NFC East What a dogpit of a division. (No pun intended given that Mike Vick plays in it.) You have four good teams here that are going to beat the hell out of each other all season long, so much so that the division winner will be lucky to be better than 10-6. Of the four, I'm actually going to go ahead and pick Washington to emerge on top. I've been making hay picking against the Skins for years, but Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb will provide enough of a temporary boost to get them a playoff berth. The franchise still has too many inherent problems (coughcoughDanSnydercough) to not collapse like a house of cards within the next few years and undergo another makeover, but in the short term, they can win this division. Philadelphia has a big question mark in Kevin Kolb as their new starting QB, but Philly is deep enough to remake themselves as a defense-first team that only needs the quarterback to be a game manager. Even with McNabb, they often fell into this role anyway. Dallas has all the pieces but I just feel like this team is a disappointment waiting to happen. They have the feel of the early 2000's Maple Leafs teams --- their avid fans think they're Cup contenders and they're a big enough market to convince some national media likewise. In reality, however, it's just setback after setback. Pretty much everything went right for the Cowboys last year and they still got blown out by Minnesota in the elite eight. Bringing up the rear are the Giants, who seem like a team on the verge of a really crappy season that empties the cupboard in the offseason. In this division, it could happen quite easily; New York could finish 4-12 and not be that lousy a club.
NFC West It's a shame that maybe three NFC East teams will miss the playoffs and one of the West teams will get in. Honestly, the entire NFC was just one big 16-team mass conference, I think I'd have to go to the double digits before I got around to ranking an NFC West club. I guess I'll pick the 49ers just because they have the fewest flaws. I'm liking Patrick Willis as a defensive player of the year candidate and Alex Smith, while a terrible quarterback, is still the second best guy in the division. I'd still take Smith over the giant living question mark that is the Cardinals' quarterback situation. Kurt Warner retired to go on Dancing With The Stars, and Matt Leinart went from heir apparent to benched trade bait after an awful preseason. Now, the Cards were NFC champs two years ago and NFC semi-finalists last season, but that was almost solely based on their huge passing game. With Anquan Boldin in Baltimore and Warner tapping his toes on ABC, suddenly that passing game is just Larry Fitzgerald twisting himself like a pretzel to catch a wayward Derek Anderson pass. The Cardinals are going to be in tough. Seattle will have a mediocre positive year, not to be confused with a positively mediocre year --- they'll finish 5-11 but be frisky enough that people will think Pete Carroll has the ship turned around. Of course, after seasons of 7-9 and 6-10, Carroll will be fired again and the Seahawks will have to start over, but still, positivity! The Rams will finish last again and be slightly improved from last year, but still, that's only a bump up to around 3-13. Steven Jackson will continue to hate life.
NFC North *crosses fingers* The Packers are going to win the NFC this year. *knocks on wood* Their offense is going to be scary, their defense has (theoretically) patched some holes after being torn apart by Arizona in the playoffs last year, and they just seem to have the look of a young, hungry team that's ready to make the leap. *throws salt over shoulder* I'm worried about Charles Woodson being able to repeat his incredible 2009 season and the team's continued lack of proven offensive line depth, but still, overall, go Packers. *releases white cat to walk in front of my path* What I do feel confident in predicting this season is that Green Bay will get at least one win over the hated Minnesota Vikings, who are going to fall the hell apart. Zombie Brett Favre will finally be broken apart, or else he'll spend his last NFL season throwing frustrated interceptions past guys who aren't Percy Harvin or Sidney Rice. I will laugh the entire time. Go to hell, Zombie Brett. If all goes well, Minnesota might even finish behind Detroit, who is my surprise pick of the season. I think they're set to shock a lot of people and avoid another double-digit loss season. Jahvid Best, folks. Jahvid Best. Finishing ahead of the Vikings is probably a pipe dream, but the Lions are going to finish ahead of the rudderless Chicago Bears. Speaking of teams who will clean house in the offseason, the Bears need a total front office overhaul after several years' worth of mismatched moves. I doubt their latest offseason shopping spree (i.e. Julius Peppers) will help them since it doesn't solve the overall problem that Jay Cutler is a crappy quarterback. He ain't getting any better, folks. Emo Jay is simply not a winner. He's a poor man's Eli Manning, which is saying something. Chicago is in for a long year.
NFC South I've rarely been as fired up watching a neutral-team's Super Bowl victory as I was watching the Saints win the title last February. In fact, other than Green Bay's win in Super Bowl 31, I'd say that New Orleans' triumph was probably the happiest I've ever been due to a Super Bowl result. Part of it was because they beat the hated Colts, but really, how can you root against such a likable team from such an unlucky city? It almost seems like Bill Simmons' "five-year grace period" after a team wins a championship should be stretched to a decade for N'awlins fans can wallow in their own crapulance for a while longer. Of course, it could also continue naturally since the Saints are going to be terrific again in 2010. Some of the magic will wear off but overall, most of the core is back to defend the belt. They're going to have two big games against Atlanta, who will push them for the division title, but the Falcons seem like a 'breakout season, then sophomore slump, then continued success' team in this third year of the Mike Smith era. Those two Saints/Falcons games are going to be two of the better games on the NFL schedule. Hell, Carolina is going to add some friskiness to the division themselves now that they've finally rid themselves of the Jake Delhomme millstone and seemingly have a new breakout running back every season. I'm not sure if the Panthers have enough to overcome one of their patented 8-8 campaigns, but they'll be a solid team. Rounding out this solid division are the brutal Buccaneers. Dead last, top-five in next year's draft, guaranteed.
AFC East When last we saw the Patriots, they were getting humiliated on their home field by Baltimore in the wild card round. It was such a supreme ass-kicking that you'd think it might be cause some major turnover in New England, but here they are again, looking like the class of the NFC East. The key is that Tom Brady is fully recovered from knee surgery and should be ready to go provided that he gets the offensive line help. This might be New England's last stand as an legit Super Bowl contender, since they're just barely on the fringe of the 'real contender' category right now. I'm going to surprise some folks now by picking Miami as my runner-up in the division for many of the same reasons that I had Atlanta stepping up as a quality team in their third year under new management. Brandon Marshall is a big help for Chad Henne, and if Ronnie Brown can stay healthy, that's an overall pretty scary offense. In third place, now we finally see the New York Jets, a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick for amnesiacs who forget that this team was total crap for about the first 14 weeks of last season. A hot playoff run shouldn't obscure the fact that this team still has a lot of holes, and Revis Island's continued holdout isn't a a good sign. Take note of Atlanta and Miami, Jets fans --- this is your sophomore slump year, so look forward to 2011. The only question about Buffalo's season is whether or not they'll be the worst team in the league. What a rotten, go-nowhere club. Blergh.
AFC West Not a lot of skill out west in the NFL, eh? The NFC West is a pile of garbage, and the AFC West doesn't have much to it either. San Diego should still be a good team even minus Vincent Jackson (holdout) and the washed-up LaDainian Tomlinson, though I dunno, you'd figure that Norv Turner's shine will eventually wear off one of these seasons. The Chargers are still the best of the bunch and then it's a question about who the runner-up is. I'm taking the (very) less-traveled route and picking Oakland, yes Oakland, to finish second. Jason Campbell is no great shakes, but remember how vastly improved the Raiders looked last year when Bruce Gradkowski was behind centre? Gradkowski is about a D+ himself, but that's a big upgrade from the F-minus that JaMarcus "Precious" Russell was putting up. Since Campbell is about a C/C-Plus, that might be enough to push an underrated Raiders team up in a weak division. Kansas City is still in the building phase of creating a time machine to remake the 2003 New England Patriots, and Denver is going to be (in my opinion) terrible. Tim Tebow might actually have to be the messiah to make the Broncos a winning team. I'm calling San Diego in first, the Raiders and Chiefs separated by a hair at around 7-9 or even 8-8, and then Denver checks in at 5-11.
AFC North So yeah, Baltimore. It's their conference to lose. They have all the pieces, all the momentum, two good playoff runs in the last two years to earn some big-game reps, and now they have no excuses. If they get knocked out by the Colts AGAIN, then you can write off this era of Ravens football. I just think they'll finally take that step into the Super Bowl this season, provided of course that they find a cornerback or two of note to stand up to Indianapolis. They might not need a corner in their division since, in case you hadn't heard, Pittsburgh won't have their star QB for six games. Ben Roethlisberger, you see, is a complete slimeball. I've always had kind of a soft spot for the Steelers, but now I'm hoping that Big Ben gets drilled into the ground once he finally gets back on the field. Given that Pittsburgh's first six games are against Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Cleveland and Miami (four toughies and two virtual byes), it's not unthinkable that the Steelers could be 2-4 by the time Roethlisberger returns. That's a deep hole to be in against this Baltimore club. Some folks are thinking that even the Bengals might leap ahead of Pittsburgh in Ben's absence, but let's be real, the Bengals were a mirage. They ran an inexplicable early hot streak to go 6-0 in their division last year, but then totally ran out of gas by around Week 12 and were killed in the playoffs by New York. Adding a washed-up distraction like Terrell Owens isn't going to help things, and I doubt Cedric Benson replicates his big 2009 season. As bad as Cincy finished last year, the Browns finished well, going 4-0 and saving Eric Mangini's job. They didn't suddenly discover a magic formula for winning games, and if they did, they bought themselves a pretty crappy sorcerer's apprentice in Jake Delhomme. Cleveland's push is still a year or two away, and they'll probably need to fire Mangini first.
AFC South So by this point, we know better than to pick against Indianapolis, right? In the eight years since the AFC South has been created, Indy has finished first six times and second twice. Nuff said. Let's pencil the Colts in for another first place finish unless someone proves otherwise. (Or, unless they decide to be even bigger douchebags and take the last six games off after starting 10-0, figuring that ten wins is enough to make the playoffs.) Indy does have a couple of solid contenders, though. I'm going all-in on Houston --- they jumped to 9-7 last season and now the next step is to finally make the postseason. Schaub, Johnson, hopeful-stalwart-of-my-fantasy-team Jacoby Jones, the Foster/Slaton running back set, Mario, Cushing, Ryans, Daniels and a cast of thousands. That sounds like a playoff team to me. Tennessee is also looking pretty solid, but it's hard to tell if this schizo team is closer to the one that started 0-6 last year or the one that finished 8-2. I seem to recall the Titans putting their faith in Vince Young as a proven quarterback before and it didn't quite work out so well. You know what? I can't tell if Tennessee is in the playoffs of not. It's between them and the Dolphins for the sixth seed in my mind, and since these two play each other in Week 10, I'll let that game decide my pick. This division isn't unlike the NFC South, actually --- three good teams and one total dog from Florida. The NFC South has the Bucs, and the AFC South has the Jaguars. Jack Del Rio, start updating your resume, since your time is finally up.
NFC wild cards: Falcons, Eagles AFC wild cards: Texans, whomever wins the Dolphins/Titans game on Nov. 14
Playoffs.... *Falcons over 49ers, Redskins over Eagles Patriots over Texans, Dolphitans over Chargers *Packers over Falcons, Saints over Redskins Ravens over Dolphitans, Colts over Patriots * Packers over Saints, Ravens over Colts
Super Bowl 45.... Packers over Ravens. Now, here's the added twist to this game. Green Bay is my favourite team, Baltimore is my brother's favourite team. If this actually ends up being the real Super Bowl matchup, my brother and I are seriously considering flying to Dallas and getting scalped tickets just to see this epic in person. We will also have a wager well into the triple-figures on the outcome of the game, possibly into four figures. It may tear our sibling relationship apart, quite frankly. Sure, it isn't quite the emotional drama of a city getting over a hurricane, but still, pathos!