I’ll wrap up the Eastern Conference previews with its strongest division, the Southeast.
1. Orlando Magic
Last Season: (59-23) 1st in Southeast, 2nd in the East
Season Ended: Lost Conference Finals (4-2) to Boston
Best Player: Dwight Howard
Pencil in Quentin Richardson for Matt Barnes and not much has changed in Orlando. After finishing with the league’s second best record and going 8-0 in their first two play-off series, the Magic were embarrassed by the Celtics in the Conference Finals. Expect a similar outcome if Howard hasn’t learned how to score without throwing it down. They’ll continue to be one of the league’s elite. However, Howard has to work on his offensive post game if Orlando wants to win a championship.
2. Miami Heat
Last Season: (47-35) 3rd in Southeast, 5th in the East
Season Ended: Lost First Round (4-1) to Boston
Best Player: T.B.D Between Dwayne Wade or LeBron James
I have been trashing the Heat a little. Honestly I’m not saying they will definitely fall short. I’m just saying sometimes a plethora of talent doesn’t automatically translate to a championship (see also, 2004 Lakers). I have no idea what to expect of the Heat, which is why I’m not giving them anything, not even a division championship.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Last Season: (53-29) 2nd in Southeast, 3rd in the East
Season Ended: Lost Second Round (4-0) to Orlando
Best Player: Joe Johnson
Besides letting go Mike Woodson and promoting assistant coach Larry Drew, Atlanta kept their roster in tact. The major concern was keeping Joe Johnson, and they did so by drastically overpaying him. This is great for continuity, but not sufficient for anything more than a third consecutive second round exit.
4. Charlotte Bobcats
Last Season: (44-38) 4th in Southeast, 7th in the East
Season Ended: Lost First Round (4-0) to Orlando
Best Player: Gerald Wallace
2010 was the best season in the short history of the Bobcats franchise. However any chance of them moving up in the ranks of the division was eradicated by the Heat acquiring James and Bosh. Losing Raymond Felton didn’t help either.
5. Washington Wizards
Last Season: (26-56) 5th in Southeast, 14th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Gilbert Arenas
Many thought the Wizards had the talent to hold a 4 or 5 seed in 2010. I did as well. The big 3 of Gilbert Arenas, Antoine Jameson and Caron Butler saw that sort of success in the past. With Arenas slated for a full season and the addition of Flip Saunders who is a great regular season coach they were looking like a high 40 or low 50 win team. Then after an 11-32 start Gilbert Arenas, while arguing with a teammate took his “Agent Zero” nickname a little too literally and saw it fit to draw a firearm in the locker room. John Wall will be a great pro. He’s a Calipari coached point guard and so far that as been an exceptional breed. Did anyone see his reaction when the Wizards won the draft lottery though? He was hardly excited, rightfully so, the Wizards suck.
With Cleveland crashing and only two teams that show any real promise, it will be a close contest between the Central and Atlantic for worst division in the NBA.
1. Chicago Bulls
Last Season: (42-20) 3rd in Central, 8th in the East
Season Ended: Lost First Round (4-1) to Cleveland
Best Player: Derrick Rose
The Bulls are going to be good, very good. Maybe not a serious contender just yet but they will pose a challenge. Derrick Rose is one of the top 5 point guards in the league, and will continue to improve. A front-court with two double-double machines in Noah and Boozer will be a force only the Lakers and Celtics bigs can match-up with evenly, let’s not forget the addition of 7ft. Omer Asik. They do have a rookie coach in Thibodeau, but if he’s even a little better than Del Negro then the Bulls are a 5 seed at worst.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Season: (46-36) 2nd in Central, 6th in the East
Season Ended: Lost First Round (4-3) to Atlanta
Best Player: Brandon Jennings
As I had previously mentioned, the Bucks are going to be the Blazers of the East. A blend of seasoned veterans and young talent, lead by prospective superstar Brandon Jennings. They are good enough to earn a home court play-off series. I can’t say anything the about the Bucks that I haven’t already said. So I won’t be redundant.
3. Cleveland Cavilers
Last Season: (61-21) 1st in Central, 1st in the East
Season Ended: Lost Second Round (4-2) to Boston
Best Player: Mo Williams
See photo above.
4. Indiana Pacers
Last Season: (32-50) 4th in Central, 10th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Danny Granger
The Pacers were one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA last season. That could be in part because Danny Granger, one of the best scorers in the NBA was out for 20 games. Not like it would make a dramatic difference. Signing Darren Collison who was one of the best back-up points in the league, along with the veteran James Posey will help young the Pacers offensive struggles, but not enough to matter. At best the Pacers are a 40 win team
5. Detroit Pistons
Last Season: (27-55) 5th in Central, 12th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Richard Hamilton
It was only 2 years ago that the Detroit Pistons were playing in their sixth straight Eastern Conference Finals series. They lost that series (4-2) to Boston, marking the end of an era. In 2010, two seasons and one Iverson later, the Pistons were a 20 win team. I’m a big fan of Greg Monroe, who will be the teams best post player. Richard Hamilton played only 46 games last season, when he isn’t injured he is one of the most consistent players in the league, but he isn’t good enough to lead the Pistons anywhere. The Pistons sucked last year, and they are going to suck again.
With a little more than a month left till opening night I’ll be posting previews and projected standings of each division and wrap it all up with my big predictions for 2011.
I’ll start off with the Atlantic, which has been one of the overall weaker divisions but will grow stronger due to promising prospects and the 2010 free agency (with the exception of Toronto).
1. Boston Celtics
Last Season: (50-32) 1st in Atlantic, 4th in the East.
Season Ended: Lost Finals (4-3) to Los Angeles
Best Player: Rajon Rondo
This is likely Boston’s last season of contender status. Their front-court is very big, very experienced, and very old. Rondo has emerged as one of the league’s best point guards. He will be their best and most consistent player this season. A Kevin Garnett injury has been a rite of Winter, so adding Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal will do more than enough to fill the void. Old or young Ray Allen is a jump shooter, as long he can get open he will continue to knock em’ down. Pierce was inconsistent in the 2010 play-offs, his numbers may drop a little, but nothing drastic. He is still one of the great one-on-one scorers in the league. As a whole I’m not sure what to expect of the Celtics after last year. There’s also the growing strength of the East to consider. I think at worst, we’ll see the Boston 3 Party in one last Conference Finals series
2. New York Knickerbockers
Last Season: (29-53) 3rd in Atlantic, 11th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-Offs
Best Player: Amare Stoudemire
D’Antoni and Amare are reunited in the Big Apple. While Raymond Felton is no Steve Nash, New York will gradually improve. They may be disappointed they didn’t land LeBron, Carmelo Anthony has already made it clear he’s interested in New York and New Jersey. As well as Chris Paul and Tony Parker (although with the signing of Felton, it seems less likely). New York will have enough talent to grab a 7 or 8 seed this season, but it doesn’t matter. The Knicks are just biding their time till the 2011 free agency, hoping to snatch Melo from Denver or a few other all-stars on the market (Yao Ming, Zach Randolph, Caron Butler ect.) so they can ascend to the NBA’s elite.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Season: (27-55) 4th in Atlantic, 13th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Andre Iguodala
It’s a close call between NY and Philly. But Philly has too many question marks. First and foremost Doug Collins. Who has never really been an outstanding coach. He’s coaching career is mostly patterns of mediocre seasons with 4-7 year break in between. Elton Brand has been plagued by injury and minimally productive since arriving in Philly. Evan turner is not a tremendous athlete but has the skill set to be a great pro. Many compare Turner to Brandon Roy, but we can never be certain. Especially on a team with so much firepower at the guard position. Which leads me to my next question, what the hell is Iverson doing? The only certainty I have of the Sixers is that Andre Igoudala is one of the most underrated players in the NBA and he will continue to play at an all-star caliber level.
4. New Jersey Nets
Last Season (12-70) 5th in Atlantic 15th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Devin Harris
After narrowly escaping the title of worst team in NBA history, the Nets can only go up from here. Although I feel it was a mistake passing up DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors was the safest pick and has the God-given talents to be a good pro. Brooke Lopez had a breakout sophomore season averaging 18, 8 and 1.7 blks. Devin Harris was out for portions of the 2010 seasons, being hampered by injury. If he can recover from his ailments, he is one of the leagues better floor generals. Avery Johnson is a proven winner and as I had written earlier this summer New Jersey’s future looks promising.
5. Toronto Raptors
Last Season: (40-42) 2nd in Atlantic, 9th in the East
Season Ended: Missed Play-offs
Best Player: Andrea Bargnani
Well, with Bosh they just missed the play-offs. Like every other significant Raptor, he’s left for greener pastures. After Turkolgu pissed away their money, they traded him for Leandro Barbosa, who might actually be their second best player. On the bright side, Andrea Bargnani is looking like he might not be a bust after all. Although if he achieves any moderate success, he’ll bounce. The Raptors are screwed, perpetually.
So before we begin let’s just established what we learned from this weekend. You can apparently count on Pete Carroll to always win his opener, Michael Crabtree’s “diva clause” was well worth the investment, I don’t plan on changing my pre-season predictions (I know I still have six divisions to post), the Jets display of offense was about as embarrassing as it gets, Steve Spagnuolo and the Rams are probably going to ruin Sam Bradford, and the Browns found a way to completely outplay an overmatched Bucs team and still lose.
Hi, for BDL Sports I’m Alex Wiederspiel and this is your rant of the week. This is essentially my Monday Morning Quarterback.
We’ll start with the atrocity committed by the Jets offense last night. I think calling that spectacle a crime against humanity would be a vast understatement. Mark Sanchez seemed terrified to throw the ball down field (Brady Quinn and David Carr say hi), the play calling was outrageously conservative, and Kris Jenkins probably re-tore his ACL. All great.
But the Jets did it again. In 1999 it was our year. I believed with Vinny Testaverde coming off of a career year, the young stud Curtis Martin, the awesome receiving corps. of Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet and a great offensive line led by recently retired Kevin Mawae (and there was that Parcells guy coaching) that it was the Jets season. Of course Vinny Testaverde tore his Achilles heel in the second quarter of the Opening Game against San Francisco. Parcells stepped down as head coach after the season and his protege Bill Belichick was going to lead the charge right? Wrong. Of course Belichick went on to make history with New England, but that’s another story entirely.
Then with four first round picks the Jets were going to easily rebuild an old team. Well the made the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, but they suckered me in again in 2003. Chad Pennington gets hurt in the pre-season, the defense all of a sudden got really old, and the Jets went 6-10 just a year after being crowned AFC East champions. And in 2005, on the heels of a heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in the divisional round (Doug Brien you will forever be hated in my eyes) the Jets managed to convince us all that they only needed to improve the kicking game (though Brien was among the most accurate kickers in the league going 51/61 in two years with New York) and they spent a second round pick on Mike Nugent. They also traded out of the first round to acquire tight end Doug Jolley (56 catches in two years and three touchdowns…ugh). Nobody mentioned that Chad Pennington was rushing back from a torn rotator cuff, that his back-up was made of glass (Fiedler!), or that the Jets offensive line was outrageously old, or that Herman Edwards and Mike Heimerdinger had literally no idea how to run an offense. 4-12. GREAT.
Then there were the Mangini years. The GENIUS! I loved Mangini, but after the Favre fiasco blew up in our faces and the Jets blew an 8-3 start and missed the playoffs in 2008 Mangini was sent packing, Favre “retired,” and the Jets started over with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach.
And all off-season I preached to Jets fans that the team was not as good as we all thought. And then after watching Hard Knocks I bought into the hype and got suckered in. Again. Oh the life of being a Jets fan. And yet I’m never going to leave. Like Todd Snider says, “You get away with it. You always do. You get away with the things that you say! Remember that time we drove around all night with the keg in the trunk? I couldn’t believe you talked us out of it when that cop stopped us!”
I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much it for the Jets. Somehow they continue to manage to convince us they’re really legit. Oh, and then there’s everything that happened last night on the heels of an investigation about sexually harassing a Hispanic reporter in the Jets locker room. I’m sure it happens everywhere, but the Jets probably crossed a line in some way and that’s why it’s out there. This has a chance to really blow up in somebody’s face in New York if it’s as bad as I think it is. The reporter has already accepted the Jets apology, but there’s a good chance somebody in this frat house they call a club house is in trouble.
Make no mistake the Jets are already in desperation mode. If they lose to New England next week they risk starting the year 0-2 and going to Miami in September in full-blown panic mode. As for Dustin Keller and his bone headed play to end the game last night? All I can say is stretch the ball out. There was nobody around you.
But enough about New York/B (Gregg Easterbrook, TMQ). Let’s talk about the other ridiculous things that happened this weekend in football. So Sam Bradford set a rookie record with 56 passing attempts in a game where the Rams lost by just four points and led for quite a bit of it. But where did the running game go? Steven Jackson didn’t look half bad (22 carries, 81 yards) against a really solid Arizona front seven and an improved Rams offensive line. Instead the Rams opened things up with Bradford and let him throw…three interceptions. I like showing faith in the rookie, but don’t kill his confidence. Bradford had a signature touchdown pass on the run. And as always he looked like a little kid (6’4” 230 pounds) in oversized pads and a helmet two sizes to big. Yet, he was poised in the pocket.
I can tell you this…if Bradford succeeds it’ll be on him and not St. Louis. The Rams mismanagement in the play calling was just a pittance compared to their mismanagement of time on a potential game-winning drive. The Rams had two time outs left and failed to use one after a pass over the middle of the field resulted in a 4th and 1. Instead they went with the hurry up, allowed fifteen seconds (at least two plays) to run off the clock, and then RAN THE BALL with Steven Jackson. They picked up the first down, but also lost valuable seconds in the process proving once again that NFL head coaches should be forced to take time management classes as a prerequisite to head coaching. Bradford was forced to chuck up a 40 yard bomb. Had the Rams run another two plays there’s a good chance that they could have called a normal play instead of a Hail Mary in an attempt to score the touchdown. I don’t expect Spagnuolo to survive another three win season in St. Louis.
Arizona looked almost as bad as St. Louis did. Derek Anderson consistently missed his targets. He was extremely erratic in the pocket. He targeted Larry Fitzgerald fifteen times and yet Fitz only had three catches. Yikes.
Then we move to Tampa. Jake Delhomme is making seventeen million dollars this year. The Panthers owe him ten and the Browns gave him seven. It’s actually ridiculous that he still has a job. During the first half (most of it) when Delhomme took care of the ball and made the proper reads the Browns were good. They relied on their running game and Delhomme peppered in a few passes. But Delhomme’s arm seems completely shot, and his decision making is just awful. Both of his interceptions were absolutely ill-advised throws. The first he threw while under heavy duress and in the midst of a would-be sack. He should have just eaten the sack with halftime closing in. Instead, the Bucs returned an interception to the one yard line and Josh Freeman found Mike Williams in the back of the end zone (though not before the pass hit Sheldon Brown in the hands). Delhomme threw another atrocious pass late in the game into triple coverage that killed any hope the Browns had of driving down field.
Dallas…wow. To come out that flat on Sunday Night Football is embarassing. I get that they didn’t have Marc Colombo and instead Alex Barron had to try and guard Brian Orakpo, but the offensive play calling was downright awful. Jason Garrett’s calls on third and short were beyond bad. To call a pitch play against a speedy Redskins defense with a mediocre offensive line on 3rd and 2 with a power back is just a total mismanagement of talent. Call a play-fake or a dive. Certainly you can’t call a pitch in that situation. Not against Washington. Maybe St. Louis…
The Bungles are back! Way to show up absolutely flat against a slightly above average New England team that is probably at it’s weakest in years. You also couldn’t defend a banged up Wes Welker. Marvin Lewis proving once again that his motivational skills are among the lowest in the league. Instead of the team rallying around the death of teammate Chris Henry last season, they backed into the playoffs. And this is the team I thought could win the AFC North thanks to a brilliant defense. Not with performances like this.
The Colts can’t stop the run and Bob Sanders can’t stay healthy. Nothing new there. The newest part about Indianapolis was their offensive line falling apart at the seams and Peyton Manning still being able to complete 70 percent of his passes. I’m not sold on Houston yet. They exploited a major weakness in Indianapolis. Nothing more. When the chips are down and it becomes the Matt Schaub show again will this be a team that wins any more than nine games?
Finally we come to the utter disaster that was San Francisco. That game pretty much highlighted my first weekend of picks (a stellar 6-10 record. WOW!) The Seahawks didn’t even out play San Francisco. The Niners outplayed themselves. Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree weren’t even close to being on the same page. The play calling was outrageously conservative when the Niners were losing by 22 in the 3rd quarter. The offensive line provided no room for Frank Gore and Alex Smith blew a chance to give San Francisco an early 10-0 lead when he missed a wide open Delanie Walker in the end zone on a 4th and goal play action pass. Oh and how about those blown coverages? Mike Williams could have walked into the end zone on his touchdown. I think I could have scored.
So what did we learn this week? Apparently the pre-season is too short because based on these performances over half the league didn’t look prepared.
That being said here are my lovely picks for the week:
Arizona (1-0) at Atlanta (0-1)
Shockingly enough we have two teams that didn’t play well in Week 1. Go figure. I like Atlanta to get back on track against a stingy Arizona defense. Mike Smith and the Falcons have proven one thing–they’re really inconsistent. The offense could come back this week with a vengeance. If not, Arizona will somehow be 2-0 with Derek Anderson starting.
Atlanta 20, Arizona 13
Baltimore (1-0) at Cincinnati (0-1)
From the looks of things Baltimore faced their toughest defensive test on Monday Night and they passed the test (barely). Cincinnati was abused last week by New England. Baltimore doesn’t have quite the same weapons, but Anquan Boldin looks like he might actually prove me wrong (if he stays healthy). Baltimore is coming on a short week, but they’re hot right now.
Baltimore 23, Cincinnati 17
Kansas City (1-0) at Cleveland (0-1)
It’s always impressive to watch a team completely blow a game like Cleveland did in Week 1. That’s okay though. I expect the Browns to commit even more to the run this week and Jerome Harrison to steadily get more and more touches as he earns the coaches trust. Once again though, Delhomme needs to take care of the damn ball. Honestly I really don’t expect him too. This is the obligatory Browns pick.
Cleveland 20, Kansas City 10
Chicago (1-0) at Dallas (0-1)(
Well Chicago lucked out on that call last week. Based on the way the Lions fans reacted at the bar I was at I thought the Lions were blowing the Bears out. Then I saw they were losing 14-13 and realized that, well, Lions fans haven’t had a lot to look forward to lately. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that Chicago is due to struggle and Cutler will most definitely throw his fair share of picks. When you telegraph your passes against the Lions you wind up with one interception, against anybody else it’s probably three. Dallas is going to run away with this one, but Cutler will still throw his obligatory 250 yards and 2 TD’s.
Dallas 27, Chicago 14
Philadelphia (0-1) at Detroit (0-1)
Matthew Stafford being out is a big blow to this Detroit offense. Defensively…they’re still a total nightmare and it’s likely that Michael Vick is going to have a big day in relief for Kevin Kolb.
Philadelphia 31, Detroit 13
Buffalo (0-1) at Green Bay (1-0)
This has the potential to be the ugliest game of the week. Buffalo’s offensive line is an absolute mess, and the Packers abused the Eagles offensive line all game. Aaron Rodgers should settle down against Buffalo en route to a big day. We’re going to keep a running track of the quarterbacks that Green Bay hurts.
Green Bay 34, Buffalo 3
Pittsburgh (1-0) at Tennessee (1-0)
LP Field is an incredibly difficult place to play–especially for a quarterback like Dennis Dixon who is so limited in experience. Chris Johnson has a way of making the best defenses seem foolish. Vince Young is probably due for a rough day, but this is the type of defense that mobile quarterbacks tend to exploit.
Tennessee 17, Pittsburgh 10
Miami (1-0) at Minnesota (0-1)
Miami won’t have to battle any potential rain on Sunday and Brandon Marshall gets a secondary that’s banged up and ripe for the roasting. But Favre and the Vikings are far more talented then Edwards and the Bills. The Vikings should have a much easier time moving the ball on the ground this week, and we may even see a real Percy Harvin sighting. Minnesota’s tallest task is disrupting the pass with their pass rush–something they’re very good at. If Miami’s line can match up (which it likely won’t) it’ll be a long day for the Vikings secondary, but I don’t anticipate that. Still, Brad Childress held Favre on a leash last week and he’s constantly out coached.
Minnesota 27, Miami 13
Tampa Bay (1-0) at Carolina (0-1)
I guess Matt Moore’s mojo is gone, but the Giants do have a secondary capable of making an inexperienced quarterback throw a lot of picks. I expect the Panthers to be able to ground and pound with Williams and Stewart against the Buccaneers. The Browns had success moving the ball on the ground, but costly turnovers limited their scoring. I’m expecting a huge day from the Panthers running game. Josh Freeman didn’t look particularly good against Cleveland, but the Bucs have now won three of their last four games dating back to last season. They won’t be a pushover, but it’d be a major upset if Tampa Bay pulled this one out.
Carolina 21, Tampa Bay 14
Seattle (1-0) at Denver (0-1)
This actually isn’t an easy game to pick. I’m not ready to buy Seattle after the Niners laid down for them last week in a pathetic display. Denver always fights hard for McDaniels, but they still lack a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and Jacksonville proved that. The Broncos offensive line didn’t look great, but I think that McDaniels gets this team to play much better this week.
Denver 24, Seattle 21
St. Louis (0-1) at Oakland (0-1)
Well somebody is going to have to win this game…I mean I guess they could tie but I’m not anticipating it. If the Rams have better play calling this week Steven Jackson should run wild against the Raiders defense. I would also expect Darren McFadden to have a strong day against the Rams. At this point, you almost have to take Jason Campbell over Sam Bradford, but this one is going to be close. I give Oakland the edge because it’s a tough place to play for anyone, let alone a rookie quarterback. In particular, the trip out west always takes a toll on teams.
Oakland 27, St. Louis 23
New England Patriots (1-0) at New York Jets (0-1)
Call me crazy (I think I am), but I can’t see the Jets dropping their first two in the new stadium. They’re also going up against a much weaker defense in New England. If the Jets can get the running game working on Sunday they can definitely win this game. And they will finally score a touchdown.
New York Jets 17, New England Patriots 14
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0) at San Diego Chargers (0-1)
The Jaguars are definitely getting San Diego at a good time, but the Chargers are at home and Jacksonville has a long trek to make to the west coast (one of the most difficult road trips in professional sports). Norv Turner is a truly terrible head coach, but the Chargers are still talented. The big key is how the Chargers match up with Aaron Kampmann. The former Packer isn’t fully healthy, but abused the banged up Ryan Clady as well. I think Rivers roasts this secondary on the way to a narrow win.
San Diego Chargers 30, Jacksonville Jaguars 27
Houston Texans (1-0) at Washington Redskins (1-0)
I am ready to buy the Redskins. This defense is absolutely for real with or without Albert Haynesworth. They are extremely fast and well coached. Houston isn’t going to be able to run against Washington. They’re going to have to pass. The Skins catch the Texans without Brian Cushing and with Kareem Jackson in just his second game. McNabb needs to have a better day then he did in Dallas, but he faces a much worse secondary in Washington. Kubiak defeated Shanahan the last time they met in 2007, and while Shanahan has arguably a worse unit, he’s got a much better defense. My gut told me the Skins were going to win last week and I picked against them. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.
Washington 20, Houston 17
New York Giants (1-0) at Indianapolis Colts (0-1)
It’s incredibly tempting to pick the New York Giants this week in what should be an offensive assault. I’m expecting Ahmad Bradshaw to run wild against the Colts front seven. The Giants won’t be as effective getting to Manning unless they bring the blitz, and they’re a team that has often relied on using their talented line to get to the quarterback. My expectations are for New York to try and mimic Houston’s game plan from a week ago. But I can’t pick against Peyton. Not yet. The signs all say that New York should win this game, but it’s in Lucas Oil Stadium and that’s no easy place to play.
Indianapolis 34, New York Giants 27
New Orleans (1-0) at San Francisco (0-1)
Well my pre-season pick to win the NFC West (by default) gave us a dud in week one. But traveling cross country is difficult for any team and that includes the Saints. Mike Singletary isn’t going to let the team unravel like this. The scuttlebut is that the offense hates coordinator Jimmy Raye’s playcalling and his tendency to call plays from memory. Apparently he “garbles” the plays when relaying them to Alex Smith. This game is San Francisco’s biggest test. A loss and the season could begin on a downward spiral.
San Francisco 23, New Orleans 20
For the record my pre-season picks as a whole:
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
AFC West: San Diego Chargers
AFC Wildcard 1: Tennessee Titans
AFC Wildcard 2: Cleveland Browns
AFC Champion: Indianapolis Colts
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
NFC Wildcard 1: Minnesota Vikings
NFC Wildcard 2: Carolina Panthers
NFC Champion: Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl Pick: Green Bay over Indy
God I hate the AFC this year. This division’s best quarterback is out for the first four games, the guy who used to be the best quarterback (Carson Palmer) might have his arm fall off sometime in November, the best overall team in the division failed to get it’s big-armed quarterback an actual deep threat (Anquan Boldin is NOT a deep threat), and the Browns decided it was a good idea to bring in a quarterback who threw 18 interceptions in 11 games last season (and yet he’s looked the best out of all of them this pre-season).
So let’s delve into the AFC North. It’s a division that’s completely up in the air. Right now the smart money is on Baltimore, but Cincinnati can repeat this season if they survive a four game stretch without Antwan Odom.
1. Cincinnati Bengals, 10-6, 3-3, 7-5
As skeptical as I am of Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens, Cedric Benson, and this Bengals offense Palmer is fully healthy for the first time in ages. This team won’t be quite as effective running the ball as in 2009 with undrafted free agent Dennis Roland starting at right tackle, but the mauler could prove to be a steal later in the season. Defensively, there might not be a better team in the AFC outside of New York, and certainly there is not a team that is as set for the future as Cincinnati. Their defense is young, fast, and aggressive. The interior line anchored by Domata Peko and Tank Johnson is superb, and they have the great run-stuffing Pat Sims to spell them. At end, Antwan Odom and Justin Geathers compliment each other very well. Geathers is an excellent run defender who knows how to stay at home. Odom is a very physical pass rusher, but he needs to be on the field for sixteen games. Keeping linebackers Rey Mauluga and Keith Rivers healthy will also be a key in Cincinnati. The Bengals also have two of the highest potential players in the league in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Whether they ever put it all together is anyone’s guess, but the Bengals don’t necessarily need those guys to do anything other than spell their big guns. It’s extremely difficult to throw against this secondary anchored by the physical Leon Hall and the playmaking Jonathan Joseph. The Bengals biggest weakness will be throwing over the top, but Hall and Joseph are good enough corners to play in a deep cover three if the Bengals choose to. The pressure is on Marvin Lewis because Cincinnati has no more excuses.
Breakout Player: Jermaine Gresham, TE
MVP: Domata Peko, DT
2. Cleveland Browns, 9-7, 3-3, 6-6
My sleeper team in the AFC is in Cleveland. The Browns are well on their way to becoming the best team in Cleveland (sorry about that Ohio Valley natives). But honestly, this is a team with solid potential. Eric Mangini isn’t a great game-day coach, and you know that’ll cost the Browns a few games, but Mangini has always been excellent at putting together solid teams. Mike Holmgren made a few questionable moves (like bringing in Jake Delhomme), but the Browns are moving to a West Coast Offense and getting out of the Mangini-Daboll vertical attack (they didn’t have the pieces for it). But Mohammad Massaquoi should benefit big time from the transition to the West Coast attack. If Delhomme takes care of the ball this season like he did in the pre-season, the Browns will be in every game. They have easily the most underrated defense in football anchored by up and coming stud Athyba Rubin. Rubin anchored the Browns defense last year during the four game winning streak. Shaun Rogers is moving to end in the Browns 3-4 because of Rubin’s play last year. With Rogers at end, and the perennially underrated Kenyon Coleman in Mangini’s read-and-reach, the Browns defensive line has all of a sudden become a big strength. Cleveland’s starting linebackers are much better than they were a year ago with Chris Gocong kicking inside to play next to D’Qwell Jackson (when he’s fully healthy). Scott Fujita will be the team’s primary run stopping OLB (like Bryan Thomas with New York) while Matt Roth acts as the teams keynote pass rusher. Look for some noise off the bench with Marcus Benard who made life miserable for Ben Roethlisberger last December. The secondary is also outrageously deep. Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald were both solid corners, but the acquisitions of Shelden Brown and Joe Haden will push McDonald to the nickel or dime corner role. Brown will likely line up in the slot and play some safety. Haden will line up on the opposite side of the field as Wright. In the secondary the Browns have good in-the-box safeties, but will need rookie T.J. Ward to step up early if Mike Adams can’t handle free safety duties.
Offensively, the running game losing rookie Montario Hardesty is a big blow, but the Browns have the potential to be a dangerous running team and can use some Wildcat with Josh Cribbs and Chansi Stuckey. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack are two of the better linemen in the league, and the Browns may strike gold with veteran Tony Pashos who is a solid run blocking tackle. If Eric Steinbech stays healthy expect Cleveland to be able to run the ball very well in 2010.
Breakout Player: Mohammad Massaquoi, WR
MVP: Ahtyba Rubin, DT
3. Baltimore Ravens, 8-8, 3-3, 5-7
Let the upsets continue. I love Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, but I’m not sold on Baltimore. And that’s even with the great work John Harbaugh has done with this team. Baltimore failed to acquire a true deep threat for Joe Flacco and his cannon arm. Anquan Boldin doesn’t add any new dimension to the Ravens offense that wasn’t already there as he’s a YAC guy who runs with a lot of force. On the offensive line, the Ravens don’t know how long they’ll be without Jared Gaither at right tackle. And one of my favorite players in the league Michael Oher has not proven himself at left tackle in the NFL (his position this year). Defensively Baltimore better hope Terrell Suggs showing up in good shape this year means he’ll actually contribute to the pass rush. The Ravens will have no problem stopping the run with the likes of Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg anchoring that defensive line, but the secondary is in shambles. Ed Reed is starting the season on the PUP. Fabian Washington will start for Baltimore coming off a season ending ACL injury last November. He won’t be at full strength (no one ever is). Dominique Foxworth is out for the season. Lardarius Webb will struggle also coming back from an ACL tear. The Ravens safeties outside of Reed are in-the-box thumpers who can’t cover downfield, and the trade for Josh Wilson was a desperation move. The Ravens are almost there, but that secondary grades out as a failure for 2010. This team is going to be a lot like the 09 Steelers.
Breakout Player: Ed Dickson, TE
MVP: Joe Flacco, QB
4. Pittsburgh Steelers, 7-9, 3-3, 6-6
Make no mistake the Steelers have plenty of talent. Peter King picked the Steelers to win it all (not that his opinion means much) and for a while I was on the bandwagon as well…then Willie Colon went down for the season and he was replaced by Flozell Adams. Double ouch. It was already going to be an offensive line in flux with the addition of rookie Maurkice Pouncey. Now the best linemen on the team is done for the year. It’s going to hurt particularly in those first four games. I don’t think the Steelers go any better then 1-3 in those first four without Big Ben. Defensively this team is starting to age. Hampton, Farrior, and Harrison are getting ready to hit their decline years. Troy Polamalu is nearing the decline years as well, and it could be sped up by all the injuries. And sometimes, talent aside, off-season events can really hurt a team’s chances. Early distractions are never good, and the last time Roethlisberger had an off-season like this the Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Breakout Player: Mike Wallace, WR
MVP: Casey Hampton, NT
No computer for two weeks. NFL season set to begin?
Damnit. I already missed Thursday Night’s opener (for the record I had New Orleans winning that game). So let’s get right into it. Who should you be watching this season? You’re about to find out.
We’ll start with the AFC East.
This is the toughest division to predict. The only thing I’m positive about is that Buffalo will finish dead last and will be fighting for the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. New England, New York, and Miami all have severe weaknesses. New England has the best passing game hands down in the division, but one of it’s most important cogs, Wes Welker, is still not fully healthy (though he will be playing in the opener against Cincinnati). They’ve also been crushed by the injury bug early losing Nick Kazcur (the man supposed to replace Logan Mankins), Leigh Bodden (perhaps the most underrated corner in the NFL), Ty Warren (a key cog next to Wilfork), and Brandon McGowan (he was going to have a much smaller role this year though). The Jets are the hot team of the moment, but they’re relying on a quarterback who is still very inexperienced by NFL standards, an injury prone (though dominant) Kris Jenkins, and the prayer that Darrelle Revis won’t get injured after the first hit he takes in a real game situation. Then there’s Miami. Besides an offense that looked downright dreary in the pre-season, the Dolphins czar Bill Parcells has stepped down amidst rumors he is unhappy with Chad Henne’s development, a defensive line that is in disarray, and the release of Jake Grove–the man who was supposed to be the answer at center.
Oddly enough, the Bills are the team I have the least to criticize about right now, but that’s because there problems are well-documented and much more traditional then the problems that the three teams who will be battling for the AFC East crown have. All that being said…
1. New York Jets 11-5, 5-1, 8-4
Yes I’m going to buy the hype. I don’t want to, but I’m going to. The personalities aren’t a concern to me, because they love playing for Rex Ryan. He infuses some youth into this team and the players can relate to that. Logic suggests that Mark Sanchez is going to take another step this year. His weapons are better, his running game is going to be outstanding, he’s got a full year in the same offense under his belt, and he can lean on the defense as a crutch. The pressure really isn’t on Sanchez unless the Jets running game falls apart–but that’s seriously unlikely. Shonn Greene’s field vision is comparable to Thomas Jones, and his power, burst, acceleration, and straight-line speed (as well as wear and tear) are all much better than Thomas Jones. Add in the pass catching utility threat that LaDainian Tomlinson has become and New York’s running game becomes a hydra-like monster. New York has a difficult schedule, but the combination of talent, swagger, Rex Ryan motivational speeches, and Ryan’s scheme make New York a legitimate contender in an AFC that’s in the middle of a power shift. But they’re not a Super Bowl team. Yet.
Breakout Player: Shonn Greene, RB
MVP: Kris Jenkins, NT
2. New England Patriots 9-7, 4-2, 6-6
It’s going to be a frustrating season for New England fans. The injury bug has bitten New England early, and usually that’s a sign that it’s going to happen often. It’s a totally random occurrence, but when it strikes it strikes hard. New England’s already lost three starters for the season and one of their reserve safeties. With Wes Welker hobbled coming into 2010 the outlook looks much dimmer than it ever has with the combination of Brady and Belichick. That being said Brady to Moss is still one of the best QB-WR combos in the league. If Welker gets to full speed quickly it’s even more dangerous. My biggest concern is that Welker’s surgically repaired knee doesn’t hold up during the early part of the season. And obviously losing a player like Leigh Bodden also has me nervous. So with a rookie corner and a second year guy stepping in, the Patriots inexperience in the secondary could be a fantasy football players dream. New England’s pass rush is also very questionable. Banta-Cain isn’t the type of player who is going to command double teams from opposing offenses. Marques Murrell and Jermaine Cunningham will split time early in the season, but neither the career back-up Murrell nor the rookie Cunningham should inspire confidence in the Pats pass rush. With Ty Warren out for the year, Mike Wright and Ron Brace will have to battle for his job, and I can’t see either of them being as good as the very experienced Warren. Brace is more of a natural nose, Wright a journeyman. This is a team that’s going to have to rely on it’s passing game and it’s ability to stop the run late. Close games where New England has the ball last should still belong to them, but the holes on this team are rampant.
Breakout Player: Brandon Spikes, MLB
MVP: Tom Brady, QB
3. Miami Dolphins, 8-8, 3-3, 6-6
Chad Henne has the best long-term weapon in Brandon Marshall. Marshall’s going to be a Dolphin probably for the rest of his career, and will easily spend his best years with the Phins. The Dolphins are also an exceptionally well-coached team, and have always been able to overcome their flaws and post a respectable season with Tony Sparano at the helm. But I have a couple of issues that once again make Miami a team that will have to overachieve to make the playoffs. To start, the Dolphins offensive line scares me. It’s potential is outrageous, but the amount of turnover they went through is insane. There will only be two returning starters from last year’s unit. Miami’s defensive line is also in flux. Nose tackle Jason Ferguson has retired and end Philip Merling is out for the year. That means Randy Starks, signed to play end, will have to move out of position to play nose. Jared Odrick is going to be forced into the starting line-up immediately and Miami could struggle in the running game early. It’s pretty clear though that the power in this division is moving to a struggle between New York and Miami. But the Phins aren’t there yet, and if Chad Henne doesn’t take at least one step forward, Miami could be in trouble. You certainly can’t rely on Ronnie Brown. As talented as he is, Brown has failed to stay healthy for a full season four times in his five year career. And the one time he stayed healthy for a full regular season he went down with a career threatening injury in the playoffs. Add in the benching of rookie Sean Smith and a group of safeties that struggle over the top and Miami has too many holes to be a real contender. It also doesn’t help that this team has questionable starters on the edge in their 3-4. Miami’s defense could be a major sore spot this year, and Miami will have to overachieve to get to 8-8.
Breakout Player: John Jerry, OG (ROOKIE)
MVP: Karlos Dansby, ILB
4. Buffalo Bills, 1-15, 0-6, 1-11
There’s a question mark everywhere you turn and all it takes is one injury to make Buffalo a one-trick pony on offense. This is a team that overachieved last year (and that’s saying something) thanks to a ball-hawking secondary. Buffalo’s best shot at winning games is forcing turnovers, but teams are going to run it at well against a team starting rookie nose tackle Torrell Troup. On offense, C.J. Spiller is an exciting prospect, but running behind an appalling offensive line, Spiller will have to prove he deserves to be the feature back (which I don’t think he will) early in the season before Lynch and Jackson get healthy. Quarterback play is appalling with a quarterback in Trent Edwards who is essentially David Carr in the huddle. He provides zero leadership and is afraid to throw it downfield. Mark Buffalo as an early contender for Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Andrew Luck…whomever you like best.
Breakout Player: C.J. Spiller, RB
MVP: Lee Evans, WR
Cincy who i thought would win the Big East did not look very impressive in their debut against Fresno State. I’m not sure where it went wrong for Cincy last week. New coach Butch Jones who I am a big fan of did not get off to the start he wanted. Collaros struggled going 24-41 and Cincy did not run the ball effectively. They will bounce back though with Indiana State next up.
Everyone has hyped Uconn has the team to win the Big East but they got embarrassed in the season opener at Michigan. The passing game struggled under former ND qb Zach Frazier, but Jordan Todman did have over a 100 yards rushing. Uconn will bounce back but they will not win the Big East.
Trying to win in Utah with a new qb is never a easy thing, so it should not be a huge a surprise that Pitt lost, what should be a surprise is the fact that Dion Lewis only had 75 yards on 25 carries. It doesn’t get any easier for Pitt either with Miami coming to town in less than 2 weeks.
Stock Up: Syracuse, WVU.
This is the year Syracuse finally goes bowling. With three of their first four games coming against FCS opponents the schedule sets up nicely for them to start the year out 3-1 going into South Florida. Even if they finish only 6-6 at this Syracuse fans will take whatever they can get. A 29-3 victory over Akron on Saturday was a nice way for them to start the season.
OK so yes WVU defeated Coastal Carolina 31-0, I know they were expected to beat up on them, but it was the fact that the Geno Smith era went so smoothly that I have their stock up. Geno was 20-27 for two scores. If he can be efficient than that changes the way defenses will play the mountaineers because now they have to respect the passing game along with the running game.