Most of my reading in the last week has been devoted to NFL previews. I know that most of the predictions are wrong, but I can’t help myself. The NFL is by far the most volatile league of the three major North American team sports.
This time last year, you would’ve been laughed at for predicting that the New England Patriots would win 11 games and miss the playoffs. You’d have been crazy to suggest that the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins, two teams that combined to go 5-27 in 2007 would each go 11-5 and make the playoffs in 2008. And anyone who thought out loud that the Arizona Cardinals would make the Super Bowl (and lead in the waning moments of the game) would lose all credibility about sports.
Then all of that happened. And none of it was a fluke! Every year three or four teams in the NFL confound everyone except their most devoted fans. Before we make a fool of ourselves, let’s look at three scenarios that will define the season.
1. The early returns on the Terrell Owens/Dallas Cowboys breakup will be deceptive.
No team parts with T.O. amicably, and his release from the Dallas Cowboys after months of griping about the offense was no exception. By early October, it will look like the Cowboys will have made a mistake. Their offense won’t match last year’s peaks, while Owens will likely put up surprisingly good numbers for his new team, the Buffalo Bills. But don’t jump to the conclusion that Dallas erred; mitigating factors will be the cause. With Buffalo, T.O. will be the No. 2 receiver, often working against the lesser of the opponents’ cornerbacks, while Lee Evans, the lead Bill wideout, will draw most of the attention of opposing defenses. This means he’ll pile up catches on short routes as long as Bills quarterback Trent Edwards doesn’t lose faith in Owens after he short-arms a couple of balls early in each game. (Owens had one of the lowest rates of completions on balls thrown his way last season.)
Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys will struggle, but T.O.’s absence won’t be a factor. The continuing decline of left tackle Flozell Adams, who is called “False Start Adams” by some Cowboys fans, will force the offense into more long yardage situations, and Adams’ diminishing blocking skills will leave quarterback Tony Romo to improvise and throw passes just to avoid carnage. In other words, other factors will cause Dallas’ decline.
2. The NFC North will hinge on four players; none of whom is a quarterback.
New quarterbacks are all the rage in the NFC North. The Chicago Bears parted with a king’s ransom to obtain Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos, and as you may have heard, the Minnesota Vikings huffed and puffed and lured Brett Favre out of retirement. Yet barring a dramatic turnaround by either the Green Bay Packers or the Detroit Lions, the division will come down to other players with the Bears and Vikings. For the Bears, the two key guys are left tackle Orlando Pace and defensive tackle Anthony Adams. Pace was signed just after the trade for Cutler, and though he has been injury prone of late, he’s the key to keeping the new quarterback upright and focused downfield. Adams will be the first to try and fill the role of injured defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek. The Bears defense relies on pressure from the interior lineman. Without it, the secondary will be taxed beyond its limit.
Minnesota’s season will depend heavily on what happens with linemen Pat and Kevin Williams, aka the Williams Wall. The defensive tackles anchor the stellar Viking defense, but they have been challenging a four-game league suspension for a violation of the steroid and related substance policy. The case is crawling through the federal courts presently. A four-game absence from both of their starting defensive tackles will complicate the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes.
3. The fans are the big winners in the Richard Seymour trade.
To the shock of nearly every NFL fan, the New England Patriots traded starting defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders last weekend for a 2011 first-round draft choice. Seymour is in the final year of his contract, and after the seven-year/$100 million deal received by defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from the Washington Redskins, this winter he is likely to be looking for a big payday. I stopped pretending that I understand what the Raiders are doing a long time ago. Still, it’s downright weird for a team with legit Super Bowl ambitions to trade a top defender on the eve of the season.
The good news is that if the Patriots, possibly the smartest organization in the NFL, are trading for what should be a high 2011 draft pick, then it means that they are betting on a new collective bargaining agreement to be signed into effect by then. Top picks usually impact their team’s payroll more than their performance, but a key tenet of any new collective bargaining agreement will be a rookie salary scale. The Pats wouldn’t jeopardize their season without some sense that a labor deal is imminent and that all the doomsday scenarios of a player lockout are receding.
OK, here are my choices!
AFC Division winners: New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, San Diego; Indianapolis and the New York Jets will be the wild cards.
NFC Division winners: New York Giants, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis (this year’s Atlanta/Miami); Philadelphia and Minnesota will be the wild cards.
What happens after that? Who knows? After all, a good percentage of those picks are wrong.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.