We make five out-on-a-limb predictions for the upcoming NFL season.
1. LIONS WILL FINISH WITH A WINNING RECORD
The Detroit Lions have had three consecutive double-digit-loss seasons. They are 48–128 since their last playoff appearance in 1999. Yet, it won’t be a surprise if the Lions win nine games — for the first time since 2000 — and flirt with a postseason berth.
The Lions won their final four games last season, beating the Packers, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Vikings, and they did it without their starting quarterback. Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, has made only 13 starts in his two seasons, including only three in 2010, because of injuries.
The third time will be the charm for Stafford, who can’t possibly be that unlucky. Ndamukong Suh — who will be on one of the top defensive lines in football with Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley — says that if Stafford can stay healthy, the “sky is the limit” for the Lions.
Detroit will be the biggest threat to the Packers in the NFC North.
2. THE COLTS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS
Elsewhere in this magazine, we pose the question of whether Peyton Manning is overrated. We thought, why not — let’s go all-in with our heresy and predict the Colts to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
It’s not nearly as outlandish as it seems at first blush. Age catches up with all of us eventually, and the 35-year-old Peyton Manning is undergoing his first real bout with health concerns. The real possibility he won't be ready for the first game of the season due to off-season neck surgery will certainly hamper the team’s preparation following a lockout-shortened offseason.
Old problems — lack of a consistent running game, a defense that has trouble stopping the run and rushing the passer, a figurehead of a head coach — have yet to be corrected.
Then there are the Colts’ primary rivals for AFC South supremacy. The Houston Texans have teased and tantalized with their potential for years, only to fall short. Unlike the Colts, though, the Texans have addressed their weaknesses, hiring defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to fix a woeful defense.
As odd as it may sound, the old Cowboys castoff could represent a real and present danger to the Colts’ divisional dominance. It was an impressive run, but this is the year the Colts’ mastery over the AFC South will come to an end.
3. GREATEST SHOW ON TURF RETURNS
The St. Louis Rams were known as the Greatest Show on Turf when Kurt Warner was the ringmaster. St. Louis was 61–27, including the postseason, and won two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl from 1999-2003. After a long wait, it appears the Rams finally have found Warner’s replacement, and thus rediscovered their winning ways.
Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, was named the NFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year after passing for 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He led the Rams to within one game of a playoff berth — a 16–6 loss to the Seahawks in the season finale — without much of a receiving corps.
The Rams haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, and they haven’t been a contender since Warner’s departure after the ’03 season. With his biggest weapons back, and a year of NFL experience under his belt, Bradford appears ready to take the Rams where they haven’t been since Warner called St. Louis home.
4. PHILLIPS WILL SAVE KUBIAK’S JOB
Gary Kubiak is 37–43 in his five seasons in Houston. He gets one more chance to give the Texans their first postseason berth, and in Wade he trusts. Wade Phillips, fired by the Dallas Cowboys at midseason, was hired by Kubiak to fix the Texans’ defense, which finished 30th in total defense and 32nd against the pass last season.
Phillips is switching the Texans from a 4-3 to a 3-4, moving Mario Williams from end to outside linebacker in the process. He got the five defensive players he wanted in the first five rounds of the draft, including J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and Brandon Harris, and the Texans significantly upgraded the secondary in free agency by signing corner Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning.
Houston has been a popular pick to make the playoffs in recent years only to come up short. This, however, will be the year.
5. BRETT FAVRE STAYS RETIRED
Will he or won’t he? That is not the question this year. Even if Brett Favre wanted to play another season, he wouldn’t find a suitor. His playing days are finished, a year later than they should have been.
The Vikings have moved on, drafting Christian Ponder as their quarterback of the future, and trading for Donovan McNabb for the short term. They can only hope McNabb does as well as Favre’s replacements in Green Bay and New York. Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three seasons after the Packers made him the 24th overall pick in 2005.
In 2009, the Jets used the fifth overall pick on USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. He has helped the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games. McNabb has an easier job: He doesn’t have to make Vikings fans forget Favre, because they already have.