1. New England (11-5)—Brady is back, but more importantly Belichick is still around. He is a coaching genius that has dominated the decade. A lot of the veteran leadership is gone on defense: Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour. This will cost them in the playoffs. Expect some shootouts in Foxboro. Last year 11-5 wasn’t good enough…this year it will be plenty.
2. Miami (8-8)—Chad Pennington and company snuck up on teams last year with the Wildcat formation. Now teams are fully aware of the Dolphins and the surprise factor is gone. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are a formidable duo in the backfield, but I can’t trust Pennington to stay healthy for two straight years. And Joey Porter will come back to earth after a superhuman ’08.
3. New York (7-9)—The defense will be rugged under new coach Rex Ryan. Special teams are great too. But the year of the rookie quarterback was last year and Mark Sanchez only had 16 college starts. The Meadowlands last year will be a forgettable one.
4. Buffalo (5-11)—Firing the offensive coordinator a week before the season spells desperation. T.O. will be angry at the average arm of Trent Edwards by week five and Dick Jauron will be canned by week 10.
1. Baltimore (11-5)—The loss of their defensive coordinator Ryan and stud linebacker Bart Scott will hurt. But Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still around and the defense won't miss a beat. Joe Flacco will improve his completion percentage and limit his turnovers in his second year as a pro. The only question is the receivers. This doesn’t haunt them until the playoffs when Derrick Mason (back after retiring ala Favre) and Mark Clayton are worn down.
2. Cincinnati (10-6)—Kiss the baby cause its over, Chad Ochocinco is back. I expect big things from the rejuvenated receiver after he clearly didn’t even try in '08. Chris Henry will emerge as a legit deep ball threat (that is all he is capable of doing), and they will have a healthy Carson Palmer throwing to them. The No. 12 ranked defense got better with second round steal Rey Maualuga. Concerns about the O-line are real because if Palmer goes down, so does the chance of a winning season for the Bengals.
3. Pittsburgh (8-8)—Yes, they return 19 of 22 starters and yes they have a coaching staff. But when a team is a unanimous choice for winning the division, something usually goes wrong. Depth is a concern with the Steelers. Either Big Ben goes down or injuries at another key position decimate them. Is this a blind guess? Yes, but such is the NFL.
4. Cleveland (3-13)—After firing one former Belichick crony (Romeo Crennel) the Browns think another will change things (Eric Mangini). But not even Bill himself can win with Jamal Lewis as your starting running back, no tight end, and a wretched secondary that will be burned all year long.
1. Indianapolis (11-5)—The same things have been said about this team for the past six plus years. As long as Peyton Manning stays healthy this team is a lock for the playoffs. Bob Sanders could be lost for the season; this is a huge concern for a defense that is championship worthy with him and mediocre without him. It remains to be seen what the loss of Tony Dungy translates to on the field, my guess is more of the same.
2. Houston (10-6)—A trendy sleeper pick might be getting too much hype, but this offense will surely be top 10 material. Andre Johnson is a superstar and Steve Slaton will reward all fantasy owners who grabbed him with some truly gaudy numbers. All of the questions lie with the defense. Mario Williams will need to have a Dwight Freeny kind of year to avoid lots of shootouts in Houston.
3. Tennessee (7-9)—They blew their chance last year, they were the best team. Now the Titans will face quarterback issues sooner rather than later and the defense will miss Albert Haynesworth big time. I think Kerry Collins will struggle early and the fans will demand Vince Young. He’ll be playing by the second half of the year, not a good thing for the Titans.
4. Jacksonville (5-11)—The Jags were decimated by injuries last year but didn’t address some issues in the offseason. They picked up an over the hill Torry Holt and lost half of their dynamic running duo (Fred Taylor). Maurice Jones-Drew is not going to hold up for an entire season as the main back. He was in the perfect role and now the Jags will be asking too much from him. He is already banged up and will be the entire season.
1. San Diego (12-4)—The Bolts win by default. They will be playing in the worst division in football. Put them in the NFC East and they would be 8-8. But L.T., Phillip Rivers, and Antonio Gates will be lighting up the scoreboard against the crappy Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos. I am concerned with the defense and the Shawn Merriman fiasco, but it shouldn’t be an issue come December.
2. Kansas City (7-9)—Matt Cassel will be a huge upgrade on offense, but losing Tony Gonzalez is a real head-scratcher. Dwayne Bowe has put up good numbers with bad QBs, so expect big numbers from him. Mike Vrabel will bring veteran leadership to the defense, but his effects wont show up 'til 2010.
3. Oakland (6-10)—Darren McFadden will have a breakout season, but I can’t trust JaMarcus Russell—he has yet to show anything in the NFL. Adding Richard Seymour is a plus, but he doesn’t want to be there and his effort will be lacking. The Raiders will give up a whole lot of rushing yards.
4. Denver (4-12)—Kyle Orton will be playing with a glove to start the year, yikes. This team has bust written all over it. Rookie Head Coach Josh McDaniels seems to be overmatched in his role. Brandon Marshall is making him look like a fool and wont be an impact player 'til October. It’s going to be ugly in the Mile High City.
1. San Diego
2. New England
Wild Card: (3) Baltimore over (6) Houston, (4) Indianapolis over (5) Cincinnati
Divisional: (3) Baltimore over (2) New England, (1) San Diego over (5) Indianapolis
AFC Championship: (3) Baltimore over (1) San Diego
Check back tomorrow for the NFC and Super Bowl picks!