So, after seeing most of preseason games on the NFL Network, CBS and Fox, I feel as confident as I ever will about issuing my preseason predictions. I hereby predict that the 2011-2012 NFL Playoff picture will look like this
- Packers 13-3
- Falcons 12-4
- Eagles 11-5
- Rams 8-8
- Saints 11-5
- Lions 10-6
- Ravens 13-3
- Jets 12-4
- Texans 11-5
- Chargers 8-8
- Patriots 11-5
- Colts 10-6
The defending world champion Packers are the prohibitive favorite to repeat as the NFC North champ. They also prohibitive favorites to repeat as world champs. Most of us see the Packers the same way. This team is straight-up loaded to the gills. If they can win the Super Bowl in year as ravaged by injury and adversity as last season, what in the world will stop them this year? This is the best bet to repeat since the 1992-1993 Dallas Cowboys.
The Bears made some major mistakes in the draft and in free agency. They did nothing much to repair their dreadful offensive line. They did nothing to equip their QB with weapons. The Bears have a nasty historical tendency to be good one year and down the next. All of this adds up to the conclusion that the Bears will barely factor in the NFC North.
The Vikings may be a bit better with Donovan McNab at the helm, but I don't expect a full return to respectability. I expect them to be competitive, not dreadful, and finish 9-7.
This brings us to the Lions. Rich Eisen says the Fire Marshall has ordered people off the bandwagon due to overcrowding and safety issues. The Lions are everybody's preseason darlings. It's about time. This is a long-suffering fan base who have waited, and waited... This team is loaded everywhere except the Secondary and the OL positions. Those are both critical weaknesses. Nevertheless, I expect the Lions to do very well. I predict a 10-6 record a #6 seed in the NFC tournament.
We've heard a lot about the Eagles being the NFL's equivalent of the Miami Heat Dream-Team, and there is some merit in these comments. I think Eagles have to be favored to win the division at this point. This does not mean they will ultimately win the division, but I do believe you have to make them the preseason favorites.
I am not particularly strong on the Eagles. I do not believe they are a legit Super Bowl contender. I do not believe they match up well with the Packers, Falcons, or Saints. I think any of those three teams can knock them out of the NFC bracket in the tournament. If Eagles get there, they going to have to run one hell of a gauntlet to get there. I don't think they can do it. They just aren't that physical a football team.
This brings us to the New York Giants. The Giants are the leading candidates to upset the Eagle tea-party. However, they suffered several major set-backs in preseason: 3 major injuries including both their #1 and #2 picks. It sucks to be a Giant fan right now. A team that was certainly competitive now has some doubts. The Giants also have some issues surrounding changes on their OL, but so far that unit is looking pretty good. I predict the Giants will be 10-6 but lose the 6th seed to the Lions based on tie-breakers.
I believe that the Cowboys are rebuilding and not redecorating by moving the furniture around. Their changes on the offensive line have been profound, with 80% of their starters changing. Ultimately, the Cowboys won't be a highly competitive team this year.
This brings us to the subject of the Redskins. Before preseason began, I believed the Redskins were the most talent-less and dysfunctional organization in football. I made them my prohibitive favorites to win the Andrew Luck Bowl. I remember scoffing when I heard Joe Theisman denying this assertion on NFL Total Access. "He's a loyal hommer. Can't blame him for being blind to the facts", I though.
Well shut my mouth and call me a fool. The Redskins have been shockingly competitive in preseason, whupping the Steelers and coming within a hair's breath of beating the Ravens. That Raven game was the most entertaining dandy of the 2011 preseason. The Skins may lack a mountain of talent, but Mike Shanahan has gotten these dogs to get up on their hind legs and fight like pitbulls. That is some serious coaching! If he can get this motley crew to go 7-9 or 8-8, his genius as a coach will be re-confirmed and he will get my vote as NFL coach of the year.
Welcome to the toughest and nastiest division in professional football. This is the division where 3 of the 4 residents are all talented contenders. Two of your top 3 prospects for the Super Bowl dwell here.
Last year the Falcons earned the #1 seed in the NFC, and they have gotten better. The big problem is that they have gotten better on offense and not defense. Many consider the Falcon defense a bit suspect and the Achilles heal of the football team. The Falcons obviously disagreed. They traded their entire draft for Julio Jones so they could assemble a trifecta of brilliant pass-catchers for QB Matt Ryan: Tony Gonzales, Roddy White and Julio Jones. Obviously, the Falcons believed they need more explosive offense, not more dominant defense.
We shall see if their hypothesis was correct. It shall be put to the test. Right now, I consider them a good bet to repeat as NFC South camp.
The Saints are a particular favorite of mine. I like these guys quite a bit, but I don't like the loss of Reggie Bush. Reggie was the Swiss Army knife that allowed this offense to be explosive. He also delivered on the special teams. I think this loss is going to hurt more than they think.
I love the acquisition of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. He was one of my favorite kids in the the 2011 draft. I wanted the Rams to take him, and I drafted him for my fantasy team. I would not have done that if I wasn't expecting good things from him. However, he is not a one-for-one drop-in replacement part for Reggie Bush. These are two different guys who do two different things. They are as different as Marshall Faulk was from Emitt Smith.
There is another factor to consider. When the Saints won the Super Bowl they featured a 3-4 defense with Darrin Sharper ball-hawking in the defensive backfield. Now they have a 4-3 defense without Sharper. Right now the defense is looking bigger, meaner, more physical and dominant than ever. We shall see if this holds true in the regular season. However, this is a big, big change. Don't over look the magnitude of this change.
I am very bullish on the Buc. I think they are loaded on offense. I think they have a clutch QB and three good receivers, a power runner, and a bunch of big offensive linemen. I believe they successfully completed a dominant defensive line in the 2011 draft.
If the Bucs were in the AFC or NFC West, they would have to be the favorites to win those divisions. Unfortunately, they are in the biggest, baddest, toughest division in the NFL. The Bucs biggest problem is the twin 800 pound gorillas sitting on top of them. This going to be a serious issue for them.
Given the power of the Lions and the Giants, I find it very difficult to pick the Bucs as the 6th seed in the tournament. It could happen, but both the Lions and the Giants would have to stumble. I don't see that happening. One might, but the other won't.
This brings up Carolina. Forget about it! You fucked up big-time in the draft. You just might win the Andrew Luck Bowl. You got three Godzillas in your division just waiting drop down on your head and go caca-doodle-do.
As I have said before, I see the NFC West as a two-horse race between the Rams and the Cardinals.
Many experts have anointed my Rams as the class of the NFC West. We appreciate this, but it is not a done-deal just yet. My 2011 Rams feature a greatly-improved offensive line that was manhandling and abusing enemy defensive lines this preseason. Who knew Harvey Dahl could make such a big difference? We also have a greatly improved defensive line that features our #1 pick Robert Hall, and free-agent acquisition Justin Bannan. This is reason to celebrate. The game is won and lost in the trenches.
Over on the negative side of the fence, our receiver corp is no longer the worst in football... hopefully... but it still far from the best. We still lack big-time play makers and game changers. This will place a hard-cap on what we can do this season. We will find it difficult to upset superior opponents without game-breakers on offense.
We also have a vastly more difficult schedule than last year, but not as difficult as some presume. The NFC South was no cake-walk last season. Neither was the NFC North. Overall, if we can improve our record by 1 game, it will be a pretty good year.
I expect the Cardinals to be resurgent in 2011. Their first unit looked like dynamite against the Chargers in preseason. It looks to me like they are getting what they wanted out of the Kevin Kobb trade. He is hitting Larry Fitzgerald in the great-wide-open with intermediate and long passes. That is what they need offensively. Further, Beanie Wells is starting to show up strong on the radar. It's about time. I once picked him as my rookie of the year. Finally, Patrick Peterson is looking like an impact rookie. Did you see him jump that route and intercept Philip Rivers for a Pick-6? Rivers was pissed. Peterson is an exciting, exciting rookie.
It is going to be a very interesting and asymmetrical battle between the Rams and the Cardinals for the title.
What about the Seahawks? Forget about it! Stick a fork in it, their done. They let their franchise QB go, and they have nothing in hand to replace him. Do you remember Herm Edwards' Law? I am subtracting 4 victories from their 2010 record for the lack of a franchise QB. This puts the Seahawks at 3-13, and near the top of the draft. They may be intentionally tanking this season so they can win the Andrew Luck Bowl.
What about the 49ers? If you want to know who is at or near the top of my hot list for who was the most screwed by the lockout, the 49ers would probably be #2. The 49ers did play a bit better than I expected during this preseason, but this is a hard-pressed franchise right now. They are in the midst of a full-flush and clean of the coaching staff, a conversion to the West Coast Offense, Quarterback transition, and a deeply worn-out franchise running back. The defense lost it's heart and soul when Mike Singletary was fired. Call it 3-13 folks.
The Ravens are my prohibitive favorite to win the AFC, not just the AFC North. I think it is Packers v Ravens in Super Bowl 46. I love the architecture of this team. I love their offense. I love their defense. I love their special teams. I love their head coach. They got one of the greatest GMs in the league, and he is a home-grown guy, raised inside the organization.
Throughout much of last year, the Ravens looked like the most powerful team in the NFL. They sputtered a bit down the stretch, ending with another disappointing loss to the Steelers. I don't think this will happen again this year.
Joe Flacco is seen as the key man by nearly everyone. This team will go as far as their QB's performance will allow them to go. Many site a lack of success in the final 2 minutes of clutch games as being Joe Flacco' s key weakness. They compare that to Ben Roethlisberger's tremendous success in the final 2 minutes of clutch games, and they bet against the Ravens.
Give Flacco a little chance here. He's one of the most over-criticized men in the league. I think he's going to do it. Some call him a front-runner, but I think he can front-run through the entire AFC this year.
Regarding the Steelers, I am going to stick with the statistical and historical tables that firmly teach us that the team that loses the Super Bowl does not make the playoffs the next year. Accordingly, the Steelers will not make the playoffs in 2011.
Steeler nation will complain bitterly that the Steelers are better organization than that, and they are showing new signs of explosive offense. I don't care. I am sticking with the probability tables, no matter what. I would remind you that the last time you won the Super Bowl, you did not make the playoffs the next year. Now you have to face the post-loss depression.
The Browns are rising football team, and the most likely to upset my playoff picture. I would make them my #7 seed and the first team to play their way in if somebody else should stumble. Mike Holmgren is turning that franchise around, but it might take one more year to reach the playoffs. They are looking dramatically better, though.
What about the Bengals? Forget about! This is a heavy rebuilding year. Stick a fork in, their done. Call it 3-13.
I know you... I know what you are thinking! You are think the Patriots, the 8 time defending ESPN champions, will win the Super Bowl for a 9th straight season. Aren't you thinking that? I know you are.
Get off drugs! The Assemblies of God run a good detox program called Teen Challenge. It will help you to sober up.
In case you were wondering I am not a believer in the Patriot theory. The Patriots got to 14-2 last season through scheme, smoke and mirrors, and plain-old luck. How lucky they were to face the Packers without Aaron Rodgers? They almost lost that game anyhow. I was one of the few guys not surprised by their quick exit from the playoffs. One and done, bitch.
The fact of the matter was that the Patriots were a 10-6 class football team that somehow made it to 14-2 by a fluke. That was the flukiest outcome since the Rams went 13-3 in 2003. In case you didn't get the memo, the Patriot dynasty officially ended in 2007. That was it. That was all she wrote. Over and done with. No more Patriot dynasty, Buber.
They are a little bit better this year, but their arch-nemesis is also better this year... I think. The Patriots are still nothing to write home about in 2011. They will not be a major factor in the Super Bowl 46 picture. I think they get the 5th seed and lose in the first round to the #2 seed... which would be the Jets again.
This brings us to those frickin' Jets. I did not like some of their moves in this off-season, but the overall picture is improved. I didn't think Plaxico would do well in this environment, but so far so good. I think all systems are go for them to win their first Easter Division Title in quite some time.
What about the Dolphins and Bills? What about them? They are cannon fodder. Stick a fork in 'em, they are done.
The AFC South is the most difficult call on the entire scoreboard. The Colts are great organization, but I see them on the cusp of a down-turn. Manning is recovering from neck surgery, and may miss the beginning of the season. If he does, they will lose every game they play without him, I assure you of that.
Furthermore, I don't like the Colts offensive and defensive lines this year. I done saw them get blowed out too many times in preseason to believe this group is ready for trench-warfare in 2011. I think both line units are suspect. That is a very untoward and foreboding sign of problems in the near future. I don't expect great things from the Colts in 2011.
Furthermore, I suspect Jim Tressell has been brought in as an heir-apparent waiting in the wings should Jim Caldwell lose favor due to adversity. I think Bill Polian has his backup plan in his hip pocket right now.
This brings us to the Texans, the heir apparent waiting in the wings. Folks, I love what I saw from their defense in this preseason. Wade Phillips is working some major-league magic in reviving this unit. He's doing it again, I am convinced of it.
Just sit back and imagine what this high-powered Texan offense will do if they have a #12 ranked defensive unit to make their scores stand up? Dude! They could do so much more! If the defense can terminate just 7 possessions a game without a score, the Texans should win a lot of games. Right now, I think they can go 11-5, and I think that might be enough to defeat a diminished Colt team.
What about the Jags and the Titans? I don't have much confidence in either. Both are going to be breaking in rookie QBs. The Titans are going through a full-scale rebuild right now. I expect both to finish low.
Regrettably, we must now discuss the worst division in professional football, the AFC West. Regrettably, I must select the Chargers.
I want it to be understood that I have absolutely no faith or confidence in the Chargers. I mean zip, zero, ziltch, nil, nada, nothing in the way of confidence in the Chargers. I think they are dead meat in the playoffs. They will exit quietly with their tails between their legs, one and done.
Still, I have to pick them because there is nobody else to pick in the AFC West. I have looked at the other three teams and I see absolute dog shit piled on top of dog shit. I see a Chief team that looked plain terrible in preseason. They have regressed mightily. I see a Denver team that is still in the Titanic mess that Josh McDaniels put them in. It will take them a couple of years to dig out of this mess.
And then we have the Raiders. This is truly the most dysfunctional organization in professional football. I thought that might be the Redskins, but they are proving me wrong. Al Davis is in the 7th stage of dementia due to advancing Alzheimer's disease, and he won't take his hands of the wheel of the ship.
I am convinced that this team will continue to founder and crash on the rocks until the day Al gives up the ghost.
In the preseason, the Raiders looked absolutely terrible. They were worse than even the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders are the prohibitive favorite to win the Andrew Luck Bowl. This is probably the worst team in professional football. I think the Raiders finish 1-15 or 2-12.
Poor Andrew! I'm hurting for you kid, but take hope: Knowing, Al, he just might trade your pick to get a couple of unknown track stars.