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Posted: Friday June 5, 2009 12:39PM; Updated: Sunday June 7, 2009 11:08PM
Damon Hack Damon Hack >
INSIDE THE NFL

Spoiler Alert! Why eight division expectations won't pan out

Story Highlights

As the Arizona Cardinals proved last year, predicting NFL success isn't a science

Here's why the eight divisions won't shake out according to conventional wisdom

Tom Brady could struggle, Houston will contend, Arizona will regress and more

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Tom Brady returns to a deeper, more talented division than the one he left.
Tom Brady returns to a deeper, more talented division than the one he left.
David Bergman/SI
 
 

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the St. Louis Rams' run to the Super Bowl, an achievement so unexpected it still boggles the mind.

Before Kurt Warner -- launched into the starting spot after an injury to Trent Green -- led the Rams through that improbable 1999 campaign, they'd served as perennial pushovers for a decade. "Same old Rams," the 49ers would say, usually after another 30-point blowout. All of which goes to show how tricky the prediction business in the NFL usually is. From year to year, supposed powerhouse teams stumble (see Cowboys, Dallas) and punching bags rise (see Cardinals, Arizona, and that Warner guy again).

With that in mind, let's examine the conventional wisdom for how each of the eight divisions should shake out and explore why some sure summer bets might not be so come winter.

AFC East

Expectation: Tom Brady returns to Patriots, throws for 4,000 yards, leads team to Super Bowl. Harps play in New England, choirs sing.

Spoiler alert: Brady, for all his talent and grit, is returning to a much more feisty division than the one he left. Playoff experience made Miami tougher. First-year coach Rex Ryan and the Jets have promised wave after wave of pressure and mayhem. Even Buffalo beefed up its pass rushing by drafting defensive end Aaron Maybin in the first round. Brady won't have to rely on his rebuilt ACL the way running backs coming off injury do, but he'll still need to move, glide, drift and motor around the pocket. Brady may still get his yards and the Patriots their wins, but a year without reps, timing and optimum health can disturb even the most elite athletes. Just ask Tiger Woods.

AFC West

Expectation: The Denver Broncos will carry their offseason baggage into the season, ruining any postseason chances.

Spoiler alert: While the Josh McDaniels-Jay Cutler soap opera was playing out -- and serving as a huge distraction -- the Broncos were quietly addressing their biggest need: fixing their defense. They hired Mike Nolan, the former Niners coach who has found more success as a defensive coordinator. They signed strong safety Brian Dawkins, the former Eagle who will add passion and toughness to a team soft against the run. They used four of their first six draft picks on defensive players. While McDaniels absolutely bungled the Cutler affair, Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, though not big-armed Pro Bowl quarterbacks, are smart and accurate at short range. The Broncos open the season against three rebuilding teams: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland. If they start quickly, the soap opera will begin to fade away.

AFC North

Expectation: Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott just took Baltimore's playoff hopes to the New York Jets.

Spoiler alert: Ray Lewis will play with an even bigger chip on his shoulder, if that's possible. For all the talk about Lewis's sideline-to-sideline ability (in decline, to be sure) few players prepare to win football games like Lewis does. He watches film like a coach, studying tendencies and looking for weaknesses. There's a reason he usually ends up with his nose in the middle of a play. It's not all athletic talent; the ability to make decisions on the fly separates the legendary from the merely talented. At 34, Lewis will have to work a little harder to be the player he once was, but with Ed Reed and Fabian Washington in the secondary, second-year quarterback Joe Flacco leading a blossoming offense and Lewis as feisty as ever, don't be surprised if the Ravens return to the postseason again.

AFC South

Expectation: The Colts and the Titans will once more battle for divisional supremacy.

Spoiler alert: The Houston Texans, seemingly always a year away, could challenge for the division title. It's been a steady climb for the expansion franchise (two wins in '05, six in '06, eight in '07 and '08) and the pieces are finally in place for a postseason berth. Not only does pass rusher Mario Williams possess defensive player of the year ability, but also the Texans' offense features skill position players among the league's best. Receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels are the most underrated pass-catching group in the NFL. Running back Steve Slaton proved he can use a mix of speed and punishment to carry the load. Matt Schaub will benefit from gaining another year of experience in Gary Kubiak's offense. If Schaub can cut down on the turnovers, a beautiful season should be in store in Houston.

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