With the National Football League's regular season now officially underway, it's time to take an in-depth look at the teams and players that will be gunning for greatness this year.
Let's start off with the AFC:
1. New England Patriots - With MVP Tom Brady leading an explosive offense, the Patriots rolled to a 14-2 record last season, only to fall at home to the New York Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England's biggest weakness last year was their pass rush, so coach Bill Belichick brought in Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Albert Haynesworth to try and solve the problem. If those three can get back to playing at their former Pro-Bowl levels, the Patriots should once again walk away with the division title.
2. New York Jets - The Jets fell just short of the Super Bowl for the second straight season last year, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference championship game. You get the impression that this may be a make-or-break season for coach Rex Ryan, as he's yet to deliver on his "guarantee" of a championship. In the end, this team will only go as far as Mark Sanchez can take them. Is he ready to take the next step and become a true elite NFL quarterback? My money is on no.
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4. Buffalo Bills - Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a nice surprise last season for the Bills, throwing for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. The acquisitions of Brad Smith, Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman will help, but the core group of this team is still too young and for the most part too inexperienced to expect a whole lot out of. They'll be lucky if they duplicate last years 4-12 record.
1. Baltimore Ravens - Like the Jets, the Ravens will only go as far as their young signal caller can take them. In this case, that's Joe Flacco, who seems to always put together decent regular seasons, only to disappear come playoff time. Ray Lewis and an aging defense may see their window of opportunity slam shut if they don't get the job done this year. I think they'll pull through, for the division crown anyway.
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3. Cleveland Browns - Quarterback Colt McCoy was just 2-6 as a starter last season, but at times he showed some potential. Running back Peyton Hillis had a breakout year, rushing for 1,177 yards and 13 touchdowns. Coach Pat Shurman has installed a West Coast type offense, and while the Browns may still be a work in progress, they at least appear to be heading in the right direction.
4. Cincinnati Bengals - While all the talk coming out of Cincinnati is positive, it's hard for me to see what exactly there is to be optimistic about. Quarterback Carson Palmer is still a no-show after he demanded to be traded and wasn't, so it's looking like rookie Andy Dalton will be the starter. He'll have talented rookie wide receiver A.J. Green to work with, and very little else. The Bengals will probably run Cedric Bensen to death in an attempt to protect their young quarterback, as they'll be in a season long battle for the #1 pick in next years draft.
1. Indianapolis Colts - Let me start by saying this has to be the hardest division of all to make any kind of prediction on, seeing as how the most important player in it, Peyton Manning, could be out anywhere from a month to the entire season. I'm going with the Colts on the assumption that Manning plays at some point, but if he doesn't, this division is wide open. With Manning in, Indy has enough talent on both sides of the ball to hold off everyone else, but if Kerry Collins has to fill in at quarterback for any longer than a few games, the Colts are in trouble. One thing that may play into their favor is that it may only take 8-9 wins to clinch the division.
2. Houston Texans - If coach Gary Kubiak can't finally get the Texans over the hump and into the playoffs this year, he'll probably be searching for a job at the end of the season. With quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wideout Andre Johnson, the offense is nearly unstoppable. The problem is, their defense couldn't keep a middle school team from scoring 30 points. Kubiak brought in former Dallas Cowboy head coach Wade Phillips as his new defensive coordinator in an attempt to rectify the situation. Phillips better deliver, or this team could end up in the division basement.
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4. Jacksonville Jaguars - It's hard for me to have any real faith in an organization that just dumped their starting quarterback less than a week before their first game. With David Garrard now out, I would imagine we'll be seeing first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert sooner rather than later. Until then, it'll be a lot of Maurice Jones-Drew, and losing, in between. Hopefully some of the guys on the team are furniture movers, cause this squad will definitely be one of the finalists to move to Los Angeles once the league decides to get football back in that region.
1. San Diego Chargers - The Chargers have to be the most underachieving team of the last half-decade. Always loaded with talent, and always coming up short. Last year, San Diego had the top overall offense and defense in the league and still managed to miss the playoffs, mainly because of awful special teams play. I see quarterback Phillip Rivers and company finally getting their act together and making a deep playoff run. If they don't, coach Norv Turner will probably be out of a job.
2. Kansas City Chiefs - The Chiefs took a lot of teams by surprise last season. That won't happen this year. Coach Todd Haley has quietly put together a fairly lethal offense, led by quarterback Matt Cassel and running back Jamaal Charles. Kansas City's season may hinge on how well their young and opportunistic defense plays. They're hoping to reach the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1995.
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4. Denver Broncos - The Broncos had league-worst averages in points (29.4) and yards allowed (390.8), while ranking last in sacks (23) and gave up more rushing yards (154.6 per game) than all but one other team last season. Having defensive end Elvis Dumervil return from injury will help out, but one man won't be the answer to all their problems on that side of the ball. I'm curious to see if wide receiver Brandon Lloyd will match his productivity from last year (1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns), or if it was just basically a fluke.
Now for the NFC:
1. Philadelphia Eagles - Michael Vick was in the running for MVP most of last season. I'm interested to see if he can carry that level of play over into this year. The Eagles are stacked on offense, and while they still have holes on the defensive side of the ball, they should be improved with the moves they made in the free agency. As long as Vick can stay healthy, they're going to be hard to catch in the division.
2. Dallas Cowboys - If Tony Romo doesn't finally get the Cowboys a playoff win this season, Dallas may start looking for a new quarterback. As a team, their main concern is defense. In January, owner Jerry Jones brought in Rob Ryan, twin brother of Jets coach Rex Ryan, in hopes that he will be able to fix the group that gave up the second most points per game (27.25) in the league last year. I think he'll help, just not enough to catch Philly. The Cowboys have a chance to be in the wild-card mix though, if Romo can stay healthy that is.
3. New York Giants - If the Giants are going to have any shot at making the playoffs, Eli Manning is going to have to stop turning the ball over so much. The 25 interceptions of last season is just unacceptable for a quarterback with his experience. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is an up-and-coming star in the league, and it would serve Manning well to try and get him the ball as much as possible. In the backfield, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs offer a nice one-two punch at running back. If New York can hold on to the football better and cut back on some of the mental mistakes they made on defense and special teams in 2010, they have a chance to be competitive.
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1. Green Bay Packers - The Packers managed to win the Super Bowl last year despite the fact that nearly half the roster missed playing time due to injury. Getting those guys back at full strength will make Green Bay even tougher to deal with this season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made everyone in Wisconsin forget about Brett Favre, as he's primed for an MVP run. The only real question is this: How will the Packers react to being the hunted, as opposed to the hunter? As defending champs, they're going to get the best out of every team they play.
2. Chicago Bears - The Bears offensive line has to do a better job of protecting quarterback Jay Cutler this year. Chicago got Cutler a deep threat receiver in Roy Williams, but he'll have to return to his old Detroit Lions form if he's going to be any type of difference maker. Devin Hester is always a threat in the return game, although I think they need to give up on trying to make him a wideout. Chicago is pretty sound on defense, so again, if the O-line can keep Cutler upright, this team has a shot at the playoffs.
3. Detroit Lions - Everyone seems to be piling on the Lions bandwagon, but I'm not ready to jump on board just yet. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has to prove to me he's actually capable of playing a full season before I can buy into all the hype. I really like Detroit's hungry young defense, led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Lion's have a ton of upside, it's just a matter of it all finally coming together for them. If Stafford can stay healthy, look out.
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1. Atlanta Falcons - By drafting wide receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons will now be able to stretch teams out, much like the Patriots and Saints do. That will open the middle up even more for running back Michael Turner, who has quietly become one of the best backs in the game. Quarterback Matt Ryan has tons of weapons at his disposal, and if the defense can continue to improve, Atlanta will be a legit Super Bowl contender.
2. New Orleans Saints - Injuries at running back last year hurt the Saints running attack, and for the most part made them one-dimensional. Taking Mark Ingram in the draft gives New Orleans a punishing every-down back that they haven't had since the days of Ricky Williams. Quarterback Drew Brees threw 33 touchdowns in 2010, but surprisingly 22 picks as well. He has to protect the football better. On defense, they need to turn mistakes into points more, like they did in their Super Bowl season of 2009.
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4. Carolina Panthers - The Panthers have decided to start Cam Newton at quarterback, so that should be an adventure. Wide receiver Steve Smith needs to get back to playing like the Smith of old for this team to have any chance to compete on a week-to-week basis. For the foreseeable future, it's hard to imagine Carolina as anything but bad.
1. St. Louis Rams - If quarterback Sam Bradford can continue to improve for the upstart Rams, this team should win the division. With running back Steven Jackson in the backfield and talented young wide receiver Mike-Sims Walker running routes, St. Louis should continue to get better on offense. The defense made major strides forward last season, and if they can continue to move forward, the Rams could be a force to reckon with a few years down the line.
2. Arizona Cardinals - Everyone expects quarterback Kevin Kolb to be the savior in Arizona, but I still haven't seen enough of him to know what to think one way or another. He played well at times in Philadelphia, but he's yet to play for long stretches, so the verdicts still out on him. Kolb will need to get the ball to wideout Larry Fitzgerald as much as possible, seeing as how he's one of the best playmaking receivers in the game today. The Cardinals defense was up-and-down last season, so they'll have to play more consistently for this team to have a chance to win the division.
3. San Francisco 49ers - As a lifelong 49er fan, I really would like to see quarterback Alex Smith finally come into his own this year, but if that doesn't happen, he's gone. Running back Frank Gore, who recently signed a new contract, is the workhorse of the offense. San Francisco brought in former Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards to help with the passing game, but overall this team still has way too many questions marks on both sides of the ball for me to have any real faith that they can make some noise this season.
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(3) Baltimore Ravens def. (6) New York Jets
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers def. (4) Indianapolis Colts
(1) New England Patriots def. Pittsburgh Steelers
(2) San Diego Chargers def. Baltimore Ravens
New England Patriots def. San Diego Chargers
(3) Philadelphia Eagles def. (6) Chicago Bears
(5) New Orleans Saints def. (4) St. Louis Rams
New Orleans Saints def. (1) Green Bay Packers
(2) Atlanta Falcons def. Philadelphia Eagles
Atlanta Falcons def. New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl 46
New England Patriots def. Atlanta Falcons
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Tom Brady is playing at a higher level than any other quarterback in the league, and New England's young defense is only going to get better this season. No doubt Matt Ryan has enough talent around him to lead the Falcons on a deep playoff run, but I think Atlanta will fall just short of their ultimate goal.