Ten predictions for '09 second half
Schedule won't allow Broncos to collapse in second half
Pittsburgh Steelers are getting stronger and won't lose another game
Predictions for the entire playoff field and my pick for Super Bowl XLIV
After watching the Broncos lose for the second time in as many games Monday night, fans across the country channeled their inner-Denny Green voice before saying: "They are who we thought they were!"
The Broncos were a popular preseason pick to fall on their face after firing coach Mike Shanahan and trading Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, but they silenced their critics with a 6-0 start that gave them a three-game lead in the loss column in the AFC West.
But that has been followed by consecutive losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Instead of being viewed as legitimate playoff contenders, the Broncos are widely considered as modern-day Icaruses, a team that flew too high too quickly only to have the wax melt from their wings.
How far will they fall, and what else can we expect from the second half of the season? Let's take a look in our crystal ball:
1. The Broncos are not going to crash land. It's easy to say "Told You So" after consecutive defeats, but take a look at their remaining schedule. It includes two games against 1-7 Kansas City and one each against 2-6 Oakland and 2-6 Washington. If they prevail in those contests -- as they should -- that's 10 wins, which should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
Their four other games are at home against the Chargers (whom they beat in San Diego), at home against the Giants (who have lost four in a row), and on the road at Indy and Philadelphia. I still would not be shocked if they win 12 games, although coach Josh McDaniels has to incorporate the deep ball to soften up defenses. We were told in training camp that Kyle Orton has the arm to make every throw; now it's time to show it.
2. The Cowboys will be one-and-done in the playoffs. With all due respect to Cowboys fans, I just can't get excited about their sudden surge to the top of the NFC East. That little thing called "December" keeps popping into my head. QB Tony Romo has lost five of his last seven starts during the Christmas month, throwing nearly twice as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (six) in those games; my crystal ball says his struggles will continue down the stretch this year.
Romo hasn't looked confident in a big late-season game since botching the PAT hold in the playoff loss to Seattle. Having said that, Dallas will make the playoffs, but it will be one-and-done and six straight losses since their last postseason win, in the 1996 season.
3. Vince Young will be the Titans' QB beyond this season. Tennessee started 0-6 but has won two straight since Young replaced Kerry Collins. My prediction about him being the long-term answer is not rooted in the back-to-back victories as much as it is in how he has looked: poised, mature, professional. Those are words you wouldn't have associated with him earlier in his career -- particularly in the 2008 season opener, when he had to be coaxed back on the field after being booed at home, then was the subject of a Nashville manhunt because friends and family feared he might do harm to himself.
Young looks as if he has been humbled and hardened after being relegated to the sidelines the final 15 games last season and the first six games this year. He always has had a way of rallying teammates, and he'll do it again by leading the Titans to four to six wins in their final eight games (which means six to eight wins in his 10 starts).
4. New Orleans won't go undefeated. The Saints have showed plenty of grit in recent weeks by rallying from large early deficits, but at some point they're going to dig a hole that's too deep to get out. That's not to say they won't reach the Super Bowl -- they will -- but there's a reason only two teams have gone undefeated in the regular season. The type of pressure that accompanies such a run is something you have to experience to understand. Players from the Patriots' 2007 team say the season became less fun the closer they got to 16-0. I believe New Orleans will get to 12-0, then lose to the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson will retire if San Diego wins it all. The Chargers running back has won an MVP award, set countless records and earned the respect of most every player and fan in the NFL. However, the thing he wants most is the one thing he doesn't have: a Super Bowl ring. The nine-year veteran has battled injuries and a decline in performance the past few years and is on pace for a career-worst season. He has too much pride to hang around for a paycheck -- not that he needs one -- and that's why I believe he'll walk away if the Chargers win the title.
6. The Steelers will not lose another regular-season game. The belief among personnel people is you had better beat the Steelers early in the season because they get stronger as the year progresses. Sure enough, the defending Super Bowl champions have won five in a row and look to be finding their rhythm. More eye-opening: The Bengals are the only team left on Pittsburgh's schedule with a winning record. Scary.
7. Chris Johnson will continue to dominate highlights. The Titans running back recently said during a radio interview that he wanted to be the Kobe or LeBron of the NFL. If he continues to break off long-distance touchdowns it's going to be hard to laugh off the statement. Think about it: Johnson already has five touchdowns of 50 or more yards, including runs of 91 and 89 yards. He's averaging an astounding 6.7 yards a carry and, according to one opponent, has earned enough respect that players no longer chase him when he breaks into the open because they don't want to be "posterized" -- an NBA term for the guy who's in the picture being dunked on by the likes of LeBron or Kobe.
8. This will be Anquan Boldin's final season with Arizona. There comes a point when both parties realize they're just not compatible, and the Cardinals and Boldin are there -- or will be in March. Boldin is an elite wide receiver who wants a new contract, and the team has been unwilling to pay him what he wants. The Cardinals failed to trade him in the offseason because they were leery of disrupting their chemistry on offense after reaching the Super Bowl, and they couldn't get an offer that satisfied them. But Arizona is becoming more comfortable with the idea of playing (and winning) without him. It did it Sunday at Chicago and again last year in the playoffs at Carolina. Boldin is a class guy and consummate professional, but sometimes things just don't work out. This is one of them.
9. Brett Favre will make a run at the MVP award. We can grouse all we want about the diva-like ride Favre took us on in the offseason, but the man can flat out get it done. He played brilliantly in sweeping his former team, the Packers, and he led fourth-quarter comebacks against the Ravens and 49ers. All those questions about how his 40-year-old body will hold up the rest of the way, particularly when playing in the cold of the NFC North? Forget about them. Favre has only two outdoor games remaining, back-to-back trips to Carolina and Chicago in late December. Other than that he should be indoors all the way to the Super Bowl -- should the Vikings get there.
10. Pittsburgh will win the Super Bowl. The Steelers are only two field goals away from being undefeated, and no one is really talking about them. Coach Mike Tomlin has to love that. Anyway, I have Pittsburgh, Indy, New England and Denver as my division winners, with San Diego and Cincinnati as the wild cards. Pittsburgh beats San Diego in the conference final. In the NFC I have New Orleans, Arizona, Minnesota and Philadelphia as division winners, with Dallas and Atlanta as the wild cards. New Orleans beats Minnesota in the conference final. Pittsburgh defeats New Orleans 27-24 for its second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
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