By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
1. New York Giants (11-5): The G-men went from improbable Super Bowl champs to patsies upset in a home playoff game by a division rival to collapsing ,choking dogs (no playoffs after a 5-0 start last year) all in the span of three seasons. This year, they seem to have rededicated themselves to defense after getting bombed for a whopping 427 points in ‘09. There are stars everywhere on that side of the ball (so many that the insufferable Osi Umenyiora has been benched and hopefully silenced) and still a good amount of firepower and winning experience on offense. This division is pretty stacked but it seems the Giants have less question marks than everyone else so it says here that they take it.
2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6): A trendy Super Bowl pick for some, I see the Cowboys as the same as ever which is to say, a lot of talent, huge expectations, not enough of what matters between their collective ears. By actually winning a playoff game for the first time in 14 years last season, the Cowboys took a step. But a big enough one to place them in the realm of true contenders? Not so much. Their coach is still overmatched, the quarterback, while much better, is still somewhat questionable and their defense is still wildly inconsistent and unpredictable. And there will be even more pressure this year with the Super Bowl to be played in their new stadium/owner Jerry Jones’ pleasure palace. Not sure they can handle it.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7): So the Eagles finally ran off Donovan McNabb who was a great player for them for many years but was never, ever going to lead them to a title. But they still have the other guy who will never, ever get them to the promised land and that’s coach Andy Reid, the king of being just good enough to not win when it matters most. Young QB Kevin Kolb will put up numbers thanks to the facts that there are weapons (receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, back LeSean McCoy, tight end Brent Celek) all around him and Reid wants to throw on every play. But the defense might not be stout or tough enough. And again, there’s the Reid factor. If you want to be good but not great and win but not win enough, he’s your man.
4. Washington Redskins (6-10): So now the S.S. Redskin is being captained by the most overrated coach of them all, Mike Shanahan. You know, the guy who won 13 years ago with john Elway at his peak but has won one playoff game since yet is still spoken of in hushed tones reserved for the likes of Noll, Landry, Walsh and Belichick. The guy is such a fraud, he’s already put his own massive ego ahead of the team in the way he’s handled malcontent D-lineman Albert Haynesworth; instead of just playing him or cutting him, Shanahan is practically hazing him the way vets haze rookies, in an effort to humiliate him. The Redskins are the portrait of dysfunction and always will be as long as Daniel Snyder owns them. They may be more competent this year than the past couple, but they still won’t win much. But as he always does, Shanahan will probably skate.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-4): At last the Pack can exorcise the demon Favre. Their current quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is the MAN (4,434 yards, 30 TDs, seven INTs last year) and is still getting better. If the Pack’s offensive line – which nearly got Rodgers killed last season – holds up, there’s no reason the league’s sixth-ranked offense won’t improve. And the defense, despite getting carved up in that playoff shootout with the Cardinals last year, ranked second overall and is strewn with stars young (Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, A.J. Hawk) and old (Charles Woodson, Nick Barnett, Nick Collins). A lot of folks like the Packers for the Super Bowl. I think I might too.
2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7): Not much to see here. Only an entire organization willing to hold itself hostage at the whim of a 40-something year old, formerly great quarterback whose perpetual, perennial and pathological selfishness cost them a chance at the Super Bowl last year. Luckily for the Vikings, they have a great defense and a superstar running back to help shield them from the inevitable moment when BrettFavre (yes, one word) kills them in a big game. Maybe after it doesn’t work out again this year, the team will finally move on and also show coach Brad Childress, who has got to be seen as a total snake by most of his players for his sniveling, whiny, suck-up to Favre (who hates him) ways, the door. But hey, at least according to Tom Jackson, Favre’s not afraid to throw a pick, even when it’s the worst possible decision and costs his team and its fans a shot at glory.
3. Chicago Bears (6-10): Coach on the hot seat? Check. New offensive coordinator notorious for being a little too smart for his own good as well as a relentless self-promoter even if its to the detriment of his team? Check. Incompetent GM? Check. Wildly overrated quarterback who behaves like a petulant 10-year old while routinely killing his team’s chances? Check. Aging defense not nearly as good as it used to be? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 Chicago Bears!
4. Detroit Lions (5-11): The Lions may approach less than double digit losses this year. It’s true. They actually seem to look like they know what they’re doing. They are building a team from the core out (quarterback, defensive and offensive lines first). They have a dynamic, seemingly competent coach in Jim Schwartz. They have a monster stud at receiver (Calvin Johnson) to go with that up-and-coming QB (Matthew Stafford) and a highly touted rookie back (Jahvid Best), too. Sure, 5-11 isn’t any good but for the Lions, 2-30 the past two years, it has to be like the Super Bowl. This team is on the rise, believe it.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3): There may be a letdown in there somewhere but the Saints strike me as understanding and appreciating just how long and difficult the road to the top really is as much as any title winner I’ve ever seen, including the Pats. They return everyone to their top-ranked offense and nearly everyone to a defense that confounded juggernauts Minnesota and Indy in it’s final two games last year. Hard to say if the Saints will win it again this year. But they have as good a chance as anyone to get back there and give it a shot.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6): What a strange year last season was for the Falcons. Their QB Matt Ryan, so crucial to their surprise playoff berth in ‘08, took a step back. Their defense thanks mostly to injuries across the line, took three steps back and a season filled with hope never really got on track until it was too late and a second straight trip to the postseason was lost. There have been some key additions to that defense for this year and Ryan, who may have just had a sophomore slump, has looked very sharp in the preseason. The Falcons won’t win this division, but they may provide the Saints a few headaches and seem to be a respectable choice for a possible wild card berth.
3 Carolina Panthers (8-8): It’s hard to predict what may happen with the Panthers. They have a talented-looking young quarterback in Matt Moore, two potential home run hitters at running back in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a star receiver in Steve Smith. But they also have a shaky offensive line, a defense that will be without its best player the past seven years (Julius Peppers, now in Chicago) and a coach in the final year of his deal who very well may be checked out (John Fox). The Panthers have always been competitive and hard-working even when they are out of it. Playoff contention would hardly be a surprise but neither would 6-10.
4. Tampa Bay Bucs (3-13): The head coach is my age and that should say everything that needs to be said. But if you want more, you have a second-year QB (Josh Freeman) who only played half his team’s games last year as well as rookies and second year guys all over the roster. The Bucs are in full-on rebuilding mode as they continue to try to start over from scratch following their still curious shitcanning of Jon Gruden following the ‘08 campaign. If the blueprint is successful, the Bucs will be a threat again – in 2014.
1. San Francisco 49ers (9-7): The worst division in the league still has to have a winner so why not the Niners, who have looked the part the past couple years thanks mostly to coach Mike Singletary. Singletary seems to coach the team with the same ferocity as he employed as a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Bears and San Fran has gotten better under him, even throwing up a narrow miss of the postseason last year. They have a superstar on D (linebacker Patrick Willis) and a superstar on O (running back Frank Gore) as well as a couple other guys (receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis) who are on the cusp. The key will be QB Alex Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick who went from starter to third-stringer and back to starter again over the course of three seasons. Smith offensive coaches seemed to change in each of his first few years – maybe that’s why he struggled so much. This year he has the same tutelage as last so we’ll see if that’s the case. If Smith plays well, the Niners could be pretty good and a tough out come playoff time.
2. (tie) Seattle Seahawks (7-9): Pete Carroll, so mercilessly overmatched in the NFL during head coaching stops here and in New York, then so masterful in college at USC before having to flee for being a crook like every other college coach, returns to the big time with the Seahawks. Will his boola boola, rah-rah style work on grown millionaires this time around? Who knows? What is indisputable is that the Seahawks have been awful the last two years, spiraling downhill at breakneck speed since their Super Bowl appearance in 2005. Carroll has gutted the roster, something that may well have been necessary but will result in some trying times this year and probably next. Here’s hoping local guy Matt Hasselbeck, now near the end, doesn’t get decapitated thanks to a woeful offensive line.
2. (tie) Arizona Cardinals (7-9): Anyone who doesn’t think that quarterback is the most important, influential position not just in football but potentially in all of sports, I present to you the Arizona Cardinals. With now retired QB Kurt Warner, the Cards won two straight divisions, went to a Super Bowl they nearly won and advanced to another divisional playoff game. Without him, they turn to Derek Anderson, a journeyman who completed 44 percent of his passes and threw three TDs against 10 INTs for the Browns last year before being cut (yes, by the Browns). Former No. 1 pick Matt Leinart couldn’t even make the team and the Cards are relying on two rookies, one undrafted, to be their backups. With Warner, the Cards would win this division going away. Without him, even with all the other talent still around (receiver Larry Fitzgerald, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Adrian Wilson), they will struggle to get to .500.
4. St. Louis Rams (4-12): Like their brethren in sucktitude up in Detroit, the Rams are looking like they might be on to something and they’re doing it in a similar way. Starting with a solid-looking, No.1 overall pick at QB (Sam Bradford), a defensive-minded coach (Steve Spagnuolo) and a near complete overhaul of the roster with the exception of a couple key veterans and a handful of other, recent high draft picks. The Rams are lucky they play in the weak NFC West – the mediocrity of their division should earn them a couple more wins than last year’s one and 2008’s two. Give them a couple years to stick to the plan and develop and there may some 1999-2001-esque times in the offing.