NFL Season Preview
This preview was originally published in The Concordian on September 7th, 2010. Please check it out/comment on it there.
From May through August, most people in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy a relaxing summer, with nothing to worry them or stress them out. Football fans are not most people; they need year round stimulation, and the months between April’s NFL draft and training camps in August can be some of the most depressing for die-hard fans.
Fortunately, their wait is finally over. September has arrived and so too has the start of the NFL season. With so many teams changing their rosters through free agency, the draft, trades, and the maturing of young players, this year’s NFL standings could look very different than years past. Only 12 teams make the playoffs each year, and over the last few seasons a trend has emerged that shows that only half of a given season’s playoff teams return the next year. Since each division’s winner automatically clinches, as well as two other teams per conference, one must take a look at each division race in order to project playoff teams, which is what will be done now, (playoff teams in bold).
AFC North: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland.
This might be one of the easiest divisions to project. Baltimore arguably improved more than any team in the league by adding receiver Anquan Boldin to balance with a strong rushing attack, (though their aging defense could give them some problems, especially in the backfield). The Bengals will be looking to build on last season’s success (they won the division), and the return of defensive end Antwan Odom and addition of controversial receiver Terrell Owens and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham should help that, if Carson Palmer can stay consistent. Pittsburgh has too many problems, both on the field and off, but a strong season by Rashad Mendenhall and a comeback by suspended quarterback Ben Roeschilberger (who returns after four games) could propel them back into the playoffs. As usual, the Browns are a joke.
AFC South: Indianapolis, Houston, Tennesee, Jacksonville
Each of these four teams has at least one offensive skill player that ranks at or enar the top of the league (Peyton Manning, Andre Johnson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, respectively). This should open the division up to wide-open competition, but that has not been the case. The Colts generally dominate against the rest, having won the division six out of the past seven seasons, and though they might regress a little from last season’s 14-2 finish, they should still win the division. The other three teams have many holes to fill before becoming serious Super Bowl contenders, and all three could finish anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5. Look for the Texans, with a 10-6 record, to squeak into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
AFC East: Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Bills.
Picking the Patriots to finish short of the playoffs may seem like blasphemy, as they’ve made it every year Tom Brady has been healthy, and won three (nearly four) Super Bowls in the last eight seasons. It’s not that the Patriots will regress that much this year, but the Jets and Dolphins have improved too much. Last year, with a rookie QB and an aging running back the Jets still managed to make it to the conference championship. Shonn Greene takes over the RB duties and receiver Santonio Holmes should make Mark Sanchez’s life easier when he returns from suspension. If the Jets can get the league’s best cornerback, Darrelle Revis, back on the field sooner rather than later, we could be talking about this team again in February. Dolphins QB Chad Henne looks like a budding superstar, and the addition of receiver Brandon Marshall could help him take another step towards stardom, provided the rest of the offense (especially RBs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown) could stay healthy.
AFC West: Chargers, Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs
Ladies and gentlemen, the worst division in the AFC. It’s possible that not a single one of these teams finishes with more than eight wins, though the Chargers might do so just by playing six games against the other three teams. If Chargers QB Phillip Rivers can lead his team to 10 or 11 wins without his starting left tackle (Marcus McNeill) or wide receiver (Vincent Jackson), he could win the league’s MVP award. But he won’t. The Raiders (shockingly) have improved the most in the division by adding a QB (Jason Campbell) and a potential dominating presence in linebacker Rolando McClain. It might be tough for them to reach the nine or ten wins needed to make the playoffs, but the Raiders look to have finally escaped the basement. If second year Broncos running back has a breakout season, they too have a shot, while a(nother) breakout season for Chiefs running back Jamal Charles will likely only propel them to six or so wins.
NFC North: Packers, Vikings, Bears, Lions
With Brett Favre, the Vikings are the second best team in the division. Without Brett Favre, the Vikings are still the second best team in the division. Adrian Peterson is just that good. If they can keep it together until Sidney Rice returns from injury, they should make the playoffs, though the Bears might have something to say about that. Da Bears gave up a whole lot for QB Jay Cutler, who thanked them with a tendency to pile up interceptions. If new offensive Mike Martz can change that, and the trio of unheralded receivers can remain consistent, we might be seeing a very different outlook. The Packers have arguably the league’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, an improved rushing attack, and a ball-hawking defense. They might be one of the hardest teams to stop on each side of the ball this year. The Lions have a great core building up, with excellent young players at every skill position, but are still a few years away.
NFC South: Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers
As the returning Super Bowl champions, the Saints are entering the season with a strangely low amount of hype. In a great example of addition by subtraction, the “loss” of running back Mike Bell (who averaged over 10 carries a game last year) should only make life easier for the rest of the explosive Saints offense, who should have no trouble handling their division. The Falcons, meanwhile, struggled to stay healthy last year. If Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White can all stay on the field, an improved defense should push the Falcons into the playoffs.
NFC East: Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins, Giants
Adding rookie receiver Dez Bryant to an offense already featuring Miles Austin, Felix Jones, and Jason Witten could make the Cowboys one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch this year. With so many weapons at his disposal, Tony Romo should have another stellar season, though he likely won’t be as under the radar as he was last year. The Eagles made a controversial off-season decision in shipping star quarterback Donovan McNabb within the division, to the Redskins, leaving the keys to the offense in the hands of unproven Kevin Kolb. The Giants have made almost no poor offseason decisions that would cause them to be projected so low, but with the firepower of the Cowboys and Eagles coupled with the newly motivated Redskins QB, the Giants might have a tough time getting too many division wins. If the ‘Skins can manage to acquire another weapon or two, this otherwise weak offense could be, for lack of a better word, decent.
NFC West: 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams
When Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who led his team to the Super Bowl in 2009, retired, everyone knew the offense would regress. Some still retained hope that Matt Leinart, the Heisman-winning quarterback drafted 10th overall a few years ago, could finally get it together, but the Cards had enough and released him last week. With no legit quarterbacks left to run any of the other teams in the division (rookie Rams QB, Sam Bradford, is not ready), the division almost gets defaulted to the 49ers. Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are improving each year, with Davis finally shedding the “dust” label. Alex Smith, the 1st overall pick in 2005 (which, ironically, could have been Leinart if he didn’t stay in school to learn ballroom dancing), should have the best season of his short career.
AFC Playoff teams: Ravens, Jets, Colts, Chargers, Texans, Dolphins
NFC Playoff teams: Cowboys, Saints, Packers, 49ers, Vikings, Falcons
The division leaders above should have little trouble getting to the playoffs and beyond. The Ravens, Jets, and Cowboys look to be the most threatening teams in the playoffs, though, with a few lucky bounces, the 49ers and Texans could be teams that no one wants to face in January. Look for the Ravens to play the Jets in the AFC Championship, while the Cowboys face the Packers in the NFL. An all-green Super Bowl seems possible as Aaron Rodgers can lead his Packers to a Super Bowl win they so desperately need.
So will the theory of playoff team turnover prove true? If these predictions wind up accurate, and playoff newcomers Houston, Miami, San Francisco, and Atlanta unseat Cincinnati, New England, Arizona, and Philadelphia, maybe so. Either way, football season is back, and that’s all that’s important.