Friday September 4th, 2009

Sitting down to write my annual NFL predictions column, I'm reminded of a few things we didn't know about the 2008 season at this time last year. Such as:

• After going a combined 10-38 in 2007, the Dolphins, Ravens and Falcons would all finish 11-5 and reach the playoffs with new starting quarterbacks. Baltimore tacked on two more wins, both on the road, in the postseason.

• New England would go 11-5 and some how miss the playoffs, becoming only the second team since the 1970 merger to manage that dubious distinction.

• The Cardinals, who owned just one playoff victory in a span of 60 NFL seasons from 1948 to 2007, would quadruple their total in the span of three weeks in January.

• And young teams seemingly on the rise in Green Bay, Jacksonville and Cleveland would fall utterly flat in '08, winning a combined 15 games after posting 34 victories in 2007.

Keep those unexpected twists from last year in mind as we offer up our best guesses for this season, with a caveat: After nearly six weeks of the NFL's preseason, I've got a pretty good handle on the league's best teams, and worst teams. It's that murky morass of a middle that proves difficult to divine. So I'm giving you my picks for the eight division winners and the eight last-place finishers, with a projection of how the postseason will play out as well. (Spoiler: It's Patriots over Packers in a Super Bowl rematch of 13 years ago).

Let the unpredictability begin.....

First place: New England (13-3) -- The Patriots have the look of a supremely driven team this season, to both make amends for the disappointments of the past 19 months and to put all this silly Team of the Decade debate to rest. A healthy Tom Brady means the offense returns to the status of the game's preeminent, and the defensive remodeling job of the past couple years, while not without potential trouble spots, has left the unit younger, faster and bigger in key areas. If Fred Taylor can boost the running game as much as I think he can, the Pats should approach 500 points scored.

Last place: Buffalo (6-10) -- Desperation hangs heavy in the air in Buffalo, because a fourth consecutive 7-9 record will bring the curtain down on the Dick Jauron coaching era, as everyone well knows. Signing Terrell Owens and going back to a no-huddle attack might be the keys to getting the Bills offense finally over the hump, but it might also be grasping at one-year remedies that fall far short of their intended impact. The AFC East's other three teams averaged 10 wins-plus last year, and I just don't see the Bills competing in that neighborhood.

First place: Baltimore (12-4) -- It takes a leap of faith to pick anybody but the defending champion Steelers to win this division, but my sense is Pittsburgh is headed for the slightest of post-Super Bowl letdowns (we're talking 10-6 territory). Baltimore's offense looks scary good this preseason, especially its passing game, and you know what you're going to get from its defense. Despite the Steelers going 3-0 against the Ravens last season, the gap was slight: a three-point win in overtime, a four-point win that swung on a controversial touchdown call, and that nine-point AFC title game victory.

Last place: Cleveland (4-12) -- Everything about the Browns exuded a lack of confidence to me this preseason, and that kind of karma rarely just disappears once the regular season begins. The air of uncertainty has pervaded the team's quarterback competition between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, and despite new head coach Eric Mangini's manic obsession to discipline, the Browns looked like a team that's still its own worst enemy.

First place: Tennessee (11-5) -- The road schedule is a killer (at Pittsburgh in the opener, at New England, at Indianapolis, with a pair of West Coast trips to San Francisco and Seattle tossed in), but the Titans look like a team without a glaring weakness to me. There are 10 starters returning on each side of the ball, and the passing game should be much more dangerous with receivers Nate Washington and Kenny Britt, and tight end Jared Cook added to the mix. Losing Albert Haynesworth will hurt, but the Titans will survive it, and still get solid production from their rotation-happy defensive line.

Last place: Jacksonville (6-10) -- I've got the Jaguars sentenced to the cellar by default in the AFC South. The Titans, Colts and Texans all have more talent than Jacksonville, and I'm still not sold on the idea that David Garrard is the team's long-term answer at quarterback, or that Torry Holt can recapture any of the magic of his best days in St. Louis. We'll know early what the Jaguars really have, because they face their three division foes in the opening four weeks of the season.

First place: San Diego (11-5) -- Sure, the Chargers are a tease with all that talent, but they have won three playoff games in the past two seasons, and only the New York Giants with their storybook 4-0 Super Bowl run in 2007 have won more. The Chargers shouldn't really break a sweat in making it four consecutive AFC West titles in a row -- and five out of six -- but they don't like to make things easy on themselves. San Diego's start could be tough, with games against Baltimore, Miami and Pittsburgh in the first month, but the Chargers will be there and be heard from in January once again.

Last place: Kansas City (4-12) -- Maybe I'm being overly influenced by the disarray I've seen this preseason in the Chiefs offense -- which just this week saw coordinator Chan Gailey relieved of his duties -- but the rebuilding process could be in for a painful first season under Todd Haley and Scott Pioli. The AFC West is truly the league's weakest division this season, and the Raiders or Broncos could very easily contend for last place. But I'm giving the nod to Kansas City based on how much ground they still have to cover to return to respectability.

First place: New York Giants (11-5) -- Both the Eagles and the Cowboys will be heard from in the division race, but the overwhelming depth the Giants have on their defensive line and in their running game gives them the key difference makers in those head-to-head games that decide the NFC East. And as much attention as New York's receiving game has garnered, I like their blend of both quality and quantity among all those young pass-catchers. Unlike last year, the absence of Plaxico Burress won't derail the Giants playoff drive.

Last place: Washington (5-11) -- With a tenacious defense that will keep them in most games, the Redskins won't look like a last-place team for much of the season. But that's where they'll end up because offensively they scare almost no one. Even winless Detroit scored more than Washington's 265 points last season, and only a quantum leap from fifth-year quarterback Jason Campbell changes that dynamic. And that's if a shaky Redskins offensive line can give him enough time to survive in the pocket.

First place: Green Bay (12-4) -- I've got a feeling about these Packers, especially when I survey the rest of a wide-open NFC field and try to divine if there's an out-of-nowhere team with a legitimate shot to represent the conference in Miami next February. Green Bay is my NFC Super Bowl pick, and last year's dismal 6-10 finish is but a memory now that Aaron Rodgers looks like a man playing possessed and the Packers' new-look 3-4 defense appears ready to work as planned from day one.

Last place: Detroit (4-12) -- I like the blend of veteran leadership that rookie head coach Jim Schwartz brought to town -- guys like linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson, and defensive tackle Grady Jackson to name a few -- and his efforts at changing the losing culture in Detroit ring true so far in a way that Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli never achieved. But it still won't add up to much for the 2009 Lions. The future in Detroit is definitely not now.

First place: New Orleans (11-5) -- In the seven-year history of the wildly entertaining NFC South, not only has there never been a team win back-to-back division championships, no one has ever put together consecutive playoff seasons. You can't say that about any of the other seven NFL divisions since the 2002 realignment. That kind of history rules out Carolina and Atlanta (a pair of 2008 playoff teams) for me, and sorry, and no one in their right mind is forecasting big things for the Bucs this season. There you have it: My best argument is it's the Saints' turn.

Last place: Tampa Bay (4-12) -- New Bucs head coach Raheem Morris is trying to restore some swagger to Tampa Bay, but you can't help but wonder if his team lost too much experience at once last offseason, when the likes of Monte Kiffin, Jon Gruden, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Jeff Garcia went out the door in rapid succession. The Bucs are so short-handed this season that they are even playing minus a home game, thanks to that agreed upon trip across the pond to play New England in London in Week 7. Perhaps it's best, because their loyal hometown fans aren't going to like a lot of what they're asked to endure this year.

First place: Seattle (9-7) -- I expect the NFC West to be a season-long battle between the Seahawks and defending champion Cardinals, but Arizona is going to have to prove it has the mental resiliency to combat the post-Super Bowl syndrome that has afflicted so many losers of the big game this decade. The 2006 Seahawks were the only team to follow a Super Bowl defeat with a playoff trip. If Matt Hasselbeck stays healthy this year and the Cardinals' Kurt Warner doesn't, that's the difference in the division right there.

Last place: St. Louis (5-11) -- It's not a long journey from the bottom to the top of the mild, mild NFC West, and that should give Rams fans hope. New head coach Steve Spagnuolo has a solid plan in place, and has already set about ending the dysfunction that reigned in St. Louis. This year is about program-building and finding out which players are part of the answer. If all of that goes well enough, the quest of winning can wait until 2010.

CLICK HERE FOR DON BANKS' PLAYOFF AND SUPER BOWL PREDICTIONS

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