To get it out of the way, here's how it'll break down. (No, I haven't calculated win-loss totals to reflect accuracy, this is just a general idea of how I think teams will fare.)
Green Bay Packers, 10-6
*Minnesota Vikings, 9-7
Detroit Lions 6-10
Chicago Bears 5-11
Dallas Cowboys, 10-6
Philadelphia Eagles, 7-9
New York Giants, 7-9
Washington Redskins, 6-10
New Orleans Saints, 13-3
*Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 10-6
Atlanta Falcons, 9-7
Carolina Panthers, 7-9
St. Louis Rams, 9-7
Arizona Cardinals, 8-8
Seattle Seahawks, 6-10
San Francisco 49ers, 2-14
Rams over Buccaneers, Vikings over Cowboys
Saints over Vikings, Rams over Packers (ehhh, what the hell)
Saints over Rams
Pittsburgh Steelers, 11-5
*Baltimore Ravens, 9-7
Cleveland Browns, 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals, 3-13
New England Patriots, 11-5
*New York Jets, 9-7
Miami Dolphins, 6-10
Buffalo Bills, 5-11
Tennessee Titans, 9-7
Houston Texans, 8-8
Indianapolis Colts, 7-9
Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-11
San Diego Chargers, 13-3
Kansas City Chiefs, 8-8
Denver Broncos, 8-8
Oakland Raiders, 3-13
Jets over Titans, Ravens over Patriots
Steelers over Ravens, Chargers over Jets
Chargers over Steelers
Saints over Chargers
Now, some random bits...
- The NFC is loaded with really, REALLY good offenses. The Saints, Packers, Falcons, Cowboys, Eagles, Lions and (I think) the Rams all have weapons and will put up tons of points, so I think the teams with the better defenses will win out. That to me means the Eagles, Falcons and Lions in particular are in trouble.
- Philly did sign Asomugha, and their secondary looks great, but their pass-rush is one guy (Trent Cole), and their dollar-store linebackers seriously might be the worst in the league, if not bottom five. They might give up 6 yards a carry. Also, their new defensive coordinator is last year's offensive line coach. Uh, what? If Jim Johnston were still there, I'd think they'd do well. Instead they're stuck with Some Guy for the 2nd straight year. Too bad for them.
- Atlanta is in even worse shape. Their pass-rush is also one guy (John Abraham, who's not getting any younger), their linebackers are average, and their secondary is the same group that got systematically destroyed by Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs last year. They have a lot of nice looking players on offense but they're not going to stop anyone.
- Other disappointments: I do not understand the Detroit hype. Their secondary is even worse than Atlanta's. Two defensive tackles does not make an entire defense. They are going to get torched by every decent quarterback they face. (Including McNabb and probably even Cutler.) And every single skill player they have, including the quarterback, has dealt with injury problems in the past two years. Stafford, Megatron, Best, Burleson and Pettigrew (who's already banged up) have all missed significant time. I don't expect this to change.
- As for the Rams getting to the NFC title game... I love their head coach Steve Spagnuolo (the old Giants defensive coordinator who figured out the record-setting Pats offense in Super Bowl XLII). The Rams defense was a classic case of "chicken salad from chicken shit" thanks to him, and they're only going to get better this year. Fred Robbins is solid inside (10 tackles for loss last year to go with 6 sacks), former 2nd overall pick Chris Long is a monster at DE (league high 42.5 hurries), MLB James Laurinaitis is outstanding against the run and can rush the passer, and FS Quintin Mikell was quietly a very good signing for them. He should help cover the middle allowing Spagnuolo to dial up some crazy blitzes.
The offense now has Josh McDaniels calling the plays, Sam Bradford with a year under his belt, Stephen Jackson's usual understated and reliable contributions, and possibly Wes Welker 2.0 in Danny Amendola (obligatory comparison between white WR and white WR). They're a young team (save Jackson) that'll get better as the year goes along.
- To me, the team to beat remains the Saints. They made a series of great moves that made their roster even better. They dumped Reggie Bush for Darren Sproles, making them imminently more likable. They made the best signing of the offseason, nabbing DT Aubrayo Franklin from the 49ers to help stop the run and enable MLB Jonathan Vilma to roam the field. (Just ask the Niners MLB Patrick Willis how valuable Franklin is.) They also picked up pass-rushing DT Shaun Rogers and drafted RB Mark Ingram. Upgrades across the board. If all those guys play the way they're supposed to, that means the Saints should be able to run the ball just as well as they did their Super Bowl season (nearly 5 yards per carry) as well as being able to stop the run. Plus, they still have Drew Brees. That doesn't hurt.
- But what about the Packers? People forget they barely made the playoffs last year. "Barely" for a reason. This is going to sound like total anti-homerist anti-Packers stuff, but just because you win a Super Bowl, that doesn't absolve you of your flaws. The Packers are still going to be in the top 5 in penalties, they're still going to lose games the way they lost to Chicago last year (18 penalties, 2 special teams TDs given up), they're still going to make a lot of boneheaded game-clock mistakes, and unabashed morons like Colin Cowherd are still going to blame it on Aaron Rodgers.
- The AFC will have the same quality six teams in the playoffs again this year, save Indy who looks atrocious without Peyton Manning. I think the new kickoff rule benefits the Chargers the most, as they're prone to less special teams disasters (and less bad luck) as a result. Norv Turner is still their head coach, I know, but I think talent wins out in San Diego this year. I'm not buying the Ravens hype, Joe Flacco is what he is at this point. That's not a good thing, that's a bad thing. Same could be said about the Jets and Mark Sanchez, who I expect to regress with that awful receiving corps (and the lack of the vastly underrated Brad Smith).
I think the Titans are in a good position to take advantage of a weak-as-hell AFC South, thanks to a half-decent Matt Hasselbeck, a hopefully-not-incarcerated Kenny Britt and the 2nd best RB in the NFL, Chris Johnson. The Patriots are the Patriots and the Steelers are the Steelers (hard hitting analysis only found here at Tiger Woods Fist Pump!), they're the same quality teams every year. I just think Phil Rivers makes the same leap Drew Brees made in 2009 and Aaron Rodgers made last year. Tons of continuity on offense, an easier schedule, a full year of Vincent Jackson and a return to the mean on special teams, and I think this is the Chargers' year.
- Now, for "my" team, the Vikes...
I think they're a classic 8-8 team. They'll beat who they're supposed to, they'll lose to who they're supposed to. (They'll get crushed by the Chargers in Week 1, guaranteed.) But my homerism won't allow them to not make their usual one-and-done playoff run. (Sorry, I can't help but phrase something like Troy Aikman once in a while. "I'm not sure that won't not happen, Joe.")
However, the secondary is bad. Really bad. They WILL get torched by good passing teams. It's pointless to say empty phrases like "They have to get better," because they just are what they are, a group of slow corners and non-descript safetys. The only way they're going to have a chance to do well is if the rest of the defense does their job. Meaning, stop the run and force other teams into third-and-long to allow Frazier to unleash crazy blitzes left and right. The best way to hide a crappy secondary is with a great pass rush.
There's no reason to think established guys like EJ, Greenway, Allen and Williams won't have their normal, solid-if-not-Pro-Bowl seasons. That means Erin Henderson, Remi Ayodele and Brian Robison are on the spot. If those guys can't at least contribute in stopping the run, the Vikings defense is going to be on the field a lot. Or maybe not, since they'd be giving up 80-yard touchdowns practically every time out.
The offense will be fine though. McNabb will be solid until his inevitable injury, Ponder will see some action, Peterson will be his usual awesome self, and hopefully the offensive line won't make me jump into a swimming pool full of razor blades. I expect lots of shoot-outs, much like the 1995 team under Warren Moon. (Obligatory black QB vs. black QB comparison.)
And... that's all I got. Expectations are low. Just win the games you're supposed to and beat the Packers. That's all I ask.