Judging from my weekly Wednesday chat on NFL.com, people are in the mood for predictions. I suppose that comes with one of the few true down periods in the league's news cycle. As such, I figured I'd oblige.
If you made me pick division winners today, here's who I would go with:
AFC North -- Baltimore. Few teams have been through more turmoil than the Steelers, and the uncertainty of the Ben Roethlisberger situation, coupled with the loss of Santonio Holmes, will limit that offense. In a tough division, that's too much to overcome. The Bengals have to prove they can do it two years in a row. Their defense will be fine, but I'm still not sold on the offensive attack and the ability of that offensive line to play to the level it did a year ago. The Ravens may have had the best offseason of any team. From trading for Anquan Boldin to retaining Derrick Mason to drafting a pair of talented tight ends to signing Donte' Stallworth, they finally gave Joe Flacco some weapons. Baltimore was the best team in that division down the stretch, and the Ravens have Super Bowl potential.
AFC East -- New England. I expect the Dolphins to make a push and have a feeling the Jets will end up being a nine-win team again this season, without the playoff heroics. The Patriots remain the class of the division. Belichick will tighten up the defense, Randy Moss will be motivated in what amounts to a contract year, Tom Brady will be better in his second full season after surgery, and the draft will yield dividends.
AFC South -- Indianapolis. You don't go from having a legitimate chance to go 19-0 to ho-hum in one season, especially with Peyton Manning on the roster. The Colts could well have the league's best record again, even in what might be the best division in football. If three teams made the playoffs in this division I wouldn't be shocked, though following the Brian Cushing suspension, I would certainly be more surprised. I love what the Titans did in the second half a year ago. I have finally become a believer in the Texans, but losing their best defensive player for a quarter of the season is a major blow. I don't see either challenger dethroning the Colts, who get Anthony Gonzalez back, and, dare I say it, Bob Sanders, too.
AFC West -- San Diego. The Chargers win this almost by default every year, and though I expect the Raiders to be better, I can't fathom San Diego not finishing first. Ten wins should be enough to do the trick. It usually is. Overall, this could be the worst division in football, again, though the NFC West is always in that conversation as well.
NFC North -- Green Bay. I was big on the Packers last season and don't see any reason not to renew my faith. That shootout loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs was tough to swallow, but a second year in the 3-4 defense and the continued ascent of Aaron Rodgers should make them contenders again. I expect Rodgers to be the best quarterback in the division this season. I have a hard time believing Brett Favre will be able to duplicate his phenomenal 2009, and continue holding off the mounting injuries. Even if he comes back, I think Green Bay gets it done.
NFC East -- Dallas. The Cowboys got over some major psychological hurdles last season. Miles Austin should continue to blossom and the offense, aside from some potential issues at left tackle, looks primed for another monster season. With Wade Phillips calling the shots defensively, I expect production. The ability to get to the quarterback is the key to it all, and I love the front seven there. The Eagles and Giants will be in the playoff race, and the Redskins are no longer doormats. Washington could well finish above .500 and make things more interesting.
NFC South -- New Orleans. Part of me was feeling the Falcons here, but I just don't think they added enough on defense to surpass the Saints. Even if the Super Bowl hangover gets the Saints a bit, they have so much talent. Keeping Reggie Bush and Darren Sharper was key, and coordinator Gregg Williams will continue to mold that defense. They may not win it going away as they did a year ago, and the Falcons will be strong in playoff contention, but the Saints remain the top dog at this stage.
NFC West -- San Francisco. Had they made an attempt to get Donovan McNabb, I'd be even higher on the 49ers. Regardless, I believe they can win this division with Alex Smith at quarterback. They have assembled good young playmakers on both sides of the ball and have begun the vital step of getting them signed to long-term deals. Having Michael Crabtree for a full season will complement a sound running game with Frank Gore. Mike Singletary is molding the defense in his likeness. Arizona losing Kurt Warner to retirement changes everything, and I'm not sold on Matt Leinart. The Cardinals can't pound the ball on the ground like the 49ers, and they lost a lot of talent in a short period of time.
Odds and Ends
» I would not be surprised to see the Ravens sign corner Travis Fisher soon. They need depth at that spot, and he filled in well during their recent minicamp.
» I'm glad I was not in the position where I would have had to revote on Brian Cushing for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Having him win it again sends the wrong message to kids, but we're also treading in some bizarre territory here, regarding a second vote. I imagine I would have abstained from process the second time around, or, if forced to vote, given the nod to Jairus Byrd.