Like NFL football, I am back. Let me first apologize for my extended absence. And admit that I’ve missed the Sportscolumn community. I swear, there is a method to my madness (reasons for hiatus: pursuit of double major at Washington State University, new puppy, new girlfriend, and inebriation due to lackluster performance by the Dodgers). College classes are no longer fun, my puppy is no longer cute, my girlfriend is no longer…well, my girlfriend, and I’ve completely run out of Keystone. So, it is my privilege to finally be back on my computer, trying to convince and persuade everyone to read my annoying articles and accept my biased viewpoints as fact.
As always, I am pushing the deadline of journalistic timeliness by posting this preview literally ten minutes into the Saints-Vikings season kick-off. Anyway, with my baseball team out of the picture, it’s time to get excited for football season. Here is how I see the season playing out:
– In predicted order of finish
– Predicted record/last year’s record in parentheses
– Wild card picks marked by an asterisk (*)
1. New York Giants (10-6/8-8)
2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7/11-5)
3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8/11-5)
4. Washington Redskins (6-10/4-12)
I’m tired of Eli Manning. I really am. Ever since his selfish debacle at the 2004 draft, he’s always bothered me. But, I must give him credit. He is a good quarterback. Slightly overrated, but still a Super Bowl-winning, forehead-gash-gushing, generally solid NFL quarterback. By simple process of elimination, I choose the Giants to win the NFC East this year.
The Redskins are headed in the right direction with Mike Shanahan, Donovan McNabb and the attempted shipping away of Albert Haynesworth, but they are still a year or two away from challenging the rest of the division.
The Eagles made a huge mistake not retaining McNabb. I don’t know why so many people get wood for Kevin Kolb, but he has shown me nothing. He is surrounded by a lot of talent, so I’ll give them a shot, but I just don’t expect anything better than .500 football out of Philadelphia this year.
The Cowboys are the greatest threat to the Giants this year, but I just don’t trust the personnel. I’m honestly still not sold on Tony Romo, and I think Wade Phillips is absolutely the wrong fit for this football team. To avoid basing my picks too much on personal feelings rather than statistics, I do believe the Giants and Cowboys both have a legitimate shot at the division. If the Cowboys take both rivalry games this year, they’ll take it down. Split, or get swept? Better luck next year.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3/11-5)
2. Minnesota Vikings* (11-5/12-4)
3. Chicago Bears (8-8/7-9)
4. Detroit Lions (2-14/4-12)
Part of me hates saying this, because the Packers have tormented my 49ers as long as I can remember. Because we (yes, “we”…let me have this, I can fantasize about actually being part of the team, okay?) passed over Aaron Rodgers and took Alex Smith with the 1st pick in 2005. But honestly, the Packers are filthy good this year. Every aspect of their team looks like it’s in peak condition. Rodgers might be a front-runner for MVP. The rest of the offense is confident and athletic. The defense is bruising. I will swallow my pride for the purpose of keeping my integrity and say the Packers will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl this season.
Breaking news: Brett Favre is back! Kill me now. Part of me loves saying this, because Favre has single-handedly bent my 49ers over and forced us into a position that would make Ron Jeremy cringe for as long as I can remember. Because someday, that ancient body of his will be cracked in two by a roid-raging defensive lineman. For now, it feels great to say the Vikings will not win the NFC North this season! Hah, take that! Eh…now, don’t get me wrong. Minnesota is still a very good football team. Favre, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and a slew of other Pro Bowlers return from last year’s NFC Championship team and they have revenge on their minds.
The Bears will go as far as Jay Cutler takes them. I had to triple check my sources to make sure that what I was reading was correct: 26 interceptions last year. My god…my great aunt Doris could have put up better numbers from her grave. I expect significant improvement from Cutler, but I still don’t think he has what it takes to lead a team like the Bears past teams like the Packers or Vikings.
The Lions will be better. They’ve made good draft choices the last couple years, and the law of averages says that they can’t be the doormat of the NFL forever. Look for a couple more wins, an impressive improvement by Matt Stafford and a possible Rookie of the Year campaign from Ndamukong Suh.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3/13-3)
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6/9-7)*
3. Carolina Panthers (6-10/8-8)
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12/3-13)
The defending-champion Saints are no longer the “team of destiny.” But they are still damn good. Arguably the best quarterback in the league, Drew Brees, will try to rack up another 4,000 yards on the way to another Super Bowl berth. I think the competition in the NFC has improved to a point where seeing a repeat performance is near impossible. The Saints will earn home-field advantage and a first round bye in the playoffs but unless they play out of their minds, I don’t see them returning to the Super Bowl. Okay, don’t count them out with that offense…who said analysts have to be decisive?
The Falcons are my pick to be that surprise-but-not-really-a-surprise-dark-horse-that-was-more-like-lightly-shaded team and take the second wild card spot in the NFC this year. Matt Ryan and Michael Turner should both bounce back with stronger seasons. The Falcons could be a dangerous wild card team, depending on the kind of momentum they carry into the postseason. I could see them producing as many as 12 regular-season wins.
The Panthers and Bucs both are sad stories to me. I still love the Bucs for destroying the Raiders in the 2002 Super Bowl and I always liked how Jake Delhomme and his mates played back in the day. And although they are both in the very, very early stages of re-building, I’m rooting for them. Josh Freeman ignites a little interest in me for the Bucs and I also look forward to seeing how young players like Jimmy Clausen and Jonathan Stewart perform in Carolina. For now, we’ll just sit back and shake our heads.
1. San Francisco 49ers (11-5/8-8)
2. Seattle Seahawks (8-8/5-11)
3. Arizona Cardinals (7-9/10-6)
4. St. Louis Rams (4-12/1-15)
Did you expect anything less out of an admitted Niner addict? Seriously though, Alex Smith is looking a lot better and his teammates recently were quoted as saying that he has a lot more confidence and is finally taking a verbal leadership role. Being healthy, playing behind a talented offensive line, not having to learn a new playbook, and having an arsenal of weapons around him must make Smith feel relieved for the first time since becoming a pro. With Michael Crabtree for a full season, a rejuvenated Frank Gore, and the freakishly athletic Vernon Davis on the same offensive unit, would give any 49er fan reason for optimism. Nate Clements back healthy for a full year and Ted Ginn, Jr. solving last year’s return woes, I see no reason why the 49ers won’t steamroll the West en route to the playoffs.
Pete Carroll is bringing some spark to the Northwest this year. Unfortunately, he’s also bringing a revolving door of players. My brain hurts from following the ticker on signs and cuts on the Seattle roster. One player I’m excited to watch is former bust Mike Williams. Maybe he can only play well under Carroll. Either way, with a fiery young coach and likely a healthy quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, fans in Seattle should see some improvement this year.
Oh, the Arizona Cardinals. I feel no sympathy for them as a division rival, but how the might have fallen. Anquan Boldin: gone. Kurt Warner: gone. Playoff hopes: long gone. The quarterback situation in Arizona is extremely shaky now and even with Larry Fitzgerald and a pretty deep defense, the Cards just won’t be able to stack up with the rest of the West, let alone the rest of the NFC.
Mark my words: the Rams will be four times better than they were a year ago. Unfortunately, that still means that they will have four wins and be one of the worst teams in football. On the bright side, Sam Bradford will get a lot of experience and they still have Steven Jackson. The Rams are slowly on the way back up, but besides watching the rookie quarterback’s progress, there’s not much to look forward to.
1. New England Patriots (11-5/10-6)
2. New York Jets (9-7/9-7)
3. Miami Dolphins (7-9/7-9)
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11/6-10)
Call me crazy, but I prefer to take the teams that can bark and bite. New England is my old, wise, confident black lab. Always faithful, an easy choice, and extremely badass. New York is the aforementioned puppy; the new kid on the block that barks big but runs away with her tail between her legs when challenged. I don’t buy into Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez or anyone else on the Jets. Now, they are talented and they do have potential to be a playoff team. But I’m not going to bet the farm on them like everyone else seems to want to. In fact, I don’t think they will even improve on last year’s record. This is supposed to be the year that New York takes the division, romps through the playoffs and takes the Super Bowl. They just aren’t good enough…anyone watch them in the pre-season? They looked terrible. For the Jets’ sake, I hope this season humbles them and they keep their mouths shut next season and start playing ball instead of just talking about it.
The Dolphins and Bills aren’t much of a story to me. Brandon Marshall is the biggest storyline, and that’s just frustrating to think about. They are both pretty stagnant right now. Yawn…which brings us back to the Patriots. Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Bill Belichick; the picture of consistency. I don’t expect any flare, any dramatics from New England this season, but all those things I don’t expect, translate into a big expectation in the win column
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-4/9-7)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6/9-7)*
3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6/10-6)
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12/5-11)
I’m going to slobber over the Ravens this year almost as much as I did over the Packers earlier. Almost as much as Ben Roethlisberger does over teenage girls. Zing! Anyway, the Ravens defense is still ferocious. Joe Flacco has unlimited receiving weapons. Ray Rice is going to really break out this season. You have to like a team that has Ray Lewis on one side of the ball and receivers like Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth on the other side. No matter how you flip it, the Ravens have to be a favorite in the AFC this year. The North division has three legitimate playoff contenders, and may end up containing the most interesting race in all of football.
The big storyline with the Steelers was Ben Roethlisberger, of course. I’m excited to see Dennis Dixon get a 4-game stretch in which to prove himself. With Hines Ward, Heath Miller and a solid D, the Steelers will still eek into the playoffs as the Wild Card. I’d be totally content with seeing Dixon play his way into the starting role.
The Bengals were a feel-good story last year. They still have the talent to pull off 10 wins, although it may be a stretch. T.O. and Chad Ochocinco will form a formidable duo (Owens could honestly garner attention for Comeback Player of the Year) for Carson Palmer to throw to. If they win 10 games, they may slide into the playoffs, but anything less and I don’t think they’ll be in.
The Browns are the Browns, so let’s leave it at that.
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4/14-2)
2. Houston Texans (11-5/9-7)*
3. Tennessee Titans (9-7/8-8)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8/7-9)
Similar to the AFC East, the Texans are the sexy pick to overtake the Colts and cement a new regime at the top. No doubt the Texans are looking like a playoff contender, but Matt Schaub still isn’t Peyton Manning. It will be a fun division to follow this year, but I’m afraid we’ll have the same old result. The Colts are still the class of the AFC, and are defending that title. I think the Texans will split the season series with Indy, but it won’t quite be enough. Like the Falcons, the Texans will be a dangerous Wild Card team going into the playoffs.
The Titans are interesting. They seem to hover around .500 every year lately, but I have a feeling Vince Young is going to have a nice resurgence this season. They have the most explosive running back in the NFL and plenty of other talent at skill positions. They seem a bit too inconsistent to turn what they have into a playoff berth, but look out for them in a couple years.
The Jaguars are also a program on their way up, and the 8-8 record I’ve predicted may even be a bit generous, but I like what they are doing. They may have had a shot in a weaker division like the West, but they may be victims of a very strong AFC South.
1. San Diego Chargers (10-6/13-3)
2. Denver Broncos (8-8/8-8)
3. Oakland Raiders (6-10/5-11)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11/4-12)
I recently read a blog predicting the AFC West Champions to be the Oakland Raiders. That was almost as funny to me as Al Davis saying that he and George Steinbrenner are tied for the most influential, important sports figures of all time (seriously…he said that). Ridiculous bloggers aside, let’s talk business; this division is a mess. The Chargers are in all sorts of personnel trouble right now. The Broncos have an overconfident coach and an over performing quarterback. The Raiders are improved, but still can’t get by with a couple solid players carrying the load. And the Chiefs just aren’t going to dig themselves out of this hole anytime soon.
So, that begs the question: which team has the most talent in this division? Whoever does wins it, no doubt. The Chargers are led by Philip Rivers, the Broncos by Kyle Orton, the Raiders by Jason Campbell and the Chiefs by Matt Cassel. Need I say more? The Chargers may be in an awkward position with Vincent Jackson right now, but they still have Antonio Gates, Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Matthews, and a pretty good defense. I would be shocked to see any other team than San Diego come out of this division.
Wild Card Round:
NFC: 49ers def. Giants, Falcons def. Vikings
AFC: Texans def. Chargers, Colts def. Steelers
NFC: Packers def. Falcons, Saints def. 49ers
AFC: Patriots def. Colts, Texans def. Ravens
NFC: Packers def. Saints
AFC: Patriots def. Texans
And just for fun…
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Offensive P.O.Y.: Andre Johnson, WR, Texans
Defensive P.O.Y.: Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers
Offensive R.O.Y.: Ryan Matthews, RB, Chargers
Defensive R.O.Y.: Ndamukong Suh, DL, Lions
NFC Comeback P.O.Y.: Michael Turner, RB, Falcons
AFC Comeback P.O.Y.: Terrell Owens, WR, Bengals
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, Ravens