I've been charged with looking into a crystal ball here and making some predictions on the second half of the season. As such, I feel it's only right to go bold with a few of these, and step out on a limb some. They won't all be wild, and some might seem pretty obvious, but I'll throw a few esoteric items in the mix as well.
Overall, parity again reigns, with no team yet to rival Green Bay's supremacy, and even the Packers would say they aren't exactly where they want to be defensively, anyway. Most of the division races look up for grabs, and we'll learn plenty more about upstarts like Detroit and Cincinnati in the second half of the season.
With that in mind, here's a look at 10 relatively fearless predictions for the rest of 2011:
1. Drew Brees will best Dan Marino's single-season passing-yardage mark: We've been hearing all about how many passers were once on pace to break the record. Well, one is going to do it. Brees is already past the 3,000-yard plateau, Sean Payton isn't going to stop throwing the ball, and with the defense giving up plenty of yards and points, the need to keep chucking it around will be legit.
You can't convince me Payton wouldn't want to be a part of something like this, and with his leg healing up, the Saints should be back to the norm soon enough. Brees is completing 71 percent of his passes -- so it's in play -- and he won't let the increase in interceptions change his approach. He is averaging 334 yards through nine games; Marino averaged 318 yards per game en route to his 5,084-yard mark. I don't see the Patriots and Tom Brady keeping pace while Aaron Rodgers is gonna cruise to a No 1 seed in the NFC and likely get a little time off. The Saints will be jockeying for playoff position until the end.
2. Colts will go 0-16: Indianapolis will get a stranglehold on the top overall pick, and Andrew Luck. Everybody else in the league is going to win at least three games (more on that, later), and the Colts will win none. Their best shot will be in one of the two games left with the Jaguars, but I'm calling a Jacksonville sweep, including in the season finale, to culminate a Manning-less season that will never be forgotten. And even though the plan internally now is to keep Jim Caldwell as coach, 0-16 will result in some heads rolling, and his would likely be the first in line. That's how it goes for coaches, unfortunately.
Week 10 playoff picture
3. Ndamukong Suh has a monster second half, but won't lead playoff charge: Fresh off his visit to the league office, and more edified about what is and is not acceptable when it comes to quarterback violence, Suh will get back to his 2010 form and help tighten up what has been a porous run defense. He'll also find himself politely sacking quarterbacks with greater regularity and Detroit fans will continue turning Ford Field into one of the league's more difficult places for opponents to play. However, a playoff appearance will have to wait as the Lions will be this season's Bucs and just miss out on the big dance.
4. At least one coach won't be back in the NFC East: There is going to be at least one very unhappy owner in this division, perhaps more. And some coach will lose his job because of it, with Jeff Fisher a strong candidate to replace him in any of these major markets. There is some surprise coaching move every year that no one really sees coming. In a season in which I suspect we see at least four front offices make changes, there will be a coaching move or two that catches some by surprise. I could see Fisher in the NFC East come January.
5. Jason Campbell isn't done in Oakland yet: Have a bad feeling about the Carson Palmer era in Oakland, at least in the short term. I wonder how his elbow, shoulder and everything else holds up. I wonder how things go if Darren McFadden remains banged up and the running game slows down. I wonder if the erratic throws will persist. And I know that Campbell is healing up fast.
It was another awkward situation Campbell was thrust into, and he was never informed of the Palmer trade by the Raiders as he was heading for surgery. But strange things happen in this league and I have a suspicion the Raiders could end up in a desperate situation again, and turn back to Campbell. (Oh, and in other quarterback sagas, the Redskins will go back to Rex Grossman at some point, too).
6. Expect a collapse in K.C.: Few teams have mastered the art of the blowout loss like the Chiefs. When they lose a game, they do it with gusto! I believe the four-game winning streak in October will turn out as the high point of the season. They play a first-place schedule, and they'd better make the best of Tebow Time on Sunday, because then they get the Patriots, Steelers, Bears, Jets and Packers. The dynamic between coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli has not been good for some time. Haley has also had plenty of clashes with QB Matt Cassel. If the second half goes as expected, I expect a coaching change, with Josh McDaniels among the candidates to take over.
7. Another team without a winning record will make the playoffs: Seattle got in at 7-9 a year ago; the AFC West shall be won with eight victories this year. I'm going with an 8-8 Chargers team hosting a playoff game. San Diego's defense is a wreck, but I don't think Philip Rivers can keep up this pace of interceptions and they have the best talent in the division. A win Thursday night -- on NFL Network! -- will be a huge step for the Chargers or the Raiders. As unimpressed as I've been with the Chargers all season, I still say they get it done, barely. (The AFC West portion of this is over, promise).
8. Panthers go .500 or better in the second half: This team is going to continue scoring a ton of points, the defense, though struck by injuries, has made some corrections heading into the bye. There is a lot to love about this team. They easily should be 4-4 right now, but are just learning how to close out games. And they've been horrible on special teams, just brutal. I expect that to get corrected some too (injuries to linebackers have hit special teams hard). The Panthers headed into their bye ranked 26th or worst in all of the following categories: Opponents average starting position (24-yard line), opponent average kickoff return (28.3), opponent punt return (15.3), while averaging just 5.5 yards per punt return and starting at the 20.2-yard line -- 28th and 29th, respectively, in the NFL. They correct that just a little bit and give Cam Newton a little more help, and this franchise will make strides, quickly.
9. Browns and/or Redskins get caught by a formerly winless team: OK, follow me here. As of Week 7, the 'Skins and Browns were both 3-3, and the Rams, Colts and Dolphins had yet to win a game. Says here at least one of those three teams reaches three wins before the Redskins or Browns win another game.
Follow me here? The Dolphins could go a long way here by beating Washington on Sunday, because after that the only "easy" upcoming game would be Seattle -- and that one is on the road, a place the 'Skins have struggled. And the Rams face the Browns on Sunday in another game that has now become critical to this prediction. The Browns have a tough schedule ahead as well, with Jacksonville and Arizona the possible exceptions. The overall offensive ineptitude of Washington and Cleveland has been staggering at times.
10. Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick will get to start for very different reasons: We've seen plenty of quality play from rookie quarterbacks, and two more will get their shot before the season is over. The Titans are not going to keep pace with Houston, they're struggling to run the ball, don't have a downfield game and the defense has been slipping on third down. Conversely, the 49ers have already won the NFC West -- trust me, they could have stopped at six wins a few weeks ago, that will be plenty for this division. Both teams will have a chance in December to give their young quarterbacks some work and to join Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder with that first start under their belt.