The NFL season is only a few HOURS away. We had a nice appetizer of college football last weekend, now it is time for the main course. It is unreal how much bigger football has become in America year by year. I don’t know if it’s the decline of the other major sports, or if fantasy football really is that big a deal (see here). So before things get started, I wanted to share my preseason thoughts and Stick’s Picks for division winners. Before you make your predictions, hear me out first. (Warning: long article but worth the read)
AFC North- Lets starts off with one of the strongest divisions in football. There has been a lot of movement between each team in the off-season so don’t expect the Bengals to repeat their 6-0 division record. I still believe the Steelers have the best talent in this division, but you have to account for the first four games of the year during Roethlisberger’s suspension. If Pittsburgh can manage two wins during these games, they can stay afloat until Big Ben returns. Not to mention, the return of one of the best safeties in the game (Polamalu) can’t hurt either. As for the most-intriguing storyline, the T-Ocho show. Not many teams have players with their own reality show, let alone two.The Bengals did fine last year without TO so why do they take on the extra headache. They even went as far as to forfeit millions of dollars to Antonio Bryant to leave room for their deep receiving corps. However, I love the concept of Jordan Shipley in the slot. Shipley possesses everything of a Wes Welker and more (taller, faster), so things might be looking up for Cincinnati. My only concern with the Bengals is Carson Palmer. Can he be the Heisman winner of old, or will all this new talent force him to make more mistakes? Another contender, the Baltimore Ravens, have been the hot pick for a Super Bowl contender. First of all, whenever there is a hot pick for the Super Bowl, that team hardly ever makes it. The Ravens have a solid offense with the acquisition of Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, in addition to the development of Ray Rice and Joe Flacco. But I am concerned with their defense. Yes, I am worried about the Raven’s defense. How quickly things have changed when a team can goes from one of the best defenses of all time to a shaky defense. Other than Ed Reed and an aging Ray Lewis, this defense has lost its step. I’ll finish up with a quick look at the Cleveland Browns. If the Browns manage to get more than four wins this season that is an accomplishment in my book. Signing Jake Delhomme after one of the worst quarterback performances and drafting Colt McCoy in the third round tells me this team is not ready for prime time. Sorry Cleveland, but may the curse of Lebron James be forever haunted in Cleveland sports.
Stick’s Pick: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC East- From a strong division to maybe even a stronger one. Beginning with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills will be awful, end of discussion. On to the Patriots, my sleeper team. The Patriots are like a Nintendo 64. Awesome until better things like the Playstation II and Xbox arrived. But, technology has advanced so rapidly, that you may have more fun playing Nintendo 64. That in a nutshell is the 2010 New England Patriots. They used to be great until more teams started improving, but then you realize the Patriots are still a great team! Last I checked Tom Brady is still a three-time Super Bowl champion. Other than Moss and Brady, only three other players are over 30 years old. The Patriots are once again a young team. Not since 2001 did the Patriots have a team with such young talent (and Adam Viniateri sure knows what happened that season). The Miami Dolphins are also in the process of having an improved team this season. Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano (no, not Tony Soprano) have worked their magic to transform this Dolphin team from a one-win team to a ten-win playoff caliber team in the course of three seasons. When you have a good defense, two Pro-Bowl caliber running backs, and a Quarterback with a strong arm, things tend to work out in the end. Plus, the wildcat offense is still a force to be reckoned with. This leads me to the self-proclaimed AFC East powerhouse, the New York Jets. Having watched every episode of Hard Knocks, the Jets are my sentimental favorite to win the division. I don’t know if it’s Rex Ryan’s glowing personality, the emergence of Mark Sanchez or, the resurgence of LT, but I like the Jets for double digit wins this season. Oh yes, and I forgot to mention the Jets league-best defense. Even before the Darrelle Revis signing, the Jets were still a top defense in the NFL. So adding the NFL’s best defensive back can’t hurt. Like I said about the Texas Longhorns (here), with a deep running game and an elite defense, it’s going to be tough to beat this team.
Stick’s Pick: New York Jets
Wild Card: New England Patriots
AFC West- The second-worst division in football (congratulations NFC West for being the worst). I was shocked to see Vegas predicting the Chargers to win eleven games or more this season. I personally have jumped headfirst off the Chargers bandwagon. The Chargers still have Gates and Rivers but it’s tough losing your best running back, defensive back, and receiver all in one off-season. Another thing I’d like to point out, Ryan Matthews is one of the most overrated rookies I have seen in recent memory. Do people not realize this is one of the worst offensive lines in professional football? On to another over-rated team, the Denver Broncos. Any team that has more than one quarterback has no quarterback. When I honestly believe Tim Tebow will be the starting quarterback by the end of the season, that isn’t a good sign. The Oakland Raiders will continue being the Oakland Raiders. A major quarterback improvement might get them to seven wins but nothing more. My dark horse for this division is the Kansas City Chiefs. Charlie Weis at offensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel at defensive coordinator, and Matt Cassell at quarterback. I see they are still trying to capture that Patriots magic a few seasons back. My only concern with this team is the head coach Todd Haley. His resume (or lack thereof) doesn’t quite fit in with his other coaches. I predict eight or nine wins from this division.
Stick’s Pick: Kansas City Chiefs
AFC South- The official division of the Indianapolis Colts. As long as Peyton Manning is under center, the Colts are the easiest lock in professional football. So, let’s look at the three other teams possibly fighting for a wildcard spot. Jacksonville reached its peak a few years ago, and nowadays, all they are good for is Maurice Jones-Drew’s fantasy numbers. The Texans have been on the cusp of a playoff birth for who knows how long. Both Schaub and Andre had career seasons last year, and that still left them sitting at home. If I led the Texans, Kubiak would be on the hot seat. When every analyst has been picking the Texans as their sleeper playoff pick, it goes to show you that lack of talent isn’t the issue… possibly the lack of coaching? And to Texans players: let’s focus on making the playoffs before you say your goal is to get to the Super Bowl. On to the Titans. The Titans are one of those teams with the same odds of losing ten games as they do winning ten. I have them winning ten. Despite what you may say, Chris Johnson and the Titans O-line are as good as you think. Vince Young showed last season that he doesn’t need to be the man. It’s a tough adjustment to make going from first fiddle all your life to second fiddle (just ask Lebron James).
Stick’s Pick: Indianapolis Colts
Wild Card: Tennessee Titans
NFC West: Starting from the weakest division to the strongest. The NFC West is by far the weakest division in football. When a team has a legit shot to win the division at 7-9 that speaks for itself. So with that in mind, I’ll go quickly. The St Louis Rams have a rookie quarterback, the Cardinals lost Kurt Warner (huge loss), and the Seahawks have no talent (quick, name four good players on the Seahawks). That leaves San Francisco. Mike Singletary has transformed a once dying franchise back into the spotlight. Last year, the 49ers defense allowed the fourth fewest points in the league. Their offense is still a work in progress, but all the tools are in place. I am expecting a lot from running back Frank Gore this season, or else (he is on most of my fantasy teams). Only question mark is quarterback Alex Smith. If he is even half as good as his top pick status, San Francisco will easily run away with this division. With six games against their divisional foes and four games against the AFC west, the 49ers have one of the EASIEST schedules in the league.
Stick’s Pick: San Francisco 49ers
NFC North- This division might see a lot of movement versus last year. After some research, it’s looking like the Bears, Lions, and even Vikings might all have similar records this season. This may not surprise some, but it will most definitely surprise the Viking’s bandwagon. I’m sorry Vikings fans but I can’t support a team that sells their soul each season for a washed up quarterback. Are Joe Webb and Tavaris Jackson that bad? Don’t answer that. This team is aging and aging quickly. Other than Adrian Peterson, there isn’t one healthy offensive star on this team. And let’s not forget, Peterson hasn’t always had a clean bill of health either. The Vikings hit their peak last year, and now it’s a long way down. I’m sorry Brett, but you should have hung it up while you had the chance. In contrast, I am putting a lot of stock in the Lions, because they are on the rise. The NFL is a sport that prevents one team from being down for too long. Unlike college football, there are few talent disparities between each team, and the NFL Draft means everything. So with years of patience and some smart roster moves, things will work out in the future. It isn’t hard to argue the Lion’s offense will eventually be great. Stafford throwing to Calvin “Megatron” Johnson” and a healthy Brandon Pettigrew lead to good things. Not to mention, speedy Jahvid Best is a nice addition too. The Lions Achilles heel has been their defense. Just like anything else, improvement takes time. And adding Ndamukong “Donkey Kong” Suh can’t hurt. Suh brings to the Lions what every successful NFL team needs… toughness (check this out if you aren’t sure Suh). As for the Bears, adding offensive coordinator Mike Martz, former Rams coach and offensive mastermind, will hopefully wake up Jay Cutler and make Chicago relevant again. But who knows? The Bears are just like the Titans, the talent is there, but you just never know what’s going to happen. The Green Bay Packers are the hottest team on the planet. I know preseason doesn’t mean anything, but when you are dropping 60 points in a game I don’t care if it’s a team scrimmage. I am “all-in” with the Packers offense this season. Their defense might not have played up to par in the playoffs last season, but their offense makes up for it. Ask the New Orleans Saints! Their offense was so great, that their defense was constantly playing with the lead (and believe me, that changes everything). Don’t forget the Packers had one of the best point differentials last season with 10.2 (only trailing the Saints at 10.6). For those who don’t understand this, the average playoff team differential is five, so needless to say 10 is darn good. I like Aaron Rodgers for a possible MVP candidate this season, as well as the Packers to lock down home field in the NFC. And we all know what Lambeau Field is like come January.
Stick’s Pick: Green Bay Packers
NFC South- This division is always a toss-up. I don’t care if one team did win the Super Bowl last year, the NFC South is missing one thing: consistency. An interesting statistic for you: the last place team in this division has won their division the following year six of the past eight seasons. Sadly, I don’t see this crazy statistic carrying over to this season. Sorry, Tampa Bay. If Tampa Bay wins four or more games this year, I will be shocked. I am not a Carolina fan either. Both Matt Moore and Jimmy Claussen have great upside, but this isn’t their year. Give Claussen a few seasons and he will have Carolina back on top. Then there are the Atlanta Falcons. I believe this is the year the Falcons finally put it together and make a playoff run. If Turner can stay healthy, and their defense is up for the task, I have them winning this division. In the past eight seasons, never has a team in this division held the crown two years in a row. So I award this year’s division crown to the Atlanta Falcons. Last but not least, the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. There is no arguing with the Saints’ 31.9 points per game last season. Their defense made huge strides from the previous season, and was one of the primary reasons they took home the Lombardi trophy (the other being Drew Brees). Just like the Packers, the Saints need to keep their offense at a high level to take much needed pressure off their defense. It would be unpatriotic to have the Saints sitting home after their championship last season.
Stick’s Pick: Atlanta Falcons
Wild Card: New Orleans Saints
NFC East-Finally, the NFC East. As some famous person once said, “Always finish strong.” This division is widely known as one of the best in professional football. You have the Redskins, the Eagles, the New York “Football” Giants, and of course America’s Team. Starting off with one of the more intriguing off-season storylines: the Washington Redskins. There is Albert Haynesworth’s inability to run 300 yards for $15 million, the acquisition of Mr. Eagle (Donovan McNabb), and of course acquiring Hall-of-Fame coach Mike Shanahan. Dan Snyder must love himself for the amount of media coverage this team is generating. Are the Redskins relevant again? Maybe so. As stated in my fantasy article (here), I love Clinton Portis to have a productive season this year under offensive guru Shanahan. And when does Donovan McNabb not give NFC East divisional foes’ problems? All I know, is it’s going to be an interesting Sunday night game with the Redskins and Cowboys. The Philadelphia Eagles also feel pretty good about themselves. I mean they traded six-time Pro-Bowler and the best statistical Eagle QB of all time within their division. All of this so they can develop their 2007 second-round draft pick out of the University of Houston. It is obvious this team wants to get younger (releasing Hall of Famer Brian Westbrook too). But the main consequence of getting younger: you can’t win now. This Eagles’ team can’t win now. Look for Kolb to struggle out of the gate, as well as head-case receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson is surely going to miss McNabb’s ability to throw the deep ball. Then you have the New York “Football” Giants. This team is somehow flying under the national radar. Last I checked, just two seasons ago they knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. So this team is still good. Pencil them in every year for at least eight wins, and the rest is up to Eli. The defense that was once dominant finished third to last in the league allowing 27.3 points per game. I fully expect this defense to turn things around, and finish as a top ten defense in the league. And let’s not forget, the Giants are the Cowboy’s kryptonite. Speaking of the Dallas Cowboys, this is their year. 2700 words later, and I can finally talk about MY Cowboys. I had the pleasure of obtaining a field pass for this year’s Cowboys training camp, and sat in on Jerry’s press conference. You could tell in Jerry’s tone that this stadium was constructed for the sole purpose of having the Cowboys play in it for the Super Bowl. Never has a NFL team played the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Did I mention this is the 50th anniversary of the Dallas Cowboys franchise? Did I mention this is the most talented roster Dallas has put together since the 1996 Super Bowl team? Time is ticking. Almost everyone in this organization (except for Jerry Jones) is on the hot seat. Then you add the second-toughest schedule in the league (Texans with the hardest), and things don’t get easier for Tony Romo. This was the NFL’s 2nd best defense last season (only trailing the Jets). They have the perfect speed-power running back combo, a stacked receiver corps, the league’s best tight end, and a celebrity Quarterback. Plus, no other NFL owner had a role in HBO’s “Entourage”. In football terms, this is the year of the Cowboys. As long as the hole in the roof stays open, God will be able to watch his team shine.
Stick’s Pick: Dallas Cowboys
Wild Card: New York Giants
As they say on Monday Night Football, “ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?”
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