New York Jets 10-6, AFC Wild Card Seed #6 (last year: 11-5, AFC Wild Card Seed #6)
The Jets have attempted to parlay their swagger into alpha dog status in the AFC East but it’s so hard when Bill Belichick is such a draft day god. Last year, injuries are the only thing that kept the Jets from overtaking the Pats in terms of overall roster talent. Their biggest injury was Jim Leonhard right before they were blown out by the Patriots, sparking the most ridiculous media drooling parade of the season (edging out the Vick resurrection mania). I predicted the Jets would beat the Pats in the second round with all the weaknesses New England had. They did, but now New England has brought in a really strong group of new players.
Ultimately, with both offensive supporting casts being about equal, the Pats being a little greener (no pun intended), and Belichick being the slightly better coach, the division will rest on the defenses and quarterbacks. I’ll go with the mix of known quantities and new beasts – Albert Haynesworth Shaun Ellis, Ras-I Dowling – in New England with a slight edge over the “returning 10 starters” Jets defense and Tom Brady – while presumably at the waning portion of his prime – over Mark Sanchez. Gang Green shall earn a Wild Card spot as a consolation prize and a shot at the Super Bowl.
It was curious to see a head coach so intent on attacking the quarterback do very little by way of adding pass rushers in the off-season. I love the back end of the defense, which will help them beat a lot of good aerial attacks (Philadelphia, Dallas, New York Giants, an improved Miami passing attack once, New England once). In San Diego, New England and Washington shootouts, I fear the tight ends will get them a bit and that their offenses in general will score enough to force Mark Sanchez to try to play catch-up and be the one to make the mistake. The Jets face all the playoff teams from last year on their schedule except the Steelers and all of my playoff teams for this season except the Steelers and Colts (who they faced in last year’s postseason).
Schedule/Predictions (toughest stretch): vs. DAL W, vs. JAX W, @ OAK W, @ BAL L, @ NE L, vs. MIA W, vs. SD L, BYE, @ BUF W, vs. NE W, @ DEN L, vs. BUF W, @ WAS L, vs. KC W, @ PHI W, vs. NYG W, @ MIA L.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6, NFC Wild Card Seed #6 (last year: 10-6, no playoffs)
1. Continuity. The Buccaneers lost just two starters from last season and – due to injuries – have multiple starter-level players at some positions. When you add to that the fact that almost no player peaks in his first few years – and that Kellen Winslow is the healthiest he’s been in a long time, this team could be scary good.
2. Play-calling. I have Raheem Morris listed as the 3rd-best defensive playcaller. I have Greg Olson as the 9th-best offensive playcaller, as he was able to call a conservative offense for a unit full of rookies and still be able to maximize what they all did best.
3. Lack of elite offensive opponents. For the second straight season, the Buccaneers have very few elite offenses on the schedule. The Buccaneers play four games total against the Saints, Packers and Texans (I predict them to be 1-3 in those games) but generally play teams that either pass the ball well (Cowboys, Colts), run the ball well (Jacksonville, Minnesota) or are just bad. It helps that this already stout defense (9th with 318 points allowed; only one of their last 8 opponents scored more than 20 in regulation) of Tampa Bay gets Tanard Jackson back from suspension week 4. They also added two of my top 7 pass-rushers in this past draft – Da’Quan Bowers and the electric Adrian Clayborn – , which is proven to be a role that rookies can fill right away (Orakpo, Matthews, Hali) with the right coaching.
Schedule/Predictions (toughest stretch): vs. DET W, @ MIN L, vs. ATL W, vs. IND L, @SF W, vs. NO W, vs. CHI @ London W, BYE, @ NO L, vs. HOU L, @ GB L, @ TEN W, vs. CAR W, @ JAX W, vs. DAL L, @ CAR W, @ ATL W.
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