Football’s back! I’m going to spare you all the pleasantries for now and get right into it. I don’t really like picking Super Bowl matchups before the season (because they’re nearly always wrong), but I do like picking division winners. Take a look:
(In order by confidence level)
AFC West: Denver Broncos
Kansas City will be better this season with Alex Smith, but as long as Peyton’s under center there’s nothing to worry about here.
AFC East: New England Patriots
New England’s made headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason, so I’m sure they’re excited to let their play do the talking. Their main challenge looks to come from Miami this season, but even they shouldn’t be much of an obstacle for a Patriots team that’s somewhat underrated this year.
AFC South: Houston Texans
Indianapolis went 11-5 last season, but I still away unimpressed with them as a whole. Andrew Luck seems to be the real deal, but he still has some developing to do. And with Reggie Wayne not getting any younger, they’ll need other weapons on offense soon.
I’m not saying that the Texans take it by default necessarily, but they’re still the better team at this point in time. One more year.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
I struggled mightily with these last five divisions, but in the end I can’t see anyone other than Atlanta winning the NFC South this season. New Orleans will be a popular choice with Sean Payton back, but their defense was abysmal throughout last season. Not saying that Rob Ryan can’t fix it, but I’m on the fence until I see some results.
With the addition of Steven Jackson, Atlanta may have solidified an already lethal offense. Julio Jones will continue to improve, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez will still make a huge impact, and Matt Ryan will remain a happy quarterback.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
They will still have struggles on defense, their running game is still in the air (in spite of Eddie Lacy), and questions are swirling about Aaron Rodgers’s leadership for some reason, but they’re still the best choice here.
Minnesota surprised everyone by making the postseason, but that includes themselves. Adrian Peterson‘s back can’t take that load for another 16 games. Detroit still has the players offense and defense to score points, but they still can’t seem to win games. And then there’s Chicago: still the second-best team in the division, but still unable to put it all together on offense. If Matt Forte can bounce back from injury (specifically in the passing game), then the Bears could certainly take the North. But I’m sticking with what I know for now.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
Baltimore is the defending Super Bowl champion and Cincinnati has made the playoffs two years running. So why Pittsburgh here? I think it comes down to the Steelers offensive line and whoever’s running the football. Ben Roethlisberger is still the best in the league at escaping pressure and making plays, but that was too much the norm last season. Even without Mike Wallace this season, Big Ben can still get it done with Antonio Brown and Heath Miller leading the charge. The Steelers backfield was bottom five in both yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. That only has to improve slightly for Pittsburgh to regain control of the North.
Pittsburgh’s 8-8 record was one of the most schizophrenic that I’ve seen in awhile, sporting wins over Cincinnati, Washington, and Baltimore but losses to Oakland, Tennessee, and Cleveland. If they can win the games they’re “supposed” to win, their core is still strong enough to win a few tough games as well.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
How the NFC West went from literally bottom of the barrel to the best division in football is a remarkable story, but it’s much more than just San Francisco vs. Seattle. While they will likely be the top two in the division, Arizona and St. Louis are just as dangerous in the league. Lest not forget Arizona’s defensive-led 3-0 start last season before quarterback troubles derailed their season. And St. Louis’s 7-8-1 doesn’t do their 4-1-1 record against the rest of the division justice. They gave Sam Bradford new targets on offense and should develop them nicely.
But in the end it’s hard to pick against Seattle for some reason. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are both two of the best young QBs in the league, they field the top two defenses in the league, and they’re led by unconventional, but effective head coaches. But with teams so close in caliber, it’s best to focus on the small details: Seattle’s second place finish last season gives them games against Minnesota and the New York Giants. Only slightly better than San Francisco playing Green Bay and Washington, but it could be the difference.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
Not the best division in football, but certainly the most unpredictable. I’ve rationalized how each of the four teams could the title. Washington won the division last season, but the questions surrounding Robert Griffin III‘s health and the still-lackluster defense has me skeptical. That latter could be said for the entire division, however, as none of the units are particularly strong. Expect a lot of points in the divisional matches.
I originally pegged the Giants to win the division, on the basis that they’d improve as the season progressed. Philadelphia’s offense is intriguing, but their defense still is not. I can think of numerous reasons why Dallas will and will not win the division, but they’re the more balanced team at this point.
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