The 2011 NFL Season preview
AFC East and North


And here we go again… the NFL is getting ready to start another season. That means it’s time for the preview columns here at In My Backpack. First… a few general observations…

Just in case you haven’t heard it enough… I am one of those buying into the shortened preseason hurting teams without structure. I may waiver on that a bit on some places… we’ll see what happens as we visit thirty-two teams… but overall, yeah, Carolina is a great example. New head coach, new philosophies, a young quarterback (Clausen) being challenged by a rookie that hasn’t had any time to work out with the club and comes with questions (Newton).

And second, I think we have at least four levels of teams to consider.

Elite… Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, and Baltimore fit this description.

Very good… bordering on elite, but not quite there even though they could make it to the Super Bowl and will cause headaches all season… in short, your playoff teams… Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York (Jets), Pittsburgh and San Diego here.

Fine… no real opinion about them… could be good, generate some concerns, likely .500 or better (or division winners in a weak division)… Arizona and Texas should benefit from weak divisions, and then we get to the dreamers like Detroit and Tampa Bay.

Whatever… everyone else.

I have to be honest… the NFC is deeper, or at least more balanced at the average and slightly above levels, than the AFC. San Diego and Houston should be embarrassed if they don’t win their divisions… and there is simply no one else that should be going to the playoffs other than San Diego, Houston, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New York in the AFC. That’s it… the six going.

In the NFC, a weak NFC West could be wide open for any of them to make the playoffs. Plus, I do see ways Detroit and Tampa could sneak in and knock off two of my postseason picks.

Still… until proven otherwise… New England and Green Bay are heading to a season-ending game. (Surprise… I’m not picking that as the final contest.) Everyone is chasing the Packers and Saints in the NFC, and Patriots and Ravens in the AFC.


New England (13-3)

There’s not much to say about New England that we don’t already know… that we haven’t already heard.

But… hold on… because they might be simply turn out to be even more of the beast some people are thinking of. See…

The old saying is that rookies like running backs have an easier time in the first year because a lot of it is take the ball and run… run… run. Nothing fancy, just hit the daylight at the right moment and go.

What I’m getting at with that observations is this… they brought in veteran players on defense and in some other areas, while using the draft at places where they could afford a year or two for growth, or… see above… where the players might be able to make an impact even without a lengthy offseason to prepare.

So here you have a team with a lot of experienced parts… Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and even beyond that players that have shown the ability to work in the system. And new players in New England… Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis aren’t exactly being placed into foreign scenarios with what they’ll be asked to do.

Where other teams… read: Carolina, rookie coach, at-best-a-project rookie quarterback… may suffer for lack of preparation, New England may just be ready to start the year hitting on all cylinders.

A dominating offense added Chad Johnson, youth in the running game, and stands to get a full season out of sparkplug Danny Woodhead. Brady may toss an interception or five more than he did in 2010… he also may throw ten more touchdown passes than he did in 2010.

And the defense… well, that young, scrambling, fast set of linebackers and corners now has a formidable defensive line that is going to be a nightmare to contain on the majority of snaps along with some safeties that appear ready to hit hard while playing controlled ball. Don’t look for many mistakes here. And if there are mistakes… look for those to be fewer and fewer as the season moves on.

The scary thing is that this could easily be the best defense New England has placed on the field in years, and the offense is still poised to deliver at a historic level.

New York (10-6)

Ok… get yourself a refreshing beverage and relax. This is going to be a long one.

I’m placing the Jets at 10-6 for three reasons. Number one, they tend to win some games they should lose every year. (Nothing wrong with that. I believe good teams actually and honestly do create their own luck quite often. So I can kick and scream and be mad that the Jets win games they shouldn’t… fact is they do win them time and again, and that is for the most part to their credit.) Number two, they do have a good defense. And number three, I kind of like Rex Ryan.

That said… let’s stop placing the Jets in the NFL elite. Let’s instead recognize this is a team that could freefall at any moment. I know… you don’t believe me. Well… ok…

To start out with, let’s do some fact checking of the schedule. We know the Patriots own the AFC East when it comes to game-by-game records, with exception to the past two or three seasons and the Jets. Right? Stands to reason the Jets… two-time AFC Championship Game participant and Patriots-smacker… would own the division as well. Yes?

Umm… perhaps.

Let’s look at the Ryan-Franchez era… 2009 and 2010. (Yeah… I’m trying out Franchez as his new name. What do you think? Too bad… I’m using it.)

In 2010… yeah… the observation on beating the Dolphins and Bills sort of adds up. New York went 3-1 against those clubs, and dominated the Bills in both contests.

In 2009 though… they went 1-3, were swept by the Dolphins, and while I may be off by one or two with my quick count, I have The Franchez turning the ball over 137 times in the 8 games over those two years.

Now… that brings me to point number two. Because you’re going to look at 1-3 becoming 3-1 and tell me there’s growth and progress and… whatever. But hold on.

From October 17, 2010 through November 25, 2010 the Jets went 5-1. They should have gone much closer to 0-6. (Again, preface this review of that stretch with the note above. Luck can still be viewed as luck, but eventually you have to give a team credit for coming through in those situations.)

They beat Denver 24-20… and you might recall that Denver led the game 17-10 at the end of three quarters. It took them overtime to beat Detroit and Cleveland, and frankly they could have lost either of those games.

So that’s three of the six. But I want to look at the Houston game as my true example here.

Houston lost to New York by a score of 30-27. The Texans were beaten already, down 23-10, but managed to storm back to 27-23 ahead. Now, there’s three things you need to know about the Jets at this point… down 27-23… falling a bit emotionally and ready to drop… and late in the game. Those things are: (1) Their wide receivers don’t like to cross the middle. They’re better along the sidelines or in something as close to open field as possible. (2) The Franchez is better aiming for the sidelines, since he’s incredibly inaccurate as a passer. So if his guys can get some space to adjust to his poor throws… if something out of bounds can’t be picked off… if… if… if… The Franchez is more comfortable throwing to the sidelines. (3) Stop the clock? No… in that situation with a lead late in the game you make it run… give the Jets whatever they want for 5-yards over the middle. Guard the sidelines and set up the world to defend 15-plus-yards deep.

Want to know why Houston changed their defensive coordinator for 2011? I’ll tell you why. Because of this game. Because for some incompetent as all hell reason the Texans decided to throw all their coverage in the middle. They gave Braylon I’ll-drop-anything-for-a-dollar-except-a-highlight-catch Edwards 42-yards with 24-seconds left. They gave Santonio Holmes a touchdown reception that my not-quite-8 Australian nephew could have completed underhand while wearing a blindfold. They defended a victory straight into defeat. I swear that by not calling any defense at all… just letting their 11 guys scramble cluelessly into a formation as New York prepared to snap the ball… they would have provided better coverage.

Now… at this point, you’re adding up what I said in what we can call section number one (there will be no easy divisional games, and the Jets could lose at any point, so 10-wins is about right because they simply aren’t as good as New England)… and section number two (things that went right in 2010, while… fair enough, the record is what it is… tend to balance out). And you’re saying I’m an idiot.

So let’s head to the Cincinnati game.

The game was 7-3 Cincy at halftime.

Brad Smith goes nuts with a solid return (18-yards) and then a 52-yard touchdown gallop.

After a fumble, the Jets drive a staggering and exhausting14-yards for a touchdown.

The score gets closed to 17-10… and the Jets are still arguably on the ropes… until Smith takes the kickoff 89-yards for a touchdown.

The Jets offense delivered scoring drives of 69-yards for a field goal, 69-yards for a touchdown with a long run, and 14-yards for a touchdown.

I’m not really going to tell you the Bengals deserved to win that game. But… let’s add up some facts to see if we can gather a few thoughts or clues for 2011…

Fact number one – The Jets do seem to kick a ton of field goals on drives that stall.

Fact number two – The Franchez isn’t a terribly accurate quarterback, nor a terribly effective one. He takes advantage of one or two good plays to receivers along the sidelines every game, a decent running attack, and a defense that keeps games within reach. And if you want to debate me on that, we’ll start by looking at how The Franchez’s stats change when the New York offense is within 20-yards of the end zone (they go from average/poor to bad) and then within 10-yards (they go from bad to ugly).

(That said, in the fourth quarter needing one score I would still take The Franchez over at least 15 to 20 starting quarterbacks in the league right now. That’s without thinking about names and really digging. It’s the x-factor… I don’t know what “it” is, but The Franchez has a knack of showing “it” late in games. Brady above him? Absolutely. Brees… Rodgers… sure. But get beyond that first group and we do need to think.)

Fact number three (and this is the one to pay attention to) – The new kickoff rules are likely to mean lots and lots of starts from the 20-yard line.

What happens if some of those field goals are being attempted from 5-yards further out? What happens against Cincinnati if the Brad Smith heroics are instead two touchbacks? What happens if some of the short-field responses to opposing scores now involve the Jets offense taking the field with a full 80-yards to go?

And after you consider all of that, then you can tell me about how great The Franchez is going to be within the 20-yard line when it comes to finishing off those drives.


I think we’re going to see a drop off this year from New York. I think we’re going to see them losing a few games by 3 or 4 points. The defense is good… very good… but when you consider a few of their wins last season, check out The Franchez’s production, and understand what the rule changes might mean, I can see several places where the little things are tipped to go the other way in 2010.

Miami (6-10)

Reggie Bush.

Geez… I want to like Miami. I want to like them enough to question The Franchez and his completion percentage and place the Dolphins in the second spot of the division.

But there it is.

In a single name.

Reggie Bush.

He comes with excitement and… pizazz isn’t the right word… expectations is all wrong too… and, there’s the biggest problem. What does he bring?

I thought the Houston Texans were wrong. I figured Bush was a difference-maker and a player you simply don’t pass on. The Texans passed… and they were right. They haven’t won a Super Bowl… or even made the playoffs… so right could be perception as much as reality… but Reggie Bush has not taken over the NFL and dominated the way things were supposedly set up for him.

And now here he is… in Miami.

Now before you think I’m completely writing Bush off and saying he won’t work in Miami… stop. That’s not my point. Instead… consider two ideas…

First, New Orleans worked primarily because of Drew Brees. Bush was a threat. You always kind of figured he would break out… he just never did that as often as you would have hoped. Miami still has quarterback questions. So… instead of Bush being a threat you need to be mindful off while actually having your hands full with Brees… we have a team that has yet to figure out their quarterback situation while expecting Bush to keep defenses honest.

How important is that? After all… Miami has succeeded recently without a quarterback. Sort of. And that brings us to…

Second, those running backs that simply made up for so much are both gone. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams… gone. And hey… look… I’m not criticizing letting them go. Brown could be injury prone and Williams isn’t a player I would rely on as a full-season, no worries, carry the team running back. But when you take a tandem that has worked so well and give up both pieces, there’s a certain stability you look to see for continuity. Miami is not being run by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees. There are questions.

I’ve now babbled a bit without telling you much more than you likely already know. Bush in… Brown and Williams out. How many hits can Bush take in one game and be ready to play the next? But I think these roster changes tell the whole story. See…

In 2010, only Cleveland scored fewer points than Miami in the AFC. Every NFC team except Carolina scored more. So who’s competing for a job on the Miami roster as a quarterback? You’ll never guess… but of course, it’s someone cast off by Carolina.

I am not encouraged.

Buffalo (5-11)

Hey… did you know Nick Barnett was playing in Buffalo now? Neither did I. (Well… if I take a few moments to think about it, it does seem like I did hear something about it, but I don’t really remember.) If he can stay healthy, I like that.

I’m hearing good things about Shawne Merriman too.

Of course… first game hasn’t been played… every team is thinking good things right now. (Well… except Carolina. The Panthers are the only club already eliminated from the postseason… the only team guaranteed a losing record… and the only team with a crew filming the team’s season video from the start as a blooper package. But that’s Carolina. Back to Buffalo.)

Almost every team is thinking good things. (Honestly, I don’t see a lot of good things here.)


Baltimore (11-5)

We’re going to know very quickly if the Ravens are for real.

Now… before we investigate that comment, consider that few teams did as much to raise the eyebrows as Baltimore this offseason.

The draft saw them go young at wide receiver and bring in fresh corners. Could pay off huge for them.

Then we have Ricky Williams very comfortably in to support Ray Rice… and Lee Evans on board to pair with Anquan Boldin.

I mean… that’s impressive. Much like I said about New England using moves in all areas to improve their club, we have the Ravens adding from the draft, free agency and trades as well. And frankly, it all looks pretty good.

Now let’s get back to the start of the season.

Pittsburgh, at Tennessee, at St. Louis, New York (Jets). That’s their top divisional foe in there as well as what is expected to be two AFC playoff teams. And while the Titans and Rams may not be as strong, those are back-to-back road games. They could get away with a 2-2 or better start and be absolutely fine. But if they stub their toe, lose to the Steelers and Jets along with a road game, and find themselves at 1-3… yikes. Because there are all sorts of tie-breaker implications to be found very early on for these Ravens.

But let’s be fair… this is a solid club that could be very good. I don’t love their depth (Tyrod Taylor is the second quarterback, and Ricky Williams simply isn’t built now to handle 20-25 carries every week if he has to take over for any length of time as the lead back). That could haunt them. And chances on players like Bryant McKinnie could work… or could bomb.

And you know… Todd Heap. Yeah… Todd Heap. He’s in Arizona now. And I understand the move. In fact, I understand it so well that you may notice in reading about Arizona that I don’t consider Heap a huge acquisition. But he is a steady, reliable presence that these days gets more credit for past glories than current production deserves… and yet considering the concept of steady and reliable for Baltimore, we are looking at an offense that hasn’t always been best described by those words.

Pittsburgh (10-6)

They changed nothing. Honestly… this is the same club that went to the Super Bowl last year. And, of course, that does mean something.

But they are older on defense. They are the same on offense. And I think the Patriots are better in 2011… the Ravens are better in 2011… and the Jets… well… the Jets might be better, more likely are hungrier, and definitely are younger and just as talented when comparing rosters.

I don’t want to predict bad things for them. I think the Steelers are still in the best of the AFC conversation. But, I honestly expect them to get torched by the Ravens in week one. And, if they do, I think the beating could linger.

Cleveland (7-9)

There’s a ton of stuff to like here. Colt McCoy and Payton Hillis should be pretty good for a young offense moving in the right direction.

Their 2010 defense wasn’t half bad… but with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division, you have to compare them to the full AFC or against all NFL teams to really see that the Browns performed closer to the top third of defenses than the middle or lower for the season.

So… again… lots to like as we get started.

But then…

New head coach. Pat Shurmur. No NFL head coaching experience, and to my knowledge no head coaching experience in college either, though he has risen through the NFL ranks over more than ten years, and he brings some nice offensive credentials to his new position. (Not too unusual to jump around… and he went from tight ends and offensive line in college to quarterbacks and offensive coordinator in the pros.)

That means we are bringing a brand-spanking-new coach into a situation where he had virtually no offseason workouts at all with the club. And when you look at someone like John Fox in Denver… we’re saying that he’s installing his plans without ever really having seen how plans develop from the head coach’s seat.

Does that matter as much as we make it out to? I mean, this is a club where they beat New England and showed some life last year… right? Well… I did a conservative transaction count and quickly came up with 35-40 true roster moves. Not extra guys that floated around as part of the 90-men in camp or practice squad depth. 35-40 real new faces. Heck… two quarterbacks, two running backs, and four wide receivers are back from last year… their roster is currently carrying thirteen people in those slots. That’s skill positions. So… turnover is a key to the NFL, happens all the time… here in Cleveland we have a new head coach, and it’s safe to say when all is set up and ready for the league to be told 35-50% of his roster didn’t wear the Cleveland uniform last year, so everything is new to them including the drive to the stadium.

And… for what it’s worth… for several months, they were told to stay away from the stadium.

I’m babbling, but you see the direction I’m heading. Expect the Browns to win some games you don’t expect them to win… expect them to cause headaches… expect them to have some great moments just like upsetting New England last season… but expect mistakes and ugly moments as well.

Cincinnati (3-13)

Wake me up when it’s over.

I was tired of the Bungals months ago, when Palmer was saying he hated them and Chad Johnson was setting up an exit strategy. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this team will be much of anything worth noting in 2011.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at