For whatever reason, this particular off-season seemed especially rough. But it's okay now, because we're officially less than 72 hours from opening night.
Speaking of opening night, we'll kick off this year's NFL season with two teams from the NFC East, which is arguably the toughest division in football. Well, save for the Redskins, who are like the red-headed step child of the division, but even they are better than most other teams. Would there be a better place to start off an NFL preview than with the toughest division in the sport? I submit that there is not.
Z - Clinches home field advantage and wild card playoff bye
X - Clinches division
Y – Clinches wild card playoff bid
The Dallas Cowboys are the popular pick here and with good reason. Their team is stacked and they are the token most-played-as Madden team of 2008. However the only team that can go blow for blow with them on offence in the division are the Eagles. The Eagles improved on both offence (Desean Jackson) and defence (Asante Samuel), not to mention that they have a threat to top 2,000 yards from scrimmage in Brian Westbrook. Barring a Donovan McNabb injury, the team will be a serious competitor in both the division and the entire league.
Usually, defending Super Bowl champs get a bit more respect, but not when they've lost two integral parts of the winning team. Michael Strahan retired to follow Tiki Barber's blazoned career path towards television whereas Osi Umenyiora has been lost for the year thanks to a torn lateral meniscus. And no, I have no idea what a meniscus is. Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka are talented, but not enough so to completely fill in the aforementioned players cleats. Not even close. It also remains to be seen which Eli Manning is going to show up this season. Either the Super-Vendetta, Eli or the Aw-Shucks-That-Was-My-Fault-You-Dropped-That, Eli.
Likely to end up in the cellar is the Washington Redskins. Jason Campbell and company will be making the transition into the West Coast Offence this year and will be working out all the kinks. Again, being in the basement of the NFC East isn't even that bad. I see it being like a refurnished basement complete with ping pong tables, a mini-fridge and a nice sports watching section. Just like the AFC South's would have...
Easily the toughest division in the AFC, the South saw three of its teams gain entry into the playoffs last year. Even before all the reports out of Indiana broke about Peyton Manning's not-that-serious knee injury actually being quite serious, I had the Jaguars pegged as division winners. They've shown they could, at times, play on the Colts' level offensively over the past few years and now, finally, have a quarterback who is capable of managing everything necessary in order to beat them.
The defence lost some key players (Marcus Stroud), but quickly found players to shore up the defensive line through the NFL Draft (Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves). The Colts on the other hand, have questions about Peyton Manning's knee and Marvin Harrison's ability to contribute at a pre-2007 level. Both instances have likely been over-blown, but it's worth noting, especially from a team who hasn't had any of those problems for what seems like the past 55 years.
The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are in the bottom tier of the division, but both having promising young teams. It's a tossup as to who most think will finish ahead of the other, but I figure there's a good chance they'll both finish with nearly the same record (somewhere around 8-8). The key for the Texans will be the health of QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson whereas for the Titans it will be Vince Young's progression into a mature QB. He showed flashes of maturity last year as well as a blossoming connection with his receivers. If everything goes as it should, this division could be a down and out war year after year for the next 5-7 years.
Also, does anyone think we should apologize to Charlie Casserley after he was shunned from society after the Mario Williams pick? Although Reggie Bush wasn't a bust by any means, he definitely hasn't lived up to the Barry Sanders like billing everyone was placing upon him. Hey, speaking of Reggie Bush...
The New Orleans Saints had an off year last year compared to their 2006, but look to return to the big stage this year with nearly everyone healthy as well as some new additions. Jeremy Shockey and injury-red-shirt rookie Robert Meachem should make some positive contributions on offence. Plus, Drew Brees is very unlikely to take any of Shockey's #### like Eli did, which could actually mean we may see an improvement in Shockey's play. No one has had the balls to tell him what he does wrong yet, so we'll have to wait and see how he'll take to Brees. Several draft picks could contribute defensively, including but not limited to USC defensive tackle Sedrick Willis. Dan Morgan and Jonathan Vilma should also help out. To summarize it all, with the state of the rest of the division, it's a safe bet that the Saints will win the NFC South this season.
The Carolina Panthers would beg to differ with that, with most of the key pieces from their explosive offensive days again ready to start together. Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, and Muhsin Muhammad all look to be healthy, although Jake Delhomme is coming off of Tommy John surgery -- which is never a good thing for a QB. The Panthers also has a potentially potent duo of running backs in Deangelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart. Unfortunately, besides some good rookies and solid at best free agent signings, the Panthers' defence looks much the same as it did last year. Although last year's problem was a failure to live up to expectations, so perhaps they can do the opposite in 2008.
A lot of people have Tampa Bay higher or maybe even winning the division, but I expect a Jeff Garcia fall back to earth this year. I actually expected it last year too, but it didn't happen. Usually I wouldn't expect such things two years in a row, but in Garcia's case (his age), I'm going to. The defence is aging, but is still solid and should be effective. Earnest Graham's 2007 remains in question because it was so short, so we'll have to wait and see on him as well. In a division known for the top teams falling down the ranks and then climbing back up again, this year may be the Bucs' turn.
The Falcons are just a paradox now that we've learned that rookie Matt Ryan will start at QB and Michael Turner is as yet unproven as a starting RB. The defence isn't very good, especially with the departure of Deangelo Hall, so it's a wise move to expect a last place finish this year from them. Hey, that made me think of...
The Chicago Bears! You've likely heard enough about the NFC North too much already thanks to all that was covered during the Brett Favre saga, but hey, we don't have to talk about Brett again until the AFC East. (Save that one for last? Sure!) The Minnesota Vikings have a solid, talented team and are incredibly strong at nearly every position save for QB. Fortunately for them, the three other teams in the division have the same problem. Although Bryant McKinnie is out for four weeks and Tarvaris Jackson is going to have to win some of their ballgames himself, he's going to have tons of opportunities to do so thanks to the Vikings defensive front. Is it too early to suggest a Purple People Eaters 2 type nickname? What's that? That nickname sucked you say? All right, well, the Vikings' defence is going to be giving opposing offences fits all year long and the combination of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor should give Tarvaris Jackson plenty of soft secondary's to throw into.
If Aaron Rodgers turns out as billed, then the Packers would have a good shot at the division. But the pressure of filling in You-Know-Who's shoes and the fact that he's going to have to beat the Vikings all by himself TWICE because Ryan Grant won't have any success against them will likely add up to a second place finish. Maybe less, but I doubt that.
Taking a look at the other half of the division, the Chicago Bears' situation has officially become a joke and the Detroit Lions have been one for years. However, I think the Lions have enough talent on offence and Jon Kitna is just crazy enough to think they can really win 14 games this year for them to have a decent enough year. Not 14-wins decent, but more like 7 or 8, and especially if they land Rudi Johnson to compliment Kevin Smith (which it appears they have).
As for the Bears, well, I don't have anything nice to say so I won't say anything at all, although I'd be surprised if they don't finish in last place. A team I WOULD be surprised at finishing last calls home the...
The Pittsburgh Steelers are stacked, that's the only way I can put it -- just incredibly stacked. They have a weapon for nearly every devisable situation and it just baffles me. A lot of people think the Browns are going to compete with them thanks to last year's performance but I had serious, serious doubts about Derek Anderson.
Unless he proves that last year wasn't a fluke, especially after his tail-spin at the end of the year that was either due to A) He isn't good under pressure, or, B) He isn't good when defensive coordinators have sufficient game tape of him to game plan for, I think the Browns would do well to keep him on a short leash in favor or Brady Quinn. I could be wrong, but I think Anderson's late 2007 performance has been overlooked quite often.
The team I was referring to that I would be surprised if they finished in last place was the Cincinnati Bengals. I even considered putting them in at the 2 spot but realized that the only reason I would be doing that would be to make a crazy, controversial prediction just for the sake of making one. I can't stand people who do that. The Bengals once again have everyone healthy, although now they have a new RB with tons of potential. However that potential is watered-down by some injury risks, so it's worth being wary of. Even if they have problems at RB again this year, barring Chad Johnson's shoulder popping out of his socket, causing him to miss the entire year – I think the offence will be just fine. It's the defence where the questions lie, so hopefully rookie Keith Rivers will give them solid play from such a high draft pick.
The Ravens have questions at many positions but most has a good chance of panning out well in the long run (Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Fabian Washington). The defence continues to get older all the while so it will be interesting to see when they start to focus on bringing some top-round Draft talent or solid free agents in order for the veterans to pass the torch on. Who knows, though, Joey Flacco could have a fantastic rookie season and the Ravens could compete for the division title. That would be quite doubtful, though. Just as doubtful is the situation out West...
If the Seattle Seahawks played in any other division, it's unlikely they'd still be able to scoot by and win the division year after year with so many injury problems. However, no one in the NFC West has stepped up to claim the throne, so the Seahawks stay seated there. This year, the only real threat to the division crown is the St. Louis Rams, who were plagued by injuries so widespread it seemed like it was contagious. With the return of a healthy Stephen Jackson and entire offensive line, the Rams look to fare a lot better this year.
Seattle's situation is yet again muddied by injury this year and yet again at the WR position. Both Deion and Branch and Bobby Engram will miss a significant amount of time, although they leave behind openings that look to be filled by some talented young wide outs. Matt Hasselbeck is still Matt Hasselbeck; the RB spot has what seems like a dozen possible starting candidates and the defence isn't the best in the league, but also isn't the worst. Here's a perfect opportunity to use the word solid right here. The Seahawks' defence is solid. The word solid is a solid word in terms of being a football adjective, I think. The 49ers, doubtfully proud owners of the worst, most anemic offence in the NFL last year have been giving a gleam of hope with the arrival of Mike Martz.
The whole discussion has been beaten to death several times, so I'll try to keep it simple. Josh Morgan is going to be Martz's Torry Holt, Vernon Davis, and Isaac Bruce will combine to be Martz's pre-2006 Isaac Bruce and Frank Gore is going to a be a tougher, more downhill running version of Martz’s Marshall Faulk. The only problem is that Martz is expecting J.T. O’Sullivan to be his Marc Bulger/Kurt Warner. This may be the year that Mike Martz finally realizes that he is indeed a mere mortal, just like the rest of us. I'll be surprised if the offense catches fire this year, but if it does I will express and undying respect of Mike Martz. So we'll see.
Finally, we have the Arizona Cardinals. The perennial underachievers of the NFL, the Cardinals fail to live up to hopes even when those hopes are actually warranted (like the arrival of Edgerrin James). The Cardinals' season is going to be started off with Kurt Warner at the helm and he will lead them where he always does – on a good path towards the playoffs that suddenly and unexpectedly turns towards the edge of a cliff. This should happen around mid-season, with the hopes of a playoff bid dwindling. The Cardinals will throw Matt Leinart in, realize he won't get them in the playoffs, but keep him in there anyway since they'll also realize that maybe they need to keep him in for a good chunk of games in order for him to get used to being the starting QB. I heard in-game experience does wonders for quarterbacks, but what do I know? But speaking of in-game experience for QB’s…
The AFC West has two quarterbacks who are in dire need of in-game experience: Brodie Croyle and JaMarcus Russell. Because of this, the division is essentially a shoo-in to be won by either the Broncos or Chargers. Jay Cutler proved last year that he’s the real deal and the fact that the Broncos running game is so frigging befuddling doesn't really matter so much anymore. Brandon Marshall's suspension was cut to one game, which meant more to his ecstatic fantasy owners than the actual team, and the team drafted rookie WR Eddie Royal, who is apparently of the rare breed of rookie WR's with enough tools to be named a starter in his first year. All of that combined with major question in San Diego should add up to a division crown for the Broncos.
The San Diego Chargers have injury questions, mainly for Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers, but LaDainian Tomlinson proved at the end of last year that he may be a mortal as well. The guy's racked up nearly 2,500 carries (excluding receptions) so it's really no surprise that he managed to get injured at least once. It's a smart bet to expect either a regression or a beginning of a regression from him this year, which is something that will not bode well for Philip Rivers. Nor would the situation from his favorite target, Antonio Gates, who has stated he doesn't know how his big toe will hold up this year. For such a big person and such a big percentage of Philip Rivers' total completions, Gates' big toe could spell big problems for Rivers and the Chargers overall offense. Poor Chris Chambers, he waited way too long to demand a trade from Miami.
That leaves the Chiefs and Raiders to battle it out for third place, although each team’s future looks very bright after their recent drafts. The Raiders have heralded, Hall of Fame lock, Darren McFadden to look forward to, while the Chiefs have a large portion of their 73 draft picks to look forward to. Not to mention, Brodie Croyle faced some very tough pass defenses in his 6 losses last year, so there is reason for some optimism with him this year. On the subject of optimism, let’s head down east to...
The Dolphins are a mortal lock to once again finish last in the AFC East, despite improving leaps and bounds since Bill Parcells' arrival. Overall in the division, barring a Tom Brady injury, the Patriots should once again take the division crown despite the fast improving competition.
The Jets got Brett Favre; everyone will be better, blah, blah, blah. The biggest acquisition and I'll stand by this to the end will turn out to be Alan Faneca. He and Damien Woody will help shore up the offensive line, which is where all improvements to the running and passing game begin. Obviously, Brett Favre is an improvement, but the biggest reason the Jets will truly compete for the AFC East title will be in large thanks to Alan Faneca and Damien Woody.
The Bills have apparently found a suitable future QB in Trent Edwards and a staple franchise RB in Marshawn Lynch. If James Hardy pans out, he should make for a dangerous pairing along with Lee Evans. So the offense appears all set. The defense is also fast improving, an improvement that was boosted for the short-term with the addition of Marcus Stroud. Had the Jets not acquired Alan Faneca, I most definitely would have penciled in the Bills for the two spot. But they did, so I won't.
THE PLAYOFFS (DUH, DUH DUHHHH – DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUHHHHH!!)
Wild Card Round
(6) Jets @ (3) Jaguars - Jaguars
(5) Cowboys @ (4) Seahawks - Cowboys
(6) Panthers @ (3) Vikings – Vikings
(5) Colts @ (4) Broncos – Colts
(5) Colts @ (1) Patriots – Patriots
(3) Vikings @ (1) Eagles – Eagles
(3) Jaguars @ (2) Steelers – Steelers
(5) Cowboys @ (2) Saints – Cowboys
Conference Championships Round
(2) Steelers @ (1) Patriots – Patriots
(5) Cowboys @ (1) Eagles – Cowboys
The Super Bowl
Cowboys vs. Patriots – Patriots
Non Homer Super Bowl Prediction
Cowboys vs. Steelers – Cowboys
I don't think the playoff picks need to be explained too much, although I couldn't decide who to pick between the Patriots and Steelers so I used the homer breakdown way out.