For fun, I thought I'd make some predictions about the NFL season. Here are my guesses on who will make the playoffs, who will advance to the Super Bowl, and who will win MVP.
I think the AFC playoff teams are the easiest to predict, as it will look pretty similar to last year, with the Patriots, Steelers, Jets, and Ravens all returning. The only differences I see are the Chargers and Texans replacing the Chiefs and Colts. With Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson not holding out this year and the possibility that Ryan Mathews stays healthy, the Chargers offense could be even more explosive than last year. And the defense should stay solid, if not improve, with the additions of Takeo Spikes, Travis LaBoy, and Bob Sanders. I think the Texans have a couple things going for them. One is that Peyton Manning may miss a couple games (or more), presumably removing the Colts from their usual playoff spot. The other is that their defense should be improved, with the signing of Johnathan Joseph and the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. With the regression of the Colts and the strengthening of their defense, Houston should walkaway with the division.
Like the AFC, I see four NFC teams returning to the playoffs from last year: the Falcons, Eagles, Packers, and Saints. The most obvious newcomer to the playoffs this year should be the Rams. The Seahawks QB situation appears to be abysmal. The Niners have a new coaching staff. The Cardinals have upgraded the QB position. However, they're now without Hightower, Breaston, Rodgers-Cromartie, and Joey Porter's a year older. I think the worst case scenario for the Rams is that they end up tied with the Niners going into their week 17 match-up. And since that game is in St. Louis, it's safe to assume that they advance to playoffs even in their worst case scenario.
The final NFC playoff team is trickier to predict. I think Chicago and Tampa probably take a step back, I think the Lions are probably a year away from the playoffs and the Giants look decimated by injuries. Contrary to most people's opinion, I actually think the Vikings have a shot. They no longer have drama surrounding the head coach and I think McNabb is an upgrade over Favre. He had a decent season in Washington, which he should be able to outperform that with the likes of Peterson, Harvin, Schiancoe and Jenkins surrounding him. The question for the Vikings is whether or not their defense will slip, with the subtractions of Pat Williams and Ray Edwards. The other candidate to make the playoffs is the Cowboys. Their offense should improve, if Romo can stay healthy. And while I don't trust their defense, it's not like there's much room to regress. I think the Vikings will be better than people think, but Dallas has an easier schedule (and probably even division, at this point). So I'm going with the Cowboys to make the playoffs.
Super Bowl picks:
I think the Rams and Ravens are long shots and I don't think the Cowboys or Texans will have good enough defenses to make it to the Super Bowl. That leaves the Packers, Steelers, Eagles, Falcons, Saints, Patriots, Jets, and Chargers. Most teams don't make it to the Super Bowl two years in a row, so it would be tough to pick the Packers or Steelers. The Eagles are the most talented team in the league. In a normal year, they'd be a near lock to make the Super Bowl. But with limited time to jell, it's hard to pick them. The Falcons are a very good team. They would probably be my favorite to win the NFC, if it weren't for the Saints. Not only are the Saints a very good team, but they're two years removed from the Super Bowl (so no hangover) and they have the most continuity and stability in the league. Which, following a lockout, historically bodes well for not only a Super Bowl appearance, but a win as well. Who do the Saints play? I think it comes down to the Patriots, the Jets, and the darkhorse Chargers. The Patriots are supremely talented, but their last two playoff appearances have been shaky. The Jets have been to the AFC Championship game two years in a row, but they're starting to feel like the team that gets really close without ever getting over the hump. Therefore, I'll pick the Chargers to make a surprise Super Bowl appearance. I might as well pick an underdog, since the Saints seem like the safest pick in football. Regardless of who comes out of the AFC, I think the Saints will win the Super Bowl.
Final rankings for Super Bowl Favorites: Saints, Falcons, Eagles, Packers, Cowboys, Rams for the NFC and Chargers, Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Texans, and Ravens for the AFC.
I sort of feel like it's Michael Vick's award to lose. But while that may give him a head start, I think it also leaves little room for error. So I'm guessing that it comes down to Philip Rivers or Matt Schaub. Both could have monster years. Will Schaub benefit from the narrative of taking his team from third place to first place? Or will he suffer from the possible narrative that it took a Peyton Manning neck injury for the Texans to make the playoffs? I went into this thinking it would be the former, and that I'd pick Schaub, but I'm going to guess that Manning's storyline will compete for attention with Schaub's production. So I'm going with Philip Rivers to be the MVP.
No matter how right or wrong my predictions end up, it should be an exciting year of football.