The 2011 NFL Season preview
NFC East and North



Philadelphia (11-5)

I’m picking them because I have to. I’m not picking them because I think they’re one of the best in the NFL.

They’re good… and the best of this division… so make no mistake of my thoughts in general terms. I’m not saying the Eagles are a bad team. It’s just that if I’m assembling my list of the best, I’m starting with New England and Baltimore… Green Bay and New Orleans… and then I’d have a second tier with Atlanta and New York (Jets). Philadelphia is in on the cusp of that second tier… a cusp they occupy with San Diego and Pittsburgh and other clubs I expect to see in the playoffs, but I’m just convinced are capable of making a noise once there. Good but not solid… not necessarily able to overcome a problem if their best doesn’t play its best.

The season starts off with a blessing… the NFC West as one of the divisions scheduled against them. St. Louis… San Francisco… Arizona… Seattle… nice to have that going for you. And while the AFC East does them no favors (New England and New York (Jets)), it isn’t a bad thing when you can score points and your opponents likely can’t (as of right now, my thoughts of Miami and Buffalo being inconsistent offensively). And while they need to play Atlanta, I don’t think Chicago is a bad thing.

So before they’ve even had to play a division game, I think we have at least 6 wins locked up (Miami, Buffalo, Chicago, and pick any three of the NFC West you want (which allows for one stumble). 5-5 in the remaining contests shouldn’t be impossible.

Here’s where it gets tough though…

The Eagles do not have a great defensive line. Oh it looks good enough, but with a deep set of corners and safeties, teams are going to look to run against them. Plus… let’s use New England and Atlanta here… teams with decent offensive lines will get their quarterback time even with good coverage. (I mark this one as a loss for the Jets… with Sanchez not accurate enough to win it.)

It’s a mixed bag all around though. I like adding Ronnie Brown… though he does have an injury history, and his career shows him declining since 2007, and he’s never delivered for a full year as the top guy getting handed the ball all the time. (He won’t be asked to carry the full load here… so it works.) They obviously have a deep set of corners.

Here’s the scary thing… I see a lot of fast defenses lining up against the Eagles this year. And for what I think is a weak defensive line… I don’t see a dominant offensive line either. Be very skeptical of the people predicting huge things for Philly. Good things… if injury-free… are likely. Huge, great, amazing things… not so much.

New York (9-7)

Since 2006… that’s five straight seasons… the Tom Coughlin led Giants managed to include at least one stretch of 5 or more wins. Ready for how New York starts 2011?

At Washington… St. Louis… at Philadelphia… at Arizona… Seattle… Buffalo… Miami following a bye week.

Things are set up for a monster start to the year for New York, and I honestly believe that Philly game will determine if it’s six straight with winning streaks.

The problem is… well…

At New England… at San Francisco (which shouldn’t be tough, but involves great travel following a difficult game with the Patriots, and in turn is followed by…)… Philadelphia… at New Orleans… Green Bay.

You toss in two games against Dallas with a game against New York (Jets) as three of the four to finish the year, and I think you can understand why a huge start might be met by an equally huge collapse.

Eli Manning has never been one of my favorite quarterbacks, but I cannot deny that when I see him play, he doesn’t appear scared of big moments. Whatever the circumstances, he did win against the Patriots in the Super Bowl… and I have seen him look good late in games. (Hmm… New York seems to have a bookend of quarterbacks right now. Very similar.)

The trouble is, there really isn’t much around him on offense that you can rely on… and the defense is about to name an ambulance as a starter to cover for all the injuries.

Dallas (9-7)

Week four… hosting the Detroit Lions.

That will tell the story for Dallas.

The whole story.

They start with the Jets… but then they get the 49ers. The Patriots are on their schedule… but St. Louis comes to visit the next week. Seattle and Buffalo visit them in back-to-back weeks.

The point being, I don’t see a single stretch of difficult games until we get to December, when they’ll return from a trip to Arizona to face New York (Giants), Tampa, Philly and New York (Giants). That’s when it finally gets tough for them. That’s when you look at a schedule, see a game you mentally mark as a loss and the opponent coming in next could be tougher.

So if they manage to beat Detroit… and have a 3-1 record going in to their early bye week… they could be ok. But if they come out of that fourth game with a losing record… Dallas is in big, big trouble.

I’m not a supporter of Tony Romo… but Jason Witten will bail him out of plenty of jams, and Miles Austin seems to be the equivalent of Maurice Jones-Drew (a one-man, back-breaking, all-alone giving the team 3 or 4 wins they shouldn’t get just because he’s there and there is no other way to explain it player).

But there’s that game… Detroit. I don’t see Dallas 3-0 when they host the Lions. They will lose at least one game. And if they are 2-2 (or, shudder, worse) by the bye week, then that stretch of New England, St. Louis and Philadelphia should destroy them and their hopes for 2011. Because they will not make up ground late in the year, and that middle-stretch will not be kind to a slow start.

Washington (5-11)

Rex Grossman as the starter, and two huge divisional games in the first three. The sound you hear is me taking a deep breath through clenched-teeth while trying to figure out how to not see a lousy season ahead for Washington.

Seriously… what seems like a nice break for Philadelphia, Dallas and New York… a slate featuring the NFC West… looks like a nightmare for Washington. Where the Eagles could sweep all four of those games, the Redskins might not win any. And sure… they get Carolina as an opponent thanks to their 2010 results… but I don’t see Minnesota as an equal blessing, and they are on the schedule for the same reason the Panthers are.

I do like Jim Haslett as a defensive coordinator… so I expect that the Redskins will be tough defensively.

Tim Hightower could have a huge season for the Redskins. (Oh yeah, remember what I said about the Eagles having troubles against good running backs? Keep that in mind. They play each other twice.)

I just don’t see where the Redskins will be able to get any momentum going. Heck… two of their eight home games involve hosting the Jets and Patriots in back-to-back weeks… so not only will they likely get pounded there, it means they travel to play the Bills and Dolphins. (The point being, some losses seem destined, and it’s never nice to lose a home game where you might have a shot to something that could be a lost cause before it even begins.)


Green Bay (13-3)

If the Packers can shake off some early-season travels, there is nothing not to like about them. They have a mid-season bye week, and then five of their last nine are at home, including three of the last four and one late-season road trip being a Thanksgiving puddle-jump over to Detroit that precedes a decent break after a Thursday game. So… get the travel done early and then settle in for the winter.

Their roster not only won the Super Bowl last season… it won it with several players unable to play because they were injured. In other words, the team that comes out of training camp should be better and deeper than the team that won a title.

And let’s mention Aaron Rodgers… because with a title in his pocket, he never has to worry about comparisons to Favre again. That’s done. Rodgers was a good quarterback with Favre on his back… I like the idea of him playing with that weight removed.

So… what’s not to like?

Well… how about New Orleans to start? The very first game of the year could quite easily be a tie-breaker for the top seed, or maybe even for a bye week seed in the postseason.

And you know how I loved their second half? Well… it comes with a price. St. Louis and New Orleans are two of the three home games they have starting out the year. The four road games before their bye week include division rivals Chicago and Minnesota, along with a trip to Atlanta. Now… about the only games that would seem to be trouble in that mix are New Orleans and Atlanta. But: (1) no division game in the NFL ever goes easy, and, (2) there are some fast, punishing, hard-hitting, top half of the league defenses on that list. And the reward for being the champion is a schedule that has start times all over the clock.

Barring something insane happening, the Packers will have a lot of room for error in navigating this year. They should comfortably win this division. While facing good teams in it, the deep divisions in the NFC are the South and East, so they shouldn’t get destroyed in the six division games. And, their conference rotation to the AFC gives them the West… in 2011, probably the third strongest, and arguably the weakest, of the four AFC divisions.

Plenty to be happy with on a slow, steady course to the playoffs.

Detroit (9-7)

They’ve done this to me before. I look over the schedule… get happy about the draft… and start thinking big things.

Frankly though, if they can keep Mr. Matthew Stafford on the field, this could be a big year for the Lions.

Ndamukong Suh leads a defense that is quickly becoming a punishing unit to face. Calvin Johnson is a force at receiver. And they are beginning to build some better than average talent at skill positions.

Good stuff.

Ok… elephant in the room… Stafford… injuries… I hate mentioning it, but I have to. He was injured… if I recall correctly… twice in 2009, his first year as a starter. He played in ten games, contributing at least one touchdown (either by completion or his own legs) in every one of those games. But… knee injury cost him a couple of games in the first half of the season, and injured reserve in the second half of the year. In 2010… opening game… shoulder injury and out for almost two months. A couple of weeks later, he injured the same shoulder and had season-ending surgery.

I like Stafford. A lot. Games I’ve seen of him don’t show obvious brilliance or high skills… he doesn’t look amazing or striking. What he does do is compete… hard… and appears to get everyone around him excited. He seems to be a very gifted leader, and one that can get the job done. Albeit… when he’s on the field.

So there you go… the Lions go as far as Stafford plays. He gets in 15 or 16 games, and Detroit could be threatening for a wild card spot in December. If he’s missing time be week four or five, they’ll have trouble reaching 8 wins.

Chicago (8-8)

I have a close friend that loves all things Chicago. Big Bears fan. So… I get no satisfaction from delivering some bad news. See… I’m not sold on them for a strong year. They could be very good. 10-win, playoff bound good. And… well…

If you’re a fan of the Bears, you’ll be very happy to hear that Roy Williams had no troubles this year getting a rookie to carry his shoulder pads off the field during training camp.

That’s the good news.

You may be very uneasy though if you noticed his ability to catch passes. You know… since he’s dropping them on the practice field and in preseason games in a way that suggests several bonus clauses of his contract might give him an extra hundred thousand dollars for every ball thrown to him that touches his hands first and hits the ground second. Yes, it’s pretty bad.

You may be very uneasy though if you noticed that Detroit actually is putting together a football team. With real talent and everything.

You may be very uneasy though if you heard that apparently Roy Williams is telling people he’s not completely in shape yet. (I’m sure he’s planning to round into form soon though. Like… maybe by next February.)

You may be very uneasy though if you noticed the Jay Cutler is still the top quarterback… and, umm, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad on the surface if we didn’t also see that you noticed the offensive line still resembles a wet paper bag.

But again… those rookies are carrying equipment after workouts. Three cheers, sunshine and a round of lemonade for everyone.

Let’s get to the big things… the Bears have a miserable schedule. They start out facing Atlanta, New Orleans and Green Bay. Tampa and San Diego are part of their schedule, and the division is no picnic… with Detroit on the rise and Minnesota capable of being in any contest.

Safe money has them 0-3 to start… that’s the safe money. Anything better than that is fantastic for them, but they likely will be under .500 and chasing even for the whole year.

Minnesota (7-9)

Hold on. I just want to get this straight. A Donovan McNabb with something to prove is the main ingredient for an improved Minnesota team?

That’s it?

That’s the press release we need to buy into here?

Hey… I’m not going to say a word about Leslie Frazier. I think he’ll be ok. And Adrian Peterson? Great player… we won’t even think about questioning his durability. There are many things to like here and talent to be found. No opposing team is going to be happy preparing to play the Vikings, and every opposing team will be sore after playing the Vikings.

But Donovan McNabb?

Ok… check out their wide receivers. One of the biggest problems in 2010 was Sidney Rice being injured and Percy Harvin battling migraines. That’s a large part of what led to the whole Randy Moss fiasco. So in 2011 Rice is gone (say hello Seattle) and Harvin is back. Well sure, I feel secure about that. What could go wrong there? (Note: not saying I would have kept Rice. Just saying Harvin doesn’t inspire confidence. Actually…)

Harvin has the potential to be a force when he plays. But let’s be honest… his history of illness, and not just the migraines, suggests there could be games when he is unable to play without any advance notice. More to the point, there almost definitely will be major chunks of practice that he misses. And, the new rules could truly limit his ability to change a game while returning kicks.

Sorry… not buying the press release.

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