On my old radio show, we used to make predictions one the day before the regular season started. With the Packers getting set to kick off their Super Bowl title defense tomorrow, I thought I would revisit the tradition by making my fearless NFL predictions here at OnMilwaukee.com. Following Super Bowl XLVI in early February, I'll bring this column back and we'll see just how wrong I was.
Before we begin, there are some striking statistics that astonish me:
- There have been 10 different teams (without repeating) to represent the NFC in the last 10 Super Bowls. Among the six that have not been there: San Francisco, Dallas and Washington. Don't think their fans haven't noticed that, either.
- The last NFC team to win a playoff game the season after winning the Super Bowl? The 1997 Green Bay Packers.
- There have been eight consecutive seasons where a team has gone "worst-to-first" in the NFL.
- Since 1996, there has been a whopping 50 percent turnover in playoff teams from one year to the next. Did someone say parity?
Anyway, on to my predictions! We'll begin with the winners in the AFC:
AFC East: New England
Comment: The Jets were everyone's pick last season, but they disappointed many even with an 11-5 record. The Patriots have not lost much from their 14-2 season except for some pride after being bounced by New York in the divisional round of the playoffs. It seems hard to believe, but New England has not won a Super Bowl in six years, despite having the best player in football during that time in Tom Brady. The Patriots believe they have something to prove and will win a very tough division.
AFC North: Pittsburgh
Comment: It is always a toss-up between the Steelers and the Ravens in this division, and 2011 will not deviate from that norm. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore went 12-4 last season, the Steelers winning the division based on their 5-1 division record. I like Pittsburgh to repeat with a defense that is better and younger than Baltimore's. Ray Lewis is destined for Canton, but cannot play forever. Pittsburgh has locked up Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, and it appears they are now closing in on a long-term extension with Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polomalu.
AFC South: Houston
Comment: This division was one of the most disappointing last year, with Indianapolis (10-6) the only team finishing above .500. Peyton Manning's return from injury is a mystery, and the Texans have seemingly been on the brink for the last three seasons. Houston's defense did them in last season, so Wade Phillips was brought in as defensive coordinator. Phillips is a much better assistant coach than head coach, but his experience will be important for the embattled Gary Kubiak to lean on. I love the Texans addition of CB Jonathan Joseph to shore up last season's putrid pass defense.
AFC West: San Diego
Comment: Kansas City shocked the world last season by winning the AFC West, but the Chargers were (and are) the better team. Eric Weddle is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league, and newcomer Takeo Spikes brings a ton of intangibles to an already talented group. The key for the Chargers is two players that have not made much of an impact in recent years because of injuries. If TE Antonio Gates and (gulp) S Bob Sanders can stay healthy and produce like they are capable of, San Diego just might run the table.
AFC Wild Card teams: Baltimore and New York
AFC Champion: New England
AFC surprise team: Miami
Moving on to the NFC winners:
NFC East: Philadelphia
Comment: The Eagles are desperate to win the Super Bowl, and this (albeit abbreviated) off-season showed it. Nnamdi Asomugha was the biggest fish in the free agent pond, and he landed in the City of Brotherly Love. Opposite Asomugha will be newcomer Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, brought over in the Kevin Kolb trade. Rodgers-Cromartie was a Pro Bowl player two seasons ago for Arizona, and will shore up a defense that allowed a franchise-worst 31 passing touchdowns last season. Newcomers Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin are significant upgrades as well. The offense will be fine as long as Michael Vick stays upright.
NFC South: Atlanta
Comment: This is by far the toughest call to make, with two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the Saints and Falcons. However, there is no way to get around it. The Falcons were embarrassed by getting run out of their own building in the playoffs last season by Green Bay, and come into 2011 with a chip on their shoulder. Offensively, the Falcons have weapons all around emerging superstar quarterback Matt Ryan. Roddy White and Julio Jones make up one of the most potent WR combinations in football, and while Tony Gonzalez is a declining 35, the fact that he has never won a playoff game nags at him tremendously. Michael Turner has at least one more Pro Bowl caliber season left in his legs.
NFC West: St. Louis
Comment: By far the worst division in football. Perhaps the worst division in NFL history last season, with the 7-9 Seahawks escaping with the crown. To quote Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, "it's like shooting darts in the dark" to try to predict the winner of the West. Literally any team could win this division and I would not be surprised. I'll pick St. Louis over Arizona because I'm both skeptical that Kevin Kolb is as good as the Cardinals think he is, and that I believe Sam Bradford is ready to emerge. Last season, the Rams were ravaged by injuries at WR, and while still lacking a legitimate go-to receiver, Bradford is still the best QB in the division and will make those around him better as his career progresses.
NFC North: Green Bay
Comment: The Packers "arrived" one year early by my best estimation. However, while all of Wisconsin didn't mind that at all, there were some weaknesses exposed by their 10-6 regular season record last year; chief among them was their inability to close out close games with victories. That having been said, a more mature team that now knows how to win big games with a superstar QB and quality receivers should run roughshod over a division that has one up-and-coming but not-quite-yet-ready-to emerge team (Detroit), one team trying to hang on with another aging QB (Minnesota) and another team that lacks offensive cohesion and is held together by Geritol and trainers tape on defense (Chicago).
NFC Wild Card teams: New Orleans and Dallas
NFC Champion: Green Bay
NFC surprise team: San Francisco (but I've also been predicting that for 5 years)
MVP: Tom Brady (again)
Rookies of the Year (one offensive, one defensive): Julio Jones, Atlanta and J.J. Watt, Houston
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco
Super Bowl prediction: New England over Green Bay
Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at OnMilwaukee.com.
Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.
Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.
Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.