Gazing Into the 2011 NFL Crystal Ball

In ten days, the Pack will begin defense of their Super Bowl title against Drew Brees and the Saints. Between now and then we'll see the team cut around 35 guys as Ted Thompson finalizes the 2011 roster. Seems like as good a time as any to make my predictions for the season. Feel free to save this blog and check it out around the first of the year to see how eerily prescient I was.

AFC East

New England 12-4

N.Y. Jets 11-5

Miami 6-10

Buffalo 6-10

The haves and the have nots in the East, where New England will once again reign as the conference's top seed. The Patriots have gotten younger on defense, where they need to improve if they want to start winning games in January. The Jets will continue to win with defense, but may rely a bit more on Mark Sanchez this season, unless Shonn Greene can step up with a big season. The Dolphins have a chance to win a couple more games, but it's all about Chad Henne. The Bills will be improved, but they're a couple years away.

AFC West

San Diego 10-6

Kansas City 9-7

Oakland 8-8

Denver 4-12

The Pack will play everyone in this division, getting the better two teams on the road and hosting the two weaker teams. Everyone always picks San Diego every year because on paper they look frightening. They led the league in offense and defense last year, but failed to reach the playoffs. That won't happen this time around. With a healthy and hungry Vincent Jackson and improvement from second year running back Ryan Matthews, the Chargers will prove to be the class of the division. The Chiefs are on the way, but will hit a speed bump this season. That said, they're very tough at home and will be a tough game for the Pack. The Raiders and Broncos are also-rans. No way Oakland runs through the division again this year and the Broncos need a lot of defensive help to be taken seriously.

AFC North

Baltimore 11-5

Pittsburgh 11-5

Cleveland 8-8

Cincinnati 3-13

I've got the Ravens winning the tiebreaker and claiming the division. The defense is on its last legs, but will rise up when it matters most. The addition of Lee Evans gives Joe Flacco a downfield threat and Ray Rice will emerge as an MVP candidate. The Steelers will be more of a passing team, but will win with their defense once again, though eams with strong passing games will give them fits. The Browns are on the way up: Colt McCoy has made a lot of progress and will have a new favorite receiver in Greg Little. The Bengals will shake hands with QB Andy Dalton, give him a nice parting gift and begin plans to draft QB Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 draft.

AFC South

Houston 10-6

Indianapolis 9-7

Jacksonville 6-10

Tennessee 5-11

I'm one of those guys who likes the Texans every year, but with the arrival of Wade Phillips to install the 3-4 and run the defense, I think Houston has enough to win this mediocre division. It may take another year or two until the defense is humming, but they'll be improved enough, since the trio of Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson rivals anyone else's triplets. The shaky status of Peyton Manning and an underwhelming offensive line is enough for me to knock the Colts out of the playoffs. The Jags are weak at QB and the Titans are relying on the aging Matt Hasselbeck and very few legit pass-catching options, not to mention Chris Johnson's holdout.

AFC Playoffs

In the wildcard round, the Steelers head to Houston and The Chargers host the Jets. I've got San Diego and Pittsburgh moving on. I know, it's probably dumb to short-change the Jets, but I think this time Philip Rivers steps up big and does just enough against that tough defense. Pittsburgh moves on to face the Patriots, while San Diego heads to Baltimore. I've got the Patriots and the Ravens in the AFC title game, with New England advancing to Super Bowl XLVI.

NFC West

St. Louis 9-7

Arizona 8-8

San Francisco 5-11

Seattle 4-12

Once again the league's worst division, the NFC West rides the arm of Sam Bradford, who may take a few weeks to get settled in Josh McDaniels' offense, but he leads a nice, young team that has added some offensive weapons and continues to improve on defense. The Cardinals could surprise if Kevin Kolb plays better than I think he will, but they feel like a .500 team. The Niners and Seahawks have serious issues at quarterback and until they get new guys under center, they will not be a factor.

NFC East

Philadelphia 11-5

Dallas 9-7

N.Y. Giants 7-9

Washington 6-10

We've all heard about the dream team and, yes, on papers the Eagles defense looks very impressive. But they do have some warts: their linebackers are pedestrian and their offensive line is very shaky. The latter presents the biggest issue: their inability to protect Michael Vick proved to be the team's undoing at the end of last season. If he's not healthy, it's either Vince Young or Mike Kafka's team. The Eagles are playing in a division that's not as strong as it's been in years past and should prove to be the best team again. The Cowboys, with a healthy Tony Romo, will be improved, but they're thinner at RB and are looking to DC Rob Ryan to rejuvenate a defensive unit that was horrible last season. The Giants take a step back with too many injuries on defense and too few weapons for Eli Manning. The Redskins have looked good in the preseason, but I'm skeptical. They're headed in the right direction, but won't have a lot so show for it this season.

NFC South

New Orleans 11-5

Atlanta 11-5

Tampa Bay 9-7

Carolina 4-12

The NFL's best division will deliver three playoff teams this season, with Tampa Bay winning a tiebreaker over two other teams. I like the moves the Saints have made, beefing up on defense after getting embarrassed in the playoffs in Seattle. The additions to the backfield of Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles give the offense a new dimension and I expect them to take advantage of a weak December schedule to claim the division. The Falcons will be solid once again and the Bucs have added a few nice defensive pieces and will win one less game than last year, but this time they'll sneak in as the sixth seed. The Panthers need to remake their defense under Ron Rivera and will suffer severe growing pains under QB Cam Newton.

NFC North

Packers 12-4

Detroit 9-7

Chicago 8-8

Minnesota 6-10

The Packers are the class of this division; they will be in fewer close games and will be hungry to gain the NFC's top seed, so the road to Indy goes through Lambeau. I've got all four losses coming on the road: at San Diego, at Kansas City, at Atlanta and at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Detroit is for real, with the best defensive line in football and the real deal in QB Matt Stafford. The bet here is he stays healthy to guide the Lions to a winning season, falling just short of the playoffs. The Bears step back a bit, thanks to a weak offensive line and a defense that starts to show its age. The Vikings have too many holes on offense and defense to be a factor. The secondary may be the worst in football, not good in a division that boasts Rodgers, Stafford and Cutler.

NFC Playoffs

Atlanta goes to St. Louis and Tampa Bay heads to the Superdome to play the Saints in the wildcard round. I have the Falcons moving on to play the Pack and the Saints advancing to meet the Eagles. Green Bay gets revenge for its regular season loss at the Georgia Dome and knocks out the Birds for a second straight year, while the Saints go into Philly and upset the Eagles. The NFC playoffs end the way the NFL season opened, with the Saints falling to the Packers at Lambeau. Green Bay advances to Super Bowl XLVI to meet the Patriots in a rematch of the big game 15 years earlier, when Desmond, Brett and Reggie brought the title home to Titletown.

Packers and Patriots in the Super Bowl. Rodgers vs. Brady. McCarthy vs. Belichick. It's a great matchup and naturally I've got the Pack going back to back, winning the game 31-30 on a Mason Crosby field goal in the closing moments.

The journey begins on Thursday, September 8th. Coming on Wednesday: my fantasy football predictions.


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