I know myself well enough to not predict official Win-Loss records here in my 2011 NFL preview. There are so many variables, different things that can swing any particular game one way or another, that it’s a complete and total crapshoot to look at the schedule here, the first week in September, and predict game-by-game results all the way through the regular season. Instead, in my journey through the divisions, I will eschew records and simply run through my team capsules in order of how I expect them to finish the season.
Philadelphia Eagles – In a tough division, perhaps the most rivalry-filled in the league, the Eagles have to be considered the favorites. Yes, the rebuilt offensive line needs time to gel. Yes, throwing Casey Matthews to the wolves as the starting middle linebacker from Day One is a risky proposition. Yes, $100 million is a hefty investment in a quarterback with Michael Vick’s penchant for risk. But this is the premier collection of talent in the entire NFL. As iron man Peyton Manning has shown in his recovery from a serious neck injury, anyone can go down at any time. I’d take 13 games of Vick and three of backup Vince Young over all but a handful of signal-callers – and is Vick really any more injury-prone than Dallas counterpart Tony Romo? With Desean Jackson playing in spite of his contract squabbles, Jeremy Maclin back on the field after his illness scare early in camp, and LeSean McCoy establishing himself as one of the top multipurpose threats in the game, all of the weapons are in place for the Birds’ offense to be just as explosive as in 2010. On the other side of the ball, new coordinator Juan Castillo will have his hands full trying to hide the inexperience and lack of size in his linebacking corps. A stellar defensive line rotation will put pressure on any and every opposing backfield, forcing mistakes and turnover opportunities for the world’s top secondary.
Dallas Cowboys – I have more confidence in coordinator Rob Ryan’s ability to turn the Cowboys defense around than I do in Jason Garrett’s effort to manufacture a consistent ground game behind a shaky line. Keeping Jay Ratliff around to clog up blockers and disrupt the middle of the line was paramount, as it enables DeMarcus Ware to fly around the edge, rushing the passer with abandon. Expect a big year from fellow rush linebacker Anthony Spencer under Ryan, much in the same way that former underachiever Derrick Burgess blossomed into a double-digit sack artist during Rob’s years in Oakland. Once offensive specialist Garrett took over as head coach for Wade Phillips mid-season, a Tony Romo-less team averaged over 29 points a game. If Felix Jones, Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray can cobble together enough of a running attack to keep defenses honest, think about what this team can do through the air once Romo, and not Jon Kitna, is under center.
New York Giants – It’s all about the turnovers. The Giants have the offensive line, the quarterback, the running backs, and the wideouts to beat any team in the league. If they can hold onto the ball. Eli Manning set a career high in touchdown passes, breaking the 30 TD plateau for the first time, but countered that with a league-leading 25 interceptions and seven lost fumbles. Tailback Ahmad Bradshaw had a breakout year himself, running for 1,200-plus yards and scoring eight times, but had a bit of fumbleitis as well, putting the ball on the ground another seven times. Overall, New York’s 42 turnovers led the league, and with Osi Umenyiora on the trading block and injuries up and down the defense, they certainly can’t count on another 39 takeaways again.
Washington Redskins – Rex Grossman is the quarterback until coaching dream team Mike and Kyle Shanahan get bored and switch to John Beck. Carlos Rogers, Phillip Daniels, and Andre Carter are gone. LaRon Landry is hurt to start the season. Because of Shanahan, the Skins will have a good running game, but no one knows whether it will be Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain, or rookie Roy Helu doing most of the ball-carrying. Washington will undoubtedly find itself in the cellar yet again, and should be in a good position to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes in April.
Green Bay Packers – The champs until they’re dethroned. There’s not much to say about a Packers team that has remained almost entirely intact. Aaron Rodgers has made the leap from good to great, and both he and the rest of the team is young enough that they may not have even hit their full potential yet. The offense will grow together, as Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley return from injury, while speedy James Jones and surehanded Jordy Nelson begin to phase aging Donald Driver out of the passing game. Defensively, this team is no longer just Charles Woodson and a bunch of bums – safety Nick Collins and cornerback Tramon Williams also earned Pro Bowl berths alongside Woodson, and rush linebacker Clay Matthews, at just 24 years old, was named an All-Pro in addition to his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. With B.J. Raji anchoring the middle of Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, expect Green Bay to tear through a weak division and play deep into January yet again.
Detroit Lions – A major regression from Chicago and the offseason talent drain in Minnesota vaults the young, promising Lions into second place. Not quite ready for a playoff berth just yet, head coach Jim Schwartz’s focus must be on the growth and development of his players as they learn to win ballgames; they need Matt Stafford to stay healthy in order to come anywhere near their potential. Jahvid Best is electric both as a rusher and a receiver, and the combination of Best, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and stud wideout Calvin Johnson, all 25 or younger, gives Detroit a dynamic set of weapons. That places a huge amount of pressure on their offensive line, to make sure that Stafford stays upright enough to get them the ball over a full season, something he has yet to do in his burgeoning career. The defense, behind phenomenal tackles Ndamukong Suh and the injured Nick Fairley, is mostly filled with talented castoffs still young enough that a change of scenery may be just what they’ve needed to reach their potential.
Chicago Bears – I’ve looked at it every way imaginable, and I have no idea how the Bears were a playoff team last year. They’re just not that good. Offensively, they scored under 21 points a game in 2010, and entering this season at 28 years old, Jay Cutler no longer looks like a young quarterback on the rise. After throwing for over 4,500 yards his last year in Denver, Cutler was down under 3,300 last season, with the same interception problems that have plagued him his whole career. Neither he nor running back Matt Forte should expect to be gifted anything this season, as they move right guard Roberto Garza to center, a position he’s never played before, and retain the entire left side of a line that allowed a league-leading 52 sacks. With the release of oft-injured Tommie Harris, the Chicago defense is beginning its transition as well – the run-stopping is in shambles, and they can no longer count on elite production from 33-year-old Brian Urlacher and the disgruntled Lance Briggs.
Minnesota Vikings – Does Donovan McNabb have anything left in the tank? Most Eagles fans and all Redskins fans would say no, but if anyone can get one more solid season out of him, it’s Brad Childress, who – wait, what? Childress was fired in the middle of last season? Oh, ok. McNabb’s cooked. At least the Metrodome has synthetic turf and not real grass, lest McNabb go bug-hunting again with his underthrown bullets. He’s merely a placeholder though, as the team has put its future hopes on the oft-injured right arm of mobile rookie Christian Ponder. As good of a safety blanket as Adrian Peterson is out of the backfield, the rest of the team just isn’t talented enough to make noise this year, and probably next, no matter who is lining up under center.
Atlanta Falcons – A 13-win team last year got even better and deeper this offseason. The ever-wearing tread on Michael Turner’s tires is less of an issue with tiny, shifty Jacquizz Rodgers as a third-down scatback and receiver out of the backfield, and Jason Snelling having performed admirably in Turner’s absence in 2009. The only player of substance that these Falcons lost was Michael Jenkins, but the draft-day acquisition of 6th overall pick Julio Jones more than makes up for it; Jones is already expected to start on the flank opposite Roddy White from the opening snap on Sunday. While head coach Mike Smith historically runs a ground-oriented team, this may finally be the year that the balance is shifted and Matt Ryan begins to attack downfield. The Atlanta defense has stars at every level – Ray Edwards and John Abraham rush the passer, Jonathan Babineaux creates havoc and holds off blockers for middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, and Dunta Robinson combines with Brent Grimes to form the best corner tandem outside of Philadelphia.
New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees threw the most interceptions in his career, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush combine to start 9 games, New Orleans finished out of the top ten in scoring offense for the first time since 2007, and they still made the playoffs. Darren Sproles has replaced the inconsistent Bush, and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is now in the mix to shoulder his share of the load and keep Thomas healthy. All four receivers – Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem – are capable of going off at any time, and smart money is on Brees bouncing back and registering his fourth straight season of 33+ touchdown tosses. Coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive defense, led by safety Roman Harper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, allowed the fewest touchdown passes in the league in 2010, and add Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, and rookie Cameron Jordan to the line rotation.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – I know most people expect Tampa Bay to make “the leap,” but I don’t see it happening, at least not this year. They’re due for a minor regression, as they’re maybe a year or two ahead of the Lions, but not yet ready to vault into the postseason just yet. Josh Freeman is the real deal at quarterback, but LeGarrette Blount cannot replicate his Larry Johnson-like breakout in the second half – only 12 rushers in the history of the league have averaged more than 5 yards a carry for their careers, and Blount hit that on the nose last season. With a solid, not spectacular, set of pass-catchers, and little depth behind Blount, the Bucs offense will be hard-pressed to improve on last season’s performance. Ronde Barber is the NFL’s new iron man, with Peyton Manning’s injury, and if Aqib Talib stays out of trouble, Raheem Morris’ defense will be terrific yet again, but 2012 is more likely to be the Year of the Buccaneer.
Carolina Panthers – Everything, I mean everything, depends on Cam Newton’s adjustment period and development into an NFL quarterback. The Panthers were the only team to score less than 200 total points in 2010, finishing 75 points behind Cleveland, the next-worst offense. Even behind a solid line (tackles Jeff Otah and Jordan Gross are phenomenal, as is center Ryan Kalil), opposing teams have been stacking the box against running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Despite being in the top half of the league in rushing attempts and yards, Carolina finished with only seven scores on the ground. With no ability to stay on the field, and no pass rush aside from the recently re-signed Charles Johnson, the defense spent every game back on its heels. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis returns to help up Jon Beason in the middle, but the secondary can easily be picked on. If Newton can keep the offense balanced, the team has a bright future. If not, back to the drawing board.
St. Louis Rams – Ugh. Ugh to this whole division. Every single team here could go 6-10 or worse. At least St. Louis looks to have solved their quarterback issues, which is more than last year’s West champion can say. Sam Bradford is the real deal – poised, accurate, incredibly quick release. But who does he have to throw to? The Rams just released the unproductive Donnie Avery, who was the first wide receiver taken off the board in the 2008 draft. In what admittedly has turned into an atrocious draft for pass-catchers, you think they’d rather have Desean Jackson or Mario Manningham right now? They did add both Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams as insurance for running back Steven Jackson, but his two new backups have never proven themselves to be consistently healthy either. Chris Long is quickly becoming an elite defensive end, as good against the run as he is at getting to the quarterback, but if he’s double-teamed, who is going to make teams worried about throwing on the Rams? And yes, after all that, they’re still the best team in the division.
Arizona Cardinals – Contrary to popular belief, the Cardinals were more than just a quarterback away from contention last season, and this is coming from someone who has faith in Kevin Kolb’s ability to be a good one in the NFL. The most underrated signing of the truncated summer was Arizona picking up Todd Heap – if he still has anything left in the tank, Kolb loves attacking the middle of the field with a pass-catching tight end. The running game will leave much to be desired, and with rookie Ryan Williams out for the season, there is no depth behind Beanie Wells. Yes, the same Beanie Wells with one 100-yard game in his career, and who’s averaged 62 yards in games where he’s gotten more than 10 carries. The defense, among the worst in the league last year, gave up a Pro Bowl corner for Kolb, and despite two good safeties and rookie corner Patrick Peterson, should not expect to see much improvement in 2011.
San Francisco 49ers – The San Francisco defense should be solid, and combined with a subpar division, will likely put the Niners out of the running for Andrew Luck, who’s already captivated the hearts and minds of many Bay Area fans. In former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh’s first year, he should not be throwing any games away or sacrificing team development in the hopes of drafting his former quarterback. After years of being spun around this way and that, by coordinator after coordinator, head coach after head coach, it’s clear that Alex Smith is not the answer. Colin Kaepernick may be, somewhere down the line, but for now, the team must start concentrating on winning football games. Years of good drafting have left them with a solid line, and Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards are all dangerous players with the ball in their hands. Smith will be decent enough to get them the ball a few times a game, and a fantastic linebacking corps will stop enough offenses to keep San Francisco out of the cellar.
Seattle Seahawks – Becoming the first team ever to make the playoffs with a losing record was a dubious distinction, and the Seahawks were smart not to rest on their laurels and consider themselves division champs. However, despite remodeling, they don’t appear to have improved at all. Seattle brought in seven new starters, many of whom should help – Robert Gallery, James Carpenter and John Moffitt shore up the line, while Zach Miller and Sidney Rice give the team a few reliable pass-catchers. Rice’s health is a question mark, however, and the team is trusting Tarvaris Jackson to get the ball to the new additions. In what had to have been the most riveting quarterback competition of all time, Jackson and his sub-60% completion rate and 24-22 career TD/INT ratio beat out Charlie Whitehurst for the starting job. There are some building blocks here, and Seattle’s hit on their past couple of early draft picks, but this is a team moving sideways at best, and more than likely getting worse.