The 2011 NFL Season kicks off on Thursday with the Packers and Saints. Before the opening kickoff is driven through the end zone, robbing us of watching a fun kick return, Gaming Illustrated will be giving our official Preview and Predictions article for this year’s football season. In this two part series, we’ll first look at the AFC and see how things shake out. Teams listed are in the predicted finishing order in the standings.
San Diego Chargers: This year the Chargers face a brutal schedule along with the rest of this division. What is different from this year as opposed to last year’s ridiculously disappointing season is a sense of cohesiveness in the offense with many of the top players in Gates, Jackson and Floyd back from injuries and holdouts. The defense looks improved and last year’s Achilles heel, special teams, benefits from the rule change (no kickoff returns for touchdowns essentially) and a new coach. The Chargers will win the division but will only go so far as a balanced running game will taken them – and with fumble icons Mathews and Tolbert timesharing the position, that probably won’t be farther than one or two playoff games.
Kansas City Chiefs: While the Chiefs are coming off a playoff season, let’s remember they were vastly overrated last season and got drubbed in the playoffs. While they are an up-and-coming team, I don’t see another playoff run in them this year. There’s turnover on the offensive side with Charlie Weis gone. Expect the QB to have a decent, but not better, season overall. While many are hating on the Chiefs, we think an 8-8 or 9-7 season is in the works, building to a nice playoff run next season. For now, they’ll be a dangerous team with some nice pieces of the puzzle in place, such as Jamaal Charles.
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders were a hard team to figure out last season, going undefeated in the division but going 8-8 overall. Many that have followed this franchise appreciate the huge progress made by just going .500, but in typical Raider fashion they made a lot of questionable offseason moves. While the new coach might be an upgrade, there’s nobody touting a defense that lost a lot in the offseason. The offense will be one-dimensional – run run run – and the team will be dangerous but will lack the talent to repeat an 8-8 season. I think Raider fans should expect a 6-10 or 7-9 season.
Denver Broncos: Last year’s doormats shouldn’t progress too much this season. While the defense has been upgraded by getting back their sack machine in Elvis Dumervil and drafting the stud linebacker second overall, the offense looks like it’ll take a step back with John Fox in charge, who loves to run boring and outdated run-first TE-pass offenses. This is a far departure from last year’s Josh McDaniels offense, which begs the question as to what personnel on this team will fit whatever vision they are trying to set now in Denver. The running game may not be much better and the passing game is sure to regress. That might balance out the improved defense, but overall, the Broncos look no better than 6-10 at best.
Houston Texans: Fans in Houston can finally rejoice, as their team will get to the Promised Land – the playoffs – for the very first time. While they will be thanking Peyton Manning’s slow recovery all season long, the Texans will feature one of the most dynamic offenses in the league while ideally improving one of the worst defenses. Wade Phillips has always had tremendous success as a coordinator and will work his usual magic this time around again. While I don’t think the Texans will be a top tier team, they will win their division at 10-6 or 11-5 and break through as a division winner.
Indianapolis Colts: Uh oh. Manning is hurt and who knows when he’s going to come back. Even missing just one game is going to be huge because that game is against their division rivals, the Texans. I think we’ll see a nice year from Addai but the team is simply not good enough on either side of the ball to make a big run this year. In fact, with an aging defense, suspect offensive line and injured quarterback, the Colts will NOT make the playoffs this year. It’s a bold prediction considering their level of success, but all good things do come to an end eventually and so will the Colts consecutive playoff appearances. I think we’ll see the Colts go 8-8 or 9-7.
Tennessee Titans: Another team I don’t have high hopes for in what looks like a bad division. While the defense will be tough, the new coaching staff here has yet to put their stamp on the team’s true identity. While Hasselbeck will improve QB play, young Jake Locker looms after a great preseason. Nevertheless, this is Chris Johnson’s team and he’ll have to have a huge year for the Titans to compete. It looks like another 6-10 or 7-9 season here.
Jacksonville Jaguars: This is a team that perennially flies under the radar and sometimes comes out of nowhere to make a playoff run. This year we can totally expect a last place finish for the Jags. While MJD might be banged up and Gabbert will push for a starting job versus the now-named-starter in Josh “Yeah I’m Sure You’ve Never Heard of Me” McCown, the offense doesn’t scream excitement. The Jags D still doesn’t leap out at you as being scary. This is a team that really doesn’t thrill me but won’t be terrible, so 6-10 or 7-9 seem like where the Jags will end up at … yet again.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice will be the offensive player of the year in the NFL this season. He’s improved every year and this year he looks primed to jump out and blow away defenses. Hopefully the constantly overrated Joe Flacco can finally live up to the hype and the defense can have yet another amazing season. There’s a lot to like in Baltimore and they will be right up there with Pittsburgh for the AFC’s top record. I like them over the Steelers for the division given their general health and hunger to beat their rivals. Expect a 13-3 or 12-4 season and a first round bye for the playoffs, and just maybe, a run to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers: These guys always contend and play tough. While last year’s Super Bowl loss surely stings, they showed they are going nowhere in terms of contending for titles. A lot of people are expecting Roethlisbeger to have a huge year and we are as well, but the running game with Mendenhall might suffer because he carried the ball a ridiculous amount last season. You know the defense will be great, but after a long run last season, can they hold up for another run this year? We’ll see them in the playoffs as always, that’s for sure. Expect a 12-4 or 11-5 season at the least.
Cleveland Browns: Bleh. A lot of people are thinking that Colt McCoy will breakout and have a great season because he’s in the perfect system with the new coaching staff in place. While that might happen, there is a lot that has to happen for the Browns to just get to .500 this season, which frankly won’t happen. Hillis and the Madden Curse will kill the running game and the absolute dearth of weapons at WR and TE will limit McCoy’s ability to progress as QB in the NFL. The defense has no huge names and even lost a few in the off-season. Looks like yet another 4-12 or 5-11 season in Cleveland.
Cincinnati Bengals: The good news is that they are a near lock to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes with what looks like the worst team in the NFL. Going 1-15 or 2-14 looks like a pretty safe bet… but the bad news is that by drafting and dedicating their time to Andrew Dalton, they’ll have to trade the first pick (Miami? San Fransisco?) and forgo the potential Hall of Famer in next year’s draft. There’s no silver lining here. The running back is old (and in jail) and you have a rookie QB throwing to a rookie WR … and the defense looks average. It’s going to be an ugly year, folks.
New England Patriots: The Patriots fit the formula of a Super Bowl team and certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to win it all. I like them a lot this year to not just win this division, but to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. If Chad Ochocinco can figure out his role in the offense and Green-Ellis can balance the running game, the offense will be the league’s best. The defense has some key additions and has gained some maturity in the secondary, making the Pats an easy pick here to win the division and get a first round bye with a record of 13-3 or 12-4.
New York Jets: While the back-to-back AFC Championship Game runs have really been a reflection of the will and fortitude of the head coach and defense, I think the Jets come back to Earth a bit this season. Certainly the team should qualify for the post season but there won’t be any wins there for them this year. Over-hyped QB Mark Sanchez continues to show he’s not a long-term solution to Jets fans while the rest of the league looks the other way for some reason. If Shonn Greene can live up to the hype, then watch out, but if he continues to suck and they have to lean on the old man (Tomlinson) then the Jets should be really concerned about the direction of the franchise. The defense will be a top-5 unit and the team will definitely be good at 10-6 or 11-5. Just don’t expect huge things out of this team, especially in the post season.
Buffalo Bills: Different year, same story. No great QB to speak of although Fitzpatrick is an interesting choice. No great RB although Jackson and Spiller could conceivably have a combined big year. No great WR although Steve Johnson could be a huge breakout superstar. The defense will be woeful, especially against the pass. That’ll make games fun to watch in Buffalo but ultimately disappointing. Don’t expect much from these guys although they might be a sentimental favorite to watch because they’ll probably have a fun offense and terrible secondary. A 6-10 or 7-9 season seems pretty reasonable this year for the Bills.
Miami Dolphins: I know some people love the Dolphins but I absolutely hate them this year. Their offense is a joke – Reggie Bush is going to be asked to run their gimmick offense this year and QB Chad Henne continues to prove nothing. This will probably be his last year in Miami and Bush will probably be hurt by Week 7. While Brandon Marshall is a stud WR that battles his own demons, there isn’t too much on offense outside of him and Bush that really can scare a defense. On the other side of the ball, the core players are getting aged and there’s nobody there that seems like they can be a difference maker to make up for their holes. The Dolphins look like a team that will struggle early and often this year and will end up at 4-12 or 5-11 with significant turnover (coach, GM, etc) in the air.
PREDICTED PLAYOFF TEAMS:
Division Winners: San Diego, Houston, Baltimore, New England
Wild Cards: Pittsburgh, New York