The prediction business is a foolish and risky game in the ever-changing NFL, but hey, somebody's got to do it. So here goes, 20 bold predictions as we stare down the start of the 2011 regular season:
1. Whether the roof's open or not at Reliant Stadium, the sky will officially fall in Houston next Monday if the Texans can't beat a Peyton Manning-less Colts team at home in Week 1. If No. 18 does indeed miss the first regular season game of his 14-year NFL career, there would never be a bigger, more pressurized must-win in league history than the one Houston would face on Sunday. Let the gray-bearded Kerry Collins and Co. come in and embarrass the home team, and Gary Kubiak's Texans may never recover.
PREVIEWS, PREDICTIONS, BURNING QUESTIONS FOR EVERY DIVISION
2. After playing in the relative obscurity of Oakland for the first eight years of his NFL career (all playoff-less and non-winning years), Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha will have some unexpected struggles in the big-game, big-market atmosphere of the NFC East. He won't be left unchallenged for seasons at a time in his new division, and the more teams try to throw at him, the more he'll appear less than invincible and even a little vulnerable. By season's end, some will consider him over-rated.
3. Before it's all said and done this season, Tennessee's Jake Locker will be considered the best of this year's rookie crop of quarterbacks, and he'll have better statistics and take part in more Titans victories to prove it. At some point in 2011, Tennessee will have to rely on Locker, and he'll come through in a bigger way than Cam Newton in Carolina, Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville, Christian Ponder in Minnesota, Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco.
4. Of all the many moves at the coordinator position around the league, Houston hiring defensive guru Wade Phillips has gotten the most attention and created the most anticipation of success. But it'll be that other newly-acquired defensive coordinator in Texas -- the Cowboys' Rob Ryan -- who actually makes the biggest impact and oversees one of the turnaround stories of the year. Dallas in 2010 gave up 436 points and 5,628 yards, the most in franchise history, and both totals will improve dramatically.
5. With Josh McDaniels calling the plays, Sam Bradford will become the first Rams quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards since Marc Bulger in 2006. Two years after St. Louis bottomed out at 1-15, the Bradford-led Rams will win their first division title since 2003, helping to re-secure the franchise's future in Missouri.
6. Chad Henne, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton, Donovan McNabb, Alex Smith, David Garrard and Tarvaris Jackson are all scheduled to start the season as their team's No. 1 quarterback. But none of them will end the year occupying the same rung on their team's depth chart. For starters at season's end, give me Matt Moore in Miami, John Beck in Washington, Locker in Tennessee, Tim Tebow in Denver (gulp), Ponder in Minnesota, Kaepernick in San Francisco, Gabbert in Jacksonville and Charlie Whitehurst in Seattle.
7. It'll be almost Halloween before Carolina's new quarterback, Cam Newton, and new head coach, Ron Rivera, get to the celebrate their first NFL victory together. The Panthers will endure an 0-7 start before Minnesota becomes their first victim, in Week 8 in Charlotte. If Carolina falls to 0-8 after facing the Vikings on Oct. 30, a tough second-half schedule could produce a legitimate run at a winless season.
8. While the East Coast Harbaugh brother (John) will coach his team to a Super Bowl appearance, the West Coast Harbaugh brother (Jim) will coach his team into contention in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes. When they meet in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, both Harbaughs will do their part to ensure their divergent dreams come true.
9. I'm going way, way out on a limb here and predicting that defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay will trail by more than seven points in a game at least once this season. Maybe even twice. (They never did in 2010.) Who knows, it might even occur at some point in the first half Thursday night against the Saints at Lambeau Field, in the 2011 opener. That the 2010 Packers somehow managed that statistical oddity, and still managed to lose six games, is one of the more remarkable feats of last season's title run.
10. Two AFC West teams that both took promising steps forward in 2010 -- Kansas City and Oakland -- will both take a step back. The Chiefs won the division at 10-6 last season, but will miss the playoffs this time, hovering near .500 all season. The Raiders broke their seven-year run of double-digit loss seasons in 2010, making it to 8-8. But even .500 will be too much to ask from the Raiders under first-year head coach Hue Jackson.
11. For the 46th consecutive year, the Super Bowl champion will not be hoisting the shiny silver trophy on its own home field. Indianapolis, the city, will play a fine host for Super Bowl XLVI. But the home team, those guys with the horse shoes on their helmets, will be nowhere in sight.
12. Cleveland's running game by season's end will be led by Montario Hardesty, not Peyton Hillis. Hardesty blew out his left knee in the final preseason game of his rookie year and missed all of 2010. But the ex-Tennessee Vol is back and his role and production will increase as the year unfolds. As for Hillis, he started to wear down late in his spectacular 1,177-yard breakthrough season of last year, and he can't possibly avoid trouble this time around since he's the current Madden cover boy. (This isn't rocket science, folks. Some of these are obvious).
13. Of the seven states that have at least two NFL franchises -- Florida, California, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York/New Jersey, Ohio -- the only one that will advance multiple teams to the playoffs will once again be Pennsylvania, courtesy of the Steelers and Eagles. The Keystone State turned the same trick in 2010 and 2008. Jacksonville and Tampa Bay in 2007 made Florida the last state other than Pennsylvania to manage the feat.
14. Miami's dreadful homefield disadvantage will continue. The Dolphins have had a winning record at home just once in the past five years (5-3 in 2008), and last year they were 1-7 at home for just the second time in franchise history (also in 2007). Miami opens the season with home games against New England and Houston, and then has just one more game at home from Weeks 3-10. The Dolphins could be fairly well buried in the AFC East by then.
15. Playing the third-down back role in New Orleans, Darren Sproles will account for more production than Reggie Bush does in an every-down role in Miami. If Bush can even stay healthy, that is.
16. The Lions will end the NFC's longest current playoff drought, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Bills will increase the AFC's longest current playoff drought, missing the playoffs for the 12th time since 1999. The Texans, who have never made the playoffs since joining the league in 2002, will need to win at home against Tennessee in Week 17 to clinch a berth, but fall short for a 10th straight year. Texans owner Bob McNair will give Kubiak an immediate vote of confidence.
17. The Browns won't beat the defending Super Bowl champs for a fourth consecutive year, mainly because the Packers aren't on their schedule unless the teams meet in this season's Super Bowl (Cleveland did knock off Green Bay this preseason, does that count?). After upsetting the 2008 Giants, the 2009 Steelers and the 2010 Saints, the Browns will have to settle for beating defending AFC champion Pittsburgh at least once.
18. Juan Castillo's eyebrow-raising promotion from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator in Philadelphia won't be the story that makes or breaks the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes. But the performance of Castillo's former unit, the offensive line, just might. If new Philly O-line coach Howard Mudd can get things fixed up front, the Dream Team might be in for something sweet. But if not, Michael Vick will go down at some point, and take Philly's whole grand plan with him.
19. Born during the LBJ administration, the Falcons will string together consecutive playoff seasons for the first time in franchise history. That's a span of nine presidents and 15 head coaches if you're counting.
20. Quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez have combined for 13 playoff starts and an 8-5 record in their five seasons (three for Flacco, two for Sanchez). Remarkably, every one of those playoff games have been on the road. Flacco's streak will end, Sanchez's will not. Baltimore will earn and win a home game this postseason. The Jets will be forced once again to go the wild card route, with New York and Sanchez picking up another road victory, but falling short of the Super Bowl for the third consecutive year.
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