Midseason predictions (cont.)
5. Antonio Gates will get MVP votes.
I realize that no tight end has ever been voted league MVP. However, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it shouldn't. He has played all season without a proven No. 1 receiver on the outside -- and has been battling turf toe the past two weeks -- yet he leads the league with nine touchdown catches and ranks third with 663 yards (on 40 catches). More astonishingly is that he consistently beats 1-on-1 coverage by two or three steps.
Titans safety Michael Griffin said Gates is a tough matchup not only because of his combination of size, speed and hands, but also because it's tough to simulate him in practice. He likened it to opponents trying to prepare for Chris Johnson's speed. You can talk about it and try to practice for it, but unless you have someone with those abilities on your roster, there's no way to really experience it until game day.
6. Kansas City will win the AFC West.
The Chiefs lead the Raiders by two games in the loss column and are three up on San Diego. They have only two teams with winning records remaining on their schedule and have four games left at home, where they are 4-0.
More importantly than the schedule is that Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe are starting to live up to expectations after struggling early in the year. Cassel threw three picks over the first three games but has not been intercepted in the past four. Bowe has five TD catches in his past three outings after managing just one in his first four. Combine that with the league's top-ranked running game, an opportunistic defense and a favorable schedule, and it's a prescription for success.
Oakland also appears capable of winning the division, beating Denver and Seattle by an aggregate of 92-17 the past two weeks. Running back Darren McFadden is healthy and playing like a top-5 draft pick, and the defense has figured out how to stop the run, limiting opponents to 75 or fewer yards in each of the past two games. A concern, however, is the ankle injury that Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha sustained last week. If he can't play Sunday against the Chiefs, it's a major advantage for Kansas City.
7. The Saints will NOT repeat as Super Bowl champs.
You have no idea how hard it was to type that. I've learned over the years never to doubt Drew Brees, who is one of the most competitive and conscientious players I know. But the strain of trying to defend the championship they won last season is weighing on the Saints. Last year they played in one Super Bowl. This year they will play in 16 during the regular season. It's too difficult to respond to that every Sunday. Combine that with the absence of a consistent running game due to injuries to backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, and Brees is having to shoulder too much of the load. New Orleans will expend so much energy to get to the playoffs that it will have nothing left once it arrives.
8. San Francisco will go QB shopping in the offseason.
It has become painfully clear that the Alex Smith era is over in San Francisco. And while some look to Troy Smith for hope after his solid showing in Sunday's win over the Broncos, the 49ers (2-6) realize the key to relevancy is finding a franchise player at the position. That reality is all the more obvious after witnessing how No. 1 pick Sam Bradford has turned the Rams into contenders as a rookie. With veteran Matt Hasselbeck's future in Seattle uncertain, and Arizona looking lost at the position following the retirement of Kurt Warner, the 49ers know that a quality QB likely is all that stands between them and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
9. Donovan McNabb will be one-and-done in Washington.
There's no way the relationship with Mike Shanahan can be repaired, regardless of what's said publicly. One day Shanahan is questioning McNabb's football intelligence, the next his conditioning? Even if what Shanahan says is true and McNabb could not handle the hurry-up offense from a "cardiovascular standpoint," it's a conversation that should have been between the two of them and not the media. The feud won't be the public spectacle of Shanahan vs. Albert Haynesworth, but I'm told there will be lingering resentment with McNabb. His issue isn't what was said, but where it was said.
10. The Jets will win the Super Bowl.
I'm sticking with my preseason pick of New York to get to the Super Bowl, but now I like them to win it. Yes, the offense looked lethargic in a 9-0 loss to the Packers. But the Jets still have one of the league's more complete teams: They have a strong running game, receiving threats on the perimeter, a stingy defense and solid special teams. And I believe Mark Sanchez will continue to improve as the season progresses.
As for the road to North Texas:
In the AFC, I have New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Kansas City as division winners, with Baltimore and the Jets as wild cards. New York defeats Pittsburgh in the conference final.
In the NFC I have Atlanta, the Giants, Green Bay and St. Louis as division winners, with the Eagles and Saints as wild cards. The Packers will defeat the Giants in the conference final. The Jets claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a 20-16 victory.