Figured now is as good a time as any to open myself up to public flogging and give you my picks for each division, even before rosters are set. Heck, we're halfway through the preseason, so why not? I'll go ahead and name a last place team as well, which I'm sure will have some of you guys ready to pounce.
Hey, it's just one guy's opinion, and, as with any predictions, let's never forget this disclaimer that should always be attached: This is a wild league where surprises abound in every season, so if anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're a fool.
With that in mind, here goes:
Winner: Eagles. This has been a real struggle for me, with the Eagles and Giants both suffering significant losses this preseason. I have concerns about Philadelphia's injury-ravaged offensive line and defensive communication system -- with former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins and starting MLB Stewart Bradley no longer there -- and the Giants defense can't get through a practice without 2-3 more guys going down. I'm starting to think, overall, this division might be down a little this season. I'll stick with the Eagles for now, but not by much, and this smells like a three-team race to me.
Loser: Redskins. The Redskins look like a team with a top-5 defense and a bottom-5-10 offense, which is roughly what they have been for five years now. Winning 7-8 games seems about right -- they'd beat start quickly before the schedule and weather turn severe -- which probably puts them bottom of the pack, unless a division foe gets ravaged by injuries.
Winner: Patriots. I don't see it being all that close. This strikes me as a team on a mission, with the ultimate button-pusher calling the shots (Bill Belichick) and the game's best QB back to reclaim that status (Tom Brady). Expect to see more blitzing this season with the team using more Cover-1 (one safety back) and Cover-0 (no safety help) looks, with bigger corners on the roster and also more 4-3 looks on defense. My Super Bowl pick.
Loser: Bills. The Jets could end up in this same range, 6-8 wins, and that wouldn't surprise me either. But T.O.'s toe would be a concern to me, I'm not sold on the running game and young offensive line, the QB and coach have their jobs on the line and the defense isn't loaded enough to overcome that (though the Bills secondary continues to impress).
Winner: Seahawks. I worry about the injuries to the offensive line. I worry about Marcus Trufant still being on the PUP list. But they have the best QB in the division in Matt Hasselbeck and they reloaded some on offense. The running game could be iffy, too. But I have a feeling this team bounces back and plays with more passion this season. In this division, a flawed team will come out on top and the Cardinals don't strike me as a team ready to mount back-to-back deep playoff runs.
Loser: Rams. The QB is the key and he's already dinged up again. Steve Spagnuolo will add bite to the defense, and I like certain individual pieces here, but it's a 2-3 year task to rejuvenate this franchise. Playing in this division will help, though.
Winner: Chargers. San Diego is the class of this division, has been for a while and should take this division with several games to spare. Locking up stud QB Philip Rivers only increases those chances, and they have several other young starters playing for a contract, so motivation will be high. Not sure Norv Turner is the guy to take them all the way, but they should be better on D in Ron Rivera's scheme, forcing more sacks and takeaways.
Loser: Raiders. JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden could both make nice strides this season, but this outfit could still be doomed. The lack of proven receivers is scary, the defense is erratic, fundamentals are often lacking, penalties too common. The overall organizational chaos there seems to trump all. Kansas City and Denver likely won't be too much better, but until the Raiders show me they're beyond the bizarre, I can't pick them anywhere but the basement.
Winner: Steelers. The schedule actually doesn't look as ridiculous this season, the offensive line should be more consistent and as long as Ben Roethlisberger is under center they have a chance to win every week. We all know the formula here, and it works every time (as Billy D would say). Hyper-physical defense and smashmouth offense, plus Big Ben's big-play ability.
Loser: Browns. The Bengals should at the very least be able to make things happen in the run game. Can't say the Browns have much of an identity on offense. Defensively, both teams have issues and are retooling again. I'll take a team with a franchise QB (Carson Palmer) over a team crossing its fingers that it has a QB (Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn) every time.
Winner: Packers. Best quarterback in the division. Great secondary. Offensive line should be much healthier, which will trigger the run game. Scouts are noticing how well the Packers are adjusting to their 3-4 defense in preseason. I see it leading to more chances for the talented DBs to make plays on the ball, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers will certainly put more pressure on the passer.
Loser: Lions. They could win as many as four more games than last season and still be looking at the first overall pick. Jim Schwartz really is starting from scratch there. Those kind of holes take 2-3 years to plug before you start winning ballgames on a regular (or semi-regular) basis.
Winner: Colts. Peyton Manning was grunting and feeling his way through the first half of last season after a lost offseason due to injury. Yes, they have lost some coaches, I'm still not sold on that run defense, and there are issues at tackle on offense, but they've won plenty of the games in the past despite a so-so defense. I think Donald Brown and Joseph Addai will give them a nice rotation at RB.
Loser: Texans. Jacksonville is a strong candidate here as well, and both teams have coaches on the hot seat. But I believe the Jags can scrap out ugly wins more than the Texans can (they're more physical, can grind the ball more, shouldn't lose their entire offensive line to injuries again this season). The Texans haven't found a way to turn their individual brilliance into total team succes and I'm not sure this is the season they do it.
Winner: Falcons. I love the offseason moves and love the way Thomas Dimitroff has overturned his roster. They have a potential Hall of Fame QB in Matt Ryan (yeah, it's only been one season, but I said it/blogged it), a superstar back in Michael Turner, an improving offensive line, a Hall of Fame TE in Tony Gonzalez and by extending WR Roddy White they have happy campers all around. The defense can get after the passer. This team could be very, very good.
Loser: Buccaneers. They have changed their offensive system, are unsettled at quarterback and have a young leader in coach Raheem Morris. All of that, combined with playing in what may prove to be the toughest division in football, make it tough to expect too much too soon. If they can run the ball as they hope to -- and there will be a commitment there -- then the Bucs might prove me wrong. And in this division, like a few others, the worst team could still end up with seven or eight wins.
And, to put a tidy bow on everything, I'll take Baltimore and Tennessee as my AFC wild cards, and I'll take New Orleans and Dallas as NFC wild cards.