Saturday Sports: NFL Preview and Predictions

AFC EAST 1.      New England Patriots (12-4): After a flashier-than-usual off-season, the Patriots brought in coveted and controversial playmakers Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth to cement the defensive line. Look for a younger defense to anchor this team’s Super Bowl hopes.

2.      New York Jets (11-5): Again hailed by Rex Ryan, head coach of the Jets, as his “most talented team,” it’s tough to overlook Mark Sanchez’s mediocre play at quarterback. Look for the team’s title hopes to once again hinge on its quarterback play.

3.      Miami Dolphins (5-11): Uncertainty at quarterback with Chad Henne, the losses of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown at running back, and Tony Sporano, Dolphins head coach, on the hot seat spell an uphill battle for a team that went (1-7) at home last season.

4.      Buffalo Bills (4-12): Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can throw the football, but losing veteran wideout Lee Evans won’t make things easier on the Harvard grad. Look for Fred Jackson, Bills running back, to be focus on offense while the fantasy world waits for C.J. Spiller, running back and recent Clemson University grad, to reach his potential.

 

AFC NORTH

1.      Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): The AFC champion Steelers look the same as last year. Big Ben, Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, has proven to be a winner each year. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Mike Wallace are playmakers. They’ll have to address a secondary that got exposed in the Super Bowl.

2.      Baltimore Ravens (10-6): This defense is a force every year. Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata, Defensive End Terrell Suggs, Linebacker Ray Lewis and Free Safety Ed Reed will highlight the defensive side of the ball. Look for new addition Wide Receiver Lee Evans to emerge as a solid deep-threat for Joe Flacco, Ravens Quarterback.

3.      Cleveland Browns (7-9): Browns President Mike Holmgren picked West Coast play-caller Pat Shurmur to be head coach. Quarterback and recent Texas graduate Colt McCoy picked the brain of West Coast guru Brett Favre this off-season and he’s looked confident and comfortable in the new offense this preseason. The Browns may soon surprise people in the North.

4.      Cincinatti Bengals (2-14): Rookie wideout A.J. Green may prove to be the greenest pasture for the 2011 Bengals. Carson Palmer’s holdout means rookie Andy Dalton (TCU) will be under center week 1 against the Browns, and he’s looked overwhelmed this preseason: 58% completion, 56.4 QB rating, 1 Touchdown 3 Interceptions.

 

AFC SOUTH

1.      Houston Texans (10-6): New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has implemented a 3-4 scheme that will feature Mario Williams and rookie Brooks Reed at linebacker with J.J. Watt at end. Brian Cushing will return at inside backer with Demeco Ryans, while free-agent Jonathan Joseph will shore up the secondary. Assuming Arian Foster’s hamstring tear isn’t serious, look for Foster, Wide Receiver Andre Johnson and Quarterback Matt Schaub to score enough points to win games, and probably the division as well.

2.      Indianapolis Colts (9-7): This is a 3-13 team without Quarterback Peyton Manning, so the signing of Kerry Collins isn’t too comforting. This team will go as far as the nerves in Manning’s neck allow. Look for the Colts to finish behind the Texans in a down year.

3.      Tennessee Titans (7-9): I liked the addition of veteran Matt Hasselbeck who hasn’t gotten enough credit for his steady quarterback play over the years. Chris Johnson has agreed to a contract, so he’ll be in the backfield. Look for quarterback-of-the-future Jake Locker to get some playing time. Defense appears to be holding this team back, though; look for rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers and rookie Defensive Tackle Jurrell Casey to shore up the line.

4.      Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): David Garrard’s broken leg means rookie Blaine Gabbert will be starting at Quarterback. Expect eight in the box all season for MJD, especially if Mike Thomas is the most capable wideout. Mercedes Lewis has emerged as a top pass-catching tight end. Tyson Alualu and Aaron Kampman will anchor the defensive line, but the rest of the defense may not be up to the test.

AFC WEST

1.      Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): The Chiefs went 7-1 at home last year after Running Back Jamaal Charles and Receiver Dwayne Bowe combined for over 2,500 yards. Matt Cassel finally proved his worth: 93% QB rating with 27 Touchdowns and 7 Interceptions. They’re continuing to build their defense; Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey on the line, Derrick Johnson at inside backer and superstar Eric Berry at Safety will prove solid at every level.

2.      San Diego Chargers (9-7): Receiver Vincent Jackson will be returning after holding out in 2010. Jackson, Tight End Antonio Gates, Receiver Malcom Floyd and Quarterback Phillip Rivers will be dangerous again. Ryan Mathews will be returning from an injury-riddled rookie year, but look for Mike Tolbert to get goal-line carries. The Chargers had the 1st ranked overall defense last year, and have brought in oft-injured but talented Bob Sanders at Strong Safety. Antoine Cason will prove to be the shutdown Corner the Bolts have been looking for.

3.      Oakland Raiders (7-9): The Raiders will move on without three-time Pro Bowl Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, which means Cornerbacks Chris Johnson, Stanford Routt and Jeremy Ware will have to step up. Running Back Darren McFadden averaged 5.2 Yards per Carry, so expect this team to continue running the ball well. The question is whether Quarterback Jason Campbell will have anyone to throw to after losing Tight End Zach Miller. Jacoby Ford? Darius Heyward-Bey? Anyone…?

4.      Denver Broncos (6-10): A full season of Running Back Knowshon Moreno will do this team well. The defense will be much improved with the return of Elvis Dumervil from injury and the additions of Broderick Bunkley from the Eagles and 2nd overall pick in the draft, Von Miller. Also look for UCLA rookie Rahim Moore (2nd round) to be an immediate contributor at Safety.

 

NFC EAST

1.      Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): This off-season the Eagles signed Receiver Steve Smith (away from division-rival Giants), Running Back Ronnie Brown, Defensive Tackle Cullen Jenkins (from the Packers), Quarterback Vince Young and all-world Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. They traded Kolb for Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie to join Asomugha and Asante Samuels in the secondary and had a strong draft. This team has re-loaded for a Super Bowl run.

2.      New York Giants (10-6): Running Backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are back. Quarterback Eli Manning’s got a top touchdown threat in Receivers Hakeem Nicks and an emerging star in Mario Manningham. The defensive line is tops in the league with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora rushing and Barry Cofield and Chris Canty at tackle. 1st round draftee Prince Amukamara (currently injured) should contribute at Corner eventually while Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle will return to lead the secondary. Overlooked after the Eagles free-agency splashes, look for the Giants to come out with a chip on their shoulder.

3.      Dallas Cowboys (7-9): Quarterback Tony Romo has a dangerous group of receivers in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. With Marion Barber in Chicago, the Cowboys will up Running Bakc Felix Jones’ workload, which will benefit the offense. But the questions remain on the defensive side of the ball with Linebacker DeMarcus Ware working as a one-man wrecking force.

4.      Washington Redskins (4-12): The Redskins will start the season with John Beck at Quarterback, but if he falters Rex Grossman will be waiting in the wings. Mike Shanahan called Beck the top quarterback prospect coming out of the 2007 NFL draft. The unproven list includes JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn and Kevin Kolb, so Beck may have the chance to prove Shanahan right.

 

NFC NORTH

1.      Green Bay Packers (13-3): The defending super bowl champions will be getting Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Morgan Burnett and Mike Neal back from injury. They drafted Derek Sherrod to bolster the Offensive Line and gave Quarterback Aaron Rodgers another weapon in receiver/return-specialist Randall Cobb. This is probably the most talented team in the league, but their biggest challenge this year will be recapturing last year’s chemistry.

2.      Detroit Lions (8-8): The Lions improved by 4 wins last season to finish 6-10 and I think they’ll keep improving. They have a great young nucleus in Quarterback Mathew Stafford, Running Back Jahvid Best, Wide Receiver Calvin Johnson and Tight End Brandon Pettigrew. Ndamukong Suh is a superstar and they drafted Defensive Tackle Nick Fairley in the 1st round to play next to him. The Lions strong defensive line will mask the holes at linebacker and in the secondary.

3.      Chicago Bears (7-9): This is still a top defense in the league, though age is a concern. Julius Peppers is a freak, there isn’t much supporting cast aside from Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs who’s unhappy with his contract. Jay Cutler’s completion percentage and yards have gone down three years in a row, so he’ll need to elevate his level of play.

4.      Minnesota Vikings (6-10): Running Back Adrian Peterson is a beast. Percy Harvin is a legitimate threat at wideout and Donovan McNabb will be solid as the Quarterback, but the offensive line is a glaring hole. Jared Allen declined last year; it’s clear that the defensive needs rebuilding. A proven quarterback in McNabb will help, but they’ve lost their momentum in the North.

 

NFC SOUTH

1.      Atlanta Falcons (10-6): The Falcons traded up to get Quarterback Matt Ryan another weapon in Receiver Julio Jones to play alongside Roddy White and Michael Turner. They drafted change-of-pace Running Back Jacquizz Rodgers. Their pass defense must improve after losing in the playoffs to the Pack, but if the Falcons can shore up some issues on defense, they’re offense gives them as good a shot as any.

2.      Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6): The Bucs have the 2nd youngest team in the league and after finishing winning 10 games last year, Quarterback Josh Freeman and company look quite good. Running Back LeGarrette Blount and Wide Receiver Mike Williams burst onto the scene last year, and look for second round 2010 pick Arrelious Benn to follow suit. The defensive line is the weakest link in the Bucs defense, but after drafting Adrian Clayborn and stealing Da’Quan Bowers (knee concerns) in the second round, there’s reason to believe that the defensive line’s stock is point up.

3.      New Orleans Saints (9-7): The Saints let Reggie Bush walk this off-season after drafting Alabama Running Back Mark Ingram in the first round. Quarterback Drew Brees gives this team a chance to win in every game. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams schemes on defense – they’ll be solid. But in a loaded division, they’re likely to file behind the powerful Falcons and Bucs.

4.      Carolina Panthers (3-13): 1st overall pick Quarterback Cam Newton will start ahead of Jimmy Clausen week one. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson re-signed Linebacker Jon Beason, Center Ryan Kalil, Defensive End Charles Johnson, Runningback DeAngelo Williams and Linebacker James Anderson to cement a core group of players, but Newton’s growing pains may hold this team back for the time-being.

 

NFC WEST

1.      San Francisco 49ers (9-7): Coach Jim Harbaugh is going to lead this team to the playoffs in his first year. They have the weapons on offense in Running Back Frank Gore, Tight End Vernon Davis and Wide Receiver Michael Crabtree. Patrick Willis has established himself as a top-three Linebacker in the league. This is a young, talented roster and a new head coach will give Quarterback Alex Smith the consistency he’s lacked over whole career.

2.      St. Louis Rams (9-7): The Rams know they have a quarterback for the next decade in Sam Bradford. Running Back Steven Jackson has been steady, but the tread on his tires may be running thin. Defensively, they’ve got a good pair of ends in Chris Long and James Hall, and a good inside Linebacker in James Laurinaitis, but they need depth and more talent to win the division.

3.      Arizona Cardinals (5-11): The Cardinals drafted Running Back Ryan Williams because Beanie Wells isn’t cutting it, so losing Williams for the year hurts. The Cardinals traded DRC for Kevin Kolb, so all-world Receiver Larry Fitzgerald should be happier. The defensive line is solid, but they lack a linebacking corps.

4.      Seattle Seahawks (4-12): Pete Carroll’s first year as a head coach may be bumpy with Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. Running Back Marshawn Lynch will be tough, and they’ve found a wideout in Mike Williams. Defensively, Free Safety Earl Thomas is a playmaker. Lofa Tatupu will be solid, but Aaron Curry has largely been a disappointment since being tabbed the top Linebacker in the 2009 draft.