisco, and if he doesn't perform well this year, there is no way that Harbaugh will have patience for him. While the 49ers have always showed that they have potential, they have done very little with it, as they had the perfect opportunity to win the division in 2010 with Arizona down a quarterback and St. Louis starting rookie Bradford, but they found themselves finishing third.
I think that the 49ers will return to form someday, but so far, they have proven to be nothing more than an underperforming team with talent that just hasn't translated into wins. And this year, I don't think it will be any different, as the 49ers will struggle with a 6-10 record and will find themselves looking for a new quarterback next year.
The decision for Denver to go with Kyle Orton makes sense for the time being, as he is a solid starter who put up good numbers last year and at this point, it is unclear if Tebow is truly ready.
Tebow may be the most divisive player in sports, as many people love Tebow and want to see him succeed, while others feel that he will never translate well in the NFL. The performance has been mixed for Tebow, as he has struggled in practice but has had moments of brilliance in games.
Tebow is certainly an interesting player, and I do believe that he deserves a chance to be a starter. I think he will get that chance when the Broncos start out the season at a dismal 2-9, and Kyle Orton is finally benched for Tebow. Like last season, it won't be necessarily because Orton played poorly, but because the team as a whole isn't performing and everyone will be clamoring for Tebow.
Tebow will surprise many when he gets his chance, going 4-1 as a starter and leading the Broncos to a 6-10 record on the year.
The Bears have one of the best defenses in the league, and that defense will certainly win them games. Another strength they have is special teams, with kick returner Devin Hester being one of the best in the league. But the NFL taking away kickoffs may hurt the Bears, as they frequently use Hester and their special teams to gain momentum on the opponent.
However, the biggest problem next year for the Bears will be their offense, particularly their offensive line, which was barely addressed in the offseason with the exception of the acquisition of Gabe Carimi. However, losing veteran Olin Kreutz hurts this offensive line more than Carimi helps it.
In addition, the Bears passing game has been less than stellar, with an inconsistent receiving corps and an inconsistent quarterback prone to turnovers. And while the running game may have been the strength of this offense, it could struggle this year with a weak offensive line.
Last year, the Bears had many lucky breaks, including an injury-free season and a few games where they should have lost, particularly the first game of the season against the Lions when Calvin Johnson's touchdown catch was called back. I don't see the Bears having the same luck this year, and I see them going 7-9 and finishing last in the very tough NFC North.
Hue Jackson is certainly a better coach than Tom Cable was in Oakland, despite Cable's last season where the Raiders went 8-8 and swept the AFC West. However, the Raiders lost a few key players this year, including Zach Miller, Robert Gallery and perhaps the biggest name of all, Nnamdi Asomugha. While they made up for the loss of Miller by acquiring Kevin Boss, they are still a team that I don't feel has improved much from last year.
This year, the Raiders will take a slight step back and finish 7-9 and third in the AFC West.
Donovan McNabb had a difficult year in Washington, but I see him doing better in Minnesota with a better team around him. McNabb's failure in Washington wasn't necessarily all on his shoulders; he was on a bad team with very few weapons to go to. In Minnesota, McNabb has one of the best running backs in the league in Adrian Peterson, and a solid receiving corps.
However, this Vikings team isn't what it was in 2009; they are an aging team that is no longer in its prime. I see the Vikings having some good games and playing well, but the team that is getting older will get hit by the injury bug and McNabb, who is getting older himself, may be one of the ones hit.
The Vikings will finish third in the NFC North with an 8-8 record.
Many people are discounting the Titans this year from making any sort of run, and while I don't see them making the playoffs this year, I feel that they are a better team than many may give them credit for. However, most of their talent seems to be on one side of the ball.
Matt Hasselbeck was the perfect acquisition for the Titans to help groom their No. 1 pick in Jake Locker. And unlike Seattle, he has a great running game and a solid offensive line. Hasselbeck's offense in Tennessee is more primed for success than his offense in Seattle was, and I see him taking advantage of it.
However, the Titans defense will be their downfall this year. Losing Jason Babin could be a major loss for this unit, especially when the defense was one of the worst in the league last year to begin with.
In 2011, The Titans will show promise but will need to improve on defense before making a legitimate run.
The Lions are a team with great potential, and are a hot pick for the 2011 surprise team. However, they are not a team without their weaknesses. On defense, they beefed up their already-stacked defensive line by bringing in Nick Fairley. However, they have a secondary that struggled last year, but they didn't do much to improve it this year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions have incredible potential with Matt Stafford at quarterback, and a growing arsenal of weapons for him at receiver and running back. The problem with the offense is that struggling offensive line that allows Stafford to get hit more than he should, which could seriously be a problem since Stafford has proven to have problems with injuries.
The Lions will take a step forward in 2011 with an 8-8 record, but when Stafford goes out with yet another injury, the Lions may be looking for a new franchise quarterback.
For the past two years, the Giants have looked like they were easily going to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season, but have lost their step by the end of the season and missed the playoffs. As a result, head coach Tom Coughlin has come under fire for the way he has coached his team, and in addition, there have been rumblings in the locker room from the players questioning whether they want to play for him.
Like any other team, the Giants certainly have pieces in place, but they also lost a lot in the offseason. They will struggle in 2011, finishing third in the NFC East with an 8-8 record.
Kevin Kolb is a huge acquisition for a team that struggled at quarterback last year but certainly had the pieces for a good quarterback to throw to. Kolb will play well with all the weapons around him, most notably Larry Fitzgerald. However, the Cardinals still have some issues with a running game that could be questionable with the injury-prone Beanie Wells and a defense that lost Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie in the offseason.
The Cardinals will be an improved team this year, but will still be 8-8, finishing second in the NFC West.
Last year, the Chiefs surprised many by winning the division with a 10-6 record. While I feel that the Chiefs have improved immensely over the past few years, I still see them as a middle-of-the-road team that will occasionally find themselves in the playoffs. However, this year, I see the Chargers rising up after a disappointing 2010 campaign and the Chiefs, who are in the tough AFC, may find themselves on the outside looking in with an 8-8 record.
Peyton Manning might as well be the offensive coordinator for the Colts, and losing him will be a huge loss for the Colts. They have struggled whenever Manning hasn't been on the field, which has primarily been in the preseason and at the end of the season when the Colts have clinched a playoff spot.
The Colts have a difficult schedule at the beginning of the year, facing Houston, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. The Colts will go 1-3 at the beginning of the year, and when Manning returns, he will have some minor struggles as he returns to football after not playing for so long.
The Colts will finish at a disappointing 8-8 this year and miss the playoffs, but Manning will be back next year.
The Buccaneers were another surprise team of 2010. While some of this could be attributed to an easy schedule, a lot of this could also be attributed to an improved offense led by a budding young quarterback and a fiery head coach that helped instill motivation into his team.
While the Buccaneers are an intriguing team for 2011, they are in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL and certainly have a tougher schedule this year. They will continue to grow as a team, but are still a young team that has all the time in the world to do so. They finish 9-7 and third in the NFC South.
The Falcons gave up an awful lot for wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft, and judging by the way preseason went, they plan to use him. Jones will be the No. 2 receiver next to Roddy White, but the Falcons love him, targeting him more than they targeted any other receiver in the preseason.
I see this trend continuing, as he and Roddy White share receptions. Jones will certainly add another dimension to the Falcons offense, and could be what puts them on top.
With the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency and the injury to Greg Toler, Patrick Peterson will be thrust into the starting position. As a result, he will get more than enough chances to prove himself.
Peterson was considered one of the best talents in the draft and a sure bet to be a star, and with his chance arriving early, I believe he will take full advantage of it.
Defending a Super Bowl title is always tough, but I think that the Green Bay Packers will be up to it. Part of this is due to the fact that Mike McCarthy may be one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL. During a season in which injuries plagued the team, McCarthy helped keep hope alive in the locker room, and his ability to motivate his team was part of their ability to succeed when their backs were up against the wall last year.
McCarthy clearly knows how to coach a football team, and I think that he will help the Packers avoid that Super Bowl hangover as they defend their title and make a run to repeat.
If Plaxico Burress has a great year this year, he is the perfect candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Burress played well in the preseason and I feel that he is set up for success, as he is on a great Jets team where he will be utilized as their No. 2 receiver.
If he doesn't perform though, it could be trouble for the Jets passing game, as they are putting a lot of stock in Burress performing well.
Philip Rivers will put up great numbers for the Chargers, especially given the fact that he gets his favorite target in Vincent Jackson back. The 2011 season will be a bounce-back year for the Chargers, who missed the playoffs despite being the No. 1 offense and defense. However, their success starts with Rivers, who I believe will have a big year.
Ndamukong Suh may be the most valuable player to the Lions. He is a huge force, having enough potential to be compared to the great Reggie White. While the Lions won't make the playoffs, Suh will keep them in contention with his defensive playmaking and will clearly be the defensive MVP to the Lions, and perhaps the entire NFL.
Aaron Rodgers is primed for another great year. Coming off a Super Bowl win, he is getting a running game back, in addition to one of his favorite targets in Jermichael Finley. In addition, his weapons on offense have only gotten better with the drafting of Randall Cobb.
Rodgers is quite possibly the best quarterback in the league right now and is also surrounded by quite possibly the best offense in the league right now, giving him a very good shot at the NFL MVP award for 2011.
For the past few years, the Cowboys were among the most-hyped teams to get to the Super Bowl, but after finishing with a disappointing 6-10 record, nobody is expecting them to get to the Super Bowl this year. However, I do feel that they have the talent to at least make a playoff run, and head coach Jason Garrett did a very good job last year at the end of the season to rally his team to at least finish respectably.
The Cowboys will end the season with a 9-7 record and the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.
The Steelers are entering the 2011 season coming off a tough Super Bowl loss. History has shown that the Steelers have struggled the year after making the Super Bowl, and it very well could happen again here, especially with some of the off-the-field issues they encountered in the offseason. It does seem like things have quieted down for Pittsburgh and that they are ready to play and defend their AFC title. However, I do feel that with all of the strong teams in the AFC, it will be a difficult road to return to the Super Bowl.
In the regular season, I expect the Steelers to fall back slightly with a 10-6 record, but qualify for the playoffs.
The acquisition of Julio Jones will garner mixed results for the Falcons, as they will certainly make their offense more explosive. However, with such a big move comes a big sacrifice. The Falcons defense was picked apart by Green Bay last year in the playoffs, and besides the acquisition of Ray Edwards, they haven't done a lot to improve that side of the ball.
While I see Atlanta getting a 10-6 record and making the playoffs, I also see them struggling on the defensive side of the ball, which will cost them the division.
The New York Jets have had a hard time getting over the hump and winning the division over New England, and while they took steps forward through beating them in both the playoffs and regular season, they still need to win more in the regular season to match the Patriots.
The Patriots being in the division makes it very difficult for the Jets to rise up and win the AFC East, and while it could very well happen this year. I predict that the Jets make the playoffs, but for the third year in a row, as a Wild Card.
The Rams are fortunate to play in the worst division in sports in the NFC West, so getting past the Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers shouldn't be too hard, especially when they have arguably the best quarterback in the division in Sam Bradford and one of the best running backs in the league in Steven Jackson.
The Rams are a team on the rise, and in 2011, they will rise in the NFC West with a 9-7 record.
The Texans have been perennial playoff picks for the past three or four years, but they have never delivered. But if there were a year the Texans finally get over the hump, this would be the year. The Colts may be without Peyton Manning for an extended period of time, which will could knock the Colts out of playoff contention entirely. Outside of the Colts, the Texans only have to worry about the Jaguars and Titans, two teams that appear to be in rebuilding mode.
The Texans need to take this opportunity to win the division; if they don't now, they may never do so.
As mentioned before, Philip Rivers will be named the Offensive Player of the Year after a terrific 2011 campaign. And although it has been proven that a good year with Rivers doesn't necessarily mean a good year for the Chargers, I believe that the Chargers are clearly the best team in that division.
After 2010 season where they underperformed, I believe that this will be the year that the Chargers take that next step forward and enjoy playoff success after finishing the season with an 11-5 record.
The Eagles certainly made some huge acquisitions to make them a better football team, and while I think that these acquisitions made them the clear favorite for their division, I still feel that the Saints, Packers and Falcons are of equal talent.
It will be a difficult road for the Eagles and I think they are going to be one of the top teams in the league this year, but in the regular season, they will finish as the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
Like the Jets, the Ravens are in a division where they just can't shake their rival. The Ravens and Steelers always match up well together, but the Steelers usually seem to come out on top, particularly when it counts—winning the division and when they match up in the playoffs.
However, I think this is the year the Ravens finally take the next step and win that AFC North title. The Ravens are too talented to let themselves continually get beat by the Steelers, they have been close multiple times and I feel that they will go into this season with some slightly improved personnel changes. I think they'll beat the Steelers in Week 1, giving them the momentum to win their division with a 12-4 record, and gaining the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, as well.
The Saints left the 2010 playoffs shockingly early, getting beaten by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks. This year though, the Saints are coming in with a chip on their shoulder rather than coming in with a Super Bowl championship, which could actually work in their favor.
The NFC South has never had a back-to-back winner, and I feel that this trend will continue as the Saints win the NFC South over the Falcons with a 12-4 record.
In 2010, people had their doubts about the Patriots. The Patriots quickly silenced them with a 14-2 record. While I don't expect them to have the same year they had last year, I expect them to pick up right where they left off from the end of the 2010 season, where Brady led them on an eight-game win streak going into the playoffs.
Brady will have another great year, and I do believe that Chad Ochocinco will be a good addition for that offense. In addition, the defense has greatly improved with the acquisitions of Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth, as long as Haynesworth decides he wants to play.
The Patriots will win the AFC East once again with a record of 12-4, which will also earn them the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The Green Bay Packers are coming off a Super Bowl win, which could sometimes work against a team, as it can be very hard to repeat and a Super Bowl hangover is all too real for many teams. However, the 2011 Packers are a different circumstance for several reasons.
For one reason, they are getting 15 players back from injured reserve that are just as hungry for a Super Bowl win as anyone else. Although they earned a ring for Super Bowl XLV, players like Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley weren't parts of the experience in the same way that the rest of the players were.
Another reason is simply the veteran leadership. The Packers have plenty of veteran leaders on their team that have the ability to rally their team, even when things aren't going their way. The best example of this would be the 2010 season.
The Packers are a resilient team with plenty of veteran leadership that will keep the team focused on repeating, and while they may not get all the way back to a title, they will not disappoint fans with shaky play or an early playoff exit.
The Packers will win the NFC North with a 12-4 record, clinching the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The Cowboys may find themselves getting to the playoffs, but they will be routed by their own division rival who does not want to see themselves get eliminated in an early playoff exit like they did against Green Bay last year.
This time, Michael Vick will show up for the playoffs, as he throws for three touchdowns and rushes for another in a nearly flawless performance. Romo, on the other hand, will throw for two interceptions, despite being responsible for the one touchdown scored by the Cowboys in the game.
After losing out on the division to the Ravens, the Steelers will have to travel to San Diego to play the AFC Wild Card Game. It is a close game through and through, and despite many mistakes committed by the Steelers, including two interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers will lead 17-14 going into the fourth quarter.
But in a big-time drive by Philip Rivers where he throws the final touchdown pass of the game, the Chargers take a 21-17 lead and don't look back. The Steelers, despite having success in the playoffs in the past, will be eliminated in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
Much like their division rival in 2010, the Falcons would have to travel to the NFC West champions in the playoffs, but in this case, the Falcons will win. Despite getting blown out in the playoffs last year, the Falcons will not get taken down easily this year, as Matt Ryan uses his explosive offense to roll up 31 points on the home team.
While the Rams will play admirably, the Falcons' hunger for a playoff win will overcome them in this game.
Last year, the Texans proved that they can roll up points against the Jets, being the only team to score over 20 points against the Jets in their home stadium last year. In the playoffs, the Texans will come in hungry for a playoff win, but in their first franchise playoff game, they will fall to the Jets by an overtime field goal.
While it will be a heartbreaking loss for the Texans, it may fuel them next year to come right back into the playoffs and make some noise.
The Packers and Falcons will meet in the playoffs again, but this time, it won't be a rout. The Falcons will play the Packers tough at Lambeau Field, wanting to follow up with their playoff success from the week before.
While the Falcons will perform admirably, the Packers will come away with the win in another game decided by a field goal.
History will repeat itself in New England when the Patriots have a great regular season, but once again fail to get it done in the playoffs, as the Jets will meet them for the second consecutive year and beat them once again.
The Patriots will have some serious questions to answer if they continue to fail in the playoffs, especially after being one of the most successful playoff teams just a few years ago.
The Eagles will have to visit the No. 2-seeded Saints in the playoffs, where the Saints will be looking for some better results in the playoffs than last year. The game would be close for the first three quarters, but two Saints touchdowns in the fourth quarter help the Saints pull away from the Eagles to lead 35-20.
The Eagles will be disappointed by losing in the playoffs after making so many moves in the offseason, but they always have next year to make a new run.
Fresh off defeating the Steelers, the Chargers will travel to Baltimore to beat their division rival. In a close defensive battle, the Chargers are able to pull ahead of the game late, and find themselves going to the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets, a team that they are beginning to develop a fierce rivalry with.
Meanwhile, Baltimore will be left with another playoff loss and despite winning their division, their season will still end in disappointment.
The Packers and Saints will rematch from playing each other in Week 1. In a back-and-fourth battle where two high-flying offenses score many points and gain many yards, the Packers win on a last-minute drive after trailing 24-23.
While the 2010 playoffs had the defense sealing the game for the Packers, it would be the offense this time, as the Packers scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minute, advancing to their second consecutive Super Bowl.
The Chargers and Jets have developed a fierce rivalry in the past few years, with the Jets defeating them in the 2009 playoffs and then signing some of the Chargers veteran players in LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie.
It has seemed that the Jets have gotten the better of the Chargers in recent years, but this year the Chargers will finally step up and defeat the Jets, advancing to their first Super Bowl since 1994 and giving Philip Rivers a shot at a much-deserved title.
The only time the Packers lost a Super Bowl was against John Elway and the Denver Broncos in 1997. Like the Chargers, Elway and the Broncos were a team frustrated with a lack of postseason success and were primed to take the next step.
While the Packers will likely be favored in this game, history will mirror their attempt at a repeat run after winning Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots and the Chargers, like their division rival did more than 10 years ago, will finally rise up and get their first Super Bowl win in franchise history.