I love professional football. The NFL eats up a very good deal of my weekend time each season, and I get sad for the end of the season.
My family's full of Packers fans, so I know I have strong bias- but I also think I do a pretty great job of staying abreast of the NFL in general. I'd hoped to read up a bit more and watch more preseason games before doing this, but having a real job has gotten in the way. That said, right before the season really begins, here are my season predictions:
AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets):
Patriots will dominate, sadly. I don't like them (and they lost one of the few players I liked in Tedy Bruschi through retirement), but their division is just plain weak. I do think Mark Sanchez will significantly help the Jets- they looked much better last year while Brett Favre was healthy, and I'm excited to see Dustin Keller (Boiler Up!) become an increasingly dominant tight end. Little sad they let Bubba Franks go, but that's just some old Packers loyalties :). T.O. just doesn't have the talent around him on the Bills to make a huge impact on the team, but I'm sure his numbers will still look nice for fantasy. Dolphins will continue to climb, which I don't think many people will suspect, but won't improve near enough for a wild-card spot, much less beating Tom Brady & Co. They'll be consistent, but not annoyingly perfect. Dang it.
AFC South (Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Titans):
I like the Colts- I do. But this is a tough division in the past few years, they're aging and without Dungy or Harrison, and I think they've lacked the kind of precision they had before in the preseason. Maurice Jones-Drew, barring injury, ought to finally get the numbers he deserves now that Fred Taylor is out (although I was very sad to see him go- the two had a fantastic on-and-off-field relationship and he was a classy guy). I think the Texans have been building for some greatness the past few years, but I think the Titans will hold on. Yes, Haynesworth is a big loss- but Nate Washington and some DT depth are good gains, and one of the Titans' strengths last year was a solid, well-rounded team. With less superstars, you have less vulnerability to personnel changes.
AFC West (Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers):
Broncos are seriously going to miss their old offense. When shootout style play is a commonality and you suddenly replace Jay Cutler with Kyle Orton, your team is going to have to change. (I'm a Purdue fan- but Orton is just not on the same level as Cutler right now.) Never mind Brandon Marshall's serious discontent, which will surely lead to less chemistry, if not a trade of one of the league's top receivers. I've hardly heard of any big Raiders changes, and considering their position last year, that's not good. Let's see as much passion on the field as in the stands, Oakland. Chargers are overrated as usual- I just don't see Philip Rivers as a top QB, and L.T. is aging and always injured, or so it feels. Lucky for them, they are solid enough to beat out a weak division. I think the Chiefs will be a surprising challenge, though- Matt Cassel has shown some strength and I think a fresh coach and GM might help shake up the team in a good way.
AFC North (Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Steelers):
I'll admit- Ryan completely surprised me with a statistic about the Bengals' defense last year. Almost top ten?! But that makes their record a little scarier still to me- if Carson Palmer goes out, an otherwise solid offense with a good defense still looked pretty rough. Assuming Palmer stays healthy, though, I think the Bengals have had a fantastic draft and offseason that might pay off. Chad Ocho Cinco's team attitude is telling, I think. I still think the team management leaves a lot to be desired, but the talent level should push them far. The Steelers, though, have 20 of 22 starters returning, plus a few strong newcomers (or IR-returners). As much as I don't like them, I just don't see them losing this division, even with the Bengals finally giving themselves a shot and the Ravens becoming more than just a defense. (I think Joe Flacco will prove to be a little flake-o.)
NFC East (Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Redskins): Still an incredibly strong division this year. The Cowboys earn a lot of flak, but I think they have the talent if they don't fall short. I think the loss of T.O. will end up hurting only a little, because the Cowboys really needed to ditch the drama. Tony Romo will really have to step up if he wants to make headlines for anything but his girlfriends, and I think he just may do it. Plus, Wade Phillips is seriously on the line, so hopefully desperation from him and embarrassment from a disappointing end of last season will lead to stepping up. Redskins are another team that have improved significantly in the past year and Albert Haynesworth ought to be a big addition, but I can't place them as a contender against these other teams. The Giants are barely removed from a Super Bowl, and other than the loss of Plaxico Burress, seem to be hiding under the radar as usual. That seems to bode well for them, especially if they can still get into playing the underdog- but I wonder who in their offense can bring the potential to score that Burress had. Eagles still look good, though, but so much depends on not getting injured. Brian Westbrook is great- or completely out. That's not going to cut it, especially when your passing game isn't consistent. I think this division is crazy close, and a critical injury or acquisition on any team could throw my predictions haywire immediately. And they may well be wrong.
NFC South (Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Buccaneers): The Falcons were seriously good last year. A rookie quarterback took hold of the offense with stability and strength, and a balanced offense made things all the better. Add Tony Gonzalez into the mix, and everyone else in the division should be a little scared. Look at what Gonzalez has done in his career, and the caliber of offenses that he's been doing it on- and then imagine what he'll do here. Unfortunately, my confidence ends with the Falcons' offense. Defense is a big worry. Similarly, I love Drew Brees' play. I think the team is SO CLOSE to being phenomenal, but it's bad when you have Drew Brees' almost-record-breaking numbers and your defense still can't keep you in the game. The Buccaneers are making some serious rebuilding strides, but they don't have a QB that will really be able to take advantage of Antonio Bryant just yet. Their defense isn't the worst in the league, but it will have to compete with some amazing offense and I don't think it has much of a chance. The Panthers still have Julius Peppers and Jake Delhomme, plus they just picked up Tyrell Sutton (a Packers recruit who I really liked at RB). I think a 12-4 season isn't likely to go that far downhill.
Super-Close Runner-Up: Falcons
NFC West (Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks):
I want the Seahawks to do well, and I think they'll be a lot more respectable than last year. Unfortunately, Matt Hasselbeck isn't out of the woods injury-wise, and I'm not sure the 'Hawks have enough backup to do decently once he's gone. I miss Mike Holmgren, too. Cardinals will be strong. They probably won't make it as far as last year, but I don't expect them to be a one-hit-wonder. Kurt Warner's old, but he can still play, and Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of the offense are a major boon to the team as a whole. The Rams just aren't doing enough, and the 49ers are trying, but Michael Crabtree is being frustrating. I think this division will honestly be pretty boring.
NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings):
I think the NFC North is going to suddenly be one of the best in the league, which is somewhat surprising considering last year's close but relatively mediocre records. I think the strength of teams should lead to two NFC North teams making the playoffs, but I'm unsure if it will really happen. I think the strength of the other teams will make all records a little lower and might make it difficult to fit into a wildcard spot. Playing the AFC North will help in some ways (Browns, anyone?), but also means playing the Steelers (ouch). Anyway, the Bears have brought in Jay Cutler and may have a truly great QB for the first time in... a long, long time, if not ever. He's going to throw a lot to the TE, and Devin Hester will finally seem like the speedy receiver that everyone has predicted for so long. The Bears have tried to improve their receiving situation and repair their defense, and they'll be good- but I still think their receiving core pales in comparison to others in the division. The Vikings, on the other hand, were a solid team that wasn't missing much except for a quarterback. The addition of Brett Favre perturbs me on a personal level, sure- but it also made the Vikings a much stronger team. I think he'll likely suffer from injury again, but in the meantime he'll do just enough to make the Vikings a top team. Finally, I am completely biased, but I think the Packers are going to eek this one out. Looking at their preseason, they have really impressed me. I was the first to admit that I thought the Packers would struggle early on due to their switch to a 3-4 defense. Even at the beginning of the preseason, I told myself that we were only looking this good against crappy teams- but then we played the Cardinals. And we weren't perfect, but we held our own against the Super Bowl runner-ups. The sheer number of turnovers the Packers have managed to cause and recover in the preaseason have given me a lot more confidence. Oh, and of course there's also the fact that Aaron Rodgers and the offense have looked sharper than anyone else the entire preseason. I don't think it's a stretch by any means to consider the Packers for the win, even without my cheesehead bias. It'll be close, though.
AFC Division Winners:
AFC Wild Card: Colts
NFC Division Winners:
NFC Wild Card: Vikings (with Falcons sooo close)
AFC Champ: Steelers
NFC Champ: Packers
Super Bowl Champ: Packers
MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Rookie of the Year: Mark Sanchez
Okay, so by the end of this I think my predictions were getting seriously affected by my personal fandoms, but whatever. I don't think any of them are unreasonable, even so. Gametime in less than an hour. Let's do this!