So it probably didn’t come as a surprise to anybody in my AFC preview that I picked New England to return to the Super Bowl. It will surprise absolutely nobody — especially those who know me — that I’m picking Dallas to meet them there. It was the same Super Bowl I picked last year … and had Dallas even showed up against New York in the playoffs, I would have been correct.
But what’s done is done … and while Dallas seems to be one of the few locks in the NFC to have a good year, I don’t think they’ll have it easy, necessarily.
1) Dallas Cowboys
Why they’ll win a playoff game: I know it’s not a big shot I’m picking good things for my Cowboys, but it’s not like I’m going out on a limb here. Last year’s best offense in the NFC upgraded, I think, at running back, letting the mediocre Julius Jones go so Pro-Bowler Marion Barber could start and exciting rookie Felix Jones. The defense got better, too, losing no big names and picking up Adam Jones and Zach Thomas.
The team’s weakness is wide receiver depth, but unless injuries ravage the squad, this won’t be too big (yet). No matter the record, though, the season will be a miserable failure if they don’t win a playoff game.
2) New York Giants
Why they’re not going to repeat: Losing their best defender (Umenyiora, injury), a Pro Bowl tight end (Shockey, trade) and a Hall of Famer (Strahan, retirement) isn’t going to help. Add to that this team overachieved last year anyway, and nobody is expecting a whole lot from them.
I do expect, however, a good season from a more confident Eli Manning, and it’s not like this team isn’t talented. Expect them to battle for a playoff spot, and if they get in … well, you never know.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Why this is Donovan’s last stand: I’ll predict it right now … Donovan McNabb will not be the Eagles’ starting QB by year’s end. It may be injury, it may be performance or it may be a trade, but I think McNabb’s on-again, off-again relationship with Philly’s idiot fans will be off at some point in the year, and your starting QB will be Kevin Kolb.
Brian Westbrook’s still a star, and the Eagles added Asante Samuel on defense, so they’ve still got big names. But the wide receiving corp is still weak, and the offensive line is getting old (not good news for Donovan).
4) Washington Redskins
Why they’ll take a step back: New coach, new system, young quarterback, weak receiving equals a struggling offense this year. If Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts can stay healthy all year, they have a chance to not stink … but it won’t be easy.
The defense is better with Jason Taylor adding a pass rush, and he’s got Andre Carter bringing it from the other side. Beyond the line though (and with the exception of London Fletcher), the depth is weak and one or two injuries could be devastating.
1) Minnesota Vikings
Why they’ll make the playoffs: Certainly not because of quarterback. I think Tavaris Jackson is the worst of the league’s 32 starting QBs, and his receiving corp isn’t anything to get excited about.
But maybe they won’t need it. In Adrian Peterson, they have the NFL’s most exciting running back this side of LT, and the offensive line is solid. On defense, the line is by far the league’s best (Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Pat Williams). Couple a ball control offense and a stingy defense, you’ve got the potential of winning a lot of 17-13, 20-10 games.
2) Detroit Lions
Why they’ll best .500: Because Detroit fans finally deserve it. That, and because rookie running back Kevin Smith may finally provide stability in the backfield to go with Jon Kitna and a great batch of receivers — Calvin Johnson, Roy Williams, Mike Furrey, Shaun McDonald.
Defensively, they’re not great, but they’re not bad. Ernie Sims is a solid linebacker, and the secondary is decent enough. Unlike the Vikings, I expect a lot of high scoring games.
3) Green Bay Packers
Why they may boo Aaron Rodgers: Not because he’s going to be bad, it’s just that he’s a first-year starter for a team that overachieved last year because of a great veteran starter at QB. Not having Favre will bring Green Bay back to earth a little this year, but they won’t be bad.
Ryan Grant gives Green Bay its best running back since the 60s, and Aaron Kampman, Charles Rogers, A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett headline a pretty good defense.
Just don’t expect a miracle season in Rodgers’ first go, Packer fans. They’re a year away from the playoffs … give them time.
4) Chicago Bears
Why they still stink: Quarterback. Not only are they pretty bad at QB, they’re downright awful. I say Tavaris is the worst, but Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman combined are at No. 31 when it comes to QB strength. And unlike the Vikes, they have nothing resembling a running attack to make up for it. Kevin Jones and the league’s second-best Adrian Peterson won’t give teams reason to not blitz, and other than Devin Hester, they have nothing resembling a passing attack.
The defense will keep them in games, thanks to Urlacher and Lance Briggs. But it won’t be enough … sorry Bears fans.
1) New Orleans Saints
Why they’re back in the playoffs: They seem to rebound from hurricanes well, and here comes Gustav. Kidding.
The Saints’ down year last year can be attributed to injuries (Duece McCallister) and bad luck. But the offense — which already has Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and Jamaal Brown — has added Jeremy Shockey, giving New Orleans its first middle-of-the-field threat in a while.
I’m not thrilled about the defense, but it overachieved two years ago and will be better than last year. Luckily, the Saints can simply outscore people, and Sean Payton is one of the league’s top coaches.
2) Carolina Panthers
Why they’ll battle for the playoffs: Jake Delhomme is healthy, and if Steve Smith can avoid breaking any more noses, the two will find their groove again and add some pop to an offense that struggled hard last year.
The defense worries me a little, but if Julius Peppers can rebound from a poor 2007, it will be OK. I think Carolina as a whole will be mediocre, but if it can figure out how to win some home games, it will be in the hunt.
3) Tampa Bay Buccanneers
Why it will be a down year (and why you’ll see lots of Chucky faces on the sideline): This is an old team — QB Jeff Garcia is 38, RB Warrick Dunn is 33, WRs Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard are 36 and 32, and defenders Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter and Ronde Barber are 35, 34 and 33 respectively.
Now, I’m 32, and I don’t feel that old … but being in your mid-30s after 10 years of getting the carp knocked out of you in the NFL can take it’s toll (I’m told).
Tampa does have depth at running back — Earnest Graham, Dunn and Cadillac Williams — and Garcia is still a formidable QB … just not one who will dazzle. Plus, he has nobody to throw to. I expect Tampa will be mediocre at best, with the possibility of getting worse.
4) Atlanta Falcons
Why the curse of Michael Vick still lingers: Matt Ryan will start the season opener as a rookie, and that’s rarely a good sign. Ryan will take a beating, but maybe it won’t be too bad with Michael Turner coming in from San Diego. If he can handle 25 carries a game (unlike in SD, where he backed up the NFL’s best), then Ryan will be given a chance to learn without having to throw it 40 times.
Even if the offense can find its way, the defense isn’t good enough to stop anybody. It will be a tough year in Atlanta, but hey … at least the future looks bright-ish.
1) Arizona Cardinals
Why this is the year: Because everybody’s been predicting it for the last three years, so it’s bound to happen, right?
The Cardinals are ready to win now … that’s why Kurt Warner is your starting QB and not the still-developing Matt Leinart. Leinart has the league’s best receiving corps — Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin — and Edgerrin James will be better than last year’s mediocre effort. The defense is good enough to keep them in games … though could be a slight concern.
Also, Arizona plays in the league’s weakest division. There is no team here that stands head and shoulders above the rest … so go Cards … end your 100 years of misery.
2) Seattle Seahawks
Why the Seahawks stink: My on-running joke last year was the Seahawks stunk. They wound up having a pretty good season.
So this year, I won’t say they STINK … just stink (lower case). Everybody’s picking them to win the division, but a weak group of receivers, aging running back (Alexander) and mediocre offensive line will give them fits this year. Hasselbeck isn’t an elite QB, and he will struggle this year.
The defense is pretty great … which could be the reason my prediction is off again.
But hey, I’m sticking with it. Seahawks stink (lower case).
3) St. Louis Rams
Why it’s a rebuilding year: It shouldn’t be with names like Steven Jackson, Orlando Pace Torry Holt and Mark Bulger, but the Rams have probably the league’s worst defense, and aside from Jackson, the aformentioned names are all getting old. Despite those names (Jackson was injured), the Rams ranked 28th in offense last year … not good when your defense is that bad.
If the offense can find a little of that “Best Show on Turf” magic, they have a chance to battle for a wild card … just don’t count on it.
4) San Fransisco 49ers
Why it will be a long season: Their No. 1 pick from a few years back has been benched for J.T. O’Sullivan at QB. Really, do I need to go on?
Frank Gore needs to bounce back from a poor 2007 at RB, and if he can provide stability on offense, the defense is good enough to help win some games.
I’m just really worried about the QB situation. It will be tough for San Fransisco to score 20 points consistently, and that always means a long year.
Wild Cards: NY Giants, Lions
Division Winners: Cowboys, Vikings, Cardinals, Saints
Wild Card Round: Giants over Vikings; Cardinals over Lions
Divisional Round: Cowboys over Cardinals; Saints over Giants
NFC Championship: Cowboys over Saints
Super Bowl: Cowboys
SUPER BOWL PREDICTION: Well … we’ll just see if Dallas and New England make it first … then I’ll predict.