I’m late; I’m late for a very important date. The opening week of the National Football League has come and gone, and I haven’t screamed my all-important predictions to the world. But better late than never, as I tell my employers. So here are my predictions, in all of their glory, for each division, both conference titles and the mighty Super Bowl.
1st – Houston Texans: This year is the Texans’ year. A lot like 2010 was supposed to be… Except this time it has got to happen. All of the stars have aligned just right; their offense is banging on all cylinders, Wade Philips has come in to right the ship on defense, and the division rival Indianapolis Colts are hapless without Payton Manning. If Houston can’t win the division this year (or at least make the playoffs), I sense conspiracy.
2nd – Indianapolis Colts: No QB Payton Manning, no playoffs. I don’t think I need to say any more.
3rd – Jacksonville Jaguars: This is just where they belong, no matter the year. The Jaguars epitomize average and mediocre. I think Coach Jack del Rio would be completely befuddled if his team ever performed above expectations. Third place is cozy for them, like a mother’s womb.
4th – Tennessee Titans: There are too many question marks looming over the Titans. And new (but old) QB Matt Hasselback is probably not the answer.
1st – New England Patriots: It’s Coach Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. Should I have to say anything else? They’re always bound to be competitive, and this year is no different. Except that “competitive” is an understatement. The Pats look as cool as the other side of the pillow in their opening weeks, and Tom Brady is still the league’s best QB. God, I wish I had his hair.
2nd – New York Jets: The Jets have made the AFC Championship game two years running now (losing both times). Is a third straight year conceivable? Probably not. The only thing that really might have grown this offseason is the organization’s, and Coach Rex Ryan’s, ego.
3rd – Buffalo Bills: Don’t pull out the early 90s banners just yet, Buffalo fans, but this team just may be on its way out of the dungeons of the NFL. I like QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Fred Jackson, WR Stevie Johnson and the team’s improved defense.
4th – Miami Dolphins: There are too many unanswered questions about the Miami Dolphins. And I don’t like Coach Tony Sparano’s mustache. That guy is connected to the Mob somehow. Just listen to that name: Spa-rano.
1st – San Diego Chargers: Admittedly, I have had some weird grudge against QB Philip Rivers since his early years, but there is just no doubting the Chargers. They were ranked first in total offense and in defense last year. But they didn’t make the playoffs? Especially in a division like the AFC West, expect the Chargers to go far. Damn you, Philip Rivers…
2nd – Oakland Raiders: I don’t like this pick, mainly because I don’t like cheating thugs. Oops, I let that slip. I meant to say that I’m sure the Raiders organization has cleaned up over the years and is poised for a decent 2010-2011 season. Their run game and defensive line is solid, and the other two options in AFC West are the reeling Kansas City Chiefs and the rebuilding Denver Broncos. So, second place it is.
3rd – Denver Broncos: Maybe this is a little bold predicting the Broncos over the Chiefs. Maybe I’m just a little sentimental about the Broncos team I grew up adoring. But I think what John Fox is doing in Denver has potential, and it should at least earn them a couple more wins than last year. QB Kyle Orton, don’t screw this up for me.
4th – Kansas City Chiefs: A tougher schedule than last year and key losses make 2011 a year to forget for the Chiefs. But cheer up, Kansas City. Being a Minnesota sports fan, I can tell you that you get used to hindsight after a while.
1st – Baltimore Ravens: It’s not that I’m the biggest Baltimore fan you’ll meet, but I have a serious sports crush on the Ravens. QB Joe Flacco has weapons galore at his disposal this year, including the ever-dependable RB Ray Rice. And that defense? Old, shmold. Ray Lewis and co. can still get the job done. If you need evidence, look to the week one dismantling of division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Just don’t look at the week two loss to the Tennessee Titans.
2nd – Pittsburgh Steelers: They’re good, no doubt. But if you need evidence as to why they’ll finish second this year, look to week one—not week two, because that week doesn’t make sense. It was always bound to be close between the Ravens and Steelers (they are nearly mirror images of each other), and the week one meeting between them was bound to go a long way in deciding who takes the division and who settles for a wild card spot. The loss makes the Steelers my favorites to come in second.
3rd – Cleveland Browns: This was a difficult pick to make. With both the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, there are some bright spots in the darkness, but nothing that’s enough to get either team past 3rd or 4th place. Even after the Bengals beat the Browns in week one, it’s a coin toss as to who will finish where. They both stink pretty equally.
4th – Cincinnati Bengals: Refer to above statement, paying particular attention to the last sentence.
1st – New Orleans Saints: On paper, at least, this team is loaded to the rafters with talent. Just think about the offensive additions of PR/RB Darren Sproles and RB Mark Ingram (who could easily be Offensive Rookie of the Year). New Orleans is bound for great things this year.
2nd – Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have that explosiveness they lacked on offense last year, but I don’t see it consistently matching New Orleans. They are, after all, a run-first, traditional-style team. You shouldn’t fight nature. And until proven otherwise, second place is where they belong; although, I see a wild card spot in their playoff future.
3rd – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I like QB Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they’re still just slightly older than most Pee-Wee league teams. Third place is where they’ll land this year, but the future looks bright for the young Bucs.
4th – Carolina Panthers: Ditto for the Carolina Panthers. And doubters beware of QB Cam Newton, who looked like a star in his opening week with Carolina. The Panthers will end up in last this year, but they’ll do it in style.
1st – Philadelphia Eagles: On paper, the Eagles and QB Michael Vick should run this division like an underground dog-fighting ring. Don’t expect them to be quite the “Dream Team” some billed them to be, but do expect them to be one of the NFC teams to beat—a Super Bowl run for them is a very real possibility.
2nd – Dallas Cowboys: (Shaking my head angrily…) I hate this. But Coach Jason Garrett and Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan ought to be able to make this year’s Cowboys a competitive group. And considering QB Tony Romo stays healthy and consistent, the Cowboys could easily find themselves clinching a wild card spot in the playoffs. Those words tasted terrible on my tongue.
3rd – New York Giants: I feel uncomfortable making this pick, like an overnight at grandma’s house. On paper, the New York Giants should be competing for a wild card spot, but they started the team-imploding early this season. Bad news: things are looking shady for the Giants. Good news: it’s too early in the season to send them to the chopping block. Now would be a good time to pretend you really are a top-ten ranked quarterback, Eli Manning.
4th – Washington Redskins: And I feel bad making this pick. Coach Mike Shanahan has done a lot to shore up the Redskins’s defense and keep the offense efficient. (Is that really QB Rex Grossman?) They’re getting better in the Shanahan-era. But unfortunately, “better” won’t be enough in a highly competitive NFC East.
1st – Arizona Cardinals: In a division where no one had an above-.500 record last year, it’s probably anyone’s guess who wins it. The Cardinals are my best prediction, based on schedule difficulty (well, mainly schedule difficulty) and team improvement, but the St. Louis Rams or San Francisco 49ers could easily prove me wrong. Still, with St. Louis facing a tougher schedule and Arizona having offensive potential with QB Kevin Kolb and co., I think the Cardinals could barely pull out a division championship. Barely.
2nd – St. Louis Rams: Then again, it’s just as likely that the St. Louis Rams will build on a surprisingly good 2010 season and take the title. Sam Bradford is quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s brightest young quarterbacks, and he has offensive weapons to compliment him. It will all depend on how well the Rams deal with the pressure of expectation and how well they perform in the midst of a potentially difficult schedule. But the Rams have to feel good when they consider which division they’re in. Even the Concordia Cobbers could have a shot at that division title.
3rd – San Francisco 49ers: Don’t expect the 49ers to win the division. Actually, don’t have any expectations for the 49ers. Everything for them will ride on how QB Alex Smith performs, and that’s not always a promising prospect.
4th – Seattle Seahawks: When I said it was anyone’s guess who wins the division that didn’t include the Seahawks. Yes, they won the division last year (their record was 7-9, mind you) but with Tarvaris Jackson as the new quarterback, they shouldn’t hold their breath. (We did it, Minnesota! We tricked someone into taking T-Jack!) It’s a young team, and this year is shaping up to be even more of a transition phase than last year was. At least, one can only hope QB Tarvaris Jackson is a phase. Don’t worry, Seattle. You’ll outgrow it.
1st – Green Bay Packers: I don’t want to talk about it.
2nd – Chicago Bears: I don’t want to talk about it.
3rd – Detroit Lions: I don’t want to talk about it.
4th – Minnesota Vikings: I really don’t want to talk about it.
New England Patriots: Before week one, I liked a New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Championship game. Now, I think I’ll replace the Steelers with the Ravens.
Green Bay Packers: Like any self-respecting Minnesotan, I vehemently oppose the Cheese-heads. But there’s just no doubting that they’re juggernauts on both sides of the ball. The worst part is they’re still young and growing… which means that folks had best get used to seeing this sort of prediction. (I think I just threw up a little.) I’ve got the Packers over the Saints in a week one rematch, with similar results.
Super Bowl Champions
Drum roll please… New England Patriots: I can hear the groans now. I know, every year for the past decade someone seems to predict the Pats as Super Bowl champions. But there’s a reason for that. And until proven wrong, Tom Brady is still the league’s best quarterback; Bill Belichick is still a coach extraordinaire; and the New England offense still matches-up well against the Green Bay defense. Or anyone’s defense, really. So, as long as the Patriots’ offense keeps operating like a well-oiled machine, and key members of defense like Albert Haynesworth (the 2006-2008 edition) show up, you can start making those cool post-game t-shirts.