Monday, September 12, 2011

2011 NFL Preview

Are you ready for some football??? I apologize that my official NFL preview is a tad late, but between Godzilla, NCAA previews, and my life not spent on this laptop I haven't had a lot of time. Also, due to the amount of time it takes for me to do weekly NCAA previews, do my homework, and all other responsibilities, I will not be able to do weekly NFL previews as well. I know, sadness. But hopefully this blog full of predictions will be enough to whet your appetites until playoff season! A lot has changed since I posted my pre-season power rankings in June. I just wanted to get this dadgum thing posted before Week 1 was completely over. Similar to my NCAA preseason blogs, the divisions will be listed in order of my predicted finish, plus I'll have some additional previews at the end. Now, without further ado, please excuse my lateness and let's get things underway!

Division Breakdowns

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles-
Now that I'm done vomiting, let me say that it's hard not to pick the Eagles to win this division after all of their impressive offseason moves. That being said, I don't think that they'll run away with the East either. The defense should be great, but the offensive line is a bit of a question mark. The key will be if Mike Vick can stay healthy. If so, look out NFL, if not look out Philly.

2. Dallas Cowboys-
I'm a believer in the 'Boys this year for many reasons, the two biggest being Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan. They've energized this team and instilled so many positive qualities that simply weren't there during the Wade Phillips era, i.e. discipline and G.A.F. The defense will be much improved and all of the dead weight veterens have been cut, making room for talented and enthusiastic young players. Dallas is building for the future, and they won't be slouches this year either. I expect them to get progressively better as the season goes on and make the playoffs with lessened expectations than previous years (their secret weapon).

3. New York Giants-
Competing in the NFC East is historically a tall order, and this season the G-men won't be getting any favors. The o-line's got a new look that could be hit or miss and the defense could run into some trouble early on due to injuries. Even if New York does manage to make it through the first half of their schedule alright, it could all go to hell in November. Here's when things get nasty: 5 of there final 9 games are away, including New England, New Orleans, Dallas, and the Jets. The home schedule isn't too rosy either, featuring Philly, Green Bay, and Dallas to name a few.

4. Washington Redskins-
Ugh, the Redskins. It seems like they've been the East's cellar dwellers forever. Granted it's only been like 3 or 4 years, but who's counting. The worst QB to ever play in a Super Bowl, Rex Grossman, is at the helm, so that should give you an idea of where this team is headed. If Mike Shanahan is going to turn this ship around, he's still got a lot of work to do. It might take a small miracle to reach .500.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints-
What do you get when you have an incredible QB, plenty of offensive weapons, a stout defense, and an underachieving early playoff exit the year before? A force to be reckoned with. This year the Saints are like their '09 championship team except with a MUCH better running game (thank you Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles) and a new chip on their shoulder. I'm not sure that any other team worked as hard during the lockout as Drew Brees and the Saints. I really think their defense give them the edge in an NFC South that is quickly becoming, and may already be, the toughest division in the NFL.

2. Atlanta Falcons-
As good as Tampa may be, there's no question that the race for the division crown will likely be between the Saints and Birds. The Falcons will have one of the best offenses in the League (besides the Packers). I mean, Holy crap look at all of their weapons! Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Micheal Turner, and Matt Ryan running the circus. Things could get crazy. But as I said above, the defense makes the difference and I don't see Hotlanta as being quite on par with New Orleans in that area. Time will tell though. The Falcons will certainly outscore a lot of opponents.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers-
As Sublime said, "Can't fight against the youth," and that's exactly what the Bucs have: a freaking youth movement brimming with talent. They turned some heads (mine definitely being one of them) with last year's 10-6 campaign and look to continue to improve. It just sucks for them that they are playing in the gauntlet of the NFL. The future looks bright for Josh Freeman and company, but for now a hard earned Wild card berth could be the best case scenario.

4. Carolina Panthers-
Even the best divisions have an embarrassingly crappy team. Enter the Panthers. They've decided Cam Newton is their man, and whether that's the best or worst descision they make this decade, no rookie QB can expect to do too well in this division. The only tight race they'll be in is for the worst in the league crown.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers-
Everyone is obsessed with the Pack right now, and why shouldn't they be? They won last year's Super Bowl missing more than a handful of key players to injury. Now the whole team is healthy and should have an incredibly impressive year. Aaron Rodgers leads an offense that needs no introduction and Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson lead a defense that... well doesn't need an introduction either. I fully expect them to win the North, but repeating as Super Bowl champs is much easier said than done. Does Green Bay have it in 'em? They did it in the '60s, we'll just have to see if history can repeat itself.

2. Detroit Lions-
Geez, I know what you're thinking, you can't remember the last time you saw the Lions top two in the North. Me neither. It's really as simple as Matthew Stafford's health. If he can stay in the game, I have a lot of confidence in this team and wouldn't be surprised if they made a playoff run as a wild card. They've proven they can compete with him at QB; he's got good weapons and a whole new, proven defense lead by Ndamokong Suh. Really though, if Stafford gets hurt again, all of that becomes irrelevant and the Lions fall right back to where we're used to seeing them: at the bottom.

3. Chicago Bears-
To be honest, I don't know how this Bears team made it as far as they did last year. Not very much about this team impresses me except some parts of the defense. The offense is an enigma. I think Jay Cutler is awful, the o-line is underwhelming, and all of my fellow DFW natives know exactly what Roy Williams brings to the table. You'd think that Mike Martz' play-calling would make a difference, but the players running the offense need to be semi-decent. I put the Bears 3rd because of their front 7 and Minnesota would be better off with a ferret playing QB. Bear-down Chicago Bears, this could be a long year.

4. Minnesota Vikings:
The Brett Favre experiment is long over and the Vikings find themselves with a few outstanding players (Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield), but otherwise screwed. I don't care what level of play, but especially in the modern NFL, you MUST have a QB to be successful; no ifs, ands, or buts. Donovan McNabb is done. He needs to retire and doesn't have Brett Favre's mysterious (and occasionally absent) old-man super powers. The Vikes might beat some mediocre competition on the back of AP, but don't expect any shot at the playoffs.

NFC West

1. Arizona Cardinals-
In my opinion, there's a lot to like about this season's Cardinals. They've got a talented QB for the first time since Kurt Warner retired in Kevin Kolb and a great coach in Ken Whisenhunt. The offensive weapons were always there, they just needed a half decent gun-slinger. The defense also is good enough to keep them in the hunt. Everyone's picking the Rams in this division, but I think Kolb gives the Cards a great chance. It's also worth considering that Arizona's early season schedule is pretty soft, giving them plenty of time to get their legs under them and get on a roll.

2. St. Louis Rams-
There's a reason the Rams are everyone's favorite sleeper this year and most people's favorite in the West. Sam Bradford is the real deal at QB, he's got improving receivers, a decent o-line, and a great proven running back in Steven Jackson. The defense is also quickly getting better. Coaching is also great. So why didn't I pick them to win the West like everyone else? Unlike Arizona, the first two months will be rough: Eagles, @ Giants, Ravens, Redskins, @ Packers, @ Cowboys, and Saints. They could find themselves in a hole behind the Cardinals that will be hard to overcome. If they can survive that schedule though, as Coach Dennis Green said, "Then crown their asses!" I'll certainly be impressed.

3. San Francisco 49ers-
For years the 49ers have had some great pieces in place, but what's held them back... Alex Smith. The best acquisition they could have made this offseason was Coach Jim Harbaugh, and he very well may be just the man to set not just Smith, but the whole team back on the winning path. If Smith can't figure things out this year though, it's safe to say San Fran can throw in the towel and call him an enormous bust.

4. Seattle Seahawks-
Hope you enjoyed that thrilling playoff victory last year, because the 'Hawks won't even sniff the postseason this time. Two words: Tarvaris Jackson. I guess they can always throw the season and hold out for Andrew Luck.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots-
I think the race for this division is going to be a very tight one between it's top two teams, but I have to give the Pats the edge for a few reasons. Reason number one is Tom Brady: no body is better at putting his team in a position to win and now thanks to all the noise the Pats made in free agency, he's got some nice new weapons. Albert Haynesworth could be a huge boom or bust for this defense which needs a lift, and Bellichick usually gets the most out of his players.

2. New York Jets-
Yet another chance for the Jets to cash in on Rex Ryan's guarantee and get LT a ring before he retires. The defense will be the best in the division and just as blitz happy as ever. However, the offense still has a little improving to do before they can overtake the Pats. Mark Sanchez has to continue to improve and make better decisions and Shonn Greene MUST improve his production if he is going to have an increased role.

3. Buffalo Bills-
I actually like the Bills to escape the AFC East cellar this season. They've made some nice acquisitions across the board including Shawne Merriman (remember him?) and Brad Smith. And the offense looks to be in pretty good hands with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, and Steve Johnson. They're making a lot of progress, but don't expect them to make the playoffs just yet.

4. Miami Dolphins-
While the Bills are on their way up, the 'Phins are on their way down. Chad Henne is not and never was the answer at QB and Daniel Thomas shouldn't make too big of an impact as a rookie. Reggie Bush is also not good enough to carry the load that Miami will need him to. There's a fair amount of talent on defense, but not enough to keep them in the hunt.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans-
This is, without a doubt, the Texans' year to step up, win the division, and make a playoff run. In fact, if they can't do it this year, they might as well give up. The Colts missing Peyton Manning for the first chunk of the season is a huge blow and the other two teams in the South are nothing to write home about. But enough about everyone else, let's talk about H-town. Of course the offense is in great shape with the likes of Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, and Andre Johnson. Now the defense, which already was fairly talented, gets a huge boost from some key free agents and Wade Phillips back were he belongs: as a D-coordinator.

2. Indianapolis Colts-
The window of dominance for the Colts appears to be closing. Peyton Manning is getting older and having injury issues and no one else is getting any younger either. I think this defense has some glaring holes and the Colts will really struggle as long as Kerry Collins is off his couch and taking snaps.  They're only ranked 2nd because the Titans and Jags should be sub-par at best.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars-
This one was close, but I went ahead and put the Jaguars above Tennessee, despite their inexplicable decision to cut David Garrard 5 days before their opener (I won't even attempt to make sense of that). Whether Luke McCown manages to work out or not, the Jags still have MJD, so at least their offense has that going for 'em... which is nice. The defense is a huge question mark though. I don't know, will Jacksonville ever be truly relevant?

4. Tennessee Titans-
The Titans are just completely starting over: new coach, new contract for Chris Johnson, new QB that's actually really old. Anyway, Matt Hasselbeck will be taking snaps until Jake Locker is deemed ready, and that should work out okay. At least Hasselbeck is a proven leader. The offensive line is pretty good and there's always Chris Johnson in the backfield. The defense is a BIG question though and I'm not so confident in the receiving corp besides Kenny Britt. With so many changes coming after a short offseason, my confidence level  in Tennessee runs low.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens-
I'm going to be extremely controversial and pick the Ravens to best the Steelers for the division crown. And no, it is not just because I hate the Steelers; I think there's a whole lot to like about this Baltimore team. The defense is fantastic, duh. Yes, the stars are getting old, but they aren't dead yet and there's been some infusion of great youthful talent like Jimmy Smith. But the offense is really turning things up a notch as well. It goes without saying that Ray Rice is great and Joe Flacco gets criticised way more than he deserves. I think people will be shocked though by how much Lee Evans improves the passing game. Having a fast, down-field threat means Anquan Boldin and the other good slot receivers are left uncovered more and Joe Flacco finally gets some credit.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers-
The Pittsburgh Steelers are very good, but every bandwagon fan knows that. The faces are the same: Mendenhall, Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Harrison... I could go on. The defense will be great and the offense will be just good enough. The Steelers will win a lot of games and make the playoffs, but only be edged out by the Ravens for the division crown.

3. Cleveland Browns-
Colt McCoy is a great QB and the Browns are slowly building to get to a place where they can make a serious push for the postseason. It won't be this year, but you can see the progress they are making. More talent comes with every draft and it won't be long before the Browns are a hot topic. Just not yet.

4. Cincinnati Bengals-
I really don't think the Bengals are nearly as bad as most experts are making them out to be, but regardless, they are not in a very good position to win many games this year. This draft was a step in the right direction and they were right to move on from Carson Palmer and Ochocinco. AJ Green is as good as his billing and Andy Dalton is a good QB and great leader. In a couple years, these Bengals could be the real deal, but for now it's time to continue to grow and build. Just hope that Mike Brown doesn't get in the way.

AFC West

1. San Diego Chargers-
It's hard to believe that the Bolts missed the playoffs last year with the NFL's #1 offense and defense. What?! The production should be similar and it would be even more shocking if the same thing happened this year. Special Teams must improve and Ryan Matthews needs to quit fumbling (LT spoiled the Chargers). The Chiefs are turning into a great team and will give SD some trouble, but overall I don't see how the Bolts won't prevail and get back to playing in January. They should also get out to a fast start unlike last year, considering their only really challenging games in the first 5 weeks before their bye are @ New England and against the Chiefs at home.

2. Kansas City Chiefs-
No brainer. If the Bolts are first, the Chiefs have to be second. KC could just as easily win the division again if things go their way. There's great talent on both sides of the ball like Cassel, Charles, Bowe, Berry, and Hali who are turning this former afterthought into a true contender. If the Chiefs do miss out on the West championship this year, they will still be in the hunt for the Wild card and likely miss out by just a hair.

3. Denver Broncos-
To say last season was forgettable for Denver fans would be an understatement. But this year looks to be heading in the right direction. For whatever reason, no one has any confidence in Tim Tebow, but Kyle Orton should still be productive enough. The offense still has a bunch of unsolved problems, but the defense looks to be much improved thanks to rookie Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil coming back from injury. The Broncs benefit the most from the Raiders losing almost every player that was worth a damn.

4. Oakland Raiders-
Oh Oakland. Just when it looked like the Raiders where making some real progress they lost three of their best players in free agency: Robert Gallery, Zach Miller, and Nnamdi Asomugha. What else can you say? The Raiders will struggle and fans will love Al Davis out of principle while still wondering why he hasn't died yet.

Other Predictions

NFC Wild Card Teams:
Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons

AFC Wild Card Teams:
Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets

NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers vs. New Orleans Saints-
Ironically, a rematch of the game that started the season. As good as this Green Bay roster looks, it's hard to imagine them not making it back to at least the NFC Championship. Aaron Rodgers and the Pack could have the makings of the next dynasty if they play their cards right. Meanwhile, the Saints are just as solid and even more hungry after last year's playoff exit. Should be another great game between two of the game's best QBs. I expect another Green Bay victory in a close game.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Jets-
This isn't a popular pick based on what I've read, but I just have a gut feeling about both of these teams. Of course that probably means I'll be wrong. As I said before, I think there's a lot to like about this Ravens team. Enough that I see them making it this far in the playoffs given the right matchups. As for the Jets, this team just knows how to turn it on in the playoffs and a third straight AFC Championship isn't out of the question. Last year, the Jets were an awful first half away from playing in the Super Bowl. This team is wiser and full of talent and enthusiasm and I think they just might pull it off this year.

Super Bowl: Green Bay Packers vs. New York Jets-
Rex Ryan finally gets his team to the big dance, but I have a hard time believing Gang Green can best this Packers team. It's just so impressive. Aaron Rodgers wins a second consecutive title, Green Bay boasts about "Title-Town" more than you can possibly imagine, and the Packers are one step closer to being crowned the Dynasty of the 2010's.

NFL MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers. Too many weapons and what a team. Likely Super Bowl Champs.

NFC Rookie of the Year: QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers. I have been Newton's biggest naysayer, but I was shocked after his opening day performance. I wouldn't be surprised.

AFC Rookie of the Year: LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos. This dude is a stud and will have immediate impact on Denver's defense. Potential running out his ears.

Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers. He'll turn the ship around.

Most Improved Team: Detroit Lions. The Lions will not be terrible for the first time in recent memory. In fact, their shot at the playoffs is extremely realistic and tangible.

7 Games to Watch
(since I'm a little late, this list excludes opening day)

1. Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons, Week 2
Vick's old home and two of the NFC's best teams. The mascots even create an intriguing matchup. Should be a shootout.

2. Houston Texans @ New Orleans Saints, Week 3
Big time measuring stick game for the Texans to see what they're made of. Should be another offensive show. Also somewhat of a regional rivalry.

3. New York Jets @ Baltimore Ravens, Week 4
Preview of my pick for the AFC Championship. Two great defenses and improving offenses. Sure to be a fierce, smash-mouth game.

4. Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles, Week 8
Always an intense rivalry. Both teams will be racing for the division. Also Rob Ryan has established that he doesn't buy the whole "Dream Team" image of the Eagles. Should be as good as ever.

5. Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 9
Always intense rivalry. Can the Ravens smash the Steelers again or will it be more typically defensive?

6. New England Patriots @ Philadelphia Eagles, Week 12
Two playoff teams and a rematch of the 2004 Super Bowl. Has all the makings of a great game

7. Atlanta Falcons @ New Orleans Saints, Week 16
Great NFC South rivalry and two stellar offensive teams. We can only hope that neither team rests their starters.

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