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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s wild-card games. (For a look at Saturday’s games, click here.)

Todd Heap of the Ravens vs. Eric Berry of the Chiefs

 

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7
*Ray Rice didn’t find a ton of room running the ball for the Ravens (17 carries, 56 yards), but he did a great job in the passing game, as usual, with five catches for 42 yards and a score. It seems like Rice needs two or three steps to get going, but once he does, he’s elusive and hard to corral. He’s the best offensive player the Ravens have. But Baltimore got great performances out of TE Todd Heap (a franchise postseason record 10 catches for 108 yards) and WR Anquan Boldin (five catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), among others.
*Because the running game wasn’t thriving, the Ravens had to rely on Joe Flacco, and he did a good job getting the ball to receivers on crossing routes. The Ravens didn’t make a ton of throws outside, but Flacco killed the Chiefs on inside plays as he threw for 265 yards and two scores. Flacco has now made the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is 4-2 in the postseason despite not having a home playoff game yet.
*Matt Cassel only threw seven interceptions all season, but he threw three in this game, including two early ones that doomed the Chiefs. Cassel still has a bright future, but right now the Chiefs don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome these kinds of mistakes.
*Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles made a huge play for the Chiefs with a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and his hustle play after a Cassel interception in the third quarter forced a fumble that Charles recovered. But Charles’ second-quarter fumble really stifled the Chiefs’ momentum when they had a 7-3 lead.
*Despite the loss, this might have been the day that Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali became a national star. After finishing second in the league this season with 14.5 sacks, Hali had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens, and a third-quarter pressure forced a field-goal attempt.
*Ray Lewis is already a star for the Ravens, and he showed why in the third quarter with a hit on Dexter McCluster that forced a fumble and led to a field goal. He also had a late sack. Lewis isn’t quite as active as he once was, but he’s still an asset and a physical force. So is Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks in the game and provides a consistent pass rush.
*Despite the loss, the Chiefs have a bright future, and it’s thanks in large part to their first-round picks. On defense, Hali, rookie S Eric Berry (four passes defensed), LB Derrick Johnson (huge stop in a first-quarter goal-line stand), and DE Glenn Dorsey all played well – all are former first-rounders. And on offense, OLT Branden Albert held up pretty well. The one first-rounder who went missing was WR Dwayne Bowe, who had a terrific year but didn’t make an impact at all in this game, going without a catch.

Packers 21, Eagles 18
*Aaron Rodgers had a terrific game – throwing for three touchdowns that should have been four had James Jones not dropped a beautiful deep throw just before the half – but the revelation for the Pack was rookie RB James Starks, who ran for 123 yards after recording just 101 in the regular season. Starks is a big, physical runner who got more from his chunks than Brandon Jackson ever could. (Give Jackson credit, though, for great patience that turned a screen pass into a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.)
*Michael Vick had a good but not great game for the Eagles. He threw for 292 yards, but aside from one chunk late in the game, he couldn’t get DeSean Jackson free for a big play. (Jackson was battling an injury.) Vick also threw a critical interception late in the game as he tried to bring the Eagles back. Vick ran for 33 yards, but Green Bay’s decision to spy on him with Charles Woodson kept the quarterback from breaking free very often. The Packers also sacked Vick three times, which was an accomplishment.
*One of the things that makes Green Bay so dangerous is its depth of receivers. Greg Jennings, the Pack’s best outside man, had just one catch, but Rodgers still threw for 180 yards and moved the team effectively. Rodgers’ willingness to spread the ball around definitely paid off in this game.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card 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 also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle – As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia – This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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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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Fantasy Football: Starting wide receivers

Who do you trust? When it comes to fantasy football, trust is a huge issue. A dependable every-week starter is like gold, because he can limit lineup decisions, matchup questions, and heartburn.

In this post, we’re going to identify which wide receivers you can trust as starters on a weekly basis this year. This exercise will help us identify the top 15-20 players at the position. We’ve already identified three elite WRs and six more who are just below that level. Now we’re starting at WR 10 and seeing who’s dependable and who’s not. We’ll do this using our applaud or a fraud tool, and as we do, we’ll indicate whether receivers are a part of the bottom of Tier 2, Tier 3, or the top of Tier 4. Wideouts are listed alphabetically.

Anquan Boldin, Ravens – We assessed Boldin’s new situation in Baltimore in this post and said that his numbers will rise in ’09. Considering that he had 84 catches for 1,024 yards and five total touchdowns, that’s a big statement. But we expect Boldin to take over for Derrick Mason as the Ravens’ No. 1 option and to develop a nice rapport with maturing QB Joe Flacco. Boldin fits at the bottom of Tier 2 as a top-12 receiver in his new home in Baltimore. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After two solid seasons, Bowe had a star-crossed season last year, drawing a four-game suspension from the league at one point and falling out of favor with his own team at other times. At this point, Chris Chambers, not Bowe, may be the No. 1 receiving option in Arrowhead. That doesn’t mean that Chambers has more fantasy value than Bowe, but it does mean that Bowe slips to No. 3 fantasy receiver status. There’s just too much risk to depend on him for more than that. He’s a nice upside play at the bottom of Tier 3, but investing more is just too risky. Verdict: A fraud

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant is clearly the top rookie receiver, but is he a dependable starter for fantasy teams? With Miles Austin on board as an elite receiver, we see Bryant as more of a 60-catch, 800-yard receiver than a guy with huge numbers. Bryant’s explosive enough to score 8-10 touchdowns on that quantity of touches, but that’s a bit of a risky expectation. Bryant’s training camp ankle injury, which shouldn’t linger into the season, also adds to the risk because it could slow Bryant’s development. But we still like Dez’s upside. So slot Bryant in as a No. 3 fantasy receiver, not a starter, so that you can enjoy his upside instead of fretting about rookie inconsistency. Verdict: A fraud

Marques Colston, Saints – The only reason Colston doesn’t join the top-9 receivers is that he plays for an offense that spreads the ball around. Still, with 70 catches last year, Colston piled up 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite the presence of other threats like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, Colston is clearly the Saints’ best option, and that should translate to 70-75 catches again. With those numbers, he’ll once again produce plenty for fantasy owners to merit a top-12 spot  among fantasy receivers and a comfortable spot on Tier 2. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – A lengthy holdout kept Crabtree off the field for the first five games of his rookie season, but he still finished up with 48 catches for 625 yards and two scores. That 70-catch, 900-yard pace is quite impressive for a rookie. With a full year of training camp and offseason work under his belt, Crabtree should take a step forward and become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the 49ers. While Vernon Davis will remain a red-zone threat, Crabtree should develop into a 1,000-yard receiver who is a No. 2 fantasy receiver who has the upside to be even more. He slides onto the bottom of Tier 2 because of that upside. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Greg Jennings has surpassed Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver, but Driver has still been in the 70-catch area the last two seasons in that role, and he’s proven he can be a 1,000-yard receiver in this situation. So expecting 1,000 yards and six touchdowns is wise, even as Driver enters his 12th pro season. Those numbers will put Driver on Tier 3 and make Driver a potential fantasy starter in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – Harvin had a pretty remarkable rookie season. While we expected him to be a triple threat receiving, rushing, and returning (as he was), we didn’t expect him to be as polished a receiver as he proved to be. Brett Favre looked for Harvin in the red zone, leading to six touchdown catches (to go with two kickoff returns for scores). But the 60-catch, 790-yard receiving line was surprising, and it makes sense that Harvin will improve those numbers in his second season. Sidney Rice is still the best fantasy option in the Vikings’ receiving corps, but Harvin is a Tier 3 player with big upside. If you wanted to start Harvin in a 12-team league, we wouldn’t argue because of that potential. Verdict: Applaud

Santonio Holmes, Jets – We discussed Holmes’ new home in the Big Apple in this post, making the clear assertion that Holmes’ numbers will sink because of the four-game suspension he faces as the season opens. But it’s important for fantasy owners to remember that Holmes is coming off a terrific season with 79 catches for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns. He has come into his own as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for an NFL team, and he’ll have the chance to do that with the Jets. Once he gets on the field, he’ll put up fantasy starter numbers. That causes us to put him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Like Holmes, Jackson is also facing a suspension to begin the season, though his is just three games. But VJax is also threatening to hold out until the final six games of the season, which would obviously be a huge negative for fantasy owners. We’ll set the holdout issue aside for now as we evaluate him to show how clearly Jackson is a top-12 fantasy receiver. With 68 catches for 1,187 yards and nine touchdowns last season, Jackson proved he was a reliable fantasy starter who could anchor a fantasy receiving corps. Whenever Jackson returns to the field, he’ll be an automatic starter. He’s a Tier 2 receiver for now, but if the holdout issue isn’t rectified by the time you draft, move Jackson to the bottom of Tier 3 as a precaution. Still, he’s worth a draft pick no matter what his status is. Verdict: Applaud

Greg Jennings, Packers – After a phenomenal ’08 season, Jennings stepped back just a bit in ’09, going from 80 catches to 68 and from nine touchdowns to four. That limited Jennings’ fantasy impact, but he still was a valuable player with 1,113 yards. Despite that fall, we’re bullish on Jennings’ 2010 prospects, expecting him to put up starting-quality numbers on a weekly basis. We’re putting him on Tier 2 once again and expecting him to be a solid if not sure-fire fantasy starter in all leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Ochocinco had a renaissance year in his first year with his new game, scoring nine touchdowns on 72 catches with 1,047 yards. Those numbers are more reasonable expectations for 8-5 than the 90-catch level he had for five years between ’03 and ’07. Even with Terrell Owens and rookie Jermaine Gresham in town, Ochocinco is still the Bengals’ best target, and he should hit 70 catches and 1,000 yards once again. There is some downside because of age and the targets around him, but Ochocinco is still a good investment at the top of Tier 3 as a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Terrell Owens, Bengals – While Ochocinco is a good bet in Cincy, T.O. isn’t as good an option for fantasy owners. Owens is starting to slow, and although his 55-catch 2009 season was partly a product of the Bills’ terrible quarterbacks, Owens’ decline was an issue as well. We expect Owens to be in the 55-60 catch area this year as well, and that means he’s a Tier 4 receiver and a backup for fantasy owners. Get your popcorn ready, but don’t try to make a full meal out of what should be a snack. Verdict: A fraud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – Back in the old days when I worked at Pro Football Weekly (the late 90s), traditional wisdom held that most receivers broke out as fantasy performers in their third season. That’s what Rice did, going from 46 catches in his first two years combined to a terrific 83-catch, 1,312-yard, eight-touchdown season. Rice is a big receiver who isn’t superfast but who has enough speed to get downfield, and he and Brett Favre developed a great rapport. Rice is the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver, and he’s a legitimate fantasy starter on Tier 2. With Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings are more set at wide receiver than they’ve been since the Cris Carter/Randy Moss glory years. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker emerged last year as Jacksonville’s top wideout, and his end-of-season numbers – 63 catches for 869 yards and seven scores – were great helps to fantasy owners. Aside from being made inactive on game day against Seattle, Sims-Walker was a dependable threat for the first two-thirds of the season. A warning sign, though, was the fact that he had two catches or fewer in four of his last five games. That inconsistency is enough for us to put Sims-Walker on Tier 3 instead of Tier 2, but we still believe he’s a good bet as a fantasy starter in leagues with 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Giants – Like Sidney Rice, Smith was a third-year breakout player, putting up a whopping 107 catches for 1,220 yards with seven touchdowns. He emerged as the lead receiver in a talented Giants receiving corps that includes Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. Smith isn’t the biggest receiver, but his dependable hands make him a stalwart going forward, and that’s going to pay off for fantasy owners. While 100-plus catches is an outlier season, expecting 80 catches for 1,000 yards from Smith is safe, and that makes him a valuable fantasy starter atop Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Panthers – The other Steve Smith had a down season in Carolina, although a lot of that was due to the horrendous quarterback play Jake Delhomme provided for most of the season. Still, Smith produced 65 catches for 982 yards and seven touchdowns. Now Smith must break in Matt Moore as his starting quarterback, and that could limit his numbers again. Plus, an offseason flag-football broken arm is hampering his offseason work. But despite all those issues, Smith is still a fantasy starter who should be in the 70-catch range with around 1,000 yards and 6-8 touchdowns. Draft him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Hines Ward, Steelers – We addressed how the changing situation around Ward affects him in this post. What we can’t neglect to mention is how good Ward’s numbers were last season – 95 catches, 1,167 yards, six touchdowns. And now that Santonio Holmes is a Jet, Ward is once again the Steelers’ clear No. 1 receiver. That means Ward is a dependable fantasy option once again, at least once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. The fact that Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will throw to Ward for the first month of the season keeps Ward off Tier 2, but we’ll include him on Tier 3 as an acceptable starter for fantasy owners. Figure on 80 catches for 1,000 yards and enjoy Ward’s production in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker has been a catch machine since joining the Patriots, and his 123-catch season last year was his third straight with more than 110. His 1,348 yards was a career high as well. Sure, Welker had only five touchdowns, but he was still a reliable point producer week after week for fantasy owners. Then came the injury, as Welker tore his ACL in the season finale. His recovery has been amazing, as Welker is already back at practice, and it appears Welker will be on the field to start the season. Of course, knee injuries often hinder production for the first year players are on the field, and so Welker still has question marks. But his quick recovery makes Welker a fantasy starter on Tier 3. It’s a remarkable comeback for a remarkable player. Verdict: Applaud

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Thanksgiving leftovers

A few thoughts from the three Thanksgiving Day games, in which…
The Packers thumped the Lions 34-12
The Cowboys beat the Raiders 24-7
And the Broncos beat the Giants 26-6

*The Packers, who have now won three in a row, are a dangerous team. The Pack’s biggest shortcoming, the offensive line, seems to be improving a bit, and that allows a dangerous offense to show its explosiveness. Aaron Rodgers has premium targets in the ageless Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, and there is depth at receiver and tight end as well. If the Pack can protect – which will be a stern test against strong fronts like Minnesota has – it can put up enough points to pull an upset against a really good team. At 7-4, the Pack still has a chance to make some noise.
*On defense, Charles Woodson of Green Bay is still a premium player. It’s hard to believe he’s been a top corner for a decade already. His stat line on Thanksgiving – seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two interceptions, and one fumble – should win him player of the week honors.
*Detroit doesn’t have many premium players, but rookie S Louis Delmas probably is going to end up being one. He and Brandon Pettigrew, who was hurt in this game, both look to be high-pick hits from this year’s draft. Detroit needs a bunch more of those to make up the talent gap left by the Matt Millen disaster.
*Dallas isn’t a great team, but it’s a very good team that has the potential to scare some people. The X-factor is Miles Austin, who is a reliable target with explosive ability. That’s something not even Terrell Owens brought to Dallas last year. With Austin emerging, Tony Romo has a chance to avoid the late-season collapse that has plagued him thus far in his career.
*Felix Jones had a long touchdown, but I still don’t believe in him as more than a bit player. Tashard Choice may be the best back Dallas has, because Marion Barber isn’t quite the barbarian he was two or three years ago. The bigger problem for Dallas is the offensive line, which is big but is slow and getting slower. Oakland’s front got some good pressure on Romo, especially from second-year defensive end Trevor Scott, who had two sacks.
*Oakland has some good players. TE Zach Miller is a big-time player, as is stud CB Nnamdi Asomugha. The linebacker crew is decent, as is the front seven. But there is no consistency from many of the consistent players, and the quarterback play is so subpar that the team really doesn’t have a chance. If Jeff Garcia had really gotten a shot to start this year, he could have gotten six or seven wins out of this supporting cast. But too many guys in Oakland aren’t willing to compete on the level that Garcia would. Still, there are guys on this roster I’d take on my team.
*The Broncos caught a huge break from the schedule makers by getting a home game on a short week. That kind of home-field advantage was just what they needed to break their four-game losing streak. Credit goes to them for taking advantage, but don’t think this win solves all their problems. They still need to perform better week to week to make a playoff run. But if Kyle Orton gets healthy with a few extra days off, and if the defense can play more like it did Thursday night instead of how it played the four previous games, Denver still has a shot.
*The Giants have serious problems. Like the Cowboys, the Giants’ offensive line is declining. This group of five used to be an asset, but the guys up front are either getting old or have just been too beaten up, because they simply aren’t a top group anymore. That unit is going to need an infusion of youth via the draft or free agency in the offseason, and it may end up being a critical flaw for the Giants’ playoff hopes this year.

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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