Preview and Predictions-
With only a special teams practice on the Jets menu today at Cortland, [a setting which will now recede into the rearview mirror…] I thought it a good time to break out my immense powers of prognostication and bless the readers of this fine website with picks so alarmingly prescient that you’ll think me, from this point forward, a prophet instead of mere journalist. I say that sentence without the slightest sense of irony. Nope. Not one bit. So, without further adieu, my thoughts on all thirty-two teams as the regular season approaches… Teams shall be listed in their predicted order of standing.
The AFC East
1. New England Patriots: Would absolutely love to pick against them, but Tom Brady will probably mirror Dan Marino’s return from Achilles surgery in ’94 and have a great season. [Also starring Matt Cassel as Scott Mitchell] Joey Galloway seems an excellent stealthy addition.
2. New York Jets: The running game should be superb. The air attack is in question, though Dustin Keller is being overlooked as a legitimate pro bowl candidate at tight end. The secondary could be one of the best in the league.
3. Miami Dolphins: Sorry to say, but Chad Pennington is due for an injury per his track record. And despite the hype, I’ve never been sold on Chad Henne. It’ll be interesting to see if defenses adjust to the wildcat formation, a key to the Fish’s surprise ’08.
4. Buffalo Bills: Goes to show that the AFC East is a bit loaded, because there are actually quite a few things I like about the Toronto franchise to be named later, most of all Turk Schonert’s plan to implement a no-huddle offense. This scheme would have been in effect last season, but offensive line woes scuttled the idea. No doubt T.O. will do something borderline insane to garner attention out in the New York hinterlands, and Marshawn Lynch’s lawyer may be a candidate for team MVP before it’s all said and done. Also, Trent Edwards may be a bit too mistake prone to get a quick striking offense in perfect rhythm. Too many question marks, feels like six wins to me, as Dick Jauron icily stares at me from the sidelines.
THE AFC NORTH
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger’s personal issues aside, the Steelers seem a really safe pick here. If he can build on his amazing Super Bowl performance, Santonio Holmes could be the breakout star of ’09. The offensive line is a definite weakness, and one wonders if all those sacks and last second heaves could catch up with Roethlisberger as his career progresses. I definitely think the Steelers caught favorable breaks on their playoff run, [drawing a .500 Chargers team coming off an intense overtime affair and avoiding a road AFC Championship game against the Titans, who totally blew their Divisional match-up against Baltimore] so counting them as an ironclad juggernaut would be a bit presumptions. But the pieces are in place for at least another first place finish.
2. Cincinnati Bengals: Pegging the Bengals as a sleeper has been on my agenda this entire Spring and Summer, and I can’t relent to common sense now. I see Carson Palmer bouncing back big enough to be in MVP consideration. I see Chad Johnson similarly returning to form for a vintage campaign. I see Laveranues Coles being a reliable second option in T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s stead. And I see a solid defense continuing to elevate it’s game. And never bet against desperation: Marvin Lewis is on the hot seat, and he is acting like it, ripping his team after they lost their first exhibition game live on Hard Knocks. [It’s not TV. It’s HBO.]
3. Baltimore Ravens: Sure they kept Ray Lewis, but the losses of Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard will sting their defense. And Lewis, despite his fearsome reputation, is bound to seriously decline at some point soon. Add in a tougher schedule and take away that reliable placebo effect a new coach can bring, and the Ravens seem primed for a step back.
4. Cleveland Browns: Eric Mangini has his work cut out for him in Cleveland, where the long-term situation at quarterback appears in doubt, the running game is anchored by an aging Jamal Lewis, and the top pass catcher led the league in drops. A turgid rebuilding effort appears in the offing.
THE AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers: The class of a very weak field. Phillip Rivers had a quietly spectacular statistical performance last season. LaDainian Tomlinson is earning rave reviews at camp, and Darren Sproles remains a top-shelf compliment, though the mighty mite may be ready to assume an even larger role. On paper the Chargers should run roughshod over this division…
2. Denver Broncos: Remember that aforementioned new coach placebo effect? Well, Josh McDaniels, at the moment, represents the other end of the spectrum, a realm that could be dubbed “Club Kotite”. Not to be overly hard on the guy, but alienating the franchise Q.B. in your first few weeks on the job just can’t be construed as a sound strategic course. If this team gets off to a slow start, locker-room morale could get real ugly. And with consolation prize Kyle Orton struggling to fend of Chris Simms, Denver doesn’t seem in position to burst out of the gate. All of which amounts to second place in the AFC West. Amazing.
3. Kansas City Chiefs: Speaking of new head coaches employing sensible strategies, Todd Haley recently “held out” on naming newly acquired Matt Cassel his starter for the upcoming season. It appears a battle has broken out in Chiefs camp between Cassel, who the franchise paid quite well after attaining his services, and Brodie Croyle, a disappointment to date who has lost playing time to Damon Huard in the recent past. Tempting as it was to place the Chiefs ahead of the dysfunctional Broncos, this dispatch sealed the deal. How will Haley, a noted hothead, deal with building a team clearly a couple of years away from contention? If this potential PR disaster is any indication, it could be a real rough go for the Chiefs.
4. Oakland Raiders: So their head coach broke somebody’s jaw. Am I even supposed to be surprised at this point? Jon Gruden saved the Raiders in the late nineties, and Bill Callahan won with a team he left gift-wrapped, but since then, it’s been a never-ending spiral of atrocious football. I see no definitive reasons to bet against that cycle being broken, though signing reliable Jeff Garcia was a sensible move.
The AFC South:
1. Indianapolis Colts: Marvin Harrison faded and is now officially gone. A new coach will now prowl the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium. But, despite these changes, one finds it impossible betting against Peyton Manning, especially in this division, where he is the best quarterback by a country mile.
2. Tennessee Titans: The departure of Haynesworth leaves a gaping hole, but I think the Titans possess enough to still be a factor in 2009. Last season was probably their best chance to return to a Super Bowl under Jeff Fisher, but the longest tenured coach in the league usually has his squad on the cusp. I do believe Vince Young will become of vital importance as the season wears on.
3. Houston Texans: The Texans are being talked up plenty, and given their step forward in ’08, that is understandable. Sage Rosenfels’ made plenty of mistakes, but I think the Texans will be hurt more than they realize by his address change, as Matt Schaub has proved to be equally talented and brittle. Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky aren’t exactly an ideal insurance plan. I also have no faith in their secondary, though a dangerous pass rush could mitigate those concerns somewhat.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: End of the line for Jack Del Rio.
The NFC East
1. New York Giants: Sure, they haven’t truly replaced Plaxico Burress with an elite number one, a course of action I personally disagree with, but the Giants are capable of dominating from the point of attack, and will probably lead the league in sacks. Defense is what will separate the Giants from the rest of this division.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: The Michael Vick signing will have far less of an impact than people realize, though it can result in a few fun situations and formations. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson could be an explosive duo for years to come. The defense could slip, especially after Stu Bradley’s injury.
3. Dallas Cowboys: When the Cowboys put together that 13 win performance two years ago, it looked as if Tony Romo and company were set to reign over the division for the duration of the decade. How quickly those windows can close. After a quiet off-season where they saw Chris Canty flea to rival New York, Dallas seemed to take an “addition by subtraction” approach. And though Gerald Sensabaugh and Igor Olshansky aren’t marginal players by any means, these signings may not be enough in these ruthlessly competitive surroundings.
4. Washington Redskins: They made the biggest splash, landing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth with a 100 million dollar deal. But in a division where Washington competes with Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, and Eli Manning, the Redskins’ obvious dissatisfaction with Jason Campbell makes them a pretender.
The NFC North
1. Minnesota Vikings: Look past the ridiculousness of Brett Favre’s latest comeback attempt, and the move truly makes sense for both him and the Vikings. He gets to play eight home games indoors. He gets to hand off the ball to arguably the game’s best running back. He has a premier offensive line providing pass protection. Whether or not Favre can remain healthy all season is in doubt, but, even at his downward curve, he represents an upgrade over the other options available. And, most important of all, he is well versed in this offensive system, as opposed to his Jets experience. The Starcaps verdict still looms, but as of right now, the Vikings are the best team in this division.
2. Green Bay Packers: The Packers were very unlucky in close games last year, a deflating 0-7 in contests decided by four points or less. Talent is a factor in those results, of course, but when only two other teams have chalked up that kind of record in 25 years, one assumes those results will swing.
3. Chicago Bears: The addition of Jay Cutler was a fantastic move for a team that has searched for a franchise quarterback since the eighties, but too many questions remain at the receiver position to mark the Bears down as a definite postseason team. It will be extremely interesting to see whether Jay Cutler elevated Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, or the other way around.
4. Detroit Lions: The Lions will win a game this season. Past that…
The NFC South
1. The New Orleans Saints: Very high on the Saints. Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush should form a fearsome tag-team. Drew Brees is the perfect triggerman for Sean Payton’s aerial offense. Tabbing Greg Williams as the new defensive coordinator was a sharp call, and the Saints certainly made an effort to shore up their Achilles heel, adding Malcolm Jenkins via the draft along with veterans Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer. The D may not be stout, but it will be decent enough to get this team back into the postseason.
2. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went from misled misfits to coached up contenders nearly overnight, and they should build on their success in ’09, though a tougher schedule may slightly skew the results. Tony Gonzalez is another weapon for Matt Ryan, who set a bar for rookie quarterbacks that very few will reach.
3. Carolina Panthers: Defenses are going to dare Jake Delhomme to beat them this season. It’s going to be difficult to totally neutralize that vicious two-headed rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but should the game be consistently put in the increasingly suspect Delhomme’s hands, the Panthers may start to see the wins slip away.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: It’s a clear developmental season for the Bucs, who will break in a new coach and quarterback.
1. Seattle Seahawks: Going with a slight surprise here, as I have the Seahawks rebounding under Jim Mora, relying on a deep receiving core and a healthy Matt Hasselbeck to return to prominence.
2. Arizona Cardinals: Sure, the Cardinals’ 9-7 regular season record wasn’t overly impressive, but keep in mind they were 9-5 before winning the division and resting their starters over the final two weeks, and they did topple a feisty Falcon team in the wild card round before Jake Delhomme handed them the division game on a silver platter. Their NFC Championship game was a shootout won almost entirely by their offense… which leads me to picking them second. I just don’t feel this defense up to par, although an improved running attack, fortified by Beanie Wells, could go a long way to keeping the lagging unit off the field. Simply put, the Cardinals’ defense relies on making big plays, but if the other team is intelligent, and able to adequately protect it’s QB, they could be carved up quite efficiently. Throw in a fragile Kurt Warner and unreliable Matt Leinart backing him up, and the Cardinals’ are a candidate to suffer some serious Super Bowl hangover.
3. San Francisco 49ers: I just don’t find this team remotely interesting, though they are quite capable of chalking up 7 wins or so under fiery coach Mike Singletary. Hindsight and everything, but wouldn’t have Jeff Garcia and the Niners been way better off these past few years had they not split up?
4. St. Louis Rams: Steve Spagnulo won’t turn this program around over night, but if Marc Bulger can have a healthy, productive season, that would certainly be a step in the right direction.
League MVP Pick: Donovan McNabb
Wildcards: AFC: Jets, Bengals / NFC: Eagles, Packers
Rookie of the Year: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Coach of the Year: Rex Ryan, New York Jets
Super Bowl match-up: New Orleans vs. San Diego
Super Bowl Winner: San Diego Chargers
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