Almost three weeks in to the NFL preseason, and the injuries are starting to mount for some teams and certain players. I wanted to get this post up before the preseason started to avoid injuries affecting my choices, but alas, I waited until now to get it going. I’ll give you my 4 division winners and 2 wildcard choices from each conference. Plus, just to have fun, I’ll give you an AFC and NFC champion and a Super Bowl.
For the record, I will abide by the 6-6-6 rule for the NFL playoffs. On average, 6 new teams will get to the playoffs that weren’t in last year, 6 will drop out, and 6 will stay in.
East: New England
Is there any other choice here? The Patriots just came off of a Super Bowl berth despite having one of the worst defenses in the league. Tom Brady will keep rolling with Gronk, Welker, and Hernandez, but don’t be surprised if the offense takes a slight step backward this year. BenJarvus Green-Ellis left for the Bengals, leaving the Pats with little experience in their background. Fortunately, they picked up two defensive studs in Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower in the draft to boost their awful defense. Look for them to get stronger on defense as the season carries on.
The Jets don’t have enough on offense. The Bills could surprise some people despite their lack of elite talent on offense. The Dolphins will also improve (they got screwed/lucked out of some games last year), but with a rookie QB, it’s hard to say how much.
My homerism shines through here, but I really do think the Ravens are the most talented team in the division on both sides of the ball. They have a top 10 QB, top 3 RB, and the best core of receivers that they have ever had. Plus, their TE duo of Pitta and Dickson is second only to New England. Their defense still remains a top 5 unit despite losing Terrell Suggs. Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard might make up the best secondary in football. The pass rush will have to come by committee with Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw, Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, and Sergio Kindle. The offensive line will remain a big question mark with no decision on who will be playing either Tackle spot.
The Steelers will have a good year, but I feel that teams are going to try to pass more often against their inexperienced cornerbacks. The Bengals will take a step back. Historically, teams that win the amount of close games that they did last year regress the following year. The Browns…well I hope Trent can carry their offense. Their defense is becoming pretty good though. Their young defensive line and secondary are definitely something to keep an eye on.
Houston might have won the Super Bowl last year if Matt Schaub didn’t get hurt. He’s back, but for how long? His injuries are starting to become a regular occurrence, and the Texans chances at winning the big one may rest on him staying healthy. But, they proved that even with a broken QB, they can still win games. Arian Foster is an incredible RB who doesn’t have the elite speed or power, but knows exactly where to run on every single play. And the Texans defense should be even better. All of their young pass rushers should improve and barring injuries, should have one of the highest sack totals in the league. They did lose a couple linemen to free agency but their zone-blocking scheme will help to alleviate the losses.
The Colts will take 2nd place behind a solid rookie campaign from Andrew Luck. The Titans fall to 3rd because I really do not believe that Jake Locker will be as good as ESPN hypes him up to be. The Jags, despite a good defense, will be in the cellar and realize that Blaine Gabbert is not the answer. None of these teams will challenge for a playoff spot.
West: San Diego
In a very mediocre division, the Chargers will emerge from the pack and win it. Despite my personal animosity for Phillip Rivers (the guy is a douchebag), you have to believe he won’t turn the ball over like he did last year. If Ryan Matthews is healthy they should have a talented offense. Losing Vincent Jackson hurts, but Rivers spreads it around well to all of his receivers. The defense will be a mixed bag. They might be able to get some pressure with guys like Antwan Barnes but the secondary is very questionable. They are a flawed team, but in this division, flawed gets you a home playoff game.
The Broncos will miss the playoffs. You’re probably thinking, “But they got Manning!?” I realize this, but I also realize that the Broncos had a cakewalk of a schedule last year, won games because of divine intervention, and STILL only had an 8-8 record. This year their schedule amps up to one of the hardest in the league, their defense is very suspect outside of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and their running game is a little shaky. The Chiefs might have a surprising season with a lot of young talent (Charles, Berry, Moeaki) returning from injury, but they also had a horrendous run differential last year. I expect to see them around 8-8. The Raiders haven’t done much to improve a poor defense, but their offense should be average assuming Run DMC and Palmer stay healthy.
Wildcards: Buffalo and Pittsburgh
I expect the AFC to be very top heavy, so the wildcard spots will probably go to teams who are 10-6 or 9-7. With that said, I really think the Bills might have something special brewing. They have an incredible backfield with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Ryan Fitzpatrick has plenty of good, but not great targets to spread the ball to. And with the addition of Mark Anderson and Mario Williams to the defense to shore up the pass rush, I predict the Bills will win at least 9 games this year which I think gets them in to the playoffs. The Steelers, on the other hand, are still in the title hunt, but I just don’t believe in their defense to dominate the way it used to. Who are the new impact players that will step up? Oddly enough, the offense may have to carry this Steelers team. Antonio Brown looks like another great wideout on a team with good depth in the receiving core. Ben will be Ben, and if he can get fully integrated to Todd Haley’s offense, look for him to have less sacks than in years past (similar Kurt Warner when he went to Arizona under Haley). The running game is a big question mark with no set starter among a gang of injured or unproven backs. Still they have enough talent to easily get 9-10 wins if not 11.
The Eagles are a talented team. They have stars on both sides of the ball making Vince Young’s comments last year look very real. I think they have this division in the bag if Michael Vick stays healthy. Which, if you watched the Pats/Eagles game last night, may be a difficult task. If he does their offense should be explosive with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, and Vick making up one of the best skill position cores in the league. Plus their one weakness on defense, middle linebacker, was shored up when they acquired DeMeco Ryans from the Texans. They are definitely going to contend if they stay healthy and reduce the amount of turnovers they commit.
Both the Giants and Cowboys should be pretty good this year. Remember, the Giants were a team that got hot right before the playoffs, but they didn’t have the greatest regular season. Don’t sleep on the Redskins either. Their defense is very good, and they are banking on RG3 to be the franchise player to build around on offense. Should be fun watching this division play out.
North: Green Bay
The Packers disappointed a lot of people when the Giants beat them in the playoffs last year. But, make no mistake, this is one great team. You know the offense will be there with their incredible cast of receivers and of course, Aaron Rodgers. The defense which was poor from a yardage perspective last year should improve and look a lot more like the unit that won the Super Bowl 2 years ago.
The Bears will challenge for the division, but fall just a bit short. There’s plenty to like in Chicago where their defense should remain strong and the addition of an elite WR in Brandon Marshall. The Lions will take a step back this year. No running game and a lack of talent on defense behind their defensive line will leave them in plenty of shootouts which I’m not sure they will win at the rate they did last year. And the Vikings? Well, hopefully Adrian Peterson gets healthy and doesn’t sacrifice his body too much for another 4-12 or 5-11 season. They purged a lot of the veteran talent from their near Super Bowl berth a few years ago, but with some of the young guys they have now, don’t be surprised if they sneak up on some people in a couple years.
New Orleans is in disarray, and Atlanta looks to claim their crown back. Funny thing about this division is that somebody new has won it every year since its inception. Atlanta is a loaded team that needs strong play from both of their lines to realize their potential. “Rowdy” Roddy White (my favorite Chris Berman name), Julio Jones, Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Jaquizz Rodgers, and of course, Matt Ryan (he of two first names) make for an awesome stable of offensive talent. Defensively, pairing Asante Samuel with Brent Grimes helps to shore up a secondary that has been torched in the two previous postseason games against the Giants and Packers. The pieces are there to make a run. Matty Ice just has to prove himself in the postseason.
The Saints will have a falloff this year. Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, and Jimmy Graham will still put up video game numbers, but I think the influence that Sean Payton has on the offense is a bit understated. Losing him as a head coach and an offensive mind will indeed hurt this team. I look for them to finish a little above 8-8 but miss the playoffs. Carolina is a team on the rise and with a ton of young talent and a confident QB, look out. Tampa Bay will not be as poor on defense, but they are still lacking elite talent all over the board (although I thought Doug Martin was a fantastic pick).
Surprised? Read this article for clarification. The 49ers got realllllllly lucky last year. Almost at Tebowian levels. While yes, their defense is elite, they are not going to force turnovers like they did last year. Alex Smith played admirably last year, but he will not protect the ball as well as he did (Only 5 Ints). However, they are really well-coached, and I still think that they are going to be competitive team, but they will miss the playoffs. For the 6-6-6 theory to work, I had to make an educated guess and this is it. Seattle has a very underrated defense. Their corners are very big and physical and do well in man-coverage. Bruce Irvin will help the pass rush, and Earl Thomas will anchor the back-end. Red Bryant and Chris Clemons are great DEs that can set the edge well. On offense, they have a mixture of young and old talent at WR. The combination of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Sidney Rice forms a good core with Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards trying to contribute any way they can. The biggest question mark is QB, but both Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson are playing well enough to earn the job. I think they go with Flynn considering the money invested in him in free agency. Don’t be surprised when Qwest Field is registering earthquakes come January.
The Cardinals have some talent, but they fall into the Bengals category of winning close games at an inordinately high rate. They’ll regress by a couple wins. The Rams have some nice young pieces and definitely drafted well. Plus, they will be drafting multiple first rounders for a few years thanks to the Skins. We might be talking about the Greatest Show on Turf 2.0 in five years.
Wildcards: Carolina and Dallas
Carolina parlays a pretty successful season last year into a wildcard berth this season. Cam Newton has the rare ability to win games with both his arms and feet. After having an incredible season as a rookie, Cam will cut down on the rookie turnovers and have a monster year. Plus, Carolina has a great offensive line and running game. Look for them to be a top 10 unit this year. On defense, Carolina has some talent, but a lot of it ended on injured reserve last year. Their linebackers may be among the best in the league if Luke Kuechly has a good year. Dallas has all the talent in the world, but their window may be closing. Tony Romo does do some stupid things on the field, but he is a pretty damn good QB all things considered. Their receivers are very good. DeMarco Murray might be a breakout star waiting to happen. The O-Line may keep them from realizing their whole offensive potential though. On defense, DeMarcus Ware will lead an improved Rob Ryan defense. They gave up a lot of big plays last year, but I think some schematical changes can help to fix that. And adding Morris Claiborne doesn’t hurt either. I was between Dallas and Chicago for this last playoff spot. Both teams are talented. Can’t go wrong with either one.
So for everyone keeping track, here’s how the 6-6-6 rule plays out this year.
6 Still In: New England, Baltimore, Houston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Green Bay
6 Fall Out: Denver, Cincinnati, NY Giants, San Francisco, New Orleans, Detroit
6 Getting In: Buffalo, San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas, Carolina, Seattle
The one last thing I promised was predictions for the Conference and Super Bowl champions. No explanation here. Just my opinion. Take it for it’s worth.
AFC Champion: Houston Texans
NFC Champion: Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl Champion: Houston Texans