In the vein of Flowing Willow’s "Way Too Early Season Prediction", and in tandem with all the talking heads who are already making predictions for next year's draft, I’m going to do my own way-too-early predictions, though I’m going to be looking at the NFL as a whole. The plan is to outline each division, and then give a preliminary ranking to each division, highlighting who I think will win the division (I’m not going so nuts as to give a tally on wins and losses, so I’m not going to embarrass myself that way) and why, as well as potential teams to watch out for this coming season.
So, without further ado...
The AFC North has a 50-50 split: two fairly dominant franchises in the Ravens and Steelers, and two rather pedestrian franchises in the Bengals and Browns (I’m trying to be polite here, though politeness will not last long, I can assure you).
1: Pittsburgh Steelers
2: Baltimore Ravens
3: Cleveland Browns
4: Cincinnati Bengals
The last several years, it’s been a toss-up between the Ravens and Steelers, and the Steelers have dominated that particular battle. This coming season will be no different, though I look for the Ravens to be in solid contention for a wild card. The Browns, however, should be the team to watch: they have some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, and I think Colt McCoy will start hitting his stride -- especially with Jake Delhomme providing solid mentor-level advice; while the Bengals signed A.J. Green, the front office difficulties coupled with the ongoing insanity that is the QB and WR soap opera will likely spell the Bengals doom and place them last in their division.
Much like the AFC North, the AFC East is a 50-50 split between two solid franchises (Patriots and Jets) and two not-so-solid franchises (the Bills and Dolphins). The end of the regular season, though, I see a picture developing that looks kind of like this:
1: New York Jets
2: New England Patriots
3: Miami Dolphins
4: Buffalo Bills
Honestly, I have the feeling that more and more, Rex Ryan has Bill Belichick’s and Tom Brady’s respective numbers dialed in. Despite a division split at one game apiece when playing against each other during the regular season last year, the Jets proved to ultimately be the more dominant, especially on defense. The Dolphins and Bills, as per the norm, will lag behind. Ironically, I think the Patriots will be the one to watch, though more for the long-term: picking Ryan Mallet is going to be either a stroke of genius, or the beginnings of locker room cancer, depending on just how well-founded the allegations surrounding Mallet are.
The AFC West is more a muddled area, wherein there is no truly dominant franchise in the vein of the Patriots/Jets in the East, or the Ravens/Steelers in the North. The closest would have to be the Chargers, so perhaps this won’t be too much of a surprise:
1: San Diego Chargers
2: Denver Broncos
3: Kansas City Chiefs
4: Oakland Raiders
Despite the loss of several key coaching personnel to the Panthers, I believe the Chargers will still come away with the division: I think it was a fluke that, despite having the #1 rated offense and defense in the league this past season, the Chargers somehow missed out completely on the playoffs. Denver will be the team to watch: John Fox is a defensive-minded coach, but it remains to be seen just what he’ll be able to do with the Broncos, particularly with drafting Von Miller and then moving him out of the position in which he excelled at Texas A&M. The Raiders, true to typical Al Davis form, will be last, though they may also bear some watching to see if they finally have learned how to draft, since some of the talking heads came away surprised and impressed with their overall draft selection.
The AFC South might as well be "Colts and the rest", in many respects -- Peyton Manning has been a dominant franchise QB for the Colts, and really there’s been no true competition until last season.
1: Indianapolis Colts
2: Houston Texans
3: Tennessee Titans
3: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Colts live by the will of Peyton Manning, and it’s likely only by his will that the Colts have gotten into the playoffs, much less any distance into the playoffs of late. I believe they’ll do the same again this season, though how far into the playoffs they’ll get is the big question. The Texans have been gaining steam, however, and giving the Colts a run for their money. The Jaguars and Titans will collectively be the teams to watch here: the Titans to see just what they think they can accomplish with Jake Locker (as well as how the franchise moves on post-Vince Young), and the Jaguars to see whether Blaine Gabbert potentially gets the starting job. Regardless, I have the feeling that the Jags and Titans will be splitting the bottom half of the division.
Moving into the NFC, we look first at the North. This has historically been a 50-50 split, with the Bears, Packers and Vikings taking turns as being among the top two franchises of the division, while the odd duck out gets to sit with the Detriot Lions off in the corner. The picture for this season, however, I think will be surprising in some ways:
1: Green Bay Packers
2: Detriot Lions
3: Chicago Bears
4: Minnesota Vikings
With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers should have the easy divisional win. The Bears are aging, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to really handle things with the usual defensive stand. The Lions, here, are my dark horse pick (much like Flowing Willow), and therefore the team to watch in the NFC North: they’ve been putting together some solid pieces, and we finally saw flashes of brilliance from the Lions. With the Fairley-Suh pairing on the front defensive line, I suspect the Lions are going to finally have their breakout year; I’m willing to lay even odds on a wild card playoff appearance. The Vikings, sadly, are still reeling from the drama-king that is Brett Favre, and I don’t think Christian Ponder will be in an enviable position this coming season, unless he’s lucky enough to be holding a clipboard and learning as much as he can -- while I think Ponder has potential, I don’t think the Vikings have the tools or talent to succeed this season.
The NFC East has waffled back and forth between Dallas, New York and Philadelphia being the dominant franchise, though lately it’s been pretty strong with the Eagles. This season, I suspect, promises to be no different:
1: Philadelphia Eagles
2: New York Giants
3: Dallas Cowboys
4: Washington Redskins
Michael Vick will be leading the Eagles charge to the playoffs, with the Giants potentially right on their heels. Dallas will still be rebuilding, and the Redskins... will be the Redskins. Sadly, I have the feeling that Washington is the NFL’s new Detriot Lions -- between the Shanahans messing up every quarterback they touch, and Dan Snyder’s willingness to throw millions away for deals that ultimately seem to wind up biting him in the rear, I don’t see the Redskins climbing out of that morass to be contenders any time soon... which is why that drama promises to make the Redskins a team to watch.
The NFC West has been a weak division in the NFC (and the NFL at large) in recent years. Aside from flashes from the 49ers (and those ended with Montana, for the most part) and the Seahawks in more recent memory, the West just hasn’t had much success.
1: St. Louis Rams
2: Seattle Seahawks
2: San Francisco 49ers
3: Arizona Cardinals
With Sam Bradford at the helm, I suspect the Rams will see the playoffs this year, though I don’t see them making it too far before being eliminated. Seattle has some questions, particularly at quarterback with the issues in contract negotiations between Hasselbeck and the franchise; coupled with Jim Harbaugh taking the helm as the new head coach of the 49ers, I see them splitting second-place. The 49ers will also be the team to watch, since it will be a early gauge to seeing how well Harbaugh’s strategies translate from Stanford to the NFL. The Cardinals will be out of luck again this year, barring another Kurt Warner-esque miracle, so expect to see Larry Fitzgerald growing even more frustrated on the sidelines.
Arguably one of the strongest divisions in NFL football, the NFC South promises to be one of the most-feared divisions for the foreseeable future. It is also, perhaps, the most difficult division to try and predict (as if the insanity of predicting this early isn’t wacky enough). Still, for the sake of completeness:
1: Atlanta Falcons
2: New Orleans Saints
3: Carolina Panthers
4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite a crushing loss to the Packers in the playoffs last season, the Falcons will likely be coming away with the win for the division this coming season -- they will definitely be a team to watch, mostly to see whether their audacious gambit from #27 to #6 in the draft to grab Julio Jones will show any signs of panning out (though really, it will take three years to get a fairly accurate picture on that front). The Saints will take second, and possibly a wild card. The Panthers will move up -- and be another team to watch, in no small part to the impending QB battle between Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen (and any free agent Marty Hurney can pick up in the meantime, if they don’t stick with Matt Moore or Tony Pike), but also to see what changes in defense will come from the combined minds of new head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The Buccaneers will likely be last, but not by much: I think it will be a one-game difference between the Buccaneers and the Panthers.