AFC EAST CHAMP: MIAMI. The Dolphins are young, and poised to remain scary for a long time. The leadership of Karlos Dansby, a sizzling Henne/Marshall connection, a solid one-two punch in the backfield, and the schemes of Mike Nolan, add up to a narrow victory in this, perhaps the toughest division in the league. This is of course assuming that the majority of our starters keep their mugshots out of the paper.
AFC NORTH CHAMP: BALTIMORE. The Ravens had a +130 point differential last season. Cincy’s was only +14, yet they somehow managed to snake the division from Baltimore. Flacco was unbelievable, without a legit #1 wideout. Enter Boldin. Ray Rice is a monster. But the blackbirds better win now, ’cause that defense has a few grey hairs popping up.
AFC SOUTH CHAMP: INDIANAPOLIS. Yawn. The Texans are lurking, but they’re not going to topple Peyton and the gang. Marvin Harrison starts shooting folks in the face, and Garcon and Collie step in like seasoned pros? Great drafting. Addai still has a few tricks left, and their defense is solid, if unspectacular. Bottom line: They will never be out of a game with Manning wearing the blue and white. Respect due.
AFC WEST CHAMP: SAN DIEGO. The Chargers will disappoint for much of the season, but will ultimately emerge in a division with too many question marks elsewhere. Vincent Jackson will play eventually. Ryan Matthews will be a budding star. Rivers is a good signal caller. Gates still has a few years left. They’ve certainly got enough in place.
WILD CARD 1: NEW YORK. The Jets had the #1 defense in football last year. With Shonn Greene rumbling, a talented, young QB with an improved receiving corps, they’ll finish a close second to Miami. Still, last year’s unlikely playoff heroics will not repeat.
WILD CARD 2: HOUSTON. Call them Indianapolis Lite. Schaub will do a good enough Manning impression to outscore most of their opponents. Andre Johnson is clearly from another planet. They sneak in via tiebreaker.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Surprising for sure, but Tom Brady and the Patsies will be watching on 3-D TVs come the postseason. Zero balance. They pay no attention to their running game, and that will bite them. — The Bengals take a step backwards, though it’s tough sledding in a division with both the Ravens and Steelers. They will come close. — Pittsburgh will take a while to get their bearings both without, and after the return of, Big Ben.
NFC EAST CHAMP: DALLAS. Flipped a coin on this one, as I see the ‘Boys and the Iggles coming down to the wire once again. Dallas had a much better defense last season, so I’m giving them the repeat division crown. Felix Jones = S-T-U-D. They’re going to stretch defenses out, and run 1200 draw plays to this kid. Pencil in 300 screens too.
NFC NORTH: MINNESOTA. Another coin toss. Very similar teams with Green Bay and Minny. I give the edge to the Vikes, assuming it’s the Favre Farewell Tour (and that the current retiring news is yet another bit of theatrics. Did you know “Favre” means “drama” in French?), and assuming Percy Harvin’s brain doesn’t burst out of his cranium.
NFC SOUTH CHAMP: NEW ORLEANS. Just too much offense, and a defense that ain’t half-bad either. Pierre Thomas gets more action this season, which is a very good thing. He may be the most underrated back in the league, despite the beret he wears under his helmet. No hating here. I think it’s festive.
NFC WEST CHAMP: SAN FRANCISCO. Someone’s got to win it, right? The Niners aren’t ready to advance in the postseason, but they seem to have infinitely more pieces in place than the Rams and Seahawks. Which leaves the Cardinals in their path. It’ll be close, but San Francisco had the second best scoring defense in the NFC in 2009, and their D should carry them.
WILD CARD #1: GREEN BAY. Hell, they could very well win their division, so it’s hard not to slot them here. A very potent offense. A solid defense. Their running game isn’t on the Vikings’ level, so they come in a close second, as the wild card team that no one wants to play.
WILD CARD #2: PHILADELPHIA. The staff in Philly has been around the block. Kolb will prove that their faith in him is justified, winging it to Desean, Maclin, Avant and Celek. LeSean will be a solid, but not eye-popping back. Enough to keep defenses honest.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: The Falcons will come very close. Certainly their offense is potent, but their defense isn’t quite there yet. Another good offseason or two and this team will be bad to the bone. — The Cardinals could win the West. It’s up for grabs, to say the least. But Leinart is still a crapshoot, and Fitzgerald could find things a good bit tougher without Boldin across the field. They stay home, just barely. — Eli will battle for the Giants, and his WR corps will frequently visit the highlight reels, but their defense gives up way too many points.
RAVENS OVER DOLPHINS. Miami has a great playoff run, but falls short in the Baltimore cold. Still, it will be clear that the SoFlo Sea Mammals are going to be around for a long time.
VIKINGS OVER SAINTS. Favre avenges his bonehead throw against Orleans last year. Their defense is just good enough to keep Brees out of the end zone as time expires.
VIKINGS OVER RAVENS (OT)
Incredible game. Ray Lewis wants it so bad he could murder somebody. But it’s the gimpy Favre who hoists the Lombardi one last time, puts on a pair of muddy Wranglers, then limps into the sunset.