NFL SEASON IS FINALLY HERE – IT’S ABOUT TIME

01Sep14

I know that, for true football nuts, the time between the Super Bowl and the first game of the regular season moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. By now you know that I am a lifetime card carrying member of this fraternity.

One of the greatest thrills of the past eight weeks was the day that I activated the fantasy football website for the upcoming return of my keeper league and sent that glorious email out to last year’s owners of the league’s teams. The fact that they all came back simply reinforced that the league was built correctly.

Now that the preseason has come to an end and all of the fantasy drafts have been completed (if you haven’t had your draft by now, you’re in danger of being placed on double secret probation), we can finally dive head first into the regular season.

That means that all of the minutia that we’ve had to endure by all of the self-proclaimed sports experts can finally be placed where it belongs – in the dumpster with the rest of the garbage.

I won’t go too far into that topic, but were you right there with me laughing your hind quarters off when a certain nationally known BS artist…er…sports guru got caught in a not-so-true statement regarding the health of Sam Bradford? Don’t you think this cowardly “according to my sources” routine needs to stop?

Perhaps we can discuss this at a future date. Let’s get back to football.

You all know how I feel about preseason picks for division winners and Super Bowl contenders. They are all merely educated (sometimes) guesses and should not be taken as gospel, regardless of who says it (that’s right, even me!!).

However, they are fun to play with, so why not throw a few things out there. As always, I’m not predicting division winners or Super Bowl contenders. I’m merely letting you know which teams I expect to be in the race on Thanksgiving and which teams will be gone by Halloween.

I’ll start with AFC first.

TEAM TO BEAT – Denver Broncos

I hate to simply pick last year’s Super Bowl representative, but I really don’t have a choice. Their powerhouse, light ‘em up offense is coming back nearly intact. Sure, they lost their #3 receiver to the Jets (what was he thinking?), but they have plenty of able bodies ready to take his place.

Look for Peyton Manning to put up numbers nearly as huge as last season, when he shattered most scoring records. He’s got a slew of potential receivers and some good running backs, not to mention an offensive line that will give him time to maneuver. This is a man that can destroy most teams if given three seconds to work with. Since he’ll have five or six seconds on most plays, look for him to light things up again.

With a top five defensive unit on the other side of the ball, and a schedule that includes twelve games against an AFC opponent, look for them to finish at 14-2.

TOP CHALLENGERS – New England, Cincinnati Bengals

New England seems to get written off at the beginning of every season, only to find themselves in the conference championship game year after year. Sure, they’re in the worst division in football, but that doesn’t mean they are as bad as the other three teams in the AFC East.

Granted, their defense is not as scary as it was just a few short years ago, but their offense is solid and deep. If Gronk can actually stay healthy this season, Brady will be able to utilize his pack of better-than-average receivers like he used to. And if Ridley can hold on to the ball, he’ll take control of the running game so they don’t have to have a different starting RB every week.

I know I’ll take some heat for plugging the Bengals into this category, but they are locked and loaded and ready to roll through the regular season. I know, I know. “What about the playoffs? They always choke when it come to the post season.”

I can’t argue with that. But they can’t fix that if they don’t make it to the playoffs, which they will have no problem doing. They are the class of the black and blue division, which has been dominated by the Steelers and Ravens for the past decade. Even if Dalton chokes every year in the playoffs, he looks pretty darn good getting there.

With a healthy receiving corps and pretty solid one-two punch at running back, look for them to challenge the Patriots for the second seed in the AFC.

DARK HORSE – Indianapolis Colts

This is the second season I have placed the Colts in this category, and for the same reason. They have plenty of talent, but not a ton of experience, although each season brings them one step closer to where they need to be.

Look for Luck to finally have a great year, with far less mistakes than we’ve seen in the past. They are deep with receivers and better than last year’s crew at running back. If their defense plays as well as they are expected, they should be in every game, instead of suffering the occasional blowout, as they did last year.

CONTENDERS – Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans

If Indy fails to move up the food chain, they may very well find themselves being passed up by the Kansas City Chiefs. With the team getting used to Andy Reid’s style of play (aka WINNING), they have done a very good job of filling holes with good players. Once their “star” receiver returns from his suspension, look for Mr. Cassel to have fun playing catch with him, giving Jamaal Charles a little more breathing room to run wild. With a very solid defensive unit, they should stay in the AFC West division race until the end.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore are on about equal ground, as they have been for the past ten years. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily good news for either team. While once the two powerhouses of this division, and of the AFC, they have both slipped back into mediocrity. Their recent history is the only reason they are still in this category, but don’t be surprised if they both finish around .500.

This may be the year that Tennessee climbs the ladder and becomes an actual contender again. Looking at their roster, you’re probably scratching your head and asking why? Well, my reasoning may be way off, but hear me out.

They finally got rid of their star! That’s right, Chris Johnson had one good season and then his head swelled so much he couldn’t walk through the doorway. Every season it seemed we were hearing how unhappy he was because he wasn’t making as much money as he deserved.

Maybe I’m just hoping the Titans do well without him, just to finally shut him up, but I doubt he’ll stop crying, regardless of what happens.

LONG SHOTS – San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans

All four teams have the potential to do something special this season. Unfortunately, they all have the potential to really stink up the joint, too.

There is no reason for the Chargers to be placed this low other than my gut feeling that they are going to regress from last year’s success. Remember what I said about picks this time of the season, okay?

Miami will not be horrible, but they need many more pieces to become good, like a quarterback that can throw the deep pass so they can actually utilize the monster weapon they have in wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Cleveland has been horrible for decades, so with all of the Johnny Football manure that we have had to endure, you’d think I’d have them placed firmly in the lowest category. But that voice in the back of my head , (no not that one, the other one) is saying to not overlook them. In addition to the QB drama, they have also beefed up their defense and, up until a few days ago, had a pretty good receiving corp. I boldly predict they will finish somewhere between 3-13 and 9-7!

Houston fell about twenty stories last season from their prior season, so I cannot place them any higher than this category until they prove that last season was a fluke. Enough said!

NO CHANCE –Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills

I won’t waste much time with this category. These four teams have been impotent for the past several years and have done nothing this season to get any better. The only one of the four that I would expect an improvement from is Oakland, but that is only because they have picked up the scraps of has-beens that might actually accomplish something working as one.

 

Now for the NFC. There are a lot of teams that can make an argument that they are a playoff contender, but only six teams can make the playoffs. Therefore, just as I predicted last season, look for several 10-6 teams not making the playoffs!

TEAM TO BEAT – Seattle Seahawks

Sorry, I went with the Broncos opponent from last year’s Super Bowl. But seriously, which team should I place above them while keeping a straight face?

They have pretty much kept the dominating team that they were last season intact for this season. Yes, they are in the toughest division in football, but they are the best team in that division and they (almost) never lose at home. (Who was the only team to beat them at home last year?)

Say what you want about Coach Double Rainbow or Sherman’s rant. The path to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle.

TOP CHALLENGERS – Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints

This category is a little strange this year because I don’t necessarily believe that these two teams are the actual #2 and #3 teams in the NFC. I actually think those teams are in the NFC West, right behind Seattle.

However, neither of these teams has to play six games against that division, so they should finish with the #2 and #3 seeds.

The Packers will get challenges from the Bears and the Lions, but will still finish above them in the final standings. The only reason they had as bad as a record as they did last season was because they were playing without Rogers for half the season. As long as he stays healthy, the Packers will lock this division up with three games to go.

New Orleans won’t have it as easy as Green Bay, but still should come out on top of their division. They have as powerful an offense as ever and a defense that should be vastly improved from last year’s bunch.

DARK HORSE – Arizona Cardinals

Okay, call me a homer already and get it out of your system. Feel better? Good!

Now look at the turmoil, injuries and suspensions that the 49ers have gone through over the past six months and tell me how they are going to hold off the Cardinals? I’m not saying the 49ers are not good, they just aren’t as good as last year’s bunch that didn’t lock up a playoff slot until the last game of the season.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals actually have an offensive line to go with what is quite possibly the best receiving corps in the league. Remember, last season Carson Palmer was running for his life for the first six weeks of the season and the Cards still finished at 10-6, missing the playoffs by a tie-breaker. Imagine an entire season with blocking!

CONTENDERS – San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears

The 49ers will be in the hunt until the end (see Dark Horse above). They have an abundance of talent, as demonstrated last season. If they could only find a way to get them all on the field at once this season. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. They could get away with that in the AFC, but not where they live, in the NFC!

This might actually be the year for the Panthers to put it all together. They were very close last season, finishing on top of the NFC South division. If Newton can stay healthy, which can only happen if he stops running so much and utilizes his receivers, their mediocre running backs might have a chance to make something happen. Their top-three defense will keep them in every game, even the ones that they struggle to score.

Philadelphia is either going to run away with their division or struggle to make the playoffs. They have one of the best running backs in McCoy and a potentially powerhouse offense, but their defense might not be up to the job.

Every season, the Chicago Bears enter the season on someone’s list of division winners. On paper, I can understand why. They have a monster running back, two monster receivers, and a quarterback with a rocket of an arm. So why do they fall apart season after season? Until they can answer that question, they will not go any further than the regular season.

LONG SHOTS – Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons

All four of these teams have some outstanding weapons, but none of them seem to have outstanding teams.

The Cowboys have Dez Bryant and beat up Tony Romo, but no defense at all. The Redskins have a banged up RGIII and some speed demon receivers, but not much on defense. The Lions have the best receiver in the league and a quarterback that can get the ball to him, but not much on defense. The Falcons have a very good quarterback and some stud receivers, but no defense.

See a trend here?

NO CHANCE – St. Louis Rams, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Bucs, N.Y. Giants

The Rams were in the playoff conversations until Bradford went down for the season, and possibly for good. Now they are just another team in the mix. The Vikings still have AP, but little else. The Bucs have broken their fans’ hearts too often to ever predict them to make the playoffs. The Giants…well did you watch them last season? They aren’t much better this year!

 

So there you have it. My educated guesses have a Super Bowl rematch lined up. But we all know that never happens, so let’s wait a couple of months to begin making those kinds of projections.

You’ll just have to live with my weekly predictions until then.

Stay tuned!

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