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NFL predictions for 2011


1. The Patriots will beat the Saints in Super Bowl XLV. Tom Brady and the New England offense have too many options to stop in their home stadium in the AFC playoffs. New Orleans has been a forgotten team for most of the year, but its hard-nosed road win over the Falcons in Week 16 showed why it is good enough to return to the big game. Drew Brees can handle the pressure of playing on the road in the postseason. The Patriots-Saints showdown will go down to the final possession with New England winning on a field goal.

2. With the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, the Carolina Panthers select ... Andrew Luck of Stanford University.'s Peter King reported this week that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh believes Luck is leaning toward returning to school instead of entering the draft, but the redshirt sophomore quarterback has to consider what remaining in college has meant for other signal-callers. In his own conference, Washington's Jake Locker, a projected early first-round pick last April, came back for his senior season and has seen his draft stock take a hit. Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart fell from being a possible No. 1 to No. 10 because he stayed. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez left USC early and will be going to the playoffs for the second straight year. But if Luck does stay in school (the deadline for underclassmen to apply for the draft is Jan. 15), look for the Panthers to pick Clemson junior defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. In addition, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton will go in the top 10 and start Week 1 of next season.

3. Labor peace will be reached by the April draft. Everyone is posturing now but no one wants a work stoppage, something the NFL has avoided since 1987. The owners are concerned about the impact of labor uncertainty on sponsors and season-ticket sales, and many players may not be heeding the union's advice to save money in case of a lockout. If the sides can just create more overall money, how they split it won't be as divisive an issue (players get about 60 percent of total revenue in the current CBA). More cash will be made available for veteran players by imposing a salary slotting system for rookies, and owners will generate more revenue by adding two regular-season games. They should be careful about making the rookie cap too restrictive, however, because the UFL could try to seize an opening to lure college talent.

4. The Colts will storm back next season. This has been a rough year for the Colts, who, assuming they even make the playoffs, will be underdogs to return to the Super Bowl. But the fact that Indianapolis has still been dangerous despite all of its injuries -- Peyton Manning looked like he was leading the Colts to victory over the Patriots in the final minutes at Foxboro on Nov. 21 -- tells you about this team's capability when healthy. Once Manning gets everyone back, the Colts will refocus and jump out to one of their typical blistering starts in '11.

5. These five also-rans in 2010 will make the playoffs in 2011.

• Cowboys: Dallas just needs discipline and leadership from the get-go. Interim coach Jason Garrett may not be the ideal coach to lead this team, but he's a lot better than Wade Phillips. Garrett should get the full-time job and help Dallas play up to its potential.

• Vikings: Minnesota has a number of unrestricted free agents -- including wide receiver Sidney Rice and linebacker Chad Greenway -- and must decide if it wants to keep interim coach Leslie Frazier. But the Vikings will have Adrian Peterson -- who is a free agent after the '11 season -- and Percy Harvin will become a star. All they have to do is bring in the right veteran quarterback, like they did two years ago with Brett Favre, and the offense will flourish again.

•Dolphins: After a 1-7 season at home, Miami should consider dismissing Tony Sparano and pursuing Bill Cowher. The Dolphins' defense is already solid and they have some playmakers on offense, but they need a quarterback. They should call the Eagles about Kevin Kolb in the offseason.

• Raiders: Their 5-0 record against the AFC West (with a Week 17 game pending against the Chiefs) is an encouraging sign, and they've drafted some good players in recent years. Now they just have to avoid doing anything stupid in the offseason, like firing Tom Cable even though he helped make them more competitive than they've been since 2002.

• Texans: They're everyone's breakout team each season and they always fail to deliver. Whether the Texans hire a new head coach or bring back Gary Kubiak with a revamped defensive staff, they have many of the ingredients needed to reach the playoffs for the first time. The season-ending injury to All-Pro linebacker DeMeco Ryans in Week 6 killed them this year, and they have to get better in the secondary -- they certainly can't get worse.

6. The Bears will drop off. Chicago, the NFC's likely No. 2 seed in the upcoming playoffs, has a recent history of falling off after fantastic seasons. In 2001, the Bears were 13-3 and slipped to 4-12 the next season. They were 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl in '06, then regressed to 7-9 the following season. Their defensive core is getting older and they may not get as many lucky bounces in '11.

7. The Michael Vick Experience won't be quite as exciting. The Eagles presumably will give Vick the franchise tag or sign him to a long-term deal. At some point, they're going to get very serious about protecting their investment and be much stricter about limiting his downfield running. Coach Andy Reid has noted that defenses are throwing all sorts of looks at Vick already. Give defenses an offseason to plan and adjust their personnel, and you have to expect Vick to take a step back.

8. Brett Favre will take a TV job and officially retire for good ... but at least one team will reach out to him during the next year. Think about the lack of quality quarterbacks around the NFL right now -- at least 10 teams could be looking to start fresh at the position next season. Favre was terrible in his last month with the Jets in 2008, but the Vikings thought he had enough left to contribute and they were right. In a team meeting room somewhere, talent evaluators are going to pore over his footage from 2010 and at least think about calling old No. 4. Remember, Hall of Famer Warren Moon played until he was 44 and Favre is "only" 41. And even if teams don't consider him, the media will drum up something because Favre is good for business.

9. A playoff game will go into overtime and the new rule that requires both teams to have a possession will be a big hit. The main problem with the change now is inconsistency, because coaches have to change the way they approach overtime. The NFL will come up with the easy solution and put the rule in place for the 2011 regular season. The change will make for some long games and the networks won't be thrilled, but fans will be satisfied.

10. Awards predictions for next season.

• MVP: Peyton Manning, QB, Colts. Manning will edge a series of other star QBs, including Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

• Offensive Player of the Year: Manning. Anyone who has one player as Offensive Player of the Year and another offensive player at MVP is cheating.

• Defensive Player of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions. Suh is good enough to lift the whole defense in Detroit and should be a candidate for this honor every year moving forward.

• Offensive Rookie of the Year: LaMichael James, RB, Oregon. The one skill we know translates from college to the first year in the NFL is speed. James has plenty of that and will excel if he goes to a team that uses him properly -- provided, of course, that the redshirt sophomore declares for the draft.

• Defensive Rookie of the Year: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. Ayers, a junior, could get picked late in the first round and thus join a team with a good defense like the Ravens or Jets. He'll instantly stand out for his ability to rush the passer and drop back in coverage.

• Coach of the Year: Jeff Fisher, team unknown. If he's not with the Titans and doesn't want to try out the broadcasting booth, Fisher will instantly instill toughness in a young team.

• Comeback Player of the Year: Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys. Dallas will play with a lot more discipline from Week 1 next season and Romo will return to Pro Bowl form. Randy Moss will re-sign with the Titans and give Romo a run for his money after Tennessee changes its offensive style.