Let the picket signs and angry radio calls begin. Jim Zorn is officially on the hot seat in the nation’s capital. Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions knocks the Skins down to 1-2, trailing the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. Even though Detroit pulled off the upset, the victory shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone associated with the Redskins. Detroit, who came into the contest on a 19-game losing streak, narrowly loss to Washington last season 25-17 so seeing the Lions beat them this year shouldn’t come as a shocker. What shocked me is that I was able to come away with three key points in a somber game for the Redskins. Good and bad, here they are:
Jim Zorn is not a head coach. PERIOD! To be a head coach in the NFL you have to be one of either three things: a tactician, a motivator or a player’s coach and Zorn is neither of those. His play calling has yet to produce a 30 point game and his decision making is questionable. He’s not a rah-rah guy and some of his star players have already gone through the war of words with him. So with Zorn failing to qualify for any of those three positions, it’s going to be interesting to see just how long he remains in Washington. I’m guessing at least until November. Zorn’s decision making was at its purest form again on Sunday when the head man chose to wipe away a fourth down and long field goal attempt to give the Lions another shot at converting a first down.
With the Lions driving late in the first quarter, Detroit’s attempt on a 3rd and 4 was unsuccessful but an offensive pass interference call gave Zorn the option to push the Lions back farther away from scoring range. Zorn elected to give Detroit the ball back on a 3rd and 13 rather than allowing them to try a long field goal attempt. Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford then ran 21 yards for the first down before finding Bryant Johnson on the following play for a touchdown.
Winning in the NFL is hard enough. Battling two coaches in one game is nearly impossible. It’s not Zorn’s fault that Stafford completed a deep pass to Johnson for the opening touchdown but it was his decision to take the Lions’ field goal team off the field and give Stafford another crack at things.
Rookie Brian Orakpo is going to be a dynamite pass rusher for the Redskins. Orakpo playing outside linebacker might not be his strong suit but lining him up to rush the passer caters to his strengths. Orkapo displayed his speed and quickness when he swept around from the left side of the offensive line to take down Stafford in the third quarter. Orakpo belongs on the line rushing the passer, not floating off the line guessing whether it’s a run or a pass. When the Redskins get into their games against the Giants, Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, rushing the passer is going to be one of the first assignments on the agenda. Having Orakpo playing to his strength is going to be essential in scheming against the better quarterbacks of the league. We’ll see if the coaches take advantage of what they have in Orkapo. Stay tuned.
London Fletcher doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the better middle linebackers in the league. 18 tackles against the Giants and 16 the other day against the Lions proves that if there’s one guy who comes to play on Sundays, it’s Fletcher. Fletcher has been one of the better players for the Redskins for the last few years now and it’s about time he gets his recognition. If nobody else will give it to him, I will: Fletcher, you’re awesome, keep doing the dirty work and try to keep inspiring the troops on the defense. They’re going to need it for what’s going to be a long season.
Hmmmmm, how should I start this? A win’s a win right? Right? Isn’t it? Of course! A win is a win when you score more points than the team you’re playing against. Style points only count in the NCAA but try telling the fans at FedEx Field that. Skins fans serenaded their team with boos from the opening quarter to the closing minutes of Sunday’s win. Do they have a reason to boo? Well … considering the Boardwalk Avenue-like prices at FedEx Field and the team’s bloated payroll, Redskin faithful probably feel entitled to more than just three unattractive field goals against the lowly Rams. I can’t blame them. I feel entitled to more than just searching through the ugliness to try and find three pointers from the game but nevertheless, here they are.
Unless the Skins run deep through the playoffs and/or finish the season on some exciting, Greatest Show on Turf –type of finish, head coach Jim Zorn isn’t coming back for the 2010 season. Hell, he might not even make it through this season. Owner Daniel Snyder has fired a coach before during the midst of the season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do it again with grumbling mounting from those close to the organization. Redskin legend Sonny Jurgensen went back and forth with Zorn after Sunday’s game over the coach’s decision to try a halfback pass on a third-and-five play in the red zone.
Jurgensen probably wasn’t the only one who wanted to go to battle with Zorn, who’s close to wearing out his welcome in Washington if he hasn’t already. Jurgensen is a pretty even-keeled guy, if he’s going at it with the head coach in post game interviews, the writing isn’t only on the wall, it’s in bold and underlined print.
Fans booing at a game isn’t uncommon. Fans booing at a game after a win? Well … let’s just say that’s pretty rare. Although 9-7 couldn’t be a closer score, 9-7 is only means to cheer in NFC title games in freezing weather or Super Bowl drag outs that belong in black and white television instead of color.
9-7 in September when your team is one of the highest salaried teams in the league playing against one of, if not the worse team in the league is probably reason to throw your nachos in the air. Coming from a Redskin team when every year should be a contending year (in terms of salary and talent), 9-7 is inexcusable when the owner annually goes for broke in the offseason. Washington has brought in so many high-priced acquisitions over the last few years that Skins fans showed their frustration this past Sunday.
Although the team was triumphant, Washington has been playing lackadaisical ball for years and Sunday was the day for fans to not only let the team know, but Snyder, the coaches and anybody else close the organization understand that they’re sick of it. Sick of being average. Sick of being mediocre. Sick of not scoring touchdowns and sick of playing so-so football.
The fact that Snyder goes out of his way to empty his pockets every summer just magnifies all the issues in Washington. For the $100 million Snyder gave newly acquired Albert Haynesworth to fortify an already impressive defense, he could’ve dangled that money in front of an Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall or any other disgruntled marquee receiver that could’ve come in from day one and made the offense more explosive.
Washington has an obvious problem in the red zone. They were stoned all day in New York inside the 20 and the Rams swatted away all attempts this past weekend. The need of a big receiver is not only obvious, it’s mandatory if the team is going to start putting some points on the board. Sophmore wideouts Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas aren’t ready yet and the jobs of Campbell and Zorn can’t afford to wait on their development. To make matters worse, workhorse runner Clinton Portis is battling foot problems, which may haunt him for the rest of the season, so the team is going to have to open up the passing game this year. The lack of a dominant wideout may seriously hurt that strategy.
Wow, has there been anything more head hanging than watching a Jason Campbell and Jim Zorn-led offense the past few games for the Skins? Consistently running Clinton Portis into the teeth of the defense and seeing Campbell miss on potential big plays has become common place in D.C. You know how the Friday the 13th movie had like 20 parts to it? Well Sunday’s game against the Giants was like part 35 of the Skins’ dismal offense movies. Of course I managed to take three things away from the game, some good, some bad, and some ugly so without further adieu.
Play calling! During the first few weeks of Jim Zorn’s ’08 inauguration season, he was lauded for his unpredictability and crafty play calling on his way to a 6-2 coaching debut. Since then, well … let’s just say the magic has disappeared. Sunday against the Giants, Zorn called a trick play on the second play of Washington’s first possession that took the team out of scoring range. A running play on 3rd and 8 in the middle of the third quarter could’ve been blamed on Zorn or an audible from Campbell but nevertheless, it was a horrible call. A fake field goal attempt shortly before half gave the Skins their first points of the game but the trickery wouldn’t have been needed if not for some uninspiring calls around the Giants 8-yard line. Campbell catches his fair share of criticism about the struggles of the Washington offense but the game plans that Zorn has been drawing up should be the first target under the gun.
New $100 million acquisition Albert Haynesworth was gassed a few too many times for my liking. Haynesworth is a big man at 6-6, 350 lbs so seeing him on the sidelines sucking wind shouldn’t be surprising but when a team breaks the bank for you and appoints you as their savior, seeing that so-called savior on the sidelines during meaningful plays is a tad bit discouraging. Haynesworth crashed the pocket and commanded a double team on a few series, flashing glimpses of his dominance but far from the MVP-like force he was a just a couple of seasons ago. There’s no player on a squad that can afford to play the double role as the highest-paid and least conditioned. Ask how well that worked out for Kobe and Shaq. So-so efforts when it comes to preparation have the potential to divide a locker room depending on the person who’s giving the so-so effort. When it’s your highest-paid player giving the so-so effort, the consequences could be devastating. Stay tuned.
Make no mistake about it, Washington got hammered through three quarters and 13 minutes on Sunday. Even with a dismal showing, a late touchdown gave the team the chance to take the lead with a possible onsides kick recovery. Although the ball was controlled by New York, a Redskin recovery would’ve made things quite interesting. Sunday’s game was hard to judge. Watching the game you never really felt like Washington was in it but with less than two minutes left they still had a chance to win the game. Which leads to the following belief: If the Giants are the primary pick to win the division, then Washington isn’t that far away. A couple of tweaks to the game plan, a couple of capitalizations on big plays when they’re available and some inspired play would go a long way in D.C. I just hope Campbell and Zorn are around to see it.
In an earlier blog I asked how good was Adrian Peterson but the real question should be how good is Tom Brady? How good you wonder? So good that even though Brady missed the whole ’07 season with a busted knee, he leads the NFL in passing yards and completions after week one. The numbers are a bit skewed I admit considering Brady had the most passing attempts out of any quarterback in the opening weekend but still, facts are facts.
The New England offense didn’t look all that spectacular in the first few quarters against Buffalo on Monday night but they more than made up for it with two late touchdowns to snatch victory away from a Bills team that they’ve now beaten 12 straight times. Brady was poise and cool throughout the night in New England, missing on a few strikes early but showing a glimpse of what we can expect as the season goes on. The stat line of 39 for 53 proves that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has no concerns whatsoever about Brady’s surgically repaired knee and 39 for 53 proves that Brady has no concerns whatsoever about his ability to chuck it all across the field.
After ’07’s record breaking season, NFL pundits everywhere were expecting fire works on Monday against Buffalo and through three quarters, the Pats just couldn’t get the fuse lit. But all that changed with about 5:25 remaining and the Pats down 24-13. Brady orchestrated an 11-play, 81-yard drive before firing a dart over the middle to tight end Ben Watson that made the score 24-19. After a Buffalo fumble, Brady hurried the team for a 3-play, 31-yard drive with another dart over the middle to Watson that gave the Pats the lead for good at 25-24 and silenced the skeptics who questioned whether Brady could regain his form.
The over the middle daggers were throws only a few quarterbacks in the league can make and Brady probably heads that class. He was cool in the pocket throughout the night and even cooler after the game as he unsuccessfully tried to dodge ESPN sportscaster Michelle Tafoya on his way back to the locker room. For as steady as Brady was Monday night, he may have to be even steadier if the Pats are going to advance this season. New England’s defense was already showing some serious holes before standout linebacker Jarod Mayo left the game with a serious knee injury. Mayo will probably return later this season but Brady is going to have to hold strong to make sure Mayo’s return won’t be for not.
The New England Patriots are far from a perfect team. A so-so offensive line, weak running game and a shaky defense would be serious issues for any other team in the league but how good is Brady you ask? His presence alone puts them in the upper echelon of elite teams with a realistic chance at the Super Bowl.
How good is Adrian Peterson? Wow… should I even answer that? His performance on Sunday against the Browns confirmed something for me that I had been toggling with the last couple of weeks: He’s the best back that I’ve ever seen. Notice the key words in that sentence are “that I’ve ever seen.” I’m 27 as of this posting. I’ve seen Barry Sanders play, Emmitt Smith play, Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson and none of those guys offered what AP does.
The combination of size, speed and power is mind blowing. Tomlinson and Faulk were probably better pass catchers and route runners than Peterson but when you grade a running back, you should be grading them for what their job title is: Running Back. And nobody that I’ve seen runs quite like AP. Ok I know he ran wild against the Browns but I’ve also seen AP run insane against the Bears, Chargers and Packers. People will argue that Sanders was probably the best open field runner ever but watching Lions games every Thanksgiving, Sanders stats would usually read for gains of 1,1,-2,3,-1,4,1 and 50. AP does his damage consistently and even when he gets stacked at the line, you can believe whoever tackled him is walking away from the pile nursing some sore body part.
Dealing pain is something Bettis made legendary during his first few years in St. Louis until the end of his storied career in Pittsburgh. Bettis’ listed weight usually hovered around the 250 mark but seriously, he had to be somewhere between the 265-285 range. They didn’t call him the Bus for nothing and while AP may not dish out the same punishment that “The Bus” did, try tackling a 220-lb rock moving at 4.38 speed and see if you don’t peel yourself off the turf wondering where that bus came from.
Truth is, any dedicated NFL follower has the right to say a particular back of his era was the greatest of All-Time. I won’t take away anything from Jim Brown or Walter Payton or Gale Sayers. But I didn’t see them play. I’ve seen highlights but often times highlights don’t capture everything you need to see to make a full determination. I’m not claiming I know everything but one thing I do know is that ever since I started following the NFL in 1995, there hasn’t been a better pure running back than AP.
Well we’re here. Summer’s over and the boring Sundays are done. Time for some football! But first … time to conclude this week’s NFL divisional outlooks. I ran through the East, previewed the North and predicted the South. Now, i’ll try my hand at the West.
Should be a great year but even if it wasn’t, it’s fooball so it would still be better than what any other sport has to offer. This season seems wide open for the taking, just a matter of who wants it. Oddly enough, the AFC and NFC West divisions aren’t as strong as their conference counterparts but both divisions feature a couple of extremely talented teams. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one of my projected winners in the Super Bowl, it’s just a matter of health.
NFC West- Arizona Cardinals
I grew up on the San Francisco 49ers being a great team. Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Merton Hanks were my guys. So it’s a shame that most publications don’t even include the Niners in preseason discussions anymore when it comes to divisional champs. The team is on the right track back to respectability though. A competent coaching staff and some young talent have the team pointed in the right direction. But that direction won’t be clear this season though. The absence of a respectable quarterback will keep the Niners out of any serious contention until the position is upgraded.
The St. Louis Rams are a disaster. Their offense will be somewhat of a threat as long as Steven Jackson remains healthy but quarterback Marc Bulger is already playing with a broken pinkie. The defensive stars are few and far in between. It took the Rams 20 years to make their second Super Bowl appearance in 1999. Judging by the current state of the team, we could be looking at 2019 for another Super Bowl invite.
The Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals are going to duke it out for this year’s western crown. It almost sounds funny mentioning the Cardinals as contenders but the world saw last year that Arizona was for real.
The Seahawks were the opposite of high-flying last year with standout quarterback Matt Hasselbeck grounded with a back injury. His return should guarantee Seattle at least eight wins and the addition of wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh gives Hasselbeck the dependable target that he hasn’t had in a while. Last year’s defense was atrocious, finishing at 30th in the league. Seattle added the top linebacker prospect in the draft in Aaron Curry and will look to relive their 2007 season, when they finished in the top five in both sacks and takeaways. The Seahawks are in position to contend for the title in the west, but only if Hasselbeck and the defense return to form.
A few stout drafts and the steady hand of quarterback Kurt Warner has put the Cardinals in the position to contend. Arizona has one of the most talented teams in the NFC and it seems like every year for the past few seasons, they come away from the draft with a big time prospect. This year’s steal was Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells. Wells will be expected to help the so-so running game that will hold key to the Cards’ season. Starting back Tim Hightower was impressive in the preseason and Wells scored two touchdowns in his first action of the season against the Green Bay Packers.
We already know what Warner and Arizona’s dynamic receivers can do. The defense is opportunistic with a talented secondary. If Hightower and Wells can give the Cards a productive run game, Arizona’s offense could be unstoppable this season. The Cardinals were one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history away from bringing home a title and they’ll be in unknown territory this season. Last year’s playoff birth was their first since the ’98 season so it will be interesting to see how the players respond to such a quick turnaround.
Seattle and Arizona may likely split games this year and the Cardinals will be shown more respect this season by opposing clubs. Arizona did whatever they wanted to do in the NFC playoffs last year. Their run was impressive and with the addition of Wells and improvement of Hightower, the offense should be enough to carry them a divisional crown.
AFC West-San Diego Chargers
Easiest division in the league by far. The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos will be lucky to win five games combined as both clubs are in the midst of major overhauls. The Broncos may have set their ballclub back a few years with their fiasco surrounding franchise QB Jay Cutler and both the Chiefs and Broncos will be in their first year of playing the 3-4 defense. Long seasons could be in store.
The Oakland Raiders will field a tough squad this year behind the direction of tough-as-nails coach Tom Cable and could possibly contend for the western title if things bounce their way. While Oakland will be much improved, they’re no where near as talented as the San Diego Chargers, who look to capture their fourth straight division title this season.
The Chargers have talent everywhere from quarterback to waterboy and the return of Shawne Merriman and the selection of DE/OLB Larry English should return the pass rush spark that the team lacked last year. The Chargers went 8-8 in a wakeup year for the club. San Diego was a popular Super Bowl pick with media pundits fawning all over them last summer after their courageous battle against the New England Patriots in ’07’s AFC Championship.
Injuries to Merriman and LaDainian Tomlinson handicapped the offense and defense as the team hobbled to a 4-8 start. San Diego then ran off four straight wins including a round one victory against the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Phillip Rivers had his best season ever. Although San Diego lost to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round, the experience of playing two of the AFC’s most successful teams in back-to-back years should give the Chargers an insight on what it takes to reach the next level.
San Diego won’t be as highly favored to compete for a Super Bowl this year but because the division is so weak, they can easily reel off six wins against AFC West foes that could propel them to homefield advantage in the postseason. Health is key however. Tomlinson, Merriman, Rivers and talented tight end Antonio Gates have battled injuries over the past few seasons. If San Diego’s big four can remain healthy, the Chargers have the potential to win more than just the AFC West title
NFC South-New Orleans Saints
If the NFC East is the best division in football, then the NFC South is next in line. Three teams finished with a winning record last season and even the bottom place finisher ended the year with an 8-8 mark. The Carolina Panthers won the division last year and finished as the second seed in the NFC. A high-powered running game and strong defense propelled the Panthers to a 12-4 record but a blown lead on Monday night against the New York Giants costed them a shot at first place.
But homefield throughout the postseason wouldn’t have mattered for Carolina anyway. Jake Delhomme’s six-turnovers against the Arizona Cardinals would’ve been enough to get the team beaten by a prep school. The good news and bad news is that Delhomme returns for another season at starter. But after his performance in the biggest game of the year for Carolina, it’s hard…no, make that impossible for anybody to pick Carolina with confidence.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started 2008 out hot but ended the year on a sour note. After losing four straight games, the Bucs made sweeping changes in the offseason, losing popular coaches Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin and 08’s starting QB Jeff Garcia. The Bucs are capable of contending but will need a total team effort to contend in a tough division.
The real race will come down between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. The Saints may have the division’s most explosive offense but the Falcons may have the most balanced. The blend of power and speed by Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood makes the Falcons dangerous to crowd the box against. Receiving options Roddy White and newly acquired Tony Gonzalez would start for any team in North America and with impressive trigger man Matt Ryan calling the shots, Atlanta’s offense is a nightmare to gameplan for.
Although the Saints’ offense isn’t as balanced as the Falcons, it’s probably 2-3 notches more dangerous. Signal caller Drew Brees is capable of shredding any secondary and makes a defense cover from the line of scrimmage to the back end zone. His receiving options are plentiful and even though the multitalented Reggie Bush gets criticized for his skills as a true running back, he’s probably the best pass catching back in the game and deadly once he gets in open space.
It’s going to come down to the defensive side of the ball for both clubs. For all the explosiveness on offense, both teams are the exact opposite on defense. I guess the opposite of explosive would be a dud. So let’s say the Falcons and Saints are duds on defense. New Orleans finished 23rd on defense and Atlanta finished right behind them at 24th last year.
Both clubs used the draft to inject talent into their listless units but the Saints came out of the summer with the biggest catches. In addition to landing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, New Orleans also nabbed the top cornerback prospect in the draft in Malcolm Jenkins along with free agent adds Darren Sharper, Randall Gay and Jabari Greer.
New Orleans defensive acquisitions won’t turn them into a top five unit, but it’ll be enough to earn them the divisional crown this year.
AFC South-Indianapolis Colts
The AFC South was ruled by the Tennessee Titans for the majority of the season until the Indianapolis Colts got it together. The Colts have been the class of the division for so long that everybody always thinks next year is the year they’ll fall off but Indy keeps chugging along. It was just a short while ago that the Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to have a stranglehold over the division but things have since gone south for last year’s bottom feeder. The Houston Texans are a team that can never seem to get over the hump although they get better and better each year.
The Titans will be hard pressed to match last year’s dominant season. I happen to be a firm believer in it being “your year” for teams. I think there have been teams over the past few seasons that exemplified that sentiment but a slip up along the way changed the course of history. The ’94 Steelers, ’07 Patriots, ’07 Cowboys, ’96 Broncos and ’98 Vikings, etc, all missed their chance for greatness. The Titans had everything lined up for them last year but a 10 point, turnover-laced performance bounced them from the playoffs in the opening round.
Tennessee might very well be good again this season but in a year when the Chargers and Colts suffered numerous injuries and Tom Brady blew his knee out, the Titans may have missed their bus to glory.
The Colts started off slow but ended the year on a 9-0 winning streak before losing in the first round to what’s become their annual thorn in the San Diego Chargers. Indianapolis will head into the season healthy and should be able to flex their muscle once again. Peyton Manning is a walking Hall of Famer and you just know the offense is going to produce. The defense may take a step back with the loss of Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy but plenty of talent remains on a fast and flying unit.
The ironic thing is several people considered last year a down year for Indianapolis, yet they still reeled off 9 straight wins and finished only a game away from tops in the division even after seeing Tennessee start off 10-0. The Titans won’t be so fortunate to grab a big lead this year, Manning and company will return to their rightful spot as Kings of the South in ’09.
NFC North-Minnesota Vikings
The NFC North might possibly break in three new starting quarterbacks this year depending upon the situation in Detroit. The Detroit Lions need to get the Matthew Stafford era under way quickly if they want to wash any of last year’s 0-16 taste out their mouths. It would only make sense to get Stafford in as soon as possible so the trio of him, running back Kevin Smith and miracle wideout Calvin Johnson can grow together. But the ineptitude of Detroit’s pass protection and defense stamps them with the rebuild label for ’09.
The Chicago Bears will break in Jay Cutler as the quarterback they’ve been waiting on for years but the Bears defense isn’t the stifling unit it used to be and the lack of a threat at wideout permits them from being taken seriously. But nevertheless, Chicago is still a competent team capable of contending. How much so will depend on the heroics of Cutler and the effectiveness of the defense.
You got to love the Green Bay Packers offense. Aaron Rodgers threw for over 4000 yards last year as a first-year starter and the Packers have gamebreaking talent at the wideout and running back positions. The convergence to a 3-4 defense is what gives them a question mark. Converting to the 3-4 is never an easy transition and in a league where strong defense is a must, Green Bay may be a season or two away from seriously challenging. With Rodgers at the helm, this is a team on the rise and will contend for many years.
That leaves us with the Minnesota Vikings, a ball club that won the division last year without the aide of the legendary Brett Favre. I’m not as high on Favre’s return as others but the name alone will prevent defenses from loading up the box for Adrian Peterson. Peterson has shown he can carry the team to respectability by himself and the defense remains tops in the division. The addition of Favre was just icing on the cake.
Homefield advantage in the playoffs is going to be critical to Minnesota’s Super Bowl aspirations because Favre’s arm may not allow him to carry the team in cold conditions on the road in January. If the Vikes can secure at least a first round bye and one home playoff game then a single game on the road shouldn’t be too much to ask.
AFC North-Pittsburgh Steelers
Right off the bat you can write off the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Cincinnati is improving but no one is going to respect their running game with a so-so offensive line and Cedric Benson as the starter which will allow defenses to tee off on the already fragile Carson Palmer. The Bengals defense will be much improved and it’s not out the realm to think Cincinatti will contend but they just don’t stack up against their bigger brothers. The Browns have a long way to go on the road back to respectability and at the time of this posting, they were still undecided on their starting quarterback.
This division is all about the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The two juggernauts have taken turns winning the division seven times since the 2000 season. You have to say right now that the Ravens and Steelers are the two best teams in the AFC. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last year and Baltimore finished as the runner-up, losing to the eventual champs in the AFC Championship game.
Both clubs place an emphasis on the run game and field strong defensive units finishing first and second last season respectively. Both teams are fairly similar but the quarterback and wide receiver position is what separates them. The Steelers trout out a two-time Super Bowl champion at their quarterback position and two Super Bowl MVPs in the receiving corps.
Joe Flacco is a man on the rise but he’s not in Ben Roethlisberger’s class just yet. Baltimore knows they need to upgrade their wide receiver position and the expectations from senior receiver Derrick Mason will be heavy.
The NFL isn’t all about the run game and defense any more. Although both are essential for title contenders, defenses have to respect a team’s quarterback and receivers. While Flacco deserves some extra game preparation from opposing clubs, the team’s so-so wideouts won’t force many defensive coordinators into sleepless nights.
Pittsburgh isn’t known for their offense but Roethlisberger and company showed in last season’s playoff run that they deserve to be respected. Games against the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals showcased Roethlisberger’s arm strength and playmaking ability. If their offensive line can take another step forward and running backs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall remain healthy, the Steelers offense could be potent.
Pittsburgh will welcome the return of strong-footed punter Daniel Sepulveda—who was injured last season—and open arms to fresh-faced return man Stefan Logan, who was a preseason sensation. Both men will inject a significant boost to the Steelers special teams which came under fire last year. And a couple of new starters on defense have the potential to make last year’s unit even more lethal.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh grade out similarly but it’s the presence of Roethlisberger and his receivers that gives the Steelers the edge to win the division for a third straight season.
With the 2009 season nearing, I might as well go on a limb and test my credibility. For the next few days until the start of the season, I will be putting my smarts on the line and typing up some divisional outlooks.
From Monday through Thursday, I will be summarizing the NFL from east to west, two divisions at a time. First up is the NFL Eastern divisions, the AFC East and NFC East. The NFC East will probably end up being the league’s toughest division and the AFC East was one of the few divisions along with its NFC counterpart to have three teams with winning records last year.
Season’s almost here so let’s get started.
NFC East-Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys aren’t the popular preseason pick that they were this time last season and I can understand why. The New York Giants are going to field a ferocious front seven this year and the Philadelphia Eagles acquired a lot of talent throughout the offseason. Most publications have been alternating between the two as their favorites but I have my doubts with both teams.
The Giants have a gaping hole at not one but both receiver spots and you can expect opposing defenses to sit on their run game until their unproven wideouts show they can be counted on. If the Giants’ receivers can step up then this changes the whole outlook but I can’t base a prediction on such a largely untested group. The Eagles defense isn’t as strong as it used to be and the acquistion of Michael Vick could threaten the chemistry of a title contender. Longtime leader Brian Dawkins is now in Denver and all-everything but often injured running back Brian Westbrook is already banged up before the season even starts.
The Washington Redskins had the least turbulent offseason of any NFC East member but the lack of a premier wideout and uncertainty surrounding incumbent quarterback Jason Campbell makes them a risky pick. The Cowboys however, still pack a wealth of talent and enter the season drama-free. The loss of Terrell Owens will hurt the vertical passing game but the emergence of sophmore running back Felix Jones adds another gamebreaker to an already explosive offense.
The much maligned Tony Romo will be expected to step up but he’ll have the weapons at his disposal to do just that. No other offense in the NFC East can match the ‘Boys talent for talent as Dallas has A-list prospects at each phase of their offense.
Dallas has probowl-type talent at the quarterback, running back, receiver and offensive line positions. And however you want to classify tightend Jason Witten, just make sure you classify him as the best tightend in the league.
The Cowboys defense is still stock filled with playmakers on a unit that led the NFL in sacks last year. The ‘Boys lost Roy Williams, Pacman Jones, Zach Thomas, Tank Johnson, Greg Ellis and Chris Canty and they still might be better on defense this year.
That’s because DeMarcus Ware is the most disruptive outside linebacker since Lawrence Taylor and head coach Wade Phillips will get another year to dive deeper into his rush schemes. Dallas gets the benefit of a third-place schedule and some favorable home dates against all the playoff teams from their non-divisonal opponents.
It shouldn’t be understated what boost the team will receive from the loss of a few troubling players and Jessica Simpson. And with Dallas slated to operate out of the league’s fanciest football stadium this season, the stars might be aligned for the team with the star on its helmet.
AFC East-New England Patriots
I really wanted to pick the Miami Dolphins to come out the AFC East but the same gripe I have with the Giants, I have with the Dolphins. I like what Bill Parcels is doing in Miami. He’s turned a 1-15 laughingstock from a couple of seasons ago into a competitive bunch with a bright future. Miami may have the best combo of offensive line and running backs in the division and their defensive unit is stacking up on young talent.
But Miami’s lack of receivers is the same sore spot that got them blasted out of the playoffs last year. The Buffalo Bills aren’t ready to take that next step just yet and the New York Jets will break in a rookie at quarterback. The New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady last season and his return undoubtedly will elevate the Pats back to championship contender status.
The obvious concern with New England is Tom Brady’s knee but for a quarterback known more for his quick release than his gamebreaking speed, Brady should be ok. He’s had a year off to rest his throwing shoulder and he looked awesome in preseason contests against the Eagles and Redskins. The offense will be explosive regardless of who’s starting at running back and the defense is going to field a nice mix of savvy veterans and talented rookies.
With 2007’s backup signal caller sensation Matt Cassel starting in Kansas City, the Patriots won’t be as fortunate should Brady go down again but a full season of playing without him gives the team confidence they can sustain a possible injury.
New England’s schedule is similar to the Cowboys. The Pats will get all of last season’s playoff teams at Foxburg this year when they play their non-divisional opponents. Atlanta, Carolina, Tennessee, and Baltimore are all home games for New England this year with their only major road test coming against the rival Indianapolis Colts.
Last year’s winning record without 2007’s MVP was impressive and Brady’s return is a definite plus. The Patriots last went 18-1 with Brady at the helm and New England retooled heavily over the offseason. A return to prominence should be in store.