The NFL season starts on Thursday and there is no better way to kick it off than a re-match of that great NFC championship game. The Saints vs the Vikings will be a great way to kick off the season. Both of these teams have high hopes and expectations coming into the season and i’m sure they will all lay it out on the line just like last year. I’m not quite as confident in Brett Favre and the Vikings as last year. I don’t think they will have the “magical run” that led them as far as they got in the playoffs. First off, Favre is going to have ankle issues all season and I think his streak will come to an end. Sidney Rice is out for a minimum of 6 weeks, and he was Brett Favre’s favorite deep threat last year. The defense will be good, and AP will get things done, but they will be limited in the passing game, unlike last year. Here are my early favorites for conference winners and playoff contenders:
NFC West winner: San Fran 49ers
The Rams are still too young and incompetent on defense. The Seahawks still have issues on the offensive line and defense. And the Cardinals lost 2 key players on offense in Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin. It’s the 49ers to division to lose.
NFC North winner: Packers
The Packers return the most consistent line up from last year’s playoff team. Aaron Rodgers is a stud and will have an even better year than last. Their O-Line should be improved and their defense should be a bit more stout. They edge out the Vikings who should be a playoff team, but I think they are getting in as a wild card this year. They won’t have the numbers on offense like last year, and their D will have to help win games. Favre will get hurt and their chances of winning the division are not as good. The Bears and Lions are trying to re-build, and they have some good pieces, but not good enough to get in the playoffs this year.
NFC East winner: Cowboys
This will be a good division again, but I think the Cowboys have the slight edge here. The Eagles are dealing with a young new QB. They have weapons, but will they be able to use them to the fullest? Washington looks to be improved under Shanahan, but can the jump up enough to make a playoff push? I don’t expect it in year one. And the Giants are looking for a bounce back year after a disappointing 2009 season. I think they have potential to make a run for the division crown, but it depends on if their defense can get back to where they once were.
NFC South winner: Saints
Everyone thought I was crazy last year calling the Saints my darkhorse for the superbowl, but they got there and won it! It is always more difficult to get back the 2nd year, so it will be tough but I think they will win their division and give themselves a chance to get back to the promised land again. The Bucs will be the bottom feeders again and Carolina still has too many question marks at QB and on defense. The Falcons will be an interesting team to watch this year. I think they have playoff potential and could be a wild card type team that gives the Saints a run for the division.
NFC playoff teams: Packers, Saints, Cowboys, 49ers, with the wildcard going to the Vikings and Falcons.
AFC West Winner: San Diego Chargers
This division looks pretty weak. The Raiders got an upgrade at QB, but can they do any damage? Still a lot to be desired. The Chiefs upgraded their running game, but that passing game behind Matt Cassel looks horrible. If the Chiefs D can be respectable, they have a chance to get back to being mediocre instead of horrible. Denver has some issues on the injury front (what else is new?) but look to jump out early like last season (starting 7-0 before tanking)… if they can get off to another good start, they could make a run for the division.
AFC North winner: Baltimore Ravens
It’s hard to ignore what the Ravens did in the off season. Picking up 2 Pro-Bowl caliber wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmenzadah will help out this offense and young QB Joe Flacco so much. There running game is already solid with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, so this will only help their chances at reaching the playoffs again and winning the division. The Bengals are looking very solid as well, picking up deep threat Terrel Owens to help in the passing game. I think this will be a team that can make a run at the division or at least a wild card spot. The Browns are still rebuilding and the Steelers are without Big Ben to start the season, so they will start the season in a hole.
AFC South winner: Colts
Until proven otherwise, the Colts are the team to beat in this division. The Texans are supposed to be good every year, but always under-achieve. They should be good again this year, but can they put it all together? The Jaguars and Titans have great running games, but can they do anything else? I think each team will get a couple of surprise wins, but that’s about it.
NFC East winner: Patriots
The Patriots are still the team to beat in my mind. Whenever you have Tom Brady on your team, you will have a chance to get to the playoffs and the superbowl. The Jets are going to be good and contend, but they still have a very young QB and Thomas Jones is out of town. Can LT fill that role? Only time will tell. The Dolphins are looking much improved as well and could make a run at the playoffs. The Bills are still going to be hanging out at the bottom of the league, but CJ Spiller will be a play maker for them.
AFC Playoff Teams: Patriots, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers. Wild cards: Bengals and Jets
Early Superbowl prediction: Ravens vs Packers