The Farmers' Almanac says it is going to be cold and could snow at Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey this February. Gee, you don't say? Apparently, cold (and possibly snowy) winter weather in the Northeast is breaking news.
Schein: The best division in football
Adam Schein says one division is head and shoulders above the rest. The crazy thing? It was a punch line in 2010. More ...
Let's start with the NFC. I think the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are loaded, but as I documented Tuesday, I think the NFC West is best; it's a fierce and bloody division. It will stun me if the division champ (I'm picking San Francisco by a game over Seattle) is able to compile enough wins to capture the No. 1 seed.
As such, I believe the NFC will go through Atlanta. And I believe that will make a difference this year.
The Falcons are ready for prime time. Recent history tells me they match up very well against the aforementioned (and widely acclaimed) beasts of the NFC West. Remember, Atlanta beat the Seahawks in the divisional round last season and came oh-so-close to topping the 49ers on Championship Sunday. Seattle and San Francisco have better defenses than Atlanta, but in that arena, the Falcons will be vastly improved from a year ago. Savvy general manager Thomas Dimitroff wisely drafted two promising cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Quarterback Matt Ryan told me both rookies caught his eye right away, and we've seen why with their showings in the preseason. Osi Umenyiora isn't the player he once was, but he is an upgrade in Atlanta and will serve as a wind-up toy for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to deploy in the pass rush.
And this is not a Johnny-come-lately take. I've been saying it for months.
The wealth of pass-catching riches at Ryan's disposal is clear. Not only does Atlanta boast quite possibly the best 1-2 receiving punch in the NFL (Roddy White and Julio Jones), but the Falcons also possess a Hall of Fame tight end with apparent access to the fountain of youth (Tony Gonzalez). Let's look past the obvious, though. In June, I wrote that running back Steven Jackson will prove to be the most important pickup of the offseason. He brings Atlanta leadership, offensive balance, ball control (the ability to grind out yards and give the defense a blow) and game-closing proficiency.
The Falcons managed just 81 rushing yards against the 49ers on Championship Sunday. Sure, credit for that goes to San Francisco's stout defense, but trust me, the run totals will be higher with Jackson in the backfield. With Jackson's experience and remaining talent -- he looked young and spry this offseason, even after turning 30 -- he can control the game. The Falcons never would have blown a double-digit lead at home in the playoffs with this guy running the football.
Ryan took a major step forward in last season's playoffs. After some gruesome and unacceptable games in prior postseasons, Ryan finally played at the same great clip we've become accustomed to in his regular-season outings. No longer are we left to speculate as to whether Ryan can deliver in a big spot -- he did it against two dominant opponents this past January. Facing the imposing defenses of Seattle and San Francisco in back-to-back weeks, Ryan completed 70 percent of his passes for 646 yards and six touchdowns (against three picks). He led a game-winning drive against the Seahawks, and it's up for debate as to whether a non-call or two kept him from doing the same against the Niners. But there's no debating this: Ryan grew up and shed the label of postseason choke artist.
I talked to Ryan on my SiriusXM Radio show "Schein on Sports" after he was rightly rewarded with a lucrative deal in July, and the sixth-year quarterback acknowledged how important it was, mentally, to get over the hump and win a playoff game. The confidence level of the entire group has changed. Now, the Falcons can't settle for anything less than a title -- and they shouldn't.
I don't want to get repetitive here. Earlier this month, I wrote a column that explained why Schaub is the most significant player in the league this year. He's been very good, and so have the Texans. But they haven't been great. They've earned a reputation for being soft, lacking a killer instinct (dropping three of their last four regular-season games last season to lose out on the No. 1 seed) and collapsing against the big boys.
As I stated in my prior column, I think Schaub takes a step forward. Houston has an enviable stable of backs (Arian Foster and Ben Tate), a strong offensive line and a legitimate complement to Andre Johnson out wide (rookie DeAndre Hopkins); the time is now. Nobody knows what's at stake better than the Texans QB. Here's the good news: His team has the "it" factor back.
When I penned my column on the most indispensable defensive players back in May, Brian Cushing was high on the list. Last year, the Texans started out 5-0, with Cushing manning the middle of a defense that gave up just 14.6 points and 275.6 total yards (190.2 passing and 85.4 rushing) per game. After the inside linebacker went down with a season-ending knee injury, though, Houston went 7-4, yielding nearly nine more points and 70 additional yards per contest. Bottom line: Cushing brings the play and the attitude for the big spot.
Furthermore, the defensive line is strong -- spearheaded, of course, by reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt -- while the defensive backfield is vastly underrated.
Houston general manager Rick Smith, who never receives the credit he deserves, has put together the best roster in the AFC. And it's not only that I believe in these Texans; it's also that I don't believe in anyone else in the conference. The Baltimore Ravens are better on defense than they were a season ago -- a season which ended with a Super Bowl title -- but they're very thin in the passing attack sans Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. The New England Patriots will win a ton of games because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but because of everyone else, they won't advance in the playoffs. As I wrote last week, questions abound with the Denver Broncos. And I'm not jumping on the Cincinnati Bengals' bandwagon with the rest of America; I just don't believe Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis can bring Cincy a title. Thus, Houston grabs the No. 1 seed in the AFC and makes the first trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history.
But what happens when these two face off in MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2? Well, I love the concept of a New York/New Jersey Super Bowl. I want it to snow. That's real football, not a domed, climate-controlled, manufactured product. And what could be more fitting than a quarterback dubbed "Ice" raising the Lombardi Trophy with snow falling from the sky?