Well the opening game has come and gone now, and I can't say I was excited about the debut of the Jim Zorn era. The offense looked rudimentary (which is a nice way of saying bad and sloppy) and the defense decided not to show up for the first half. But I'll have more on the ways to fix the Skins (and it has a lot to do with the play of Jason Campbell) later.
For now, I wanted to get it on record my two surprise teams for this NFL season since any good sports writer has to make outlandish preseason predictions only to see them go horribly wrong to the point that said sports writer must pen something else to defend themselves. But with the NFL the way it is today, and parity reigning supreme, there's going to be two or three teams that come out of nowhere to make the playoffs. Last year, it was the Packers, Bucs, and Redskins (to a lesser extent) making the big playoff leap from obscurity in the NFC. And I'd say the only playoff team in the AFC who could qualify as somewhat of a surprise were the Titans, but everyone was predicting big things from Vince Young all last preseason. Little did they know, Vince Young would almost throw Tennessee out of the playoffs, only to get the biggest saving grace ever when the Colts decided to play a pee wee football team instead of their starters in the regular season's final game.
But back to the surprise teams. I have an inexact science to picking these types of things. I say inexact because from past experiences, it's clear my predictions are in no way, shape or form to be taken as anything remotely resembling fact. For me, a surprise team always has to come from a weak division, because surprise team generally get freebie wins against their mediocre divisional counterparts. They also have to have what I deem a relatively easy schedule to begin the season since a fast start is paramount to make the playoffs in the NFL. I can handle tougher games later on because once a team realizes it has potential to be more than a .500 club, magical things somehow happen.
So when I began thinking about this post I had an original group of seven in my head when I began pondering this prediction. In the NFC, I had the Bears, Panthers, and Cardinals. In the AFC, I had the Jets, Dolphins, Texans, and Broncos. Now, obviously that is far too many teams to have as surprises considering there are only 12 playoff teams total.
So if we go with my first parameter for being a surprise team (easy division), you can right away wipe out three AFC teams. The Fins and Jets will most definitely be improved but with Favre in New York coupled with all their free agent acquisitions, I just can't consider their emergence as surprising anymore. I also think the Fins will be much improved with Pennington running the show, but now with the Pats and Jets poised to make runs, in addition to a Bills team that Graham thinks is being vastly underrated (even though their starting QB went 1-11 as a senior in college), that division is much too tough for Miami. And since I'm peniciling in four losses for the Texans since they have to play Jacksonville and Indy twice each, I'd have to say they're out of the question as well.
That leaves me with the Jay Cutler All Stars ... errr ... I mean the Broncos. According to my thought process, they fit the bill so to speak. The NFC West is hardly a juggernaut considering the Raiders and Chiefs are fetuses when compared with the manly NFL. And Denver's first four games are at Oakland, home games against the Chargers and Saints, followed by a road game against Kansas City. If they can win one of those tough home games, I don't think it's out of the question for them to start 3-1.
If you take a look at the rest of the Bronco schedule, I don't think 10 wins a wild card spot are out of the question. In addition to the three wins I've already mentioned, I'm confident in wins at home against the Bucs, Fins, and then beating the Chiefs and Raiders when they come to Invesco. Then all they need to do is win three out of this batch of games: at Atlanta, at Cleveland (who will collapse once it realizes just how mediocre derek Anderson was the second half of last season and reminds me so much of old school Dan Snyder in the way they've spent money, it's scary), at Jets, at Carolina. I'm penciling denver in for auto losses against New England, San Diego on the road, and Jacksonville at home.
Obviously, this brash prediction is contingent on the Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall connection producing once Marshall serves a one-game suspension in week one, the Broncos' running game remaining solid with Selvin Young, and the addition of DeWayne Robertson on the defensive line providing Denver's D with enough of a pass rush for corners Champ Bailey and Dre Bly.
As for the NFC, I'm eliminating the Bears because they are the Bears (and they have a pretty stiff schedule to start the season with Indy, Carolina, and Philly in the first four weeks). Oh yeah Da Bears also have a guy named Kyle Orton, who couldn't beat out Rex Grossman a year ago, at quarterback. I just don't see a drastic turnaround, weak division or not. I wanted to say the Cardinals, but like the Bears, I'm fighting that urge because of the Cards history of failing to live up to any expectations ever given to them. I just can't see a Kurt Warner-led team making the playoffs, especially because they aren't going to win their division over the Seahawks.
That leaves us with Carolina, a team I was so impressed with when it demolished the Skins in the preseason. The Panthers have Jake Delhomme back and healthy with a new elbow. And let's not forget, this is a make or break year for Jon Fox. Chances are if he doesn't make the playoffs this season, his reign as Carolina coach is likely over. The NFC South may look strong on the surface with Tampa and New Orleans, but I think the Bucs will take a large step back this season with aging veterans Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway. And the early schedule is more than manageable with games against the Bears, Falcons, and Chiefs in the first five weeks. They may lose their opener to San Diego, but the Panthers have a real opportunity to get on a roll, especially once Steve Smith comes back from his "knockout punch" suspension. Lest I forget, there's also this fellow by the name of Julius Peppers who I fully expect to bounce back from an injury-riddled season a year ago and post some monster numbers.
So there you have it, Carolina and Denver will make the playoffs this season. Remember where you heard it first.