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.
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
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
I think I understand why Bills' sack leader
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
This is no one-year, worst-to-first makeover
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.
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.
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.
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
After five years of embarrassment, injury and struggle in San Francisco, this is the payoff year for 49ers quarterback
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