As part of my coverage of the National Football League here at The Sports Geeks, I will be making predictions at different times during the offseason as to who I think will end up on top of the eight divisions for the 2010 NFL Season. This article represents predictions made based on free agency transactions and trades before the start of April and the upcoming 2010 NFL Draft. The next set of predictions will come at some point after the 2010 NFL Draft, followed by a set of predictions before the NFL Preseason begins, and finally followed by my official predictions for the season, which will be out the first week of the season with the NFL’s Kickoff Week.
Despite the fact that the upcoming NFL season is uncapped, there have been about as many signings and trades as one would expect from any NFL offseason. That said, some big names have shifted around in the team landscape, including new Baltimore Ravens WR Anquan Boldin, new Chicago Bears DE Julius Peppers, new Cleveland Browns QB Jake Delhomme, and new New York Jets RB LaDainian Tomlinson.
It is early in the offseason to be considering how the regular season will play out—I’m unaware of anyone else making predictions this early—but using the moves that have been made so far in conjunction with the projected strength of schedule for each team (based on last season’s records), it is possible to begin making projections about how the season will play out.
Without further ado, here goes; note that these predictions are based on free-agency signings and trade transactions as of Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 and that the numbers in parentheses beside a team’s name represent their rank (out of 32) for strength of schedule–the higher the number, the easier the schedule based on last year’s records.
American Football Conference
- 1.) New England Patriots (6): The Patriots core of future Hall of Famers—QB Tom Brady, WR Randy Moss, and coach Bill Belichick—remain in place, which always makes the team a contender in the AFC East. The injury to Wes Welker will likely leave the Patriots without their favorite slot receiver for the beginning of the season, but their depth at running back—including a healthy return of RB Fred Taylor—should help the Patriots work towards erasing the memories of a bad playoff exit.
- 2.) New York Jets (T16): The Jets have made the biggest splash of any AFC East team so far this offseason, and along with the Dolphins and Bills they have the easiest strength of schedule in the division. Though projected to finish 2nd in this prediction article, the Jets will put up a stiff challenge in 2010. QB Mark Sanchez will have his sophomore year balanced out by a strong backfield of RB Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. However, it is important to remember that if not for the Colts and Bengals early clinching in 2009, the Jets would not have come anywhere near the AFC Conference Championship, despite having the #1 defense and #1 rushing game in the league. With Commissioner Roger Goodell pushing to schedule meaningful divisional match-ups in Weeks 16 and 17 of the 2010 schedule, the Jets probably won’t be able to wish their way into the playoffs again.
- 3.) Miami Dolphins (T16): Miami still has a strong running game, but they continue to lack options at WR. Until they are able to address this issue and bulk up on defense, they won’t be able to compete with the Patriots and Jets.
- 4.) Buffalo Bills (T16): The Bills have lost Terrell Owens—not that he contributed too much to the team last year—and have added little else to get excited about. Rumor has it that they’re in the market for Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, but without a major move the Bills will likely find themselves in the basement once more.
- 1.) Baltimore Ravens (T12): One of the issues keeping the Ravens from being an elite team in the past has been a lack of legitimate receiving threats on offense; the Ravens have made some solid moves in the offseason so far, picking up former Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin and signing Browns cast-off Donte’ Stallworth. Combined with the return of veteran Derrick Mason, this gives Baltimore a much improved passing game for the 2010 season. The Ravens were a strong Wild Card team and embarrassed the Patriots in the Wild Card round of the 2009 playoffs, and 2010 looks like it might be as good a time as any for the Ravens to win the division.
- 2.) Cincinnati Bengals (4): At this point in the offseason, there is a legitimate toss-up between 2nd and 3rd place; the Bengals had a surprising undefeated run against AFC North opponents last year, which played a big role in their division win. However, they really struggled at the end of the year and had trouble clinching the division before going one-and-done in the playoffs. With the status of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger unknown for the 2010 season—pending sexual assault charges in Georgia—the early nod goes to the Bengals for 2nd place with the Steelers settling for 3rd.
- 3.) Pittsburgh Steelers (21): If Roethlisberger is forced to miss any significant time in the upcoming season because of the situation he put himself in over the offseason, then the Steelers will have to turn to backup QBs Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to carry the team; not a promising situation for the black-and-gold. There have been few additions to an aging defense as well, which leaves Pittsburgh weak where traditionally they have been strong and physical. The recent situation with WR Santonio Holmes has added further embarrassment to the offseason of a franchise that traditionally avoids such drama; it’s hard to know how the Steelers will respond.
- 4.) Cleveland Browns (T10): Finally, despite the addition of QB Jake Delhomme and key offseason acquisitions like LB Scott Fujita and TE Benjamin Watson, the Browns play in one of the tougher divisions in the NFL. Even if Delhomme sees resurgence in 2010, the opposing defenses will be stronger than the teams he used to play against in the NFC South. Expect Cleveland to improve, but probably remain in the bottom of the division. However, should Roethlisberger miss a large chunk of the season, there is a chance that the Browns move up to 3rd. Just don’t expect a playoff run in 2010.
- 1.) Indianapolis Colts (T10): The AFC South is the Colts division to lose, and has been for much of the past decade. Expect nothing different in 2010, even if the Saints gave everyone a bit of a blueprint of how to beat Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.
- 2.) Houston Texans (1): The Texans, behind the growing confidence of QB Matt Schaub, would appear to be poised for a potential playoff run after nearly making the postseason for the first time in franchise history this past season. While the Texans have been “sexy” picks in the past to win the division or the Wild Card berth, Schaub is likely in his best position so far to lead the team beyond a 16-game schedule.
- 3.) Tennessee Titans (1): A whole season with Vince Young at QB in Tennessee may yield better results after leaving Kerry Collins at starter to a 0-6 record in 2009. This may allow the Titans to challenge the Texans for 2nd in the division, but Houston has to be considered the favorite at this point.
- 4.) Jacksonville Jaguars (5): Perhaps the best thing that could happen to the Jaguars is being bought out and moved to Los Angeles for a new lease on life, and potentially a new division placement in the AFC West.
- 1.) San Diego Chargers (T29): If the AFC West has taught football fans anything over the past few years, it’s that early-season success does not necessarily predict a division win. In the past two seasons, the Chargers have stumbled out of the gate while the Broncos have gone on early season runs; in each case, the Chargers ended up winning the division. Based on the level of competition currently in the division, it would appear that little will change in 2010. The Chargers have been a solid and consistent team behind QB Philip Rivers in the regular season, and while playoff success has been elusive, San Diego seems a lock to take the division again.
- 2.) Denver Broncos (24): The Broncos could challenge for the division in 2010—particularly if newly-acquired QB Brady Quinn has to take over for current starter Kyle Orton and shows the quality of play that made him worth a first-round draft pick—but the team has not been able to come together to achieve divisional success; even with a 6-0 start in 2009.
- 3.) Oakland Raiders (T16): The Raiders showed some promise under QB Bruce Gradkowski at the end of the 2009 season, but he is still being forced to compete for the starting job with JaMarcus Russell, who has nearly lost the locker room already with his poor play and preparation. The decision as to who starts under center in 2009 could have a major impact on Oakland’s chances.
- 4.) Kansas City Chiefs (T22): Finally, the Chiefs only managed a 4-12 record last year; despite the addition of former Super Bowl-Champion coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, expectations are low for 2010. There don’t seem to be enough personnel pieces here to make a legitimate playoff push.
AFC WILD CARD SPOTS
Both the Jets and the Texans have a shot at competing for their respective division titles, but if they aren’t able to take a home-field spot in the playoffs, it wouldn’t be out of the question to consider them as early Wild Card-favorites for 2010. When you consider my other 2nd Place predictions—the Bengals and the Broncos—the Jets and Texans seem much more confident choices. That said, the Texans will have a harder time of it, sporting the toughest strength of schedule for the 2010 season (tied with the Titans)–however, a large part of that comes from playing in the AFC South with the Colts, who put up a 14-2 campaign in 2009.
National Football Conference
- 1.) Dallas Cowboys (3): A good word to describe the NFC East, at least last season, would be “inconsistent.” The Cowboys won the division despite a rough patch in late November/early December, but they were also the beneficiary of poor play from the Eagles, who could’ve clinched the division with a win against the Cowboys in Week 17. And while the Cowboys looked dominant in a Wild Card victory over the Eagles, they got brought back to earth very quickly in an embarrassing beating at the hands of the Vikings in the Divisional Round.
- 2.) Philadelphia Eagles (9): The Eagles’ failure to show up to play against the Cowboys in both Week 17 and in Wild Card Weekend of the playoffs brought their promising season to a quick end. There was also inconsistency during the regular season, including a particularly bad loss to the Raiders; had the Eagles won that game, a game they were heavily favored to win, they would’ve taken the NFC East. A major question mark in the offseason right now is whether the Eagles will be starting Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, or Michael Vick to begin the season; or whether or not any of those three players will be traded by opening day.
- 3.) New York Giants (7): The Giants were another team, like the Broncos, that got off to a strong start at 5-0 but only managed a final record of 8-8. It’s hard to point the finger at a single thing that went wrong, but it was clear in ugly late-season losses that the team had given up on the season. This might serve as motivation for 2010, but they’re also playing in a division where they can’t afford to let up.
- 4.) Washington Redskins (8): Finally, the Redskins were inconsistent both on and off the field last year—with a major play-calling change in the coaching staff halfway through the year. Though Mike Shanahan is now the leader in Washington, no moves so far have Redskins fans all that excited for the upcoming season; an early draft pick may change that in a few weeks, of course.
- 1.) Green Bay Packers (T22): The NFC North—and how 2010 will play out—hinges almost entirely on whether or not QB Brett Favre makes the decision to return to the Vikings for another season. If he does not, the Green Bay Packers have to be considered the front-runners to win the NFC North.
- 2.) Minnesota Vikings (T14): However, if the Vikings do see Brett Favre return, it is hard to say that the Vikings are anything but favorites in the division. The reason that they are at #2 in this early evaluation is because if the Vikings are forced to use Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels for their QB, the Packers are clear leaders. That said, the Vikings were able to win the division behind the tandem of Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte in 2008.
- 3.) Chicago Bears (T14): The Bears have made some noise so far in the offseason, but they are still fielding a starting QB in Jay Cutler who threw the ball just as often to the opposing team as he did to his own receivers. If the Bears cannot get Cutler out of this bad habit, they will again be a bottom-feeder in the division.
- 4.) Detroit Lions (T12): The Lions have also made some offseason moves, but they still appear destined to wallow at the bottom of the NFC North in 2010. The talent level in the division is just too high for them to compete at this stage.
- 1.) New Orleans Saints (27): The NFC South is a tough decision to predict, although there has been a fairly clear pattern of “Worst-to-First/Playoffs” since the division was created in 2002; no team in the division has earned back-to-back postseason appearances since 2002 as well. Last season, the Saints went from last in the division in 2008 to first. That being said, my early division prediction does not have the Buccaneers at the top of the division and does not have the Saints finishing out of playoff contention. Even with some personnel losses, the Saints are still the class of the division at this early stage of the offseason.
- 2.) Atlanta Falcons (20): While the Falcons had an uneven season in QB Matt Ryan’s sophomore year, he is a more proven leader than…
- 3.) Carolina Panthers (26): …the Panthers’ Matt Moore, who will be leading the team into the 2010 campaign.
- 4.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (25): The Bucs sit at the bottom of the division—challenging history by potentially being the first last-place team to not make the playoffs from the NFC South in the next season—due largely to a lack of moves to improve the team while simultaneously losing a top WR with Antonio Bryant’s departure to the Bengals.
- 1.) San Francisco 49ers (28): The 49ers only finished 2 games behind the Cardinals in 2009, and they have the advantage of returning their starting QB, Alex Smith, in 2010. San Francisco also enters 2010 with a solid backup QB in David Carr. Combined with RB Frank Gore, the 49ers could have a great shot at the division in the upcoming season.
- 2.) Arizona Cardinals (32): It could be said that no division champion from 2009 is seeing as much turnover in talent as the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals—division champions in 2008 and 2009—have lost QB Kurt Warner to retirement, leaving Matt Leinart to take the reins for the team; the same Matt Leinart who lost the starting job to Warner in the first place. While Leinart may be able to lead the Cardinals to another title, it will certainly not be easy.
- 3.) Seattle Seahawks (T29): Depending on how Leinart works out, the Seahawks could push for the division lead as well, but it seems a bit unlikely given the declining play of QB Matt Hasselbeck and his unproven new backup, Charlie Whitehurst.
- 4.) St. Louis Rams (31): The Rams once again sit in the cellar of the NFC West, and even if they pick a franchise QB with the #1 overall 2010 Draft Pick, it’s hard to consider them a contender in the division without a solid supporting cast to help that new signal-caller lead St. Louis to success.
NFC WILD CARD SPOTS
My two early wild card picks here are tricky picks; many NFC teams have early QB questions this offseason, and the Cardinals and Eagles are among them. However, if Matt Leinart stands up for Arizona, they have a shot at getting into the playoffs for a third straight year–particularly because the Cardinals have the easiest schedule for 2010 based on 2009’s results. With that in mind, if Leinart is unable to put Arizona in a position to contend, changes might come sooner than expected. The NFC West is easily the weakest division of the NFC, giving the Cardinals a shot at 4 wins against Seattle and St. Louis, potentially. Similarly, whoever ends up being the starter in Philadelphia will need a strong campaign to get their team into the postseason; the offense is certainly explosive, as the Eagles showed at times last season, but they will need to have the QB position settled early on so that the timing can adjust if McNabb is no longer the man under center. These two squads would appear to have a better shot than the Falcons and Vikings at this stage of the offseason, though these are the picks that I’m least sure of. If the Eagles lose McNabb before the season starts, the Vikings–even without Favre–are probably a better bet for a Wild Card spot.
So there you have it; my predictions for the eight NFL division winners and four NFL Wild Card teams as of the end of March 2010. There is still a lot of offseason to go before the season begins, and there will still be three more prediction stories from me between now and the beginning of the 2010 NFL Season. For now, feel free to weigh in through the comments below and through the voting in the story to let me know who you think will have success in the upcoming year. The results of your voting will be included in my next Divisional Predictions, due after the NFL Draft!