Predicting the 2010 NFL season
AFC Division winners: Jets, Ravens, Colts and Chargers
NFC division winners: Cowboys, Packers, Saints and 49ers
Bears and Broncos among division cellar-dwelling predictions
A salient point or two that bears noting as we attempt our annual NFL predictions column, as if you really could divine the landscape of the league before its new season even begins...
Sure, the Saints look pretty tough to beat from the vantage point of early September, but you can say the same thing about the defending champion almost every year. Then stuff happens. Count on it.
It's been five years since a defending Super Bowl champ even managed to win a single playoff game the year after getting the big confetti shower and the shiny trophy. The 2005 Patriots did that, winning the AFC East at 10-6 and dispatching Jacksonville at home in the first round of the playoffs. But then they lost in the divisional round at Denver, ending their hopes of a three-peat.
Since then, the 2006 Steelers failed to qualify for the postseason at 8-8, the 2007 Colts lost in their playoff opener at home against San Diego, the 2008 top-seeded Giants got beat by sixth-seeded Philadelphia at home in their first playoff game, and the 2009 Steelers failed (again) to even make the postseason the year after they partied. So consider yourself warned, Who Dat Nation.
Like we did last year, we're going to give you our most prescient guesses for the eight division winners and eight last-place finishers, and stay away from that murky morass in the middle. (Apparently it's easier to pick losers than winners in the NFL, because last year I was 8-of-8 in terms of last-place teams, and just 3-of-8 when it came to the division champs).
We'll even throw in our projection of how the postseason will play out. If you've been paying attention lately, you know I've got the Ravens and Packers playing on Super Sunday, with Baltimore getting the ultimate nod. Last year I went with New England over Green Bay, and missed on both counts. Like we said, stuff happens.
First place: New York Jets (11-5)
I don't know how good the Jets can be with their collection of all-stars and their high-wire chemistry experiment, but they'll certainly never bore us. Quarterback Mark Sanchez's year-two development seems to be the key. If he can make defenses respect his arm as much as they do New York's running game, there might just be a ticker-tape parade in the Jets' future.
Last place: Buffalo Bills (2-14)
I think I understand why Bills' sack leader Aaron Schobel said no mas to the notion of returning for a 10th season in Buffalo. As bad as the last decade of Bills football has been, the new one might start off even worse. I can't see how Buffalo generates enough points to stay in games with the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins, all of whom have a decided edge when it comes to star power and playmakers.
First place: Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Last year at this time, Baltimore's challenge was figuring out how to beat Pittsburgh, which had defeated the Ravens three times in 2008. They got it done, but then went 0-2 against the Bengals and lost the division by one game to Cincinnati. But I foresee a Baltimore team that will be the hunted rather than the hunter in the AFC North this year, thanks to an offense that can make up for whatever defensive liabilities might linger in their injury-depleted secondary.
Last place: Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Don't get giddy if the Browns start 2-0 against the likes of Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Their next seven games will provide a reality check: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England and the Jets, in the span of eight weeks. Cleveland is better, and maybe even capable of prolonged fits of competitiveness this season. But it's not yet truly in the same league with the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers.
First place: Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
I made the mistake last year of believing the Colts were about to take a step back in the division, and then they went out and reeled off a 14-0 start before getting bored with the regular season after Christmas. So I've decided I'm much better off just putting Indy down for its annual 12 wins and then later expressing genuine shock if that outcome somehow does not unfold for once.
Last place: Jacksonville (5-11)
I'm detecting something of an AFC pattern here. As in the AFC East and AFC North, there are three fairly well-respected teams in the AFC South, and then a club that stacks up as fourth-place material in almost everyone's estimation. The Jaguars are so off the radar -- even in their own market -- that's it's hard to gauge their potential upside. They can be very tough to beat, but it's also difficult to see them piecing together a winning season.
First place: San Diego Chargers (10-6)
I'm convinced the AFC West will tighten up this year, because Oakland and Kansas City both look improved and the Chargers do not. It'll still be a fifth consecutive division title for San Diego -- and sixth in seven years -- but the talent gap has narrowed. The Chargers' early season schedule isn't too taxing, so in another new twist, they might actually start the season strong.
Last place: Denver (6-10)
The tea leaves I'm reading indicate a trying, adversity-filled year is in store for the Broncos, and the downward cycle started the minute NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil was lost for the season with a tear of his pectoral muscle early in camp. Looking back, that 6-0 start the Broncos had last year was either mirage-like or a case of a rookie head coach who had the misfortune of setting the bar of expectation too high.
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