With preseason play coming to a close, and the NFL season only one week away, it’s time to make largely unfounded but highly anticipated season predictions. Though I condemn the idea in principle, I could not resist predicting the records of each team. I acknowledge that quite a bit can change during the course of a season, so I do not expect these records to accurately predict so much as convey how I envision the relative strength of each team’s opening day roster. So, without further ado…AFC East
Perenially one of football’s strongest divisions, the AFC East, and in particular the Jets and Patriots, will continue to perform well against the NFL’s elite. I am not as sanguine about the Bills and Dolphins, however, because both teams suffer from poor quarterbacking and coaching.
New England Patriots (13-3): Despite the loss of both their offensive and defensive coordinators, the Patriots remain the NFL’s best team. They have the game’s best player in Tom Brady, as well as its best coach in Bill Belichik, and the two combine to form what has been, to this point at least, an unstoppable postseason combination. If the Patriots do not win the Superbowl this year, I would be shocked.
New York Jets (11-5): The key any team’s success in today’s NFL is health, and nowhere does this ring more true than the Meadowlands. If Pennington, Abraham, Martin, and/or Law go down for an extended period of time – and there is reason to suspect at least one or two of them well – the Jet’s chances of winning are severely jeopardized. Despite this potential achilles heel, I predict a strong season for the New York Jets.
Buffalo Bills (5-11): This team made the right move in unloading Drew Bledsoe, but it means, at least in my opinion, that this year will be spent struggling through J.P. Losman’s learning process. A strong defense and solid running game should provide enough support to muster a few victories; ultimately, though, as this team prepares its quarterback of the future, this season will be a lost cause.
Miami Dolphins (4-12): College coaches rarely succeed at the NFL level, with Pete Carroll, Butch Davis, and Steve Spurrier among the most recent to experience failure. Nick Saban has no quarterback, no offense in general, and his aggressive and sometimes ruthless personality is sure make some enemies in the locker room as the Dolphin’s losses mount. The Dolphins should be able to beat a few NFC teams, maybe the Bills at home, and that’s about it.
The AFC North will welcome a new champion, the Baltimore Ravens, and its previous leader not only relinquishes its title but takes a significant step back this year. Add a Cleveland team in the rebuilding phase, a Cincinnati team mired in mediocrity, and you have one of the least exciting divisions to watch in all of football. The Bengals, at least, have an offense.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6): The Ravens sport the NFL’s premier defense; unfortunately, Kyle Boller is their quarterback. Boller will lose almost as many games as the defense wins. Even Derrick Mason and healthy Todd Heap don’t matter if the quarterback can’t deliver them the ball. Because of its one-dimensional offense, this team is not ready to beat the Patriots, but the other AFC teams are well within the Ravens’ reach.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): The Bengals will suffer through yet another season of near contention, pleasantly surprising fans with unexpected wins over upper echelon teams, only to devastatingly disappoint their faithful the following week with unexplainable losses to perennial cellar-dwellers. The Bengals are simply inconsistent. A breakout season by Carson Palmer should allow them to finish above .500, however.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-9): The emergence of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers run were great stories last year, but all good things must come to an end. In the second half, Roethlisberger looked anything but stellar, nearly causing his team a loss against the Jets and undoubdtedly hurting his team severely against the Patriots in the playoffs. He loses a power running game that kept defenses honest, as well as one of his primary threats, Plaxico Burress. Throw in a defense coming off a year in which it overperformed, only to be exposed in the playoffs, and you have a team taking more than a small step back.
Cleveland Browns (5-11): Five wins is perhaps a generous estimate, but then again, that is only one for each of Romeo Crennel’s superbowl rings. It is one of the great travesties of the NFL that Crennel had to wait this long to get a head coaching position. I think that under his leadership, the Browns will contend in the future, but it is hard to see them winning many games this year.
With the exception of the Colts, this division is very difficult to predict. Houston is likeable, Tennessee always manages to surprise, and Jacksonville showed promise last year. Of these three, however, I only see Jacksonville as a legitimate contender.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5): The Colts have one big problem: the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, the Colts must change to solve this problem, because it is not going away, and their current approach to beating the Patriots has virtually no chance of succeeding. The biggest problem is that the Colts are always outcoached by Bill Belichik, especially in the playoffs. This is an insurmountable problem, because nobody has been able to outcoach Belichik for several years now, and he especially owns Peyton Manning. Throw in that the Colts cannot secure homefield advantage in the playoffs because of their subpar defense, and you have another year of offensive fireworks and postseason meltdowns.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6): I’m taking a gamble with the Jaguars; I just can’t resist their upside. If you ignore their late season meltdown, and in particular their implosion at home to the Texans, the Jaguars were a legitimate contender in the AFC last year. Of course, some people will turn precisely to that meltdown, point out the Jaguars offensive inconsistencies and weaknesses, and proclaim another season of mediocrity. I, on the other hand, will not especially confidently tout the Jaguars as a playoff surprise. I am regretting this decision already, so let’s move on…
Houston Texans (7-9): Like the Bengals, for the last couple of seasons the Texans seemed poised for a breakout year. Then the season starts, and the team immediately reverts to mediocrity. Unfortunately, I have little optimism that this season will unfold any differently for the Texans, who have made few upgrades and continue to wait for the emergence of David Carr as a consistent quarterback.
Tennessee Titans (5-11): The Titans have strung together quite a few strong seasons, but cap problems and old age are taking their toll. Steve McNair’s body is deteriorating, and so are the Titans. This team is simply not very talented, though it continues to be well-coached. The Titans may be rebuilding, but they are hardly a guaranteed win. Many a hard-fought battle will come up short this year for Tennessee.
One of the NFL’s strongest divisions contains two of its most well-rounded – but also underachieving – teams: the Broncos and Chargers. The Broncos suffer from poor quarterback play and spotty coaching, while the Chargers are led by one of the worst playoff coaches in NFL history. The Chiefs will continue to score thirty points a game, and lose. And the Raiders are led by Kerry Collins, which is all that needs to be said.
San Diego Chargers (10-6): Arguably the NFL’s third most complete team behind the Patriots and Eagles, the Chargers have one looming weakness: Marty Schottenheimer. They’ll win regular season games because of their multi-faceted offense and consistent defense, but the playoffs will once again provide the forum for an epic Marty Schottenheimer coaching debacle. It’s too bad, really, because this is a very likeable team.
Denver Broncos (9-7): The Broncos are a team that needs to change for sake of change, and unfortunately that means parting ways with one of the NFL’s best coaches, Mike Shanahan. Shanahan has simply been in Denver too long. Couple an incumbent coach with Jake Plummer’s sub-par quarterbacking, and you have a talented team that is just treading water for another season. The playoff embarrassments of the last two years should have signaled that a significant overhaul was necessary.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9): Patrick Surtain and Kendrell Bell do not a defense make, and some semblance of defense is necessary to win games in today’s NFL. The Chiefs should be better than last year, but then again, that’s hardly saying anything. This team is making a move in the right direction, but year will not reward that move. They remain one of the NFL’s most exciting teams. Excitement, however, does not translate into wins.
Oakland Raiders (6-10): Warren Sapp, Randy Moss, Charles Woodson and…Kerry Collins? Don’t get me wrong, Collins throws one of the prettiest balls in the NFL, assuming you don’t mind it landing on the ground, or, too often, the awaiting arms of a defensive player. Collins, despite his tendencies toward innacuracy and poor decision making, is actually by far the best quarterback the Raider’s have; the words, “And Kerry Collins is down” should scare Raider fans to death. Of course, the words, “Kerry Collins steps back to pass” should too.