One of my favourite times of the year is upon us. The start of the NFL season! I have to admit, I totally adore the NFL with a huge passion! I wait breathlessly for the season to commence and the weekly drama that ensues. I love NFL Sundays that consist of 10 hours of non-stop football. I love Monday Night Football. I love the hype. I believe the hype. (Sorry Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the rest of Public Enemy) And I love picking the outcomes of each game. So with that in mind here are my picks and predictions for the 2011 NFL season.
1. New England Patriots.
You still have to like the Patriots. Yes they lost to their bitter foes, the New York Jets in the playoffs last season. But the Pats are still the favourites in the East. Why? First off, love him or loathe him, Bill Belichick is one of if not the premier coach in the NFL. He is a master tactician as well as a master motivator. Secondly is Tom Brady. Despite his questionable hair styles and prancing around with model girlfriends in the off-season, Brady gets it done on the field and is an elite quarterback. Thirdly, the Patriots never stand still. They’re not afraid to make big changes. The additions of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth prove that. Both come in with checkered pasts but Belichick believes these players can produce when motivated. The only flaw is recent playoff history. Crushing home losses to the Jets and Ravens the last two season have put some doubt in the Patriots head. If they can clear that psychological hurdle, the Pats are the team to beat.
2. New York Jets.
You have to hand it to Rex Ryan. He’s not lacking in confidence. The bombastic head coach also should get credit for building a great defence and turning around the franchise. The defence like I said is the strongpoint. CB Darrelle Revis is one of the best in the game today and takes away half the field from opposing offences. He is joined by Antonio Cromartie who is also an excellent cornerback. LB Bart Scott is a noted trash talker but backs up his words with strong play and a mission to hunt down the QB. Offensively the Jets are hoping for continued improvement from QB Mark Sanchez. With that in mind the Jets took a chance and signed WR Plaxico Burress. The troubled yet talented receiver who was released from prison following a gun charge, is expected to help out Sanchez in the passing game. If Burress can regain his form prior to his jail term, the Jets are mighty dangerous. They should challenge the Patriots in the East.
3. Miami Dolphins.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the Dolphins. I do like some of their players, especially their linebackers. Cameron Wake is a feared pass rusher who may have the best first step to the quarterback in all of football. Karlos Dansby is a terrific run stopper on the inside. And Kevin Burnett is a rising star. After that there is more questions than answers for the Fins. The biggest move Miami made was signing RB Reggie Bush away from the Saints. While Bush is an electrifying performer, he has yet to prove he can be an every down back in the NFL. The Dolphins are a run first offence and they are taking a chance with Bush, so much so they released Ronnie Brown. QB Chad Henne has to improve from last year and WR Brandon Marshall has to stay out of trouble. The thing is I just don’t trust the Dolphins offence enough for them to challenge the Patriots or Jets.
4. Buffalo Bills.
It’s been a long time since those Super Bowl appearances for the Bills. And I don’t expect them to return to the dance anytime soon. I just look at their depth chart and all I see are question marks. Is Ryan Fitzpatrick the man to lead the offence? Can Shawne Merriman overcome his legal issues and return to the form he showed in San Diego? But the biggest question might be; Will this franchise move to Los Angeles or Toronto? Many rumours are suggesting that and while Western New York loves the Bills, it might not be enough to keep them in Buffalo. That could be a distraction for the team and in this division a blow which they won’t overcome.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers.
The defending AFC champions are looking to avenge last year’s loss in the Super Bowl. They have a good chance of doing so. QB Ben Roethlisberger has put last year’s legal issues behind him (or so the Steelers hope) and should be focused and ready for the season. Big Ben doesn’t put up spectacular numbers, but is a proven winner and someone you want behind centre with the game on the line. Rashard Mendenhall is developing into an excellent running back but must correct his fumbling issues. Hines Ward is still one of the best possession receiver while Mike Wallace is turning into a feared deep threat. But this is the Steelers and defence is the key. Going back to the 1970s and the famed Steel Curtain, Pittsburgh will always be known for tough hard-hitting defences. James Harrison is one of the nastiest linebackers in the league while Troy Polamalu remains one of the best safeties in the business. Add in coach Mike Tomlin who might be the most underrated coaches in the game, the Steelers should be a force in the AFC.
2. Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens were my pick to win the Super Bowl last year but as usual I was wrong. This year I don’t have those lofty expectations. The biggest concerns for Baltimore is an aging defence and the salary cap. First the defence. Yes Ray Lewis will be a first ballot hall of famer no ifs ands or buts. But last season I noticed he was a step slower than normal. Lewis is 35 now and the punishment he’s dished out and received are starting to take a toll. Ed Reed is a tremendous safety who did top the NFL with 8 interceptions but sometimes he gambles when he shouldn’t and gets burned on big plays. The Ravens still have Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs to terrorize quarterbacks but the Steelers exposed the Ravens in the playoffs last year and that should be a concern. Secondly the cap. The Ravens were forced to release RB Willis McGahee, TE Todd Heap, and WR Derrick Mason. The offence is not a strength of the Ravens and cutting 3 veterans doesn’t help. Joe Flacco is developing into a fine quarterback but hasn’t come through in the big games. He needs big production from receiver Anquan Boldin who has all-world talent, but disappears from time to time. Ray Rice will lead the ground game and is becoming one of the best backs in the game. Still with the cap issues and aging defence, I see the Ravens as a wildcard team at best.
3. Cleveland Browns.
There are experts who suggest the Brown might be this year’s surprise team. I don’t see it. I do like some parts of the Browns though. Colt McCoy looks like he could be a starter for years to come at quarterback. McCoy’s mechanics, and field vision are excellent. Bruising RB Peyton Hillis was last year’s breakout star and if he can stay healthy despite his punishing style, he will be a force the Browns haven’t had in the backfield since Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack. Josh Cribbs is the best kick returner in the NFL and provides instant field position. Joe Haden is an up and coming CB who has a bright future. After that I’m not so certain. The O-Line has been a sore spot for the Browns for years. Even though Joe Thomas is a solid left tackle the Brown lack of depth on the line is a failure. Add to that left guard Eric Steinbach is out for the season puts the Browns at greater risk. The defence as a whole is a question mark. The front 7 don’t put enough pressure on the quarterback and give up far too many big plays. Finally the Browns have yet to prove they can beat the Steelers and Ravens on a consistent basis. They’re on the rise but have a long way to go.
4. Cincinnati Bengals.
Oh the Bungles. The sorry Bungles. I’m at a loss for words but I’ll try. First off the Carson Palmer situation. The quarterback has asked to be traded but owner Mike Brown has refused to honour that request. So Palmer has decided not to report and Brown has called Palmer “retired” from the game. If this situation doesn’t get resolved, the Bengals will turn to rookie Andy Dalton as their number 1 QB. While Dalton has impressive credentials, he might be in over his head with this group. The departure of Chad Ochocinco plus the injury status of Terrell Owens makes the receiving corps suspect at best. Rookie AJ Green may be a future superstar but needs time to learn the pro game. With RB Cedric Benson going through legal issues the Bengals will be hard pressed to put points on the board. The defence is actually not bad. The recent acquisition of CB Kelly Jennings provides stability at the cornerback position. Teamed with Leon Hall the Bengals will be tough to throw against. With Taylor Mays providing safety help the secondary is quality. However the lack of punch in the offence will leave the Bengals at the bottom of the standings and most likely cost coach Marvin Lewis his job.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Sure we can talk about the supposed strengths and weaknesses of the Colts. We can talk about the new acquisitions and recent departures. We can even talk about the greatness of DE Dwight Freeney, arguably the best pass rusher in the game. In reality though it all comes down to Peyton Manning and his health. Manning has missed all of training camp following neck surgery. While Manning has been activated his status for week one is uncertain. The Colts did pick up veteran Kerry Collins as insurance but he’s not Peyton Manning. If Manning can play the whole season the Colts win the division. If not things get mighty interesting.
2. Houston Texans.
I’ve been waiting for this team to breakout for a few years now. I’m still waiting. On offence the Texans have weapons at their disposal. QB Matt Schaub is a proven starter who gets better every year. RB Arian Foster is a budding superstar who led the league in rushing with 1,616 yards last season. WR Andre Johnson is a physical force with strength to make the tough catch over the middle, and the speed to go downfield to make a big play. Where the Texans have to improve is defence. Houston was 30th in overall defence giving up 427 yards and over 26 points per game. That puts too much pressure on the offence. The Texans do have Mario Williams but can’t decide if he’s a rush end or a linebacker. They have to make up their minds where to position Williams. This team is close but I need to see more.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the life of me I have never figured out the Jags. Just when I think there on the verge of greatness they disappoint me. When there on the verge of total destruction, they surprise me with quality. So I never know what to expect out of this team, Head Coach Jack Del Rio always demands and gets the most out of his players despite not having the most talented group. QB David Garrard is solid and RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a game-breaker. But the receivers are suspect and I don’t trust them. The Jags struggled defensively ranking 28th in the league. I do like CB Rasheen Mathis, but the Jags lack overall depth on the defensive side. Plus with the rumours of the franchise being relocated to Los Angeles, I see the Jags struggling to stay above 500.
4. Tennessee Titans.
Music City is going through changes. No, Taylor Swift is not crossing over to hip hop. The football team is going through major turnover right now. Starting with Jeff Fisher is no longer the head coach after 16 seasons patrolling the sidelines. Replacing Fisher is former All-Pro Lineman Mike Munchak who was an assistant under Fisher for the last 14 seasons. Also gone is enigmatic QB Vince Young who was brilliant at times but frustrating as well. Young’s deteriorating relationship with Fisher cost both men their jobs. Longtime Seattle Seahawk Matt Hasselback is the new quarterback and he brings experience and a winning pedigree to Nashville. One issue that has now been addressed is the signing of running back Chris Johnson. The 2009 offensive player of the year is back in the fold in Music City. However with virtually no training camp and no OTAs, Johnson will have to be a fast learner and get in-game shape quick. The receiving corps are a mystery thanks to the ongoing legal issues of Kenny Britt. Britt did avoid suspension but must stay out of trouble and focus on football. Defence is a huge concern in Nashville. Once a strength on this team, the Titans ranked 26th in total defence and 29th in pass defence. The Titans must defend the pass better if they want to improve. The Titans are hoping the pickup of LB Barrett Ruud from Tampa Bay will solidify the defence. They do have Cortland Finnegan who is gaining a reputation of being one of the most hated players in the NFL while being a terrific cornerback. With all the change and turmoil surrounding the Titans, I predict a sad country song will be sung in Nashville this season.
1. San Diego Chargers.
A team that has never quite lived up to expectations, the Chargers are hoping to slide under the radar this year. With the focus the Patriots, Jets and Steelers this season, not too many people are picking the Chargers to do much this year. This might be good for San Diego. First off the Chargers had the number 1 ranked defence in the NFL last year. The Chargers only allowed 177.8 yards through the air the best in the NFL. LB Shaun Phillips led the Chargers with 11 sacks and is a force on the outside. Veteran corner Quentin Jammer and safety Eric Weddle provide strength, savvy and leadership to the secondary. If newly acquired Bob Sanders can stay healthy, the Chargers defence will be even stronger this year much to their opponents’ chagrin. The offence has potential too. Philip Rivers may not be the most liked player in the league but he brings a toughness and leadership to the quarterback position. Rivers has improved every year and is maturing into a fine signal caller to the point he led the league in passing last year. Vincent Jackson has returned from his contract dispute and provides a downfield threat. Antonio Gates and newcomer Randy McMichael are excellent tight ends who can both block and catch the ball. The Chargers will miss Darren Sproles who bolted to New Orleans but Ryan Mathews is an emerging star in the backfield. The Chargers are a team to watch this year.
2. Kansas City Chiefs.
Last year’s surprise team won’t sneak up on anyone this year. I think they will take a step back this year. It’s still a quality team though. QB Matt Cassel has come out of Tom Brady’s shadow in New England and is a worthy starter in Kansas City. Jamaal Charles is a home-run threat in the backfield and has speed to burn. Dwayne Bowe remains one of the most under-appreciated receiver and the O-Line is solid. Defensively though there are holes. I do like Tamba Hall and Derrick Johnson as linebackers (Hall had 14.5 sacks last year second in the NFL) but the rest of the front four is average at best. The Chiefs are hoping former Raven Kelly Gregg still has a couple of good years left in him. Eric Barry though will be a superstar at safety very shortly. Certainly a player to watch. The Chiefs took a big step forward last year. Expect a small step back this year.
3. Oakland Raiders.
Let’s cut to the chase here. The one thing that stops the Raiders from winning is Al Davis. Don’t get me wrong Davis has made wonderful contributions to the sport but his time is up. Davis’s problem is he still thinks its 1976 and somehow Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch will come out of retirement and revive the deep passing attack again. While Jason Campbell is decent he won’t remind anyone of “The Snake.” And Darrius Heyward-Bey is no Cliff Branch by any stretch of the imagination. Jacoby Ford did have a breakout season last year and is the Raiders best deep threat. But can he be an every down receiver or is he a glorified kick returner? The offence is keyed around RB Darren McFadden. The former Arkansas Razorback rushed for 1,157 yards last season and is projected to rush for 1,500 yards this season. Michael Bush is an excellent third down back who can spell for McFadden when need be. The defence suffered a huge loss when all-world corner Nnamdi Asomugha went to Philadelphia via free agency. You just don’t replace players like that. MLB Rolando McClain is an emerging star and DT Richard Seymour is still productive at the DT position. Still the looming presence of Skeletor… I mean Al Davis haunts the Raiders and they are no better than a 500 team.
4. Denver Broncos.
John Elway is back! Unfortunately for Bronco fans it’s not on the field. Elway has moved into the Broncos front office to oversee the football operations. At this moment he is cringing. He’s also not shy. Elway has been very critical of Tim Tebow to the point where the former first round pick is listed as number 4 on the depth chart behind Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, (Brady Quinn? Really? Brady Quinn?) and Adam Weber. Tebow was supposed to be the face of the franchise for years to come but his struggles in preseason are making the team and its fans very weary. The biggest issue in the Mile High City though is defence. The Broncos were last in team defence last year giving up 471 yards and 29 points per game! In other words the Broncos get scored on more often than Kim Kardashian in an NFL locker room. Looks like a long season in Denver awaits.
1. Philadelphia Eagles.
The “dream team.” Or so it seems. No team was as aggressive in the offseason as the Eagles. Their boldest move was signing All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a 5 year contract. The Eagles also traded QB Kevin Kolb to Arizona for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to bolster the secondary even more. However the Eagles weren’t done making moves. After Kolb was traded the Eagles surprises some by signing Vince Young to back up Michael Vick. Philadelphia strengthened their defensive line by adding Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins. The Eagles also plucked Steve Smith away from the division rival New York Giants. Finally the Eagles signed Vick to a 6 year 100 million dollar deal. Now with that all said and done the question remains. Is this enough to take the Eagles to a Super Bowl Championship? Anything less will be regarded as a failure in the City of Brotherly Love. Which means all the pressure in the world rests squarely on the shoulders of long time coach Andy Reid. Forget the playoff appearances, division titles, even a Super Bowl showing in the 2004 season. The Eagles must win it all or Reid may be on the unemployment line.
2. Dallas Cowboys.
Last year at this time, many prognosticators pegged the Cowboys as Super Bowl favourites. However after a disastrous 1-7 start which cost head coach Wade Phillips his job, the Cowboys were thinking about 2011. Jason Garrett is now in charge and he brings a more disciplined approach. Gone are malcontents such as Marion Barber, Roy Williams and Leonard Davis. All 3 are talented but failed to show the work ethic and desire Garrett demands. Still the Boys’ fortunes rest on Tony Romo. At times he looks like the second coming of Roger Staubach. Other times though he looks like the coming of Gary Hogeboom. Romo is coming off a broken finger which cut short his season so it will be interesting to see if he’s lost any touch on his throws. With barber gone Felix Jones becomes the featured back. Known for his blazing speed, Jones will now have the chance to play on every down and every situation. The receivers are solid as both Myles Austin and Dez Bryant can stretch the field. Both receivers will give opposing secondaries fits. The O-Line is going through an overhaul and the big question is will this group protect Romo? It takes time for an O-Line to gel so this has to be an area of concern for the Cowboys. The defence is led by spectacular rush end DeMarcus Ware. The feared rusher led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season and is a dominant force. At this rate he will be immortalized in Canton. The rest of the defence played well after Garrett joined but now will have to step it up a couple of notches if the Cowboys are to succeed. No Super Bowl but a Wildcard berth is a distinct possibility.
3. New York Giants.
Another team I can never figure out. The Giants could be great, like they were in 2007 when they won the Super Bowl, or they could be awful, like they were in towards the end of the 2009 season when the Carolina Panthers humiliated the Giants 41-9 in the last game played at old Giants Stadium. One thing is for sure, Eli Manning must play like an elite quarterback. Manning made headlines this offseason by saying he’s in the same boat as Tom Brady and should be compared as such. Well Mr Manning I have news for you. If you want to call yourself elite, you may want to cut down on a league high 25 interceptions from last season. That’s not Tom Brady, that’s closer to Danny Kanell. Manning must take better care of the football if the Giants are to succeed. The running game is solid led by the bruising Ahmad Bradshaw. The receivers need to be more consistent as they drop far too many passes. I’m talking to you Mario Manningham. The Giants did sign Michael Clayton to help alleviate that problem. On defence the big question is will Osi Umenyiora report to the team. The leading sackmaster is holding out for a new contract and has been put on the Did Not Report list. If Umenyiora doesn’t play, that leaves a huge hole in the Giants front. The rest of the defence is solid and first round draft pick Prince Amukamara should be a starting cornerback for the next 10 years. I don’t see a playoff spot for the Giants. Then again I’m always wrong with this team. Stay tuned.
4. Washington Redskins.
Hail to the Redskins. Unfortunately for Washington fans, they haven’t had much of a chance to sing the fabled fight song since the early 90s when the Hogs, Art Monk and Darrell Green were running wild and Joe Gibbs was in charge at venerable RFK Stadium. Now the Redskins play at cavernous FedEx Field and Daniel Snyder is running the show. Problem is Snyder is the meddling owner who thinks this is Fantasy Football and not the real deal. Bad signings and questionable draft picks have left the Redskins roster with more holes than Swiss cheese. The quarterback job is now up for grabs. The Donvan McNabb experiment is done and it was a failure to say the least. The battle for the QB spot is between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman did lead the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl appearance in 2006 but was chased out of the Windy City for throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. As for John Beck well, I do know Jeff Beck is a brilliant guitar player but there not related so lets move on shall we. The running game struggled last year which means the Redskins will be a passing team. Santana Moss and newcomer Donte’ Stallworth are solid receiver while Chris Cooley returns as a reliable pass catching tight end. The defence was a mess last year. Only the Denver Broncos defence was statistically worse than the Redskins. Albert Haynesworth and his horrific attitude is now in New England. Haynesworth’s stay in DC was tumultuous and is best remembered for him lying on the turf while Michael Vick was sprinting past him on a Monday night in November. This group is in dire need of a shakeup but I don’t see that happening this season. Looks like a long year in DC and I’m not talking about what President Obama has to deal with.
1. Green Bay Packers.
To quote 16 world heavyweight champion Ric Flair, ‘To be the man, you gotta beat the man!” Right now the Packers are “the man.” The defending Super Bowl champions. And now they want to repeat the feat. They have an excellent chance of doing so. Starting with Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers. After being Brett Favre’s understudy, Rodgers enjoyed a brilliant season by throwing for nearly 4,000 yards, 21 TDs while only throwing 6 INTs. Rodgers was even better in the playoffs as he led the Packers in road wins over Philadelphia, Atlanta, and bitter arch-rival Chicago. Finally Rodgers shredded the vaunted Pittsburgh defence in the Super Bowl ensuring the Packers fourth Lombardi trophy. Ryan Grant emerged as a go-to running back, easing the pressure of Rodgers. The dependable Donald Driver still makes the tough catches over the middle while Greg Jennings is a deep threat that stretches the defence. The offensive line is arguably the best in football and is a huge factor for Rodgers’ success. The defence was outstanding as well. LB Clay Matthews Jr. and his hair (can’t forget about the hair) is a playmaker from the linebacker spot. Whether it’s getting a sack off a blitz, forcing a fumble like he did in the Super Bowl, or nabbing an interception, Matthews is all over the field and quickly becoming a Packer legend. Charles Woodson is still one of the best corners in the game and will be going to Canton once he hangs the cleats. AJ Hawk is a terrific run-stopper from the inside. Yes the Packers have it all. Beware of the champions.
2. Chicago Bears.
Oh how the wind blows in the Windy City. The Bears did win the NFC North last year but after the heartbreaking loss to the hated Packers in the NFC Championship game, the winds were indeed howling. Mostly at Jay Cutler. Fans and media alike were highly critical of Cutler following the game for his body language and his supposed lack of interest in the game. Cutler will have to prove his critics wrong this season as the pressure is on in Chicago. With Matt Forte’s status uncertain because of a contract dispute the Bears grabbed Marion Barber via free agency. Barber is talented but was a reported malcontent in the Dallas locker room. Coach Lovie Smith is convinced that Barber is a good solider and that he will be a force with the Bears. Cutler will have Roy Williams to throw to this season. Williams does have the ability to be a good one, but his supposed lack of work ethic has hindered his progress. This is a make or break year for Williams. The O-Line is undergoing changes as well. Gone is long-time centre Olin Kreutz. In comes Roberto Garza as his replacement. Kreutz was a rock in the middle and his departure will be felt. Defensively is still the Bears strength. Julius Peppers was a wonderful pick-up for the Bears last season and will continue to wreak havoc over opposing QBs. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are still solid LBs but injuries have slowed Urlacher. Charles Tillman is a quality corner and a good leader in the secondary. The Bears should contend for a Wildcard spot, but the pressure in on. If Cutler can’t prove the critics wrong, the winds will be nasty coming off Lake Michigan.
3. Detroit Lions.
It could be worse. The Detroit Lions know these words all too well. In 2008 the Lions were 0-16 and the laughingstock of the sporting universe. Fast forward to 2011 and while not Super Bowl contenders the Lions future hasn’t been brighter since Barry Sanders was dazzling the Motor City faithful. The key to the Lions success is quarterback Matthew Stafford. The former number one overall pick only played in 3 games last season before succumbing to both shoulder and knee injuries. Stafford has been very impressive in the preseason and if he stays healthy, is poised for a breakout season. He may have to throw the ball more frequently than usual this season. Jahvid Best is battling a turf toe issue and while he’s back practicing with the team, his health remains a question mark. The receivers are solid. Calvin Johnson is one of the best in the business. His size allows him to make the tough grab over the middle while his deceptive speed allows Megatron to go deep. Nate Burleson is a solid number 2 receiver and tight end Brandon Pettigrew is an emerging tight end. Questions remain on the O-Line and the pressure is on the big boys up front to do a better job at protecting Stafford. The defence is getting there. The front four is dynamic. Ndamukong Suh reminds me of Mean Joe Greene. The defensive rookie of the year is already gaining a reputation as one of the nastiest players in the game. Some have even called him dirty. But make no doubt Suh is a force and will be listed as one of the all time greats once his career ends. First round pick Nick Fairley may not play till week 4 due to a foot injury but should contribute playing beside Suh. Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson had breakthrough seasons while Kyle VandenBosch is a veteran presence on the line. The linebackers lack depth so Detroit went out and signed Stephen Tulloch away from Tennessee. The secondary is young and needs time. Louis Delmas is a solid strong safety who should get better every year. The Lions are heading in the right direction. But they are a year away.
4. Minnesota Vikings.
So what’s next for the Vikings? After a year when they saw Brett Favre embarrass himself both on and off the field, a snowstorm that tore a hole on the roof of the Metrodome, and persistent rumours of the team leaving for Los Angeles, the Vikings can’t go through another season like that. Well Favre is gone, the roof will be fixed, and the LA rumours are subsiding a bit. Still many questions in the land of 10,000 lakes. Donavan McNabb is now the new quarterback but after his disappointing tenure in Washington, many fans are wondering if McNabb’s time is up. At least McNabb can hand the ball to Adrian Peterson and let AD/AP do the bulk of the work. Peterson is the key to the Vikings offence and he will have to be outright brilliant for the Vikings this year. Percy Harvin could be a factor, if the Vikings know how to use him. Harvin right now is listed as a receiver but he may be more effective in the wildcat formation or a third down back. The Vikings will surely miss Sidney Rice who bolted to Seattle in the off-season. Rice was emerging as a bona fide deep threat. The offensive line struggled last season. Steve Hutchison is still solid but is showing his age at left guard. The rest of the line is filled with question marks. Defence was a strength for the Vikes. Now there are many concerns. Up front Pat Williams retired and Ray Edwards left for Atlanta. Jared Allen is still a solid pass rusher but Kevin Williams was slowed by a foot problem. The front four is not as strong as it used to be. The linebackers are the strength of the defence. Chad Greenway is an emerging star while E.J. Henderson is a proven middle linebacker. Antoine Winfield continues to be an outstanding corner but the secondary is lacking depth. If McNabb does have one good year left the Vikings may surprise. Otherwise it will be another long cold winter in Minnesota.
1. New Orleans Saints.
After a magical 2009 season in which they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl, the Saints came back to earth a little bit. No they didn’t become the Aint’s again but New Orleans didn’t win the division and had to settle for a Wildcard spot. They were shocked by Seattle in the first round ending their season abruptly. Look for the Saints to have a rebound season. Drew Brees is one of the most accurate passers in the game and he’s the engine that drives the offence. He should have a better running game to support him. Reggie Bush is gone but replacing him are former Charger Darren Sproles and first round draft pick Mark Ingram. Sproles is a speedster who’s darting runs can bedazzle many a defence. Ingram is raw power with a hint of speed. If Ingram can stay healthy, (he was injured most of last season as a senior at Alabama) then the Saints have a dreaded one-two punch in the backfield. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are excellent receiver who are enormous factors in Brees’ success. The defence is a bit of a weak spot. In 2009 they were the best in forcing turnovers which helped set up the offence with excellent field position. The Saints struggled last year in that department and must find a way to recreate the 2009 magic. Sedrick Ellis led the team with 6 sacks last season. He is complemented by Will Smith, (no not the Fresh Prince) who had 5.5 sacks last season. Roman Harper and Jonathan Vilma are solid linebackers. The secondary had an off-year and must rebound for the Saints. They can win the division. Super Bowl will be tricky though.
2. Atlanta Falcons.
For a while it looked like last year was going to be the Falcons year. After finishing the regular season with a 13-3 record and home field throughout the playoffs, it seemed the Falcons were headed for immortality. Instead the Green Bay Packers strolled into the Georgia Dome and proceeded to pound the Falcons out of the playoffs. That left a bitter taste in Dixie and the Falcons are still smarting. On offence Matt Ryan is continuing his ascendency has a leader and quarterback. A calm and collected figure on the field, Ryan is at his best when the game is on the line. The evidence was never more clear than in a Nationally televised game against Baltimore. Ryan drove the Falcons down the field and eventually hooked up with Roddy White for the game winning touchdown. Helping out Ryan is RB Michael Turner. Built like a Mack truck, Turner finished with 1,371 yards good for third in the league. Along with White, the Falcons added first round pick Julio Jones to the receiving core. Jones has blazing speed and will complement White very well. Tony Gonzalez remains a very productive and top-notch tight end. The offensive line enjoyed an excellent season but struggled against the Packers in the playoffs. They’ll need to overcome that setback for the Falcons to progress. The defence is highlighted by new acquisitions. Ray Edwards comes over from Minnesota and he brings some much need pressure to opposing quarterbacks. James Sanders is now a Falcon. The former Patriot will be depth and stability to the secondary. The linebackers are underrated but very good. Sean Weatherspoon is a multi-faceted player who can drop back in coverage, stop the run, or blitz the quarterback. His speed and versatility are key to the Falcons defence. Curtis Lofton isn’t talked about much, but he is a presence in the middle. A very hard hitter, Lofton is getting better at calling plays and directing traffic. Watch for him. The Falcons will battle the Saints for the division. It should be a great race.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs come into this season with plenty of promise but a few lingering questions remain. Most of the questions are on defence. With Barrett Ruud gone, can Mason Foster replace him at middle linebacker? Does Ronde Barber have one more season left in him at cornerback? Can DT Gerald McCoy recover from a torn left bicep? If the answers to all these questions is yes then the Bucs could contend in the South. If it’s no, then the Bucs could be in big trouble. The offence looks to be in good shape. QB Josh Freeman is looking like the real deal behind center. Showing poise beyond his years, Freeman looks like the next Doug Williams, and that’s welcome news to Tampa Bay fans. LeGarrette Blount is one of the most athletic running backs in the NFL. His dazzling runs consistently make the highlight reels and he has power to boot. The receivers are solid as Mike Williams and Arrellous Benn had breakout seasons. Kellen Winslow Jr. has plenty of potential at tight end, but has shown only glimpses so far. The Bucs he can show more this season. The offensive line is getting better and they are staying intact. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has the potential to be a pro bowler for years to come. The Bucs are close but too many questions leave this team a year away.
4. Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers were simply atrocious last year. Their 2-14 record was the worst in the NFL and they were fortunate to win both games. The consolation prize for Carolina was the first pick in the draft. Hello Cam Newton. The 2010 Heisman trophy winner brings athleticism and a winning touch to the team. Yes he bring controversy as well but at this rate, the Panthers can live with it. The Panthers aren’t completely void of talent. DeAngelo Williams is a fine running back if he can stay healthy and Steve Smith is an outstanding receiver…when he wants to be. The Panthers did sign tight end Jeremy Shockey in order to improve the passing game. With the exception of left tackle Jordan Gross, the offensive line is filled with question marks. The line must step up its game and protect Newton for Carolina to improve. The defence has potential but needs to improve. Charles Johnson did lead the team with 11.5 sacks and is well on his way to becoming a Pro Bowl type defensive end. Linebacker James Anderson led the team in tackles and is a solid on the outside. Chris Gamble had an off-year last season and must regain his 2005 form when he had 7 interception for the Panthers. Carolina will be improved, but the division is too strong for it to show in the standings.
1. St. Louis Rams.
The Greatest Show on Turf? Well not quite but the Rams are on the rise and are my pick to win the NFC West. The main reason is quarterback Sam Bradford. Many questions were asked about the former first overall pick concerning his health. But Bradford stayed fit and produced a season worthy enough to be named offensive rookie of the year. If Bradford continues to progress, the Rams have themselves a quarterback to build the team around. Running back Steven Jackson also had a terrific season last year as he rushed for 1,241 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. He’ll continue to carry the running game. The surprise last year was the emergence of receiver Danny Amendola. The third year pro caught 85 passes last season and became Bradford’s go-to target downfield. The Rams do lack depth at receiver so someone else has to step up. Its uncertain whether Amendola will continue at this pace. The O-Line struggled at times but improved as the season wore on. Still it needs to improve more to ensure Bradford’s health. The defence improved last season but still needs work. James Laurinaitis is a future star at middle linebacker. “Little Animal” led the team with 114 tackles and is a hard-hitting force. James Hall had 10.5 sacks last year and was a great addition to the Rams defence last year. The Rams did lose Oshiomogho Atogwe to free agency so the secondary is a concern in the Gateway City. This is a weak division and the Rams have the best quarterback. So yes to the division but no to an NFC title berth for the Rams.
2. Arizona Cardinals.
As David Bowie once sang, Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes. That’s the theme for the Arizona Cardinals this year. A new quarterback for one. Kevin Kolb arrives from Philadelphia bringing great potential but little game experience to the desert. The Cards hope that Kolb can solve their quarterback woes so that fans won’t be dreaming of Kurt Warner coming back again. One advantage Kolb has is that he’ll have Larry Fitzgerald to throw too. One of the premier receivers in the game, Fitzgerald can make any type of catch look easy and isn’t afraid of taking the big hit. The Cards also added tight end Todd Heap via free agency. Heap is hoping to show his former team the Ravens gave up on him too soon. The offensive line was a mess and needs to improve this season. On defence the Cards do have players I like. Darnell Dockett is a solid tackle. Clark Hagans is a proven linebacker and Adrian Wilson is one of the most underrated safeties in the game. However Joey Porter has lost a step on the outside and questions abound whether the former Steeler has seen better days. The Cards will challenge the Rams for the division. But too many question marks have these birds not quite ready to leave the nest.
3. Seattle Seahawks.
The beautiful Pacific Northwest is a wonderful place to visit. Unless you’re the away team at CenturyLink Field, formerly known as Quest Field. The noise the fans can generate in that stadium have shattered many an eardrum. For Seahawks fans, they hope to make that type of noise again this season. It won’t be easy. Tavaris Jackson is the new quarterback by way of Minnesota. Jackson didn’t see much playing time with the Vikings because of Brett Favre stealing the show. Now with a new start in Seattle, Jackson hopes that he can shine. He did bring Sidney Rice with him. Rice is a rising star and his speed will make defences take notice. Marshawn Lynch is a solid running back and perhaps had the best run of the season in the playoffs against New Orleans. If Lynch can show those types of runs with more regularity the Seahawks will be thrilled. The Seahawks also nabbed tight end Zach Miller to give Jackson another option. The offensive line isn’t the same with Walter Jones retired. Left tackle Russell Okung could be a star if he stays healthy. The rest of the line is questionable. On defence the Seahawks surprisingly released MLB Lofa Tatupu who was the leader of the defence for the last 6 seasons. Leroy Hill does return to the Pacific Northwest via San Francisco. Earl Thomas is a future star at safety. However Aaron Curry needs to show improvement at outside linebacker. I’m not convinced Tavaris Jackson is the guy to lead the Seahawks. He has to prove me wrong.
4. San Francisco 49ers.
Last year at this time most people (myself included) picked the 49ers to win the NFC West. Well, after starting 0-5 that saw coach Mike Singletary’s career thrown out the windo many questions remain in the Bay area. Is Alex Smith a number 1 quarterback? Can Frank Gore return to from following injuries and a holdout? Can Jim Harbaugh make the transition from college coach to NFL coach? Can receiver Michael Crabtree develop a positive attitude and showcase his immense talent? Can Braylon Edwards correct his tendency of dropping passes? Can the defence led by linebacker Patrick Willis continue to improve? As you can see there are far too many questions for my liking. The Niners have some pieces, but not enough to escape the basement of the NFC West.
AFC Wildcards: NY Jets, Baltimore
NFC Wildcards: Atlanta, Dallas.
AFC Championship: New England over Pittsburgh
NFC Championship: Green Bay over Philadelphia
Super Bowl: New England over Green Bay