Can you really author and manage a blog, or have a regular football column and not make predictions prior to the start of each NFL season? Well, I'm not much one for preseason predictions for the simple fact that the NFL changes so frequently - not only from year to year, but also every few months each year. Tunch Ilkin said as much to maryrose in an interview here on BTSC, and it couldn't be truer.
Still, like I said, I feel I should. I prefer to make bold statements as the season goes along - like how the Broncos would miss the playoffs last year after their 5-0 start; or how Pittsburgh was Super Bowl bound after taking down Dallas in '08. Easier to be bold after seeing some things transpire on the field. One caveat though, I'm not comfortable doing so in the AFC North just yet. All I feel confident saying in the North is that it's going to be incredibly tightly contested. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore should all be extremely tough outs most weeks. All could very conceivably win 10 or more games. However, I don't think that's extremely likely because Cleveland should also be much better and not the doormat they were last season for the first two-thirds of the season.
To the other divisions:
New England (Preview for SB Nation) - In the wake of two solid but not-all-that-impressive years in '08 and '09, the Patriots have their sights set on bigger things in 2010. Tom Brady is happy after being paid, Randy Moss is in a contract year (always a good thing for fans and the team that's employing him), Welker appears to be ready to go, they have some threats at tight end for once, and after a year of not packing any punch, their defense should be better, even if only slightly. A tough schedule likely prevents them from positing a huge number in the win column, but if they will put up some points, no doubt about it, and may just be a scary team come playoff time if they can stay healthy and navigate their way through all the playoff caliber regular season tests they'll be exposed to. Projected Win Total (10)
New York Jets (Preview for SB Nation) - The first two games of the year will tell me everything about the New York Jets. They start the year with two home games at the newly renovated Meadowlands, against the Ravens in a matchup that should be outstanding thanks to all the yapping going on; then against the Patriots the following Sunday with early season positioning in the division at stake. If they start 2-0, I'll be impressed and a believer that they're a legit threat in the AFC. If they lose either, they'll be like everybody else - in a dogfight trying to get to 10 wins. And if they lose both, which I think is a possibility, they'll be in trouble. Their schedule does open up quite a bit, but those first two games are still critical in my mind. Projected Win Total (9)
Miami (Preview for SB Nation) - Solid team, but a brutal schedule makes me skeptical of their chances to make the playoffs. Here's who's on their road schedule outside of their trips to Foxboro and the Meadowlands: @ Minnesota, @ Green Bay, @ Cincinnati, @ Baltimore. They're solid enough on both sides of the ball to win 8 or 9 games, but that likely won't be enough. Projected Win Total (8)
Buffalo (Preview for SB Nation) - Not enough talent, but just enough to make them only bad, not atrocious. Projected Win Total (5)
Indianapolis (Preview for SB Nation) - All the Colts do is win regular season games. In fact, Peyton Manning and the Colts have won at least 12 games for a mind-boggling seven straight years. Is there reason to think they won't do so again? Not really. They'll get there but just barely. Projected Win Total (12)
Tennessee (Preview for SB Nation) - One of my sleeper picks to make much more noise than the media and most fans are expecting. I haven't really heard or read anybody believe much in Jeff Fisher's squad. That's not to say they're expected to be cellar dwellers, just that nobody really seems to believe they've got more than 7, 8 or at most 9 wins in them. I disagree. I think Tennessee gets to double-digit wins and maybe sneaks into the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Week 2 clash with the Steelers might have tie-breaker implications. Also worth noting is the fact that the Titans don't play the Colts until Week 13! Crazy. The two then play in Week 17 to conclude the year. I can remember instances when divisional rivals played twice in a month, but never that late in the year. Projected Win Total (10)
Houston (Preview for SB Nation) - Is this the year the Texans break through and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history? Nope. Even though Houston plays two of its first three at Reliant Staidum, their first three opponents are the Colts, @ Washington, and Dallas. If they can avoid a 1-2 or 0-3 start, they could do it, but something tells me they dig themselves a hole to start the year and wind up just a bit short once again. Projected Win Total (8)
Jacksonville (Preview for SB Nation) - Haven't seen much or spent much time thinking about the Jaguars, but I know they're still young, still have holes on both sides of the ball, but nevertheless are more dangerous than most mediocre teams. Projected Win Total (6)
San Diego (Preview for SB Nation) - Another team that people don't have much faith in heading into the new year. Understandable, of course. The Chargers were unable to make that final push towards a Super Bowl berth any of the previous four or five years, so why would they now? Their roster isn't quite as stacked after all? Well, they may not be legit SB contenders, but when you start the year against these six teams, you're going to be okay in the Win column: Kansas City, Jacksonville, Seattle, Arizona, Oakland, and St. Louis. Chargers not only get six games in the soft AFC West, they draw the equally impotent NFC West. Projected Win Total (11)
Kansas City (Preview for SB Nation) - Another team people like as a good value bet to win the division. I do believe that Coach Haley is the right guy for the job and will ultimately get that team back to the playoffs during his tenure, but they're not quite ready this year. If Matt Cassell can play better than he did a year ago, and if Jamal Charles gets enough carries to shine and stays healthy with an increased workload, then the Chiefs could be quite tough and exciting to watch. Projected Win Total (7)
Denver (Preview for SB Nation) - The addition of Jamal Williams will help the Broncos' defense in the winter months - the time of year when their soft defense has broken down in recent years. There's still work to be done revamping the roster, but Denver's good enough to hang tough in plenty of games thanks to the typically sound decision making of Kyle Orton. How they fare in close games will determine whether they're a four or five win team, or a seven or eight win team. I'm taking something in the middle: Projected Win Total (6)
Oakland (Preview for SB Nation) - The Raiders seem to be a trendy pick to improve significantly, perhaps even win the AFC West. I don't know. I suppose they have some impressive hitters on defense, but is their offensive line ready to play consistently enough for them to do enough on offense? Projected Win Total (6)
On To The individuals
I'm keeping a close eye on the following players in the AFC this year...all for different but equally compelling reasons (in my mind anyway).
- Jamal Charles, RB, Kansas City - For as amazing as Chris Johnson was last year running the football, Jamaal Charles was actually every bit as special. The difference being that Johnson toted the ball 358 times for the Titans, most in the league, while Charles only had 190 rushing attempts. Quite amazingly, Charles did not have more than six carries in any of the Chiefs' first eight games. In fact, he had a grand total of 29 carries and 150 yards through the midway point of the season. Let that sink in. 1,120 yards by season's end, yet fewer than 30 carries at the midway point of the season. Charles made the most of his increased playing time in the season's second half, accumulating 970 yards on 161 carries. Charles only rushed for 58 yards on 17 carries when Kansas City stunned Pittsburgh, but he left his mark on the game in other ways...and in a big way. Charles scored on a long kickoff return early in the game, as well as on a well designed screen pass around the goal line. Here's the real issue when trying to project Charles' 2010 season: even Chiefs fans still feel like he shouldn't be over-used, that he's too fragile, etc. etc. There's something to be said about wanting to conserve Charles, but there's the danger of not taking advantage of his amazing talents by being too cautious with him. Charles, while undeniably diminutive in stature, has amazing balance and has actually proven to be sufficiently durable during his collegiate and young professional career. I'd like to see him get 250 carries, but something tells me that won't happen.
- Owen Daniels, TE, Houston - Daniels is very smilar to Steelers TE Heath Miller - he flies slightly under the radar, doesn't get mentioned in the same sentence as Antonio Gates or Tony Gonazalez, but at the end of the day is just as important to his team's success as those high profile guys. Daniels is coming off ACL surgery after sustaining the unfortunate injury during last season. Daniels has battled admirably to get to the point where he's ready to play against the Colts in Week 1. We'll see if he can stay healthy and be a productive force in Houston's offense. The Texans are much more dangerous when Daniels is detracting attention away from both Andre Johnson and the Texans' running game.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego - Am I a fan of Rivers? No, not at all, but it's not because I think he's a petulant punk like many seem to do. I had no choice but to dislike him when he unseated Drew Brees in San Diego. Brees turned a sad Chargers team at the time into the beginning stages of their stretch of dominant years in the AFC West. Then he's tossed aside like trash. But I digress. Nobody's paying much attention to the Chargers this year - LT is gone, Vincent Jackson is out for as many as six games, it's Norv Turner's fourth year and potentially his last...translation: could get messy if the Chargers start off poorly. Bigtime quarterbacks don't let that happen though. They don't allow their teams to go into swoons that can derail a season and potentially even setback an organization for multiple years. Rivers may not have the same weapons, but he still should have enough talent around him to run a top-10 offense. If he does that and leads the Chargers back to the playoffs in a year that many thought would be disappointing, he'll have accomplished something that will help him in the second half of his career.
- James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh - James 'Deebo' Harrison didn't have a bad year in '09. 10 sacks, 16 starts, 79 tackles. An outstanding year for most. Harrison isn't 'most'. Any Isaac Redman jokes you've enjoyed this summer...many supposedly derived from some guy named Chuck Norrsis. Not really true though. Chuck Norris runs on and promotes NordicTraks. James Harrison bench presses Christy Brinkley's machine while she works out each night naked. Alright, I'll levae those jokes to y'all. Hard to match, but anyway, despite having a decent statistical season, Steeler Nation saw Harrison labor at times, especially towards the end of the year. Hopefully some of the young bucks on the roster will be able to spell Harrison from time to time so that he No. 92 can play his best football come December and January. I personally think he's going to blow up and terrorize the league again this season, much like he did in '08 en route to Defensive Player of the Year Honors. Put me on the record for at least 13 sacks and 7 turnovers (fumbles forced, recovered, INTs).
- Wes Welker, WR, New England - Again a player from a team I love to see lose. But it's hard to not like Welker...except when he's catching pass after pass underneath for first down yardage against your favorite team. It's quite remarkable that Welker led the league in receptions last year and is scheduled to make a full recovery from ACL surgery in time to start the regular season. It's impressive that Owen Daniels recovered so quickly, yet Welker didn't get injured until the second to last week of the season - roughly two months after Daniels went down. Anyway, Welker has led the league in receptions two out of the past three seasons. He had a down year in '08 when he didn't lead the league in receptions. He hauled in a meager 111 passes that year. If Welker can play close to a full schedule, be Tom Brady's bread and butter option, and help New England back to meaningful games in late January, that'd be quite impressive and a testament to just how hard the dude works.
- Nate Washington, WR, Tennessee - I think the Titans could do great things this year, I regret to admit. I'll elaborate more as the early parts of the season unfold. Anyway, guys like Nate Washington and Kenny Britt are going to have to be big this year if their goals are going to be fulfilled. We know the offensive line is solid, we know the running game will be potent with Chris Johnson and Vince Young keeping defenders honest on the edge, and we know Jeff Fisher will play a brand of football that doesn't expose his team to unnecessary risks. However, Fisher often gets too conservative with his play calling and game management. Part of that understandably stems from the limitations he's been dealing with at quarterback in recent years - a young, raw Vince Young who was disinterested in immersing himself in the playbook, and a competent but still 49 year old recovering alcoholic named Kerry Collins. Well, Young still has work to do, lots of it in fact. But he's not an ignorant young kid in the league anymore. The Titans need to open up their playbook quite a bit in '10 if they want to maximize their potential. We know Nate Washington is a capable deep threat, and with all the other weapons on Tennessee's offense - C.J., VY running the ball, Bo Scaife, and Kenny Britt - Washington should have plenty of room to work freely against single coverage. A 60 catch, 6 TD season by Washington makes the Titans offense quite scary.
- Ricky Williams, RB, Miami - Supposedly this will be the swan song in the wild and crazy career of Ricky Williams. No need to rehash here, but one statistical accomplishment of note - Williams eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark last season, the first time he'd done so since 2003. No player in NFL history has had 1,000 yard years so spread out. Williams is 1,108 yards shy of 10,000 in his career. It's a longshot he'll get there, but not much has been predictable about his career in the NFL. By the way, watch the ESPN 30 for 30 on him if you get a chance. The guy deserves to be called this or that for some of the decisions he made, but then again, think twice about what he decided to do - take time to live life on his own terms. Obviously the way he went about seeking that individuality was hard to comprehend, but I don't feel the man deserves to be ridiculed for some of the choices he made. It's hard for us as fans to understand how someone can not appreciate god given talent like that, not to mention all the ridiculous dough that comes with being an elite NFL star. Well, I don't disagree, but all of us know that each and everyone one of us on this Earth are wired a bit differently. To think that all 1,600 guys with the physical talent to play in the NFL are all wired in the same gritty, competitive, driven way that we think they should be for how much they earn - well, that's just naive to think is possible. Just like the rest of society, some NFL players may just take longer and a more round about way towards maturity and finding something that resembles inner peace and comfort with the trajectory of his or her life.
- Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore - He scares me. A lot. I wouldn't be surprised if Rice wins an MVP in the next five years. Here's to hoping the Steelers can shut him down twice this year. And if you think it was surprising that Tomlin & Co. made such a concerted effort to draft a bunch of speedy linebackers this past April, just remember how Rice torched the Steelers' defense in the running and passing game, particularly in the middle of the field, last season.
- Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets - I'll make this quick, but let's be clear about what the Jets' season comes down to: whether or not Sanchez can perform. Yes, he just needs to 'manage' things to guide New York to 8 or 9 wins, but hasn't all the talk been about the Jets being Super Bowl bound? That's what their head coach has been saying at least - Super Bowl or bust. We'll see if they can be like the '07 Giants or '02 Bucs and win it all with mediocre quarterback play. But outside of those two outliers, Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks by the name of Roethlisberger, Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning.
- Jake Delhomme, QB, Cleveland - I have two sleepers at quarterback in 2010. One is Cleveland's Jake Delhomme, the other Derek Anderson out in Arizona. This isn't an NFC post - soon perhaps - but quickly about Anderson. Yes, he kinda sucks, but I have supreme confidence in Ken Whisenhunt and what he's doing out in Arizona, as well as his ability to really elevate the play of the quarterbacks he's coaching. I thought better of it it, but I honestly almost started Anderson at St. Louis over Brady vs. the Bengals in one of my fantasy leagues. Anyway, perhaps I'm avoiding talking about Delhomme because I feel less confident talking up his surprise year. Who knows. But I do wholeheartedly believe that Delhomme will get off to a decent start and play much closer to his median career year than he did last year when he was a turnover machine. Can he stay healthy all year and keep Cleveland in the playoff hunt into late Novemeber and December? I don't know, probably not. But I wouldn't be too shocked to see Cleveland at 3-2 when they travel to Heinz Field in Week 6.
I could go on, but let's see what happens in tomorrow' action before continuing on. And I promise, after seeing Pittsburgh take on Atlanta with Dennis Dixon at the helm, how Baltimore fares against the Jets, the Bengals at New England, and if Cleveland can take down a lowly Tampa Bay team on the road, then I'll lay out my thoughts and open up a discussion about what we may be looking at in the AFC North in 2010.
Game thread to follow before kickoff. Chime in here with your AFC thoughts before the early games kickoff.