Predicting Steelers-Saints Super Bowl
I offer a six-month warranty on these NFL predictions. But as always, save the receipt.
1. AFC East (order of finish)
Gene's AFC East picks
New England Patriots -- The Patriots are so good that even Randy Moss is making noise about a return to Foxborough. Sure, why not? He could join other reputation rehab patients, such as WR Chad Ochocinco and DE Albert Haynesworth. The defense is the unit that needs an upgrade. If Haynesworth resembles the pre-hissy fit Haynesworth of Washington Redskins days, the Patriots are going to be fine. In fact, better than fine. As part of bolstering the D-line, coach Bill Belichick also stole Shaun Ellis from the rival New York Jets. Smart.
New York Jets -- The Jets are going to play physical and they're going to blitz until you drop. That's a given under Rex Ryan. But two things have to happen on offense for the Jets to overtake the Patriots: QB Mark Sanchez has to bump up his completion percentage to more than 60 (54.8 last year) and RB Shonn Greene has to do better than 766 yards and two TDs.
Buffalo Bills -- This team is the NFL's version of the Island of Misfit Toys, what with utility man Brad Smith and LBs Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman now sharing roster space. That's because nobody puts his head on the pillow and says, "Gee, I hope one day I can play for the Bills." But one team's reject is another team's treasure. Slowly, the Bills are no longer an automatic out. They haven't turned the rebuilding corner just yet, but at least they can see it through the windshield. Thank you, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Fred Jackson and WR Steve Johnson.
Miami Dolphins -- There are too many things that have to go right for the Dolphins. QB Chad Henne, already under fire, has to execute a new offense with all sorts of new personnel around him (RB Reggie Bush, O-line changes). Coach Tony Sparano has to keep his team competitive while fighting off rumors of his dismissal. Thing is, there is talent on this defense (LBs Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby, NT Paul Soliai). Will it be enough? Uh, no.
2. MVP finalists
3. And the winner is
First of all, no running backs on my finalists list and no Peyton Manning. Weird. Anyway, I'm sticking with the man with the championship belt, Rodgers. Too many weapons at his disposal.
Brady -- Rivers will finish with more yards, but Brady will finish with more wins and more touchdowns.
5. If they gave the MVP to somebody who tackled for a living
6. AFC North (order of finish)
Gene's AFC North picks
Pittsburgh Steelers -- It's boring, I know, but the Steelers are going to win the division, and they're going to win it the way they always do: by making other teams cry for their binky. The Steelers are the leading cause of bruise marks. They hit you, wait until you get up, and then hit you again. I could go through their lineup for you, but that hasn't changed much, either. On offense, Ben Roethlisberger is going to hand off a lot to Rashard Mendenhall. On defense, SS Troy Polamalu and LB James Harrison are going to hurt people. Yeah, that about sums it up.
Baltimore Ravens -- The Ravens are starting to show some age spots. LB Ray Lewis can't play forever, can he? And even though FS Ed Reed had eight interceptions last season, you wonder how long his body will hold up. The Ravens still have lots of pride and also have RB Ray Rice and the underrated and over-criticized QB Joe Flacco. I love the signing of FB Vonta Leach and the secondary, with rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and third-year corner Cary Williams, could be a pleasant surprise.
Cleveland Browns -- Sam Bradford (No. 1 overall), Tim Tebow (25) and Jimmy Clausen (48) were picked ahead of Browns QB Colt McCoy (85) in the 2010 draft. If you had a do-over, Bradford would still go No. 1, but McCoy wouldn't last until No. 85. Cleveland is probably a year away from making the playoffs, but new coach Pat Shurmur has a nice core of talent to work with here.
Cincinnati Bengals -- Nothing against rookie QB Andy Dalton, but if Carson Palmer couldn't win with this team, then Dalton isn't going to do any better. Is there a way the Bengals could trade Palmer and owner Mike Brown?
7. General manager of the year
Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta Falcons -- If his audacious draft-day roll of the bones on WR Julio Jones pays off, then Dimitroff could get his own statue. If not, the Falcons are draft gutted for a couple of years and Cleveland Browns GM Tom Heckert (who swapped the No. 6 pick for five Falcons' picks) gets the award.
8. Seven games to remember (or you could just write them down)
Sept. 8 -- New Orleans at Green Bay. I smell a postseason rematch.
Sept. 11 -- The Ryan Bowl: New York Jets coach Rex versus Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob. Their famous father, Buddy, is delaying cancer surgery until after the game.
Oct. 30 -- Dallas at Philadelphia. Rob Ryan isn't buying the "Dream Team" thing -- and said so.
Nov. 6 -- Green Bay at San Diego. First team to score 100 wins.
Nov. 6 -- Baltimore at Pittsburgh. First team to score 14 wins.
Nov. 27 -- New England at Philadelphia. Coach Hoodie will downplay it as a nonconference game, blah, blah, blah, but we know better.
Dec. 26 -- Atlanta at New Orleans. Not Pittsburgh-Baltimore intense, but getting there.
9. NFC rookie of the year
RB Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints -- Atlanta's Jones is the popular pick, but I think Ingram will have a bigger impact over the course of the season.
10. AFC rookie of the year
11. AFC South (order of finish)
Gene's AFC South picks
Houston Texans -- Gary Kubiak saves his job by leading the Texans to their first-ever postseason appearance. It's about time. They should have made it last year, but they did a Ryan Braun face-plant while rounding third, losing four of their last five games and eight of their last 10. The offense isn't the problem; the Texans can score 25 points while buttoning their chin straps. But they also can give them up (a 26.7 average last season). Hello, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He'll make a difference.
Indianapolis Colts -- Until four-time MVP Peyton Manning returns -- if he returns -- to the Colts lineup after Thursday's cervical neck fusion surgery, Indy will have make do with 38-year-old Kerry Collins. Collins was an NFL retiree as recently as two-plus weeks ago. Now the winner of the Kenny Stabler look-alike contest will get the season-opening start at Houston. For the Colts' sake, its defense, ranked a sad 20th a year ago, better help the old man out.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- I originally had Indy and Jacksonville tied for second in the division. But then the Jags lost their minds and cut David Garrard FIVE DAYS before their season opener against Tennessee! Five days! That means QB Luke McCown is now the guy. At least the Jags have a safety net named Maurice Jones-Drew. And no way do the Jags finish 28th in total defense this season, not with LB Paul Posluszny.
Tennessee Titans -- Drama king Vince Young is gone, replaced by 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. Compared to VY, Hasselbeck runs like he has cinder blocks taped to his ankles. But Hasselbeck can run a team, something Young couldn't figure out. He leaves the comfort of the West Coast offense for a new system and a new Titans head coach (Mike Munchak takes over for Jeff Fisher), but unlike his former team in Seattle, he'll play behind a Grade A offensive line. And how hard can it be to hand off to Chris Johnson? The real question: Will the Titans win more games than the Seahawks? It will be close.
12. Words sure to be spoken by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell next April
"With the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck -- and trade his rights to the San Francisco 49ers."
13. AFC West (order of finish)
Gene's AFC West picks
San Diego Chargers -- The Chargers had the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in the NFL last season and didn't make the playoffs. That's hard to do even if you try. What killed them were special teams meltdowns, which is why Rich Bisaccia is the new special teams coach. And memo to second-year RB Ryan Mathews: hold onto the biscuit this season. A 2-5 start knee-capped the Chargers' 2010 postseason chances. It won't happen in 2011, thanks to an stretch that features an opener at home against Minnesota, followed by a road trip to New England, home games against Kansas City and Miami and a visit to Denver before their Week 6 bye (giving them plenty of time to prepare for a road game against the Jets).
Kansas City Chiefs -- For a moment, I actually thought about swapping the Chiefs for the Chargers. Their 10-6 record and division title a year ago were no accident. They crashed and burned against Baltimore in the wild-card loss, but that sort of thing happens to a team making the transition from nobody to somebody. Talk all you want about WR Dwayne Bowe and RB Jamaal Charles, but I love watching SS Eric Berry and LB Tamba Hali.
Denver Broncos -- If the Broncos don't win more than their 2010 total of four games, I will shave my head in the Friar Tuck/Tim Tebow rookie hazing style. Rookie LB Von Miller's arrival and veteran DE Elvis Dumervil's return, coupled with a better-than-you-think offense could bump the Broncos ahead of the Raiders.
14. Dead coach walking
Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins -- The first hint that Sparano wasn't ownership's particular brand of vodka is when they tried to hire Jim Harbaugh from Stanford . . . with Sparano still on the payroll! Sparano got a two-year extension out of the bungled coaching search, but that won't save him if the Dolphins can't put butts in the seats. Bill Cowher to the 2012 rescue?
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals -- I don't know how he survives, but he does. The guy has nine coaching lives. But he runs out of them after this season.
16. NFC East (order of finish)
Gene's NFC East picks
Philadelphia Eagles -- I think this is a closer division race than most people think. Can Vick repeat his form of 2010? Can the offensive line keep his jersey clean? Can the defense muscle up? Can the Eagles handle the expectations of Dream Team status? Probably, but I'm not absolutely convinced they're the gimme winner of the East.
Dallas Cowboys -- I'm guzzling the Jerry World Kool-Aid this season. Usually it's the Cowboys feeling the pressure, but this season Philly is getting all the attention. That will help. So will a 3-4 defense that will do much better than its No. 23 ranking last year.
New York Giants -- If the retooled offensive line doesn't do its part, then the Giants are going to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season. And beginning in November, they have to survive a schedule stretch of: at New England, at San Francisco, Philly, at New Orleans, Green Bay, at Dallas, Washington, at New York Jets and Dallas.
Washington Redskins -- Sexy Rexy Grossman is the starting quarterback. For now. Grossman is the guy who popped off about the Redskins being "ready to take over" this division. It's a nice thought, but it only happens if the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants switch to the AFC. I look at this roster and I don't see six wins.
17. Breakout candidates
I see many ESPN Top 10 Plays of the Day appearances by San Diego RB Ryan Mathews, Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley, St. Louis WR Mike Sims-Walker, New York Jets RB Shonn Greene, Dallas RB Felix Jones and Denver LB Von Miller.
18. Breakdown candidatesI see health problems for Cincinnati rookie QB Andy Dalton, Miami RB Reggie Bush, San Francisco RB Frank Gore, Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson and New York Jets WR Plaxico Burress.
19. Comeback player of the year
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions -- Stafford lasted three games and 96 pass attempts last season before his right shoulder was turned into spaghetti sauce after repeated separations. He had six TDs and just one INT after those three games. Just think what he can do if he's out there for all 16.
Albert Haynesworth, New England Patriots -- If Bill Belichick thinks Haynesworth has some game left, then he has some game left.
21. NFC North (order of finish)
Gene's NFC North picks
Green Bay Packers -- I can't even invent a reason why the Packers won't win the division. Barring catastrophic injuries to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Mike McCarthy and the guy at Lambeau Field who presses the "Go, Pack, Go" audio button, Green Bay is golden. Plus, they essentially acquired the equivalent of two major free agents during the offseason: tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant, both of whom missed almost all of the 2010 Super Bowl season with injuries.
Detroit Lions -- It's not complicated. With QB Matthew Stafford, the Lions make a playoff run. Without him (and he's missed 19 games since joining the league in 2009), they become the Oldsmobile of the NFL again -- obsolete and non-factors.
Chicago Bears -- I have no idea what these guys are going to do. Then again, I said the same thing last year and they finished 11-5. I still don't see a No. 1 wide receiver, still don't see a dependable offensive line and still don't know if Major Wright is the answer at free safety. I know this: Jay Cutler has to stay upright for the Bears to have a chance and wide receiver import Roy Williams has to deliver the goods. A second year in Mike Martz's system should make a significant difference for Cutler, who reduced his interception total by 10 last season versus 2009.
Minnesota Vikings -- By the way, I have no idea what these guys are going to do, either. New quarterback (Donovan McNabb). New offensive coordinator (Bill Musgrave). New left tackle (Charlie Johnson). New defensive tackle for two games (Kevin Williams must serve a two-game suspension). But old stadium (for eight more regular-season games -- that's when the Metrodome lease is up). Still, don't automatically discount a team with RB Adrian Peterson, WR Percy Harvin, DE Jared Allen, LB Chad Greenway and CB Antoine Winfield. And if McNabb can figure out how to work the way back machine, who knows?
22. Coach of the year
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers.
Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns.
24. The NFC team most likely to surprise us
Chicago Bears -- If the Bears' offensive line can keep it together in the early going (an IF as big as the Chicago Park District keeping the Soldier Field turf in shape), then they have a legitimate chance at double-digit victories. Ten wins will get them a wild-card spot.
Dallas Cowboys -- For a pleasant change, the Cowboys aren't all hat, no cattle.
26. The AFC team most likely to surprise us
Jacksonville Jaguars -- OK, maybe the Jags know something we don't. Sure, they saved $8 million by cutting Garrard, but it couldn't have been just about the money, right? They must think McCown can win now, that it was a push between him and Garrard. Please tell me that's why they waved goodbye to their former starting QB. So if that's why, as opposed to being, well, stupid, then this prediction might hold up. Reason: With Manning's return date a mystery and the Texans' nagging history of missing the playoffs, the Jags have a real opportunity to make some unexpected noise. Plus, I've got soft spot for Jags coach Jack Del Rio. During a recent trip to Buffalo for a preseason game, Del Rio made an unscheduled stop at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute to visit Buffalo News sportswriter Allen Wilson, who is battling leukemia. Del Rio doesn't know Wilson; he just heard about Wilson's condition and decided to quietly stop in and simply wish him the best (News columnist Bucky Gleason does a wonderful job explaining it all). Anyway, classy move by Del Rio for a classy sportswriter.
Cleveland Browns -- Lots of moving parts (the loss of guard Eric Steinbach to season-ending back surgery, a new 4-3 defensive scheme, a new head coach), but a soft-ish early season schedule gives the Browns a chance for a fast start.
28. NFC player who will feel the most pressure
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons -- The Falcons swapped first-round picks with the Cleveland Browns and gave up four primo picks (second- and fourth-round picks in 2011, first- and fourth-round picks in 2012) to climb to the sixth spot and take the Alabama wide receiver. He doesn't have to be Roddy White this season, but he absolutely can't be Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has a grand total of 35 receptions and two TDs after being chosen with the seventh overall pick by Oakland in 2009.
29. AFC player who will feel the most pressure
Kerry Collins, Indianapolis Colts -- If you think Collins' hair is gray now, wait until he has to carry the Colts during Manning's absence. He'll need a vat full of Just For Men.
30. NFC South (order of finish)
Gene's NFC South picks
New Orleans Saints -- I'm not messing with history anymore. No team has ever won back-to-back NFC South Division titles. I thought the Saints would end the streak last year, but Atlanta finished ahead of them. So now it's the Saints' turn to win the division and much, much more. I've got man-crushes on QB Drew Brees, rookie RB Mark Ingram, veteran and durable all-offense-thingamajig Darren Sproles, center Olin Kreutz and coach Sean Payton, who just signed a contract extension. And if motivation matters, just mention this 2010 playoff score to the Saints: Seattle 41, New Orleans 36.
Atlanta Falcons -- If I felt a tiny bit better about the Falcons' defense, they'd be the pick here. Otherwise, the Falcons have everything you want: a skill position paradise (QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Roddy White), a respected coach (Mike Smith) and an organizational culture that now expects to win.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- I said they'd be better than anyone expected in 2010, but I didn't think they'd be 10-6 better. Not even close. But then came Josh Freeman and his 25 TD throws (versus only six interceptions) and his 61.4 completion percentage. Then came RB LeGarrette Blount's 1,000-yard season and WR Mike Williams' 11-TD revelation. The Bucs are younger than Justin Bieber, but, man, do they have some talent. Too bad they're in this division. Then again, they proved everyone wrong last year too.
Carolina Panthers -- The Panthers are going to double their win total of a season ago! And still finish with the worst record in the NFC. But that's what happens when you play in the killer NFC South, start a rookie quarterback (Cam Newton) and have a rookie head coach (Ron Rivera).
31. AFC team most likely to flop
Indianapolis Colts -- The Colts were a flop candidate even before this latest news regarding Manning's second neck surgery. But with the uncertainty regarding Manning's return, anything is possible, including their first single-digit win total since 2001 and a playoff no-show.
Miami Dolphins -- It's not like anyone is picking the Fish to win the division or reach the postseason. But the fanbase isn't happy with owner Stephen Ross (hello, blackouts?), isn't thrilled with QB Chad Henne and doesn't know what to make of Reggie Bush as an every-down back. A three-win season, or worse, is a distinct possibility.
33. NFC team most likely to flop
New York Giants -- The Giants lost WR Steve Smith to the Eagles, lost rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara to a broken foot until at least late September, lost veteran corner Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff to a torn ACLs and have some O-line questions. In the Giants' favor: New York fans are known for their patience and they rarely second guess coach Tom Coughlin.
Chicago Bears -- I know, I had them as a surprise candidate too. But this is how thin the margin of error is with the Bears. Is it a good thing when two of your best players (Matt Forte and Lance Briggs) want new contracts, but don't get them? Is it a good thing when your suspect offensive line faces in its first six games Atlanta's John Abraham, Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, New Orleans ultra-aggressive D-coordinator Gregg Williams, Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and Minnesota's Jared Allen? Is it a good thing when your big free-agent receiver (Roy Williams) keeps dropping the ball?
35. Your Week 1 upset special
In the Ryan Bowl, Rob will beat Rex. In other words: Cowboys 20, Jets 17 at the New Meadowlands.
Now that I'm done with that, let's go eat a GD snack.
36. Tim Tebow will start for the Broncos if
A. Urban Meyer or former Nease High School coach Craig Howard replaces John Fox.
B. The Broncos become the newest member of the Pac-12.
C. Kyle Orton rolls both ankles and can't execute five-step drop in walking boots.
D. Tebow purchases controlling interest from owner Pat Bowlen.
Hey, I get it: the NFL is a zero sum game. It's heartless. It's business. But at what point does the dog pile of critics on Tebow's game (and in some cases, his spirituality) become borderline ridiculous? Oh, wait, it already has.
I'm not making excuses for him. If he can't play, he'll be out of the league soon enough. The waiver wire is full of first-round washouts -- even really polite ones.
But a few things to remember: Tebow is on his second head coach in as many seasons. He had a 300-yard passing game in one of his three late-season starts in 2010 (OK, it was against Houston's secondary). No quarterback has been more micro-analyzed than this guy. After apparently being lapped by Brady Quinn for the backup job, Tebow played well enough in the final two preseason games (especially against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 1) to remind people that he's a work in progress worth waiting for.
Is he better than Orton? Nope. But Orton (and Quinn) become free agents at season's end, while Tebow has three more years left on his deal.
So why doesn't everyone breathe slowly into a paper bag, give Tebow some elbow room and let him develop. Either he'll get it, or he won't.
My prediction: He's no washout.
37. NFC West (order of finish)
Gene's NFC West picks
St. Louis Rams -- A brutal September and October schedule (Philly, at New York Giants, Baltimore, Washington, at Green Bay, at Dallas, New Orleans) will reveal a lot about the Rams. But there's a lot to like about Steve Spagnuolo's team, beginning with Steve Spagnuolo. If the Rams can avoid a 1-6 start, they have enough wiggle room in the second half of the season -- and enough talent -- to recover and win the division.
Arizona Cardinals -- The Cardinals somehow won five games last season with a conga line of quarterbacks that featured Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel (a combined 10 passing TDs, 19 interceptions, a dreadful 50.8 pass completion percentage). That alone should have guaranteed Ken Whisenhunt coach of the year honors. This year he gets Kevin Kolb, who has to be worth at least three more wins, right? And the early-season schedule is warm and fuzzy.
San Francisco 49ers -- Is this the season Alex Smith finally figures it out? Or will the Niners be so gawd awful that Stanford's Andrew Luck won't have to leave the Bay Area to play football next season? I think Smith makes a quantum quarterback leap, thanks to the same guiding Jim Harbaugh hand that helped Luck at The Farm.
Seattle Seahawks -- Remember those seven regular-season victories, the division title, the playoff win against New Orleans in 2010? Good, because none of that is going to happen this year. There's simply too much unproven new stuff on the Seahawks. New QB (Tarvaris Jackson). New offensive linemen (including two rookies).
38. Team with the best chance to go undefeated
New England -- The first half of the schedule gives the Patriots a crack at an 8-0 start (the Chargers, the Jets and the Cowboys all at Foxborough, but the eighth game is at Pittsburgh). After that, two road toughies: at the Jets on Nov. 13 and at Philly two weeks later.
39. Team with the best chance to go winless
Cincinnati Bengals -- It's entirely possible Bengals fans will refer to the 4-12 record of 2010 as "the glory days."
40. AFC playoffs, last team inBaltimore Ravens -- They sweat it out with nine wins.
41. AFC playoffs, last team out
Indianapolis Colts -- Manning returns, but not in time to rescue the Colts from getting shut out of the postseason.
42. NFC playoffs, last team in
Dallas Cowboys -- As long as Wade Phillips was their head coach, I couldn't pick the Cowboys to beat Plano High. But I love the coaching combo platter of Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan.
43. NFC playoffs, last team out
Detroit Lions -- If Stafford spends the entire season in a Lions uni and not part of it in street clothes, then Dr. James Andrews deserves a playoff share. And I deserve to be mocked for leaving them out of the NFC postseason six. If only Suh could pass block and play cornerback too. In the Lions' favor: karma. The organization's heartfelt response to the recent death of longtime Lions beat reporter Tom Kowalski was wonderful (a sports journalism scholarship in Kowalski's name, donations to his two favorite charities and renaming the media area at the team facility).
44. AFC championship
Pittsburgh vs. New England -- A rematch of the Oct. 30 regular-season game, except this time the Patriots will have the home-field advantage. It won't matter, though, as Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the past seven years.
Afterward, a tearful Hines Ward blubbers, "I thought my Mirror Ball Trophy would be the last championship I'd ever win. But there really is life after 'Dancing With The Stars.' "
45. NFC championship
New Orleans vs. Green Bay -- The two teams that started the NFL regular season also end the NFC playoff season.
Saints D-coordinator Gregg Williams blitzes Rodgers as soon as the Packers' QB pulls into the Lambeau Field players' parking lot. An increasingly fragile Green Bay offensive line spends much of the day peeling Rodgers off the frozen tundra.
46. And the Super Bowl winner is
You'd think the fast track at Lucas Oil Stadium would favor the Saints, but it's the Steelers who air it out against Williams' defense.
During the Lombardi Trophy presentation, the Steelers' Harrison bull rushes Roger Goodell's security detail and then hugs the stunned NFL commissioner. They leave the stage together singing "Kumbaya."
In the immortal words of Mike Gundy, "I'm a man!" So when the season's done, I'll do the manly thing and circle back to survey the predictions carnage.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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