Sunday, September 11, 2011

NFL 2011 - NFC Divisional Predictions and Analysis

It's back.  Another year of NFL football is among us and if Thursday night's barn-burner between the last two Super Bowl winners, the Packers and Saints, is any indication of the excitement we can expect in 2011, it's going to be a season for the ages.

Like most admiring fans of the NFL, I watched intently through the summer while the NFLPA and NFL butted heads about who should get more of the ridiculous profit pie that the NFL creates hoping that we would just have football on time this year.  As I predicted though, the season started in plenty of time for teams to make moves and get teams acclimated to playing together, albeit in an extremely truncated fashion.

But now that football is back and the first full slate of Sunday games is just hours away, it is time for yours truly, The Sports Savant, to make this season's NFL predictions for you to enjoy and hopefully follow.  The predictions will consist of each division's winners, what their record will be and how they will place in each division.  So without further adieu, here are the predictions you can count on.  We'll start with the division that is home to the 2010 Super Bowl Champs, the NFC North.

NFC NORTH 2011 Standings:

1.Packers  (12-4)
2.Lions      (9-7)
3.Bears     (8-8)
4.Vikings   (5-11)

NFC NORTH 2011 Analysis:

1. Green Bay Packers
There's no question that the Packers have what it takes to dominate this division considering that they made and won the Super Bowl in 2010 without key starting running back Ryan Grant for the entire season and elite receiving tight end, Jermichael Finley.  Both have returned to the roster in 2011 in addition to the core nucleus of QB Aaron Rodgers, WR1 Greg Jennings, WR2 Donald Driver, RB2 James Starks and WR3 Jordy Nelson to make them even stronger for a repeat title run.  Don't forget about that defense either, which is one of the best in football.  The Packers have one of the most ferocious 3-4 defenses in the NFL anchored in the middle by B.J. Raji at nose tackle, Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk playing the inside linebacker positions and shut-down pro-bowl cornerback Charles Woodson.  This team should handle division foes with ease and will only stumble a handful of times against elite competition outside of the division.

2. Detroit Lions
It may be to your astonishment that I have the Detroit Lions wrapping up the NFC NORTH in 2nd place.  Yes, THOSE Detroit Lions.  But before you dismiss them, hear this out...  With the addition of Nick Fairley, the dominating defensive tackle out of Auburn's 2010 national title team, in the 2011 NFL draft's first round, the Lions may have the best defensive line in football when posted next to reigning 2010 defensive rookie of the year, Ndamukong Suh.  They will be very difficult to gain any yards on the ground against and opposing quarterbacks will have to feel very rushed with these two behemoths chasing them down.  Offensively, they look pretty dangerous.  Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have proven that they are a duo that is to be reckoned with when Stafford is healthy and I believe this is Stafford's year to make all 16 starts considering he had never missed a game at any level before he played in the NFL.  Jahvid Best is a serviceable running back with quick moves and breakout ability and they have a pretty good back-up RB in Jerome Harrison.  They also have a nice WR2 in Nate Burleson who had a nice season in 2010 despite catching passes from Shaun Hill half of the year.  They will be up and down in 2011, but in the end, they wind up with nine wins and a tie-break for 2nd place in the division over the Chicago Bears.

3. Chicago Bears
The Bears are a real mystery this year; especially in the front office.  A big part of the Bears lack of success last year had to do with their pieced together offensive line that could never seem to play as one cohesive unit and give QB Jay Cutler the protection he needed.  They very easily lead the NFL in sacks allowed and allowing sacks is the best way to get your offense off schedule and wind up punting, which they did a lot of in 2010.  This very brief off-season, the Bears GM had a pressing need to find better talent to play offensive line if the Bears had any chance to succeed this year, so hwo does he decide to improve the line?  He cuts the Bears only pro-bowler and best offensive lineman, C Olin Kreutz and then signs no one of significance to fill in the line.  So, the Bears biggest problem last year has only gotten worse after the best guy on that unit was sent packing to save money.  It was the Bears who won this division in 2010, people forget and they somehow managed it with Jay Cutler lying on his back more than anyone in the NFL.  Speed demon WR/PR Devin Hester, talented running back Matt Forte and of course, that staunch Bears D lead once again by MLB Brian Urlacher will keep them in games and even win them a few, but in the end, I don't see this as a team that will win any more games than they lose.

4. Minnesota Vikings
This is a team that looks much better on paper than they will be on the field.  It's hard to imagine a team that has quite possibly the most dominating RB1 in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, the crafty and consistent veteran QB Donovan McNabb and lightning-fast WR1 Percy Harvin to have a five win season, but when you look at it, those guys, as good as they will be, are not enough to win games for this team with little else surrounding them.  Bernard Berrian is an average WR2, but niether he nor Harvin have the deep-ball capability that puts fear in the heart of a defense.  Look for a lot of eight-man fronts lining up opposite that Viking offense to focus on stopping Peterson.  The Viking defense looked unusually shaky last year and no major improvements to either side of the ball were made this year going into the season.  All-the-while, the Lions and Packers took strides to getting better between the draft, free-agent pickups and returning, healthy players. This is a team that simply needs more talent to compete in this tough division.

NFC SOUTH 2011 Standings:

1.Atlanta Falcons              (13-3)
2.New Orleans Saints       (12-4)
3.Tampa Bay Buccaneers  (9-7)
4.Carolina Panthers           (3-13)

NFC SOUTH 2011 Analysis:

1. Atlanta Falcons
This was the surprise elite team in 2010 and the Atlanta Falcons have shown that they are here to stay in 2011 and improve on what was an overachieving year in 2010.  The team has all the key players from last year's successful season coming back and look for signal caller, QB Matt Ryan, to step it up another level this year.  The only weakness in the Falcon offense last year was their inability to find a good 2nd WR option behind elite WR1 Roddy White.  The Falcons drafted just the man to fill the void, speedy WR2 Julio Jones.  Jones and White will be a WR duo that will be very hard to cover and when defenses are busy concentrating on the WR combo, RB1 Michael Turner and highly versatile RB2 Jason Snelling will be eating up yards on the ground.  This offense will prove next to impossible to stop, especially at home where they are almost perfect in the last two seasons.  The defense is still stout with stars DE John Abraham, DT Justin Babineaux and S Dunta Robinson returning from last year.  The Saints will give them a good fight, but the Falcons prevail as division champs once again in 2011.

2. New Orleans Saints
Having the hindsight of Thursday's game against the Green Bay Packers, the Saints appear to be exactly what I thought they would be; a high-powered, explosive offense with a defense that is still questionable against elite offenses.  The way the Saints were exposed by the Packers gave us light into just how average this defense can be at times.  QB Drew Brees will find plenty of targets and gaudy offensive statistics in true Drew Brees fashion once again in 2011.  With his greatness and a host of very good receivers to throw to every Sunday, the passing game will put up top NFl numbers again in 2011. Also, the addition of little-big man, RB3/PR Darren Sproles, the return of shifty veteran RB1 Pierre Thomas and newly drafted Heisman winner out of Alabama, RB2 Mark Ingram, the Saints will also be a top 10 team in team rushing.  This offense will just have to outscore their opponents, especially against elite competition.  It's a recipe for 2nd place in their division and though they will make the playoffs as a wild card, will face a tough playoff opponent on the road like they did in 2010 when they lost in the first round to the dreadful Seattle Seahawks.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No team in the NFL has more talent under the age of 25 than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  QB Josh Freeman is on the fast track to elite status, RB1 LeGarrett Blount wasn't even drafted last year out of college but showed the NFL what it was missing in the second half of last year by running all over the competition.  Good hands receivers WR2 Arrelious Benn and star WR1 Mike Williams will lead the way for the passing game and even TE Kellen Winslow will see his fair share of catches as the Bucs will do well on offense.  However, the only recognizable names on defense are LB Geno Hayes, pro-bowl CB1 Aqib Talib and CB2 Ronde Barber.  The rest of the defense has mediocre ability and honestly, it would seem that Ronde Barber may be past his days as a quality corner.  This team surprised everyone by winning 10 games last year, but 4 of their wins came against the inferior NFC WEST, whom they will only play one of this year(49ers).  Considering a much more difficult schedule for this relatively inexperienced team, the Buccaneers will take a small step back this year and finish with a respectable nine wins which will be good for 3rd in their division but not worthy of a playoff game.

4. Carolina Panthers
There is very little one can say that is positive about the Panthers current state of affairs.  They are being lead by their #1 overall draft pick in 2011, QB Cam Newton which is a scary and certainly unproductive season in the future.  The last few #1 overall QB's selected in the draft that were thrown to the wolves in week 1 of their rookie season didn't fair very well at all in their first year as the team's rookie starter.  One was David Carr, who would go on to set the single season record for sacks allowed, two years in a row.  Another was some guy named Peyton Manning and his team went 3-13 in his rookie campaign. Aside from the rookie, Newton, the team does have one of the game's very good RB1's in DeAngelo Williams, who missed much of last year with a foot injury and the artist formerly known as RB2 Jonathon Stewart, who all but disappeared in Williams' absence last year.  They still have the strong and reliable WR1 Steve Smith but beyond him this team has no talent depth at any other position.  It's going to be a painful year for the Panthers, who also, by the way, have the NFL's most difficult schedule based on 2010 records, but it's all a part of the rebuilding process that is going on their under first time head coach and defensive mastermind, Ron Rivera.

NFC EAST 2011 Standings

1.Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
2.Dallas Cowboys     (9-7)
3.New York Giants    (8-8)
4.Washington Redskins (6-10)

NFC EAST 2011 Analysis

1. Philadelphia Eagles
Though this isn't quite the "Dream Team" that Vince Young pronounced in the off-season, it is a team with incredible talent at almost all of the skill positions on offense and defense.  It starts with the most dynamic athlete in the NFL, QB Michael Vick, who has the pocket presence to scan the field and make precise throws and can also run with the fastest of defensive players.  Add him to a backfield that features great hands RB1 LeSean McCoy and RB2 Ronnie Brown who was newly acquired from the Miami Dolphins and you have three studs leading the offensive charge.  Vick will have a plethora of targets in the lightning fast WR1 DeSean Jackson, WR2 Jeremy Maclin and even WR3 Jason Avant and TE Brent Celek will be put into the mix on offense.  No team has more capable pass catchers than the Eagles.  The offense is stacked, but it's the defense that may be even more impressive.  Lead by superstar cornerback and former Oakland Raider, CB1 Nnamdi Asomugha who will counterpart star corners CB2 Asante Samuel and CB3/NB Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie.  Not to be forgotten is that dominating defensive line that features pass rushers DE Justin Babin, NT Cullen Jenkins and DE Trent Cole. This team will have a much better record against out-of division/conference foes than against the NFC East only because the teams are so familiar with each other and the rivalries are so intense, strange things happen in those games. The only Achilles heel of this team will be its ability to stay healthy.  I predict that either Michael Vick or another important piece of the offense may miss a couple of games because they have players that are prone to injury.  Injury will be the only thing stopping this team from achieving the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl berth.

2. Dallas Cowboys
After an abysmal season in 2010 where expectations went from a Super Bowl berth in their home stadium to wondering if this team would finish with the leagues worst record, the Cowboys look to refresh that Cowboy swagger under their first full season under Head Coach, Jason Garrett.  QB Tony Romo, who missed much of last season after a broken collarbone, is looking as sharp as he ever has.  RB1 Felix Jones who was the backup to Marion Barber last year looks like a sleeper for a real breakout season as the team's starter.  Another young standout WR2 Dez Bryant had a great rookie campaign in 2010 and also is primed to breakout in his sophomore season alongside well respected and talented WR1 Miles Austin.  With TE Jason Witten also there to catch lots of passes, this offense should have no problem moving the ball.  The defense is still anchored by All-Pro pass rusher, OLB DeMarcus Ware and should provide formidable defense last year; a real problem for the Cowboys in 2010.  Though this looks like a team that has the talent to go far, I feel like they are still a year away from putting together a solid playoff run.  This is still a team that makes too many mental mistakes at the wrong times and it will take them this year to get those issues pacthed up.  You may even see them being more dominant in the later weeks, but I feel like this team gets off to a slow start.

3. New York Giants
This is a team that has the pedigree to achieve great things on offense, but it's the defense that is highly suspect.  They still have a solid QB in Eli Manning and brilliant talent at the RB and WR positions with RB1 Ahmad Bradshaw and RB2 Brandon Jacobs and stars WR1 Hakeem Nicks and WR2 Mario Manningham.  Even Kevin Boss is a serviceable TE, but when you look at all of the pre-season injuries that they have had to major defensive parts, they will struggle to keep the opposing offense off of the field.  All-Pro DE Osi Umenyiora is unhappy with his contract and is also out for an indefinite amount of time, also premier DT Justin Tuck has injury issues.  Six defensive players on the Giants have had season ending injuries which will affect their ability to stop opposing offenses.  This is a team that will struggle to win eight games.

4. Washington Redskins
This is a team that should run the ball well behind a Mike Shanahan coached offensive line and Shanahan's patented zone run blocking scheme that has worked for decades no matter who is at running back.  The biggest problem with this team, and it's a big problem to have, is that they don't have one decent QB to start.  The entire preseason, Shanahan has mulled over which poison is least lethal, QB Rex Grossman or unproven starter QB John Beck.  For now, Shanahan has gone with Grossman, but that could change at any moment.  Free agent pick-up, RB1 Tim Hightower was a nice addition and he should pick up some nice gains on offense, but they won't be able to move the ball with either Grossman or Beck at the helm.  Pass catchers WR1 Santana Moss and TE Chris Cooley will provide some relief for the mediocre QB play, but it won't be enough to get this team out of the NFC East cellar.  On defense, they have the always incomparable, DeAngelo Hall, who set an NFL record last season with four interceptions in a single game, but he is only one of eleven guys on that field and it just won't be enough to beat anyone of significance.  I see them winning one big division game, but that will be the highlight of their season.

NFC WEST 2011 Standings

1.San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
2.St. Louis Rams         (8-8)
3.Arizona Cardinals    (7-9)
4.Seattle Seahawks     (4-12)

NFC WEST 2011 Analysis

1. San Francisco 49ers
In the land of the blind, the man with one eye rules.  This thought can very well apply to the NFC West this year which is looking to shape up as the worst division in all of football once again in 2011.  In 2011 though, I see the 49ers as being the "man with one eye" in this division.  The team has a fresh start with rookie head coach and former NFL pro QB, Jim Harbaugh which should bode well for the development of QB Alex Smith.  Smith has had an unprecedented 8 offensive coordinators in 7 years.  This is his last chance in San Fran to make a name for himself.  The addition of WR1 Braylon Edwards was a key pickup for this team that lacked in explosive passing plays in 2010.  WR2 Michael Crabtree looks to improve upon his good sophomore season last year and, of course, the beast, Frank Gore will again be in the backfield, giving this offense the opportunity to break a TD run at any time.  The defense took a hit with the loss of Aubrayo Franklin at NT and Takeo Spikes at ILB, but they have capable replacements on the D-Line and LB positions.  Aside from the losses on D, the 49ers still have the best MLB in football, Patrick Willis.  There aren't many reasons for the 49ers to win this division, but there are even fewer reasons why they should lose it.

2. St. Louis Rams
After a fine rookie season in 2010, sophomore QB Sam Bradford looks to improve on his rookie record setting season.  I expect an improvement in Bradford's play, but there is only so much he can do with the very few tools he is provided catching the ball.  WR1 Brandon Gibson is a nice deep threat, but is very one-dimensional.  WR2 Mike Sims-Walker was picked up from Jacksonville, but the Rams needed a bigger splash in free agency than a guy who has had a couple of average seasons.  Their lack of speed at the skill positions will be their biggest weakness on offense, but you can count on RB1 stud, Stephen Jackson, to create some additional offense on his own.  The defense has serviceable defensive players DE Chris Long and MLB James Laurinaitus, but the rest of the starting defense could walk in a room with their name on their shirt and you still wouldn't know who they are.

3. Arizona Cardinals
The Cards made the biggest QB splash in the off-season of any team, trading for and signing highly touted QB Kevin Kolb who was backing up Michael Vick in Philly last year.  Kolb looks like a nice fit to make a great QB/WR combo with the leagues most elite receiver, WR1 Larry Fitzgerald.  They also improved at the TE position, signing former pro-bowler Todd Heap to be an outlet for Kolb.  Aside from these three, the rest of the team has little skill or recognition.  The WR2 is a second year player that had 24 catches last year, Andre Roberts.  They lost their best running back to free agency leaving fumble-machine RB1 Beanie Wells to handle the brunt of the carries after he lost his job to Tim Hightower half-way through last season.  The defense still has All-Pro Safety Adrian Wilson, who will make throwing deep on this team difficult and they have the veteran leadership of former Steeler LB, Joey Porter.  They also have the quality play of DE Darnell Dockett giving them at least one formidable player on every level of the defense, but like the offense, once you get past those names, it's a bunch of unrecognizable players.  This team would surely finish last in almost any division if they were not in the NFC West.

4. Seattle Seahawks
There are very few things you can point to on this team that are positive.  The team lost it's veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck to the Titans and replaced him with the awful QB Tavaris Jackson.  Returning to catch passes this year is star receiver WR1 Mike Williams who had a breakout season last year, but that was catching passes from Hasselbeck. They added coveted free agent WR2 Sidney Rice to the roster, but he is already going to miss the first game with a shoulder injury.  "Beast Mode" returns this year with the powerful RB1 Marshawn Lynch, but with little happening in the passing game, defenses will surely load the box on Lynch, giving him little room to run.  The only name worth mentioning on this defense is CB1 Marcus Trufant, who is actually a very skilled player at his position, but 99 out of 100 NFL fans couldn't tell you one thing about the other 10 starters on defense.  This is a really bad team and possibly one of the worst in 2011.  A year removed from winning the division last year, the Seahawks don't have a prayer at a division repeat.

1 comment:

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