By Jason Fryer
Now that the soap opera known as the NFL lockout has been completed for about a month, and preseason football is underway, its time to look forward and project how the NFL season will turn out and who will occupy the 6 NFC and AFC playoff spots and eventually reach the Super Bowl.
Is this the year the Houston Texans push through and overtake the
Indianapolis Colts and win the AFC South? Like Lee Corso says on College
Gameday "Not so fast." Before I examine why I feel the Colts will
prevail and win the AFC South for the 8th time in the past 9 years. Before I examine why I feel the Colts will hold off the Texans, I will examine the rest of the division. The Tennessee Titans are a very interesting team that could become a surprise team from the AFC South or a team that starts the Jake Locker era early. Two main questions exist with the Titans, which are: how will the team respond to a new heard coach (Mike Munchak) and Quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck), and will Chris Johnson play football this year? If these questions are answered yes, I feel the Titans can become a surprise team in this division and possibly overtake the Texans for second in the division.
As for the Jaguars, I feel they have a number of problems including at the Quarterbacks position and not knowing where the organization will be playing in the future. As for the Texans, they will be a much-improved team (especially on defense with the additions of Jonathan Joseph and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips) but in the end not enough to offset the Indianapolis Colts. In a shortened off-season and the other three teams making significant changes to there rosters, the Colts were the team that kept there roster together and have one of the 5 best Quarterbacks in the NFL.
The "black and blue" division known as the AFC North always has two-teams close to the top division. Like other years, this division will be a two-team race to see who gets to the playoffs, and no team will run away with the division title. Before I examine the AFC North playoff teams from a year ago, I will examine the questions that exist within the two teams that reside in the state of Ohio. First, the Bengals, which I feel might be the most dysfunctional team in the NFL (yes, even more problems than the Raiders and Redskins).
They have a rookie QB, a coach who thought after the season ended would be looking for another job, and another Quarterback that would rather retire than play for the Cincinnati Bengals. As for the Northern Ohio team, I feel they have a nice young nucleus under team president Mike Holmgren and new coach Mike Shurmur, but are still a few years away from competing with the Ravens and Steelers. As for the reigning AFC Champions, the previous two seasons the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, the Steelers missed the playoffs the following year.
There was one significant difference between the two previous appearances in the Super Bowl and last years' appearance; they lost in last year's game. I feel the Steelers will still be a formidable team throughout the 2011 season, but I feel the Ravens (and more importantly Joe Flacco) will take the next step and win the AFC North. The Ravens have a great defense (Lewis, Reed, Ngata, Suggs) but need the offense to step up, and I feel this is the year they'll step up and win the division title.
The most disappointing division in the AFC last year and if not for the NFC West would have been the worst overall division. The Oakland Raiders are once again going in circles and having no idea what direction where they are going. The Raiders once again fired another head coach (there 7th head coach since 2001) and lost their best player to free agency (Nnamdi Asomugha). A year after fishing 6-0 in the division last year, I feel the Raiders will fall back in the division and finish in last place. There are a number of holes on this team that need to be filled and the holes will take a long time to it fill.
As for the Denver Broncos, this is a team with a number of "blue chip" players including: Ryan Calady, Brandon Lloyd, Elvis Dumervil, D.J. Williams, Champ Bailey, and number 2 overall pick Von Miller. If Kyle Orton wins the job, I could see the Broncos surpassing the Chiefs and finishing in second place for the division crown. The reigning AFC West champion Chiefs have a number of playmakers on defense and one of the best running backs in football (Jamal Charles) in the backfield. The Chiefs have one of the best home field advantages at Arrowhead Stadium, and most of their players returning from last years team, yet I feel the San Diego Chargers will easily win this division, by possibly 3 games.
The most talented team in the division, a top 5 Quarterback in the NFL, and the best offense and defense statistics last year with a number of problems that will be fixed this year, will lead this team back to the postseason. Though the chargers did loose a number of important pieces on there team (Darren Sproles and Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera), I still feel this is by far the best team in the division and now will have Vicente Jackson for a full year, Ryan Matthews healthy Marcus McNeal has a new contract, and hopefully better special teams. The Chargers will once again be a force in the AFC.
Ah the AFC East, also known as the "high school drama" division. It seems that at least once a day a team in this division is the featured story on a national television show. Wither it's a team that is attempting to sign another coach while having a coach already under contract, a team that has such a great fan-base yet still makes them loose one home game a year to our neighbors to the North, a coach who provides as many sound bites as Ozzie Guillen, or the most successful NFL coach of the past decade. Lets start dissecting this division by examining the Miami Dolphins who lost their two running backs to free agency and replaced them with Reggie Bush.
If that wasn't bad enough, they have an extremely talented but never know what he'll do next wide receiver in Brandon Marshall. And then there's the quarterback situation. At Dolphins training camp, all you hear when Henne's out there is "boo" or "we want Orton." I feel this team is right on track to land Andrew Luck and start over with Luck and a solid offensive line. The Buffalo Bills aren't strides ahead of the Miami Dolphins but at least proved to football fans last year that there team will show up on Sunday. They decided to take a flyer on Shawn Merriman and see what's left in his football tank and add some bulk on the defensive line with number 3 pick, Marcell Dareus. Though I feel they will once again finish in a disappointing third place, they will entertain the fans of Buffalo (and one Sunday a year Toronto) and play hard. As for the two kings of this division, I feel the race for first will be entertaining and nail biting.
The previous two years, the Patriots won the Division titles, yet lost there first playoff game both times. As for the Jets, they won the Wild Card the last two years and both times won two road games before being defeated in the AFC Championship game. I feel the AFC East will have the same finish this year as well with Jets finishing in second and Patriots in first. Mark Sanchez progressed from year one to year two, now he needs to progress even more in year three to overtake the Patriots and MVP Tom Brady. At the same time like Rex Ryan said, there's only team who can beet the Patriots, the Jets.
Even though I don't have either the Jets or Steelers winning their respective divisions, at the end of the day we will see both the Jets and Steelers in the playoffs. Though I don't have either team winning there division title doesn't mean I feel they can't advance far into the playoffs as a low seed. In fact, both of these teams have great track records of reaching far in the playoffs as lower seeds: (the Jets the previous two years reached the AFC Championship game and the Steelers Super Bowl XL as the 6th seed). With this said, I almost picked the Texans as a wild card participant with there improved defense (good luck stopping outside linebacker Mario Williams). At the end of the day, I feel they will be even closer but just not there yet.
New York Jets
I feel this is the season the Jets put everything together and reach the big game in Indy. Why? Because I'm listening to Rex Ryan, who in Indy (where the Super Bowl will be this year) "guaranteed the Jets would win the Super Bowl this year." I know Rex has said comments like this in the past but I truly believe that this year Mark Sanchez will take another step, the defensive will stay the same, and the Jets now have Santonio Holmes for a full year. Mark Sanchez's top two wide receivers have each made game winning catches in a Super Bowl and one was named the game's MVP. I feel this is the times the Jets take the next step and reach their first Super Bowl since a quarterback from the University of Alabama brought the AFL its first ever title.
The NFC South had two teams that made the playoffs and each had more than 12 wins; yet neither team won a playoff game. The Saints had a tumultuous 2010 season with its share of ups and downs, yet when it was all said and done still earned a playoff spot. The Falcons on the other hand, had a magical 2010 season that came to an abrupt end curtsey of the Green Bay Packers. But what about the projections for the 2011 NFC South crown? Starting with the Carolina Panthers who unfortunately have a long road ahead to compete for an NFC South title.
The Panthers have an intriguing offense under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski with former University of Miami tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen (who played under Chudzinski was a coach at "The U"). With that said, I feel Jimmy Clausen is not an NFL starting Quarterback, Cam Newton is at least two years away from picking up a pro offense, and Ron Rivera's defense will take longer than 1 month to learn (thanks lockout). As for the young and upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in Josh Freeman. Freeman took the lowly young Buccaneers, and had them in the playoff picture up until the final week of the season. I feel Freeman has a lot of the qualities a young Dante Culpepper had, and I hope he only keeps progressing unlike Culpepper's career.
As for the two "elite" teams of the NFC South, I feel the Falcons will improve in one category, but fall a little in another category. Atlanta should have one of, if not the best offense in the NFL this year with Matt Ryan, Michael "The Burner" Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and rookie Julio Jones who so far has received rave reviews throughout training camp. With that said, John Abraham is getting older and the rest of the Falcons defense is very vulnerable (just watch the playoff game against Green Bay). As for the 2009 Super Bowl Champions, I feel they will be more under the radar this year and have a much better year. The Saints are a great sleeper team to return to the Super Bowl, and with Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma will be hungry to forget how their season ended in Seattle.
And the award for the worst division in NFL History goes to...the 2010 NFC West. Hard to believe that not one team in a division had a record of at least .500, yet three teams in the NFC South had records over .500 last year. With that said, this division did produce a playoff win last year (Seahawks), and most of the teams should be better than they were last year. I decided to place the 49ers in forth place because as Pete Carroll found out, going from the college ranks to the NFL is a hard, long process that takes time to figure out. I feel Jim Harabaugh can be a great coach, but it will take time and he'll need a better quarterback to lead the 49ers. As for the reigning NFC West champs, they went from an average roster at best and somehow got worse. They decided to release both an offense and defensive captain in the off-season (Matt Hasselbeck and Lofa Tatupu) and replaced Hasselbeck with Tarvaris Jackson.
I've seen the Tarvaris Jackson project in the past, and sorry one of my favorite cities Seattle, but it doesn't end well. As for the Arizona Cardinals, they decided to put all of their marbles in the basket of Kevin Kolb with giving up a second round draft pick, a pro bowl cornerback in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and a large contract. I feel this will help them compete in the disappointing NFC West division yet in the end won't be enough to win the division. The reason I feel the St. Louis Rams will win this division is because they have the best quarterback in the division (Sam Bradford, who I feel will take the next step), an improved offensive line, and a defensive that under defensive genius Steve Spagnuolo will only improve in year three.
The NFC East, like every year provided a great deal of drama and fire works (well known Quarterbacks being traded, a 100 million dollar player not allowed to practice or play, Coaches being fired, and yet another "miracle in the Meadowlands." At least there wasn't any drama or big news this off-season in the NFC East...unless you mean the creation of a so called "dream team." I'll come back to the Eagles later, but lets start with the bottom of the division, the Washington Redskins. The Donovan McNabb project didn't work out so well, so the Redskins decided to turn to ...John Beck and Rex Grossman? Yes the same Rex Grossman that just said he feels the Redskins will win the NFC East.
He might think the Redskins will win the NFC East, but it doesn't mean that anyone else on earth believes that statement. As for the Giants, if they held onto the lead against the Eagles in their matchup in December, or beat the Packers the following week, they would have made the playoffs. Because of terrible game management and completely breaking down, they were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season and watched the playoffs with everyone else. The Giants didn't make any major upgrades, and now one of there best defensive players is out for the start of the season. As for the Cowboys, I feel this team could surprise people and be a contender for a playoff spot.
They didn't make any momentous acquisitions, but they did bring in a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, which, along with a healthy Tony Romo will greatly improve the Cowboys this year. As for the "dream team" also known as the Philadelphia Eagles, they have a ton of pressure on them but at the same time they are now one of the most dynamic teams in all of football with Michael Vick, LaSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Nnamdi Asomugha. Though they have a talented team, I'm still not sold on them going all they way to the Super Bowl because if Michael Vick gets hurt, the Eagles offense takes on a ton of problems.
Coming from a Bears fan this sentence is going to hurt to type...the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl and there only going to get better. I'll get back to talking about the team from the land of cheese in a bit, but want to start off by talking about the most dysfunctional team in football last year, the Minnesota Vikings. Before the 2010 season started, many felt the Vikings were a favorite to win the Super Bowl after loosing a tough NFC Championship game in overtime to the Saints. The Vikings had to tolerate the Brett Favre saga once again, a coach being fired, the acquiring and then cutting of former Viking great Randy Moss, and if that wasn't enough, the roof of there building being blown off.
All of these events lead to at chaotic seasons for the Vikings, and a team that needed a new identity. I feel Donovan McNabb will provide the Vikings with a new identity and making Leslie Frasier the full time head coach was a smart move by the Vikings. With that statement, I feel the Vikings will finish in last place not because the Viking roster is bad, but because the three other teams in the North are impressive. I'm about to say a statement that three years ago (when they finished with a defeated season) people would call me crazy but I feel the Lions will finish at or above .500 this year.
The Lions have two of the top 5 players in the division (Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson), and are one year away from competing for a playoff spot. Most people don't remember this but the winner of the NFC North was...not the Green Bay Packers, but the Chicago Bears. The Bears won the NFC North division title last year and lost only one division game (the last game of the regular season that didn't mean anything to there playoff positioning). The Bears also bring back most of there roster with the exception of one main offensive piece, Olin Kreutz. The Bears also added a little more depth to their roster with the acquisitions of Roy Williams, Marion Barber III, Chris Spencer, and Amobi Okoye.
With that said, the Bears were fortunate enough to have a limited number of injuries last year, unlike the team I feel will win the division this year. Like I said before, every time I type these words it hurts, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl last year and I'm afraid to say the Packers will be even better this year. They have one of the top 3 Quarterbacks and Linebackers on their roster (Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews Jr.). They also have one of the best Tight Ends in football returning to their roster from injury (Jermichael Finley). The Packers are going to be as much, if not more of a force to reckon with this year.
Two of the three teams that I left off the list from last year's playoffs are my wild card teams this year. I feel with the shortened offseason, teams that brought back the majority of their roster will end up returning to the post season the next year. You could make a argument that last years Number one and two seeded playoff teams have more talent than the previous years teams yet I feel the NFC North and South standings will be swapped this year. I also feel the Dallas Cowboys very easily can be on this list if Tony Romo has a nice bounce back year.
Green Bay Packers
The team with the most talent and best continuity will win the NFC title this year. Yes Eagles fans, I said the Packers have the most talent on their team, and not the "dream team." With that said, if the Eagles click right away and Michael Vick avoids an injury, they very well could make me eat my own words and make it to the Super Bowl. There are other contenders that I could see in the big game, which include: the Saints, Falcons, or Bears. Once again this hurts to type, I believe the Green Bay Packers will be the NFC representative in the NFC.
New York Jets
I might be outrageous, but I believe this is the year the New York Jets not just make it back to the big dance, but end up winning the big game. I think this is the year Mark Sanchez becomes a top 10 quarterback in the NFL and instead of making a big mistake, starts to make significant plays in big games. The Jets are returning almost their entire roster (with the exception of Braylon Edwards whom they replaced with Plaxico Burress), and have Santonio Holmes for the entire season. If the Super Bowl were Jets against Packers, it would have two teams that resemble each other in many different ways. Both teams have good wide receivers, solid offensive lines, pro bowl corner backs, and blitzing defenses. The two teams meet in 2010, and the Jets prevailed by a score of 9-0.
Here's another detailed 2011 NFL Preview.
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