It’s that time of year again. The NFL season opens on Thursday with a highly anticipated rematch of the defending champion New Orleans Saints and the team that thoroughly dominated them in the NFC Championship Game, the Minnesota Vikings. Darrelle Revis is on the roster and ready for a visit from Anquan Boldin. And Anquan’s not coming alone. He’s bringing a 10,000 pound offensive line, that “other” defense, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. These are great bookends to the first week.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, I have a few takeaways from the pre-season. Last pre-season, I was impressed by a few teams. There was something about their intensity, passion and power that stood out. The Jets were not on that list. I did put a spotlight on the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals. Not bad…those teams went 33-15. That was much better than their combined 20-27-1 record in 2008. I was also down on Denver. When they started out 6-0, I was thinking — “Hmmm, might have missed on that one.” When they finished 2-8, I felt better.
So, who do I think is the real deal this season?
- San Francisco 49ers. I know this is a trendy pick — I’m not picking them to win the Super Bowl or anything like that. This Alex Smith-led offense is not ready for prime time. Patrick Willis, however, is a different story. The 49ers defense is one of the fastest, hardest-hitting, ball-hawking defenses you will see play this season. The Niners play with the speed of the lighter Colts, but with the hitting power of teams like Cincinnati and Green Bay. Mike Singletary’s boys fell apart last season. After getting off to a sparkling 2-0 start, the offense tanked behind Frank Gore’s injury and that devastating loss at Minnesota. The Niners were humiliated by Roddy White, Michael Turner and the Atlanta Falcons (45-10) at home in Week 5. San Francisco went 3-7 after that. So here we are. If the coach and the players have learned the lesson, do not expect this team to have a similar let down — whether Frank Gore is healthy or not.
- Cincinnati Bengals. I liked them last year. I like them this year. I believe the offense will be much better. I like the running game that is anchored by Cedric Benson and supported by Bernard Scott. The passing game could be much better if Jermaine Gresham can justify playing time by blocking well. Cincinnati still lacks reliable stretch-the-field options, but they have a rock solid defense that is going to be better than in 2009. Will the Bengals beat the Steelers and Ravens twice this season? It’s not likely, but they can be better.
- Tennessee Titans. We will know an awful lot about this team by the time they have a bye. Vince Young and the Titans play the Raiders, Steelers, Giants, Broncos, Cowboys, Jaguars, Eagles and Chargers. If this team can play smart, they can win a fair number of these games. Undersized defensive fronts in New York, Philadelphia and San Diego may provide surprising opportunities for Chris Johnson to catch fire. Last year, San Diego exposed the limitations of Vince Young’s passing game (88 yards). Should Tennessee emerge from this with a .500 record or better, expect to see them in the playoffs. Only Miami and the Colts will pose stiff challenges on the back end of their schedule.
- Washington Redskins. I have had positive feelings about this team ever since ownership brought in Mike Shanahan to run the organization, and specifically, to guide the offense. I do believe that the defense may be too drastically overhauled. If you see this team retreat from its installation of the 3-4, don’t blame Albert Haynesworth. It just might be that some of the personnel are best suited for the 4-3. I’d rather have Haynesworth and Ma’ake Kemoeatu on the field at the same time. Jim Haslett is a decent enough coordinator, but the defense isn’t the problem in Washington. I like the introduction of a zone blocking scheme and a one-cut approach to maximize the effectiveness of older running backs with excellent vision. The scheme is ideal for Clinton Portis and should also boost the productivity of players like Santana Moss and Chris Cooley. Defenses will have to commit to taking away something. McNabb’s health is always a concern — unless you are resigned to the fact that he WILL surely get injured and miss anywhere from 3 to 10 games. If he plays, the Redskins challenge for a playoff spot in the brutally tough NFC East.
- Miami Dolphins. Ask anyone around the country who won the season series between the Jets and Miami Dolphins last season. Outside of Miami, no one knows that the Dolphins beat the Jets twice. New Yorkers seem to have obliterated the memory of Miami’s double 30 point outbreaks (with receivers like Davone Bess, Greg Camarillo, and Ted “Whoops” Ginn, Jr.) from their collective consciousness. The Greatest Defense Since God Created Defense was sliced, mauled, diced, duped, deceived, deked and otherwise dominated by a team that now welcomes Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby to the fold. The Jets added glamorous old names…the Dolphins added big, fast, strong young stars. The Jets will be good this season — just don’t be too surprised if they have trouble beating Miami — again.
I also suspect there are a few teams that will disappoint their fans this season.
- Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year, I wrote about how Tom Brady looked skittish in 2009. He did and he was. He recovered statistically, but in big games vs. New Orleans and Baltimore (with bodies flying all over the field) he was effectively eliminated from meaningful play. He was benched vs. the Saints. This year’s “skittish” candidate could be Troy Polamalu. I haven’t seen enough to be sure, but I’ve got to see the rim-rattler a few times before I know he’s back. I wouldn’t expect him to be back in form just yet, but I’ve seen more missed tackles from him recently than I’ve seen in years. Once he emerges from a few pile ups, I can be certain. If he’s not good-to-go, the Steelers won’t be good to go either. The QB situation is largely irrelevant if the DB situation doesn’t get worked out. The key is 43.
- Houston Texans. Gary Kubiak has had his job longer than many men who’ve done more with less. The loss of Kyle Shanahan doesn’t necessarily bode well for this offense. The Texans still need an anchor in the middle of their defensive line…and they still need back line playmakers to keep Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie at bay. They don’t have them. Houston continues to tease (wins at Cincinnati, vs. San Francisco, at Miami), and frustate (two losses to Jacksonville). Matt Schaub led the league in passing, but has yet to master the art of the Red Zone. If they don’t break through, it is time to break them up. Off with the head.
- Atlanta Falcons. Michael Turner was injured last season. When he went down, the team was finished. Matt Ryan, only in his 2nd year, began to show some of the limitations to his game. With Turner, the Falcons were able to mix run and pass; to find Tony Gonzalez; and stretch the field with Roddy White. Three key injuries changed the fortunes of this team: Turner, Harry Douglas (WR), and Peria Jerry (DT). When Jerry went down last year, I wrote that the Falcons were probably headed for trouble because their under-sized defense would have trouble against the run. That’s how it went down. When Douglas went down, the Falcons lost a speedy WR who, much like Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, offered striking big play ability. Douglas is on a long road back from injury. If he and Jerry return to form, the Falcons could compete in the NFC South, but for my money, there is a new weak link in the chain — Matt Ryan. “Matty Ice” can be very accurate, but he can also lose concentration for what seems like an entire quarter. He does not always appear to be PRESENT, especially when he faces teams with elite pass rushers (Dallas Cowboys).
- New England Patriots. I’ve been saying that this team was done for two years. Done, for the Patriots, looks a little different. They’re not an elite Super Bowl contender. They don’t have a running game to speak of. They don’t have a decent #2 receiver. The defense is going to resemble Swiss cheese on occasion. They’re done. Last season’s home playoff loss to a team whose QB completed 4-10 passes for 34 yards should tell even the most casual observer all they need to know.
Victor Cruz (WR) New York Giants — Is there room to play on this team? Steve Smith (Il Duce), Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham? Get Victor the ball!!!
Chris Ivory (RB) New Orleans Saints — Holy cow, this guy is good!!
Crezdon Butler (DB) Pittsburgh Steelers — Good hands, great speed, big hitter. Nice pre-season. Came into camp with a reputation for avoiding contact. Left camp spinning running backs and receivers around, causing fumbles and wreaking havoc on the other side of the line.
Maurkice Pouncey (C) Pittsburgh Steelers — If you’re afraid of high expectations, this is the wrong position to play in the NFL. Your predecessors include Mike Webster and Dermontii Dawson. 7-footers don’t go to the Lakers just to “fit in.” Pouncey looks like he loves to tussle.
Jahvid Best (RB) Detroit Lions and C.J. Spiller (RB) Buffalo Bills — So quick that you instantly begin to anticipate a highlight reel. It could be a long season for ankles in the NFC North and the AFC East.
Dez Bryant (WR) Dallas Cowboys — Put Roy on notice early…and got hit with Media Haterade. The fans have rallied around this guy because they love his upside. If he is a model citizen, he’ll own that team before long.
Let’s see what these guys can do throughout the season.
Final Note: The Baltimore Ravens now have Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Donte Stallworth, and Derrick Mason at wide receiver. If these guys EVER gel, it’s a wrap. No team in the league has that level of experience (ahem, age) and talent at the position). (I can hear Steelers fans derisively laughing, “Leave it to an old Cleveland Browns player to sign FOUR, count ’em FOUR, #2 receivers!!”)