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Top 10 bold NFL predictions for 2009

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Can you smell that? That beautiful Buffalo Wing-scented aroma wafting through your nasal passages like a meadow full of early autumn blossoms? Can you hear that? That Sam Spence composed rumbling of big brass and Lambeau Field-influenced chords? Can you taste it? The savory delight of a ridged potato chip skiing through a bowl of French Onion dip and soaring into your mouth? Yes folks, it's time for football season. Finally. Hell, you've been ready for weeks, if not months. You've read all the NFL preview magazines, done your fantasy football research and survived three weeks of worthless preseason games. And now, we're just a few days away. Get through this last weekend, and it's 22 straight weeks of NFL goodness. Breathe it in. Savor it. You'll read a bunch of writers' 2009 predictions this week and next and probably hear even more from the TV talking heads and sports radio knuckleheads. But you won't find 10 bolder predictions than mine below. Disagree with any? Let me know. 1. The Pittsburgh Steelers defense will be even better in '09 than they were in '08.
Just how dominant was the Steelers' D last year? Consider this: In 2008, league-wide scoring was at its all-time highest since 1965, and yet Pittsburgh gave up only 13.9 points per game. In '08, the Steelers faced the toughest schedule of the league's 32 teams and went up against five of the NFL's top 11 offenses. Not an issue. The Steelers allowed the fewest points, total yards and passing yards in football and finished second in rushing yards allowed. No team has led the league in all four categories since the NFL merger in 1970. The 2009 Steelers might very well accomplish the feat. Though they don't face a "cream puff" schedule by any means, this year Pittsburgh has a far easier slate than they did last season. Sure, they go against Baltimore twice and match up with Tennessee and San Diego. But they also face the likes of Cincinnati (twice), Cleveland (twice), Detroit, Denver, Kansas City and Oakland. Those are seven wins before even leaving the locker room. More importantly, the Steelers have the majority of the '08 defense — including coordinator Dick LeBeau — returning in '09. Cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Larry Foote are elsewhere, but both will be replaced with very formidable fill-ins. The Steelers' linebacker depth, long the team's strength, is downright scary this year. In preseason action, Pittsburgh has seen major contributions from third-year man Lawrence Timmons. Expect him to make the "leap" in '09 like teammate LaMarr Woodley did in '08. Sure, the Patriots are the Vegas favorites. And yes, everyone is falling all over themselves to line up for the '09 Chargers bandwagon. But let's not sleep on the defending champs. The '09 Steelers defense may be the best unit the league has seen since another starting 11 roamed the Steel City in 1976. Lead the league in fewest points allowed, fewest total yards allowed, fewest passing yards allowed and fewest rushing yards allowed? Sure, why not? Maybe throw in most sacks and interceptions, too. Yep, I'm that high on the 2009 Steelers defense. 2. The New York Jets will start the season 0-5. What's that? Someone in the media speaking somewhat negatively about Rex Ryan's boys? No flipping way, that's impossible! Listen, I understand that coach Ryan's personality and media accessibility is a welcome change from the silent treatment Eric Mangini gave New York-area scribes for the past three years, but that doesn't mean everyone needs to trick themselves into thinking this team can survive a brutal September schedule with a rookie quarterback manning the ship.
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They won't. A Week 1 nationally-televised trip to Houston will be anything but a walk in the park, back-to-back home games versus the Patriots and Titans are almost automatic losses and road games in New Orleans and Miami in Weeks 4 and 5 will more than likely feature the Jets as underdogs as well. Jets fans, I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer, here. Really, I'm not. I'm just being a realist. Your local media's let you down, awed and dazzled by a head coach that looks them in the eye during press conferences and gives them the occasional juicy quote. That might make for good copy. But it doesn't guarantee a good start to what will be nothing short of a gauntlet to start the season. 0-5? For a team that everyone's seemingly really high on in 2009? Yes, I think so. 3. The 2009 Broncos will be as bad as the 2008 Broncos were over the final month of last season. In a situation in which one win would have captured them just their second AFC West crown since 1998 and gotten them in the playoffs for the first time since '05, the Broncos lost the final three games of the 2008 season by a combined score of 112-54. They'll be no better in '09. Gasp. Yes, few teams have ever endured an offseason quite like the Broncos have this past year. In a matter of months, Denver fired long-time head coach Mike Shanahan and brought on an entirely new staff, traded a 26-year-old franchise quarterback to Chicago for a handful of question marks and seen a Pro Bowl wide receiver demand a trade and get suspended for insubordination during practice. Toss in Jabar Gaffney's recent hand injury — which could cost him anywhere from 6-10 weeks — and you've got all the makings for a long, long season in Denver. Josh McDaniels will be sporting the grey, short-sleeved sweatshirts and has been labeled everything from a "wunderkind" to a "kid genius," but I don't see immediate results in Denver this season. 4. Joe Flacco will have a Pro-Bowl sophomore season. Sophomore slump? Not with this guy. If the 2009 preseason has been any sort of indication, the Ravens' offense — and no, I'm not being facetious here — is going to be both balanced and high-powered this year. From the looks of it, Cam Cameron's taken the leash off of Joe Flacco, and the kid is ready to show that it is, in fact, possible to have a passing game in Baltimore Ravens purple. You know all about the Ravens' running game. The trio of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain is arguably the best in the league, and between the three of them, you may see 2,750 rushing yards out of the Baltimore backfield this season. This is the year the passing game follows suit. Flacco has one of the NFL's best arms, and based on the early returns from the preseason, he'll be using it in '09. In a conference with arms like Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Cassel, Pennington, Collins, Palmer and Schaub, using the words "Pro Bowl" and "Joe Flacco" in the same sentence seems pretty absurd. Believe it. 5. Everyone's darlings, the 2009 Atlanta Falcons, will not make the playoffs. With my apologies to "Steak" Shapiro and the rest of the 790-AM "Mayhem in the AM" crew down in Atlanta, I just don't see the Falcons qualifying for the postseason in '09. I know what you're thinking: "An 11-5 team from a year ago brings everyone back, adds a Hall of Fame tight end and a bunch of stud rookies on defense — and you're down on them?"

CAMP SIGHTS '09

FALCONS: Laura Okmin got the vibe from Falcons camp firsthand. Watch the videos as she spoke with key members of Atlanta's '09 roster.
Matt Ryan Q&A with Matt Ryan: Atlanta's young quarterback talks about how he hopes to avoid a sophomore slump. Watch video ...
Tony Gonzalez Q&A with Tony Gonzalez : The 10-time Pro Bowl TE and long-time Chief shares about his move to the Falcons. Watch video ...
Michael Turner Q&A with Michael Turner : After leading the NFL in carries last season, will the Falcons cut back on Turner's touches? Watch video ...
    MORE WITH THE FALCONS:
  • VIDEO: Q&A with John Abraham
  • VIDEO: Q&A with Mike Smith
  • VIDEO: Q&A with Thomas Dimitroff
Well, that's not entirely the case. I think the Falcons are a solid enough team. I just don't see them cracking the NFC's top six. Whereas Atlanta faced a very manageable schedule last year, here comes the gauntlet. The NFC South has never been better and non-conference bouts against the always-difficult NFC and AFC East divisions do not exactly help the cause. In '08, Atlanta defied the odds and made the playoffs with a rookie head coach, first-year general manager, rookie quarterback, rookie offensive tackle and first-year starter at running back. They were fortunate that all of their major playmakers on offense stayed healthy from September to January. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White were all injury-free, and the defense stayed relatively intact. In short, they were the complete opposite of the 2009 New York Mets. There's no guarantee the team can stay so healthy in '09. And that defense? The unit was 24th in the league last year. Though there were upgrades across the board, there are still several holes — specifically at cornerback and safety. The Falcons' starting defensive backfield consists of journeyman Brent Grimes, third-year man Chris Houston and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Eric Coleman. There's not much else on the bench. That look like a division winning defensive backfield to you? Hey, I like the Falcons. I do. I just don't see them playing football in January 2010. In the Falcons' 43 years of existence, the franchise has never had back-to-back winning seasons. The streak continues in '09. 6. At some point in the '09 season, each member of the "forgettable four" of the 2006 NFL draft — Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Kellen Clemens and Tarvaris Jackson — will get time under center, play well and ultimately salvage their NFL careers. Call me optimistic, but I haven't given up on these guys just yet. Whether due to injuries or starting QB inefficiency, I think each one of the "forgettable four" will get chances to redeem themselves in '09. And they will do just that. Don't write them off. Not yet, at least. 7. The Chicago Bears will win the NFC North. I've detailed my love for the 2009 Bears in columns throughout the summer, but I'm not sure I've put an official stamp on them for a division championship yet. Well, surprise! Congratulate your 09 NFC North champions. In a division with QB storylines surrounding Brett Favre in Minnesota, Matt Stafford in Detroit and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, I love Jay Cutler and the Bears. With the league's easiest schedule, a franchise quarterback for the first time in decades and one of the NFL's most innovative defensive minds taking over play-calling duties (again), look for Chicago to bounce back from two straight mediocre seasons and host a playoff game come January. No receivers? Stop that. Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are more than formidable as a 1-2 duo. Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark serve as a top-notch tight end combo. Cutler will only make all of them better football players. If I sound giddy about Cutler, it's because I am. Aided by a manageable schedule, a few years under his belt, a team eager to have him as their leader and both fan base and coaching staff in his corner from the very start, this is the year Jay Cutler enters the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. He'll take the Bears along with him on his rise to super stardom. 8. Jon Gruden will have a better 2009 season than the Buccaneers. Based on my recent article in which I suggested the Bucs could go winless in '09, it's safe to say I'm not exactly "bullish" on Tampa Bay this season. To be blunt, I think they'll be among the worst teams in the league in '09. As down as I am on Year One of the Raheem Morris Era in Tampa Bay, I'm high on Year One of the Jon Gruden era in the "Monday Night Football" booth. In four preseason efforts thus far, Coach Gruden's been nothing short of delightful to watch a game with. Whereas the forgettable Tony Kornheiser era made for awkward moments, uncomfortable tension and the occasional scripted essay on Brett Favre's wife Deanna, Gruden brings nuts n' bolts analysis and passionate discourse. His defense of the "Wildcat" formation during a heated debate with Ron Jaworski on a recent telecast was both entertaining and informative. He knows Xs and Os and gives wonderful insight. Most importantly, he doesn't speak down to the viewer. There's nothing awkward, forced or uncomfortable about Jon Gruden in the broadcast booth. He's just good. The 2009 Buccaneers? I can't say the same about them. 9. Forget preseason sensation Glenn Coffee. Browns rookie RB James Davis and Bengals rookie RB Bernard Scott will each have more rushing yards and TDs this season. I got a call from my buddy Drew last weekend minutes before his annual fantasy football draft. Drew: "I want to take this Glenn Coffee in the later rounds." Me: "Why? Because he's had a few good preseason games and all of the fantasy football experts are going gaga over him?" Drew: "No, because his name is Glenn. I've never had a Glenn on my fantasy football team. I think I want one." Motives aside, Coffee is no doubt the "sleeper du jour" among fantasy players and experts this month. Don't get me wrong. He's been nothing short of magnificent this August, and I think he'll have a nice rookie season spelling Frank Gore in San Francisco. But I'm much higher on two other late-round rookie backs — Cleveland Browns RB James Davis and Cincinnati Bengals RB Bernard Scott. Whereas Gore is at the peak of his career and will more than likely command the majority of the carries in San Fran, both Davis and Scott should have greater chances to shine. Davis, a sixth-round pick out of Clemson, could end up being used in a way very similar to how Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll utilized Leon Washington in the Jets' offense the past few seasons. Bernard Scott, wearing Corey Dillon's old No. 28 in Cincy, should get his fair share of opportunities for the Bengals. Both players are worth late-round fantasy picks. When Coffee is taken too early in your draft, scoop up Davis and Scott. After all, how often do you have guys named James and Bernard on your fantasy teams? 10. Come February, Ben Roethlisberger will be hoisting his third Lombardi Trophy in five years. Not bold enough for you? Check out who the Steelers will be playing in the Super Bowl and the rest of my playoff picks and 2009 awards:
SCHRAGER'S 2009 PREDICTIONS
NFC division winners
AFC division winners
NFC East: Eagles (10-6)
NFC North: Bears (11-5)
NFC South: Saints (10-6)
NFC West: Seahawks (10-6)
AFC East: Patriots (12-4)
AFC North: Steelers (14-2)
AFC South: Colts (11-5)
AFC West: Chargers (10-6)
NFC wild-card teams
AFC wild-card teams
Wildcard No. 1: Giants (10-6)
Wildcard No. 2: Vikings (9-7)
Wildcard No. 1: Ravens (11-5)
Wildcard No. 2: Titans (10-6)
NFC playoffs
AFC playoffs
Wildcard: Saints over Giants; Eagles over Vikings
Divisional: Bears over Saints; Eagles over Seahawks
Championship: Bears over Eagles
Wildcard: Ravens over Chargers; Colts over Titans
Divisional: Steelers over Ravens; Patriots over Colts
Championship: Steelers over Patriots
SCHRAGER'S SUPER BOWL PICK & AWARDS
PITTSBURGH STEELERS over CHICAGO BEARS
League MVP — Adrian Peterson, Vikings RB
Head Coach of Year — Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Comeback Player of Year — Cadillac Williams, Bucs RB
Defensive Player of Year: — James Harrison, Steelers LB
Offensive Rookie of Year — Percy Harvin, Vikings WR
Defensive Rookie of Year — Aaron Curry, Seahawks LB
Tagged: Jabar Gaffney, Brett Favre, Thomas DeCoud, Falcons, Bears, Bengals, Brent Grimes, Browns, Broncos, Lions, Chris Houston, Bernard Scott, Packers, Titans, Corey Dillon, Vikings, Patriots, Aaron Curry, Bryant McFadden, Giants, Roddy White, Vince Young, Jets, Earl Bennett, Seahawks, 49ers, Buccaneers, Aaron Rodgers, Frank Gore, Tarvaris Jackson, Ravens, Lawrence Timmons, Cardinals, Kellen Clemens, Steelers, Chargers, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, Larry Foote, Le'Ron McClain, Ray Rice, Bruce Davis, LaMarr Woodley, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Leon Washington, Percy Harvin, Desmond Clark, James Harrison, Willis McGahee, Greg Olsen, Matt Ryan

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