While we have spent a majority of the last month focusing on college football, today is the day when the big brother NFL kicks off. There is a large contingent of people who say that this is the true kickoff of the football season. The Titans face the defending champion Steelers in the opening game. We throw our ASD predictions into the pot at the last possible second after reading and hearing all the analysis from the so-called "experts". One thing that irks me is the fact that strength of schedule is always brought up in the NFL when clearly the trend this decade is that there will be a group of playoff teams that completely fall off and some surprise teams will rise up. That is the parody of the NFL; it's not that each year any team can flip-flop into a winner or loser, there are the elite teams at the top, the horrible franchises at the bottom, and the teams in the middle oscillate between being an upstart playoff team and double-digit losses. Each division is picked in order of predicted finish and the playoffs as well after the break.
New England Patriots: The Patriots will not and cannot be as dominating as they were two seasons ago. First off, they are replacing 6 starters on defense that had years of experience in the league and under Belichick's system. This does not mean that they cannot be a sturdy crew. Also, after Brady went down last year I think a bit of restraint will go into Belichick's head. If they are up 20 in the 4th, Brady is coming out and they are running the clock out. The 2007 season was a once in a lifetime run at perfection for the Patriots, and they failed. Now it is a matter of trying to get their hands on the Lombardi trophy and nothing else. The offense should be firing on all cylinders once again with Brady and the Pats should be able to attain 12 wins.
Miami Dolphins: While the Dolphins will finish second, I do not see the playoffs in their season this year. They will not sneak up on anyone this year. Teams will be gearing up to stop the wildcat and whatever offensive coordinator Dan Henning has cooked up with Pat White. Tony Soprano has the team moving in the right direction as a whole, but the Dolphins will not catch the good fortune they had last year. The wildcat is said to produce 5.5 yards per play which is impressive, but something that sticks in my mind is this: Last year at the end of the season the Dolphins played New England again after carving them up in Foxboro with the wildcat and in that rematch the wildcat only netted 25 yards. In the Dolphins' wild-card round playoff loss to Baltimore they had only 7 yards from the formation. In other words, the wildcat gimmick can work in the NFL but if you run into a team that has seen it before and has the good players to stop it, it can be stopped.
New York Jets: This pick is made mostly due to what Rex Ryan will being to the Jets' defense. Besides being a great defensive mind, Ryan gets players excited to play defense for him and they believe that they can beat anybody. I do see the Jets struggling on offense though. Mark Sanchez is going to find that he is not picking apart the Oregon secondary with 12 seconds to throw the ball. He is going to have to make split-second decisions and fit balls in very tight spaces and while in the long run I think he has what it takes to be a successful NFL QB, for right now it will be a learning process that will handcuff the ability for New York to score.
Buffalo Bills: Even TO could not believe all the people waiting for him in the airport when he arrived in Buffalo. Have these people not learned to get their hopes up? Ignoring the fact that the offense was abysmal in the preseason, the Bills have questions on the offensive line and linebacker. Can former Penn State stars Aaron Maybin and Paul Posluszny anchor down their defense? People want to believe that bringing one aging star who gets a bevy of media attention can fix all the cracks within the team but in this league that is not the case. I foresee not a total disaster this year for the Bills, but one that is far from playoff contention.
Pittsburgh Steelers: You would be hard-pressed to find someone this side of Baltimore than does not have the Steelers taking this division again. Everyone from their core that won the Super Bowl is back, including reigning defensive player of the year and White House detractor James Harrison. With the defense expected to be every bit as staunch as it was and the offense continuing to evolve in the passing game, Pittsburgh once again claims the division and most likely the number one seed in the AFC.
Baltimore Ravens: In another case of last year repeating the Ravens should finish right below the Steelers in the division. The loss of Rex Ryan and Bart Scott does have an impact but with Suggs, Ray-Lew, and Ed Reed patrolling the backfield Baltimore will have a chance to win every game they play. The key to this year's team is the development of Joe Flacco. he was able to be "game manager" last year but if Baltimore succeeds they need him to make plays when they run into teams with similarly strong defenses. A healthy Todd Heap would go a long way into making that happen.
Cincinnati Bengals: I thoroughly enjoyed watch "Hard-Knocks" on HBO. I think it gave a great glimpse into how the Bengals are working to eradicate their recent history of fail. The uncomfortable feelings also oozed through the TV whenever team president Mike Brown was running a meeting, talking to Andre Brown, or giving his thoughts on the team. When Marvin Lewis and coaches talk, you believe their optimism and you want to root for them. When the Don Rickles look-alike Brown was giving his thoughts, you felt like you needed a shower. I have every confidence that Carson Palmer and Chad Ocho Cinco will deliver big seasons this year and that the Bengals will be around if not above .500 but fall short of the playoffs. Is the over/under on Andre Brown field time this year 30 minutes?
Cleveland Browns: There is no reason for me to believe the Browns are going to turn the corner this year. It took them this long to name Brady Quinn the starter and while Browns' fans may like the result,what took so long? If Quinn is such a better option than Anderson, why did it take this long? Mangini trying to be coy? It all points to the fact in my opinion that the Browns are not ready to put together a successful season. I can honestly see them going 1-5 in the division.
Houston Texans That's right, you're reading that correctly. No, I would not bet the farm on this prediction but I jumped on this bandwagon last year and I feel the only way to exceed the simple surprise playoff predictions from most analysts is to bite the big one and say that the Texans will finish ahead of the Titans and Colts. Gary Kubiak has the offense where he wants it, the defense will be the question. Outside of DeMario Williams can you name another defensive starter? They will have to make themselves known if the Texans plan to win. New linebacker Brian Cushing will have to have immediate impact and with Eugene Wilson sidelined thanks to Brett Favre's "exuberance" the defensive backfield is a question as well. If Matt Schaub cannot stay healthy at QB then it will be up to (rolls eyes) Rex Grossman. I am really talking myself out of this pick but it's too late now.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans actually played well when Albert Haynesworth was out of the lineup last year, but a wholes season without him may prove troublesome. Still you can expect this Jeff Fisher team to play tough defense and limit opponents scoring. Kerry Collins again will work the gray-bearded magic and have the Titans in the playoffs. The enigma that is VY will pine for playing time but unless an injury happens I doubt he will ever see the field as a starter for Tennessee.
Indianapolis Colts: It is hard to put the Colts and Peyton down here, but I had to make room for my sweet Texans pick! The Colts have undergone a changing of leadership at their coaching positions and lost their franchise wideout. While Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez are worthy of picking up the slack, and Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai can be great when healthy, I just think the Colts have lost their edge. That is not to say that they are not a good football team. 9 or 10 wins is a possibility but for the first time since 2001, the team will miss the playoffs.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jack Del Rio has taken the Jags to the playoffs multiple times but after this year, I think he wears out his welcome. After starting his career with a flurry, David Gerrard has come back down to earth and with the only proven receiver being Torry Holt, the passing game figures to struggle. They are young but unproven at many positions and youth often leads to volatility. Can Derrick Harvey make an impact this year after a tough rookie season? Add a tough division to the questions and it figures to be a rough year for the teal-tongued cats.
San Diego Chargers: The division is the Chargers' to lose, which they just about did last year. LT coming back was huge for the offense which should be as potent as ever. Merriman returning on defense should help the Chargers throttle opposing rush attacks (sorry could not help myself). The biggest reason to pick San Diego is the rest of the division which I think will have bad years.
Kansas City Chiefs: While people wait to see the health of Matt Cassel will play week 1, do not forget that Tyler Thigpen is a capable back-up who played well for them last year. Todd Haley and Scott Pioli begin their tenure with a revamped 3-4 defense anchored by 2 former LSU linemen Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. The success of the defense is definitely up in the air. They have added veteran Mike Vrabel and their safeties have returned as well. Yet I still think the Chiefs defense will be a problem. Fantasy players are high on Larry Johnson coming back strong this year and it may very well happen but like the rest of the Chiefs, it is a game of wait and see.
Denver Broncos: I believe Josh McDaniels came into Denver thinking he could run the team exactly the way Bill Belichick ran the Patriots. What may have escaped McDaniels' mind was that the Hoodie faltered in his first coaching job in Cleveland because of a quarterback issue and the way he took on the players and media. The only way Belichick got to where he is now is because Tom Brady became Tom Brady combined with Bill's superior game-planning ability. McDaniels thought he could jump right in and do it his way. Subsequently he lost his starting QB right off the bat, faced the harsh criticism from the media and now is looking at Kyle Orton or Chris Simms to lead his team. This is going to be a long year for Broncos fans and I am unsure if McDaniels does not get the axe at the end of it.
Oakland Raiders: What can I say that has not already been said?
New York Giants: The Giants won the division easily last year mostly without Plaxico. Now people said that hurt them in the playoffs but now the Giants receiving core has known from day 1 that Burress will not be there. I also think rookie Hakeem Nicks is a star in the making and will be that deep threat for Eli. But then you see what they have added on the defensive line; Osi is back, Tuck returns, and Rocky Bernard is added. The front four will take a lot of pressure off the back seven. Derrick Ward is gone to Tampa so with one of the elements gone from Earth, Wind, and Fire it is unlikely that the Giants will be able to summon Captain Planet but they still have two solid running backs.
Philadelphia Eagles: Everyone is very high on the Eagles this year, which makes me cautious. I personally think that Vick will have very little impact on the field this year barring injury. The offense has a lot to like with McNabb at QB, Jackson and Maclin at WR, and the Westbrook/McCoy combo at RB. It could be the defense that struggles for the Eagles. MLB Stewart Bradley is done for the year which leaves their starting LBs as follows: Chris Gocong, Joe Mays, Akeem Jordan. And while they will be playing for Jim Johnson, they may miss some of what he could breakdown on his side of the ball. They will still blitz and blitz often but it may result in a lot of getting burned.
Washington Redskins: When you look at the Redskins' defense, it is damn impressive. Haynesworth added to the defensive line, Orakpo, London Fletcher, and Rocky McIntosh at LB, and Laron Landry, Carlos Rogers, and DeAngelo Hall in the defensive backfield. That will get the Skins to ten wins this year, but with the tough division I think they will finish no better than 3rd in the East.
Dallas Cowboys: I see no improvement for this team from last year while every other team in the division has gotten better. Roy Williams is going to have to show me something before I grant him status as a great wide receiver. Tony Romo got a lot of fan fair when he came on the scene, but that was years ago and he still has not limited his mistakes. The pressure put on this team by their owner, the media, the fans, and the players themselves seems to ignite an internal combustion that ends the season in collapse.
Green Bay Packers: The Vikings with Favre, the Bears with Cutler, lost in the fray has been the Packers. It was not the play of Aaron Rodgers that caused the Pack to falter last year. Rodgers has been groomed for years and has the physical tools to be an elite QB. I think he takes that step this year. If the defense gets their act together and stays healthy, then I see no reason why the Packers should not rise above the other teams in this division.
Minnesota Vikings: That is not to say that the AFC North will not be very competitive. Aside from Favre, the Vikings have a great team. AP always gives you a chance to win and many underestimate Chester Taylor as a back-up. If Percy Harvin adds the dimension they want the offensive balance could be very good. There is no reason to think the Vikes defense will slack off at all this year, they will still be tough to put 7 on.
Chicago Bears: Cutler gives the Bears a solid QB for the first time but someone has to be the odd man out in this division and I think it will be the Bears. I like their defense just as much as Green Bay or Minnesota but if I had to defend my reasoning it would be at the wideout position. Devin Hester should be allowed to develop at the position instead of being labeled as go-to-guy in only his second year of consistently playing the position. I think Cutler and Greg Olsen will do nice things though and the Bears will be over .500 at season's end.
Detroit Lions: Where at this point in professional sports, especially in the NFL can you get to the point as a coach where 1 win is considered a success? Apparently in Detroit. Jim Schwartz has to just win one game to improve on last year's debacle. Pinning the hopes to Matt Stafford right off the bat is a bad move in my opinion. Stafford is getting thrown to the wolves and despite developing a good rhythm with Megatron, this is not the ideal situation you want your franchise quarterback to be in. I still think Detroit wins 3 or 4 games this year.
New Orleans Saints: /ducks. The Panther fans around these parts will not like this section of the picks but I think the Saints are going to be very good this year. Sean Payton and Drew Brees will continue to get only more efficient and imaginative on offense while the defense will be the big hurdle for this team to overcome. Making Pierre Thomas the full-time RB and making Reggie Bush the slot/wildcard guy will help the offense tremendously. While my gut misleads me more than not, I think this will be a special year in New Orleans. Be prepared to see a lot of Katrina montages.
Atlanta Falcons: I expect the Falcons to come back down to earth a bit this year. While the much of the components return from last year in Turner, White, and Ryan, they did lose speedy wideout Harry Douglas. Yet they have also added Tony Gonzalez. Matt Ryan showed he has the makings of a star and Turner is a great powerful runner, but I am not sold on the defense. The balls don't quite bounce in their favor and despite possibly getting to double-digit wins they fall short of the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers: All off-season the talk around here has been the bitter taste from the shelling they took from Arizona at home in the playoffs. It was up to the team to fix what went wrong. But did they? The Julius Pepper situation was a debacle to the nth degree. I feel certain he will infuriate Panther fans this year with more uninspired play while collected his $17 million paycheck. The loss of runstopper Maake Kemoeatu for the year at DT was crippling. I do have confidence in the Panther offense however. Jonathan Stewart is back in practice, and DeAngelo Williams should have another big year. You know what you will get from Steve Smith every game and Dwayne Jarrett is expected to make the leap this year. I just don't see the defense stopping anyone and while the opposing team plays ball control, the Panthers offense sits on the sideline. It will be tough to swallow for Panther fans after last year's success but it appears to be a season hovering around .500 in Carolina.
Tampa Bay Bucs: It's a rebuilding year in Tampa. They know it, we know it, the league knows it. That relaxes expectations and the team should play with no pressure. I was high on Josh Freeman during the draft and I think he could be under center by the last part of the year. At season's end, the Bucs will probably be at the bottom of the South but have a good idea where to improve.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seabirds were completely beaten down last year with injuries and disappointment but I think this year they get back on track. I like the backfield combo of Julius Jones and Edge. If Hasselbeck is right the passing game should return to form. They're going toget the ball and they are gonna score. While the secondary maybe a bit sketchy I like the linebacking core. How could you not? Hill, Tatupu, and Curry. The Cardinals will not be as "great" as they were last year and Seattle once again wins the division.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals were a 9-7 division winner last year and I think they will repeat the record without the playoff run this year. I do not expect the team to be as hot as they were last year in the playoffs all year long. Their problems on defense will plague them again and despite the offense running efficiently, no free pass on the home playoff game this year.
San Francisco 49ers: Everyone is piling on the Michael Crabtree hate train right now and I am here to say: he deserves it. This is completely ridiculous by Crabtree. I don't know if this is a manifestation of his personality or those he has chosen to surround himself with but no matter what kind of deal you have been dealt, I am a believer in getting out on the field no matter what. Ever since that great catch against Texas last year Crabtree has been steadily dropping in my eyes and the eyes of the public. Now public opinion does not matter when it comes to football, but actually getting out on the field does. The Niners are moving in the right direction and despite Catfish pegging them as a surprise playoff team this year I think they are a year away. That is a year away if they finally decide to grab a decent quarterback.
St. Louis Rams: I doubt there is a more classic example of a team not handling the transition of an era well than the Rams. Ever since the turf show they have made decision after decision which has sunk them lower and lower in the standings. Consequently, they will not have a long climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves. Another bleak year while sports fans in St. Louis choose to focus on their baseball team.
AFC Wildcard Round
Ravens over Texans
Titans over Chargers
Patriots over Ravens
Titans over Steelers
Patriots over Titans
NFC Wildcard Round
Vikings over Seahawks
Packers over Eagles
Saints over Vikings
Giants over Packers
Saints over Giants
Saints over Patriots
Yes, I am picking the Saints. Maybe I wanted to avoid picking my team to win it all but I feel the Saints will do in the playoffs what the Cardinals did last year and have their defense get hot and force turnovers. Last year my Super Bowl picks did not even make the playoffs so consider that before you take stock in my picks. The Saints winning it all this year? It's not unusual...is it?
No it isn't Drew, no it isn't.