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Eric Edholm's 2011 NFL predictions

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By Eric Edholm

Leading up to the start of the regular season, PFW will post the NFL predictions of its editors/writers, who forecast the order of finish in each division, the outcome of Super Bowl XLVI, and Offensive and Defensive MVPs. In the fifth of these predictions, PFW senior editor Eric Edholm looks into his crystal ball.

AFC East

1. New England — Forget the third preseason game; this team is built to last. Improved, attacking 4-3 "under" defense will be biggest difference from last season, along with run game. The surprise contributor could be DE Andre Carter, who might be their first double-digit sacker in a few seasons.

2. N.Y. Jets — The offense, like last season, will start slowly. And ultimately, I think they lack the weapons on offense and special teams to make another AFC title game. I also think the defense, although very good, is not a top-three unit this season.

3. Buffalo — God bless Ryan Fitzgerald and his fearless approach — it will serve these young receivers well. The defense might be mildly better with Marcell Dareus and Shawne Merriman, but it still suffers from lack of depth and classic fits for the scheme. Still a year away at least.

4. Miami — The defense will keep scores low, but I don't like very much about this offense. They have set up Chad Henne to fail. The receivers and tight ends have their limitations. Reggie Bush as a 15-20-carry guy? Please. Five or six wins.

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh — Don't forget how good these guys are. There might be a game or two where the defense shows its age, but the offense — namely the suddenly explosive passing attack — shouldn't surprise you. I am not sure about a Super Bowl return, because I don't know if they will go toe to toe with the other elite teams, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out.

2. Baltimore — I almost picked the Browns here. Almost. I think the Ravens have done enough to stay in playoff contention, and moves like the Lee Evans pickup should help a lot. But I also think the window here is shrinking with these defenders aging so quickly. Not as hung up on Joe Flacco as others, but he, too, has his limitations.

3. Cleveland — Dick Jauron has his work cut out for him, but something tells me we'll be talking about him as an assistant coach of the year candidate. Offensively, it's a group effort at the skill spots, but I think Colt McCoy has found quite a friend in TE Evan Moore. Breakout seasons for both.

4. Cincinnati — I love the talent at receiver, but there are so many things wrong with this team. They won't generate pressure on defense, and they'll wear down against physical teams. On offense, the run game won't compensate enough for Andy Dalton's growing pains. Long season ahead.

AFC South

1. Houston — For years, I have been among the Texans' doubters. I never believed they were ready for that next step — until now. Forget Peyton Manning's neck; this team is better because of its own 53-man roster, and it starts with defense. Wade Phillips has done a great job installing the defense in this shortened offseason and will have this team competing for a spot in the Super Bowl.

2. Indianapolis — It's completely fair to wonder about the health of No. 18, but it's just as reasonable to question the state of the defense and the offensive line. In time OLT Anthony Costanzo will be good, but the rest of the group is bordering on ordinary. Defensively, they have lost a lot. The special teams are so-so. Not their year.

3. Jacksonville — The worst pass defense in the division, if the preseason is any indication, might not belong to the Texans anymore. The rest of this "D" might have more teeth, but will it make enough to make up for this offense? David Garrard does just enough not to get booted from a starting spot but not enough to make the postseason. A shade behind Indy.

4. Tennessee — Eventually we'll be talking about the culture that Mike Munchak is building in Nashville, but it hasn't happened yet and it might not happen for another season. The passing game has its limitations, and too much growth is needed in too short a time.

AFC West

1. San Diego — Richard Bisaccia might be their MVP. The special-teams coach will calm things down on those units and revive this club's status as AFC West killers. Schedule is rough (Patriots, Packers and Jets in first nine weeks), but they can avoid another awful start, which has been their consistent downfall. Oh yeah, and the passing game still dominates. If Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson spend more than one quarter on the field together, as they did last season, they will make sweet music.

2. Denver — Don't rule out a 3-0 start, a poor middle and a decent finish. It reminds me of John Fox's first season in Carolina, but the difference here is that the Broncos have a quarterback. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil will anchor Fox's defense the way Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker did that season 10 years ago. A 7-9 season seems reasonable.

3. Kansas City — The offensive concerns are legitimate, and we will be having conversations at season's end about whether Matt Cassel is the guy or not. It won't be all his fault, of course, but this has the look of a 16-point-per-game offense … coupled with a defense that allows 20 points per game. Expect a step back to the 6-10 range.

4. Oakland — Something tells me it will be a dark season. I picked them to win the division last season because I thought the defense would have a lot of playmakers and the run game would improve. Those things happened, and they barely scratched out 8-8. There's just a bad vibe around the team right now.

NFC East

1. Dallas — It's all about the offensive line coming together, with two rookies and a second-year player anchoring the group. Tony Romo will be very good, Felix Jones will be great and the top three pass catchers will be outstanding. Defensively, I think it will be a bit of an adventure, but by season's end we'll be talking about the havoc it wreaks.

2. N.Y. Giants — In July, back when there was no football, I was hyping them as a Super Bowl team. Something in me still says they will have a lot of resolve and be much better than people expect. Maybe, but there are too many holes suddenly that I don't have answers for. I have them just inching past the Eagles in the division by tiebreaker.

3. Philadelphia — Two things I can't look past: One, don't forget how green they are (six rookies starting). And two, that offensive line looks really rough. It will jell at some point with Howard Mudd, but will Michael Vick get killed before then? Also can't expect Vick to be as good as he was a year ago. I think they will struggle to a 10-6 record, if you know what I mean.

4. Washington — Everyone is selling them short a bit, and had John Beck had a better preseason, I might be thinking playoffs. Right now, I can't put them above .500, but a highly competitive 7-9 and 8-8 seems very likely. One thing I do like is the direction of the defense, which should be markedly better than last season's ill-fitting unit. This team will open some eyes.

NFC North

1. Green Bay — There will be more mistakes and fewer game-preserving plays on defense, but there are otherwise few differences with last season's club. Mike McCarthy's steady-as-she-goes approach will make them hum again, and Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL. But I think they will fall just short of returning to the big game. Sometimes the breaks just don't go your way.

2. Detroit — Matthew Stafford will be an early MVP candidate because he has good pressure on him, terrific weapons and — the biggest thing — better health. There's no way to predict injuries, but he never had a history of them in college or high school, so I feel good about him staying in the lineup. Prediction: The defense unleashes hellfire early, comes back down to earth, then raises its game enough to get them in the playoffs. Finally!

3. Chicago — When Jay Cutler is hinting that Roy Williams is not a great addition, it's not a great sign. The defense will take a step back, the offensive line won't improve by any discernible measure and the special teams will not be the league-leading group it previously has been. Breaking .500 might be an achievement.

4. Minnesota — The team has made small steps in the preseason, and they are doing so without a lot of the big names contributing. That's a good sign, and I think Leslie Frazier has the temperament to guide this group to success eventually. They will compete with the Bears for third place and could overtake them, but anything more than that might be asking a lot.

NFC South

1. New Orleans — Don't overlook the 2009 champs, who certainly were guilty of living the good life in the wake of SB XLIV. They are back and in great shape to be just as good offensively with a defense that should make more impact plays earlier in games. Gregg Williams will be able to attack the way he wants with Drew Brees and Co. staking him to lots of 10-0 and 14-0 leads.

2. Atlanta — Is the secondary regressing? Can the pass rush improve? I am not so sure. The approach of the power run game setting up the downfield passing looks great and sounds great in theory. I just don't think it will work against the best teams, just as it failed vs. the Packers in the playoffs. Matt Ryan will be asked to do too much late in the season because of how good the passing game will look early.

3. Tampa Bay — Josh Freeman might be the best young quarterback in the NFC. But he can't make enough plays this season to make up for a very young roster and a defense that is not ready to take the next step. I will be touting this team as a Super Bowl contender in 2012, but not this season.

4. Carolina — They can win six or seven games with a run game and Cam Newton making some plays, but the most disappointing unit has been the defense in the preseason. They need to find a defensive end to pair with Charles Johnson and keep those linebackers healthy. The secondary is not a great group, but Ron Rivera will coach this team up and make it competitive again.

NFC West

1. St. Louis — Sam Bradford and an attacking, smart defense will make this the team that finally separates itself from the sludge in this division. Bradford might not have a go-to guy, but Tom Brady has had that "problem" before. Steve Spagnuolo doesn't have the defensive talent he did in New York, but he has enough pieces to force turnovers and keep teams stalled in the red zone.

2. Arizona — The thing that has surprised me the most is how comfortable Kevin Kolb has looked in this offense compared to what they ran in Philly. Having Larry Fitzgerald will do that. But Kolb has done a nice job and I think will be more consistent than he was before. Defensively, they will make more plays under Ray Horton's watch, but they will have to be on the field too much to win this division.

3. Seattle — I don't like the quarterback play, and I don't love the defense at all. What can prevent a 5-11 season? A great running game, but it seems a bit specious to predict that with two rookie offensive linemen and a passing game that has yet to come together.

4. San Francisco — It will be a tough season for Jim Harbaugh, and the unfair talk about college coaches flopping in the pros will come up. It's not that at all: They just are not that talented at key positions with the losses on defense and some big egos on offense. Bad combo. The work continues.

Offensive MVP: Chargers QB Philip Rivers

Defensive MVP: Steelers ILB Lawrence Timmons

Super Bowl XLVI: Patriots over Saints

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