1 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The Patriots were the team of the decade, a tribute to the resolve and leadership of Robert and Jonathan Kraft in building a model franchise. They won three Super Bowls in four years (2002, 2003 and 2005) and got to another in 2008, and their 126 victories are the best total over a 10-year period in NFL history. An injury-free QB Tom Brady posted a 96.2 rating with 4,398 yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. WR Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions (123) but comes off knee surgery, while game-breaker Randy Moss had 83 catches for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns. Adding WR Torry Holt gives Brady another weapon while LB Tully Banta-Cain (10 sacks) leads an improved defense. The Pats collected a dozen draft picks and landed the best pass-catching TE in the draft in Rob Gronkowski.
2 NEW YORK JETS
Rex Ryan rattled the NFL with his bawdy talk but delivered the Jets to the AFC title game. He put his trust in a rookie quarterback and spoon-fed him behind a strong ground game that was the NFL’s best, matching the league’s No. 1 defense. Mark Sanchez established himself as the franchise QB when the Jets won five of their last six games to make the playoffs. In Ryan’s off-season moves, he got Antonio Cromartie from the Chargers to join Darrelle Revis in what now is the best cornerback tandem around, added RB LaDainian Tomlinson, another ex-Charger, and snatched WR Santonio Holmes from Pittsburgh and DE Jason Taylor from Miami.
3 MIAMI DOLPHINS
After going 11-5 his first year as coach, Tony Sparano got a wake-up call last season when he lost QB Chad Pennington for 13 games. Replacement Chad Henne didn’t win any raves with a so-so rating of 75.2, and the Fish finished 7-9. RB Ricky Williams furnished most of the offense with 1,385 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns after Ronnie Brown went down. Bill Parcells made two large free-agent additions in the off-season, getting run-stopping LB Karlos Dansby from Arizona to fortify a defense that allowed 390 points, and WR Brandon Marshall from Denver, who has caught at least 100 passes in each of his last three seasons. The Dolphins made seven of their eight draft picks on defense to compensate for the losses of LB Joey Porter and DE Jason Taylor.
4 BUFFALO BILLS
Nonagenarian owner Ralph Wilson should have applied for a stimulus package after watching his Bills crumble again. RB Marshawn Lynch was suspended, the Terrell Owens signing was a flop, the team had no quarterback to speak of and the offensive line was, well, offensive, which means that new coach Chan Gailey will get a migraine headache in looking at another last-place finish. It’s not a situation that No. 1 pick C. J. Spiller, the best running back in the draft, looks forward to. The two bright spots the Bills had were RB Fred Jackson (1,062 yards) and rookie DB Jairus Byrd, who tied for the league high in interceptions (9) despite missing two games.
1 INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
The AFC champions (14-2) shunned free agency after losing 31-17 to the Saints in the Super Bowl. QB Peyton Manning is the main reason the Colts have won 12 or more games for seven consecutive seasons. Manning, a four-time MVP, finished with 4,500 yards, a team-record 393 completions, 68.8% accuracy, 33 touchdowns and a 99.9 rating. Manning has willing partners in WR Reggie Wayne (100 catches, 1,264 yards, 10 touchdowns), TE Dallas Clark (100 catches, 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns), WR Austin Collie (60 catches, 676 yards), and WR Pierre Garçon (47 catches, 765 yards, 16.3 avg.). RB Joseph Addai rushed for 828 yards, but he was the only standout on the ground, and the Colts’ running game ranked last in the NFL. Led by DE Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks), the defense allowed the fewest points (307) in the South.
2 TENNESSEE TITANS
Jeff Fisher did a remarkable coaching job last year, pulling up the Titans from an 0-6 start to a playoff near-miss at 8-8. The strong second-half surge, with eight wins in 10 games, can be directly attributed to QB Vince Young, who started the season on the bench. RB Chris Johnson helped him big time. He led the NFL in rushing with a brilliant 2,006-yard campaign that resulted in a 5.6 yard average and 14 touchdowns. The Titans, who needed to fix their defense after giving up the second-most points (402) in the AFC, expect improvement after drafting six defensive players. Johnson was rewarded with a new contract, proving that the Titans are not the Tight Ones.
3 HOUSTON TEXANS
It was another disappointing journey for the Texans in their quest to reach the playoffs for the first time. They started 5-3 but lost four straight games before winning their last four to go over .500 for the first time (9-7). A weak rushing attack (30th in yards) undermined the offense largely because RB Steve Slaton had fumble-itis. QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson make the aerial game lethal. Nobody had more passing yardage than Schaub (4,770), with 29 touchdowns and a 98.6 rating. Johnson led in yardage with 1,569 with a second straight year of triple-digit receptions (101). The Texans met their needs in the draft with Auburn RB Ben Tate and Alabama DB Kareem Jackson. However, they took a big hit in the off-season when Defensive Rookie of the Year LB Brian Cushing (who led in tackles with 133 along with 4 interceptions) was suspended for the first four games of 2010 for violation of the NFL’s steroid policy.
4 JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
They’re not “jacked up” in Jacksonville anymore. The Jags wound up 7-9 after a 6-4 start. Coach Jack Del Rio is a defensive specialist yet it was the defense that was his undoing. The Jags’ 27th-ranked pass defense was horrible (allowing 236 yards per game) while managing only 14 sacks. RB Maurice Jones-Drew broke out with 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns and grabbed 53 passes for another 374 yards. Del Rio fired several coaches, brought in DE Aaron Kampman and used his first four picks on defense, but it may not be enough. No playoffs could mean Del Rio’s end.
1 PITTSBURGH STEELERS
QB Ben Roethlisberger’s exploits off the field overshadow everything he did on it and gives him less of an opportunity this season as he faces a suspension of six games that can be reduced to four. That leaves the Steelers with Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch under center, replacing Big Ben, who threw for a career-high 4,328 yards (including a 503-yard explosion against Green Bay) and earned a 100.5 rating. The Steelers, who won the Super Bowl in the 2008 season but missed the playoffs last year, must count on RB Rashard Mendenhall (1,108 yards) and WR Hines Ward (95 catches, 1,167 yards) while Big Ben is out. Losing DB Troy Polamalu for 11 games was huge. The Steelers had only five interceptions in his absence. The defense gets a boost with Polamalu’s return.
2 BALTIMORE RAVENS
GM Ozzie Newsome didn’t wait long in the off-season to address the Ravens’ No. 1 priority—opening up the offense—by acquiring play-making WRs Donte’ Stallworth and Anquan Boldin, who was fifth in the NFC with 84 receptions and 1,024 yards with Arizona. No one could be happier with the changes than QB Joe Flacco. Other than Derrick Mason (73 catches, 1,028 yards), Flacco had no one to look for deep down field. RB Ray Rice was his leading receiver (78 receptions, 702 yards) but is best at rushing (1,339 yards). The Ray Lewis defense remains menacing, allowing only 261 points, second in the AFC to the Jets, and it just got stronger with drafted newcomer DT Terrence Cody.
3 CINCINNATI BENGALS
Winning all six divisional games (10-6) and the North championship saved coach Marvin Lewis’ job and earned him Coach of the Year honors. RB Cedric Benson emerged as a star with 1,251 yards, fifth best in the AFC. The passing game struggled because QB Carson Palmer didn’t have enough weapons. WR Chad Ochocinco (72 catches, 1,047 yards) was his only deep threat. Palmer did as best he could (3,094 yards, 21 touchdowns). Signing ex-Buc WR Antonio Bryant (83 receptions, 1,248 yards in 2008 before missing much of 2009 with a knee injury), ex-Jaguar WR Matt Jones, volatile WR Terrell Owens and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham will open up the passing game. The Bengals, who love to give second chances to those who have exhausted their third chances, signed Adam (Don’t Call Me Pac-Man) Jones, likely to help most on returns.
4 CLEVELAND BROWNS
The inept Browns won their last four games, saving coach Eric Mangini’s job. New president Mike Holmgren spared Mangini but not QBs Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. He replaced them with his backup Seattle QB, Seneca Wallace, and ex-Panther Jake Delhomme, neither of whom will sell more season tickets. Holmgren got lucky by drafting Texas QB Colt McCoy in the fourth round. He also got good ones in RB Montario Hardesty and DB Joe Haden. RB Jerome Harrison (862 yards) and WR/return specialist Josh Cribbs gave Browns fans something to cheer about. Holmgren added veterans LB Scott Fujita and TE Ben Watson but the Browns still look beige.
1 SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
The Chargers seem to be the NFL’s heartbreak hotel the last three years. The Bolts got close, but never reached the Super Bowl and disappointed with a divisional 17-14 loss at home to the Jets last year, adding another blot to their playoff record. LaDainian Tomlinson, the centerpiece since 2001, is gone and so is CB Antonio Cromartie. QB Philip Rivers is their flash of lightning and finished as the AFC’s top-rated passer (104.4) with 4,254 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions. Rivers flowed smoothly with TE Antonio Gates (79 catches, 1,157 yards) and WR Vincent Jackson (68 catches, 1,167 yards) as the Chargers led the AFC in scoring (454 points) in a 13-win season, which will be tougher to equal since Jackson was suspended by the NFL for the first three games of 2010. The Chargers expect Fresno State RB Ryan Mathews, their No.1 draft pick, to replace Tomlinson.
2 OAKLAND RAIDERS
The Al Davis smarts were evident in the draft as the savvy owner got his ship righted after only 29 wins in the last seven years. He had solid draft picks, the best being LB Rolando McClain and DT Lamarr Houston to create a run-stop barrier. The Raiders possess budding stars on offense in RB Michael Bush (589 yards, 4.8 avg.) and WR Louis Murphy (34 receptions, 521 yards, 15.3 avg.) and hope RB Darren McFadden can stay healthy. Davis had enough of QB JaMarcus Russell, the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and dumped him for former Redskin Jason Campbell. Oakland will be an improved team.
3 DENVER BRONCOS
The cockiness of first-year coach Josh McDaniels worked halfway into the season when Denver surprised by going 6-0. It proved illusory as the Broncos stumbled to an 8-8 close. In one of his first moves, McDaniels shipped QB Jay Cutler to Chicago for QB Kyle Orton, which was bizarre. McDaniels then got into a love-hate relationship with WR Brandon Marshall and traded him to Miami. He will be missed. Orton had a creditable year but it apparently didn’t satisfy McDaniel, who acquired Brady Quinn from Cleveland and surprised everyone by drafting Tim Tebow in the first round. RB Knowshon Moreno (947 yards) and LB Elvis Dumervil with his NFL-leading 17 sacks have to wonder how
McDaniels handles a three-headed quarterback.
4 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs are beginning to look like the Patriots of the West. GM Scott Pioli brought in ex-Pat Charlie Weis to run the offense and another ex-Pat, Romeo Crennel, to take charge of the defense and change the culture of a 4-12 team that has gone 10-38 the last three years. Ex-Pat QB Matt Cassel had a so-so 69.9-rated season but in all fairness the Chiefs led the league in dropped passes. The one standout on offense was RB Jamaal Charles, who ran for 1,120 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He’ll be joined by Thomas Jones, who had career highs of 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Jets. Kansas City needs to reconstruct a defense that got barbecued for an AFC-high 424 points.
1 DALLAS COWBOYS
The Cowboys didn’t do anything in free agency and didn’t have to. Dallas won the East (11-5) and got its first playoff win in 13 years. Tony Romo’s maturation led to his best season (4,483 yards, 97.6 rating). The QB cut down on his interceptions and delivered 26 touchdowns. Jason Witten was his favorite receiver (94 catches, 1,030 yards) but WR Miles Austin emerged as a big-play force (81 receptions, 1,320 yards, 11 touchdowns). Rookie WR Dez Bryant adds more big-play presence. Dallas has a loaded backfield with Marion Barber (932 yards), Felix Jones (685 yards, 5.9 average), and Tashard Choice (349 yards, 5.5 average).
2 PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Coach Andy Reid said sending QB Donovan McNabb to divisional rival Washington was the hardest decision he’s ever made. Former backup QB Kevin Kolb owns a strong arm and is an accurate passer, and the Eagles are expected to throw more. He’ll have three good wideouts in DeSean Jackson (1,156 yards, 10 touchdowns), Jeremy Maclin (773 yards), Jason Avant (587 yards), and a productive TE Brent Celek (971 yards, 8 touchdowns). Running backs LeSean McCoy (637 yards) and Leonard Weaver (323 yards) must minimize the loss of eight-year veteran Brian Westbrook. New GM Howie Roseman will remake the roster after trucking in fresh talent with 13 draft picks.
3 NEW YORK GIANTS
Entering the 2009 season with giant expectations, the Giants crumpled like 97-pound weaklings. Eli Manning did all he could, producing his most complete season, setting career highs in passing yardage (4,021), completion percentage (62.3), touchdown passes (27) and yards per attempt (7.9). He had great rapport with a group of young receivers led by Steve Smith, who topped the NFC in receptions (107), and Mario Manningham (57 catches, 822 yards). Despite Brandon Jacobs’ 835 yards, the running game faltered. The defense was very un-Giantlike, lacking a pass rush and leaking against the run, which cost defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan his job. Replacement Perry Fewell must refuel that unit.
4 WASHINGTON REDSKINS
It’s time to clean up the mess in Washington. And the football team didn’t do well either. However, owner Daniel Snyder is finally letting his football people do their jobs. New GM Bruce Allen and head coach Mike Shanahan quickly pruned the roster after an awful 4-12 campaign. Their major move was getting the Eagles’ Donovan McNabb, who should revitalize the 16th-ranked passing game, and drafted a building block left tackle in Trent Williams. WR Santana Moss should improve on a 70-catch, 902-yard season. Shanahan stabilized the ground game by adding Larry Johnson and Willie Parker to challenge Clinton Portis.
1 NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans wasn’t active in free agency and didn’t have to be. Led by All-World QB Drew Brees, the champion Saints head into 2010 with their offensive powerhouse intact. Brees was phenomenal with a league high rating of 109.6, producing 4,388 yards, 34 touchdowns, only 11 interceptions and an NFL-record 70.6 completion percentage. Pierre Thomas supplied a much-needed ground game (793 yards, 5.4 avg.). DB Darren Sharper led a gutsy defense with nine interceptions while DE Will Smith weighed in with 13 sacks. Sean Payton showed why he is one of the best play-calling coaches in the business with a brilliant second-half onside kick in the Super Bowl, which turned the game’s momentum and helped the Saints win. I picked the Saints, a 25-1 underdog last year, to win the Super Bowl and I like them to go marching in again.
2 ATLANTA FALCONS
Atlanta produced consecutive winning seasons for the first time in its history and might have made the playoffs if RB Michael Turner hadn’t been injured and missed eight games. He was heading for another 1,000-yard campaign with 871 yards and 10 touchdowns. Team newcomer TE Tony Gonzalez provided QB Matt Ryan with a valuable weapon with 83 receptions and 867 yards that allowed WR Roddy White to shake loose with a big year (85 catches, 1,153 yards, 11 touchdowns). Atlanta shored up its defense, drafting three defenders as well as signing DB Dunta Robinson from the Texans.
3 CAROLINA PANTHERS
Catching Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen in the second round was manna from heaven as coach John Fox enters his lame-duck year without ever having back-to-back winning seasons. His biggest mistake was sticking with Jake Delhomme too long after the QB threw 23 interceptions in his last 12 games. Delhomme’s poor play negated the Panthers powerful one-two running attack of Jonathan Stewart (1,133 yards, 10 touchdowns) and DeAngelo Williams (1,117 yards). Playmaker receiver Steve Smith (65 catches, 982 yards) missed the start of training camp with a broken arm suffered in an offseason game of flag football. Clausen has a chance to unseat incumbent backup Matt Moore. The defense is a little less spicy without DE Julius Peppers, who signed with Chicago.
4 TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
One year after coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired, the devalued Bucs were worth about half a buck. Under new coach Raheem Morris, the club started 1-12 with three different quarterbacks and finished 3-13. Rookie QB Josh Freeman closed out the year as the starter and got help from TE Kellen Winslow (77 catches, 884 yards) and RB Cadillac Williams (823 yards). The Bucs used their first two draft picks on defensive tackles to bolster the league’s worst rushing defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy (the Oaklahoma tackle taken third overall in the 2010 draft) and Brian Price from UCLA could both start.
1 SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
The 49ers finally appear to be a contender. In 2009 they turned in their first non-losing season in six years (8-8) as 2005 No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith finally secured the starting QB job. He finished with an 81.5 rating and got into a zone with WR Michael Crabtree (625 yards, 13 avg.) and TE Vernon Davis, who had a breakout season (78 receptions, 965 yards, 13 touchdowns). Reliable RB Frank Gore had another 1,000-yard season (1,120 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns, plus 52 receptions for another 406 yards and 3 more touchdowns) and Patrick Willis was a force with a team-high 152 tackles, leading a defense that limited opponents to 10 points or less in seven games as they went 5-1 in the West.
2 ARIZONA CARDINALS
Nobody took a bigger off-season sack than the defending division champions, who won back-to-back titles for the first time since 1974-1975. The biggest hit was the retirement of future Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner, the NFC’s fifth-ranked passer in 2009. Matt Leinart still hasn’t progressed as expected, which is why the Cardinals signed QB Derek Anderson. The Birds had three starters fall out of the nest: WR Anquan Boldin and defensive stalwarts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. They replaced Dansby with Joey Porter and got help in the draft with LB Daryl Washington and NT Dan Williams. Arizona still has considerable firepower on offense, and the spark is WR Larry Fitzgerald (97 catches, 1,092 yards) whose 13 touchdowns tied him for tops in the NFC.
3 SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Coach Pete Carroll returned to the NFL with more moves than chess master Bobby Fischer, dealing for nine draft picks, the No. 1 being franchise left tackle Russell Okung. He also dealt for veteran RB Leon Washington (Jets). Still, Carroll faces a number of problems, especially since the Seahawks MVP was punter Jon Ryan. The worries start with oft-injured QB Matt Hasselbeck (75.1 rating) and the loss of WR Nate Burleson and QB Seneca Wallace. Charlie Whitehurst, who did not throw a pass in four years in San Diego, is the heir to Hasselbeck. WR T. J. Houshmandzadeh (79 catches, 911 yards) is the sole remaining star.
4 ST. LOUIS RAMS
The Rams looked like lambs the past three years, going 6-42, and last season’s only win came against the toothless Lions. They scored only 17 touchdowns in 2009 (one on defense), which is why St. Louis couldn’t wait to get No. 1 overall pick QB Sam Bradford, the new face of the franchise. With a strong, accurate arm, Bradford lit up the sky in Oklahoma like a pinball machine, with 88 touchdowns and a paltry 16 interceptions. With an NFC high 1,416 yards, and 51 receptions for another 322 yards, RB Steven Jackson was the Rams’ offense but comes off back surgery. With draftee WR Mardy Gilyard, the trio could make some noise.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for U.S.A. Today, for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events.