Preseason predictions in any sport are like assholes: everyone’s got ’em and usually they stink. This is especially true in the NFL, where surprises are commonplace and one year’s junk is another year’s treasure (and vice versa).
Despite all of this I am diving in head first and making a series of bold predictions for the upcoming 2010 NFL season.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to be making a bunch of soft predictions like some kind of jackwagon from Namby Pamby Land. No sir. All of these predictions will be the kind that you remember after the season and then say one of two things: 1) “Wow, that guy is an unbelievable moron!”; or 2) “Wow, that guy is an unbelievable moron but damn did he get lucky with that pick!”
Because let’s be honest: none of us really has a clue how the 2010 NFL season will turn out, not in a league where three or four plays can mean the difference between hosting a playoff game or missing the playoffs and a league that typically sees 50% turnover among its playoff teams every year. What there is in the preseason is a lot of educated guesswork, with widely varying degrees of “educated”.
I just happen to think that my educated guesswork is better than the educated guesswork of most. But I’ll let you be the judge of that, as it’s now your turn to read, disagree, and comment. And I mean really, what else is there to do during the preseason?
I’ll start things off with the most bold of my predictions, but also the one I feel the most confident in. (And for those wondering, no, this is has nothing to do with the Twins looking they are going to run away with the AL Central in September. I keep baseball and football separate. I promise.)
Bold Prediction #1: The Minnesota Vikings will miss the playoffs
Yes, despite all of the hoopla surrounding Brett Favre’s return, the Vikings will be sitting at home in January. I say this for a few reasons.
First, there are already ominous signs that the Vikings offense will have trouble being the explosive force it was last year. Sidney Rice is probably going to have hip surgery that will keep him out until midseason, and there is no telling when a Percy Harvin migraine will pop up and render him incapacitated. Without those two, the Vikings’ top receiver threat is Bernard Berrian. He is a nice player, but not a #1 receiver. Brett Favre had terrific numbers last year, and a primary reason is that he had three legit threats (plus Visanthe Shiancoe in the red zone) to keep defenses honest. If the WR depth is less, and teams can double cover WRs, will Favre be more likely to force balls into tight coverage? We know what happens when he starts doing that…
Second, every year Favre plays is one year closer to his inevitable cliff dive. At some point, Favre’s body simply won’t be able to withstand the pounding. At some point, even just based on the law of averages, Favre will get injured and have to miss time. And even if he doesn’t get injured, his skills will have to start eroding. Will it happen this year? There is no sure way to tell. But I do know that the odds go up the older Favre gets. Plus, consider that teams have had all offseason to watch how the Saints came after Favre in the NFC title game last year. That will be the blueprint. Can the old man absorb it for 17+ weeks?
Third, just look at the schedule. In 2009, the Vikings opened with Cleveland and Detroit, allowing Favre and the rest of the Vikings to cruise while building both rapport and momentum. Then, in Week 3, they stole victory from the jaws of defeat with an improbable 4th quarter heave from Brett Favre to Greg Lewis. They were 3-0, off and running, and didn’t look back. This year is a different story though. Not only will the Vikings not be a full strength to the start the season, but they open with two tough games: first, on the road against New Orleans; and second, at home against Miami. In my opinion, both are playoff teams this year, a far cry from the cupcakes they feasted on last year. In the NFL, how a team starts a season can go a long way towards setting the tone for the entire year. There is already purported dissension in Minnesota, especially in regards to the Favre-Childress relationship. If the Vikings are 0-2, what happens then?
Fourth, and finally, the Vikings had their chance last year. 2009 was the year. They sold their soul to get Favre, they stayed relatively healthy all year, and for the most part everything went their way until AD started fumbling and Favre started throwing off balance picks in the NFC Title Game. Can everything possibly go that smoothly again? Considering the three factors discussed above, I don’t see it.
Moreover, I think the way everything has gone down with Favre this offseason leads to the 2010 Vikings being built on a house of cards. We got a little taste of this with Adrian Peterson seeking special treatment to miss training camp days. Favre did, why not AD, right? Everything will be fine as long as the team is winning, but will they be able to deal with adversity? We don’t really know, because we haven’t seen this group do it; regardless, it’s another unknown that gives me less confidence in this team’s ability to repeat the magic of 2009 – because I definitely think there will be more adversity in 2010.
Unfortunately, the magic the Vikings had last year was trumped by the magic the Saints had. In many other years, the 2009 Vikings probably go on to the Super Bowl. They were a terrific team. However, there is a thin line between wins and losses and between playoff teams and non-playoff teams. This year, to use an analogy related to ’09, I think the Favre-to-Lewis pass that won the 49ers game lands just out of the WR’s reach; the result, I’m afraid, will be yet another season of disappointment for Vikings fans.
Bold Prediction #2: The Jets, Bengals, Eagles, and Cardinals – all playoff teams in 2009 – will miss the playoffs as well.
I said above that there is typically 50% turnover among the playoff teams from year to year in the NFL. Thus, these would not truly be bold predictions unless I told you who I think won’t be returning to the playoff party in 2010. It also wouldn’t be bold if I stuck with that 50% number – too easy! – which is why I say that only five 2009 playoff teams miss out this year.
The Jets have been the most talked about team this offseason, and with good reason. They made a dramatic charge to the doorstep of last year’s Super Bowl, signed high profile players like LT and Santonio Holmes in the offseason, have compelling characters like Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan, and have had to deal with highly publicized contract disputes with great players like Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis. However, people seem to forget something: the Jets shouldn’t have even been a playoff team last year. Kudos to them for making the most of their chance, but if the Colts and Bengals hadn’t sat their players during the 2009 seasons’ two penultimate weeks, one or both probably beats the Jets to keep them home for January.
Still, the Jets made it and their young QB got valuable experience; but he’s still a young QB. I don’t trust Mark Sanchez, even though this team is built on its running game. Quarterbacks still have to win games, while also not losing them, and I don’t think Sanchez is ready yet to do it, as most second year QBs are not. Add in the uncertainty with Revis, what should be improved Patriots and Dolphins teams, and the Braylon Edwards factor (he’s a gigantic turd and drags down any team he’s on), and I think Jets fans, like Vikings fans, are in for a bitterly disappointing season.
As for the Bengals, I’m not a believer in Cedric Benson, nor do I think T.O. makes enough of a difference on the outside for the Bengals. Their defense is underrated, but it’s the Bengals; when was the last time this franchise was good two years in a row? I’m trusting history here.
The Eagles are breaking in a new starting quarterback in Kevin Kolb. While I think he will put up good fantasy numbers, I don’t see him going into Dallas or New York and winning tough games. New quarterbacks make me nervous, so I can’t trust Philly this year.
The same goes for the Cardinals. Kurt Warner is gone, Anquan Boldin is gone, and Karlos Dansby is gone, without great options to replace them. Go right ahead and believe that Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson (Ha!) can lead the Cardinals to the playoffs. I won’t be joining you.
Bold Prediction #3: The Dolphins, Steelers, Falcons, 49ers, and Giants – all non-playoff teams in 2009 – will make the playoffs in 2010.
I can just hear the Jets fans now. But wait! You said you don’t trust a second year QB. How will Chad Henne lead the Dolphins to the playoffs but Mark Sanchez won’t? I hear you loudly and clearly; in response, I say shut the hell up.
This will be Chad Henne’s second year as a starter, but his third year in the NFL. (And no, I would not trade Henne’s extra year of NFL maturity for Sanchez’s whirlwind playoff experience in 2009.) And Henne was far better than Sanchez last year, with a QB rating of 75.2 and a TD:INT ratio of 12:14 to Sanchez’s 63.0 rating and 12:20 ratio.
Plus, the Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back healthy and added Brandon Marshall in the offseason, meaning they will have a well-rounded offense capable of putting up points against anyone. And the Dolphins defense, while not as good as the Jets’, is an underrated unit that will be buoyed by the addition of Dansby and talented rookies like Jared Odrick.
The Dolphins had the ball bounce away from them a lot last year, otherwise they could have been in the playoffs with the Jets missing out. That’s not an excuse; it just is what it is. However, in the NFL, these things have a way of evening out. Fortune smiled on the Jets last year in weeks 16 and 17. They had their luck. This year, the Dolphins are better, they have a more consistent and experienced QB, and the football gods owe them. I like that combo.
Plus, f**k the Jets.
Update: Upon a second glance at this article, I wish I’d left the above line out. Not because I don’t believe it – I really do hate the Jets – but because people coming to this site for the first time from various venues won’t be familiar with my style or know that my hatred for the Jets did not influence these picks one bit. In fact, just look below. I hate Ben Roethlisberger more than I hate the Jets, yet I picked the Steelers to go to the playoffs.
So, since I realize that my own zeal to gratuitously insult the Jets might mask the attempted objectivity of my predictions, I just wanted to state for the record that I left personal biases to the side (as much one can, anyway) when considering my playoff picks. Now carry on.
As for the Steelers, just call this a hunch. I know Big Ben will miss time, and I know their defense struggled some last year, and I know Santonio Holmes is gone. But, is it just me or do the Steelers always seem to have really good seasons when they are supposed to be down?
Offensively, I think Roethlisberger will come back more mature, rejuvenated, and play great after a few weeks to shake off rust. Mike Wallace is ready to step in as a deep threat and old reliable Hines Ward is still around for stability. Rashard Mendenhall showed he has the talent to lead the running game. Defensively, Troy Polamalu is back, meaning the Steelers return to being one of the top defenses in football. And I like Mike Tomlin, a lot. What he lacks in Xs and Os and game management, he makes up for in toughness, confidence, and the tone of expectation he sets. Pittsburgh will rebound.
In the NFC, I like the Falcons to rebound with a more experienced Matt Ryan and a healthy, fit Michael Turner. The 49ers need Alex Smith to step up big, but they are the default choice to win the NFC West because Arizona, Seattle, and St. Louis all have more issues than San Fran. And in a hard fought NFC East, I like the Giants to rebound – they always seem to when their backs are against the wall. They should be very good offensively, and they shored up their pass defense some to prevent another collapse like they had at the end of last season.
Bold Prediction #4: The Houston Texans will beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1…before letting their fans down yet again in 2010.
The Houston Texans have been fighting and clawing to the make the playoffs ever since the city got back into the NFL. The only problem is that they rarely play well in the AFC South, especially against the NFL’s most consistent team of the last decade: the Colts. This year, Houston hosts the Colts in Week 1, in what is being billed as the biggest game in franchise history. A win, and the Texans would have the early leg up on the Colts. A loss, and another season of high hopes begins with disappointment and a one-game division deficit.
I think the Texans win the game, with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson torching the Colts and outdueling Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne. The crowd and the emotion of the game will be huge factors for the Texans, and I simply think they’ll want it more than Indianapolis does. And when both teams are healthy, there isn’t too much separating them anymore.
Unfortunately, the Texans draw the NFC East this year, which means four tough out of conference games that teams from the other AFC divisions don’t have. Also, there is that nasty little reality about Matt Schaub staying healthy. He finally played 16 games last year, but that came on the heels of two straight seasons playing only 11. If Schaub misses any time it will be extremely hard for Houston to win, and one or two games is usually the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.
And speaking of guys missing time, Brian Cushing is out for the first four games of the season, meaning he misses the Colts game, another home game against Dallas, and two tricky road trips to Washington and underrated Oakland. Will Cushing’s absence mean a loss? Not directly, but it won’t help.
All in all, I like this year’s Houston team and I think they will be battling for a playoff spot all year…but I just don’t trust Schaub’s health enough, nor this team’s mettle. They never seem to be able to make that one play to win that one game that will get them over the hump. Until they do, I’ll continue to doubt them.
Bold Prediction #5: Chris Johnson will not lead the NFL in rushing in 2010.
Chris Johnson was phenomenal in 2009. He rushed for 2,000 yards on 358 carries and he caught 50 passes for an additional 503 yards. Accumulating 2,500+ yards makes his 2009 season one of the most remarkable individual seasons in NFL history.
Unfortunately, running backs rarely back up such prodigious production with a similarly great season the next year.
Johnson is not a big back – he’s 5’11, 200 pounds – and getting 400+ touches would be tough on even the most well built running back alive. Any fantasy player knows that once a running back eclipses 375 carries in a season, it is a huge red flag for the next year. (Most recent case in point: Michael Turner.)
However, I’m not AS concerned about this as I once was, thanks to a conversation with Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders while I was in New York last week. Schatz said that receptions are not the equivalent of carries, because they are often in space and lead to less physical hits. Also, Johnson’s style, which is less inside the tackles and more outside running, also leads to him not taking as many big hits as he otherwise might. I agree with all of this, which is why I bumped Johnson back up into my top 4 running backs from a fantasy perspective.
Still, I think that 400+ touches is 400+ touches. Maybe it’s only the equivalent of, say, 350 touches for another back, but it’s still a pounding. If the Titans ride Johnson that hard this season, I think he will either wear down – and a dip in speed/explosiveness would be devastating to his game – or the law of averages will catch up and one of te hits will knock him out for a game, or two, or more. I hope not, but this is a running back we’re talking about here, the most perpetually endangered of all NFL species.
Something else important to consider: Johnson had an inordinate amount of big plays last year. He’ll get more in 2010 simply because he is an athletic freak of nature, but the odds are heavily stacked against him racking up so many 50+ yard runs. A shoestring tackle here, a push out of bounds there, could be the difference between a 15-yard gain and an 80-yard TD. Everything went right for Johnson in 2009; I can’t see it happening again in 2010.
And look, I know that simply predicting Johnson won’t lead the league in rushing isn’t as bold as it could be. But when you’re the consensus #1 fantasy draft pick, and you’re spouting off at the mouth about breaking the all-time record, it’s still a significant prediction. Even if he stays healthy all year I still don’t think Johnson leads the league. It’s too hard to predict an exact yardage number though because long-term injuries are such a crap shoot. I will say that I think he’s held under 1,500 total yards.
As for who I think will lead the NFL in rushing in 2010, I think it will be Maurice Jones-Drew or Adrian Peterson, but I don’t feel confident enough in either to pick one and make an official bold prediction.
Bold Prediction #6: After 2010, the Matthew Stafford-Mark Sanchez debate will be weighted in Stafford’s direction
I like what the Lions are building. I really do. If ownership and fans are patient with Jim Schwartz, and it seems like they are and will be moving forward, I think the Lions will start competing annually for playoff spots starting as soon as next year. The main reason for this is that I think they have a QB-WR combo to build around, similar to how the Texans have built a playoff contender around the Schaub-Johnson combo.
I expect big things of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson this season, and with the additions of Nate Burleson and Jahvid Best, plus the further maturation of Brandon Pettigrew, and underrated offensive coordinator Scott Linehan still calling the shots, I think Stafford will really surprise people by being not only a useful fantasy quarterback, but also as an emerging star in the NFL.
Obviously if Sanchez improves his numbers and leads any memorable comebacks, the New York star-making machine will blow him up into the next Namath. This has actually already started, despite the fact that Sanchez was essentially awful as a rookie while simply riding the coattails of a great D and a strong running game to the AFC Title Game. All of that, plus his personality and social life, have made him a bigger star so far than Stafford. In 2010, Sanchez’s directive is clear: get the Jets to the Super Bowl. Since I don’t think he even leads them to the playoffs, he’ll naturally lose some luster.
Stafford is the one with a 5 TD game to his credit, which shows his potential. He is also the one with a signature “I’m tough” moment that undoubtedly garnered him huge locker room respect. Statistically, Stafford (61.0 rating, 13:20 TD:INT) and Sanchez (63.0, 12:20) were the same in 2009, but while both had absolute clunkers Stafford showed the tremendous upside that made him the #1 pick. Partly because Stafford will be playing with much less pressure on him than Sanchez, I think some of that upside starts to come through more consistently in 2010, as it already has during the preseason. Sanchez will be in the headlines all year, but as Stafford’s stats improve, fantasy owners will start to notice him while consistently ignoring Sanchez, which will help Stafford gain respect and overcome the New York bias.
There they are, six-pack of bold predictions. How many will come true? I think all of them will, or I wouldn’t have stuck my neck out to make them. What do you think? The comment section awaits your inevitable disagreement.