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.
New England Patriots – Even without a consistently dangerous rushing attack, the Patriots keep churning out dominating seasons. It hardly matters who keeps moving into and out of coach Bill Belichick’s system, as long as Tom Brady is under center, New England can beat any team. The 2010 MVP and Offensive Player of the Year threw for 36 touchdowns against only five interceptions, and now gets a healthy Wes Welker and a full season of former partner-in-crime Deion Branch, who caught 78 passes for 998 yards in a significantly worse offense his last year in Foxboro. The defense just keeps on re-tooling and re-emerging as well – Jerod Mayo is a star, Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty are on their way there, and if anyone can keep Albert Haynesworth in line and get him back to performing at an All-Pro level, it’s Belichick.
New York Jets – For all their defensive hype, the Jets only allowed nine less points last season than New England, so they will have to be much improved on the other side of the ball if they want to steal the division. Replacing Braylon Edwards with Plaxico Burress seems like a lateral move at best, but even though Edwards is younger and a better all-around player, pre-jail Plax always showed a preternatural ability to make up for slight inaccuracies on balls thrown his way; this will come in handy, especially in the red zone, with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Their game-changing corners and incredible linebacking corps have been held together by the re-signings of CB Antonio Cromartie and LB David Harris, but they must get more than five and a half sacks out of rush linebacker Calvin Pace.
Miami Dolphins – With a decent quarterback, Miami could be an average team that spends the latter half of the season in contention for a wild card spot. Unfortunately for them, Chad Henne is still their starter, and when Denver decided to keep Kyle Orton, the Fins brought in Matt “Even in my good season, I threw for 150 yards a game” Moore to push Henne. Keep an eye on Vontae Davis, who may be the most physical corner in the game, and new addition Reggie Bush, who could make teams fear him again if Miami re-implements the Wildcat formation. Until Henne or Moore can throw more touchdowns than balls to the other team, none of it will matter.
Buffalo Bills – And the race for Andrew Luck is on! The Bills are apparently the kind of franchise that trades their most popular, nationally-known player for a 4th round pick mere weeks before the season starts. While former wideout Lee Evans frequently underperformed when he was able to get on the field, perhaps that’s more of an indictment of the slop he had throwing the ball to him in Buffalo (or Canada, the Bills’ sometimes – and future – home). Kelly Holcomb. J.P. Losman. Trent Edwards. Even Ryan Fitzpatrick, while surprisingly good in 2010, is no more than yet another stopgap at the most important position on the field. Luckily for Bills fans, they do have a potentially electric running back in C.J. Spiller; if he ever realizes he can’t break every single play for a touchdown and settles for 4 yard gains on most carries, he could be a Jamaal Charles-type threat.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Although he’s young, head coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are going to have to be a little bit more concerned about overusing Rashard Mendenhall. In his first two years as a starter, the bruiser has 566 carries (not including the playoffs), and only six 100-yard games. Expect to see more of Isaac Redman this year, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as he gives teams a different look and keeps Mendenhall fresh. As is always the case in Pittsburgh, the run game sets up the pass, and no one in the conference was better at beating defenses deep than speedster Mike Wallace. In Ben Roethlisberger’s 12 games, Wallace caught 51 balls for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Perhaps more importantly for the Steelers, no changes were made to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s starting 11, which led the league in points allowed.
Baltimore Ravens – The biggest addition to an AFC contender this year may not be Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, or even new Raven Lee Evans. Look between quarterback Joe Flacco and tailback Ray Rice – Vonta Leach is an absolute monster of a fullback. Even with a subpar offensive line, Leach sprung his Texans teammates for an average of over 1,700 yards a season over his four years in Houston. Behind a stellar Baltimore line, multipurpose threat Rice should eclipse 2,000 total yards, and Flacco will have even more time to throw deep to Evans and underneath to Anquan Boldin. It remains to be seen how losing nose tackle Kelly Gregg will affect the defense, but look for the Ravens to run an off-set line, replacing Gregg with the immovable Terrence Cody, while sliding all-world tackle Haloti Ngata into any position with which he can create havoc.
Cleveland Browns – For the first time in a while, the Browns don’t have a bad foundation with which to build on; more importantly, they’re doing it the right way, with young, top-level talent at key positions. First-round linemen Joe Thomas and Alex Mack both made the Pro Bowl, and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, while occasionally looking overmatched, managed to complete over 60% of his throws while facing the Jets, Steelers and Ravens defenses in three of his eight starts. In a pass-centric league, with the talented receivers in the division, a shutdown cornerback is a must as well. While the rest of the defense leaves something to be desired, 22-year-old Joe Haden seems to be the real deal – six interceptions in just seven starts as a rookie.
Cincinnati Bengals – They could not possibly have handled the Carson Palmer situation any worse; Carson is determined to be selfish and petty, threatening retirement after the Bengals refused to heed the star’s trade request. Now the season is here, and while Palmer has not officially filed his retirement papers, both player and team appear to have moved on. However, with so many teams across the league needing help at quarterback, Bengals management owed it to the players in uniform to move the two-time Pro Bowler and bring in picks or players that would actually take the field and help the team.
Houston Texans – With Peyton Manning’s injury, Houston is now the only team in the division with anything resembling stability at the quarterback position. The passing game won’t be nearly as effective, however, if last year’s breakout star, running back Arian Foster, is out for more than a game or two. Foster put together a 1,600 yard, 16 touchdown season on the ground, while catching 66 passes for another 600 yards and two touchdowns. Quite clearly, he was the fulcrum around which the entire Texans offense revolved. The defense should be much-improved, with an attacking scheme based upon Mario Williams’ transition to weakside linebacker and the addition of cornerback Jonathan Joseph and defensive end J.J. Watt. Even factoring in an expected drop off from Foster, this team is good enough to finally break through and win the division for the first time.
Indianapolis Colts – It’s easy to profess a year of doom and gloom for Indy, who has missed the playoffs just twice since drafting Manning in 1998. I see his replacement, veteran Kerry Collins, as a quarterback who went 12-3 with a much worse supporting cast in Tennessee a few years ago. Will the Colts score 27 points a game again? Of course not. But they still have Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Austin Collie for Collins to throw to. Although the defense is no longer the turnover-creating machine they were a few years ago, it’s still mighty scary to gameplan against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis coming around the edges. Joseph Addai and Donald Brown have both underperformed as first-round running backs, hopefully the combination of Addai and rookie Delone Carter will help take some pressure off of Collins.
Tennessee Titans – Chris Johnson is not only one of the two best running backs in the league, he also led the Titans in receptions last year with a mere 44. Matt Hasselbeck is throwing the ball now, and even though he’s merely keeping the seat warm for top-10 pick Jake Locker, the passing game should be reliably average. Wide receiver Kenny Britt started only seven games last year, but amassed 42 catches, 775 yards, and nine touchdowns. On a team devoid of any other weapons, expect monster years from both Johnson and Britt. Expect much less than that from the defense, who lost 12 and a half of their 40 sacks as pass-rushing specialist Jason Babin left for greener pastures in Philadelphia.
Jacksonville Jaguars – They better hope that Maurice Jones-Drew is healthy, and stays that way all season. The Jags cut five-year starting quarterback David Garrard this past Tuesday, handing the reins over to Luke McCown, who has not started a game since 2007 and has a 1-6 career record. Their defense can be solid, adding linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Dawan Landry to a back seven anchored by shutdown corner Rashean Mathis, but it won’t matter. Even if they had a competent, stable quarterback situation, Jones-Drew is injury-prone, and starting wide receivers Jason Hill and Mike Thomas scare no one.
San Diego Chargers – For our purposes, Norv Turner’s playoff incompetence is irrelevant, and on pure talent, the Chargers are far and away the class of the division. Much has been made of San Diego finishing first in the league in both yards gained and opponent’s yards gained in 2010, and this year’s edition might be even better. A full season of both Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates gives returns to Philip Rivers his two favorite targets, which because of a holdout and injury, respectively, weren’t on the field for a single play together. While scatback Darren Sproles is plying his trade in New Orleans now, Ryan Mathews should improve on a disappointing rookie season; if he doesn’t, converted fullback Mike Tolbert averaged four yards a carry and scored 11 times.
Oakland Raiders – Call me a homer. This team can challenge for a wild-card spot. While not elite by any stretch of the imagination, Jason Campbell was perfectly adequate last season, and finally has some form of consistency, working with both Hue Jackson and Al Saunders again. Darren McFadden proved himself to be a stud – putting together over 1,600 total yards and 10 touchdowns – if he can stay healthy (he did that while missing three games). In their first year with Jackson running the offense, Oakland finished sixth in the league in scoring, and was in the middle of the pack defensively. Tyvon Branch is a star in the making at safety, and with another year of development under their belts, defensive end Lamarr Houston and linebacker Rolando McClain will keep Oakland in contention even without Nnamdi Asomugha.
Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs presumably improved this off-season, but I don’t think they can get by Oakland (who went 6-0 against the division last year) again. Expect more carries for spark plug Jamaal Charles, but with that added workload, he certainly can’t count on over seven yards a touch. Plus, Thomas Jones is still around, near and dear to head coach Todd Haley’s heart, a year older and even more plodding than ever. The Brandons, Flowers and Carr, make up a formidable cornerback tandem in front of solid linebackers Derrick Johnson and AFC sack leader Tamba Hali. Kelly Gregg was brought in to shore up the run defense, but unless twin LSU disappointments Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson chip in as the starting ends in Haley’s 3-4, backs like McFadden will be able to get to the outside all day, keeping Kansas City from returning to the postseason.
Denver Broncos – I bet vice president John Elway, head coach John Fox, and the rest of the Broncos brass are glad they didn’t trade Kyle Orton when they put him on the market early in the offseason. Orton was one of the few bright spots for the Broncos worst team since 1982, the year before Elway arrived as quarterback and savior, and has looked light years ahead of backups Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow during training camp and preseason. In former coach Josh McDaniels’ spread system, Denver finished 7th in pass offense, but dead last in the league in both scoring and yardage defense. Enter Fox, who will commit to more of a balanced offense, and tailor an aggressive, blitzing defense around end Elvis Dumervil and rookie linebacker Von Miller. Don’t expect Orton to throw for 3,600 yards again, but if the team once again looks like they’re headed nowhere, he could be decent trade bait as the Broncos give one of the youngsters some live game experience.