2010 predictions (cont.)
First place: Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Now that they have actually put together a winning record in December-January and, pray tell, even won a playoff game, what will we ever hang around the Cowboys' neck late this season? That's easy. If the talent-laden Cowboys don't become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, the entire season will be classified as a bust. At least we can count on Dallas to keep things simple.
Last place: Washington Redskins (6-10)
This is no one-year, worst-to-first makeover Mike Shanahan is attempting in Washington. The Redskins were an old, complacent and poorly disciplined team last season, one that believed rules were made to be broken. Washington's new regime means business, but in a tightly-bunched NFC East, being better will still produce a fourth-place result for the Redskins.
First place: Green Bay Packers (12-4)
There's not much to quibble with when you survey the Packers and where they stand in comparison to the rest of the NFC. But all the Super Bowl talk should still make folks in Green Bay a little nervous, because when was the last time the preseason buzz wound up leading to a title? Not lately. The Saints, Steelers and Giants weren't the chic picks the past three years, and maybe no one since the 2004 Patriots have followed through and lived up to ultimate expectations.
Last place: Chicago Bears (5-11)
Often a winless preseason translates not in the slightest to what a team will be come the regular season. But there was something entirely listless and directionless about the 0-4 Bears this summer, and I do believe that bodes for big trouble in Chicago. Lovie Smith's guys had better win their opener at home against Detroit, because with Dallas, Green Bay and the Giants waiting in Weeks 2-4, a snowball effect could ensue.
First place: New Orleans (11-5)
The NFC South is always topsy-turvy and it's one of only two divisions in which all four teams have made the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons (the NFC East is the other). But in a display of novelty, the status quo will rule this time around. The Falcons are playoff-ready once again and they'll give New Orleans a season-long race for the division title. But come early January, the order of things will mirror last year's: Saints, Falcons, Panthers and Bucs. Consider it one of this year's easier calls.
Last place: Tampa Bay (5-11)
I'm liking most of the green shoots that are showing in Tampa Bay, but this is one of those seasons where the improvement won't translate into a big jump in the standings. If the Bucs get some breaks and maximize their upset opportunities, maybe they squeak past Carolina for third place. But that's as good as it'll get. A solid first full year as a starter would represent 2010 success for quarterback Josh Freeman.
First place: San Francisco (9-7)
After five years of embarrassment, injury and struggle in San Francisco, this is the payoff year for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, the league's first overall pick in 2005. It won't be a magic carpet ride kind of season, but it'll be vindicating all the same. For a 49ers team that hasn't been relevant since 2002, the small step from last year's 8-8 to this year's 9-7 will be ever so sweet.
Last place: St. Louis (4-12)
One plus one equaled eight for the Rams, and it's a pretty good trick of math when you consider their 1-15 record last year got them the first overall pick in April, which they used to select quarterback Sam Bradford, he of the No. 8 jersey. Because of that equation, there's hope in St. Louis for the first time in years. But it's still about baby steps this season for the Rams and a fan base that has witnessed rock bottom in the NFL.