Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers overcame the loss of Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, and made it to the Super Bowl for the third time in 6 years. The Baltimore Ravens were once again good, but still couldn't get past the Steelers. The Cleveland Browns were awful most of the year, but had convincing wins against New Orleans and New England that gave them some hope. The Cincinnati Bengals were dreadful as per usual and now have lost any semblance of the recognizable players they once had.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 Record: 12-4, 1st place AFC North, AFC Champions
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (5th season Pittsburgh, 48-23 career)

Key Additions: DE Cameron Heyward, WR Jericho Cotchery

Key Losses: TE Matt Spaeth, WR Antwaan Randle El, OT Flozell Adams, OT Max Starks

2011 Outlook:
The Steelers followed a different model in the 2011 off-season. Usually they are quick to jettison certain players but this time they kept around most of their free agents. The only significant free agent acquisition they made was signing former Jets WR Jericho Cotchery. Ben Roethlisberger is free from scandal this year and has entrenched himself in the discussion of Top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL. The running game chugs behind Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall may be an idiot conspiracy theorist but he runs hard and is effective, as long as he doesn't get fumbleitis like he did in the Super Bowl. The Steelers have proven to find some gems at wide receiver. Mike Wallace is expected by many to have a breakout year, and Antonio Brown made some clutch catches in the playoffs. They join up with Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller to give Roethlisberger plenty of choices. Offensive line is always a question mark for Pittsburgh, but they have proven that with Roethlisberger's shiftiness, the struggles of their line are much less of an issue than they would be for other teams. However, despite the talent of the offense, it has always been about defense in Pittsburgh. The unit was once again strong last season but cracks did show at times. Their pass defense was handled by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and even to an extent Joe Flacco. The secondary will be challenged early, as not only do the Steelers go on the road for three of their four, they also get to play Joe Flacco, Peyton Manning, and Matt Schaub in those games. The schedule lightens up after that, including the final quarter which isn't challenging at all. The Steelers have always been a good road team and I think they will be just fine in those first four. I am not nearly as high on Baltimore as others are, and the Colts are a huge question mark right now. The Steelers should capture another division crown and are once again legit Super Bowl contenders.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Baltimore Ravens

2010 Record: 12-4, 2nd place AFC North
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (4th season Baltimore, 36-19 career)

Key Additions: CB Jimmy Smith, WR Lee Evans, FB Vonta Leach, RB Ricky Williams

Key Losses: WR Derrick Mason, WR Donte Stallworth, WR TJ Houshmandzadeh, TE Todd Heap, RB Willis McGahee, RB Le'Ron McClain, OG Chris Chester, OT Jared Gaither, NT Kelly Gregg, CB Fabian Washington

2011 Outlook:
The Ravens were quite busy during the abbreviated off-season. They decided to go younger on offense, jettisoning Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth, TJ Housmandzadeh, Willis McGahee, Todd Heap, and Le'Ron McClain. The only one of those still significantly contributing was Derrick Mason and he is very old, so those were smart moves by Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens also did a nice job by trading for Lee Evans, making him their second wide receiver, and providing Anquan Boldin with a good complement. Flacco is a pretty good quarterback, who has been anointed by the media as a great quarterback for some reason. The Ravens brought in one of my favorite players, Ricky Williams to replace McGahee. However, the bulk of the carries will still go to the electrifying Ray Rice. Another media myth perpetuated about the Ravens is that their defense is still premier. They are still strong up front but their passing defense ranked just 21st in the NFL last season, and cost the Ravens dearly, especially against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Josh Wilson and Dawan Landry are gone, so the Ravens are hoping some new blood, and the return of Dominique Foxworth will improve their secondary. I think the Ravens are trying to shuffle too many parts in too short of a time frame. I think this is a team that has reached their precipice and will start to slide back now.

Prediction: 9-7

3. Cleveland Browns

2010 Record: 5-11, 3rd place AFC North
Head Coach: Pat Shurmur (1st season Cleveland, 0-0 career)

Key Additions: DT Phil Taylor, WR Greg Little, RB Brandon Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson

Key Losses: QB Jake Delhomme, CB Eric Wright, DT Shaun Rogers

2011 Outlook: Its the start of another new era in Cleveland, as the Eric Mangini era ended just as quickly as it started. He has been replaced by former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the son of coordinator Fritz. He inherits a team that does have some rising stars. QB Colt McCoy showed some toughness and talent in his rookie year and has looked good thus far in the preseason. The Browns best player emerged to be RB Peyton Hillis. Hillis was incredibly physical and a dominating presence running the ball. He is hoping to prove the doubters wrong that he was a one year wonder, and also tries to avoid the Madden Curse. However, at wide receiver the Browns are still looking for talent. They drafted Greg Little out of North Carolina, and hope that Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie continue to improve. Josh Cribbs is still there but with the change in the kickoffs rule, he becomes almost irrelevant. TE Ben Watson was the Browns best receiver last season and that will likely be the case this year as well. Defensively the Browns are a major question mark. Dick Jauron replaces Rex Ryan, and known defensive players Eric Wright and Shaun Rogers are also gone. The Browns drafted Phil Taylor and hope he can achieve instant success. The Browns biggest friend in 2011 will be their schedule. A soft schedule for most of the year could have the Browns in playoff contention. However, the way it ends seems to be a cruel joke. Four of their last five games are against the Ravens and the Steelers, ouch. I think the Browns are building towards something good and this year will be that first step.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Cincinnati Bengals

2010 Record: 4-12, last place AFC North
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (9th season Cincinnati, 60-69-1 career)

Key Additions: WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton, QB Bruce Gradkowski, OL Max Jean-Gilles, TE Bo Scaife, LB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements

Key Losses: QB Carson Palmer, WR Chad Ochocinco, WR Terrell Owens, S Roy Williams, DE Antwan Odom, CB Jonathan Joseph

2011 Outlook:
This team is a mess. It used to be that they were a mess that was filled with stars and guys you at least wanted to watch. Now they are a mess and filled with guys who are unproven or unknown. Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens are gone, replaced by Andy Dalton, Jerome Simpson, and A.J. Green. Green potentially could up end up at Owens or Ochocinco's level but for now, not much should be expected. RB Cedric Benson came back and hopefully 20 days in jail doesn't take too much out of him. Dalton will have to be mentally tough as he will likely take a beating this year. If he goes down to injury, journeyman Bruce Gradkowski can step in to replace him. Defensively, 49er busts Manny Lawson and Nate Clements join the team. The Bengals will miss Jonathan Joseph, as Clements is nowhere near the player he once was. The Bengals are such a sad, sorry franchise. I am feeling a lack of motivation in life just writing about them.

Prediction: 4-12

Monday, August 29, 2011

2011 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC North

The Green Bay Packers overcame a multitude of injuries and having to win all their playoff games on the road to become Super Bowl champions. With their injured guys returning and most of the team in tact, the Packers seem to be the prohibitive favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champs. The NFC North doesn't figure to bring much of a challenge this season. The Minnesota Vikings are in a sort of purgatory between complete rebuilding and trying to win now. The Detroit Lions seem on the precipice of being an actual contender but are probably still a year away. The Chicago Bears defied all laws of football to make the NFC Championship last season but I expect a heavy fall from grace this year.

1. Green Bay Packers

2010 Record: 10-6, 2nd place NFC North, Super Bowl champions
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (6th season Green Bay, 53-34 career)
Key Additions: OL Derek Sherrod
Key Losses: RB Brandon Jackson, DE Cullen Jenkins

2011 Outlook: The Packers built their team through shrewd drafting. Because of that, they once again were barely active in the free agent market. When you have a team that can withstand the amount of injuries the Packers did last season, there is no reason to change much. QB Aaron Rodgers has evolved into a Top 5 NFL quarterback and he has an absurd amount of offensive firepower. RB Ryan Grant returns and the Packers hope he can team with James Starks to provide an effective 1-2 combo. At wide receiver Rodgers has more options than he will probably know what to do with. Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and the surprising return of James Jones give the Packers a lethal stable of wide receivers. TE Jermichael Finley is returning from injury and he will be backed up by promising rookie D.J. Williams. Defensively, the Packers return everyone but Cullen Jenkins. They struggled some against the run last year and with the loss of Jenkins that could be something to watch. The schedule isn't as challenging as you would expect for a team coming off a Super Bowl win. With most teams you would say watch out for injuries but the Packers showed last year that the norm doesn't apply to them. The Packers will once again be one of the league's best.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Minnesota Vikings

2010 Record: 6-10, last place NFC North
Head Coach: Leslie Frazier (1st season Minnesota, 3-3 career)
Key Additions: QB Christian Ponder, QB Donovan McNabb, WR Michael Jenkins, WR Devin Aromashadu, TE Kyle Rudolph, DT Remi Ayodele
Key Losses: QB Brett Favre, QB Tavaris Jackson, WR Sidney Rice, OT Bryant McKinnie, S Madieu Williams, DE Ray Edwards

2011 Outlook: The Vikings thought bringing everyone back last season, including once again coaxing Brett Favre out of Mississippi, was what would bring them a Super Bowl. Instead, the season turned into a nightmare. Favre was injured and awful, a trade for Randy Moss was a disaster, and Brad Childress was the fall guy and axed with 6 games left in the season. The Vikings played .500 football under Leslie Frazier, and that was enough to earn him the permanent job. The Vikings are seemingly thinking that last season was an aberration as they are once again hitching their wagons to an old quarterback, this time Donovan McNabb. McNabb was awful in Washington, and it remains to be seen if that was an aberration or if McNabb is really done as a quarterback. RB Adrian Peterson remains the one guy on offense that can be counted on and he seemed to solve his fumbling problems. Percy Harvin is now the number one wide receiver with Sidney Rice's departure. There isn't much behind him, but the Vikings hope the signings of Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashadu prove better than they look on paper. The offensive line is going through a number of changes, as it started to look old and creaky last season. The Vikings have a ton of questions on defense. The Williams wall has finally crumbled as Pat Williams is gone, and Kevin Williams will probably be suspended for the first four games. The secondary is a big question mark and despite the stats saying otherwise, the Vikings were having trouble slowing down teams passing games last year. The Vikings have no real identity right now and they look like a team that is good enough to be competitive, but not good enough to make any real noise this year.

Prediction: 8-8

3. Detroit Lions

2010 Record: 6-10, 3rd place NFC North
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz (3rd year Detroit, 8-24 career)
Key Additions: DE Nick Fairley, LB Stephen Tulloch, CB Eric Wright
Key Losses: LB Juian Peterson, DE Turk McBride, RB Kevin Smith

2011 Outlook: At 2-10 it seemed like another year to forget in Detroit. Then, despite being without QB Matthew Stafford, the Lions closed the season with four straight wins. Now, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, Lions and playoffs are being discussed in the same sentence. The question is, can Stafford play an entire season? He has been dogged by injuries his first two seasons, stopping him from fulfilling the potential he has shown. The Lions are hoping that RB Jahvid Best can remain healthy this season. He got off to a blazing start last year, before injuries slowed him down considerably. The Lions also have major questions at wide receiver once you get past Megatron, Calvin Johnson. On defense, the drafting of Nick Fairley to team up with Ndamukong Suh gives the Lions a fierce defensive front. They struggled against the run last year but I expect them to have considerable improvement this season. Three out of their first on the road is not the beginning to a season Lions fans want to see. Their problems playing on the road have been well documented. However, if they truly are ready to take that next step, the first four weeks will be a good indicator of whether that is the case or not. I think the Lions are still a year or two away.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Chicago Bears

2010 Record: 11-5, 1st place NFC North
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (8th season Chicago, 66-52 overall)
Key Additions: T Gabe Carimi, WR Roy Williams, RB Marion Barber III, WR Sam Hurd, TE Matt Spaeth, DT Amobi Okoye
Key Losses: C Olin Kreutz, TE Greg Olsen, WR Devin Aromashodu, TE Brandon Manamaleuna, DT Tommie Harris, S Danieal Manning

2011 Outlook: The Bears followed their usual script last season of being awful on offense but having the defense carry them farther than anyone would expect. However, the Bears being a win away from the Super Bowl was largely forgotten due to QB Jay Cutler and his mysterious injury that caused him to leave the NFC Championship game. His teammates had his back but many around the league questioned Cutler's toughness. Cutler has some skill but I don't know if he is built the right way mentally to lead a team to a Super Bowl. RB Matt Forte thrived in Mike Martz's system, becoming a Marshall Faul like player, where he was contributing running and catching the ball. He now has Marion Barber behind him, as the Bears hope he can solve their goal line issues. Wide receiver still remains an area of weakness despite the signing of Roy Williams. Williams was a massive bust in Dallas, and has already started causing some headaches in Chicago. Cutler's security blanket, Greg Olsen was traded away so it will be interesting to see who Cutler relies on this season. The Bears had shown signs of slipping on defense but seemed to right the ship last season. They were especially stout against the run but did have problems with stopping the pass. The first three games for the Bears are pretty brutal, as each one is against a 2010 playoff team. I think that slow start will kill the Bears and a rough, brutal season is ahead of them.

Prediction: 5-11

Friday, August 26, 2011

2011 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC South

During the regular season the NFC South was one of the strongest divisions last year. Three teams finished over .500, including the league's biggest surprise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, that didn't translate to success come playoff time, where both the Saints and Falcons suffered embarrassing losses. Not many people had the Falcons winning the NFC South last season, but I am proud to say I was one of them. With how jubilant the Saints were about winning their first Super Bowl, I knew a hangover was inevitable. This year the pressure is now on the Falcons, while the Saints have remained under the radar. Eyes will be on the Bucs to see if they can continue to make strides against a tougher schedule this season. The Panthers are awful, but will still prove to be interesting as it is only a matter of time before the Cam Newton era begins.

1. New Orleans Saints

2010 Record: 11-5, 2nd place NFC South
Head Coach: Sean Payton (6th season New Orleans, 53-33 career)
Key Additions: RB Mark Ingram, RB/KR Darren Sproles, C Olin Kreutz, DE Cameron Jordan, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Shaun Rogers, DE Turk McBride, LB Will Herring
Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey, DT Anthony Hargrove, CB Randall Gay

2011 Outlook: The Saints had a ton of free agents but were impressively able to keep the core of their team together, while also getting better. On offense they should remain the same high powered team they have been the last few seasons. QB Drew Brees put up video game like numbers, but the problem was those crazy numbers included a career high of 22 interceptions. Part of that was caused by the running game struggling through injuries. The Saints addressed that by letting Reggie Bush go, and drafting bruising RB Mark Ingram. They also brought in lightning quick Darren Sproles, so the loss of Bush will likely not be noticed. The Saints best moves come on the defensive side of the ball. Adding Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers should drastically increase the pressure that the Saints put on the quarterback. After being able to cause turnovers in bunches in 2009, the Saints saw those numbers dip in 2010. The schedule is very manageable and with the off-season moves they made I expect the Saints to be a Super Bowl contender in 2011.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Atlanta Falcons

2010 Record: 13-3, 1st place NFC South
Head Coach: Mike Smith (4th season Atlanta, 33-17 career)
Key Additions: WR Julio Jones, DE Ray Edwards
Key Losses: OG Harvey Dahl, WR Michael Jenkins, WR Brian Finneran

2011 Outlook: 2010 was a feel good season for the Falcons that ended on a miserable note when they were embarrassed in the playoffs at home. It might have felt a little better when the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, but it had to sting that it didn't even appear the Falcons belonged on the same field as the Packers. The Falcons made significant additions on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. They traded a kings ransom to move up and select WR Julio Jones. QB Matt Ryan now has two threats at wide receiver, as Jones joins the accomplished Roddy White, and let's not forget about TE Tony Gonzalez. The running game is strong with bowling ball Michael Turner trucking defenders, and also because of a strong offensive line. The huge signing on defense was Ray Edwards. The Falcons pass rush was weak last season and that was never more exposed than when Aaron Rodgers carved them up in the playoffs. Edwards joins John Abraham to give the Falcons fearsome pass rushers on each end. I expect the Falcons to have another winning season under Mike Smith but I think they will see a dip in wins this season. They made moves that gave them better talent than last season, but they won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.

Prediction: 10-6

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2010 Record: 10-6, 3rd place NFC South
Head Coach: Raheem Morris (3rd season Tampa Bay, 13-19 career)
Key Additions: DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Da'Quan Bowers, P Michael Koenen
Key Losses: RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud

2011 Outlook: With such a young team the Bucs seemed to be about three or four years from truly being competitive. Then last season, on the back of a soft schedule, they shockingly won 10 games and almost made the playoffs. Expectations are now very high for a team that is still very young. I had my doubts about QB Josh Freeman but last season he showed the signs of someone that will be a Top 10 quarterback for years to come. Other emerging stars were haymaker throwing RB LaGarrette Blount, and WR Mike Williams. Both Williams and Blount had character issues surrounding them and still do to an extent, but there is no denying their abilities on the field. TE Kellen Winslow soldiered his way to a solid season last year, so Freeman has plenty of options. The concern is if any of those guys go down to injury, the Bucs don't have the depth to adequately replace them. Questions remain defensively as team leader Barrett Ruud left, and the Bucs drafted on the defensive line to try to help a defense that was awful against the run. DE Da'Quan Bowers had been talked about as a number one pick, until health concerns dropped him to Tampa in the second round. He could end up being an absolute steal. The Bucs are still a team on the rise but the schedule isn't easy this year and because of that, I see them finishing .500 this season. However, the future is still very bright as the Bucs are well under the salary cap and will have plenty of money to spend if they choose.

Prediction: 8-8

4. Carolina Panthers

2010 Record: 2-14, last place NFC South
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (1st season Carolina, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB Cam Newton, QB Derek Anderson, TE Greg Olsen, TE Jeremy Shockey, WR Legedu Naanee, K Olindo Mare, LB Omar Gaither, S Sean Considine
Key Losses: QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, TE Dante Rosario, K John Kasay

2011 Outlook: The Panthers were dreadful in 2010 with some of the worst quarterback play the game has ever seen. Because of that the Panthers took the risk of drafting Cam Newton. Newton was an incredible player in his one season of college football, but the questions that plague Tim Tebow, also plague Newton. Can he translate his athletic skill and become a top flight quarterback against the highest competition? The Panthers decided to keep the core of the team together, despite the awful record last year. To the surprise of many they ponied up the money necessary to keep RB DeAngelo Williams, despite having Jonathan Stewart at their disposal. Many also expected WR Steve Smith to be gone, but he is back and hoping to rebound from a career worst season. They significantly upgraded at tight end, trading for Greg Olsen from the Bears, and signing Jeremy Shockey. For a 2-14 team, the Panthers weren't terrible defensively, even finishing 11th against the pass. However, they were on the field a ton as the offense could do nothing. The hope is the presence of Rivera and the addition of Eagles failed defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can help improve a unit that struggled against the run. This season is merely an experimental one for Carolina. Newton will get a chance to play and learn the ropes, and the Panthers will continue to be one of the worst teams in the league. But hey, they should at least be a little more bearable to watch.

Prediction: 3-13

Thursday, August 25, 2011

2011 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC South

The Colts were able to maintain their hold on the AFC South but they were perilously close to losing it. At just 6-6 with four games left, it seemed that the division was the Jaguars for the taking. However, order was restored, Jacksonville collapsed, and the Colts finished the year with a four game winning streak. The Titans started 5-2, then Vince Young had a hissy fit, and the signing of Randy Moss proved to be inconsequential as they faltered to a 6-10 finish. The Texans were huge disappointments at 6-10. Somehow, Gary Kubiak survived and once again Houston is a chic pick to make the playoffs and win the division.

1. Indianapolis Colts

2010 Record: 10-6, 1st place AFC South
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (3rd season Indianapolis, 26-10 career)
Key Additions: QB Kerry Collins, OT Anthony Castanzo, DT Tommie Harris, LB Ernie Sims
Key Losses: CB Kelvin Hayden, S Bob Sanders

2011 Outlook: The Colts are starting to show their age. They had to scrape and claw their way into the playoffs last year, and this year look like they will have to start the season without Peyton Manning at quarterback. Manning had neck surgery and the signing of Kerry Collins makes it pretty apparent that Manning could miss some real game time. If Collins gets to start he will have plenty of weapons. Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Blair White, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme are all viable threats. The Colts could possibly be even more potent throwing the ball if they could get their running game going. They brought back Joseph Addai who suffers more from lack of touches than lack of ability. He also hasn't been helped by the inconsistent blocking and running of Donald Brown. Defensively, the Colts remain a middle of the pack type of defense. They are hoping that Tommie Harris might have a little something left in the tank. It will be strange to see the Colts with anyone but Manning under center but that looks to be the case in 2011. I think the Colts can stretch their run one more season, but massive rebuilding may be coming sooner than they would like.

Prediction: 9-7

2. Houston Texans

2010 Record: 6-10, 3rd place AFC South
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (6th season Houston, 37-43 career)
Key Additions: DE J.J. Watt, S/KR Danieal Manning, P Brad Maynard
Key Losses: FB Vonta Leach, S Bernard Pollard, DT Amobi Okoye, S Eugene Wilson

2011 Outlook: Gary Kubiak reminds me of Norv Tuner with the Washington Redskins. You look at the constant seasons of disappointment, the pathetic career record, and you wonder how he is still the coach. Texans fans thought a 6-10 disaster was finally the nail in Kubiak's coffin but he is back yet again. The Texans success or lack thereof this season will hinge on whether Wade Phillips can transform the Texans pathetic defense. The Texans were atrocious on defense last season, and are hoping a switch to the 3-4 will do the trick. Mario Williams is moving from defensive end to linebacker, and the Texans are hoping that the additions of J.J. Watt and Daniel Manning will spark the defense. Phillips usefulness as a head coach can certainly be questioned but he has always been successful as a defensive coordinator. Offense should the least of the Texans concerns. QB Matt Schaub continues to play well, and now he has perhaps the best running back and wide receivers in football with Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Foster came out of nowhere to take the NFL by storm last season. The question everyone will have is whether he can sustain it or if he turns out to be a one hit wonder. I came so close to picking the Texans to win the AFC South but Gary Kubiak stops me from doing it. Until the Texans get a better head coach, they will be stuck in the purgatory that is mediocrity.

Prediction: 9-7

3. Tennessee Titans

2010 Record: 6-10, last place AFC South
Head Coach: Mike Munchak (1st season Tennessee, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB Jake Locker, QB Matt Hasselbeck, S Jordan Babineaux, LB Barrett Ruud, CB Frank Walker
Key Losses: QB Vince Young, QB Kerry Collins, WR Randy Moss, TE Bo Scaife, DE Jason Babin

2011 Outlook: Change is the theme in Tennessee. Jeff Fisher's run as head coach is over after 16 long, overrated seasons. Last year's quarterbacks Vince Young and Kerry Collins are both gone, replaced by veteran Matt Hasselbeck and the QB of the future, Jake Locker. Hasselbeck was brought in with the idea of being a mentor to Locker and perhaps giving the Titans a chance to win. The Titans have some talented offensive pieces but they are question marks right now. RB Chris Johnson is still holding out, awaiting a new contract. It is not known yet if he will be back by time the season starts. Their best WR Kenny Britt was making headlines for all the wrong reasons in the offseason and may get suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell. The Titans weren't anything to boast about on defense last year, and are hoping new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray can right the ship. They lost their best pass rusher in Jason Babin, but did add Frank Walker, Barrett Ruud, and Justin Babineaux. The pass defense will have to fare better to give the Titans a chance to compete. Too much uncertainty and change is swirling around this team to expect anything more than a nondescript, playoff-less season.

Prediction: 6-10

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

2010 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC South
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (9th season Jacksonville, 66-65 overall)
Key Additions: QB Blaine Gabbert, LB Clint Session, LB Paul Posluszny
Key Losses: WR Mike Sims-Walker

2011 Outlook: Jack Del Rio is an even more astounding case than Gary Kubiak. Despite not making the playoffs in three seasons and going 20-28 in that span, Del Rio is back for his ninth season. The Jaguars surprised many by being in contention down to the final weekend but to me being a little bit better than people expected shouldn't have been enough to save Del Rio's job. One bad sign for the season is uncertainty at quarterback. Sure, David Garrard is the unquestioned starter right now, but sentiment will turn to Blaine Gabbert immediately if and when Garrard struggles. Maurice Jones-Drew continues to be one of the best runners in the game, but him missing the last two games of the season, must win games for Jacksonville, didn't sit well with many. The Jaguars have a bunch of nobodies at wide receiver, which is probably the reason they gave TE Marcedes Lewis so much money to stay. Defensively, the Jaguars may have four new starters from a unit that ranked 22nd against the rush, and 28th against the pass. They hope to get a full season out of DE Aaron Kampman, as it was obvious how badly the defense missed him once he went down. I think this will be an ugly season in Jacksonville, and will finally result in Del Rio's ouster and the beginning of the Gabbert era.

Prediction: 4-12

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

2011 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC West

After a strange 2010 season, it is expected that the AFC West's order will be restored in 2011. The San Diego Chargers statistically had the best offense and the best defense in the NFL, but due to awful special teams, and an awful head coach, finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. That allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to sneak in and claim the AFC West. The Chiefs won't be able to do any sneaking this season. The Oakland Raiders finally showed signs of improvement, so in typical Al Davis fashion, he fired the coach responsible for it. The Denver Broncos got burned by a head coach that was in way over his head and find themselves in an unfamiliar spot as the dregs of the division.

1. San Diego Chargers

2010 Record: 9-7, 2nd place AFC West
Head Coach: Norv Turner (5th season San Diego, 103-109-1 career)

Key Additions:
DE Corey Liuget, SS Bob Sanders, ILB Takeo Spikes,
Key Losses:
RB-KR Darren Sproles, ILB Stephen Cooper

2011 Outlook:
The Chargers had their customary slow start in 2010 but unlike in previous years, were unable to fully recover from it. Their special teams was atrocious and cost them multiple games. QB Philip Rivers continued to establish himself as a bonafide star. Despite having to throw to a bunch of no name receivers at certain points in the season due to injuries he still put up monster numbers. Most of the offense is back, with the exception of Darren Sproles. RB Ryan Mathews will try to stay healthy this season. He was massively overrated last season and was not just a real life bust but a major fantasy bust. The Chargers bring back their excellent wide receiver corps, and will have Vincent Jackson for a full season this year. On defense, with Ron Rivera leaving to take over the Carolina Panthers, Greg Manusky is the new defensive coordinator. The Chargers were good at preventing teams from getting many yards, but also struggled in creating pressure on the quarterback, as well as turnovers. They took a flier on Bob Sanders, hoping he can play more than 1 game for a change. The schedule has some tough spots with games against New England, Green Bay, and Baltimore but overall is pretty soft. No excuses should be left for Norv Turner if this is another underachieving season.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Kansas City Chiefs

2010 Record: 10-6, 1st place AFC West)
Head Coach: Todd Haley (3rd season Kansas City, 14-19 career)

Key Additions:
WR Jonathan Baldwin, WR Steve Breaston, FB Le'Ron McClain, NT Kelly Gregg, LB Brandon Siler
Key Losses: OLB Mike Vrabel, LG Brian Waters

2011 Outlook:
I'm not buying the Chiefs. They were one of the surprises of the NFL last year, but I think they took advantage of a soft schedule. They were exposed as frauds when the Ravens absolutely destroyed them in the playoffs. That being said, they did have very good seasons from QB Matt Cassel, as well as WR Dwayne Bowe. Reinforcements have been added to the wide receiving corps, with the drafting of Jonathan Baldwin and the acquisition of Steve Breaston. The Chiefs have a solid TE in Tony Moeaki, and a dangerous 1-2 combo at running back between Jamaal Charles, and Thomas Jones. One problem despite all these weapons is that the Chiefs don't seem sure on who will be calling the plays following the departure of Charlie Cheeseburger. On defense the Chiefs are hoping to improve their ability to stop the run by adding veteran Kelly Gregg, who was released by the Ravens. Finishing in first place has brought a first place schedule to Kansas City, and I don't think this team is ready to handle that kind of challenge.

Prediction: 7-9

3. Oakland Raiders

2010 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC West
Head Coach: Hue Jackson (1st season Oakland, 0-0 career)

Key Additions: TE Kevin Boss, QB Trent Edwards
Key Losses:
OG Robert Gallery, TE Zach Miller, WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, CB Nnamdi Asomugha

2011 Outlook:
The Oakland Raiders completed a pretty amazing feat. They went 6-0 in their division, but just 2-8 outside of it, causing them to become the first team to go undefeated in their division and miss the playoffs. Their quarterback situation was up in the air all season but they finally got the production they expected out of RB Darren McFadden. If McFadden can remain healthy again this year, he could be even better. Jason Campbell is the starter at quarterback and it remains to be seen if his lease will be just as short under Hue Jackson was it was with Tom Cable. The Raiders still are very weak at wideout, and lost their best pass catcher in TE Zach Miller. The offensive line is also a huge question mark, which should remind Campbell of his Redskin days. The Raiders lost their best player on defense in Nnamdi Asomugha, who was mostly the reason they were second against the pass last season. That might be disastrous as they expect to take a hit on pass defense, and are already atrocious at stopping the run. I think the Raiders will remain competitive but lost too many key pieces to continue the improvement they showed last season.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Denver Broncos

2010 Record: 4-12, last place AFC West
Head Coach: John Fox (1st season Denver, 78-74 career)

Key Additions:
RB Willis McGahee, TE Dante Rosario, LB Von Miller, DT Ty Warren, DT Broderick Bunkley
Key Losses:
RB Correll Buckhalter, WR Jabar Gaffney, TE Daniel Graham

2011 Outlook: Last season was a disaster for Denver. They had little to no running game, were horrific on defense, and figured out too late that Josh McDaniels was not ready to be a head coach. They have brought in John Fox, a coach that had some success in Carolina, but to me is terribly overrated. They attempted to trade QB Kyle Orton but were unsuccessful so he will be back as the starter. Orton played quite well last season, with some help from the strange reawakening that WR Brandon Lloyd seemed to go through. RB Knowshon Moreno didn't get many opportunities to run the ball last year, but should see more with Fox as coach. The Broncos added Willis McGahee whose days as a featured back are long done, but is still someone that is effective in goal line situations. The Broncos once again have revamped their defensive line, hoping they finally have the right combination of players. It will help to have Elvis Dumervil back from injury, and the pass defense could use the help as they were torched often last year. If Dumervil can return to his form prior to injury, that will take some of the pressure off of Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. I expect the Broncos to show some improvement but their is still turmoil surrounding this team. The fans want to see Tim Tebow, but the players want Kyle Orton. The fact that the Broncos were entertaining trading Orton shows that even though Tebow was McDaniels pick, they still feel the pressure to play him. Once the team struggles, expect to see Tebow get another shot.

Prediction: 6-10

Friday, August 12, 2011

2011 NFL Divisonal Previews - NFC West

I'd like to say I am starting these 2011 NFL Divisional previews with a bang, but we're talking about the NFC West, the short bus division of the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks won the division last year with a 7-9 record. They redeemed themselves by knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints but it wasn't enough to make anyone really respect the NFC West. There are no prohibitive favorites this season but the Arizona Cardinals probably made the biggest splash by trading for QB Kevin Kolb. The Seahawks have decided to turn over the team to mediocre at best QB Tavaris Jackson. The San Francisco 49ers failed to live up to the hype last season, and it cost Mike Singletary his job. Jim Harbaugh comes in hoping to finally reverse the 49ers losing fortunes. The St. Louis Rams were one of the big surprises of the NFL last season, and will be looking to continue to make strides behind QB Sam Bradford and a young, improving defense.

1. Arizona Cardinals

2010 Record: 5-11, last place NFC West
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (5th season Arizona, 36-34 career)
Key Additions: CB Patrick Peterson, RB Ryan Williams, QB Kevin Kolb, TE Todd Heap, WR Chansi Stuckey, LB Stewart Bradley,
Key Losses: WR Steve Breaston, RB Tim Hightower, QB Derek Anderson, LG Alan Faneca, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

2011 Outlook: The Cardinals badly missed Kurt Warner in the 2010 season. Stuck with duds like Derek Anderson and Max Hall at quarterback, the Cardinals limped to a 5-11 record. In order to rectify their quarterback situation, the Cardinals gave the Eagles the farm to land Kevin Kolb. They immediately signed Kolb to a long-term deal and turned over the keys to the franchise to him. Kolb showed flashes of promise in Philadelphia but is largely untested and unproven. They also traded leading rusher Tim Hightower to the Redskins, who was deemed unnecessary after they drafted Ryan Williams out of Virginia Tech. Steady receiver Steve Breaston was allowed to leave for Kansas City but Todd Heap was added at tight end. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback last season, WR Larry Fitzgerald still put up solid numbers. The Cardinals are hopeful he can return to the dominant receiver he was with Warner at quarterback. On defense, the Cardinals enter the season with some question marks. They drafted Patrick Peterson out of LSU and traded away Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to land Kolb. LB Joey Porter is back, hoping to rebound from a disappointing 2010 campaign. The Cardinals will be without S Adrian Wilson for an undetermined length of time. The schedule will present some challenges. Outside of the dreck that will be their six games against the NFC West, the Cardinals will face one stretch of three straight road games. However, they close the season with four out of five games at home. I predict that is when they will make their move and sneak away with the NFC West.

Prediction: 7-9

2. San Francisco 49ers

2010 Record: 6-10, 3rd place NFC West
Head Coach:
Jim Harbaugh (1st season San Francisco, 0-0 career)
Key Additions
: LB Aldon Smith, QB Colin Kaepernick, WR Braylon Edwards, K David Akers, CB Carlos Rogers, S Donte Whitner, S Madieu Williams
Key Losses:
K Joe Nedney, NT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Takeo Spikes, LB Manny Lawson

2011 Outlook:
Everyone and their mom was hyping up the 49ers in 2010. They were clearly going to run away with the NFC West. However, the 2010 season actually happened the Niners flopped. An 0-5 start doomed them, and despite winning 6 of their final 11 games, it was too late for the team and head coach Mike Singletary. Singletary was fired and former NFL QB Jim Harbaugh was plucked from Stanford to be his successor. Shcokingly, QB Alex Smith is back yet again despite being an incredible bust. The 49ers could have had Aaron Rodgers and we all know how that has worked out. RB Frank Gore is back, one of the constants of the offense. He is looking for a new deal but is also reaching that age where RBs fall off a cliff so it will be interesting to see how he performs this season. Braylon Edwards has been added to the receiver corps. Edwards shows flashes of brilliance at times but can also be maddening with his tendency to drop the ball. The Niners got him cheap and for only a year so it seems like a reasonable gamble. Vernon Davis will be expected to continue to be one of the better tight ends in football, and WR Michael Crabtree will look to continue to improve once he returns from injury. The defense played alright last season. They were very good against the run but awful against the pass. LB Patrick Willis continues to be one of the most intense, dominant forces in football. Free agent bust, CB Nate Clements was finally jettisoned. The Niners brought in former Redskins CB Carlos Rogers. Rogers has always been a decent cover guy but probably has the worst hands of any defensive player in football. The Niners let the curse that is LB Takeo Spikes go to the Chargers. Spikes has never made the playoffs in his career and was obviously what was holding them back. Longtime Eagle David Akers is the new kicker. Hopefully, he still has some power left in that leg and hasn't become the kicker that blew the wild card playoff game for the Eagles. The Niners season will hinge on whether Harbaugh can get anything out of Alex Smith. I expect he won't and it won't be long before we see rookie Colin Kaepernick under center. I think Harbaugh can be the guy to restore the Niners name but it won't be this year.

Prediction: 6-10

3. St. Louis Rams

2010 Record: 7-9, 2nd place NFC West
Head Coach: Steve Spagnuolo (3rd season Rams, 8-24 career)

Key Additions: DE Robert Quinn, WR Mike Sims-Walker, RB Cadillac Williams, RB Jerious Norwood, S Quintin Mikell, LB Brady Poppinga, LB Ben Leber

Key Losses: S Oshiomogho Atogwe

2011 Outlook:
The St. Louis Rams were one of the feel good stories of the 2010 NFL season. Behind rookie QB Sam Bradford, a young, exciting defense and a pretty easy schedule, the Rams were in contention for the division up until the final game of the season. They lost to the Seahawks and just missed the playoffs, but a six win improvement in year two of the Spags regime has given the Rams plenty of reason for optimism. Bradford played poised and excited Rams fans with what he was able to do with very limited parts. He was constrained in some ways as a rookie and it is expected he may be able to air it out a bit more this season. He also will be paired with horrible head coach but genius offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Rams gave him some help at wide receiver by picking up Mike Sims-Walker. They also will be getting back Donnie Avery from injury. RB Steven Jackson continues to be one of the better players in the game. He was relied on heavily by the Rams, so in order to lighten his load St. Louis picked up Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. On defense the Rams lost Otogwe but picked up Quintin Mikell from the Eagles. Young players Chris Long and James Laurinaitis each showed growth last season and the Rams have an exciting, capable defense for the first time in years. The Rams have more talent than last season but a brutal early schedule is what will prevent them from taking that next step. They won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.

Prediction: 6-10

4. Seattle Seahawks

2010 Record: 7-9, 1st place NFC West
Head Coach: Peter Carroll, (2nd season Seahawks, 42-43 career)
Key Additions: T James Carpenter, QB Tavaris Jackson, WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, G Robert Gallery
Key Losses: QB Matt Hasselebeck, LB Lofa Tatupu, CB Lawyer Milloy, S Jordan Babineaux, K Olindo Mare

2011 Outlook:
Last season, the Seahawks become the worst team ever to win a playoff game. However, it was apparent that despite reaching the second round of the playoffs, the current incarnation of the Seahawks were not Super Bowl contenders. So the rebuilding effort continued and longtime QB Matt Hasselbeck was allowed to leave for the Titans. Insert QB Tavaris Jackson, who has experience from his Minnesota days with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Jackson was maddening in Minnesota but I guess he showed enough for the Seahawks to immediately anoint him the starter. Although, when your only competition is Charlie Whitehurst that isn't saying much. The Seahawks also added Jackson's teammate from Minnesota, Sidney Rice. Rice had a breakout 2009 season but slipped back to his norm of injuries and ineffectiveness in 2010. TE Zach Miller was always under the radar in Oakland but is one of the better tight ends in football. The Seahawks also brought in former Raider Robert Gallery. Gallery has been called a bust and based on his draft status that is understandable, but he is still a solid guard. RB Marshawn Lynch returns this season. He had a pretty unspectacular regular season last year but everyone remembers his game changing run against the Saints in the playoffs last season. The Seahawks hope to see more of that guy. The biggest questions for the Seahawks will come on defense. They are very young on the defensive side of the ball and have been at the bottom of the league for a few years now. I expect a fall from first to last for Seattle. Jackson has made the playoffs before but that was when he had immense talent around him. He will have some talent on offense but the defense will be putting the Seahawks in many holes this season. The Seahawks will be in the thick of the divisional race due to its mediocrity but no playoffs to show for that mediocrity this season.

Prediction: 5-11