I've written this over the past two and a half days at work... as such, it lacks the continuity and cohesiveness of some of my finer work, but I still took the time to scribble these thoughts, so I may as well post them: (Note: I wrote this all prior to the Favre-mania that ensued yesterday)
So back in May I wrote a huge NFL Preview, breaking down each division and each team, each offense and each defense, and going out on several limbs with some bold and unorthodox predictions. Some of those calls I stand by, but many of them were ill-founded or rushed into. A lot has changed since May; injuries, position battles, and coaching philosophies have made a lot of things clearer. The only certainty in the NFL is that there is no certainty; who could have predicted the Dolphins and Falcons to make the playoffs last season, or Tom Brady's fatal injury? Things never really lived up to their expectations last year, or the year before, or really any year that I can think of. Why should it be any different in 2009? By picking the same 12 teams to make the playoffs, wouldn't I be guaranteeing myself to be incorrect? You have to go out on a few limbs, otherwise you have no chance of being right; the tough part is knowing which limbs to go out on, and which limbs to stay off.
Let's start with the AFC and then the NFC. First, the AFC East.
One of the few certainties is that if Tom Brady plays a healthy 16 game season, the Patriots win the division. He's a living legend, a Hall of Fame player in his prime, and he plays alongside a great coach, great receivers and a real good defense. 16-0 is their ceiling; 11 games is their basement. The difference will be the play of their young defenders; how will Mayo, Merriweather, and Pat Chung respond to increased pressure? Offensively, the only nagging question is if the offense will lose a step at all due to the absence of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. I'll give you the answer now: No, they'll be just fine. Remember when “offensive genius” Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame? They were pretty good after that, yeah? As long as Brady remains under center, they will be scoring plenty of points. Patriots' Record - 13-3.
The rest of the AFC East is tricky: any one of the three is a threat for the Wildcard, but they all have major weaknesses. All three teams have a less than ideal quarterback situation, and are better on defense than they are on offense.
The best defense in the group belongs to the Jets and new coach Rex Ryan, who brings along a few of his old Raven defenders and his nasty blitzing reputation. In all Ryan's Baltimore days, he never had a shutdown cornerback as good as Darelle Revis, or a DT quite like Kris Jenkins, so he's going to have some fun scheming and imposing his will against offenses. Of course, the Jets don't have anyone who rivals Ray Lewis or Ed Reed, so maybe it won't be as fun for Ryan as he hopes. His real challenge is going to be on the offensive end, where coordinator Brian Schottenhiemer will be responsible for the play-calling and the development of Mark Sanchez. Ryan wants to employ the "three-headed RB" tactic that was used in Baltimore last year; it drives fantasy owners nuts, but it is effective. Thomas Jones will probably lead the team in carries (McGahee), Leon Washington will see the third downs (Ray Rice) and rookie Shonn Greene probably gets the goal-line work (McClain) and a few extra carries per game. The Jets have the benefit of a great offensive line -one of the best in the NFL- and a great fullback, so running the ball should come easy for all three RBs. They don't have much at receiver, but they don't need much; David Clowney is a sleeper I like to be the #2 WR of the Jets and maybe even pass up Cotchery as the #1. The Jets coaching staff love his speed and big-play ability. I actually think Sanchez wins the starting job, and does a Joe Flacco-like performance leading his team to a Wildcard berth. He has the same things Flacco had: great defense, great offensive line, great running game. And therefore no need to pass the ball too much. Jets- 10-6.
The Bills and Dolphins are close behind the Jets, and very close to each other. Both teams have lots of talent on the defensive end (the Bills have more), but neither has enough to be a dominant unit. The Bills have a huge advantage at wide receiver: Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, whereas the Fins have close to nothing. But the Bills also have one of the shakiest offensive lines in the NFL, which could spell major trouble. If Trent Edwards can't throw the ball when and where he wants to, that means an unhappy TO, which means a major headache for Buffalo. What the Bills need is for their running game - Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch - to occupy the defense enough to let TO and Evans run deep and create some plays. Without a solid offensive line, this is unlikely. The Bills seem destined to stay under .500 unless their offensive line miraculously is healed. Prediction - 7-9.
Miami was the most surprising team in the NFL last year, going from 1 win to 10 wins. Maybe they'll keep it up and win 19 this year. Nah, most likely they'll drop down at least a few games in the win column. They should be happy with 7 wins with the lack of talent that they have. But having been to the playoffs, Miami isn't going to settle for mediocrity, which may be their biggest advantage. On defense, they have Joey Porter but not a whole lot else. The defensive line struggles against the run. On offense, the Dolphins have the opposite problem as the Bills: great offensive line, but no playmakers. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are a decent, but not great, 1-2 punch, but Miami’s wide receiver corps is seriously lacking. With Chad Pennington at QB though, that's not necessarily disastrous. He lacks the arm strength to throw deep anyway, and prefers to dump off short passes to tight ends and slot guys. No one on Miami is a real fantasy threat, although Ronnie Brown might be able to distance himself from stupid Ricky Williams and put up some real good stats behind Jake Long and that offensive line. I see the Dolphins finishing with a 6-10 record.
The AFC North is, at first glance, very uninteresting. The Steelers have a great team, the Ravens are okay, and the Browns and Bengals suck. At least that's what I thought a few months ago. For the most part, that is all true, but there are two major wildcards I may have overlooked: Carson Palmer, and Joe Flacco. It's easy to write off Flacco as a one-year wonder, because I didn't see anything star-worthy when I watched him last season. (As opposed to Matt Ryan, who is positively beaming with star quality). Flacco has lousy receivers and a weak offense, and was led to the playoffs by a great defense. I wrote off the Ravens as a dying bird and not a playoff threat, but maybe I underestimated Flacco's leadership and moxie. We shall see. Palmer, on the other hand, I definitely did underestimate. I simply forgot how good the guy is. When healthy, he made Pro Bowls and threw for great numbers and won plenty of games. He even made an ass clown like Chad Johnson look good. Now he has Laverneaus Coles and Chris Henry along with Ochostinko, and even without any semblance of a defense that may be good enough to lead the Bengals out of the basement. As for the Browns, well, they still suck.
The Steelers probably won't win as many games as I originally thought; their divisional games may not be a cake walk and the running game is in a state of confusion. Willie Parker's contract is about to expire but the team has no plans to re-sign him, so what motivation does he have to play for them? Meanwhile, Rashard Mendenhall, the man they hope will replace Willie, is playing like garbage in camp and has not fully recovered from last year's injury. He can’t even secure the backup job. Is Mewelde Moore the guy they want to platoon with Parker? Will they force Rashard onto the field too early? Remember, the Steelers only have one weakness, and it’s their below-average offensive line. They have to make sure they don't do anything Rasharded (get it?) with their running game, or they could be in trouble. Defensively, they'll be great. Offensively, I think they take a step back. Record 11-5.
I actually like the Bengals over the Ravens for second place, simply because Palmer is healthy and he is much better than Flacco (or Quinn). He also has the best receivers to work with. The Bengals defense is painfully bad; however they have some young pieces assembled and some good players coming off of injuries, so they have an outside chance at turning a corner from terrible to mediocre. If they do that and the offense clicks, they might, just might, sniff the playoffs. But that's a lot of ifs. Bengals record- 8-8.
The Ravens will probably finish very close behind the Bengals, if not tied with them. Their defense is too good, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are too good, to keep them under 7 wins. A lot of pressure on Flacco to lead the offense. He needs more help. Prediction- 7-9.
I want to give the Browns the benefit of the doubt, because they do have some promising players. But they are going through too much transition: new coach, QB controversy, makeshift defense, aging running back, rookie receiver... They don't have much promise on either side of the ball, and even if Quinn wins the QB job convincingly and plays well, he still won't be able to lead them to any more than 7 wins; that's their ceiling. To do that, he'll need Braylon to play well, Robiskie to jump in right away as an effective possession receiver, and someone, whether Jamal Lewis or Jerome Harrison, to make some plays at running back. Unlikely. Browns- 4-12.
The AFC South is a lot like the AFC East; Peyton Manning controls what happens, much like Tom Brady, and his team cruises to a division title. The other three teams are all scrapping for a wildcard spot.
The Colts have more than just Peyton Manning; like the Patriots, they also have great receivers and a pretty good defense. (I think Anthony Gonzalez might actually look a lot like Wes Welker this year). Tony Dungy's absence will certainly sting, but offensive coordinator Tom Moore knows what he's doing and the offense will be just fine. It's the defense that worries me; without the Tampa 2 architect (Dungy), will the Colts still effectively run his defense? If both Bob Sanders and Dwight Freeney play healthy all season, the entire defense should be okay. Prediction - 12-4.
I don't even remember what I wrote about Jacksonville a few months ago, but at this point in the season, I'm excited about a big bounce-back season from them. The best part is, everyone used to love to pick them as a sleeper for the playoffs, then they had one off-year, and now everyone's ready to throw them under the bus. But not me. I like them to have a rebound year, for a number of reasons. It starts with the offensive line - last year it was in shambles, this year it's put back together, plus Eugene Monroe plugs in right away. Behind that O-line is Maurice Jones-Drew, who is one of the best running backs in football, fantasy or real-life. He is dynamic as a receiver and unstoppable near the goal-line, and is a rare power back with good speed and vision. Torry Holt is a good fit for this offense too; at this point in Holt's career, he is a slower possession-type receiver with great hands. That's exactly what David Garrard needs. This offense could really be something. The defense probably won't be a dominant unit, but it also won't be as bad as it was last year. Rashard Mathis is a great corner, very underrated. I'll give the Jags 9 wins.
The AFC South might actually be able to scrounge up both wild cards, partly because the rest of the AFC is lacking and partly because it is such a highly competitive division. I want to say it has replaced the NFC East as the best division in football, due to the departures of Plaxico and TO, but since the AFC South sent Big Al Haynesworth to the Redskins, I can't make that argument. It's close though.
Originally I thought it would be a battle between the Jags and Texans for second place. Now, I see more of a battle between Houston and Tennessee for third. The Titans won't be as bad as I originally thought.
I still like Houston over Tennessee because I don't think the Titans defense will set them apart this year. It will be solid, barely above average. So will Houston's, and the Texans are so much better on the offensive end that they stand a better chance of keeping pace with the rest of the division. Andre Johnson is elite and Steve Slaton is a star on the rise, plus Matt Schaub isn't bad. Houston won't have any trouble putting up points, but they must defend in order to stay above .500 and finally reach the playoffs. They have a few playmakers on defense, but are still lacking something. 7-9.
It looked for a while like Tennessee was considering giving Vince Young his starting job back. That would have doomed them. Smartly, Jeff Fisher has kept old man Kerry Collins under center and is trying to convince the Titans that last year was no fluke by replicating as much of the 2008 plan as possible. They even added two new receivers: Nate Washington and Kenny Britt. Tough to get excited about that. Even if they still had the same roster they had last season, I still wouldn't give them more than 9 wins. But without Haynesworth, I can't see them with a winning record. 6-10.
The AFC West is considered one of the worst divisions in football, and rightfully so. They are an embarrassment to the rest of the AFC. The Chargers battled injuries to just about every player on their team last year, and still won the West with an 8-8 record; they’ll smash that mark to smithereens this year. They know their best chance of finally reaching a Super Bowl is to win in the regular season, and earn home-field advantage in the playoffs. With their creampuff division, I expect the Bolts to come out smoking. Merriman is healthy, Tomlinson and Gates are healthy, Rivers is really good, and Vincent Jackson is about to break out. They're going to go 6-0 in their division, and they have only five tough games on their schedule: against the Steelers and against the NFC East. I believe they go 3-2 in those games and lose only one other, for a 13-3 record, tied for the best in the NFL.
Second place in the division is up for grabs, but it doesn't really matter. I originally liked the Chiefs for an upset Wildcard bid, but I don't trust their defense anymore nor do I trust Matt Cassel in his first real season as a starter. Last year was too easy for him: who could possibly fail in the situation he was in? Now he has lots of pressure on him - $60 million dollars worth of pressure - and it's not going to be nearly as easy for him. Dwayne Bowe is good, but he's no Randy Moss; Bobby Engram is a decent slot guy, but he's no Welker. KC's offensive line is pretty good, but it's nothing like the Patriot's line. In short, the Chiefs aren't the Patriots. Teams that can't run the ball or stop the run are usually going to struggle, and that looks like the story for Kansas City. Oh, and Larry Johnson is an idiot. KC’s record: 6-10.
I'm tempted to pick Oakland over Denver, because I hate both teams and can't see either winning any more than 6 games. Oakland has a great cornerback (Asomugha) and has glimmers of hope on offense (what if Russell, McFadden, and Heyward-Bey all exceed expectations?), but they can't stop the run. Denver has a great cornerback (Bailey) but they also can't stop the run. They have a more settled offense, albeit less flashy. Orton is a boring, solid player; the one thing he has going for him is that he knows he’s the starter, which allows him to really focus and prepare, rather than wonder if he’ll get a chance to play. Orton won't be bad this year; from a statistical standpoint, the whole Bronco offense should produce. Moreno, though he'll split carries with plenty of other folks, will have a nice year, and Royal/Marshall should combine for close to 180 catches and 2000 yards. (I actually like Eddie Royal more than Marshall this year, in both fantasy and real-life.) But a terrible defense and average-at-best quarterback means 5 wins. 5-11 for Denver, 5-11 for Oakland.
Wildcards: Jets, Jags
IND def. NYJ
JAX def. PIT
NE def. IND
SD def. JAX
NE def. SD
Moving on to the NFC, let's begin in reverse order, starting with the lowly NFC West.
When I analyzed this division in May, I came up with the 49ers winning it, the Seahawks losing it, and the Cards and Rams in the middle. A lot of things have changed: Shaun Hill has yet to run away with the starting QB job in San Fran; Hasslebeck is looking really good in camp; Boldin appears likely to play without a new contract; and Donnie Avery suffered an ankle injury that could keep him out at least a month.
This division features three new coaches: Jim Mora Jr. in Seattle, Mike Singletary in San Francisco, and Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis. All three are good coaches. All three want to re-establish the run. Mora is taking over for West Coast extraordinare Mike Holmgren; Singletary has replaced "mad scientist" Mike Martz's pass-happy bull-crap with a conservative run-first coordinator, Jimmy Raye; and Spagnuolo takes over a Rams team with no offensive identity, and all he knows is that giving the ball to Steven Jackson as many times as possible is his best chance of winning.
That's a lot of changing. A lot of new names. And a lot of running the ball. Oh, and Arizona's offensive coordinator is gone, which means Ken Whisenhunt, a former Steelers coordinator, finally has the opportunity to try and bring a litte smash-mouth football to the desert. All four NFC West RBs, Gore, Jackson, Julius Jones, and the Wells/Hightower combo are going to see a lot more action that they saw last year, and are accordingly being undervalued in fantasy drafts. True, none of these teams have good offensive lines, but Seattle's is decent and the Rams got a whole lot better on NFL draft day when they added Jason Smith. The 49ers also added a studly fullback who should help Gore out quite a bit.
I see this division as a battle between the Seahawks and 49ers, and I actually believe Seattle will come out on top. One thing Seattle has always had is a tremendous home-field advantage. Up until last year, they were unbeatable at Qwest Field; in a lousy division where 10-6 can win it, winning your home games is an easy way to a division title. I also underestimated the potential of the Seattle passing offense; if the offensive line holds up and gives Hasslebeck time to look through his reads, he could be quite deadly. Houshmendzadeh, Branch, Burleson, and the tight end Carlson give Hass four solid options to look for. I don't like any of the receivers particularly as a #1 threat, but combined they can create matchup problems for defenses. Perhaps the reason Julius Jones was so putrid last year was Seattle's inability to pass the ball. As defenses have to play more honestly, Jones should have a better season. Seattle's defense isn't going to be wondrous, but they have one of the best linebacking crews in the NFC, led by Aaron Curry, and great linebackers tend to make those around them better. My Seattle prediction: 10-6.
San Fran is going to finish with a record of at least .500, I'm pretty sure of that. However, I don't think they'll be a 10 win team. I don't think they can dominate against anyone. But I think they can eek out a lot of close games with a good defense, a great running back, and a smart coach. If Shaun Hill plays effectively at QB, if Crabtree gets healthy and plays all season, and promising youngster Josh Morgan lives up to the hype, the 49er passing attack might be a dangerous one. Of course that's not all very likely to happen. But at the least, having Frank Gore and Patrick Willis gives San Fran an excellent chance to win this lackluster division. 49ers record, 9-7.
Arizona is coming off a roller-coaster off-season, even though nothing much happened. They lost the Super Bowl (which they had no business even playing in), Larry Fitzgerald became a super-mega-star and graced the cover of every sports magazine, Anquan Boldin got jealous and decided to be a little brat, and Kurt Warner started collecting social security. Meanwhile, the offensive coordinator took a head coaching job elsewhere and the defense remained stagnantly mediocre. Drafting RB Beanie Wells was the one major acquisition, and he might not even start. From the day the Super Bowl ended, I've been convinced that 2009 Arizona is no better than a 7 win team. They don't have the toughness or aggressiveness on defense, and sooner or later defenses are going to figure out how to stop an offense that doesn't run the ball. Either they try to establish Wells as a runner, which takes away from the one thing they do well (pass), or they keep on chucking the ball like maniacs, which gives Fitzgerald a great fantasy season but doesn't help them win games, just like it didn't last year when the only finished 8-8... Either way, they finish 7-9.
It's time to be realistic with the St. Louis Rams. They've burned me a few years in a row. This year they finally have a great coach, or so it seems. They have a fantastic RB and the #2 overall pick at left tackle. But they've still got Marc Bulger and no defense to speak of, and their only NFL-caliber receiver has an injured ankle and will miss all of the preseason, and maybe a couple weeks of the real season. Best case scenario is .500. Rams fans will be happy with 6-10.
On to the NFC South.
Last year the Panthers won it with a 12-4 record (which I accurately predicted, thank you). This year, I believe it’s a two-team race between the Falcons and Saints. Both teams have elite quarterbacks, and elite quarterbacks mean playoff appearances. It’s a pretty simple rule. Jake Delhomme is anything but a great quarterback. Tampa Bay doesn’t even have a quarterback. This might be the only division where pretty much nothing has changed since May. And if Ryan and Brees stay in the South for a few more years, Atlanta-New Orleans could become one of the NFL’s best rivalries.
I still have the Falcons winning the division; I love Matt Ryan, and Michael Turner, and now that they have Tony Gonzalez, that offense is just lethal. It was a bit of a scare when Roddy White started holding out, but now he’s got a huge contract (which he earned) and is going to be a top 10 NFL receiver for years to come. The Falcons offense promises to be one of the NFL’s best, and that balances out a defense that isn’t particularly good. Record: 11-5.
The Saints have the upside to be a 14 win team, simply because they have the NFC’s best QB by a mile. Brees has everything a great quarterback should have: near-perfect accuracy and strength, poise in the pocket, sharp decision making ability, and underappreciated strength and elusiveness in the pocket. He’s the complete package. He’s a lot like an early Tom Brady – has no marquee receivers but spreads the ball out to anybody and everybody. The Saints also have the downside to be a 5 win team; their defense is that horrible. But it seems that Brees’ goodness outweighs the defenses badness to the tune of a 10-6 record, and finally a playoff appearance.
The question with Carolina is: how far will they drop? They’re not repeating last year’s 12-4 performance, but will they sink down to 5 or 6 wins? Or will they remain feisty with an 8 or 9 win season? Is 10 wins out of the question? Having to play four games against the Falcons and Saints doesn’t help their cause, and neither does playing against the NFC and AFC East. With all the holes they have on defense and the problems at quarterback, I think a sub .500 season is to be expected. 7-9.
Tampa Bay is a team with way more questions than answers. Is new coach Raheem Morris the real deal? Will the defense fall apart without Kiffin and Brooks? Who the heck will play quarterback? When will Josh Freeman get a chance? Will he stink? Will they platoon Ward with Graham and Cadillac Williams or just let Ward run like crazy, knowing that’s their best chance of moving the ball? Can Antonio Bryant duplicate last season’s heroics? Can they possibly compete in this tough division? Perhaps the real question should simply be: How bad will they be? I want to give every team the benefit of the doubt, but last year’s Lions taught me that that’s not always a good idea. But last year’s Falcons also taught me to never be too sure that a team is terrible. These Bucs look like they could go either way; Ward has all the skills to carry their offense (he ran for over 1,000 yards as a backup last year), but poor quarterback play has doomed many a team. Looking over their schedule, I only see 3 or 4 wins. I’m going to guess 4-12. But I won’t be at all surprised to see them in the Super Bowl, that’s how crazy the NFL is lately.
Next let’s discuss, for the millionth time, the NFC North. What has happened since May? You mean besides the circus of Brett Favre? To make an obnoxiously long story short, he’s not coming to Minnesota. (***Editor's note: Favre IS coming to Minnesota. So please disregard the following paragraph) That leaves Sage Rosenfels as the heir apparent to the QB job in Minnesota, which is one of the easiest jobs in the NFL. Behind that offensive line and with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, all it takes is not sucking and you can win a lot of games. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Tavaris Jackson just so happens to suck. Sage, I think, will fare a lot better. He’s perhaps best known as the guy who managed to turn the ball over 3 times in 3 minutes to blow a 20 point lead last year against the Colts, but aside from that one disastrous game, he compiled a pretty decent season filling in for injured Schaub, with 1431 yards in 6 starts – that averages out to a 3800 yard season which is pretty solid. Of course, he turned the ball over 12 times, or an average of twice a start; if he keeps that up all season, between the big yards and the big turnovers, the Vikings basically have a clone of Favre. A gunslinger with a strong arm is better than a moron with no arm, which is why Rosenfels should and will start over Tavaris Jackson.
As for the rest of the Vikings team, they surely look like division winners again. It all starts with Adrian Peterson, the most dominant running back in the world, and that excellent offensive line. This season, look for the Vikes to try to integrate more weapons in the passing offense, especially rookie Percy Harvin, so they can score through the air as well as on the ground. Last year they kicked way too many field goals. Defensively they should be very stout; they can stuff the run using only four or five players, allowing a bunch of ho-hum secondary players to double and triple team receivers. Jared Allen gives them a premier pass rusher. They probably have the most talent top-to-bottom in the NFC North, and should win the division with an 11-5 record.
The Packers should be able to take second in the division pretty easily, and will have to fight to contend for a Wildcard. They have loads of talent all over – offensive line, QB, RB, WRs, defensive line, secondary, linebackers… like I said, all over. They don’t have many ‘elite’ players, but they have an overwhelming amount of good players. Rodgers is the lynchpin; if he steps his game up to the next level, they could be looking at 12 or 13 wins and serious Super Bowl contention, but if he stays where he was at last year, which was good but not amazing, they’ll probably remain a .500 team. My guess is 9-7.
Chicago has Jay Cutler, which has everyone all excited and dancing around in the streets. I’m excited too, but only because that means the Lions get to play two games against him. He’s a turnover machine, a reckless quarterback, a poor leader, a selfish guy with a strong but inaccurate arm. He’ll throw some beautiful deep balls to Hester this season, sure, but he’ll also overthrow lots of deep passes and force balls into double coverage instead of checking down. He gives the Lions a good chance to beat the Bears in both games this season. So if you were wondering how I really feel about Jay Cutler, I think they guy’s a bum. He’s a loser; he sucks.
That said, the Bears are going to stay ahead of the Lions, at least for this year. They are better than the Lions at every position except wide receiver and linebacker, and linebacker is a close call. They have an offensive line that isn’t bad, they have a very solid RB, a good secondary and a really good D-line. Oh, and great special teams. The Lions still have too much improving to do on both lines to be ready for a .500 season. The Bears will be close: 7-9.
My final prediction for the Lions season will have to wait until the preseason develops a little more. I want to see how Pettigrew and Delmas look in real action. I want to see how the QB battle progresses, and I want to see who earns the starting jobs at DE, DT, CB, SS, and LG. If they look well-coached and disciplined, if they eliminate the stupid penalties and don’t give up too many big plays, they just might be ready for a turnaround. For now, I’ll say 5-11.
The NFC East gets more and more compelling by the day. Originally, I ranked the four teams like this: Eagles, Redskins, Giants, Cowboys. A lot of minor injuries and position battles keep the East in constant flux and make it difficult to know which teams could flop and which teams could dominate. The Giants have an elite defense and an elite offensive line, but I don’t believe in Eli Manning. The Cowboys are just an okay overall team, but I have a lot of trust in Tony Romo. The Redskins have a potentially great defense and a solid running game, but is Jason Campbell ready to step up and lead the team? What about the Eagles, is McNabb going to be able to stay healthy, and lead them back to a Super Bowl?
A lot of people have been dogging on the Eagles, saying their bark is worse than their bite. Some folks even call them underdogs in this division. I expect the division to have a lot of close games, plenty of dogfights, but in the end the Eagles will come out as the top dogs. Oh, and speaking of dogs, did you hear the Eagles signed Michael Vick?
In all seriousness, the Eagles are going to be able to run the ball effectively behind an improved offensive line, and it will probably be a two-headed monster, Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, pounding yards up the middle. That’s going to open up the passing game for deep balls to fast receivers who can create separation. That in turn opens up space for the short passing game, where Westbrook is most dangerous. Add to the equation the speed of Michael Vick and the Eagles offense is downright terrifying. Their defense may take a step backward; I don’t like them as my #2 fantasy defense anymore. Coordinator Jim Johnson passed away, which is sad, and also bad news for their defense. His successor hopes to utilize the same play-book, but there’s only one Jim Johnson and a big part of his schemes involved making the right in-game adjustments and understanding when and how to blitz in the flow of an actual game. Coaching isn’t just about having the right playbook, it’s understanding how the game is progressing and how to surprise and destroy your opponent. Without Johnson, the Eagles defense won’t be as good; it’s still loaded with playmakers, so it will still be good. Just not great. Prediction: an NFC best 12-4.
So who’s going to join the Saints in the playoffs as the other NFC Wildcard team? Will it be an NFC West or North team, or does the East have it locked up? All three teams in the East are playoff-caliber, but each has major flaws as well. To determine my final predictions, I’ve ruminated long and hard on each team in the division’s strengths and weaknesses, and which strengths outweigh which weaknesses and when it all plays out in September which teams will actually win. Since the East is so good, I expect it to be close, and to come down to a few key interdivisional games. In their 10 games against non-NFC East foes, I bet each teams goes at least 6-4. But who has the edge when they play each other?
I hate to say it, but I like the Giants. Not because of Eli Manning, mind you, but because of the defense and the running game. The Giants go 10-6 in spite of Eli Manning, and then lose in the first round because of Eli Manning. Here’s my rationale: for one thing, Chris Snee is one of the best offensive lineman alive; Jacobs/Bradshaw is a better RB tandem than any team in the division, which is saying something; Justin Tuck isn’t the best DT in the division, but he’s not far behind Haynesworth; the Giants can stop the pass better than any team in the division; depth and experience sometimes are better than pure talent – the Giants have crazy depth. They’ll go 10-6, with a few terrible losses than can be blamed solely on Eli. Eli stinks, but the Giants are good.
Not far behind will be the Redskins and Cowboys. Both will finish at least 8-8. The Cowboys have a better passing game and the two are nearly equal in terms of running the ball, but the Skins have the edge defensively. I’m not fond of either coach, but I’m less fond of Wade Phillips. I picked the Redskins to make the playoffs a few months ago, while everyone else in the world thinks they’ll stay in fourth place in this division. I don’t know. Maybe for once, everyone in the world is right. Maybe Jason Campbell just isn’t good enough to push the Redskins over the hump. But I just don’t like Wade Phillips. I’m going to say both teams finish 8-8.
Wildcards: Saints, Giants
ATL def. NYG
NO def. SEA
ATL def. MIN
PHI def. NO
PHI def. ATL
Super Bowl: Patriots 27, Eagles 20
Brady throws 3 TDs, 2 to Moss, and racks up more than 300 yards, winning his fourth Super Bowl and solidifying himself as one of the best football players of all time.