The NFL: It's Fan-tastic!
Yes, I know the NBA used that slogan, but the reality is that football is the most popular sport in America, and I am seriously happy that it is back. It should be a fun season, with lots of promising players and teams - and that's great, because it might not start on time next year. (If you want to learn anything about the labor issues in the NFL, and why next season is in legitimate jeopardy, I implore you to read Michael Silver's article.)
So, while we're here, a few foolish and errant predictions for the upcoming season:
AFC NORTH: While I think the Bengals are going to be pretty fun to watch again this year, and the Steelers aren't going away, I'm nudging this division over to the Baltimore Ravens. Admittedly, the strength of this team has really shifted; the defense is at least a step or two slower, but Joe Flacco has real receivers, and a great Ray Rice in the backfield.
AFC SOUTH: Picking against the Indianapolis Colts is just stupid until they prove otherwise. Drive on.
AFC WEST: There has to be a winner, right? I've seen some folks choose the Chiefs, who I think will improve on last season. But unless they're a true shell of their former selves, this division is the San Diego Chargers for the taking.
AFC WILDCARDS: I really want to choose the Houston Texans - I think Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson can almost do it themselves ... but, in all honesty, they probably have to. The rest of the team is either unproven or shaky. I'm inclined to think the New England Patriots will keep it going, but I'm really concerned that there's just not enough young, fast talent on the roster. Speed in the NFL is everything.
Instead, I'm going with two teams that didn't make the playoffs last year -- the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. The Steelers have enough to keep it together until Ben Roethlisberger can come back, and hopefully play well without sexually assaulting anyone. (I really hate that guy, and have intentionally not wasted time writing about what an utter douchenozzle he is, but on the field, he can obviously produce.) I also think Vince Young and Chris Johnson, as well as an underrated defense can take the Titans to the next level.
AFC CHAMPION: It would be easy to pick the Colts to repeat as AFC Champions, but Greeby don't play that way. I do think they'll make it to the championship game, but I'll go out on a limb and pick the upstart Baltimore Ravens to take the leap and make it to the Super Bowl. I think the combination of a maturing Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, added with Anquan Boldin, the perennially under-rated Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandazeh can more than handle itself and the defense is, while not quite it's former self, still capable of dominating when it counts.
NFC NORTH: Despite reason for fans of both the Lions and Bears to feel optimistic about their seasons, this division is coming down to the Vikings and the team I pick to win it, the Green Bay Packers. There's just a lot to like about the Packers this year, with a vibrant offense and defense and talent across the board.
NFC SOUTH: This one belongs to the New Orleans Saints untill Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton say otherwise.
NFC WEST: Ah, yes. What admittedly is the worst division in football besides, potentially, their AFC counterparts. That makes it a bit easier to pick my own team, the San Francisco 49ers to end a really long drought and return to the playoffs. The Cardinals will be more competitive than many think, but I think the 49ers have a strong defense and a solid offense. Alex Smith will surprise at least some of the doubters this year.
** Can I just reiterate that I wrote the above before the debacle on Sunday? OK, just wanted to make sure that was clear. UGH.
NFC WILDCARDS: Being in the NFC South hurts for a team like the Atlanta Falcons, who like my 49ers have reason to feel optimistic this season. A top-flight running game with Michael Turner, a QB-WR combination of Matt Ryan and Roddy White, and a defense that can smack others around. The other pick is a bigger question - the easiest choice is for the Minnesota Vikings to make it back to the playoffs, but ... I'm concerned. I think Favre is due to finally hit the wall, and even if he doesn't, the loss of Sidney Rice is simply going to hurt. Instead, I think the New York Giants eke their way into the playoffs, behind a passing attack - yes, a passing attack for the Giants - and a running game that admits Ahmad Bradshaw is the best back on the team. The defense isn't rebuilt yet, and they have some known gaps, but I think they can rally to make a run for it when it matters.
|I believe. I only wish Mike Nolan had.|
SUPER BOWL CHAMPS: Like many others, I'm sitting in a front row seat on the Green Bay Packers bandwagon. A Packers-Ravens Super Bowl? That sounds like a hell of a ride ... can't wait to see how wrong I am.