Thursday, June 24, 2010

NFC Preview

This is part one of my comprehensive NFL Preview.

Basically I’ll just run through each team in the NFL, division by division, analyze the offenses and defenses and some intangibles, and make predictions as to how they will fare in 2010, and that at the end offer some postseason predictions and final thoughts.

We’ll start in the NFC East, with last year’s division champs, the Dallas Cowboys. If you plan to read this all the way through, you may want to grab some chips because it could take a while.

The Boys drafted Oklahoma State star Dez Bryant 24th overall, a bargain considering he was easily the best receiver in the draft class. Bryant will complement Miles Austin, who had an unbelievable breakout season in 09, and Dallas will potentially have two electric receivers along with the NFL’s best tight end in Jason Witten. This means that Roy Williams becomes the #4 receiving option, although if Dallas is smart they’ll just swallow the bullet and drop Williams from the roster. Patrick Crayton is a much better player.

They’ve also got one of the league’s best backfields with Felix Jones (underrated), Tashard Choice (wildly underrated), and Marion Barber (overrated, but still good), and a very good offensive line anchored by Pro Bowlers Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis. They do have a question mark at left tackle, where perennial Pro Bowler Flozell Adams is noticeably vacant and replaced by untested white guy Doug Free. Dallas was in the running for Saints’ LT Jamaal Brown, who instead ended up on the rival Redskins. But aside from one possible weakness at left tackle, the Cowboys have a freaking stockpile of offensive weapons at the helm of quarterback Tony Romo, and it’s Romo’s responsibility to take the Cowboys deep into the playoffs. Anything less than the NFC Championship is going to be a disappointment.

From a statistical standpoint, 2009 was Romo’s best year so far. His 97.6 rating was a career-best and he threw a career-low 9 interceptions. Dumping Jessica Simpson seemed to help him focus. The ‘Boys have great depth on offense, with Martellus Bennett very capable of stepping in at TE, and Jon Kitna a quality backup QB. This team could be an offensive juggernaut, if all the pieces mesh together and there isn’t too much drama. But this is Dallas, and drama is to be expected.

On the defensive side, Dallas is also loaded with talent and among the NFC’s best. DeMarcus Ware is a pass-rushing superstar, and Jay Ratliff is the wreaking force in the middle. And don’t forget about Anthony Spencer, who ranked as the 3rd best OLB in a 3-4 scheme, just one spot behind Ware. Keith Brooking plays middle linebacker and is a smart veteran, a sure tackler, and the emotional leader. The secondary is also stellar, as Dallas was the only team to send two cornerbacks to the 2009 Pro Bowl - Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman. Question marks remain at both safeties positions and there is little depth at CB, but I’m just being nitpicky here. This is a potentially dominant defense, just like the offense, and it’s up to the coaching staff to keep them focused and well-prepared. It won’t be easy – Dallas plays against Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Matt Schaub, and Donovan McNabb (twice) this year. But, on the flipside, they get Stafford, Leinart, Cutler, Eli (twice), plus Vince Young. So it should be an up-and-down season for the defense.

Both units are stacked with talent, but also burdened with the drama that comes along with being the Dallas Cowboys. Prediction: 12-4.

Dallas has the best player in the NFC East, and he'll lead them to a 12 win season.

Just like Dallas, New York is a team that’s loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but the biggest difference is the quarterback position. If you’ve read this blog before, you know how I feel about Eli Manning, but in case you don’t know – I think he’s a dopey, skittish, dweeby little dork who wouldn’t be in the NFL if his last name was anything other than Manning. And by now, I think we can all stop referring to him as a Super Bowl winner. He just happened to be the QB on a team with a good running game and great defense who won a Super Bowl they really had no business even playing in. How does that make him any different from Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson? It doesn’t. I’m going to call him Eli Dilfer from now on.

Eli’s career completion percentage is just 57%, which is really not special, and he’s never thrown for 30 TDs in a season and over 4,000 yards just once – last year when he racked up 4,021. In terms of QB rating, he’s never ranked in the top 10 among quarterbacks in any season he’s played in. For a #1 overall pick, I think that constitutes him as a bust. But lo and behold, he’ll be the Giants’ starter week one once again and for that reason alone, I don’t like New York’s chances of making the playoffs, or Tom Coughlin’s chances of retaining his coaching job.

Typically, running the ball is the strength of the Giants’ offense, but not last season. Brandon Jacobs looked slow and sluggish, and Ahmad Bradshaw looked just pretty average. They missed Derrick Ward, and I’d guess he missed them too after his dismal season in Tampa. The offensive line continued to dominate behind Chris Snee and Shaun O’Hara, who’ve combined for 4 Pro Bowls in the last 2 seasons.

The passing game was a very pleasant surprise for Giants’ fans, thanks to breakout seasons by Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who made everyone forget about Amani Toomer and Plaxico “I Shot Myself With a Concealed Weapon” Burress. Smith even made the Pro Bowl, which was ludicrous, but I digress. Kevin Boss stepped up and was a serviceable tight end – ranked him as the third best blocking tight end, and 11th in receiving. It’ll be tough for the receivers to replicate the success they had last season, but Hakeem Nicks should help in that mix and give Eli Manning just enough targets to keep him mediocre.

Defensively, this was a highly talented team last season who underperformed, in part due to injuries but largely, in my opinion, due to coaching. They missed former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was the genius behind the Super Bowl defense, and they missed the veteran leadership of Michael “Eat Fresh” Strahan. Uminyora spent most of the season thinking about money, and injuries hit the secondary hard – safety Kenny Phillips and corner Corey Webster missed significant time, as did linebacker Antonio Pierce. Overall, the Giants finished 30th defensively in terms of points allowed, only better than two teams – Detroit and St. Louis.

With picks in the first and second round of the 2010 draft, NY took two defensive lineman – a pass rusher (Pierre Paul) and a run-stuffer (Joseph). Both could play significant snaps as early as this season. The Giants’ biggest offseason move was adding safety Antrel Rolle to the secondary – one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL and a sorely needed piece to the Giants’ defense. Rolle will also be the QB in Wildcat formations.

With Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka up front, Michael Boley in the middle, and Webster and Rolle in the secondary, this is a defense with a lot of potential stars. But it also has some gaping holes – particularly at middle linebacker, where Jonathon Goff takes over for Pierce, and at the #2 CB spot, where youngster Terrell Thomas will play. This should be a better defense than the previous year, but not elite.

Last year the Giants finished 8-8, after a 5-0 start. In most cases, that warrants the firing of a head coach, but not when you’re just 3 years removed from a championship. This year, they’ve got to improve, and I think they will. But not cataclysmically. I’ll give them 9-7. It’s a tough division.

Perhaps the most modified roster in the NFL is the Washington Redskins – now coached by future Hall of Famer Mike Shanahan, and quarterbacked by possible future HOFer Donovan McNabb. They also brought in Willie Parker and Larry Johnson (who combine for over 11,000 career rushing yards) to compete with Clinton Portis (9,600 career rushing yards), and drafted LT Trent Williams with the #4 overall pick to protect McNabb. Just recently, they traded to acquire former All Pro tackle Jamaal Brown from the Saints, who will play at RT, thus moving last year’s RT, Stephon Heyer, to RG, which fills a major void. The rest of the O-line, Rabach and Dockery, is very solid, and Levi Jones (who ranked as the 2nd worst OT in the NFL in 09) is moving to the bench. And that’s not the complete makeover – Washington will also slowly but surely replace starting WR Santana Moss with the young tandem of Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, while Chris Cooley (who spent half of last season hurt) will return and along with Fred Davis gives the Redskins the best 1-2 punch at TE in the NFL. Oh, and Antwaan Randle El is gone too, back on the Steelers.

So if you’re counting at home, the only certain returning players on the Redskins offense are Portis, Moss, and their two best offensive lineman. McNabb is an improvement, as is Williams, as is Brown, and certainly a healthy Cooley is better than a hurt Cooley. And to say that Mike Shanahan is an improvement over Jim Zorn is like saying the Taj Mahal is just a little bit nicer than a Motel 6. This is an offense that could, if McNabb stays healthy, be very productive, particularly in the passing game. It’s also an offense that, if McNabb gets hurt, will be led by Rex Grossman. One thing’s for sure – they’ll be a fun team to watch. They’ll have lots of flexibility and versatility, and McNabb still has an arm.

On defense, the story revolves around Albert Haynesworth – a greedy monster of a man. Teammates have spent the entire month of June lambasting him with accusations of being “selfish” and “greedy,” and they couldn’t be more right. After dominating the NFL in 2008 with the Titans, Albert took a huge paycheck from the Redskins (7 years, $100 million) and then basically sat around complaining about how he was used and how there wasn’t enough talent around him and blah, blah, blah. Now, Shanahan is moving into a 3-4 scheme, and Albert wants no part of it. So now, Shanny wants no part of Haynesworth. It’s gotten ugly, and now appears 95% likely that Haynesworth will be playing elsewhere in 2009.

The $100 million dollar question is – where?? Detroit is among the rumored teams, because Haynesworth played for Jim Schwartz in Tennessee. I don’t like the guy, but I could learn to like him if he comes to Detroit. But it probably won’t happen – William Clay Ford is a cheap bastard.

Will Haynesworth and Stafford be teammates next season?

Other teams, like Oakland, New England, Minnesota, and others, are swirled in the rumors. Who knows what will happen. This sort of reminds me of the situation with Julius Peppers last offseason, but he ended up playing out the year with Carolina. It could be that Haynesworth ends up playing for Washington if a trade can’t be done. He doesn’t want to not get paid.

Either way, with or without him, this is a pretty solid defensive unit. Last year they finished in the top 10 in yards allowed, and were particularly effective against the pass. London Fletcher continues to lead the team in all sorts of ways, and Andre Carter had double digit sacks, while rookie Brian Orakpo was great and ended up in the Pro Bowl. The secondary is very good – LaRon Landry and Reed Doughty are one of the league’s better safety pairs, and the CBs – Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall – are better than average. It’s a well-balanced defense and still motivated by the death of teammate Sean Taylor a few years ago. It’s not a unit I’m excited about the Lions facing this season.

Overall, I don’t think Haynesworth’s absence is going impact the Redskins defense too terribly, and I think this team will improve to at least .500 this season, especially with bonus games against the Rams and Bucs. If they go at least 3-3 in the division, the playoffs could be within sight. My prediction is going to be 9-7.

Lastly, the Philadelphia Eagles. Like Washington, they are a renovated team with a new franchise face – Kevin Kolb. I personally think Kolb will be a star in the NFL some day – last year he threw for 700 yards and 4 TDs in 2 starts – but I don’t necessarily think this will be the year.

Losing Brian Westbrook is a blow to this offense, not in terms of production as much as continuity and leadership. I don’t think LeSean McCoy is going to impress many people. Left tackle Jason Peters is a key cog to the offense, and despite making the 09 Pro Bowl, he was near the tops in the NFL in both sacks allowed and penalties at the LT position. His head isn’t always in the game, and Kolb could be hitting the floor a lot as a result. If that happens, well, let me see if I can remember who the Eagles back-up quarterback is … um … oh yeah. Mike Vick. Of Course.

The Eagles seem well on their way to becoming a pass-first, run-later team, and will probably find themselves in a lot of shootouts. Vertical threats DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are the fastest tandem of receivers in the NFL, but neither are pure route-runners or sure-handed. Brent Celek will have a lot of pressure as the #3 target for Kolb, and he should have another statistically stellar season. Ultimately, the Eagles’ offense hinges on Kolb’s ability to stay calm, make safe throws, and not turn the ball over. It’s his first season as the starter, and he plays in a division where all 3 defenses are above-average. Not to mention, he plays against all the elite pass rushers – Mario Williams, Freeney, Peppers, Allen, Tuck, Ware – and will be under constant pressure unless Jason Peters has a really great season. They’ll torch the Lions in week 2, but I think it’ll be all downhill from there.

On the other end of the ball, Philly’s got a lot of very good players, but no truly elite players. Asante Samuel is a gambler at CB, he gives up big plays but also creates them. Trent Cole is a fundamentally sound pass-rusher but not overly fast. Mike Patterson is a really good DT, but not overwhelmingly disruptive. Quintin Mikell is a decent safety. Ernie Sims was brought in to replace LB Will Witherspoon, and Marlin Jackson comes in to replace Sean Jones. Both of those moves are minor downgrades. Also, starting CB Sheldon Brown is gone to the Browns. This is a defense without a real identity or leader. I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmingly successful. After finishing top 5 in both yards and points allowed in 2008, the Eagles fell to 12th and 19th respectively in 09. This year, I think the fall continues.

Prediction: 6-10.

To recap,
Dallas wins the division at 12-4.
Redskins and Giants finish 9-7
And Eagles come in at 6-10

On to the NFC North

Once again, this is Minnesota’s division to lose, and that’s assuming Brett Favre is their quarterback, which at this point I’d say is 87.4% likely.

In my recent Top 50 Players in the NFL, Minnesota had a whopping 4 players – tied for the most of any team. But the amazing this is – all 4 players were in the top 15 overall.

Steve Hutchinson – the best offensive lineman in the NFL; Adrian Peterson – the best running back alive; Jared Allen – the best DE in the NFC; and Kevin Williams – best defensive tackle, period.

As a Lions’ fan, how is that not going to intimidate and scare the heck out of me?

But it doesn’t stop there – the Vikings also have top 10 players in at least another 6 positions. Favre, Sidney Rice, Bryant McKinnie, Ray Edwards, E.J. Henderson, Antoine Winfield… the list goes on.

First, let’s break down their offense, with or without Favre. Without #4, this is a run-first team with a simple plan –Peterson behind Hutchinson. That strategy alone should win them 6 or 7 games. But with #4, as most everyone expects will be the case, this is as dynamic and unstoppable an offense as there is in the NFL. Hall of Famers at both the QB and RB positions simultaneously doesn’t happen too often, and especially with another one on the O-line. And Rice and Harvin are no slouches are receivers, and neither is the tight end. This offense only has one weakness – depth. If AP gets hurt, it’s either Albert Young or rookie Toby Gerhard who has to take over. If Favre gets hurt, Tavaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels takes the snaps. Neither one of those is an appealing situation. Oh, and don’t forget that Peterson was a fumbling maniac last season. He’s got to work on that.

Basically, there’s no way that Favre repeats the magic of 09 and has another career-best season, but he should still be very good even if he’s just average by his standards. I doubt he’ll sweep the Packers again this year though.

Defensively, you cannot run on the Vikings. You just can’t. The NFC Pro Bowl could have just been the Vikings front 4 and I don’t think anyone would have complained. Both Williamses are great, and Allen is a phenom. And little known Ray Edwards is one of the better left defensive ends (meaning #2 DE) in the NFL – the only guy who I can think of that is better would be Mathis on the Colts. All three Vikings linebackers are good players, but not great, and the secondary features the sure-tackling Antoine Winfield and the ball-hawking Cedric Griffin. Phenomenal run defense, and slightly better than average pass defense.

It’s gonna be fun watching Favre play AT the Jets on October 11, and then AT the Packers two weeks later. I’ve gotta give the Vikings at least 10 wins, and I’ll say they go 11-5 with a pretty tough schedule.

If I had to guess right now who the 2010 NFL MVP would be, the first name that comes to mind would be Aaron Rodgers. Manning or Rivers would be 2 and 3. But I think Rodgers has all the skills, all the mental toughness, and the supporting cast to really put together an MVP-worthy 2010.

Last season he was top 5 in yards, top 5 in TDs, and top 5 in QB rating. All while being sacked 49 times, second most in the league, and being protected by one of the NFL’s worst lines. (30th in pass protection, 8th in terms of running the ball, according to Football Outsiders)

This season, some changes have been made, and it should be for the better. First and foremost, the Pack drafted LT Brian Bulaga from Iowa with the 23rd pick; he probably won’t supplant LT Chad Clifton, but might move to LG where Daryn Colledge stunk up the joint last season. Right guard Josh Sitton was easily the Packers’ best O-lineman last season, and would have been a deserving Pro Bowl reserve. Scott Wells also played satisfactorily at center. Really, the major weaknesses were at the tackle positions – Clifton, and Allen Barbre, who started the season at RT and gave up 6 sacks and 21 pressures in just 7 starts. Mark Tauscher took over at RT and was just as bad, allowing 25 pressures in 9 starts. There was just too stinking much pressure on Aaron Rodgers all season, and he still had a phenomenal season and led the Packers to a 11-5 season. This year, with an improved O-line of Clifton-Bulaga-Wells-Barbre-Sitton in that order, I expect Rodgers to be even more dominant.

His weapons aren’t quite as electrifying as the Cowboys or Vikings, but he does have a great possession guy in Driver, a great deep-threat in Jennings, and a great tight end with tremendous size in JerMichael Finley. Jordy Nelson and James Jones are good back-up WRs, and Ryan Grant is a terrible boring RB who gets the job done without drawing any attention to himself. In a sense, Rodgers is the most ‘valuable’ player in the NFC, in that if he gets injured, his team probably drops at least 5 games in the standings.

Defensively, the Packers lost a lot with Aaron Kampman going to Jacksonville, but still have loads of talent all over the field. The new 3-4 scheme was pretty effective last season (they had the second best defense behind the Jets in terms of yards allowed, and led the NFL with 40 takeaways) and should be even more effective this year after some of the kinks were worked out. Kampman’s departure is actually a blessing in disguise, because they didn’t know how to use him probably last season. This year, it’ll be easy – Ryan Pickett is the NT, with Jenkins and Jolly the DE, and then Clay Matthews and Brad Jones are the outside linebackers. Inside, they’ve got two of the best – A.J. Hawk, and Nick Barnett. Even without Kampman, that’s one of the best front 7s in the NFL. And the secondary is even better – reigning defensive MVP Charles Woodson, along with Al Harris, Atari Bigby, and Nick Collins. It’s just a stacked defense. It’s hard enough to lead the NFL in interceptions, but to do so while simultaneously being the 5th best team in terms of passing-yards allowed? That’s remarkable.

This year, the Packers’ defense gets to feast on Stafford twice, Cutler twice, and Favre twice – three of the biggest turnover machines in the league, as well as Marc Sanchez, Chad Henne, Eli Manning, and Trent Edwards. They’ve got some semi-tough games in there, for sure, but other than two games against the Vikings the only extremely difficult game will the Patriots week 15, by which point New England might be resting their starters. I’m going to go off on a limb and predict a 13-3 season and an MVP for Aaron Charles Rodgers. Now I just hope the offensive line doesn’t make me look stupid.

Did I really just pick this guy to win the NFL MVP?

Last year, I predicted that Jay Cutler would suck, and the Bears would suck, and all season I feared he would make me eat my words. He didn’t. In fact, he sucked even worse than I thought possible, and the Bears were almost as bad as the Lions at 7-9, with the 5 wins coming against Lions (x2), Rams, Browns, and Seahawks. Cutler was by far the worst quarterback in the NFL last season who didn’t get benched, not only because of his 26 INTs and 76 QB rating, but because of his worse than terrible leadership abilities and hateful body language. After each and every one of his 26 interceptions, Cutler outwardly blamed someone else – a receiver, a coach, a lineman, a fan – by pointing, pouting, yelling, and storming around like a pompous 18 year old who just noticed a scratch in his Lexus. He defined “douche” last year and went from Chicago’s savior to Chicago’s goat in just twelve months. So now I wonder, can Cutler possibly play worse?

Probably not, but bringing in “Mad Scientist” Mike Martz might help Cutler throw even more interceptions. I’ve wasted far too many hours of my life looking up Martz-related stats, and don’t want to give that stupid man the satisfaction of typing his name into google, but I’ll just say that Martz-led offenses typically throw the ball at least 70% of the time and lead the NFL in attempts, and will finish in the top 5 in yards as well as picks and sacks. Even Jon Kitna was productive in Martz’s system, and I’m sure that Cutler will be close to the NFL lead in total yards and maybe even touchdowns. Martz’s arrival means good things from a fantasy perspective, for not only Cutler, but Forte, Olsen, Knox, Hester, and Bennett. But from a real-life perspective? Will the Bears win any more than 7 games this season, especially now that Urlacher is healthy and Julius Peppers has joined the squad? Well, they might, but it won’t be because of the offense.

Forte will actually have a difficult time keeping Chester Taylor off the field, and Cutler will have a tough time behind one of the NFC’s worst offensive lines. It should be a turnover fest in Chicago, and Cutler and Martz just might be the perfect storm for a 30 interception season.

Defensively, (is it just me or is that the sixth time I’ve started a paragraph with that word?), this Bears’ defense is much improved solely because of one player. Peppers is relentless and physically superior to just about everyone, and will create an instant one-man pass rush that allows the linebackers (a good bunch) to roam in coverage and create turnovers and coverage sacks. Briggs and Hillenmeyer and both very good players, as is Urlacher, though none of them are excellent. The secondary is pretty weak, although Charles Tillman is a decent cover corner. But this is a team that you can throw on with relative ease. Which could mean for a lot of high-scoring affairs for the Bears.

It’s tough for me to balance my hatred for Cutler, my hatred for Martz, and my general hatred of the Bears with a realistic prediction of the 2010 season. I’ll play it safe and say 7-9 again.

I predicted 5-11. Important year for Stafford. Make or break year for Schwartz. Five wins will be enough to keep fans somewhat happy, and still have us drafting in the top 10. You can read my complete thoughts by scrolling down, or by clicking here.

Packers win the division at 13-3
Vikings 11-5
Bears 7-9
Lions 5-11

The NFC South…

Clearly, this is the defending champion Saints division to lose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t lose it. Here are six compelling reasons why the Saints will finish with a worse record in 2010 than the Atlanta Falcons:

1. Madden Curse - Nine years in a row it has claimed a victim. Culpepper, Faulk, Vick, Ray Lewis, McNabb, Alexander, Vince Young, Favre, Polamalu –each guy had a terrible season because of the Madden Curse. It’s real. There’s no denying it – Drew Brees will either be injured, arrested, or just play poorly this season.

This has GOT to make Saints' fans feel sick.

2. Super Bowl Hangover – after winning the very first championship in team history, the Saints will relax just a little bit. It’s inevitable. So will the fans.

3. Losing their best linebacker –Scott Fujita went to Cleveland, and when you’re best linebacker leaves and you do nothing to replace him, that’s generally a bad thing.

4. Distractions – let’s see, Reggie Bush was involved in a USC scam, Pierre Thomas is holding out for more money, Jahri Evans just because the richest offensive lineman ever, Drew Brees is officially a mega-celebrity, the team is being investigated for misusing Vicodin last season, and Jeremy Shockey is still one of the biggest ass holes in the NFL. That’s enough distractions, plus being the defending champs is tough.

5. Lack of a true #1 receiver – they just don’t have one.

6. Matt Ryan – he’s gonna be real, real good this year.

Here’s my prediction for the Saints: Brees gets hurt in week 3, and they finish 6-10. But here’s another prediction: Brees breaks the Curse and plays every game, and they go 11-5. I really don’t know. How can I possibly predict against the Curse which has claimed a victim nine years in a row? I can’t. Sorry Drew. Final prediction: 8-8.

As I mentioned, Matt Ryan is poised for a breakout season. He’s got enough talent around him – top 10 players at RB, WR, and TE position – and an offensive line that isn’t great, but can be made to look great if Ryan plays as great as I think he might. He’s a rare and unique talent, and has a reputation of being one of the most studious quarterbacks in the league, a trait that’s not usually linked to young players. (Stafford is called unflappable once every fifteen seconds, but have you ever heard anyone call him “studious?”) For that reason, Ryan is often compared to master scholar Peyton Manning, but really it’s Tom Brady’s arm and pocket presence that Ryan is more similar to. Manning has happy feet in the pocket; Ryan, like Brady, stands calm and delivers the ball with strength.

One of the most important factors in the Atlanta offense this season is that all five offensive lineman will remain in place, and few things are more helpful for blockers than continuity. According to, Atlanta was the 9th best team in terms of pass protection last season, and 11th best in run blocking. I expect both of those numbers to improve, and Atlanta’s overall offense, which was just 13th in total points scored, to improve into the top 5. The names of the lineman, in case you’re curious are” LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Harvey Dahl, and RT Tyson Clabo. None of these guys are outstanding, but none are below average either. And only one, McClure, is past the age of 30.

With the somehow still underrated Michael Turner, the outrageously talented Roddy White, and the second best tight end of all time in Tony Gonzalez, plus one of the best change-of-pace backs in Jerious Norwood, this offense should be explosive. Kind of like it was supposed to be last year. Only this time, I think it’s for real.

The Atlanta defense is nothing to write home about, but I believe they made a major improvement by signing former Texans’ cornerback Dunta Robinson to a 6-year deal which makes him the second highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Robinson is yet to play in a Pro Bowl, but being in the AFC with Bailey, Asomugha and Revis made that pretty much impossible over the past few years. I won’t be shocked if he finds his way in Hawaii this season.

The Falcons are a very good team at linebacker, led by budding star Curtis Lofton out of Oklahoma who had 133 tackles last season. He’ll be joined by rookie and first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, who wouldn’t make a bad pick for defensive ROY, and also by 12 year veteran Mike Peterson, who used to be pretty good in his Jacksonville days. The defensive line relies on John Abraham to create a pass rush, and when he’s unsuccessful, as he was for most of 2009, the secondary pays the price. Jonathon Babineaux might be a rising star at DT. This defense could be much improved this season.

One major benefit for the Falcons is that they play one of the easiest schedules in the NFL – aside from their own mediocre division, they play Pittsburgh sans Roethlisberger, the NFC West, AFC North, the Packers, and the Eagles. Aside from Green Bay and Baltimore, nothing on the schedule really scares me if I’m a Falcon fan. Especially week 16 against the Saints; Brees is sure to be hurt by then. Overall, I’ll give them a 11-5 record in Ryan’s third season, and the first of what should be many Pro Bowls for the young QB.

Carolina was very foolish to keep Jake Delhomme at QB last season for as long as they did, not benching him until week 12 even though he threw 13 picks in his first 6 games and because the joke of the league. If I were in charge, he would have been benched after the 0-3 start; instead the Panthers’ powers-that-be decided to keep him at the helm until 4-7, and by that time most of the fans and players had checked-out mentally. Then Matt Moore came along, and in 5 starts went 4-1 with a QB rating of 98 and an 8/1 TD/INT ratio. Just when it looked like the Panthers may have found a QB for the future, they went ahead and drafted Jimmy Claussen, and made everything confusing all over again. This team really baffles me.

When they’re not passing the ball to defensive players, Carolina has two really good running backs who complement each other perfectly – speedster DeAngelo Williams and bruiser Jonathon Stewart. They’ve also got a solid #1 receiver in Steve Smith (just broke his arm but should be ready to play by week 1), but basically nothing else in the passing game. The offensive line is very solid – Jordan Gross might be the best LT in the NFC, and Jeff Otah might be the best RT. Their interior lineman are nothing special. But it’s hard to tell how good this offense could have been with a real quarterback, and time will tell if Matt Moore can be that guy. If he falters, I’d expect Claussen to assume the starting job either week 8 for the Rams, or week 10 for Tampa Bay. If Claussen rides the bench this entire season, it means that they wasted a 2nd round pick, but also that Moore is playing well. I think Moore will play pretty well, lead the team to a 4-4 record, and then Claussen will assume the starting role and they’ll finish 2-6 for a total of just 6 wins. As you can see, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Claussen, or as I like to think of him, Brady Quinn 2.0.

On defense, Carolina is coming off the loss of Julius Peppers, and that’s gotta really hurt. Especially when they did nothing to replace him. They’ve got one really good player on defense – Jon Beason – but no one else. When you combine a bad rush with a bad secondary, it doesn’t matter how good your middle linebacker is. This defense is going to be brutal.

Overall prediction, 6-10.

And with that, onto the worst team in the NFC.

Can they be as bad as they were last year, when they went 3-13 with one of those wins against the Saints’ reserves? Actually, yes they can. They might even be worse.

Their starting quarterback is Josh Freeman, an inaccurate 22 year old who would rather run than throw, a guy who fumbled 9 times and threw 18 INTs in just 9 games and was sacked 20 times in just 331 drop backs, and that’s probably not a great place to start. Making matters worse, his best wide receiver (Antonio Bryant) left the team for Cincinnati and they're now counting on two rookies receivers and a psychotic tight end (Kellen I’m An Effing Solider Winslow) to bail him out. And, the starting running back is either Derrick Ward or Cadillac Williams, either way you're getting less than 4 yards per carry and very few big plays. This has all the makings of the NFC's worst offense, and maybe the NFL's worst. We'll see what Buffalo can muster. Last year, Tampa ranked second worst offensively on and they managed to actually get worse this year. Things are very bleak in Tampa.

Defensively, it’s not much better. Their best defensive player, Aqib Talib, gets into fist fights with teammates and resists arrest after assaulting people. Ronde Barber is like 40 years old by now and no longer has the speed to stay with WRs. Barrett Rudd is your typical middle linebacker who racks up tackles because no one else on the team can tackle. And the pass rush, comprised of Greg “Stylez” White and Tim Crowder, shouldn’t be expected to improve upon the mere 28 sacks Tampa racked up last season, near the bottom of the league.

The key is rookie Gerald McCoy, the #3 overall pick. After watching the first round of the draft and seeing McCoy in interviews, seeing him dance around like a goon, and watching his general body language, I’ve little doubt that he’ll be a bust. I’ve heard him described as “loosey-goosey” on more than one occasion, and to me that translates as “I’m getting paid, so whateva!” Every draft has a bust in the top 5, and I don’t think Suh or Eric Berry or Trent Williams have bust potential. It’s either McCoy or Bradford, and my money’s on McCoy. And if he is a bust, Tampa is going to be in real trouble. Last time they had a first round pick in the top 10, they took Gaines Adams at #4 overall in 2007; Adams did drugs, got hurt, played terribly, got traded, and tragically, died in January of “unknown causes.” He was 23. It sucks when you’re first round picks don’t play well; it sucks even more when they die. I feel bad for Tampa. Really, I do. But I still can’t give them any more than 4 wins, two of which will come late in the season when no one cares anymore. I’ll say 4-12.
I'm calling it right now: Gerald McCoy is the mega-bust of 2010.
To recapitulate the NFC South, I’ve got
Atlanta winning it with 11-5
New Orleans coming in at 8-8
Carolina 5-11
And Tampa 4-12

One last division in the NFC, and this one is a doozy.

For the last two years, Arizona has won this division with 9 wins and 10 wins respectively. This year, without Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Antrel Rolle, and Karlos Dansby, it’s going to be tough for Arizona to repeat. And that’s the understatement of the day.

Matt Leinart is under more pressure than just about any player in the NFL this season. For five seasons, he’s soaked up the spotlight and the sun with bikini-clad girls while hardly ever stepping onto the field. He’s still living in the college glory days. He’s Uncle Rico. He hangs out with former boy-bander Nick Lachey (his best friend) and guest starred on Desperate Housewives. He was on Punk’d. He’s been on the Jim Rome show 7 times. Apparently his routine is, “every time I throw one NFL touchdown, I’ll do a TV appearance.” So far so good. This season, he’s gotta actually play football and stop being such an ass.

With a career QB rating of 70.8 and a 57% completion percentage, and no running game whatsoever, it’s not gonna be easy for Leinart. He does have the luxury of an easy schedule (he gets to warm up with Rams & Raiders in first two starts) and only faces two really good defenses all season (Vikings, Cowboys). Plus he gets Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston at his disposal. But there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Chris Wells and the running game to keep pressure off Leinart and allow him to use Fitzgerald to the max potential.

The biggest addition Arizona made in an offseason full of departures was to add Alan Faneca to the offensive line; although he’s 33 years old and no longer a physical force, he’s still one of the smartest and best guards in the game and certainly a much-needed piece to the Arizona offense. Wherever Faneca goes, offenses tend to run the ball with great success. Just ask Jerome Bettis. Or last year’s Jets. Now Chris Beanie Wells is the beneficiary, and I don’t quite think he’ll take full advantage. Maybe it’s my Buckeye bias, but Wells never seemed like a true NFL back to me. He’s not overly fast, not especially agile, and a little too stiff looking. But I should give him some slack, he was a rookie last year.

All you need to know about Arizona’s offense is this: Matt Leinart’s record as a starting QB is 6-12.

On defense, the Cards lost two of their three best players in Rolle and Dansby, but retained DT Darnell Dockett who is the best defensive lineman in this NFC West. They also added loud-mouth Joey Porter to replace Dansby, a move that makes sense from a talent perspective but not from a team-building viewpoint. Porter is a cancer, a nuisance, a trash-talker who more often than not doesn’t back up what he says. He’s just annoying. And he’s old (33) and has off-the-field issues and a handful of arrests, whereas Dansby is 28 and has no criminal record. It was a downgrade at the linebacker position in every sense.

In the first round of the 2010 Draft Arizona took nosetackle Dan Williams, who will start immediately in their 3-4 scheme and have a lot of pressure to slow down the run. Won’t be easy against Steven Jackson (twice), Frank Gore (twice), Turner, AP, and the Panthers and Cowboys potent rushing attacks. One of Crazy Keith’s favorite players, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, has a lot of pressure on him as well to bolster Arizona’s pass defense and keep them from being in too many shootouts. Because unlike last year, they won’t be able to keep up offensively this season with Leinart under center. Expect a drop in production from 23.4 points per game to 18 or 19 points per game, which should account for a drop of 3 or 4 wins. I’m going to have to say Arizona goes 6-10.

Probably the safest pick to win this rotten division, San Fran drafted two offensive lineman with their first two picks in 2010 to strengthen a weak offensive line and give Alex Smith some protection. It’s unbelievable that Smith is somehow still their quarterback, but he redeemed himself in a big way last season and made Shaun Hill expendable. Now if Crabtree develops appropriately and Frank Gore stays healthy, this could be one vastly improved offense. Especially with physical freak Vernon Davis finally waking up last season and being the beast he was always capable of being.

On defense, San Fran has the league’s best linebacker in Patrick Willis, a one-man wreaking crew who can single handedly deter teams from running the ball. Willis alone is worth at least 4 wins. They also have an excellent and underrated pass rusher in Justin Smith and a smart veteran linebacker in Takeo Spikes, and Nate Clements is a good cover corner and strong against the run. Manny Lawson is also a fast, aggressive linebacker who is strong against the run and in coverage. This isn’t an elite defense, but it is a very good one verging on excellent. Coach Mike Singletary doesn’t mess around. He’s the perfect coach for a tough-nosed defense.

A lot of the 49ers success this season is going to depend on Alex Smith’s ability to stay mentally strong and prepare. He has the physical tools, he just needs to be confident week in and week out and make quick decisions. Michael Crabtree’s development is also absolutely key. And so is Vernon Davis’s maturing process; as good as he was in the receiving game with 13 TDs, he also led all tight ends with 12 penalties, 13 dropped passes, and ranked dangerously close to being the worst run-blocker. (That honor instead went to the Jets’ Dustin Keller).

I think San Fran’s offense will take a tiny step backwards, but the defense will step it up just a little bit. Last year they finished 8-8 and with the collapse of the Cardinals I think they’ll be able to jump to 9-7 and win the division. They’ve got Rams (twice), Bucs, Raiders, and Chiefs, so 5 games against the league’s cellar-dwellers will certainly help. If they can sweep the Cardinals like they did last year, there’s no question they’ll win the West. My pick is 9-7.

Perhaps the most talked about team this offseason, Seattle has overgone a total makeover on both sides of the ball, and Pete Carroll has done everything in his power to bring USC charm to the Pacific northwest. Matt Hasselbeck is still the starting QB, but they brought in Chargers’ back-up Charlie Whitehurst to give Hass some pressure. Whitehurst has never thrown the ball in an NFL game, though he did rush for a TD in 2006. At Clemson, Whitehurst had a QB to INT ratio of 18/27, so that’s got to worry Seahawks’ fans. But they believe he has the physical tools to be an NFL quarterback, and having never seen him play, I can’t argue either way. All I can say is, it seems like a pretty risky move.

Seattle has finished in the bottom half of rushing offenses every year since Steve Hutchinson left for the Vikings, and Carroll addressed that in a major way on draft day, first by taking LT Russell Okung to replace retired Walter Jones, who tweeted in February “I have come to the concussion that it is time for me to retire from football.” Note the typo. Jones is a future Hall of Famer and will be sorely missed in Seattle, but Okung should be ready to start from week 1 and I personally think he’ll do an admirable job. Carroll also swung trades to acquire former Trojan LenDale White (Chauncey Billups’s cousin) and former Jet Leon Washington , both guys who complement each other well and provide better options for the Seahawks than just Julius Jones. LenDale is a touchdown vulture, and an overweight one at that; Washington is a speedster who excels in the passing game. I’m not sure who will be the featured back, who will lead the team in carries. It might still be Julius. I don’t know. I’m still not crazy about this rushing attack.

I’m not crazy about Seattle’s passing offense either. In addition to TJ Houshmandzadeh, Seattle has Deion Branch, and Notre Dame rookie Golden Tate. All three of these guys are possession receivers. They also use TE John Carlson a lot. Another possession guy. No big play threats; no speed. How can you trust an offense that is stupid enough to take Mike Williams (the former Lion, the most worthless wide receiver I’ve ever seen, the Darko of the NFL) and actually believe he can contribute? I don’t have any faith whatsoever in Carroll’s ability to judge talent if he’s keeping Williams on the roster.

Defensively, this team has made two big picks in the past two drafts – Aaron Curry at outside linebacker and Earl Thomas at safety. Both of these players are tremendously talented and have limitless potential to be All Pros. Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill are solid linebackers. And Marcus Trufant is not a horrible corner. The problems lie in the pass rush. Or lack thereof. Overall this defense just isn’t very good. Seattle used to be a powerhouse at home and struggle on the road, but last season they went just 4-4 at home, with two of the wins against the Rams and Lions. They lost to Tampa at home. That was a crusher. Overall they finished 5-11, on a 4 game skid that helped Jim Mora Jr. get fired. Okung and Thomas and Tate should contribute right away and add talent to a pretty depleted roster. It’s tough to believe in college coaches making the transition into the pros, especially ones that are obvious cheaters like Carroll. But Seattle plays in the easiest division and could actually win the thing if they catch a string of lucky breaks. I think 6 wins is a minimum, but 8 wins a max. I’ll call it 7-9.

As a rookie, Matt Ryan went 11-5 and threw for 3400 yards on a team that everyone thought was beyond futile. That same year, Joe Flacco also went 11-5 with an offense thought to be inept. Last season, Marc Sanchez won 9 games with a rookie quarterback. It can be done. Not all rookie QBs go 2-14 and are considered stars. In fact, pretty much only Stafford has done that.

So much is made about how Peyton Manning was terrible as a rookie (in an effort to encourage Lions’ fans) and while the Colts did go 3-13 that season, they also lost many close games, including five games in which they blew a double digit lead. The truth is, they had no defense that year, and even though Peyton threw 28 INTs, he also set a rookie record with 26 TDs, and had 3700 yards, and completed 56% of his passes, and then won 13 games the next season. Matt Stafford, on the other hand, had HALF as many touchdowns, only 2200 yards, a 53% completion rate, and is most certainly NOT going to win 13 games this year. So let’s have the Stafford-Manning comparisons die right there okay? Just because Manning threw 18 interceptions as a rookie doesn’t mean that every careless and lousy rookie QB will become a legend. Some rookie QBs just suck. Like Stafford. Dammit.

Anyway, the point I was going to make is that Sam Bradford has a chance to actually exceed the very low expectations placed on him. He’s in a lucky spot. People expect Stephen Strasburg to strike out 15 batters a night. They expect 25 ppg from John Wall next year on the Wizards. But no one expects anything from phenom rookies in the NFL, because of the way the league is set up and the lack of talent that typically surrounds #1 overall picks. Bradford’s expectations are 3 wins, 15 TDs, and 2000 yards; a great season by Rams’ fans assessments would be 6 wins, 20 TDs, and 3000 yards. But why is it so hard to believe that Bradford could have a similar year to the one Ryan had in 2008? After all, the division is wide open for the taking, and all six inter-division games will be against relatively weak opponents. St. Louis also plays the Raiders, Lions, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Saints week 14 (by then Brees will be hurt), Broncos, and the rest of the NFC South. Their only no-chance games are the Chargers and Falcons.

Bradford doesn’t have much to work with at the receiver position, but like Ryan did in 08, he’s got one heck of a running back behind him. In fact, Steven Jackson is even more beastly than Turner, and will most definitely enjoy playing for a quarterback he can somewhat believe in. Bradford’s a rookie, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an improvement over Marc Bulger or Kyle Boller or Keith Null. I mean come on. Jackson’s got to be extremely excited about this season.

And while they’re not loaded at receiver, the Rams have enough to get by. Donnie Avery is a burner. Randy McMichael is a tight end with adequate skills. Keenan Burton and Danny Ammendola showed some promise last year, kind of. The offense line is extremely weak, but does have last year’s #2 overall pick Jason Smith who should improve. Maybe the idea of blocking for a future star will excite them.

Defensively, the Rams are full of underperformers. Chris Long is officially a bust as the #2 pick in 2007, with 9 sacks in 2 years. Adam Carriker is off the team. The cornerbacks are just as makeshift as the ones on Detroit. The linebacking crew is slim, but does have a potential stud in James Laurinaitis. It’s not a pretty defense, but they might make a slight improvement from second worst in the league to slightly worse than average thanks to the tutelage of one of the game’s best defensive minds, Steve Spagnuolo.

I don’t think this is a Super Bowl season for the Rams by any stretch of the imagination, but I do foresee an unforeseen season for Bradford that makes people start anointing him the next Manning or Brady. I think he’ll be extremely productive, even in loses, and finish with a stat line of something like: 2800 yards, 25 TDs, 15 INTs, and a really nice 58% completion percentage. If San Diego’s Ryan Matthews doesn’t win Rookie of the Year, Bradford is my second pick. Essentially, I think he’ll be so much better than Stafford was in his rookie campaign that it will make Lions’ fans want to gouge their eyes out. I hope that’s the case. It’s time for people to stop praising Stafford for sucking.

Final prediction: I’ll say 7-9.

So for the NFC West, that’s:
San Fran at 9-7
Seattle and St. Louis at 7-9
And Arizona from first to worst, coming in at 6-10.

And so to recap the entire NFC, 13 pages of Word later, we have:

in the playoffs:
Green Bay 13-3
Dallas 12-4
Atlanta 11-5
Minnesota 11-5
Washington 9-7
San Fran 9-7

out of the playoffs:
Giants 9-7
New Orleans 8-8
Seattle/St. Louis/Chicago 7-9
Eagles/Cardinals/ 6-10
Carolina/Detroit 5-11
Tampa Bay 4-12

Postseason Picks
Atlanta OVER San Fran
Minnesota OVER Washington

Atlanta OVER Green Bay
Dallas OVER Washington

Dallas OVER Atlanta

To determine who Romo and the Boys will lose to in the Super Bowl, stay tuned for my equally comprehensive AFC Preview. But before I get to that, I may have to throw something up about the NBA Draft, which is tonight. The Pistons pick 7th. Lots of trade rumors swirling; we may very well swap Tayshaun for Minnesota's Al Jefferson. We definitely need size. I expect some big changes for Detroit Basketball and tonight could be a big night. Stay tuned for that as well.

And as always,


  1. Two comments that I think you misspoke:

    "Whitehurst had a QB to INT ratio of 18/27"

    "Marc Sanchez won 9 games with a rookie quarterback"

    Otherwise, good thoughts. I'm on board with the Rodgers love, like I already told you.

    I think the Panthers will surprise everyone and take second in their division and a possible playoff. That's only if the Madden Curse holds true though...

    I think this is a growth year for Washington, so I see them at 8-8, and they'll be everyone's dark horse superbowl pick for the year after.

    And I'm really unsure of the Seahawks. On one hand, I sort of hope they flop and Carroll is fired. But it would be sort of cool to live in a town with a good NFL team.

    And before you start your AFC picks, here's my crazy prediction: Jake Delhomme has a great year and brings the Browns to the playoffs.

    Hey, if you're allowed to take the Rams at 7-9, I can take the browns at 10-6. Or 9-7.

    Andy (

  2. i also wrote that the packers didn't use Kampman probably last season. instead of "properly."

    thanks for pointing out the error of my ways.

    very good thoughts all around.

    you could be right about the panthers. matt moore looked real solid last year. if he plays all 16 they could go .500

    good call about washington. 8-8, 9-7, same thing. if one of those young WRs goes off people will be obsessed with them next yr.

    does anyone in seattle like pete carroll?

    the Browns??? really??? did you SEE jake delhomme last year? alright, i'll give you the benfit of the doubt since you lived in carolina and cuz i picked the Rams to be 7-9. but really? jake delhomme??

    if you end up being right about that i will forver be impressed.

    the afc's about halfway done. then i gotta start the fantasy stuff. i love football season.

  3. The one or two radio talkshows that I've caught all hate Carroll. It was big newsplash when he got hired; but other than that, nothing much but hatred.

    And I think Jake Delhomme will get get KWS (some thing I just made up: Kurt Warner Syndrome). An aging quarterback who used to be pretty good (and Delhomme was excellent for a few seasons in Carolina) ends up flaming out for his team, and then two or three years later resurges with an new team and surprises everyone. Ala Kurt Warner and Brett Favre and a few other examples. Delhomme is the next obvious pick for this phenomenon (although if the Patriots were to release Brady because of some Belichickian plot, I could see him doing this in a few years as well)...

  4. pennington had a big case of KWS in 08.

    you might be on to something, because cleveland's got the o-line and might have the running game to back him up. very interesting.