NFL just a punt away from season opener

Let’s be clear here. I’m one of those new-age NFL fans who only have been drawn to the game in recent years, so take my analysis with a grain of salt.
But I feel I have an obligation as a sportswriter to chime in—warranted or not—on all things sports-related.
I’ve enlisted the services of local football expert Andrew George (although his track record in fantasy drafts would suggest otherwise) to help me help you, the reader, make some informed decisions at the draft table ahead of the opening weekend of games.
His strong bias towards the Minnesota Vikings was evident, however.
Many football fans bleed Viking purple around these parts, so we’ll start with the NFC North. Here’s how I see things shaping up:
1. Green Bay
I may be striking a few nerves putting Green Bay in this slot, but Aaron Rodgers has had a full season under centre and put up some major numbers a year ago.
If the Packers’ defence improves marginally, this team has the guns on offence to win their share of shootouts.
Let the burning of those remaining Brett Favre jerseys begin.
2. Minnesota
With the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson and a tough defence, the Vikings no doubt will challenge for the division crown. But does the 40-year-old Brett Favre still have enough gas to get the job done? I’m not convinced. This is not the Brett Favre of five years ago.
Plus, the Williamses still have suspensions to serve, and a four-game stretch without those two could prove costly.
Still, they should be in line for a wild-card berth.
3. Chicago
Just as they’re doing in Minnesota, Chicago now is claiming to be the class of the division based on the arrival of a new quarterback.
But Jay Cutler will not have the same talent he had in Denver. There’s no Brandon Marshall or Eddie Royal in the receiving corps with this team, so expect those risky pass attempts Cutler is known for to end up in the wrong hands early—and often—this season.
And when things start to go sour, his immaturity will surface and do more harm than good.
4. Detroit
The Detroit Lions might be in the best position of any team in the league. One win and they’re automatically improved, but that might be all they get.
NFC South
1. New Orleans
The New Orleans Saints had the No. 1 offence and the No. 1 quarterback last season—and still finished in last place. So why will this year be different?
First of all, their division has only gotten worse. Their offence has never been a question mark, but I have a hunch the defence will step up to support it.
2. Atlanta
The Falcons were the darlings of the division last year, going 11-5, but five wins came against teams who missed the playoffs.
The defence is questionable and quarterback Matt Ryan very well could suffer a sophomore slump.
3. Carolina
The running game is solid, backed by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (though fighting an injury right now), but defensively this team has issues.
Jake Delhomme was a disaster in the playoffs—and isn’t getting any younger.
4. Tampa Bay
To be honest, aside from the Saints, these other three teams are interchangeable. They all have play-makers (Antonio Bryant in this case), but all three have holes defensively.
I put the Bucs here but it’s a coin toss for second through fourth, in my opinion.
NFC West
1. Seattle
After having made the playoffs every year since 2003, the Seahawks slumped to a 4-12 record last season. Their new coach, Jim Mora Jr. (son of the infamous Jim Mora, known for his “playoffs?” tirade) should bring in some new enthusiasm.
Their receiving corps was decimated by injuries last season, and automatically will be better even before the addition of all-star T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
A healthy Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback makes this team a serious threat to win the NFC title.
2. Arizona
Was the Cardinals’ magic playoff run for real or was it mostly just smoke-and-mirrors?
Kurt Warner and his two primary weapons, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, still in the fold. But can the defence maintain the level of play it showed in the playoffs?
They were downright awful at times during the regular season, and can’t afford any games off if they expect to compete with Seattle for the division crown.
3. San Francisco
They have the longest playoff drought of anyone in the division, and that isn’t lijkely to change this season. Mike Singletary is a great coach, but there’s only so much he can do with Shaun Hill at quarterback.
4. St. Louis
Self-explanatory.
NFC East
1. N.Y. Giants
The loss of Plaxico Burress stings, but Eli Manning will just have to learn how to utilize receivers Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith instead.
The running game is this team’s strength, with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw one formidable duo.
The defence is arguably the best in football, and that’s what makes or breaks championship teams.
2. Philadelphia
The Eagles are going to be nipping at the Giants’ heels all season long, but I just think their defence doesn’t match up with New York’s.
Their offence, however, has more weapons and will surprise people in the playoffs. Michael Vick is an interesting side story, but whether he and Donovan McNabb can co-exist on the same sideline remains to be seen.
3. Dallas
Tony Romo appears to be a lot more focused on football this season.
Now that Terrell Owens is gone, who will Romo label the scapegoat this time around when the team falls flat late in the year?
Marion Barber and Felix Jones give Dallas plenty of options in the running game.
4. Washington
Getting Albert Haynesworth was nice (even though he’s overpaid), but there’s too many question marks in other areas for me to consider this team playoff-bound.
Quarterback Jason Campbell will be motivated to prove his doubters wrong, but I just can’t see this team competing with the rest of their divisonal foes—at least on paper.
AFC East
1. New England
This team went 11-5 without Tom Brady last season and will improve enough with him in the lineup to reclaim the division title. The Brady-to-Randy Moss connection will be alive and well in Beantown.
2. Buffalo
The Bills opened last season with a promising 4-0 record, only to fall back down to Earth with an emphatic thud.
Does “TO” make this team that much better? I don’t think he has enough gas left to carry this team, and likely will be second-fiddle to Lee Evans here.
He won’t take the demotion lightly, which will lead to a mid-season meltdown by the greatest sideshow in the NFL.
3. Miami
The Dolphins shocked everyone last season by winning the division and spreading the wildcat formation around the league. But the wildcat is commonplace now, shrinking the Dolphins’ playbook considerably.
Chad Pennington plays hard, but he’s not a franchise quarterback and his true colours will re-surface this season.
4. N.Y. Jets
A rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez) may be the answer in a few years, but I don’t see him being the saviour just yet.
AFC North
1. Pittsburgh
Last year’s champs, need I say more?
2. Baltimore
Is Joe Flacco for real!? I think so. Besides, he doesn’t have to carry the team because their defence is the catalyst year-in and year-out.
They should prey on divisional rivals, Cincinnati and Cleveland, for some easy wins and should get a wild-card berth.
3. Cincinnati
The Bengals should bounce back, at least to respectability. Chad Ochocinco (is this name for real?) will miss Houshmandzadeh, but a healthy Carson Palmer makes this team a lot better.
4. Cleveland
Jamal Lewis is getting older and slower, and Braylon Edwards drops everything thrown his way.
Brady Quinn is going to be good, but Browns’ fans will need to exercise patience with him.
AFC South
1. Indianapolis
Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning. A decline is inevitable eventually, but not this year.
Reggie Wayne is always a receiving threat, and the loss of Marvin Harrison will be more than made up by Anthony Gonzalez.
Joseph Addai was disappointing last year at running back, but should be due for somewhat of a bounce-back year.
2. Tennessee
Everything seemed to click for this team last year, but a few key pieces (notably Haynesworth) no longer are with the team. Can Kerry Collins hold up for another full season?
It wouldn’t surprise me if Houston passes them up this year.
3. Houston
The Houston Texans definitely are a team to watch. Steve Slaton emerged as a premiere back last season as a rookie, and Andre Johnson probably is the best receiver in the game (yes, ahead of Moss at this stage).
As long as quarterback Matt Schaub can continue to develop and stay healthy, this team has a shot.
4. Jacksonville
This team will be solid defensively again, but they were over-hyped last year and nothing much has changed.
The offence has too many question marks. Can David Garrard find his form?
Maurice Jones-Drew is solid, but he’ll be asked to take on more carries with Fred Taylor gone.
AFC West
1. San Diego
San Diego has had high expectations for the last few years—and has yet to deliver.
Last year, they had an awful start and were left for dead by mid-season, but never gave up and won the division and a wild-card game (thanks, in part, to Denver’s collapse).
Can they carry that momentum into the new season and get off to a good start? LaDanian Tomlinson is getting older and many are doubting him, but he should have at least one more quality year left in him.
Add to the fact that Shawn Merriman will return from injury and I don’t see anyone challenging them in this weak division.
2. Kansas City
The Chiefs made some noise in the off-season, addressing several areas of concern from last season’s horrible squad.
Offensively, you have to wonder just how good Matt Cassell is, however. Were those numbers he put up in New England just the product of a good system and quality receivers?
Don’t expect them to compete for a playoff spot, but baby steps will be made.
3. Oakland
See above. This team has some talent, but lacks depth as a whole.
4. Denver
Things could get really ugly in Denver. New coach Josh McDaniels already ruffled feathers with superstar quarterback Jay Cutler, ultimately leading to Cutler’s departure to Chicago.
Now superstar receiver Brandon Marshall isn’t fitting into the coach’s system. Nothing like making an entrance, McDaniels.
Maybe his team-first approach will work, but only if he has enough players willing to go on the field for him.
Super Bowl picks
Mitch: I see the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers meeting in the big game.
Andrew George: Minnesota and New England.
The Vikings looked to have improved on their already-impressive defence in the off-season and improved (yes, improved) their quarterback position with Brett Favre.
Why is it an improvement? Just watching the last pre-season game with Favre at the helm, it’s clear he understands his role is to manage the west coast offense, not lead the team to victory with 30-plus throws.
The offensive line has improved even after losing aging centre Matt Birk to Baltimore in the off-season. Any reports of a “schism” regarding the signing of Brett Favre appear to be bogus. The atmosphere and excitement among fans and teammates surely will squash any erroneous reports.
It takes little explaining why I pick the New England Patriots to be back in the Super Bowl this year.
With a healthy Tom Brady, this team is nearly unstoppable.

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