Sunday, June 7, 2009

NFC Preview

This is my longest and most time-consuming work to date. What it lacks in coherency and direction in more than makes up for in sheer length. So if you have an hour to kill and want to know my thoughts on the NFC this season, sit down, grab a drink and a snack, and without further ado ...Presenting, my 2009 National Football Conference preview of all four divisions and sixteen teams, composed over the course of several weeks of monotonous workdays:

We begin with the NFC East, the most compelling and competitive division.

Unlike the other three divisions, a serious case can be made for any of the four teams to win this division. The Giants won the Super Bowl two years ago, the Cowboys were the NFC favorites last year, the Eagles are the deepest and most well-rounded team in the NFC, and the Redskins added perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL, Albert Haynesworth, to an already good defense. Three of the teams have star quarterbacks, the Giants (Eli), Cowboys, (Romo), and Eagles (McNabb), so the common logic is to assume the Redskins will be cellar dwellers once again in the ultra-competitive East. Not so fast I say.

But let's start with my pick: The Philadelphia Eagles. I'm sure this won't be the most popular choice amongst the NFL experts, but to me the Eagles are the best team in this division and in the entire NFC. Offensively they have the best player in the East in Brian Westbrook, and a quickly improving receiving group of DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis and rookie Jeremy Maclin, who was an absolute steal for them. They have a consistently stellar offensive line. It all comes down to Donovan McNabb, his injuries, and his ability to manage the game and not get in his own way. Hand the ball to Westbrook, throw him little screens and let him do the rest. Defensively, the Eagles are always great. Their Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson does not mess around. They blitz more than any other team, and with Asante Samuel as their top cover corner they can get away with it. I think the reason the Eagles win the East is because the rest of the division lacks a dominant passing game to exploit the Eagles' blitz-happiness. (More on that later.)

In another slightly shocking prediction, I think the Redskins will finish second in the division. 90% of the reason is Big Albert Haynesworth. I don't think people realize how dramatic an impact one defensive tackle can have. Look at the result of last year's Marcus Stroud move - the Jaguars fell apart on defense, and the Bills improved by leaps. Haynesworth is twice the DT that Stroud is, and not only will he turn the Redskins into run-stuffing fiends, his presence will open them up to rush the passer using only the D-line. Which then enables the safeties and linebackers to roam free and cover and create all sorts of problems. His departure also spells the end of the Titans, who will fall from 13 wins last year to 5 or 6 this year.

Offensively, the Redskins still have the Portis/Betts combo running the ball behind an effective offensive line. Jason Campbell has the skills and size to excel but hasn't put together a good season yet. I thought last year would be it. Maybe this year. The Skins drafted three rookie pass-catchers in 2008 who combined for, I don't know, maybe 5 catches last year. It will be interesting as they try to incorporate the young Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly with veterans Santana Moss and Antwaan Randel-El and still find looks for Chris Cooley, but having five capable receivers is a good problem to have. I already talked about the inevitable defensive improvements that the Redskins will enjoy, but even before Haynesworth signed his $100 million-plus deal they already had an above average defense. Now it's going to scare people.

I'm going to lump the Cowboys and Giants together. Everyone's going to be expecting a lot and picking them as playoff teams, and rightfully so after the past two or three seasons. Eli and Romo are household names at quarterback, Marion Barber and Brandon Jacobs are running backs that no defense ever wants to go against, and they both have studs on the defensive line: DeMarcus Ware on Dallas and Justin Tuck & Osi Umenyiora on NY. Their most striking similarity however, is this: both teams lost their controversial, ego-maniacal, game-changing star wide receiver this off-season and both team's offenses are going to suffer as a result. Plaxico Burress skipped practices, got in legal trouble, and shot himself in the leg (which is so easy to make fun of, that I'm having a really hard time knowing what to say). Terell Owens is simply the most psychotic athlete since Dennis Rodman, and possibly the worst teammate ever, in any sport. But the fact is, for all the trouble that these two nuisances create, they still make plays, particularly in the end zone. They have size, strength, and experience, and are the number one receiving threat that quarterbacks rely on. When you have a great running game, a great O-line and a great quarterback, you need that number one receiver as a sort of knock-out punch, to take advantage of the defense when it focuses too much attention on the running game. Owens and Burress can do that. Their replacements, Domenik Hixon and Roy Williams, not so much. Roy Williams is a career loser, but a great talent, and the 'Boys still have an outstanding tight end in Jason Witten, so they still have hope of being an offensive powerhouse; the problem is, I just don't trust their goober of a coach Wade Phillips. Talk about a guy who inspires no confidence. And speaking of dopey-looking guys who inspire no confidence, the Giants have a quarterback named Eli Manning. I think both teams collapse under big-market pressure, notch maybe six or seven wins each, and Jessica Simpson breaks up with Tony Romo.

That's enough on the East. The rivalries in this division are so intense that any of the twelve inter-division games could be dogfights (no Michael Vick pun intended) and I could be totally wrong here. I think there's a decent sleepers' chance that the Redskins are this year's Titans and they cruise to 12 or 13 wins behind the run-and-stuff-the-run philosophy. I also want to entertain the possibility that Eli Manning gets exposed as a complete joke and the Giants go 4-12. I'm serious, I can see it happening. First they got rid of Shockey, and now Burress and Ward... they must really think Eli is the next Tom Brady and want to see if he too can dominate with sub-par receivers. Good luck Dopey.

If I had to assign percentages to each team's chances of winning the division, I would be cautious and say:
PHI - 32%
WAS - 28%
NYG - 21%
DAL - 19%

Now on to the NFC South.

This division is the total enigma. Before last year began, the Falcons were in total disarray and looked likely to win maybe 2 games. This year the single biggest trend among NFL experts will be picking them to win the division, and maybe going to the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan emerged last year as a star, as did Michael Turner, as well as Roddy White, and then they added Tony Gonzalez. What's not to love about that offense? I can't argue, as much as I like to go against the grain, and so I too think the Falcons win the division. As for the Matt Ryan phenomenon, I need a little more time to be sold. I don't want to be one of those suckers who proclaim him the next great in the line of Brady and Elway and it turns out he is the next Carson Palmer. No question that Ryan is a future star, but the question is how big a star. I loved watching him last year, but so did 31 defensive coordinators who are plotting against him even as we speak.

As for the rest of the division, I'll say the Saints improve, the Panthers deprove (that should be a word), and the Bucs deprove even more. I hated everything about the Panthers in last year's playoffs and DeAngelo Williams magical season was a one year wonder. As for the Bucs, how the heck do they keep going 9-7 or 8-8 every year? They're terrible. I'll tell you how - great coaching. Letting John Gruden go was the single dumbest thing they could have done, and I hope they go 1-15 without him. Which they might.

The Falcons are a fantasy football dreamboat, which is one of the main reasons why I am leery about them this year. Turner will be the second overall pick in most fantasy leagues, and Ryan, Roddy White, and Gonzalez should all be statistically stellar this year as well. But if recent years in the NFL have taught us anything, it's that high scoring offenses don't always equate to wins.

Which is a perfect segway to talk about the New Orleans Saints. Last year Drew Brees established himself as the best Quarterback in the NFC, even with his best receiver injured for half the year. Reggie Bush still hasn't become an every-down back but his speed and pass catching abilities make him the ultimate big play threat. Deuce McAllister and his injured legs are finally gone, but Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker have both showed they can be the up-the-middle guy that the Saints need to keep defenses honest. The problem is not with their offense. Well, the problem isn't with the offense gaining yards. Punching the ball into the end zone is more of the concern. That, and defense.

They have a few solid playmakers on defense, but didn't do enough this off-season to dramatically change the fact they give up a ton of points. The reason I think the Saints improve this season and maybe upset the Falcons to take the division is simple: a quarterback as good as Drew Brees shouldn't be kept out of the playoffs this many years in a row. Especially in such a lousy division. It's just inexplicable. I hope this is the season we finally see Brees take it to the next level and take over games single-handedly.

The Panthers finished 12-4 last year, and anyone who thinks they will repeat that is kidding themselves. Jake Delhomme played one of the worst playoff games in history and will be their quarterback going into week one. He was productive enough through last season to win 12 games, but his turnovers were high, his accuracy was off, and he largely benefitted from a strong supporting cast. DeAngelo Williams was off the chain last year, breaking 60 yard runs nearly every game and scoring 16 times. They will integrate Jonathon Stewart and have one of the league's most effective 1-2 punches, and they still have Steve Smith, who is unquestionably a top 10 receiver in the NFL, and very arguably top 5. (Let me see, off the top of my head... Calvin, Fitzgerald, Andre, Moss, Smith, Owens, Marshall, Jennings, Boldin, Bowe... Yeah I suppose he would be fifth. Of course I'm talking merely from a football perspective and not a fantasy perspective. There's is plenty of time to talk about fantasy football, but for now I'm trying to focus on the real thing.) So the Panthers return a lot of talent on offense and have a developing stud at left tackle in Jeff Otah. Defensively they have a giant question mark named Julius Peppers, one of the game's best pass rushers, who is disgruntled for who knows what reason. He's talked about holding out, being traded, or whatever, but no matter what the situation is, the Panthers need him on the field to be successful on defense. Look, I'm not hating on the Panthers. Last season I picked them to win the division. This season, I'm picking them to go 7-9. It's nothing personal. I love their colors and North Carolina is my very favorite state. But they have a history of winning on the road and losing at home, and that doesn't make any sense, so I just don't see them staying in the playoffs.

And then there are those Buccaneers the notorious beasts on the defenses end. But I have more than one reason to believe that their legacy as stout defenders is about to come crashing down. I'm not saying they'll be in the bottom five of the league in defense - they still have Ronde Barber, and promising young stars Gaines Adams and Aqib Talib. But for the past decade, the Bucs defense has been defined and led by two exceptional men: future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Brooks was released after the 2008 season, and leaves a gaping hole at linebacker and in the locker room. Kiffin, the architect of the Bucs' Super Bowl winning defense and considered one of the true defensive geniuses in the NFL, left after last season to coach at the college level with his son. It's a touching story, but it's bad news for Tampa Bay.

Worst of all, they fired coach Jon Gruden and made a young defensive backs coach their head coach. Their quarterback situation consists of Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Brian Griese, Josh Johnson, and rookie Josh Freeman battling it out in a five-way competition. As new coach Raheem Morris put it: "One bone. Five dogs." More like five prairie dogs. At running back they picked up the Giants Derrick Ward, who I actually love and think would be a stud on a better team. But the Bucs are destined to suffer from poor QB play no matter who earns the starting job. To make things even worse, they picked up a cancer player in tight end Kellen Winslow. What he has in talent, he nullifies with his stupid actions and poisonous personality. Bringing in a guy like that to a team with no leader or identity, is a stupid, stupid move. Everything about this Bucs team reminds me of last years Lions. Inexperience, bad quarterbacks that will inevitably be shuffled around throughout the season, a few good defenders and a lot of lousy ones, and a bunch of coaches that don't know what they're doing. Having no leadership can really kill a team.

When you look at this division from a strictly offensive standpoint, it's clear that the Bucs are a mile behind. Atlanta has Ryan, Turner, and White; New Orleans has Brees, Bush and Colston; Carolina's got Delhomme, DeAngelo and Steve Smith. They all have the running-back-by-committee thing going strong too. (I forgot to mention the Falcon's Jerious Norwood, who makes their really good offense even more really good.) But who do the Buccaneers have? Leftwich, Ward and Antonio Bryant? Yikes.

Now for the math part, since I am technically an accountant these days; each teams' chances of winning the division:
ATL - 48%
NO - 35%
CAR - 13%
TB - 4%

I want to save my own division for last, so I'm going to move on to the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and St. Louis Rams. I bet you think I'm going to say this division sucks. You would certainly think so, after last year the Cardinals won the division at 8-8. The Rams have been on par with the Lions the past two seasons, winning a total of five games. The 49ers stink and the Seahawks have been on the decline since they lost the Super Bowl four years ago. Right? Well a lot can change in one year. No one thought the Dolphins or Falcons would see the playoffs a year ago. You have to think progressively when predicting the NFL. You have to look at the minor changes, not just the major ones. Losing teams get tired of losing and sometimes they start winning. There is no greater motivational force in sports than the "Nobody believed in us!" mantra. The entire NFC West could rally around that battle cry and each win at least six games.

So who wins the division? Should I take the easy route and say Arizona? Actually, maybe not. Super Bowl losing teams have a tendency to stink the following year. In fact, six of the last eight Super Bowl losers failed to even have a winning record the next year. And unlike last year, it will take at least 9-7 to win this division. For the past two seasons, I have stupidly picked the Rams to win the division, and both times they have made me feel like a fool. I have a man-crush on Steven Jackson and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I want to say I've learned my lesson, and I have when it comes to Marc "No One's Open So I'll Just Throw A Pick" Bulger. The dude is terrible. But I'm actually quite tempted to pick the Rams yet again, for reasons I'll explain in a minute. I have a gut-feeling that San Fran or Seattle could win this division too. I'm not sure who I want to pick right now. Here's a crazy fact for you though: the three best players in this year's NFL draft all went to this division - Aaron Curry to Seattle, Michael Crabtree to San Fran, and Jason Smith to St. Louis. The NFC West could be the future of the NFL.

I'm not completely sold on Arizona as division winners, despite last year's Cinderella fiesta in the playoffs. I'm sold on Larry Fitzgerald, obviously, but the rest of the team is worrisome. Kurt Warner is good, but he's old. Anquan Boldin is good, but he's being a rascal and might not play for them next year. My fear is that the Cardinals suffer an identity crisis, and here's why; coach Ken Whisenhunt is a smash-up-the-middle type, and Kurt Warner likes to sling the ball for 400 yards a game. Stylistically, they clash. I like the former Richmond Spider, Tim Hightower, at running back a lot more than Edgerrin James; however, I'm not sure he can be an every down back. Really, I just wanted to talk about him because I wanted to mention that he played college at Richmond. Go Spiders! I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of quintuple-coverage this season on Fitzgerald and a bumbling offense falter. Their defense is okay, but nothing great. I see them winning anywhere from 6 to 9 games.

St. Louis has always been one of my favorite non-Detroit teams and I've had a hard time accepting how horrible they are. I wanted the transition from Marshall Faulk to Steven Jackson to be seamless and beautiful, because when Faulk was still playing I knew Jackson was a star just waiting to be born. But then the offensive line became aged and injured and Jackson got injured too, and Bulger turned into a rotting corpse disguised as an athlete. So the Rams became awful. Is this the year they can turn it around? Man, I hope so. But it's probably going to take more than one year. They drafted to ultimate building block, Jason Smith at left tackle to replace Orlando Pace and protect Bulger's fumbling blind side. They let go of Torry Holt but Donnie Avery should be able to match his production.

The big story is new coach Steve Spagnuolo, who brings great defensive playcalling and ingenuity to a Rams defense desperate for an overhaul. Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator of the Giants and before that was an Eagle's assistant and learned the ropes from Jim Johnson. He's one of those rare coaches who can succeed with minimal talent. Which is good, because that's exactly what the Rams have. Although they do have defensive end Chris Long (Howie Long’s son), who was the #2 overall pick last year and should be ready to develop into a stud. But just for the record, I'm not going to be stupid enough to pick them to win the division again. Maybe next year.

It's always risky to pick a team with an unknown starting quarterback to succeed, but that's what I'm prepared to do with the 2009 49ers. Is it going to be Alex Smith or Shaun Hill? Time will tell, but my gut tells me that Mike Singletary will make the right pick. (Which has got to be Shaun Hill. His record as a starter is 7-3. I don't know what Alex Smith's record is but my guess would be 2-50.) Singletary has been a great coach for them so far, instilling a winning attitude and refusing to let losing become the norm.

Assuming Hill starts under center, the 49er offense should actually be a good one. He's got Frank Gore, after all, who is one of the best all-around talents at running back, and now Michael Crabtree to throw to, who was an absolutely colossal steal for them at pick 10. A lot of scouts considered Crabtree the best overall player in the draft at any position, and he got picked 10th? How does that happen?? Isaac Bruce should make a good mentor for Crabtree and hopefully steer him in the right direction, and Arnaz Battle, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan round out a surprisingly deep receiving core. And then there's Vernon Davis, perhaps the most athletic tight end in the NFL, but also the one most notorious for bad work ethic and bad route running. It takes a hard-core coach to get a guy like that to perform, and Singletary could be that guy . One things for sure, any offense that fires Mike Martz will be much improved. And 49ers fans won't have to hear the words "offensive genius, mad scientist, complex playbook, and pass-happy" fifty times a game and scream at their TV "If he's such a genius why does our offense suck!!?"

But the real reason I like the 49ers is not because of their offense, but because of their defense, and especially because of their switch to the 3-4. Playing in the 3-4 seems to benefit teams that have outstanding linebackers, and Patrick Willis just might be the best linebacker in all the NFL. Takeo Spikes ain't bad either. Willis's speed, strength and tackling are unmatched. He'll be able to put to torment opposing offenses by blitzing at will and roaming all over the field, and will be facing the worst division in the NFL from an offensive standpoint (you think he won't enjoy teeing off on Julius Jones and Tim Hightower?) If Willis doesn't lead the NFL in tackles playing in the new 3-4, I will be greatly surprised. He might get 10 or 15 sacks as well. San Fran also has two very solid secondary players, shutdown corner Nate Clemens and strong safety Michael Lewis. I like their defense this year. And it's worth repeating that they will be playing six games against really sub-par offenses. So yes, I am picking San Francisco to win the NFC West this year.

(One last 49ers note: this is a stab in the dark, but the previously mentioned disgruntled defensive end named Julius Peppers has repeatedly said that he wants to play in the 3-4 scheme. He's unhappy in Carolina and is holding out. The most commonly rumored destination for him? San Fran. It's highly unlikely to happen this year as Carolina is refusing to trade him, but it's worth wondering about. He is a perfect fit for the 3-4, and if he somehow ends up in San Francisco this year, their defense is automatically one of the best in the NFC, if not the best.)

The last team in the NFC West is the least exciting, and that's the Seattle Seahawks. The big news is that quarterback Matt Hasslebeck is finally healthy, after what seems like a decade of steady injuries. I have started wondering if it's the injuries that have made him play poorly in recent years, or the deterioration of the offensive line, or the natural aging process, or maybe he wasn't even that good to begin with. Probably a combination of all four. As soon as Seattle lost Steve Hutchison and Mack Strong four or five years ago, their offense went to crap. Shaun Alexander was exposed. Doesn't it make sense that Hasslebeck would be exposed too?

Bringing in chronically unhappy Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was supposed to cure the Seahawks offensive woes and give them the #1 receiver that they lacked. It makes sense in theory. But I highly doubt it will work. It's a bit like cutting off your leg and putting a Flintstones band-aid over it. And that pretty accurately describes how I feel about
TJH as a #1 WR. He's not much more than a Flintstones band-aid. His stats have been so gaudy the past couple years that he earned a big contract and a big role, and rightfully so, but the whole NFL is about to discover that he's not a true #1 receiver after all. There are three main reasons why TJ's stats have been so good in Cincinnati: one, Carson Palmer's a pretty good quarterback; two, Chad Johnson draws a lot of attention; and three, the Bengals were almost always playing from behind, and therefore throwing a lot. Now there's no reason TJ's stats will see a major decrease in Seattle, except for maybe more rainy games, because Hasslebeck, Branch, and the crappy Seahawks team replace the three things TJ had going for him in Ohio pretty well. So, I am not saying that Housh is a terrible fantasy pick this year. I am saying that in terms of wins and losses, he's not the guy Seattle should have went after this offseason.

Julius Jones is one of the least impressive starting running backs in the NFL and one of the least talented, and running behind a lackluster offensive line won't help him any. Add to their troubles a head coaching change (Mike Holmgren is out, Jim Mora Jr. is in) and the departure of Hasslebeck's favorite target Bobby Engram (to the Chiefs) and I just don't like their offense at all. You don't see many teams build their offensive around two wide receivers who held out with their former teams, acted like spoiled brats, and basically announced publicly "I only play football for the money." But that's what Seattle has in Deion Branch and TJ Houshmandzadeh, and it doesn't seem like a good way to play inspired football and win many games.

The one reason to get excited about the Seahawks season is rookie linebacker and super-stud Aaron Curry. He was unanimously considered the safest pick this year and was the absolute steal of steals falling to them at number four. Between Curry, Lofa Tatupu, and LeRoy Hill (another Seattle holdout), the 'Hawks are considered one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. The rest of their defense, however, is not all that special. Defensive end Patrick Kerney seems to have lost so much speed that he's become almost irrelevant. I can tell you from experience that Cory Redding is not good at all. Marcus Trufant is a pretty good cornerback, but last year was the worst year of his career and he had only one interception. Bottom line, I'm not excited about Seattle defense either this year, and foresee no more than five wins for them.

So to wrap up the NFC West statistically speaking, here are each team's chances of winning the division:
SF: 36%
ARZ: 31%
STL: 19%
SEA: 14%

Now the moment we've all been waiting for, the NFC North. The Black and Blue Division. The division of running backs and linebackers. The division that I call home.

Unfortunately, I can't pick the Lions to win and still look at myself in the mirror with any self-respect. Of course there's a chance they win it. I won't rule it out. I can certainly see it happening, but I can't say it's the most likely situation. All three other teams are pretty darn good. Two of them have Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks. Two of them have Pro Bowl caliber running backs. The Lions have neither. All three of them have Pro Bowl caliber players all over their defenses. The Lions have one. Maybe two. So sadly, I won't be picking the Lions to win the NFC North.

Who will I be picking? I still haven't decided. This is probably the toughest call yet, even tougher that the East. You can make a great case for all three teams. The Bears added Cutler and still have a great defense. The Packers have the Rodgers-Jennings connection and drafted two startable defenders that they sorely needed. And the Vikings have AP and the league's best set of defensive tackles. I am feeling the pressure to get this pick right, because this is my division, and also because I've been dead-on two years in a row. After the Bears Super Bowl flop in 06, I called the Pack to pull the surprise in Brett's last year and win the North in 07 (when EVERYONE else was picking the Bears, who went 7-9). Then last year I predicted the Vikings would win it, which they did. I still haven't decided which way to go for this season, so I'm going to go team by team before I make a final decision.

Let's start alphabetically with the Chicago Bears. Obviously the story is Jay Cutler. How good is he? Or, how much better is he that the Orton/Grossman combo? Matt Forte showed how good is he last season as a rookie, when he shredded just about everybody he played against and had an outstanding year. The Bears still have the world's best kick return man, Devin Hester, who had an off-year last year but is still dangerous to score anytime he gets the ball. But, as always with Chicago, it all starts and ends with defense.

Brian Urlacher: The most overrated player in the NFL or a deserving superstar? Depending on the game, he seems to fill both roles. Which in my mind makes him a deservingly good player, but not worth the hype. Watching a Bears game, you're sure to hear the world "Urlacher" at least one-hundred times more than necessary, such as "Briggs made a great tackle there, but did you see the way URLACHER was in pursuit?! If the play was a few seconds longer, you can bet that URLACHER would have put a licking on that running back! URLACHER RULES!!" Did I mention that I can't stand Brian Urlacher? Or that he once dated Paris Hilton? Yuck.

Aside from Urlacher, the Bears defense is stacked. Adewale Ogunleye, Dusty Dvoracek and Tommy Harris give the Bears one of the best defensive lines in the league. Briggs and Hillenmeyer serve the purpose of making Urlacher look good, when really all three of them are probably about equally good linebackers. Tillman and Vasher are good cornerbacks and I don't know who either of their safeties are, but it doesn't matter too much on this defense. Their defense will be good. It's too talented and has spent too much time together to have a random bad season. They could be the best D in the league, they could be as low as tenth, but no matter what they'll be good.

Unlike the rest of the country, I do not have a crush on Jay Cutler. I think he has a strong arm and is a competitive guy. How is he any different than rookie Matt Stafford? He makes a lot of mental mistakes and turns the ball over more than almost anyone. How does that make him the hero of Illinois? More than anything else, he strikes me as a cocky, bratty punk who is really talented. He can definitely throw the ball as far as anyone, but his accuracy leaves something to be desired. (In Madden, I could see his stats being THP 98, THA 78). I didn't like anything about the way he handled the Denver-Cassel situation and think it showed his immaturity in a major way. So do I think Cutler immediately makes the Bears a title contender? No, not really. Does he improve their chances of winning the NFC North? Yes, but only because of how bad Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman are.

It will help him to have a very good running back to work with for the first time in his career, and the Bears should run Forte like crazy, at least 20 times a game. The combination of Hester's speed with Cutler's arm strength seems like a perfect match for deep balls. (Sort of like what the Lions and Raiders are trying to do with Stafford-Calvin and Russell-Heyward-Bey). I for one don't think the "strong-QB, fast-WR" method of offense is particularly effective. It seems that "accurate-QB, good-route-running-WR" has had much more success (see Brady, Manning) in recent past, but it's not as sexy. Sexy as a sports term is strange, but it makes good sense. Jay Cutler is one of those 'sexy' quarterbacks. Young, strong, cocky, unconventional. But sometimes, you just can't trust the sexy player to win the non-sexy games.
Back to where I started this paragraph, though, that's why the Bears should be thankful to have Matt Forte, the un-sexy running back who is going to carry them this year.

Before I address the Packers and the Vikings, I should probably address the giant elephant in the room: Brett Favre. But I’m going to save that for later. First, I’m going to just look at things as if he stays retired and makes a bunch of Wrangler commercials.

So, the Packers. It’s a little known fact that for a few years in middle school the Packers, not the Lions, were actually my favorite team. I was young and foolish and even owned a cheesehead (which my brother still mocks me for). What can I say, I loved Reggie White and Brett Favre’s boyish charm was infectious. What? Uhh.. anyway, suffice it to say that those days are far beyond me and no other team will ever seduce my loyalties away like the Packers did. I blame it all on Jimmy Jang.

Offensively, the Pack Attack is a solid B+ who can keep you in the game, but can’t really overtake the game and win all on their own. Rodgers played about as well as anyone thought he would last year, and was helped out tremendously by the vastly underrated Greg Jennings and the mildly overrated Donald Driver. James Jones is a very solid #3 guy and Donald Lee is a trusty tight end. Ryan Grant doesn’t do much special at running back, but he’s not a real hindrance to their game-plan either; I expect the Packers to divvy up the carriers between Grant and speedy Brandon Jackson a lot more this year. A year of NFL experience should help Rodgers improve his overall game, and we’re likely to see him in the Pro Bowl this year.

On defense is where I love Green Bay in 2009. Switching to the 3-4, they drafted two first-round pieces who they hope to plug in and start immediately. Nosetackle B.J. Raji is the ideal plug-the-middle DT that the 3-4 scheme needs, and Clay Matthews will start immediately at outside linebacker. Along with A.J. Hawke and Nick Barnett, Matthews gives the Packers a scary good group of LBs. Better than even the Bears, Seahawks or Lions. Probably the best group in the NFC. People don’t realize how good Barnett is. At cornerback the Packers have two wily veterans who can play isolated shutdown: Al Harris and Charles Woodson, and at strong safety they have an emerging star with a really cool name: Atari Bigby. But the star of Green Bay’s defense is elite pass rusher Aaron Kampman, who was NFL scout I was reading the other day called “the best overall player in the NFC North.” That’s a huge compliment, and although maybe a stretch, it’s not completely unwarranted. Kampman’s contribution doesn’t show up all over the stat sheet, but that’s because he draws a double team on nearly every play. Which is probably the very reason the Pack are switching to the 3-4 this season – an elite pass rushing DE opens up space for the linebackers to blitz and cause all sorts of trouble in the backfield. Man, I just can’t say enough about how much I love the Packers D this year. My only concern is that Woodson is getting just a bit too old.

I have a grudge against the Vikings ever since week six last season, when the Lions legitimately earned a victory against them and had it taken away by the refs. Not once, not twice, but three times in the last five minutes of a close game. There was the bogus no-call pass interference against Megatron, the insidiously bogus fumble call on Megatron and then failure to overturn it even though there was more than enough visual evidence, and then a phantom interference called against the Lions to move the Vikings up some thirty yards to win the game. I’m sorry, but when a wide receiver (Calvin) catches a tough pass while getting interfered with, then gets speared in the head the moment he touches the ball, and falls to the ground UNCONSCIOUS and the ball falls out of his hands (because he was just SPEARED IN THE HEAD AND IS UNCONSCIOUS) it is an incomplete pass. Not a fumble, an incomplete pass, and then a fifteen-yard penalty for the spear. But instead it was ruled a catch, and a fumble, even as CJ lay UNCONSCIOUSLY on the field. Why am I still so bitter about this? Because one extra win really makes a big difference when your season goes down in infamy as the only 0-16 season in NFL history. If we finished 1-15, we were just like a bunch of other teams and were sparred the embarrassment and ridicule. And technically, we were 1-15. That Vikings game was such BS. I hate the Vikings.

So anyway, on to the Vikings. Their offense is anchored by the best offensive player in the NFC, maybe the best overall player in the NFC. Maybe even in the entire NFL, now that Brady is coming back from surgery. I don’t even know what to say about Adrian Peterson. He is just so damn freakishly good. If he stays healthy all season, I think he runs for 1700 yards minimum. His potential to rack up 2,000 yard seasons and break the all-time rushing record is definitely there. (And I hope he does it, because Emmitt Smith is a disgrace). His combination of speed and strength and shiftiness and vision and balance and evasiveness and acceleration and …WOW he’s is just so damn good. He’s the closest thing to a LeBron James in the NFL – an athletic freak who is just so, so good at what he does that it’s not even fair.

With all that being said, the Vikings offense still isn’t that great. Sure, Peterson has a super back-up in Chester Taylor and one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Sure, the Vikings have far-and-away the best running game in the league. You need to be able to throw the ball to score touchdowns and win games in the NFL, and last year it’s no coincidence that the Vikings kicked more field goals than almost any other team. Teams could key in on the run and force Tavaris Jackson to make a throw, and more often than not, that’s a bad thing for Minnesota. Snagging Sage Rosenfels from Houston was a good idea, because he’s certain to be better than Tavaris, but if he is NFL-starter material is yet to be seen. Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, and rookie Percy Harvin are certainly not the best WR group in the NFL, but they’re not horrible. Berrian is lightning fast. And Harvin’s skills as a runner have the Vikings practicing the trendy Wildcat formation which could be interesting to see in the smash-mouth NFC North.

On defense the Vikings may have the only NFC pass rusher who is better than the Packer’s Aaron Kampman, and that is of course Jared Allen. What helps Allen out so much is being right next to the most intimidating set of defensive tackles: Kevin and Pat Williams. No offensive line can afford to double team Allen or they risk letting one of the Williams’ flatten the center and get right to the quarterback. No team can run up the middle against the Vikings, although many teams tried, and this enables the linebackers to take chances in coverage and block off outside running lanes. It’s tough to do much of anything against a defense like Minnesota’s, but their one weakness is against the pass. They gave up a ton of big plays and passing yards last season and many teams just skipped trying to run altogether. This season could be more of the same.

Before we get to the final team in the NFC (The Lions!), we need to address the one story that just won’t go away. The never-ending saga of Brett Favre. His potential un-retirement is the biggest story in the NFC North for two reasons: one, the Vikings obviously need a better quarterback; and two, the Packers need something to really motivate them. By coming back to play for the team that was his hated rival for so long, Favre is threatening to stir up emotions in the NFC North in such a major way that it would create the best rivalry in the NFL, at least for the 2009 season. The impact he would have on the Vikings is obvious: Tavaris Jackson is not a great passer and Sage Rosenfels is not ideal either. Neither guy gives them the passing threat that they need, someone who can make a few plays a game from the quarterback position, despite having a pretty weak receiving corps. They don’t need much from the QB spot, with the dominating running game that they have. But when teams focus on AP and force them to pass, they need someone who can make a play or two. That someone could be Brett Favre, and I shudder to think of how successful that team could be. Repeat: Could be. (There’s no guarantee that Favre wouldn’t stink it up with his 40-year old arm.)

But the less obvious effect of Brett Favre Comeback II would be on the Green Bay Packers, who would be playing every game of the season with a humungous chip on their shoulder. More like one of those giant pretzels from the mall on their shoulder. But a pretzel filled with hatred and revenge, instead of cheese. Okay that analogy sucks. Let me try another one.

Imagine that the United States of America had a President who absolutely everyone loved. (Impossible, I know). He kept getting re-elected, and we changed the Constitution so he could remain President for 16 wonderful years. Everyone was happy and prosperous, and America adored him. He kept thinking about retiring, but decided to stay President year after year and we loved him all the more. Finally, he called it quits after cementing himself as the greatest President in our history, and we cried a little bit at the news of his retirement. But we moved on, and elected a new President. Then, suddenly the old President wanted back in the White House, and we had to say to our former hero: “Sorry, as much as we love you, we have a new leader now. You’ll have to stay retired.” So he gave America the middle finger, moved to France, and joined their government. And if that wasn’t bad enough, now he is seriously considering moving to Pakistan and joining the Taliban, and there is nothing we can do to stop him. He wants to spend the next year plotting terrorist attacks against America, killing innocent citizens and living in a cave. It may sound like a hypothetical situation, but it’s exactly what the Green Bay Packers are facing in the 2009 season. Favre is, of course, the President; the Jets are France, and Aaron Rodgers is the new President. And to Packers fans, the Vikings might even be worse the Taliban.

So what do the Packers do if Favre does un-retire and play for the Vikings? How does Rodgers play differently? Isn’t it safe to say that our efforts to bomb and destroy the Middle East would at least QUADRUPLE if we knew that Bill Clinton was over there fighting against us? If George W. Bush suddenly became an international terrorist, wouldn’t be spend more resources catching and killing him than we ever have before? Of course we would.

Football is all about intangibles, as much as people want to make it about X’s and O’s. It’s about motivation and actually giving a crap. No force could motivate the Packers more than to see their former glorious leader suited up as a Purple People Eater. That’s why I am willing to pick the Pack as the NFC North division winners. If Favre does not play, I don’t think Minnesota has enough offense to win the division again and Green Bay takes the North. If Favre does play, it certainly improves the Vikes chances of succeeding, especially in the post-season, but I believe it gives the Packers an extra motivation to win the division.

(Favre does not play):
GB– 32%
CHI– 30%
MIN – 27%
DET – 11%

(Favre does play):
GB – 35%
MIN – 33%
CHI – 23%
DET – 9%

What are the chances that Favre does play this year? Probably around 65% if I had to guess. So given that, I say the Packers have the best chance of winning the division, and the Vikings are a narrow second. By the way, it would not shock me one bit if the Lions did NOT finish in last place. As bad as the Lions notoriously are against AFC foes, we always battle well within the division; in fact of last year’s six games, I think at least four of them we could-have, should-have won. I don’t know if it will be the Bears or the Vikings or maybe even the Packers, but my guess is one of the teams in the North has a total flop of a season and the Lions slip out of last place. My secret guess is the Vikings, because Peterson’s chances of a serious injury are at least 25%.

So, to recap, the Eagles, Falcons, 49ers, and Packers will be winning their divisions. My wildcard teams are the Redskins and the Saints. Coming out of the NFC and losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots will be… The Eagles.

Now, on to the NFC Pro Bowl:

QB: Drew Brees; Aaron Rodgers; Donovan McNabb

RB: Adrian Peterson; Frank Gore; Brian Westbrook

WR: Calvin Johnson; Larry Fitzgerald; Greg Jennings; Marques Colston

TE: Jason Witten; Vernon Davis

NFC MVP: Adrian Peterson

NFC Rookies of the Year:
Offense - Michael Crabtree, SF
Defense - Clay Matthews - GB

NFC Coach of the Year: Mike Singletary, SF

And to bring this all to a close, how ‘bout a few random thoughts about the Detroit Lions.

Quarterback: Culpepper will start the season, play five or six weeks, then Stafford will play the rest of the way. Daunte’s record: 3-3; Matty’s record: 2-8.

Running back: Kevin Smith will not disappoint in his second season, will surpass 1,000 yards easily and finish with about 1300 yards and 13 TDs.

Calvin Johnson: Megatron will lead the NFL in receiving yards (1450) and touchdowns (18) and leave no question who the best receiver in the NFL is.

Other WRs: Culpepper will enjoy throwing to Ronald Curry and Bryant Johnson, but later in the season Stafford will develop a nice rapport with rookie Derrick Williams that has Lions fans excited for 2010.

Tight End: Brandon Pettigrew will be a gigantic disappointment as a receiving threat, and will record only about 20 catches for 180 yards and no touchdowns. He will be a really good blocker, however; unfortunately, no one will notice. Except Kevin Smith.

Offensive Line: Solid play from Raiola, but that’s about it. Backus is frustrated by all the talk about replacing him and plays his worst year yet. Cherilus does terribly as a pass blocker but well as a run blocker. The guards go mostly unnoticed as usual, but play bad enough to warrant being replaced in 2010.

Defensive Line: Grady Jackson plays well as a run stopper, Dewayne White loses playing time to Cliff Avril who plays pretty well, and Jared DeVries is his usual mediocre self.

Linebackers: Peterson and Foote’s arrivals allow Sims to play within his position and be dominant. Peterson shows Seattle that they were stupid to get rid of him, but Foote makes the Steelers realize that they were smart to let him go because he’s really not that great.

Cornerbacks: Phillip Buchanan picks off five passes and Anthony Henry plays pretty well too. Big improvement over last year.

Safeties: It takes eight weeks for the coaches to realize that Louis Delmas should start at FS, and when he gets in there it turns the defense around. Pearson plays all year at SS and does nothing special.

K/P: Hanson is solid but misses a few easy ones, and Nick Harris gets to punt even more than last year.

Record: 5-11.

1 comment:

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