Hey, remember two or three months ago where we all wondered whether there would be an NFL season? Well, the players and owners agreed on a new labor deal just in the nick of time, and football season is back in full force. After one of the more chaotic seasons in recent memory, it remains to be seen just how things will play out. The Philadelphia Eagles made a huge splash in free agency, but can all those new players gel in time to excel in the regular season? Will the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions, or will they take a step back? Will the Colts' Peyton Manning be healthy enough to play, or is this a lost season for the Colts? What crazy statement will Rex Ryan make next? All this and more will be discovered in the next few months. In the meantime, here's one man's opinion on what will go down during the 2011 NFL season.
AFC East (*=Wild Card)
1. New England Patriots
2. New York Jets*
3. Miami Dolphins
4. Buffalo Bills
This is really going to be a two team division. The Patriots went 14-2 last season before falling to the Jets in the playoffs. In the offseason, they picked up Chad Ochocinco to provide a downfield threat on offense and a plethora of veteran defensive linemen, including former All-Pro Albert Haynesworth. If the veterans work out, then the Patriots could be the best team in the NFL, and if not, then Tom Brady and company are still good enough to win at least 11 games. Last year, I predicted the Jets to falter, and I was wrong. So I'm not making the same mistake twice. Yes, QB Mark Sanchez can be inconsistent, but the Jets still have a strong running game and a top-notch defense led by CB Darelle Revis and MLB David Harris. So, expect the Jets to make the playoffs as a wild card once again. The Dolphins are a middle of the road team with a few stars such as OT Jake Long and OLB Cameron Wake. But they have an inconsistent QB in Chad Henne and not enough playmakers on either side of the ball to finish with more than an 8-8 record. I read a stat the other day that of the 24 players expected to start for the Bills (including kicker and punter), 22 were on the team last year, the highest total in the league. That's great, but then again these same players were on a 4-12 team last year, so I don't see a lot of improvement in Buffalo this year.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Baltimore Ravens*
3. Cleveland Browns
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Steelers went all the way to the big game last year, and with many of their key players back this year, they should be a contender once again. Sure, defenders such as NT Casey Hampton and MLB James Farrior may be a little over the hill, but any defense with OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and S Troy Polamalu should not be taken lightly. Much like the Steelers, the Ravens also feature a top-notch defense with a few players (MLB Ray Lewis for one) that are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Both teams should fight for the division lead all year, but the Steelers' superior offense should provide the difference. The Browns have a new head coach in Pat Shumar, and QB Colt McCoy showed promise last year, but they still seem a year away from contention. The Bengals are a hot mess, and unless rookies WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton can impress quickly, it's going to be a long season in Cincinnati.
1. Tennessee Titans
2. Houston Texans
3. Indianapolis Colts
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The injury of Colts QB Peyton Manning has made this division a wide open race. While the Texans have become the popular pick due to their explosive offense and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, I'm picking the Titans here. For one, they were much better than their 6-10 record last season, and they have stability at the quarterback position with the signing of Matt Hasselbeck. Add that to superstar running back Chris Johnson and a solid defense, and I think the Titans will surprise some folks and take the AFC South. The Texans have a great offense with QB Matt Schuab, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson, but the question in Houston is can Phillips improve last year's horrendous defense. At least he has DE/OLB Mario Williams and LBs Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans to build around. The Colts could still contend, but that will all depend on how quickly Peyton Manning comes back. If he misses six games, the Colts are probably finished. Jaguars' coach Jack Del Rio is in danger if the team doesn't make the playoffs, and this bunch doesn't have the look of a playoff team, especially with the curious decision to start Luke McCown at quarterback. At least Jaguars fans can enjoy the running of Maurice Jones-Drew, but they won't enjoy many victories.
1. San Diego Chargers
2. Denver Broncos
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders
If it weren't for a historically bad season on kick coverage, the Chargers would have ran away with the division last year. So no team is probably happier that kickoffs have moved up five yards this season, making things a lot easier for the coverage. The Chargers are clearly the most talented team in the division, providing that TE Antonio Gates is healthy, and only their self-destructive tendencies can keep them from winning the AFC West this year. The Broncos weren't very good last year, but Josh McDaniels is gone and John Fox is in. Plus, they should have an improved pass rush with the return of OLB Elvis Dumervil and the selection of OLB Von Miller. With QB Kyle Orton and WR Brandon Lloyd leading a strong passing attack, the Broncos will sneak up on some teams this year. The Chiefs used a weak schedule and some luck to win the AFC West last year, and I don't see it happening again this year. Sure, they have some stars in RB Jamaal Charles, OLB Tamba Hali, and WR Dwayne Bowe, but everything broke right for the Chiefs last year, and there is no way they'll get that lucky again this year. The Raiders took a step forward last year, then took a step backwards in the offseason by firing coach Tom Cable and losing key players such as CB Nmandi Asomugha. Even with RB Darren McFadden, the Raiders are more likely to stumble back to the basement of the division then take a leap to the lead.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. Dallas Cowboys
3. New York Giants
4. Washington Redskins
With the signings of CB Nmandi Asomugha, RB Ronnie Brown, DE Jason Babin and others, the dunderheads at ESPN have begun to refer to the Eagles as a 'Dream Team'. Well, I'm not sure about that, but they are good enough to repeat as division champs, even if QB Michael Vick takes a slight step back from his career year last season. The Cowboys have a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, and the best pass rusher in the league in OLB DeMarcus Ware. Their defense should be better, but can Felix Jones be the workhorse at running back the Cowboys need? Either way, I see them falling just short of the postseason. The Giants are already banged up on defense, especially in the secondary. Considering that pass defense was already a problem for the Giants, this does not bode well. Despite QB Eli Manning's best efforts, the Giants are not going to see the postseason this year, and we may see the end of Tom Coughlin in New York. The Redskins are starting the season with Rex Grossman as their quarterback, which is all you really need to know about their chances this year.
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Minnesota Vikings*
3. Detroit Lions
4. Chicago Bears
This is probably the only division in which all four teams have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. Even though the Packers suffered a ton of injuries last year, from RB Ryan Grant to TE Jermichel Finley to now departed MLB Nick Barnett, the Packers won the Super Bowl anyway, thanks in large part to QB Aaron Rodgers' emergence as a superstar. They've definitely got the talent to repeat as champs, but will they? I admit, I'm a little higher on the Vikings than others. But this year they've got a coach the team actually likes in Leslie Fraizer, plus talented players such as RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, and OLB Chad Greenway all return. Not to mention that QB Donovan McNabb is now in town, and even though last year was his worst year as a pro, it was still much better than the year Brett Favre had. McNabb should be fine in Minnesota, and the Vikings will make the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Lions are getting a lot of hype this season, and with WR Calvin Johnson and DT Ndamukong Suh, it's easy to see why. But let's hold off on the hype just a little until we can see what QB Matthew Stafford can do in a full season and until their poor secondary can improve. The Bears are getting a little over the hill on defense, and their offensive line is questionable at best. Yes, this team won the division last year, but much like the Chiefs, every break went the Bears way last year. So unless QB Jay Cutler becomes the next Aaron Rodgers, then don't expect to see the Bears in the postseason.
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons*
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4. Carolina Panthers
The Saints had two problems last year, running the ball and stopping the run. Well, in the offseason, the Saints went out and got RBs Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles to run the ball, and DTs Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin to stop the run. With QB Drew Brees back to propel the Saints high powered offense, and a defense that is both stronger and faster than last season's model, the Saints are the best team in the division, and maybe the league. The Falcons won 13 games last season, and have WR Julio Jones join a high powered offense that includes QB Matt Ryan, WR Roddy White, and RB Michael Turner. I wish they had done more to improve their secondary, but the Falcons should make the playoffs for two consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. The Bucs used an easy schedule and the emergence of QB Josh Freeman to propel themselves to a 10-6 record. With a tougher schedule, they might take a step back this year, but if the Falcons or Saints slip up, then the Bucs are more than capable of taking advantage. The Panthers have a new coach in Ron Rivera and a new quarterback in Cam Newton. Plus, they should be healthier this season. They'll win more than 2 games this year, but probably not much more than five.
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. St. Louis Rams
3. Arizona Cardinals
4. Seattle Seahawks
Maybe I'm crazy or just plain dumb, but I like the 49ers chances this year. Yes, QB Alex Smith hasn't proven to be anything but a bust thus far, but now he finally has an offensive minded head coach in Jim Harbaugh and with the addition of WR Braylon Edwards to a group that includes WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, Smith finally has a group of receivers that are at least adequate, provided that everyone is healthy. Not to mention that he still has RB Frank Gore behind him, and a solid defense led by MLB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith. Perhaps most importantly, this division isn't that good, and they have a much easier schedule than the Rams, so for those reasons, I'm picking the 49ers as division champs. The Rams aren't going to go quietly though, and with an improved set of receivers led by WR Mike Sims-Walker, QB Sam Bradford could emerge as the next great quarterback this season. The Cardinals have a new quarterback in Kevin Kolb, and even if he isn't the long term answer, he has to better than the group that was there last year. Their defense is full of question marks, however, even with the solid play of DT Darnell Dockett and SS Adrian Wilson. The Seahawks won the division last year, and I guess they could do it again. But is anybody really sold on Tavaris Jackson being the answer at QB? This team was lucky to win seven games last season, and if anything they've only gotten worse. I could be wrong, but I don't see Seattle winning more than five games this season, and Jackson will lose his starting job by week 9 to Charlie Whitehurst.
Super Bowl Picks:
In the AFC, the Patriots and Jets will fight it out all season for conference supremacy, and that fight will commence at the AFC Championship Game. For the third straight season, the Jets will reach the Championship Game, and for the third straight season, they will fall short, as the New England Patriots will return to the Super Bowl. In the NFC, despite challenges from Philadelphia and Atlanta, the Saints and Packers will emerge as the two top teams in the conference. Interestingly enough, they play tonight in the first game of the season, and will also play in the last game of the NFC season. Unlike tonight's game, this one will take place at the Superdome, and the Saints will win a close one. As for the big game, the Patriots and Saints will light up to scoreboard in Indianapolis, but at the end, the New Orleans Saints will win their second Super Bowl in three years.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
3. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Dark Horse: Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
With the possible exception of Peyton Manning, nobody is more important to their team than Drew Brees is to the Saints. This year, he proves that and wins his first MVP. Rodgers established himself as an elite quarterback last year, and will do nothing to disprove that status this year, putting up excellent numbers and leading the Pack to many victories. Tom Brady was last year's MVP, and if WR Chad Ochocinco has anything left, then Brady will have another top-notch receiver to throw to, which is the last thing opposing defenses want to hear. If the Titans are going anywhere this season, then Chris Johnson will have to play up to his new contract and carry them. If the past three years are any indication, he's more than capable of doing so, and another 2,000 yard season is not of reach for Johnson.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers
2. Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers
3. Ed Reed, S, Ravens
Dark Horse: Cameron Wake, LB, Dolphins
Matthews may have been the best defensive player in the league last year, and he played much of the season hurt, so imagine what chaos he will cause opposing offenses when he's healthy. Expect a huge year from Matthews. Willis has been an elite defender for a number of years now, and if the 49ers perform as I expect they will, Willis will get a lot of recognition nationwide, fitting for the best MLB in the NFL. Reed played 10 games last year, and still picked off eight passes. As long as he's on the field, Reed's going to make a ton of big plays for the Ravens. Wake had 14 sacks last year for the Dolphins, and there's no reason to believe he won't at least repeat last year's performance, if not exceed it.
NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Mark Ingram, RB, Saints
2. Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins
3. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Dark Horse: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Even though he might share time with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, expect Ingram to emerge as the Saints' workhorse in the backfield this season. With opponents gearing up to stop the Saints' passing game, Ingram's going to face a lot of favorable defenses, and he has the talent to take advantage. I wouldn't be shocked if Ingram had over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Thomas is going to get the bulk of the Dolphins carries this year, so as long as he's healthy, he should have a shot to put up big numbers this season. The Falcons traded a whole lot of draft picks to get Jones, and they didn't select him with the intention of sitting on the bench for a season. Even though rookie WRs tend to struggle, Jones could be one of the exceptions to the rule, especially since coverages will be shaded more to Roddy White. Newton's going to be the starter from the get go in Carolina, whether he's ready or not. Yes, he has some work to do, but remember, Vince Young won the Rookie of the Year Award, and Newton is more developed at this stage than Young was. I'm not saying it will happen, but it's not hard to see Newton throwing for 3,000 yards and running for 500 more.
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Von Miller, LB, Broncos
2. Marcell Dareus, DE, Bills
3. Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Dark Horse: Robert Quinn, DE, Rams
Like nearly everyone else, I expect big things from Miller in his rookie season. He has the talent to be the next DeMarcus Ware or Derrick Thomas and be and unblockable force. If he doesn't get 10 sacks this season, I'll be surprised. Dareus is just what the doctor ordered for the Bills, a run stopping force on their D-Line. He'll be someone opposing lineman worry about from the word go. Peterson will be tested early and often as the Cardinals' new cornerback, but make no mistake about it, he has the chance to be a top notch player. In a rookie crop full of quality defensive linemen, Quinn may be the most athletically gifted of the bunch. If he can adjust to the speed of the NFL game, then Quinn has an outside chance at snatching this award.
Well, thanks for reading The Canon Review 2011 NFL Preview. Hopefully, I'll be more accurate this year than my college preview looks to be (Darn Oregon Ducks). Anyway, if you have a comment about this topic or the blog, than share by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at KtheC2001@gmail.com.