By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
So I’m not sure if you’ve heard, loyalists. The season started last night. Yep, it’s true. When the Favr-kings and the Saints resumed their rivalry from last year’s NFC Championship game down in New Orleans, it marked the beginning of one of the most blissful times of the year – the NFL season. For the next 17 weeks, then another six weeks after that, we will eat, sleep and breathe football. And in keeping with the tradition of all the so-called experts, none of whom know any more about how the season will unfold than the homeless dude who sits on my front step every once in a while, I’m about to enlighten you with some predictions. Being just another guy who likes to watch games with some buddies and some beers, chances are I know even less than some pillars of intelligence like Tom Jackson, Mark Schlereth or any other ESPN loud mouth (minus Tedy Bruschi, of course), but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell you who’s going to come in where in each division. If they can do it, I can do it. So without further ado, here’s what to expect this season in two parts, starting with the AFC.
1. (tie) Miami Dolphins (10-6): The Dolphins were pretty good when their big weapons on offense were dudes named Greg Camarillo and Brian Hartline (???). Now they have mega-talented/knucklehead receiver Brandon Marshall, too. Quarterback Chad Henne won’t kill them, their defense is powerful and they have one of the most solid coaching/management teams in the league, still led by the legendary Bill Parcells. (or do they?) But they won’t have the division to themselves because of…
1. (tie) New England Patriots (10-6): Now that Tom Brady is a) two years removed from his knee injury, b) about to sign the mega-extension we’ve all known he’d sign sooner or later, c) blessed with some new, young, explosive weapons on offense and d) not mangled by that car accident from yesterday morning, he’s more than likely to look a lot more like the Brady of 2007 than he did last year. He’d better, since the defense is so young and inexperienced, it more closely resembles a lot of the high school teams I’ve covered the past few years than an actual NFL defense. Still, there will be enough points scored to equal double-digit wins and another playoff appearance.
3. New York Jets (9-7): I know the Jets think that making themselves into one giant, collective target is the way to go in order to stay motivated and be at their best. But one of the reasons they were successful last year was because no one saw them coming, and they still barely made the playoffs before being handed enough cupcakes to get to the AFC Championship game. This year, with all their blathering, their fantasy football approach to team building, their blowhard coach talking more shit than most players, their not-ready-yet quarterback and their insistence on pissing off every other team in the league with all that false bravado, they take a step back.
4. Buffalo Bills (3-13): Wow, it must suck to be a Bills fan. The owner is 97 years old and won’t pay for a big time coach who knows what he’s doing, which is why every three years, an overmatched coordinator comes in to lead the team to third place or worse. The talent level on both sides of the ball is mediocre. The weather is as bad as anywhere in the country. And oh yeah, that same aged owner is trying to move the team to Toronto. I feel bad for the Bills. It’s only going to get worse.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-4): Super Bowl or bust for the Ravens, who are really, really good. That defense may not be the same as it once was (even though the press will tell you that Ray Lewis is still a god despite the fact that he hasn’t done anything but scream for three years now) but the offense is absolutely loaded (Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin are studs while every one else at a skill position is at least very good). Provided there’s enough juice in their secondary and QB Joe Flacco continues to improve, Baltimore may well be playing into February.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6): As with so many other teams, the QB position is the biggest question mark for Cincy. Carson Palmer, once on the road to greatness, has never really bounced back from that gruesome knee injury he suffered in the ‘05 playoffs and his numbers last year (3,094 yards???) bear that out. He has firepower at his disposal, though – Terrell Owens signing was huge and will be a major benefit if he behaves – and the defense was excellent last season. Even a mild improvement over last year from Palmer should make the Bengals playoff worthy.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): How far will pride take them? Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s continued douchebaggery, the Steelers have been looked at with a kind of scrutiny they aren’t used to all off-season long. Even though his league mandated suspension was reduced to four games from six, Pittsburgh still has to play those games, which means second-year man Dennis Dixon (one career start) will be the man til Roesthlisberger returns. The defense still has all the names it did when it won the Super Bowl two years ago, but that group was pretty leaky last year. And are the offensive line and special teams – the team’s two biggest problems last season – any better? Time will tell. It may be a transitional year in Pittsburgh.
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11): Hard to imagine Jake Delhomme able to help all that much (nine TDs, 23 INTs in his last season plus-one game in Carolina). But there’s a sense of hope for the poor Browns this year thanks to proven winner Mike Holmgren now running the show. Autocrat coach Eric Mangini seems to have toned down his act at Holmgren’s behest, there’s some talent, especially on defense, and the Browns did win their last four games to close out last season. Things may well be turning around in Cleveland.
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4): You can always pencil the Colts in for at least 12 wins, at least a win, maybe two, in the playoffs and a gag job when it matters most. It seems they were over their mostly choking ways last year until the second half of the Super Bowl, when they crapped themselves all over the field down in Miami at the hands of the Saints. The regular season doesn’t matter to Peyton Manning and the boys, nor should it given their mediocre division. It’s all about titles (or lack thereof) for the Colts and given their continued explosiveness on offense and their very, very good D, they should certainly be in the mix yet again, all year.
2. Tennessee Titans (9-7): 0-6 last year before Vince Young, 8-2 and barely missing the playoffs with him. The guy may finally get it. It helps that his tailback, Chris Johnson, is a monster (2,006 yards last year) and that the Titans have always had one of the best offensive lines in the game. They were betrayed by their defense a lot last season, though (remember 59-0 up here against the Pats?), so that will be a major point of emphasis this year. They have the toughest schedule in the league (two games with the Colts, Pittsburgh, Philly, at Dallas, the Giants and San Diego) but for all his past issues, Young seems to be a winner and that’s all that matters.
3. Houston Texans (8-8): Every year, the same thing. This is finally the time when the Texans will make that leap and get in the playoffs. They finally had a winning record last season but still lost enough big games to rule themselves out of the postseason. So now, with all their talent (Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, a slew of names on defense), they are expected to take it to the next level. This team has never done well with expectations and they still have the same players and coach (Gary Kubiak) who are responsible for that. Why should anything be an different?
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Seems odd that just three years ago, the Jags were giving the then unbeaten Patriots a huge scare in a divisional playoff game in Foxboro. Coach Jack Del Rio, then seen as a premier up-and-comer, has proven himself to be complete fraud and QB David Garrard, who was great that year (18 TDs, three INTs) has regressed. Oh yeah and no one comes to their games, every home game is blacked out on local TV and they are frequently rumored to be relocated to another city. Gonna be another long year, Jags fans (all seven of you).
1. San Diego Chargers (11-5): The Chargers pretty much take this division by default thanks to the woe that collectively is the Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs. They have a great quarterback in Philip Rivers, a stud tight end in Antonio Gates, a rookie running back expected pick up where the ghost of LaDanian Tomlinson left off a couple years ago, an excellent line and a fairly stingy defense. They also have a sociopath for a GM (A.J. Smith) who can’t get along with anyone, routinely says dumb, angry things in the press and has basically banished two hugely important offensive cogs (receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill) for having the temerity to want to be paid some more money. This team has always seemed just a little too dysfunctional to succeed when it matters most and that’s probably not going to change this year.
2. (tie) Denver Broncos (7-9): Poor Josh McDaniels. Everything was so rosy for him when the Broncos defied expectations and started last season 6-0. But when everything went to shit, and they finished the year at 8-8 and out of the playoffs, he was on the hot seat. It won’t be easier this year with star receiver Brandon Marshall gone to Miami, top two running backs Knowshon Moreno and Corell Buckhalter hobbled and top defensive player Elvis Dumervil already out for the season with a torn pectoral. The Broncos do have the anointed one, Tim Tebow, though. Maybe if things get off to a bad start in Denver, Tebow will walk on water or something and save the world.
2. (tie) Oakland Raiders (7-9): In Oakland, optimism doesn’t mean playoff hopes, it means losing less than 11 games hopes. The Raiders have lost 11 or more games every year since 2002. But this year, thanks to a quarterback who may actually know what he’s doing beyond chugging codeine (Jason Campbell) and some continuity among the coaching staff, as well as a few savvy personnel moves on defense (um, what?), there is a sentiment that the Raiders may be halfway decent. I won’t believe it til I see it, especially with crypt-keeper Al Davis still in charge, but it sort of makes sense.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11): It’s New England Southwest in KC, where former Pats Super Bowl winning coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have joined one-time Pats GM Scott Pioli and back up QB Matt Cassel in the Chiefs’ rebuilding effort. There’s still a long, long way to go. Pioli and head coach Todd Haley have almost entirely turned over the mess that was left for them when they arrived before last season and with nowhere to really go but up, the Chiefs and their wealth of young talent should improve a bit this year. Next season, they might be pretty good.
Check back later for the NFC Picks…