NFL Preview: Part Two

It’s Sunday September 7th, and the real fun begins. The first full slate of NFL games will finally end the speculation and mysteries after a long and interesting off-season. I watched the draft, nearly start to finish, in April (instead of lesson planning). Over the summer, in between reading books I analyzed roster moves and watched free agents switch teams. The time finally arrives where the pecking order of the NFL begins to take shape this year.

On Thursday last week I gave my NFC preview. The one game played on Thursday night gave some insight that deserves mention. Washington looked terrible adjusting to Jim Zorn’s offense, yet they still hung in with the defending champion New York Giants for nearly the whole game. The Giants made some plays, with Plaxico Burress and Brandon Jacobs really standing out, but lacked the killer instinct. Both these teams will get better as the year progresses, but from what I saw Thursday night neither will figure in the post season races.

Without further delay, my AFC preview, along with playoff and Super Bowl picks.

AFC West:

Just like the NFC West, an incredibly easy division to predict. Here is how I see the division shaping up

1. San Diego: Quarterback Phillip Rivers got healthy over the off season, along with running back LaDanian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. The offense will produce yardage, points, and control the clock. The defense should be outstanding, but stupid move of the year goes to outside linebacker Shawn Merriman. He has two partially torn ligaments, including his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). He will not play a full season, and is risking his career. The defense can survive without him, but when he is in there and 100%, this could be a top 5 defense.

2. Denver: Denver will continue to improve, but still needs several pieces. Quaterback Jay Cutler may have a break out year, but the suspension to wide receiver Brandon Marshall will hurt him. The running game will work just like it always has. I question the defense though, even with Champ Bailey still being the best corner back in the NFL. They have no pass rush to speak of, and are weak in the linebacking group.

3. Kansas City: This is a young team that did very well for themselves in the draft, but they still need at least one more year to mature. I love Dwayne Bowe at wide receiver, running back Larry Johnson is still a beast, and tight end Tony Gonzalez is a lock for the hall of fame. This will be an important year for QB Brodie Croyle to determine if he has what it takes to start in the NFL. Defensive tackle Glen Dorsey should help the defense, but there are still so many holes.

4. Oakland: I’ll give the Raiders credit, they do make the “sexy” picks in the draft. QB JaMarcus Russell and RB Darren McFadden give them plenty of talent for years to come. They may run the ball very well this year, but I’m guessing that this team will continually shoot itself in the foot with so much young talent. The defense might be ok, but it is not good enough to win games.

AFC North:

Some of you who will read this know my feelings about a certain team in this division, known for hard hitting old school football. That happened a few years ago, and I’m ready to move on. This could be an interesting division to watch, as several of the teams are completely unpredictable as to how successful they will be. Here’s how I rank them:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Yes, this is the team that hurt me so deeply in the Super Bowl three years ago. I’ve grown since then, and I’ve met at least one Steelers fan who I actually like, so I’m ready to move on. This team has the potential to be completely explosive on offense. QB Big Ben Roethlisberger could have an even better year than last year with the emergence of WR Santiono Holmes as a deep threat, the reliability of WR Hines Ward, and the addition of big and tall WR Limas Sweed. The running game will become a two headed monster again with “Fast” Willy Parker leading the way at running back and rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall bringing the thunder. The defense will always play tough under their blitzing 3-4 scheme and the amazing play of Saftey Troy Polamalu. They should be the most consistent team in the division, but they need good play from both their offensive and defensive lines to really become a contender to go deep in the playoffs.

2. Cleveland Browns: The Browns are coming off a strong season last year, and added a ton of talent in the off season. Here’s the problem: no cupcake schedule like last year. They play tough games throughout their schedule, and they aren’t going to surprise anyone. The offense will score a lot of points because they have the best offensive line in this division which allows them to run the football, and whoever plays at Quarterback to get the ball into the hand of their great skill players. The defense needed work last year, so they added two beasts in the middle to clog the run. However, this team is still a little bit away from elite status, and I don’t think they’ll be able to survive their tough schedule.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: I want to love this team, because they have a player at wide receiver who legally changed his name to Chad Ocho Cinco. While Ocho Cinco and the others might put up points on offense, and Quarterback Carson Palmer may be the best pure passer in the NFL, the defense might be just plain awful. I’ll even go out on a limb and predict head coach Marvin Lewis will be fired at the end of this year.

4. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens brought in a rookie Quarterback in Joe Flacco looks to solve the long documented never more QB curse. He’s young and talented, but rookies struggle in the NFL. The defense should still be elite, but safety Ed Reed is injured and linebacker Ray Lewis is getting old. They won’t be able to rely on the defense to win games any more, and the result is another losing season and last place in the division.

AFC South:

Along with the NFC East, this is the other toughest division in football. Just like the NFC East, this division potentially could produce three playoff teams, and the inter-division games should be excellent to watch. Here are the rankings:

1. Indianapolis Colts: Quaterback Peyton Manning sat the off season out injured along with wide receiver Marvin Harrison, defensive end Dwight Freeny, and safety Bob Sanders. That’s a lot of injured star power. Remember though, these guys are professionals and elite players at their positions. They will be fine and this team will once again contend for a Super Bowl birth. We know what this team can do.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: I agree that this team has all the makings to crack into the realm of the elite, but they have to prove it first. Quarterback David Garrard takes care of the football, and this team will run the rock with two excellent running backs. They’ll control the clock and allow their defense to keep things close. The big question mark is whether or not they can rush the passer. They added defensive end Derrick Harvey in the first round, but he signed very late in the year so it will be interesting to see if he can make an impact in his rookie season.

3. Tennessee Titans: The greatest blessing for this team might also be the greatest curse: quarterback Vince Young. VY was a great college player and I will always cringe a little bit when I think about what he did in the Rose Bowl two years in a row. But, can he develop as a passer in the NFL and does he have anybody to throw to? The defense will be good, but we’ll have to wait and see on the offense.

4. Houston Texans: The key to this team is health. Wide receiver Andre Johnson for the past few seasons has been the best wide receiver nobody talks about. He can break a game wide open. Quarterback Matt Schuab showed flashes of skill, but needs to stay healthy. I also like this defense, with defensive end Mario Williams coming of age along with former rookie of the year linebacker DeMeco Ryans. If this team stays healthy, it might pass up the Titans and make the playoffs.

AFC East:

The final division, and the last group of teams. We have our great feud between the Jets and the Patriots, but really this division is still about the Patriots. Here’s how I see it:

1. New England Patriots: You don’t go undefeated in a regular season one year, and then suddenly become terrible the next. This team is one year older, which for them is a bad thing, but they still have the weapons on offense and the scheme on defense to potentially run the table again. Let’s also mention they have the easiest schedule in the NFL. Barring injury to a key player, they’ll go deep in the playoffs.

2. Buffalo Bills: This team just seemed to be in every game last year. I like the move to Quarterback Trent Edwards, and running back Marshawn Lynch is a great Golden Bear product. The defense just seems to overachieve every year, and will keep them in games. They still need more weapons on offense and a more talented defense to keep up with the Patriots.

3. New York Jets: Did you hear that Brett Favre is a Jet? Adding a hall of fame quarterback can’t ever hurt your team, and they made some big signings in the offseason to help out the team as well. They still just don’t have the talent at every position to compete in every game though. They might not even have a winning record. And, let’s be honest, the Madden Curse is real.

4. Miami Dolphins: Still terrible, but I will give them credit for drafting Jake Long and Chad Henne.

Playoffs:

AFC: Division Winners: San Diego, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and New England. Wild Card: Jacksonville and Cleveland.

NFC: Division Winners: Seattle, New Orleans, Minnesota, and Philadelphia. Wild Card: Dallas and Green Bay.

Championship Games (HOMER VERSION): NFC: Seattle versus Philadelphia. AFC: Indianapolis versus San Diego.

Super Bowl (HOMER VERSION): Seattle versus Indianapolis. Winner: Seattle

I realize that the likely hood of Seattle winning the Super Bowl is quite low. Most experts are picking teams like New England, Dallas, Indianapolis, or the dark horse Philadelphia. The reality is that at this point in the season we really know nothing. Very few predicted the Giants would win the Super Bowl last year even when they made it to the Super Bowl. So with that in mind, why not show my support for my team and acknowledge that an NFL season is long and full of twists and turns. At the end of the day, predictions mean nothing, except to say I told you so when they come true.

John Harlow

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