Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NFL Preview - Arizona through Kansas City

Arizona Cardinals:
2010 season: 5-11
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

31st in total offense; 31st passing offense; 32nd rushing offense
29th in total defense; 23rd in passing defense; 30th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Their quarterbacks averaged a QB rating of 60.5 last year, maybe the worst mark in NFL history.

Key Additions: QB Kevin Kolb, Defensive Coordinator (DC) Ray Horton, ILB Stewart Bradley, TE Todd Heap, DE Vonnie Holliday, 1st round pick CB Patrick Peterson, 2nd round pick RB Ryan Williams

Key Losses: DC Bill Davis, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, WR Steve Breaston, NT Gabe Watson,

Main question: Can Kevin Kolb live up to the hype?

Season Preview: As you can tell from the numbers above, it was a brutal 2010 campaign for Derek Anderson and the Cardinals. They were tremendously awful in every aspect of the game, and won 5 games thanks to an NFC-West schedule. This was predictable after losing four of their five best players (Warner, Boldin, Dansby, Rolle) the previous offseason

Aside from Larry Fitzgerald, their best player in 2010 was Pro Bowl corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is now in Philly along with the supposed ‘Dream Team.’ So that leaves Fitzgerald and Kolb to basically start from scratch, with a terrible offensive line, a defense that couldn’t stop anybody, and a running game that just saw the 2nd round pick lost for the season. Could things be any worse?

Well, the upside is super-rookie Patrick Peterson, who might be the league’s best return man instantly. Unfortunately kickoff returns don’t really exist anymore thanks to the new rule, but count on PP to score on at least one or two punts this year. I’m also expecting good things from unknown Andre Roberts, a 3rd-round rookie from last year who should be the #2 receiver behind Fitzgerald. He is tiny but super fast.

Overall, this season, and Ken Whisenhunt’s job, rest solely on Kevin Kolb’s shoulders. My prediction is a direct reflection of what I think Kolb is capable of. And I’m saying 7-9, which is to say I think Kolb will somehow manage to win 7 games with a horrendous team surrounding him. I think Fitzgerald has a Pro Bowl year, Beanie Wells has the best year of his career (which means 900 yards and 8 TD, nothing special), and Patrick Peterson could win D-ROY. The offensive line is probably the NFL’s worst, but thanks to a crap division, I’m putting major faith in Kolb and guessing 7-9.

Atlanta Falcons:
2010 season: 13-3
My 2010 prediction was: 11-5

16th in total offense; 15th passing offense; 12th rushing offense
16th in total defense; 22nd in passing defense; 10th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Matt Ryan’s QB rating was 83.7 on the road, and 99.3 at home.

Key Additions: DE Ray Edwards, 1st round pick WR Julio Jones, 4th round pick LB Akeem Dent, 5th round pick RB Jacquizz Rodgers

Key Losses: RB Jerious Norwood, G Harvey Dahl, SS Erik Coleman, DE Jamaal Anderson

Main question: Just how good can Jacquizz Rodgers be???

Just kidding. Really, the question is: what impact will Julio Jones have on this offense, and will they finally transition to a pass-oriented offense?

Last year, Atlanta took care of an easy schedule and went 8-0 against crappy teams. They beat a few good teams too, namely the Packers, Saints and Ravens, but got manhandled in the playoffs, at home, by the Packers. Rodgers went 31/36 in that game and averaged more than 10 yards per completion. Also, Michael Turner looked 100 years old, and Matt Ryan looked perplexed by an amazing Packers D.

Despite struggling against elite quarterbacks all season and ranking 22nd in passing defense, Atlanta chose to upgrade their pass rush instead of their secondary this summer. It was a calculated risk, especially bringing in a guy in Ray Edwards who isn’t completely proven. Edwards racked up the sacks on a Vikings D-line that consisted of Jared Allen and the Williams Wall. What will he do now if he faces double teams? If Atlanta can’t generate a pass rush and the secondary continues to struggle, it’ll be tough sledding to get back to 13-3.

Then there is the burden of a much harder schedule this season. Tampa is improving and New Orleans is still elite, and instead of the worthless NFC West the Falcons have to play the awesome NFC North this year, plus Philly in their bonus game. They’ll sweep Carolina and take care of Seattle with ease, but there just aren’t many easy wins on this year’s calendar.

The thing is, I love Julio Jones’s talent. He could become an elite NFL receiver, no doubt. But not this year. Michael Turner is slowing down after leading the NFL in carries two of the past three seasons, and the defense is full of question marks and very old players. Along with the much tougher schedule and the fact that Matt Ryan inexplicably struggles to win on the road, I see a major disappointment for the Falcons. I’ll go with 9-7.

Baltimore Ravens:
2010 season: 12-4
My 2010 prediction was: 13-3

22nd in total offense; 20th passing offense; 14th rushing offense
10th in total defense; 21st in passing defense; 5th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Ed Reed had 8 interceptions despite playing in only 10 games.

Key Additions: FB Vonta Leach, WR Lee Evans, C Casey Rabach, SS Bernard Pollard, 1st round pick CB Jimmy Smith, 2nd round pick WR Torrey Smith, 3rd round pick OT Jah Reid

Key Losses: FB LeRon McClain, TE Todd Heap, OT Jered Gaither, NT Kelly Gregg, CB Josh Wilson, CB Fabian Washington

Main question: Can Joe Flacco step it up?

That’s it. Can Joe Flacco step it up? Can he emerge from vague mediocrity and become a top 10 NFL quarterback? He doesn’t need to join Rivers and Rodgers in the top-5 conversation. Just become better than Romo and Schaub. That’s it. The rest of the team will take care of the rest.

Last year, I picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl. I was looking pretty good when they led Pittsburgh by 14 in AFC Championship. But Roethlisberger pulled off his typical miracle comeback, and an otherwise great season was a flop for the Ravens.

My advice for Joe Flacco: don’t get sacked so much, make better decisions, play with some confidence, and shave the uni-brow. If he does all that, Baltimore will go 13-3 again. Instead, I’m predicting a modest 11-5.

Buffalo Bills:
2010 season: 4-12
My 2010 prediction was: 1-15

25th in total offense; 24th passing offense; 18th rushing offense
24th in total defense; 3rd in passing defense; 32nd in rushing defense

*Key stat – CJ Spiller, who the Bills selected with the #7 overall pick, only touched the ball an average of 6 times per game in his rookie season.

Key Additions: ILB Nick Barnett, WR Brad Smith, OLB Shawn Merriman, 1st round pick DT Marcell Dareus, 2nd round pick CB Aaron Williams, 3rd round pick LB Kelvin Sheppard

Key Losses: ILB Paul Posluszny, WR Lee Evans, DT Marcus Stroud, DE Aaron Maybin, S Donte Whitner

Main question: Can they overachieve again, or will they win the belated Andrew Luck sweepstakes?

Last year, Buffalo’s talent should have led to an 0-16 season, but a frisky Ryan Fitzpatrick forced them to compete week after week and they beat 4 teams, none of which were any good. The win against the Lions was particularly amazing, as Fred Jackson ran through the Lions defense like he was Thurman Thomas in Super Tecmo Bowl. The defense was impossibly bad against the run, giving up 170 yards per game and 4.8 YPC. Hence, the Bills spent their number 3 pick on a 340 pound monster who specializes in run-stuffing. Next to Pro Bowl nosetackle Kyle Williams, Dareus should see plenty of opportunities to make tackles. The linebacking crew lost their leader in Posluszny, but replaced him with the nearly-as-talent Barnett, who spent last season on IR. They also have Shawn Merriman, but he hasn’t been good since 2007 so I wouldn’t be overly excited.

The pass defense somehow ranked 3rd best last season, but I think that had something to do with teams running the ball down their throats without mercy. However, Terrence McGee and Jarius Byrd are not slouches, and will benefit from an improve D-line.

Last year, the Bills played 8 really good teams and lost 8 times. This year, the schedule changes completely. Only 3 of their opponents are what I would call ‘great teams,’ and one of those weeks New England might be resting their starters. Granted, Buffalo still lacks the talent to beat average teams on a regular basis, but for some reason I have a hunch that they make things interesting. I’ll give them 8-8.

Carolina Panthers:
2010 season: 2-14
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

32nd in total offense; 32nd passing offense; 13th rushing offense
18th in total defense; 11th in passing defense; 23rd in rushing defense

*Key stat – Their quarterbacks threw only 9 touchdowns all season.

Key Additions: Coach Ron Rivera, 1st overall pick QB Cam Newton, OC Rob Chudzinski, DC Sean McDermott, TE Greg Olsen, TE Jeremy Shockey, 3rd round pick DT Terrell McClain

Key Losses: Coach John Fox, both coordinators, QB Matt Moore, CB Richard Marshall

Main question: Cam Newton’s rookie year has to be better than Jimmy Clausen’s, right?

It’s been a busy offseason for last season’s worst team. Drafting Cam Newton was a polarizing pick, and while I hated it, some experts loved it. We’ll definitely have to wait and see how he plays. Resigning DE Charles Johnson and RB DeAngelo Williams to enormous contracts ($119 million combined over the next 6 years) was a questionable way for owner Jerry Richardson to spend his money, but at least they didn’t lose them altogether. Probably the best part of the offseason will be key players returning from injuries.

It starts with right tackle Jeff Otah, one of the league’s best run-blockers. He missed all of 2010 with a knee injury, but he’s back and playing well in the preseason. If Carolina ranked 13th in rushing without him, they’ll easily be top 10 with him. LT Jordan Gross and C Ryan Kalil are both excellent players. It’s hard to believe, but Carolina might have the best offensive line in the entire NFL. DeAngelo and Stewart were busts last year, but might have great value this year in fantasy leagues. Too bad I didn’t draft either of them in any of my 13 leagues…

The main reason for last year’s bogus 2-14 season, aside from pathetic quarterback play, was the defense trying to recover from the loss of Julius Peppers. As Oakland is about to find out, losing an A+ player on defense has serious ramifications. Charles Johnson stepped up with 11 sacks, but overall the defensive line struggled on a weekly basis. The linebackers are quite good, and the secondary isn’t terrible, but overall this defense is pretty akin to its 18th overall ranking from a year ago.

New coach Ron Rivera is a converted defensive coordinator from San Diego, and he’s joined by DC Sean McDermott who had some great success in Philly. These guys should be able to reshape Carolina’s defense into a competitive unit, but not as soon as 2011. The Panthers won only two games last year and both were against the NFC West. This year, no such luck. They play only 3 lousy teams, but at least 10 real good ones, including six brutal division games. The schedule is not kind. Newton will struggle, but at least he’ll get his feet wet, starting from week 1. My prediction is a repeat of 2-14.

Chicago Bears:
2010 season: 11-5
My 2010 prediction was: 7-9

30th in total offense; 28th passing offense; 22nd rushing offense
9th in total defense; 20th in passing defense; 2nd in rushing defense

*Key stat – Their rushing defense improved from 23rd to 2nd, thanks to Julius Peppers.

Key Additions: RB Marion Barber, WR Roy Williams, C Chris Spencer, DE Vernon Gholston, DDT Amobi Akoye, 1st round pick LT Gabi Carimi, 2nd round pick NT Stephen Paea

Key Losses: C Olin Kreutz, DT Tommie Harris, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, SS Danieal Manning, TE Greg Olsen

Main question: Can Julius Peppers’s awesomeness overpower Jay Cutler’s suckiness and lead the Bears back to the playoffs?

Answer: No. All they did this offseason was say good-bye to excellent players and add a bunch of busts, has-beens, and never-weres. They overachieved massively last season thanks to a tremendous amount of luck and some terrible officiating (Calvin Johnson did complete the process, you assholes), and they won’t do it again against a tougher schedule. Despite having the league’s most dominant defensive end, they can’t possibly win 11 games again. It’s absolutely unfeasible. I’ll be picking against them ATS for the first 5 or 6 weeks this season until the oddsmakers realize how bad they really are.

However, on the bright side, they landed a stud with Carimi, and once Chicago starts over with a decent quarterback, maybe as soon as the 2012 Draft, they’ll have one great building block playing left tackle. But this season is going to be a painful experience for Bears fans as they slowly learn how horrible Cutler really is. I can’t believe they haven’t figured it out yet!

Prediction: 5-11. Jay Cutler is insidious.

Cincinnati Bengals:
2010 season: 4-12
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

20th in total offense; 13th passing offense; 27th rushing offense
15th in total defense; 14th in passing defense; 19th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Carson Palmer threw six INTs that were returned for TDs.

Key Additions: OC Jay Gruden, 1st round pick WR A.J. Green, 2nd round pick QB Andy Dalton, OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, TE Bo Scaife, QB Bruce Gradkowski,

Key Losses: CB Jonathon Joseph, QB Carson Palmer, WR Chad Ochocinco, WR Terrell Owens, DE Antwan Odom, G Evan Mathis, and the offensive coordinator
Main question: Is Andy Dalton any good, because if not this team is screwed.

I realize that wasn’t really a question.

But that’s pretty much the story for this team, at least for 2011. Of the other five teams that drafted a quarterback in the first two rounds, only one is starting immediately, and that’s Cam Newton. The Titans, Vikings, Jags and 49ers all have veterans QBs to play while the rookie learns the ropes. That’s standard protocol if you don’t have the #1 pick.

But all Cincy did this summer, besides losing their best defensive player, was pick up Bruce Gradkowski, who is great at covering large underdog spreads but not so great at winning games. They’ve announced that Dalton, the red-haired rookie who Ndamukong Suh body slammed last week, will start week 1 and henceforth.

I thought maybe I liked Dalton during the draft process, but then Colin Cowherd made some interesting points on the radio about QBs coming from great college teams where they were deemed a ‘winner,’ and how that hasn’t usually translated into winning in the NFL. Whether you realize it or not, TCU was a great team, and it wasn’t all because of Dalton. They had pros all over the roster. So while Dalton’s starting record in college was impressive (42-7), he needs to prove he isn’t the next Tim Couch or Danny Wuerffel. Frankly, I wasn’t remotely impressed watching him play against the Lions, but the preseason isn’t a great barometer.

A.J. Green is a Calvin-like talent, Jordan Shipley is a Wes Welker clone, and Jerome Simpson makes a great #3 receiver. Tight end Jermaine Gresham was a first-round pick last year. They have some weapons in the passing game, and West-Coast-guru Jay Gruden’s will have plenty of fun drawing up the offense. But if Dalton can’t make the throws, it doesn’t matter who plays receiver. The running game in Cincy will be largely nonexistent, and the mediocre-at-best offensive line probably won’t make Dalton’s live any easier.

Defensively, they’ll be reeling from the loss of Joseph, but still have a superb corner in Leon Hall. The linebackers are pretty stinking good too. This is one of several teams that hopes its defense can keep them competitive while the offense stinks up the joint. With the wretched NFC West on the schedule, as well as Denver and Buffalo, Cincy just might have a chance to wrestle up 7 or 8 wins in Dalton’s rookie season and maybe even make a wildcard push. But the six division games will be tough. I see them going 5-11.

Cleveland Browns:
2010 season: 5-11
My 2010 prediction was: 7-9

29th in total offense; 29th passing offense; 20th rushing offense
22nd in total defense; 18th in passing defense; 27th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Seven of their losses were by a touchdown or less.

Key Additions: Coach Pat Shurmur, DC Dick Jauron, RB Brandon Jackson, CB Dmitri Patterson, 1st round pick NT Phil Taylor, 2nd round pick DE Jabaal Sheard, 2nd round pick WR Greg Little

Key Loses: Coach Eric Mangini, both coordinators, DT Shaun Rogers, CB Eric Wright, QB Jake Delhomme, DE David Bowens, DE Matt Roth, ILB Eric Barton, S Abram Elam

Main question: How much longer are they going to wait until they get an offensive coordinator?

Maybe they won’t need one. So far in the preseason, Colt McCoy is 19/28 with 4 TDs, no INTs, 231 yards, an 8.25 YPA, and a QB rating of 132.5. Not freaking bad. And to top it off, my dad heard an interview with him on the Christian radio station that was so impressive, my dad took him in the 12th round of the fantasy draft, and then proclaimed “Remember that pick!”

I have to agree. Despite the famous clip of McCoy being thrown like a ragdoll during the Big 12 Championship game while the crowd yowls “SUUUUUH!”, he has really proved himself as an NFL-caliber quarterback. Much to my shock.

Going into this season, you have to say Colt is more NFL-ready than at least 8 or 10 NFL quarterbacks. He’s certainly a huge upgrade over the Jake Delhomme fiasco from last year. A fair comparison is Chad Pennington; good leadership and likeability, weak arm, great accuracy, dink-and-dump kind of guy. The problem, of course, is that Cleveland doesn’t have any receivers.

But the running game was awesome last year with bruising Peyton Hillis running behind All Pro Joe Thomas, who was just rewarded with a 7-year contract. It’s not very often that a guy gets a $84 million dollar contract and I say “Well deserved,” but this is one of those instances. Best thing Cleveland could have possibly done. Bravo Mike Holmgren.

This year, new coach Pay Shurmur promises to employ a RBBC style using Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson, relegating Hillis to a short-yardage and goal-line player. That’s probably wise, since he’s got the Madden Curse working against him. It doesn’t matter who runs behind Joe Thomas, they will find open field ahead of them.

Defensively, the Browns are switching back to the 4-3 under Dick Jauran, and should be in a messy state of transition. They have some solid players, notably cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward, but don’t have any semblance of a pass rush. Last year they ranked 25th in sacks, and they’ll be even worse this year, likely dead last.

So if you combine an offense with no playmakers and a defense with no pass rushers, you usually have a 4-12 team, or worse. But look at Cleveland’s ridiculously easy schedule to start the season: Bengals, Colts, Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Seahawks, 49ers … If Peyton Manning’s neck injury is a real thing, Cleveland could start the season by playing seven crappy quarterbacks in a row. Amazing. So while this team is transitioning in a lot of areas, I like the young quarterback and I love the easy schedule, so I’m giving them 8-8.

Dallas Cowboys:
2010 season: 6-10
My 2010 prediction was: 12-4

7th in total offense; 6th passing offense; 16th rushing offense
23rd in total defense; 26th in passing defense; 12th in rushing defense

*Key stat – They went 1-7 under Wade Phillips, then 5-3 under Jason Garrett.

Key Additions: DC Rob Ryan, 1st round pick OT Tyron Smith, 2nd round pick ILB Bruce Carter, 3rd round pick RB DeMarco Murray, DE Kenyon Coleman

Key Loses: Coach Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator Crappy McCrap, RB Marion Barber, WR Roy Williams, OT Marc Columbo, G Leonard Davis, DE Stephen Bowen

Main question: Are they all flash and no substance, or was last year a fluke?

Perhaps the main question should be: can we really trust a team that blatantly quit on its coach just because they were sick of playing for him? This team, particularly the defense, gave no effort whatsoever in the middle part of last season, intentionally losing games so that Phillips would be fired. That proves what a crap coach he was, but it also says something about the character of the players.

But the fact that Dallas ranked 7th in offense and 6th in passing without their starting quarterback is something to take note of. Tony Romo will be fully healthy and has three elite targets – Austin, Bryant, and Witten – to throw to. The running game will finally be free of Marion Barber and can focus on stud Felix Jones, plus DeMarco Murray who is my sleeper for ROY. One of my biggest regrets is not picking him in the A League fantasy draft. To make the story short – the Dallas offense is going to dominate. They’ll be a top 5 unit overall and Romo should have a stellar fantasy season.

But the defense is another story. Sure, loudmouth Rob Ryan should bring some much-needed aggressiveness and confidence to a unit that was humiliated last year in the passing game. But they still lack talent in the secondary, and weren’t able to add any pieces during the offseason. They obviously have an incredible stud in OLB DeMarcus Ware, who is always good for 15 sacks, and a decent front 7 overall. But the secondary flat-out stinks. Especially Mike Jenkins.

Great offense, lousy defense, good coach. Average schedule. I’ll say 9-7.

Denver Broncos:
2010 season: 4-12
My 2010 prediction was: 4-12

13th in total offense; 7th passing offense; 26th rushing offense
32nd in total defense; 25th in passing defense; 31st in rushing defense

*Key stat – Brandon Lloyd led the entire NFL in receiving yards.

Key Additions: Coach John Fox, DT Ty Warren, 1st round pick OLB Von Miller, 2nd round pick FS Rahim Moore, 3rd round pick OT Orlando Franklin, RB Willis McGahee, DE Derrick Harvey, DT Brodrick Bunkley

Key Loses: Coach Josh McDaniels, WR Jabar Gaffney, DT Justin Bannan, NT Jamal Williams, S Renaldo Hill

Main question: Who the frick is playing quarterback?

In typical Josh McDaniels fashion, the 2010 Broncos threw the ball all over the field while neglecting the run and finishing dead-last in defense. As I predicted back in June of 2010, McDaniels was fired. In part for his indefensibly stupid decision to take Tim Tebow in the first round. In part for his obsession with Bill Belichick. But mostly for being an a-hole and a crappy coach. The Broncos started 6-0 with him and ended 6-20.

The transition to John Fox, who went 2-14 with the Panthers, is a curious one. It means Denver is changing from a pass-happy team to a run-heavy offense, and it also entails a switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3. Needless to say, Bronco fans shouldn’t buy their playoff tickets just yet.

But just because it’s a season of massive change doesn’t mean we should expect another horrible season. The defense will be megatons better when DE Elvis Dumervil returns from the injury that kept him out for all of 2010, and OLB Von Miller is a frontrunner for D-ROY. The linebackers as a group are solid, and the pass rush will certainly be better than last year. But they will still struggle to stop the pass and stop the run, which is not a great combination. Ty Warren was a nice pickup, but not enough.

The reason the Broncos have dominated sports radio and ESPN coverage though is the quarterback controversy between Neckbeard and Tebow. As everyone knows, Orton is the better player, but Tebow is the better Christian. So who will start? Well, back in May, it was Orton. Then it was Tebow, because Orton was getting traded to Miami. Then the trade didn’t work. Then Tebow looked godawful in training camp. Now Orton is the man, and Brady Stinking Quinn is slotted as #2 on the depth chart. Poor Tebow.

Kudos to Fox and GM John Elway for having the brains to play Orton and give the team a chance to win. Sure, you could argue that Tebow makes more sense because A) you can find out if he’s worth investing in, and B) if he stinks, you get a lottery pick and a new franchise quarterback. But that’s faulty logic. What if Tebow stinks but you end up 4-12 again and pick 4th and Luck and Barkley are both gone? What if Barkley breaks his neck this year? What if Luck decides he really wants to be a professional architect instead? No, it’s foolish to lose intentionally just on the chance that you might be able to draft a 20 year old kid. Especially in the less-than-awesome AFC West, you have to play Orton and see what happens. Who knows, maybe they’ll win 8 or 9 games and end up in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

But what will probably happen is … the offense will struggle as Fox tries to implement a run-first scheme, Moreno and McGahee will split lots of carries and neither will be impressive, and Orton will manage the game decently but not super great. Brandon Lloyd’s receiving numbers will drop from 1,448 to about 700. And Tebow will play late in the season, once the Broncos are out of playoff contention.

Denver’s first two games are at home against Oakland and Cincy. They might start out 2-0, but they’ll end up 5-11.

2010 season: 6-10
My 2010 prediction was: 5-11

17th in total offense; 12th passing offense; 23rd rushing offense
21st in total defense; 16th in passing defense; 24th in rushing defense

*Key stat – They won their last four games.

Key Additions: MLB Stephen Tulloch, 1st round pick DT Nick Fairley, 2nd round pick WR Titus Young, 2nd round pick RB Mikel LeShoure (out for the year), OLB Justin Durant, CB Eric Wright, S Erick Coleman, RBs Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison

Key Loses: OLB Julian Peterson, OLB Jordan Dizon, WR Bryant Johnson, DE Turk McBride

Main question: CAN STAFFORD STAY HEALTHY??????

Just kidding. If you don’t get the joke, read the post from about a week ago.

No, the main question for the Lions is: Is Stafford any good?

He can stay healthy all he wants, but if he sucks, we’re screwed. And so far in his short and injury-plagued career, he has sucked. Sorry if the truth hurts. Look at his numbers. QB rating is the best way to assess overall play, and his QB rating is lower than Joey Harrington’s career rating. That’s just the facts. Stafford has shown "flashes of brilliance", as people like to say, but more often its flashes of decency which are hyperboled into brilliance. He’s also shown many flashes of inaccuracy, slow decision making, and what I would describe as a mild disinterest in competition. But those flashes aren't usually talked about.

I can’t blame the guy for getting hurt, especially in the Bears game when Julius Peppers snuck up behind him and destroyed his arm. He could have avoided the injury in the Jets game, but whatever. It’s done, he’s healthy now, and I’m ready to move on. Another injury would be detrimental, but not because our backup QB is bad. Only because it would prevent Stafford’s career from ever having a chance to succeed. We can make the playoffs with Stafford or with Shaun Hill, but the fact is, we need contributions from the other 21 starters.

On offense, we’ve got a lot to be excited about. A superstar receiver, a bunch of solid weapons to take pressure off Calvin, a rookie WR with upside, a really fast running back who can catch, backup running backs who aren’t terrible, an average offensive line that has continuity, a tight end who can block exceptionally well, an above-average fullback, and of course Stafford’s strong arm. We’ve also got some fun wrinkles like Stefan Logan and Aaron Brown, speedy guys who can line up in different spots. Then there are some weaknesses: the unfortunate injury to LeShoure, finding a RB who can run between the tackles effectively, Calvin’s route-running (good, but could be better), Pettigrew’s speed (slowest TE in the universe), Stafford’s accuracy, Stafford’s ability to go through his reads and check-down at appropriate times, Jeff Backus getting beat by speed rushers, Gosder Cherilus committing false start penalties, and of course injury concerns for our starting QB, RB and WR.

On defense, we have a superstar DT playing on one of the league’s best defensive lines, two highly underrated players in Corey Williams and Cliff Avril who make Suh look good while he makes them look good, a veteran leader who still has something left in the tank (KVB), a rookie DT with a lot of upside, really good depth on the D-line, a brand new middle linebacker who is an elite tackler, two decent but not awesome outside linebackers, a hard-hitting safety with dreads and an attitude, an up-and-coming safety in Amari Spievey who is having a great training camp, and a pair of slightly-below-average-but-not-as-bad-as-last-year cornerbacks.

Then, the glass-half-empty view: Fairley only played one year in college and had discouraging ‘character’ concerns so he might be a tremendously overhyped bust, plus he hurt his foot and hasn’t played preseason yet, Justin Durant is completely unproven and untested, VandenBosch is 32 years old and slowing down, Suh won’t stop bodyslamming QBs and might become the new James Harrison, Delmas still stinks in coverage, the corners really aren’t great in pass coverage either, and Eric Wright is hobbling around with a leg injury.

So it depends. You can jump on the hype-wagon and call them a playoff team. It’s tempting. Or you can look at them realistically, understanding that Stafford is basically a third-year rookie, and knowing that the secondary still stinks, no matter how badly we all want to pretend like it's fixed.

So I’m plagiarizing Tom Killer Kowalski, the all-knowing Lions insider, who said “I think the Lions are gonna be really good this year. They’re gonna be fun to watch, they’re going to be in every game, and they’re going to finish 8-8.”

Tom’s main reason was the difficult schedule, particularly the NFC North. I’m not as worried about the Bears and Vikings, and I’m pretty confident the Packers will be resting starters by week 17. I think we’ll go 4-2 against the division. It’s the other 10 games I’m worried about, particularly the 5 road games. We outmatch Oakland and Denver, but it would be typical of Detroit to blow those games on the road. If we lose those cupcake games, kiss the playoffs goodbye, because I don’t see us beating San Diego or New Orleans or Atlanta. Dallas is going to be tough, and so will KC and Tampa. Our schedule is loaded with teams that we could beat, but not teams that we necessarily should beat.

It’s gonna be a great year. I hope the Lions smash my 8-8 prediction to oblivion.

Green Bay Packers:
2010 season: 10-6, plus 4-0 in the playoffs
My 2010 prediction was: 13-3

9th in total offense; 5th passing offense; 24th rushing offense
5th in total defense; 5th in passing defense; 18th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Rodgers’s passer rating in the playoffs was 109.8, with 9 TDs, 2 INTs, 68.2% CP, and 8.3 YPA. And that was against playoff teams.

Key Additions: 1st round pick OT Derek Sherrod, 2nd round pick WR Randall Cobb, plus TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injury

Key Loses: ILB Nick Barnett, DE Cullen Jenkins, RB Brandon Jackson, OT Mark Tauscher, S Atari Bigby

Main question: From top to bottom, is this the most stacked team of the past decade?

The Packers are a team comprised of all strengths and no weaknesses. It’s barely fair. If there wasn’t a salary cap, I would say they somehow cheated. It’s actually amazing they didn’t win more than 10 games last season, but they were hampered by injuries and a tough schedule. Two of their loses were games that Rodgers missed, two were in overtime against inferior teams, and two were road games against Atlanta and New England. This year, the schedule is quite a bit friendlier, and the team is much healthier. 16-0 should be their goal.

Last year, I picked Rodgers to win the MVP. I didn’t specify that what I actually meant was Super Bowl MVP. He easily established himself as a top 5 quarterback last year, and while you can argue all day long where he belongs in the Brady-Brees-Manning discussion, as long as you put him ahead of Roethlisberger, I’m happy. He’s a frontrunner for MVP again this year and a first-round fantasy pick.

With one superstar receiver, three quality backup receivers, and a superstar tight end, the Green Bay offense is a machine. The offensive line, formerly a weakness, is now a strength, anchored by stud tackles Bulaga and Clifton, and mega-upside rookie Derek Sherrod playing inside at left guard opposite stud RG Josh Sitton. They don’t even need a running game, which is good, because they don’t really have one. It’ll be interesting to see whether Ryan Grant wins his job back or James Starks keeps it. They’ll probably share. It won’t matter.

What’s scary is that the defense might be better than the offense. Despite losing Jenkins and Barnett, they’ll still be an elite unit thanks to Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, Tramond Williams, Charles Woodson, Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawke, Nick Collins… all seven of those guys are top ten players at their positions, if not higher.

What else is there to say? Green Bay has the offense to roll with New England the defense to shut them down. They could completely obliterate the rest of the league this year. Then again, they might suffer from Super Bowl Hangover and play sloppy and entitled. That’s their only challenge this year – to avoid complacency. I think McCarthy will have them ready. 14-2 is my call.

Houston Texans:
2010 season: 6-10
My 2010 prediction was: 11-5

3rd in total offense; 4th passing offense; 7th rushing offense
30th in total defense; 32nd in passing defense; 13th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Houston gave up 4,280 passing yards – just 240 yards short of breaking the record for record for worst pass defense ever.

Key Additions: CB Jonathan Joseph, DC Wade Phillips, S Danieal Manning, FB Lawrence Vickers, 1st round pick DE J.J. Watt, 2nd round pick OLB Brooks Reed, 2nd round pick CB Brandon Harris

Key Loses: FB Vonta Leach, DT Amobi Okoye, FS Eugene Wilson, S Bernard Pollard, OLB Zach Diles, and their inept defensive coordinator

Main question: Is this the year they finally make the playoffs??

Yes. I’m going all in on the Texans. I absolutely loved their offseason.

Wade Phillips was a catastrophe in Dallas, but everyone knows he wasn’t supposed to be a head coach. As a D-coordinator, he’ll adopt the 3-4, which will bring Mario Williams out to OLB, which will pay immediate dividends. Opposite Williams will likely be rookie Brooks Reed, who I’ve identified as a Clay Matthews clone and think was the steal of the draft. Watt and Harris were excellent draft picks, Manning and Joseph were excellent signings, and the 30th ranked defense now has at least 5 new starters who are major upgrades, plus a new system which should work better. They might not be a top 10 unit this year, but they’ll skyrocket out of the cellar and into the teens.

The offense really didn’t need to be touched. And with one small exception, it stayed intact. That exception is Vonta Leach, the league’s best fullback and the guy who paved the way for Arian Foster last year. It’s fair to have concerns about Foster’s upcoming fantasy season, and to love Ray Rice now that Leach is in Baltimore, I’m not dropping the Houston offense from the top 5. Their O-line was rock solid last year and retains all five starters; above-average tight end Owen Daniels is healthy, Jacoby Jones is healthy, and Foster will be eager to prove that he’s not a one-year wonder. Then there’s Andre Johnson, who is simply the only receiver I would rather have than Calvin Johnson.

It’s a lot of pressure on Matt Schaub to be honest. He routinely puts up huge stats and tends to falter late in games. He’s been described as anti-clutch. I don’t necessarily think this is the year everything clicks and he becomes a mistake-free cerebral quarterback, but I don’t think his mistakes will matter as much because the defense won’t be as dreadful.

Joseph is a top-tier cornerback, but he wasn’t the only positive addition to this defense. It was just a brilliant offseason. And they’ve got a gloriously easy schedule, especially if Peyton Manning struggles week one from the neck injury. I’ll jump out on a limb and give the Texans 12-4.

Indianapolis Colts:
2010 season: 10-6
My 2010 prediction was: 12-4

4th in total offense; 1st passing offense; 29th rushing offense
20th in total defense; 13th in passing defense; 25th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Peyton Manning attempted a career-high 679 passes last year, just 12 attempts short of the NFL record held by Drew Bledsoe.

Key Additions: 1st round pick OT Anthony Castonzo, DT Tommie Harris, ILB Ernie Sims, 2nd round pick OT Ben Ijalana, 4th round pick RB Delone Carter,

Key Loses: OLB Clint Session, S Bob Sanders, CB Kelvin Hayden, RB Mike Hart

Main question: Is Peyton Manning’s neck injury a legitimate concern?

Probably not. As Tony Dungy said a few weeks ago, “Unless Peyton is dead, he’ll be playing week one.” I know that’s true. But the question is, how effectively will he play? Will there be any setback? My guess is no. But there’s no way of knowing until he plays.

Last year Manning threw a surprising number of INTs (17), but part of that was because he threw so stinking many attempts, and part of it had to do with injuries to his receivers. Dallas Clark missed almost the entire season, Austin Collie had two concussions, and Garcon and Wayne both struggled with drops all year. To make matters worse, Joseph Addai missed most of the year, and the running game was worthless.

To improve the offensive line, Indy drafted a potential stud in Castonzo and a potential quality starter in Ijalana. Both guys should start immediately, and with studs C Jeff Saturday and RG Mike Pollak also on the line, they’ll be improved. The running game still won’t exist, but the receivers should all be healthy, and if Peyton’s at full strength, this offense will again lead the NFL in passing.

Defensively, the Colts focus on the pass rush and neglect all other positions. Freeney and Mathis did their thing, combining for 21 sacks, but the rest of the defense was either injured or missing tackles. They still try to implement Tony Dungy’s Tampa 2 style, which means they’re smaller and faster, giving up running plays but not big passing plays. It sorta works, but you need good corners and an interior pass rush. Indy has neither. But since they like linebackers who stink at tackling, it’s a good thing they brought in Ernie Sims.

I actually have a terrible feeling about this season for Indianapolis. The passing offense will continue to dominate, but the defense just seems to keep getting worse, and with no running game to lean on, and Peyton nearing 36 years in age, and the neck injury, and the lifeless coach, and all the injury-concerns with the receivers … I just don’t like it. The schedule is tougher than last year, with the NFC South and AFC North plus New England and KC. It might help Indy if Tennessee and Jacksonville stink as I suspect they will, but that’s only 4 wins. Aside from Carolina and the 2 Ohio teams, there are no easy wins. I’m only seeing a 9-7 season for Peyton and crew, which will keep them out of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Jacksonville Jaguars:
2010 season: 8-8
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

15th in total offense; 27th passing offense; 3rd rushing offense
28th in total defense; 28th in passing defense; 22nd in rushing defense

*Key stat – David Garrard’s QB rating was 90.8, ranking 13th overall. But if you subtract the week 7 game against Dallas in which the Cowboys completely forfeited and gave Garrard the best game of his career, he actually had a QB rating of 85.1, ranking 18th.

Key Additions: ILB Paul Posluszny, OLB Clint Session, 1st round pick QB Blaine Gabbert, SS Dawan Landry

Key Loses: WR Mike Sims-Walker, OT Jordan Black, DE Derrick Harvey, OLB Justin Durant, ILB Kirk Morrison, OG Vince Manuwai

Main question: How soon until Gabbert starts?

When the Jags traded up in the 1st round to get Blaine Gabbert, it was obvious that the David Garrard Era was over, and not a moment too soon. Here’s a pop quiz for you? How old is David Garrard? And another question: how many years has he been with the Jaguars?

If I wasn’t sitting at a computer, I would have guessed ‘29’ and ‘6.’ But the real answers: ‘33’ and ‘9.’ The dude has played 86 games, throwing 89 TDs and 75 picks, and put together one of the longest stretches of incessant mediocrity in quarterback history. Every season seems like it’ll be his last, but then he pulls a 5 TD game out of his butt and keeps the job for another year. By picking Gabbert 10th overall, they’ve mercifully ended Garrard’s run.

Of course, Garrard gets to play this season while Gabbert holds a clipboard, and Garrard has the motivation to play well, hoping to earn a starting gig elsewhere in 2012. I wouldn’t be shocked if he plays well enough to keep Blaine on the bench until November, when it’s clear the Jaguars aren’t playoff-bound. It might take a while, Jags’ fans might get impatien…. wait, did I say “Jags fans”? Oops, never mind. Anyway …

The real concern for the future Los Angeles football team is the health of Maurice Jones-Drew. His knees have been messed up since midway through last season, and he’s not getting better. I don’t know when he’ll play, but I do think that Rashard Jennings is a capable backup who will play great in MJD’s stead.

As far as receivers, Jacksonville has Mike Thomas, Jason Hill … pretty much nothing. Tight end Marcedes Lewis is their best offensive player if MJD is ailing, and he just got paid big money, so the motivation isn’t there. The offensive line is considerably below-average, and will have either 2 or 3 new starters this year protecting Blavid Gabbard. It’s ugly.

Fortunately, the Jags retooled their defense this year with linebackers Clint Session and Paul Posluszny, and underrated safety Dawan Landry. These three guys were signed for contracts worth more than $99 million over the next 6 years. Big money for guys with injury-history and non-superstar status. But at least it’ll keep the Jaguars somewhat competitive, as the defense should keep them from being blown out repeatedly.

But as helpful as linebackers can be, the two most important elements for any NFL defense are elite pass-rushers and lockdown corners. Jacksonville has neither. Aaron Kampman has done nothing but tear his ACL in consecutive seasons, and horse-like Rashean Mathis is past his prime. It seems Jacksonville is trying to rebuild on offense, but stay competitive on defense. It’s a mess.

Jack del Rio could be the first coach fired in 2011, because the Jags have mildly high expectations and should massively underachieve. Their schedule is brutal – only 2 easy games all year, and 10 really tough ones. I imagine them going 2-8 with Garrard and 1-5 with Gabbert, for a dreadful 3-13 season. Then they’ll spend the #2 overall pick on a pass rusher, possibly Quinton Coples from UNC.

Kansas City Chiefs:
2010 season: 10-6
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

12th in total offense; 30th passing offense; 1st rushing offense
14th in total defense; 17th in passing defense; 14th in rushing defense

*Key stat – The teams on KC’s schedule last year combined to go 106-150. The only team they played with a winning record was 9-7 San Diego. This year’s opponents combined to go 133-123.

Key Additions: WR Steve Breaston, FB LeRon McClain, OT Jared Gaither, NT Kelly Gregg, 1st round pick WR Jonathan Baldwin, 2nd round pick C Rodney Hudson, 3rd round pick OLB Justin Houston (was a first-round prospect but tested positive for drugs and plummeted)

Key Loses: Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis, LG Brian Waters, OLB Mike Vrabel, NT Ron Edwards, WR Chris Chambers

Main question: Did they overachieve last year thanks to an incredibly easy schedule, or are they actually a legit 10-6 team?

Answer: they overachieved last year, thanks to an incredibly easy schedule, but they may actually be on their way to being a legit 10-6 team. They only played one really good team last year, and that was Baltimore in the playoffs, who beat them 30-7. This year, they get New England and Green Bay, the league’s two best teams, plus Pittsburgh, the Jets, the rest of the NFC North, the Colts, and the Chargers twice. Not nearly as easy.

To make matters worse, KC chose to part ways with their best offensive lineman, left guard Brian Waters, and their offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis. Weis was the man responsible for keeping Matt Cassel competent last year and masking his awfulness. This year we’ll see a much more confused Cassel revert to his terrible 2009 self. Under Weis, Cassel’s CP% rose from 55% to 58% and his YPA went up from 5.9 to 6.9. Losing Weis alone would cause those numbers to drop significantly, but facing five of the scariest defensive players in the world - Polamalu, Revis, Matthews, Peppers, and Suh - will make things even worse. If there was an anti-fantasy league, I’d take Matt Cassel in the first round.

But speaking of fantasy football, the Chiefs can rely on Barry-esque running back Jamaal Charles to make amazing plays and make defenders look silly. Despite ranking 14th in carries, Charles was 2nd in rushing yards, with an INSANE 6.4 yards per carry. There’s no way he pulls off that number again, especially if his number of carries jumps into the 300s, but if JC runs for a 5.2 YPC on 300 carries he will exceed 1,500 rushing yards, and that’s not unreasonable. He’s a stud.

The receivers are just okay, with Dwayne Bowe always being a little overhyped and rookie Jonathan Baldwin having a lousy training camp. Steve Breaston was a nice player 2 years ago, but his knee injuries are still not resolved. Tight end Tony Moeaki had a nice rookie season, but he’s not exactly the kind of guy who will lead you to the playoffs.

But as down as I am on Cassel, I’m excited about the young Chiefs defense, led by rising stars Eric Berry and Tamba Hali. The cornerbacks, Carr and Flowers, are really solid, and Gregg will help patch a leaky run defense. Romeo Crennel returns to coordinate the defense, and with at least 10 questionable quarterbacks on the schedule it should be another successful season. Of course, last year they didn’t see guys like Rodgers and Brady, so temper your expectations. They'll seem dominant week 9 against Denver, and then completely clueless the next week.

Overall, it’s bound to be a down year for Kansas City, and I think they’ll lose the division to a much-improved San Diego. Winning the AFC West earned them schedule bonus games against New England and Pittsburgh, which is really unfortunate. Losing a stud lineman and stud coordinator is going to kill the offense, and I almost want to predict a disastorous 4-12 season. But because of Jamaal Charles and the better-than-you-think defense, plus the 4 easy division games against Denver and Oakland, I’ll go with a moderately satisfying 8-8 season.

Bonus prediction: Matt Cassel is benched during week 12, which looks like a certain third straight loss, and 5th round rookie Ricky Stanzi (the guy from Iowa who famously beat MSU on this awesome play) enters the game, comes back to beat the Bears, and then starts the rest of the season while Cassel sits out with a phantom injury. Stanzi plays well enough to warrant consideration for the 2012 starting job, especially after Cassel’s QB rating is in the mid-70s and the fans hate him. This might be a little too specific. But I feel strongly about this possibility.

Rest to come later...
(sorry if there are a lot of typos, I didn't have time to edit)

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