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Ravens QB Joe Flacco makes the leap in AFC championship game

For National Football Authority, we find the silver lining of the Baltimore Ravens’ loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. We analyze how Joe Flacco proved that he is a big-game quarterback and how he is good enough to lead the Ravens to a championship in the future. Click here to read all about it.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco, via sacbee.com

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Pick ’em – Conference Championships

We are 4-4 against the spread and 5-3 straight up so far in the playoffs, so this week is key to going over .500 in our postseason picks. Here’s what we expect to happen in the AFC and NFC championship games.

49ers LB Patrick Willis (52) will try to batter Eli Manning and the Giants, via salon.com

Baltimore +7 at New England

There’s a trend happening in this year’s playoffs, and nobody’s talking about it. Twice, we have seen high-flying teams upset by opponents who were far more physical. The 49ers did it to the Saints, and the Giants did it to the Packers. Now we expect the Ravens to do the same to the Patriots. The Ravens aren’t a perfect team, but they’re very well-balanced, which means they have enough offense to overcome a few big Patriots plays. But the Ravens’ defense will push around New England’s offensive line and give Tom Brady some heartburn. Meanwhile, on offense, Ray Rice and company should be able to find lanes, and despite the hullaballoo this week Joe Flacco will make some big-time throws against a Patriots secondary that still isn’t good. Brawn beats beauty, and the Ravens go to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. Baltimore 27, New England 24

San Francisco -3 vs. N.Y. Giants

No matter whether this line is two or three points, we believe the 49ers will surpass it. While the AFC championship is a game of contrasting styles, this one will be a slugfest, a la Ravens/Texans last week. And we believe the 49ers are the more physical team on both sides of the ball. While Eli Manning has gotten a lot of pub for making big throws thus far in the playoffs, he can’t block for himself. The 49ers should also be able to shut down the Giants running game. It’s not going to be pretty, but it should be effective for San Francisco to make its first Super Bowl appearance since the mid-1990s. San Francisco 20, N.Y. Giants 16

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Football Relativity: Conference Championships

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. We will do so this week, but we will discuss only the 4 remaining playoff teams. As a result, we’re removing the 10-point scale and just discussing these teams in order of which we think is best.

Giants WR Hakeem Nicks breaks free against the Packers, via nj.com

Baltimore Ravens – Not many people will have the Ravens as the top remaining team in the playoffs, but we do. That’s because the Ravens have the most pieces of any team left. The defense, while not at the elite level it reached over the past decade, is still quite good. The offense has an elite runner in Ray Rice, as well as some terrific young pieces in the passing game. The weakest spot is quarterback Joe Flacco, who is inconsistent but can still rise to the occasion. The Ravens didn’t look great in their 20-13 win over the Texans, but that was a tricky matchup between two teams with similar styles, and the Ravens won out. Now they get to play the Patriots in a game of contrasting styles, and we saw in the Giants/Packers matchup and the Saints/49ers matchup this weekend that the physical style has a great shot of overcoming the flashier, high-flying approach. Plus, the Ravens have risen to the occasion at every big moment this year, with wins over the Steelers, 49ers, Texans, and more, so they won’t be intimidated going into New England.

San Francisco 49ers – We move the 49ers up after their enthralling 36-32 victory over the Saints Saturday afternoon. We discussed in this post the impact that Justin and Aldon Smith had for the 49ers, and they were part of a defense that completely outmuscled the Saints. That physical style will be tested this weekend against the Giants; like this week’s Ravens/Texans game, Giants/49ers will be a battle of two teams with similar approaches and styles. We believe the 49ers can play the style better than the Giants, as long as QB Alex Smith avoids key mistakes. Smith showed that he was clutch this past week, but he has a high bar to clear against Eli Manning this week.

New England Patriots – The Patriots lambasted the Broncos 45-10 this weekend, repeating their domination in Denver from earlier this year. QB Tom Brady and crew have one of the league’s most unstoppable offenses, thanks in large part to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And Tim Tebow and the Broncos were not refined enough offensively to test the Patriots’ sometimes spotty pass defense. But the Ravens are good enough to do so, and they will also be more physical up front than the Patriots are. Don’t let one playoff blowout against an inferior team trick you into thinking that the Patriots are far and away better than anyone else left in the playoffs.

New York Giants – All credit to the Giants for going to Green Bay and pulling off a convincing 37-20 win over the Packers. New York dominated the game physically, and WR Hakeem Nicks continued his emergence as a star wideout. With Nicks and Victor Cruz, along with other good supplemental pieces, Manning has a terrific crew of wideouts. The question is whether the Giants can win a battle of wills against the 49ers. San Francisco’s front seven is better than the Giants, even though we know more about the Giants’ front four. Ultimately, we think that will win out and that the 49ers will outslug the Giants.

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Flacco says Ravens don’t get enough credit

Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens in training...

Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Image via Wikipedia

For National Football Authority, we analyze Ravens QB Joe Flacco’s contention that the Ravens aren’t getting enough respect. How good are the Ravens, and why might they be flying under the radar? Click here to find out.

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Football Relativity: Week 4

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week.

Texans OLB Mario Williams took down Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, via behindthesteelcurtain.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers hammered the Broncos 49-23 to move to 4-0. When Aaron Rodgers is on his game, no team in the NFL can compete with the Packers. The champs are off to a great start in their title defense, and are in great form entering a Sunday-night showdown in Atlanta.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots – The Ravens won a weird game against the Jets thanks to three defensive touchdowns. While Joe Flacco’s performance has been up and down, the Ravens are still a solid 3-1. The Patriots rebounded from a loss in Buffalo by beating the Raiders 31-19 on the road. Now the Pats face the reeling Jets in Foxboro with a chance to grab control of the AFC East.

8 – Detroit Lions (UP A LEVEL), Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – We covered the pride of the Lions in Rise/Sink/Float. The Texans got a statement win at home against the Steelers, and their defense bounced back after a debacle against the Saints in Week 3. Houston now hosts the Raiders with a chance to start the second quarter of the season strong. The Saints got a solid if unspectacular win in Jacksonville to move to 3-1 as well. They’re playing better than any other NFC South team, but a trip to Carolina next week is no gimme. The Chargers have avoided their typical September struggles and have moved to 3-1. They go to Denver this week with a chance to open an even bigger division lead. We’ll have much more on the Bucs’ win over the Colts in a post later today.

7 – Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants (UP A LEVEL), New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles (DOWN A LEVEL), Pittsburgh Steelers (DOWN A LEVEL) – This is the group of 2011 playoff teams that are on the verge of falling out of contention. We covered the Eagles’ descent in Rise/Sink/Float. The Falcons won in Seattle, but nearly blew a big lead. Still, getting a road win in the tough environs of Seattle is a credit. The Jets looked awful against the Ravens, and their offense is really struggling without C Nick Mangold. But the Jets often start slow and still bounce back. The Steelers lost in Houston, and given the injuries on the offensive line and signs of age on the defensive line, it’s hard to see them as elite anymore. The Super Bowl loser’s hangover is definitely in effect in Pittsburgh. The Giants move up to this level, because while we’re not sold on them, they’re playing fairly well so far. They found a way to win in Arizona and now return home to face Seattle with a chance to move to 4-1.

6 – Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins – We covered the Bears in depth in this game post, and we focused in on the Redskins in Rise/Sink/Float. The Bills lost a lead in Cincinnati, which isn’t shocking. Buffalo’s offense is good, but the defense needs work and will likely be what keeps them out of the playoffs. The Cowboys lost a huge lead at home against Detroit, and while the Lions are good,  that’s a blow. Despite talent, the Cowboys are likely outside of the playoffs. The Raiders lost at home against the Patriots, and at 2-2 they’re at a crossroads. Their trip to Houston this week will be fascinating to watch.

5 – San Francisco 49ers (UP A LEVEL), Tennessee Titans (UP A LEVEL) – We aren’t really believers in either the 49ers or the Titans to make a serious run at contention, but both teams move to 3-1. The 49ers won in Philadelphia, and in a weak NFC West, they’re in a fine position so far. Now the Golddiggers return home to host the Buccaneers, who travel across the continent on a short week. The Titans thrived despite Kenny Britt’s absence, throttling the Browns 31-13 in Cleveland. They have an opportunity to capitalize vs. a struggling Steelers team this week. Matt Hasselbeck has to be among the league MVP candidates through the first quarter of the season.

4 – Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns (DOWN A LEVEL), Jacksonville Jaguars – The Browns got blasted at home against the Titans, so they fall a level to join other game teams who don’t win often in the Cardinals and the Jaguars. Jacksonville played decent defense but lost at home to New Orleans, while the Cardinals couldn’t hold a lead at home against the Giants.

3 – Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks (UP A LEVEL) – We covered the Panthers’ loss to Chicago in this game post. The Bengals won at home against the Bills, while the Chiefs got their first win at home against the Vikings. The Broncos predictably got blasted in Green Bay. Seattle moves up a level because their offense showed some life in a near-comeback against Atlanta. We’ll have much more on the Colts in a post later today.

2 – Miami Dolphins (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Dolphins were game in San Diego against the Chargers, but they ultimately fell 26-16. They enter their bye with vultures circling over head coach Tony Sparano’s head.

1 – Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams (DOWN TWO LEVELS) – The Rams continued to be as listless as any team in the NFL in their 17-10 loss to the Redskins, so we have no choice but to put them at the bottom level. They’re joined by the Vikings, who fell to 0-4 as well in a road loss to the previously punchless Chiefs.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 1

It’s a new season for Football Relativity, and thanks to our new partnership with National Football Authority, you’re going to see a lot more from us. We will be changing some things, but one of the traditions we’re continuing is our weekly look at three teams – one that is rising, one that is sinking, and one that is at the same level based on Sunday’s play.

Ravens DE Haloti Ngata with one of Baltimore's many turnovers, via baltimoresun.com

Rise – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens opened the season with a must-win home game against their rivals from Pittsburgh, and they delivered with a big-time 35-7 win. The game got out of hand because the Ravens forced seven turnovers, while Joe Flacco and Ray Rice were efficient throughout. This may be the season the Ravens put it all together; it’s definitely the season opener when they do.

Sink – Atlanta Falcons – There’s not really a ton of shame in the Falcons losing in Chicago, but getting blown out 30-12 was a bad result. Atlanta’s only touchdown came on a late interception return after the game was out of reach, and the Falcons couldn’t stop the Bears passing game. The Falcons got a mulligan because all four NFC South teams lost, but they must perform better if they want to make the playoffs for a second year in a row for the first time in franchise history.

Float – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers have a bad tradition of starting slowly, and when they trailed the Minnesota Vikings 17-7 at home Sunday, it looked like another inexplicable loss to open the season. But the Bolts responded by rallying for a 24-17 victory, thanks in large part to a standout defensive effort that held Minnesota to just 28 net passing yards. The victory came at a high cost – a season-ending injury to PK Nate Kaeding and injury questions about DL Luis Castillo and RB Mike Tolbert, who scored three touchdowns. But the Chargers started with a win, and that’s a step forward.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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