- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Jimmy Fallon wanted to do a big, Ray Rice "Born To Run" Glee-like production number for this column, but I told him never mind. Bad move?
XLV predictions for an XLV Super Bowl season:
1. AFC North
(In order of finish)
Baltimore Ravens -- Normally, I'd have some issues with a team whose secondary is being held together by a Justin Bieber pack of Silly Bandz. And has any roster suffered more strange injuries than the Ravens, who lost their first pick of the 2010 draft to a flight of stairs (LB Sergio Kindle is recovering from a fractured skull) and free agent WR Donte' Stallworth to a simple pass pattern (broken foot)? But the offense is filet mignon (Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin, Rice) and should score more than enough points as the infirm slowly return to the Ravens' lineup. If Baltimore can survive the early part of its schedule (at New York Jets, at Cincy, at Pittsburgh, at New England), it'll be fine.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- Schedule guessing is dicey stuff, but the Steelers might have lucked out as Ben Roethlisberger serves his four-game suspension. They get Atlanta at home, go to Tennessee (8-8 last year) and Tampa Bay (3-13), return home for Baltimore, then have a bye week, then play Cleveland at the Heinz for Big Ben's return. Figure on 11,000 defenders in the box as opposing teams load up against Rashard Mendenhall and force third-team QB Dennis Dixon (Byron Leftwich is out with an injured knee) to beat them with the pass. As always, the defense depends on Troy Polamalu. Head & Shoulders insured his hair. Too bad the Steelers can't do the same for his knees.
Cincinnati Bengals -- I'll pick the Bengals to win this division when Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens take vows of silence. Love Carson Palmer. Love Rey Maualuga. Love D-coordinator Mike Zimmer. But Owens will do something stupid, jeopardize team chemistry, and that will be that.
Cleveland Browns -- Umm, this fall -- man, this is very tough -- this fall, I'm going to take my prediction talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat, and everyone else, in picking the Browns to finish last in the division. (2011 prediction: It won't stay that way forever, not with Mike Holmgren as team president.)
2. NFL MVP finalists
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens -- Workload was a manageable 254 carries last season (compared to Johnson's 358). And he'll lead all backs in receptions again.
Johnson, if he breaks Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. Rodgers, if he doesn't.
4. If they gave the MVP to someone who tackles for a living, it'd go to
6. AFC East
(In order of finish)
New England Patriots -- Yeah, they stunk on the road last year, they've suffered all sorts of injuries and Rams rookie Sam Bradford chewed them up in an exhibition game. So why do I have them winning the AFC East? I have no idea. Maybe it's because I think Bill Belichick will glue-gun the defense back together. (The loss of standout cornerback Leigh Bodden for the season is a killer, though. Second-year player Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty will start on the corners.) And I always like the matchup problems that Randy Moss and Wes Welker (or maybe Julian Edelman) present. By the way, Tom Brady is another year removed from knee surgery. But that's just me, Mr. Optimist.
New York Jets -- So what if Rex Ryan has a potty mouth? Think he's the first coach to cuss? What really bothers me about the Jets is all the question marks. Mark Sanchez should be better in Year 2, but will he? Can second-year RB Shonn Greene carry the running game? And if he can't, does LaDainian Tomlinson have enough left to do the job? What will be the trickle-down effect of Calvin Pace's injury? And, please, can the Jets do "Hard Knocks" every year?
Miami Dolphins -- If I had the hoo-haws, I'd take a flier on the Dolphins. Brandon Marshall could have a monster year. The Fish have an actual running game. Chad Henne keeps improving. But the defense is a work in progress, which is why I'm wussying out. Whatever happens, they'll be a tough out every week.
Buffalo Bills -- The Bills haven't reached the playoffs since 1999 and haven't won a postseason game since 1995. The streak continues this season. Congratulations, Buffalo!
7. AFC Rookie of the Year
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills -- Zoom, zoom.
9. NFC Rookie of the Year
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys -- Thanks for stopping by the booth, Roy Williams.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions -- Not that the Lions are going to be on national TV much; but when they are, watch Suh for six consecutive plays. You'll see.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams -- If the Rams' O-line can keep him upright long enough, Bradford will do his part.
11. AFC South
(In order of finish)
Indianapolis Colts -- Boring, isn't it? But who else do you pick? Peyton Manning is money. The division is semi-dreadful. And so far, Bob Sanders hasn't broken, torn or dislocated anything.
Houston Texans -- I swear they're going to make the playoffs one of these days. Matt Schaub had a career-high 29 TD passes last year, mostly because he stayed healthy and because of No. 80, Andre Johnson. TE Owen Daniels is coming back from knee surgery, so let's see how that works out. Second-round RB Ben Tate lasted exactly two preseason carries before breaking his fibula and tearing up his ankle. But Arian Foster looks like a keeper in the backfield.
Tennessee Titans -- Weird. Vince Young might be the de facto winner of the Heisman Trophy as a fifth-year NFL quarterback (if Reggie Bush has to return his). That's nice, since he's not going to win the AFC South. But it sure will be fun to see if Johnson can break the single-season rushing record of 2,105. CJ had 2,006 yards a year ago.
12. Words sure to be spoken by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell next April
"With the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills select University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker."
13. Dead Coach Walking
Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears -- The Bears haven't reached the playoffs since their Super Bowl season of 2006. Smith is 23-25 in his last three years and he's run out of staff changes to make. Another non-appearance in the postseason will seal his pink slip fate.
14. Dead Coach Walking Jr.
Wade Phillips, Dallas Cowboys -- Anything less than a home game at the Super Bowl will spell doom for Phillips.
15. Best NFL candidate to replace a Dead Coach Walking
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator.
16. Honorable mentions
Brian Schottenheimer, New York Jets offensive coordinator; Ron Rivera, San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator; Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator; Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator.
17. Best college candidate to replace a Dead Coach Walking
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma.
18. Honorable mentions
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford; Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (not that you'll ever pry him out of Iowa City now that he's agreed to essentially a lifetime deal at the school); Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech.
19. AFC West
(In order of finish)
San Diego Chargers -- You've got to admire the nerve of star WR Vincent Jackson, who got himself an NFL-imposed three-game suspension for substance abuse violations and also decided to hold out for a new contract. Is that some smart negotiating tactic, or what? Anyway, the Chargers put him on the roster exempt list and told the Seattle Seahawks they could talk to Jackson about a possible trade. Doesn't matter. The Chargers are still going to win the West because they have the best quarterback (Philip Rivers) and Jackson Jr. in Malcom Floyd. The defense has some issues, beginning with LB Shawne Merriman's tender Achilles. He might miss the season opener at Kansas City.
Kansas City Chiefs -- Control freak Charlie Weis never quite figured out the head-coaching thing at Notre Dame. But give him a headset, a play-call sheet and a decent quarterback and he can be a factor in the pros. Matt Cassel is already familiar with some of Weis' offensive system from his New England days (Cassel worked there with Josh McDaniels, who learned his NFL offense under Weis with the Pats), and how can you not like a tag-team backfield of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones? The 2009 defense was contaminated-eggs bad, but rookie safety Eric Berry will make a huge difference.
Denver Broncos -- (Warning: This will be a Tim What's His Name-free zone.) There's no getting around the Elvis Dumervil injury. The guy led the league with 17 sacks last year, so good luck finding someone who can get half that number. But I don't think it will be a huge surprise if the Broncos finish higher than the Chiefs. Of course, if RB Knowshon Moreno reinjures his hamstring (he suffered a slight tear early in camp and last year he sprained a knee ligament in the preseason), the Broncos will be lucky to stay ahead of the
Oakland Raiders -- Hey, actual light at the end of the Members Only jacket tunnel! Unlike JaMarcus Russell, that stiff who stole Al Davis' money, Jason Campbell knows how to play quarterback. Campbell is nursing some injuries, but the Raiders are tracking up. I've got them winning as many as seven games, a two-win bump from 2009.
20. Five players destined for breakout seasons
Malcom Floyd, WR, San Diego Chargers -- Floyd was already beginning to establish himself as a go-to receiver before the Vincent Jackson suspension and holdout. With no V-Jax, Floyd becomes Philip Rivers' primary downfield target.
Felix Jones, RB, Dallas Cowboys -- The 2010 edition of Jones is bigger and still frighteningly fast. Now he just needs to stay healthy.
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos -- Ditto on the healthy part.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers -- Actually, the breakout probably came in the second half of last season, when he caught four of his five TD passes for the year. He'll double that number, easy.
21. Breakdown candidates
22. NFC North
(In order of finish)
Green Bay Packers -- Aaron Rodgers didn't get ankle lubricant injections recently, didn't throw 26 interceptions last year and doesn't play for the Detroit Lions. Instead, he oversees a Packers offense that looks like The Greatest Show on Tundra. Does the Lambeau Field scoreboard have room for triple digits? Before Cheeseheads everywhere make their Super Bowl hotel reservations, remember this: Rodgers can't throw if he's on his back (the O-line was Jell-o shaky last season) and CB Al Harris' trip to the PUP list means more pressure on a Packers defense that didn't play all that well during the preseason. But it's preseason, right? Dom Capers will get it figured out in time for Sunday's opener at Philly.
Minnesota Vikings -- No, Brett Favre isn't older than Leif Erikson. But it's never a good thing when you have to do the Jiffy Lube thing and get lubricant injections in a surgically repaired, 40-plus-year-old left ankle. The Vikes would have been my division pick, but then WR Sidney Rice had hip surgery and Percy Harvin kept getting migraines.
Chicago Bears -- Jay Cutler is playing for his third offensive coordinator in three years. His offensive line, especially his left tackle (Chris Williams), is having pass-blocking issues. Nobody is quite sure what to expect out of RB Matt Forte and WR Devin Hester. The Bears' secondary continues to run lukewarm. And, oh, Lovie Smith might be a lame duck coach. So why again are so many people making the Bears their surprise NFC team? Right now, they have the look of 8-8.
Detroit Lions -- Cleveland Browns QB Jake Delhomme almost got beheaded by Lions rookie Ndamukong Suh in a preseason game. You think the other QBs in the division didn't notice the hit? The Lions are still going to be awful, but at least they'll be less awful. It'll be fun watching rookie Jahvid Best activate the afterburners. And it's always interesting watching grown cornerbacks weep as they try to cover Calvin Johnson.
23. Comeback Player of the Year
Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears -- He got dinged in the preseason, but will be fine for the opener against Detroit. Urlacher is 32 with some mileage on his football tires; after missing all but one game last season because of a dislocated wrist, he'll have something to prove.
Mike Williams, WR, Seattle -- The former first-round pick hasn't played a game in the league since 2007. He was out of the NFL in 2008 and 2009 and was invited to training camp only after surviving a tryout at minicamp in April.
Vince Young, QB, Tennessee -- He withstood the humiliation of being benched, returned to the lineup in Game 7 and helped lead the Titans to eight wins in the last 10 games. VY still has that funky throwing motion, but no way does he throw for less than 3,300 yards.
Wes Welker, WR, New England -- A quarterback with a surgically repaired knee throwing to a receiver with a surgically repaired ACL. Brady and Welker really are on the same page.
25. NFC East
(In order of finish)
New York Giants -- The Giants started 2009 5-0, then went 0-4, played W-L tag for five weeks, and then finished 0-2. They gave up 40 or more points five times. Injuries had a lot to do with the collapse, but now most everybody is healthy, including safety Kenny Phillips. A Phillips-Antrel Rolle safety combo is a nice luxury to have, isn't it? The D-line is still formidable and the Eli Manning-led offense has enough weapons to leave bruise marks. By the way, Manning Bowl II takes place at Indy on Sept. 19.
Washington Redskins -- The first Donovan McNabb-Philadelphia Eagles reunion is Oct. 3 in the City of Kevin Kolb Love. McNabb will love Mike Shanahan's offense. The real question is how quickly the Redskins' defense adapts to the 3-4 and if DT Albert Haynesworth can play with a pacifier in his mouth. (That is, if he's still on the team and if Shanahan even lets him play in the opener.)
Dallas Cowboys -- You'll watch Tony Romo when the Cowboys open the season at Washington; I'll watch Romo's new left tackle, Doug Free. If Free gags (he gets Chicago's Julius Peppers the following week, followed by Houston's Mario Williams the week after that), then Romo will need a Kevlar body suit. The Cowboys are trying to make history by becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, JerryWorld. Don't like their chances, unless they show some toughness beginning in November: at Green Bay, at New York Giants, Detroit, New Orleans, at Indianapolis, Philly, Washington.
Philadelphia Eagles -- Not much change with the Eagles, only a new quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and running back (LeSean McCoy) to replace McNabb and Brian Westbrook. Oh, and a rookie free safety, Nate Allen. (I'm not sure what to expect out of the Eagles. In fact, I'm not sure the Eagles know what to expect out of their reconfigured team. Wouldn't stun me if they struggle. Wouldn't stun me if they win the division. I know this: Linebackers Ernie Sims and Stewart Bradley are going to hurt people.
26. Coach of the Year
Flip a coin between Jim Schwartz of the Lions and Mike Singletary of the 49ers.
27. The AFC team most likely to surprise us
Denver Broncos -- Outside of Denver, I might be the only one who thinks so. Heck, maybe inside of Denver, I'm the only one.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- Some coaches have IT. Mike Tomlin is one of those coaches. He also has BR -- Ben Roethlisberger, whose return from his suspension will energize the Steelers.
29. The NFC team most likely to surprise us
Detroit Lions -- Good for a few upsets this season.
30. NFC South
(In order of finish)
New Orleans Saints -- Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is the Rex Ryan of the NFC, always popping off about how his scheme and players will inflict pain. Thing is, he's usually right. Just ask Favre, who looked like he needed easy access to his HMO card after the NFC Championship Game. The Saints get off the bus blitzing, but the defense had some breakdowns last year. I like the Alex Brown pickup at DE, but wonder what the loss of LB Scott Fujita will mean. And here's a history lesson: No team in the NFC South has ever won back-to-back division titles. Unless Drew Brees retires to join the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, that no-repeat stat is out the window.
Atlanta Falcons -- Injuries, a so-so defense and a brutal schedule did in the 2009 version of the Falcons. Now they're mostly healthy, the defense should be better and the schedule has some spots when it's as soft as Pat Williams' tummy. Ask yourself this question: Do you really think Michael Turner is going to have another injury-plagued season in which he rushes for only 871 yards (and even then, he scored 10 TDs)? And Matt Ryan has too many targets (hello, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White) not to finish with more than 2009's 22 TD passes.
Carolina Panthers -- I'm not quite sure how you become a better team when you lose Julius Peppers. Wait, you don't! Matt Moore will be an upgrade over Jake Delhomme at QB, and the Panthers have the 1,100-Yard Twins -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. And there's always WR Steve Smith. But the defense isn't making the knees of opposing offensive coordinators wobble.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Can you finish 3-13 again and actually be better? In the Bucs' case, yes. Lots of intriguing young talent (QB Josh Freeman, WR Mike Williams, DTs Brian Price and Gerald McCoy), but also lots of L's this season.
31. AFC team most likely to flop
Cincinnati Bengals -- Gee, what could go wrong? Chad Ochocinco and T.O. on the same team Cedric Benson pressing in a contract year toughie schedule.
New England Patriots -- Injuries and youth aren't often a great combination.
33. NFC team most likely to flop
Chicago Bears -- This is a high risk/high reward team. But if the offseason risks fail (translation: Mike Martz's offense sucks eggs), then watch how fast this thing goes south.
Dallas Cowboys -- Because it's fun to get e-mails from angry Dallas fans.
35. NFC West
(In order of finish)
San Francisco 49ers -- Let me get this straight: The guy who used to have an attitude problem (TE Vernon Davis) recently got into a scuffle with a guy who still has an attitude problem (WR Michael Crabtree). And the guy who broke up the scuffle (Mike Singletary) has enough attitude (the good kind) for the entire league. See, this is why I like the 49ers. They have a pulse. They also have Patrick Willis, RB Frank Gore, Davis, an upgraded offensive line, Crabtree and Alex Smith, who, at last, looks comfortable in his quarterback skin. Plus, it shouldn't take more than nine wins, tops, to walk away with the division title.
Seattle Seahawks -- New coach Pete Carroll will get the Seahawks turned around. It just won't be this season. QB Matt Hasselbeck, a media favorite for his candor and sense of humor, is in the final year of his contract. Carroll has backup Charlie Whitehurst all fueled up on the runway if Hasselbeck falters. The schedule isn't too tough (tied for 29th in difficulty), but, sigh, neither is the Seahawks' defense. At least, it wasn't last year.
Arizona Cardinals -- Uhh, what happened to the up-and-coming, perennial playoff-caliber Cardinals? They were here a minute ago. And then Anquan Boldin left. Antrel Rolle left. Karlos Dansby left. Kurt Warner retired. His replacement, fifth-year QB Matt Leinart, imploded. It's hard to win if nobody on your team, including the head coach, thinks you can lead. That's basically what happened to Leinart, who failed to inspire confidence or first downs during the preseason. So Ken Whisenhunt cut Leinart and promoted Derek Anderson to starter. Whooee.
St. Louis Rams -- I know Sam Bradford is a rookie quarterback. I know it was only preseason. I know it's the Rams. But Bradford has looked good, really good, at times. And when he isn't throwing, he gets to hand off to Steven Jackson, which is never a bad thing. And the Rams' schedule strength is a cuddly 31st in the league. Four or five wins wouldn't be a shock.
36. Team with the best chance to go undefeated
Indianapolis Colts -- Of course, it won't matter. Team president Bill Polian will order his starters to take a seat.
37. Undefeated honorable mentions
New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
38. Your Week 1 upset special
And by special, I mean it would be an upset if I ever got one of these right. And yet, those many failures don't stop me from picking Cincinnati over New England at Gillette Stadium and, as a bonus, Baltimore over the Jets at the new Meadowlands stadium.
39. AFC playoffs -- last team in
New York Jets.
40. AFC playoffs -- last team out
41. NFC playoffs -- last team in
42. NFC playoffs -- last team out
43. AFC championship
Indianapolis vs. Baltimore -- A rematch of last year's divisional playoff game. Sadly for the Ravens, with similar results. No way is Manning deprived of a return trip to the Super Bowl.
44. NFC championship
New Orleans vs. Green Bay -- I would actually pay my editors to cover this game. The Saints squeeze past the Pack, 38-35.
45. And the Super Bowl winner is
Peyton Manning is going to Disney World! And he'll film a commercial while he's there.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
Why even bother watching the games? Our expert already knows how the 2010 NFL season will unfold. Here we go with XLV predictions leading up to the Super Bowl XLV champion. (No fair skipping to the end!)