Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are the team to beat in the AFC North this season. Joe Flacco is only improving with age and is becoming one of the elite young quarterbacks in the league. With Anquan Boldin at wide receiver and the addition of Lee Evans, Flacco has many options to throw to. The Ravens also have an elite running back in Ray Rice, who looks to have another big year. The defence has been the team’s driving force for years, with players such as Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. With their offence on par with their defence, the Ravens can prove in week one that they are better than the Steelers. Note: the Ravens beat the Steelers 35-7 on Sunday.
Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are coming into the season hungrier than ever after their heartbreaking loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl. There are many reasons to believe they can have another great season. Troy Polamalu is finally healthy after being injured for almost a full season last year. He will surely add some interceptions and some great pass rushing to the already potent Pittsburgh defence. Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime, and has plenty of passing options and a great running back in Rashard Mendenhall who can run the ball effectively to further confuse opposing defences.
Cleveland Browns – The Browns look like a very promising team and their fans have plenty of reason to be excited, but this team simply is not good enough to compete in a division with the Steelers and the Ravens. Quarterback Colt McCoy has been handed the team after some solid starts last season. If the Browns are to be competitive this year, McCoy has to prove that he deserved his high draft selection. Their defence is quite young and, while it has potential, it does not look competitive enough to give the Browns a shot at the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals – The sorry Bengals once again look like one of the worst teams in the league this
year. The team is officially starting over following the departures of Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, and Head Coach Marvin Lewis is intent on running the ball more this season with the loss of Palmer’s prowess at quarterback. While the Bengals look inexperienced on paper they may surprise a few people with a great group of young players going onto the field with something to prove.
Indianapolis Colts – Nobody will mistake the 2011 Colts for the perennial powerhouse they have been for the past 7 years. Peyton Manning, the Colts’ four-time MVP quarterback, is coming off neck surgery in the off-season, and has a five-year, $90 million contract to live up to. Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne and a rejuvenated line lead the offense, while defence remains, as before, the Colts’ Achilles heel.
Houstan Texans – The Texans’ offense is extremely dangerous, with Andre Johnson leading the receiving corps and reigning NFL rushing champ Arian Foster entering his third year in the league. The defense improved through free agency and the draft, but the change to a 3-4 defensive scheme may prove challenging for some of the younger players. If the Texans do win the division, it could be more due to the Colts’ injuries than their own successes.
Tennessee Titans – It’s out with the old and in with the new in Tennessee. The offense will be predominantly based around Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Kenny Britt. Look for ex-Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck to have a rebound year at quarterback. The defense is young and fast, and will be bolstered by second round pick linebacker Akeem Ayers, who fell to them at number 39 in this years draft.
Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags are intent on doing the opposite of the other AFC South teams, namely, winning games with their defense. Jacksonville drafted quarterback-of-the-future Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft. Expect him to get some playing time. On the defensive side, the Jags did sign two linebackers this offseason and should be excited about getting defensive end Aaron Kampman back after losing him to injury last season.
New England Patriots – As the cutain rises on another NFL season, spirits are once again running high in Foxboro. After a highly successful 14-2 season, Brady, Belichick, and crowd will have their sights on a longer playoff run. If they do, the line will have to do a better job protecting Brady. The flashy signings of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth certainly won headlines, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will win games. New England will need these two to shine if they are to win their first playoff game since 2007.
New York Jets – Mark Sanchez’s critics have been loud and clear and the Jets have tried to address that by signing Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason to replace the departed Jerricho Cotchery. New York’s defense will be strong once again and Rex Ryan will continue to fool opposing offenses with his defensive schemes. If the Jets’ defense can stifle Brady and the Patriots in their two divisional games, this team will have a great chance at taking the division.
Buffalo Bills – The Bills may turn out to be one of the great surprises of the NFL season. Another year of development for the young core of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson, and CJ Spiller may signal the light at the end of a ten-year tunnel of ineptitude in Western New York. Watch for Spiller to take the starting job from veteran Fred Jackson. Buffalo is probably a couple of years away from competing in the AFC East, but they are finally trending up, which should be a relief for their long-suffering fans.
Miami Dolphins – This may be a long season for Dolphins fans. The addition of Reggie Bush is exciting, but as long as Chad Henne is lining up under centre, this team will not taste the playoffs. Davone Bess and Brandon Marshall will be enticing options in the air, but the offence will have to score a ton of points in order to make up for a shaky defensive corps. It may be time to think about the future in South Florida.
San Diego Chargers – The Chargers have fantastic skill players at all positions. Phillip Rivers is one of the best, most underrated quarterbacks in the league. When he plays, Antonio Gates is the greatest tight end in the world. V-Jax, Malcolm Floyd, and Patrick Crayton make up a filthy cadre of wide receivers, and RBs Ryan Matthews and goal-line vulture Mike Tolbert make for a two-headed running monster. Special teams have been this group’s Achilles heel in the past, and judging from the first game this year, that hasn’t changed. Note: The Chargers allowed a 103 yard kickoff return to Minnesota’s Percy Harvin in week one.
Kansas City Chiefs – This is a team that has signs of regression painted all over it. The Chiefs overachieved heartily last year, largely due to recently-departed offensive co-ordinator Charlie Weis. Running back Jamaal Charles is a beast, and has been wastefully shackled by his backfield timeshare with Thomas Jones—Charles will produce no matter what, but quarterback Matt Cassell and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe could struggle immensely. This team should drop but neither of the teams ranked below have put together the kind of roster that can pass them.
Oakland Raiders – Oakland looked to be a team on the rise last year, but the loss of both premiere defensive player, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and pass-catching tight end Zach Miller takes the gas out of the Raiders’ proverbial hot air balloon. Last year, running back Darren McFadden finally broke out and should continue to perform, but quarterback Jason Campbell isn’t great, nor is his receiving corp. Rookie wide receiver Denarius Moore has potential but solid production this year may be too much, too soon.
Denver Broncos – Like many other teams, the Broncoes will struggle under a new head coach (John Fox) early as they adjust to a shortened off-season. Denver also has a problem at pivot—Kyle Orton’s the starter for now, but he’s not good enough to lead a team deep into the playoffs and has no future in the Mile High city. Either Tebow needs to step way up, or the Broncoes need to tank hard and pick up one of the highly-touted quarterback prospects in the 2012 draft.
Green Bay Packers – The Packers are coming off of the most successful football season possible: a Super Bowl win. Yet for a team that suffered six losses by six points or less with 15 players on injured reserve, the Packers are destined to remain one of the NFL’s greats this season. Led by playoff MVP Aaron Rodgers, this season the Packers are expected to challenge for the NFC title, and probably the Super Bowl again.
Chicago Bears – The Bears, backed by President Barack Obama, made it to the NFC finals, where they suffered a 21-14 loss to the Packers, their division rivals. The loss itself wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the extremely poor showing by quarterback Jay Cutler. If the Bears want to repeat their playoff appearance this season, it will be important for Cutler to improve his play and avoid becoming “NFC Finals” Cutler. Yet the team is in very good hands with head coach Lovie Smith and offensive guru Mike Martz, and the Bears will once again be playing meaningful games in January.
Detroit Lions – In 2008, the Detroit Lions finished dead last in the NFL with a 0-16 record. In 2009, the Lions finished 2-14, good for second to last place. In 2010, the Lions improved to 6-10, finishing third in the division and 21st in the league. Notice a trend? If quarterback Matthew Stafford can remain healthy and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can keep his form, the Lions should continue to improve their standing. The playoffs, however, still remain a few years away.M
Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings suffered a horrible season in 2010, coupled with various off-field distractions like the Randy Moss fiasco, Brett Favre’s NFL investigation, the Metrodome collapse and its subsequent modifications, and the firing of head coach Brad Childress mid-season. The 2011 season isn’t looking much brighter. With the third and final official retirement of Brett Favre, the Vikings didn’t help themselves by nabbing quarterback Donovan McNabb, an ex-star in the twilight of his career. New head coach Leslie Frazier will have a lot of work to do if he wants to bring this team back to what it used to be.
Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons won the division last season and seem primed for a repeat this year. Atlanta was able to trade their spot in the 2011 draft from 27th to 6th overall and acquired wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones, a standout at University of Alabama, will make Atlanta a Super Bowl contender if he manages to live up to the expectations bestowed on him. As long as Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez continue to play their strong offensive game, the Falcons are set to make a deep run into the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints – Following their Super Bowl win in 2009, the Saints had a very disappointing playoffs in 2010, losing to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks. During the off-season, the Saints lost their star running back Reggie Bush to free agency, but were able to draft Heisman trophy winner running back Mark Ingram, for whom the team has very high expectations. With Drew Brees at the helm, the Saints are once again expected to make the playoffs and compete for the Super Bowl title.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Last season, the Buccaneers were one win away from making the playoffs, winning one less game than division rival Saints. Although wide receiver Mike Williams promises the playoffs, many wonder if the Buccaneers are a bubble team or if they’re the real deal. Led by quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Mike Williams, the Buccaneers have a solid core of young, talented players with a lot of room for improvement. But with few off-season improvements, Tampa Bay’s star players will have to carry a lot of weight if the team is to make it to the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers – After a disappointing 2010, Panthers fans know that the road back to the playoffs is a long-term dream. Going 2-14 last season, the Panthers were able to draft Auburn star quarterback Cam Newton, who fills one of the great gaps in the Panthers’ line-up. Following last season’s disappointing record, previous head coach John Fox’s contract was not renewed, and Jon Rivera was hired as the new head coach. Although Rivera predicts the Panthers will win ten games this season, five wins is a more accurate projection.
owboys – The Cowboys are entering the 2011 season with more to prove than any other team in the NFL. The offense brings back Tony Romo and the defense boasts pass rushing specialist DeMarcus Ware, who has been the NFL sacks leader for two of the past three seasons. Head coach Jason Garret’s first personnel move was to bring in new defensive co-ordinator Rob Ryan (brother of Jets head coach Rex Ryan) to challenge the high-octane offenses of the NFC.
New York Giants – The Giants have gone with defensive players in the draft seven of the past eight seasons, this year drafting Nebraska defensive back Prince Amukamara to complement an already formidable pass rush. The Giants boast a very good defensive line and an underrated group of linebackers. Amukamara, who was widely considered the best cornerback in the draft, will complement an already very capable defensive corps. On the offensive front, Eli Manning leads an offense that will probably remain dedicated to the running attack.
Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles made a splash in the off-season, taking advantage of the free agent frenzy following the end of the lockout. The Eagles shelled out big contracts to All-Pro defensive back Namdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin and re-signed quarterback Michael Vick to a blockbuster $100 million dollar contract. Watch for wide receiver DeSean Jackson to have a huge year; he is resuming his role as the main punt and kick returner after the “Miracle at the Meadowlands” last year against the Giants.
Washington Redskins – Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan cleaned house in a very busy and public manner this summer, shipping out disgruntled defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth for a fifth round pick in the 2013 draft. Quarterback Donovan McNabb was also released, creating a quarterback competition between former cast-offs John Beck and Rex Grossman. The defense will be hard pressed to contain the elite offences in the NFC and the offence will probably not fare much better with either Grossman or Beck at the helm.
St. Louis Rams – Simply by virtue of having burgeoning young star quarterback Sam Bradford at the controls, the Rams have a leg-up in this year’s race to mediocrity. Josh McDaniels is still offensively brilliant, and his addition as offensive co-ordinator should further accelerate Bradford’s already turbo-charged development. Further help will come from the addition of wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Although he played poorly last year, Sims-Walker could emerge as a credible WR1 with Bradford’s talents. Assuming injuries to running back Steven Jackson and Bradford aren’t serious, this team should be able to be just less-bad enough than its divisional competitors to get to the playoffs.
Arizona Cardinals – Based on an incredibly small sample of games played, Kevin Kolb seems like he might be a legitimate solution at the quarterback position. However, just because there’s a solid signal-caller tossing to wide out Larry Fitzgerald again doesn’t mean that this team is going to be able to get back to the Kurt Warner glory days anytime soon. Corner Patrick Peterson was a great pick, but a porous offensive line and no run game should leave the Cards on the outside looking in come playoff time.
San Francisco 49ers – Poor Jim Harbaugh, going from coaching that surefire number one overall QB pick to this 2005 first overall QB selection is the definition of the word letdown. Harbaugh is confident he can get something out of Alex Smith, but colour me skeptical. The receiving corps is there, with newly-added Braylon Edwards lining up alongside second-year Michael Crabtree, it just remains to be seen whether or not Smith can deliver the ball. Frank Gore should have a good year, assuming he can stay healthy.
Seattle Seahawks – Tavaris Jackson is not good enough to start at the NFL level. That’s as kindly as it can be said. Free agent acquisitions Zach Miller and Sidney Rice should make plays if they can get the ball, but that’s unlikely. Seattle will miss longtime quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and will not make it back to the playoffs despite the mediocrity of the league’s worst division. Welcome to Seattle, Andrew Luck!