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NFL 2011: 5 Bold Predictions

Posted on September 08, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers appear poised for a repeat run to the Super Bowl.

After seeing some of my “5 Bold Predictions” for college football come crashing to the ground after just one week (thanks Notre Dame and TCU), I approach my NFL predictions with a sense of caution knowing that they could be totally off-base before the first week is even complete.

Even with a shortened off-season, this promises to be an exciting NFL campaign. I think because of the lack of preparation time you will see some teams that rely on preparation struggle early while teams that have superior talent will be able to hit stride right away.

It is already apparent that one huge issue in 2011 will be injuries. Several teams have lost starting players to season ending injuries and because players have gone at full speed for such short times during the preseason expect that to continue to happen throughout the regular season.

Prediction 1: The New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts will miss the playoffs

This statement might seem a bit bolder if Peyton Manning’s season wasn’t in limbo and if seemingly half of the defense for the New York Giants wasn’t already out for the season with injuries.

Every year there seems to be at least one team that has their season derailed or significantly altered by injuries. It appears that both the Giants and Colts will have a difficult time overcoming the injuries that have already impacted their season.

Of the two teams, I think the Giants can probably still be a decent team even without Terrell Thomas, Johnathan Goff, Marvin Austin and the others. However, in a division that includes two other likely playoff contenders in the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, there is little margin for error and as they learned last season, even a 10-win season doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot.

The Giants will have a tough time overcoming the loss of Terrell Thomas and other key defensive starters.

It is doubtful that the Indianapolis offense will be very good without Manning and the defense ranked 23rd in points allowed a year ago. However, because they play in a division where every team has significant question marks, the Colts could theoretically still earn a playoff spot with a nine or 10 win campaign.

But getting to nine or 10 wins with Manning’s status uncertain could be really tough, especially considering that they have a very difficult schedule that includes games at Tampa Bay, New Orleans, New England and Baltimore and home games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta and Kansas City.

If Kerry Collins is able to get them a couple early wins and Manning regains his traditional form for the second half of the season it is possible that the Colts could keep their streak of nine straight playoff appearances alive, but as of today I don’t like those odds.

Prediction 2: Albert Haynesworth makes the AFC Pro Bowl team

After spending more times cashing checks than sacking quarterbacks over the last two years, this will be the year in which we discover if Albert Haynesworth can ever regain the form that led the Washington Redskins to give him $100 million.

The Patriots are hopeful that Albert Haynesworth can return to Pro Bowl levels.

It is easy to forget that it was just three years ago that Haynesworth was a first team All-Pro and considered by many to be the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL.

Now at the age of 30, Haynesworth is a reclamation project for a team that has done a better job than most of taking players with checkered pasts and getting them back to NFL production. The general consensus is that if Bill Belichick and the Patriots aren’t able to get Haynesworth back to Pro Bowl status then his NFL career is likely over.

I am not yet convinced that all the issues around Haynesworth in Washington last season were solely his fault and I think being with a coach who is willing to give players some rope will help him have a resurgence and become a key player for the Patriots.

To me, the biggest issue isn’t Haynesworth’s attitude, but whether he can get into good enough shape that he can withstand the rigors of a full NFL season. If he can, then watch him return to prominence on a Super Bowl contender.

Prediction 3: Jack Del Rio and Tony Sparano will not make it through the season

If Jack Del Rio isn't able to lead the Jaguars to the playoffs at least he will already have a suit he can wear as a TV analyst.

In 2010 there were three NFL head coaches fired during the season (Brad Childress, Josh McDaniel and Wade Phillips). I predict that there will be at least two gone before the end of the 2011 campaign.

In fact, the race to be first (not a race anyone wants to win) could be a contest between two coaches from the state of Florida.

Given the tenuous quarterback situation in both Jacksonville and Miami, it wouldn’t be a shock if both Jack Del Rio and Tony Sparano are out before the end of the 2011 season.

Del Rio has already been told that he needs to make the playoffs to keep his job and after cutting starting quarterback David Garrard this week, it seems highly unlikely that Jacksonville will even come close to a playoff spot.

Sparano only has a job today because Jim Harbaugh decided to go to San Francisco instead of Miami. If Chad Henne isn’t more consistent than he was a year ago, nothing will be able to save Sparano from the chopping block this time around.

Prediction 4: Mark Ingram will be the NFL’s top rookie

One important factor in just how much of an impact a rookie can make during his first NFL campaign is out of his control. The most successful rookies are those who are able to walk right into a situation where their talents and skills are a perfect fit with the immediate needs of their new team.

In my opinion, the 2011 rookie who is walking into a situation where he can make an immediate impact is former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

There could be a lot of touchdown celebrations in the near future for Mark Ingram and the Saints.

The Saints struggled running the ball a year ago and will be looking for new leaders in that category as two of their leading rushers from a year ago, Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush, are gone. They did bring in veteran Darren Sproles from San Diego and still have former top rusher Pierre Thomas, but neither appears capable at this point in their careers to serve as the feature back.

Ingram, on the other hand, could step immediately into the lineup and become a 250 carry and 1,000 yard player for the Saints. I’m not sure if Ingram will ever have the chance to become a rushing champion with the Saints because of their reliance on Drew Brees and the passing attack, but what they need from the running game is enough balance to keep defenses honest.

The key for Ingram will be to remain healthy, but he had a solid preseason for the Saints and if he is able to dodge injuries, could be an exciting rookie and a key ingredient to getting the Saints back to the top in the NFL.

Prediction 5: The Detroit Lions will have a winning record

Perhaps no team has quietly gone about the business of stockpiling a stable of talented young players better than the Detroit Lions. Only three years removed from the first 0-16 season in NFL history, the Lions now seem to have the pieces in place to make a run at their first winning season since 2000.

Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit pass defense could make life miserable for quarterbacks.

One of the easiest traps for a fan or sports analyst is to get sucked into praising a team based on their performance in the preseason. The Lions were undefeated in their four exhibition games and looked very good in accomplishing that. However, it was just preseason and when they play at Tampa Bay on Sunday they have to prove that they can play at a high level when the games count.

The schedule isn’t a real friend for the Lions as they have some tough games both inside and outside their division. They open the season at Tampa Bay and also play at Dallas, New Orleans and Oakland. Their non-division home games include hosting the Chiefs, 49ers, Falcons and Chargers.

It is possible that the NFC North will prove to be football’s toughest division as even the Vikings, who are projected to finish fourth, are only a year removed from reaching the NFC title game and still have some great talent. And of course the other two teams in the division, the Bears and Packers, met in the NFC title game last season.

The success of the Lions will be based on their overall team improvement, but a lot of the publicity and reason for optimism is targeted around three potential superstars who all will have a big role in 2011.

On offense, if quarterback Matt Stafford can stay healthy for the entire season the Lions can be in contention in every single game. It helps that he has one of the best receivers in the game to throw to in Calvin Johnson. Watch for this to be the year that the talented Johnson breaks away from the pack and emerge as one of the elite receivers in the league.

Defensively the strength of the unit will be the defensive front line and the leader of that group is Ndamukong Suh. If his performance as a rookie is any indication, Suh has a long and successful career ahead and will one day have a bust in Canton. The Lions have to continue putting talented players at other positions on defense, but having Suh, rookie Nick Farley and other talented defensive linemen gives the Lions an advantage as they continue building.

Bonus Prediction: The Packers will remain on top of the NFL

For the last two years, I have predicted the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Ravens would meet in the Super Bowl. I came close last year as the Packers won the title and the Ravens lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. I am tempted to make it three in a row, but after some of their off-season moves am not convinced that the Ravens still have enough talent to emerge from the NFC.

The week 9 matchup between Philip Rivers and the Chargers and Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could be a Super Bowl preview.

At first glance, appears that there are three teams in the AFC that have distanced themselves from the pack in the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and New York Jets. However, each of these teams has enough deficiencies that it is hard to pick one as the prohibitive favorite.

The Steelers reached the Super Bowl last season, but recent history has shown that they struggle to stay motivated for consecutive big seasons. After winning the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2008, they failed to reach the playoffs the next season. Perhaps the fact that they lost the Super Bowl this time will help keep them focused, but they have a number of older players and could take a small step back this season.

The Jets have been at the door each of the last two seasons, but their defense has also lost a few key components and unless they can get more consistent play out of quarterback Mark Sanchez as well as their running game they will never reach the next level.

The easy choice in the AFC would appear to be the New England Patriots. They were 14-2 a year ago and added some veteran pieces that should make them even tougher this season. They also have something to prove as they have not won a playoff game since losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

However, I think the team capable of overtaking all three for the top spot in the AFC is the San Diego Chargers. A year ago the Chargers finished first in the NFL in offense and defense, yet could not overcome a slow start and missed the playoffs.

Except for a week two game at New England, their early schedule in 2011 is not formidable and they should be able to get off to a faster start. If they can, watch for Phillip Rivers and the Chargers to be off to the races and heading toward the Super Bowl.

Of course once they get to the Super Bowl I predict that the defending Super Bowl Champions will be waiting.

The scary thing about the Packers is that they will be a better team in 2011 than a year ago just by virtue of having back the many great players that missed the Super Bowl run because of injuries.

On offense Aaron Rodgers gets two important weapons back in running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley. Add in second round draft pick Randall Cobb and the offense should be even better than a year ago.

Defensively the Packers ranked second in points allowed last season and while they lost a couple solid components, they still should have enough great players to maintain a high level. Linebacker Clay Matthews has emerged as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the league and the entire unit feeds off that energy.

A Super Bowl that features the offensive firepower of the Packers and Chargers would be an awesome conclusion to the 2011 season and certainly provide a lot of warmth to heat up Indianapolis come February.

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