With the preseason now in the rearview mirror and teams fine-tuning their final rosters, here are some observations as I look forward to the kickoff of the regular season.
Too many people are predicting the Houston Texans will win the AFC South. Though I think the Texans have added talent in some key areas this year, their run defense is a cause for concern, and I’m still not convinced Matt Schaub can clock in for his first full injury-free season. And that’s a must if the Texans can legitimately compete with the Colts and the Titans this year.
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Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez emerged as the top quarterback in this year’s draft class. If nothing else, you have to tip your hat to the former USC quarterback for adapting quicker to the NFL than the Lions’ Matthew Stafford. While Stafford will become a starting-quality quarterback in this league, I’m not sure he’ll have the same level of success as Sanchez over the long term either. The Jets rookie doesn’t seem to be the least bit overwhelmed by his new surroundings. And his just-go-out-and-play approach combined with his overall skill set should help him become one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL as his career progresses.
Buffalo’s offense looked scary on paper, but the execution sure hasn’t been there. Head coach Dick Jauron got that gnawing feeling that his offense wasn’t going to turn the corner under offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, so he fired him at the 11th hour. The Bills plan to stay committed to the no-huddle offense, but it’ll be interesting to see whether they abandon it in the next few weeks — especially if Trent Edwards doesn’t perform better than he did in his last two preseason outings, when he completed just 13 of 24 passes for 76 yards, threw no touchdowns passes and two interceptions.
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie might have derailed a very good Eagles team with the addition of Michael Vick. Setting aside any feelings you may have regarding Vick’s return to the NFL, you have to wonder whether his signing was very smart. Most NFL experts were blown away by the Eagles’ addition of Vick, as he simply wasn’t needed in Philadelphia. Kevin Kolb was on track to be the team’s starter of the future. Donovan McNabb is more focused and productive when he’s clearly the leader of the offense — as he proved down the stretch for Philadelphia last year. Vick’s presence is requiring the offense to learn a few new wrinkles while giving McNabb reason to be paranoid. And the team truly doesn’t need either distraction, since they appeared to have all the pieces for success in place before Vick arrived.
Peyton Manning looks sharper than he did a year ago, but what about the rest of the Colts? Indy’s quarterback was coming off knee problems at this time last year and was visibly affected by his lack of reps in the preseason. But Manning has been in top form during the 2009 preseason. The addition of rookie Donald Brown will help the Colts’ rushing attack, but their offensive line has looked shaky at times and they miss safety Bob Sanders, who could start the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Give the Chargers the AFC West title right now. The competition in the AFC West didn’t improve much since last season. Kansas City should show some improvement, the Broncos are floundering and the Raiders are still the Raiders. Don’t expect San Diego to need a late-season run to claim the division title; the Chargers could have it wrapped up by Week 13.
Both of the North divisions in the NFL should be neck-and-neck through the final week of play. Though many believe the addition of Brett Favre has given the Vikings the missing ingredient to win a Super Bowl, I’m not convinced they’re going to win the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers looks great, and the added talent and changes on defense make the Packers a formidable foe for Minnesota. And the addition of Jay Cutler should bring a balance to the Bears’ offense that will keep them in the race. In the AFC North, while I still give the defending World Champs the edge, the Baltimore Ravens — despite their lack of depth at wide receiver — are going to take them to the wire.
Tom Brady is back. Although he needed to knock off some rust and get comfortable in the pocket amid the real chaos again, Brady is spreading the ball around and will benefit from the addition of Joey Galloway — and that’s bad news for every other team in the NFL. Though Rex Ryan and the Jets are going to be a competitive club, the team that will pose the biggest challenge for New England in the AFC East will once again be the Miami Dolphins.
Chad Ochocinco is happy and as normal as he can be, and that’s a huge positive for the Bengals heading into the regular season. Not only did the outspoken wide receiver show a better work ethic before and during this preseason, but he also stopped distracting the club. That improved focus will help Cincinnati be more competitive as they nip at the heels of the Ravens and the Steelers.
Browns coach Eric Mangini will finally have to name a starting quarterback, but my guess is neither one has really impressed him. And if that’s the case, Mangini should bite the bullet for a season and give Brady Quinn the live-action reps he needs to develop at this level.