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2011 Pre-Season NFL Power 15

Only a few day until the opening of the 2011 NFL Season so I’m glad I got this out before Thursday! It’s pretty exciting to finally see the NFL come to fruition after all the possible talk that we might have lost some or all of the 2011 season. Now we can simply get back to looking and analyzing teams and watching games. Let’s get to it! Before we start I’ll let you know who I think will get to the playoffs and how they break down.

AFC: Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Ravens, Chargers & Texans

NFC: Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Rams, & Cowboys

I think the AFC winds up with the Ravens getting to the Super Bowl while the NFC pushes through the Packers with Green Bay winning it’s 5th Super Bowl title and its 2nd in a row. It would be easy to say Patriots v. Packers, but I’ll go with Baltimore getting there. The one glaring omission is the Indianapolis Colts. Maybe it’s the injury to Peyton Manning’s neck, but I have absolutely no confidence in the Colts organization or Jim Caldwell as a HC. I might be being overly harsh here for the Colts, but being a Colts Homer is tough these days when you feel like the organization is screwing over the greatest QB in NFL history.

#1 What else can you say? The defending Super Bowl champions return QB Aaron Rodgers and also get healthy versions of RB Ryan Grant & TE Jermichael Finley. Rodgers is most likely now the best QB in the NFL. With Tom Brady & Peyton Manning getting a bit older and Rodgers holding the Lombardi Trophy, Rodgers might simply have taken the mantle of best QB without much fanfare at all. What’s even scarier is that Green Bay’s defense was just as good as the offense. Last season Green Bay’s defense ranked 5th in the NFL in yards allowed per game & 2nd in the NFL in points allowed per game. Green Bay brings back their defense virtually intact including a very stout LB unit led by All Pro OLB Clay Matthews. The Packers were hurt quite a bit by injury last season and were the victims of a few close games. After 14 games, the Packers were just 8-6 and had to win out to get into the playoffs as a Wild Card team at 10-6. That’s all they needed as they ran the table and beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl 31-26. The one problem Green Bay has had recently is their offensive line. The Packers gave up the most sacks in the NFL in 2009 of any team in the NFL, but improved that rank to 19th last season. They drafted Derek Sherrod to help out the O-Line, which was a solid move. Unfortunately for the opposition, Green Bay also drafted WR Randall Cobb, TE DJ Williams & RB Alex Green giving Rodgers a few more weapons to utilize. How long will it take Packer Nation to forget about #4?
#2 It’s hard to believe that the Patriots won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 & 2004. Although considered a legitimate dynasty, the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl for going on a decade! That’s amazing when you consider how dominant the Patriots have been since going on that Super Bowl winning spree. Last season, New England was utterly dominant going 14-2 during the regular season, entering the playoffs as the prohibitive favorite to win the Super Bowl. Instead, the Jets came into Foxboro and beat New England 28-21 on their own turf! Maybe even more amazing than the Super Bowl drought is the fact that New England hasn’t won a playoff game since 2007! What’s interesting to me about New England is Belichick moving more towards a 4-3 front with the HC’s intentions of putting more pressure on the QB. In some ways this reflects some personnel decisions. DE Jermaine Cunningham is 6’3/265lbs, which fits in the 4-3. Plus with the addition of DT Albert Haynesworth, it makes more sense to go to a 4-3 and let Haynesworth be more of a pressure DT. LB Rob Ninkovich is better suited to a 4-3 LB instead of a 3-4 edge rusher. Offensively the Patriots will be the same although I think they are taking a bit of a risk with Chad Johnson at WR. New England all of a sudden looks a bit old at WR with both Welker & Johnson being over 30. No matter what happens, the Patriots are going to be an incredible football team. Belichick is going to be more aggressive defensively this season, which is bad news. As usual, the Patriots are going to be incredible.
#3 The Steelers are simply really really good! You can’t begin to talk about the Steelers without talking about the defense. Pittsburgh had the best defense in the NFL last year and they suffer no losses from that group. In fact, Pittsburgh used the 2011 draft to bolster their defense even further. DE Cameron Heyward is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. They also drafted two quality CBs in Curtis Brown & Cortez Allen. They also brought in LB Chris Carter who looks like a potential All-Pro that everyone slept on, but Pittsburgh took advantage of. Go figure. It’s sometimes easy to forget the Steelers offense, but they ranked 12th in the NFL in points per game last season & they can get even better. Rashard Mendenhall is becoming an elite back. I think the Steelers also have an elite receiver in Mike Wallace, but they also have some WRs on the depth chart that could make some pretty big gains. Emmanuel Sanders can easily become a very good #2 receiver to go with Wallace. With Hines Ward aging, Sanders could make a move up front to the #2 slot. Antonio Brown is also a receiver who could make noise. Pittsburgh suffered some injuries last year along the offensive line that hopefully is resolved. Pittsburgh is incredibly balanced. With the Packers you have some questions about the offensive line. With New England you have some issues with the defense transitioning to a 4-3. The Steelers don’t really have any glaring weaknesses that need to be figured out. I could easily see the Steelers getting to their 4th Super Bowl in the last 7-years.
#4 A lot of people won’t have the Jets this high, but I’m not entirely sure what else to do with them. With apologies to Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan might be the best coach in the NFL right now, and we damn sure know he can coach a defense. In his first two years as HC of the Jets, he’s guided his team to the AFC Championship game only to come up short against the Colts in 2009 & the Steelers in 2010. Five points was the difference between the Jets going home and going to the Super Bowl last year. Offensively the Jets are in an interesting position. They ranked 13th in the NFL in points per game last season which is great considering their defense. On the other hand, as much publicity as QB Mark Sanchez gets, he’s not been all that elite. In his rookie season he completed only 53.8% of his passes. Last year he improved that number to 54.8%. He had 17TD to 13INT. Sure that’s better than the 12TD to 20INT in his rookie season, but the AFC has QBs named Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Defensively the Jets are going to be more than good enough to win a championship. Rex Ryan is good enough to win a championship, but can Sanchez grow into a Super Bowl winning QB? That’s the question. He’ll have to complete more than 54% of his passes to get there. Consider that last year, Big Ben completed 62% of his passes and Rodgers completed 66% of his passes. Just a little something to think about. Pete Carroll might not have been 100% right about Sanchez coming out of USC, but he wasn’t 100% wrong either no matter what the media hype machine might say.
#5 Kind of a disappointing year last season for the Saints. They go from winning the Super Bowl to grabbing a Wild Card spot only to go on the road to play a team with a sub-.500 record and get beat! I somewhat expected the Saints to have a come down year from the 2009 run, but I was surprised to see them lose to Seattle. On the other hand, it could have been a lot worse for New Orleans. The Saints were –6 in turnover ratio which was a 17 TO switch from 2009’s +11 ratio, but they were 6-2 in close games. The Saints had a really hard time running the football last season with Reggie Bush & Pierre Thomas getting injured. That was a big difference in their offensive game planning. This year they signed Darren Spoles and drafted Mark Ingram to go along with the returning Thomas. On the other hand, New Orleans’s defense improved dramatically due to exceptional secondary play. The Saints have done a good job stock piling talent on the defensive side of the football. If the defense stays as potent as they were in 2010 then the Saints become the biggest threat to Green Bay supremacy. New Orleans needs the rushing game to come into focus, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Darren Sproles will take over Reggie Bush’s old role while Ingram will help Thomas be the bell cow runner. Even without a great running game, the Saints will be good enough as long as Drew Brees is QB. Keep an eye on TE Jimmy Graham this season. He’s a beast at 6’6/260lbs and become a big time threat last year replacing Jeremy Shockey. Graham becomes the man now that Shockey is gone and I’d expect big things. No dips this year for New Orleans.
#6 The Chargers might be the most difficult team to figure in all the NFL. Last season the Chargers were the best in the NFL in both total offense AND total defense. So what’s the problem? They finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs entirely! The Chargers were statistically a better team in 2010 than they were in 2006 when the team went 14-2! The Chargers were –6 in TO margin and 2-5 in close games. Some of that is luck factor so if those things change the Chargers could turn 9-7 into 12-4 or 13-3 really fast especially since the Chargers will miss the division leaders from a year ago due to scheduling. The Chargers could get even better offensively. They are expecting healthy years from WR Vincent Jackson & TE Antonio Gates. Philip Rivers is becoming an assassin at QB and how much worse can Ryan Mathews be as a RB? Defensively the Chargers have to replace almost their entire linebacking unit although they did sign Takeo Spikes. The Chargers also signed ex-Colt SS Bob Sanders who is an immediate impact player if he can stay on the field, something Indianapolis fans know all too well that he can’t. Who knows though? The Chargers are in somewhat of the same position that the Jets are in but in reverse. With the Jets, Rex Ryan is a Super Bowl winning coach, but Mark Sanchez might not be a Super Bowl winning QB. With the Chargers, Rivers is a Super Bowl winning caliber QB, but the knock has always been against HC Norv Turner. San Diego looks amazing, but can Turner seal the deal?
#7 The Colts are this high if Peyton Manning is healthy & playing. Right now who knows what is going to happen with #18? I’m closest to Indianapolis because they are my hometown team, and even I have no idea what to think. With Manning under center the Colts are going to be good and a playoff team. If he’s not, then the Colts will be lucky to win 2-3 games. They are that poor. They essentially have no running game and the offensive line is questionable at best. The Colts have never had a great defense and it’s not going to turn around anytime soon especially losing players like Clint Session and Bob Sanders. More than anything, I’m not sure any self-respecting Colts fan can have any confidence in Jim Caldwell as a HC or Bill Polian as a general manager. With what’s happened over the career of Peyton Manning, I simply can’t believe this organization can surround Manning with enough talent to win. The problem with Indianapolis is that everyone is getting better. The Jets get a great coach. Belichick is getting massive young talent. The Steelers simply reload. San Diego gets better. Houston grabs a helluva DC and has massive young talent. What have the Colts done? Wait too long to get a decent O-Line? Keep running a soft Tampa-2 defense that doesn’t work. Keep wasting draft picks on guys like Anthony Gonzalez & Jerry Hughes? Believing in Curtis Painter? Once Manning is gone this might be the worst organization in professional football. The Colts can only hope Manning plays until his 41-years old and remains healthy & productive for the entirety of his career. Indianapolis might not even be a playoff team this season. In Peyton we trust.
#8 The Ravens are doing all the right things to stay relevant in much the same way the Colts aren’t. Really this is simply a process of elimination. When you think about Super Bowl winners, the odds are that you have to have a coach & QB who can win a Super Bowl. It doesn’t always work that way, but 99% of the time it does. Look around the AFC. We know Bill Belichick/Tom Brady and Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger are two of those combinations. Every other team has problems. The Jets are saddled with Mark Sanchez. The Colts have Jim Caldwell. The Chargers have Norv Turner. If you look at the rest of the AFC the only other combination that gets you somewhat excited is John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco. Maybe you could throw Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub in the mix, but unless the AFC is about ready to lose a bunch of Super Bowls, then the next possible combination is Baltimore’s. You also have to love what they’ve done recently. Sure the defense gets a year old, but I love the CB Jimmy Smith draft pick. The Ravens have also had problems stretching the field to take advantage of Flacco’s big arm, but they go out and draft Torrey Smith acquire Lee Evans from Buffalo. Not only that but they draft Tandon Doss to fill out the receiving corps. The Ravens already have a great RB in Ray Rice, but if the passing game can be equally as effective as the run, then Baltimore is going to be a very difficult team to contend with come playoff time. I don’t think the Ravens will be anybody’s Super Bowl favorite entering into the regular season, but keep a close eye on them. They can win it all.
#9 It’s becoming somewhat of a broken record for the last 3-4 seasons, but this really could be the year where Houston unseats Indianapolis for AFC South supremacy. Houston’s big problem has been defense, but I think they made an excellent hire in Wade Phillips to become the DC. This is a classic example of the Peter Principle at work. Phillips was out of his element as a HC, but he’s exceptional when it comes to defense. It’s weird to think Houston’s defense has been this bad in recent times given the individual talent that is on hand. Guys like Brian Cushing, Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Connor Barwin, Kareem Jackson & Jonathan Joseph. The defense is more about the sum of its parts instead of the individual talent, but I don’t see how Houston doesn’t improve dramatically. Phillips is going to switch Houston’s defensive scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so it’ll be interesting to see how Mario Williams adjusts. Williams is a 6’6/295lbs 4-3 DE. Moving him to 3-4 OLB is amazing considering how unbelievably large Williams is. Who is used to seeing 300lbs linebackers!? Adding in Jonathan Joseph as a CB is also a huge move. Safety Daniel Manning also comes over. Houston did a great job in the draft as well. DE JJ Watt, LB Brooks Reed, CB Brandon Harris and CB Rashad Carmichael were all draft picks and could help immediately. Obviously the offense is going score points in bunches. It’s interesting to know that Arian Foster is having hamstring problems already. He’s not had a great track record of health, but I’m not sure it’ll hurt them exceptionally. As much as I don’t like it as a Colts fan, Houston is doing all the things that I wish the Colts would do to keep being competitive in a division that is catching up to them. I think Houston gets it done.
#10 I have the Eagles lower than most at #10, but I want to see something from them before I start anointing them as the best team in the NFC. The conference still has the Saints & Packers who I would place above Philly plus the AFC teams. The Eagles are gearing up to make a serious run though. They made massive changes to parts of their team by picking up CBs Nnamdi Asomugha & Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They traded former QB Kevin Kolb for Cromartie to pair with Asomugha which makes Philly’s cornerbacks potentially the best pair in the NFL. They also picked up DE Jason Babin who is a QB pressuring machine. The Eagles weren’t exactly fantastic last season on defense ranking 21st in points allowed per game. I’m not willing say Philly is the NFL’s version of the Miami Heat, but they do give up that feeling. What should e interesting is how well Michael Vick holds up. He usually gets injured at some point, and the NFC is a pretty darn good conference. With no Kevin Kolb as a backup, Philadelphia could put their playoffs hopes in the hands of Vince Young! This matters because playoff berths are going to be tight in the NFC. The Eagles will probably have to face Dallas, New York, Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans & Tampa Bay. The Eagles can ill afford to lose Vick for 2-3 games when 2-3 games will matter between a playoff berth and sitting home in January. I’m not sure Andy Reid is a Super Bowl winning coach, but he’s proved before that he can get to the big game. Can he close the deal once he’s there?
#11 Teams like the Falcons are interesting. Atlanta went 13-3 last year, but got jacked by Green Bay in the conference semi-finals 48-21 so what can they do to possibly get better when they only lost 3 games the previous season? For one, Atlanta thought they were a receiver away from bigger things so they gave up a ton to get Julio Jones in the 2011 draft. They also felt their pass rush could get better so they picked up DE Ray Edwards from the Vikings. That’s pretty much it. It’s weird in a way because in a way I start to look at Atlanta in similar ways as I do Baltimore. Is Mike Smith/Matt Ryan a good enough combination to win a Super Bowl? We know Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin & Drew Brees/Sean Payton are god enough to get it done. Who else is out there in the NFC that can actually get it done? Unless Green Bay, New Orleans, and New York dominate for the next few years, then some other team has to step up. The likely candidates are Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta. Of those 4 teams it does seem like the Falcons are the best of the four. Tony Romo hasn’t been fantastic in the playoffs. I’m not a big believer in Lovie Smith. Andy Reid has had plenty of opportunities and has come up short each time. That only leaves the Falcons. There are some things working against Atlanta. Last year the Falcons were 7-2 in close games and was also +14 in turnover margin. With New Orleans starting the year healthy, Atlanta is going to be under the gun, but they do look like a team that could step up. They simply have to avoid regression to the mean.
#12 Putting the Cowboys at #12 probably seems a bit high to most people, but Dallas’s problems have never been one of talent, and more of execution. I can’t tell you how high I am on Rob Ryan becoming the DC. Ryan is going to install a very aggressive 3-4 defense that is going to attack opponents. Dallas needs it too as they ranked 31st out of 32 teams in scoring defense. The Cowboys don’t have to worry about scoring points. They’ll do enough of that, but can they keep points off the board is most likely the difference between Dallas going 6-10 last season and 11-5 this season. What is pretty interesting to me is how owner Jerry Jones is seemingly getting out of the way. After he fired Wade Phillips mid-way through the season after starting 1-7, he gave the reigns to Jason Garrett who went 5-3 the rest of the way. He didn’t go out and get a sexy coach like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. Jones then goes out and gets probably the best DC on the market in Rob Ryan to supplement his team. After Jimmy Johnson left town, Jones learned not to get a coach who took more credit than Jones was willing to dole out. He took on a series of front men with no real coaching balls so that Jones could run the show. It doesn’t seem like Jason Garrett is that type of coach and you can be certain that Rob Ryan isn’t. I wonder if Jones finally got sick of losing with “yes men” and now wants another Super Bowl trophy even if he has to take more of a back seat than his ego would like. Now the only question? Is Tony Romo a Super Bowl winning QB?
#13 Is there another team in the NFL that is flying more under the radar than the Giants at this point? Everybody and their mother is talking about the dream team the Eagles are putting together, but the Giants are actually the last NFC East team to win a Super Bowl taking down the 18-0 New England Patriots in 2007. The Giants were actually the best team in the NFC East last year when you look at average yardage differential per game. However, the Packers got the last Wild Card spot despite the Giants equaling their 10-6 record. I look at the Giants in much the same way I look at the Falcons. What else can they do other than execute at this point. The offensive line is good. They have very good receivers in Hakeem Nick & Mario Manningham although I think losing TE Kevin Boss hurts more than people want to admit. The defense is solid enough. They caught a bad break with 1st round draft pick CB Prince Amukamara getting hurt and possibly missing the season. Then again, how do they really get any better? The schedule they play isn’t exactly easy and the NFC East is a pretty difficult division. At best the East is going to only get 2 playoff berths meaning either Philly, New York or Dallas is coming up empty handed. The Giants have been consistently good since 2005, but I wonder at what point does an NFL team either keep on being consistently good, but not good enough, or going in an entirely different direction? That is definitely one of the business aspects of the NFL that I would love to know more about. Can NFL teams get away with rebuilds because people come to the games anyway? The G-Men don’t have the rebuild. They’ll be a good team once again in 2011.
#14 I don’t really know what to do with the Bears. I had a hard time believing they were one of my top-15 teams last season, but they kept on winning games which didn’t make any sense. Oddly enough the Bears finished 11-5 last season and the #2 seed in the NFC which gave them home field advantage. The weird part? They almost turned that 11-5 season into a Super Bowl berth! The Seahawks beat the Saints forcing a sub-.500 team to play the Bears at Soldier Field. Of course the Bears won before hosting the Packers where they lost 21-14. See how complicated the Bears are? They are a close win away from playing Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl where who knows what could happen! The Bears have a great defense so the season essentially comes down to how well the offense can play. Last year was their first season under new OC Mike Martz. This year they bring in Roy Williams who has worked with Martz before. Can he provide enough of a viable option on the edge for Jay Cutler? So far it doesn’t look promising, but you never know. The Bears have a schedule that they can do well with, but in order to make the jump to Super Bowl contender they’ll need the offense to get a lot better. I really like Matt Forte this season so hopefully he can take some pressure off the passing game, and maybe that’s the point. Can Jay Cutler win a Super Bowl? I don’t know really. The Bears might only be the 8th or 9th best team in the NFC, but they get in here because they win football games. I said over and over again last year that I was only waiting to drop Chicago from the Power-15. It never happened. Maybe it won’t this year either.
#15 Absolutely love the Lions. After so many years sucking nut under the guidance of Matt Millen, the Lions made an exceptional HC hire in Jim Schwarz and he’s doing a tremendous job turning this franchise around. Defensively they made an incredible draft pick by taking DT Nick Fairley to go along with DT Ndamukong Suh. Suh is the best defensive player in the NFL and if Fairley plays like he did at Auburn then Detroit’s defensive line is going to be incredible. The Lions have been drafting well. I wish Mikel Leshoure didn’t get hurt his preseason because I think he had a shot to make significant contributions on offense while also taking pressure off Jahvid Best so that Best can stay healthy over a full season. Now Best has to be the bell cow and that likely means injury. Injuries have also been problematic for QB Matthew Stafford, and it’s critical for him to stay healthy for a full season. Detroit actually has a decent schedule. If they can take care of business at home, the Lions can win 10-11 games. I don’t know if that is enough to get them into the playoffs, but if the NFC East winds up being a blood bath then it’s possible for the North to steal another playoff spot and the Lions could be the beneficiaries. The Lions look like a team still a couple of pieces away from being legitimate threats for a Super Bowl run, but I think the front office is in place and Schwarz definitely has the look of a Super Bowl winning head coach. Now we only need to see what Matthew Stafford can do with a full 16 games. Good times are coming for long suffering Lions fans.


September 4, 2011 - Posted by | Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, NFL Power 15, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers

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