Time to Kick it Off – From the Bird’s Nest
Well, here we go. Another season in the National Football League. (For some reason, every time I write that, I think of Howard Cosell.) It all starts tonight when the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants play host to the Dallas Cowboys.
And, what would the season be without predictions? Mine usually bear no resemblance to how the standings really look at the end of the season, but what the heck.
AFC EAST: 1. New England, 2. Buffalo 3. New York Jets 4. Miami
Remember when this used to be a good division? Now it's just the Patriots by default. And, New England is really good. Stevan Ridley will get a chance to take over for the departed Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. Most of the cast of characters are the same, though. I'm taking Buffalo second. With Mario Williams, they've shown they actually might be serious. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't Tom Brady, but he isn't Mark Sanchez, either. Fitzpatrick was having a really good season last year when he suffered cracked ribs and was pretty mediocre the second half of the season. I don't know if the Bills are a playoff team, but they're good enough to finish second in this division. The Jets are in such disarray that it's almost laughable. Their chemistry is lacking, they talk too much, they have two quarterbacks who aren't good enough to make one good one and on it goes. The Jets will still be good defensively but that offense is just terrible. Ditto Miami, where rookie Ryan Tannehill has won the starting job. The receivers are lackluster and that means Tannehill will hand off to Reggie Bush a lot. The defense is going back to a 4-3, which is good for this team.
AFC NORTH 1. Baltimore 2. Pittsburgh 3. Cincinnati 4. Cleveland
Now, this division is pretty good. Any of the top three teams have a chance to win it. And, all three just might be contending for a playoff berth when December rolls around. Baltimore is still the class of the division, though. They'll have a new face or two on a defense that's aging a bit, but the defense will still be solid. Ray Rice is one of the league's best backs and Torrey Smith is ready to break out at WR. I'm picking Pittsburgh second, although I like Cincinnati a lot. But, to me, the Bengals are always shaky when they have to play the big boys in this division. Defensively, the Steelers will again be good, but there's a question in the secondary. The offense has the usual cast of characters, but a new coordinator that's going to emphasize the run more often. The Bengals are a year older on offense, and that's a good thing. A. J. Green and Andy Dalton look like home run picks and with Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis at running back, there's some durability. The defense to me is just okay. But if this team continues to improve offensively, that might be enough to make them a playoff team. Cleveland has a new quarterback, a new running back and a new owner. They still have a lot of the same players and will finish last.
1. Houston 2.Tennessee 3. Indianapolis 4. Jacksonville
This division is kind of like the AFC East. There's one really good team, one that is getting better and two that aren't very good at all. Houston might have been in the Super Bowl last year had they stayed healthy. They've got offensive weapons and Wade Phillips is a great defensive coordinator, which will help offset the losses of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. The Titans are getting better. Jake Locker knows he's going to be the quarterback and that in itself will make Tennessee better. He'll get a chance to throw it a lot under Mike Munchak's philosophy. Andrew Luck is the man in Indianapolis and the Colts have themselves another cerebral quarterback. It won't take long for him to be a star in the NFL. Jacksonville might be the worst team in all of football. I don't need to say any more.
AFC WEST 1. Denver 2. Kansas City 3. San Diego 4. Oakland
This might be the most balanced division in football. You could make a case for turning these standings upside down and having a chance to be right. The Broncos made the playoffs last year with Tim Tebow. They'll be better with Peyton Manning. Eric Decker should be his favorite target and the Broncos are going to score some points. The secondary wasn't very good last year, but Denver has addressed that and they have Jack Del Rio as their defensive coordinator. Most of the players that led Kansas City to a division title two years ago were injured last year. They're back and the Chiefs will be solid. Despite injuries to Jamaal Charles (ACL) and Matt Cassell (broken hand, missed seven weeks) KC was still in position to make the playoffs the final weekend. I'm through picking the Chargers to win anything. This group seems to underachieve every year. The offense is capable and the Chargers hope to be better with a new defensive coordinator. Oakland has a new coach, a new GM and a new offense. Carson Palmer can only hope his receivers find some consistency.
WILD CARD TEAMS: Kansas City, Pittsburgh
SUPER BOWL PARTICIPANT: Houston
NFC EAST 1. Philadelphia 2. Dallas 3. NY Giants 4. Washington
Like the AFC East, there's plenty of balance in this division. I'm taking Philly and banking on their -14 turnover differential will be a lot better. And, I'm banking on Michael Vick staying healthy. No guarantees on either. Dallas has been a soft football team. Tony Romo won't toughen them up, but there's a chance DeMarco Murray will. If that happens, the Cowboys can turn some of those close losses into wins. The Giants will be the Giants: Solid defensively, workmanlike offensively and just good enough to maybe be in the playoffs. Washington turns things over to Robert Griffin III and he'll make the 'Skins better. The question mark is the running game. It has to take some of the heat off Griffin.
NFC NORTH--1. Green Bay 2. Chicago 3. Detroit 4. Minnesota
Green Bay is one of those teams that, even if they can't run it, they can move it. Aaron Rodgers is simply a great quarterback. I'm interested to see how Cedric Benson fits in. Green Bay can give up some points, but with a better secondary, they'll be better on that side of the ball. Chicago will be good on offense, better than they've been in a long time. The reason is better receivers. Jay Cutler has to stay healthy,though. Detroit has Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson, but who's going to run the ball. And, who's going to keep other teams from throwing it? Christian Ponder is in his second year as the Vikings quarterback and that will make Minnesota improved. Not enough to escape the cellar in this division, though.
NFC SOUTH 1. Atlanta 2. Carolina 3. New Orleans 4. Tampa Bay
A couple of years back this was the most feared division in football. Not any more. Atlanta is going to be more aggressive than they've been in the past and that's going to mean trouble for opposing defenses. Julio Jones could be an All-Pro this year. Cam Newton was pretty doggone good as a rookie. He'll take another step forward this year. The Panthers were decimated by injuries defensively last year. That's where you'll see the improvement in this team. New Orleans, thanks to the commissioner, is trying not to fall into disarray. Drew Brees probably won't let that happen, but they're really going to miss Sean Payton. And, I'm not sold on the defense. Tampa Bay has a new coach and that alone will make them a little better. But I still think the decent season they had two years ago was somewhat of a fluke.
NFC WEST 1. San Francisco 2. Seattle 3. St. Louis 4. Arizona
The Niners just missed being a Super Bowl team last year because they turned teams over at an alarming rate, much like the Saints did in their Super Bowl run. A team can't count on that every year so San Francisco needed to get better, especially at wideout. And they did. Michael Crabtree got better down the stretch and now Randy Moss is back. That takes the heat off Vernon Davis. Seattle is making strides under Pete Carroll, but the quarterback issue is still unsolved as the season begins. St. Louis has a quarterback and a running back, but their defense is suspect. Arizona has to learn the 3-4 defense and answer real questions at quarterback.
WILD CARD TEAMS: Dallas, Chicago
SUPER BOWL PARTICIPANT: GREEN BAY
SUPER BOWL CHAMPION: GREEN BAY