We're less than two weeks away from the start of the season, in what has potential to be the best year of quarterback play ever. Now it's possible (or maybe even probable) that Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Stafford, Eli, and Newton don't play quite as well as they did last year. But league-wide play may improve, with the return of Peyton Manning and the possibility that last year's success of rookie QB's carries over to Luck, RGIII, and maybe even Russell Wilson. Additional improvement can come from Rivers, Freeman and Bradford bouncing back, Palmer having a full offseason, and Cutler, Schaub, Vick, and Cassel staying healthy. Granted, not all those things are likely to happen. But the fact remains that there's really only worrisome quarterback situations in Arizona, Cleveland, Tennessee, and Miami. It wouldn't shock me for the other 28 teams to have positive play from their QB's, so it could be a very good year for passers. But enough speculation.
Now it's time to speculate on who will make the playoffs. Last year didn't turn out so good (I only got 7 out of 12 right). But in all fairness, I wasn't aware of the stat that an average of five new teams make the playoffs every year. I'll be ignoring that stat again this year, but at least I knew about it this time around.
The playoff returnees are the Packers, Falcons, Niners, and Giants. Of the four, I feel the most confident with the Packers and Falcons. The Niners are likely to drop to 9 or 10 wins. I do think it's possible that Seattle wins the division, but I think Harbaugh's a good enough coach to prevent the Niners from missing the playoffs. The Giants are trickier because of the ole Super Bowl hangover, but they did win 12 games after their last Super Bowl; so that may not be an issue with them. Combine that with the risky nature of the Eagles and Cowboys and I think they make it back. I think the safest newcomer pick is the Bears. They won 8 games last year, even with Cutler and Forte missing a combined 10 games. They were 7-3, prior to Cutler breaking his thumb, then went 1-5. Just having those guys healthy makes them a playoff team. Add to that the fact that they acquired a true number one receiver in Brandon Marshall, much-improved insurance for Cutler and Forte (in the form of Jason Campbell and Michael Bush), and special teams ace Blake Costanzo, and the Bears should be a dangerous team this year. For the last playoff pick, I'm going with a sleeper and taking the Bucs. The other possibilities were the Saints, Lions, Cowboys and Eagles. I resisted the Saints, because of everything that's happened with them. I find it hard to believe that a team can lose its head coach and defensive coordinator and not be affected (not to mention the player suspensions). I think the Lions take a small step back. I think the Cowboys are too risky. They could be very good, but there's injury and personality risks with pretty much every significant player. I think the Eagles are the likeliest to make the playoffs over Tampa Bay, but I'm going with the long shot. Going from 10 wins in 2010 to 4 wins last year makes them likely to bounce back in general. Factor in the additions of Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Doug Martin to the offense (along with a supposedly newly motivated Josh Freeman) and Eric Wright and Mark Barron to the defense (along with shifting Barber from corner to safety), and they could very well make the playoffs.
The playoff returnees are the Patriots, Ravens, Texans, and Steelers. I think the Patriots and Texans are the safest picks. The Patriots have a better roster than last year and the Texans play in a weak division. The Ravens should be pretty much a lock. The only reasons they aren't is the lack of Terrell Suggs for at least 6 games and the fact that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are both a year older, but I still think they make the playoffs. Of the four, I feel like the Steelers are the likeliest to fall out. Mike Wallace missed training camp over a contract dispute, Rashard Mendenhall will miss the start of the season with an injury, and first-round pick David DeCastro will be out for awhile (if not all year). Not to mention that since Roethlisberger's been around (and even the three years before), the Steelers have had a pattern of making the playoffs two years in a row and missing them the them the next year. After two consecutive playoff appearances, will that pattern continue this year? I say they break that tradition, only because I see don't see anyone who could potentially push them out. The first newcomer to the playoffs is America's seemingly favorite pick: the Bills. With the addition of Mario Williams and the return of Fred Jackson, the Bills should be in a good position to make a playoff run (especially if it's true that Fitzpatrick wasn't fully healthy last year). I'm not completely confident in them though, I just think there's a lot of question marks with other teams. I thought the Jets were done last year, so I don't expect much from them this year. The Dolphins lost arguably their best offensive player, leaving Reggie Bush as their primary weapon (who only has a year of experience as a featured back). Combine that with a rookie quarterback and it could be a tough year in Miami. The toughest pick to make is the AFC West winner. The Broncos are the favorites. But since there's question marks about Manning (both in his health and how he'll fit in with a new offense), combined with the fact that the Broncos scraped by with a lot of comeback wins last year, they're a risky pick for me. Another team that pulled off a lot of close wins was the Raiders. So while I think the team should be better this year, some of the bounces that went their way last year may not this year, which could cause them to end up with the same record. The Chargers have the best quarterback in the division, but I feel like they might be in the same boat as the Jets (in that they peaked a couple years ago). And the loss of Vincent Jackson doesn't help. So I'm picking the Chiefs. They finished only a game behind the rest of their division, in spite of the fact that Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki all missed (essentially) the entire year. Matt Cassel was also hurt last year, and he seems to have a pattern of playing good every other year; which means he should bounce back this year. The AFC West should be a tight race, and it's truly anyone's division to win, but I feel like the Chiefs have the most room for improvement from last year. Although, with the possibility that Pittsburgh or Buffalo doesn't make it, it may very well be a second AFC West team that takes their spot.
I think the likeliest candidates for MVP are Brady, Manning, and Brees. I feel like Brady and Rodgers have the best shot at putting up ridiculous MVP numbers; but since Rodgers won it last year, I don't think he's likely to win it twice in a row. The case for Manning and Brees are all about circumstance. The press loves Manning to begin with. If he were to come back from injury and put up even just top 10 totals in yards and TDs, and Denver made the playoffs, I think he'd take it. Even if Brady put up close to 5,000 yards and 40 TDs, I think the story surrounding Manning would push him over the top (even if he had only 4,000 yards and 25 TDs). The only one who can match Peyton, as far as circumstances go, is Brees. If the Saints make the playoffs, I think Brees gets his first MVP. Just like with Peyton, he doesn't need gaudy stats to do it. If he were to lead the Saints to the playoffs, in spite of losing Sean Payton and Gregg Williams, he would get it. The interesting question: what would happen if both Denver and New Orleans make the playoffs? Since it's impossible to know which one could pull it off, I'll go with the safest pick in Brady.
Super Bowl pick
How will the Packers defense do this year? Will their offense be as good? How will the Niners offense do this year? Will their defense be as good? Can the Giants make back to back Super Bowl trips? As likely as any of those teams are to make the Super Bowl, I think the Bears might be the best all-around team. The other teams have questions about performance, while it seems like the only question with the Bears is health. Since the only question about them is something that could be a problem for any team, I'll go with the Bears to represent the NFC. For the AFC, I think it comes down to the Patriots, Texans, and Ravens. I'm not 100% confident in Joe Flacco yet, so I don't feel comfortable picking them. The Texans are probably the best all-around team in the conference, but health is a question mark with them (and not in the way that it is with Chicago). While Cutler and Forte missed significant time with injuries for the first time in their careers, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson have struggled with injuries for three of the last five years. For that reason, I'll pick the Patriots to make a second consecutive appearance.
NFC- Bears, Packers, Niners, Falcons, Giants..........Bucs
AFC- Patriots, Texans, Ravens.....Steelers.....Chiefs..........Bills.
Since I picked neither to make the playoffs, watch it turn out to be my ill-fated pick from last year: Saints-Chargers. Although if that was the case, I'll just say I was a year ahead.