Wednesday, September 7, 2011

2011 Season Preview: Division-by-Division Outlook (Part 1 of 2: AFC)

The season is finally upon us, as we are just over 24 hours from the start of the 2011 regular season kick-off between the New Orleans Saints and defending champion Green Bay Packers.

Note: I know it's obviously been quite a while since I've posted anything, but with the season beginning I will be sure to set aside time each day to update the page.

Well, we all have our opinions on how the season will unfold, but the great thing about it is that every season more than one team comes out of the woodwork and shocks everyone–i.e. Kansas City won the West last season, Tampa Bay finished 10-6 in the South despite missing the playoffs, and Seattle defeated defending champion New Orleans in the playoffs.

Who will do the shocking this season? To be truthful, there are numerous candidates to breakout this season. Here is who I believe will win out each division, how the playoffs will unfold and a few more miscellaneous awards for the coming season, in addition to the shockers of '11.

American Football Conference


Pittsburgh Steelers 13-3
Baltimore Ravens 12-4
Cleveland Browns 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals 3-13

This division will not change a bit this season. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both neck-and-neck as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the North, and both will once again be playoff-bound. As for the bottom-half, Cleveland has more upside than Cincinnati. The Browns have found its franchise quarterback in sophomore Colt McCoy while the Bengals will be testing the waters with rookie Andy Dalton under center. We may not see former Pro Bowler Carson Palmer again until 2012, at the very earliest.

Just like every other offseason, Pittsburgh's big moves in free agency revolved around bringing back its own players–Ike Taylor and offensive linemen Willie Colon and Jonathan Scott. Pittsburgh's offensive line should see more stability and consistency as long as rookie Marcus Gilbert can live up to expectations. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems very confident under center when Maurkice Pouncey is in the lineup–expect that to continue in to 2011.

On defense, Pittsburgh brought back Taylor, although he may be out of rhythm the first few games of the season due to his broken finger sustained in the first preseason game. They also restructured the contracts of linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, both of whom have been constant weapons in Pittsburgh's defensive arsenals–Woodley is an up-and-rising pass rusher in this league.

Baltimore is in a similar situation in terms of the defensive side of the ball. Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have aging defenses, and if they don't make adjustments via the draft in the coming years (Pitt drafted DT Cam Heyward and DB Curtis Brown, Bal drafted CB Jimmy Smith with early draft picks), they could see themselves off the list of top-tier defenses. But when it comes down to it, both will be top five, maybe even top three in overall defense this season. And will once again make it deep in to the postseason.

The key to Baltimore's success all comes down to the right arm of quarterback Joe Flacco. He has lost a couple of weapons this offseason–WR Derrick Mason, TE Todd Heap and RB Willis McGahee have all left town–so Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice will be forced to handle the load, as rookie Torrey Smith adjusts to the professional level.

Cleveland's situation really interests me. Colt McCoy had a rather impressive rookie campaign with little to no help last season, getting victories against teams such as New England and defending champion New Orleans. I highly doubt the "Madden Curse" will have much effect on workhorse Peyton Hillis, and it will be interesting to see how Pat Shurmur's first full-season as head coach will pan out. No playoffs for Cleveland of course, but a solid 8-8 finish would certainly catch the attention of fans everywhere.

Cincinnati: Do I really need to go there? Owner Mike Brown really messed things up with veteran Carson Palmer, giving him an ultimatum, and now it appears as though Andy Dalton will be thrown under the bus by fans when he comes out this year and is crushed by his opponents. No Ochocinco, a distracted Cedric Benson and a rookie wideout as the No. 1 target (A.J. Green)? Recipe for disaster. The fans may end up stoning Brown, or head coach Marvin Lewis, by season's end.

Offensive MVP: Joe Flacco (plays with better consistency)
Defensive MVP: Troy Polamalu/Ray Lewis
Rookie to watch: A.J. Green
Breakout performer: Antonio Brown
"Shocking" performance: Colt McCoy
Best player on new team: Lee Evans, Bal
Coach of the Year: Pat Shurmur

New England Patriots 14-2
New York Jets 12-4
Buffalo Bills 7-9
Miami Dolphins 4-12

The East may end in similar fashion as 2010, as well. We all know Tom Brady is still king of the quarterbacks, despite Aaron Rodgers' performance throughout the playoffs and Super Bowl last year. Brady has done it three times, and has been in the playoff hunt nearly his entire career. I am in no way a Patriots fan, or Brady lover, I'm just telling the truth.

So-called NFL fans seem to think that if you aren't a Patriots fan then you should automatically hate Brady, but that's just proof of ignorance. Brady and Manning are not "overprotected," it's the quarterback position in general that is seen as "overprotected" by the league. Enough of this Brady-hating, it's obvious he can play the game, and play it at the highest level possible. Football is, for the most part, all about physicality, clearly. But that isn't the only aspect of the game, and these ignorant fans have yet to realize that.

Brady knows the x's and o's like the back of his hand, and he can pretty much do whatever he wants with the football. Of course he does have a great coach, Bill Belichick, leading the way and giving him some help, but lets face it, Brady is one of the best quarterbacks the game has seen–top 10 in history, easily.

Now that we have that out of the way, I'm gonna go ahead and say it: Rex Ryan's Jets are not going to beat them out in the division. New York has a great team, and a top 5 defense no doubt. But on offense New York isn't quite up to par with the Pats. New York does force a lot of turnovers on defense, but New England's offense are not a team to give the ball up easily, and actually forced the most on defense in 2010 (39 to New York's 30).

When it all came down to it in the post-season, New York did get the best of the Pats (28-21) as Sanchez outperformed Brady in the passing game. But Sanchez's six playoff games aren't quite enough to convince me he can handle the pressure of winning a Super Bowl. It will all come in time, but for now New England is still ahead of New York.

As for the rest of the East, it really isn't going to matter that much in 2011. Neither Buffalo nor Miami have been on my "surprise" radar for this season. C.J. Spiller is poised to breakout, despite backing up Fred Jackson, but Ryan Fitzpatrick lost his No. 1 target after Lee Evans left for Baltimore. In the passing game, ranked 24th last season, Steve Johnson looks to be the only viable option and even he only has one solid campaign under his belt.

Miami is giving quarterback Chad Henne yet another chance, much to the dismay of the fanbase. Matt Moore was brought in from Carolina to back Henne up, for when it doesn't work out for Chad, although I would like to believe that Miami would have been better off making a move for Denver's Kyle Orton. Either way, it looks like the only offensive improvement made–other than the drafting of center Mike Pouncey–is the addition of elusive tailback Reggie Bush. Bush's biggest impact will likely be made on special teams, but having him as an extra guy in the backfield will be a boost as well.

Offensive MVP: Tom Brady
Defensive MVP: Darrelle Revis
Rookie to Watch: Daniel Thomas
Breakout performer: Brandon Spikes
"Shocking" performance: Shawne Merriman
Best player on new team: Chad Ochocinco
Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick

Houston Texans 11-5
Indianapolis Colts 10-6
Tennessee Titans 6-10
Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11

The news that Indy's Peyton Manning will miss his first career game on Sunday due to his neck surgery this offseason is great news for at least three teams–if not the entire NFL. I have been saying this for a couple years now, I know, but I really do think this is finally Houston's time to shine.

Houston and Indy will face off on Sunday, and with recently un-retired Kerry Collins making the start for Indy, you know Houston's revived defense will be feisty and hungry. Collins could be in for a rough day. Newly hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips implemented the 3-4 defense this offseason, moving All Pro defensive end and former first round pick Mario Williams to outside linebacker. The drafting of defensive end J.J. Watt this season will add speed to the outside.

The trio of Williams, Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans at linebacker, in addition to SLB Connor Barwin puts Houston in the top-tier of linebacking corps. In the secondary Houston missed out on CB Nnamdi Asomugha this offseason, but added depth by signing Cincy's Johnathan Joseph and drafting Miami's Brandon Harris.

Led by Pro Bowlers Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, the Texans already have one of the highest scoring offenses in the league. All Houston needs to do to make its first playoff appearance since entering the league in '02 is keep opposing offenses under 30 points. Not too hard, right?

Indianapolis will still be in the playoff hunt, considering Manning shouldn't miss any more than two or three games. But if he doesn't return to action by week five, this squad could be in trouble. In fact, even with Manning back in the lineup, I don't have this team making the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Shocking, huh?

Tennessee finally got Chris Johnson's contract dispute settled, but defenses will key in on him and CJ2K will only manage around 1,300 yards and eight TDs (according to my calculations at least). Matt Hasselbeck will handle the snaps this season as new head coach Mike Munchak's Titans prepare rookie Jake Locker to take over the reins in 2012.

After the recent release of veteran quarterback David Garrard, Jack Del Rio has shown he's ready to move on in Jacksonville. Luke McCown will make the start Sunday, but I wouldn't be surprised if rookie Blaine Gabbert took over by the start of October.

Offensive MVP: Chris Johnson
Defensive MVP: Mario Williams
Rookie to Watch: Blaine Gabbert
Breakout performer: Mike Thomas
"Shocking" performance: Joseph Addai
Best player on new team: Barrett Ruud
Coach of the Year: Gary Kubiak

San Diego Chargers 11-5
Kansas City Chiefs 9-7
Denver Broncos 7-9
Oakland Raiders 5-11

Kansas City shocked the world last year by knocking off the defending division champion Chargers and snagging the title with a 10-6 record. The Baltimore Ravens' stout defense trounced them in the first round of the playoffs, but KC's 12th-ranked offense put up a nice campaign in 2010 nonetheless.

But there's no way I'd bet against San Diego returning to the playoffs in '11, especially with a hungry Shaun Phillips roaming the defensive secondary. The Bolts brought back WRs Vincent Jackson and deep-threat Malcom Floyd. A healthy Antonio Gates and a pair of RBs poised to breakout (Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert) gives All Pro signal caller Philip Rivers plenty of weapons.

On defense SD brought in a couple of veterans to temporarily fill in some holes–Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker and Bob Sanders at strong safety–both of whom still have something left in the tank. Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer continue to anchor the secondary at cornerback.

There's no doubt Kansas City has the top running game in the division, led by speedster Jamaal Charles and the hefty vet Thomas Jones. But overall San Diego's offensive firepower and defensive explosiveness (despite the loss of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who left for Carolina), and the fact that San Diego plays its best football in December is enough to trump the Chiefs for its second division title in three seasons.

Denver's quarterback controversy has been settled, and we knew all along that the Broncos would choose the more modern passer–Kyle Orton–over the run-first, use-my-size-to-my-advantage Tim Tebow. Tebow has what it takes to win in this league, but it was obvious Denver was looking more for a guy who could drop back in the pocket and throw a rocket to Brandon Lloyd running a deep route down the field.

Denver will luckily have the league's 2009 sack-leader, Elvis Dumervil, back this season, and rookie outside linebacker Von Miller will likely make an immediate impact on the new-look defense led by new coordinator Dennis Allen (formerly the team's secondary coach).

Same old, same old in Oakland. Al Davis continues to drive players away from the franchise. Nnamdi Asomugha left for Philadelphia, Robert Gallery to Seattle, Bruce Gradkowski to Cincinnati, Zach Miller to Seattle, Thomas Howard to Cincinnati. And Davis thought it would be a bright idea to deal with troubled Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, drafting him in the year's supplemental draft. Could be another long season for Jason Campbell and Co. in Oakland.

Offensive MVP: Philip Rivers
Defensive MVP: Tamba Hali
Rookie to Watch: Von Miller
Breakout performer: Ryan Mathews
"Shocking" performance: Robert Ayers
Best player on new team: Steve Breaston
Coach of the Year: Norv Turner
Playoff Seeding:
1. New England Patriots
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Houston Texans
5. Baltimore Ravens
6. New York Jets

(Full playoff predictions will be posted after the NFC division-by-division outlook is posted, which should come either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon).

Photos borrowed from Google, no copyright infringement intended

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