A salient point or two that bears noting as we attempt our annual NFL predictions column, as if you really could divine the landscape of the league before its new season even begins...
Sure, the Saints look pretty tough to beat from the vantage point of early September, but you can say the same thing about the defending champion almost every year. Then stuff happens. Count on it.
It's been five years since a defending Super Bowl champ even managed to win a single playoff game the year after getting the big confetti shower and the shiny trophy. The 2005 Patriots did that, winning the AFC East at 10-6 and dispatching Jacksonville at home in the first round of the playoffs. But then they lost in the divisional round at Denver, ending their hopes of a three-peat.
Since then, the 2006 Steelers failed to qualify for the postseason at 8-8, the 2007 Colts lost in their playoff opener at home against San Diego, the 2008 top-seeded Giants got beat by sixth-seeded Philadelphia at home in their first playoff game, and the 2009 Steelers failed (again) to even make the postseason the year after they partied. So consider yourself warned, Who Dat Nation.
Like we did last year, we're going to give you our most prescient guesses for the eight division winners and eight last-place finishers, and stay away from that murky morass in the middle. (Apparently it's easier to pick losers than winners in the NFL, because last year I was 8-of-8 in terms of last-place teams, and just 3-of-8 when it came to the division champs).
We'll even throw in our projection of how the postseason will play out. If you've been paying attention lately, you know I've got the Ravens and Packers playing on Super Sunday, with Baltimore getting the ultimate nod. Last year I went with New England over Green Bay, and missed on both counts. Like we said, stuff happens.
First place: New York Jets (11-5)
I don't know how good the Jets can be with their collection of all-stars and their high-wire chemistry experiment, but they'll certainly never bore us. Quarterback Mark Sanchez's year-two development seems to be the key. If he can make defenses respect his arm as much as they do New York's running game, there might just be a ticker-tape parade in the Jets' future.
Last place: Buffalo Bills (2-14)
I think I understand why Bills' sack leader Aaron Schobel said no mas to the notion of returning for a 10th season in Buffalo. As bad as the last decade of Bills football has been, the new one might start off even worse. I can't see how Buffalo generates enough points to stay in games with the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins, all of whom have a decided edge when it comes to star power and playmakers.
First place: Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Last year at this time, Baltimore's challenge was figuring out how to beat Pittsburgh, which had defeated the Ravens three times in 2008. They got it done, but then went 0-2 against the Bengals and lost the division by one game to Cincinnati. But I foresee a Baltimore team that will be the hunted rather than the hunter in the AFC North this year, thanks to an offense that can make up for whatever defensive liabilities might linger in their injury-depleted secondary.
Last place: Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Don't get giddy if the Browns start 2-0 against the likes of Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Their next seven games will provide a reality check: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England and the Jets, in the span of eight weeks. Cleveland is better, and maybe even capable of prolonged fits of competitiveness this season. But it's not yet truly in the same league with the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers.
First place: Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
I made the mistake last year of believing the Colts were about to take a step back in the division, and then they went out and reeled off a 14-0 start before getting bored with the regular season after Christmas. So I've decided I'm much better off just putting Indy down for its annual 12 wins and then later expressing genuine shock if that outcome somehow does not unfold for once.
Last place: Jacksonville (5-11)
I'm detecting something of an AFC pattern here. As in the AFC East and AFC North, there are three fairly well-respected teams in the AFC South, and then a club that stacks up as fourth-place material in almost everyone's estimation. The Jaguars are so off the radar -- even in their own market -- that's it's hard to gauge their potential upside. They can be very tough to beat, but it's also difficult to see them piecing together a winning season.
First place: San Diego Chargers (10-6)
I'm convinced the AFC West will tighten up this year, because Oakland and Kansas City both look improved and the Chargers do not. It'll still be a fifth consecutive division title for San Diego -- and sixth in seven years -- but the talent gap has narrowed. The Chargers' early season schedule isn't too taxing, so in another new twist, they might actually start the season strong.
Last place: Denver (6-10)
The tea leaves I'm reading indicate a trying, adversity-filled year is in store for the Broncos, and the downward cycle started the minute NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil was lost for the season with a tear of his pectoral muscle early in camp. Looking back, that 6-0 start the Broncos had last year was either mirage-like or a case of a rookie head coach who had the misfortune of setting the bar of expectation too high.
First place: Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Now that they have actually put together a winning record in December-January and, pray tell, even won a playoff game, what will we ever hang around the Cowboys' neck late this season? That's easy. If the talent-laden Cowboys don't become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, the entire season will be classified as a bust. At least we can count on Dallas to keep things simple.
Last place: Washington Redskins (6-10)
This is no one-year, worst-to-first makeover Mike Shanahan is attempting in Washington. The Redskins were an old, complacent and poorly disciplined team last season, one that believed rules were made to be broken. Washington's new regime means business, but in a tightly-bunched NFC East, being better will still produce a fourth-place result for the Redskins.
First place: Green Bay Packers (12-4)
There's not much to quibble with when you survey the Packers and where they stand in comparison to the rest of the NFC. But all the Super Bowl talk should still make folks in Green Bay a little nervous, because when was the last time the preseason buzz wound up leading to a title? Not lately. The Saints, Steelers and Giants weren't the chic picks the past three years, and maybe no one since the 2004 Patriots have followed through and lived up to ultimate expectations.
Last place: Chicago Bears (5-11)
Often a winless preseason translates not in the slightest to what a team will be come the regular season. But there was something entirely listless and directionless about the 0-4 Bears this summer, and I do believe that bodes for big trouble in Chicago. Lovie Smith's guys had better win their opener at home against Detroit, because with Dallas, Green Bay and the Giants waiting in Weeks 2-4, a snowball effect could ensue.
First place: New Orleans (11-5)
The NFC South is always topsy-turvy and it's one of only two divisions in which all four teams have made the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons (the NFC East is the other). But in a display of novelty, the status quo will rule this time around. The Falcons are playoff-ready once again and they'll give New Orleans a season-long race for the division title. But come early January, the order of things will mirror last year's: Saints, Falcons, Panthers and Bucs. Consider it one of this year's easier calls.
Last place: Tampa Bay (5-11)
I'm liking most of the green shoots that are showing in Tampa Bay, but this is one of those seasons where the improvement won't translate into a big jump in the standings. If the Bucs get some breaks and maximize their upset opportunities, maybe they squeak past Carolina for third place. But that's as good as it'll get. A solid first full year as a starter would represent 2010 success for quarterback Josh Freeman.
First place: San Francisco (9-7)
After five years of embarrassment, injury and struggle in San Francisco, this is the payoff year for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, the league's first overall pick in 2005. It won't be a magic carpet ride kind of season, but it'll be vindicating all the same. For a 49ers team that hasn't been relevant since 2002, the small step from last year's 8-8 to this year's 9-7 will be ever so sweet.
Last place: St. Louis (4-12)
One plus one equaled eight for the Rams, and it's a pretty good trick of math when you consider their 1-15 record last year got them the first overall pick in April, which they used to select quarterback Sam Bradford, he of the No. 8 jersey. Because of that equation, there's hope in St. Louis for the first time in years. But it's still about baby steps this season for the Rams and a fan base that has witnessed rock bottom in the NFL.