After a 2009 season which saw three teams from each conference return to the post season (Ravens, Colts, Chargers, Eagles, Vikings, Cardinals) and three new teams make it in each conference (Patriots, Jets, Bengals, Cowboys, Packers, Saints) the 2010 season figures to give us some favorite standards and some new surprises as well. Here's a look at my picks and predictions for what's coming down the pike in 2010.
1.) New England Patriots (10-6): Only two times during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era have the Patriots not won the AFC East. Both times the Patriots had the same record as the division winner but lost on a tie-breaker, Brady's second year and in 2008 when Brady was injured. I understand there are those who feel this was the end of a dynasty going out on a whimper at home against Baltimore last year and their secondary is nothing to write home about. Yet I really love their late season schedule from about Thanksgiving on. If this squad stays injury free there's no reason they shouldn't be playing with a chip on their shoulders this season.
2.) Miami Dolphins (10-6)*: The Dolphins made two of the biggest splashes in free agency this off-season, landing Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby. Look at the quarterback position with Chad Henne and his progression vs. that of Mark Sanchez. For Henne it's better completions, completion percentage, yards, as many TD's, less INT's and a better passer rating. This with a better running attack than anyone in the division (if not the league) and adding Marshall, a top wide-out. Remember they did beat the Jets twice last year too. If the defense even improves a little bit, they're a playoff team.
3.) New York Jets (9-7): Two years ago the Jets finished 9-7 because of Brett Favre. Last year it was 9-7 by virtue of the league's number one ranked defense. This season Rex Ryan hopes what happened to Eric Mangini after he took the Jets to a surprising playoff finish in his first season as coach, doesn't end in a big time flop the second time around. They were way too streaky for my taste and take a look at their schedule to close out last season. An end of the road Jake Delhomme led Panthers team, followed by non-playoff teams such as the Bills, Bucs and Falcons, the Curtis Painter Colts and a Cincy team that had already clinched their division and mailed it in.
4.) Buffalo Bills (4-12): If the Bills could go 7-9 virtually every year of the Dick Jauron era, surely they could do at least that if not better under Chan Gailey right? Well maybe not and don't call me Shirley. C.J. Spiller is my early pick for NFL rookie of the year (yes even with that abysmal O-line) and they have a decent secondary anchored by Jarius Byrd. Yet I can't see Buffalo doing too much when the three teams ahead of them all have nine plus win potential.
1.) Baltimore Ravens (12-4): With Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh on board at receiver along with Derrick Mason are we even going to recognize the Ravens anymore? Though their defense ranked third last season, there are some question marks surrounding the health of the secondary. Establishing pressure up front will be key or else Baltimore could find themselves in a lot of shoot-outs in 2010.
2.) Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7): Pittsburgh is likely the most balanced team in the AFC North. Perhaps the urgency of not having Ben Roethlisberger in the starting lineup the first four games will spur the Steelers early on. Urgency they didn't have while losing to the likes of Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland in the second half last year. Troy Polamalu is clearly the leader of this defense and was limited to only five games last year. If Polamalu is healthy then Pittsburgh should keep focused no matter who their quarterback is.
3.) Cincinnati Bengals (7-9): A team that looked like world beaters at times, going 6-0 in the division and knocking off the Green Bay Packers early, the Bengals faltered down the stretch, losing three of their last four before bowing out in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. With an even tougher schedule this year I can't see the Bengals with only four wins outside the division last year, pulling off another division title this season.
4.) Cleveland Browns (5-11): It's not how you start but how you finish. For last year's Browns who won two of their first three and finished as one of the hotter teams in the league by capturing their last four, the problem pounds for the "Dawg Pound" resided in the middle of the schedule. This year Cleveland gets two easy draws in Tampa and Kansas City. If Eric Mangini can get out of Jake Delhomme what he got out of Chad Pennington and if Jerome Harrison can carry over his strong finish, which included a 286 yard rushing day against the Chiefs, this season the Browns could play an even bigger spoiler role.
1.) Indianapolis Colts (13-3): With the Colts, as it was with the Patriots of 2008 we now have an answer to the question of whether or not it is prudent to step on the gas or rest one's players when having an unbeaten record in late December. That answer of course is it doesn't matter if the team you're playing in the Super Bowl plays an outstanding game defensively. The Colts might just have the best chemistry in the league, the opposite approach of say the Patriots. The only way this team doesn't win the South is if Peyton Manning isn't on the field.
2.) Tennessee Titans (11-5)*: I love the Titans schedule and no matter how screwy he is Vince Young knows how to win football games. So too does Jeff Fisher. Remember folks, the Titans won 13 games just two years ago and won eight with a bad start last year. With Chris Johnson blowing it up in the backfield last year, you can't blame Titans fans for having flashbacks of Steve McNair and Eddie George going through their heads.
3.) Houston Texans (8-8): If ever there was a phrase to describe the Texans, "playing just well enough to lose" might be an apt description. Sure there's Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub on offense and some young emerging stars on defense, but their schedule is absolutely brutal. They only went 1-5 in the division last year and with the NFC East and teams like the Chargers and Jets on the schedule, another 9-7 campaign just isn't going to cut it.
4.) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew thes not a whole lot to get excited about surrounding the Jags.
1.) San Diego Chargers (11-5): The only team to win their division in consecutive seasons in the AFC, your San Diego Chargers. This is clearly Philip Rivers team now with L.T. gone. For a team that has traditionally gotten off to slow starts, the first six weeks of their schedule should be a breeze.
2.) Oakland Raiders (7-9): With Jason Campbell in the mix and if Darren McFadden can stay on the field, with the way their schedule is structured this club could finally hit .500.
3.) Denver Broncos (6-10): There's no way this team is starting out 6-0 again and for a team that utterly collapsed last year that's not a good sign. Additionally not a good sign if your best defensive player (Elvis Dumervil) is done for the year and your best offensive player now wears teal.
4.) Kansas City Chiefs (5-11): I loved the pick of Eric Berry for their defense and I also believe Thomas Jones was one of the more underrated signings of the off-season. Also loved the hiring of new offensive and defensive coordinators. But the defense is still a big work in progress.
1.) New York Giants (11-5): Traditionally the Giants during the Tom Coughlin era have been quick starters but have worn down late. While I'm not in love with their late season schedule I???m a big believe that when this team flies under the radar, they usually step it up. Yes they've upgraded immensely in their secondary, but the key to this team is the pass rush. If Justin Tuck and Osi Umeniyora are 100% they should thrive, if not well sad day for the Giants.
2.) Dallas Cowboys (10-6)*: For all the hype and praise that Tony Romo gets, the only team to allow fewer points than the Cowboys defense last season was the New York Jets. The Cowboys will be banking on that defense as their schedule includes seven opponents who each scored over 400 points in 2009.
3.) Washington Redskins (8-8): How much are a new quarterback and coach worth to a team? Well if you take the Minnesota formula with a top ten defense, in Washington's case I???d say enough to challenge for a Wild Card. Some don't believe the Redskins have enough at the skill positions on offense, but is it really anything worse than what Donovan McNabb had to work with in the duration of his time in Philadelphia?
4.) Philadelphia Eagles (6-10): I'm a big Andy Reid fan but they're going to miss Donovan McNabb more than they'd like to admit. They have some good skill guys on offense, I don't love their defense as much, but the Eagles have been resourceful before under Reid.
1.) Green Bay Packers (13-3): In the old NFL there used to be a year-to-year building up where a team would take the torch and climb over the hump. It's not like that anymore but the Packers make the best case for it. It took Steve Young three full years as a starter to win the Super Bowl following Joe Montana and it's year three of Aaron Rodgers starting in place of Brett Favre. Young also won a year after Montana lost in the AFC Championship Game. Last year Favre lost in the NFC Championship Game. "Deja vu." This team is as solid as it gets on both sides of the ball.
2.) Minnesota Vikings (11-5)*: If Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson can cut down on the mistakes when it counts, this team could go deep into the NFC playoffs once again. I love what this team does up front on defense as well.
3.) Chicago Bears (7-9): Da Bears could be very fun and frustrating to watch this season. In a pass happy league, coupled with having Rodgers and Favre in the same division, it can't hurt having Mike Martz on board to help Jay Cutler. More important to their success is the addition of Julius Peppers and the health of Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris. Their defense will keep them in the hunt, but they need to cut down on the mistakes big time.
4.) Detroit Lions (3-13): Once upon a time the Lions running back was the best. Now their running back is Jahvid Best. They are making some strides on both sides of the ball through some off-season dealings. But hey Jason Hanson is still hanging in there after all these years in their kicking game.
1.) New Orleans Saints (12-4): Beware the "Madden Curse" Drew Brees. Aside from that their schedule looks like a breeze. Once this team gets you in a track meet, you're done. They also finished second in takeaways and tied for first in points scored off turnovers. Their defense scored only 34 points less (175-141) than the St. Louis Rams offense.
2.) Carolina Panthers (9-7): Carolina Panthers: John Fox coached teams are always solid on defense. The Panthers during the Fox era are usually up one year and down the next. If momentum is worth anything, the Panthers could be in decent shape. With two 1,000 yard rushers in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, if Matt Moore doesn't do anything to lose them games, they could be a real surprise.
3.) Atlanta Falcons (8-8): If Michael Turner can step it up for the full 16, I like their chances to compete for a Wild Card. What I don't like is their inconsistent defense.
4.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14): Ronde Barber is about all that's left of what was a once proud Tampa team. The phrase "Tampa-two defense" used to mean something, now it might mean win total.
1.) San Francisco 49ers (10-6): Who wouldn't want to play for Mike Singletary? They have the best defense in the division and 49ers fans are hoping that Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree are the next big thing this side of Montana to Rice.
2.) Arizona Cardinals (7-9): A team that for years with Kurt Warner just barely pulled out 9-10 wins a season now takes a step back. Did I mention they also lost Antrel Rolle, Karlos Dansby and Anquan Boldin?
3.) Seattle Seahawks (5-11): Not too many names stand out on this squad on either side of the ball. And you thought Pete Carroll got off easy from USC right? Luckily their dreadful road record (1-7) from last season only has to face two playoff teams away from Seattle this year.
4.) St. Louis Rams (2-14): I have a feeling their defense will show some improvements, especially in this division. But handing over the keys to a rookie quarterback from a one win team a year ago doesn't look promising. It's sad to see Steven Jackson go through what L.T. had to endure in his early prime years with San Diego and that was lots and lots of losing.
Playoffs: Wild Card Round:
AFC: Chargers over Dolphins, Patriots over Titans.
NFC: 49ers over Cowboys, Giants over Vikings
AFC: Colts over Patriots, Ravens over Chargers
NFC: Packers over 49ers, Saints over Giants
AFC: Colts over Ravens
NFC: Packers over Saints
Packers over Colts