2010 NFL Power Rankings – Pre Training Camp

Even without Big Ben to start the regular season, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be looking to get Pittsburgh back in the playoffs in 2010

With training camps set to open soon for most NFL teams, I thought it was a good time to unveil my first ranking for the 2010 season.  The great part about this time on the NFL Calendar is that rankings don’t matter as hope has sprung eternal around the league.

Every team is 0-0 heading into training camp and “Yes” even the St. Louis Rams (1-15) believe they have positively upgraded their roster and drafted well enough that training camp two-a-days can’t get here soon enough.  And why not…since 1996 there have been at least 5 new playoffs teams that had been sitting home the year before – highest total was 8 teams in 2003.

80-man rosters are pretty much set for every team…Sorry T.O… – still need to sign rookies as only Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is the only first rounder signed — so here we go with our rankings of all 32 NFL Teams.

1.  Saints – The 2009 Super Bowl Champions still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch.  In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!!  The Saints only lost players that they believe already have replacements on their current roster. Sean Payton’s offensive squad has more weapons than almost every team in the NFL, including an O-line that returns all of it’s starters from the Super Bowl.  However there are a couple things that New Orleans will need to shake out in the pre-season, which are their defense not relying on turnovers too much – produced an NFL best 39 fumbles and INTs plus 8 turnovers into touchdowns.  And the usual Super Bowl winner problems of complacency, money, and injuries.

2.  Vikings – All off-season it had to have bothered the Vikes that they were so close to playing in the Super Bowl (lost in overtime).  Keys for sustaining their success from last season will be veteran QB Brett Favre coming back (already a done deal…trust me), RB Adrian Peterson concurring his fumbling woes, and the Vikings’ defense getting better performances from everyone outside of Pro Bowl DE Jared Allen.  Head Coach Brad Childress has now tasted success, so it is easy to think that Minnesota will be right back at the top of the NFC North, but I think the Packers and Bears might have something to say about that.

3.  Colts – Another season, another 12 wins for Indy (NFL Record seven Consecutive).  The Colts are a regular season buzzsaw, but once again the playoffs, it was a different story.  QB Peyton Manning’s team lost in Super Bowl to the Saints and at some points in the game, the younger team from New Orleans “Out Physical-ed” Indy.  There is no doubt that Manning and his plethora of receivers will continue to put up yards and points.  But the Colts need more of a running game from veteran RB Joseph Addai and 2nd year RB Donald Brown plus their defense needs to get more physical at the point of attack.

4. Cowboys – Maybe the curse of Quincy Carter is over as the Cowboys won in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 by demolishing the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wildcard round.  Unfortunately the Cowboys got a quick taste of reality in the divisional round as the Viking pasted them 34-3.  However owner Jerry Jones obviously thinks that his team has a chance of playing in the Super Bowl in their home stadium so Dallas’ roster pretty much is set.  The keys for Dallas will be QB Tony Romo continuing to make big plays with WR Miles Austin, RB Felix Jones gaining a more prominent role and the Cowboys defense improving in their back four.

5.  Ravens – An already dangerous team just got a little bit tougher this offseason as John Harbaugh’s squad had a very good draft and also obtained quality veterans like WR Anquan Boldin.  With QB Joe Flacco coming off an impressive season (posted a 95+ passer rating in 9-of-16 games in ’09), underrated RB Ray Rice looking like the second-coming of Marshall Faulk and a hungry defense returning just about everyone, Baltimore is a scary bunch.  Expect team leaders MLB Ray Lewis, NT Haloti Ngata, and WR Derrick Mason to show younger players, like Terrence “Mount” Cody, how it is to make a playoff run.  But don’t forget the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals should be ready to fight for the AFC North crown.

6.  Chargers – After dominating in the regular season and looking like a strong Super Bowl contender, the Chargers were out-physicaled by the NY Jets in a tough 17-14 home loss.  Fiery quarterback Philip Rivers could do very little as the J-E-T-S pounded the rock and played attacking defense.  Of course, recently jettisoned RB LaDainian Tomlinson will be blamed for some of the Chargers problems.  But in the end, the NY Jets dug deeper and Norv Turner’s team appears to be in need of a spark.  In the 2010, San Diego is hoping an influx of younger players including first rounder RB Ryan Matthews will be what they need, but the Chargers better be leery of the Broncos.  Also they better figure out what to do with unsigned players OT Marcus McNeil, WR Vincent Jackson, and LB Shawn Merriman.

7.  Patriots – Was it just me… or did the Patriots look like an old rusty team in 2009 as the Ravens hammered them out of the playoffs.  Though I am not ready to totally bury the 3-time Super Bowl champs, I do believe that head coach Bill Belichick also saw his team aging and went about give it an offseason makeover.  Veterans Junior Seau, Shaun Springs, Jarvis Green, and others are long gone, leaving a mix of former Super Bowl players and some youngsters.  It will be incumbent on Belichick to lean on former Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and future HOF Randy Moss as the Patriots try to re-tool while holding off the hungry NY Jets.  Of course Brady doesn’t play defense, where Belichick’s unit needs to be better in deep coverage.

8.  New York Jets – Everyone’s pick for the team that won the offseason, the New York Jets, will be trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second year in a row.  Last year after an up-and-down regular season, Rex Ryan’s team got hot at the right time beating the Bengals and Patriots to make it to the AFC Championship game.  However this year everyone will be gunning for the “cocky” J-E-T-S as there are high expectations on them due to the additions of OLB Jason Taylor, WR Santonio Holmes, L.T and others.  But you know and I know that everything will boil down to whether QB Mark Sanchez is ready to be more than a “Caretaker”.

9. New York Giants – It was a rollercoaster ride for the G-Men in 2009.  They started out like gangbusters as they jumped out to a 5-0 record against some cupcakes, but from there injuries – mostly in their secondary – and big plays against their defense caught up with the Giants.  An 8-8 record just is not good enough in New York City and volatile head coach Tom Coughlin knows it.  Expect a rejuvenated team based around bruising RB Brandon Jacobs, newly acquired veteran LB Keith Bulluck and an attacking defensive line – highest sacker in ’09 was DE Justin Tuck with only 7 sacks.

10.  Cardinals – The Matt Leinart era is about to kick-in out at University of Phoenix stadium.  The Cardinals’ former first round pick in 2006 finally will get his chance to replace veteran Kurt Warner after the future HOF retired.  Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is preaching that the Cardinals will be a more balanced team on offense, which means 2nd-year RB Chris Wells should be more active.  I will be interested in seeing how their defense plays after surviving a pinball machine against the Packers and being throttled by the Saints in the 2009 playoffs.

11. Steelers – A year after winning the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2009 as they finished with a 9-7 record.  Some big reasons for the Steelers fall from grace were inconsistency, injuries (see Troy Polamulu), and a pass-happy offense.  Head Coach Mike Tomlin, who just received an extension, is preaching that his team is going to play “Steelers Football” again i.e. Run the football and play tough attacking defense.  Of course any talk about where the Steelers are as a team begins and ends with QB Ben Roethlisberger who is currently suspended for the season’s first 6 games.

12.  Bengals – It will be real interesting to see if last year’s feel-good team, the Bengals, can get back to the playoffs.  2009’s Beast of the AFC North (swept the division) looked good until the playoffs when the NY Jets hammered them.  Offensively QB Carson Palmer needs to produce more bigger plays and the rest of the unit needs to live-up to loudmouth receiver Chad Ochocinco’s boasts.  Head Coach Marvin Lewis is trying to get an extension so he will need another great season from his defense which is led by CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph.

13.  Falcons – After battling through many injuries in 2009, the Dirty Birds seem to be everyone’s pick to be a rebound playoff team in 2010.  A good reason for optimism in Hotlanta is that this young team has bought into the teachings of fiery head coach Mike Smith and his staff.  The Falcons have the modern version of the quadruplets as they sport a leadership type quarterback in Matt Ryan, a workhorse running back in Michael Turner, a pass-catching tight end in veteran Tony Gonzalez and a big-play receiver in Roddy White.  If their O-line is stable, I am not really worried about their offense.  However their defense needs to rally around big-ticket free agent CB Dunta Robinson.

14.  Texans – You have to hand it to Houston as they accomplished a major goal in 2009 by producing their first winning season since their inception in 2001.  But as nice as it was to be over .500, the Texans still have a ways to go to catch the Colts.  Head coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith were given a half-hearted vote of confidence, but you can tell management wants a playoff contender now.  The Texans will need to lean on the offensive firepower of Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub and NFL receiving yardage leader WR Andre Johnson. But it will be interesting to see if their defensive unit is better without disgruntled defensive back Dunta Robinson (Atlanta Falcons) and you know that will fall on DE Mario Williams (9 sacks in ’09).

15. Titans – Tennessee is another team stuck in the NFL’s ever increasing middle.  After a disastrous 0-6 start, everything seemed to finally click once Vince Young was named the starting quarterback.  However it was too much too late as they finished 8-8 and their defense was continually beaten deep.  In their first season sans Albert Haynesworth, Jeff Fisher’s team allowed a whopping 402 points and their former 2008 Pro Bowlers in their secondary looked average at best.  With an eye on fixing their defense, the Titans went heavily on that side of the ball in the 2010 NFL Draft. We will see if they have enough to catch the Colts and Texans, but If nothing else the Titans will be exciting with CJ2K running the ball.

16.  Eagles – The winds of change are blowing around the Philadelphia Eagles.  Former veterans like QB Donovan McNabb, CB Sheldon Brown, S Brian Dawkins, and RT John Runyan are long gone leaving a younger team searching for an identity.  The trade of McNabb to the Redskins changed the entire feel around the team and now it is up to first-time starter Kevin Kolb to take the reins of Andy Reid’s young squad.  Kolb will not have to do it on his own as he has Pro Bowlers WR DeSean Jackson, OT Jason Peters and TE Brent Celek to help him, but the defense is the Birds’ biggest question mark (allowed over 200 passing yards per game).  We will see if the Birds have made enough offseason changes to close the gap between themselves and the Dallas Cowboys – outscored 58-14 in last two games of 2009.

17.  49ers – To me last year was a tease in terms of the Niners.  You can clearly see that energetic head coach Mike Singletary had his team playing well at times, but consistency was not there enough – finished with an 8-8 record.  In order for San Francisco to finally pass the Cardinals and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They will need to have better quarterback play from Alex Smith, improved O-line play behind their two coveted first rounders and more defensive pressure — didn’t have a single player top 6.5 sacks last season.

18.  Dolphins – After shocking the NFL in 2008 by going from worst to first in their division, Miami came back down to earth in 2009 with a 7-9 record including a 1-4 stretch to end the season.  A lot of change is afoot in South Beach, but the Dolphins are hoping that are is more than just LeBron going to the Heat. Surprisingly the Dolphins biggest problem was their defense that allowed 390 points.  With Football Czar Bill Parcells watchful eyes over head coach Tony Sparano, the Dolphins attempted to fix their woes in the draft by going heavily on defense.  They also brought-in WR Brandon Marshall to help their offense.  We will see if these changes are enough to vault them over the Patriots and NY Jets.

19. Packers  –  There is no doubt that Green Bay and QB Aaron Rodgers have the offensive firepower to hang with any team in the NFL – 461 points scored — but the Packers’ 2010 hopes directly hinge on Dom Capers’ defense.  I know his unit allowed only 297 points in the regular season and they were ranked near the top of the entire NFL.  But against the Vikings –you know who torched them – and the Cardinals in the Wildcard round put up points too (lost 51-45) so they needed more than Defensive MVP, DB Charles Woodson. It should be another fun year when the Pack lock horns with Favre and the hated men in purple.

20.  Bears – The head coaching seat in the Windy City is getting extremely hot and it is incumbent on Lovie Smith to return the Bears to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.  Smith thought that he had solved his Super Bowl loser hangover dilemma by trading for talented QB Jay Cutler, but a 7-9 season in ’09 made the spotlight hotter.  With new offensive coordinator Mike “Mad Scientist” Martz and big-ticket free agents DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor on the team, it is now or never for Smith and GM Jerry Angelo.

21.  Broncos – Another year and another controversial player was kicked out of town by brash head coach Josh McDaniels.  In 2009 it was QB Jay Cutler (to Chicago) being ushered away and in 2010, it was talented malcontent receiver Brandon Marshall’s turn to leave the Rockies – shipped to the Dolphins before the draft.  McDaniels better hope he is right as his team badly slumped down the stretch of the 2009 season — 4-game losing streak to end the season — and some fans’ patience is running thin.

22.  Redskins – There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is “Mike Shanahan”.  The two-time Super Bowl winning head coach, veteran QB Donovan McNabb and new GM Bruce Allen have been called-in to restore the nation’s capital’s franchise.  Already Shanahan and Allen have brought in over 20 new players with many being veterans (McNabb, Larry Johnson, Joey Galloway, Jammal Brown, and others).  We all know this team will be nowhere near their 4-12 record in 2010, but you have to wonder if all these new faces can jell quickly enough.  All the NFL’s entire eyes will be on Philly for the October 3rd, McNabb-Eagles Grudge Match.

23.  Raiders – For once the Raiders don’t seem like the most dysfunctional team in the NFL.  Yes, they have the league’s worst record since 2003 (24 wins and 72 losses).  But already I have seen some positive moves including the jettisoning of underachiever quarterback JaMarcus Russell, bringing in veteran QB Jason Campbell, a solid draft that produced players like LB Rolando McClain, and the same head coach (Tom Cable) for the second year in a row for the first time in a long while.  Al Davis’ boys should be shooting for .500 this season, which would be a big step forward.

24.  Jaguars – It seems everyone in this organization is fighting for survival.  The team is trying desperately to sell enough season tickets to avoid a proposed move to L.A, QB David Garrard is trying to prove he can play like his 2007 form to justify his big contract and lastly head coach Jack Del Rio is fighting to stay in town after two losing seasons in a row.  Well at least the Jags have one of the NFL’s most dangerous players in RB Maurice Jones-Drew.

25.  Panthers –  If it now or never for head coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney who are both entering the final year of their contracts.  Owner Jerry Richardson is healthy now and he will have a greater say in the Panthers this year, so it is incumbent on the team to continue helping their on-the-hot-seat head coach again – finished 4-1 in 2009.  Expect another great year of the NFL’s best two-headed backfield (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), but Carolina’s defense must recover from losing DE Julius Peppers. Expect QB Matt Moore (6-2 as a starter) to hold-off rookie Jimmy Clausen and establish himself as an NFL starter.

26.  Lions – Head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew had one of the best drafts in 2010 as they brought in potential difference-makers DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best to continue their rebuilding.  With QB Matthew Stafford firmly at the helm, there is no reason why the Lions could not win 3 to 4 more games this year.  I am going to make an early prediction…watch out for the Lions in 2011, if there is not a lockout of course.

27.  Buccaneers – Some good young building blocks (QB Josh Freeman, TE Kellen Winslow and S Tanard Jackson) are in place for 2nd-year head coach Raheem Morris, but 2010 looks like another rebuilding year for Tampa.  However there still should be hope as the NFC South since 2003 has had 6 out of 7 years where a team went from worst to first including the New Orleans Saints last year.

28.  Seahawks – New head coach Pete “runaway” Carroll has brought in a ton of new faces (over 25 new players) including retread receiver Mike Williams, former NY Jets RB Leon Washington and former Chargers restricted free agent QB Charlie Whitehurst.  But Carroll’s team still has too many leftover players from the Mike Holmgren era (i.e. QB Matt Hasselback, WR Deion Branch, and others) that will need to figure out where they stand before the entire organization can move forward.

29.  Bills – Can you say, “Oh Canada”?  Right now the reality of playing more than two games a year in Toronto, Canada maybe facing this team.  I am not even sure if new head coach Chan Gailey and GM Buddy Nix have any idea of the mess on their hands.  The Bills have 3 quarterbacks competing and I don’t think any of them can be a week-in-week-out NFL starter and whoever is the starter, they will be playing behind on of the league’s leakiest O-lines.

30.  Chiefs – Head Coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli are trying like crazy to make the hapless Chiefs into New England West, but something is amiss.  QB Matt Cassell after finally getting a chance to start regularly put-up even stats of 16 TDs and 16 INTs while the defense couldn’t stop anyone in 2009, letting up 424 points.  There is nowhere to go but up for Cassell and the rest of this young team who are looking like one big rebuilding effort.

31.  Browns – Football Czar Mike Holmgren took over early as he came in during the end of the 2009 season to start evaluating a roster that looked like multi-purpose threat Joshua Cribbs and not much else.  What Holmgren did find was that there were a few talented players (Cribbs, OT Joe Thomas, and CB Eric Wright), but unfortunately he still will need to put on his janitor’s suit as there is much more housecleaning to be done.  It looks like another long year awaits on the shores of Lake Erie, especially with washed-up QB Jake Delhomme under center.

32.  Rams – Just like the Saints at the top of the food chain…I have to start the Rams at the bottom.  However I do believe that head coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Bill Devaney are making positive changes on this team. Hopefully RB Steven Jackson (back) and first rounders QB Sam Bradford, OT Jason Smith, and DE Chris Long will get some help to move this young team out of the basement. 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and Sports Journey Network , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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2009 NFL Season – Week 6 Power Rankings

payton

After a huge win over the New York Giants, Sean Payton and his high-flying Saints have not only garnered respect, but they have also moved up this week’s Power Rankings

This is one of my favorite times on the NFL calendar right before the midway part of the season.  Teams are starting to separate into “Contenders” and “Pretenders” and each week certain teams are getting closer to the playoffs while others get closer to preparing for the 2010 NFL Draft. 

In looking at the current NFL standings here’s the breakdown: The “Elite” – Vikings (6-0), Broncos (6-0), Saints (5-0), Colts (5-0), Falcons (4-1) and Giants (5-1); “Teams on the Cusp” — Steelers (4-2), Bengals (4-2),  and Patriots (4-2); “The Contenders”, who are teams that are a step above average — Eagles (3-2), Bears (3-2), Cowboys (3-2), Cardinals (3-2), and Niners (3-2); “Stuck in the Middle” inconsistent teams, who are caught in the NFL’s parity-filled middle that either need to join the playoff hunt or fall back – Ravens (3-3), Jets (3-3),  Texans (3-3), Jaguars (3-3), Dolphins (2-3), and Chargers (2-3);  The “Pretenders”, who are also in the middle of the pack but are only a shade away from the league’s bottom rung – Seahawks (2-4), Panthers (2-3),  Raiders (2-4), Bills (2-4), and Redskins (2-4); and lastly  the “Putrid” (i.e. You should just skip to the 2010 NFL Draft) – Chiefs (1-5), Browns (1-5), Lions (1-5), Rams (0-6), Buccaneers (0-6), and Titans (0-6)

Now on to the rankings for this week.

1.  Colts (5-0) – Head Coach Jim Caldwell’s team got a well-deserved bye week and maybe injured players SS Bob Sanders and WR Anthony Gonzalez will be back after the off week.  Some will say the Colts have their second bye in a row as they travel to St. Louis to face a winless Rams squad.  Don’t expect a letdown from Peyton Manning (should get his 6th straight 300-yard passing game this season) and his guys.

2.  Vikings (6-0) – In one of Week 6’s marquee games, the Vikings were able to squeak past the  Ravens as Baltimore’s young kicker missed a makeable field goal at the end of regulation.  In a game that will truly tell everyone just how good QB Brett Favre and his young Vikings are, the new rulers of the NFC North will travel to Pittsburgh to face a resurgent Steelers squad.

3.  Saints (5-0) – The Superdome was rocking as the  undefeated Saints showed the bottom-feeding Giants the door in a blowout win that put New Orleans near the top of the NFC.  The Saints road to legitimacy gets harder this week as they face a physical hard-running Dolphins team in Miami.

4.  Broncos (6-0) – After a dominating road win over the Chargers on Monday Night Football — could have been a classic letdown situation — I am finally ready to jump on the Broncos and head coach Josh McDaniels bandwagon.  The Broncos will remain undefeated for sure this week as they have a bye.

5. Giants (5-1) – Well I guess we got our answer on whether the Giants were fattening up on cupcakes at the beginning of the season.  The Saints throttled the Giants by a lopsided score, so it will be interesting to see how Tom Coughlin’s team responds. The G-Men return to the Meadowlands this week to face the high flying Cardinals, who have seemed to be back on track offensively and defensively.

6. Steelers (4-2) –For the 12th time in a row, the Steelers push aside the woeful Cleveland Browns this time at Heinz Field.  The resurgent Steelers will probably get their sternest test of this young season this week as the high-profile Vikings and QB Brett Favre come to town.

7.  Patriots (4-2) – Playing in the snow, QB Tom Brady and the Patriots had one of the greatest passing days in NFL history as they  embarrassed the  Tennessee Titans, who  some say they quit .  Next up for the Patriots is a trip across the Atlantic to Merry Ole England to feast the winless Tampa Bay Bucs.

8.  Falcons (4-1) – In a match-up of two of the NFL’s best “Young Guns”,  the Falcons led by Matt  Ryan delivered when it mattered most in a win over Chicago Bears and strong-armed QB Jake Cutler.  In a tougher than you would think battle, the Falcons travel to Dallas to face a well rested Cowboys squad, who are looking for some consistency.

9.  Bengals (4-2) – A week after a big AFC North win at Baltimore, the Bengals were surprised by the offensive minded Houston Texans.  In a highly anticipated inter-conference battle, the Bengals and revenge-minded RB Cedric Benson (going against the team that released him) will host the Bears and their new pass rusher DE Gaines Adams. 

10.  Bears (3-2) – On Sunday Night Football, the Bears continually turned the football over in the redzone which was their downfall against the Atlanta Falcons.  Next up is a respect game against the host Cincinnati Bengals and loser will fall right back to the NFL’s parity-filled middle.

11.  Cardinals (3-2) – The Cards continued to shake their Super Bowl hangover by pounding NFC West rival, the Seattle Seahawks.   Next up, QB Kurt Warner and rest of the Cards will need to prove that they can win a game in the Easter timezone as travel to Pittsburgh to face the resurgent Steelers.

12.  49ers (3-2) – Head Coach Mike Singletary and his staff were probably  overtime during the bye week to improve a team that has been a  little inconsistent as of late.  Look for the return of injured running back Frank Gore and debut of just-signed first rounder Michael Crabtree as the Niners travel to Houston to face the inconsistent Texans.

13.  Ravens (3-3) – John Harbaugh’s team were just a field goal away from putting an “L” on the undefeated Vikings, but it was not be and the Ravens have now lost 3 straight games.  Look for the Ravens to enjoy their bye week as they try to find a breakout receiver and their once fearsome defense.

14.  Eagles (3-2) –  In probably the biggest upset of the week, the Eagles went across country and laid an egg in against the supposed pushover Raiders – well at least the Fightin’ Phils are picking up the Birds slack.  Eagles head coach Andy Reid better find his running game and quick as his team travels to FedEx field to take on the reeling Redskins and their beleaguered head coach Jim Zorn.

15. Packers (3-2) – It wasn’t even close as the Detroit Lions served as the Packers homecoming team  in a lopsided win.  The Packers and freewheeling quarterback Aaron Rodgers continue their tour of the NFL’s underbelly as they travel to Cleveland to face a horrible Browns team.

16. Cowboys (3-2) – Hopefully  head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett put the Cowboys bye to good work as it maybe win or leave if the ‘Boys continue their inconsistent ways.  In a statement game, the Cowboys will host the hard-charging Atlanta Falcons and QB Matty “Ice” Ryan.

17.  Dolphins (2-3) – I am sure during the bye week that the  Dolphins were adding even more wrinkles to their Wildcat offense.  In a game that could prove to be a season saver, the Dolphins and their rushing attack – average of 177  yards per game — will host the undefeated Saints.

18.  Jets (3-3) – Head coach Rex Ryan and rookie QB Mark Sanchez are finding out how tough the NFL can be as they lost in overtime to  Buffalo Bills in a game the J-E-T-S were “supposed” to win.  Gang Green will look to avoid being the Raiders second straight upset victim as they travel to Oakland this week.

19.  Texans (3-3) –  Head coach Gary Kubiak’s team continued their inconsistent ways as they surprised the Bengals in an offensive road victory in Cincy.  In a battle of upstarts, the Texans will host the emerging Niners and the loser will definitely fall to the NFL’s middle.

20.  Panthers (2-3) – The Panthers continued their climb back to respectability with their second straight win this time over the winless Tampa Bay Bucs.  In a game that can get them back to .500, look for the Panthers to ride their stellar running game against the injured Buffalo Bills.

21.  Jaguars (3-3) – The NFL’s most inconsistent team was back up to their old tricks as they bounced back from a shutout loss to beat the winless Rams in overtime.  The Jags should put their best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, on ice during the bye week because as he goes, so goes the team.

22.  Chargers (2-3) –Head Coach Norv Turner’s team put up a mini-fight but in the end you could clearly see that the AFC West division leading Denver Broncos were hungrier on Monday Night Football.   In a must-win game, the Chargers will travel to Kansas City to face a Chiefs squad coming off their first win of the season.

23.  Seahawks (2-4) –The Hawks showed that they are a  “Pretender”  even with QB Matt Hasselbeck at the controls as they were throttled by the Arizona Cardinals in a huge NFC West battle.  The Seahawks will have a much-needed bye week to get players like Hasselbeck and DE Patrick Kerney healthy  again.

24.  Bills (2-4) – The Bills surprised the  J-E-T-S in overtime as kick Rian Lindell made the most of his second chance to win the game.  In a battle of two teams that either are going to get back in the race or fall down with the NFL’s dregs, the Bills travel to Carolina to face a hungry Panthers’ squad.

25.  Raiders (2-4) – Al Davis’ team put aside all of their drama for one week to out-hustle the arrogant Philadelphia Eagles, who left their game plan and intensity back in Philly.  Now that head coach Tom Cable doesn’t have to worry about the Po-Po knocking  on his door any longer, you have to wonder can the Raiders pull another home-win shocker against the fluttering Jets.

26.  Chiefs (1-5) – Even though it was more of an indicator of the ineptness of Redskins head coach  Jim Zorn, the Chiefs had to be ecstatic about their first win of the season.  The Chiefs will try to make it two upsets in a row as they host the angry San Diego Chargers.

27.  Redskins (2-4) – After a horrible home loss to the formerly winless Chiefs, the Skins handed the team’s offensive reins to offensive consultant Sherman Lewis.  Before a Week 8 bye, the Redskins will try to salvage their lagging season in a crucial home Monday Night Football battle against the embarrassed Philadelphia Eagles.

28.  Lions (1-5) – Not even former Packers killer QB Daunte Culpepper could keep the still rebuilding Lions from being torn apart by the Packers.  I am sure during the bye week that the Lions will try to focus more on the fact that they have already won a game this season rather than their many holes.

29.  Browns (1-5) – It was the same old story for the Dawgs as the Steelers tamed them once again as QB Ben Roethlisberger had a career day throwing the football.  The Browns will try to pick-up the pieces as they host the surging Green Bay Packers in a match-up of two Midwest teams going in opposite directions.

30.  Buccaneers (0-6) – Once again the Bucs fought hard, but they just didn’t have the depth or overall talent to beat the rebounding  Carolina Panthers.  For the Bucs, It must be a hard thing knowing that you are going all the way to London, England to be the New England Patriots next “homecoming” opponent.

31.  Rams (0-6) – Steve Spanuolo’s squad gave it their all , but unfortunately they came up short against MJD and the Jaguars in overtime.  The road doesn’t get any easier for the Rams as they host the well-rested and scary Indianapolis Colts who are hitting on all cylinders on offense and defense.

32. Titans (0-6) – In an embarrassing loss that the NFL has not seen in years, the Patriots ran the score-up (59-0) on the Titans and some say Jeff Fisher’s team just plain “quit”.  During the bye week, Fisher better clean-up his horrible secondary and start thinking about playing former rookie of the year QB Vince Young since veteran thrower Kerry Collins could only manage -7 yards passing against the Patriots.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL Power Rankings – Pre Training Camp 2009

(Philadelphia, Pa) We are almost to my least favorite time of the year when there is virtually no football.  Though the NFL Calendar is now packed it seems every month, most teams take a nice break after May and early June’s OTA’s to recharge for late July’s training camps.

The fun part of this time on the NFL Calendar is that hope has sprung eternal around the NFL, as every team is 0-0 heading into next season.  Yes even the 0-16 Detroit Lions believe they have positively tweaked their roster and drafted well enough that training camp can’t get here soon enough.

With rosters pretty much set for next season, I thought now was a good time to rank all 32 NFL Teams.

1. Steelers – The 2008 Super Bowl Champions still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch.  In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!!  The Steelers lost players that they believe already have replacements on their current roster.  Plus the Steelers’ weakest area, the offenisve line, will have another year together and the draft yielded Wisconsin OG Kraig Urbik and Penn State C A.Q Shipley. Theif defense is getting a little older along their front four, but Defensive MVP James Harrison shoulld be productive after signing a lucartive extension. It will be interesting see if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continues to throw 25 to 30 times a game with RB’s Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) returning.  Will compete with the Raven for the AFC North title, but there are issues of complacency and a history of falling back after winning it all (record of 8-8 in ’06 after winning in Super Bowl XL).

2. Giants – The G-Men stumbled down the stretch after WR Plaxico Burress shot himself and the team’s playoff hopes.  But look for the Giants to return to contention at the top of the NFC.  In the NFC East, the Giants’ main competition will be the Eagles who knocked them out of the playoffs in 2008.  Quarterback Eli Manning who is looking for a Matthew Stafford type contract and guaranteed money this year will need to lean on his running game led by RB’s Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Danny Ware.  Rookie pass catchers WR Hakim Nicks (North Carolina), TE Travis Beckum (Wisconsin), and WR Ramses Barden (Cal Poly) will try to replace Burress along with returning Super Bowl hero David Tyree (knee).  The Giants’ defensive pressure should also get a boost from the additions of Pro Bowl DE Osi Umenyiora (knee), DT Rocky Bernard (F\A – Seattle), LB Michael Boley (F\A – Falcons), DT Chris Canty (F\A – Cowboys) and rookie LB Clint Sintim (UVa) to last season’s menacing DE’s Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck.

3.  Patriots  – After becoming only the second 11-5 team to not make the playoffs (Denver – 1985), head coach Bill Belichick is on a mission.  The Pats return QB Tom Brady from a devastating knee injury and they also made an emphasis of getting younger on defense this offseason.  Look for NT Vince Wilfork (playing for a contract), LB Adalius Thomas (finally comfortable in the system), and rookies CB Darius Butler (UConn) and S Patrick Chung (Oregon) to have a huge impact on defense.  Offensively the Patriots running game should be better with the addition of veteran RB Fred Taylor (playing the Corey Dillon role) and the return of RB Laurence Maroney (shoulder).  Also watch for deep throws from Brady to speedsters Randy Moss, Joey Galloway (F\A – Bucs), and Greg Lewis (Draft Day Trade – Eagles).

4.  Eagles – After a rollercoast type season where things went a little haywire in Weeks 10-12, the Birds rebounded to make some noise in the playoffs.  Any momentum gained from their playoff run was totally enhanced by arguably the NFL’s best offseason.  The Eagles obtained veterans CB Ellis Hobbs (Draft Day Trade – Patriots), Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters (Pre-Draft Trade – Bills), and OL Stacy Andrews (F\A – Bengals) plus drafted potential offensive differencemakers WR Jermey Maclin (Missouri),RB LeSean McCoy (PITT), and TE Cornelius Ingram (Florida).  QB Donovan McNabb (make or break contract season) has to like his team’s chances after the Birds’ front office made over a roster that was getting a little old at key positions.  Areas to watch in training camp will be right tackle where Shawn Andrews (back) is moving from his Pro Bowl right guard spot to battle his brother Stacy and free saftey where Quintin Demps and newcomer Sean Jones (F\A – Cleveland) will be competing to try and replace future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins (Broncos).

5. Titans – Jeff Fisher’s team was the talk of the NFL after they went undefeated for the first 11 weeks of the 2008 season, but in the playoffs it was a totally different story as the Ravens shutdown the AFC’s No. 1 seed.  However with the Titans strong running game (LenDale White and Chris Johnson) and tough defense led by LB Keith Bullock and a  talented secondary (S Michael Griffin and CB Cortland Finnegan) expect them back near the top of the AFC South with the Colts and Texans.  However there are big question marks around QB Kerry Collins (age), C Kevin Mawae (age/retirement?), their receivers (still looking for a #1 guy) and a defense that lost number #1NFL free agent DT Albert Haynesworth (Redskins).

6.  Cardinals  – The 2008 NFC Champs will not be sneaking up on anyone this season after a playoff run that included an impressive road stomping of the NFC top seeded Panthers.  The NFC West is definitely improving with the Niners (playing harder under Singletary) and Seahawks (getting healthier) expected to step-up, so the Cardinals will need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl loser hangover syndrome — 7 of the last 8 Super Bowl losers failed to qualify for the post-season the following year.  The Cardinals will again lean on their offense led by a rejuvenated QB Kurt Warner (new contract), rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells (Ohio St), and All-World WR Larry Fitzgerald.  It will be interesting to see if the four 2009 defensive draft picks coming in can help a unit that allowed 26.6 points per game.  Also what are the Cards going to do to keep DT Darnell Dockett and WR Anquan Boldin happy over their contracts.

7.  Panthers – Everything seemed to be falling the Panthers way in ’08 as their “Double Trouble” running back combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and an opportunistic defense led the way into the playoffs.  After securing the NFC’s number one seed, the NFC South Champion Panthers imploded at home losing badly to the Cardinals.  Panthers Head Coach John Fox (hotseat) will need to get another stellar season from his running backs, but newly re-signed QB Jake Delhomme (arm and 6 turnovers in playoffs loss) is the big key to this team’s success.  The Panthers have a stellar offensive line, so look for a continued run heavy offense with about 8 to 10 passes a game going to gamebreaker WR Steve Smith.  The Carolina defense will need LB Jon Beason (labrum),  DT Damione Lewis (rotator cuff) and rookie DE Everett Brown (FSU) to stay on top of their games in case “franchised” defensive end Julius Peppers (career-high 14.5 sacks) holds out or becomes a distraction.  Look for a three-way race between the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons in the NFC South.

8.  Vikings –  A litany of things finally came together for the Vikes in ’08 as they won the NFC North for the first time since 2004.  Right now the Vikings with All-World RB Adrain Peterson and the NFL’s #1 Rush Defense are a sexy pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season.  However there are still too many lingering questions for my taste to move this team higher.  Who is the quarterback going to be? (Tarvaris Jackson – inconsitent in the playoffs against the Eagles, Sage Rosenfels – New to their system, or dare I say it…Brett Favre, who brings age and lockerroom chemistry issues, if he is signed).  Brad Childress’ team must also deal with DT’s Kevin and Pat Williams’ facing 4-game suspensions for Water Pills-gate.  In the 2009 draft, the Vikings looked to add more offensive firepower to Peterson and emerging WR Bernard Berrian by bringing in WR/KR/RB Percy Harvin (Florida).  So whomever the quarterback is in training camp there will be expectations to get the ball in the team’s many playmakers hands.  Expect the Vikings and Bears to fight it out for NFC North supremacy again.

9.  Colts – Another season, another 12-wins for Indy (NFL Record Six Consecutive).  The Colts are a regular season buzzsaw, but once again the playoffs were a different story.  QB Peyton Manning’s team lost in OT to the Chargers, but the game seemed little bit more organizational changing.  Super Bowl winning head coach Tony Dungy decided that ’08 would be his last season and now first time NFL head coach Jim Caldwell takes over.  Caldwell will also have to go into battle without franchise receiver Marvin Harrison (F\A), former offensive coordinatorTom Moore (Retirement), and former O-line coach Howard Mudd (Retirement).  With so much leadership lost on the coaching staff there is going to be even more pressure on veteran thrower Manning.  Expect the Colts to lean more on their running game as RB Joseph Adda is healthy and Indy picked RB Donald Brown in the first round.  On defense the Colts are still small and fast, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against larger offenses.  Expect the AFC South to be one of the NFL’s best with the Colts, Titans, Jags, and Texans all fighting it out for the top spot.

10.  Ravens – Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and upstart head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens were the surprise of the AFC in ’08 going all the way to the AFC Championship Game.  Despite the loss of several Ravens (Def Coor. Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard, and others) to Baltimore North (New York Jets) expect QB Joe Flacco and his defensive minded team to still be in the mix.  The Ravens defense kept their leader in LB Ray Lewis plus they added CB Domonique Foxworth (Falcons).  There should be much more firepower this year on offense as Flacco and RB Ray Rice return for their second seasons fully knowing the playbook and the team also added TE LJ Smith (F\A – Eagles), C Matt Birk (F\A – Vikings), and OT Michael Oher (Ole Miss – 1st Rd).  Expect another black and blue season for the Ravens as they battle their hated rival, the Steelers, for the AFC North title.

11.  Bears –  Lovie Smith wanted a quarterback to compliment running back Matt Forte and management brought-in QB Jay Cutler in a blockbuster trade.  Now Smith needs a playoff run by Cutler as he is on a very hotseat in the Windy City.  All I want to know is where are the WR’s that Cutler is throwing to.

12.  Saints – Sean Payton’s team was too inconsistent in ’08 (only won two games in a row once), so they will need to equate their talent laden roster into wins this season.  Look for an improved running game led by NFL Surprise Player RB Pierre Thomas to help MVP candidate QB Drew Brees and an emphasis on defense of eliminating big plays.

13.  Chargers – The Bolts had a nice run in the playoffs to put an inconsistent regular season behind them.  But head coach Norv Turner needs a better effort by his running game (LT and Darren Sproles) to assist Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers.  The Chargers are hoping a healthly return by LB Shawn Merriman (knee) will pick-up a defense that was sporadic without him.

14.  49ers – Under new head coach “Iron” Mike Singletary, the Niners proved to be one of the NFL’s best teams down the stretch going 5-2 in their last seven games under their former interim head coach.  In order to compete with the NFC Champion Cardinals, the Niners must find a passing game to go with Singletary’s new run emphasized offense and attacking defense.

15.  Texans –  After their second 8-8 season in a row, it is hotseat time for GM Rick Smith, head coach Gary Kubiak, and quarterback Matt Schaub.  The Texans must find ways to avoid injuries on offense and add consistency on defense to compete with the Colts, Titans, and Jaguars in the tough AFC South.

16.  Dolphins – Last season’s greatest turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5 AFC East Champs will be hard to duplicate for head coach Tony Sparano and GM Bill Parcells.  The ‘Phins will be marked team as the Patriots, Jets, and upstart Bills will try to bring them back to Earth.

17.  Broncos – Former head coach Mike Shanahan, QB Jay Cutler, and GM Ted Sunquist are all no longer with Denver.  A new regime led by young head coach Josh McDaniels and over 17 new players will try to improve a team that lost 3 straight games to finish the season.  An improved defense (drafted 4 defensive players) and a hard running game led by rookie Knowshon Moreno should help in the Broncos chase the Chargers for the AFC West crown.

18.  Falcons – Besides the Dolphins there was no great turnaround story in the NFL in ’08 than Falcons.  Head Coach Mike Smith and Rookie of the Year QB Matt Ryan returned this once downtrodden franchise back into the playoffs.  Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, and new TE Tony Gonzalez will need to jell quickly and the Falcons defense will need bigger plays to catch the Panthers..

19. Cowboys – During the ’08 season, one of the NFL’s most talent laden rosters was pulled down again from drama in Big D.  The Cowboys will be moving on to their new billion dollar stadium hopefully without the problems created by former distractions (Pacman, T.O, Tank Johnson, and others).  But there are some lingering question marks regarding whether head coach Wade Wilson and/or QB Tony Romo can lead the ‘Boys passed the Eagles and Giants in the tough NFC East.

20.  Redskins – The ‘Skins in ’08 under first year head coach Jim Zorn were a non-cohesive and inconsistent team due to injuries and internal fighting.   But expectations will be a lot higher in 2009 as owner Dan Snyder opened his checkbook for a haul that included DT Albert Hayneswoth and other big ticket items.  Zorn and Snyder will need QB Jason Campbell make them forget why the Redskins tried to bring in Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez this passed offseason.

21.  Jaguars  – After a front office shakeup, all the pressure in ’09 will be squarely on head coach Jack Del Rio.  The Jags have some weapons in players like RB Maurice Jones-Drew and CB Rashaun Mathis, but they need more consistency from QB David Garrard and a defense that allowed 367 points in ’08.

22.  Jets  –  With the AFC East title in their sights, the Jets underestimated the Dophins and were left home for the playoffs.  With new head coach Rex Ryan coming over from the Ravens along with several former players and staff, look for a new attitude by the J-E-T-S.  The keys will be settling a quarterback controversy (Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez) and getting their defense acclimated to Ryan’s attacking scheme.

23.  Raiders  – After playing the “spoiler” role rather well in Tampa Bay during Week 17 in ’08, the Raiders and their new head coach Tom Cable will be looking for respect in ’09.  Cable will need to get more points from offensive weapons QB JaMarcus Russell, RB Darren McFadden, TE Zach Miller and rookie Darius Heyward-Bey (only 27 touchowns in ’08).  Plus in order to catch the Broncos and Chargers at the top of the AFC West, Al Davis’ team will need to get better on defense (allowed 388 pts).

24.  Buccaneers – Offseason changes were everywhere for the Bucs after an end of season meltdown where they were knocked from the playoffs in WK 17 by the Raiders.  New head coach Raheem Morris and a roster full of youngsters will attempt to get right in the NFC South mix, but the division is stacked with the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons near the top.

25.  Bills  – Get your popcorn ready, because T.O was brought to town this offseason by soon to be Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson.  The new look Bills and their new weapon will attempt to climb out of the tough AFC East’s basement.  However the Bills may need more than Owens as they finished 0-6 in the stacked division in ’08.

26. Packers  –  The Pack probably were one of the NFL’s Most Disappointing Teams in ’08, despite some solid play from new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  With an emphasis of getting better on defense via the draft (NT BJ Raji),  the Packers will need to get pressure to cut down on opponent’s scoring (allowed 380 pts).

27.  Seahawks  –  Even after an injury plagued season and head coach Mike Holgrem leaving the franchise, the Hawks still have a chance in the AFC West.  However it may take more than drafting LB Aaron Curry, QB Matt Hasselbeck returning (back) and signing WR T.J Houshmanzadeh to bring the Seahawks back to the top of the NFC West.  Hopefully Curry will help lift up a defense that allowed 392 points in ’08.

28.  Browns – The Dawgs didn’t have much bite in ’08, so after an organizational shake-up it is Eric Mangini time by the lake.  However the coach once dubbed “Man-genius” in NY has his work cutout for him as the Browns have a bad quarterback controversey, a malcontent receiver that wants out in Braylon Edwards, over 15 new players on their roster, a new system, a new GM, and an owner that wants to him now.   I guess it will be an Ohio affair at the bottom of the AFC North division.

29.  Chiefs – Herman Edwards and Carl Peterson are no longer with this team, but they left behind a mess in KC.  New head coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli have their work cutout for them as the Chiefs have been a rudderless ship the last couple of years.  Any hope will need to start with a healthy and focused Larry Johnson at running back and new signalcaller Matt Cassel hitting the ground running in training camp.

30.  Rams – After a season where things were bad under former head coaches Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett, the Rams have turned to former NY Giants defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo.  Spags will bring the G-Men way of doing things (running the ball and attacking on defense) to the Midwest. But it may take awhile to find the right players to execute at his former team’s level.

31.  Bengals –  HBO’s Hard Knocks will be fully entertained from a team that has some talent, but loads of questions marks and dysfunction.  Head Coach Marvin Lewis will be counting on recoverd quarterback Carson Palmer (elbow), new name receiver Chad Ochocinco (formerly Johnson), huge first rounder OT Andre Johnson (Alabama) and a host of other “characters” to get him off the hotseat.

32.  Lions – Just like the Super Bowl Champion Steelers, the lowly Lions have to start in the same spot they ended the ’08 season in.  After an NFL low 0-16 season, there is no place but up for the Lions.  New head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew will be counting on over 20 new faces including first overall pick QB Matthew Stafford to turnaround the fortunes of one of the NFL’s worst teams ever.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL Power Rankings – Week 15

(Philadelphia, Pa) – The time is now for every team in the NFL looking to join the playoff race.  Last week the Titans, Cardinals, and Giants got their tickets punched for the NFL playoffs, but nine coveted spots remain.  The action on the field in the NFL is intense as teams like the Philadelphia Eagles (at 7-5-1, they need to win-out) are scrambling to find the right mix in navigating difficult schedule in hopes of making the playoffs.  I don’t know if it is by design, but the NFL schedule makers must have known something as several potential playoff teams will be playing each other down the stretch – This week key playoff match-ups include Panthers vs. Broncos, Steelers vs. Ravens, Giants vs. Cowboys, Buccaneers vs. Falcons, Vikings vs. Cardinals, and Saints vs. Bears (Chicago won in overtime 27-24).

Except for the three clinched divisions, the divisional standings are very tight especially in the AFC East – Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins all (8-5).  So everything looks like week 17 in the NFL will be a doozy.  Here is the AFC picture: AFC South (The Titans, 12-1, clinched the division, but the red-hot Colts (9-4) should get a wildcard), AFC North (Steelers lead the Ravens by 1 game – Their rivalry battle this week is huge), AFC East (Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins all tied at the top – look for the Patriots to pull this one out as they are 21-2 in December since 2003), and in the AFC West (The Broncos lead the Chargers by 2 games, but they need to finish the job before their highly anticipated week 17 battle).  In the NFC the races are just as tight: NFC East (Giants, 10-3, won the division last week despite a loss to the Eagles.  The rest of the division is very interesting as the Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins all still have a shot with 3 games left – all teams have winning records), NFC North (Vikings lead the Bears by a 1/2 game and the Vikes have the Williams Defensive tackles in the lineup thanks to a judge), NFC South (The Panthers showed the Bucs, who were the kings of this division, but there are more games to be played.  The Bucs and Falcons still have a shot — all the teams have .500 or better records), and in the NFC West (The Cardinals won their first division title since 1975, but you have to watch for NFL leading spoiler the Niners in the last few games of the season).

Now on to the rankings for this week

1.  Titans (12-1) – Hammered the pitiful Browns, sending Romeo Crennel and possibly Phil Savage closer to the exit.   The Titans go back to the future as they return to Houston to play an improving Texans squad.

2. Giants (11-2) – The G-Men looked a little vulnerable and distracted in a physical home loss to the desperate Eagles. With the NFC East crown already wrapped up, the Giants may not be all that worried about their upcoming match-up with the in-fighting Cowboys.  But the game is on NBC Sunday Night Football and I know head coach Tom Coughlin wants to wipe the bad taste of the Giants’ first home loss from his mouth.

3. Steelers (10-3) – In a game that showed the Steelers’ mettle, Mike Tomlin’s team overcame frigid temperatures and the Dallas Cowboys to post a dramatic playoff-worthy victory.  With an eye on the AFC North title, the Steelers travel to Baltimore to face the hated Ravane

4.  Panthers (10-3) – Led by the “Smash and Dash” combo of  DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers rolled over the Bucs like a tank in a big Monday Night Football win.  The road to the NFC South title doesn’t get any easier for the Panthers as they host the Denver Broncos, who are looking to clinch the AFC West.

5.  Colts (9-4) – Make it six in a row as the Colts avoided a letdown by smashing the lowly Bengals.  The road to the playoffs for Peyton and the boys looks even better as they host the horrible Detroit Lions, who just happen to be staring 0-16 right in their face.

6.  Buccaneers (9-4) – The Bucs stellar defense looked very vulnerable and their offense looked average in a Monday Night Football loss to the Panthers.  The Bucs will need to forget about the Panthers as they travel to Atlanta for a key playoff type game against the Falcons.

7.  Patriots (8-5) – The Pats woke up just in time to knock off the lowly Seahawks as receiver Wes Welker led the way.  The Patriots next travel to Oakland to face former AFC title game foe the Raiders in the “Return of Randy” showdown.

8.  Ravens (8-5) – Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, the Ravens beat the pants off the reeling Redskins in “The Battle of the Beltway”.  The Ravens young head coach John Harbaugh will need to do much to motivate his team as the hated Steelers come to town for a game that will decide the AFC North title.

9.  Broncos (8-5) – Mike Shanahan’s team almost let the upstart Chiefs steal one from them, but in the end the potential AFC West champs prevailed.  The Broncos need to show that they can play better defense as they travel to Carolina in hopes of clinching the AFC West with a win.

10.  Vikings (8-5) – Fueled by the judicial system allowing the Williams Defensive Tackle tag to team to keep playing, backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson came off the bench to lead the Vikings passed the winless Lions.  It looks like Jackson will be at the helm as the Vikings travel to the desert to face the NFC West champion Cardinals in a possible playoff preview.

11.  Cardinals (8-5) – The Cardinals took care of business as they beat-up on the hapless Rams as they clinched their first division title since 1975 with a home win.  Looking for some playoff respect, the Cardinals will look to derail NFL rush leader running back Adrian Peterson as the Vikings come to town.

12.  Jets (8-5) –  With the AFC East title in their sights, the Jets underestimated the fired-up Niners in a deflating loss.  In a key AFC East game, the Jets look to stay with the Dlophins and Patriots as they host the dangerous Bills.

13. Cowboys (8-5) – The tough-as-nails Steelers played till the final gun in pulling a out a season-defining win over the Cowboys, who as usual started fighting and losing in the month of December.  Soap Opera storylines are everywhere (Pacman hurt, T.O griping with Romo and Witten, Jerry Jones taking on Marion Barber, and much more) as the Cowboys look to save their season against the New York Giants in Texas Stadium.

14.  Dolphins (8-5) – The Dolphins went north of the border into Toronto, Canada for an important AFC East win over the ascending Bills.  The Dolphins look to continue their miraculous climb from worst to first as they host the very dangerous Niners.

15.  Falcons (8-5) – In a game that may have shown a young team getting a little tired, the Falcons could not pull a win out against the desperate Saints.  The Dirty Birds season will be on the line as they host the Tampa Bay Bucs in a huge AFC South battle.

16.  Eagles (7-5-1) – Fueled by a ground-churning runnning game, the Birds showed a totally new side of themselves as they dominated the formerly perceived to be invincible Giants in the Meadowlands.  The Eagles will need to avoid a huge letdown as the lowly Browns limp into Lincoln Financial Field for Monday Night Football.

17.  Bears (8-6) –  Lovie Smith’s team started a critical 3-game homestand with an easy win over the disappointing Jaguars.  In a big NFL Network Thursday Night NFC North battle, the Bears fueled by rookie running back Matt Forte and some timely pass interference calls defeated the Saints in overtime.

18.  Saints (7-7) – Sean Payton’s team tried to jump back in the playoff race with a solid win over the upstart Atlanta Falcons.  The Saints continued their inconsistent ways by losing in overtime to the Bears on Thursday Night football after their big win over the Falcons.

19.  Redskins (7-6) – The ‘Skins were dominated by the Ravens as they continue to look like a team that has hit the wall in the second half of the 2008 season.  With “genius” Jim Zorn at the helm, the Redskins look to heal their injured and internally fighting team against the host Bengals.

20.  Texans (6-7) –  Led by a career-day by quarterback Matt Schaub,  the Texans kicked the Packers out of the playoff picture with a dominating win.  With an eye towards playing spoiler in the final three games, the Texans will host the Titans in an AFC South grudge match.

21.  Chargers (5-8) – In an NFL Network Thursday Night turn-the-channel game, the Chargers dominated the weak Raiders.  The Chargers will look for an easy win over the host Chiefs while hoping for a Broncos loss.

22.  Bills (6-7) – The Bills didn’t play any better in Toronto than they did in Rich Stadium in Buffao as the Dolphins added another nail to their 2008 season coffin.  The Bills will look to gain some respect as they face the hated Jets in a game that the Brett Favre’s needs badly to stay in first place in the AFC East.

23.  49ers (5-8) – Iron Mike II’s men took Brett Favre and the Jets behind the woodshed as they administered a butt-kicking that made many question the Jets’ playoff dreams.  The NFL’s biggest spoilers will continue their tour of redemption this week in Miami as the Dolphins better watch out.

24. Packers (5-8) –  Surprisingly in their own historic stadium, the Packers defense was dressed down by the Texans in an embarrassing loss.  In the “Battle of the NFL’s Most Disappointing Teams”, the Packers look to make an end of season push against the equally underachieving host Jaguars.

25.  Jaguars (4-9) – The end of the Jack Del Rio era in Jacksonville is near as the Jags continued to put up little fight in rolling over to the Bears.  It is hard to believe that this week’s game between the Packers and Jaguars is a battle of the two most disappointing teams in the NFL.

26.  Browns (4-9) – The Browns were no match for the Titans in a boring game where the most interesting plays were when mercurial player Josh Cribbs had the ball in his hands.  The Dawgs have a chance to make a statement on national television as they take on the host Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.

27.  Seahawks (2-11) –  In a game that showed every NFL team will usually fight till the end, the Seahawks almost knocked off the Patriots before losing late in the 4th quarter.  The Hawks will host the Rams in a game that will have huge implication on the top of the 2009 NFL Draft.

28.  Rams (2-11) – Jim Haslett’s team played the role of homecoming team as the Cardinals shoved them around on their way to winning their first division title in over 30 years.  In a toilet bowl special the Seahawks host the Rams in a game where the loser gets a nice comfy seat in the basement of the NFL’s worst division.

29.  Chiefs (2-11) – Herm’s boys hung tough with the Broncos, but in the end the Orange Crush moved closer to an AFC West championship.   The Chiefs again have the opportunity to play spoiler as they host the Chargers, who are hanging on to playoff hopes by a thread.

30.  Raiders (3-10) – The Chargers sent the Raiders closer to a new head coach and possibly a new regime in the off-season with a dominating Thursday Night win.  The Raiders have a great chance to play spoiler as they host the hated New England Patriots in the Al Davis “Tuck Rule” bowl.

31.  Bengals (1-11-1) –  The Colts continued to push the Bengals closer to an impending off-season overhaul.  The Redskins will look to get healthy as they travel to Cincy in search of a playoff saving win.

32.  Lions (0-13) – Culpepper and the Lions tried their hardest to avoid another loss to the Vikings, but in the end an “L” is an “L” in the standings.  The road to avoid (0-16) does not get any easier as the Lions go to Indy to face the red-hot Colts.

NFL Week 15  

Thu, Dec 11

NO 24 @ CHI 27 OT (NFL Network)

Sun, Dec 14

SEA @ STL 1:00 PM  (FOX)

BUF @ NYJ 1:00 PM (CBS)

SF @ MIA  1:00 PM (FOX)

SD @ KC  1:00 PM  (CBS)

GB @ JAC  1:00 PM  (FOX)

DET @ IND  1:00 PM  (FOX)

TEN @ HOU 1:00 PM  (CBS)

WAS @ CIN  1:00 PM  (FOX)

TB @ ATL  1:00 PM  (FOX)

MIN @ ARI  4:05 PM (FOX)

NE @ OAK  4:15 PM  (CBS)

PIT @ BAL  4:15 PM  (CBS)

DEN @ CAR 4:15 PM  (CBS)

NYG @ DAL 8:15 PM  (NBC)         

Mon, Dec 15

CLE @ PHI  8:30 PM  (ESPN)

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL Power Rankings – Week 7

(Philadelphia, Pa) – Just when we think that “separation” is coming within NFL teams, the parity laden league comes back together like the New Kids on the Block.  With only one lonely unbeaten team left in the Tennessee Titans, NFL standings are wide open to almost every team to make a move.  Divisions are jumbled (the NFC South and NFC North currently both boast 3-way ties for first place) and every divisional race is within one to two games. 

With at least one big upset it seems every weekend in the NFL, no team should take their opposition lightly as every team is playing with pride even the lowly Cincinnati Bengals.  It is going to be a great second half of the season and who know where the wackiness of the NFL will lead.

Now on to the rankings for this week

1.  Titans (5-0) – I am sure head coach Jeff Fisher is preaching to his time to watch out for a letdown coming off their bye week.  With visions of the “Skins surprising loss to the Rams in their mind, the NFL’s last undefeated team travels to Kansas City to face the Chiefs in front of their sea of red-clad fans.

2. Steelers (4-1) – I am not sure the bye week was enough to heal their plethora of injuries, but now it is back to business for the AFC North leaders.  You have to wonder if a trap game awaits as the Steelers play at winless, but dangerous division rival the Bengals.

3. Giants (4-1) – The expected Monday Night Football massacre never occurred as the Browns dominated the ’07 champs send them to their first loss.  Look out reeling Niners as the G-Men will be primed and angry to flex their muscles this week in the Meadowlands.

4.  Redskins (4-2) – In an improbable turn of events, the NFL’s surprise team of 2008 was surprised by the previously winless Rams in week 6.  The Rams led by fiery interim head coach Jim Haslett kept fighting to the end as they got their first “W”.  In a second straight home game against a supposed also-ran, the ‘Skins better be ready as the Browns looked like a new team on MNF.

5. Cowboys (4-2) – The NFL’s marquee franchise had probably the craziest week ever and it isn’t even over.  First they stumbled to the Cardinals then Tony Romo breaks his finger expecting to miss 4 to 5 weeks after that more Pacman drama ensued as the malcontent was suspended again this time indefinitely and finally owner Jerry Jones added another commodity to his portfolio in trading for former Lions WR Roy Williams.  With veteran 40-year old Brad Johnson at quarterback position, the Cowboys will play at St. Louis in a dangerous trap game.

6.  Colts (3-2) – Lucas Oil Stadium finally saw its first win and the Colts finally started to look like the same team that has won 12 games for five straight years in a blowout of the Ravens.  An interesting battle awaits the Colts as Peyton Manning and his crew will play at historic Lambeau Field against a tough Packers team.

7.  Bills (4-1) – It was a bye week for the AFC East division leaders, but is their quarterback healthly and did they learn from their first loss of the season to the Cardinals.  The Bills will be hosting a hungry Chargers team that is looking to get over .500 wants to catch the Broncos.

8.  Buccaneers (4-2) – Right now you have to put the crown of the NFC South on the head of the Bucs after they dismantled the Panthers.  With veteran Jeff “no respect” Garcia back as the starter, the Bucs look to win their second straight game at home against a reeling Seahawks team.

9.  Chargers (3-3) The Bolts got their semi-revenge as they badly beat their nemisis the Patriots on SNF, but we will have to see what happens in the playoffs if these two meet again.   In a game that could have huge AFC playoff implications, the Chargers travel over 3,000 miles to face the rested AFC East leading Bills.

10.  Patriots (3-2) – Sunday Night Football was an ugly affair for Matt Cassell and the Pats as they had no answers for the hungry Chargers.  This week on ESPN Monday Night Football, the Patriots will look to re-group at home in a “statement” against a confounding Broncos squad.

11.  Cardinals (4-2) – Maybe it is time for skeptics like yours truly to finally believe in the Cards, especially after they surprised the glamour Cowboys in an overtime thriiller that had a strange ending.  Ken Whisenhunt and his team will have a bye week to crow about their big win and the perch they currently hold in the NFC West division.

12.  Jaguars (3-3) – In a must-win situation against the Denver Broncos, the Jags stepped up and started looking like the conterders everyone thought they would be at the beginning of the season.  Now that they are back to .500 the Jags can heal up their many injuries and focus on the second half of the season during a much-needed bye.

13.  Panthers (4-2) – In a total 180 from the previous week, the Panther were destroyed by Jeff Garcia and the Bucs. In a highly anticipated playoff type NFC South battle, John Fox’s team tries to get back on track at home against a rising Saints team.

14.  Broncos (4-2) – Lost again this time to the physical Jags in a loss that makes you ask, “Are they a contender or a pretender?”.  It will be up to Mike Shanahan to get his team up for a huge playoff type game as the Broncos play the Patriots on ESPN Monday Night Football in Foxborough.

15.  Falcons (4-2) – Maybe now rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons will get some respect after they got another win in a statement game this time over the NFC North leading Bears via a walkoff field goal.  With two big wins heading into the bye, the Falcons will rest some but I am sure they are thinking about staying at the top of the NFC South.

16.  Eagles (3-3) – I am sure everyone in Philly is too wrapped up in the Phillies’ Penant run to worry about the Eagles… yeah right.  But it took a monumental 4th quarter efffort to possibly save their season as the Birds got a win on West Coast against a reeling Niners team.  During the bye week, the Eagles will try to find their running game and get their many injured players including All-league running back Brian Westbrook (ribs) back to good health.

17.  Jets (3-2) –  Still sporting their T-I-T-A-N-S throwbacks, the J-E-T-S gained ground on the resting Bills with a professional style win over the lowly Bengals.  Brett Favre and the Jets continue their tour of the NFL’s lower tier as this week they travel to Oakland to face the downtrodden Raiders.

18.  Bears (3-3) – In a total letdown game, the Bears took the young and hungry Falcons lightly as the upstarts pinned a “L”  on them in a game that wasn’t decided until the final play.  A very important black-and-blue NFC North battle for the top position awaits this week as the Vikings head to Chicago looking to make a statement against the Bears.

19.  Vikings (3-3) – It was an ugly win over the lowly Detroit Lions, but it was a win and the standings don’t care about beauty only substance.  The Vikings will need to show more as they travel to Chi-town to face the Bears in a classic Midwest rivalry game.

20.  Saints (3-3) – Sean Payton’s team was focused and it showed as they dismantled the dysfunctional Raiders.  Now will find out if the Saints are contenders or pretenders as they travel to Carolina with a chance to jump back to the top of the NFC South.

21. Packers (3-3) – In a win that still makes you wonder what direct they are headed in, the Pack took down a Seahawks team that looks close to have quit on retiring after the season head coach Mike Holmgren.  In a game that will clearly show us if the Packers are truly contenders, Mike McCarthy’s bunch will try to corral the Colts in Green Bay.

22.  Browns (2-3) – I guess the burial of the Browns was a bit premature as the Dawgs showed their resilency as they handed the previously undefeated New York Giants their first “L” on ESPN Monday Night Football.  There is still much work left to do as the Browns try to get back to .500 in a tough road game versus the angry Washington Redskins.

23.  Dolphins (2-3) – The ‘Phins must be kicking themselves as they let a lead slip away and eventually lost to the formerly winless Texans on the last play of the game.  In a game where both teams want to get to .500 so they can stay in the playoff hunt, the Dolphins host the defensive heavy Ravens.

24.  Ravens (2-3) – I guess it will be another year without getting back the Charm City’s honor as Colts dismantled the Ravens in Indy.  In a statement game that has desperation written all over it, the Ravens will travel South to face the Dolphins and their famous “Wildcat” offense.

25.  Texans (1-4) –  It took until the last play of the game, but in the end it was the Texans getting their first victory of the season over the surprised Dolphins.  In a battle of two of the NFL’s lower tier teams, the Texans host the winless Lions in a possible trap game.

26.  49ers (2-4) – Niners showed their true colors as they let a 4th quarter lead slip away with the Eagles stormingd past them.  The road doesn’t get any easier as the Niners must now travel across the country face an angry New York Giants team.

27.  Seahawks (1-4) –  Head Coach Mike Holmgren must be wishing that he already retired as his team just doesn’t have it right now.  The Seahawks looked like they were planning for the off-season early as the Packers did a number on them.  If they have any aspirations of catching the Cardinals, the Seahawks must first get a win this week in Tampa Bay.

28.  Rams (1-4) Fiery head coach Jim Haslett made a difference as the Rams fought and clawed their way to their first win of the season over a surprised Redskins team.  The Rams will look to make it two in a row as they host the “Young and Restless” Cowboys.

29.  Raiders (1-4) – Head Coach Tom Cable’s debut was not a good one as the  Saints pounded the Raiders, making you wondering if Al Davis has seen enough after one game.  The Brett “the Jet” Favre roadshow pulls into Oakland this week and I am sure it will be ugly very quickly for the Raiders and their fans.

30.  Chiefs (1-4) – I don’t know if a bye week can fix the multitude of the problems that the Chiefs have including an unhappy Tony Gonzalez still on the team and Larry Johnson’s recent legal issues.  In an interesting game it may be time for “option football” as the rushing based Tennessee Titans bring their vaunted running game to town to face a Chiefs team that also runs early and often.

31.  Bengals (0-6) – Another week with another heartbreaking loss for the Bengals and their beleaguered head coach Marvin Lewis.  This time it was the Jets and quarterback Brett Favre who supplied the boot to the Bengals’ butt.   Maybe hosting a rivalry game against the hated NFC North leading Steelers can get the Bengals back on track. But without star quarterback Carson Palmer that maybe too tall of a task.

32.  Lions (0-5) – The Leos hung tough for awhile, but in the end the Vikings knew how to finish the job as they squeaked out a win.  The NFL’s worst team can only hope to go up as they travel to Houston to face a Texans squad who is looking for their second straight win.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL Power Rankings – Preseason Week 3

(Philadelphia, Pa) — With the 89th NFL Season titled “Believe In Now” fast approaching, hope is springing eternal around the NFL as most teams are wrapping up training camps and  heading back to their own facilities. 

Even though everyone knows my stance on Preseason football – NFL full prices for exhibition games are agregious to most fans and I am sure I speak for everyone when I say “The Less Preseason games, the better” – I do believe that the 3rd week of preseason is the most crucial.  In the third pre-season game, teams usually

1)     Leave their starters in longer (3rd quarter) before resting them in week 4

2)     Start implementing their regular season week one game plans, so look for a little more than your usual vanilla play calling and defensive schemes.

3)     Study the game film harder to see if they find something from their regular week one opponent.  Plus most importantly pre-season week three’s tape is “audition film” as teams are picking the last 5 to 10 players of their 53-man rosters.

With the “Turk” coming soon to end some players NFL dreams — August 26 (Rosters cutdown to maximum of 75 players) and August 30 (Roster cutdown to maximum of 53 players) – the time is now for every player other than team’s superstars to shine.  NFL Preseason Week 3 runs from August 21-25 with featured match-ups: HOU @ DAL on 8/22 (CBS), PIT @ MIN on 8/23 (CBS), and SEA @ SD on 8/25 (ESPN).

With the importance of Preseason Week 3, I thought now was a good time to start my weekly rankings of NFL teams including their 2007 records.

1. Giants (13-6) – In case you missed it the G-Men shutdown the record setting Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.  Sure Strahan, Shockey, and others are gone, but they still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch.  In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!!  Face Brett and the Jets in the battle for New York City on Saturday.

2.  Patriots (18-1) – Well they knocked on the door of the ‘72 Dolphins, but could not kick it in.  With all of the records and names on this roster every team will be gunning for them just like the Super Bowl Champion Giants.  Need to watch their injuries as QB Tom Brady (foot), S Brandon Merriweather (leg), and others are banged up.  Host the Eagles on Friday in a re-match of Super Bowl XXXIX.

3.  Colts (13-4) – Every year Tony Dungy, Peyton Manning, and the rest of the Colts usually produce 12 wins or more.  However the Chargers in the playoffs proved that they can be beaten in the playoffs.  In Dungy’s last year, the Colts will try to send him out on a good note.  To say the least QB Peyton Manning healing from his pre-training camp knee surgery will be the key to the Colts early season fortunes.  Host the upstart Bills on Sunday Night football on NFL Network.

4.  Chargers (13-6) – After a breakout season, where they finally came close to living up to their immense talent, L.T and his crew are back as everyone’s AFC favorites.  It will be interesting to see if head coach Norv Turner and QB Phillip Rivers can reach the AFC mountain top and Super Bowl expectations that every prognistcator seems to be calling for.  Host former rival the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football (ESPN).

5. Cowboys (13-4) – The poster boys from the HBO show Hard Knocks have high expectations after gathering even more talent on paper.  In a put up or season, it is win in the playoffs or bust for Wade Phillips, T.O, Tony Romo, and a host of other high-profile characters (last playoff win in 1996). After going 0-2 in their first two preseason games, the Cowboys host the Houston Texans on Friday in the annual Battle for Texas game.

6.  Jaguars (13-5) – After winning a wild card game in Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion but stumbling against the Patriots, this physical body punching team is looking to take the next step and go further in the playoffs.  Injuries will be a factor as their receiving core has injuries to Reggie Williams (knee) and Joey Porter (leg) to deal with.  Travel to Tampa Bay on Saturday in the battle for Florida.

7. Steelers (10-7) – After winning the AFC North in Mike Tomlin’s first season, this division will only get tougher.  With a healthy Willie Parker and rookie sensation Rashard Mendenhall in their backfield, look for more running than passing (averaged over 25 passing attempts in ’07) this year.  Travel up North on Saturday to face the Vikings.

8.  Saints (7-9) – After a year of high expectations that fizzled after starting the season 0-4, the Saints are back looking to get back to the NFC Championship game.  With a re-charged QB Drew Brees, RB Deuce McAllister returning from injury, maybe a more professional RB Reggie Bush, and at least 4 new defensive starters, look for the Saints to make some noise in the NFC South.  Travel to the Cinncinati on Saturday to face a banged up Bengals team.

9.  Seahawks (11-7) – The ‘Hawks after falling in the playoffs at Green Bay again, will attempt to send Mike Holmgren out on a good note. For this expected NFC West champion, RB’s Julius Jones and TJ Duckett join QB Matt Hasselbeck along with a stellar attacking defense led by Lofa Tatupu.  On ESPN MNF, they travel to San Diego in a battle for West Coast dominance.

10.  Vikings (8-8) – After barely missing out on the playoffs, the Vikings are a lot of prognisticators pick to go far in the NFC.  The keys to the Vikings getting back to the Cris Carter/Randy Moss glory years are RB Adrian Peterson remaining healthy, QB Tavaris Jackson (knee) cutting down on mistakes and a defense full of new faces jelling. In CBS’ Saturday night special they host the Steelers.

11.  Browns (10-6) – ’07 was a great year for the re-birth of the Dawgs after playing like puppies the last couple of years.  I still believe head coach Romeo Crennel’s job is on the line, so another playoff contention year is needed.  With so many new faces added on defense and a fantasy football trophy case of offensive talent, this could be the year we see the Browns back in the playoffs.  Travel to Motown on Saturday night to face the Lions.

12. Packers (15-4) – After losing in the NFC Championship in overtime to the G-Men, everyone assumed the Pack would be back.  However with the whole Brett Favre retirement/non-retirement soap opera finally ending and the legend going to NYC, it has put a huge question mark on this team.  Sure they have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but is Aaron Rodgers ready to lead despite being in Favre’s immense shadow.  Travel to Denver on Friday Night.

13.  Panthers (7-9) – After an injury plagued year where expectations were not met, head coach John Fox is trying to get off the hot seat.  The NFC South is a wide-open tough division, but the Panthers need QB Jake Delhomme (Tommy John elbow surgery in ’07), First-round pick RB Jonathan Stewart, and a defense led by a rejuvenated DE Julius Peppers to step up.  Host the Redskins in a battle for the Virginia-North Carolina area.

14.  Eagles (8-8) – The Birds are back for Andy Reid and QB Donovan McNabb’s tenth season in Philly.  The faithful are hoping that additions CB Asante Samuel, WR DeSean Jackson (2nd rd pick), and RB Lorenzo Booker can help bring the Eagles back to the playoffs since ’06.  The key will be McNabb’s health, RB Brian Westbrook continuing his ascension to the NFL’s elite, and a speedy defense producing turnovers.  On Friday, Travel to New England to play the Brady-less Patriots.

15.  Redskins (9-8) – With new head coach Jim Zorn at the controls the Redskins will try to continue their end of ’07 playoff run.  The key will be the continued maturation of QB Jason Campbell and RB Clinton Portis staying healthy and more big plays from their defense.  The NFC East maybe football’s toughest division so the ‘Skins have their work cut out for them.  Travel to Carolina to face the upstart Panthers led by CB Richard Marshall.

16.  Broncos (7-9) – I am sorry, but I have to ask the question “Is Mike Shannahan’s time up in Denver?”  Even with owner Pat Bowlen firmly in his corner Shannahan has to be feeling a little uneasy.  The Broncos need QB Jay Cutler and a defense led by CB Champ Bailey to step up in a division where the Chargers are ahead of the pack.  Host the Packers on Friday night.

17.  Buccaneers (9-8) – The 2007 NFC South champs have a lot of questions starting with the quarterback position, where Gruden has a collection (Garcia, Griese, Johnson, Simms, and Rattay) but are any of them ready to lead.  The Bucs will need to lean on their attacking defense and a running attack led by a recovering Cadillac Williams (knee), a returning Warrick Dunn, and speedster Michael Bennett. Host Jacksonville on Saturday night in a battle for Florida.

18.  Titans (10-7) – V.Y led them to the playoffs again, but more is needed by the quarterback (9 TDs w/ 17 INTs) and Jeff Fisher’s squad in 2007.  Expect a nasty running attack built around V.Y, rookie Chris Johnson, bruiser LenDale White, and multi-purpose threat Chris Henry (maybe they should think about the option) to lead the powder blue clad Titans.  Travel to Atlanta Friday night in a battler for the South versus the Falcons.

19.  Texans (8-8) – Had their first non-losing season in ’07, which is something to build upon for GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak.  Expect to see a more comfortable Matt Schaub at quarterback throwing to a healthy Andre Johnson, but the AFC South maybe the NFL’s toughest division.  Travel to Dallas on Friday night to face the Cowboys in their annual preseason clash.

20.  Jets (4-12) – With the addition of the legend himself Brett “the Jet” Favre (Mr. Madden Football ’09), the J-E-T-S  soared to the everyone’s must see TV list.  But you have to wonder about the learning curve ahead of the future Hall of Fame player after 15 years in Green Bay.  Gang Green’s owner Woody Johnson opened his wallett bringing in DT Kris Jenkins, LB Calvin Pace, and OL Damien Woody so the pressure is on head coach Eric Mangini.  On Saturday, they host the Giants in their own stadium to see who holds the belt for New York City.

21.  Cardinals (8-8) – After an ’07 season where everything fell apart down the stretch for the Cards, this fantasy football dream team is back again.  However I can honestly say that this year I will not be suckered into picking the Cardinals to surprisingly win the NFC West (hopefully they will prove me wrong).  Head Coach Whisenhunt will need to settle an unsettled quarterback situation with Matt Leinhart and veteran Kurt Warner vying for playing time.  Travel to the Black Hole to take on the Raiders in a Saturday night shootout.

22.  Bills (7-9) – After an ’07 where they battled injury after injury the Buffalo (Sometimes Toronto) Bills are looking to make some noise in the tough AFC East.  With a young roster including rookie of the year candidate DB Leodis McKelvin and fully healed from a ’07 injury LB Paul Posluszny, look for the re-tooling Bills to continue to fight.  Travel to Indy for Sunday Night Football (NFL Network) against the Colts.

23.  Bears (7-9) – After a 2007 up and down season, head coach Lovie Smith is going with QB Kyle Orton at quarterback.  Orton and new running back Matt Forte will need to carry an offense that does not have a marquee wide receiver against divisional supposed lead team the upstart Minnesota Vikings.  Host the rebuildining Niners on Thursday night.

24.  Ravens (5-11) – After an offseason of change that saw Brian Billick head to the booth, QB Steve McNair retire, and young head coach John Harbaugh take over, the Ravens want to get back to the playoffs.  Harbaugh has been tough on this group in training camp and hopefully dividends will payoff in the top-heavy AFC North.  Expect to see former Heisman winner Troy Smith at the as the Ravens travel to St. Louis on Saturday to face a rebuilding Rams team.

25.  Lions (7-9) – After QB Jon Kitna’s brash 10-win season boasting didn’t come to fruition, the Lions are back trying to make the playoffs.  With Kitna and the receiving tandem of WR Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams leading the way maybe the Lions can finish the job in ’08 to help take head coach Rod Marinelli off the hot seat.  Host the Browns on Saturday in a Midwest battle.

26.  Bengals (6-10) – After a very inconsistent ’07 season featuring bickering and more off the field problems, the Bengals are looking to get back to their 2005 heights (AFC North Champs).  The task of returning to glory will be a tough one on hot seat head coach Marvin Lewis.  Lewis will need to lean on WR Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson QB Carson Palmer, but first the two of them must get on the same page.  Host New Orleans on Saturday night as the player they coveted in the draft DT Sedrick Ellis comes to town.

26.  Raiders (4-12) – It seems every year the Raiders head coach is on the hot seat with venerable team architect Al Davis and ’08 is no different as Lane Kiffin tries to rejuvenate the Silver and Black.  Kiffin will have the services of strong-armed quarterback JaMarcus Russell unlike last year’s training camp.  The key will be adding some offense to a  defense that is loaded in the secondary.  Host the Cardinals on Saturday night as the player many thought they should have taken in ’06 (QB Matt Leinhart) comes to town.

29.  Chiefs (4-12) – In a make or break ’08 season, the very young Chiefs and their on the hot seat head coach Herman Edwards better lean on powerful running back Larry Johnson.  With QB Brodie Croyle at the helm and a non-descript set of WR’s expect to see Johnson left, Johnson right, Johnson up the middle. Travel to Miami on Saturday night to face the also rebuilding Dolphins.

31.  Falcons (4-12) – The ’08 season has brought a new coach, a new franchise quarterback, and supposedly a new attitude to a franchise that struggled in the post Michael Vick ’07 season.  Former Jags assistant Mike Smith will take over the reins as head coach and Bill Belichick understudy Tom Domitroff is the new GM for owner Arthur Blank. Look for a rebuilding season this year as the O-line and quarterback Matt Ryan are young.  Host Tennessee on Friday night in a battle for the South.

30.  Dolphins (1-15) – There is a new sheriff in town and his name is VP of Football Operations Bill Parcells.  The Tuna has gone about making the ‘Phins into his own image (tough and disciplined) after a disasterous ’07.  With the Parcells’ gang (GM Ireland, head coach Tony Sparano, TE Fassano, NT Jason Ferguson, and others) in town look for a better year from last year’s laughingstock.  Host KC on Saturday in a battle of rebuilding franchises.

31.  49ers (5-11) – Finished high in the NFL’s draft order for another year as questions abound on offense.  Scoring guru Mike Martz was brought-in to infuse some life into QB Alex Smith, RB Frank Gore, and a non-descript set of WR’s.  Already Martz’s has instituted his “guy” QB J.T O’Sullivan as the starting quarterback, so head coach Mike Nolan and Smith better have their resumes ready if this team falters.  Travel to Chi-town to take on the Bears on Thursday Night.

32.  Rams (3-13) – After a tough ’07 where injuries were everywhere, head coach Scott Linehan is on the hot seat with the new ownership group.  Maybe Pro Bowlers QB Marc Bulger and WR Tory Holt can rekindle “The Greatest Show on Turf”, but without holdout RB Steven Jackson that is a tall order.  Host the Ravens on Saturday night.

 

 

 Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)