New England Patriots 12-4: New England is always the safest and easiest pick on the board. It's a testament to "the Patriot Way" that for a decade now you can pick them to win the Super Bowl every year and not look like a fool. Having said that, they haven't won the Super Bowl in seven years and have only made it back once since then. They are far from a lock and ended last season with a thud in the playoffs. But I am believer in what they do and I like the improvements they've made on defense.
New York Jets 10-6: How long can they keep it up? How long can the ultra-cocky coach get his stitch to stick? Rex Ryan has gotten results; he is already one of the most successful coaches in Jets history. But they've also caught a few breaks along the way- winning a slew of close games and most notably getting a gift from the Colts in 2009 when they sat their starters in the second half which allowed the Jets to rally an clinch a playoff berth. Ryan has done a wonderful job, but I do wonder if might have a bit too much of his Dad in him. Buddy Ryan talked a big game and generally produced at a similar rate. But there was always something
holding his teams back and eventually his approach grew tiresome. I like the
Jets to make another good run this year, but I see them regressing a tad.
Buffalo Bills 5-11: Not as bad offensively as you'd think. Ryan Fitzpatrick has played rather well in Buffalo and Stevie Johnson is a budding star at WR. But the Bills have missed badly on recent high draft choices which has left them short on talent in several key areas. And I'm not sure Chan Gailey is the coach you want trying to coach around those talent gaps. Bills will generally be competitive but they won't win many games.
Miami Dolphins 4-12: Things looked pretty promising two years ago, but since then the roster has sort of spiraled into a no man's land of aging veterans and unproven youngsters. There just isn't much to see here: a "blah" QB situation and no real playmakers on defense. The Dolphins may very well find themselves at the top of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes by seasons end.
Baltimore Ravens 11-5: What's missing? What is required for Baltimore to get passed Pittsburgh and win the AFC? I believe it's time to let Joe Flacco loose. Because Baltimore can still defend and because they run the ball so well, I think there is a natural tendency towards conservativsm. But they have a highly gifted QB who is now entering the prime of his career. Time to take off the shackles and open things up.
Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6: I don't see Pittsburgh as much better or much worse than last year; and considering they won the AFC I suppose that would be considered a good thing if you are a Steelers fan. But I think Baltimore got a smidge better and may sneak by the Steelers this year.
Cleveland Browns 7-9: Things are looking up for the Brownies. There are finally enough pieces in place for Browns fans to be legitimately excited about the 2011 season and beyond. The schedule is favorable early and brutal late. Don't be surprised at all if the Browns start hot out of the gates.
Cincinnati Bengals 3-13: It's always hard to start the rebuilding process. It's even harder when you are rebuilding something that wasn't even that great in the first place. The Carson Palmer-Ochocinco era in Cincy is over and it yielded middling results at best. Now, the Bengals are starting over with a rookie QB, rookie WR, and loads of young and/or unproven talent. Is Marvin Lewis in this for the long haul?
Houston Texans 11-5: I was making this pick regardless of Peyton Manning's injury status. Now that words filters in that he is out for week one and possibly more, it only solidifies my thought that this is the year for Houston. If not now, when? The offense has horses everywhere and they addressed some major holes on defense in the off-season. The pieces are there; it's time for Gary Kubiak to put them together.
Tennessee Titans 8-8: Better than you think, but not great. Jake Locker was impressive in the pre-season and it will be interesting to see what it takes to get him on the field. I see average results coming from Matt Hasslebeck and the offense, so I'm not sure new coach Mike Munchak will a great "reason" to make a switch. But you know everyone in the organization is anxious to see what Locker can do.
Indianpolis Colts 8-8: I had the Colts pegged for 10-6 and second place behind Houston even with a 100% healthy Peyton Manning. Without him, things could come crashing down quickly. I'm not a huge fan of the direction Indy has taken in the post Tony Dungy era, but Manning has held it all together. Now, many of the areas of weakness are going to get exposed.
Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12: When you cut your starting QB less than week prior to the opener in favor of Luke McCown, you are officially lost at sea. I wrote in this space last year that 2010 would be the swan song for Jack Del Rio. Perhaps I was just a year early?
San Diego Chargers 10-6: A very trendy pick, as always. But think about this...in 2010 the Chargers had the #1 offense, the #1 defense, and one of the easiest schedules in the league, yet they still managed to miss the playoffs. And thus is the refrain for most of Norv Turner's coaching career. The numbers simply don't match the results...at least not consistently. I love Phillip Rivers and I think the MVP talk is warranted, but I simply don't trust this team to get it done when it counts.
Kansas City Chiefs 8-8: Pre-season standings don't matter, but pre-season evaluation DOES matter. And I'm not sure anyone looked more shaky in the pre-season than Kansas City. I think they caught lightning in a bottle to an extent last year and I'm still not 100% sold on Matt Casell as a consistent winner in the NFL. I see the Chiefs taking a step back in 2011.
Oakland Raiders 7-9: There are certain things I like about this Oakland team, but not enough to make me think they will do any better than .500. Jason Campbell is proving to be one of those maddening QB's that is too good to be a #2, but maybe not quite good enough to be a #1.
Denver Broncos 6-10: I'm not a huge fan of hiring a coach immediately coming off a failed season. I like John Fox and overall respect what he did in Carolina. But the past few years were rough and I'd prefer to see a coach step back and take a breath before jumping right back into the fray. The roster seems a bit all over the place, although I think Von Miller is going to be a star.
Ravens over Jets
Steelers over Chargers
Patriots over Steelers
Texans over Ravens
Patriots over Texans
Philadelphia Eagles 11-5: Dream team? I'm not willing to go that far, but there is absolutely no doubt that Philly is loaded with names and loaded with speed on offense. The offensive line is really the only major question from a pure talent staindpoint, but everything they do happens so fast, you wonder if it will even matter. I'm also not quite ready to annoint Michael Vick as a reborbn star. He exploded in the early to mid part of last season like something you see on a Madden video game. But he leveled out down the stretch and wasn't overly effective in their playoff loss to Green Bay. Philly is intruiging, but not a lock.
New York Giants 9-7: Pretty much a disaster of an off-season for the Giants. Free agent defections combined with crushing injuries has the GMen limping into the season. Having said that, they are still strong at QB and along the offensive line... and those are good places to be strong. I see Eli carrying them early until the rest of the team rounds into shape. But ultimately, I see them falling a game short of the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys 8-8: No team is more of a mystery to me than the Cowboys. There is enough talent there for them to win, but it's not such an overwhelming amount that it's any sort of forgone conclusion. I'm just not sure where this team stands on the leadership, coaching, intangibles front. Jason Garrett did a nice job in relief last year, but being the head honcho from the get-go is a different story. Sometimes I pick teams to go 8-8 when I think they are incredibly average and sometimes I pick teams to go 8-8 when I don't have a clue.
Washington Redskins 7-9: The Redskins could get eaten up down the stretch this year with four of their final five games against the Giants, Eagles, Patriots, and Jets. But before they hit that stretch, I see Washington turining a few heads and gaining respect around the league. The defense has received a significant talent boost and Mike Shannahan WILL find a way to run the ball effectively. Rex Grossman most likely isn't a longterm answer of course, but he may be a good stopgap option for a team that appears to finally be heading in the right direction.
Green Bay Packers 11-5: I came SO close to picking the Packers second in the division, but after looking closely at who is coming back, there really is no legitimate reason to think this team can't repeat. Aaron Rodgers is not only incredible, he is probably just entering the ultimate peak years of his career. He may very well exceed the lofty expectations attached to him. The only question revolves around how difficult it is to repeat and how things never seem to go quite as smoothly for the defending champs in the "breaks" category. I do think we could see a slight slide from them defenisvely minus Cullen Jenkins and adding another year of wear to Charles Woodsen. But when it's said and done, the road to the Lombardi trophy goes through Green Bay, and that looks like a nasty road trip for whoever it may be.
Detroit Lions 10-6: Just love them. Love them so much it took everything I had to NOT put them as the #1 overall seed in the NFC. Jim Schwartz is the right guy. And he has an absolute star to build around with Suh. If Matthew Stafford stays healthy the Lions could be a fanstasy football managers dream. Lions fans have waited long enough. This team has the goods.
Chicago Bears 8-8: Jay Cutler took too much heat for his sideline body language last year, but I still get the feeling that the Bears were more lucky than good in 2010. The good year/bad year rotation has also been a pattern under Lovie Smith and I think it continues in 2011.
Minnesota Vikings 5-11: Not sure where they are going are what they are doing. They reached for Christrian Ponder in the draft and brought in an unmotivated and past-his-prime Donovan McNabb to be his mentor. The defense took a major fall from grace in 2010 and I don't see anything on paper to indicate it will be much better this year. I think Leslie Frazier has earned this opportunity, but I don't think he has been dealt a quality hand.
Atlanta Falcons 12-4: As Green Bay was dismantling the Falcons in the playoffs last year, a thought quickly raced through my brain: Are the Falcons the NFC version of the Chargers? It's a bit too early in the development of this team to make that proclomation, but my gut tells me that may be where they are headed. The Falcons are pretty loaded overall and Julio Jones adds a truly dynamic dimension to the offense. I have a hard time seeing them doing any worse than 10-6 even if things don't go smoothly. But I also have this feeling that the Falcons could be an annual January disappointment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6: The Saints are by far and away the popular pick in this spot (if not first) but I tend to give the Bucs a slight advantage. I'm not sure why Josh Freeman is so consistently overlooked, but his season last year was every bit as impressive as year two was for Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, etc. Freeman is a pocket passer who is fully capable of escaping the rush and making plays with his feet. He is a perfect combination of what traditional wins in the NFL and that added boost of athleticism to help make plays when things break down. This team is young, but they are tough and have a great young player leading the charge.
New Orleans Saints 10-6: It's a fantastic division and one of these top three teams is most likely going to be left out. Most people think that team is Tampa, but I'm leaning New Orleans because I'm not convinced they've solved their issues on defense. Drew Brees is going to do his thing, but I see a few too many shootouts in his future. 10-6 is a fine record, it just may not be good enough in the NFL's best division.
Carolina Panthers 4-12: New coach + rookie QB = free pass on the season. Cam Newton does a have running game to lean on, but not much else.
St. Louis Rams 9-7: The division is on a silver platter for the Rams. It is weak and they are the one team in the division with a clear "up" arrow. Sam Bradford was impressive in his rookie season and he should be even more comfortable now. It's a tad surprising that the Rams didn't address their issues at WR more in the off-season though...
Arizona Cardinals 7-9: Good home team. If anyone has a shot to hang with the Rams I think it's Arizona. I liked the Kevin Kolb trade. He isn't a sure thing, but he did enough in Philly to warrant a chance and he's less of a risk than a draft pick would be.
San Francisco 49ers 6-10: Something about Jim Harbaugh tells me he is going to succeed in the NFL, but right now, the cupboard is bare. I'm not sure any team in the league is a more logical landing spot for Andrew Luck than SF, but will the 49ers be BAD enough to get him?
Seattle Seahawks 5-11: Got lucky last year, winning the division at 8-8. Absolutely no reason to be excited about Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, or pretty much anything else on this team.
Eagles over Bucs
Lions over Rams
Falcons over Lions
Packers over Eagles
Packers over Falcons
I have some pretty risky picks this year, but I did follow the chalk on my Super Bowl prediction. New England and Green Bay are easy picks, but they are also smart ones. Green Bay is a team just reaching it's peak and New England is a winning organization that may have found the right mix to take a step forward in 2011.
As for the game itself, I'll give a slight edge to Tom Brady getting one more ring.
Patriots 27, Packers 24