Super stage reserved for Brady, Favre
How will the 2009 NFL season play out? Here are 44 bold predictions
Super Bowl XLIV deserves XLIV predictions for the 2009 season.
1. AFC East (order of finish)
Gene's AFC East picks
New England Patriots -- Even without Tom Brady, whose 2008 season lasted exactly 11 pass attempts before his left knee ligaments were torn apart like licorice sticks, the Patriots won double-digit games. Problem is, the Pats lost the playoff tiebreaker and became the first 11-5 team in 23 years not to reach the postseason. (Denver did it in 1985 and then reached the Super Bowl in '86. So )
Anyway, Brady and his surgically reconstructed knee are back for 2009. If he stays healthy, Team Hoodie will lap the division field. If he doesn't (Albert Haynesworth, meet Brady's right shoulder), then the Pats still win the division and Brian Hoyer will become this year's version of Matt Cassel.
Spare me the details about how the Patriots' defense is getting older: It'll be fine, even without the recently retired Tedy Bruschi. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is playing for a new contract, so he'll be especially motivated. So will Bill Belichick, who has never missed the playoffs two seasons in a row as New England's coach.
Most of the toughest games are at Gillette Stadium (Atlanta, Baltimore, Tennessee, Carolina, Jacksonville). Randy Moss still runs a 2.3 40. The rushing game is better than you think. Seriously, I can't even invent a reason why they won't win the East.
Miami Dolphins -- Are there any celebrity Florida residents who don't own a percentage of the Dolphins? They've got Venus and Serena Williams, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Marc Anthony, as well as a marketing deal with Jimmy Buffett. What, Tiger Woods, Chris Evert and Greg Norman aren't good enough for the Fins?
The Dolphins went from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008. Take the win average during those last two seasons and that's what they'll end up with in 2009. Their schedule is much harder and no way will they lead the league again in Fewest Games Missed By Injured Starters (46; the Pats had 186). Is it possible to have a more complete team, but a worse record? Sadly for the Dolphins, the answer is yes.
Buffalo Bills -- Thousand-plus-yard rusher Marshawn Lynch is out for the first three games (at New England, Tampa Bay and New Orleans). Bad. Terrell Owens and his sprained T.O. are feeling better and he usually doesn't poison a locker room until after he's been with his new team a year or two (Dallas 13-3 in 2007, 9-7 in 2008; Philly 13-3 in 2004, 6-10 in 2005). Good.
But the Bills haven't beaten the Patriots since Week 1 of the 2003 season. Bad. They've had three consecutive 7-9 seasons. More bad. They just fired their offensive coordinator, and they're staring at another 7-9 season. Real bad.
New York Jets -- Mark Sanchez is going to do well in this league. It's just not going to be this season. The rookie quarterback had only 16 career college starts, which is OK if you're facing the University of Tennessee, but not the Tennessee Titans (Week 3).
A rookie QB and a rookie head coach (Rex Ryan) give me the heebie-jeebies. I'll bet Thomas Jones a Peter Gammons (a $20 bill) that he doesn't come close to the 1,312 rushing yards he had a season ago. The defense has possibilities, but the offense is playmaker-deficient.
2. NFC Rookie of the Year
If Ken Whisenhunt knows anything from his days as a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant, it's this: You have to run the ball to win consistently in the NFL. The Cards got a gift with the 31st pick of the draft.
Harvin is Reggie Bush without the bad knee.
4. AFC Rookie of the Year
Seen "Hard Knocks"?' Heard what the Bengals coaches say about him? Instant impact.
Sprained a knee ligament in preseason but is supposed to be good to go for the opener. Could have a Matt Forte-ish type of rookie season.
6. AFC North (order of finish)
Gene's AFC North picks
Thing is, Roethlisberger has always been able to handle a hit and keep going. He'll take his usual sacks beatdown (the O-line is ordinary, at best), but the offense could be strengthened by the return of running back Rashard Mendenhall. (As a rookie last year, he popped off about the Baltimore Ravens in a text message, then the Ravens fractured his shoulder in a game and his season was done.) And as always, there's Hines Ward, Super Bowl hero Santonio Holmes and Willie Parker. Comforting.
The biggest security blanket is the Steelers' lockdown and knockout defense and its coordinator, Dick LeBeau. And has anybody noticed that head coach Mike Tomlin is two-for-two in division titles and already has 22 victories, plus that Super Bowl ring? More good news: The schedule, while difficult (San Diego, Minnesota, Green Bay, Tennessee, at Chicago, the home and away against Baltimore), is actually less of a bear than last year's.
Quarterback Joe Flacco reached the AFC Championship Game as a rookie and his days of being fed the game plan like it was a spoonful of Gerber's are done (he's had a really nice preseason). The running game will do its part, but how many more 1,000-yard seasons can the Ravens squeeze out of 12-year veteran Derrick Mason? Love the guy, but he's 35.
Cincinnati Bengals -- Anyone who has watched "Hard Knocks,'' including the other three teams in the AFC North, probably noticed that the Bengals have issues. Chad Ochocinco is so out there that the Bengals have to send the space station to retrieve him. He buys cheapie earrings to save money, but then gets fined $5,000 for wearing an orange chin strap. He was hurt last year, his receiving stats crashed and burned, and now he has to make do without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who signed with Seattle.
But the Bengals have quarterback Carson Palmer back in the lineup, which is always a good thing, and the defense could be decent, maybe better than decent if linebackers Keith Rivers and Maualuga do what everyone thinks they will (hurt people). Too bad it won't translate into a winning season. Seven of their first nine games are against Green Bay, Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (twice), Chicago and Houston. Brutal. But not as brutal as the video of recently signed No. 1 pick Andre Smith running the 40 shirtless. Or of him breaking a bone in his foot shortly after ending his contract holdout.
Cleveland Browns -- So many questions, so few answers.
Are we looking at another season of quarterback controversy? Do Braylon Edwards' hands still work? (16 drops, most in the league last year.) How is this team going to win more than six games?
Oh, wait, I can answer that one. They're not.
7. AFC South (order of finish)
Gene's AFC South picks
Jacksonville Jaguars -- A calculated flier pick in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Calculated because the Jags have a coach who knows what he's doing (Jack Del Rio), a running back who is in his hyphen prime (Maurice Jones-Drew), a quarterback whose TD vs. INT numbers should improve (David Garrard) and a defense that will knock you into the Atlantic Ocean. A flier because they were 5-11 last year and play in the same division as the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and the better-than-you-think Houston Texans. But the Jaguars' two problem areas -- offensive line and wide receiver -- are going to be considerably better than a season ago.
But even though Jim Caldwell was the heir obvious to Tony Dungy, and Manning is a quasi-assistant coach, and the Colts finally realized they had to beef up their defensive line, there are some key concerns.
For starters, is safety Bob Sanders going to make more than a cameo appearance this season? He's recovering from knee surgery and is vital to the Colts' run support. In his last three seasons he's played six, 15 and four games.
Can running back Joseph Addai return to form after offseason knee surgery? The Colts stunk it up on the ground last year (one 100-yard game, 31st in rushing), which is why they drafted UConn's Donald Brown in the first round. They'll share carries this season.
Can the defensive line finally stop the run? The preseason results have been encouraging.
I put nothing past Jeff Fisher (he's the dean of active NFL coaches and the Titans play hard for him), but the offense is going to have carry more of the load in 2009. The Titans were seventh in rushing (that happens when you have Chris Johnson and LenDale "No More Patron'' White), but 21st in total offense and 27th in passing. And it will be interesting to see if Vince Young tires of sitting behind 36-year-old Kerry Collins.
Houston Texans -- It's simple: If the Texans don't reach the playoffs this season, Gary Kubiak is probably gone. Good guy. Good coach. But Texans fans and Texans management have just about had it with 8-8 seasons.
The Texans started 2-7 last year, but finished 6-1, with wins against Chicago, Tennessee, Green Bay, Jacksonville and Indy. If quarterback Matt Schaub can finally stay healthy (hasn't happened yet), maybe Kubiak keeps his job.
8. NFL Most Valuable Player
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings.
I know what you're saying: "Is Geno nuts? Peterson isn't going to gain more than 1,800 yards and help lead the Vikes to the playoffs.''
But that's me -- risk-taker.
9. MVP finalists
Not a Cash for Clunker in the bunch. If Peterson isn't the guy, Rodgers will be. He might put up 2008 Brees-like numbers. Then again, so might Brees.
10. If these six NFL'ers wrote six-word memoirs
Plaxico Burress: I fought the law; law won.
Brandon Marshall: Cutler's in Chicago; I'm in pajamas.
Terrell Owens: Six-pack abs. One-pack mind.
Al Davis: Me, paranoid? Did Kiffin say that?
Tom Brady: Tried taking ugly pills. Didn't work.
Daniel Snyder: Throw money at everything, catch nothing.
11. AFC West (order of finish)
Gene's AFC West picks
San Diego Chargers -- This is officially Rivers' team, not LaDainian Tomlinson's. Not that Tomlinson is washed up or anything. He still gained more than 1,000 yards in 2008, but his yards-per-carry average dropped nearly a full yard from a season earlier (3.8, from 4.7). Thank you, toe injury.
Tomlinson and Darren Sproles (5.4 yards per carry, 11.8 yards per reception) should be lethal, and Rivers, while not the most physically gifted QB in the league, is a guy you want on your team. And, oh, he threw for 4,009 yards and 34 touchdowns last season.
Linebacker Shawne Merriman returns after sitting out almost the entire 2008 season with a knee injury. Hear that? That's the sound of opposing quarterbacks weeping.
If the Chargers can't win the weakest division in the league, then Norv Turner ought to fire himself.
Oakland Raiders -- Somebody has to finish second.
Actually, JaMarcus Russell is growing on me, and I like a coaching staff that beats the crap out of each other. A healthy Darren McFadden will be electric and, if nothing else, you can watch Nnamdi Asomugha perfect the craft of playing cornerback (and do it with a chipped bone in his left wrist).
Denver Broncos -- Am I the only one who thinks the Broncos are going to be OK? Don't answer that.
Yeah, the Broncos lost their first three preseason games. This matters why exactly? Kyle Orton, who had the misfortune of being traded for Jay Cutler, doesn't have Cutler's arm strength. He also hasn't had rookie Moreno and pout-king Marshall. When he does (and his injured finger heals), he'll instantly become a better quarterback.
The defense stunk the last two seasons, so why is everybody so worried about the switch to the 3-4? It's not like the Broncos could do much worse on that side of the ball.
The middle part of the schedule, though, is brutal: Dallas, New England, at San Diego, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, at Washington, San Diego, New York Giants. New coach Josh McDaniels is 33. He'll look 43 after that stretch.
Kansas City Chiefs -- Another team going to the 3-4. Another team going nowhere, though the Chiefs will be relatively fine if Cassel's sprained knee lingers (Tyler Thigpen is a capable backup QB). And, oh, a moment of silence for fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.
12. The coach most likely to be relieved of his whistle is
Tom Cable, Oakland Raiders.
If Darth Vader fires him, Cable can always explore a career in MMA.
13. Also in danger of joining the fraternity of the unemployed:
Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (a good guy, but I type his name every year), Buffalo's Dick Jauron, Dallas' Wade Phillips and Houston's Gary Kubiak.
14. And if they get canned, the four college coaches who can expect a phone call
Mark D'Antonio, Michigan State
Jeff Tedford, Cal
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford
15. Detroit's Matthew Stafford will have a better rookie season than the Jets' Sanchez because
Stafford has wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Sanchez doesn't. Sanchez has to play in the world's media capital, Stafford doesn't. True, the Jets have a much better offensive line than the Lions, but Stafford's quick release will help reduce that sack total of 52 in 2008.
16. NFC East (order of finish)
Gene's NFC East picks
New York Giants -- I blew off the G-Men last year and they mocked me with a 12-4 record. Tom Coughlin might not be Mr. Warmth, but he's a helluva coach and makes in-game adjustments better than just about anyone in his business.
The Giants are still looking for a playmaker wide receiver, but not much else. They're as fancy as white bread, but they do the things that win games and win this division: run the ball, control the lines of scrimmage, control the clock.
Westbrook just turned 30 and he's never played all 16 games of a season. (Which explains why the Eagles drafted Pitt running back LeSean McCoy in the second round.) And in each of his last three years his yards per carry have decreased, from 5.1 in 2006, to 4.8 in 2007, to 4.0 in 2008. That's still a respectable number -- and you could argue that his real value is as a receiver out of the backfield -- but the Eagles need a vintage Westbrook in 2009 if they want to finish ahead of the Giants and Cowboys.
What do I think of Michael Vick's arrival? When he comes back (he's eligible to play in Week 3), Vick will give defensive coordinators the shakes.
Dallas Cowboys -- The Cowboys are also looking for a playmaker wide receiver and, like the Giants, not much else. Roy Williams is supposed to be that guy, but I'll believe it when I see it. Owens and his 10 TDs of a season ago are in Buffalo now, but so is his massive ego and divisive nature. Tight end Jason Witten had as many 100-plus-yard games as Owens last year (two). Owens also had eight games in which his reception yardage totaled 38 or less. I'm not saying Owens' production won't be missed, but he simply wasn't worth the trouble anymore. Same goes for Pacman Jones.
There's a lot to like about this version of the Cowboys, beginning with the tag team of running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones, and a refocused Tony Romo at quarterback. Witten and Martellus Bennett create matchup problems at tight end. And the defense will be more than solid. A semi-soft first-half schedule gives Dallas a chance at a 6-2 record. Game No. 9 is a rematch at Philadelphia, site of the Cowboys' 2008 season-ending, curl-into-a-ball-and-get-whupped 44-6 game.
Washington Redskins -- If 2009 Albert Haynesworth plays as hard as 2008 Albert Haynesworth, then the Redskins will cause problems for lots of teams. Causing problems doesn't necessarily translate into wins, though. Six of their final seven games are toughies: at Dallas, at Philly, New Orleans, New York Giants, Dallas, at San Diego.
17. Five players destined for breakout seasons:
Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans -- Deuce McAllister is gone. Reggie Bush has knee issues. And the Saints know they can trust Thomas with the ball. The former undrafted free agent had nine rushing TDs and three receiving TDs a season ago. He gained 625 rushing yards. All of those numbers are going to bump up in 2009.
Greg Olsen, TE, Chicago -- Olsen had 54 receptions for 574 yards and five touchdowns in 2008. With Cutler at quarterback and no established threat at wide receiver, Olsen could venture into Jason Witten-Tony Gonzalez-Antonio Gates-Dallas Clark territory of 70-plus catches.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore -- He didn't score a touchdown as a rookie. All of that changes this year as Rice becomes a huge part of the Ravens' offense.
Anthony Gonzalez, WR, Indianapolis -- I had Gonzo on the same list last year and it didn't happen. This season it does.
Russell, Oakland -- Russell actually resembled an NFL quarterback during the last three games of the '08 season. I think he'll finally figure out what it takes to succeed in this league.
18. Coach of the Year
Jim Mora Jr., Seattle Seahawks.
19. NFC North (order of finish)
Gene's NFC North picks
I'm taking the Vikes because Brett Favre will do what Tarvaris Jackson has never done: complete 60 percent or more of his passes. Favre doesn't need to be a weekly hero. He just needs to make teams pay when they load the box against Peterson. It also would help if he cut down on those 22 interceptions of a season ago. This time he'll have a better offensive line than the one he had with the Jets, a better running back, a better offense, a rookie wide receiver in Harvin who just needs a sliver of open space, and a return to the division he knows best.
The Pat and Kevin Williams court situation still remains, so there's a chance Minnesota could be without its nose tackle and defensive tackle for four games apiece. If it happens, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who could be a head coach by 2010, will figure something out.
Bears -- If the Bears want to reach the playoffs, they might have to win the division. It's been five years since two teams from the NFC North qualified for postseason play. And in the last nine seasons, it's taken at least 10 games to win the division and an average of more than 11 victories.
Why does this matter? Because the Bears went 9-7 with Orton at quarterback in 2008. So it stands to reason that Cutler is worth at least one win, probably two, right? That's what the Bears figure.
Trading Orton for Cutler is like trading a Civic for a Shelby 500. Orton is dependable; Cutler is turbo-charged, yee-haw fun. A few things, though: Cutler thinks with his arm instead of his head way too often. That means interceptions and drive-ending incompletions. And it will be interesting to see how his temper holds up when he realizes the Bears don't have a Brandon Marshall or an Eddie Royal. But at least he has Forte and tight ends Olsen and Desmond Clark.
But the real question has nothing to do with Cutler; it has to do with the defense, specifically the D-line and the secondary. The Bears were 30th against the pass last season and 21st in total defense. If those numbers don't improve, then Cutler could end up doing what he did last season: missing the playoffs.
Packers -- Not much going on the night of Sept. 13. Just the Bears at Lambeau Field and the perfect opportunity for the Packers to make a statement.
Whatever the Pack is doing on offense during the preseason, it needs to keep doing during the regular season. Has Rodgers even thrown an incomplete pass yet?
The Packers aren't going to go 6-10 again. But if they want to challenge for the division, they'll need to remember how to run the ball. Ryan Grant finished with 1,203 yards in 2008, but it was a forgettable 1,000-yard season. The telling number: His yards per carry dropped by 1.2 from a season earlier.
Dom Capers is the defensive coordinator and has a history of seamless transitions when it comes to installing the 3-4. So far, so good during preseason with the new scheme. Through their first three games, the Pack's first-team D had forced 13 turnovers, given up just 10 points and recorded 11 sacks.
An 0-6 start is a distinct possibility, thanks to games at New Orleans, Minnesota, Washington, at Chicago, Pittsburgh and at Green Bay. But even if that happens, they'll be better than the 2008 Lions team that started out winless and stayed that way. Three reasons: Calvin Johnson, Stafford and Kevin Smith.
20. You'll never be able to make fun of kickers again if
David Buehler sticks on the Cowboys' roster (and so far so good).
The rookie from USC, picked in the fifth round to serve as the Cowboys' designated kickoff specialist, stunned his teammates by recently beating safety Deangelo Smith in a 50-yard dash.
They shouldn't have been surprised. According to a Los Angeles Times blog filed in late February, Buehler was a good enough athlete at USC that coaches used him at safety and fullback in practices. And at the NFL combine, Buehler's 25 bench press reps of 225 would have placed him first among cornerbacks, second among wide receivers, third among safeties, fourth among tight ends, sixth among running backs and eighth among linebackers. He also ran unofficial times of 4.56 and 4.63 in the 40.
21. The AFC team most likely to surprise us is
Houston Texans -- It happens if Schaub stays healthy for an entire season and the defense improves across the board.
22. The NFC team most likely to surprise us is
Green Bay Packers -- It's only the preseason, but
23. Amaze and impress your fellow owners with these three fantasy sleepers:
Mendenhall, Steelers -- A repeat sleeper from 2008.
McCoy, Eagles -- Brian Westbrook Jr.?
Stafford, Lions -- A hunch, nothing more.
24. Who suffers more from the Madden curse, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu or Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald?
Both. I don't see a Super Bowl rematch in their futures.
25. NFC South (order of finish)
Gene's NFC South picks
New Orleans Saints -- Two stats to remember: No team in the NFC South has ever won consecutive division titles, and in the previous seven seasons, five South teams have won the division after finishing last the year before.
The Saints finished last in 2008 with an 8-8 record, but they have an offense to die for and a new defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) who should make a difference, and they play in a division that is available for the taking.
Brees and his 5,069 yards (65 percent completions on 635 attempts!) weren't the problem; injuries and a crummy defense were (ranked 23rd in total defense, 23rd in pass defense). They also lost three games by three points, so 8-8 could have been 11-5.
Atlanta Falcons -- NFL history suggests the Falcons won't be able to repeat their successes of 2008, when they finished 11-5 with a rookie quarterback (Matt Ryan) and reached the playoffs. But I'm a big believer in Matty Ice, love the acquisition of Hall of Famer-to-be Gonzalez and don't see any reason why Michael Turner can't put up another 1,700-yard, 15-plus-rushing-TD season.
The defense is sketchy, especially in the secondary (the Falcons just traded for cornerback Tye Hill from the St. Louis Rams). And it would be nice if left defensive end Jamaal Anderson, their first-round pick of two years ago, would, you know, start making quarterbacks uncomfortable. He had only two sacks in 2008 and took the oh-fer as a rookie.
And yet, I pretend not to notice those things. I'm not saying they're going to win 11 again, but no way do they fade into the world of sub-.500.
Carolina Panthers -- The stat about no repeat winners in the NFC South? The Panthers won the division in 2008.
This isn't a team without talent (Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, an experienced offensive line, Julius Peppers, good linebackers, head coach John Fox), but there are soft spots. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has to do better than the 15 TDs/12 INTs ratio of 2008 (and a blah-ish 59.4 completion percentage). The O-line lacks depth. The defense was 20th against the run, 16th against the pass.
Tampa Bay Bucs -- The Bucs' 9-7 record in 2008 is going to seem like the good old days after this season. Whatever they're paying first-year head coach Raheem Morris, it isn't going to be enough.
Derrick Ward, Jeff Faine, Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow are keepers, but this is a roster in major transition (and so is the coaching staff -- they just canned their O-coordinator). And as in recent years, the quarterback position isn't anything special (Byron Leftwich is the opening-game starter). Killer schedule, too.
26. AFC team most likely to flop
Miami Dolphins -- With a division win in 2008 comes an upgraded schedule in 2009. Of the 13 teams the Dolphins play this season, 11 of them won eight or more games in 2008, six of them won 11 or more games, four of them won their divisions and one of them won a Super Bowl. And chances are, Miami won't escape the injury bug like it did in '08.
27. AFC flop honorable mention
New York Jets -- Flop is probably too harsh of a word for the Jets. They're just not going to win nine games again. I like the defense, but worry about the offense.
28. NFC team most likely to flop
Arizona Cardinals -- Since 1998, the Super Bowl loser is usually doomed the following season. It's a fact of NFL life.
Seven of the last 10 Super Bowl losers lost nine or more games the following year. Even the Patriots, who lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, couldn't sneak into the playoffs last season with 11 victories.
And for what it's worth, Whisenhunt hasn't been thrilled with the Cardinals during the preseason. He was especially steamed after Green Bay scored 38 points against the Cardinals' starters last Friday night.
29. NFC flop honorable mention
Carolina Panthers -- If Delhomme doesn't deliver, they miss the playoffs.
30. Geno, help. My dog ate my fantasy draft worksheet. Who are the top three players at each position?
First three quarterbacks: Brees, Brady, Peyton Manning.
First three running backs: Peterson, Jones-Drew, Chester Taylor (nah, just wanted to see if you were paying attention), Turner.
First three wide receivers: Randy Moss, Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson.
First three tight ends: Gates, Witten, Olsen.
31. Comeback Player of the Year
Tomlinson -- The NFL's leading rusher in 2006 and 2007 struggled (for him) last season with a toe injury and had only two 100-yard games. He still finished above the 1,100-yard mark, but it took him 292 carries to do it.
He won't lead the league in rushing in '09, but look for his numbers to get a significant bounce.
32. NFC West (order of finish)
Gene's NFC West picks
Seattle Seahawks -- Few teams suffered more significant injuries last season than the Seahawks, who were without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and members of their offensive line for large chunks of the schedule. Hasselbeck returns and he'll get to throw to offseason acquisition Houshmandzadeh, as well as John Carlson, who is fast-tracking toward top-tier status among tight ends. On the other side of the ball is rookie linebacker Aaron Curry.
Arizona Cardinals -- Look for the Cardinals to run the ball more this season. Why? Because they now have Wells and because at some point you have announce your presence with authority. Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin did almost all the heavy lifting during the playoffs, but a little more balance wouldn't hurt. The Cards had a combined two rushing touchdowns in the four rounds of the playoffs and only two rushing first downs out of 23 in the Super Bowl.
They open against San Francisco, but 10 of the next 11 games are rough (at Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Houston, at Seattle, New York Giants, Carolina, at Chicago, Seattle, at Tennessee, Minnesota).
St. Louis Rams -- Brittle Marc Bulger had an 11 TD/13 INT ratio last season, which helps explain the 2-14 Rams record. Bulger missed games. Star running back Steven Jackson missed games. The defense played as if it were AWOL.
New coach Steve Spagnuolo will crank up the volume. Five or six wins (they've won a combined five games the past two years) aren't out of the question.
San Francisco 49ers -- This really isn't an awful team. The defense is respectable (Patrick Willis, Parys Haralson), but the offense, even with Frank Gore, was a disaster film last season. And there's no way the Niners can finish minus-17 in turnovers again, can they? I'm rooting for head coach Mike Singletary, but the playoff drought (no postseason since 2002) will continue.
33. Defensive Player of the Year
Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans -- Consider this my apology note for mocking the Texans for taking Williams instead of Bush in the 2006 draft. He had 12 sacks last season and made his first Pro Bowl -- the first of many.
35. Your Week 1 upset special
Green Bay is anywhere from a 3 to 3½-point favorite at home against Chicago. I know the Packers crushed the Bears at Lambeau last year, but Chicago has won four of the last five in Green Bay. And this time they'll have Cutler. I'm taking Da Bears.
36. Three quarterbacks who will make biggest improvement from a season ago.
In the non-injured-a-year-ago category -- Vick, Philadelphia Eagles. He was in federal prison a year ago, so he's pretty much sewed up this category.
In the bench-warmer category -- Leftwich.
In the injured-a-year-ago category -- Hasselbeck.
37. AFC playoffs -- Last team In
Baltimore Ravens. (Indy is the other wild-card team.)
38. AFC playoffs -- Last teams out
A tie: Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans.
39. NFC playoffs -- Last team in
Philadelphia Eagles. (Chicago is the other wild-card team.)
40. NFC playoffs -- Last teams out
A tie: Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
I did a Favre and waffled on this one. I originally had the Cowboys in, the Eagles out. Then I had the Packers in and the Cowboys out.
Deep down, I'd love to see three teams from the NFC North get in. Twice in the last three seasons, the NFC East sent three teams to the playoffs.
41. AFC Championship
New England vs. San Diego -- The Pittsburgh Steelers just miss reaching the championship game. I take the Patriots because I believe Brady is a football god. I take the Chargers because it's time they ate at the grown-ups' playoff table.
42. NFC Championship
Minnesota vs. New York Giants -- Does Favre get his revenge? No frozen tundra championship game this time against the Giants (New York beat Favre's Packers in OT at Green Bay in the 2007 conference title game).
43. Super Bowl XLIV
Minnesota vs. New England -- A sportswriter's dream.
44. And the winner is
New England -- Gisele and Brazil rejoice.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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