Thank god that lockout is over, eh? Let the title defence begin!
AFC West: San Diego, Kansas City, Denver, Oakland
The lockout and subsequent lack of regular offseason training camps will make this season even harder to predict than most. It's possible we could see a maelstrom of injuries since players haven't been properly worked into shape….or, we could see fewer injuries, since players are fresher from not going through all those meaningless drills. The lack of prep time could hurt teams with new coaches or quarterbacks….or it could hurt veteran, system-heavy teams who needed the extra prep time to fully get their routine in place. This is my long-winded way of predicting the Chargers are going to end up being a darkhorse contender since they're kind of halfway between the two camps. The coaching staff is still in place so there isn't a lot of new stuff to learn, but it's also not like Norv Turner's system and strategies are all that complex. San Diego could be that perfect middle ground team to avoid some of these lockout-related issues. And hey, the Chargers are notorious for their slow starts, so perhaps a change in the preseason routine is just what they need to avoid another 1-3 record in September.
The Chargers are the clear favourites in this pretty weak division. Kansas City got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth last year and since their coaches have an inexplicable disdain for playing Jamaal Charles (maybe the best RB in the league) more than half the time, it's hard to see them holding serve as division champions. Denver gave its coaching staff a much-needed flush but it will take John Fox at least a year to start digging the team out of Josh McDaniels' mess. The Raiders are the Raiders, firing a coach who'd actually started to get them on the right track and Nnamdi Asomugha is gone too. It is a sad time to live in Oakland….well, it's always kind of a sad time to live in Oakland, but now especially.
AFC East: New England, New York*, Buffalo, Miami
As an old-school football coach, my dad pretty much loves everything about how the Patriots do business. As an old-school football coach, my dad hates diva players like Chad Ochocinco. Ergo, Ochocinco playing for the Pats this year is going to be an interesting experience. I predict it'll take until Week Four for my father to start saying things like, "You know, Ochocinco isn't that bad a player. That Belichick sure got his head on straight!" Anyway, the Patriots are fine, they'll likely win the division again. The Jets will lose just enough games to keep them from a division title since they're specifically built to challenge only the Patriots, Steelers, Manning-led Colts, Chargers and Ravens --- against the rank-and-file of the NFL, they struggle. The Bills will go 6-10 with at least three of those losses being complete heartbreakers. And let's talk a moment about the Miami Dolphins, who are going to SUCK this year. Woo boy, this team has 3-13 written all over them. Their new owner, Stephen "New Dan Snyder!" Ross, will have an excuse to bring in the big-name coach he's always wanted, leaving poor Tony Sparano to fall back on his residuals from Reno 911.
AFC South: Houston, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Jacksonville
After all these years of talking about how Peyton Manning is overrated, I'm finally proven right. Big bad Peyton can't play because of a teeny-tiny little….uh, neck injury. Awww, poor widdle Peyton bear, does he need his mommy to kiss it and make the….er, serious neck problem that may require a third surgical procedure…all better? What a wimp! Anyway, Manning's injury does a couple of things. Firstly, Brett Favre's streak of consecutive quarterback starts is now possibly the most unbreakable record in sports. Secondly, the Colts are now terrible. Manning carried this sorry group for years and now Kerry Collins is supposed to do the same? Good luck. Indianapolis' stretch of winning seasons just came to an abrupt halt.
This leaves the division wide-open for….yeah, I can't believe it, the Houston Texans to finally reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history. Look, I hate picking Houston to do something before they've actually done it, but on paper, they have the fewest flaws of any team in this division. Tennessee has a new coach, old man Hasselbeck at quarterback and Chris Johnson as a walking injury waiting to happen since he held out of training camp and is even further behind in training than everyone else. Jacksonville is still Jacksonville, who inexplicably cut David Garrard the other day despite the fact that Garrard's mediocre self was still their best QB option. It would be classic Texans if they finally get their breakthrough winning season not by their own merit, but because the rest of the AFC South just fell backwards to them. I guess Houston would've had a winning season last year had their secondary even been bad instead of horrifyingly terrible, and since they've done some upgrading to the D, what the hell, maybe they really are better.
AFC North: Pittsburgh, Baltimore*, Cincinnati, Cleveland
The only suspense here is in picking which of the Steelers and Ravens will finish first, and which of the Bengals or Browns will finish third. Neither Ohio team has a hope in hell at at top-two finish. The Steelers are too strong a franchise to get bedevilled by the Super Bowl loser curse and Baltimore still has too many (aging but dangerous) weapons to fall apart completely. Rinse, repeat in the AFC North. On the bright side, Ben Roethlisberger didn't rape anyone this summer. How could he, with Batman in town to watch his every move.
NFC West: St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Arizona
Ughhhh, this division is so lousy. All four teams are so bad that any final order of finish is possible. I'm fairly certain the Rams are the best team of the bunch so they will avoid the basement, but still, a third-place finish is very possible given their collective youth. If Kevin Kolb is actually a good quarterback, then the Cardinals suddenly shoot right back to the top of this division. If Jim Harbaugh is able to get something, for the love of god ANYTHING out of Alex Smith, it might be enough to get the 49ers over the top and into first place. If the Seahawks are somehow able to keep on keepin' on with last year's magic, since I still can't fathom how they actually won a playoff game, then what the hell, they could repeat as "division champs." (If you finish 7-9 but still win your brutal division, your achievement is forever tarred by quotation marks.)
Out of all this shit stew emerges the Rams, who may resemble a good team. Steven Jackson is still a beast. Sam Bradford is not as good as the quarterback-centric media would have to believe, but he's already pretty good and could take another step forward this year. They've added valuable Super Bowl-winning grit in the form of former Packers Al Harris and Brady Poppinga! (Ok, this may not be a major factor.) I'd probably be more down on the Rams if they were in any other division but amongst the blindness that is the NFC West, they're the one-eyed men.
NFC East: Dallas, Philadelphia*, New York, Washington
After years of mocking people for picking the overrated Cowboys to finish atop the NFC East, where I am picking the Cowboys to finish atop the NFC East. The key is this year, they're not the overrated team. That's definitely the Eagles, who will start regretting that six-year, $100 million contract to Michael Vick by around week three. Hell, even the Giants are overrated since a lot of people seem to be picking them for the playoffs despite the fact that half their defense is injured and Eli Manning is secretly a bad QB. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are getting Tony Romo back and once Jason Garrett took over last season, the team just seemed to gel a bit better. Given that the Giants are going to implode and the Redskins are starting Rex goddamn Grossman at quarterback, there's definitely room for Dallas to sneak in there and steal the division.
So, why won't Philadelphia win it? They have the most talent, they're loaded on both sides of the ball and Andy Reid (for all his game-calling faults) is a fine coach. The problem is, in a nutshell, Mike Vick. He's the most overrated player in not only the NFL, but possibly in all of pro sports. People love the idea of Mike Vick, or perhaps more accurately, they love the potential of Mike Vick. They see him have one monster game where he runs for 100 yards and throws for 400 yards and they think my god, here's the most revolutionary quarterback in the sport. The problem is, Vick is only capable of these games two or three times a season. The rest of the time, he's either hurt or tossing up interceptions. If I was Philadelphia, I would've hung onto Kolb for dear life since you can't go into a season with Michael Vick as your quarterback and expect him to play every game. (Getting Vince Young, a poor man's Vick, is not an acceptable Plan B.) Reid should be on the phone with David Garrard's agent right now trying to lock in a better backup QB for when Vick suffers his inevitable injury. The Eagles are going to make the playoffs by sheer dint of talent, but they're not going to make any serious noise with an inconsistent liability at quarterback.
NFC South: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina
A real paper-scissors-rock scenario here. I'm confident that the Panthers will come in last since their offence is still a garbage dump, but as to those other three teams, any predicted finish is possible. Maybe the Bucs will continue their progress and jump up to be champs. Maybe the Saints have recovered from the Super Bowl hangover and are recharged. Maybe the Falcons really have turned a corner as a franchise and will be a consistent contender for years to come. Those six Atlanta/Tampa/New Orleans games on the schedule will all be dogfights, no doubt about it. The Falcons are my choice but I'm not at all confident. As much as we joke about Arthur Blank looking like a 1930's department store owner, those guys had a rough go of it. You had the Depression, crime, and being made to look like fools by everyone from the Three Stooges to W.C. Fields. There's a lot of bad karma attached to the 1930's department store owner look. Blank should watch out.
NFC North: Your Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, Minnesota*, Detroit, Chicago
Detroit Lions, I love ya and I'm more scared of you than any other team in this division, but you're this year's trendy preseason selection that fails to live up to the hype. They're going to make things interesting, no question, but I think 8-8 is their ceiling for 2011. In 2012, I'll start to get really worried, especially if Matt Stafford is actually capable of staying healthy for a full year and, y'know, is actually good. The Bears were arguably the worst and/or luckiest 13-3 team in football history last year and they'll plummet back to earth with a sickening thud. The only question for Chicago this year is how quickly it will take the fans to turn on Jay "Morrissey" Cutler. With these two down, it's up to the Minnesota Vikings to make the surprise turn-around and get back into the playoffs. This team has notable offensive and defensive line issues but hey, there's still some quality talent here. Minnesota is underrated after last year's debacle of a season when literally everything that could've gone wrong did go wrong, including their goddamn stadium collapsing in on itself in a scene that looked vaguely fake to me. (Seriously, look at it again. Doesn't the Metrodome look CGI'ed? Why did FOX have so many cameras set up at all those different angles? Are we sure FOX didn't make a quick deal with the special effects people from 'Doctor Who' to cook up this footage?) Leslie Frazier is a calming influence at head coach and while Donovan McNabb has lost a step, he won't bring the nonstop drama of a certain grizzled, cameraphone-loving Mississippian.
And then…..the champs. Green Bay had a quiet summer in free agency and I kind of wish they'd done a bit more to beef up the offensive line. But overall, this is the same team that whipped the NFL's ass from January onward last winter. If anything, the Packers should be better now that Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and various other injured stars are back and ready to go. The fact that Green Bay managed to win the Super Bowl without so many key players should make the rest of the NFL cower in fear. Getting these guys back may help stave off any post-Super Bowl complacency, since you know Grant, Finley and company are pissed about missing the party last season. Even if they weren't my favourite team, I'd still be very bullish about the Packers' chances at repeating.
Cowboys over Vikings
Eagles over Rams
Chargers over Ravens
Jets over Texans
Packers over Eagles
Falcons over Cowboys
Patriots over Jets
Chargers over Steelers
Packers over Falcons
Chargers over Patriots
Super Bowl XLVI: Green Bay over San Diego
NFL Offensive Player of the Year: Philip Rivers
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: Patrick Willis
Coach of the Year: Leslie Frazier
NFL MVP: Aaron Rodgers