So, here we go again, and football fans everywhere want to know exactly what's going to happen during the 2011 NFL season before the final rosters are set, before the first injuries have taken their toll, before the first meathead has gotten himself suspended and irrespective of any other acts of man or God that may occur over the next 24 weeks? OK, let me tell you.
The battle between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets for the AFC East won't be nearly as tight as Rex Ryan thinks it will be. The Pats are not only the better team, they may be the best team in football, and I don't see how the Jets are quite as good as they were last year in terms of personnel. The Steelers, Colts and Chargers will be the class of their respective divisions, and the Jets will battle the Ravens, Browns, Texans and Chiefs for a wild-card spot, with the Texans and Chiefs joining the four division champs in the playoffs.
The Buffalo Bills will be one of the more improved teams in the NFL but won't get over .500, and the Dolphins will struggle for an identity on offense all year long. I think the Bengals have a real shot at being the worst team in the league, or at least the worst in the AFC. I have no idea what to expect from Mike Munchak, so let's call it a rebuilding year in Tennessee. I think the time the Jaguars waste before turning the club over to Blaine Gabbert, and the growing pains they'll endure with him once they commit, will cost them any chance of being competitive. I really thought the Raiders might have been on the right track last year, but I'm thoroughly confused by the free-agency decisions they made, and John Fox needs at least a year to move the Broncos out of the bottom tier of AFC clubs.
In the NFC the Green Bay Packers are the defending heavyweight champions of the world until someone knocks them out, and that won't happen in the NFC North. The Eagles are not the team of my dreams, but they are the class of the East on paper. I know the Falcons were the NFC's No. 1 seed last year, and I don't think it was a fluke, but there's something about the Saints' pedigree that impresses me more in the NFC South, and I think the Rams will do more than just win the NFC West, they'll win at least eight games to do it and maybe even nine.
The Chicago Bears are one of the tougher teams in the NFL to figure out, but they will be a wild-card contender this year in spite of all the question marks they carry around with them. Their main competition will come from the Giants, Falcons, Bucs and Lions, with Tampa Bay and Atlanta eventually claiming the fifth and sixth playoff seeds.
Dallas was not only a 6-10 team last year, it was a shaky 6-10, and I don't see any of the personnel upgrades that are causing folks to project the Cowboys as a playoff contender. I'm not really sure what Mike Shanahan is doing in Washington, but I know Rex Grossman has clearly outplayed John Beck at QB and I'll bet you he gives Beck the job. The Panthers will win at least twice as many games as they did last year, which means their fans will need to be patient. I think the Vikings are going to be better than people think, but the NFC North will be a meat grinder this year. The 49ers, like the Panthers, need time more than anything, the Cardinals need a lot more talent on both sides of the ball, and I'm really not sure there is a plan in Seattle.
So what will happen in Indianapolis after Aaron Rodgers and Jerod Mayo are named the league's Offensive and Defensive MVPs and the Packers knock off the Saints and the Patriots beat the Texans in the conference title games? I'm guessing it'll be New England 34, Green Bay 31. And Chad Ochocinco, whose name may or may not be Johnson again by then, will be on his way to Disneyland!