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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2011 Mock Draft

Since the lockout has made a mockery of the NFL offseason, posts have been sporadic this month. But now it’s time to make up for all that with our 2011 mock draft.

Don’t forget to enter the Football Relativity draft contest to match wits with all of our readers. As we break down the 32 first-round picks, remember that we’ve written extensively on many top the draft prospects in our draft category.

1. Carolina Panthers – QB Cam Newton, Auburn
No matter whom the draft experts have slotted first – DaQuan Bowers, Marcell Dareus, or Blaine Gabbert – we’ve always believed that Newton is the guy for the Panthers to take as long as they held onto this pick. Of course, there are many non-complimentary rumors about Newton’s personality and genuineness, but those rumors can’t disguise the fact that Newton has been a big-time winner in college. He is, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “plutonium-grade raw material.” And because of that, the Panthers have to take a shot on him. Yes, that means throwing off 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen, and yes, it means developing a guy who hasn’t played a pro style offense. But if Newton hits, he can be the next Ben Roethlisberger/Josh Freeman type of quarterback. That’s major upside that the Panthers have frankly never had at quarterback in franchise history.

2. Denver Broncos – DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama
This is a tricky spot in the draft. New Broncos team president John Elway doesn’t seem sold on Tim Tebow, and so Blaine Gabbert is in play. Plus, we bet the Broncos would be happy to trade down a spot or two or three if the Bills, Bengals, or Cards covets Gabbert. But our hunch is that eventually the Broncos will settle into taking the best defensive front-seven player in the draft, and that’s Dareus. Perhaps Patrick Peterson is a better overall player, but Dareus is the top defensive lineman in the draft, and he can play either tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. At his best, he can be a destructive interior force a la Kevin Williams, and the Broncos desperately need that kind of up-front player. The fact that Dareus can help speed their transition to a 4-3 defense only makes things better. This isn’t the sexiest pick, but Dareus will be an impact player at a position of dire need. That’s enough for the Broncos to pull the trigger.

3. Buffalo Bills – DE Von Miller, Texas A&M
Miller isn’t a perfect fit for the Bills’ 4-3 system, but he’s so good that it’s worth tweaking the system to feature his talents. Buffalo hasn’t had an elite pass rusher in ages – since the Bruce Smith years – so Miller certainly will fit in well there. The question is whether the Bills will pass on Blaine Gabbert to pick Miller. With Ryan Fitzpatrick around, the Bills have the flexibility to wait if they’re not head over heels in love with Gabbert, and our sense is that they’d far prefer Newton to the Missouri product. So instead of trying to make it work with a quarterback they don’t lust after, picking the best pass rusher in the draft (and one of the draft’s sure things) is more appealing option.

4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green, Georgia
The Bengals are another team in the quarterback hunt, although Mike Brown may be too stubborn to admit to himself that Carson Palmer really is going to sit out rather than play another year in Cincinnati. So Gabbert would be in play here, at least for a team that has a good grasp on reality. But given the fact that Brown refuses to even consider trading Palmer, the self-delusion seems to indicate that the Bengals may try to appease him by drafting Green. The motivation behind that move would be wrong, but the pick itself will work. Green is a phenomenal receiver with good size and speed and ridiculously great hands. With Chad Ochocinco likely headed out of town (for nothing, two years after the Bengals could have had two first-rounders for him) and Terrell Owens as a free agent, Green also fits a need area. Teaming Green with young receivers Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson would give the Bengals a true No. 1 wideout with the complimentary pieces already in place. Picking the sure-thing Green will work well for the Bengals, regardless of how they come to the decision.

5. Arizona Cardinals – QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Gabbert was the trendy top pick a few weeks ago, but his stock has slipped in recent weeks, to the point that there are even rumors that the Cards would pass on him. Gabbert seems to fit the cookie-cutter mold for a franchise quarterback, which is great until you realize there is no mold. But Gabbert has nice tools, and he was generally productive in college. Maybe he doesn’t have the upside to be great, but he could be good, and that would be a major upgrade for the Cardinals. Arizona fell apart last year in large part because of horrific quarterback play. So we just can’t imagine Arizona not taking Gabbert if the opportunity presents itself.

6. Cleveland Browns – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
The Browns are in a weird position in this draft. Because there are seven elite players, picking sixth guarantees a good result. But the natural pick at this point – Patrick Peterson – duplicates Cleveland’s first-rounder from last year, Joe Haden. Of course, a team can never have too many corners, but for a team as bereft of game-breaking talent as the Browns, picking Peterson would be a misallocation of resources. So for Cleveland, the decision comes down to taking Julio Jones, who’s not among the top 7 players; reaching for a pass-rusher with injury questions in DaQuan Bowers or Robert Quinn, or taking Fairley. Most people have dropped Fairley lower than this, but there aren’t many impact defensive tackles on earth, and Fairley can be one. He had a Warren Sapp type of impact for Auburn last year, and so he brings the kind of disruption to a defense that we normally associate with defensive ends. Fairley has some character questions, but those questions aren’t any more damaging than what Bowers or Quinn faces. If the Browns go with the best player available here, Fairley should be the selection.

7. San Francisco 49ers – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
We’ve dubbed Peterson as the third sure-thing player in this draft, and he fits a need area for the Niners. San Fran has been looking for cornerbacks for a while, but the high-dollar Nate Clements isn’t living up to the price. So the chance to add Peterson and lock down one side of the defensive backfield will be too tempting to pass up. Peterson has unusual size for a corner, yet he still has good speed and cover skills. And if he ever gets the ball in his hands, look out. The Niners will be thrilled if the draft falls this way.

8. Tennessee Titans – QB Jake Locker, Washington
This is where things get crazy. I’m not a huge fan of Locker (as detailed here), but he is a major physical talent and a great kid. So you can see a team throwing its weight behind Locker as a potential franchise quarterback. And with Fairley off the board, a defensive end like Robert Quinn or DaQuan Bowers would be just as much of a risk as Locker at this point. Yes, taking Locker would be a reach, but our sense is that with so many QB-needy teams, Tennessee won’t have the option to take Locker in the second round, and it may actually cost less (in draft pick cost) to take him here than it would to trade back into the end of the first round to get him. Reports say that Tennessee has gotten comfortable with Locker as a future starting quarterback, and if that’s the case this is where they would have to get him. So while it’s a reach, we’re putting Locker here as the successor to the disappointing Vince Young era.

9. Dallas Cowboys – OT Tyron Smith, USC
It seems like every mock draft out there has the Cowboys taking Smith, the most talented of the offensive line group. It makes sense. Other than CB Prince Amukamara, none of the top players left on the board really fits a need, and it seems like the second-round DB options will be a little better than the O-line choices. Smith should be able to immediately step into the starting right tackle role, and he has a chance to develop into a top-flight left tackle if the Cowboys lose Doug Free via free agency.

10. Washington Redskins – OLB Robert Quinn, North Carolina
The Redskins are really in a dilemma in this year’s draft. The trades for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown last year cost them third- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft, which will really make it difficult for Washington to address all of its needs. Washington has so few playmakers that they need an impact guy with their first pick. That points to two guys among the available options – WR Julio Jones and OLB Robert Quinn. Given the fact that Mike Shanahan’s best receivers in Denver – Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and even Brandon Marshall – were all mid-to-late draft picks or scrap-heap pickups, we’ll go the defensive route and give them Quinn as a counterpart to Brian Orakpo.

11. Houston Texans – DE Cameron Jordan, California
Once again, the Texans simply have to spend their first-round pick on defense. While they reportedly covet Patrick Peterson, he won’t be around without a trade-up. Prince Amukamara would make sense, but after spending a first-rounder on CB Kareem Jackson last year, picking a cornerback isn’t the best move unless it’s an exceptional prospect like Peterson. So the Texans need to turn their attention to the front seven and especially to the front line of their reworked 3-4 defense. With Mario Williams already in place as a pass-rushing fiend, the Texans need a two-way defensive end who can provide some push but also hold up well against the run. Two available players – Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt and Cal’s Cameron Jordan. We like Jordan’s upside better, so he’s the pick here.

12. Minnesota Vikings – OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
The Vikings have a glaring quarterback need, but unless they’re head over heels in love with Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder or Ryan Mallett, pulling the trigger on a QB here would be foolhardy. It seems like Colin Kaepernick in the second round might be a nice fit as a long-term answer at the position. So if not a quarterback, who should they draft? Our sense is that this is a line pick. Maybe an offensive tackle like Anthony Castonzo to replace Bryant McKinnie, or maybe a defensive end like DaQuan Bowers to replace departing free agent Ray Edwards. Bowers has more upside, but Castonzo could be a Steve Hutchinson-type of player for the Vikings, which would be a welcome change from McKinnie, who has been less than an ideal effort guy in recent years. That’s more of a need for the Vikes than defensive end, so we’ll point this pick toward Castonzo.

13. Detroit Lions – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The Lions’ rebuilding process is going well, and last year’s first-rounder Ndamukong Suh is an elite talent. Now they try to build onto their defense with another prime player. The secondary was a big-time weak spot last year, and so having Amukamara fall into their laps would be serendipitous. Amukamara is a quality cover man who will immediately become a No. 1 cover man, and his presence would help guys like Alphonso Smith slide down the ladder to spots better befitting their talents. He would be another nice piece for a team that should be making a playoff push soon.

14. St. Louis Rams – WR Julio Jones, Alabama
The Rams would be doing backflips if Jones slipped this far. He will be in play as early as pick 6 in Cleveland, and preeminent wideouts are hard to find. The position certainly has been troublesome for the Rams since the departures of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and Jones would immediately become Sam Bradford’s top target. And getting Jones would let Mark Clayton (who’s expected to return) and Danny Amendola slip into better roles. The Rams could also spend a pick on a defensive linemen, and Mike Pouncey would also fit nicely, but Jones would be simply too appealing to pass up.

15. Miami Dolphins – C/OG Mike Pouncey, Florida
The Dolphins are in an interesting position in this draft. They need a quarterback of the future, but unless they fall in love with Ryan Mallett or another prospect, it would be a reach to take one here. They need a running back, but spending their only pick in the first two rounds on Mark Ingram wouldn’t really address needs long term. There are tons of defensive linemen and pass rushers on the board here, but with guys like Paul Soliai, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, and Jared Odrick, the Dolphins have lots of good young players in the front seven. Ultimately, a trade down is probably in their best interest. But if they stay in place, Pouncey would be a nice addition. Miami has solid terrific tackles in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, so they’re more likely to pull the trigger not on a tackle like Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi but on Pouncey, who is versatile enough to play any of the three interior positions and talented enough to step right in and make a difference.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE DaQuan Bowers, Clemson
Bowers was once considered a potential first overall pick, and with good reason. But questions about his knee’s long-term health have dropped him down the board. But at some point, a contender who falls in love with Bowers’ massive potential will take the risk. Jacksonville seems like a good spot for that risk. The Jaguars have been building their lines in the last two drafts successfully, with OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britten two years ago and DTs Tyson Alualu and D’Anthony Smith last year. But while those moves have worked, defensive end has been a trouble spot, as former first-rounder Derrick Harvey hasn’t panned out, and free-agent Aaron Kampman didn’t make a huge splash either. Bowers would add elite talent and would ratchet up the scare factor for the Jags D several notches.

17. New England Patriots (via Oakland Raiders) – OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
The Patriots rarely make the trendy pick, but the fact that they’ve had to rely on Tully Banta-Cain for outside pass rush in recent years highlights the fact that an impact pass rusher is a big-time need. Smith played as a smallish defensive end in college, but he could move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 to be a bigger, Willie McGinest-sized rusher for the Pats. The Pats could also take a five-technique defensive end like J.J. Watt or Ryan Kerrigan, but they have other options at those positions. Smith would add a unique element that’s not currently on the roster, and that’s why he’s the pick here.

18. San Diego Chargers – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
It’s hard for a fan base to get excited about their favorite team picking a five-technique defensive end, but it’s imperative that teams pick them when they get a chance because they’re so hard to find. Watt fits the profile of that position to a T. He can provide the kind of stability up front that helps pass-rushers like Shaun Phillips and Larry English create havoc. That’s why Watt, more than outside players like Ryan Kerrigan or Adrian Clayborn, makes sense here. Note that the Chargers have been very aggressive about moving up to get their guy recently – with English, Ryan Mathews, and Eric Weddle, to name a few – so a trade up makes sense if A.J. Smith falls in love with a certain guy.

19. New York Giants – OT Nate Solder, Colorado
The Giants have long been strong in the trenches under head coach Tom Coughlin, but the offensive line is starting to show the cracks that come with age. Young OT William Beatty hasn’t really emerged as a difference-maker, so adding one of this year’s top tackles makes sense here. Solder is a big, physical specimen who has the potential to play either side, and his physical style makes him a better fit for Big Blue than Gabe Carimi.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn’s stock has slipped because of a injury that occurred at birth that still impacts the strength in his right arm. As a result, Clayborn will have to lock in on one side of the defense. That lack of versatility is a drawback, but Clayborn can still provide a ton of pass-rush pop. After investing in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price last year, the Bucs need to step up their outside threats on defense, and Clayborn is the best option at this point to do that. Tampa Bay could also use a cornerback, but given the legal problems Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson are facing, the Bucs can’t afford to gamble on Jimmy Smith at this point.

21. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
This is a popular pick, since it’s clear to see the Chiefs’ gaping hole at right tackle, and Carimi seems to be around at this spot on just about every mock draft you see. But the pick makes a ton of sense. Branden Albert is a decent starting left tackle, but not dominant, and Carimi could either fill in the RT hole or take Albert’s job and force him to jump over there. Either move should help to stabilize the Chiefs’ front line.

22. Indianapolis Colts – DT Corey Liuget, Illinois
The Colts usually spend their top pick on offense. That strategy worked well as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark became stars playing with Peyton Manning, but more recent picks like Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown haven’t panned out. Last year, the Colts picked DE Jerry Hughes, who didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie. We see them going defense this year, in part because the top group of offensive linemen has been picked through in our mock draft, and in part because there’s such value along the defensive line, which is another huge need area. Liuget would be a three-technique, penetrating tackle; a widebody like Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson would also be an option.

23. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles always, always, always spend their first-round pick on a lineman. Given how the offensive line crew has been picked through a bit at this point, instead of taking guard Danny Watkins or OT Danny Sherrod, we’ll point the Eagles toward defense. Kerrigan is a nice player with a high motor who makes some plays but may not have the punch of some other prospects. Still, he seems like he could develop into a Kyle Vanden Bosch type of end, and that would be a terrific addition at this point. The fact that the Eagles hired Jim Washburn, the league’s best D-line coach, in the offseason makes picking a guy like Kerrigan even more attractive – because they can trust Washburn will get the best out of him.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Andy Dalton, TCU
Dalton is the flavor-of-the-month West Coast offense quarterback, and there have been enough rumors linking him to the Seahawks at 25 that some team will trade back into the first round to pick him. The Saints should get a premium to trade out of this spot so that Cincinnati or San Francisco – or another team that has kept its Dalton love quiet – can beat Seattle to the punch. We’ve already discussed how Dalton is our choice as the No. 3 QB in the draft.

25. Seattle Seahawks – QB Christian Ponder, Florida State
The Seahawks still need a quarterback, given the fact that Matt Hasselbeck is hitting the open market. Ponder is also a West Coast style quarterback, but he has a little more elusiveness and a stronger arm than Dalton. Ponder’s big question (as we detailed before) will be durability. But with OL cornerstones center Max Unger and OT Russell Okung in place, the Seahawks are better positioned to protect Ponder than many other teams.

26. Baltimore Ravens – CB Jimmy Smith, Colorado
It seems like the Ravens have a strong roster with two continually glaring holes in recent years – wide receiver and cornerback. Given the way the draft board breaks down, receiver isn’t going to be an option this year. So while the cornerback play was a bit better last year, Josh Wilson’s free agency leaves it as a need. Smith would really help in that area. Smith is an ubertalented cover man with a rough reputation, but Baltimore seems to have the veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in place to help Smith grow up more quickly. But he could end up being a home run pick, which would be a coup this late in the first round.

27. Atlanta Falcons – OG Danny Watkins, Baylor
The Falcons are solid across the board, and so they can afford to spend a first-rounder on a less premium position like guard to get a premium player. That’s what Watkins, an ex-firefighter, can be. With OGs Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and OT Tyson Clabo all facing free agency, adding depth up front is crucial for the Dirty Birds. Watkins could step in and start at a guard spot, which would give the Falcons some financial flexibility without losing performance.

28. New England Patriots – NT Phil Taylor, Baylor
The Pats are, as always, prime targets to trade out of the first round, especially if a team is gaga over Ryan Mallett (bad idea) or Colin Kaepernick. But if they stay put, they can add to their defensive line once again either with Muhammad Wilkerson, who would play defensive end in their system, or with Taylor, who would apprentice under Vince Wilfork on the nose. Given the fact that the Pats had success with Wilfork playing end last year, Taylor would be a better fit. Adding a sturdy defensive lineman and a pass rusher would make for a terrific first-round haul for the Pats – especially with the first pick in the second round in their pocket.

29. Chicago Bears – OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
The Bears could use an offensive lineman, but they don’t seem too high on Derek Sherrod, the one first-round-level prospect left on the board. So we have them turning to Ayers, a versatile outside linebacker who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme. Ayers would add youth to a linebacking corps held down by linchpins Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and Ayers seems to have the skills to play on the strong side instead of sitting behind one of the stars. Ayers is a physical freak whose performance on the field wasn’t always consistent, but his ability could be too much to ignore at this point.

30. New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
The Jets need to add some depth in their front line on defense, given the departure of Kris Jenkins and the age of Shaun Ellis. Wilkerson, who has the skills to play as a defensive end in the 3-4 and also play inside in 4-3 sets, would add a nice piece for Rex Ryan’s attacking defense. The Jets could also look at Cameron Heyward in a similiar role, but Wilkerson’s a higher rated prospect.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
The Steelers have been beset by offensive line injuries in recent years, and it would be wise to add a first-round talent like Sherrod instead of having to depend on a fill-in like Flozell Adams again. The other spot they could address is at cornerback, where big, physical Aaron Williams of Texas may be tempting as well.

32. Green Bay Packers – DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
The Packers are loaded on the defensive line because they have invested so heavily there in the draft. But with Johnny Jolly’s career likely over and Cullen Jenkins looking to hit the jackpot via free agency, adding a player at the position would be wise. Heyward can play as a defensive end and add a little bit of pass rush push at the position. He’s a better fit than Marvin Austin, more of a 4-3 defensive tackle.

Guys who we considered for first-round spots:

QB Colin Kaepernick
QB Ryan Mallett
RB Mark Ingram
DT Marvin Austin
CB/S Aaron Williams

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NFC Conference Championship Thoughts

B.J. Raji celebrates his interception for a TD

We’ll look back at the two conference championship games individually. First up, the rivalry game in the NFC, in which the Green Bay Packers advanced to the Super Bowl with a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.

*Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the superhuman that he had been in the first two playoff games, but he did enough to get the job done for the Packers. He threw two interceptions (detailed below), and while he didn’t throw a TD pass, he did throw for 244 yards and run for 39 yards and a score. And now Rodgers is a Super Bowl quarterback, with the chance to rightly join the game’s elite with a win in two weeks.
*Obviously, the big headline from this game from the Bears’ perspective is the Jay Cutler knee injury. He had to leave the game early in the third quarter due to an injury that he didn’t remember, and the Bears soon had to turn to third-stringer Caleb Hanie after Todd Collins reminded everyone he was not only old but ineffective. It’s not a good performance by Cutler, who was just 6-for-14 for 80 yards, including an interception late in the second quarter that cost the Bears a scoring chance. The fact that Cutler left the game will obviously be the cause of much consternation from Bears fans, but the fact that Cutler didn’t have his helmet after being pulled may indicate it wasn’t his decision. Regardless, it wasn’t a franchise quarterback performance from a QB for whom the Bears paid a premium.
*Hanie played well in relief of Cutler and Collins, leading the Bears’ first scoring drive thanks to a beautiful 32-yard pass to Johnny Knox that set up Chester Taylor’s one-yard TD run. He also threw a great pass to Earl Bennett that turned into a 35-yard touchdown. Hanie finished the game with 153 yards passing, and definitely provided a spark. But Hanie also threw a Cutler-esque interception to B.J. Raji, a nose tackle who had dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. Raji took the ball 18 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7, and that touchdown proved to be the difference. And Hanie’s fourth-down interception to Sam Shields cemented the game for the Packers.
*The Packers got off to a quick start with three 20-yard-plus passing plays, all to the same spot on the field. Rodgers picked on the seam in the zone behind the undersized Tim Jennings and in front of safety Chris Harris, who was playing despite a hip injury suffered last week. Those three plays – two to Greg Jennings and one to Jordy Nelson – set up Rodgers’ one-yard TD run for the game’s first score. The Packers exploited that spot at least three more times for big gains throughout the game. It was clear early on that they wanted to test Harris to see just how soft that spot in the zone would be.
*The Packers have stars on defense like Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, but it was the lesser known guys that really starred in this game. Cullen Jenkins produced a ton of pressure, especially early, notching half a sack and two tackles for loss. Nickelback Shields had a sack and forced fumble on Cutler to stop one drive in the second quarter, and then he picked off Cutler to stop the Bears’ last drive before the half and picked off Hanie to salt away the game in the final minute. And Desmond Bishop was also a nice factor for the defense with eight tackles, including a key tackle for loss on the next-to-last Bears snap of the game. Those performances show just how deep the Pack is.
*For the Bears, the defensive star was no surprise – Brian Urlacher. Urlacher piled up stats in several categories – a sack, a tackle for loss, and an interception near the goal line to stop a Green Bay scoring pass – and seemed to be the guy stepping up to make big plays over and over again. Julius Peppers didn’t fill up the stat sheet nearly as much, notching just two tackles, but he provided pretty consistent pressure and drew a holding penalty that was as good as a sack. However, Peppers also got a 15-yard personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Rodgers.
*James Starks had a good game for the Packers, but the best running back on the field was Matt Forte. Forte thrived throughout the game, despite Chicago’s QB problems. Starks ran for 74 yards and a touchdown, while Forte ran for 70 yards and had 90 receiving yards on 10 catches.
*The Bears’ lone glimmer of hope in the first half came on a fluky play, when Donald Driver bobbled a low pass, and then Lance Briggs caught the carom off Driver’s foot for an interception. The play, which was reminiscent of how Seattle’s Mike Williams caught his second touchdown against Chicago’s Charles Tillman in the divisional round, gave Chicago a chance at a two-minute drive, but Cutler threw an interception to quell that rally. Still, the deflection was Rodgers’ first interception this postseason.
*It’s hard to imagine a team having a better fourth receiver than Nelson, who had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta and followed it up with another big day against the Bears with four catches for 67 yards against the Bears. Rodgers has a lot of trust in Nelson, even though he’s down the depth chart from Jennings, Driver, and James Jones.

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Divisional Round Sunday thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s divisional-round games. (For Saturday game thoughts, click here.)

Greg Olsen beats Lawyer Milloy for a touchdown

Chicago 35, Seattle 24
*The hero of the game was Bears TE Greg Olsen, who beat Lawyer Milloy for a 58-yard touchdown on the first series of the game to get the Bears going. Olsen got deep, and Jay Cutler hit him with a beautiful deep throw that was more impressive given the snowy, windy conditions. Olsen added a 33-yard catch that helped to set up the Bears’ second score, and his 113-yard first half was a huge reason the Bears jumped out to a big lead.
*Cutler played pretty well, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more. But he got lucky in avoiding the kind of critical mistake that has kept him from becoming an elite quarterback. At the end of the first quarter, Cutler threw a ball in the red zone that Seattle S Jordan Babineaux had in his hands but dropped. Instead of a pick 6, Cutler got another chance, and after he converted a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1, Chester Taylor scored a touchdown to give the Bears a 14-0. That could have been a huge turning point but instead ended up being the point when the Bears really turned on the faucet in the rout.
*Julius Peppers didn’t have a sack as the Bears built a 21-0 halftime lead, but he did snuff out Seattle’s third drive by drawing a holding penalty by rookie Seahawks OLT Russell Okung. Peppers has been an impact player all season, and his presence has helped the Bears’ D move back toward the great level this season.
*Overall, the Bears defense did a terrific job of snuffing out the Seahawks’ running game and of keeping receivers in front of them. The Cover-2 defense has fallen out favor in the NFL, and that’s in part because it’s not that flashy and doesn’t create a ton of sacks or turnovers. But the Bears show that how, with the right personnel (like DEs Peppers and Israel Idonije and LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs), it can still be quite effective.
*Matt Hasselbeck completed only 10-of-20 passes in the first half, but it wasn’t all his fault. Cameron Morrah, Brandon Stokley, and Golden Tate all saw chances for big plays go off their hands, and Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman also made good plays on the ball to break up passes.
*Matt Forte had a real nice game for the Bears, keeping the chains moving both on the ground and through the air. Forte isn’t Marshall Faulk (who will feature heavily in our Hall of Fame post soon), but he is a threat both running and receiving, and that makes him a dovetail fit with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Forte is a nice asset for the Bears to have.
*Raheem Brock continued his strong play with a sack in the first half that forced a fumble. Brock had eight sacks over the Seahawks’ last seven games (including playoffs).
*Devin Hester continued his game-changing play on returns with a 26-yard punt return to help set up Chicago’s second touchdown. Hester is a game breaker, and that’s crucial for a team that doesn’t have elite explosiveness on offense.
*The Seahawks kicked a field goal with 1:52 left to cut a 28-0 lead to 25 points. It made no sense to kick there, given that they still trailed by four scores. I understand Pete Carroll not wanting his team to get shut out, but that was a gutless call. But that wasn’t the worst coaching call of the game – those honors go to the Bears’ decision to have Forte throw a pass in the fourth quarter. That led to an unnecessary Seahawks touchdown.
*We asked on Twitter and Facebook Saturday night whether a Bears/Packers NFC championship game would be the biggest matchup ever between the long-time rivals. We don’t have the historical chops to answer that question (which we assume will show up across all media this week), but it will be a ton of fun to watch that rivalry on the big stage. During the game, we also Tweeted about classic Seahawks tight end names and the Tony Siragusa experiment by Fox. Follow along on Twitter for Football Relativity updates and other assorted fun!

The Jets celebrate against the Patriots

N.Y. Jets 28, New England 21
*We were as surprised as anyone by the Jets’ ability to come out and stop the Patriots’ offense. The fact that David Harris picked off Tom Brady on a screen pass was a sign, given that Brady hadn’t thrown an interception in the second half of the season. New York continued to befuddle Brady through the game, and that was a big factor in allowing the Jets to build a lead that they never relinquished.
*One of the biggest reasons that the Patriots’ offense struggled was that the Jets were able to create pressure on Brady all day. Shaun Ellis led the charge with two sacks, but across the front Gang Green hit Brady time after time.
*There were heroes all over for the Jets, from Ellis to Santonio Holmes (who showed again that he loves to step up in the postseason). But you have to give Mark Sanchez credit for playing one of his best games of the year against a team that bedeviled him in the regular season. Sanchez threw three TD passes and hit perfect throws to Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery. If Sanchez can make 3-5 big-time throws a game, he gives the rest of a talented Jets roster a chance to do its job and win.
*The Jets continued to run the ball effectively in this game. That’s been an underrated reason for their playoff run.
*The Patriots have now lost three playoff games in a row, the last two at home. That’s going to lead to the question of whether something is missing in New England. The truth is that a young defense that played well in the regular season wasn’t able to step up to the challenge once the brightest lights were on. Plus, the fact that the Patriots hadn’t faced much adversity on the field over the second half of the season made it more difficult for the youngsters to rise to the occasion when trouble arrived in this game. Perhaps those issues can be resolved with experience, but it’s something that Bill Belichick must turn around if the Patriots are going to return to Super Bowl contention.
*It’s easy to why the Patriots took a shot on a fake punt late in the first half, but their inability to convert after Patrick Chung’s fumble was crucial. It sent the Jets into the locker room with a 14-3 lead, instead of the 7-3 lead they likely would have had if the Pats had simply punted. But the fact that the Pats couldn’t get anything going added a sense of desperation that caused them to a chance that they didn’t really have to take.
*Rex Ryan, meanwhile, has a team that isn’t always pretty in the regular season but that shows up in the playoffs. With four playoff wins (all on the road) in two seasons, Ryan has definitely given the Jets an attitude of refusing to give up or bend their knee to anyone. Ryan isn’t a conventional coach, and he isn’t a championship coach yet. But his unique style definitely is working for his squad.

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Pick ‘em – Divisional round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We’ll try to rebound from a below-par first weekend with this week’s picks.

Hines Ward and the Steelers take on the Ravens once again

Pittsburgh -3 vs. Baltimore – The Steelers and Ravens resume their physical and aggressive series with a game at Heinz Field. And while the overall series has been even recently, the truth is that the Ravens’ last two wins came only when Ben Roethlisberger was out. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers are on a winning streak against Baltimore, even though most of the games have been close. That’s what we expect in this one. The Steelers’ defense, while not at full strength, will have Troy Polamalu back, and he’s the biggest difference maker on either team, even over Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And the most dynamic offensive player on either team, even above the great Ray Rice, is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch this season. So despite the Ravens’ fine performance last week, and despite Joe Flacco’s strong postseason record away from Baltimore, the Steelers are the pick. Pick: Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13

Atlanta -3 vs. Green Bay - The Packers are the trendy pick to win the NFC at this point after their win in Philadelphia last week. And while that win was terrific, it’s not like it was a blowout. Green Bay missed a key opportunity for a touchdown when James Jones dropped a beautiful Aaron Rodgers pass just before the half, and it took two missed field goals and a late interception to seal the game. Maybe Green Bay would be a realistic favorite if they still had guys like JerMichael Finley and Nick Barnett on the field, but the truth is that Green Bay isn’t good enough to dominate anyone. And it may have been forgotten during the bye week, but the Falcons are a fine team. They have a strong running game, a ridiculously good receiver in Roddy White, and a defense that can both stop the run and create pressure with John Abraham. The Falcons don’t have many weaknesses, and their strong play is even better in the Georgia Dome. We’ll buck the trend and stick with the home team in this one. Pick: Atlanta 24, Green Bay 20

Chester Taylor and the Bears host the Seahawks

Chicago -10 vs. Seattle - The Seahawks took off last week in an upset win thanks to a career performance from Matt Hasselbeck and a top-flight game plan from Pete Carroll and his staff. The question is whether they can replicate that kind of performance two weeks in a row. Yes, the Seahawks won in Chicago earlier this year, but in that game the Bears went 0-12 on third-down conversions and played without Lance Briggs. The Bears have picked up their play offensively in the second half of the season, protecting Cutler better and becoming more efficient. This isn’t the same team the Seahawks beat. Most of all, the Bears’ defense has played well all season, and we think they can stop Hasselbeck, Marshawn Lynch and company. We have no question the Bears can win the game, and we’ll put them past the double-digit spread as well. Pick: Chicago 31, Seattle 17

New England -9 vs. N.Y. Jets – Rex Ryan and the Jets have been talking big all week, but the last time they faced the Patriots they got blitzed 45-3. The Jets are better than that, but we still expect the Patriots to knock them off again. Tom Brady has been spectacular all season, and even more so since the Randy Moss trade. That trade completely changed how the Jets defend the Pats, because Darrelle Revis can’t sit on Moss all game. Now the Patriots’ passing game is versatile enough to avoid Revis without losing much of and edge. Plus, the Patriots run the ball better than they have in five years thanks to Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets’ running game looked good this past week at Indianapolis, but QB Mark Sanchez was far too inconsistent. He’s going to have to raise his game for the Jets to have a chance, and we don’t think he can be explosive enough to keep the Jets close to the Pats on teh scoreboard. Pick: New England 35, N.Y. Jets 20

Last week: 1-0-1 college, 1-3 pro, 2-3-1 overall
Season: 55-62-3 college, 56-65-5 pro, 111-127-8 overall

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Suicide Pool Suggestions Week 6

Bears LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs

We’ve hit a lull in our suicide pool suggestions, as the Texans laid an egg at home last week. But this week offers much better choices for players.

1. Bears over Seahawks – Seattle is 2-2, but they’ve looked bad away from home. The Bears should have a solid home-field advantage, and their defense is plenty good enough to shut down Seattle’s attack. So if Jay Cutler plays OK, the Bears are a safe choice. Note that over the last couple of years, the Bears have done a good job of putting away bad teams, which makes them a safe suicide-pool pick.

2. Steelers over Browns – This is the ultra-safe pick of the week, but we’re going to leave the Steelers on the table for later in the year. Pittsburgh’s defense has been dominant all season, and with Ben Roethlisberger starting against rookie Colt McCoy, the Steelers have a ton more offense at their disposal as well. If you’re risk-adverse, this is your pick.

3. Giants over Lions – The Giants have played well the last couple of weeks, and now they welcome in the Lions, who haven’t won a road game in what seems like forever. Detroit has played pretty tough in games like this, but they haven’t broken through and won, which makes the Giants a good bet.

Trap to avoid – Chargers at Rams - The Chargers have a highly rated offense and defense, but special-teams meltdowns have cost them. They’re 0-3 on the road, and the Rams are 2-1 at home. Given those trends, and given the fact that the Rams seem to be ascending, this is a time to stay away from the Bolts.

Results
Week 5 – L Houston (vs. N.Y. Giants)
Week 4 – L Tennessee (vs. Denver)
Week 3 – W Baltimore (over Cleveland)
Week 2 – W Oakland (over St. Louis)
Week 1 – W N.Y Giants (over Carolina)

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.

10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run. 

10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.

9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.

9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.

8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.

8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.

7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.

7 (con’t) – Houston Texans - The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.

7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets - The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.

7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.

6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.

6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.

5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.

5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.

4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.

4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.

4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.

4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.

3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack.  Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.

3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.

3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.

2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.

1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the  Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.

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