Recently, I wrote a ten-page comprehensive 2009 preview of the NFC, breaking down each division and each team. I posted it on this-here blog and got at least one raving review (thanks Crazy Keith!), which was good enough to convince me to write a similar preview of the AFC. This one may not be as long or as specific and didn't take nearly as long to write, and it may be subject to more biased opinions (i.e. I hate Pittsburgh, I love New England). But the AFC as a whole is much less interesting than the NFC; there is less parity. At the top, the AFC is stronger than the NFC, and the road to the Super Bowl is much more difficult; but the NFC has more quality teams, and more depth.
All four AFC Divisions have been dominated by one particular team in the past decade or so. Take a look at the recent history: New England has won six out of the last seven division titles; San Diego, four of the last five; Indy, five of six; and Pittsburgh, five of the last eight. Since none of these four teams have done anything drastic this offseason (if anything, they have all improved), it would be silly to not pick them all as playoff teams yet again. That leaves the rest of the AFC, 12 teams, battling for two wildcard bids. Throw out Cleveland, Cincinnati and Oakland and you have nine teams fighting for two spots, and hoping for some breaks along the way. (For example, Brady’s and Merriman’s injuries last season).
It’s a tricky conference to predict. Teams seem to rise and fall more quickly than anyone can expect. A few years ago the Bengals went 12-4 or something… last year’s Titans went 13-3 … But the less talented teams always fall back down where they belong and leave the race to the Super Bowl to a battle between two livings legends: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, with the Steelers and Chargers usually in the mix. We’ll begin with what I call the Tecmo Bowl division, the AFC East.
The AFC East is the most complete division from top to bottom in the AFC; in fact, it might be the only division where all four teams have serious playoff potential. Last year the Dolphins won it, even though they went 1-15 the year before. (What a difference Bill Parcells made). The Patriots won it the five previous seasons and finished 11-5 even without Tom Brady last year. The Jets went 9-7 and the Bills went 7-9, although they started out 5-1. But let's not kid ourselves. The Patriots are winning the East in 2009. Lock it up, it's over. There's all this trash-talk going back and forth between Jets coach Rex Ryan (who?) and Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder (WHO??) about who's going to win the AFC East this year. It's laughable. And I'm sure Bellichek and Brady have to laugh a little bit when they watch film and know beyond all doubt that they're winning at least 13 games this year.
The only serious question in the East is who finishes second? And do they have a good chance at one of the wild cards? I believe the answer to the second question is yes, and to the first question, I think it's the Bills. Yes, the Bills.
But let's start with New England. How can I be so sure that they win their division (and in fact they will win the AFC), with Brady coming off of massive knee surgery and former offensive coach Josh McDaniels leaving and going to Denver? Shouldn't I be worried about their aged defense and that the Giants exposed how to stop their mighty offense in Super Bowl XLIII? The truth is, I'm not worried about any of these things, and the 2009 Patriots are a team of destiny in my mind.
Consider this: As a starter in regular season games, Tom Brady is 87-24, a 79% winning percentage. That means over the course of his career, he AVERAGES eights wins out of every ten games! That's incredible! There isn't a quarterback in NFL History who can boast a statistic anything close to that. (By the way, Tom is 14-3 in the playoffs, a remarkable 83%, and I don't even have to do any statistical research to tell you that that is the best playoff winning percentage any QB has ever had. Watch him go 3-0 in this years playoffs and inflate that already ridiculous playoff win percentage all the way up to 85%.) According to my calculations, 79% means he should win 12.6 games a season. But keep in mind, 2002 Tom Brady was throwing the ball to Troy Brown and David Givens; 2009 Tom Brady will be throwing the ball to Randy Moss (the best vertical threat in the NFL, other than Fitzgerald and Calvin), Wes Welker (THE best slot receiver in the NFL) and Joey Galloway (who is faster, smarter and less-in-jail than former #3 receiver Donte Stallworth). Brady's offensive line is the most solid in the NFL and works together like one giant ten-armed, 2,000 pound player; their O-line doesn't have any "big name" guys on it, but that's exactly the way New England wants it to be. Remember the 2007 season, when the Patriots would punt one or two times A MONTH? That was the last time Tom Brady played a healthy season. Remember when they shattered offensive records and went 16-0? Maybe it won't be that magical of a season in 2009, but that's the standard they will be striving for. 12.6 games is the least they will win. 13, 14, maybe 15. And I wouldn't rule out 16-0. Really. No coach accepts losing worse than Bill Belichick. No quarterbacks hates losing more than Tom Brady. He is a legend in the making. How he comes back from this surgery will be how he is judged in NFL history. I'm sure he will make it a season to remember.
And as good as their offense is, their defense isn't much worse. Seymour, Wilfork and Warren might be the best defensive line in the NFL. Wilfork is certainly a top five defensive tackle. Adalius Thomas, Jerod Mayo, Tully Banta-Cain and Teddy Bruschi are four extremely productive linebackers, plus Pierre Woods and rookie Tyrone McKenzie give them excellent LB depth and fit their 3-4 scheme well. Belichick knows how to run the 3-4 better than anyone, and that's why he pursued Thomas, the perfect 3-4 outside LB, and drafted Mayo, the ideal inside guy. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are the new pair cornerbacks for the Pats, and Brandon Merriweather is a stud at free safety. As for the rest of the secondary, SS Rodney Harrison retired and CB Ellis Hobbs went to the Eagles; but Belichick found their replacements deep in the NFL draft with Patrick Chung and Darius Butler, respectively, two rookies who will probably start right away. That's one of the many things that makes Bill Belichick the best coach in the NFL. The most hated, maybe. But definitely the best. And any team that has both the best QB and the best coach in the league has a deadly combination. Tony Dungy/Manning gave the Patriots a good rival. Now who is the Colts coach? No really, who is it? I have no idea. I have to look it up a second ... Jim Caldwell?? Who the heck is Jim Caldwell!?
Just for the record, I'm not only prognosticating that the Patriots will win the AFC East, but somewhere between 13 and 15 wins should give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as well. And this time, no lucky helmet catch by David Tyree will keep Brady from tying Joe Montana and getting his fourth Super Bowl ring.
(Note: I know Terry Bradshaw also has four Super Bowl rings, but I don't count him in the discussion because those rings were won by the Steelers defense, not by Bradshaw.)
Before I talk about the 2009 Buffalo Bills, I’d like to speak briefly about the 1989 Buffalo Bills. In the NES game Super Tecmo Bowl, my brother always got to be the Lions, leaving me to choose between Buffalo, Houston (the Oilers), and the Raiders. I usually played as Buffalo. Offensively, Jim Kelly (known as QB Bills for some reason, even though all the other players in the game had names) led a power-house offense of Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, Don Beebe, and Pete Metzelaars. Man, what a team. Andre Reed always came up with the ball on those animations where the receiver and the defender shot up into space and fought for the ball. And then on defense, I alternated between sack-master Bruce Smith and chase-and-tackler Cornelius Bennett; Ray Bentley and Kirby Jackson were big-time playmakers as well. But man I loved playing as Bruce Smith in that game. As much as I love and respect Reggie White, I must say that there never was and never will be another defensive end like Bruce Smith. It’s a shame the Bills of the late-80s, early-90s never won a title. They deserved one. They were awesome.
Anyway, back to the present day …
Last year, in 2008, the Bills started out promisingly and had everyone talking about the playoffs. (Jim Mora reference anyone?) Then faded fast and finished below .500. Their defense is full of excellent players, but on offense they just couldn't get it done with the core of Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, and Lee Evans. A pretty good core, but not a great core. Not really a playoff core. But then they went and did something that most teams wouldn't dare to do. Something so egregious that it could tear their entire team to shreds. They added Terrell Owens.
Owens is the least-liked player in the NFL, but also one of the most talented. He is hated by his teammates even more than by his opponents, but he hates all of them equally. He talks trash and usually backs it up. He is so full of himself that he is about to explode. He's one of the NFL most dangerous playmakers; he's one of the world biggest idiots. And now, he is a Buffalo Bill.
Signing TO is the ultimate in risk-reward. The Bills were smart to sign him to a one-year contract, and the likelihood of Owens being a Bill for more than one year isn't great. Everywhere he has gone in his career, he has left a villian. He makes enemies with his coaches and quarterbacks, and Trent Edwards should be very afraid right now. If he overthrows TO more than once, he will be called out in public. If he turns the ball over in the fourth quarter, five minutes later TO will be twittering about how hard it is "having a piece of shit as a quarterback." His words, not mine.
Really, the only way the TO experiment works is if Edwards has a near flawless year. Fortunately for the Bills, I happen to believe that that could happen. I think he can exceed expectations in a big way. Lee Evans might now be the best #2 receiver in the NFL, assuming Boldin doesn't play, and he can move in and out of the slot because of his speed and shiftiness. Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish and Tall James Hardy give Edwards three other decent options, and the Bills running game is to be reckoned with as well. Marshawn Lynch, who is suspended for the first three games, is a fast and powerful back, but I expect the Bills to split carries more evenly this year between Lynch and Fred Jackson. In fact they might even emerge into one of the league's best 1-2 punches if used wisely. Jackson is a real good player.
I love the Bills defense this year. I really love it. I loved it last year, and it didn't let me down. This year I think it will be even better. They have four stud players who are all AFC Pro Bowl material: DE Aaron Schobel, DT Marcus Stroud, CB Terrence McGee, and my personal favorite, MLB Paul Posluszny. When Posluszny was drafted out of Penn State I had very high hopes, and injury kept him from doing anything. Last year in his first NFL action, Paul racked up over 100 tackles, thanks to his natural talent, and thanks in part to an awesome D-Line in front of him. This year Posluszny is one of my favorite picks for "Guy who comes out of no where to become a huge stud." Stroud is huge (literally and figuratively) when it comes to stoping the run, and that allows the rest of the defense the freedom to roam the field. Good things happen when you have a DT like Marcus Stroud. Also they drafted Aaron Maybin from Penn State with the eleventh overall pick and should plug him in at defensive end right away, making their defensive line even better. Maybin and Schobel might become the best pair of pass rushers in the NFL in a couple years.
I really could see the Bills winning 10 games this year. Maybe 11. But again, I must reiterate, it all hinges on Trent Edwards. He might be more important to his team's chances of success than any quarterback, simply because he has a poisonous rattlesnake at wide receiver just waiting for a chance to destroy him. If Edwards stinks, the Bills stink big time. One thing’s for sure: these Bills can’t compare to the 1989 edition.
The J-E-T-S Jets have 7-9 written all over them. They're too good to lose more than that, but not good enough to win more than that. What I mean is that they have stud players all over the field (Alan Faneca - LG, D'Brickashaw Ferguson - LT, Thomas Jones - RB; Kris Jenkins - NT, David Harris - ILB, Darelle Revis - CB) who will ensure that they don't get blown out too many times. Faneca and Revis are top five players in the NFL at their positions; Harris is one of the league's best tackling linebackers and Jenkins is one of the best run-stoppers. Jones had an awesome 2008 statistically speaking, thanks largely to Faneca and Ferguson, and also stud fullback Tony Richardson. I wouldn't doubt that he has another 1,500 yards and 15 TDs this year. But I still don’t see the Jets finishing with a winning record.
The reasons I only peg the Jets as a seven win team are twofold: coaching, and quarterback play. Mark Sanchez might be the future franchise quarterback, but for now, he's only a rookie. Under the pressure of the New York media, you can't expect him not to choke a few games his rookie season and be thankful just to get out alive. Losing Coles and having only Cotchery as a reliable wide receiver doesn't help Sanchez. (Although I wouldn't be surprised to see Dustin Keller evolve into one of the NFL's best tight ends.) My real problem with the Jets is Rex Ryan. The guy strikes me as a grade-A idiot. Add it all together, you have Idiot Coach + Rookie QB + a few stud players + difficult division = 7-9 season.
I also think the Dolphins have the makings of a 7-9 team, but for completely different reasons. 7-9 is the most deceiving record; some teams stink but end up 7-9, and others play their very best every week and go 7-9. You can underachieve or overachieve, and finish with the same record. I think the Jets underachieve their way to 7-9, but for the Dolphins, I think they play their assess off week after week and finish with the same record. They just aren't as talented a team.
The Dolphins making the playoffs last year had more to do with Brady getting injured than their own talent. Give them credit for beating out the Jets and Bills, and for finishing with nine wins in their last ten games, but this year it's just not going to happen again. They lack a passing game and a pass rush, the two key ingredients in today's NFL. They lack experience and leadership and a great coach. They have noodle-arm Chad Pennington at quarterback and not many offensive options to work with. They use the tricky Wildcat Formation, but the odds of them surprising everyone again and running it to brilliant success are slim to none. Offensively, they have one, and only one, very huge A+ going for them, and that is second-year left tackle Jake Long.
J-Lo is 6'7'', 310 pounds and fast. He's bigger, stronger and better than anyone he lines up against. His technique and positioning are flawless. He can take two guys at a time. He is fast enough to pull and lead block. If you need one or two yards, just run behind Jake Long and you can forget about it. Your quarterback can hang out in the pocket and relax, completely free from worry about who is coming from his blind side. He doesn't allow sacks. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, Jake Long is the best offensive lineman in the NFL, especially if you factor in his age (24). He's the perfect piece to build a team around and the very reason the Dolphins don't have to worry about another 1-15 season. People who were shocked by the Dolphins turnaround last year should have seen it coming; when they made Long their left tackle they saved both Ronnie Brown and Chad Pennington's shaky careers and gave the offense a chance to move the ball on every possession, something they lacked in 2007. Left tackle is the second most important position in football -quarterback being the first, of course - and the Fins have the best one.
On defense, the Dolphins are another 3-4 team. In fact, every team in the AFC East runs the 3-4 scheme except the Bills. The Dolphins are not as well equipped to run the scheme from a personnel standpoint as their foes, however; Joey Porter is their only notable linebacker, their inside linebackers are too small and trash talk opposing coaches too much (Oh that rascally Crowder guy…), and Jason Ferguson is not a great or a very big nosetackle. Their secondary is pretty good but not great. Their defense could overachieve again and be in the top half of the league, but more likely the lack of talent will catch up with them, and they will have one of the NFL's worst defenses. I hate to say it, but it's just the way it is.
Likelihood of each team winning the AFC East:
NE - 85%
BUF - 8%
MIA - 4%
NYJ - 3%
Not a slam on the other teams, just saying: New England is really, really, really good.
Let's move on next to the stupidest division in football, and let's get it over with fast. The AFC North. The Steelers will win it. It won't be competitive. Baltimore will finish second, only because they are mediocre. Cleveland and Cincinnati will suck. Again. It's the worst division in football, even if the Steelers are one of the best teams. The AFC North is about as interesting as Everybody Loves Raymond re-runs.
If you were to compose an All Star team solely of AFC North players, there might be Steelers at 18 of the 22 starting positions. The only non-Steeler on offense would be Joe Thomas at left guard. There would be no Bengals on the team. None. Two, maybe three Ravens, only on defense. Man, what a stupid division! Further proof why there is no easier job in all of sports than to be a Steelers fan.
That's not to say that the AFC North is completely uninteresting. There are a number of intriguing questions we must ask ourselves, mostly questions that concern the future and not the present of the division. Questions such as:
-Will it be Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson starting at QB for the Browns?
-Is Joe Flacco a one-year wonder or the real thing?
-Is Carson Palmer finally back to his old self?
-Is there anyone more annoying in sports than Chad 'Ochocinco" Johnson?
-How many games will the Ohio teams win combined?
-Will the Bengals have the worst defense in the NFL this year?
-Will the Ravens offense score more or less than 200 points this season (12.5 per game)?
-Who will be the main man at RB for Baltimore?
-What about for Cincy?
-Is the Ravens defense good enough to get them back to the playoffs?
-Will the Steelers make it back to the Super Bowl?
-Is it fair that more than one third of Pittsburgh's games are against piece of shit teams?
-Is there a bigger tool in the NFL than Ben Roethlisberger?
We'll have to wait and see to find out the answers to these fascinating questions; but if you, like me, would rather eat a cinder block than watch the AFC North this year, you can just take my word for it and follow along with my answer key:
Brady Quinn; One-year wonder; Yes; No!; 6; Yes; Less; Ray Rice; Kenny Watson; No; No; Nope; Hell no. So there you go.
Each teams chances of winning the AFC North:
PIT - 91%
BAL - 5%
CLE - 2%
CIN - 2%
Pathetic. I hope your proud of yourselves Steeler Nation.
Moving on to the much more riveting AFC South. As always, this is the Colts' division to lose. But they did lose it last year, thanks to a very improbable 13-3 season from Tennessee. But the five consecutive years before that, the Colts won it. And even last year, they finished 12-4. In fact, the Colts have won at least 12 games an amazing six season in a row. Will this year be seven in a row? You bet. It's Peyton Manning's division, and this year he will make sure the Colts win it again. It's still an interesting division, the AFC South, because even though the Colts have the best team, all three of the other teams are talented. Talented enough to earn one of the wildcards. Last year belonged to the Titans. There were years before that were all Jacksonville. Houston has been knocking on the door with what seems like five 8-8 seasons in a row. Who will finish second this year and likely earn a trip to the playoffs? (I say likely because the rest of the AFC isn't deep enough to have a good shot at the other wildcard spots.) It's close between Jacksonville and Houston, and as much as I want to pick Houston on the year that they finally make it, I have to say the Jags are just a better team and Houston will finish right around 8-8 once again.
Starting at the bottom of the division, I need to address the phenomenon of last year's Tennessee Titans. They started out 10-0 and finished 13-3, with a 37-year old quarterback and no receivers, a rookie running back and an overweight running back splitting carries, and one heck of a defense. How on earth did they do it? The strangest aspect of the 2008 NFL season was not the Titans 10-0 start, or the fact that NO ONE saw it coming, but the fact that still NO ONE ACTED SURPRISED. Everyone just played along, like “Oh Kerry Collins and the Titans are 10-0? Of course they are…” I for one thought it was ridiculous and am glad they lost Albert Haynesworth so we don’t have to watch another weird fluke season from them. It wasn't like the rise of a star quarterback or a new coach, it was a couple of gray-haired veterans and a stubborn defense. It was just a total team effort, and they really peaked; unfortunately, they peaked about four months too soon. And they missed their window. This year, they have no chance of repeating their success, and are pretty likely to fall from first to last in the AFC South.
Haynesworth signed a humongous contact with the Redskins and their defensive coordinator is wearing Honolulu Blue for 2009, hopefully leading the Lions to a similar 10-0 start. Tennessee's defense is going to fall to pieces and anybody who doesn't see that coming is blind. And as for their offense, which was already not-so-good, it’s going to be even worse, largely because of a worsened defense. These things go hand in hand; the more time the defense spends on the field, the less chances Chris Johnson has to blaze around the corner for a 65-yard TD sprint. Kerry Collins has a very lousy crop of receivers to throw to, who were led last year by tight end Bo Scaife. Seriously guys? Their big offseason move was to bring in Nate Washington. Come on, it's like they aren't even trying to have an offense. The only drama with Tennessee is whether Vince Young will reclaim his starting job, and either way it's a lose-lose for the Titans. They have all the makings of a 4-12 team, and poor Chris Johnson is going to drop from 1488 yards and 10 TDs to ... I'll say 1150 yards and 5 TDs.
The big debate for me is between Jacksonville and Houston. I believe one of these teams will be in the AFC Playoffs, and the other will not. I think they are very close. In fact I'd like to clump them together and look at them as one entity.
Quarterback: Matt Schaub and David Garrard are two of my favorite young QBs on the rise; I think both could have excellent careers for the next five years at least. Schaub is better though; he's more consistent, and has a better arm.
Running game: Both teams excel here, but Jacksonville excels more. With Fred Taylor out of town, Jones-Drew is poised to have a colossal season - he will be one of the few every-down RBs, who plays on third down, on the goal-line, and catches about 50 or 60 passes. I have him penciled in as my #2 fantasy pick behind Peterson. He's a stud on the goal-line. As for Houston, Steve Slaton was a great rookie last year and should be another every-down back, and a safe late first-round fantasy pick. But he serves more as a decoy to draw attention away from Houston's deadly pass attack.
Passing game: Texans win big. Andre Johnson is a top five WR in the league, and Daniels and Walter are solid. When he plays a 16-game season, Andre is a threat to be the best wide receiver, statistically, no matter who plays quarterback. Jacksonville improved when they picked up Torry Holt; although physically he can't do much anymore, his strengths were always route-running and intelligence, which is what Garrard needs from him. Needless to say, the gameplan of "Let's draft the tallest receivers possible and hope they can catch!" has not worked out too well for the Jags.
Offensive line: Don’t know much about either team, but I would assume Jacksonville’s is better. They give up less sacks it seems and run the ball better. Only a few years ago Houston gave up something like 250 sacks in one season. Poor David Carr …
Defensive line: Houston has Mario Williams, who has 26 sacks the past two seasons but still remains relatively underrated. They also have Amobi Okoye, who is a great DT. The Jaguars used to be known as a run-stopping team, but without Marcus Stroud last year they struggled. I give this point to the Texans.
Linebackers: DeMecco Ryans wins this one single-handedly for Houston, the guy is an absolute monster.
You know what just occurred to me though, no one, myself included, is particularly interested in either the Texans or the Jaguars, so maybe I should stop wasting my time comparing the two so extensively.
Defensive Backs: Mathis is great. Point for Jacksonville.
Special teams: Houston has a better kicker.
I’ll wrap it up with this: Houston is better on offense, Jacksonville’s better on defense, Jones-Drew is a game-breaking stud and I think the Jags finish 9-7 and Houston finishes 8-8, again.
Now on to the Colts, winners of the AFC South.
First, let’s answer my question from earlier: who the heck is Jim Caldwell?? Well, turns out he’s been a Colts offensive assistant coach for the past seven seasons, which is an impressive place to be. Before that he helped coach at Tampa Bay and was head coach at Wake Forest; it seems he has been groomed to be Tony Dungy’s replacement for years and although he’s a complete unknown, it won’t surprise me to see him succeed. Everybody knows this is Peyton Manning’s team, and Jim was the quarterback’s coach when Peyton threw 49 TDs in 2004. Therefore, I’m going out on a limb and saying Jim Caldwell is a good coach.
Manning won’t be affected at all by the departure of Marvin Harrison, but will instead utilize Anthony Gonzalez more and a steady dose of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Most Colts fans seem to agree that Joseph Addai isn’t a wonderful running back, and I agree, but on an offense that is so heavily geared toward passing the ball, it really doesn’t matter too much. Addai’s good enough, and that Colts offensive line is rock solid.
On defense the Colts are vulnerable. They show flashes of dominance and flashes of futility. They’ve never been great at stopping the run. Or the pass either, for that matter. But they have two of the very best defensive players in the NFL: Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders. It always seemed to me that Tony Dungy made his biggest impact on the defensive side, and his absence might spell trouble for the Colts defense. They won’t be bad enough to keep the Colts from winning the division, but they may be bad enough to keep the Colts from reaching the AFC Championship.
Chances of winning the AFC South:
IND – 64%
JAX – 20%
HOU – 9%
TEN – 7%
Last, and least, the AFC West. This division is not very interesting. The Broncos seem determined to fall apart. Al Davis seems determined to punish Raider fans. The Cheifs are sneakily rebuilding. And the Chargers win the division, no matter how hard they try to lose it. Here’s an interesting bit of information for you guys though: who would you guess is the best player in this division, on any team, at any position? LT? Merriman? Bailey? What if I told you it is actually an Oakland Raider. Well, it is, and I’ll say who later if you haven’t already guessed.
First, the Chargers. They won the division last year at 8-8 and then got pummeled in the playoffs. But all that without star linebacker Shawn Merriman, who will be back and back with vengeance. The Bolts defense was predicted to be one of the elite last year, and for good reason; along with Merriman, Luis Castillo, Quintin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie, and Shaun Phillips make for a really good defensive team. Even without Merriman, they should have done so much better than they did. Merriman may be the best fit for the 3-4 of any linebacker in the NFL, though, and his absence may have impacted the Chargers defense almost as much as Brady’s injury impacted New England. Last year Merriman had two tackles total; the three years before that, he was averaging over 13 sacks a season. As a linebacker. Unreal.
One of the biggest questions going into the 2009 NFL and Fantasy seasons is this: just how washed up is LaDanian Tomlinson? Does he have any more great seasons left in him? Is he going to go Shaun Alexander on us, or revive his career when the doubters are counting him out, a lá Kurt Warner? I honestly don’t know. I think his motivation is out of whack. Last year he did put up over 1,500 yards and 12 TDs. Not a bad season at all, but it was by his standards. He’s not going to have any more 30 touchdown seasons like he did in ‘06, but he should at least be their best running back. Darren Sproles played better in the playoffs last year than LT played all year. Will they split time this year? Is that disrespectful to a future Hall of Famer?
(Note: Tomlinson is 38 rushing touchdowns behind Emmitt “The Imposter” Smith for the most all-time. I really, really hope he gets it. Three seasons ought to be enough. Four definitely will be. Come on LT, stay strong for us Detroit fans.)
(On a related note, Peyton Manning is closer than you might think to the all-time passing records for yards and TDs. He needs 130 touchdowns and less than 20,000 yards. By his standards, that’s five seasons. He’s 33. He could do it. Here’s the real point: Do you think that honestly doesn’t have anything to do with why Brett Favre can’t stay away from the NFL?!?? If Favre calls it quits now, today, he has to sit back and hope Manning doesn’t catch him, while his numbers stay still. But if he plays for the Vikings and has a completely ho-hum season of 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, he makes it that much harder for Peyton to catch him. It’s like in high school, when I was running my best 5K my senior year and realized as I saw the clock by the finish line that I was going for the school record. I knew that every second counted, because I was potentially setting the new standard to be broken. Every second could be the difference between Forest Hills immortality, and second place. That’s what it’s like for Favre, except on a million times bigger scale. Of course that’s part of why he wants to keep playing. It might even be one of the biggest reasons. He knows Peyton Manning isn’t stupid enough to keep playing until he’s 45. Only Favre is that stupid. And that stupidity just could be what seals him the two most important quarterback records for another two decades at least, because there is no other threat in the NFL right now.)
(Coincidently, I only broke the school record by half a second, and within two years I was bumped down to fourth place. I am now completely irrelevant. But I was the only runner to take off my track spike, and try to stab someone with it. So I have that going for me.)
So where was I? Oh, the Chargers … right, well next onto the Chiefs then.
I like to pick upsets, and I am picking a number of them. The Redskins, Saints, 49ers, Bills, all playoff teams. Those are all upset picks, but none greater than my Super Upset Special Pick of 2009: The Kansas City Chiefs!
Led by quarterback Matt Cassel and new coach Todd Haley, the Chiefs offense is going to be good. You might be thinking, who is going to run the ball for them? I’ll tell you: it doesn’t matter. Haley isn’t interested in running. This is the guy who was the offensive coordinator for last years Cardinals, a team that threw the ball an average of about three times a game. He was a wide receivers coach for three other teams. He loves the passing game. He has coached Keyshaun, T.O., Fitzgerald, and now he has budding star in Dwayne Bowe. They’ve also got Bobby Engram and Mark Bradley, and something tells me they won’t miss Tony Gonzalez much at all. Branden Albert has the makings of a stud left tackle but the rest of the offensive line is young and probably not very good, so I won’t give the Chiefs offense too much hoopla. But I will say that Bowe has a huge season. Huge. 100 catches, 1200 yards, 12 TDs. At least. And Cassel solidifies himself as a bona fide NFL quarterback and the future of the Chiefs.
On defense the Chiefs have a few young studs, namely Glenn Dorsey, Derrick Johnson, and this year’s #3 overall pick Tyson Jackson. Jackson appears to be a pick based around shaping the 3-4 defense, allowing both Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel, who combine for almost 70 years, to play inside while letting Johnson move to the outside. The secondary is nothing special but if the 3-4 is implemented successfully it should help them out a lot. I like the Chiefs for about 9 wins this year. A lot of offensive shootouts. They just might be this years Cardinals. (Minus the Super Bowl)
The Broncos are next. Doesn’t it seem like they are setting themselves up for a horrible season? They are doing the opposite of rebuilding. They deconstructing. Taking apart their essential pieces are starting over with Kyle Orton. When the new coach Josh McDaniels came to town, he certainly stirred things up; Mike Shanahan was the Broncos coach for two decades and he ran the ball. Even with Elway, he still kept the focus on running. The zone blocking scheme was born in Denver. Now this new coach, a by-product of the Bellichek blueprint, wants to shake everything up and go a little pass happy. What would be the perfectly wrong way to accomplish that? How about pissing over the star quarterback, trading 40 cents on the dollar for him, and then pissing off the star receiver a few months later?? Now Brandon Marshall is demanding a trade, and the offensive core is looking like Kyle Orton, rookie RB Knowshon Moreno, and Eddie Royal. Wait a second, does McDaniels think this the NCAA? Because if it was, he just might have a chance at a BCS birth.
I mean come on, the Broncos are notoriously small and quick, everywhere from offensive line to defense. That’s why they zone-block so well, but struggle with pass protection. Now using the same players, McDaniels wants to implement an entirely new system, asking them to change what they’ve always done and let themselves be led by neck-bearded Kyle Orton. Don’t get me wrong, I was hyped about the McDaniels coaching gig when it first happened, as he is the man who is so often accredited with the Patriots offensive success. But without yet coaching an NFL game, I think he has already made himself the worst head coach in the NFL. Jay Cutler may not be perfect - sure, he might not even as good as Matt Cassel, as McDaniels apparently believes- but letting him leave town for the Bears, for no good reason? Just because you trade to trade him and he found out? Just not good player management at all. They did receive first round picks in 2009 and 2010 for Cutler however, so we’ll have to see how it works out.
Denver is always lousy at defense. Champ Bailey is a good shutdown corner and they acquired the very old but still very good Brian Dawkins to play strong safety, but other than that … they lack the pass rush and the tackling presence to improve and lift themselves out of the cellar of the league’s worst defensive teams. They can’t stop the run, don’t expect that to change.
One thing that could help Denver finish close to .500 instead of 4 or 5 wins would be a speedy development of Georgia rookie Knowshon Moreno. They drafted him twelfth overall and seem to be set to give him the keys to the backfield, the first running back since Portis to own the job single-handedly. Shanahan was obsessed with the running-back-by-committee approach (and had good success with it, albeit he drove fantasy owners nuts), and McDaniels seems like he’s trying to do everything different than Shanahan, so they drafted Moreno and decided to make him the man. How will he do? He’s a little small (5’11’’ 215 lbs) but very fast and hard to tackle; I watched a few youtube videos of him and he loves that spin move. He’s got a little Adrian Peterson in him, he breaks through the middle and looks for the big play. Good vision like that just can’t be taught, it’s innate. I believe in Moreno. He’s the obvious favorite for Rookie of the Year, since he should be getting 25 touches a game. He’ll be over 1,000 yards, but how far over? Could he go as high as 1,500? Perhaps. We’ll wait and see.
I saved the worst team in the AFC for last, and that’s the Oakland Raiders. I really hate to say it, but JaMarcus Russell is the Black Matt Stafford. Or other way around. But not a good thing. McFadden is poised for a breakout year, but he’s not going to have much help from the passing game or the offensive line. Drafting Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick was hilariously bad. He’s Devin Hester without the kick returning. He’s Usain Bolt but not as fast. Football is a contact sport, not a foot-race. Heyward-Bey is a nice slot guy if you already have two good receivers, but a top ten draft pick?? Are you joking? JaMarcus “The Holdout” Russell will have another terrible season and soon be labeled the biggest draft bust since Darco Milicic. The Oakland offense is bad. Really bad.
But their defense isn’t much better. They don’t put pressure on the quarterback, they can’t stop the run and they can’t stop the pass on one side of the field. But the Raiders have one thing going for them that no other team in the NFL has, one very huge advantage who many people haven’t heard of because they can’t pronounce his name. Nnamdi Asomugha. (Nam-Dee Aso-Mu-Wah). Hands down, the best cornerback in the NFL. Put your hands down. He only had one interception and 40 tackles last year. Why is that? Because opposing teams don’t throw in his direction. They just don’t. And if they do, it’s incomplete. Or picked off. Check out these eye-popping numbers:
In 2006 Asomugha had his breakout season, with eight interceptions. Then in 2007, quarterbacks were terrified to throw towards him. Either that, or when the looked over in his direction, their receiver was blanketed. So how many passes did he defend in 2007? Thirty-one. For a whopping total of ten completions. But wait, it gets better. Last year, he was thrown at twenty-seven times for a total of eight completions. Only one wide receiver caught more than one ball against him all season, Randy Moss, who had three catches for forty yards. The thing is, Asomugha lines up against your #1 receiver, whether you like it or not. Last year he faced Brandon Marshall, Dwayne Bowe, Roddy White, Steve Smith, Andre Johnson, and Moss, and gave up a total, A TOTAL of eight completions. Less than one per game. Absolutely Incredible. Best player in the AFC West. Quite possible the best defensive player in the NFL. One NFL scout recently said that Asomugha will be thrown at “less than any defender in the last ten years.” Even the grinch himself, Bill Bellichek, called Nnamdi “as complete a cornerback as he has ever seen.” That’s not a guy who gives out too many compliments.
As always, there are fantasy implications for a player as dominant as Asomugha, even if he plays on the defensive side. Since I won’t talk about defensive players in my upcoming fantasy preview, I’ll give you a sure-fire tip right now: If you have a receiver playing against the Raiders, sit him. No matter what, I don’t care who it is. Unless it’s a #2 receiver, in which case he will probably have a huge game. But if you have Fitzgerald, Wayne, or whoever, DO NOT try your luck against Asomugha, or you will end up with one completion for 13 yards. Better to pick up Mike Furrey off the waiver wire and hope he gets signed real quick. (Wait, I just looked it up and confirmed, Furrey is currently on the Cleveland Browns.)
So to wrap up the Raiders in a nutshell - horrible team, one amazing cornerback. Five wins.
AFC West: percentages of each team winning:
KC – 18%
DEN – 13%
OAK – 5%
So to summarize the AFC, the Patriots, Steelers, Colts and Chargers will combine for 48 wins and the Bills and Chiefs win wildcards, with the Jags close behind but losing the tiebreaker. In the end, Brady and Manning will have a classic duel in the AFC Championship, New England will come out on top, 31-27, and Ben Roethlisberger will come out of the closet and reveal that he has been in a relationship with Sidney Crosby for several years.
Here is your 2009 AFC Pro Bowl:
QB – Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Matt Cassel
RB – Maurice Jones-Drew, LaDanian Tomlinson, Steve Slaton
WR – Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne
TE – Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark
AFC MVP – Brady, of course.
AFC Rookies of the Year:
Offense – Knowshon Moreno
Defense – Aaron Maybin
AFC Coach of the Year: Let’s go with Bill Bellichek. He deserves it. I mean, he is the best coach in the NFL.
If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading and stay tuned for my upcoming, incredibly long Fantasy Football 2009 Preview. Also I will probably write something about the NBA before too long.