Monday, June 28, 2010

AFC Preview

We’ll begin in the very interesting AFC East. While the Jets and Dolphins have gone crazy trying to keep up with the Pats, New England has sat mostly still, resigning most of their old guys. Buffalo meanwhile has gone in the opposite direction completely. A lot of folks are going to like the Jets a lot this season. A lot of people are going to dismiss the Patriots. Some people actually think the Dolphins are the team to beat. No one likes the Bills. What do I think?

Yes, Wes Welker is injured and will likely miss the first month of the season or so, and yes, that will really suck for New England. And yeah, Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins has demanded a trade and won’t be in Boston in the fall. And I know Randy Moss is 33 years old. And that the defense can’t stop the pass or rusher the passer. On and on it goes. They cheat. They’re has-beens. They’re the Spurs of the NFL. But you know what, as long as Tom Brady is the quarterback, I think this is the best team in the AFC East, and I think you’re crazy if you argue with that contention.

Since when does it matter who Brady’s receivers are? Didn’t he win Super Bowls (plural) with Troy Brown as his top target? Didn’t he look pretty fantastic last season in returning from knee surgery? And doesn’t he still have Randy Moss, Torry Holt, Ben Watson, and let’s not overlook Julian Edelman, who looked like a Welker clone in back-up duty last season. Brady probably won’t have his best statistical season, but to expect any less than 10 wins from Tom is nonsensical. He’s the consummate winner at the QB position. He’s a cutthroat competitor. He’s still a top 10 overall player in the NFL. If you think Brady is washed-up, you can shut up and go stick your head in a mud puddle, because you don’t know anything. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Behind him, Brady has a whole bunch of goofballs. Maroney, Morris, Faulk, Taylor, Green-Ellis, whomever. It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. Faulk is a good receiver. But the running game means nothing in New England. In fact, I don’t think I need to elaborate any more on the receivers either. To me, it doesn’t matter who they have as long as they have Brady. I think he’s going to win 10 games no matter who’s on his team. I know he’s not always focused on football, as people say. He has a hot girlfriend and goes to Celtics games and poses for magazines. Big deal. You can do those things when you win four Super Bowls. At least he isn’t appearing on talk shows without having ever done anything (ahem, Stafford). He’s earned the right to be un-focused from time to time, because on the field he’ll be locked in and destroying defenses just like always. You can accuse me of having a Brady-crush all you want, I’m not going to deny it. He’s a good-looking man and a great quarterback.
This is a defense that has improved recently, and actually finished 5th in terms of points allowed last season. The defense gets little credit, but is actually full of playmakers and smart players. Belichick doesn’t allow players to make mental mistakes, and instead capitalizes on the mistakes of others. Patriot defenses are always very disciplined and smart and tough. Jerod Mayo is a great young linebacker, and Vince Wilfork (recently re-signed) is the beast on the line who stuffs the run. The pass rush is the primary concern. They really missed Richard Seymour last year, and didn’t pick anyone up to replace him. The secondary isn’t great either, especially when the pass rush is lacking. As usual, the two go hand-in-hand. They spent a first round pick on CB Devin McCourty who will play occasionally while splitting time with Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. The safeties are good – Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung, Brandon McGowan. It’s not a terrible defense, but not really elite until they add a premier DE. They’ll give up their share of points, and it’s Tom Brady’s job to keep them from being outscored. I think he’ll do okay. Prediction: 12-4

Probably the most talked about team of the off-season, and for good reason. They dumped Thomas Jones, after all he did was rush for 2700 yards and 27 TDs in 2 seasons. They signed LaDanian Tomlinson, who just might set the all-time rushing TD mark as a Jet. They traded for troubled receiver Santonio Holmes. They released Alan Faneca, who just came off a Pro Bowl year. They signed Jason Taylor, who has racked up 125 career sacks in the AFC East; they released Lito Shephard, and replaced him with Antonio Cromartie; they traded safety Kerry Rhodes to the Cardinals, and replaced him with former Raven Jim Leonhard. And now, their best player is holding out for more money, and he deserves it beyond any question.

Like I said, busy off-season. They seemed to take the Belichick approach of acquiring past-their-prime veterans who’ve had outrageously good careers but don’t have much left in the tank. (LT, Taylor). They added Holmes to give Marc Sanchez another viable receiving option; he’ll miss the first four games with a substance abuse suspension, but once he joins the offense they’ll be tough to stop.

They’ve got the game’s best center by a mile in Nick Mangold, and a very good left tackle in D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Damien Woody and Brandon Moore cement a good right side of the line. The one gap is LG, where Faneca was, but having 4 good lineman out of 5 is good enough, especially when one is an All Pro. And having the NFL’s best fullback in Tony Richardson helps a lot in the running game. Plus, I have this hunch that they wouldn’t have let Faneca go if the replacement was terrible.

Just like Stafford and Leinart and several other young QBs, Marc Sanchez has a lot of pressure on him this season. He must develop and improve his game, physically and mentally. He’s gotta stop eating hot dogs on the sidelines and start acting like a pro and not a rookie. Especially because they went to the AFC Championship game last season, which was a HUGE overachievement but everyone seems to have forgotten that by now. Now people expect the same; if Sanchez doesn’t win at least 10 games, New Yorkers will be ready to murder him. And really, he’s got no excuses. He has a great offensive line. He has a great running game – I think Shonn Greene will do extremely well and might be a top 10 fantasy RB. And most of all, he has more receivers than he knows what to do with. Braylon Edwards, a freakish talent. Santonio Holmes, fast, elusive and surprisingly smart on the field. Dustin Keller, a top level receiving tight end. Jericho Cotchery, probably the best #4 target any team has. Brad Smith and David Clowney, ridiculous depth at WR. And Tomlinson knows a thing or too about catching the ball – I mean, he has caught 530 passes for 4,000 yards in his days. So Sanchez should produce excellent stats, much better than his stinky stat line of 2009 – 12 TD, 20 INT, 2400 yards, 53%, 63 rating. This year, I’d bet on 25 TD, 16 INT, 3200 yards, 57%, 80 rating. Sanchez is coming off a knee surgery, but I’m not too worried about that at his age. He’s younger than me. He should be fine.

Defensively, the Jets need Darelle Revis, and they need to sign him, and that’s that. But it looks like they’re playing stubbornly, and he’ll probably miss most of training camp. If he isn’t suited up by week 1, it’ll be a shock and a massive disappointment to everyone. Last year he was the most dominant defensive player in the league by a kilometer and I don’t think I’m the only person who wants to see if he can do it again. I expect this whole thing to resolve itself, and Revis to play, and him to play exceptionally well. As I’ve said before, I think he’s on his way to being the best CB player in NFL history.

With Rex Ryan’s aggressive blitzing schemes, linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott and David Harris (one of the best LB groups in the NFL for sure) will all get a chance to attack the quarterback, and Revis’s excellent coverage skills make this possible. 360-pound Kris Jenkins cogs up the middle and keeps the Jets formidable against the run, but he tore an ACL last season and might not be back to his old self. Shaun Ellis is a capable DE, while super-bust Vernon Gholston is not. But this defense is loaded with talent, and adding Antonio Cromartie only makes them better, as does rookie Kyle Wilson, whom I very much hoped the Lions would draft. I think Wilson will be a very good pro, and 2 or 3 years from now he and Revis could be an unbeatable CB tandem.

But realistically, this defense isn’t going to rank #1 in yards and points like they did last year. They have the talent and the aggressiveness and the depth, but it’ll be tough to stay healthy and focused all season. Pittsburgh is the only team this decade to have the league’s best defense two years in a row (2007, 2008) and that was with at least eight legitimate Pro Bowlers on the defense (Polamalu, Harrison, Woodley, Foote, Smith, Hampton, Keisel, Taylor, Farrior). These Jets have Revis, Harris and Scott - three Pro Bowlers, and then maybe three others on the outer fringe. They’re not as massively talented as the 02 Bucs or the 05 Ravens or the 08 Steelers. It’s more of just having one incredible player and a good cast around him. I still think they’ll be a top 5 defense, but I’m not gonna let expectations balloon out of control. They won’t be holding opponents to just 8 passing TDs, for example, like they did last year. That was a fluke.

All in all, my feeling is that the Jets overachieved last year, but then added enough talent to make it so that they could make a similar run without overachieving. But the AFC is tough, their division is tough, and their schedule (AFC North, NFC North, Broncos, Texans, plus division) only allows for 4 easy games – Lions, Browns, Bills x2 - and 2 pretty easy ones – Broncos and Bears. Sanchez is still young and not ready yet to be an elite QB, and I think they’ll finish up 9-7, still a nice season, but ultimately out of the playoffs. Sorry Mike Greenberg.

With Chad Henne entering his first full season as the starter, and Jake Long coming into his own as the league’s premier left tackle, and sometimes-troubled WR Brandon Marshall added to a team in major need of big-play power, the Dolphins have a lot of people buzzing. They’ve still got the best 1-2 punch at running back in the league with Ronnie and Ricky, and they’re the one team who actually runs the Wildcat in a way that’s tough to stop. If Henne develops into a cerebral QB with a strong-arm and trust in his blockers, this offense is going to be so much better than it was last year. But if he throws too many questionable passes and makes rookie mistakes, they’ll just be average.

Last season, according to, Miami was the only team in the NFL to be better than average in these six categories: overall offense, rushing offense, passing offense, overall defense, rush defense, pass defense. Their overall team rating was third, behind only the Saints and Ravens. And yet, they finished 7-9. It’s perplexing. I can’t help but think that if Ronnie Brown hadn’t hurt his foot they would have gone 9-7 or 10-6 and kept the Jets out of the playoffs and the AFC postseason would have looked a whole lot different.

Jake Long isn’t the only dominant player on this line. He’s not even the only dominant Jake. Jake Grove ranked as the fourth best center in the NFL last season. And right tackle Vernon Carey ranked as the fourth best right tackle. That’s three offensive lineman who are top 5 at their position. With the two-headed running attack behind that line, this could be a pretty cushy season for Chad Henne, and gives him bonafide sleeper status in my mind as a fantasy QB. Especially with Brandon Marshall at his helm, a guy who perennially leads the NFL in yards after the catch and plays a lot like Terrell Owens used to, and with almost as many drama problems. But not quite as many. Marshall might be ready for a nice calm-down-and-play season, like Moss when he went to New England.

On the defensive end, Miami lost a huge headache in Joey Porter and added a more talented replacement with Karlos Dansby. Porter is an good player, but too much trash-talk is just annoying and when you don’t back it up, you should just shut up. Last year was Porter’s worst season statistically. Dansby is an emerging star who’s just getting better and better, he’s 5 years younger than Porter, and is now the second highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL (5 years, $43 million), behind only Patrick Willis (5 years, $50 million).

Statistically speaking, Miami’s defense wasn’t above average in any category last season, but they also played against the NFL’s toughest schedule, the price they paid for winning the division the previous year. They were the only team who had to play against Rivers, Brees, Manning and Brady. This year they’ll see Brady again of course, and Rodgers and Favre, but no other elite QBs except maybe Flacco. They’ve also got appointments with the Bills (x2), Lions, Browns, Raiders, Bears, and Titans. Needless to say, games against Detroit, Cleveland and Oakland will help the Miami defense statistically.

Drafting Jared Odrick, a flexible DE/DT hybrid, will also help. He is a very large creature from Penn State who should immediately help the defensive line, and along with Randy Starks (the 2nd best 3-4 DE according to PFF), that should be a solid defensive line. Dansby and Channing Crowder give the Dolphins two solid inside linebackers, and Cameron Wake, who played DE last season, will be asked to fill in for Jason Taylor at OLB. Wake had 7 sacks as a back-up last year, so he has lots of potential.

The secondary has a rising star in CB Vontae Davis, younger brother of Vernon Davis from the Niners. Vontae had 4 INTs and a TD last year and was on the All Rookie team. He’s not far from being a Pro Bowler. Yeremiah Bell is a decent safety and young Sean Smith should do an okay job as the #2 corner. Well, maybe. A lot will depend on how effective the pass rush is. I think it’ll be pretty good.

Overall, I just tend to trust Bill Parcells and anything he does. He joined a 1-15 team and made them 11-5. Last year they slipped to 7-9 largely because their schedule was a doozy. This year they’ll be back above .500. My guess – 10-6.

Last and certainly least in the AFC East, we have the Buffalo Bills. I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with an argument how Buffalo might win 6 or 7 games this year, but I can’t talk myself into it. I love to be devil’s advocate, especially with crummy teams, but how can anyone possible believe in this Bills team? Their quarterback is either Trent Edwards (career QB rating of 79 – never stays healthy) or Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick, with a career rating of 67. Neither guy posses the arm strength to be any more than a dink-and-dump quarterback, and a highly questionable offensive line makes that a near impossibility.

Even though Edwards was considered a potential breakout star last summer, it now appears that Fitzpatrick will be the week 1 starter. It’ll probably be a QB roulette as both guys rack up the losses, and Brian Brohm might be in the mix. Brohm is probably the best of the 3, but he’s 3rd on the depth chart. Go figure.

This is an O-line that ranked in the bottom five of the league in both pass-protection and run-blocking, a year after letting Jason Peters go because they didn’t want to pay him. Their line didn’t have a single starter who finished the year with an overall PFF ranking above zero. Left tackle Demetrius Bell (Peters’s replacement) was the third worst LT in the league. And unbelievably, the 5 worst offensive players on the Bills’ team, according to PFF’s efficiency rankings, were the 5 starting offensive lineman. Just mind-blowing how this team did nothing to improve this line in the offseason, and then spent their first round pick on a running back with no chance to succeed. They added RT Cornell Green, who was one of Oakland’s worst players last year and was second among offensive lineman in terms of penalties per game. The only one with more penalties per game was their left tackle, Bell. So not only can their tackles not block worth a dang, but they’re also the two most penalized tackles in football. Oh how I do not envy Buffalo fans right now.

The dumbest thing about drafting C.J. Spiller 9th overall wasn’t the fact that he has no blockers or passing game to rely on. It’s the fact that running back was the only position offensively that the Bills were remotely talented at, with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch a capable platoon. Sure Spiller is a potential star, but so were a lot of guys who were available with the 9th pick. LT Anthony Davis would have been a smart pick. Or they could have traded down and got Spiller a few picks later. Just dumb drafting, to put the period on the end of a dumb offseason.

The defense is the strength of the Bills’ team, but it’s not astoundingly great. They do have five or six exciting players, but also a handful of ho-hum guys. They did lead the AFC in interceptions last year with 28. It’s a good unit, but with such a terrible offense to support them they’ll probably lose a lot of games with scores like 7-17.

In the middle they have DT Marcus Stroud, who might move to the 3-4 DE spot, allowing Kyle Williams to play nosetackle. The linebackers are solid – Paul Posluszny, Aaron Schobel, Aaron Maybin, and Kawika Mitchell. The secondary is also very good – Jarius Byrd (D-ROY runner up), Terrence McGee, George Wilson, and Leodis McKelvin. On a scale of 1-100, this defense is at least an 80. Maybe a high 80. But with an offense that’s no higher than a 40, the defense is going to be forced to fail over and over.

Plus, Buffalo has a ridiculously bad coach in Chan Gailey, because none of the big-name coaches wanted to go to Buffalo, and can you blame them? The worst part of being a Bills’ fan is knowing that the team is bound to move to Toronto in a couple years. I want to pick an 0-16 season for Buffalo but think they’ll beat either Detroit or Cleveland at home. I’ll say 1-15. Can you believe I just wrote seven paragraphs about Buffalo without even mentioning Terrell Owens?

To recap the AFC East:
We’ve got New England at 12-4,
Miami at 10-6,
The Jets at 9-7,
And Buffalo with just 1 win and the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

On to the less compelling AFC North

Let me begin by saying that I LOVE Baltimore this season, and probably can’t say enough good things about them. But let’s start with the offense.

Joe Flacco heads into his third season and looks to make a big jump, and the addition of Anquan Boldin is obviously the key. I think that was the biggest move of the offseason and is going to prove paramount come AFC postseason time. In Flacco’s rookie campaign he threw just 14 TDs and less than 3,000 yards with a 60% completion rate, for a passer rating of 80. Last year, he jumped up to 21 TDs and 3,600 yards and a 63% rate, and his QB rating was 88. That was without a true #1 receiver; 36 year old Derrick Mason was the go-to guy and couldn’t run after the catch if his life depended on it. Ray Rice actually led the team in receptions, and tight end Todd Heap was third. McGahee and McClain combined for 36 catches more. Baltimore’s #2 WR was Mark Clayton with 34 catches and 480 yards. That’s not getting the job done. That’s worse than Bryant Johnson.

This year, Boldin adds the exact piece that Baltimore was missing. He can go deep. He can run across the middle. He can run after the catch and run through contact. He’s sure handed. He’s tough as nails. And little known secret – he’s actually pretty fast. Like Mason, Boldin is a great route-runner and a highly intelligent receiver. But unlike Mason, he has the speed to turn 6 yard plays into 20 yard plays. He’s probably the strongest receiver in the NFL. Now that he’s out of Larry Fitzgerald’s shadow, I think people will realize that he’s easily a top 10 receiver in the NFL, and maybe top 5. And his versatility allows Mason to play the role of the #2 guy, the possession guy, and that’s a much more comfortable role for the old guy. Donte’ Stallworth has also been added to the mix, and he and Clayton will battle for the #3 spot. It’s a much improved receiving crew, and they still have Todd “The 3rd Round Pick” Heap.

This also happens to be one of the best offensive lines in the AFC. By far the best one in this division. Left tackle Jared Gaither is possibly the largest man in the NFL at 6’9” and 340 pounds, and Sandra Bullock’s son plays opposite him at RT. According to, the Ravens were the second best team in the NFL in pass protection and 5th in run blocking for the 2009 season. Gaither and Oher both ranked as top 10 players at their positions. Both LG Ben Grubbs and RG Marshal Yanda were also in the top 10 at their position; Grubbs was 9th and Yanda was 7th. Center Matt Birk ranked as the third best center overall. And don’t forget, LaRon McClain might be the best fullback in the NFL. ranks him third, but first overall in terms of receiving and 6th as a blocker. With the entire offensive line returning in 2010, as well as Mason, Heap, and McClain, Flacco is steeped is continuity which is important for the growth of a young quarterback.

And then there are the running backs. Willis McGahee is a solid backup who understands his role, and Ray Rice exploded last year to become one of the best running backs period. According to, he was actually the best running back overall, even better than Tennessee’s Chris Johnson. This is because Rice was by far the most valuable RB in terms of catching the football, and ranked in the top 10 in both running the ball and blocking on 3rd downs. He’s a good yards-after-contact runner and also very elusive. He’s the complete package, and an easy first round pick on fantasy draft day. For guys who carried the ball at least 200 times, Rice had the second best yards-per-carry in the NFL.

In short, Baltimore has a top 10 overall player at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions, and if you can think of another NFL team that can say the same I’ll be surprised. Go ahead, rack your brain for a second. Maybe the Vikings or Cowboys or Falcons, but I don't think so. Definitely no one in the AFC. And the scary thing is, by the end of this season they might have a top FIVE player at each position. And the even scarier thing is, their offensive line is young and full of potential Pro Bowlers. Oh, and the scariest part yet is their defense.

Baltimore probably executes the 3-4 scheme better than any other team. And speaking of “executes,” their best defensive player also happens to be an un-convicted murderer. Like their offense, Baltimore’s defense is chocked full of Pro Bowlers and players who among the best at their positions. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata destroys offensive lineman and completely obliterates the run. Terrell Suggs is one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the AFC. Ray Lewis is obviously deadly in the middle, pun intended. Ed Reed is of course an elite safety and the best “ballhawk” in the NFL. And don’t forget about nosetackle Kelly Gregg, an excellent run-stuffer. If this defense has any weakness, it’s the cornerbacks – Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington, but even they are slightly above average.

In terms of defense against the run, ranks the Ravens more than 40 points better than any other team. Against the pass, the Ravens also rank first, thanks to Reed who ranks as the #1 overall safety. Being able to stuff the run with just 4 guys (the defensive line + Lewis) allows the Ravens to dictate what offenses do and force a lot of obvious passing downs, which allows the secondary to double and triple team whomever they want. For that reason, I expect them to leapfrog the Jets as the league’s best defense this season, and with an equally potent offense I think they have all the makings of a 13 win team.

One factor that will help is that Cincinnati won the AFC North last year, meaning they have the honor of the more difficult schedule. While 14 of their games are the same, the Bengals get the Colts and Chargers (the AFC’s two best teams) while Baltimore gets Houston and Denver instead. There are obvious advantages to NOT winning your division. Baltimore also gets the privilege of playing the Steelers while Roethlisberger is suspended. This is an offseason in which all the breaks have gone their way. Looking at their schedule, I’m only worried about 3 or 4 games. They get the Saints week 15, by which team Brees will be either injured, dead, or abducted by aliens. I want to predict 14-2 but I think they’ll rest the starters week 17 and end up 13-3.

If you’re read my blog before, you know what to expect. I hate the Pittsburgh Steelers, I hate their fans, I hate everything about them. I detest the terrible towel, and I want to watch Heinz Field slowly burn to the ground. I’ve spent enough time in this city to know what a crock the whole operation is; it’s a bunch of uninformed fans who cheer for the city and not the football team, and have the most unappealing sense of pride and entitlement and it’s pathetic and disgusting to watch. It’s one thing to expect to win every game; that’s okay. These morons expect to score on every play, even on special teams or defense. Have you ever watched a game with a room full of Steelers fans? Well I have. It’s not a fun experience. It’s stupidity beyond words. If the Steelers don’t block a field goal and return it for a TD, the fans act confused and angry. If they run the ball up the middle for 3 years, the fans freak out and yell “What the heck was that Willie?!” I try to explain to them: they’re running to keep the defense honest, so they can pull out the play-action later. They take me literally and say “What is the defense lying about?” It’s absurd. If the clock is ticking and it’s 2nd down and Ben spikes the ball to stop the clock, they’ll freak out. “Ben, WHAT was that?!?” “He stopped the clock,” I clarify, “so they can set up a play here.” My words are completely lost into oblivion. They don’t even register words like “down” and “play.” All they see is yellow jerseys and to them, those jerseys symbolize the city of Pittsburgh in every possible way, and they cling to their undying pride in their disgusting trash-filled city with every fiber in their being, and all they know is that Ben took the ball and threw it at the ground, and to them, that’s a catastrophe. They can’t figure it out. They’re bewildered. Even fans who’ve watched every game for 30 years have no idea what’s going on. I always think they’re watching football for the first time. I watched a good 35 minutes of an ESPN Classic game from the early 90s with a Steelers fan once before he realized it wasn’t live. As I recall, Jerry Rice was involved. I knew within .05 seconds that it was not a live game. But sitting there, watching this grown man watch a 20 year old football game without realizing that it wasn't happening live, was one of the saddest and yet strangely most enjoyable moments of my life.

So needless to say, when the Steelers stumbled to a 1-2 start last season I was ecstatic, and when they lost 5 straight in November (three of those to KC, Oakland, and Cleveland) it was the best thing I’d ever seen. When they missed the playoffs, it was the best part of the 2009 season for me. The only thing better would have been if the Lions made the playoffs. It’s almost an equal rooting interest for me.

So when it unfolded that the face of Pittsburgh’s franchise, 2-time champion Ben Roethlisberger, was a revolting scum bag and a criminal and an obvious rapist and a nauseating douche bag, I wasn’t really that upset. In fact, I took a lot of joy in the whole process. Hearing words like “shame” and “embarrassment” tied to the Steelers’ organization all winter was great for me and the best part was when Ben was hit with a 6 game suspension, which may be reduced to 4 games but for now, is still 6.

I knew it was going to take something like that to keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. Last year, they easily would have made it if not for an injury to their best player, Troy Polamalu, who missed 11 games and played only part-time in 2 of them. He played only 3 complete games, and those were all double-digit Steelers’ victories. With Troy absent, the Steelers allowed 27 points to the Chiefs, 27 to Oakland, 36 to Green Bay, and the secondary was exposed as one of the worst in the league.

Unfortunately, Troy will be back in action this season, and the Pittsburgh defense will be back among the league’s best. But with Ben out for almost half the season, including tough games against Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami and Tennessee, it’s the Steelers offense that’s going to plummet this season.

Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch will compete for the starting job during those 6 games, and I expect both will see the field. But the truth is, neither guy is a capable backup for the style that Pittsburgh likes to run. They’re a terrible blocking team ever since they said goodbye to Alan Faneca, and they rely too much on Roethlisberger’s elusiveness and strength in avoiding sacks. Ben is simply the best QB in the NFL at avoiding the sack and throwing on the run, and Batch and Leftwich certainly don’t share those strengths. It could be a sack-filled six games for the black and yellow.

With Willie Parker gone to Washington, Rashard Mendenhall has the top spot to himself with 3rd down back Mewelde Moore a pretty decent backup. Santonio Holmes’s departure gives Hines Ward the #1 receiving gig, and Mike Wallace will probably step into Holmes’s role as the speedster. Heath Miller is a pretty decent tight end, though nothing special, and the rest of the receiving crew is really sub-par. 2008 second round pick Limas Sweed has been a colossal bust and will miss 2010 with a season-ending injury, though the details of the injury are not disclosed. It’s probably something like a “bruised ego.”

Basically, with Ben Roethlisberger this is a B- offense. They can’t run the ball, especially on short-yardage plays, and they punt and punt until the 2-minute drill when Ben takes over and leads quick drives. They probably scored at least 50% of their points in the final two minutes of halves. Without Ben Roethlisberger, this offense is a D+ at best. He’s by far the best player on their offense. In the 6 games he misses, I think they’ll be lucky to go 3-3, and probably 2-4. When he returns, he gets the defending Super Bowl champs at New Orleans right away. Then the Patriots two weeks later. The Steelers don’t have a tremendously difficult schedule, but making the playoffs is going to be a tough order, especially with the Ravens looking like a powerhouse. It’s going to require a wildcard spot, and it’s up to the defense to keep them competitive while Ben is out.

That might not be out of the question, unfortunately. Polamalu is really, really good. So is James Harrison, and so is Lamar Woodley, and so are the other two linebackers – Farrior and Timmons. They’ve basically got 4 Pro Bowl linebackers. And Larry Foote as a reserve. The defensive line – Hampton, Smith, Keisel – is also Pro Bowl caliber at each position. And with Troy roaming the secondary, the cornerbacks don’t have to worry nearly as much about being exposed. This will probably be a top 3 defensive unit in just about every category, which should lead them to a 9-7 record despite the offense. I’ll pick 9-7, and we’ll see where that puts them in terms of wildcard contention.

The biggest overachievers of 2009 and they’ll actually pay for it in 2010, as their schedule will be demanding and people will realize their team isn’t actually as good as it appeared. What happened last year was… they caught Green Bay week 2 before the Packers were really clicking… they swept Pittsburgh thanks to Troy’s injury … they destroyed the Bears by 35 points thanks to an all-time “we give up” game from Chicago … they swept Baltimore because Baltimore didn’t have any offense in either game … they beat the Browns with a minute left in OT … and they beat the Chiefs and Lions.

Against good teams, the got smoked by Minnesota, killed by the Jets, killed by the Texans, beat by San Diego, and they also lost one to Oakland. In the playoffs they looked totally out of place in a 10 point loss, and after much trash-talking Chad Johnson had just 2 catches against Darelle Revis. No player overachieved more in 2009 than Cedric Benson, who ranked 8th in total rushing yards but had a dismal yards-per-carry of 4.2, by far the worst in the top 10.

The offense should be decent, but not good, and certainly not great. I like Carson Palmer’s poise and leadership and think he’ll be the key reason that Cincinnati doesn’t fall completely apart and go something like 3-13. He’ll do well with the added presence of Antonio Bryant and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham should make an impact. Ochocinco will be his usual annoying self but a pretty good receiver. The offensive line did well in 2009 and retains its three best blockers, but none of them are close to being great. And 2009’s #6 overall pick Andre Smith spent most of the season holding out, then finally signed, and then got hurt a few days later. He finally joined the team in December where he made little to no impact. He’s already a bust, and first-round busts are tough to swallow.

Last year this offense was 26th in passing, 9th in rushing, and 24th overall. This year, I think they’ll balance out to something like 15th in passing, 18th in rushing, and 20th overall. The main reason they won ten games last year? Well aside from the luck and the easy schedule, it was the 4th ranked defense and their 19 interceptions. This was a defense that hadn’t previously ranked in the top 15 for several seasons, despite having the same core of players. So I attribute the successful 2009 to an easy schedule, and a whole lot of luck, and I write off the chances of them repeating that defensive effort as close to zero.

The strength of the defense is the cornerbacks – Leon Hall and Jonathon Joseph. Both are really excellent cover guys and both are good in run support as well. The linebackers are also solid – Keith Rivers, Dhani Jones, and second-year man Ray Maualuga. Antwan Odom had an impressive 8 sacks last year, though he’s not really an elite DE. The best player on this defense might be DT Domata Peko, also known as the guy with the crazy hair. He’s a run-stuffer on the inside but also creates pressure on the quarterback. Between Peko and Maualuga and the two corners, this defense does have some nice young pieces to build around. But it’s also got some gaping holes, such as the pass rush and the safeties, and as I said earlier, they’ve got some tough games on the horizon. This defense may be decent, but against Brady, Flacco (x2), Ryan, Roethlisberger (x2), Manning, Brees and Rivers – it may not be ranking 4th overall again. But on the positive side, they do get to play the Browns twice! I’ll go with a modest 6-10 for Cincinnati.

Well, my friend Andy on the west coast believes that Cleveland is the sleeper team in the AFC. He spent a few years in South Carolina during the good days of Jake Delhomme, and believes that Jake may not be as washed up as everyone thinks. Cleveland does have an excellent offensive line, anchored by the immovable Joe Thomas, and a promising running game with Jerome “286 yards in one game” Harrison. But wait a second. Doesn’t Carolina also have a very good offensive line and a very good running game? And didn’t Delhomme throw picks like it was his job last year and much of the year before? Why would joining the AFC North make that a different story?

The point isn’t whether or not Delhomme is a good player, but whether the Browns are a good team. Delhomme may in fact have something left to offer, but what if he joined the Lions? Wouldn’t he still stink? Remember when Jeff Garcia came to Detroit and played absolutely horrid, but then went to Philly the next year and looked like an All Pro? Maybe Delhomme would be successful on a team like Miami or the Jets where there’s a functioning offense in place. But Cleveland is in total transition. Eric Mangini, who I’m convinced is the worst coach in the NFL, is immersed in a classic power struggle with new GM Mike Holmgren, who wants to pull a Parcells and turn around a lousy franchise from the front office. But the difference is, Bill Parcells is amazing. He’s a genius. Holmgren is a guy who made his career by coaching a young Brett Favre to the Super Bowl, and then going to a stacked Seattle team and taking them to the Super Bowl. He’s a good coach, but not a genius. Not a front-office mastermind like Parcells. At least that’s my opinion.

Look at the Cleveland offseason. They passed on possible franchise QB Jimmy Claussen not once, but twice, instead taking two secondary players. They didn’t engage in the McNabb trade efforts like so many other teams. Holmgren must really believe in Delhomme, along with backup Seneca Wallace whom he brought along from Seattle. Seneca can run better than just about any QB, and thus makes a great backup QB in Madden. But in real life? I dunno. Check out this play from Seneca’s college days though – known simply as “the run.” It’s unbelievable. And while you’re at it, this run by Adrian Peterson is in my opinion the best run I’ve seen from anyone other than #20.

The Cleveland offense is void of receivers, though does have some young and unproven guys who might be better than we think in Massaquoi and Robiskie, plus they have the electrifying Josh Cribbs who’s the NFL’s best return man. They just extended Cribbs for 3 years and $20 million, so it seems that they’ll involve him in the passing game to make him worth the money. They’ve also got a guy I like a lot in Chansi Stuckey, who I’m fairly sure could play NBA point guard better than Rodney Stuckey and I don’t know if he can even dribble a ball. Cleveland’s not the worst offensive team in the AFC, which may be the best thing I can say about them. The jury’s still out on Jerome Harrison. Is he really going to go bonkers like he did in the final 3 games when he ran for 550 yards? I doubt it. His yards-per-carry was only 4.4 last season. But he is from Kalamazoo. So we’ll see.

This defense got a lot better this offseason, especially with the additions of CB Sheldon Brown and LB Scott Fujita. They still have big Shaun Rogers, and two really solid linebackers in Matt Roth and D’Qwell Jackson. Fujita gives them 3 good linebackers. And the secondary got a whole lot better with Brown and #7 overall pick Joe Haden, who will play as soon as week 1. In the second round they drafted safety TJ Ward from Oregon, who shouldn’t have a hard time cracking the starting lineup. If the front 7 plays as well as they could and Sheldon Brown plays one of his best seasons, this defense might be enough to keep Delhomme in some close games and give him a chance. If Jake keeps the turnovers at a minimum and plays smart and safe, Cleveland might be able to eek out a lot of close games.

They start the season nice and easy with Tampa and KC, so 2-0 won’t be out of the question at all. They get the Steelers while Ben is out so they might be able to steal that one. If Brees’s inevitable injury takes place before week 7 they might be able to steal that one too. From there, not too many games seem winnable except Buffalo. But none seem impossible either, except Baltimore and maybe Miami. I could see them playing some tough defense most of the season and Fujita becoming a star and I’ll play along with Andy’s prediction and say 7-9. That way if I’m wrong, I can blame it on him.

To recap the AFC North,
Baltimore goes 13-3
Pittsburgh 9-7
Cleveland 7-9
And the Bengals drop to 6-10.

AFC South

They came within a couple minutes of winning the Super Bowl last season, and that would have been a 19-0 season if they had finished the regular season with the starters. So really, is there anything bad I can say about this team? I mean, as long as they’re led by Peyton Manning can I really pick any less than 11 wins? The answer to that is: nope.

Because it doesn’t matter about Addai or Wayne or anyone else on the offense. Last year Gonzalez got hurt and Manning made Pierre Garcon into a star. I don't want to totally discredit the rest of the Colts - Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday are elite players - but I truly think you could stick Manning on any team in the NFL right now ... Tampa, Oakland, Buffalo, anyone, and he would win at least 10 games. And yes, that includes the Lions.

The defense still has Freeney and Mathis and Brackett and Sanders and Bethea and they got a good rookie in Jerry Hughes. It’s an above-average defense which runs the Tampa 2 to perfection. They're great at avoiding big plays and perenially among the leaders in fewest passing TDs allowed. If Sanders is fully healthy there's no reason Indy can't make another run at 19-0.

But I'm going to pick a little conservatively and say 12-4. They could certainly win more than 12, but the Super Bowl letdown might cause them to slip in a few games.

After two straight 8-8 seasons, Houston finally cracked .500 last year with a 9-7 season which ultimately left them just short of the playoffs. But I’m done making fun of Houston like I did in the past. This is a team that down-right scares me if I’m an AFC South fan, and might have two of the 10 best players in the NFL in Andre Johnson (best WR) and Mario Williams (best DE.) They’ve got studs all over, and good role players all over, and good coaching, and this might be the year they finally, finally do something. Like go 10-6 and make the playoffs.

It starts on offense, where Houston was the 4th best in total yards last season, behind only 3 playoff teams. They passed for more yards per game than any team. The scary part is that they did this without their #2 passing option, Owen Daniels, who missed half the year. This is an offensive line that’s highly underrated, and still underappreciated because of the dreaded days of David Carr. Make no mistake, this is not the same team that gave up 68 sacks in 2005. In fact, Schaub was only sacked 25 times last year, 18th most in the league, and that was while leading the NFL in passing attempts. So in a sense, this offensive line was among the league’s best in pass protection.

You can’t argue with a 67.9% completion percentage or a 98.6 QB rating, or a league-leading 4,770 passing yards. Yet many people still don’t give Matt Schaub any credit. I recently saw a list of the NFL’s best QBs and Schaub wasn’t in the top 15. Come on, really? All he did was finish in the top 5 in every category imaginable last year. He went down with some nasty injuries a few years ago and still carries the stigma of ‘injury-prone,’ but he didn’t miss a down in 2009 and if he was on your fantasy team you probably did pretty well. He didn’t exactly come out of no where either; when he was on Atlanta from 2004-2006, a lot of people (myself included) considered him better than Michael Vick who he backed-up. He was considered easily the best back-up QB in the NFL at that time, and was the guy I wanted to Lions to pursue in the offseason of 2006. (Instead we went with Kitna.) Long story short, Matt Schaub snuck up on us and became an elite fantasy QB and real-life QB and that could be the #1 reason why Houston finally makes the playoffs in 2010.

The other reason? Andre Johnson. I can’t say enough about him. Maybe I’ll just copy-paste the paragraph from my Top 50 where I rank him the 9th best player in the NFL, and the best overall receiver:

“ in 2008 he led all receivers in yards (1575) and receptions (115) as well as first-down catches. He followed it up by once again leading all receivers in yards (1569) in 2009, and was third in receptions (101) and first in total targets. Basically, despite facing double and triple teams, Andre has put up an average of about 95 receiver yards a game consistently for three or four years now. He can do absolutely everything – the deep ball, the slot stuff, over the middle, catch in traffic, run after catch, plus he’s a great blocking receiver and he’s never done a single stupid end zone dance or shot anyone at a night club or Danced with the Stars. He’s a no-nonsense superstar, the most talented receiver in the game, and the most productive. He’s similar to Calvin Johnson or Fitzgerald, except stronger physically, and a superior leaper. His ball instincts are the best. He’s got potential to be the 2nd best receiver to ever play the game ....”

I stand by all that. He’s a man among boys.

Houston’s primary weakness is the running game, but fortunately for them they don’t really run the ball. Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats look like they’ll split some carries, but if I had to guess, I’d say their second-round rookie – Ben Tate from Auburn – will see most of the snaps as early as week 1. He’s a power back with some serious size, and he’s not slow either. He benched more than any RB at the Combine. He’s a classic example of a guy who slipped in the draft because of his 40 time, which wasn’t really that slow.

When San Diego leapfrogged Houston to take Ryan Matthews in the first round, and Spiller was already gone, Houston passed on Jahvid Best and Gerhard and the rest of the RBs, and instead took CB Kareem Jackson in the first round (a great pick) and then waited to snatch Tate in the middle of the second round. Despite being the sixth RB taken in the draft, I think Tate will have the best career. That might sound crazy, but guess who was the fifth RB taken in 2008? Chris Johnson. And in 2006, MJD was the sixth RB off the board. And in 2005, Frank Gore was the fifth RB taken. And in 2004, Michael Turner was eighth. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, it’s become a trend. And Ben Tate is the guy who keeps the trend going, and Houston is the perfect place for that to happen. Okay, one more example – in 2002 Clinton Portis was the fourth RB off the board and Brian Westbrook was seventh. So while I still believe that Ryan Matthews is the 2010 Rookie of the Year, I’ll say Tate finishes either second or third in voting. Here’s a pretty cool video of Tate laying the smack on #5 overall pick Eric Berry.

I think that’s enough on the Houston offense. I’ll just recap by saying: they’ll be really good.

Defensively, Houston’s got major studs in Mario Williams and DeMecco Ryans, and Brian HGH Cushing and Bernard Pollard are solid players too. But the classic saying goes like this: two studs does not an elite defense make. And when you lose your franchise CB in free agency, it’s tough to rebound from that. Drafting Kareem Jackson, who should start pretty quickly into the season, was a good move, but it may take him a while to become a true #1 corner. Until that point, this defense will just be slightly above average. Having Mario Williams is what keeps this defense from being kind of bad.

Overall, I like Houston to finally crack the postseason this year, and thus remove the stigma of being the only franchise in the any of the four major American sports to have never played in a postseason game. I think they’ll go 11-5.

Last year I picked the Jags as one of my sleeper wildcard teams (along with Washington) and whiffed badly. At 7-5 things looked promising, but a 4 game losing streak to end the season killed them. This year they added a real stud in Aaron Kampman, and another stud in Kirk Morrison, and created a defensive front 7 that can contain running backs, especially with the addition of rookie DT Tyson Alualu. That’s the positive side of things.

The negative is that this team is still quarterbacked by David Garrard, who defines average in every conceivable way. Mediocre, decent, run-of-the-mill, middle-of-the-road, pedestrian, commonplace, nothing special. That’s Garrard in a nutshell. And once again, he doesn’t have any receivers to throw the ball to, and an overworked running back who will again be a fantasy super-stud but doesn’t have enough support to really help the Jags win games. Jacksonville’s got one of the easiest schedules, with games against the NFC East, AFC West, and the Browns and Bills, but it’s their interdivisional games that could kill them. I don’t think they’ll do any better than 1-5 against their own rivals, and once again they’ll finish just a little below .500. I’ll go with 6-10.

Possibly the biggest enigma entering the 2010 season, Tennessee began the season 0-6 and then finished it on a 6-2 tear, with the only loses against the Colts and Chargers. They allowed the second most passing yards in the NFL (second to Detroit), but those numbers are a little inflated by New England’s 59-0 thrashing in the snow. They also had a running back rush for 2,000 yards, and now he’s holding out but should be dressed by week 1.

But there’s one major problem in Tennessee. And his name is Vince Young.

I don’t particularly like Vince Young – his personality, his depression, his undeserved fame. But looking at him merely as a quarterback is enough to tell the story: lifetime 57% completion percentage, 32 TDs to 39 INTs, and a passer rating of 72. His stats through 4 career seasons are not very unlike JaMarcus Russell’s. He’s still a terrible passer with no accuracy and that has never changed. This team is built around Chris Johnson’s ability to run the ball, and Vince Young is going to jeopardize what could be another brilliant season. If Jeff Fisher is smart, he’ll make Kerry Collins the starter.

If Young struggles terribly and throws loads of INTS and can’t convert third downs, Chris Johnson is going to become more and more like Barry Sanders and suffer a disappointing season while playing great individually. Unlike Barry, Johnson actually has a good group of blockers in front of him, especially RT David Stewart who I’m pretty sure is the best RT in the NFL. But overall, I don’t expect much of a different result from the Tennessee offense than what we saw in 2009 – 23rd in passing, 2nd in rushing, 16th overall.

As for the defense, they finished 2009 with the 28th best defense in both yards and points allowed, compared to 7th in yards and 2nd in points in 2008. What a different Albert Haynesworth makes huh?

This secondary is downright suspect. Cortland Finnegan is a decent CB, and Chris Hope is a decent safety, but the other guys are all below average. They do have rookie Myron Rolle, one of my favorite guys in the NFL, but don’t expect him to actually see the field. The linebackers are adequate at best, and the d-line is coming off the loss of Kyle VandenBosch, though they did add rookie Derrick Morgan to replace him. But when your defense loses its second best player a year after losing its best player and your third best player (Keith Bullock) is still a lingering free agent (why haven’t the Lions signed him yet??), well… it doesn’t matter how many rookies you add, you’re going to struggle.

As fun as it was to watch the Titans recover from 0-6 to make a playoff run, I think the momentum is dead and the loss of KVB is too much to handle for the defense. No pass rush does not make for a happy secondary. Vince Young has too many personal issues to really focus on football and be the quarterback he could have been. I only like the Titans to win 5 or 6 this year. I’ll say 5-11. More importantly, the question is: how many yards will Chris Johnson rush for this year? How close will he come to 2,000? Well, as long as you’re asking, I’ll guess … 337 carries, 5.1 average, 1718 yards. Still enough to lead the NFL. By the way, did you know that Chris Johnson’s nickname among Tennessee fans is Sonic the Hedgehog? I’m ashamed I didn’t know that sooner, and I can vow that I’ll be calling him Sonic Johnson from here on out.

Summary of the AFC South:
Colts – 12-4
Texans 11-5
Jags – 6-10
Titans – 5-11

And on to the last division, and the least competitive one by far: The AFC West

San Diego
I remember distinctly sitting in the Grand Rapid Press parking lot after a long day of work and hearing Scott VanPelt and Ryen Rusillo debate as to whether the Chargers were ‘done,’ after their 2-3 start to the 2009 season. Both guys agreed, yes, the Chargers are done. LT is washed-up, the defense stinks, and they’ll be lucky to win 8 games. I sat in my car and thought, “You idiots, did you forget about Phillip Rivers?” Apparently they did, because San Diego won their next 11 games and finished 13-3, and they didn’t need LT or the defense to do it.

One thing that helped a lot was the rest of their division being futile crap, and allowing them to cruise to a 5-1 division record, with a combined score of 183-94 in those games. Who could ever forget the hilarious sequence of events in week 11, when Denver coach Josh McDaniels taunted Chargers’ players before kickoff by yelling “We own you! We own you!” and San Diego went on to win that game 32-3. Classic.

So as I inferred earlier, this team is built around Phillip Rivers, and has been for the past 3 seasons. Let me get one thing straight – I’m not a Rivers fan. I think he’s a cocky jerk, and I can’t stand the guy. But I’m not going to say for one second that he isn’t one hell of an NFL quarterback. Over the last 3 years, I think you have to call him the third best QB in the NFL over that span, behind Manning and Brees. Yes, better than Brady.

His accuracy and release of the ball are perfect, and he throws the deep ball with more touch and precision that anyone. For that reason, he led the NFL in yards-per-attempt for the second straight season in 2009. He was a top 10 QB in the NFL in both yards and TDs, and yet was the only guy on either list to throw less than 500 passes. He was the only AFC quarterback who didn’t throw at least 10 INTs. His rapport with Vincent Jackson is sizzling, and he’s also got the league’s best pass-catching tight in Antonio Gates.

It’s an offensive line that had only one Pro Bowler – LG Kris Dielman – but probably should have had at least two others. LT Marcus McNeill would have been an easy choice if he were in the NFC, but unfortunately he’s got Long, Thomas and Clady to compete with in the AFC. RG Louis Vasquez wouldn’t have made a terrible Pro Bowl pick either. And really, RT Jeremy Clary would have been reasonable too. This is an excellent offensive line, with a lot of continuity and they play as one unit, with none of the guys drawing any individual attention. But they protect Rivers immaculately, and give him time to look downfield at the NFL’s best deep-play receiver, Vincent Jackson, who makes cornerbacks pay.

Between Rivers, Jackson, and Gates, plus the offensive line, this is automatically a top 10 offense in the NFL. And that’s without considering the running backs, Darren “The Lightning Bug” Sproles and Ryan “Rookie of the Year” Matthews. Sproles will continue to be the third-down back and occasional big-play guy, but Matthews will step into Tomlinson’s Hall of Fame shoes and take on the bulk of the carries. And I think he’ll do an admirable job.

How could he not? On that offense, surrounded by those weapons, he’s going to be taking handoffs and looking at not 8 in the box, not 7 in the box, but on most cases, 5 or 6 in the box. San Diego doesn’t have to run to set up the pass; the pass is pre-packaged, set-up and ready to fly. Which makes Matthews’ job extremely easy. All he has to do is break an occasional tackle, follow his blockers, and he should have a yards-per-carry average of at least 5.0, which should give him a 1,100 yard season if he carries the ball 223 times like LT did last year. (You may not believe this, but Tomlinson’s yards-per-carry was an unbelievably low 3.3 last season. I think that’s the lowest mark I’ve ever seen, and to do that on a team full of Pro Bowlers is just sad and inexcusable. How can the Jets expect him to be remotely good is beyond me. Mark my words: LaDanian Tomlinson is completely washed-up.) With 1,100 yards rushing and another 200-300 receiving, plus given 8 or 9 TDs, Ryan Matthews should not only win Rookie of the Year, but make a pretty decent third round pick in fantasy football.

So to recap, San Diego’s offense is potent. Now what about the defense? Is Shawn Merriman finally healthy and ready to start sacking the quarterback like the good old days? I’m not sure. Probably not to the full extent that he used to, but I think he’ll be quite good. Brandon Slier is a really good and underrated inside linebacker, as is Kevin Burnett. Opposite Merriman is Shaun Phillips, a good pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker who had 7 sacks last season. In the secondary they’ve got Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason (the replacement for Cromartie), and safeties Eric Weddle and Kevin Ellis. None of those players are very good to be honest. But San Diego’s overall defense did improve from 25th in 2008 (31st against the pass) to 16th in 2009 (11th against the pass.) Losing Cromartie will probably result in a step backwards, but not near the worst in the league again. Probably in the 20-25 range defensively.

But with a top 5 offense, and a ridiculously bad division, I think San Diego will manage just fine. They’ll race out to a 6-0 record quite easily (KC, JAX, SEA, ARZ, OAK, STL) but I think they’ll slow down just a bit when they realize how easy it’s going to be to win the AFC West. I’m going to pick a modest 11-5, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a threat once the playoffs begin.

Kansas City
Make or break time for Matt Cassel. He was given every opportunity to succeed last year in KC, with Todd Haley's pass-first offense and a supposed star in Dwayne Bowe. But instead, the KC line collapsed continually and Bowe got suspended and then running back Jamaal Charles became a super-duper star out of absolutely no where and led countless fantasy owners to the playoffs. Now KC's offense will be led by ... none other than Charlie Weis, the guy who gets the credit for grooming Tom Brady into a Super Bowl winner (which is of course absurd) and also gets the credit for Jimmy Claussen (16-21 as a college starter) and Brady Quinn(who stinks). So while Weis is best-known for 'grooming' quarterbacks, perhaps he shouldn't be. KC is just another stop on the Charlie Weis Sucks tour.

Cassel’s 2009 season proved that supporting casts really do matter. His numbers dipped from the previous year in every possible way: from 63% , 21 TDs, 11 INTs and an 89 rating to 55%, 16 TDs, 16 INTS, and a 69 rating. So the question that I ask myself is, did Cassel play worse, or is KC just worse? I actually think the latter. I think Cassel played every bit as good as he didin 2008 on New England, when Moss and Welker were at their best and the offensive line was pretty much perfect. Kansas City just doesn't have it, and it begins, as usual, in the trenches.

To improve one of the NFL's worst offensive lines, Kansas City brought in former Colt Ryan Lilja and 36 year old Casey Wiegmann, who will provide instant improvements at the RG and C positions, respectively. With Brian Waters (a bonafide stud) at LG and former first round pick Branden Albert at LT, this has the potential to be an offensive line that can actually protect Matt Cassel, especially if Albert can develop in his third pro season. But that's a big if, and there's still a hole at RT where Ryan O'Callaghan ranked as the fourth worst RT in the NFL, allowing 8 sacks and 24 QB pressures in just 12 games. This line is improved, but still well below-average.

Jamaal Charles was a fantasy darling last season, and he'll be eager to prove that it was no fluke. But the problem will be that defenses will key on him until Cassel makes them honest, and that may never happen. If Charles faces 8 men in the box continually, you can bet his 5.7 yards-per-carry will take a tumble into the low 4s. Plus the addition of Thomas Jones as a possible touchdown vulture makes Charles even less appealing from a fantasy perspective; he's got fantasy bust written all over him. But to be fair, I do think he's a talented guy, just stuck on the wrong team.

There's some debate amongst Chiefs fans regarding who will be the #1 receiver on the depth chart starting week 1. I think it's gotta be Dwayne Bowe; despite his legal trouble and substance abuse problems, he's a much better talent than Chris Chambers, although Chambers and Cassel developed a nice rapport late last season. Having two options is better than one. There's still no replacement for Tony Gonzalez to be found in Kansas City, and no depth at WR whatsoever, so don't expect high-flying numbers for Matt Cassel.

Almost as bad as their offense is Kansas City's defense, where they added the other coordinator from those Patriots championship teams, defensive 'guru' Romeo Crennel to lead their underachieving and downright awful bunch of castoffs. The KC defense is a classic example of how the NFL Draft can make or destroy teams. Glenn Dorsey is a major bust at the DT position who has never come close to his massive expectations. He's part of the reason why KC was the second-worst team against the run last season, and gave up more points than any teams other than the Rams and Lions. But he's not entirely to blame of course. The Chiefs are also completely void of any pass rush, which is caused by running the 3-4 scheme without athletic outside linebackers. (Seriously, Mike Vrabel?) The secondary also can't stop anybody; drafting Eric Berry fifth overall will help, but won't be an immediate fix. The corners are nobody special, although Brandon Flowers probably deserves more credit for keeping QBs to a 53.8% completion percentage on passes he defensed, one of the best rates among CBs who were targeted at least 90 times. We'll see what kind of impact Berry can have on this overall defense and if he can make a push for defensive ROY.

The Chiefs do play have the luxury of an easy schedule, playing the lousy NFC West, the solid AFC South, the Bills & Browns, plus two games a piece against the Raiders and Broncos. So they should be able to squeeze a few wins here and there. I don't expect much, but 6 wins should be about right. I think their fans will be more than happy with 6-10.

Recently, when the Broncos traded up in the first round to take Tim Tebow, Denver overtook Pittsburgh as my least favorite team in the NFL, solely because of how much I don't like Josh McDaniels. It's like that Seinfeld episode where he takes the suit back to the store, and the clerk asks, Why do you want to return this, and he says, For spite. I hate Denver not because of the players or the fans, but to spite the coach and his self-absorption and the fact that he wants to be the next Belichick so badly that he dresses exactly like him. It's shamefully pathetic. And by trading Brandon Marshall and losing Ryan Clady to a season-ending injury, Denver might have had the worst offseason of anyone, especially when you factor in that they wasted their first-round pick on a quarterback who A. stinks, and B. won't ever play, when they very well could have drafted a DT or a CB or a DE, all of which were bigger needs. They just acquired Brady Quinn weeks before the draft, and now have 3 quarterbacks who all want to start, while their defense pays the price. McDaniels makes moves to increase his personal fame, not to improve his roster. Bah.

So all indications are that Kyle Neckbeard Orton will begin the season as the starting QB, and he wasn't awful last year with 21 TDs to 12 INTs, a 62% completion percentage and an 86 QB rating along with an 8-8 starting record. Not awful, but certainly not extraordinary. Very average. Bringing in Brady Quinn is a nonfactor, and if Tim Tebow sees the field it's going to be laughable and bad for the Broncos. I'm pretty sure that if you take an average quarterback who has the luxury of a top 10 receiver and a top 3 left tackle, and then remove both of those players and ask him to play another season, it's inevitable that his numbers will decline. How can they possibly not? Orton is screwed. Completely screwed.

I mean, you might not realize the impact that Ryan Clady had on this team last year, but he was a First Team All Pro, a starter in the AFC Pro Bowl (over Jake Long and Joe Thomas), and widely considered the best left tackle alive in terms of protecting the passer. He's out for at least most of the season, if not all of it, with a torn patella tendon from a basketball injury. So that's a major blow to the Broncos.

Then take away Brandon Marshall, a guy who has been in the top five in the NFL in receptions three years in a row and had 1,120 yards and 10 TDs last season. Where do the Broncos expect to replace that production? Eddie Royal? Rookie Demaryius Thomas, who was picked just 3 spots before Tebow? No, sadly for Bronco fans, neither of those guys are going to come close to Marshall's 101 catches last year; in fact, I doubt either guy will have 80 catches. The Broncos also lost their pass-catching tight end Tony Scheffler (now with the Lions), and replaced him with Daniel Graham, who is simply a blocker who plays tight end. For a third receiving option, McDaniels is counting on either Jabbar Gaffney, Brandon Stokley, or Brandon Lloyd. Slim pickins.

Without Clady, this offensive line goes from a top 10 unit to somewhere between 20 and 25. Don't underestimate the affect of losing the two best players on your team Denver.

Defensively, this is a 3-4 scheme that relies on the pass rush and specifically Elvis Dumervil, who made a name for himself with 17 sacks last season, including 8 in the first 4 games. When people jumped on the Denver bandwagon after the 6-0 start and annointed Dumervil the next Lawerence Taylor, I calmly pointed out that he sacked Cleveland and Oakland 6 times and let's see what happens when they play a real offense. Well in the second half of the season, Dumervil had just 7 sacks in the final 10 games, still pretty good but not amazing, and the Broncos lost 4 straight games on two seperate occasions.

Aside from Dumervil, the Denver front 7 doesn't really have much in the way of playmakers. The biggest need on this Broncos team before the NFL Draft was a 3-4 nosetackle to plug up holes, according to Instead of picking 330 pound Dan Williams, the third best DT in the draft behind Suh and McCoy, the Broncos selected 3rd string quarterback Tim Tebow. Williams was taken with the very next pick. The other major needs on Denver were 3-4 DEs to help in run containment. I would agree; Denver gave up more rushing yards than Detroit last year. But instead of improving the defensive line, McDaniels took two offensive players in the first round. He just couldn't resist. Then in the second round, he took an offensive tackle in Zane Beadles, who will probably sit the bench this season. Then in the third round, a center, and another wide receiver. Finally, in the fifth round, a defensive player, but a cornerback. When you already have a below-average defense, and then you spend your first FIVE picks on offensive players, the defense is going to pay the price.

The best player on this defense is Champ Bailey, who still ranks as a top 10 cornerback in the league in my opinion but is far from the dominant player he was a few years ago. They've also got 36 year old Brian Dawkins at safety, an emotional leader who can still play at a high level. Basically this is a team that can stop the pass but can't stop the run, and consequently has to bring safeties up in the run support, which makes them vulnerable against the pass. It's a completely unbalanced defense.

I think they'll go either 4-12 or 5-11, and it'll be tough for McDaniels to keep his job after that. I'll go ahead and guess 4-12. And Tim Tebow's first NFL action is week 10, after the bye, at home, against Kansas City.

It must suck to be a Raiders fan, when your team that has become virtually synonymous with disfunction and futility and downright stupidity. No team has drafted worse than the Raiders and crazy Al Davis over the past decade; they've been even worse than the Lions. Oakland finally parted ways with JaMarcus Russell this offseason, and made a surprisingly brilliant move to acquire Jason Campbell. They've actually got a few very capable players on this roster on both sides of the ball, and you're probably going to be surprised where I predict them in the standings.

Let's start with Campbell. In four seasons in Washington, he worked with 4 different offensive coordinators, and now gets a new one in Oakland with Hue Jackson (not to be confused with Hugh Jackman, AKA Wolverine). Campbell's TDs, yards, completion percentage and QB rating have EACH improved in each of his 4 NFL seasons, though last year he had a career high with 15 INTs. He's not much of a winner, but he's not a notorious loser either. He is very similar to David Garrard, painfully average. But in Oakland, average is a massive upgrade at the QB position. In 31 career starts JaMarcus Russell threw for 18 TDs and 23 INTs and a microscopic QB rating of 65. He's got to be considered one of the worst NFL players in history at any position. He makes Joey Harrington look like a god. Campbell is such an improvement over Russell that's it crazy. And I also think Campbell has one of the best back-up QBs in the NFL in Bruce Gradkowski. In fact, I'd trade Gradkowski for Matt Stafford right now without thinking about it for more than 2 minutes.

In terms of receivers, Campbell doesn't have much, but it's not nearly as bad as it was heading into 2009. At least they know who will be the top targets. Chaz Schilens showed a ton of promise last year before getting hurt, and now he's back. Louis Murphy and Darius Hayward-Bey will compete for the 2 and 3 spots, but the #1 receiving target on Oakland should be tight end Zach Miller. Miller is definitely a wide receiver who plays TE, and plays very similar to Dallas Clark. How many tight ends can score from 86 yards out? Mark my words, Zach Miller is a top 10 fantasy tight end and should be starting every week, especially with Campbell at QB, who had some experience throwing to tight ends in Washington.

The running backs and offensive line are weak spots at best. Darren McFadden continues to underachieve and get injured, and Michael Bush is just average. The offensive line finished dead last in pass protection and fifth worst in run-blocking last season, but I've got to wonder how much of that is the fault of JaMarcus Russell. Left guard Robert Gallery is a stud (though coming off back surgery) and right guard Cooper Carlisle isn't bad either. The right tackle Mario Henderson is bad. Very bad. And RT Khalif Barnes enters his first year as a starter with very low expectations. The center is pretty bad too. It's a bad offensive line, to be sure, but I think they'll look better blocking for Campbell instead of Russell. This offense ranked 31st last season in yards and 31st in points scored as well. This year I think they're better than at least 4 or 5 offenses and should finish at least 25th.

This is a defense that's laced with studs, but also with complete duds. Let's begin with Nnamdi Asomugha, who I can never say enough great things about. He's an all-around stud at CB, a top 10 overall NFL player, and the heart and soul of Oakland football. He takes so much pressure off the rest of the defense by enveloping opposing #1 wideouts and eliminating them from the game altogether. QBs don't even look in Asomugha's direction, unlike Darelle Revis who was tested 118 times last year. Asomugha has been thrown at 81 times in the last three years. Just amazing.

They've also got a bonafide stud in DE Richard Seymour, a guy who still has enough in the tank to rush the passer and create some disruption in the backfield. And then there's #8 overall pick Rolando McClain, who is considered to be the only smart draft pick made by Al Davis in a decade, and has many people wondering if Davis is actually dead and people have just been wheeling his carcass around for months. Wouldn't surprise me too much. McClain will play inside linebacker in the 3-4 and I truly think he'll evolve into a Patrick Willis type of player. Not quite as good, but I think 2 or 3 years from now he'll be among the games best inside linebackers. He definitely helps shore up the rush defense.

So that's three studs on the Oakland defense. Unfortunately, they lost Kirk Morrison, their leading tackler five years in a row (he's now on the Jaguars). Having both him and McClain in the middle would have been outstanding. But alas. This defense still stinks overall, especially in coverage (minus Asmougha.) Safety Hiram Eugene is best known for this hilarious play, which is not the way I would want to be remembered if I were him. Laughable and probably worth watching. Having 3 studs on the defense might just be enough to motivate the rest of the players into overachieving and keeping the Raiders semi-competitive. I see nine winnable games on the schedule, and think they'll win either six or seven of them. I'll play it on the safe-side and say 6-10.

Recap of AFC West:
San Diego 11-5
Oakland and KC 6-10
Denver 4-12

and RECAP of the entire AFC

Baltimore 13-3
Indy 12-4
New England 12-4
San Diego 11-5
Houston 11-5
Miami 10-6

and the rest ...
Pittsburgh 9-7
NY Jets 9-7
Cleveland 7-9
Jags, Bengals, Raiders and Chiefs 6-10
Titans 5-11
Broncos 4-12
Bills 1-15

AFC Postseason ...

New England OVER Miami
San Diego OVER Houston

Baltimore OVER New England
San Diego OVER Indy

Baltimore OVER San Diego

Which means the Super Bowl is Ravens vs. Cowboys, and I'll pick the Ravens to win 24-17.
Super Bowl MVP - Joe Flacco. Can't believe I just said that.

And here are my final predictions for the 2010 season:

1. Aaron Rodgers, GB
2. Phillip Rivers, SD
3. Andre Johnson, HOU
4. Peyton Manning, IND
5. Ray Rice, BAL

Defensive MVP
1. Mario Williams, HOU
2. Troy Polamalu, PIT
3. Darelle Revis, NYJ
4. Ray Lewis, BAL
5. Patrick Willis, SF

Offensive rookie of the year
1. Ryan Matthews, SD
2. Ben Tate, HOU
3. Sam Bradford, STL
4. Demaryius Thomas, DEN
5. Dez Bryant, DAL

Defensive rookie of the year
1. Rolando McClain, OAK
2. Joe Haden, CLE
3. Ndamukong Suh, DET
4. Kyle Wilson, NYJ
5. Sean Weatherspoon, ATL

Coach of the year
1. John Harbaugh, BAL
2. Steve Spagnuolo, STL
3. Tony Sparano, MIA
4. Gary Kubiak, HOU
5. Wade Phillips, DAL

Best offenses (in terms of total yards)
1. Dallas
2. Houston
3. Green Bay
4. Indianapolis
5. Atlanta
6. Baltimore
7. Minnesota
25. Detroit
26. St. Louis
27. Arizona
28. Seattle
29. Kansas city
30. Tampa Bay
31. Denver
32. Buffalo

Best defenses (total yards allowed)
1. Baltimore
2. Dallas
3. Pittsburgh
4. ny jets
5. Washington
6. green bay
7. Houston
25. Rams
26. Tennessee
27. Cincinnati
28. Chiefs
29. Seahawks
30. Broncos
31. Lions
32. Buccaneers

Stay tuned for Part Two of My Fantasy Preview: Running Backs!

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