Tuesday, August 30, 2011

NFL Preview: Miami through Washington, plus Playoff Picks & Season Awards!

(See Arizona through Kansas City previews below...)

Miami Dolphins:
2010 season: 7-9
My 2010 prediction was: 10-6

21st in total offense; 16th passing offense; 21st rushing offense
6th in total defense; 8th in passing defense; 7th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Twelve weeks into the 2010 season, the Dolphins were 6-5, with all 5 loses against playoff teams. They ended the season 1-4, with three loses against non-playoff teams. During those five games, Henne’s QB rating was a 62.

Key Additions: OC Brian Daboll, RB Reggie Bush, ILB Kevin Burnett, OT Marc Columbo, 1st round pick OG Mike Pouncey, 2nd round pick RB Daniel Thomas, QB Matt Moore

Key Loses:, RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, ILB Channing Crowder, QB Tyler Thigpen, and OC Dan Henning

Main question: Can a very good defense overcome a very bad offense?

That’s an easy answer. Nope. But let’s break it down just for fun.

The Fins thought they found a franchise QB back in 2007 when they took Henne with the first pick in the second round. He started slow, showed some promise, and became a bonafide sleeper. Then last year, he fell completely apart in the last five games. As we’ve seen many times, QBs who end the season on a terrible streak don’t usually recover.

The offseason was miserable for owner Stephen Ross, who furiously pursued Stanford’s head coach to no avail, and then was forced to retain his current coach, mafia boss Tony Soprano. Then the same thing happened with his quarterback; when Ross and Parcells couldn’t pull off a trade for Kyle Orton, they settled for their current QB. Now you’ve got a coach and a quarterback who know they aren’t wanted. Sounds like a winning combination, no?

On top of that, you’ve got a rookie running back who looks terrible and might be slower than Brandon Pettigrew, and then Reggie Bush, a glorified novelty act. Henne has solid receivers and a strong arm, but lacks accuracy and decision-making. The O-line is going to be a strength, with megastud Jake Long at LT and capable rookie Mike Pouncey at center, plus serviceable guards Richie Incognito and Vernon Carey. But the thing about having a good offensive line is you need someone to run behind it. Miami’s offense is going to suck.

The defense, which ranked 6th last year, only lost one starter in Crowder, but replaced him with a better player in Burnett. The D-line is adept at stopping the run and the outside linebackers can get to the passer. Cameron Wake had 14 sacks and rookie Koa Misi had 4.5. Karlos Dansby is a stud ILB and Vontae Davis is a stud CB, possibly the third best in the league behind Revis and Asomugha. Strong safety Yeremiah Bell is a great run-stopper and Sean Smith is an excellent #2 corner. Overall, this unit is one of the best in the league, and would be recognized as such if the offense didn’t betray them on a regular basis.
A lot of teams, such as Cincy and Buffalo, are hoping that strong defenses outweigh their crappy offenses and keep them competitive. Miami is hoping for the same thing, but they have too many variables working against them. The players lack motivation, knowing that the coach and quarterback will be replaced as soon as a replacement is found. It wouldn’t shock me to see the defense tank and steer the Dolphins towards a top 5 pick and a new quarterback to build around. I fully expect Miami to begin the year 0-5 against a brutal schedule, and it’ll be tough sledding to escape from the bottom of the AFC East. Final prediction: 2-14.

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

23rd in total offense; 26th passing offense; 10th rushing offense
8th in total defense; 10th in passing defense; 9th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Brett Favre was bad last year, with a 69.9 rating, 7.0 YPA, 11 TDs and 19 INTs. But Donovan McNabb wasn’t much better – 77.1 rating, 7.1 YPA, 14 TDs, 15 picks.

Key Additions: QB Donovan McNabb, 1st round pick QB Christian Ponder, OT Charlie Johnson, WRs Devin Aromashadu and Michael Jenkins, 2nd round pick TE Kyle Rudolph, DT Remi Ayodele, OC Bill Musgrave, 3rd round pick DT Christian Ballard, linebackers coach Mike Singletary

Key Loses: QB Brett Favre, WR Sidney Rice, OT Bryant McKinnie, DE Ray Edwards, DT Pat Williams, OLB Ben Leber, CB Lito Sheppard, FS Madieu Williams, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell

Main question: How far can AP carry them?

Few teams lost more than the Vikings did this offseason. Defensively, they lost four key starters. On offense, they lost a quarterback, a left tackle, and a starting receiver. Granted, the quarterback was putrid and the tackle was substandard, but the replacements aren’t any better. And nothing has been done to replace the receiver or the defenders except signing some scrubs and cast-offs and rookies. In all, it was a very Lions-esque offseason for the Vikes.

Replacing Brett Favre with Donovan McNabb is like finding out you no longer have cancer but you now have AIDS. Maybe that isn’t a funny joke. Good thing I don’t have to be politically correct. Anyway, McNabb stinks, he’s been washed-up for several years, and he’s still a superstar in his own mind. He’s the worst possible veteran for a rookie to learn the ropes from. Other than Favre of course.
Since Donovan has a crappy arm and no receivers, expect a dismal passing season, a sub-60 completion percentage, and tons of turnovers. I think Percy Harvin will have pretty good numbers since he’s the only viable receiver, especially as the Vikes utilize a heavy dose of two-TE formations. Shiancoe and Rudolph are both capable receivers with good hands, but are both big enough to pass-protect. That will help compensate for a lackluster offensive line with shaky tackles, including LT Charlie Johnson who completely stunk on the Colts. Johnson replaces McKinnie, and this is a major downgrade for the Vikings.

Of course, the Vikings have the league’s best running back, so they’ll survive on offense. Peterson doesn’t need gaping holes to maintain his 4.5 YPC and surpass 1,300 yards this year. LG Steve Hutchinson is nearing 35 years old, but still plenty good.

The issue offensively is going to be confusion of identity. Obviously, this should be a run-first, control-the-clock, grind-it-out offense, giving AP 340 carries, and using Toby Gerhard a little bit for change-of-pace. But with new O-coordinator Bill Musgrave, it might distort into a pass-heavy, West-Coast-Wannabe fiasco that underutilizes its best player and allows an insane amount of sacks. That would be best case scenario, of course, for the Lions.

As for Christian Ponder, I think he’ll have to wait until at least the second half of the season before he sees the field. He’ll have plenty of chances to learn what NOT to do.

The offense is going to be messy as they try to replace Favre and McKinnie and Rice. But the defense might be in even more trouble replacing Edwards, Leber, FS Williams and DT Williams. They still have their 3 best defensive players: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and E.J. Henderson, plus they retained solid starters in Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield. But picking up Eric Henderson, E.J.’s little brother, was just silly at outside linebacker. There’s no room for nepotism in the NFL. Ayodele and Brian Robinson are crap replacements on the D-line, and CB Cedric Griffin is recovering from an ACL tear. It’s a defense with a few bright spots, but mostly drear.

The 8th ranked defense is probably going to fall into the mid-teens, while the 23rd ranked offense doesn’t get any better. The fans will want to see Ponder while McNabb struggles, Brett Favre will probably threaten to un-retire, and overall, it’s going to suck to be a Vikings fan. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily finish worse than last year’s 6-10.

Aside from their own division and the tough NFC South, Minnesota gets bonus games against the hapless Cardinals and Redskins, two juggernauts of suckiness. They also get easy wins against Denver and Oakland and Carolina, so 5 or 6 wins should come easy. The question was, how far can AP carry them? I’ll say he does an admirable job leading them to 8-8.

New England Patriots:
2010 season: 14-2
My 2010 prediction was: 12-4

8th in total offense; 11th passing offense; 9th rushing offense
25th in total defense; 30th in passing defense; 11th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Their defense was the worst in the NFL on third-downs, allowing opponents to convert 47.1% of the time.

Key Additions: WR Chad Ochocinco, DT Albert Haynesworth, DE Shaun Ellis, DE Andre Carter, 1st round pick OT Nate Solder, 2nd round pick CB Ras I-Dowling, 3rd round picks RB Shane Vereen and RB Stevan Ridley, 3rd round pick QB Ryan Mallet

Key Loses: G Stephen Neal, DE Ty Warren, OLB Tully Banta-Cain,

Main question: What will Brady do as an encore for one of the greatest seasons in NFL history?

Watching Tom Brady blossom in the wake of the Randy Moss trade, as he rejuvenated Deion Branch and turned two rookie tight ends into stars, was simply amazing. It was like the 2004 Brady, dominating defenses with a dink-and-dump offense run to perfection, only this version of Brady is smarter, tougher, and meaner. He was simply the best player in the NFL last season, and no one was close.

But then, a strange thing happened. He got ousted from the playoffs by the insufferably annoying Jets, the same team he thrashed 45-3 in December. For the second straight year, the Pats dominated the regular season and then lost their first playoff game. It’s really perplexing.

So what should we expect this year from Brady and the rag-tags? More flawless preformances with sweaty long hair? More unsung heroes like Danny Woodhead and Ben-Jarvus-Green-Feet-Studio or whatever his name is. More 30/43 masterpieces against elite defenses? More streaks of 300+ attempts without an interception? I really have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.

Acquiring Chad Ochocinco was a curious move for the typically straight-laced Patriots, but then again, that Randy Moss thing worked out pretty well. When in doubt, don’t doubt Bill Belichick. Solder and the two rookie running backs give the offense more fun wrinkles. Word is that Vereen looks amazing in camp.

Then there’s the defense that somehow ranked 30th against the pass despite leading the league in INTs. I have a pretty simple solution: teams were losing, so they were throwing. Thus, lots of passing yards. In terms of YPA, New England ranked 14th; for opposing QB rating, 13th; total sacks, 14th. So while they gave up a ton of yards through the air in desperate comeback attempts, they were way better than the 30th best secondary. Statistics sometimes lie.

Leading the defense is inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who also led the NFL in tackles. The inside is manned by nosetackle Vince Wilfork, a deserving Pro Bowler, and Haynesworth, who was awesome 3 years ago but now seems to hate life. Maybe Belichick can reinvigorate his career, but if not, no big loss. Losing Ty Warren isn’t great, but not detrimental. Shaun Ellis (72 sacks in 11 years) and Andre Carter (11 sacks just two years ago) both have potential to fit into that DE spot and thrive.

The secondary has a rising star in CB Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowl rookie and runner-up for D-ROY. Pat Chung and Brandon Merriweather are above-average safeties, and Leigh Bodden is good enough for the CB#2 spot.

Overall, New England isn’t quite as stacked as the Packers from top to bottom, but it’s close, and they have the best player in the NFL. The defense has a few gaps, the O-line isn’t perfect, and the 3rd down defense obviously needs to improve. They’ve got an easy schedule for most of the season, with a few tough games peppered in, such as Philly, Pittsburgh and Indy. All they really need to do is sweep the Jets and they’ll easily win a first-round bye. I see them going 13-3, and while Brady isn’t going to repeat his 111 QB rating, I’m more than happy to have him as my fantasy quarterback in 4 leagues.

New Orleans Saints:
2010 season: 11-5
My 2010 prediction was: 8-8

6th in total offense; 3rd passing offense; 28th rushing offense
4th in total defense; 4th in passing defense; 16th in rushing defense

*Key stat – The Saints only played three above .500 teams last year, and Brees still managed to throw a career-high 22 picks. .

Key Additions: RB Darren Sproles, 1st round pick RB Mark Ingram, 1st round pick DE Cameron Jordan, C Olin Kreutz, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Shaun Rogers, CB Fabian Washington, DT Turk McBride

Key Loses: RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey, DT Remi Ayodele, OLB Danny Clark, CB Randall Gay

Main question: Will Brees bounce back from his sub-par (by his standards) 2010 season?

There’s not much to dislike about the Saints offseason. They got rid of two non-productive headaches in Bush and Shockey, and replaced them with much better players in Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. In fact, both Sproles and Graham are huge sleepers on my fantasy radar. Graham is being drafted in the 8-10 range of tight ends, and should be 4th behind Gates, Witten and Finley. I wouldn’t be shocked if he racks up 100 catches and 10 TDs.

As Andy Szymas astutely pointed out the other day, it seem like the Saints have 5 receivers more than any other team. The primary guy is Colston, but then there's Moore, Henderson, Meachem … none are great talents, none are fantasy studs, but all of them get the job done for Brees. With an elite offensive line anchored by super guards Evans and Nicks, plus newly-acquired center Olin Kreutz, Brees should have plenty of time to sit back in the pocket and make his perfect throws. There’s no excuse for him to toss another 22 picks. If the Saints’ offense struggles, he has to point the finger at himself.

But I don’t think it will. The defense is what concerns me. As you can see, New Orleans was great against the pass, but only average in run defense. To remedy that, they picked up a 320-pound run-stuffing specialist named Aubrayo Franklin, a six-year starter for the Niners and Ravens. For depth, they picked up numbskull Shaun Rogers.

New Orleans ranked 19th in sacks last year despite facing a really easy schedule, so they added Cameron Jordan to improve the pass rush. The linebackers aren’t exceptional, but MLB Jonathan Vilma should be better this year now that he’s recovered from a groin injury. The outside linebacker spots are scrubs, both corners are mediocre, but somehow they ranked 4th against the pass. I don’t think that’ll happen again this year.

I’m actually down on the entire NFC South this year, for one primary reason. Last year, they all enjoyed 4 games against the worst division in football. This year, the Saints and their divisional friends must instead face the NFC North, a much tougher task. The lucky ones this season are the members of the AFC North and NFC East, who each get four freebies against the worthless NFC West. (Actually, the Rams shouldn't considered a total pushover anymore. More on them later)

That’s why I have Atlanta down from 13-3 to 9-7, and that’s why I’m projecting a modest 10-6 for the Saints. It’s a brutal schedule when you factor in 4 do-or-die games against the Falcons and Bucs, plus the Packers, Colts, Texans…

I love Drew Brees, I think he’s somehow underrated despite winning the Super Bowl two years ago, and yet I think the schedule keeps New Orleans from winning more than 10 games. 10-6 and a strong playoff run.

New York Giants:
2010 season: 10-6
My 2010 prediction was: 9-7

5th in total offense; 10th passing offense; 6th rushing offense
7th in total defense; 9th in passing defense; 8th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Eli Manning stinks.

Key Additions: 1st round pick CB Prince Amukamara, OG Stacy Andrews, C David Baas, NT Gabe Watson, 2nd round pick DT Marvin Austin

Key Loses: WR Steve Smith, C Shaun O’Hara, DT Barry Coefield, TE Kevin Boss, FB Madison Hedgecock, OG Rich Seubert

Main question: With the Dream Team Eagles and the recuperated Cowboys in their division, what does New York have to do to contend for a playoff push?

It’s not impossible, though it’s a long shot. The offseason was tough for the Giants, as they lost two starting O-lineman, a solid DT, 3 good starters on offense (FB, WR, TE), and then watched their 1st round pick break his foot, only to have his replacement tear his ACL. All the while, Philly was loading up on Pro Bowlers and becoming unbeatable.

So how can the Giants stay competitive and fight for a wildcard? Well for starters, they need to win their first 2 games.

Look at the Giants schedule: the first 7 games are against 6 non-playoff teams (I’m not counting Seattle). Then the next 9 are against 5 playoff teams, including the Pats and Pack, plus 2 extras against Dallas. Of their final 9 games, only 1 is against an inferior opponent.

So in order to have a chance, the Giants need to start out sprinting. If they lose week 1 to Washington, the season is over. They need to beat Arizona week 4, Buffalo week 6, and Miami week 8. They can’t mess around with those cupcakes, because the stretch from weeks 9 to 13 features 4 of the 5 best teams in the league. Ouch.

It’s possible, I suppose, for the Giants to start out 6-1 and then finish 10-6 or 9-7. But the beginning of the season is going to be toughest on teams with a lot of discontinuity, as it always is, but especially due to the lockout. The Giants are slammed by discontinuity.

The left tackle position will be occupied by totally unproven William Beatty, who will almost certainly struggle. Baas will replace O’Hara at center (downgrade) and David Diehl moves over to LG. The right side of the line (Snee and McKenzie) is awesome, so defenses will shift over accordingly.

Losing tight end Kevin Boss doesn’t hurt the aerial game, but it hurts the blocking a lot. So does losing the fullback. And Steve Smith, one of the NFL’s best route-runners, is also gone (to the Eagles, no less). The only good news was re-signing Ahmad Bradshaw to a 4-year, $18 million deal. But now that he’s been paid, what’s to keep him from ‘getting hurt?’

Eli Manning was abysmal last year, throwing more INTs than Rodgers, Brady and Vick combined. He was intercepted once every 21 passes, and had multiple picks in 8 games. His yards and TDs look respectable because he threw so many dang passes, but losing five starters on offense is going to hurt. I’ve been ragging on Eli since he was drafted and even as he won a Super Bowl. I’ll say the same thing I’ve always said: if his last name was Jones, or Karzinski, there’s no dang way he’d still be a starting QB.

But there is a reason that the Giants won the 2008 Super Bowl, and that was the defensive line. This year, it might be better than it was then, despite losing a starting DT in Coefield. That’s because Jason Pierre-Paul is ready to come into his own as an elite pass-rusher, and across from Justin Tuck that will be lethal. Of course, they’ve still got holdout Osi Umenyiora, who will end up playing this year, like Vincent Jackson did last year for the Chargers, trying to earn either a contract or a trade. With those three DEs (Tuck moves inside on passing downs), offensive lines are going to be tormented.

But just like Eli’s brother’s team shows us, having great DEs without a good secondary doesn’t work. The Giants at least tried to assemble a good secondary, unlike Indianapolis, but 2 starting corners have got injured this summer. Corey Webster still occupies the CB#1 spot, but now the #2 spot belongs to Aaron Ross, a beatable scrub. The safeties are both better in run support than coverage, and the linebackers are good but not amazing. Overall, it’s a very solid defense, but they’ll struggle with continuity at the DT and CB positions.

So despite having a dopey quarterback and a patch-work offense, I think the Giants will score plenty of points and rack up plenty of sacks, and predictably win most of their games during the first 7 weeks. I would guess 5-2. But then, just when people are starting to say “Maybe Eli was right when he compared himself to Tom Brady!”, the Giants will go on a 1-5 stretch, Tom Coughlin will be fired, Eli will be booed, and the Giants will finish the season 7-9 with their heads hung in shame.

New York Jets:
2010 season: 11-5
My 2010 prediction was: 9-7

11th in total offense; 22nd passing offense; 4th rushing offense
3rd in total defense; 6th in passing defense; 3rd in rushing defense

*Key stat – The Jets allowed just 8 passing TDs in 2009; last year they surrendered 24.

Key Additions: WRs Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason, DE Aaron Maybin, 1st round pick DT Muhammad Wilkerson, 2nd round pick NT Kendrick Ellis

Key Loses: WRs Braylon Edwards and Jericho Cotchery, OT Damien Woody, DE Shaun Ellis, NT Kris Jenkins, DE Vernon Gholston, OLB Jason Taylor, WR Brad Smith,

Main question: Can Sanchez increase his completion percentage to a respectable number and by doing so, give the Jets another chance at the playoffs?

In two years, Mark Sanchez has been to two AFC Championship games. He’s 4-2 in the playoffs, with all 6 games on the road. He also has two regular seasons in which he’s compiled completion percentages of 53.8% and 54.8%, good enough to rank 29th both years. That’s okay as a rookie, but this year he’s got to improve.

Sanchez did improve his TD/INT ratio from 12/20 to 17/13, and was sacked once per 18 attempts, an improvement from his rookie season when he was taken down once per 14. A chance of scenery might help Sanchize; while Burress and Mason aren’t athletic improvements over Edwards and Cotchery, they are approximately equal and give a spark of new energy. Dustin Keller is a good pass-catching TE, but a crap blocker.

The O-line loses RT Damien Woody, the former Patriot and Lion, who retired at age 33. His replacement, Wayne Hunter, committed 8 penalties last year in just 6 games. Oops. But the rest of the line, anchored by All Pro center Nick Mangold and really good LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, is all set. The guards are real good too. That’s why the Jets are perennially a top-5 running team, regardless of who the RB is.

This year it looks like Shonn Greene will carry a much heavier load, while washed-up LT continues to be a superstar in his own mind. Rex Ryan recently said something along the lines of “We plan on giving defenses a heavy dose of Shonn Greene, and cramming it down their throats!” Or something like that. I’m sure with his 4.1 YPC and 2 TDs last year, defenses are terrified.

It’s a very limited offense, highlighted by a true stud WR in Holmes, but crippled by an inaccurate quarterback and defense-minded coach. Once again, they’ll rank top 5 in rushing, bottom 10 in passing. Unless Sanchez really has a turnaround.

So just how good can the defense be? Can they carry them to a third-straight playoff appearance? Unfortunately, I think they can.

Assuming New England plays to their potential and wins 13+ games, the Jets are going to be battling for a wildcard spot, and that typically requires 10 wins. Darrelle Revis probably counts as 4 wins single-handedly. He will take an opposing stud WR (such as Calvin Johnson last year) and reduce him to one catch for 13 yards. It’s sick.

The middle linebackers (Harris and Scott) are also great, and Cromartie is just fine as a CB#2. He plays inconsistently, but is capable of big plays. When the Jets were close to signing Asomugha, it was terrifying for everybody. I’m just so glad it didn’t happen.

If the defense has a weakness, it’s the pass rush, which generated only 40 sacks last year (9th most), an oddly low figure for a Rex Ryan blitz-crazy defense. They blitzed as much as anybody, but just didn’t have the right athletes.

OLB Calvin Pace was injured sporadically all of 2010, and OLB Bryan Thomas just wasn’t very good. They brought in Aaron Maybin (megabust from the Bills) and rookie Muhammad Wilkerson (more of a run-stuffer) to bolster the front 7, but they’ll still struggle at rushing the passer. In fact, they’ll probably drop below 40 sacks, unless somehow emerges from the woodwork.

But a defense that can blanket receivers and stuff the run is good enough, and because of that they’ll force plenty of 3rd and longs which will turn into blitzes and some sacks. It’s probably a slightly overrated defense overall, but having Revis makes them always formidable.

The schedule is average, with 6 tough games, 8 easy ones, and 2 in-between. It’s a big year for Sanchez to prove himself, as he faces some pretty scary defenses. And while I don’t have faith in Rex Ryan’s annual championship guarantee, I do think this team sneaks into the playoffs again, going 10-6.

Oakland Raiders:
2010 season: 8-8
My 2010 prediction was: 6-10

10th in total offense; 23rd passing offense; 2nd rushing offense
11th in total defense; 2nd in passing defense; 29th in rushing defense

*Key stat – CB Nnamdi Asomugha has allowed just 41 completions in the last 4 years. That’s an average of 0.68 completions per game over 60 games. Now, he’s on the Eagles, if you haven’t heard.

Key Additions: Head Coach Hue Jackson, OC Al Saunders, DC Chuck Bresnahan, QB Trent Edwards, TE Kevin Boss, 2nd round pick C Stefen Wisniewski, OT Stephen Heyer, and of course, Supplemental Draft Choice QB Terrelle Pryor

Key Loses: CB Nnamdi Asomugha, TE Zach Miller, coach Tom Cable, both coordinators, QB Bruce Gradkowski, G Robert Gallery, OLB Thomas Howard

Main question: WTF??????

Losing Nnamdi was understandable. A player that great and that smart isn’t going to spend his entire career with a dysfunctional team. Maybe the Raiders could have done more to try to keep him, but they didn’t have much of a chance. The real stumper is why the Raiders fired coach Tom Cable and both coordinators after the team went 8-8, their best record since 2002 when they lost the Super Bowl. Understandably, the only teams they beat were AFC West and NFC West foes, and maybe they could have won 9 or 10 games with that schedule, but really, did Tom Cable deserve to be fired?

Losing both coordinators is a double-whammy because of the lockout. Now Al Saunders and Chuck Bresnahan have basically two months to implement their new systems, so expect plenty of confusion and ‘transitioning’ and terrible football. Throw in the fact that Oakland lost its best receiver (TE Zach Miller) and retained its less-than-mediocre quarterback (Jason Campbell) without acquiring any new offensive starters other than a rookie 2nd round center, and the fact that Oakland was the only team in the NFL that didn’t have a 1st round pick in 2011 … and you’ve got arguably the worst offseason any team has had in the last decade, other than the Cavs in 2010.

The offense has only one exciting player, and that’s injury-prone RB Darren McFadden. The offensive line is atrocious – probably the league’s worst – and the only viable receiver is converted-kick-returner Jacoby Ford, who is lightning fast but may or may not know how to play receiver. The QB position is just sad, as the Raiders made no efforts to improve over Jason Campbell.

Defensively, the Raiders will be completely lost without Nnamdi, and that’s an understatement. The secondary now consists of Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, Chimdi Chekwa, Tyvon Branch, and Michael Huff. Of those, only Huff is a pro-caliber player, and he just got paid big money, so the motivation is gone. Now add to their troubles that they all need to pick up an incredible amount of slack, as the just lost the league’s best shutdown corner.

Fortunately the linebackers in Oakland are very solid. At least something isn’t a complete dumpster fire. Rolando McClain is going to be a very good pro (I pegged him for D-ROY last year, to my everlasting shame), and Kamerion Wimbley had 9 sacks from the OLB position. Oakland actually ranked 3rd in total sacks, behind only the two teams that played in the Super Bowl. But you’ve got to imagine at least 10 of those 47 sacks had something to do with Asomugha’s coverage. The entire defense is going to take a major step backwards.

The D-line was worthless against the run last year, and amazingly didn’t pick up a single player to help in that area. In fact, all the defense did was lose its best player and its coordinator, and nothing else whatsoever. Oakland has ranked 2nd, 7th, 10th, 8th, and 1st in passing defense the last five years with Nnamdi. Without him, the best case scenario is anything but 32nd.

Remember, the Cavs lost 26 straight games, an NBA record, in their first year without LeBron James.

I’m picking Oakland to go 3-13, even though their talent suggests 0-16. With two games against Denver, plus Buffalo, Miami and a home game against the Bears, they should be able to eek a few wins. I’m also planning to pick up receivers in fantasy football all season long who have matchups against the Raiders. Week one, I’ll be rolling with Eddie Royal and Demaryius Thomas, and I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

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

2nd in total offense; 9th passing offense; 5th rushing offense
12th in total defense; 15th in passing defense; 15th in rushing defense

*Key stat – Michael Vick attempted fewer passes last year than Shaun Hill.

Key Additions: CB Nnamdi Asomugha, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RT Ryan Harris, WR Steve Smith, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins, QB Vince Young, RB Ronnie Brown, OG Evan Mathis, DT Anthony Hargrove, 1st round pick OG Danny Watkins, 2nd round pick S Jaiquawn Jarrett, 4th round pick MLB Casey Matthews

Key Loses: D-Coordinator Sean McDermott, QB Kevin Kolb, FB Leonard Weaver, DT Brodrick Bunkley, OLB Ernie Sims, ILB Stewart Bradley, S Quintin Mikell, K David Akers

Main question: Will the ‘Dream Team’ play with a Miami-Heat-esque aura of entitlement?

While everyone else was hyperventilating about Michael Vick and penciling the Eagles into the 2012 Super Bowl, I wasn’t so sure they were even a playoff team. I just don’t trust a human being who tortures dogs for fun. I just think there’s gotta be something wrong with him, mentally, emotionally, and sooner or later that’s going to manifest itself on the field. It’s the same sort of deal with Stafford, minus the dog-killing. I know he’s got a great arm, and he says all the right things, but I just get the feeling from him that football is not his life. To be a Rodgers or Brady, football has to be your life. I think Stafford would rather party than study gamefilm. That’s okay, that’s his preference. Not everyone can be Peyton Manning for a reason. I see guys like Bradford and Ryan, and I imagine them studying gamefilm all winter long, lighting weights and drinking protein shakes. I see Stafford, with the backwards hat and carefree smile, and I imagine him on a party boat, a little bit drunk, dancing with girls in bikinis, listening to country music. Great, enjoy your life, I don’t care. But I don’t think that’s the path to NFL greatness.

Anyway. Back to Vick. The dude is obviously a freak athlete, the best dual-threat QB ever, and better than anybody in the NFL at extending plays with his feet. Last year he was exceptional, no doubt. Can he stay healthy? Can he remain accurate? Can he play turnover-free again? Those are the three key questions, and it’ll be very surprising if the answer is ‘yes’ to all three. But if it is, congratulations Eagles, you are going to dominate.

Vick’s primary weakness, as I mentioned, is mental. Not only that desire to win no matter what it takes, but the cerebral aspect of the game. Being able to read blitzes and coverages. Last year we saw him get razzed near the end of the season by Minnesota and Green Bay, two defenses that brought a lot of blitzes. Coordinators are scared of his feet, but understand that the best way to defend him is to bring pressure and force him to throw. How he responds to that will be one of the most interesting storylines of 2011.

Of course, the Eagles are no longer a team that really needs Michael Vick in order to make the playoffs. They could probably go 10-6 with Drew Stanton. Not only do they have elite talent at RB, WR, and TE, but they have exceptional depth at all 3 positions. The offensive line is improved, with Watkins and Harris both new starters on the right side, and Mathis brought in for depth. Some people hated the draft choice of 27-year old Danny Watkins, the oldest rookie ever, in the 1st round. I loved it. The dude can play; he’s NFL-ready now, and the Eagles are ready to win now. It made sense. If he gives you 10 good years and then retires, that’s better than a 20-year old kid who gives you 3 crappy years and then goes to Seattle’s practice squad.

On a Madden Scale, I’d say the Eagles have 90+ ratings at every position on offense, including Steve Smith (a supreme possession guy) as their #3 receiver, and an overall offense that probably ranks a 95. Vick might stink, or he might get hurt, or maybe both. Vince Young is the new backup, and he would likely stink too. If third-stringer Mike Kafka was forced to play 6 games, I still would like the Eagles offense a lot. And that’s saying something.

But the defense, which actually managed to rank 12th overall last year, is downright frightening. To put it in Madden terms again, you’ve got a 99 corner, a 95 corner, and three defensive linemen who are all mid 90s. It’s freaking treacherous.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the linebackers. OLB Jamar Chaney is a returning starter from last year, but the top two LBs in terms of tackling (Sims and Bradley) are gone. Playing MLB will probably be Clay Matthew’s little brother, Casey Matthews, a 4th round rookie, and next to him is Moise Fokou, who is not exciting.

But the linebackers don’t matter too much with Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin up front. That trio should combine for at least 25 sacks, as they amassed 29.5 last year on three separate teams. Like the Lions, Philly will be able to generate a pass-rush using only its 4 D-linemen, thus the linebackers will be free to roam in coverage and run support.

Having Nnamdi Asomugha at corner is a luxury no other team has except the Jets. He’ll eliminate #1 receivers all season long; in fact, as the ‘key stat’ for Oakland alluded to, quarterbacks don’t even throw in his direction anymore. That stopped about 4 years ago, when they realized he wasn’t allowing completions. Having Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel at the other cornerback spots is just an embarrassment of riches. Philly is listening to trade offers for Samuel, but wouldn’t mind bringing a Pro Bowler off the bench in nickel formations. DRC is going to see a ton of passes thrown his way with Asomugha on the other side, and is a safe bet to lead the NFL in interceptions.

To make things even more magical, Philly faces the NFC West this year, and has bonus games against the fellow-division winners, Chicago and Atlanta. Fortunately for them, the best teams in those divisions are actually Green Bay and New Orleans. So somehow, they play only one top-5 team all year, and that’s New England at home, week 12.

I don’t think it’s fair that Philly is being put in the same sentence as the Miami Heat. I know it makes sense on paper, but none of their players took the easy way out like LeBron. Nnamdi made a smart choice, and I think it’ll pay off. They’re going to give the Packers a run for their money when it comes to homefield in the playoffs. I’ll say 14-2, just like the Pack.

Pittsburgh Steelers:
2010 season: 12-4
My 2010 prediction was: 9-7

14th in total offense; 14th passing offense; 11th rushing offense
2nd in total defense; 12th in passing defense; 1st in rushing defense

*Key stat – They didn’t allow a single run of 25 yards all season.

Key Additions: 1st round pick DE Cameron Heyward, 2nd round pick OT Marcus Gilbert

Key Loses: OT Max Starks, OT Flozell Adams, TE Matt Spaeth

Main question: Can they avoid the Super Bowl Loser curse?

As you know, there is no love lost between me and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I pretty much hate everything that is the color yellow, including the sun and daffodils. I cheer against them in secret, hoping my wife won’t notice, although my cover is pretty much blown by now. It’s nothing personal, I just detest every single little thing about them.

Because of that, I’ve been able to take off the rose-colored glasses and see them for what they really are: a dominant defense. Every drop of credit that Ben Roethlisberger gets for the two Super Bowls is too much. The dude is a liability, inaccurate, stupid, and implausibly lucky. Although, it’s not completely his fault. The O-line is even worse.

The only reason Roethlisberger hasn’t been sacked 300 times in the last 3 years is because he’s 50 pounds heavier and 6 inches bigger than any other quarterback in the league. It’s like little kids trying to sack their dad in the backyard. If you get 4 hanging on, maybe you can bring him down slowly, but he’ll still release the ball. It’s absurd. I’m surprised more teams haven’t caught on and signed guys like Dwight Howard to play quarterback.

The line is under a little bit of transition this year, with Starks being cut and underwhelming Jonathan Scott taking his place at LT. The center and RT positions are manned adequately by Pouncey and Willie Colon, although Colon tore his Achilles last year and might not be 100%. The guards are awful, both near the league-lead in sacks allowed and penalties, and both struggling with injuries. They really should have taken an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft, but chose to keep stockpiling on OLBs.

The #1 receiver in Pittsburgh is speedster Mike Wallace, not Dancer Hines Ward, who is 35 but plays like he’s 75. Emmanuel Sanders is the deep-threat to watch, and Heath Miller is solid all-around, both in the blocking game and as a red-zone receiver. I like Mike Wallace a little bit in fantasy leagues, but hate him in PPR formats. Last year he only caught 60 balls, which is terrible for a #1 receiver. But his 21 YPR was tops in the AFC, and he had 5 TDs of at least 50 yards. He’s the lesser-known version of DeSean Jackson.

Rashard Mendenhall had a terrible offseason when it comes to reputation. During the 2010 season, if you asked 100 football fans what they thought of him, 99 would have said “Pretty good Steelers running back.” Now, if you asked the same group, at least 95 people would say “Freaking psycho terrorist-loving motherf&%$.” Or something like that. Using Twitter to proclaim your love for Osama bin Laden isn’t the smartest way to spend an offseason. Neither is raping drunk 18-year olds, assaulting a convenience store worker, getting a DUI at 4am, or telling a magazine that you would not piss on the NFL commissioner if he were burning alive.

Great summer Steelers. You guys are so classy.

I could ramble on and on about the defense, but you guys know this drill by now. Polamalu is an A++ safety who can defend the pass and run simultaneously, and all 4 linebackers are Pro Bowl caliber, while all 3 D-lineman are considerably above-average. The corners stink, they always do, but it doesn’t matter unless Troy gets hurt. At least they’ve got continuity this year, with the same starting CBs as last year. Ryan Clark’s not a bad free safety. This is the best defense in football by a mile, and although Harrison is 33 and Polamalu’s 30, they’ve got at least one more dominant year in them.

The main thing working against them is the hangover of losing a Super Bowl. 9 of the last 13 Super Bowl losers did not make the playoffs the following year, and 7 of them had losing records. Having a very good Baltimore team in the AFC North means Pittsburgh needs to buckle down and win at least 12 to secure a playoff spot. With the freaking NFC West on the schedule, that shouldn’t be hard.

Although 3 of their first 4 games are brutal, Pittsburgh ends the season with 7 straight games against duds. They’re usually good for one inexplicable loss to an inferior team, so I’ll say they go 11-5.

San Diego Chargers:
2010 season: 9-7
My 2010 prediction was: 11-5

1st in total offense; 2nd passing offense; 15th rushing offense
1st in total defense; 1st in passing defense; 4th in rushing defense

*Key stat – If you’re trying to figure out how they ranked 1st in passing defense, it might be related to the fact that they only faced 2 good quarterbacks last season. Against those good QBs, they gave up an average of 222 passing yards per game, which would have ranked them 19th.

Key Additions: SS Bob Sanders, ILB Takeo Spikes, WR Laurent Robinson, 1st round pick DE Corey Liuget, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky

Key Loses: D-coordinator Ron Rivera, RB Darren Sproles, ILB Kevin Burnett, ILB Brandon Siler, WRs Legedu Naanee and Craig Davis

Main question: Is this the year of Phillip Rivers?

Last year, I dumbly predicted that San Diego would race out to a 6-0 record against an easy schedule, and then collapse to 11-5. Instead, they started 2-5, then won 7 of their next 9 to fall just short of a playoff birth. Of those 5 early losses, at least three of them could fairly be blamed on special teams. The Chargers had 4 punts blocked and gave up 4 return TDs, causing many folks to say they had the worst special teams in NFL history. Their kick coverage team essentially cost Phillip Rivers a playoff birth.

Rivers certainly earned his spot in the postseason, with a blistering 101.8 QB rating last season, featuring the league’s best YPA, something he’s done in three straight seasons. The fact is, with all the talk about Cutler and Stafford and Flacco and their “big arms,” nobody throws a better deep ball than Phillip Rivers. Nobody is even close.

With Vincent Jackson holding out for 10 weeks and Gates being hurt for 6 games (plus another 5 games that he played injured), Rivers put up the second best passing numbers in the league with Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee as his primary targets, not to mention the immortal Seyi Ajirotutu. This year, Rivers gets his top two targets fully healthy, and also the Pro Bowl left tackle who missed 6 games holding out in 2010, AND the promising young running back who missed most of last season too.

No offense was more ravaged with injuries and holdouts than the Chargers, and yet Rivers led them to the #2 passing offense in football. Is there any reason to think Rivers WON’T win the MVP in 2011?

A lot of folks, particularly in fantasy circles, hate Ryan Matthews. The Fresno State product did nothing in his rookie season, other than hurt his ankle and get outshined by Mike Tolbert. But this dude is an all-around stud with a multi-faceted game, and it’s too soon to give up on him. He doesn’t have CJ-type speed and he won’t catch more than 30 passes, but he can do the job on 1st and 2nd down, and that’s all you need on a pass-first team. He’ll have a good enough season to keep defenses honest.

I’m really high on both V-Jack and Gates this year, expecting 1,000 yards and 10 TDs from both. Rivers was picked to win the MVP by 3 of the 12 leading experts at ESPN, including the all-knowing Adam Schefter, and that’s good enough for me. Mike Greenberg also picked Rivers, which is probably a bad omen. But I was leaning towards picking him too, even before I saw Schefty’s prediction. So it’s official: Rivers is my MVP pick for 2011.

Looking at the defense, it’s insane that they ranked #1 overall last year, ahead of Pittsburgh and Green Bay. But everyone pretty much knows it’s insane, so much so that the Chargers defense has somehow become underrated, despite giving up a league-low 271 yards of offense per game.

As I alluded to earlier, they were able to do that thanks to games against dreadful quarterbacks. They played Jason Campbell twice, Matt Cassel twice, Orton, Tebow, Garrard, Palmer, Hasselbeck, Bradford, Max Hall, Alex Smith, and Vince Young. In other words, they got to play the NFC West and their own sad division. So it would be expected that this year they’d face a long list of elite signal-callers. But not so.

They get Sanchez, Cutler, Henne, Fitzpatrick, McNabb, Garrard, and six games against the crappy QBs in their own division. In fact, Matt Stafford might be the fourth best quarterback they face all season. Talk about incredible luck.

With four new starters and a new coordinator, it’s plausible that the defense could completely stink this year, but I doubt it. They lost ILBs Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler, but the biggest loss was coordinator Ron Rivera, who is now coaching Carolina. They brought in another 3-4 coordinator, Greg Manusky, who brought linebacker Takeo Spikes along with him from San Francisco. Spikes is 34, but still has a good year or two left in him.

The cornerbacks, Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, played exceptionally well last year against 13 crappy quarterbacks. Safety Eric Weddle was also great, but with a new $50 million contract he might not be quite as good this year. Often-injured safety Bob Sanders joins the secondary for five or six plays until his inevitable injury.

The D-line was not flashy but extremely stout against the run last year, despite facing the league’s #1 and #2 rushing offenses two times each. Nosetackle Antonio Garay had a great 2010 season under the radar, and adding Corey Liuget to play DE is an improvement over Jacques Cesarie. There’s no way San Diego’s defense ranks #1 overall again, but with the easy schedule, they might be top 5.

It seems a little cliché and obvious, but I’m really high on the Chargers this year. They remind me of the 2009 Saints – elite quarterback who hasn’t had his big playoff run yet. Rivers may actually be better than Brees and Rodgers, but until he gets a ring nobody will acknowledge him as such. I’m thinking this is his year. Chargers go 14-2.

San Francisco 49ers:
2010 season: 6-10
My 2010 prediction was: 9-7

24th in total offense; 18th passing offense; 19th rushing offense
13th in total defense; 24th in passing defense; 6th in rushing defense

*Key stat – San Fran went 4-2 against their own division, and 2-0 against the AFC West’s crappy teams. Against actual teams, they went 0-8.

Key Additions: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, D-Coordinator Vin Fangio, CB Carlos Rogers, WR Braylon Edwards, C Jonathan Goodwin, FS Madieu Williams, SS Donte Whitner, K David Akers, 1st round pick DE Aldon Smith, 2nd round pick QB Colin Kaepernick

Key Loses: Coach Mike Singletary, D-coordinator Greg Manusky, ILB Takeo Spikes, C Eric Heitmann, C David Baas, NT Aubrayo Franklin, OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, QBs Troy Smith and David Carr, K Joe Nedney

Key Non-Addition-Non-Loss: QB Alex Smith, who is still with the Niners six years after being picked #1 overall. In his epic career, he’s made 54 starts, throwing 51 TDs and 53 picks for a 72.1 rating. Amazingly, last season was the best season of his career, and he was still benched for Troy Smith on three different occasions.

Main question: How soon does Kaepernick get to play?

Last year, San Fran duped everyone into believing they were real. I picked them to win the division, Mike Greenberg put them in the Super Bowl, and they began the year 0-5. It was deceiving because their assembly of skill position players (Gore, Crabtree, Davis) was impressive on paper, but they lacked a competent quarterback to run the offense. And the defense always seems better than it really is because of Patrick Willis, the best linebacker in football. But his supporting cast stinks on an annual basis, and it’ll be even worse this year.

Bringing in Harbaugh was the best thing San Fran could have done, simply because he might be able to squeeze some production from Alex Smith, at least until Kaepernick is ready to play. Harbaugh is an unquestioned offensive genius, but he’s got the rare task of coaching an inferior quarterback despite making the jump from the NCAA to the NFL.

With Frank Gore’s constant injuries and Michael Crabtree’s assholeishness, it wouldn’t shock me if San Fran struggles offensively and Kaepernick, who may be the second-fastest QB in the NFL behind Vick, gets to play earlier than expected. He’s got bust-potential written all over him, as his primary weaknesses are accuracy and ability to understand defenses. He played inferior competition in college, and consequently put up insane numbers both passing and rushing. He’s got a little bit of Tebow in him, a little bit of Vince Young, but he’s also got a cannon arm. A very unique prospect, definitely raw, but will be fun to watch when he gets his chance.

The best thing going for San Fran’s offense is continuity on the offensive line. Last year they battled with injuries and started 2 rookies. This year, 4 starters return, LT Joe Staley is healthy, and the starting center Baas was replaced by an equal player in Goodwin. If it wasn’t for the quarterback position, this could be a great offense.

Defensively, you know all about Patrick Willis, the tackling machine who single-handedly makes the Niners a top-5 defense against the run. He’s basically the LB equivalent to what Nnamdi does as a CB. But just like Nnamdi when he was on Oakland, Willis has a barebones supporting cast. Making matters much worse, 3 of his 4 best defensive teammates were lost in free agency.

San Fran couldn’t afford to retain CB Nate Clements, and lost him to the Bengals. Run-stuffing nosetackle Aubrayo Franklin was also a cap casualty, going to New Orleans. Neither of those players were adequately replaced, although CB Carlos Rogers was a decent attempt. The D-line was left in shambles, with last year’s backup, Isaac Sopoaga, the only option at nosetackle. Defensive end Justin Smith is the second best player on this defense, behind Willis of course. He’s good for 7 or 8 sacks a year, nothing special.

The OLBs lost a quality starter in Manny Lawson and replaced him with rookie Aldon Smith, who needs to adjust from the 4-3 he played in college. He’ll probably play only situational passing downs for the first several weeks of the season, leaving Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson as the starting OLBs. Bleak.

Willis also lost fellow ILB Takeo Spikes, and Navorro Bowman will occupy that starting position. Bowman was a third-round pick from Penn State two years ago and might be decent, but no where near as good as Spikes.

Any time a defense loses 3 of its 5 best players and their coordinator, they are in trouble. It doesn’t matter if they have Patrick Willis.

Fortunately, San Fran does get to play 6 games against their own division again. This might be a curse in disguise, because they’ll probably win too many games to have a chance at a top 5 pick. Although, if Kaepernick is the real deal, that will be okay. Other than 4 tough games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly and Dallas, the 49ers have a favorable schedule. I see them overachieving a little in Harbaugh’s first season, and going 7-9; Alex Smith goes 4-5 as a starter and Kaepernick goes 3-4, with his first start coming week 11, at home, against Arizona.

Seattle Seahawks:
2010 Season: 7-9
My 2010 prediction was: 7-9

28th in total offense; 19th passing offense; 31st rushing offense
27th in total defense; 27th in passing defense; 21st in rushing defense

*Key stat – It’s obvious that Seattle was the worst playoff team in NFL history; they were horrendous in every area and only won 7 games because of 4 wins against their terrible division. But the most telling stat: they were outscored by 97 points last year, making them the fifth-worst team in the NFL by point differential.

Key Additions: QB Tavaris Jackson, WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, G Robert Gallery, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, DT Alan Branch, 1st round pick OT OT James Carpenter, 3rd round pick OG John Moffitt, O-Coordinator Darrell Bevell, Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable

Key Loses: ILB Lofa Tatupa, QB Matt Hasselbeck, G Stacy Andrews, C Chris Spencer, OLB Will Herring, S Jordan Babineaux, O-Coordinator Jeremy Bates

Main question: Tavaris Jackson??? Really???

Seattle was horrendous last year, winning the dreadful NFC West by default, stumbling drunkenly into the playoffs, and then winning perhaps the luckiest and dumbest game in postseason history. The fact that they got a home game against New Orleans was an utter sham, but the Saints still should have won. It messed up the entire postseason, allowing the Bears a free pass to the NFC Championship, and a home game which could have let the undeserving Bears sneak into the Super Bowl. Thankfully, the Packers were in can’t-be-stopped mode.

Either way, Seattle has absolutely zero chance of being in the playoffs again this year, for several reasons.

Firstly, they made their team a million times worse during the summer, losing their best defender (Tatupa) and their starting QB (Hasselbeck). They brought in the calamitous Tavaris Jackson for no logical reason and made him the starting quarterback, and spent upwards of $80 million to give him a TE and WR to throw to. Great idea, except Tavaris sucks at throwing.

The offensive line is being ‘restructured,’ to put it nicely, with rookie starters at RT and RG, and a new LG who was horrible in Oakland. Their best O-lineman is LT Russell Okung, a 2nd-year player. Marshawn Lynch also stinks, as does Justin Forsett, so don't expect squat from the running game.

But perhaps the worst part of Seattle’s offseason wasn’t what they did as much as what the rest of the NFC West did instead. Arizona got a competent quarterback; San Fran got a competent coach; and St. Louis simply retained their stud-in-the-making quarterback. It’s safe to say the rest of the division improved, while Seattle got a heck of a lot worse.

Defensively, the ‘Hawks didn’t add any starting players, but lost a few. Tatupa is a major loss not only because they lost their best tackler, but also the veteran leader of the defense. He was cut simply for contractual reasons. He’s still a free agent, and will soon be forced to settle for less money than he hoped for.

Aaron Curry, taken 3rd overall in 2009, has been a disappointment so far, looking confused and being generally despised by Seattle’s faithful. The rest of the linebackers are respectable, as is the defensive line, but the secondary is horrible yet again, making no changes from last year. There’s no reason to think they’ll improve in any way defensively.

Last year, Seattle took advantage of their inept division and also beat hapless Carolina, despicably stealing a playoff berth from 10-6 Tampa and 10-6 New York. This year, their division is slightly improved (still the worst division by far, largely because of them), and they have a first-place schedule, meaning bonus games against Atlanta and Chicago, plus the AFC North and NFC East. They have a few games on the schedule that appear winnable, but remember, Tavaris Jackson is their starting quarterback. I’m calling for a 4-12 year.

Sidenote: USC’s quarterback Matt Barkley is considered a top-5 pick next year, probably the consolation prize for whoever doesn’t get Andrew Luck. Pete Carroll recruited and coached Barkley at USC. Party because I believe in conspiracy theories, but moreso because I believe in the scumminess of Pete Carroll, I honestly think Seattle is tanking this season to land Barkley. Either that, or they are managed by a bunch of complete retards.

St. Louis Rams:
2010 season: 7-9
My 2010 prediction was: 7-9

26th in total offense; 21st passing offense; 25th rushing offense
19th in total defense; 19th in passing defense; 17th in rushing defense

*Key stat – The Rams had 25 sacks in 2009, ranking 30th. Last year, in Steve Spagnuolo’s debut year as head coach, they improved to 43 sacks, ranking 7th.

Key Additions: OC Josh McDaniels, 1st round pick DE Robert Quinn, G Harvey Dahl, RB Cadillac Williams, WR Mike Sims-Walker, OLB Ben Leber, CB Al Harris, S Quintin Mikell, OLB Zach Diles, DT Justin Bannan

Key Loses: S O.J. Atogwe, WRs Mark Clayton and Laurent Robinson, O-Coordinator Pat Shurmur

Main question: Can they emerge from the burning rubble of the NFC West and become a legitimate pro football team?

Last year, the two worst coaches in the NFL were probably Wade Phillips and Josh McDaniels. This year, both are expected to be highly successful coordinators. This seems nutty, but I guess it makes sense. Look at Detroit’s former coaches: Mornhinweg and Marinelli are the two most worthless head coaches in the history of the world, and both transitioned into successful coordinators. Josh McDaniels always puts up ridiculous passing numbers no matter where he goes (granted, having Tom Brady helped), but expectations are high for Sam Bradford and the offense. I don’t trust McDaniels with all my heart … after all, he did draft Tim Tebow … but I do think Bradford will have a great season, and McDaniels will probably redeem himself.

I loved Spagnuolo as a D-Coordinator back when the Giants won the Super Bowl, and knew he would improve the Rams lethargic defense last year. But I didn’t expect him to bring them up from 29th to 19th without any improvements on the field. He got amazing production from DEs James Hall and Chris Long, and now has a super-talented DE in Robert Quinn to work with, along with huge upgrades at DT and safety. Justin Bannan is an elite run-stuffer, and joins another one in Fred Robbins. If Quinn lives up to his draft selection, the Rams could quickly have the best D-line in the NFC.

The back seven is led by James Laurinaitis, a budding star at MLB. The secondary is average, although Mikell is an upgrade at safety. The outside linebackers were adequate last year, and Leber and Diles are both slight upgrades. If the defense was a 70 out of 100 last year, it’s at least a 78 this year. They’ll rack up another 40+ sacks and torment quarterbacks while being stout against the run.

I have no idea which receivers will star, or even start, in the pass-heavy Rams offense. I sort of like Amendola in PPR leagues, and I suppose Sims-Walker will lead the team in yards. I’m not counting out Danario Alexendar either. I’ve always had an irrational love affair with the Rams, even when they went 6-42 from 2007 to 2009. This year, I think it’s finally warranted.

Oh, I forgot to mention, Harvey Dahl is an elite LG, maybe the best in the league, and he might have been the best under-the-radar acquisition of the summer. And the Rams still have that Steven Jackson guy, so they should be able to run the ball a little bit, if they want.

As much as I want to love the Rams, though, you can’t ignore the start of their treacherous schedule: 6 of the first 7 games are against Philly, Baltimore, NY Giants, Dallas, Green Bay, and New Orleans. That’s nasty. They’ll be extremely lucky to be 3-4 heading into week 8, and if they are, it’ll be good news, because the next 7 games are against crappy teams. Then they get Pittsburgh week 16, and finish the year at home against San Fran in what could be a division-deciding game.

But I have a feeling it’ll be over before that. I’ve got Arizona at 7-9, San Fran at 7-9, and Seattle at 4-12 … so St. Louis will win the division easily with a 10-6 record.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Last year: 10-6
My 2010 prediction was: 4-12

19th in total offense; 17th in passing offense; 8th in rushing offense
17th in total defense; 7th in passing defense; 28th in rushing defense

*Key stat: Josh Freeman had the second best attempt/INT ratio in the league, behind only Tom Brady.

Key Addition: 1st round pick DE Adrian Clayborn, 2nd round pick DE DaQuan Bowers

Key Loses: ILB Barrett Rudd, RB Cadillac Williams

In the 2009 draft, Matt Stafford was taken first, and Josh Freeman was taken 17th overall. Stafford got a six-year deal worth $78 million, while Freeman got five years and $26 million. To date, it's not even a question which quarterback is better. If you asked all 32 GMs to start a franchise with either Stafford or Freeman as their franchise quarterback, 30 would take Tampa's QB, while the Lions would stubbornly stick with Stafford. Al Davis would probably abstain.

Stafford might have a slightly stronger arm, but Freeman is superior in every other way. While Stafford was partying, drinking, cruising the Carribbean in his yacht and maybe lifting weights a little on the side ... Freeman was organizing team practices, assemblying playbooks, working out with his receivers, and studying gamefilm. One guy cares about winning because it's his job, and the other cares about winning because it's his life.

Anyhow, I've loved Freeman unabashedly for the last 12 months or so, and watched him improve steadily through the 2010 season. Over the last 4 games, Freeman was at his best, throwing a dazzling completion percentage of 71.6 in that span. The Bucs only missed the playoffs because they share a division with the Saints and Falcons. Bad luck. They were also decimated by injuries defensively.

With Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Kellen Winslow and LeGarette Blount, Freeman has an elite arsenal of weapons at his disposal, all under the age of 28. The O-line is also young, and played pretty well last year, allowing only 30 sacks (10th fewest) and paving the way for a 4.6 YPC average, 6th best in the league. The offense retains all 11 starters this year and all their coaches, which will be huge in the lockout-shortened season.

The defense struggled at times last year, as their best player missed 14 games with a drug-related suspension. He'll rejoin the team for week 3. That's safety Tanard Jackson, by the way. Stud cornerback Aqib Talib also had plenty of trouble, nearly going to prison for assault, and missing 5 games with a hamstring injury. He'll be fine this year, at least until his trial in March, which might effectively end his career. At least Tampa gets him for this year.

Rookie DT Gerald McCoy wasn't as good as Ndamukong Suh, but he wasn't as bad as I suspected he might be. He's not the pass-rushing tsunami of pain that Suh is, but he can stuff the run just as well. Tampa's biggest weakness on defense was the pass rush, but they spent their first 2 picks on DEs who might both start immediately. DaQuan Bowers will be the steal of the draft if his knees hold up. That will definitely be a story to watch this year.

This big news this morning is that Peyton Manning will miss week 1, and reportedly the first 4-5 games of the season. Tampa gets Indy at home week 4, so they'll be crossing their fingers, hoping for an easy win. Their schedule is tough, but the two games against Carolina help, and they'll be competitive in the other 4 ultra-important division games. I really wish Detroit didn't play them week one.

Call me crazy, but I've got them winning the NFC South at 11-5.

Tennessee Titans:

With just two teams left, I'm going to kick it into warp speed.

The Titans lost their two best defenders (Tulloch and Babin) and have a new head coach, but they smarly added Hasselbeck to play while Locker gets ready. Rudd was a good move at MLB, Ayers was a good find in the 2nd round. The drama surrounding Chris Johnson's contract was obnoxious, but they did the right thing keeping their best player. Without him the offense would have been doomed. Even with him, they'll be iffy. The tackles are pretty good, but the interior of the line stinks. Kenny Britt is a good WR#1, but a headache at times. Hasselbeck is a shell of his former self. The defense is going to be one of the league's worst. The schedule is pretty kind. I'll say 5-11.

Washington Redskins:

A few months ago I predicted they would get the #1 pick in 2011, thanks to Shanahan's brainless decision to make Rex Grossman his starting quarterback. I'm sticking with that prediction, no matter how good Grossman looks in the preseason.

This entire team is a trainwreck. The RBs and WRs are terrible, the O-line is worse-than-average, and the quarterback carousel of Grossman and John Beck is just embarassing. The defense is even worse, as Shanny imposed the 3-4 scheme onto personnel who did not fit it. As a result, his two best D-linemen left town. But as usual, Daniel Snyder spent a ton of money this offseason, getting DT Barry Coefield and safety O.J. Atogwe to improve the defense. On paper, those are solid moves. But the defense isn't going to be much better than it was last year when it ranked 31st.

They've got the NFC West and Carolina/Miami/Buffalo on the docket, but I don't care. I'm still making them 2-14.

So there you have it, 32 predictions for 32 teams. Here is the recap.

Miami 2-14
Buffalo 8-8
New England 13-3
NY Jets 10-6

Baltimore 11-5
Cleveland 8-8
Cincinnati 5-11
Pittsburgh 11-5

Indy 9-7
Houston 12-4
Jacksonville 3-13
Tennessee 5-11

Denver 5-11
Kansas City 8-8
San Diego 14-2
Oakland 3-13

Philly 14-2
Dallas 9-7
NY Giants 7-9
Washington 2-14

Green Bay 14-2
Detroit 8-8
Chicago 5-11
Minnesota 8-8

Atlanta 9-7
New Orleans 10-6
Tampa 11-5
Carolina 2-14

San Fran 7-9
St. Louis 10-6
Seattle 4-12
Arizona 7-9

A few quick edits:
*Because Manning is expected to miss 4-5 games, I'm going to have to knock the Colts down to 7-9, and I'll balance that out by making Pittsburgh 12-4 and giving Carolina 3-13 instead of 2-14.

Playoff Picks:


BYE New England (13-3)
BYE San Diego (14-2)

Houston (12-4) over Baltimore (11-5)
Pittsburgh (12-4) over NY Jets (10-6)

San Diego over Pittsburgh
New England over Houston

San Diego over New England


BYE Green Bay (14-2)
BYE Philly (14-2)

New Orleans (10-6) over St. Louis (10-6)
Dallas (9-7) over Tampa (11-5)

New Orleans over Philly
Green Bay over Dallas

New Orleans over Green Bay

Super Bowl

New Orleans over San Diego , 35-27
Super Bowl MVP - Drew Brees, 24-33, 315 yards, 4 TDs

Season Awards:

MVP - Phillip Rivers, 35 TDs, 7 INTs, 4,900 yards, 14 wins
D-MVP - Mario Williams, 19 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 TDs
Offensive ROY - Mark Ingram, for lack of a better option; 1,100 yards and 7 TDs Defensive ROY - Tough call, but I'll go with Von Miller; 11 sacks, 95 tackles

Coach of the Year - Mike McCarthy, because the Packers go 14-2 and make it look easy

What other awards are there ...?

Comeback Player - Tony Romo
First Coach Fired - I'll say Jack Del Rio
Most Annoying Storyline: Peyton's neck

Top 5 picks in the 2012 Draft:

Washington (2-14) - Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Miami (2-14) - Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Jacksonville (3-13) - Quinton Couples, OLB, UNC
Oakland (3-13) - Matt Kalil, LT, USC
Carolina (3-13) - Ashlon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina

That's all I got for now. Going to start the week one picks, first game of the year in two days!!

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