What is the hardest thing about predicting the NFL season? It’s probably making sure all the records add up to .500. Most people don’t pay any attention to this. They just arbitrarily slap 10-6 on a bunch of teams and pay no attention to the details. It’s like the baseball preview I saw this year at my favorite website, Bleacher Report. Some guy predicted the record for all five Phillies starters. He had them winning 95 games. Not the team, just those five pitchers. You have to wonder sometimes. You will not find any such inconsistencies in this piece, go ahead and break out the adding machine, I dare you. (Please don’t actually check)
There are several ways to do an NFL preview. I consider them all to be wildly boring. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to list all 16 games from week one. I’m going to tell you the signature play from that game and then what kind of season that will translate into for each team.
1. New Orleans @ Green Bay. Opening Line: Saints (+4)
One thing I respect about the NFL? They always bring it on opening Thursday. I don’t like that the game is on Thursday, but it’s always a good game. “Possible NFC Championship preview,” you’ll hear 1.4 million times in the next week. Signature play: With time running down, Drew Brees escapes a rabid Clay Matthews and hits Robert Meachem for an 11 yard score. A million fantasy owners ask, Was that Colston? The shocking upset portends an up and down year for the bored Packers who go 10-6. The Saints peak early, but still manage 11 wins in the overrated NFC South.
2. Falcons @ Bears. Opening Line: Falcons (-2.5)
This is a big year for Matt Ryan, no? The Falcons have surrounded him with a very nice collection of talent. Is he going to take a step up into the elite ranks, or is he going to be the white Donovan McNabb? Signature Play: In what becomes known as the “Deflected Pick” Bowl, Jay Cutler rifles a laser beam into tight coverage. It clips Roy Williams in the right hand, the ball deflects off his shoulder pad and into the waiting arms of William “Billy” Moore (had to look that up). Of a career high six picks, four initially hit Williams in the hands. The Falcons win and cruise to the regular season hype trophy with a 12-4 record. The Bears do Chicago proud at 8-8.
3. Bengals @ Browns. Opening Line (Bengals +6.5)
Yikes. Did we ever think we’d see the day when the Browns were laying almost a touchdown? Did we ever think we’d see an NFL game started by Colt McCoy and Ginger Dalton? Signature Play: With just a few ticks remaining and trailing by a TD (16-9), the Bengals charge into Browns territory. Riding Cedric Benson and a cloud of dust (38 carries/63 yards) the Bengals line up for a critical 4th and 1. Benson. Goes. Nowhere. (Except to Jail). The Browns get a much-needed win to kickstart a 7-9 campaign. The Bengals start a steady decline to Andrew Luck runner-up status finishing 3-13.
4. Bills @ Chiefs. Opening Line: Bills (+6.5)
This game would have been the sh*t in 1993. The story for the Bills this year? Same as every year, can Fitzy silence the doubters and actually get his hands on the starting job for good. Stop scouting college QBs, Bills fans. Signature play: Driving for the kill shot the Chiefs face a 3rd and 2 around mid-field. Using Jamaal Charles (11 touches/125 yards) as a decoy, Coach Haley tries a double reverse to McCluster. He fumbles. Four plays later it’s Fitzy to Stevie Johnson, who…hangs on! Bills win and offer a heartening 8-8 campaign for the faithful. The Chiefs swallow the first dose of reality in what will be a long 6-10 season.
5. Eagles @ Rams. Opening Line: Eagles (-5)
I don’t have a great feeling about this Eagles season. Hopefully, I’m wrong. I’m just not aware of the adage that says, Cornerbacks win championships. We’ll see how it plays out. Signature drive: The Eagles trail by 9 points at the start of the 4th quarter. With no timeouts left (obviously), they embark on a long, muddled drive that takes 11 minutes, but results in a 1-yd TD run for Ronnie Brown. They kick away, and then give up 45 yards on the next six plays to Steven Jackson. Time expires. The upstart Rams bring respectability back to the NFC West at 9-7. The Eagles shame a city with the same record.
6. Lions @ Tampa Bay. Opening Line: Lions (+1.5)
The Lions are building, slowly. At least, I think they are. That Ndamakong Suh is a bad mamma jamma. The Bucs are my least favorite team in the league. I don’t know why. (It’s because I don’t like Josh Freeman). Signature Play: The Lions, looking like the 2000 Rams, are running all over the Bucs, it’s woodshed time. After Stafford hits Megatron (11 catches/178 yards/3tds) for another score he sets off a fateful, “triple fist-pump” routine that separates his shoulder…for good. The Shaun Hill show shakes off the last of Matt Millen’s stank and the Lions go 9-7. Tampa Bay remains the best team in the NFC (in the eyes of Raheem Morris) but goes 7-9.
7. Titans @ Jacksonville. Opening Line: Tennessee (+3)
Ah, the majesty of the AFC South. This game should be all about the running backs, but Chris Johnson doesn’t seem in any rush to join the team and MJD needs to prove he hasn’t lost a step or two. If not the running backs, this is the placeholder QB Bowl. Garrard and Hasselbeck are trying to hold off future busts Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker. Signature Play: With many of the 34,000 die-hards already headed home (some in “throwback” Mike Sims-Walker jerseys), David Garrard caps off one of his inexplicable dominant quarters with a touchdown pass to Mike Thomas. Thomas becomes a waiver wire darling, then has 23 catches the rest of the year. The Jags can only manage five wins, but the Titans (and eventually Chris Johnson) pull off an 8-8 campaign.
8. Steelers @ Ravens. Opening Line: Pittsburgh (+2.5)
Do the Steelers and Ravens play ten times a year? It’s actually nice to get this one out of the way early, because usually the build-up for this game is unbearable. Old-Fashioned Football! Bleh, more like two wildly annoying fan bases. As much as I’d like to pick both of these teams to lose, I think this year one is clearly better than the other. Signature Play: Big Ben, newly married and rocking 10 extra pounds after the Honeymoon, shrugs off the aging Ray Lewis and ambles out of the pocket. He slings one down the seam where Mike Wallace has everyone beat by 20 yards. Wallace becomes a much quieter version of DeSean Jackson and the Steelers cruise to a 12-4 record. Baltimore licks their wounds and can only rebound to 8-8.
9. Colts @ Texans. Opening Line: OFF. My Guess, Peyton doesn’t play and Houston lays 5.5.
I think the Colts in some way signify what is great about the NFL. In other leagues, a team in Indianapolis would have little chance of succeeding. They’d be small market, trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but instead, they’ve been a powerhouse for 10 years and can pay Pey-Pey a mint. Now, about that neck? Signature play: Arian Foster shrugs off his hamstring and the typically porous Colts run defense for an 11-yard score and Indy is done for the day. It caps Foster’s only 100 yard game of 2011 as the hammy nags him the whole year. This sets off the most aggravating RB rotation in the history of the sport (Steve Slaton!), but Gary Kubiak saves his job once again by going 10-6. Peyton rushes back in week 2, is awful, but then regroups to lead the Colts to another division title at 11-5.
10. Carolina @ Arizona. Opening Line: Carolina (+7).
What a line. What a game. Fox is thrilled to have this coverage. I am leading the “Hope Kevin Kolb Fails for my own Personal Amusement” bandwagon. But, he’s probably a clear upgrade for Arizona and he gets to play teams like Carolina, Seattle, SF, etc. I want Carolina to finish with the worst record, because I want them to take Luck, the year after Newton, the year after Clausen. Signature Play: Newton is over his head, Clausen can’t find his helmet, so DA takes the reins. On his way into the game, Anderson says to Newton, “Take Notes Rook.” Anderson then hits Patrick Peterson in the chest for his first and only pick-6 of the year. Cards roll to the win and a 7-9 record. The Panthers prosper at 2-14.
11. Vikings @ Chargers. Opening Line: Minnesota (+9).
Pretty big line for opening week. I guess something about Donovan McNabb in his third stop doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in Vegas. Philip Rivers and San Diego is a little like Pey-Pey and Indy. No one really pays attention to San Diego’s weapons or their defense, they just assume they’ll score points and win games. It’s not that off-base. Signature Play: Thanks to a “special connection,” formed with Bernard Berrian, the Vikings have inexplicably stayed within range. Facing a 3rd and 9 in San Diego territory McNabb rifles a ball to a wide open Percy Harvin. Harvin has to dive to make the play, and rolls one yard short of the first down. McNabb hurries the team to the line and spikes the ball, turning the ball over on downs. On the way to sideline, he laughs hysterically on his way to a 7-9 season. San Diego goes 11-5.
12. Seahawks @ 49ers. Opening Line: Seattle (+5.5)
According to Peter King, the 49ers will be the worst team in the league. Here they open up the season as a pretty nice favorite. That should shed some light on what’s going on in Seattle. The defending NFC West champions will be hard pressed to repeat in a division that remains quite awful. Signature play: Marshawn Lynch, the man who is picked reluctantly in the 8th round of every fantasy draft busts through the line and embarks on another YouTube worthy run through the San Francisco secondary. The performance leads to fantasy owners reaping 6.4 points a week for the rest of the season. The Whitehurst show ends up 4-12, and so do those Forty-Niners. Enjoy the Kaepernick era.
13. New York Giants @ Washington. Opening Line: OFF. Giants will be favorites, Regardless.
Can Eli Manning throw less than 20 picks this year? That’s the question, because if the Giants can hold onto the ball, they should score plenty of points and be a factor in the division. Washington is gaining some steam with good pre-season performances, but there’s still that QB question. Signature Play: After Tim Hightower returns to reality (15 carries/53 yards), the Redskins are forced to throw the ball to stay in the game. With Rex Grossman barking in his ear on the sideline, Shanny sticks with John Beck who on a 3rd and long is running for his life when he gets blindsided by Justin Tuck. Season over. Cue the Grossman era. Giants win and overcome injuries to go 9-7. The ‘Skins play to the level of their QB and finish 6-10.
14. Dallas @ New York Jets. Opening Line: Jets (-4.5).
The NFL is the only sport where I can watch random games. With Felix Jones on my fantasy team, I’ll be watching the ‘Boys all year, but this is a great game for Sunday night. Ryan vs. Ryan. I hope Buddy is on hand to watch it unfold. This game is like a nightmare Super Bowl Preview for me, but opening week it’s not as bad. I still don’t trust Sanchez, and I love to trash Romo, but he could be in for a nice comeback season. Signature Play: After accidentally throwing at Revis (pick) the Cowboys are slogging it out. Using the Jets aggressive defense against them, the Cowboys set up a perfect screen for Felix Jones. He breaks off a 68-yard score and starts a run to save my fantasy season. After the home loss, Ryan benches Sanchez, only to realize his backup is still Mark Brunell. Never mind, Sanchize. Jets rebound to go 12-4, Cowboys win the NFC East at 11-5.
15. Patriots @ Dolphins. Opening Line: Patriots (-7).
I’m worried about the Dolphins this year. It could be ugly. When your fans are clamoring for Kyle Orton, you’ve got issues. I want to root for Chad Henne and that rocket arm, but he can’t seem to put it together. He’s ruining Brandon Marshall’s career. The Pats on the other hand are everyone’s darling. Sporting News has them going 15-1. Wow. Signature Play: The drive after the Pats used 4 different running backs to carry the ball, Brady hooks up with Aaron Hernandez 3 times for 58 yards (4 catches 67 yards overall) to get all the way down to the two yard line. From there, Tommy B. hits Gronkowski (2 catches/8 yards/1TD) for the score. The Pats will win big, and I like their chances, but 15-1? How’s 12-4 sound? The Dolphins go from bad to worse and finish 5-11.
16. Oakland @ Denver. Opening Line: Denver (+3)
I have a feeling in a couple of years everyone is going to have forgotten about Tim Tebow. I almost feel bad at this point for T-Squared. How many players in the league would face headlines like, “Tebow’s jersey sales plummet.” He’s just not that good. Oakland on the other hand? Who knows. If you haven’t been paying attention for a while, you might think the Raiders are worse than they actually are. Signature Play: Walking out for the opening coin toss, Darren McFadden and Knowshon Moreno both suffer grade 2 hamstring strains.
I’ll take this brief breath to apologize for the length of this post. It just spiraled out of control. I got to about 1,500 words in and I just decided to keep going. It was too late to turn back. It’s kind of like when you accidentally wander 2/3 of the way around the stadium looking for helmet sundaes.
Projected NFL Standings: (*Playoff Team)
- New England 12-4*
- New York 12-4*
- Buffalo 8-8
- Miami 5-11
- Pittsburgh 12-4*
- Baltimore 8-8
- Cleveland 7-9
- Cincinnati 3-13
- Indianapolis 11-5*
- Houston 10-6*
- Tennessee 8-8
- Jacksonville 5-11
- San Diego 11-5*
- Oakland 8-8
- Kansas City 6-10
- Denver 5-11
- Dallas 10-6*
- New York 9-7*
- Philadelphia 9-7
- Washington 6-10
- Green Bay 10-6*
- Detroit 9-7
- Chicago 8-8
- Minnesota 7-9
- Atlanta 12-4
- New Orleans 11-5
- Tampa Bay 7-9
- Carolina 2-14
- St. Louis 9-7
- Arizona 7-9
- San Francisco 4-12
- Seattle 4-12
Super Bowl: Packers over Jets.