The Houston cheerleaders will have plenty to celebrate in 2011. (Photo credit: eschipul)
Every year, prognosticators try to stick a fork in Indianapolis and elevate Houston as the next big thing in the AFC's Southern division. Each year, the Texans boast an explosive offense; however, their defense disappoints. In 2011, things won’t be a whole lot different except for one big thing: plagued by injury, Manning will struggle to move his team and score points, allowing Houston to finally break free and ascend to the top of the division.
1st place - Houston Texans
For some reason, many are touting the hiring of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as the big difference in putting the Texans over the top. This is the same guy that orchestrated the worst statistical defensive performance in Dallas Cowboys history just one season ago. If Houston finally does make it big, it will have more to do with consistent play from the offense and a disappointing performance by the division rival Colts.
Prediction: 10-6 (They'll finally make the playoffs and then exit quickly.)
2nd place - Indianapolis Colts
A rookie offensive lineman and an aging defense will combine to end the Colts’ streak of winning seasons. Expect Peyton Manning to throw close to 20 interceptions in 2011, as his inevitable decline begins.
Prediction: 8-8 (Peyton Manning's consecutive games-played streak will end in 2011.)
3rd place - Tennessee Titans
If Matt Hasselbeck can play half-way decent, and the team can convince Chris Johnson to end his holdout, Tennessee may be able to get close to .500. Unfortunately, they lack the defensive personnel to hold scoring down and will likely struggle in nearly every game.
Prediction: 7-9 (After signing a huge contract, Chris Johnson will have an injury-plagued season.)
4th place: Jacksonville Jaguars
Though they've improved their defense, the Jaguars know they aren't true contenders. Eventually, they'll install rookie Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and the rest of the team’s games will resemble preseason football.
Prediction: 6-10 (Jack Del Rio won't survive the season.)
Phillip Rivers will lead San Diego to another division title. (Photo Credit: SD Dirk)
Like the western division in the National Football Conference, the AFC West is stocked with mediocre teams that consistently flounder under .500. Unlike the NFC's version, however, the AFC West is home to one formidable franchise that seems at the cusp of greatness. That team is San Diego; and if they are able to get out of their own way, the Chargers will claim another division title and secure one more chance at a Super Bowl appearance.
1st place - San Diego Chargers
This is the year for San Diego. Six games against relatively weak division opponents will allow the team to inflate its record and secure a first-round bye. Unfortunately, the Chargers don’t have what it takes to compete with New England and will ultimately see their Super Bowl dream end once more at the hands of Tom Brady.
Prediction: 13-3 (They'll get by in the regular season; but in the playoffs, they'll miss Darren Sproles.)
2nd place - Kansas City Chiefs
They played well last season, but the Chiefs are still at least another year away from becoming a realistic contender. Expect Kansas City to take a step back in 2011.
Prediction: 9-7 (Though they will be competitive in nearly every game, the Chiefs will ultimately give up too many points.)
3rd place - Oakland Raiders
It’s a new year; so there must be a new coach in Oakland. Quarterback problems will prevent Oakland from doing anything substantial in 2011. Expect a carbon copy of last season, with the team showing glimmers of talent that result in few wins.
Prediction: 7-9 (Jason Campbell will be cut after 2011.)
4th place: Denver Broncos
Denver convinced its savior, John Elway, to come to the rescue and take over team operations. Unfortunately, the guy can no longer play. Until it decides what to do with Tim Tebow, this franchise will continue to circle the drain. If it opts to play Tebow, Denver will at least know what it has and can set a course. If they stick with Kyle Orton, the Broncos will end up near .500 and will have no shot at Andrew Luck.
Prediction: 5-11 (Tim Tebow will be a tight end in 2012.)
Baltimore will need to score more in 2011. (Photo credit: Keith Allison)
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed yet another fortuitous playoff schedule that excluded the vaunted New England Patriots; and they took advantage by overpowering the overmatched Ravens and Jets. Unfortunately, they were dismantled in the Super Bowl by a superior Green Bay team, equipped with a capable quarterback able to take advantage of Pittsburgh's deficiencies in the secondary. Now, it's the year after a Pittsburgh Super Bowl appearance, which traditionally means a poor follow-up for the Steelers. In 2011, expect no different; as the defending division champs will succumb to pressure from a pair of teams led by up-and-coming quarterbacks.
1st place - Baltimore Ravens
Make no mistake, the Ravens defense is on the decline. An aging Ray Lewis and Ed Reed won't be able to keep scoring down like they have in the past; however, expect Joe Flacco to finally come into his own and establish himself as a top-notch fantasy player and team leader.
Prediction: 10-6 (Flacco will have a Pro Bowl year.)
2nd place - Cleveland Browns
Last year, the Browns were competitive in nearly every game and posted impressive wins against New England and at New Orleans. Colt McCoy will benefit from short-yardage third downs, thanks to Peyton Hillis. This team will prove formidable for anyone on its schedule.
Prediction: 9-7 (Peyton Hillis will lead the League in rushing.)
3rd place - Pittsburgh Steelers
Green Bay exposed Pittsburgh's problems in the secondary. Expect teams to spread the Steelers out and take advantage. An aging Hines Ward won't be able to stretch defenses, and the team will struggle to consistently score. Expect a lot of close losses.
Prediction: 7-9 (To the dismay of Steelers fans, this will mark the first year of a four-year rebuilding process.)
4th place: Cincinnati Bengals
The team plans to start a rookie quarterback in place of the "retired" Carson Palmer. Unfortunately, that rookie is the overrated Andy Dalton who lacks the arm strength necessary to play in the NFL. If they'd drafted Ryan Mallett, the Bengals' future would be set. Instead, they're lined up for at least another five years of futility.
Prediction: 3-13 (Marvin Lewis will inexplicably retain his job for yet another year, thanks to the compromising photos he keeps of GM Mike Brown.)