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Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Falcons’

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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Another Gutsy Road Win

Posted by mizzou1028 on November 17, 2008

There is no doubt the Broncos-Falcons game will certainly be flying under the radar when compared to other games around the league this week.  You’ve got Tennessee coming from behind in a division road game to improve to 10-0.  You’ve got the Giants dropping 30 points on the Ravens defense.  You’ve got a crazy finish in the Steelers-Chargers game that resulted in an 11-10 final score for the first time in NFL history.  You’ve got a tie in the NFL for the first time in six years (Still perplexed by that one, was either team actually trying to win in overtime?).  You’ve got the Cowboys showing a pulse again in the NFC.  I could continue, but the point is the Broncos have very quietly opened up a two game lead in the AFC West, and they’ve done it with seemingly half the roster on the injured list.  Denver has won back-to-back road games for the first time in years, and dare I say it they actually seem like they could be dangerous again especially once they get healthy.

Denver’s win in Atlanta today was all about the unsung guys, starting with Spencer Larsen.  The rookie has quietly shined on special teams for the Broncos as a sixth round pick out of Arizona, but today he became the first player in Broncos history to start on offense, defense and special teams in the same game.  He played fullback, opening up holes for Peyton Hillis and Tatum Bell, had seven tackles on defense, and was around the ball on special teams.  First of all this should tell how banged up the Broncos are at multiple positions, but also that the team has a chance to succeed with guys like Larsen filling the void.  

Besides Spencer Larsen, even a die hard fan like me is needing a program these days to keep track of all the new faces.  How about Wesley Woodyard getting the start at middle linebacker?  He combined for four tackles in the first eight games while playing sparingly, but now has had 18 in the last two games, including nine today against Atlanta.  Or how about Josh Bell, who got a surprise start at cornerback today with Champ Bailey still hobbled, and multiplied his season tackle total by five?  Running back P.J. Pope had spent his entire career on the practice squad with three different clubs before being activated this week, and contributed 35 yards on four carries.  Even a familiar name like Tatum Bell required a double take as he rushed for 34 yards on seven carries, including the clinching first down in the final minute.  Even Peyton Hillis, who is a household name among Bronco fans now but was completely unkown a month ago, did very well in his emergency tailback duty, scoring two touchdowns.

This is not to say that the usual suspects didn’t do their part.  Brandon Marshall caught six balls, including a critical 47 yarder on third down in fourth quarter that prevented the Broncos from having to punt in their own territory.  Jay Cutler was sensational in the fourth quarter, leading a clutch drive that culminated in a zinger to Daniel Graham for the go-ahead score that evoked memories of an Elway fastball in the final minutes.  Eddie Royal didn’t have a great game statistically (four catches 34 yards) but his presence was critical in areas besides the box score, especially when he flattened Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy on a Tatum Bell run in the fourth quarter.  Even Dre’ Bly, who has had his fair share of tough moments this year, came up with a crucial momentum turning interception in the third quarter.  

Needless to say this game did not at all unfold the way I expected it to go.  The Broncos inability to stop the run this season has been well documented, yet a banged up Broncos defense gave up just 114 yards on the ground, allowing 3.3 yards per rush.  That’s definitely not bad at all considering Atlanta ranks second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 153 yards per game, while the Broncos rank 26th in the league, allowing 143 yards per game while allowing 4.9 yards per carry. The Broncos kept Michael Turner in check most of the day, although he did finish with 81 yards and two scores.  The Broncos offense actually did not make as many plays as I expected them to, but they got the job done at the end when they needed to.  The bottom line is anytime you’re winning on the road you’re doing something right, and the Broncos suddenly find themselves in a position where their confidence is sky high with what should be a very winnable home game against the Raiders on the horizon.

Some other thoughts from the game:

– How on Earth did the Falcons have that many empty seats at the Georgia Dome?  Do the fans there realize the Falcons are actually playing well?  I swear anyone could have walked up five minutes before game time and purchased an entire section.  The attendance is listed at 54,644.  The Georgia Dome seats over 71,000.  Something is seriously wrong with Atlanta sports fans, although maybe it’s not surprising considering how many non-sellouts the Braves had for playoff games over the years.

– The Broncos were almost in a position where they would have needed another clutch drive in less in a minute to win.  Matt Ryan’s deep ball on 3rd & 18 just missed Roddy White in the corner of the end zone with 1:05 to go.  If White catches that ball, and it was very close indeed, Denver would definitely have felt the pressure.  It goes to show how many little things can alter the outcome of a game.

– Speaking of Ryan, he is playing phenomenally well for a rookie.  Ryan showed poise that many veterans don’t have, and showed ability to make plays out of the pocket.  The few times the Broncos were able to get pressure on him, he got away easily while making throws on the run.  He is already a very good quarterback and the Falcons have long forgotten about Michael Vick.

– Jay Cutler seems to be learning how to make plays while at the same time taking care of the ball.  He made good decisions today even when no one was open.  He spread the ball around to multiple receivers and didn’t try to force something that wasn’t there.  If he can continue that, the Broncos will have success going forward.  

– If the Broncos are to keep up the pace for a division title, they will need to get the running game going consistently.  Denver did very quietly rush for 124 yards, but they will need to be more consistent.  Two times in the first half the Broncos passed on 3rd & 3 or less, and were not confident the running game could move the chains.  That will not work in the playoffs.  This area should improve when Selvin Young returns and Tatum Bell gets more in game shape.  

– The defense needs to continue to improve.  They need to progress from the bend but don’t break ideal to forcing turnovers and getting more pressure.  They are moving in the right direction and need to continue to make progress.  

For all of Denver’s struggles this year, they are 6-4 and have a two game lead in the AFC West.  Their 6-4 record matches New England, Miami, Baltimore and Indianapolis in the AFC, and perhaps Buffalo if the Bills win tomorrow.  The Broncos have an advantage those teams do not, and that is that they play in the weak AFC West.  The Chargers are 4-6 and look like they might be in real trouble.  I realize the Broncos still have issues and are not in the class of Tennessee or Pittsburgh right now, but If they  get healthy they can be dangerous, perhaps just in time to maybe even make a run at the top teams in the AFC.

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Week Two Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 12, 2008

This NFL season is certainly shaping up to be very intriguing on a number of fronts.  Could we possibly have a playoffs that doesn’t include New England OR Indianapolis?  It could be possible if Matt Cassel proves to be no Tom Brady and the Colts take too long to get it together after their disastrous week one effort.  Are the Jets the new favorite in the AFC East, or is Buffalo for real?  Are the Steelers ever going to get their due for being consistently good?  Is the Bears defense back to the level of two years ago?  Who is going to win the awful NFC West?  It’s only one week into the season, and a number of my season picks are threatening to blow up in my face already.  I keep telling myself it’s still early, but it is possible that my AFC Super Bowl pick may not be all its cracked up to be. I still think Jacksonville’s defense will not allow them to be a disappointment.  Was I nuts to pick the 49ers to win the NFC West?  I still maintain they’ll be a surprise by the end of the year.  Was I drinking the Kool-Aid on the Minnesota hype?  I still think they have a team that is scary talented.  Am I underestimating Aaron Rodgers? I have to admit he looked very good in week one.  We’ll see if he can maintain it over the long haul.  Are the Chargers in trouble without Shawne Merriman?  Or is that wishful thinking on my part?.  It did seem like someone forgot to tell them the season started for three quarters against Carolina.  Speaking of the Panthers, are they once again a contender in the NFC? That offense could really come alive when Steve Smith returns from suspension in week three.  How praytell did the Falcons win a game, let alone dominate? I reserve judgement until I see them against someone other than Detroit.  

At least I got a few things right in week one.  The Cowboys dominated on the road.  The Browns looked lost and confused.  The Giants looked dominant like you would expect a defending champ to be.  The Bengals REALLY stink, or did you see Joe Flacco score on a 38-yard touchdown run while jogging through the Bengals defense? The Seahawks looked horrible on the road.  Brett Favre can still play a little.  Donovan McNabb looks poised for a big season.  The Raiders are a mess akin to Days of Our Lives as usual.  The Broncos offense could be scary good.  Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.  Perhaps that was more the Raiders are awful.  

One thing I know, this could be a season unlike any other.  Or maybe it will be just like any other.  For 11 consecutive seasons, there have been at least five teams in the playoffs who did not qualify the previous year.  With the exception of the 2006 Seahawks, the Super Bowl loser has missed the playoffs every year since 2000.  Even at that the Seahawks only made it past the first round the next year thanks to Tony Romo’s butterfingers.  Here are the numbers:

2000 New York Giants – Lost Super Bowl XXXV
2001 New York Giants – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2001 St. Louis Rams – Lost Super Bowl XXXVI
2002 St. Louis Rams – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2002 Oakland Raiders – Lost Super Bowl XXXVII
2003 Oakland Raiders – 4-12 record, no playoffs

2003 Carolina Panthers – Lost Super Bowl XXXVIII
2004 Carolina Panthers – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2004 Philadelphia Eagles – Lost Super Bowl XXXIX
2005 Philadelphia Eagles – 6-10 record, no playoffs

2005 Seattle Seahawks – Lost Super Bowl XL
2006 Seattle Seahawks – 9-7 record (made playoffs, 2nd round exit)

2006 Chicago Bears – Lost Super Bowl XLI
2007 Chicago Bears – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2007 New England Patriots – Lost Super Bowl XLII
2008 New England Patriots – ??????

This does not bode well for the Patriots in light of Tom Brady’s injury.  I know, I picked the Patriots to return to the AFC title game, but I also said they were done if Brady went down.  It will be interesting to see if the Patriots continue the trend of Super Bowl losers struggling the next year.  On one hand, it is hard a fathom a team threatening history one year and missing the playoffs the next year.  On the other hand, the Patriots missing the playoffs this year would be right in line with what the NFL is about much of the time. I still shudder when I think of the Broncos going 6-10 in 1999 after winning back to back Super Bowls and being favored to compete for a third.  After all there is the old cliche “On any given Sunday……”   Now on to the picks.

Last Week: 9-7

– Jaguars over Bills: I have to admit I really struggled with this one.  The Bills dominated Seattle last week, and the Jaguars look like they could be in trouble.  Still, I can’t picture the Jaguars 0-2, especially with Jack Del Rio having a week to drill discipline into his team before the home opener.

– Cardinals over Dolphins: Surprise stat of the week: the Cardinals actually went 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium last season.  The Cardinals at 2-0 would rank among the season’s early surprises, but it would be an even bigger surprise if Chad Pennington had a big day against what is becoming one of the league’s most underrated secondaries.

– Jets over Patriots: Brett Favre’s home debut in New York puts an extra charge into this one, plus the Jets would just love to stick it to the Patriots in the wake of Spygate last year.  I have a feeling Matt Cassel will find the road to be much more daunting than Gillette Stadium.  Oh, and he doesn’t have the luxury of facing the Chiefs.

– Titans over Bengals: No Vince Young for Tennessee, but it won’t matter.  There are high school teams that tackle better than Cincinnati’s defense.  The Bengals offense looked a little confused too last week.  Carson Palmer under 100 yards passing?  The Marvin Lewis watch begins in Cincinnati.  I say 75 percent he’s axed before the year is over.

– Steelers over Browns: Pittsburgh will run away with the AFC North.  The Browns proved last week that they are a ways from the elite against Dallas.  This one will be competitive due to the rivalry factor, plus an emotional under the lights home crowd in Cleveland, but the Steelers are the class of the division and they will prove it.

– Vikings over Colts: Chalk this one up as the most intriguing game of the week for me.  Is this an elimination game of sorts already?  The Colts cannot be confident heading into the loud Metrodome after getting shelled at home in their opener.  Minnesota needs Tarvaris Jackson to show that potential we keep hearing about, but the Vikings defense will follow the Bears blueprint and harass Peyton Manning.  Peyton, meet Jared Allen.  Good luck.  The Colts at 0-2? It seems beyond crazy, but it might just happen.

– Broncos over Chargers: Denver’s confidence is sky high after destroying the Raiders on the road, plus Brandon Marshall is back.  If D’Angelo Hall couldn’t cover Eddie Royal one on one, how are the San Diego corners going to handle him and Marshall?  The Chargers pass rush will really miss Merriman, plus Antonio Gates is hobbled.  The Broncos might allow a high rushing day for LT, but their offense will be enough to win a shootout and enjoy a large lead in the AFC West.  San Diego at 0-2? Seems really crazy, but it just might happen.

– Chiefs over Raiders: Dud game of the week.  The rivalry is nasty enough that the game could actually be fun to watch, but these are two of the worst teams in the league.  The Chiefs are reportedly having trouble selling out Arrowhead for this game, which tells all you need to know about the state of football these days in Kansas City.  Still, the Raiders are a mess in every way, and Larry Johnson will run for enough to get KC a rare W.  

– Giants over Rams: The G-men’s biggest challenge will be overcoming a 10-day layoff after opening the season with their Thursday night win over Washington.  St. Louis was maybe the worst team in week one, so there is nowhere to go but up.  This seems like it could be a trap game for New York if the Rams’ offense wakes up (Torry Holt 1 catch for 9 yards last week – are you kidding me?).  Still, the Giants should be able to rely on their championship experience and pull out a win.

– Saints over Redskins: New Orleans will really miss Marques Colston, who is out 4-6 weeks.  Still, Drew Brees has enough targets for the team to score offensively.  The Redskins looked like they didn’t know which end was up offensively last week.  If that continues, New Orleans will win a low scoring affair.

– Bears over Panthers: This should be a great game.  Both teams pulled shockers in week one, so it’s hard to say which of these teams is better right now.  The Panthers are without Steve Smith for another week, so that gives an edge to the Bears defense.  Chicago won on the road during their Super Bowl run two years ago, and the hunch is they’ll find a way to pull out this one.  This one really could go either way though.

– Packers over Lions: Aaron Rodgers played well last week in the spotlight, and the Packers look like they have a statement to make.  Detroit? The Lions should be embarrassed losing to Atlanta.  Home field advantage won’t help the Lions if they keep playing like that.  This won’t exactly be a difficult road environment for Green Bay’s young signal caller.

– Buccaneers over Falcons: Brian Griese gets the start for Tampa so that gives slight pause.  Still, the Falcons aren’t playing Detroit anymore.  Matt Ryan could be in for a rude awakening this week against Monte Kiffin’s defense.  Tampa Bay almost stole one last week and could be just good enough to make things interesting in the NFC South.  On a side note, I am kicking myself that I didn’t rank Michael Turner higher in fantasy this year.  He could have some big games this year even though he’s playing for the Falcons.

– Seahawks over 49ers: Seattle is still really banged up, and I really want to pick the upset.  Thing is, Seattle has a tremendous home field advantage, and there is no reason to back San Francisco on the road right now after the way they played last week.  Besides, Matt Hasselbeck has got to play better this week doesn’t he? This could be a really sloppy game.

– Texans over Ravens: This game has been moved to Monday night due to Hurricane Ike, which makes it the first Monday night game in Texans history.  Even though it won’t be nationally televised,that’s enough for me in this toss-up matchup.  Baltimore’s defense is still good, but I still want to see Joe Flacco on the road.  Houston is a much better team than what they showed last week.

– Cowboys over Eagles: This too will be a fantastic game.  In a way it’s a shame one of these teams will have to start the year 1-1.  I like the Cowboys in what should be a raucous atmosphere for their home opener, on a Monday night no less.  Still, the Eagles pose a big challenge.  The sway factor will be a monster game from Terrell Owens, eager as always to show Andy Reid and company they did him wrong.

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