Here comes another one, just like the other one…
15. Chicago – Happy now? Jay Cutler, you left behind Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and thin air for Devin Hester (a returner), Soldier Field (a snowy, windy mess) and a receiving corps from the island of misfit toys. John Clayton said that he is the most celebrated quarterback to step under center since a certain Sid Luckman (CU! Anybody? Anybody?) An elite quarterback can make any weapons that already exist infinitely more dangerous than they would be in mediocre hands, and no matter what you think about the exit from the Broncos, Cutler is nothing short of elite.
14. Miami – Well, it was cute while it lasted. Now that the Wildcat (Wildhog, Wild-sea mammal, whatever) has proliferated the world of the shield, what does Miami really do better than the teams they are going to be playing on Sundays? An above average defense, sure, but not nearly as dominant as other teams that rely on the ‘protect the ball’ offense. Then again, it’s never smart to bet against Parcells. And the lesson here, as always, is that I know nothing about nothing.
13. Houston – I don’t feel good about that at all. I mean, I like Matt Schaub, I LOVE Andre Johnson, and Steve Slaton makes me feel very uneasy. The offense looked great down the stretch … but there’s always a smoke and mirrors team that looks good late and falls on their faces early. Plus, with the Colts and Titans in the division, and getting better every second, can the upstarts in Texas finally make some noise in the AFC South? My rankings would say so, my head says something completely different. This was an 8-8 team last year! They gave up 394 points last year, the most in the division, and the defense didn’t get any better! Why the hell are they this high? What is wrong with me?
12. San Diego – LDT, it’s show time. Since the playoffs two years ago, the alleged best player in the game has been MIA to say the least. And this could be the last hurrah for this group … and that includes Norv. On the upside, a lot of players in contract years means a lot of players going out to earn that extra money. On the downside, there isn’t a great chance that all these players can come back … or that bringing them back would even be a good idea. The passing game was AMAZING last year, the defense is welcoming back Shawne Merriman, the only question is if LDT can remind us why he was once upon a time a decent running back. Or if he’ll pull a Shaun Alexander on us. Remember him? Me neither.
11. Dallas – Here you go Tony, you got your wish. Ran your most talented (and troublesome) player out of town, and now the team is truly yours. What are you going to do with it? Jerry Jones cast his lot with you, and the best thing he can do is to take the ball out of your hands. The only guarantee that has made itself known during the Romo years is that he will do (at least) two things in the second half to lose your team the game. EVERY TIME. With three super talented running backs behind him, why wouldn’t the Cowboys just run, run, run? Oh what’s that? Jerry Jones has a new, super-expensive building to fill in a down economy? Nevermind.
10. Atlanta – Pat Riley has often written about the disease of more; once you start winning, everyone wants more. More credit, more of the spotlight, more exposure. And in this corner … Roddy White, demanding more money. Gee, thanks Roddy. Like I needed another reason to hate Pat Riley. The line got better on both sides of the ball. The defense (which got by on smoke and mirrors last year) got better top to bottom. The offense added a first ballot Hall of Famer at tight end. Mr. White finally showed up and has looked great. There is no reason this team should slip from the heights of last year … except the universe hates to see me happy, the franchise has never put back to back winning seasons together, the historic sophomore slump, and of course, the disease of more.
9. Minnesota – Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. Too bad Bret Favre had to come back, and ruin my plans for betting against Tevaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels all season. I have no pity for the Vikings if this doesn’t work, because Favre is all they have, and if he’s bad, they will have been left with a bare cupboard … except for the best running back in the NFL, the Williams boys stuffing the run, and a devastating pass rush. The only time I’ll feel sorry for the Vikings is when they replay the 1998 NFL Title game on television. Just kidding.
8. Indianapolis – Tony Dungy is gone. He’s off chastising Michael Vick for drinking girly drinks or something, and he isn’t walking through that door. Although, two other faces are walking back through; with the NFL’s decision to allow two former staffers to come back to the franchise as ‘consultants’ (read: they are keeping their jobs and grooming replacements. And getting paid. That’s really important) look for not too much drop off with the Colts. Bill Polian and Peyton Manning are still there helming the ship, and having cut ties with Marvin Harrison, this is a franchise ready to move forward. Even with this new coach at the helm. Ole-what’s-his-name.
7. Baltimore – Sophomore slump? Won’t even matter. Sure, history has taught us that the only players that make a huge jump in their second season are wide receivers (and Adrian Peterson), but the strength of the organization around Flacco won’t let it bring them down. All of a sudden last year, B’More was the well-oiled machine of years past; all the running backs had fire, Ray Lewis was looking like it was 2003, and Ed Reed remained the best safety in football (I’m STARING at you Jacqueline Tatum. Cut your hair). If they can survive the wars with the Steel City, these guys should roll.
6. Arizona – They were in the Super Bowl last year. Yup. That’s the only reason they are this high. This is a team that is hitching it’s star to Kurt Warner, is bringing back an unhappy Anquan Boldin, and lost their offensive coordinator. But, they’ve still got that young secondary, and the grinningest player ever, Larry Fitzgerald. You know what? His smile makes me forget about the numerous misgivings I have about this team. They think Beanie Wells is the back of the future? They didn’t actually improve an offensive line that looked decent to bad all year until the playoffs? The team openly gave up for way too many weeks down the stretch? Who cares!
5. Tennessee – No more Albert Haynesworth? No problem. Sure, the automatic double team is gone, and so is a lot of the freedom that he created for the linebacking corps that has not-so-quietly gotten old, but there is one reason that Tennessee will continue to be a force in the league next year. Three little syllables. Chris. John. Son. And the fact that they get to play the NFC West featuring such run stuffing defenses such as San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle. In other words? Kerry “Sure, I’d love another” Collins won’t do THAT MUCH damage under center. (Isn’t it creepy how irrelevant the four principles in the greatest national title game ever have become? Vince is riding pine here, alongside LenDale White, while Reggie Bush is a situational back in New Orleans, and Matt Leinart is cashing checks in Arizona)
4. Giants – Are they good? Are they bad? Certain times last year, the offense looked anemic, and other times, they came out like gangbusters. It certainly doesn’t help their case that the last time we saw them, Eli Manning was literally killing his team by losing the ability to throw the football in the wind last playoffs. Even through his inconsistencies, that crushing pass rush kept a lot of games close. That defense is one of the strongest in the NFL (they had 12 wins last year!), but can this offense stay alive when the entire fan base (and front office) is waiting for Eli to shoot himself in the thigh? Too soon?
3. Philadelphia – RIP Jim Johnson. Taking your defense against weak quarterbacks was one of the most enjoyable (and lucrative!) sports moments I could count on annually. Now, all I’ve got is counting on Donovan McNabb NOT to win an NFC title game. Just kidding Philly fans. Kind of. This is a team that, while adding versatile pieces like Jeremy Maclin, still lacks a true, dominant number 1 receiver if Mr. Jackson doesn’t step up and overcome his size. Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown (UGA!) are both solid number 2 or even number 3 receivers, but who is getting the ball on 3rd and six? Because, on 4th and six in the NFC title game LAST year, McNabb hit Curtis in the hands, who was being tackled by Roderick Hood … and since he has no profile as a receiver in the NFL, the refs did not call the pass interference. The preceding comment is brought to you by the NFL Network and my own abject boredom certain nights in bars.
2. New England – Pending just how good that knee looks, the ceiling here could be that number 1 spot, but not just yet. Once again, the Pats had a great offseason (shocking, I know) by jettisoning some emotional favorites on defense who had lost a step or five. Offensively, it’s just going to be more of the same. And by, the same, I mean the routine beat downs they handed out two years ago while setting records for passing touchdowns in a season. Add in the running back by committee model popularized by Mike Shannahan in a nefarious scheme to destroy fantasy football, and you have a football machine ready to remind us that the kid under center last year was a career backup, and Mr. Bundchen has rings. Lots of them. And he wants more.
1. Pittsburgh – They’re the champs. They got younger and healthier at all the most important places (Offensive line, running back , defense), and they kept most of their players out of civil court. But, they’ve gotten older on the edges, as Hines Ward’s (UGA!) performance catching footballs in the playoffs did not exactly inspire a lot of confidence. With only one other serious contender in their division, and getting the chance to pick on the AFC West, look for them to feast on the weak, look strong against the good teams, and re-establish the history of running that has carried this franchise throughout the years. Not the “what the hell” offense of last year that was contractually obligated to suck for 3.75 quarters every game. Ugh. They’re the best so far, but man, they were not fun to watch last year.