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Archive for September, 2009

Broncos’ Defense Strikes Again

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 28, 2009

Broncos Raiders Football In a lot of ways the Broncos game in Oakland today was a carbon copy of the one they played last week against Cleveland.  The Broncos played an outstanding defensive game, ran the ball very effectively, won the turnover battle, and ultimately earned a decisive victory against well, a team that should have beaten, beating the pitiful Oakland Raiders 23-3.  I’ll be the first to say that the Broncos once again benefited today from the schedule makers.  The Raiders are not even close to a contending team, so that does temper the kool aid drinking just a tad from those of us here in Broncos country.  However, a good team is supposed to take care of the bad ones, and that is what the Broncos have done so far this season.  (In fact, the opening road win against Cincinnati is suddenly looking very impressive being that the Broncos held them to just seven points).

As with the first two games, you once again need to start with the defense for the Broncos.  They got two more sacks from Elvis Dumervil, who has six so far through the first three games.  They forced three more turnovers, including two interceptions by JaMarcus Russell.  The first interception came early in the game after the Broncos failed on a fourth and goal from the one.  This pick helping swing momentum back to Denver and set up the first score, a touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall (more on him in a moment).  The second interception set up a field goal that made it 10-0.  The third turnover came on a crucial fumble recovery in the third quarter.  The Raiders had just recovered a Correll Buckhalter fumble and were driving for a score that would get them back in the game.  Darren McFadden took a toss right and was sprinting down the sideline for what looked like a score.  Suddenly, D.J. Williams came out of nowhere and leveled McFadden, knocking the ball free.  Brian Dawkins happened to be run out of bounds, but he had the presence of mind to establish both feet in bounds quickly, then pounce on the loose ball along the sideline.  Ultimately the Broncos were plus two in turnovers, and that proved to be very key in the victory.  Besides the turnovers, the Broncos also held the Raiders to just 137 total yards, including a mere 61 passing from Russell.  I don’t care who the opponent is, those defensive numbers are nothing short of terrific.  Consider that the Broncos are allowing a mere 5.3 points per game so far this season.

Offensively, a look at Kyle Orton’s numbers doesn’t indicate anything spectacular (13-23 for 157 yards and touchdown), but he once again managed the game well.  He avoided any interceptions for the third game in a row, and he added another win to his total as a starting quarterback.  He made some key throws at important times, and he continues to show good decision making abilities.  Amazingly, there was also a Brandon Marshall sighting.  The receiver who is now known for his attitude problem caught five balls for 67 yards and the team’s initial touchdown of the game.  Marshall made several good catches today, and for the first time this season actually played like he wanted to be out on the field.  He showed actual fire and it was clear watching him today that he was playing hard and playing to win.  The Broncos will need him to continue to play this way going forward.  This was critical today because Eddie Royal was held to just one catch for four yards and Brandon Stokley was nonexistent.  Ultimately though, the key for the Broncos offense is the running game, and it was again terrific today.  Correll Buckhalter rushed for 108 yards (averaging 7.7 yards per carry) and Knowshon Moreno added 90 yards and his first career touchdown.  This for Moreno despite the fact that he was questionable to even play with a groin injury.  The running game helped the Broncos get a 13 minute edge in time of possession, and that will continue to be a big key for the Broncos as their schedule toughens up in the coming weeks.

Some other observations:

– For the second straight week the Broncos offense left a lot of potential points on the board.  Besides coming up empty on the first drive after a failed fourth and goal, the Broncos twice settled for red zone field goals.  If the offense can start capitalizing on these chances, it could be scary for their opponents.  That being said, the Broncos must shore up this area and quick.

– The Denver offensive line did a great job once again.  The line held Oakland without a sack in addition to leading the way for the rushing attack.

– Jabar Gaffney has quietly been a good acquisition for the Broncos, catching four more passes today for 39 yards.

– I knew the game was being blacked out in Oakland due to a non sellout, but I didn’t expect the sea of empty green seats in the Oakland Alameda Coliseum.  Granted the Raiders haven’t exactly given their fans much of a product to watch, but at this rate it will interesting to see how long the East Bay can even support the Raiders at all.

– JaMarcus Russell is a huge disappointment.  Check that, disappointment isn’t a strong enough word, how about awful.  Right now he’s not even close to being a starting caliber quarterback.  The only reason he is still starting is because the Raiders aren’t about to go to Bruce Gradkowski.

– The schedule definitely gets tougher for the Broncos next week as they host Dallas.  That begins a stretch of five games that will tell us a lot more about this Broncos team.  Until then, they are 3-0, and that is the stat that matters at the moment.

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Broncos-Raiders Preview & Week 3 Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 25, 2009

It seems strange after the tumultuous offseason the Broncos have had, but they have a very legitimate shot to start the season 3-0.  Granted, this is largely because they are benefiting from a very friendly start to the season schedule wise, but nevertheless the Broncos so far have taken advantage of that.  Besides, I still maintain the week one win against Cincinnati was not a gimmie (more on the Bengals in my picks below).  Sunday at Oakland is another winnable game the Broncos need to take advantage of because the schedule gets a lot tougher very soon.

In recent years the Broncos have played very well in the Black Hole (let’s be honest here, who hasn’t).  Denver has won five of its past six meetings in Oakland, and overall the Broncos have won 9 of their past 12 games against the Raiders.  While the fans in Oakland certainly try to give the Raiders an intimidating home environment, this has simply not been the case.  In fact, things have gotten so bad in the East Bay that the game will be blacked out locally due to a non-sellout.  The Raiders are so desperate to sell tickets they are offering a free $100 gift card to a local grocery store with the purchase of two tickets.  That lack of support never inspires much confidence in the home team, but really it is more a reflection of the Raiders’ futility.  Oakland is the only team in the NFL to have a losing record in each of the past six seasons, and they appear to be on track to make it seven in a row.

Now, getting to the matchup, I am still trying to figure out how the Raiders managed to win in Kansas City last week.  JaMarcus Russell was awful, throwing for less than 150 yards, and managing to miss a number of open receivers in the process.  The running game was non existent, as both Darren McFadden and Michael Bush were held to less than 50 yards rushing.  No receiver caught more than two passes, and the leading receiver from a year ago, tight end Zach Miller, was held without a catch.  The Raiders have talent, but they are very young at every position offensively, especially wide receiver, where two rookies start: Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy.  Strangely enough, Murphy has been by far the more impressive of the two in the first two games, despite being selected three rounds later than Heyward-Bey in April’s draft.  While the Raiders have under achieved so far this year for their talent, the fact is the talent is there and can beat you if you’re not careful.  Defensively, the Raiders have been very good, especially last week, in getting pressure on the quarterback.  The impact of Richard Seymour, acquired in trade from the Patriots right before week one, has been huge.  His presence has opened up everything for the defense.  The secondary has also been outstanding, with Michael Huff intercepting three passes already.  I also maintain that Nnamdi Asomugha is the best cornerback in the NFL.

The Broncos haven’t been spectacular offensively, but they have gotten the job done.  Kyle Orton has yet to throw a pick in two games, living up to his reputation as a quarterback who doesn’t make costly mistakes.  Orton hasn’t been flashy, but he has made the throws he has needed to make.  The Broncos do need more from Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.  Marshall has seven catches through two games but has not even been close to his old self.  He was on the sideline for long stretches against Cleveland, and in the long run the Broncos are going to need him.  Royal has also been shut down the first two games while being bothered with an ankle injury.  He is expected to be healthy against the Raiders, but could end up drawing a bad matchup in Asomugha.  In this game, it will be critical once again for Brandon Stokley and Jabar Gaffney to step up, as both did with big games against the Browns.  The biggest key for the Broncos though is they need to run the football.  Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno split carries against Cleveland, and I would expect the same against Oakland.  Both were productive last week and will need to be against the Raiders to stay out of third and long, where the Raiders defense has freely blitzed opposing QBs so far.  Defensively, the Broncos have been nothing short of outstanding, allowing just 13 points in their first two games.  The Broncos also rank second in the NFL in turnover ratio at plus four.  If they can get pressure on Russell and slow down the Raiders’ running game, I definitely like their chances to keep that trend going at least for another week.

In the end I expect this to be just like the first two Broncos’ games: another low scoring defensive battle.  Both defenses have been very good in the first two weeks, while both offenses have moved the ball at times but not with any real consistency.  I think turnovers almost always decide games like this, and I expect the Broncos defense to be able to come up with one before Oakland’s will.  I think the Broncos will be able to run the ball just well enough, and I think their defense will be able to slow down Oakland’s speed.

The Pick: Broncos 20 Raiders 10

Now, the rest of the week three picks:

Last week: 10-6 Season: 23-9

– Bills over Saints: UPSET ALERT.  I know Drew Brees has been awesome the first two games.  I also know this will be in the wind in Buffalo.  I still think the Bills will be a player in December.  I like them at home in the upset.

– Chargers over Dolphins: This actually seems pretty shaky considering Tomlinson and Merriman are both banged up, but I think Rivers and Sproles will make enough plays at home.  Miami is quickly finding reality after last season’s surprise run.

– Patriots over Falcons: I went back and forth on this one for several minutes.  Something doesn’t seem right with the Patriots, while Atlanta has been very impressive.  This is the first road game for the Falcons however, and I think New England figures out a way to not lose two in a row.  Either way this should be a great game.

– Titans over Jets: The thought of Tennessee at 0-3 is nothing short of ridiculous, and thus I can’t pick anything else here.  The Titans are hopping mad after letting one slip away at home. and I sense a letdown for the Jets after their huge win over New England.

– Bengals over Steelers: UPSET ALERT.  Pittsburgh is without Troy Polamalu.  Besides that, the Bengals offense looked scary good in Green Bay while the Steelers have been unable to run the ball in either of their first two games.  Paul Brown Stadium will be rocking.  I like Cincinnati in the stunner.

– Ravens over Browns:  Baltimore by a lot.  Let’s move on to a more competitive game.

– Texans over Jaguars: Houston made a statement last week in Tennessee.  If Matt Schaub is throwing like that Sunday, Jacksonville is in real trouble.  The Jags should score some points with Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way, but I like the Texans at home.

– Eagles over Chiefs: Even if Kevin Kolb is starting for Philly, the Eagles won’t have any trouble outscoring the Chiefs in this one.  The Kansas City offense looked very lost with Matt Cassel last week, and it won’t get any better against the Eagles.

– Giants over Buccaneers: Byron Leftwich has actually looked good the first two games for Tampa, but the defense is awful.  Eli Manning and company keep proving they  should be no brainer playoff pick for everyone.  The Giants should win easily here even on the road.

– Bears over Seahawks: No Matt Hasselbeck, no chance for Seattle.  The Bears made a statement last week and should be able to do enough to get a road win here.  Expect a big game from Matt Forte.

– Lions over Redskins: UPSET ALERT.  The game will be blacked out in Detroit (more than 10,000 seats are still available), but I think the Redskins looked awful last week and only won because they were playing the much worse Rams.  This time, the Lions do just enough and finally remember what winning a game feels like.

– Packers over Rams: Speaking of the Rams, being at home isn’t going to help them much.  The Packers are fuming after losing one at home last week. Aaron Rodgers will have a field day here.  Start every Packer you have in fantasy this week.

– Vikings over 49ers: San Francisco is nice story at 2-0, but they aren’t going to get it done in the Metrodome.  Should be fun to watch with Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, but in the end the Vikings defense is just stronger.

– Colts over Cardinals: This should be a very entertaining Sunday night game.  Kurt Warner proved last week he can still sling it, but in the end it is difficult to pick against Peyton Manning in a game like this.  The Colts have proven that it doesn’t matter who is hurt, and they will once again figure out how to pull out a squeaker.

– Cowboys over Panthers: Dallas gets another prime time showcase for the glitzy new stadium, this time on Monday night.  This time I think the Cowboys win in their new house.  The Jake Delhomme watch is still on in the Carolinas.

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Is the D Back in Denver?

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 21, 2009

Watch highlights of the Broncos-Browns game here.  (Content courtesy nfl.com)

20090921_010323_bronx I’ll preface the following remarks by saying that I am not booking a trip to Miami for the Super Bowl just yet.  I realize that fast starts don’t always mean season success.  The Broncos are 2-0 for the third straight year, which of course is much better than starting 0-2.  The caveat here is that the previous two seasons resulted in 7-9 and 8-8 finishes respectively with no sniff at the playoffs.  Last year’s collapse out of the division lead is still a very vivid memory, so everything is still being taken with a grain of salt.  Never mind the fact that the two victories so far have come against the two dreadful Ohio teams, the Bengals and the Browns (although I will point out the Bengals dropped 31 points on the Packers at Lambeau after the Broncos held them to just seven).  The Broncos may in any case be benefiting from their early schedule, but they are nevertheless 2-0.

Now good competition or not, the Broncos defense has been nothing short of outstanding the first two games.  They have allowed just 13 points in the two contests.  One of the biggest reasons is they are doing something they didn’t do last year: force turnovers.  Last year the Broncos were dead last in the NFL with a minus 17 turnover ratio.  Considering that stat it’s amazing they were even as good as 8-8.  This year through two games the Broncos rank second in the NFL at plus four.  Yesterday the Broncos cashed in two big fumble recoveries for an easy 10 points with a short field to work with.  The defense is being aggressive, actually getting pressure on the quarterback.  In game one they got Carson Palmer completely off his rhythm.   Yesterday the Broncos kept teeing off on Brady Quinn, getting four sacks alone from Elvis Dumervil, tying a franchise record dating back to 1990.  It’s too early yet to anoint this defense the second coming of the orange crush, but it seems very clear that this unit is much improved under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.  The secondary in particular looks like night and day from last year.  Only Champ Bailey remains back there from last year, and the additions of Brian Dawkins, Andre Goodman, and the crop of rookies is making a huge difference.  The bottom line is if the defense keeps playing like they have the first two games, the offense may not need to score much to win.

Speaking of the offense, it sounds strange to say after a 21 point victory, but they left a lot on the table yesterday.  Start with two short field goals in the red zone on drives that could have been cashed in for touchdowns.  Add in two missed field goals, and there is a lot of room for this offense to score a lot more points.  Kyle Orton had another efficient day, even if his numbers were not spectacular.   If he keeps doing that the Broncos will be just fine, for they don’t need him to be flashy.  He did hook up with Brandon Stokley and Jabar Gaffney for two huge passing plays, so the potential for the big play is there even if his arm strength isn’t that of some other quarterbacks.  In the long run though the Broncos will need more from Brandon Marshall, who was very quiet for the second straight week (and on the sideline for much of the game), and Eddie Royal, who in the first two games has yet to put numbers resembling his outstanding rookie season.  The running game looked much better with Correll Buckhalter leading the way, and Knowshon Moreno looked better, even if he’s not quite 100 percent yet after suffering a preseason injury.

The rough stretch of the schedule is yet to come for the Broncos, but so far they can be pleased to be 2-0.  Some other quick thoughts:

– Congratulations to Shannon Sharpe, who was named to the Broncos Ring of Fame yesterday (I still can’t believe he parachuted into the stadium!!).  This honor is an obvious no brainer, as should his induction to the Hall of Fame in Canton.  I still think it’s ridiculous that he wasn’t inducted to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.

– It was good to see some actual crowd noise from the fans yesterday.   Invesco Field has resembled a library the past couple seasons at times, and it has still yet to resemble the old Mile High in any way.

– You can say what you will about the way Josh McDaniels handled the offseason, but right now he is 2-0 as a head coach, and that in the end is the only stat that counts for anything.

– I think the Browns might want to think about starting at Derek Anderson at quarterback soon if they want to salvage their season.  Brady Quinn looks lost and confused way more often than he should.

– The performance of the Broncos’ special teams is not to be overlooked in this game.  They completely shut down Josh Cribbs, arguably the best kick returner in football.

– I think the Broncos have another winnable game this week, as they are at the Oakland Raiders.  The Raiders look improved from last year as well, having won in Kansas City yesterday, but if the Broncos defense continues to play well they will have a good chance to win.  A 3-0 start would be impressive heading into the rigorous stretch of their schedule (Dallas, New England, at San Diego, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh).

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Week Two Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 18, 2009

Last Week: 13-3 (.812)

Lots of good games this week.  Are a few upsets in the cards? 

– Bills over Buccaneers: It is a real shame Buffalo didn’t pull that game out last week.  The Bills had the game won until the few minutes, and that was without much production from T.O.  They’ll get well at home against a Bucs team that played hard against Dallas but is clearly in rebuilding mode. 

– Jets over Patriots: My mind tells me not to pick against Belichick and Brady.  My gut tells me that this Jets team could be much better than I ever envisioned.  The Jets will be fired up for their home opener, while New England was frankly lucky to win its opener against the Bills.  I like the Jets in a squeaker.

– Packers over Bengals: This will not be close.  Green Bay showed last week why they should be a playoff team.  Aaron Rodgers is on track for a great year and the defense looks significantly improved.  Cincinnati looks like it is once again on pace to under achieve offensively for their talent level.  Plus they took a devastating last second loss.  I like Green Bay easily here.

– Broncos over Browns: Denver may be winning ugly, but they are winning.  They should have lots of momentum after their amazing last second win in Cincy, plus this is their home opener.  Cleveland looks very shaky in every area except special teams, and Josh Cribbs can’t win games by himself.  I like the Broncos in another low scoring contest.

– Ravens 0ver Chargers: I like Baltimore in the mini upset here.  The Ravens may actually have some offense to go with their D this year, and that means I may have underestimated their ability to return to the playoffs.  San Diego looked extremely sloppy on both sides of the ball in Oakland, and that won’t fly against the Ravens, even at home.

– Steelers over Bears: This looks like it could be the game of the week on paper, but I have a feeling that the Steelers will win rather easily, even if the game is close for a half or even three quarters.  The defending champs have a proven track record of winning on the road in tough places, and the Bears will be without team leader Brian Urlacher for the year.  Jay Cutler continues to find out how tough things could be for him in the windy city.  I like Pittsburgh.

– Titans over Texans: Once again Houston has let me down when I pick them to be a surprise team, at least early in the year.  After a listless performance in the opener, I don’t like their chances to move the ball against Tennessee’s D.  The Titans nearly stole one in Pittsburgh, and they shouldn’t have much trouble winning this one at home.

– Chiefs over Raiders: I am having a hard time with this one because both teams are bad, but both played better than expected in the opener, even if neither actually won.  Matt Cassel is expected to play for Kansas City, and thus I like them in their Arrowhead opener. 

– Saints over Eagles: The game is at Lincoln Financial Field, but I like New Orleans to put points up anyway.  I also think the Eagles will have a very hard time without Donovan McNabb in there.  Whether it’s Jeff Garcia or Kevin Kolb won’t matter.  I think the Saints pull a surprise on the road.

– Redskins over Rams: St. Louis is clearly the worst team in the league.  Washington showed good effort last week against the Giants, and they’ll have no trouble breaking out in this one.  I feel sorry for you if you’re stuck watching this blowout.

– Vikings over Lions: A lot of people are going with the upset here, but I don’t see it quite yet.  I do think the Lions will be much improved by the end of the year, and they should be fired up for their home opener, but they will not be able to stop Adrian Peterson and they will not be able to run the ball against Minnesota’s defense.  It could be close, but I like the Vikings.

– Falcons over Panthers: Carolina has fallen about as quickly as any team in the NFL.  If Jake Delhomme has another bad game he could well find the bench.  The Falcons seem to have picked up where they left from their surprising season a year ago, and I don’t think they’ll have any trouble winning this one at home.

– Cardinals over Jaguars: A lot of people like Jacksonville but I don’t see it.  I don’t think the Jaguars are a good offensive team, and even though the Cardinals have an early slot east coast away game, they did finally show last year they could win on the road.  I think they’ll score enough points to avoid an 0-2 start.

– Seahawks over 49ers: This one could really go either way.  San Francisco pulled a shocker last week in Arizona, while the Seahawks shredded the awful Rams.  I think this is the type of game where a turnover or fluke play could decide it, and my gut says Seattle pulls out a squeaker.

– Cowboys over Giants: This is the first regular season game at the new Cowboys stadium.  These matchups are always close and home field generally means nothing.  In this case I think the Cowboys will be really fired up to make a statement, and I think it will be a tough environment for the G-men.  I like Dallas in what should be a great game.

– Colts over Dolphins: Indianapolis struggled offensively in its first game without Tony Dungy, while Miami looked more like the pre-2008 team than last year’s playoff contender.  I think the Monday night home field will help Miami, but in the end Peyton Manning knows how to win games like this.  I like Indy.

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Sometimes Being Lucky Counts Too

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 14, 2009

Watch the Broncos-Bengals highlights Here.  (Content courtesy of nfl.com)

StokleyI have to admit right up front, I thought the Broncos had lost the game with 27 seconds remaining.  There didn’t seem to be much hope that they would get a quick drive going, even just to get into field goal range, considering they were starting on their own 13 yard line.  Granted, they were only down one, and a field goal would win it, but even that seemed like a very tall order indeed.  After all, the offense only had six points.  Kyle Orton had barely thrown for 150 yards.  The running backs collectively had less than 60 yards.  The Bengals were sure to play a defense that would guard against sideline throws and the big play.  The Broncos only had one timeout.  There just didn’t seem to be anything at all that would indicate the Broncos were about to snatch a road win to open the season.  In fact my thought was how unfortunate it was that a great effort by the new look Broncos defense was about to fall by the wayside because the offense couldn’t score a touchdown.

These thoughts were not alleviated on the first play of the drive when for a split second I thought that Orton’s pass had been picked off by Jonathan Joseph.  Fortunately for the Broncos, Joseph’s foot was out of bounds.  Still, this did not inspire any confidence, for it was now clear that the Broncos would need every ounce of luck and then some to pull this one out.  The crowd at Paul Brown Stadium could sense it too, that the Bengals were about to escape with a hard fought win in a low scoring game.

Then came the inevitable deep throw by Orton.  The Broncos had no other options, they had to throw it deep and hope that somehow one of their receivers would come down with it.  Orton’s pass perhaps not surprisingly  found an area with more white Bengals jerseys than blue Broncos jerseys.  In an effort to intercept the pass, Cincinnati’s Leon Hall tipped it up in the air (a big no no for a defensive back, you ALWAYS knock the ball down!).  As the ball twirled in the air, the odds were still against a Bronco coming down with it.  Even if he did, the clock was ticking, and the Broncos would still need another play or two to get into realistic field goal range.   Suddenly, the ball somehow falls into the waiting arms of Brandon Stokley, who somehow is not surrounded by any Bengals.  Next thing anyone knows, he’s taking off running and no one is chasing him.  I ceased to believe what my eyes said I was seeing, for Stokley ran untouched to the goal line, then had the presence of mind to take more time off the clock by running alongside it, before crossing it to give the Broncos the lead.

Needless to say, this play will likely be the highlight of the year for the Denver Broncos no matter what else happens in 2009.  To win the game on an 87-yard touchdown in the final seconds when all seemed lost, well that automatically goes in the archives for any team.  This is the type of win that could really boost the Broncos going forward.  Considering the Broncos host Cleveland next week and then travel to Oakland, they could well start the season 3-0 before they head into the rigorous part of their schedule.  For the Bengals, this could have a devastating impact on their season, for they will have to quickly overcome the shock of such a defeat.  It doesn’t help them that they must go to Lambeau Field to play the impressive looking Packers next week.

This is not to say that one game makes the season for either Denver or Cincinnati.  The Broncos still have a lot of questions.  Will Brandon Marshall be an impact player this year? (He had four catches for 27 yards in the opener).   Will Knowshon Moreno post better numbers than the 19 yards he got yesterday?  Is the lack of point production a sign of things to come under the Kyle Orton led offense, or do we give him the benefit of the doubt that his finger is not yet fully healed?  Is yesterday’s performance by the Denver defense an indicator that the Broncos unit is much improved, or was yesterday a poor performance by the Cincinnati offense?  (The Bengals did have seven dropped balls yesterday).  Lots of questions still remain in week one, but at least for now there is optimism again in Broncos country.  If nothing else, yesterday’s amazing play by Stokley will go down as one for the ages in Broncos’ history.

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Season and Week One

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 13, 2009

As promised, here are my official picks for the season (I know it’s right to the wire, but I did pick the opening game Thursday on Twitter so there is no cheating!)

AFC:

Division champs:

East: New England

North: Pittsburgh

South: Houston

West: San Diego

Wild Cards: Indianapolis, Buffalo

AFC Championship: New England over San Diego

NFC:

Division Champions:

East: Philadelphia

North: Minnesota

South: Atlanta

West: Seattle

Wild Cards: Green Bay, Arizona

NFC Championship: Minnesota over Atlanta

Super Bowl Pick: Minnesota over New England

Now, on to quickie week one selections:

– Ravens over Chiefs: Kansas City doesn’t know who will be at QB.  The Ravens have their usual nasty defense.  This will not be close.

– Cowboys over Buccaneers: Dallas needs to have a fast start.  They’ll get this one against a team in clear rebuilding mode.

– Saints over Lions: New Orleans offense will outscore Detroit in the Superdome, but Lions should win a game this year at some point.

– Colts over Jaguars: Peyton Manning and company show they are still a good team under Coach Dungy.

– Texans over Jets: Houston will be a surprise team this year.  They get started on the right foot at home.  It will be interesting to see how Mark Sanchez plays in a real game.

– Bengals over Broncos: Denver has uncertainty with injuries and personnel.  The Bengals have the look of an improved team in 2009.

– Vikings over Browns: Even if Favre doesn’t play well, Minnesota still has Adrian Peterson and defense.  Cleveland doesn’t have much to compete here even at home.

– Eagles over Panthers: Philly has high expectations.  I like them on the road, even though the Panthers will make this one of the better games of the weekend.

– Falcons over Dolphins: Surprise playoff teams from last year collide.  I like Atlanta on their home field in this one.

– Seahawks over Rams: Seattle will have a bounce back year now that half the team isn’t injured.  Rams don’t have much going for them heading into the season.

– Giants over Redskins: These games are always close.  I’ll take the home team here because of running and defense.

– Cardinals over 49ers: Arizona wants to show last year was not a fluke, and they are very tough to beat at home.

– Packers over Bears: One of the oldest rivalries in sports.  I like Green Bay to be a playoff team, and they will show why.

– Patriots over Bills: Buffalo will be improved with T.O., but New England has Brady back.

– Chargers over Raiders: Home field won’t mean much for the league’s official soap opera in this one.  Chargers roll.

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NFC West Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 8, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks endured a very significant collapse a year ago.  They went from a perennial division championship team to a 4-12 also ran in the blink of an eye.  Definitely not what Mike Holmgren envisioned in his final season as head coach in Seattle.  It started from a get-go with a 34-10 loss in Buffalo, and before the Seahawks knew it they were out of the race.  Injuries had as much to do with this as anything, but the poor record seemed to give the team the excuse it needed to retool just a bit.  Jim Mora, Jr. takes over as head coach, and all he did his first season in Atlanta was lead the Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004.  The Seahawks are healthy, and with the additions they made are back in position to reclaim the NFC West.

Start with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.  Hasselbeck suffered a bulging disc in his back last year, and thus the Seahawks suffered perhaps the second most crippling injury blow in the league after Tom Brady.  Hasselbeck is a no brainer Pro Bowl talent, and with all due respect to Seneca Wallace, the Seahawks will be significantly upgraded this year with a healthy Hasselbeck.  I don’t believe Hasselbeck gets the due he should, for he should abosolutely be in the discussion of top QBs around the league.  His numbers speak for themselves throughout his career.  The Seahawks also made a major free agent impact with the pickup of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who escapes the jail that has been Cincinnati.  Houshmandzadeh no longer has to play in the shadow of Chad Ochocinco, and will be the clear featured receiver in Seattle.  Houshmandzadeh should be more at home in the northwest (he played college ball at Oregon State), but the fact that he is the number one guy will be a huge relief for him as well.  I believe he is in line for a huge year, and his presence will mean a big year for Hasselbeck as well.  The Seahawks also have receiving depth with veterans Nate Burleson and Deion Branch.  Tight end John Carlson also provides a good option in the passing game, plus he is a very good blocker.  The key for Seattle could well be the running game, for they will need i to be successful in order to draw attention from the passing attack.  It will be interesting to see how Mora and his staff divide carries between Julius Jones and new addition Edgerrin James, who was released by Arizona.  Jones and James are both guys who are used to being the primary back, and both are going to want their share of carries.  If they can co-exist, both are talented and capable of keeping a defense off balance.   I think with the right motivation, both will at least act like they are happy for a time, and if both are effective it will really make a difference for the Seahawks.  The offensive line features left tackle Walter Jones, who has been to multiple Pro Bowls but is also coming off knee surgery.  The Seahawks were decimated by injuries along the line last ear, so they expect improvement based on the simple fact everyone is now healthy.

The Seahawks’ defensive line was really pushed around a year ago, so they addressed that area by signing a pair of 300-pound defensive tackles in free agency, Colin Cole from Green Bay and Cory Redding from Detroit.  The Seahawks feel that if those two can tie up linemen, it will create more pass rushing and palymaking opportunities.  End Patrick Kerney was yet another Seahawk to be hit with injury last year, but now is healthy, and he is one of the more underrated pass rushers in the league.  Seattle will have a new look at linebacker, after they traded Julian Peterson, the team’s lone Pro Bowl representative, to Detroit.  To replace him, they used the fourth overall pick in the draft to tab Aaron Curry from Wake Forest.  He has looked great in preseason and should make an immediate impact.  He will be joined by the athletic Lofa Tatupu and hard hitting LeRoy Hill, who the Seahawks thought enough of to use their franchise tag on him.  The biggest question marks are in the secondary, but Seattle does have Marcus Trufant and they brought back Ken Lucas in April.

The Seahawks appear ready to turn the kicker position over to Brandon Coutu, who was on the roster all of last year even though the Seahawks had Olindo Mare.  Jon Ryan will handle the punting duties, and he has a very strong leg.  Nate Burleson and Josh Wilson should also be effective returning kicks.

I expect a big rebound year for the Seahawks.  They were so riddled with injury last year that they had very little chance of being competitive.  This year with everyone healthy they are in position to make a run.  Remember, this division was won with a 9-7 record last year.  I like the Seahawks to reassume the top position.

2. Arizona Cardinals – Arizona has accomplished something that almost no one thought possible: they have defined themselves as a threat in the NFL.  This is a team that has had potential for break out for several years, and last year they were finally able to break through, winning the division with a 9-7 record.  Then, they managed to write off everyone who said that was a fluke by running through the playoffs, beating Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia.  The Cardinals then came very close to stunning Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.  Make no mistake about it, Arizona is a real player in the NFL.  Can they get back to the Super Bowl?  History says that will be tough, but the Cardinals should be able to contend for a playoff spot once again.

It’s hard to believe that Kurt Warner is 38, but he is still one of the most effective quarterbacks in the NFL.  Warner has had a renaissance in Arizona, after he struggled with the Giants and then was a backup to Matt Leinart with the Cardinals.  Leinart is still viewed as the quarterback of the future, but this is definitely Warner’s team.  The Cardinals told him as much when they signed him to an extension in the offseason.  Warner is extremely accurate and probably reads defenses better than anyone else in the league. Even though he is not mobile, he is surprisingly adept at avoiding the sack because of his ability to find the open receiver so quickly.  Not only that but he might have the best set of wideouts in all of football at his disposal.  Larry Fitzgerald has an ability to catch any ball at any time, open or not.  Sometimes he can outleap anyone and snag a ball even when double covered.  Anquan Boldin is also an outstanding route running and deep threat.  He has expressed unahappiness about his contract, so it will be interesting to see how that affects his performance.  Steve Breaston is also a very good option at third receiver.  He would be a sure starter on most teams, but his ability to play the slot alongside Fitzgerald and Boldin makes the Cardinals’ offense very difficult to slow down for any secondary.  The Cardinals took a risk in the running game by allowing Edgerrin James to leave for Seattle.  This is largely because they spent their first round pick on Ohio State running back Beanie Wells.  Wells has an intriguing combination of size and speed, and the Cardinals are hoping he can be the starter from the word go.  Otherwise, the ground attack will be in the hands of Tim Hightower, who is good but not spectacular.  The offensive line is a cohesive unit that plays well together, and returns intact from a year ago.

The defensive line is an enigma at this point, for the group did a great job stuffing the run in the playoffs, but played poorly down the stretch of the regular season.  They also were unable to generate a pass rush on Ben Roethlisberger when it mattered in the Super Bowl.  Darnell Dockett is their best pass rusher, and Arizona will be highly dependent on him to lead the charge to the quarterback.  Bertrand Berry is very capable as well on the other side when he is on his game.  The linebackers are very average and aging, led by Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor.  The strength of the team lies in the secondary, which is one of the best in the NFL.  Cornerback Bryant McFadden comes over from the Steelers, and joins Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form an effective unit.  Safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle are hard hitting and would each start for any team easy.

Kicker Neil Rackers is extremely effective and accurate in the clutch, plus punter Ben Graham is solid so there are no worries there.  The return game is a question mark with the loss of J.J. Arrington, but Breaston might be able to get a shot if the Cardinals are willing to risk minimizing his effectiveness at receiver.

Arizona is battling history in the sense that losers of the Super Bowl tend to have down seasons the next year.  The Cardinals appear to have the talent to buck that trend, but they still need to show they can consistently win on the road.  A hunch says they lose a close division race to Seattle but that they will find themselves in the wild card hunt.

3. San Francisco 49ers – It has been a long time since the 49ers have resembled anything close to the glory days of the 80s.  Last year was more of the same as the team stumbled to seven losses in their first nine games, resulting in the firing of Coach Mike Nolan.  The good news for Niners fans is the team seemed to show some life under Mike Singletary when he took over.  Singletary brought a fiery new attitude to the team and the coaching staff, and San Francisco managed five wins in its last seven contests.  There is hope in San Francisco, but there is also turmoil and distraction looming over like a dark cloud.

The 49ers saw what they thought was good fortune on draft day, as the top receiver on the board fell to them at number ten.  The Niners grabbed Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech, thinking he would give them the deep threat they had been missing offensively.  Turns out they got more than the bargained for, because Crabtree remains the only unsigned draft pick as we head into week one.  Seems Mr. Crabtree thinks he should have been selected higher in the draft, and thus he wants top pick money.  He says he is prepared to sit out the season and reenter the draft next year if necessary.  The 49ers are just as stringent in their stance that Crabtree should be paid based on where he was actually selected, so we have a stalemate that’s going to continue for awhile, with San Francisco potentially in danger of losing the rights to Crabtree altogether if he follows through with his threat to sit out the year.  The absence of Crabtree would mean the 49ers would be stuck with essentially the same group of wideouts as last year.  Isaac Bruce is entering his 16th season in the NFL, and he briefly contemplated retirement in the offseason.  He can still get open, but is not near as explosive as his days with the Rams.  Josh Morgan did start to emerge in the second half of the season last year, and the second year wideout will be expected to step up in a big way if Crabtree doesn’t show.  The 49ers also signed veteran Brandon Jones from Tennessee, who will also be counted on heavily.  Tight end Vernon Davis will be asked to start living up to the potential he showed as a sixth overall pick in 2006.  Davis has been more valuable as a blocker so far, but now he will be needed in the receiving game as well.  Regardless of who is catching the ball, the 49ers know, at least at the start of the season, that Shaun Hill will be one throwing to them.  Hill is actually 7-3 as a starter, and the 49ers have tremendous confidence in him.  One reason for their second half surge last year was that Hill stepped in for J.T. O’Sullivan and seemed to inject some life into the team.  Hill is very much a journeyman, but if he continues to play well, the job will remain his.  Alex Smith has been the ultimate bust since being the top overall pick in 2005, and while the coaches desperately want to make him the starter, Hill has flat outperformed him.  Hill will have a luxury of an excellent running game with Frank Gore leading the way.  Gore has been the team’s workhorse the past few years, and there is no question he is the key to what they do.  He can run, he can catch, and he can block.  Gore has averaged well over 20 carries a game for the past three seasons, so it is scary to think where they would be without him.  The 49ers are making an effort to keep Gore fresher, so they tabbed Alabama’s Glen Coffee with their third round pick.  The idea is that Coffee can spell Gore for a few carries a game, and that way Gore should be fresher for the end of the year.  The offensive line has been horrible, allowing a staggering number of sacks the last two years, but the 49ers did sign free agent tackle Marvel Smith from the Steelers.  Smith has battled back problems, but the Niners are hopeful he can inject some stability into the group.

Defensively, the 49ers are a quietly improving group with talent.  The defensive line is anchored by pass rusher Justin Smith, who proved to be worth the money spent in free agency last season.  The 3-4 alignment the team plans to use this season should prove to be very beneficial to Smith, who will line up exclusively at right end, which plays to his pass rushing strength.  The linebackers are very talented, led by Patrick Willis, who is quietly becoming one of the game’s best players, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years.  He is joined by Takeo Spikes, who has been multiple Pro Bowls himself in his career.  The 49ers hope the 3-4 will prove to be better suited to both players.  The secondary is a mix of veterans (cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris) and youth (safeties Michael Lewis and Dashon Goldson).

The special teams is in good hands with reliable kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee.  The return game is also in very solid hands with Allen Rossum, who continues to be one of the most consistent kick returners in football.

While the 49ers do have some talent in place and a world of potential, I would feel better about them if they didn’t have the Crabtree distraction hanging over their head.  I also want to see improved play from the offensive line and secondary before I anoint them a playoff team.  Right now they are still a year away,

4. St. Louis Rams – It seems hard to believe it was 10 years ago that the Rams won the Super Bowl thanks to Kurt Warner Marshall Faulk, and the Greatest Show on Turf.  What was once one of the most feared offenses in NFL history is now arguably the worst team in the NFL.  Last year the Rams were a disaster in virtually every area, finishing 2-14.  Not surprisingly, there is a new sheriff in town in first year coach Steve Spagnuolo, who comes over from the Giants and brings a tough attitude to a team that certainly needs a little discipline.  The rebuilding is well underway, and things will be painful for another year in St. Louis.

Marc Bulger does remain the starting quarterback, and the Rams are hoping he can return to levels from a few years ago, especially his 4,000 yard season of 2006.  Bulger has not been able to stay healthy consistently, and he tends to linger in the pocket too long, leading to sacks.  He does have a good arm, and the Rams will be counting on his stability at the position.  The Rams also hope that his declining production the past few years is an aberration, not a trend.  What will make things a little tougher for Bulger is that he will throwing to a very average group of receivers.  Longtime veteran Torry Holt was let go in a cost cutting move, so the Rams will go with Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson, who comes over from Atlanta.  Tight end Randy McMichael does put up decent numbers and is a good blocker.  The key for the Rams is they are going to have to rely very heavily on their running game.  Steven Jackson is by far the best player on the team, for he has ability to run between the tackles, catch out of the backfield, and really make people miss.  The Rams did sign fullback Mike Karney from the Saints, so that is a clear indication that the running game may actually be a priority in St. Louis.  Jackson should post big numbers, and he might be able to get them into the end zone enough to help improve on the total of 2 wins from a year ago.  The offensive line is also a major bright spot for now and the future, for the Rams spent their first round pick on Baylor tackle Jason Smith.  They also signed center Jason Brown from Baltimore.  Veteran Orlando Pace was let go in another cost cutting move, but the new coaches felt that Pace’s production had dropped significantly anyway.

Despite major efforts to upgrade the defensive line the past few years, the Rams have remained bad against the run and have been equally unable to generate a pass rush.  Rookie Chris Long did have four sacks last year, but now the Rams will be counting on him to start showing his potential and justify his second overall selection a year ago.  The Rams will also need production out of Leonard Little, who had six sacks last year.  The linebackers are in the process of being retooled, but I like the second round selection of Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis in the draft.  The Rams hope that he will eventually become the leader of the defense the way he was at Ohio State.  The rest of the group is very young and there are expected to be growing pains.  The Rams have decided to basically retain the same secondary as last year, highlighted by cornerback Ron Bartell and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.

The kicking game is actually in decent hands with kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones.  Both have strong legs and are accurate.  Derek Stanley is expected to get the first crack at returning kicks and punts, but he has yet to show any consistency in that area.

The Rams are undertaking a major rebuilding effort, and the immediate future does not look good.  Many home games are not expected to sell out, resulting in local television blackouts.  I think Spagnuolo and his staff will have success eventually, but this has the look of a very rough year for the Rams.

Coming later this week: playoff and week one picks

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AFC West Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 8, 2009

Once again teams listed in predicted order of finish.

9781. San Diego Chargers – Last year’s Chargers season would be a huge disappointment by the standards of most teams.  This sounds like a very strange statement considering they won the division, won a playoff game against Peyton Manning and the Colts, and gave the Super Bowl champion Steelers a very good game in the second round of the playoffs.  However, the Chargers had gone to the AFC title game the year before, came in with a roster virtually unchanged, and were expected to take a monster leap in the standings.  However, the Chargers really stumbled out of the gate, sitting at 4-8 through 12 games.  They did manage to win their last four games to finish 8-8, and were able to back into the division title thanks to an epic collapse by Denver.  The fact that the Chargers hosted the Colts in the playoffs despite finishing 8-8 says more about the current NFL playoff system than anything else.  This year, the Chargers are clear runaway favorites in what perhaps is the worst division in football.  The question is do they have enough to beat the NFL’s elite in the playoffs?

There is no question that there is plenty of offensive talent in San Diego.  How quarterback Philip Rivers didn’t make the Pro Bowl is beyond me.  His 34 touchdown passes were a franchise record and he led the league with a 105.5 quarterback rating.  The main knock on Rivers is that two of his 2004 draft classmates, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have already won Super Bowls.  It is clear however that Rivers deserves to be mentioned among the elite of the league.  As long as he is around, the Chargers will have a good chance to be successful.  He does have a very good and very underrated group of receivers to throw to, including Vincent Jackson, who produced his first 1,000 yard season a year ago.  He lines up alongside Chris Chambers, who has thrived in the Chargers’ offense since coming over from Miami a few years ago.  The Chargers also have surprising depth in Malcolm Floyd and Legadu Naanee.  Oh, not to mention, Rivers can throw to the best tight end in football in Antonio Gates.  Gates was slowed at the beginning of last year due to a toe injury, but he did rebound toward the end of the season.  Now that he’s fully healthy this year, he should be in for a big season.  The running game is also arguably the most talented in the NFL.  LaDainian Tomlinson had a down year by his standards last year, finishing with 1,100 yards and missing the playoffs to a toe injury.  Tomlinson had his contract restructured during the offseason, so he will enter the season with a chip on his shoulder.  Tomlinson wants to prove that he is still the best back in football.  The Chargers also have Darren Sproles, who is definitely among the fastest backs in all of football.  The pairing of a healthy Tomlinson and Sproles will make the Chargers offense extremely dangerous, couples with the ability of Rivers under center.  The offensive line did have its struggles last season, but the Chargers elected not to make any changes.  This is a veteran group that knows it just needs to play to its ability.

Defensively the Chargers defense will be significantly improved from a year ago for a simple reason: the return of Shawne Merriman.  Merriman sat out most the season last year due to reconstructive knee injury, and his absence in the middle of the defense was definitely noticed in more ways than one.  Merriman is certainly one of the best linebackers in all of football, mainly because his his ability to get to the quarterback.  It does remain to be seen whether he still possesses the speed from before the knee surgery, but his leadership alone will be a tremendous boost in the locker room and on the field.  Shaun Phillips will play in the other outside linebacker spot, and he had 7.5 sacks last year.  The Chargers also used their first round pick on limnebacker Larry English of Northern Illinois.  The defensive line is anchored by veteran tackle Jamal Williams and end Luis Castillo.  Overall it is not a terrific group but it is capable of getting the job done.  The secondary has talent with cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer, and both will need to play a lot better than they did a year ago.  The Chargers’ pass defense ranked 31st a year ago, and that definitely needs to get better.

The Chargers’ special teams definitely has the talent to be the best in football.  Kicker Nate Keading is believe it or not second all-time in kicking accuracy in NFL history with an 86 percent success rate.  Punter Mike Scifers has one of the strongest legs in the NFL and he also has the accuracy to be able to pin teams inside the 20.  The return game is in amazing hands with Sproles, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

There is no question that San Diego is an overwhelming favorite to win this division.  Talent wise I think they are very capable of making a deep playoff run.  This team returns largely intact from a year ago, and more importantly they are healthy The schedule is tough (they play the AFC North and NFC East) but the Chargers have the talent to play with those teams.  The question is will they play to their talent level?  We will find out.

2. Denver Broncos – I put the Broncos at number two in this division with a couple of asterisks.  One, this is weak division and someone has to finish second, even if their record is going to end up 6-10 or 7-9.  Second, I like new coach Josh McDaniels and I think he has a good system.  I also think the Broncos could surprise some people and win more games than everyone expects.  The Broncos surprised the entire league when they fired Mike Shanahan, and they shocked the NFL even more when they traded quarterback Jay Cutler.  (I have reviewed and analyzed that deal in several previous posts – basically I think it might not end up as bad long term for Denver as everyone thinks.)  They have also had to deal with the Brandon Marshall fiasco.  All this after they blew a three game lead with three games to play last season, and missed the playoffs altogether for the third straight year.

The offense has almost been completely revamped from a year ago.  This despite the fact they finished second in the NFL in yards.  What Coach McDaniels didn’t like is that the Broncos finished 16th in points.  When McDaniels acquired quarterback Kyle Orton in the Cutler trade, he did so because he legitimately feels that Orton is better decision maker than Cutler.  While Cutler put up flashy numbers a year ago, he did throw a number of red zone interceptions.  Orton has a reputation of being a good decision maker and not turning it over.  Broncos fans are nervous after his four preseason picks, but it is preseason.  The biggest question with Orton is the finger he injured in the third preseason game against Chicago, but he says he will be ready for the opener.  The receiving game could well hinge on whether Marshall gets his act together and decides to play.  Marshall has been suspended during the preseason because of his behavior.  Marshall is unhappy because he wants to be traded.  I am convinced however that Marshall will not be traded, so it will be up to him to play or not.  I think if he gets his head on straight and plays, he will be very productive in this offense, maybe enough to get a third straight 100 catch season.  The rest of the receivers are actually very good, led by second year wideout Eddie Royal, who should be productive with or without Marshall.  There is also good veteran depth with Brandon Stokley and new addition Jabar Gaffney, who came over from the Patriots.  Tight end Tony Scheffler is also a good receiving threat.  The other tight ends, Daniel Graham and second round pick Richard Quinn, are good red zone threats and excellent blockers.  The running game should have more stability this season, after the Broncos went through nine backs last year due to injuries.  Hence why the Broncos spent their first round pick on Knowshan Moreno of Georgia.  Moreno has speed to elude tacklers, plus enough bulk to run through them.  He can also catch out the backfield and is a good blocker.  In the Broncos’ run scheme, he might win offensive rookie of the year honors.  The Broncos also added Correll Buckhalter from the Eagles in free agency for depth, and are expecting a big second season from Peyton Hillis, who emerged in the second half of last season.  The offensive line is also excellent, and returns intact from a year ago.  Young tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris should be around for a long time.

The defense was atrocious to put it mildly last season.  One of the emphases of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is about forcing turnovers, an area in which the Broncos were among the league’s worst last year.  The Broncos did spend a first round pick obtained in the Cutler deal on defensive end Robert Ayers, who will be expected to bolster the pass rush.  He will likely start week one considering the lack of pass rush from the Broncos’ ends last year.  The nose tackle is still a question mark, and it’s a big one considering Denver will play a 3-4 under Nolan.  The linebackers have talent and speed, led by veteran D.J. Williams and pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumervil, who will be transitioning from defensive end.  The secondary has been completely retooled with the exception of shutdown corner Champ Bailey, who had a down year last year by his standards.  The Broncos will need him to return to his 2005 level of 10 picks.  The rest of the secondary will be led by hard hitting safety Brian Dawkins, who came over from the Eagles.  The Broncos also signed cornerback Andre Goodman and safety Renaldo Hill from the Dolphins.

Special teams is a bit of a question mark for the Broncos.  Kicker Matt Prater tailed off toward the end of the season last year, and Broncos fans are longing for the Jason Elam days.  He does have a very strong leg, hence why the new coaches are giving him a second chance.  Punter Brett Kern must also show more consistency from a year ago.  The return game is also really up for grabs.  Eddie Royal is the Broncos’ best returner, but Denver doesn’t want to risk injury to him in the return game.  Draft choice Alphonso Smith is also a distinct possibility.

Denver is a team that could just as easily finish 4-12 as 10-6.  If Moreno is the real deal, if Marshall plays and if the defense is better, this could be a surprise playoff team.  If Orton is a big time bust, Marshall is an attitude problem all year, and the defense continues to struggle, it could be a long first year for Josh McDaniels.  Time will definitely tell on this team.

3. Kansas City Chiefs – It is a major understatement to say that Kansas City needed a complete overhaul after last season’s disastrous 2-14 campaign.  The Chiefs defense was awful, surrendering 30 or more points seven times, including a whopping 54 to an average Bills attack at home.  The offense put up its share of numbers at times, but lacked any real playmakers in the passing game outside of Gonalez.  The Chiefs will have a very different look in 2009.  Gone are head coach Herm Edwards, General Manager Carl Peterson, and a host of veteran players including Gonzalez, whose trade request was accommodated by new management.  In are new coach Todd Haley, new GM Scott Pioli (architect of the New England dynasty), and new direction.  This team is clearly rebuilding, and the question is how competitive will they be?

The new direction starts at quarterback, where the Chiefs acquired what they hope is their signal caller for a long time to come in Matt Cassel.  Cassel was outstanding filling in for the injured Tom Brady in New England last year, and the Chiefs hope that Cassel will be able to translate that same success in a new environment and a new system.  Cassel is 6-4, and does have an above average arm, and the Chiefs are confident he will be good fit.  They are so confident that they rewarded him with a lucrative raise and contract extension before he’s even taken a snap for them.  If nothing else, it is reasonable for the Chiefs to expect more stability than the trio of Tyler Thigpen, Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle gave them a year ago.  One thing Cassel won’t have however is Gonzalez, and that means he won’t have the league’s best tight end to throw to like those three had.  Dwayne Bowe is the most talented of the receivers, and he is coming off an 86-catch season.  Bowe has the talent to be star, and he will be paired with Mark Bradley, who started to emerge toward the end of last year.  The Chiefs also signed veteran Bobby Engram as a free agent for depth.  There will be a noticeable dropoff at tight end with Brad Cottam the primary candidate to fill Gonzalez’ shoes.  The running game will once again be anchored by Larry Johnson, but he hasn’t been the same running the past two years since he suffered a foot injury in 2007.  Johnson was also not really a part of the offense last year, as the Chiefs went to a spread attack.  The spread is now gone, and Johnson is part of the offensive plan again, that is if his attitude doesn’t get in the way.  Jamaal Charles is ready to step in if Johnson continues to be ineffective.  The Chiefs do have a solid guard in Brian Waters, but the rest of the line is very young and very inexperienced, save for new addition Mike Goff from San Diego.

The defense has been revamped, highlighted by a new linebacking core.  Derrick Johnson is lone retainee at the position, but the former first round pick has yet to live up to expectations.  He will be joined by savvy veteran Mike Vrabel, obtained in the Cassel deal, and Monty Beisel from Arizona.  The Chiefs signed veteran Zach Thomas in the offseason, but released him in their last round of preseason cuts.  It seems clear that Thomas will retire, but the Chiefs were hoping to be able to count on his veteran leadership.  The defensive line is clearly a work in process.  The new regime is clearly not enamored with last year’s first round pick, Glenn Dorsey.  Dorsey played nose tackle last year, but the new regime feels like he’s too small for the position, so they’re trying him at right end this year.  The Chiefs also used this year’s first round pick on defensive end Tyson Jackson, a teammate of Dorsey’s at LSU.  Tamba Hali will be also be counted on to be able to rush the passer.  The secondary is also very young after the release of veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain.  Kansas City thinks Brandon Flowers is a shutdown corner, but the numbers from last year don’t back that up.

The Chiefs’ kicking game could be the most unreliable in the NFL.  Seventh round pick Ryan Succop appears to be the guy, but he missed a short field goal in the final preseason game.  Punter Dustin Colquitt is above average, and the return game could be highlighted by sixth round pick Quentin Lawrence of McNeesse State.  It seems like a long time ago that this return unit was feared with Dante Hall back there.

Kansas City is definitely in line for a rebuilding year, but they are starting to put the pieces in place.  This is another team that we don’t really know what to expect from, but I don’t see a playoff run in the cards.  .500 could be a possibility if they get a few breaks.

9514. Oakland Raiders – This organization is the biggest joke in the NFL.  I’m just saying that because I am a Denver guy, but it is very clearly a joke.  The ironic thing is this team actually showed more life after last year’s coaching change from Lane Kiffin to Tom Cable, even winning their final two games against Houston and Tampa Bay.  However, this offseason has been another illustration that this team just doesn’t know what it’s doing.  I think it starts with owner Al Davis, who still has his fingers in everything and for whom the game has long passed him by.  During training camp Cable seems to have actually punched one of his assistants.  Cue the Days of Our Lives music in Oakland.

The Raiders offense will once again be in the hands of JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, who has still yet to show the ability that made him the top pick of the draft in 2007.  Russell has good size and ability, but he has yet to put it together consistently.  His work ethic has really been questioned.  Perhaps that’s one reason why longtime veteran Jeff Garcia was brought in to challenge him.  Then again, Garcia didn’t make the team, so Russell will be on his own when the Raiders open the season against San Diego.  He’ll have a shall we say interesting set of receivers to throw to.  Javon Walker is the top receiver on the depth chart, even though he has battled numerous injuries in the past five years and is another guy whose attitude has not been stellar.  He will be paired with no names such as Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens.  The Raiders also inexplicably spent their first round pick on Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland, even though guys like Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin were available.  Heyward-Bey does have speed, always an Al Davis favorite, but was never dominant in Maryland.  In fact, he was barely above average in college.  I think the best receiving threat on the team is actually tight end Zach Miller, who has good hands.  He may be in line for a 75 catch season by default.  The running game actually has talent with last year’s first round pick, Darren McFadden, and the capable Justin Fargas.  So far McFadden has fit right in line with the Raider tradition of flash but no substance.  McFadden must have a better second year for the Raiders to justify their investment in him, and Fargas is actually expected to be the clear starter at the beginnning of the year.  The biggest addition the Raiders made is actually fullback Lorenzo Neal, who is one of the best in the business and for some reason can’t stick with a team.  The offensive line however is a disaster area waiting to happen, with a mix of washed up veterans and busts.

The Raiders defensive line can be symbolized by their expensive pairing of tackles.  Tommie Kelly signed one of the richest deals in NFL history for the position a year ago (even though he was coming off a torn ACL), and did not even come close to justifying the contract in 2008.  His counterpart, Gerard Warren, fits right in line with the Raider ideal of high draft picks who turn out to be busts.  Warren has talent, and has played well at times in Cleveland and Denver, but has largely been ineffective.  End Derrick Burgess is a good pass rusher, but he missed 8 games last year due to injury.  The linebackers are talented, led by Thomas Howard, who is very athletic and can make plays.  He will be the leader of an otherwise young group.  The secondary does feature Nnamdi Asomugha, who in my opinion is the best cornerback in all of football.  His counterpart, Chris Johnson, will be tested early and often, and must play well to avoid rendering Asomugha ineffective.

The special teams is actually an area of strength for the Raiders.  Kicker Sebastian Janikowksi and punter Shane Lechler both have very strong legs and are very accurate.  Justin Miller and Johnnie Lee Higgins, and perhaps even Heyward-Bey, do have the speed to make an impact in the return game.

In the end these will be the same old Raiders.  They do have talent at a number of positions with a lot of potential, but discipline and organization is a huge problem here as long as Al Davis is in charge.  Expect the Raiders to once again be among the league leaders in penalties and turnovers, and that will once again be their undoing.

Coming Next: the final division preview, the NFC West

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NFC South Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 5, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish.

1. Atlanta Falcons – The turnaround that the Falcons made last season ranks right up there with Miami as one of the most stunning in NFL history.  The franchise had hit rock bottom after losing franchise centerpiece Michael Vick to the dogfighting fiasco.  The organization also had a black eye because of that.  Atlanta was bad enough in 2007 to warrant picking third overall in the draft.  Last year, despite a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach, the Falcons finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.  Ev en though they lost in the first round at Arizona, the fact Atlanta made the playoffs after the previous few seasons was nothing short of incredible.  This year, the Falcons appear to have the pieces in place to be even better.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had such an outstanding rookie season that Falcons fans forgot about Vick in a real hurry.  Many people had questioned the selection of Ryan with the third overall pick last year, but the Boston College product showed from the word go that he is more than capable of leading an NFL team.  I mean literally from the word go, because the first pass of Ryan’s career was a 62-yard touchdown.  From there Ryan hit the ground running, making excellent decisions, showing great arm strength, an ability to find multiple receivers and an ability to absorb an NFL offense very quickly.  Ryan also proved to be very durable, and the Falcons are confident that he will be even more improved with the offseason work he has put in.  Ryan’s outstanding season was coupled with one by receiver Roddy White, who had by far the best season of his four year career.  White was rewarded in the offseason with a lucrative contract extension, and he will be paired with longtime Falcon Michael Jenkins.  Atlanta only strengthened the passing game with the addition of arguably the best tight end in NFL history, tabbing Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City.  Gonzalez is certainly up there in age, but his ability as a receiver and a blocker in unparalleled among tight ends in the league.  His presence will cause all kinds of matchup problems for opposing defenses.  Atlanta also has good receiving depth with Harry Douglas and Brian Finneran.  This offense is potent enough with what we’ve talked about so far, but factor in the running game and it might be unstoppable.  Michael Turner finished second to Adrian Peterson last year in rushing, going over 200 yards in a game twice.  Not bad for someone who toiled as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego.  Turner showed without doubt that he is a bona fide starter in the league, a back who is a threat to score at any time.  With Turner leading the running game and the passing game expected to be potent again, Atlanta’s offense will be very good indeed.  Oh yeah, and the offensive line gave up just 17 sacks last year.

The defense is still a work in progress, but the Falcons do have a Pro Bowl pass rusher in John Abraham, who recorded 16.5 sacks last season.  However, he didn’t get much help on the other end from Jamaal Anderson, a 2007 first round pick who has yet to be an impact player.  Atlanta hopes that first round pick Peria Jerry of Ole Miss will help strengthen the defensive line.  The linebackers will have a new look, with longtime veteran Keith Brooking headed to Dallas and Michael Boley gone to the Giants.  The Falcons did sign Mike Peterson from Jacksonville, and the Falcons are confident he will bounce back with a good season this year in new surroundings.  2008 second round pick Curtis Lofton is also expected to make an impact.  The secondary will feature two rookies (safety William Moore of Missouri and cornerback Chris Owens of San Jose State), so it will be definitely be tested, especially early in the season.

The Falcons are set at kicker with Jason Elam, who is entering his 16th NFL season.  Last year Elam made 29 of 31 field goals, including two game winners.  (Denver has to feel very dumb for letting him leave).  Punter Michael Koenen also has a very strong leg, and proved to be an effective weapon for the Falcons in terms of dictating field position.  The return duties are expected to be handled by Jerious Norwood and Harry Douglas, both of whom are solid but not spectacular.

I don’t think there is much question the Falcons have risen to the top of this division.  They will face some stiff competition, but I think the additions they have made will put them over the top.

9072. New Orleans Saints – The Saints have to rank among the disappointments of last season.  New Orleans had everything in place for a massive breakout season, including talent on both sides of the ball.  Instead the Saints stumbled to an 8-8 finish, the very definition of mediocrity.  They battled all kinds of injuries and inconsistency.  They also turned out to be very deficient on defense.  The Saints feel the additions they have made will help.  With everyone healthy this could once again be a dangerous team.  Then again, it remains to be seen how it will all fit together.  Either way, the Saints will certainly be very exciting to watch.

The Saints may have their question marks, just like any other team in the NFL, but quarterback definitely isn’t one of them.  Drew Brees had one of the best seasons in league history last, year, throwing for over 5,000 yards and just barely missing breaking Dan Marino’s record for single-season passing yards set in 1984.  Brees put up these numbers despite missing players around due to injury most of the season.  His ability to throw downfield accurately makes him a talent, but couple that with his ability to extend plays in the pocket, and you’ve got arguably the best quarterback in all of football.  Brees will no doubt be very excited to have his receiving core back and healthy.  Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both outstanding route runners and both have an ability to make big plays down the field.  Colston was severely hampered by a thumb injury last season, although he still managed 64 catches despite missing five games and playing hobbled in several others.  He is now healthy, so defenses will not strictly be able to key on Moore.  The two together will be very dangerous, along with Devrey Henderson.  Tight end Jeremy Shockey was largely a disappointment last season since coming over from the Giants, but he was slowed down by a sports hernia and an ankle injury.  The  Saints hope being more familiar with the offense will help him be more productive this year.  The running game was also hampered by significant injuries last year to Deuce McAllister.  McAllister is now gone, having not been retained by head coach Sean Payton.  New Orleans will now rely on Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.  Thomas was a surprise last year and emerged as the primary back, and the Saints hope that he’ll be able to handle those duties again this year while they use Bush in a more complimentary role.  Thomas doesn’t possess great speed but he can run between the tackles.  Bush’s ability as every down back is still in question, so this could be a good arrangement for the Saints, particularly if they get more big plays out of Bush when he is fresh.  The offensive line returns intact after allowing an NFC low 13 sacks last year, so that is definitely not a question.

The offense is good, we know that, but the biggest problem in New Orleans last year was the defense.  The Saints made a big effort to address that by signing six free agents on that side of the ball, as well as using their first three draft picks on defensive players.  Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant return from last year (Mainly because they have big expensive contracts) so the Saints will be needing them to produce.  Paul Spicer was signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, so he could well end up being a starter at one of the ends.  Defensive tackle will continue to be a battle between holdovers Kendrick Clancy and Sedrick Ellis, and newcomer Rod Coleman, signed from the Falcons.  The Saints hope the new blood will combine with improved play from their existing linemen to create more of a pass rush and better ability to stop the run.  The Saints also actually have talent at linebacker with Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma.  the group is solid but not spectacular, and should be the same again this season.  The secondary gets a big boost with the selection of Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round of the draft.  I would be shocked if he’s not an opening day starter, being that the Saints got scorched for lots of big plays a year ago.  The Saints also boosted the secondary by raiding the Vikings for veteran safety Darren Sharper.  Sharper is a good run stuffer, a big hitter, and has a knack for being around the football.  His presence will significantly improve the secondary in New Orleans.

The Saints have tremendous confidence in kicker Garrett Hartley.  Hartley arrived in week 10 last year and made all 13 field goals, and was also perfect in extra points.  Punter Greg Pakulak also arrived in week 10 last year and possesses a very strong leg.  The return game also has few concerns with Reggie Bush a threat to score every time on punts, and the speed of Courtney Roby on kickoff returns.

New Orelans has the look of a team that could really break out.  Then again, they have had that look for several years.  They did make the NFC title game in 2006, but have been a real non-factor since.  The Saints will be in the hunt for the division, but they need to put it all together and stay healthy to end up on top.

3. Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were largely a surprise last year, finishing 12-4 and earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs.  Everything came crashing down in the divisional round though when they got blown out on their home field by Arizona, 33-13.  That defeat really soured an otherwise impressive season by Carolina, and it created a lot of question marks heading into 2009.  The Panthers didn’t make very many offseason changes, and fans are hoping that means a repeat of the 12-4 record, and not  repeat of getting hammered in the playoffs.

Many Carolina fans are scratching their heads about the five year extension signed by quarterback Jake Delhomme in the offseason.  The extension includes about $20 million in guaranteed money.  Not bad for a guy who is 34 years old, but he is coming off the worst performance of his career in the playoff loss.  Delhomme threw five picks in that game and also lost a fumble.  This is not to say that one game defines a season or a career, but he had a really bad game at a really bad time.  The Panthers have confidence in Delhomme despite that game, for they love him as a locker room leader and game manager.  He is 14-6 over his last 20 starts, so Carolina is confident Delhomme will bounce back with a good year.  He does have one of the best receivers in football to throw to in Steve Smith, and that never hurts.  Smith had over 1,400 yards receiving last year despite missing two games, and he will counted on for another big year.  Smith is such a tough matchup that most defenses can’t cover him one on one.  Muhsin Muhammad also returns for another year, and although he is getting up there in age, he still possesses the ability to be a good complimentary receiver.  The tight ends are average in Jeff King and Dante Rosario, so a lot of the onus for big plays in the passing game will be on Smith.  The running game is outstanding with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  How Williams missed the Pro Bowl with a 1,500 yard season and 20 touchdowns is beyond me (not to mention he averaged five yards a carry).  Stewart also proved to be a nice compliment, so the Panthers have two backs capable of handling a heavy workload.  Fullback Brad Hoover also is great at helping at the offensive line open up holes.  The offensive line is also in good shape, having set a team record for fewest sacks allowed last year.  The running game will certainly be key for the Panthers, and if they can get some plays from Smith mixed in, they could prove to be a difficult attack to stop.

The defensive line will be impacted one way or another by Julius Peppers.  Peppers finished with 14.5 sacks last season, and is clearly the anchor of the entire defense, but he has made it clear he wants out of Carolina.  The Panthers have essentially ignored this request, making for an interesting locker room dynamic.  No one is exactly feeling sorry for Peppers, who will make $16 million this season.  It will be interesting to see how Peppers plays this season if he is continually unhappy about being a Panther.  It will also be interesting to see how his teammates react to his unhappiness.  Perhaps this why Carolina took a defensive end, Everette Brown of Florida State, with their first pick in the draft.  The rest of the defense is solid, anchored by linebacker Jon Beason.  Nai’ll Diggs also provides an ability to make plays at the linebacker position.  Cornerback Chris Gamble had trouble with Arizona’s receivers in the playoff game last year, but he has shutdown ability, and is the leader of the Carolina secondary.  The safeties are very average and that could expose the Panther D to some big plays.

Kicker John Kasay believe it or not is an original Panther, having kicked in Carolina since the franchise’s inception in 1995.  He made 28 of 31 field goals last year so he still has ability.  Punter Jason Baker is also very solid.  The Panthers’ best kickoff returner is actually Steve Smith, but they aren’t about to use him there when he is so sorely needed at receiver.  Ryne Robinson will get the first opportunity to return kicks this year.

The Panthers are no question a talented team, but they are definitely aging.  The question marks on defense, especially the attitude of Peppers, make it difficult to see them back in the playoffs.  They will be in the hunt, but will need some breaks.

4, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – To say that the Buccaneers are a team in transition is a big understatement.  This team appeared to be in great shape last year, starting 8-4 and ready to make a playoff push.  Things derailed quickly however, as Tampa lost its final four games, including a blowout loss at home to San Diego, and a disastrous home loss to the horrible Oakland Raiders in the finale.  The Bucs missed the playoffs, and thus sweeping changes were made.  Coach Jon Gruden was fired, replaced by defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.  Several veteran players were let go, a clear sign that the team is in rebuilding mode.  Oh, and just this week offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was fired.  Jagodzinski had come over from Boston College, but didn’t even last long enough to coach a real game.  You know things are bad when a coach is fired based on the meaningless preseason.

The fact the offensive coordinator was fired tells you all you need to know abut the state of this offense heading into the season.  Quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese were both let go, meaning Tampa Bay has a lot of mediocrity at the position.  They did spend their first round pick in the draft on Josh Freeman of Kansas State, who has great size at 6-5 and 248 pounds.  Freeman has the ability to make plays with his feet but needs work on learning to throw in the pros, thus the plan is not to play him right away.  That leaves holdover Luke McCown and veteran Byron Leftwich to battle it out for the position (as of this point no starter has been announced for week one).  Leftwich played well in Pittsburgh last year filling in for Ben Roethlisberger, but it will be interesting to see how he fares if he is named the starter, for he didn’t exactly wow anyone in Jacksonville.  The receiving core sustained losses as well as veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard were not retained.  Anotnio Bryant and Michael Clayton are back, and will be depended on heavily to help the quarterback.  Bryant is actually a very underrated receiver and has Pro Bowl talent, but Clayton has largely been a disappointment after a good college career at LSU.  Kellen Winslow is a very talented tight end, but has not been able to stay healthy.  If he can, his presence could be vital for this offense.  The running game will also have a new look.  Many Bucs fans were upset the team released Warrick Dunn, but they did sign Derrick Ward from the Giants.  Ward came out of nowhere last year in New York and had an outstanding season, and he will be paired with Earnest Graham, who started to emerge as capable back last year.  The Bucs also hope Cadillac Williams will return to the field at some point this year.  Williams has battled two devastating patellar tendon injuries the past two years, but if he is his old self he could be dangerous.

Defense has long been a staple in Tampa, but that will have a new look too.  Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has been the face of the franchise for ten years, was released in a cost cutting move.  Just the fact he is not there alone means this defense will look different.  (As a side note it is equally stunning that Brooks has yet to find a new team).  Veteran linebacker Cato June was also not retained.  The front seven will rely on a lot of youth, including draft picks Roy Miller of Texas and Kyle Moore of USC.  Both are expected to start along the defensive line.  The Bucs will also rely heavily on veteran tackle Chris Hovan and linebacker Barrett Ruud to keep the young players in check.  The secondary is still anchored by cornerback Ronde Barber, who seemed to be the only one to survive the veteran purge.  Barber still tied for the club lead in interceptions last year, and is part of a good cornerback tandem with Aquib Talib.  The safeties however are very mediocre, with Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson expected to start.

Kicker Matt Bryant actually provided three game winning field goals last year, but he doesn’t have the length strength that other kickers possess.  He was just 2 for 10 from 50 yards or more last year.  Punter Josh Bidwell is solid, which is good because the Buccaneers may need him often this season.  Michael Clayton and Clifton Smith are expected to handle the return duties.

The Buccaneers are a team in disarray.  It is highly unlikely that they will compete for a playoff spot.  Especially considering the division they play in, it might be too much to ask for them to even be near .500.  It does look like it could be a rough year in Tampa Bay.

Coming next: the AFC West

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AFC South Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 2, 2009

This division offers my biggest shocker (there is always at least one).  Teams listed in order of finish.

1. Houston Texans – The Texans have not exactly experienced success since their inception in 2002.  Frankly they have not even been close to being a playoff team.  However,  I think things are about to really turn around for this team.  Last season they finished .500 for the first time, winning five of their final six games in the process, including wins over Tennessee (the AFC South champ and top playoff seed), Green Bay (at Lambeau) and Chicago in the finale, knocking the Bears out of the playoffs.  Granted, the Texans started out 0-4 and had some stumbles along the way, but this appears to be a team ready to break out.

Houston’s offense has very quietly become one of the scariest units in the league.  I would say the offense was already playoff quality at the end of the season, and is only bound to be better this year.  Quarterback Matt Schaub is very underrated as a game manager, and he has shown continual improvement.  Schaub is no slouch either when it comes to arm strength, and it doesn’t hurt that he has some terrific receivers to help him stretch the field.  Schaub’s biggest issue has been an ability to stay healthy, but when he’s been in there he has posted very good numbers.  That concern was not eased for Texans fans this week when Schaub hurt his ankle against the Vikings.  Schaub says there is nothing to worry about for the opener, but his health is key for success in Houston.  If he is healthy, I am predicting a Pro Bowl year for Schaub, because I think he is very good and so is the talent around him.  Wide receiver Andre Johnson is a no doubt top 3 wide receiver in the league.  Johnson led the league with 115 catches last year and a lot of them were of the spectacular variety.  Paired with the quietly successful Kevin Walter on the other side, the Texans have a pair of 6-3 targets for Schaub to throw to.  Factor in third receiver Andre Davis, as well as David Anderson, and Houston has depth at the position.  Tight end Owen Daniels is also coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and he has great ability as a receiver as well as a blocker in the running game.  Speaking of which, the Texans really found a gem at running back last year in Steve Slaton.  All Slaton did in his rookie season was post over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns.  He can run, catch, block, you name it.  Ryan Moats and Chris Brown will be called upon to keep Slaton fresh during the season.  Houston’s offensive line is young, but the players seem to be adapting well to the zone blocking scheme installed by Alex Gibbs, a system that Denver has used like clockwork for the past 15 years.  The key is keeping Schaub healthy, but if he is the Texans offense will put up monster numbers all year.

The defense has continued to get better in recent seasons, and the Texans hope that the final pieces are now in place.  Houston bolstered the defensive line with the additions of end Antonio Smith from Arizona, and tackle Shaun Cody from the Lions.  They will join an already capable group of tackles in Travis Johnson and Amobi Okoye.  The idea is to rotate linemen and keep them fresh, and Houston now has the depth to be able to do that.  Oh, and the Texans also have Mario Williams lining up at the other defensive end.  Coach Gary Kubiak and his staff were roundly criticized in 2006 when they passed on Reggie Bush with the first pick in the draft to take Williams.  Williams has proven the critics wrong by collecting 26 sacks over the past two seasons.  With the new additions along the line, it is scary to think that Williams might actually have more sack chances coming his way.  The linebackers are also very good, led by DeMeco Ryans, who also came in 2006.  Ryans is the leader of the defense.  He plays hurt, and isn’t afraid to take on any blocker or go to any lengths to make a tackle.  The Texans hope the additions of Cato June from the Colts as well as first round pick Brian Cushing of USC will round out the linebacking core.  The Texans secondary was inconsistent last year, but they hope an improved pass rush will lead to better results back there.  Dunta Robinson is the team’s best cornerback, with the rest of the group being young and inexperienced.

Kicker Kris Brown has been a Texan since the team’s inception in 2002, and he is still accurate as ever.  Punter Matt Turk had a subpar year last year, and he’ll need to get more oomph on his punts to keep the job.  Andre Davis was not near as good on returns last year as he was two years ago, but he’ll get another crack, along with Jacoby Jones.

The Texans appeared to finally get close to turning the corner last season, rallying at the end to finish .500.  They do play in a difficult divison, but they also get a friendly schedule in which they don’t have to see AFC powers Pittsburgh or San Diego.  I think this is a year the Texans turn the corner and make their first ever playoff appearance.

5932. Indianapolis Colts – The Colts have a surprising amount of changes this year for a team that had been the definition of stability for the past decade.  Head coach Tony Dungy is retired, replaced by Jim Caldwell.  There is also a new defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, who has been with numerous teams with little success.  Also gone is franchise staple Marvin Harrison, who is not officially retired but has yet to latch on with a team.  The Colts still have much of the same from past years and the usual very high expectations.  Last year they went 12-4, winning nine straight to close out the regular season, only to finish second in the division.  Worse, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to 8-8 San Diego.  That left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Colts, and they are hungry.

The offense is still excellent.  Peyton Manning’s credentials obviously speak for themselves, as long as he is under center, the Colts will automatically have a good offense.  Manning’s numbers did dip slightly last year after he had surgery in the offseason prior, but he started to find his groove again toward the end of the year, and still managed to win yet another MVP award, the third of his career, tying Brett Favre for most all-time.  I would expect Manning’s numbers to be better than last, and that could be bad news for opponents.  Despite the loss of Harrison, the Colts still have an outstanding receiving core highlighted by Reggie Wayne, who actually outperformed Harrison the past couple seasons, and Anthony Gonzalez, who is entering his third year and has shown that he is more than ready to step in and be a reliable target for Manning.  Tight end Dallas Clark is also one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, so Manning will not have any shortage of targets.  The running game took a big dip last year, finishing a surprising second to last in the league.  Joseph Addai did not look anywhere near the back who starred as a rookie in 2006.  Addai only hit 100 yards once last year, hence the first round selection of Donald Brown out of Connecticut.  This has very much the look of an open competition, and the Colts hope that one of the two will emerge and give the team a reliable ground threat again.  The offensive line isn’t expected to be much of an issue, although its strength has always been pass protecting as opposed to run blocking.  Center Jeff Saturday is still very solid, but there could be a question mark at left tackle, where Tony Ugoh is still a work in progress.

Defense has never been a staple in Indianapolis, but it hasn’t been much of an issue because the offense has been so explosive.  The Colts do have an outstanding tandem of pass rushing ends in Dwight Freeney (10.5 sacks last year) and Robert Mathis (11.5 sacks).  The Colts also addressed the line in the draft with their second round pick, defensive tackle Fili Moala of USC.  The Colts hope that he and Ed Johnson will be able to tie up blockers, allowing for more sack opportunities for Freeney and Mathis.  The linebacking core is very average, with Gary Brackett being the best of the group.  The secondary features one of the best hard hitting safeties in Bob Sanders, who is outstanding in stuffing the run.  The corners are inexperienced, but the Colts have high hopes for Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson.

Kicker Adam Vinatieri might be a future Hall of Famer, so the Colts are set there.  The punter will be rookie Pat McAfee, who had a good career as a punter and kicker at West Virginia.  The Colts still don’t really have anyone set to return kicks and punts, with Chad Simpson and Pierre Garcon as possibilities.  Needless to say the return game is a big unknown for the Colts.

I still think Indianapolis is a playoff team mainly because of Manning, but they seem to be heading down, not up.  Still, this is a dangerous team always, and they will be a factor.

3. Tennessee Titans – Last year the Titans were a big surprise, racing out to a 10-0 start, finishing 13-3 and landing the top seed in the AFC.  However, they suffered a home defeat to Baltimore in their first playoff game that left a bitter taste in their mouth.  The organization also had a very rough offseason with the shooting death of legendary quarterback Steve McNair, who took the team to its only Super Bowl in 1999.  Tennessee also lost its most important defensive player, Albert Haynesworth, to free agency.  Jeff Fisher’s teams always push through and find a way to play well, but they will a have a rough road to repeat as division champ.

Kerry Collins ended up with the starting quarterback job by default last year after Vince Young has his mental breakdown in the season opener.  Collins surprised everyone with a Pro Bowl appearance, and is returning for his 15th season in the NFL.  He still has a good arm and doesn’t make bad decisions, and that makes him a good fit for Jeff Fisher’s offense.  Young is back with the team, and has made bold statements about wanting to get his old job back.  His preseason performance so far has not justified those bold claims, but it could prove to be interesting to see how it affects the Titans if Young continues to make his presence known off the field.  It won’t affect Collins, who is as steady as professional as anyone, but the whole situation could have an effect on the team going forward.  The Titans did make an effort to improve their receiving core with the addition of Nate Washington, who was the third receiver in Pittsburgh.  Washington will start alongside Justin Gage, while first round pick Kenny Britt of Rutgers will also be expected to make an impact.  Still, Tennessee’s receivers as a group don’t seem to really scare anyone.  Tight end Alge Crumpler didn’t make the impact in the passing game that was expected when he signed as a free agent last year, but he and Bo Scaife are a good tandem in the running game and both are capable red zone targets.  The strength of the Titans offense lies in the running game, where Chris Johnson had a monster rookie season last year.  His speed and shiftiness makes him very difficult to tackle, and his speed makes him the perfect compliment to LenDale White, who can gain the tough yards between the tackles and is a perfect goal line back.  The offensive line is among the best in the NFL, anchored by veteran center Kevin Mawae.

Defensively, the Titans will be greatly impacted by the loss of Albert Haynesworth to Washington.  Haynesworth’s presence to the Titans defense has been so vital over the years that their wins and losses were often dictated by his health.  When Haynesworth was 100 percent, his presence made it virtually impossible for teams to run on the Titans.  When he was out of the lineup or hobbled, it completely changed the game because teams were then able to run on the Titans.  A lot of pressure will be on Jovan Haye and second round pick Sen’Derrick Marks of Auburn.  The Titans do have end Jevon Kearse, who has an excellent season last year at age 32.  The other end, Kyle Vanden Bosch, must show he is recovered from a groin injury.  The linebackers are an above average group, but age is a concern, as there is no depth behind Keith Bullock and David Thornton, both of whom are over age 30.  The secondary is solid with corners Cortland Finnigan and Chris Hope.

The kicking game is set with kicker Rob Bironas, the fifth most accurate kicker in NFL history, as well as veteran punter Craig Hentrich.  The return game is unknown right now, but the top candidate to handle those duties is Mark Jones, a free agent acquistion from Carolina.

Tennessee is bound to take a step backward after hitting 13 wins a year ago.  The loss of Haynesworth could be crippling, and the offense is decent but it remains to be seen whether Collins can duplicate his success of last year.  In the end this division will be too tough for the Titans.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars – The big story out of Jacksonville is that the Jaguars might not have a single home game televised in their home market due to poor ticket sales and an expectation that not a single home game will sell out.  The Jaguars have to rank as the single biggest disappointment in the NFL last season, for they fell from a 12-4 record in 2007, a season that included a road playoff win at Pittsburgh and an admirable performance the next week in New England, to a disastrous 5-11 record in 2008, highlighted (or lowlighted) by six losses in their final seven games.  The Jaguars did make some significant changes, but mostly of the departure variety.  Gone are veteran running back Fred Taylor, receiver Jerry Porter (a big time free agent bust last year), receiver Matt Jones, defensive end Paul Spicer, linebacker Mike Peterson, and cornerback Drayton Florence.  So what does Jacksonville have left?  Coach Jack Del Rio is back somewhat surprisingly, and there is some talent yes, but a lot of question marks,

Offensively, the Jaguars have a lot of question marks.  Quarterback David Garrard does have a lot of talent.  He has ability to make plays with his feet and he has an accurate arm.  However, last year he had trouble finding receivers and his leadership skills really came into question.  This is a make or break year for Garrard, and he will need to play well early to keep his job.  Considering his backup is Cleo Lemon, this will mean the Jags are in big trouble if Garrard doesn’t bounce back to his 2007 levels of production.  The food news for Jacksonville is the presence of Maurice Jones-Drew, who was re-signed in April for five more years.  Jones-Drew is one of the most dynamic runners in the league and also has great ability to catch out of the backfield.  There is no question that Jacksonville will rely on him heavily, but with Taylor’s departure he may need to be a one man show in the running game.  The receivers are an interesting mix, highlighted by addition Torry Holt from St. Louis.  Holt’s numbers dropped off so significantly last year with the Rams that they had no interest in bringing him back.  The Jaguars hope that a change of scenery will benefit him.  Dennis Northcutt and Tory Williamson provide some deep threats as well, but neither has been consistent in their production.  The Jaguars offensive line was a mess last year due to injuries, so they hope that a healthy group will mean better production in that area.   New addition Tra Thomas from Philadelphia should also help.

When Jacksonville made their playoff run two years ago, the defense was the backbone of the team.  That unit is not even close to the same group now.  It actually started last year when they lost star defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to Buffalo in free agency.  John Henderson remains one of the best in the business, and he will be glue for Jacksonville’s offensive line.  End Reggie Hayward is also good at rushing the passer, but the rest of the line is a work in progress.  The Jaguars are hoping for a better season from Derrick Harvey, who failed to meet expectations last year as a rookie.  The linebackers are unknown but are actually solid, with Daryl Smith leading the way in the middle.  The secondary has good talent as well, with cornerback Rashean Mathis leading the way, along with safety Reggie Nelson.  It is imperative for the Jaguars that this unit return to 2007 levels as well after being a disappointment last year.

Kicker Josh Scobee is very accurate, but punter Adam Podlesh may be on the hot seat.  The return game is also middle of the pack in the league, with Troy Wlliamson and Brian Witherspoon handling the return duties.

The Jaguars don’t seem to have a clear plan as to whether they are contending or rebuilding.  Either way, I don’t expect a return to 2007, but rather more of the same from last season.  even if they improve, they do play in a very difficult division, so either way it will be a long year for Jacksonville.

Coming next: the NFC South

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