The NFL season kicked off last night and we couldn’t have asked for a better game to start the season, if that game is any indication as to the type of season we are about to have I say awesome, bring it. So with the first game of the season underway, with two NFC teams having played last night, now would seem to be the perfect time for an AFC preview.
First things first, remember all the parity we heard so much about last year? Yeah, well you can forget about that ‘P’ word this year, because for now, at least, that’s flown right out the window. For most of last season there was very little that separated the very good teams from the kind of good teams and the same goes for the not really any good teams to the just plain bad teams. But then the Patriots started distancing themselves from the pack, piling up win after win, but clearly parity still reigned supreme considering the eventual Super Bowl Champions barely made the playoffs, due just as much to the futility of the Giants as it was to the Packers hitting their stride.
This year looks like it should play out much differently. Blame it on the lockout if you want, I’ll choose to pass on the blame placing and just accept the reality of the facts that face us. I realize the season isn’t played out on paper, anything can happen, teams always surprise and all that ‘Any Given Sunday’ stuff, but this year’s NFL is top heavy with a whole bunch of dead weight dragging the rest of the league down and I can’t see anyone being enough of a surprise to really shock anyone.
In the NFC I think the picture is pretty clear, Saints and Falcons make the playoffs (one division winner the other wild-card), Packers win the division and the Rams win theirs (unless Kevin Kolb can surprise me). I would still say the Eagles should be the favorite to win the East, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cowboys make a run at it. Which would leave either the Cowboys or Eagles fighting for that last wild-card spot with the Lions as the only other real viable option if, I know it’s a gigantic if, Matthew Stafford can stay healthy. The Buccaneers have an outside chance, but I think they will regress a little bit and I couldn’t be less impressed with teams like the Bears and Giants right now. In the end I think we see a rematch of last night’s shootout to determine who the NFC representative will be in the Super Bowl (Check the tape, or in this case my timeline to see I made this prediction before the game started yesterday, @Cnimbley).
In the AFC things look very much the same. In two of the divisions you have two teams extremely likely to earn a playoff birth and in the other two divisions you have one team each that is simply much better than the rest of their respective division. In fact there is even less wiggle room with my playoff predictions in the AFC than the NFC as I would put the odds on me going 6-6 on AFC playoff teams at about 98.7 percent (feel free to go ahead and save this to slander me if when I’m wrong).
The Chiefs were one of the surprising teams last year, but once they lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis they really struggled to find their groove and with Matt Cassel already hurt and the team facing a much tougher schedule I don’t anticipate seeing them back the playoffs. The Broncos have a new coach that is installing a new system with personnel that doesn’t match and will likely have a tough time finding their identity this season and the Raiders are still the Raiders, tough team potentially on any given day, but not consistent or dangerous enough to be a viable playoff contender. Which leaves us with the Chargers easily running away with the division and finding themselves back in the playoff mix.
Pick- Chargers (10-6)
In the north it’s really hard not to like the Steelers because well, they are the Steelers (returning players, cake walk schedule). The Ravens I don’t think will be quite as good as they were last year (no Mason security blanket for Flacco, no Heap, o-line and secondary issues), and while the Browns should be competitive they lack the firepower to keep up with the likes of the Steelers and Ravens. The Steelers easy schedule (face the Ravens twice and Patriots once, with the Texans, Browns, Rams and Chiefs rounding out their ‘toughest’ opponents) should allow them to win this division with relative ease and battle for the number one spot in the AFC as a 13-3 record seems very doable. While I expect the Ravens to regress a bit, I have a hard time seeing anyone else knock them from one of the wild-card spots.
Pick- Steelers (13-3) win division, Ravens (10-6) wild-card
It looks like it’s going to finally be the Texans year and everyone who has said the Texans will make the playoffs over the last three years will finally be right, even if they are a few years late. With the injury and uncertainty surrounding Peyton Manning’s neck the Colts will likely struggle to finish 8-8, in fact I’m going to say the season is over before Manning can comeback and the Colts finish around 4-12.
I keep seeing/hearing people mention that the Patriots survived the injury to Tom Brady to have a decent season, but this Colts team has nowhere near the level of talent that Patriots team did and with all due respect to Jim Caldwell, he clearly isn’t on Bill Belichick’s level. Which is okay because few, if any, are.
The Titans will likely find themselves fighting to stay around 8-8 as well, Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback in 2011 isn’t exactly scaring anyone and the Chris Johnson holdout may be over, but something tells me it’s going to take him a little while to get back on track, if the team is even capable of getting him there this year. As for Jacksonville, they just cut David Garrard and plan on going with Luke McCown as their starter, news that is pure delight to the ears of every Jets fan who realizes the Jaguars come to MetLife Stadium in week two. The Texans will finally earn a playoff spot, but no one else in this division has much of a chance.
Pick- Texans (9-7)
Which brings us to the AFC East, the home of the New York Jets. The Bills have improved slightly, but improving from last year just slightly will hardly be enough. Interestingly enough if there is going to be a surprise team in the AFC I think it will be the Dolphins. The Dolphins defense is good enough that they could possibly beat out the Ravens for that last wild-card spot if everything breaks right for them, but their quarterback and running back situations (they were a power running team, who now has no power runners) make it hard for me to see that actually coming to fruition.
So for you math majors that now leaves us with the Patriots and the Jets as the last two talked about teams as well as the last two playoffs predictions. Even if the Dolphins can be that surprise team I still see both the Jets and Patriots making the playoffs, but the question will be who is the wild-card that will have to go on the road in the first week of the playoffs, against a team that quite possibly will have a worse record than them? And who will win the division and earn at least one home playoff game, maybe even two?
With the season having not even started yet I’ll just come out and say it, I think the Jets are the better team. However I don’t think I feel as comfortable saying the Jets will have the better record, in fact I know I don’t. The thing is the Patriots and Jets are clearly two of the best teams in the league, difference being the Patriots are the much more consistent team and they tend to play like one of the best teams in football week in and week out. The Jets as we know have had trouble with that consistency thing. I do expect to see some improvement from the team in this area this season, but the Patriots are great at beating teams they should beat and the majority of their schedule is against teams that they should beat.
The Jets meanwhile often play down to the competition and that came back to bite them last year. Will it again this year? I don’t know, probably not nearly as much, but if I had to choose which team will have more regular season let downs between the Jets and Patriots, I’m rolling with history and saying it will likely be the Jets.
It may take as many as 13 games to win this division and while I do think the Jets can possibly reach that mark, I think it’s a pretty tall order to expect that much from them. 12-4 or 11-5 is where I see the Jets falling and I’m going to say they repeat last year’s 11-5 record (with the offense taking some time to find it’s rhythm) and the Patriots narrowly winning the division at 12-4. Giving the Steelers and Patriots first-round byes and once again sending the Jets on the road for an opening playoff game against a team with a worse record than them.
Hey, Mr. Goodell, it’s time you rethink this division winners automatically host a playoff game rule. Keep the division winners earning an automatic playoff birth for the reward of winning your division, but a team shouldn’t be rewarded for playing in a terrible division (racking up easy wins within the division should be enough of a reward) while conversely another team with a better record is punished for playing in an actually competitive division, but what does common sense and logic really have to do with anything?
If this is how things play out, obviously the Jets and their fans will be disappointed, as well they should be, but ultimately if the Jets want to win this division they will most likely need other teams to listen to Rex Ryan’s plea to please beat the Patriots because there aren’t a lot of teams on their schedule that appear to be capable of such a feat. As disappointing as this result would be, this doesn’t rule the Jets out of making a Super Bowl run at all, it’s just if they don’t get that help from the rest of the league they will have to jump right out the gate playing to their ability and have no letdowns if they want to avoid taking the scenic route to the Super Bowl.
Pick Patriots (12-4), Jets wild-card (11-5)
So that’s it, in my opinion there aren’t a lot of playoff spots that aren’t already reserved. There is a select group of teams in each conference who actually have a shot at the playoffs and everyone else might as well go kick rocks.