After busy offseason, an early look at how the 32 teams stack up now
Here in May, best teams appear to be Packers, Chargers, Ravens
Surprise teams outside the top 12 include the Patriots and Vikings
Much more in Quotes of the Week, Stat of the Week and 10 Things I Think
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla -- I'm playing the Stadium Course here at Sawgrass today, as part of the annual Tom Coughlin/Jay Fund tournament benefiting cancer-stricken kids and their families. Over/under on the number of balls I put in the drink at 17: 17.
Great, classic Coughlin scene last night at the dinner and auction at the Sawgrass TPC Clubhouse, as the Giants' head coach welcomed everyone. There were moving tales of brave kids and their families battling cancer. Coughlin had just told the story of a child looking up at his parents when the cancer diagnosis came in, saying, "Am I going to die?''
And from the back of the audience:
Someone's cell phone.
Without breaking verbal stride, Coughlin said into the mike: "All right. That's at least a $5,000 fine right there. Just write the check right now.''
Pretty good for Coughlin. Pretty good for anyone in the middle of something emotional.
So before I go out this morning, let me embarrass myself by ranking the NFL one through 32. That's not being overly modest -- just realistic. I stink at this. In fact, my recommendation if you really want to find out what's going to happen in the NFL this year is to take a bye on this column. Last year, I really distinguished myself. Picked the Bears to make the Super Bowl. Picked the Saints 24th in the league, which was a point of some contention all season, right up to the moment 30 minutes after the Saints won the Super Bowl and Sean Payton walked up to his podium to meet the press after the game, saw me, and said: "Not bad for number 24.''
But I press on -- stupidly or intrepidly, not sure which, keeping one statistic in mind. Twelve teams make the playoffs each year. In the past five years, check out the turnover from the previous year. How many different teams made the playoffs compared to the year before:
So for five straight years there's been at least a 50-percent turnover in the playoff teams. Remember that as you throw crap at your computer when you see I don't have New England making the playoffs, but I do have Carolina in the big dance. There's not quite the same high number of playoff changes (I have five of 12 different from 2009), but I do have five of eight division winners changing.
1. Green Bay. It's not just the maturation of Aaron Rodgers. It's the carryover from a fluky end to 2009 (the weird playoff loss at Arizona) and the fact that only one team in football -- New Orleans -- had a better point differential than the Pack's plus-164 last year. I like Jermichael Finley to become a great player in his second starting season. I don't trust the pass-rush (where Clay Matthews is the only real thing), and I worry about two of the top three corners coming off ACL surgery, and aging. But the defensive front is formidable, and a very good match for the good run teams of the NFC North. I also like Weeks 2 through 5 on the schedule (Buffalo, at Chicago, Detroit, at Washington), which sets up for a strong start.
2. San Diego. I didn't like how much the Chargers traded to get Ryan Mathews (the 28th and 40th picks in a strong draft) when they probably could have gotten him for less, but that doesn't mean I don't like what Mathews is going to do. I think he'll be the offensive rookie of the year. He has everything a good back needs -- opportunity (he should get 320 carries if healthy), playing from ahead a lot, and a good offensive line. And did I mention Philip Rivers will throw for 4,500 yards and contend strongly for MVP?
As with Green Bay, I don't know where all the pass-rush will come from, but the Chargers are relying heavily on Larry English to break out of his freshman slump and give it to them -- and hope that, in a salary-drive year, Shawne Merriman can give the franchise one last productive year. It's more likely, I think, that Shaun Phillips has seven to 10 sacks and provides cover for English. I like the Chargers to go at least 5-1 in the division, which gives them an edge over the other three division winners, setting them up for home-field in the AFC playoffs.
3. Baltimore. I think the Ravens have hit a few home runs this offseason, and those moves could carry them to the AFC Championship Game. I like the remake of their receiver corps. Anquan Boldin won't make it through 16 games healthy, but he'll give Joe Flacco a good, physical target for 12. Donte' Stallworth will be reborn as an effective third or fourth wideout, with the speed at the position the Ravens haven't had. On defense, I wish I saw something better at cornerback than waiting for Lardarius Webb to come back from knee surgery sometime this summer so that the starting corners opening day aren't Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison obviously has to be hoping for it to be third- and-long so often (with a great run-stuffing front) that he doesn't have to worry about the more than occasional coverage error downfield.
4. Indianapolis. I see no reason, either in the competitive level of the division or in the Colts' slippage, for Indy to regress. Manning will be Manning, and he has the young weapons to be good as long as his body will hold up now, even if one of his valuable pieces like Reggie Wayne breaks down. They've backstopped everywhere on the roster pretty effectively, and last year got two kid corners the kind of experience under fire that will serve them well going forward at a position Bill Polian uses interchangeably. Third-round pick Jerraud Powers played as effectively as any other rookie corner in football last year, and Indy's set with him and Kelvin Hayden, with Jacob Lacey in relief there. The Achilles heel, again, could be San Diego. The Chargers are a major matchup problem for Indianapolis, and even with some upheaval in San Diego, the AFC still could come down to Indy having to win at San Diego to make it to the Super Bowl.
5. New Orleans. The Saints face a daunting task: Only four times in the last 20 seasons has a team repeated as Super Bowl champ (San Francisco in 1990, Dallas in 1994, Denver in 1999 and New England in 2005). The Saints will surely score enough to win again. The question is whether defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can tread water in 2010, because I think that's all he's going to have to do. New Orleans doesn't have to be in the top 10 in defense -- the Bills allowed 15 fewer points last year, the 49ers 60 -- but Williams, again, will have to find a way to get pressure with middling front-seven talent and make sure the Saints don't have to score in the 30s every week to win.
I think Carolina will be better, and Atlanta might be, so this is not a mail-it-in division race for New Orleans. But when the Saints had to pick it up last year, they did, in a big way. Will complacency bite them? That's something you can never tell at this point of the offseason, but they're young at enough important positions to make another Super Bowl run.
6. Miami. I probably like the young quarterback more than most do; I think Chad Henne is set for a breakout year, and I think the receiver group (Brandon Marshall, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess) will be good enough to give Miami enough at that position for the first time in years. Even though the Dolphins didn't get a fourth receiver like the one they wanted (Demaryius Thomas) on draft day, they'll be good enough there to contend.
The most important rookie in the league to a playoff contender, other than Ryan Mathews of the Chargers, could well be Koa Misi, the second-rounder projected to rush the passer for Miami. But as Bill Parcells has said since he came out of the womb, "They don't sell insurance for that kind of thing.'' They don't, and Misi needs to have immediate impact to bolster the one area of the Dolphins that they need the most help -- pass-rush.
7. New York Jets. Tough team to forecast, through all the glitz. The one thing I like a lot about the Jets is their ability to make tough decisions, even when the decisions seem ruthless. GM Mike Tannenbaum said goodbye to two locker room pillars, running back Thomas Jones and guard Alan Faneca, when he knew there'd be player rumblings about it. Tannenbaum has put his trust in offensive line and running-game guru Bill Callahan to keep the best running game in football rolling. There's a lot about this team that's a tinderbox. Will Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards coexist peacefully? Can LaDainian Tomlinson be happy being a middle-relief pitcher? Will Antonio Cromartie tackle, even a little? Make no mistake about it: There's more pressure on Rex Ryan than on any other coach in football this year.