Picks and predictions for the 2009 NFL season

OK — so the Falcons didn’t turn out to be one of the worst teams in football.

Dallas didn’t go deep into the playoffs.

Miami was just a little bit better than I’d expected.

And the Saints didn’t make the playoffs.

But it’s a new season — and with a new season comes a new chance to get it right.

So hide the women, children and Gregg Easterbrook.

It’s time again for the fifth annual SCHEIN preseason picks on FOXSports.com.

NFC East

1. Giants 11-5

There are valid concerns at the receiver position and legit injury questions on defense. But Tom Coughlin doesn’t get enough credit for having his team ready to fight every week — and for simply being a great football coach. Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs and the NFC’s elite offensive line set the tone for this winning organization.

2. Cowboys 10-6 (Wild Card)

The Dallas Cowboys are the most drama-free team in the division. It’s crazy, but true. A misplaced, gigantic scoreboard and the NFL’s asinine decision to have a do-over if a ball hits it have been grabbing all the headlines, not the state of affairs on the gridiron — and that’s a good thing. Wade Phillips has his hands all over the defense, whereas Tony Romo is sans Terrell Owens and Jessica Simpson, and thus is primed for a big season. I love the three-headed monster at running back.

3. Eagles 10-6 (Wild Card)

Before the Eagles signed Mike Vick, I had them as a division winner and Super Bowl team. After they brought in the ultimate distraction and offensive flow-killer (ask Donovan McNabb if you don’t believe me), I considered dropping them out of the playoffs all together. But I have too much respect for Andy Reid, Brian Westbrook and McNabb to do that. And while the Stewart Bradley injury is a huge one, and the defense hasn’t looked the part in August, I do believe in the talent and coaching. It’s the health and chemistry on the offensive line that scares me.

4. Redskins 7-9

I love the defense, which could become the best in the division. And I do trust in Jason Campbell. That tells you how much I don’t believe in the right side of the line, the quality and depth at receiver, the Clinton Portis/Jim Zorn relationship and, simply, Jim Zorn.

NFC North

1. Packers 12-4

You’ve already read my awards column. If I’m picking Aaron Rodgers to win MVP, you know I’m high on Green Bay. The Packers defense became better the minute Dom Capers walked through that door, and they will become a feared unit this season. I think Mike McCarthy is a winning football coach and really has instilled toughness in this team.

2. Bears 9-7

This is my biggest regret. I think the Bears upside is high enough that they could make the Super Bowl, yet I have them as the seventh-best team in the NFC. I love Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, but is anybody else just a tad concerned about Tommie Harris becoming Tommie Harris once again?

3. Vikings 7-9

Why the downgrade in wins for an en vogue Super Bowl selection? It’s because of the downgrade at quarterback: bringing in the leader in interceptions last year who also happens to be an injured, aging diva who has already created a “schism” in the locker room.

4. Lions 5-11

Packers cornerback Al Harris thinks Detroit can win eight. Let’s slow down there, cowboy. Still, five more than last year could be worth a parade after the single worst season in sports history. Look for Louis Delmas and Brandon Pettigrew to have solid rookie years under Jim Schwartz and his new staff. The best news in Detroit? Matt Millen is locked in a studio somewhere.

NFC South

1. Saints 11-5

I love the look of this team, and I have officially developed a full-blown case of “Saint-itis.” Gregg Williams is an aggressive play-caller, giving Sean Payton the needed mirror image of himself on defense. The defense will be much better with an improved backfield that will benefit from Williams’ attack mode. And don’t forget that Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the conference.

2. Falcons 9-7

The good news is that Atlanta will finish above .500 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. The presence of Tony Gonzalez will make stud second-year quarterback Matty “Ice” Ryan even more amazing. Michael Turner is a beast, and the offensive line is underrated. The bad news is that nine wins isn’t enough to make the playoffs. That they traded for Tye Hill tells you everything you need to know about the defensive backfield. But Hill and Brian Williams do represent solid last-minute upgrades.

3. Panthers 7-9

New defensive coordinator Ron Meeks doesn’t seem to be a John Fox guy. And Jake Delhomme now seems to just be a regular guy. I don’t think he played great last year when the club was inches away from home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, even before the epic meltdown in Arizona. Delhomme really scares me.

4. Bucs 3-13

Firing Jeff Jagodzinski 10 days before the season drives home what I’ve been saying all offseason. Simply put, there is no direction or clue in Tampa.

NFC West

1. Cardinals 11-5

I understand history and precedent of the struggles for Super Bowl losers to get back to the playoffs. But I really believe the only thing that Arizona lacked through the years was a legit sense of confidence — not hot air, but the true belief that they could win. Ken Whisenhunt got his team to believe and achieve in the playoffs last year. The offense is explosive, and the defense (especially the defensive backfield) is much better than you think.

2. 49ers 8-8

I like to say there’s a “plus or minus two” quotient attached to preseason picks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Singletary’s bunch made a surprise run at the wild card. With Mike Martz away from the team, they will get back to the basics of running the ball in San Fran. Get ready for Frank Gore to explode this season.

3. Seahawks 6-10

There are so many question marks on this team. Walter Jones’ injury is a huge deal, and I don’t think Seattle can run the ball with any consistency.

4). Rams 4-12

I like Steve Spagnuolo and I like Marc Bulger. But that’s about it. Is that a receiving corps or a witness protection program? Alex Barron is being flagged for a false start as you read this.

AFC East

1. Patriots 12-4

When a team trades Richard Seymour and it doesn’t hurt the defense, that tells you how good it is. Tom Brady is healthy. The passing attack is unreal. Fred Taylor helps the run game as Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs upgrade the defensive backfield, areas of weakness last season. Oh, and Bill Belichick is the best coach in sports.

2. Jets 9-7 (Wild Card)

Is Rex Ryan full of hot air or simply ahead of the curve? I think it’s a wonderful combination of the two for Jets fans. Ryan added credibility and life to the Jets. Look for David Harris and Kerry Rhodes to take steps forward. The New York defense is going to pressure the quarterback and change games this year. And with Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, the Jets have one of the most cohesive offensive lines and running attacks in the league — more than enough to help out neophyte Mark Sanchez in his first NFL season. Is this a risky pick? No question. But I really think the attitude for the team is different, and the defense and run game will bloody the opposition.

3. Bills 8-8

I’m either really dumb or really stubborn. Perhaps both. Yes, I saw the OC get fired a week before the season. Yes, I watched the first team offense play like a bad peewee team in the preseason. And yes, without question, I am aware of what T.O. can do to a team. And yet … I think Dick Jauron is a good coach and this team has enough talent to at least fake a playoff run.

4. Dolphins 8-8

Am I disrespecting the Dolphins? Maybe. I think they will win some games you’re not expecting and lose some others you’re convinced they should win. Miami’s talent is solid but not spectacular, and I think that will catches up with them a bit this year after their wonderful run in 2008.

AFC North

1. Ravens 11-5

Why Baltimore over Pittsburgh? I think with the emergence of Ray Rice, Baltimore’s running attack will be better than the Steelers’. Joe Flacco is more than a game manager; he’s a budding star. John Harbaugh proved to be a worthy head coach last season. And with Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, my defensive player of the year pick Haloti Ngata and the underrated returns of Dawan Landry and Kelly Gregg, the Ravens defense is still downright nasty.

2. Steelers 10-6 (Wild Card)

The Super Bowl champs will be in the hunt for the big game again with their star quarterback and dynamic, difference-making defense. I’m not knocking the Steelers by giving them only 10 wins. It’s just that other teams have improved that much.

3. Bengals 7-9

The sad thing is that I really like Mike Zimmer’s defense. It would be nice for Carson Palmer and the rest of the team if Cincy had even half an offensive line.

4. Browns 2-14

Want to hear a joke? The Browns actually hired Eric Mangini! I guess they didn’t have DirecTV so they could watch Jets games these past three years.

AFC South

1. Texans 10-6

Hey, what do you know? Dunta Robinson actually found his way to Houston in time for my annual prediction column! So, I’ll take the leap of faith and stay consistent in my offseason chatter on Sirius NFL Radio and say that this is the year the Texans get over the hump. DeMeco Ryans is entrenched as the defensive leader, and that gives me hope for the unit achieving — despite Cato June being lost for the year and Brian Cushing missing some valuable time in the preseason. The offense is explosive in every area. And obviously, I’m banking on Matt Schaub staying healthy for 16 games, because if Dan Orlovsky or Rex Grossman had to play … well, as my SNY co-host Chris Carlin might say, “Pack it in, sweetheart.”

2. Titans 9-7

The hype of the season opener in Pittsburgh is incredible. But based on my calculations, Titans fans might want to circle the week three game in New York against the Jets; it could determine if Tennessee goes to the playoffs. Jeff Fisher is an elite head coach, and I love the offensive line and running back combination. But Kerry Collins and that passing attack scare me a tad.

3. Colts 8-8

That’s not a misprint. And it makes me nervous. Last year, I thought Peyton Manning was incredible, pulling out wins for the Colts that they had no business getting. I’m concerned about the offensive line, Joseph Addai and the defense. But my biggest concern is with the head coach and the staff after a confusing and somewhat tumultuous offseason. I think Tony Dungy is a Hall of Famer, but I don’t know what Jim Caldwell is. Although Manning is the ultimate eraser of mistakes around him, I’m still predicting a dropoff for Indy this season. My radio co-host Rich Gannon begged me to pick the Colts because of Manning. We’ll have to see.

4. Jaguars 6-10

There’s just something off with this team. Maybe it’s the offensive line. Or the receivers. Or yet another new defensive coordinator. Perhaps it’s Fred Taylor and Mike Peterson playing elsewhere. Could it be the lack of fan support? Or Tony Pashos and Brian Williams getting chopped off the roster at the last second? It all just doesn’t smell right.

AFC West

1. Chargers 13-3

I have absolutely no worries about this supremely-talented team with L.T., Philip Rivers Shawne Merriman, Antonio Gates and a now-healthy Antonio Cromartie. No worries, that is, until the calendar flips to January.

2. Chiefs 6-10

For the record, I love the new general manager and head coach, and think the Chiefs are going to be a very tough out for four quarters every week. I was tempted to go with eight wins — then I took a good hard look at that schedule.

3. Raiders 4-12

If I picked them to win three games, I thought Tom Cable might punch me. Did they really cut Jeff Garcia? Did they really trade a first-round pick for a 30-year-old defensive lineman?

4. Broncos 3-13

Remember the good old days, back when Mike Shanahan was the coach? When Jay Cutler was the quarterback? When Brandon Marshall didn’t treat practice like kindergarten? When Josh McDaniels was just a myth?

Playoff predictions

NFC Championship — Packers over Giants

AFC Championship — Patriots over Chargers

Super Bowl — Patriots over Packers