Tonight, we have a matchup featuring an intense division rivalry, as the Cowboys visit Snoopy Stadium to take on the Super Bowl Champs, the New York Giants. The Giants hope to improve on last season’s 9-7 record, while several experts have predicted that this Cowboys team will win the NFC East. Tonight’s game should be a good one (I’ll give my prediction later). However, neither of these teams is bound for the playoffs. That’s a sneak preview of my season preview.
Last year was my first time doing a season preview. I enjoyed doing it, and I actually did pretty well. (Then again, I also picked the 49ers to finish last in their division, so consider the source.) For this year’s preview, I did something a bit different. I spent the past couple of weeks thinking about how good I thought each team would be. I read as much as I could about any changes that teams underwent since last season, and factored those changes into my impressions of the teams’ performance from last season, and tried to imagine the order of finishing for each division. Then, I copied and pasted a full schedule to a Word document, and went through each game and picked a winner based on my impression of the team as it is right now. I did factor in home-field advantage, but I didn’t go too deeply into my analysis, with things like teams playing on a short or long week, potential weather conditions, and so on. I simply looked at each matchup, went with my first impression, double-clicked and bolded the winner, and moved on to the next one. It’s hardly scientific; for several teams, it was hard to imagine them losing, while it was hard to find wins for others. In fact, I could not find a single win in the Jaguars’ schedule.
Does this mean that I expect Jacksonville to go 0-16? Of course not; this is the NFL. You know, “On any given Sunday…” That also means that I don’t believe that three teams will finish 15-1, even though I found 15 wins on their schedules (I’ll let you try to guess which ones; the answers may surprise you). Plus, I know that the way I see things now will most definitely change, as surprise contenders emerge, expected contenders falter, new stars emerge as older ones fade, and injuries destroy promising seasons. There are always those unforeseeable x-factors. For a lot of teams, a season can come down to one play. The Giants were one Tony Romo overthrow away from missing the playoffs last year. The Bears were playing some of the best football in the league last year when Jay Cutler broke his thumb while trying to make a tackle after a fluke interception. The Patriots’ offence looked unstoppable last year until Rob Gronkowski’s injury. The Broncos anointed Tim Tebow as their savior, and God brought them victories (That is, until Denver came up against Beelzichick and his minions in the playoffs—Biblical scholars can draw their own conclusions). Right out of the gate, a huge question mark is the replacement officials. I don’t watch preseason games, but I have heard some real horror stories about atrocious officiating. Players (and coaches) should decide games, not officials. In a season with only 16 games, with so much riding on each play, even one really bad call can have drastic repercussions.
Ok, enough pontificating. Same as last year, I will go division by division, starting with my predicted order of finish, followed by a brief overview. Before I begin, however, let me say just one more thing about my “system.” When I tallied up the wins for each team, the divisional order was almost exactly as I had envisioned it. There were a couple of surprises, but I’m committed to the process, so I’m sticking with it.
At least until next week.
New England is still the class of the division. Their offence will score a ton of points. Towards the end of last season, the Pats looked nigh-unstoppable when they had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field together. This season, Tom Brady has another potent weapon at his disposal, as the Pats signed Brandon Lloyd. With some improvement on the defensive side of the ball, they will be tough to beat. Buffalo looks poised to give the Pats something to think about. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a steady hand at QB, and they have a good receiving corps and an all-world tandem at RB in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. If Mario Williams can stay healthy, he should vastly improve the Bills’ ability to pressure opposing QBs. Expect a big drop-off by the Jets this season. I can’t see where the points are coming from on offence; they look thin at RB, the hallmark of their offensive identity, their most talented WR, Santonio Holmes, doubles as the team’s biggest distraction, and their starting QB, Mark Sanchez lacks confidence (He’s already hearing the “Tebow” chants in his head, I’ll wager). For New York to contend, their aging defence will need to carry the team. Even with all-overrated CB Darrelle Revis (seriously, if the officials nailed him for half the fouls he commits, he would be on the bench), they don’t have it in them. Miami will have a good pass-rush, and very little else. I’m not sure what’s up with this team. Often, bad teams will go through a period of rebuilding, but in Miami, it’s more like de-building. Towards the end of last season, the Dolphins were actually playing some decent football. QB Matt Moore was playing well. They had decent receivers. The defence was solid. Then, in the offseason; they hired Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, then failed to sign free-agent QB Matt Flynn, who played for Philbin in Green Bay, then drafted so-so QB Ryan Tannehill in the first round, then signed washed-up QB David Garrard, then anointed Garrard the starter, then opened up the QB competition when Garrard was injured, then made the green rookie the starter, while jettisoning the team’s best receiver, Brandon Marshall. Can you follow that logic? The best that Dolphins’ fans can hope for this year is a high draft pick next year, which the team’s “brain trust” will no doubt trade for another useless QB, or some magic beans.
This one surprised me a bit, but that’s the way the numbers came out. I like the Bengals’ offence. Andy Dalton was a revelation as a rookie QB, and with the receiving talent at his disposal, I do not expect a sophomore slump. I thought that Cincy’s defence would struggle last year after losing some key starters, but they rose to the occasion and were solid again last season. Baltimore is expecting its offence to improve dramatically this year, but I’m still not entirely sold on Joe Flacco. In past seasons, I’ve heard the same talk about how he would “have a breakout year” after the team added this or that new receiver, but it never seems to come to pass (pun intended), and the team ends up relying on running game, as well as expecting its defence to score points and provide short fields by creating turnovers. Speaking of the defence, that’s where I see the real trouble. Ray Lewis, as good as he has been, has a lot of miles on him. Ed Reed is banged up. Their pass-rush, a real strength last season, will start the season without the irreplaceable Terrell Suggs. The Ravens will contend, but they are ripe for a fall. Pittsburgh landed right where I expected them to, in third. Ben Roethlisberger takes too much punishment, and the offence goes nowhere without him. Some of the defensive starters are so old I can hear their joints creaking all the way up here in Nova Scotia. They are still talented and dangerous, but their best hope for a playoff spot will be as a wild card. Cleveland was one of those teams I mentioned in the opening where I had difficulty finding wins in their schedule. They’ll be starting the year with a 28-year-old rookie at QB, and a gimpy rookie (albeit, a talented one) at RB. There’s not much else to say, really.
I thought that Tennessee might give Houston a run for their money this season, but it shouldn’t be close. The Texans will win comfortably, even if injuries have them starting their backup long-snapper at QB (remember last season?). Houston is deep in talent, and extremely well-coached on defence. On offence, they have the best RB in football in Arian Foster, and they employ a blocking scheme which plays to his strengths. They are solid at starting QB (injuries notwithstanding), and have plenty of talent at wideout. The Titans have some question marks on offence, with Jake Locker beginning his first season as the starter at QB, key receivers returning from injuries, and a starting RB who has been writing cheques with his mouth that his body can’t cover for the past couple of seasons. Indianapolis will be better this year with top draft pick Andrew Luck at QB (quite frankly, their backup long-snapper would be an improvement over Curtis Painter). No matter how much the Colts struggle this year, they should be able to avoid the cellar, which is reserved for Jacksonville. The Jags’ best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, staged one of the most ill-advised holdouts in sports history, demanding more money from a team with a new owner, playing in a city where they can’t sell out home games, and that will stink with him or without him this season. Not surprisingly, MJD ended his holdout after not getting any more money, being fined severely by the team for not reporting, and losing his starting job for the Jags’ opening game. Bravo, MJD. Bravo.
After their success last season with an extremely one-dimensional offence, I expected big things from Denver after winning the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes. They have a solid defence, talented young receivers, and a strong running game. Their schedule is brutal. Fortunately, the rest of the division isn’t all that great. The Raiders could contend this year, but there are a lot of ifs. Carson Palmer has to play better, especially cutting down on his interceptions. As Darren McFadden goes, so goes Oakland’s offence, which will be nowhere if he can’t stay healthy. San Diego is sinking fast. Philip Rivers is talented, driven, and tough, but he was terrible last year. He looked to be trying to do too much. This season, Vincent Jackson is gone, and oft injured TE Antonio Gates can’t dominate from the bench. Kansas City has some key starters returning from major injuries last season; TE Tony Moeaki, RB Jamaal Charles, and SS Eric Berry. Losing these three players sunk the Chiefs last year, and the fact that they all blew out an ACL makes it difficult to predict how they will perform this season. With a bit of luck, the Chiefs could relegate San Diego to last place.
Wild Card Teams: Ravens, Bills
What can I say about Philadelphia? They have loads of talent at the skill positions on offence. They have perhaps the most talented starting tandem in the league at CB. They have a good pass-rush. The division is theirs for the taking. It all hangs on one guy, Michael Vick, the same Michael Vick who has never played a full, 16-game season as a starter. He still has the tools. As long as he’s healthy, the Eagles offence can match just about any team score-for-score. The Giants start the year with some concerns about their running game and pass protection, as well as some injuries at WR. Their defensive line is deep and dangerous, and they’ll have to be. They look like a .500 team to me. Of course, since I’m talking about the Giants, that could mean that they start 4-8, win their last 4 games with Eli Manning throwing for 2000 yards combined, beat the Eagles for the division crown on the basis of the 10th tiebreaker, then run the table in the playoffs, thereby creating the most unlikely dynasty in sports history (that groan you heard came from the Boston area). I pity poor Tony Romo. He seems like the type of guy who would practically kill himself to win. He’s good enough. Sadly, I look around him this year and I see nothing. The Cowboys’ RBs are fragile. WR Miles Austin is banged-up. The immensely talented Dez Bryant had conditioning problems last year, which caused him to fade at the end of games and made him injury-prone. Romo’s favourite receiver, TE Jason Witten, has a lacerated spleen. The defence is thin on talent, and is coached by the vastly overrated Rob Ryan, who often makes overcomplicated calls in an effort to prove his “genius.” Washington fans are excited about their new QB, rookie Robert Griffin III. I hope he survives.
Green Bay will score. A lot. Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league, hands down. They need to improve on defence, especially their pass-rush, in order to take some of the pressure off their secondary. I expect Chicago to push the Packers to the brink this season. Before Cutler’s injury last year, the Bears’ offence was humming along. This year, Cutler will be reunited with his former Broncos’ teammate Brandon Marshall. As for their defence, it will be stout even if Brian Urlacher is limited in what he can do this season. Detroit comes into this season with high expectations, but they won’t live up to them. QB Matthew Stafford threw for over 5000 yards last year, but he was helped out by some of the best receiver play I have ever seen, particularly by Calvin Johnson. They have virtually no reliable running attack. Their defence is led by an extremely talented, but undisciplined defensive line. DT Ndamukong Suh, was only so-so last season, after a dominating rookie season. His failure to develop as a player is as a result of poor coaching. Several players on the team, including Suh, ran afoul of the law during the offseason. Someone needs to take control in Detroit, before all that talent gets wasted. Minnesota is in for a tough year. Adrian Peterson is coming back from injury. The Vikings aren’t terrible, but they play in an extremely tough division. It’s a long way to the top.
Atlanta will have a potent offence this year. QB Matt Ryan is very good, and he has a great tandem of starting wideouts in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Their defence is well-coached and gets the job done. Carolina will be much-improved this year. QB Cam Newton only scratched the surface of his immense talent last year. Their offence will move the ball on the ground and in the air. New Orleans still has Drew Brees, and he has enough weapons to light up the scoreboard. I think that the team will miss Sean Peyton, and will suffer as a result, especially with in-game adjustments. After the debacle that was last season, Tampa Bay is starting over. There’s talent there, but the poor coaching from last season has left a lot of damage to be undone. In this division, they look bound for the basement.
Time to finish up with the NFC West, or as I like to call it, the haves and the have-nots. San Francisco should win comfortably. The offence will be fine, as long as Alex Smith takes care of the ball. The running game is solid, and the receiving corps is deep. As for the defence, there is none better in the NFL right now. They have a solid pass-rush, a very good secondary, and the best linebackers in the league, led by Patrick Willis. I expect Seattle to be good this year, and with a bit of luck, might even challenge the 49ers. They have a well-coached, disciplined defence. If they are able to get some production from their wideouts, and rookie QB Russell Wilson (or, waiting in the wings, Matt Flynn) plays well, the offence will put the Seahawks right in the playoff hunt. St. Louis was one of the biggest disappointments in the league last season, picked by many experts to win the West, but finishing a dismal 2-14. They don’t look much better this year, but still better than Arizona. The Cardinals are another team going nowhere. Their brilliant idea to improve the offence was to draft a WR to play opposite Larry Fitzgerald, then have a QB competition between “Footsteps” Kevin Kolb and John “Nuke” Skelton (‘cause he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a fuckin’ boat), which is kind of like wearing Cartier earrings with a JC Penney dress (Ed.: The preceding analogy was provided to highlight my sensitive side, as well as to cynically appeal to a different demographic). 1 and 15 would not surprise me.
Wild Card Teams: Bears, Seahawks
Well, that’s it. I’d love to hear your opinions. Feel free to comment with your take on my analysis, or with your own picks. Sharing the link is encouraged.
I will post my weekly picks column this weekend.
Oh, and one more thing: the Giants will beat the Cowboys tonight. Poor Tony Romo.