Three teams that will be better than you think
1. San Diego Chargers
Truth be told, not many followers of the NFL would be surprised if the Chargers dominated the AFC West, went 11-5 or 12-4 and were a serious Super Bowl contender. So why are they on this list? Well, let's not forget that last season, this team became the first in NFL history to miss the playoffs while ranking first overall in offense and defense. Philip Rivers, above, might be as good as any quarterback in football, and the defense added two stars in safety Bob Sanders and linebacker Takeo Spikes. This team is capable of winning it all.
2. Detroit Lions
All the cool kids are picking the Lions as the surprise team of 2011. It's easy to see why. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, when healthy, has shown he can play well at this level. His favorite target, Calvin Johnson, might be the best pound-for-pound receiver in football. And the Lions have a running game. Defensively, Ndamukong Suh, above, the tackle and No. 2 overall pick last year, was even better than the high expectations. And he's now joined on the line by Auburn star tackle Nick Fairley. For the first time since 2000, the Lions should have a winning record.
3. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys started so poorly last season (1-7, which cost coach Wade Phillips his job) that most didn't notice how good they were at season's end. Under interim (and now current) coach Jason Garrett, the Cowboys rallied to go 5-3 in the second half, including victories against the Colts and Eagles. Plus, they will have the return of quarterback Tony Romo, above, who played only six games last season because of a broken clavicle. This team will compete with the Eagles for the NFC East crown.
Three teams that might not be as good as you think
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Last season, the Chiefs were the surprise of the NFL, going 10-6 and winning the AFC West. There are a lot of things to like about the Chiefs, including quarterback Matt Cassel and a young defense led by safety Eric Berry. But we get the feeling that last year's 10-6 mark was, actually, a little ahead of schedule. The plan all along was to build into a Super Bowl contender by 2013 or 2014. And the Chiefs are on that road. But we see more of a step back in 2011 than a step forward. 2. Chicago Bears
We've never been sold on quarterback Jay Cutler, above. And even if you are a fan of Cutler, it's hard to believe in him when he's constantly on his back. The Bears had serious offensive line problems last season. (Cutler was sacked 52 times in 15 regular-season games.) And the preseason showed no indication the line has drastically improved. The defense is solid. But the Bears are in a division with the defending champ (Packers), a team on the rise (Lions) and another team that should be better than last year (Vikings).
3. Tampa Bay Bucs
Using the same theory about the Bucs as the Chiefs, it's not that we don't like the direction of the Bucs and coach Raheem Morris, above. It's more that last year's 10-6 record skipped over a couple of steps in the rebuilding process. The Bucs are good. Just not 10-6 good, especially in a division that includes Super Bowl contenders in New Orleans and Atlanta and a brutal schedule that includes games against the Packers, Colts, Cowboys and Bears. One step back before another two steps forward.
Three reasons to be excited about the 2011 season
1. We can't remember the last time there were this many elite teams in the NFL. We mean truly elite. In the AFC, the Pats, Steelers, Jets, Ravens and Chargers are Super Bowl contenders. The NFC has the Packers, Eagles, Saints and Falcons. And there is always a surprise team or two.
2. We can't remember the last time there were this many elite quarterbacks in the NFL. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have won multiple Super Bowls. Other Super Bowl winners include Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. Throw in Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Matt Stafford, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub and rookie Cam Newton and this might be the generation for QBs.
3. What makes the NFL so fun is how there always seems to be a few teams that come out of nowhere to make the playoffs. Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season, five had missed the playoffs in 2009. So who are the outhouse-to-penthouse teams in 2011? Contenders include the Lions, Bucs, Chargers, Cowboys, Giants and Texans.
Three reasons to be depressed about the 2011 season
1. Those darn blackouts! Last season, every one of the Bucs' eight regular-season home games was blacked out. There's a chance one of their prime-time games (an MNF game against the Colts or a Saturday night game against the Cowboys) could be sold out this season. But we expect five or six games (if not more) to be blacked out. At least their "home" game against the Bears is in London and will be shown on TV here. Is there anything more frustrating than knowing your team is playing and not being able to watch?
2. Yeah, we know most of you had grown tired of the annual Brett Favre is-he-or-isn't-he-playing soap opera. But put all that aside for just a moment and remember just how much he gave to the game and how good he was for 20 seasons. Say what you want. The guy played his guts out each and every week, and we will miss him.
3. The Super Bowl is in Indianapolis. Hey, we have nothing against Indianapolis. It's a swell place. We just believe Super Bowls should be held in either New Orleans or a place where you can grow a palm tree.
Three we're rooting for in 2011
1. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Patriots
Ochocinco likes to yap, but at least he's inventive in his smack talk. Plus, he's not a bad guy. He has never been in trouble off the field. He's funny, smart and always entertaining. And in case you hadn't noticed, he is a good football player. What's not to like?
2. Rex Ryan, coach, Jets
Yep, the Jets coach has a really big mouth. But since when are big mouths a bad thing? We all complain about how the NFL stands for the No Fun League, and then people gripe that Rex talks too much? That doesn't make sense. We love big mouths. We love Rex. Hey, we'd rather listen to Rex than boring Bill Belichick.
3. Jon Gruden, broadcaster, ESPN
Can you believe Gruden is entering his third year as a broadcaster? Did anyone think he would be out of coaching for this long? We fear he eventually will head back to the sideline, but we're hoping he has another great year in the booth and decides he wants to be a broadcaster for life.
Official award predictions
Most valuable player Tom Brady, quarterback, Patriots
Defensive player of the year Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback, Eagles
Offensive rookie of the year Julio Jones, receiver, Falcons
Defensive rookie of the year Von Miller, linebacker, Broncos
Coach of the year Norv Turner, Chargers
Comeback player of the year Tony Romo, quarterback, Cowboys
Other bold predictions
Team to beat in the AFC: Patriots
Team to beat in the NFC: Packers
First coach to be fired: Marvin Lewis, Bengals
Last team to be undefeated: Patriots
Last team to be winless: Panthers
Super Bowl champ: Patriots