By Josh Kramer
After the longest lockout in NFL History, America’s most popular sport is back. And luckily for all parties involved, no games were missed (outside of the Hall of Fame Game). Last year was a year defined by storied franchises. What is in store for the 2011/2012 season?
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
-Surprise, surprise right? Teams that win a division are the ones that are able to maintain focus throughout the entire 16 game (17 week) regular season. The Patriots know what it takes to win a division title (they have won the East two straight years). And though the New York Jets are going to be awfully tough this year, they still have not demonstrated the ability to maintain focus throughout the entire grind from September until February. Could “Brady to Ochocinco” become a familiar catchphrase in Foxborough?
AFC North Champion: Baltimore Ravens
-It is not easy to pick against the Black and Yellow, who also happen to be the defending AFC Champions. But come September 11th, when the top two teams in the always extremely physical AFC North square off, we will learn a lot about this division. In addition, Ryan Clark may have to start referring to this divisional matchup as a “real” rivalry game. Expect Joe Flacco to take his game to the next level in year four with Baltimore, while the Ravens defense, though thin in the secondary, maintain their typical swagger.
AFC South Champion: Houston Texans
-The AFC South has become the “Peyton Manning Division” over the years. Sure the Colts have made the playoffs nine consecutive years, and I fully expect them to make it again this year. But Houston is going to be pretty solid across the board, especially with a revamped secondary thanks in large part to the arrival of former Cincinnati Bengal star, Johnathan Joseph. Plus nobody is sure when Manning will return to game action. With each day he misses, Indy’s chances of winning a third consecutive South title diminishes.
AFC West Champion: San Diego Chargers
-Philip Rivers threw for over 4,700 yards last season without both of his top targets, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates for significant periods of time. With both healthy and ready to roll, good luck stopping San Diego’s lethal offensive unit. Plus this team knows how to D up too. Though the Chiefs will be solid this year, I fully expect both Denver and Oakland to be abysmal. The lightning bolts from the West Coast had won four consecutive West titles heading into last season. Look for the Chargers to be up to their old ways in 2011/2012.
AFC Wildcards: New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts
-There will be no “Black and Yellow” chants this postseason. They are in a similar boat to the Kansas City Chiefs. I see both teams winning nine games apiece, but getting left out of the party. New York has been to two consecutive AFC Championship games and the Colts are looking to make the playoffs for a 10th consecutive year. Playoff football only has 12 invitations total though (6 per conference). Somebody has to get left out. This year, Pittsburgh and KC will get the raw end of the deal.
NFC East Champion: Philadelphia Eagles
-If you had asked me this a week ago, I would have picked the New York Giants. But with the recent injury to secondary mainstay Terrell Thomas, the Giants already very thin secondary just crumbled before our eyes. I would not go as far Vince Young did in calling Philly a “Dream Team.” But they are pretty good on both sides of the ball. You will not find a more exciting offensive unit in the NFL with big time playmakers at every skill position. Plus this team improved in one of their only weak areas, the secondary. It’s Super Bowl or bust in Philly. Hopefully they do not pull a Dallas 2010/2011 and completely fail to meet any expectations
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers
-Many questioned GB’s relatively quiet off-season. Go ahead and question Aaron Rodgers and Co. I do not think they will mind. This team is arguably the most complete in the NFL and will be very tough to beat. Sure the Bears will be solid again and the Lions should make some noise, but neither has the horses to keep up with the “Green and Yellow.” The defending champs will look to become the first repeat Super Bowl Champion since the New England Patriots went back to back in 2004 and 2005.
NFC South Champion: Atlanta Falcons
-They may have had to give up an army of draft picks to secure the former Alabama star. But I think this year, people will begin to understand why the Falcons gave up five future draft picks for Julio Jones. I realize that the Saints are always a threat and the Buccaneers are a “sexy” pick this year, but Atlanta won 13 games last year for a reason. Also their quarterback, Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan is entering year four as a starter. I expect Ryan, who has already been very good in years one through three, to take the next step towards elite status this year. Tom Brady won a Super Bowl in his 4th year as the starter in New England. Philip Rivers had a huge 4th year in San Diego. And now it is Matt Ryan’s turn.
NFC West Champion: St. Louis Rams
-So I will admit that this division is terrible. Maybe Oklahoma, LSU, Florida State, and some of College Football’s elite should schedule a couple of exhibition games against a few of the NFC West squads (just kidding). But this division, just like last year, will go to a team with a non-winning record (last year it only took seven wins). Many teams wish that they could play in this division. Either way, I am expecting a huge season from Sam Bradford, Steven Jackson, and the St. Louis Rams. And by huge, I am meaning eight or nine wins, which will be more than enough to win the NFC West.
NFC Wildcards: Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints
-Tampa Bay and Detroit are the NFC equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. I expect both Tampa Bay and Detroit to win nine games. But sadly, I expect Chicago and New Orleans to win ten, or at least nine, and advance to the playoffs via tiebreaker. Jay Cutler and the Bears have a lot to prove after last year’s NFC Championship debacle. Plus Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are always game to put up 30+ a night, which means they will have a chance to beat anyone. Both of these teams are dangerous.
MVP: Philip Rivers
-Rivers has been good for a while now. Take that back, he has been “great” for a while now. This year he actually will have all of the weapons that he deserves at his disposal hopefully for the entire season. River’s two top targets, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson played a combined 15 games last year. Imagine if they played a combined 32 what type of havoc they could wreak on the opposition? Plus the AFC West is the weakest division in the AFC this year. Expect Rivers to shred defenses with no remorse every Sunday this year.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots over San Diego Chargers
-These teams will not shy away from airing it out by any means. This will be a shootout for the ages. And though I expect Rivers to take home the MVP this year, it will be Tom Brady (last year’s MVP), who puts on an MVP-like performance on the big stage.
NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles
-The “Dream Team” will fall one game short. Most of the off-season media attention has been focused on the city of Brotherly Love. The Cheeseheads have been more than cool with it as long as their team can handle business for a second consecutive year in the playoffs against Philadelphia. I think they will.
Super Bowl: New England Patriots over Green Bay Packers
-There is a reason why the NFL has not had a repeat champion since 2005. It is no easy task in America’s most parity filled professional sports league. Plus, you think New England is really going to go a seventh straight year under the Belichick regime without a title? Brady is 34-years-old for crying out loud. The man can’t play forever. I think the real question is how will Chad Ochocinco celebrate the feat come the night of February 5th in Indianapolis?
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.