(Editor’s note – article was completed before Thursday night Packer-Saint game and before news of Peyton Manning’s surgery was released)
Welcome to the last installment of our annual NFL preview! Click here for Part 1 and here for part 2. Before we start, one quick alteration to last week – I had the Colts listed at #13, I’m moving them down to 20 and moving the Titans up to #16, because I think Manning’s injury has a huge effect on that division. He’s definitely out for week one, I’m hearing he’s likely out for a month, and he figures to be very rusty when he gets back – and there’s a good chance they will shut him down at the first sign of more neck problems. I’m not moving Jacksonville from Part 1, because they just released their QB – and even without Manning, I think the Colts are still better than the Jags right now.
#11: Kansas City Chiefs
Key Additions: WR Jonathan Baldwin (26th overall); WR Steve Breaston (FA), DT Kelly Gregg (FA)
Key Losses: TE Tony Moeaki (IR)
Why they might be better than this: KC took a huge leap forward in 2010, going from 4-12 to 10-6 and an unexpected division title; the team is generally young, especially on offense; the additions of Breaston and Baldwin should help free up top WR Dwayne Bowe and diversify the passing game; RB Jamaal Charles had one of the best per-carry averages in NFL history, and the coaching staff did a masterful job keeping him fresh by alternating him with Thomas Jones; relatively easy first-half schedule, although two games with San Diego loom large.
Why they might be worse than this: Cassell completes too few passes – 58% last year – and while his 27-7 TD-INT ratio was great, it’s also unsustainable. Look for him to throw twice that many INTS; the finishing schedule is BRUTAL – they have a 5-week stretch of @NE, PIT, @CHI, @NYJ, GB – they could easily lose four of those games. If they split with the Chargers, that leaves little margin for error on the rest of the schedule; SD has to be expected to rebound somewhat (more on them shortly), which likely will make repeating tough for the Chiefs; injuries have already landed three players on IR.
Final Thoughts and prediction: Much like Tampa, I’m bullish on the Chiefs’ long-term future, but less sanguine about their 2011 chances. They have a great chance to start out 6-2, but I think the schedule will catch up to them and they will be in a dogfight for a wild-card berth. They are still a good team, and their season could come down to the two matchups with SD and the game against the Jets (tiebreaker). 10-6 for the Chiefs.
#10: New York Jets
Key Additions: DT Muhammad Wilkerson (30th overall); WR Plaxico Burress (FA)
Key Losses: WR Braylon Edwards
Why they might be better than this: Defense allowed only 3.6 yards per rush and 50% completion %, yet gave up almost 70 more points than in 2009. Barring injury, they should allow fewer points in 2011; Mark Sanchez took a step forward in 2010, and third-year QBs often take a giant leap; Tomlinson and Greene form an effective rushing duo; Coach Rex Ryan has had a HUGE influence on the culture of this team – their confidence is second to none.
Why they might be worse than this: Sanchez HAS to take another step forward, because his 2010 numbers were not acceptable for a top-10 QB – 55% completion, 20 TDs against 14 INTs; Tomlinson is likely to really decline this year at age 32 – Greene hasn’t shown he can handle the load alone; schedule is daunting, with the AFC West and NFC East to play, along with the Ravens.
Final thoughts and prediction: I’m frankly not sold on Sanchez as the answer for this team long-term. I see a lot of Neil O’Donnell here – a decent QB who can run an offense without making a lot of mistakes, but not someone who can single-handedly pull a game out of the fire. If Burress is rusty or gets hurt (both quite possible at his age and with two years out of the league), there’s a lot of pressure on Holmes to be the go-to guy at WR. I think the defense will be as stout as ever, and that gets them to 10 wins, but I just don’t see this offense taking that next step – 10-6 and the wild-card for the Jets, with their home game against KC being the key matchup.
#9: New Orleans Saints
Key Additions: DE Jordan Cameron (24th overall), RB Mark Ingram (28th overall), C Olin Kreutz (FA); S Jonathan Amaya (trade)
Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, CB Fabian Washington (IR), T Alex Barron (IR), S Darren Sharper
Why they might be better than this: Last season the running game was decimated by injury – Chris Ivory ended up as the leading rusher, and the team rushed for less than 75 yards in six games (less than 100 in 10, including the playoff loss). With Thomas healthy and first-round pick Ingram in the fold, odds are the running game will be much-improved; Brees threw 22 INTs last year and was clearly trying to do it all himself at times. Look for that number to go down somewhat; the defense was much improved overall (7th in points allowed, 20th the year before), but only intercepted nine passes – that’s also a figure that should go up; the QB issues in the AFC South make the schedule a lot easier than it looked a few weeks ago.
Why they might be worse than this: Carolina aside, this is a VERY tough division – New Orleans could easily go 2-2 or 1-3 against Tampa and Atlanta. If Manning comes back in four weeks, the Saints will get the dangerous version of the Colts, and they play the NFC North – there’s not a ‘gimme’ win in that division. The defense was much-improved, but I think they will regress a bit on ‘D’. Ingram had injury issues at Alabama – if he goes down, the running game will likely look a lot like it did in 2010.
Final thoughts and prediction: I think that Brees will have a better season, as will the offense as a whole – this should be a top-5 offense on talent. I think the defense played a bit over its head a season ago and will be a middle-of-the-pack unit this season. This team has upside, and I might be ‘underselling’ them a bit here – if they win the division it won’t surprise me – but I’m going to pick them to be a wild-card and finish 10-6.
#8: Baltimore Ravens
Key Additions: CB Jimmy Smith (27th overall); WR Lee Evans (trade); T Bryant McKinnie (FA)
Key Losses: DT Kelly Gregg; TE Todd Heap; WR Derrick Mason; RB Willis McGahee
Why they might be better than this: The addition of Evans could help diversify what became a very stale offense a year ago; Flacco made a big leap forward statistically in 2010 and is on the verge of becoming a true franchise QB; the secondary was decimated by injury a season ago, and should be a lot healthier this year; the schedule is much easier – AFC South and NFC West, and aside from Pittsburgh they play only two teams who won 10+ games a year ago – the Jets and Colts.
Why they might be worse than this: Their vaunted defense is showing several signs of decline – they only accumulated 26 QB sacks a year ago, and were dead-last in the league in sack percentage (sacks per QB dropback) – a far cry from the early 2000’s; the defensive cornerstones, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, are both very near the end of the line – and there are no obvious replacements; RB Ray Rice ran for more yardage in 2010, but his yards per carry went from 5.3 to 4.0 – a severe decline – and he didn’t show nearly the same burst as he did the two years prior; Flacco WAS a lot better in 2010, but he still showed a tendency to make the big mistake at the wrong time, especially against the Steelers. Also, his INT rate was very low and probably is unsustainable for 2011 – and his safety blanket, Heap, is gone; Along with a lower rushing average, the Ravens gave up 40 sacks – both indicating the offensive line really wasn’t very good in 2010; finally, the Ravens aren’t going to get anywhere until they solve their Pittsburgh problem.
Final thoughts and prediction: No team has a more important opening game than the Ravens. Coming off a devastating playoff loss to Pittsburgh, they get a rematch on their own turf. If they lose, you have to figure it will really be in their heads and that it might have a lingering effect. With this creampuff schedule 10 wins seems almost a lock, and if both they and the Steelers win 11+ it won’t surprise me – but I have a feeling that the Ravens’ window is starting to close unless they can rebuild the defense on the fly. I think they lose to Pittsburgh this week, lose at least one game to the Browns, and kind of stumble to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth.
#7: Houston Texans
Key Additions: DE JJ watt (10th overall); CH Johnathan Joseph (FA); S Danieal Manning (FA)
Key Losses: None of note
Why they might be better than this: NO team in the NFL has a better shot at a division title than the Texans – simply put, they are the only team in the division with an established QB. If they cannot take advantage of this situation, they likely never will; the secondary was awful a year ago, but the acquisitions of Joseph and Manning, as well as three mid-round draft picks, should shore up the unit; with Arian Foster established as a top RB, this offense has the potential to be among the best in all of football; Wade Phillips has never been a good head coach, but he’s been terrific as a defensive coordinator every time he’s had the job – between that and natural regression, look for the Texans to give up 80-100 less points this season.
Why they might be worse than this: Foster’s hamstring is still a problem, and if he misses time the offense won’t be as explosive; QB Matt Schaub also has been injury-prone, and there is a huge drop-off after him at the position; the defense SHOULD improve, but the secondary will have to prove itself after what was possibly the worst season ever against the pass (65% completion, 4500 yds, 33 TDs against 13 INTS – in other words, they made every QB look like Peyton Manning for a week); the schedule outside the division is VERY rough – AFC North, NFC South.
Final thoughts and prediction: The schedule is full of peaks and valleys, but the last four games are all very winnable – so even if the Texans are only 7-5, they have a great chance to win out. I believe in Phillips’ ability to turn the defense around, and I think that the rest of the division is in shambles – anything less than a 5-1 division record would be a disappointment for this team. 11-5 for the Texans.
#6: Atlanta Falcons
Key Additions: WR Julio Jones (6th overall); DE Ray Edwards (FA)
Key Losses: WR Michael Jenkins
Why they might be better than this: They went 13-3 a season ago in arguably the toughest division; QB Matt Ryan made ‘the leap’ and is now unquestionably a top QB; the Falcons traded up to draft Jones, and they believe he has all-pro talent – if so, he will diversify the passing offense and allow Roddy White some more room to operate; coach Mike Smith has pushed all the right buttons for three seasons with the Falcons, and deserves to be mentioned as a premier coach.
Why they might be worse than this: The Falcons aren’t as young as you might think – Roddy White, John Abraham, and Tony Gonzalez are all 30 or older, Michael Turner is 29 (old for a RB) – and the team was unusually healthy in 2010. Expect some more injuries this year, and likely decline from Gonzalez, Abraham, and Turner in particular; the defense allowed only 288 points, but allowed 400+ yards six times – and they were absolutely thrashed in the postseason against the Packers. I expect a decline here, especially when you consider they allowed 4.6 yards per rush a season ago; VERY tough schedule – aside from playing the Saints and Bucs four times, they get the NFC North and the Eagles (as well as the weakened AFC South) – a year ago they got to feast on the NFC West. The schedule alone will cost them a win or two.
Final thoughts and prediction: I’m a big fan of what Smith has built here, and I like Ryan as a QB – but I worry that they overreached for Jones, and the defense looks primed for a decline to me. I still think they are the class of the division, but it’s going to be a real dogfight – and any of the top-3 teams in the division could win it. I’m going with 11-5 for the Falcons, but I think there’s more downside than upside with this team.
#5: San Diego Chargers
Key Additions: DT Corey Liuget (18th overall); LB Takeo Spikes (FA)
Key Losses: RB Darren Sproles
Why they might be better than this: The chargers finished first in yards gained and yards allowed, scored and allowed almost the same number of points in 2010 as in 2009 – yet slipped from 13-3 to 9-7. Special teams were partially to blame for their downfall, but a big part of it was simply bad luck – weird things happened all season to the Chargers, things unlikely to repeat; they have a top-5 QB in Philip Rivers; the defense was great against the pass and the run for the season, allowing only 58% pass completions and 3.7 yards per rush; Vincent Jackson missed the first 11 games a year ago, and that really hurt the passing game – he is signed and will start the season; the division is in a state of flux, the Raiders lost a lot of talent, the Broncos are a mess, and the Chiefs should take a step back – the Chargers went 3-3 in the division a year ago when 4-2 would have won the division. Look for them to go at least 4-2 this time around.
Why they might be worse than this: The Chargers are not a young team by any stretch – many key defenders are on the wrong side of 30, and Antonio Gates is having more and more injury issues at age 31. It’s possible the window is closing for this group; the schedule does them no favors at all – NFC North and AFC East, along with the Ravens – there’s only a couple of ‘gimme’ non-division wins on the schedule; the problems on special teams have to be addressed; this team went 2-2 against the NFC West a year ago, managed to lose to the Bengals in Week 16, and have consistently underachieved in the postseason – is that bad luck, or something more systemic/related to their coach? There’s too much talent here to constantly underachieve like this.
Final thoughts and prediction: Much like the Texans, the division is there for the taking if the Chargers play to their potential. They have the most talent on both sides of the ball in the division, but this could be their last hurrah – the schedule is daunting and I don’t think they will win 13 games, but if they make the postseason they will be a very dangerous foe for anyone. 11-5 for the Bolts – but I see them as a real Super Bowl contender.
#4: Philadelphia Eagles
Key Additions: OL Danny Watkins (23rd overall); CB Nnamdi Asomugha(FA); DT Cullen Jenkins (FA); WR Steve Smith (FA); DE Jason Babin (FA); CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (trade)
Key Losses: K David Akers, QB Kevin Kolb; S Quintin Mikell
Why they might be better than this: Suddenly, the Eagles are THE hotspot for free-agents – the “Vick effect” seems to have permeated the entire league, everyone wants to play on his team. No one had a better free-agent offseason than Philly, and their secondary is now the envy of the league; offensively, their skill level is also elite – Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WRs Desean Jackson, Maclin, and Smith – they will move the ball; coach Andy Reid is as underrated as they come – laughed at for his weight and criticized for his lack of Super Bowl rings, all he’s done is win – eight 10+ win seasons out of 11, and a 12th is very likely. Philly should appreciate what they have – a very good head coach who seems to always find a way to win games.
Why they might be worse than this: I understand the need to trade Kolb – he would have been a major distraction as a backup – but they are now EXTREMELY exposed at QB if Vick gets hurt. Vince Young is a Vick wannabe, but he simply is nowhere near the passer that Vick has become, and if (when, given his history; he’s started 16 games only once in his career) Vick gets hurt, the offense will suffer a MAJOR decline; related to that, the offensive line is a concern – it wasn’t great a year ago, and while they drafted a lineman, they didn’t acquire any veteran help; Vick threw only six INTS in 2010 – look for that number to at least double; defensive front seven is also at least a bit suspect.
Final thoughts and prediction: The nation is on the Eagles’ bandwagon, and Eagles fans are halfway off of it, worrying about both lines and Vick’s health. The truth, as usual, is probably in the middle – this is a good football team, a true title contender, but they are neither the juggernaut some think nor as brittle as apoplectic Eagle fans want to believe (I swear, there’s a subset of Philly fans who will complain about an undefeated season). There’s reason to believe this is the best team in the NFL; there are also numerous flaws, mostly with the O-line and defensive front seven, which are not obvious to the casual fan but could derail this team. I think Vick will get hurt, probably miss a game or three, and the team will survive (but not thrive) while he’s gone. I think the Eagles will go 12-4 and get a bye, but they aren’t the Super Bowl favorites – they’re gonna have to find a way to knock out the champ.
#3: New England Patriots
Key Additions: OL Nate Solder (17th overall); WR Chad Ochocinco (trade); DT Albert Haynesworth (trade); DE Shaun Ellis (FA)
Key losses: G Stephen Neal (retired)
Why they might be better than this: They have the best QB in the game today, the best coach, and they’re coming off of a 14-2 season – and, they have scored 400+ points the last four seasons and have not won less than 10 games since 2002. Betting against Brady and Belichick is a fools’ errand; as usual, they have made some key signings – Ochocinco should help fill the hole left by Randy Moss; BenJarvus Green-Ellis sounds like a law firm, but he’s a much better running back than you might realize – he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and scored 13 TDs; even allowing for a split with the Jets, a 5-1 division record seems likely.
Why they might be worse than this: Brady is now 34, and while he’s shown no signs of decline, one will start soon – and, his 37-5 TD-INT ratio in 2010 is not repeatable, look for at least 10 INTS and a few less TD passes; there’s some chance that Ochocinco either is over-the-hill, becomes a distraction, or both – and those chances are MUCH higher for Haynesworth, who may prove to be Belichick’s worst acquisition since he arrived; the defense gave up tons of yards and forced 25 INTs – some of that is a product of teams being behind and the Pats playing ‘prevent’, but I’m also concerned that their defensive metrics have been slipping slowly but steadily over the past three seasons; the schedule isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly not easy – NFC East, AFC West, plus a visit to Pittsburgh and a visit from Indy after Manning should be back.
Final thoughts and prediction: This is my Super Bowl favorite; I think they will finish behind Pittsburgh due to a tougher schedule, but no team scares me in the AFC as much as New England. As long as Brady is upright and the defense maintains a top-12 status, this team will always contend. 12-4 for the Pats.
#2: Pittsburgh Steelers
Key Additions: DE Cam Heyward(31st overall), WR Jerricho Cotchery (FA)
Key Losses: T Flozell Adams, T Max Starks, QB Byron Leftwich (IR)
Why they might be better than this: Well, at #2 they can’t get a whole lot better, but if the CBs are better than I expect, Polamalu and Harrison are injury-free, and Heyward integrates into the D-line rotation, the defense will be as good as or better than the 2010 version; offensively, it’s all about keeping Ben healthy and that starts with the much-maligned O-line. I’ve been criticizing the line for four years and all they’ve done is win a Super Bowl and make another one – so clearly they are doing something right. The line doesn’t have to be great – as my friend Dan said, Ben is the league’s best at making chicken salad out of chicken…feathers – but they need to be competent at both run and pass blocking; Steelers might have the deepest WR corps in the league with Wallace, Ward, Sanders, Brown, and now Cotchery in the fold – you should see a lot of different looks from this offense, anything from 5-wide to 2 TE, I – formation; most importantly, they drew the easiest schedule imaginable – AFC South, NFC West, and they get the Chiefs while the Ravens get the Chargers…as a bonus, they get Indy in week three, when Manning will almost certainly still be out. Add in the Browns and Bengals and I can easily see 11 wins even if they split with Baltimore and lose to the Pats!
Why they might be worse than this: Age. They are the oldest team in the league, and while age doesn’t equal ineffective, it DOES equal more injury-prone. They have what appears to be a capable replacement if Harrison’s back flares in Jason Worlds, but if Polamalu goes down again, they simply aren’t the same defense; CB is an issue – Ike Taylor is fine, but the other CB spot is in flux and will likely get tested early and often; no depth at RB means Mendenhall has to stay healthy as well; they managed without Ben a year ago, and over the short term they could again, but he takes a TON of hits and if he ever gets seriously injured, they are in a lot of trouble.
Final thoughts and prediction: The Steelers won’t be as good as last season, especially on defense and especially late in the season, as they tire out – but the schedule will mask that, and allow them to likely match or even exceed their 2010 record. All of their really tough games are in the first nine weeks, including both Baltimore games, and their last five games are all against very poor teams – three at home. On the other hand, unless they clinch very early and can really rest people, I expect this aging group to be a bit worn by January and getting through two tough teams to another Super Bowl is unlikely. This could be this core group’s last big year, enjoy it…13-3 for the Steelers.
#1: Green Bay Packers
Key Additions: OL Derek Sherrod (32nd overall)
Key Losses: S Atari Bigby; LB Nick Barnett; T Mark Tauscher
Why they might be better as good as this: They’re the defending champs – and I thought last year was their ‘rebuilding’ year, with 2011-14 as their window; overall they are very young; very few additions or subtractions from the starting lineup = cohesiveness = success; QB Aaron Rodgers has an argument as the top QB in the game, especially given his age – if he’s not the best, he’s clearly in the top-5; defense, particularly pass defense, was hidden gem of this team – ranked second in points allowed, generated 47 sacks, and intercepted 24 passes; wracked by injuries last year at RB and in the secondary, yet still won it all – expect them to be healthier this season.
Why they might be worse than this: Still a bit unsettled at RB and on the offensive line – James Starks saved them in the postseason, and Ryan Grant is back, but the jury is out on whether either of them is a legit NFL runner; youthful front seven, but the secondary is aging, particularly CB Charles Woodson – if he declines suddenly, do they have the players to take up the slack? Medium-tough schedule – AFC West isn’t that bad, but NFC South could prove challenging; as was shown against the Lions a year ago, without Rodgers this team is in serious trouble. He has to stay healthy.
Final thoughts and prediction: This division is down – I could easily see the Pack going 5-1 or 6-0 in the division, splitting with the NFC South and going 5-1 against everyone else. I don’t believe in their running game, but much like in New England or Indy – with a QB this good, a running game is a bit of a luxury. I LOVE their front seven on defense, I am a big fan of their coach and their QB – unlike most recent champs, I think they have a reasonable shot to repeat. 13-3 for the Pack this season.
And that wraps up our NFL preview – in the coming weeks we’ll preview the NHL and get ready for the baseball postseason!
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.