Monday 31 August 2009

2009 NFL Season Preview - Year of the ?

Look who is back for another shot at redemption... Yep, Brett Favre. Back from his 422nd retirement, this time Favre will turn out in the purple, yellow and white of the Minnesota Vikings - the team (he would have us believe) he wanted to play for when his 1st retirement from the Green Bay Packers didn't stick. On one hand you have to say 'good luck to you', because anyone in their 40th year attempting to be a competitive force in the NFL deserves our respect but in the case of Favre... respect is a tender topic. He told the Packers in March 2008, that he was done, finished, kaput. They used the off-season to accelerate the promotion of their quarterback in waiting, Aaron Rodgers, and thrust him into the starter's role. Then as the season edged closer word got out Favre was keen to return to the field... but not necessarily with the Packers. Given his idol status with Green Bay fans, it came as no surprise that the vast majority wanted him back in the green and gold. They grilled team management over their reluctance to bring him back if he wanted to play. But as rumours grew stronger that Favre was keen on a return with the Vikings if Green Bay weren't interested, the Packers brass made it clear he wouldn't be a Packer and could forget about a trade within the NFC North. So after a drawn out process, Favre signed with the AFC East New York Jets for the 08/09 season. He led the Jets to an impressive 8-3 record before losing 4 of their last 5 to miss the playoffs in sensational circumstances after looking sure things at the end of November. Favre announced in February 2009 that due to injury and fatigue he was retiring again. The Jets released him and it seemed that this time, Favre was in fact done. How wrong we were... again. Just a few weeks after telling the Vikings and Head Coach Brad Childress that despite their offer to return - he would stay retired - Favre did another about face and signed with Minnesota on August 18, 2009. His two year deal will pay him upwards of $25 million and he gets his chance to play for the team he wanted to. Now we'll see if the legendary quarterback does indeed have anything left in the tank... ============================================================= Turning attention back to the 2009/2010 Season of the National Football League, here is the preview. Last year our American correspondent Rick O'Shea correctly predicted the Pittsburgh Steelers would win the Super Bowl - the question is, will Rick be right this year?
-AFC & NFC All Complete - Conference & Super Bowl Picks below-
AFC EAST Buffalo Bills Not content with a competitive 7-9 record that still had them bringing up the rear in the AFC East last year, the Bills netted flamboyant WR Terrell Owens to beef up the offence. I don't think they can win the Division but they might fight for a wild card birth. New England Patriots Tom Brady is healthy and the Patriots are playoff bound. The equation looks that simple because it is. He's the best QB in the business and has two outstanding receivers to target in WR Welker & Moss. If the running game is as solid as the defence should be, they are a Super Bowl favourite. And they also went 11-5 without Brady last year, so they should be even better with him. Miami Dolphins Produced some fresh football last year with the 'wildcat' and shocked a lot of experts with their Division Title and playoff birth. The shock was with good reason as the Dolphins were 1-15 the year before. I've got a bad feeling they'll shock again... and be an also-ran this year. New York Jets RB Leon Washington is a star in the making who just can't see enough carries to take that next step. If the Jets new coaching staff let him loose, the Jets are a big wild card chance. With Favre gone, this becomes high draft pick Mark Sanchez's team in 2009 and his combination with Washington is vital to any success the Jets have. AFC NORTH Baltimore Ravens Won two playoff games after being the final wild card into the playoffs but couldn't muster a final stand against the champion Steelers in the AFC Title Game. QB Joe Flacco is no longer a rookie and the defence still looks dangerous. Wild card threats once again. Cleveland Browns A complete meltdown last season by the Browns, who went from sexy Super Bowl pick on the back of a near playoff birth in 2007 at 10-6, to a non-factor in 2008 at 4-12. New Head Coach Eric Mangini needs to start the Brady Quinn era soon for this franchise to at least think there is some hope to look forward to. Cincinnati Bengals The Bengals... we had thought the Marvin Lewis-Carson Palmer union would lead this team to respectability and it seemed big things were possible after their 12-5 record in 2005, but they are 19-28-1 and a Palmer career threatening injury since then. That lone playoff appearance since 1990 won't be added to unless Palmer and Lewis work an absolute miracle together in 2009. Pittsburgh Steelers Rick O'Shea's Super Bowl pick in September last year came good and Pittsburgh delivered one half of the Steel City's two titles (the NHL's Penguins the other half) with a gripping 27-23 win over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. QB Ben Roethlisberger just wins games, despite other QBs boasting more impressive stats. And that is why Pittsburgh can go back to back. AFC SOUTH Houston Texans Have weapons in attack (Johnson, Slaton, Walter, Daniels and Schaub is a fine mix) and they need to find their groove early given the Texans play 3 games at home in the opening month. If they start well, the Texans feel like one of those teams who could be 9-7 or 10-6 and a thorn in their more fancied division rivals sides for a playoff birth. Jacksonville Jaguars I like the acquisition of WR Torry Holt to give QB David Gerrard a go-to receiver but this team must wake up defensively and realise Marcus Stroud isn't coming back. Maurice Jones-Drew, Holt and Gerrard have points in them, but a 5-11 record in 2008 (a dismal 2-6 at home) makes you think the Jaguars need to improve on the other side of the ball just as much given they conceded at least 20 points in 12 games last season. Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning begins life without Tony Dungy as his Head Coach and Marvin Harrison to throw to at Wide Receiver. Even though Harrison wasn't a factor in 2008, the Colts were still 12-4 with him on the roster. The decorated QB still has Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and potentially a Harrison-replacement in Anthony Gonzalez to throw to but if the Colts don't start well - Manning will come under intense scrutiny. 12-4 might be beyond Indianapolis this season but a playoff birth isn't with Manning under centre. Tennessee Titans Didn't like the loss of DT Albert Haynesworth at all but if you've read what the big unit had to say after signing a huge deal with the Redskins - perhaps the Titans are better off without him. Head Coach Jeff Fisher needed an appearance in the AFC Title Game last year to really establish his legacy with the Titans but they slipped up against Baltimore and may not be good enough to return to the promised land in 2009. AFC WEST Denver Broncos Homer Simpson has forever immortalised this team name in my head and with a new Head Coach taking charge for the first time since 1995 (when former head coach Mike Shanahan took the reigns). Former Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels has dealt with a immature player (QB Jay 'Out for myself' Cutler was traded to Chicago) already but now his star WR Brandon Marshall is following the same immature road to try and force a trade. It is hardly the perfect way to approach a season, and the Broncos were only 8-8 with Cutler & Marshall in the lineup anyway. How the rest of the playing group responds will be telling in Denver's record in 2009. Oakland Raiders Have fallen mightily since their loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII. In the six seasons since, Oakland are a pitiful 24-72 and the only highlight from last season was their Week 17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers which cost Tampa a playoff birth and former Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden his job. The Raiders need a .500 season to breathe new life into the franchise and with Denver and Kansas City in transition within the AFC West - this could be the year they get close to that 8-8 mark. Whether that is with JaMarcus Russell or Jeff Garcia at QB remains to be seen... Kansas City Chiefs A new GM and a new Head Coach starts a new era at Arrowhead. Former New England personnel guru Scott Piolo and former Arizona assistant Todd Haley have chosen a good division to unite in, and adding veterans like Vrabel, Engram, Thomas and Toomer to the roster looks smart. But QB Matt Cassel is under the most pressure to prove he's a winner without the rest of the Patriots around him. San Diego Chargers I think it is fair to say not even the Chargers know how they made the playoffs last year. Seemingly gone at 4-8 with just four weeks of the season to go, they rallied with a perfect run home and edged out the Denver Broncos in the final regular season game to win the AFC West. They look good things to repeat as Division winners and the likes of Tomlinson, Rivers, Sproles, Gates and a refreshed Defence are capable of making the second week of the playoffs once again. = AFC PICKS* = (May be changed prior to Week 1): Divisional Winners ~ AFC EAST: New England Patriots ~ AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh Steelers ~ AFC SOUTH: Houston Texans ~ AFC WEST: San Diego Chargers ~ Wild Cards: Indianapolis Colts & New York Jets.
NFC EAST Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo has ditched his celebrity squeeze (or simply broken up with Jessica Simpson - all depends what gossip mag you read) and until he finds another hot chick to date - he'll be focused on the Cowboys in 2009. Owner Jerry Jones has built his new billion dollar stadium, sent Terrell Owens on his way and now only a visit to the Super Bowl is acceptable outcome for the season. The Cowboys have weapons on offence and a good defence but the NFC East is the toughest division in the NFL and a playoff birth is no given. Philadelphia Eagles The signing of Michael Vick may not translate into wins on the field (since he'll see limited playing time while Donovan McNabb is healthy) but his addition is a nice sub-plot to the Eagles season. They have the most complete running back in the game in Brian Westbrook and Vick could turn out to be a late down threat in the backfield. The defence will miss Brian Dawkins but the tenacious Eagles can make a Super Bowl run if they can survive the NFC East. New York Giants Looked more than capable of repeating as Super Bowl Champions entering 2008 and finished as the top seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record. But Eli Manning and the Giants were stunned 23-11 by Philadelphia at Giants Stadium to crush their repeat dream. As mentioned above the NFC East is extremely competitive, the Redskins (last in the division with an 8-8 record) look improved and the Cowboys and Eagles are still major threats, so New York needs to make a statement early and beat Washington at home and Dallas away to retain favouritism for the Division Title. Washington Redskins Added huge DT Albert Haynesworth from Tennessee but missed out on QB Jay Cutler - a move that may or may not have been an upgrade on incumbent QB Jason Campbell, but it certainly wasn't the vote of confidence Campbell was looking for entering 2009. If Campbell can get the offence going (Washington had the 2nd lowest points for in the entire NFC) and the Redskins win at least four of six games in their non-divisional stretch from Week 2 to 7 - Washington might have their future in their own hands when the likes of Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants show up on the schedule in the second half of the season. NFC NORTH Chicago Bears No longer feature the fearsome defence that took them to Super Bowl XLI (a loss to Indianapolis) with a 13-3 record and a playoff birth in 2005 (11-5 for 2nd seed in NFC). In fact they are 16-16 over the last two seasons and saw the need to bring in a new QB in Jay Culter from Denver in a trade. Some pieces of the 05-06 Bears Defence remain but the fortunes of the Bears will rest on the arm of Cutler who is under immense pressure to show he can win in Chicago instead of just putting up decent stats while losing like in Denver. Green Bay Packers This season won't be about Brett Favre... well until Week 5's Monday Night Football game against the Vikings. QB Aaron Rodgers was impressive in his first year as the starter but the Packers were still only 6-10 and the pressure is on to win the NFC North (especially now Favre is in it). The Packers are an interesting case - they could be good, they could be bad, but one thing is for sure we'll know how much they want to beat Brett Favre on October 5 in Minnesota. They win that game and who knows how good the Packers might be with that impetus driving them for the rest of the season. Detroit Lions 0-16... that's not a misprint. In fact the Lions of 2008 will never shake the tag of losers unless they win a Super Bowl within the next decade. If new Head Coach Jim Schwartz can work wonders and get the Lions to a Super Bowl during his tenure (because let's face it - if they don't get to .500 within a few years he'll get sacked) then the 2008 story of ineptitude makes any Super Bowl run legendary. Rags to riches... etc etc. But for 2009 the Lions will just be looking for one thing... one win. Minnesota Vikings You've read the lead story in this preview and it is all about Brett Favre, so let's look at Adrian Petersen, the Williams', Jared Allen and rookie WR Percy Harvin. The Vikings have looked like a great team without a quarterback for a couple of years now and with Favre in the lineup - big big things are expected of them. They start with road trips to Cleveland and Detroit, then face the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers at home to close out the first month. If the team gels they should be 4-0 and on top of the league... from there (with a healthy Favre - see how it all comes back to Favre?) anything seems possible. NFC SOUTH Atlanta Falcons What a turnaround season from the Falcons in 2008. Adding a new Head Coach, a new Running Back and starting a rookie Quarterback equalled regular season success for Atlanta finishing 11-5 and setting up a playoff game with Arizona. Although the new boys Mike Smith, Michael Turner and Matt Ryan took the Falcons to the playoffs - Atlanta didn't stop trying to improve and traded for former Kansas City star Tight End Tony Gonzalez to give Ryan another target in attack. The NFC South always looks wide open entering the season and expectations in Atlanta will be as high as 1999 - the year after the Falcons lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Denver Broncos. New Orleans Saints Drew Brees is a fantastic quarterback who puts up passing numbers that suggest the Saints should be a 10-6 or 11-5 team. The reality in 2008 however was that New Orleans was an average team - never boasting a record higher than one game above .500 and finishing 8-8 and last in the NFC South. RB Reggie Bush is looking like a bust on the ground (albeit a useful passing target) and will be part of a running back committee in 2009 as the Saints look for some consistency in the backfield. The team also leaked almost 25 points per game so the defence needs addressing in a big way. Carolina Panthers After finishing the season 12-4 and securing the 2nd seed in the NFC - Carolina expected a Super Bowl run in 2008. The week off should have freshened them up for the Cardinals in the NFC Divisional Round but by halftime the Panthers had barely woken up and found themselves down 27-7 and facing elimination. They didn't recover in the second half and were bounced by the eventual NFC Champions 33-13 and faced an off-season of soul searching. DE Julius Peppers will return for at least one more year, as will the attacking quartet of QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith and RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but after the disappointment of 2008 - can the Panthers bounce back? Tampa Bay Buccaneers Despite winning Super Bowl XXXVII over Oakland in former Head Coach Jon Gruden's first season at the helm in 2002, the Buccaneers could never find their way back to elite status, having just one season of double digit victories since (in 2005 when they were 11-5 and knocked out by Washington in the Wild Card Round). Gruden is now in the Monday Night Football Commentary Booth and Raheem Morris is the new man steering the ship. The other key personnel change was the release of long time defensive leader Derrick Brooks, as Tampa Bay starts a new era with their sights set on returning to the playoffs with a largely retooled roster. NFC WEST Arizona Cardinals Staged a memorable post-season run to first make the Super Bowl and then look like potential winners with only minutes left. The fairytale was shattered by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers but the Cardinals were gallant in defeat. QB Kurt Warner and WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were the keys to the Arizona game plan - producing the big plays when required. The Defence was solid but at the end of the regular season the Cardinals had a differential of just +1 (427 Points For v 426 Points Against) and the team relied on their potent offence to ride through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Super Bowl appearance convinced Warner to re-sign and Boldin to stick around despite being unhappy with his contract. The NFC West is winnable with the same formula but defensively the team must improve to return to the big games. San Francisco 49ers Mike Singletary was given the full time Head Coaching job after getting the 49ers to 7-9 after taking over from Mike Nolan when San Francisco was 2-5. The 5-4 record from Weeks 9 to 17 included wins over the Rams twice, Bills, Jets and Redskins - not elite company but significantly the 49ers beat teams they should if they think they are a playoff team in 2009. RB Frank Gore is the star and Singletary must decide if QB Shaun Hill is the clear cut choice over former #1 overall pick QB Alex Smith. How the team fares in the opening three weeks is crucial as all their opponents will be direct competitors for at least a Wild Card birth in 2009 (@ ARI, v SEA, @ MIN). St. Louis Rams The Greatest Show on Turf is officially no more with WR Torry Holt departing for Jacksonville. The offence is now centred around QB Marc Bulger (when healthy) and RB Stephen Jackson (when healthy) but no standout receivers. New Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo needs to get the team back to respectability fast and being a defensive coach he'll focus on shoring up the defensive side of the ball. Playing in the NFC West that won't be easy but each team in the division is beatable. Seattle Seahawks If Matt Hasselbeck is healthy and meshes with his talented wide receiving corps of Houshmandzadeh, Branch and Burleson - the Seahawks could be very, very good. The backfield was bolstered by the addition of Edgerrin James alongside Julius Jones and although the team was 4-12 in 2008 - Hasselbeck's absence had a lot to do with it. Now a change at Head Coach also takes place with Jim Mora taking over for Mike Holmgren and Seattle will be looking to go back to the playoffs like they did from 2003 to 2007 (making Super Bowl XL where they lost to the Steelers). If there is a team who can make a title run coming off a 4-12 season - it is the 2009 Seahawks. = NFC PICKS* = (May be changed prior to Week 1): Divisonal Winners ~ NFC EAST: New York Giants ~ NFC NORTH: Minnesota Vikings ~ NFC SOUTH: Atlanta Falcons ~ NFC WEST: Seattle Seahawks ~ Wild Cards: Dallas Cowboys & Philadelphia Eagles. ==PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS== ==AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME== Patriots over Steelers ==NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME== Eagles over Vikings =====SUPERBOWL XLIV===== NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 27 Defeat PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 24