While parity is a good thing for the league and keeping a continual level of interest, it makes things very difficult when it comes to predicting the season. Last season saw only two repeat divisional leaders and six teams that hadn’t gone to the playoffs in the previous season.
Due to a number of factors, including the ambiguity of a new collective bargaining agreement, the effects of the international recession, an unusually active off-season that saw a number of Pro Bowlers switching to new teams (other than Brett Favre and Michael Vick), and 11 new coaching tenures, including eight new coaches, expect this unpredictability to continue.
The field is so wide-open at this point that it seems pointless to offer a preview. That wouldn’t be any fun though, now would it?
Here’s how I see the divisions playing out.
NFC EAST The New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles will fight over this division for most of the year, but I believe that the Giants will win out due to a more dominant defense. While the Eagles will have the better offense, their defense has suffered more setbacks than most. The Cowboys will underachieve despite their gargantuan new home, the loss of a certain hothead, and Jerry Jones looking for any excuse to fire Wade Phillips and hire Mike Shanahan or Bill Cowher. The same goes for Washington and Dan Snyder, though they have a lot more question to deal with.
NFC NORTH I’m as tired of hearing about Brett Favre as the rest of you; however, he comes to a team that had a 10-6 record with a below-average QB. While I think that for all the trouble it took to bring him on will only lead to one or two more wins. That may be enough for the #2 seed in this conference. The Bears had enough to where all they needed was a competent QB to be a wild card, and Cutler definitely qualifies. Green Bay could be a dark horse of the conference, and any wins for Detroit will be considered a step forward in the post-Millen era.
NFC SOUTH An interesting tidbit about this division: the team in last place the year before has gone on to win the division the following year. This has happened the past four seasons. You can make that five as I see New Orleans winning with the league’s most potent offense and a defense that may finally affect a game’s outcome. The injury bug seems to hit Carolina every other year and Tampa Bay became a reconstructed team almost overnight. Atlanta were the surprise story last year, but they will likely go through a sophomore drop if their defense doesn’t step up.
NFC WEST Arizona has something it hasn’t had in almost a century of its existence: a winning culture. People didn’t expect them to go to the Super Bowl last year nor return to it this year. They may use those low expectations to their advantage. It also helps that their division is still very weak. While San Francisco, Seattle, or St. Louis aren’t terrible teams, but they have a lot of major issues to work out before they can challenge for a wild-card, much less the divisional title.
AFC EAST In a nice return to familiarity, Tom Brady is back with the Patriots and will use the deepest talent pool in pro football to challenge for the conference. Miami, another surprise story from last year, has to face the toughest schedule in the league and nearly everyone has been studying their trademark formation the, Wildcat, thus expect a drop-off. Buffalo will certainly be entertaining; in a poorly-written VH1 reality show kind of way. Mark Sanchez may someday be the Big Apple’s golden boy, but the unforgiving schedule will keep the Jets from being a possible spoiler.
AFC NORTH The reigning Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, see 22 of their 25 starters return from the previous year. With a cupcake schedule and a knockout defense, the Steelers may end up with the best record in the league. Baltimore will fall on its historic defense once more, likely churning out another wild card spot even if Flacco gets the sophomore jitters. The million dollar question for Cleveland is who will be their starter, Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn? Although new head coach Eric Mangini should consider himself lucky. Some teams would hope for one solid QB, much less two. Cincinnati just can’t catch a brake if Palmer’s injuries continue to be a hindrance. This team needs a leader figure and Palmer hasn’t been there to do that.
AFC SOUTH Despite the loss of coach Tony Dungy and WR Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning and the Colts will continue to challenge for the conference crown. Tennessee took some hits defensively in free agency and still don’t know how to handle the mentally-conflicted Vince Young. Houston could be considered the dark horse of the league, because there’s nothing truly terrible about them. Jacksonville could rebound, but the half-empty attendance of their home games may hurt their confidence level.
AFC WEST Only a healthy San Diego, may hop over the elite trio of Pittsburgh, New England, and Indy. This division is easily the weakest in the league. Matt Cassel’s injury was the worst way for Kansas City to begin the Todd Haley era. With Al Davis in control of the Raiders, they will continue to be in the league’s dwellers, even with the dependable Jeff Garcia at the helm. Denver has had the roughest offseason of any team out there, and could crash very hard, very quickly.
AFC CONFERENCE Pittsburgh Steelers over New England Patriots
NFC CONFERENCE New York Giants over Philadelphia Eagles
SUPER BOWL Pittsburgh Steelers over New York Giants