While we are in the heart of the NBA and NHL post seasons, this is the time of year NFL fans get annoyed with. When the biggest football story on a given day can be how an ex NFL star was released from an arena football team, you know there isn’t much going on. When what a Nascar driver says something to a reporter takes precedence over everything happening in the league, you might just wish Brett Favre was coming back for another season. All kidding aside this is a slow time of year where sports talk shows have to fill the hours by speculating on what is to come.
Perhaps they should move the Pro-bowl to this time of year.Think if in mid May we had a one game exhibition featuring the best players in the league. You could invite the Superbowl winning team and have the ring ceremony right there to make it a complete weekend. Fans would watch because it is football and the best players could make it.
Instead we are left to watch OTA’s and speculate how the teams stack up heading into the new season.
1. New England Patriots- Let’s face it, they were a 13-3 team that came within one play away from winning the Superbowl. Their 2 biggest areas of need were defense and wide receivers. In free agency they went out and got nearly every veteran wide-out on the market. They improved their defense in the draft by spending their first 6 picks on that side of the ball, including 3 players taken in the top 50. They have an easy schedule because they play the NFC West and AFC South this year, along with their division, plus Denver and Baltimore. They can walk through 12 of those and at worst go 2-2 against the rest.
2. Green Bay Packers- They were the best team in the NFL last year. Sure they were one and done in the playoffs, that happens when you match up against a hot team. I believe they improved this off-season and much like the Patriots improved on the defensive side of the ball. Their division is getting to be the most difficult in the league. The Lions are a playoff team and Chicago may have been the best team in the NFC last year had Cutler and Forte not go down in consecutive weeks.
3. San Francisco 49ers- What have you done for me lately? Teams that go 13-3 in the last decade tend to win only about 8 games the following year. Did theycatch lightning in a bottle or has Harbaugh change a team’s culture back to what it was in the glory days? They should take the division handily and they should continue to be a dominate defense first team. This offense has potential to put up 30 a game and Alex Smith finally has weapons all around him. If he can stay healthy and build on what he accomplished last year watch out. If he throws as many interceptions as touchdowns, it could be a long season.
4. Baltimore Ravens- With as close as the 49ers came to the Superbowl, the Ravens were in fact even closer. With under a minute left down by 3 they had the ball in the end-zone. A defensive strip by a Patriot DB and a missed chip shot field goal later and they were left walking off the wondering what on earth just happened. They have a better shot at getting to the Superbowl than the Niners due in large part to playing in the AFC, but their defense is getting older and Flacco hasn’t shown that he can carry a team.
5. New York Giants- Some people will wonder why the defending champions are so low, yet I’m thinking this is a little high for a team that finished with the same record as the Tennessee Titans last year. The Giants were very fortunate and they could have easily finished 3rd in their division. It’s a new year and they lost some play makers and already have others facing injuries. By the end of next season someone in New York will be calling for Tom Coughlin to be fired, that’s just how this team is.
6. Houston Texans- It truly is a shame they were down to their 3rd string rookie quarterback for their first playoff appearance as a franchise. They have probably the easiest division heading into 2012, improved in the off-season, and really will benefit by being healthy. At the time Schaub was healthy they were the best team in the AFC. This is a Superbowl caliber team and arguably the most complete team when it comes to both sides of the ball.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers- The window for this team could already be shut. There is no question this defense has gotten old and it can’t cover up the mistakes made on offense anymore. They are still a good team, but they are no longer a Superbowl winning team. Todd Haley has some work to do on the offense, but does anyone think they are currently better than division foe Baltimore? Look out because the other teams are starting to creep up as well.
8. Cincinnati Bengals- This may be a little high for them, but I really have the next 7 teams close. This is a young, improving team that wins the games they are supposed to. They had the best draft by far in my mind and it should pay dividends over the next few seasons. To think if Pittsburgh starts to deteriorate and the Browns still a couple years out, this could be a 2 team race for the next few seasons.
9. Denver Broncos- I had a hard time evaluating this team. On one hand they were a playoff team with Tebow so adding Peyton Manning should put them in the Superbowl discussion, on the other they won 7 games by a touchdown or less, make that 8 if you count the postseason, and go into a season where they don’t play a team that finished below .500 till week 10 (@Carolina). Their schedule is brutal and Manning hasn’t played in the NFL since Terrell Owens. I didn’t understand trading down and taking a quarterback when you just brought in a guy to win now. I still say bringing in Manning was more of a way to get Tebow out rather than giving the organization the best chance to win. Will Bronco fans be calling for John Elway’s head if they finish with a losing record?
10. New Orleans Saints- It’s almost certain this team won’t perform up to what they did last year, but I’m not certain they are going to fall off the map. They still have Brees, for now, and they will be able to outscore most teams. They will win 10 games, which should be plenty enough to get them in the postseason, from there it is all about getting hot. Wouldn’t hurt to stay away from NFC West teams in the post-season either.
11. Chicago Bears- 2011 was a disappointing season after their run to the NFC Championship game the year prior. Last year fell apart with injuries to both Cutler and Forte. They go into this season healthy and with the addition of Brandon Marshall. As good as the Packers are, this could be the team wearing NFC North Championship gear come early January. Cutler has a lot to prove and this is the season to do it in.
12. Detroit Lions- Matthew Stafford cemented himself as a top quarterback in the league by throwing for over 5,000 yards. The defense let this team down last year. A backup quarterback should never be able to put up 45 points on you, which is exactly what happened to them in week 17. This team has drastically improved over the last couple of years, but if they are to continue they need to play 4 quarters on defense and keep Stafford upright. They also need to clean up their bad-boy act. This team is starting to turn into the Cincinnati Bengals from years prior.
13. Atlanta Falcons-Tick-tock. With all the praise that fell on Matt Ryan as a rookie that praise has turned to groans. For a quarterback who is regarded so highly, he still has yet to win a playoff game. There is no doubting his talent, but maybe people jumped the gun on the whole Matty Ice nickname. They should take over the division with how the offseason unfolded for the Saints, but if this next year isn’t it you’ll begin to wonder if this team will ever live up to the hype.
14. Philadelphia Eagles- They started off 2011 in too big of a hole and never recovered from it. The defensive front 7 was in disarray and they are hoping they solved that with the addition of Ryans. They had one of the best drafts, but this is a quarterback driven league and Michael Vick doesn’t hold up for an entire season. I believe they are the most talented team in the division, but it takes more than talent to win games.
15. San Diego Chargers- I still believe Rivers is a better quarterback than both Big Ben and Eli Manning. Sure he doesn’t have the rings, but neither did Dan Marino. I think if you were to switch the quarterbacks around Rivers would have the same number if not more rings and the others would be the ones without the hardware. How Norv Turner still has a job is beyond me, and if they don’t get to the playoffs this year there is no way they can bring him back.
16. Dallas Cowboys- According to Jerry Jones they are close to a championship caliber team. I mean they had a chance to wrap up the division in early December and found a way to blow it. They are a team fun to watch just for the fact you have no clue what’s going to happen. They can be up by 20 and dominating an opponent and blow it. They can also be the team down by double digits with less than 10 minutes and find a way to win. The secondary will be better and the offense should be impressive. Cowboy fans believe this is a team that can win it all yet they haven’t been to the NFC Championship since 1995. The only teams that haven’t been there longer are the Lions and Redskins. FYI Cowboy fans, you ran Wade Phillips out of town for going 8-8 in his final 16. In Garrett’s first season you went 8-8. Perhaps it wasn’t the coach.