Well, the NFL Regular Season is still several months away, but Futures and projected win totals have been released for all 32 teams! Its pretty amazing what a good job my former peers do with these numbers, but still, there are several that will be off significantly. Last year, my top wager was the Kansas City Chiefs Under 8 Wins. They won just four, their fewest in 20 years. A word of caution: never take the trendy Over pick. Want two shining examples? How about the 49ers last year and the Dolphins the year prior (nice Super Bowl pick, Sports Illustrated!)
Here is our 2008 AFC Forecast. AFC East: Division Rank 5/8
New England Patriots: Over 12.5 Wins
It's pretty tough to tab a season where you win 18 straight games, have your QB and top WR set new individual scoring benchmarks for their respective positions, outscore the opposition by an astounding 315 points during the regular season and go to a 4th Super Bowl in 7 years as a "disappointment," but the reality is that one Super Bowl loss to the Giants forever tainted what could have been the perfect season. Ironically, it was always the Pats ability to show resolve in the face of adversity that was previously considered to be their greatest strength. Now that some of their coach's transgressions have been proven to be accurate, it will be interesting to see how the (once again) Super Bowl favorites respond. I think they'll do just fine. Any team with Tom Brady at the helm is an automatic championship contender. They also face a real lack of competition in the AFC East. Not even the Super Bowl loser curse can prevent this team from winning its sixth division title in as many years, something they'll again have wrapped up by Thanksgiving. Prediction: 13-3 New York Jets: Push at 7 Wins
Two things are for sure with this year's edition of the New York Jets. One is that they certainly won't be as good as the 2006 team that won 10 games and made it to the postseason. Two is that they certainly won't be as bad as the team that won just four games a year ago and looked nothing like a playoff contender. When your biggest accomplishment is blowing the whistle on your division rival for cheating, you didn't have a good season. The key to the Jets season will be the transition at QB from Chad Pennington to Kellen Clemens. Penningtons arm and days as a starter are both done. Unfortunately, Clemens led the offense to just nine TDs in 88 possessions, so his maturation is paramount. Free agent signings of Alan Faneca (OL), Calvin Pace (OLB) and Kris Jenkins (DT) all addressed team weaknesses. In essence, the AFC East is a three-team race for second place and the Jets look to be the team to fly above the rest of the competition. Prediction: 7-9 Buffalo Bills: Under 7.5 Wins
Really, despite all the on and off-field emotional setbacks, the Buffalo Bills overacheived last season en route to a 7-9 campaign. 17 players ended the year on injured reserve, yet Coach Dick Jauron still had his team in playoff contention late. However, its now been eight straight seasons with no playoffs in upstate New York. Call me crazy, but I'm not about to call any team with J.P. Losman as its QB a "playoff contender." Maybe thats why rookie Trent Edwards was able to steal the job. For the good of the franchise, they just need to pick a QB and stick with the decision. Off-field issues are again seeping in as RB Marshawn Lynch and others were recently questioned about a hit and run. Thats never good. The Bills were active in free agency acquiring Marcus Stroud from Jacksonville as well as OLB Kawika Mitchell and OT Spencer Johnson. Drafting Troy CB Leodis McKelvin and Indiana WR James Hardy addressed needs as well. Still, in the loaded AFC, this is not a playoff team. Prediction: 7-9 Miami Dolphins: Under 5 Wins
The Dolphins sank to the bottom of the NFL Sea a year ago, but lucky for them they'll be repackaged as "Tuna" in 2008 as Bill Parcells rolls into town. In all fairness, last year's team did have a first-year coach that was in over his head and a star running back that was lost for the season early. Well, at least this year, they'll have Ronnie Brown back. Yet, he is coming off an ACL injury, always tough to come back from. He was on a Pro Bowl pace through five games, rushing 602 yards and 4 TDs and a 5.1 YPC clip. They also drafted Jake Long #1 Overall for him to run behind for the next several years. They are still weak at QB with last years starter John Beck remaining the incumbent. One thing is for sure; the Dolphins will definitely win more games than they did last year. Just hold the Tony Soprano jokes please! Prediction: 4-12 AFC North: Division Rank 3/8
Pittsburgh Steelers: Over 9.5 Wins
Headed into last year, no first-year head coach was expected to have more success than Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin. After all, he was inheriting a team that was just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl Title. Sure enough, Tomlin won a division title and made the most impactful coaching debut of 2007 (Wade Phillips had previous coaching experience). Now, the Omar Epps-lookalike must do what what made Bill Cowher such a mainstay and long-term success in the Steel City - continue to win despite continuous talent defection. The most notable defection is G Alan Faneca, which hurts an already underachieving O Line. Of course, the Steelers have led the league in rushing each of the last four years. The toughest schedule in the entire league doesnt help. The trendy pick will be to take Cleveland to win the division, but consider that the Steelers have the better coach, better QB, better RB and better defense. Plus, they always beat the Browns. Argue that. Prediction: 10-6 Cleveland Browns: Over 8.5 Wins
One season removed from becoming just the fourth 10-win team to NOT make the postseason under the current playoff format, there are two directions the Cleveland Browns can go in. One is to ascend into the upper echelon of the conference. The other is to fall flat on their collective face and wind up starting the guy they drafted last year as your new QB. Surprisingly, we actually don't see the Browns doing either. They have too much talent (on offense) to sink back to pre-Crennel levels, but a looming QB controversy (Anderson vs. Quinn) and a brutal schedule leads us to believe it will be very difficult to repeat last year's 10-6 season. Moving to Quinn is probably best for the long-term future, but Crennel needs to win now. Having Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow II will help that cause. His team may not be markedly better or win more games than a year ago, but I will call for them to snag a Wild Card berth and make the postseason for the first time since 2002. Prediction: 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals: Over 7.5 Wins
Let's begin by repeating what everyone said about the Bengals heading into last season: There's no way this team can be as bad as they were last year, right? Well, there is the problem of your All-Pro QB not liking his All-Pro WR's and the fact that your starting defense is sometimes mistaken for the cast of "Oz," but really, on paper, Cincinnati looks like a good team. What non-Super Bowl winning QB would you rather have on your team than Carson Palmer? Ocho Cinco and Housh are probably the conference's best receiving tandem, but who knows if Johnson will actually suit up. Under supposed defensive genius Marvin Lewis, the Bengals defense has ranked 28th, 19th, 28th, 30th and 27th, respectively. We think Lewis is a pretty lousy coach and is on the way out, so despite some likely improvement, the team will miss the postseason for a 3rd straight year, something Bengals fans are long used to. Prediction: 8-8 Baltimore Ravens: Under 7 Wins
Am I missing something here? Because the Baltimore Ravens truly appear to be the AFC's worst team heading into 2008. Steve McNair retired and they didn't get the QB they wanted in the Draft (Matt Ryan), leaving them with Troy Smith, who might be 6'0" on an anthill, at the helm. Thats why the reached for Delawares Joe Flacco with the 18th pick. Firing a coach that won you a Super Bowl in favor of a guy (John Harbaugh) who has never coached before at this level is a questionable move. Granted Billick was getting stale and at times it seemed that RB Willis McGahee had more illegitimate children than he was getting carries, but still. The division is really tough. I love Ray Lewis, but he and the rest of the defense is getting really old and can't continue to carry the pathetic offense. This was the only team a year ago to lose to Miami. This year, the Ravens may end up with a worse record than the Dolphins. Prediction: 3-13 AFC South: Division Rank 2/8
Jacksonville Jaguars: Over 10.5 Wins
Surprise! Every year since realignment the Indianapolis Colts have won this division, however, in our lone gutsy pick for the entire conference, we're calling for the Jags to unseat them and take the AFC South. We looked long and hard, but this team has no real weaknesses. David Garrard throws no INT's. The team no longer has to worry about Fred Taylor getting old or injured, as Maurice Jones-Drew has proven to be the perfect compliment and just runs over people. Over the previous two seasons, this team has run for a combined 4,932 yards. Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson could potentially be solid additions to the WR corps. Defense is very solid taking a cue from its coach, Jack Del Rio, one of the best in the business. He is brazen, having gone for it on 4th down 33 times and converting 19 of those opportunities, which was the most in the NFL since 1996. Call us crazy, but its Jacksonville, not San Diego or Indianapolis that poses the greatest threat to New England repeating as conference champs. Prediction: 12-4 Indianapolis Colts: Under 11.5 Wins
Is it wrong to question why Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning weren't verbally beaten up more for losing a home playoff game to the San Diego Chargers, a team that had previously never won anything meaningful before last year? Eventually, their reign over a division this tough has to come to an end, especially when the division rivals are the teams that consistently give you the most trouble (well besides New England). Sometimes things come too easy for Peyton Manning. He'll never have a bad season per se, but isn't he due to maybe underacheive once? Is Joseph Addai really a stud running back? What about this Marvin Harrison situation? Why is Tony Dungy still coaching this team when he'd clearly rather be doing other things? Will you ever read a more negative writeup for a team that is a lock to win 10 or more games and make the playoffs for a 7th straight season? Bottom line is I'm going with the Jags to win the division, so I had to nitpick for justification purposes. Prediction: 11-5 Tennessee Titans: Under 8.5 Wins
When you look at the Tennessee Titans, they appear to a bit of a statistical anomaly. 2006 Rookie of the Year QB Vince Young threw almost twice as many INTs (17) as he did TDs (9). They ranked just 22nd in the league in scoring overall and were dead last in red zone TD% (36.4). They outscored opponents by just four points over the 16-game regular season, easily the smallest amount of the 12 playoff teams. However, when you have Jeff Fisher, the elder statesman of the NFL coaching fraternity, winning should never be a surprise. He has an athletic, but dumb, QB that makes just enough good plays to get it done. Maybe TE Alge Crumpler will be the target Young needs. However, after winning so many close games a year ago, you can't call for a repeat playoff appearance in a division this difficult. Prediction: 8-8 Houston Texans: Over 7.5 Wins
Oh, the poor Texans. One of these days, they're going to be a winning team and make the playoffs - just not yet. Sadly, there are only five teams that have not made the playoffs since 2002, the year this franchise came into existence. This year, the franchise makes its first ever appearance on Monday Night Football. They won a franchise record eight games last year, despite injuries to both WR Andre Johnson and RB Ahman Green. No one is questioning taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush anymore. Now the bad news. Their first five games are all against playoff teams. They went 1-7 vs. the AFC South last year and the division is only going to get tougher in 2008. In reality, the team will have to either upgrade the QB or RB position to become a legitimate contender. Neither Matt Schaub nor Sage Rosenfels will lead you to the playoffs. In the last two regular season finales, the Texans have started a RB that began the year on the practice squad. Prediction: 8-8 AFC West: Division Rank 6/8
San Diego Chargers: Prediction Over 11 Wins
Finally, the Chargers stopped underacheiving and gave the Patriots a run in the AFC Title Game. In a division where they are unlikely to be seriously challenged for a second straight year, their only real opponents are themselves. QB Phillip Rivers might behave like a total jackass on the sidelines, but he's matured on the field and makes fewer mistakes. His best decisions are when he simply hands the ball off to LaDanian Tomlinson, something that took Norv Turner almost half a season to figure out. Once he did, the team won 7 of 8 to end the regular season, then beat the Colts on the road in the playoffs. Norv, put down that perennial sub-.500 playbook. Just keep giving the ball to LT and a repeat as division champs is all but assured. Really, other than New England, there's no bigger lock to win a division than San Diego. Prediction: 12-4 Oakland Raiders: Push at 6 Wins
Since no one is going to really challenge San Diego for the division crown, why not pick the Silver and Black to finish in the bridesmaid position in the AFC West? If Darren McFadden can do for the Raiders what Adrian Peterson did for the Vikings last year, things could really begin to turn around by the Bay. JaMarcus Russell certainly has more potential than Tavaris Jackson, right? Javon Walker might have been overpaid to come over from Denver, but that doesn't mean he can't produce. Defense is okay. 19 wins since the 2002 Super Bowl team (NFL worst over that span) is a number that just has to start growing by the law of averages. Now if only they could find a broom closet to stick Al Davis in every Sunday! Prediction: 6-10. Kansas City Chiefs: Over 5.5 Wins
Heading into last year, it was considered a virtual lock that the previous season's neither of the AFC's two Wild Card entrants would be back in the postseason. In the case of Kansas City, RB Larry Johnson, the team's lone offensive weapon was coming off a 400+ carry season - always a death knell in this league. Still, watching the HBO documentary during the preseason, didn't you get the feeling that this team could be really bad in 2007? Sure enough it was the worst season for the franchise in 20 years as they lost nine straight games to end the regular season. The last time a Chiefs team lost nine straight was the strike year of 1987. Brodie Croyle still has a long way to go as QB. Their draft was essentially graded as the best in football. As many as three rookies could be starting on opening day. Things can't be as bad as they were last year. Prediction: 6-10 Denver Broncos: Under 8 Wins
Two questions: 1. Why is Jay Cutler still this team's QB? 2. Why is Mike Shanahan still this team's coach? "The Rat" still thinks he can put any old RB in the backfield and compete for a division title. Loss of Javon Walker hurts Cutler's development further, although Walkers Las Vegas incident may make the team glad they got rid of him. A franchise that has been treading water for years is about to start sinking. Last year was the first losing season of the Mike Shanahan era. This will be the second. Since Walker is no longer a Bronco, I guess Brandon Marshall had to do his part by destroying his arm in an incident at home that apparently involved a McDonalds bag. Seriously. There is a change in coordinators on both sides of the ball. Prediction: 6-10.
Ill be back with the NFC forecast in later this month.
Good luck, Lenny.