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NFL Preview 2009 and Week 1 Picks

Admit it.  Football just wasn’t as interesting without Tom Brady in 2008.

Whether you love or despise the Patriots (is there really any middle ground?), once the NFL’s Golden Boy crumpled in a heap before most West Coasters had even awakened last Sept. 7, the league was irrevocably altered — for one season at least.

If you find yourself in the camp of Hoodie-hating Patriot-bashers, you suddenly had no titan towards which to direct your ire.  Every great narrative needs a villain, needs some conflict.  The Patriots had long been that reviled beast, long before SpyGate gave way to 18-0 and 18-0 gave way to 18-1.

Winning three Super Bowls in four years and contending for a handful of others while time and again giving the proverbial middle finger to the outside world — be it through Bill Belichick injury reports or press conferences or the bending of certain bendable rules or, ultimately, Brady’s 50 TDs and an historic unbeaten streak — made the Patriots the must-follow drama in football for seven years running.

Once Matt Cassel assumed the helm of New England, the team morphed into undermanned, underdogged longshots overnight.  Where was the fun in that?  Gone, like the air sucked out of a wind tunnel, a vacuum effect that left radio talk show mouths and water cooler-gabbers gasping for storylines to cling to and debate.  But there were none, or at least none within a Hail Mary as polarizing as anything Patriots.

Yet the fact was, had Brady been healthy, the league and its rabid underbelly would have had the mother of all ongoing subplots.  Few remember the 2008 Giants for much other than Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg in late November and derailing their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  But here was a team that began the season with 11 wins in 12 tries on the heels of the greatest upset in the history of the game.

Without delving too deep into revisionist history, considering the Cassel-led Patriots won 11 games thanks largely in part to a cake schedule, it’s not at all far-fetched to assume New England would have stood at an identical 11-1 (or better…) after Thanksgiving had their leader been in helmet and pads.

Can you say Rematch of the Century?  Again, that’s all hypothetical speak predicated on something that never was, but present to me a casual fan of the game who wouldn’t have gotten goosebumps when the possibility of Round II: 18-0 vs.  G-Men was raised.  Thought so.

Which leads me to Patriots fans/apologists themselves.  For all the winning they’ve been blessed with and cockiness they’ve embodied for the better part of a decade, the last 19 months have been quite the humbling experience.

After Super Bowl XLII, Pats supporters predictably went underground, avoiding all outsiders — remember, Giants fans and Patriot-haters were for all intents and purposes one and the same — and waited for their shot at redemption.  When that long-awaited prospect came and went in a heartbeat (OK, 15 snaps), the grim reality of another calender year of waiting on top of an already seemingly interminable seven months set in.

While I can’t speak for the whole of Patriot nation, I can say that the ’08 campaign schooled this fan on some valuable lessons.  Namely, that prosperity is a privilege and not an entitlement.  And when you’ve hit rock bottom, the slow ascent back up is almost as thrilling as residing on the top itself.  Almost.

So with that said, will Brady and the Patriots pick up where they left off at 18-0?  Will they complete the flexuous trek back to glory? No one knows for certain at this point, but what can be said for sure is the 2009 Patriots will reprise the role they played so effectively for seven seasons: that of the divisive villain that no one can stop talking about and everyone is chasing.

With that in mind, here are is your official 2009 preview.

AFC East Champs — New England Patriots (14-2)

The issue with the perfect Patriots in 2007 — and the ’06 outfit for that matter — was their inability to get one stop with the season on the line, something that used to be the hallmark of the franchise.  After the peculiar (to say the least) trade of Richard Seymour, the New England D goes into the 2009 season with even more question marks.  The real answers won’t come until January, though.  Until then, this team is going to put up points.  Lots of them.  And in massive bunches.  Assuming Tom Brady plays 16 games, the Patriots offense has the potential to be even better than it was in the record-setting season of two years ago.  Why?  Because the Patriots are stacked at running back and Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker are the most unstoppable trio in the game.

AFC North Champs — Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

The Steelers return 19 starters from their Super Bowl team of a year ago, including the core of a defense that ranked as the best of all time.  After grinding 12 wins out of the league’s toughest schedule in 2008, the champs have one of the weakest slates this season, largely because of an AFC West draw and two games apiece against divisional non-rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Many of the games they won last season (BAL, SD, DAL, Super Bowl XLIII, to name a few) were made possible by game-winning drives led by Ben Roethlisberger.  He is an elite quarterback with a knack for the clutch, which combined with the vaunted Steeler D, will have Pittsburgh sniffing another title.

AFC South Champs — Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Many wrote the Colts off in 2008, particularly after a 3-4 start.  All they did was win nine straight games to end the season before falling to the Chargers in an epic Wild-Card playoff game.  The main reason they were so slow out of the gates was because Peyton Manning was still in the recovery stages from knee surgery performed just prior to the season.  While the loss of Tony Dungy is surely to lead to another transitional period, the Colts are Manning’s team, and so long as he is under center, they will be a force to be reckoned with.  He may no longer have his revered coach, but he still has a stable of receivers he is comfortable with.  Defensively, with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney storming the backfield off the edges, the Colts D will continue to be a pressuring unit capable of making big plays.

AFC West Champs — San Diego Chargers (12-4)

By now, everyone knows the m.o. of the Chargers: tons of talent, not enough wins to show for.  However, it’s difficult to measure this team by wins and losses.  For instance, last season they won eight games but in January knocked off the team (Indianapolis) many believed was going all the way.  In 2007, they went 11-5 and fought their way to the AFC Championship Game, where they battled tooth and nail vs. the 17-0 Patriots without Phillip Rivers or LaDainian Tomlinson.  That’s three playoff victories over the last two seasons, which incidentally is more than the Colts and as many as the Steelers and Patriots in that span.  The 2009 Chargers are pretty much the same team that fell to the Steelers in the Divisional Round last season.  They’ll be better on defense with a full season of Ron Rivera’s schemes and the return of their leader, Shawne Merriman.  The AFC West is also the weakest division in football.

AFC Wild Card — Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Despite having the defense of the decade, the Ravens have been remarkably inconsistent over the last five years.  Their records from 2004-08: 9-7, 6-10, 13-3, 5-11, 11-5.  That roller coaster ride is directly attributable to the lack of stability at the quarterback position.  Before last season, Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, Steve McNair and even Troy Smith started games for Baltimore.  That’s a lot of shuffling over a four-year span.  For the first time this decade, the Ravens won’t have to fret about who they’re trotting out on Sundays, as Joe Flacco excelled in his first year, becoming the first rookie QB to win a pair of playoff games.  While the defense will surely feel the losses of coordinator Rex Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott to the Jets, it’s a unit that has been together a long time and knows what it’s doing.  The Ravens will be scary come playoff time.

AFC Wild Card — Tennessee Titans (10-6)

The Titans blew a golden opportunity vs. the Ravens at home in the playoffs last year, committing boneheaded penalties and turning the ball over multiple times in the second half.  Then they lost Albert Haynesworth, their defensive stalwart, to free agency in the offseason.  While their shot at a Super Bowl probably came and went in 2008, the Tennessee running game — led by second-year stud Chris Johnson — remains top-notch and their secondary is one of the best in football.  The Titans will have trouble throwing the ball, as an aging Kerry Collins is unlikely to submit a repeat of his ’08 campaign, but they will again boast a formidable rushing attack and top-rated D, which will be enough to return to the playoffs.

NFC East Champs — New York Giants (12-4)

Football is a game won in the trenches, and the 2009 Giants are sure to lay claim to the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  Defensively, the return of Osi Umenyiora to a ferocious front-four will give New York the deepest and most talented pass rush in the league (Mathias Kiwanuka, who recorded eight sacks last season, won’t even start).  Offensively, there are legitimate questions about the Giants receiving corps, but the franchise doled out huge dollars to lock up Eli Manning for a reason — to turn the likes of Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon into big-play guys.  Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but for the time being Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will grind down defenses with a relentless rushing attack.  The G-Men will be the class of the toughest division in the NFL.

NFC North Champs — Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Packers lost five games by three points or less last season, and another pair by four points.  They basically imploded after a 5-5 start and dropped five of their last six to finish at 6-10.  Overlooked was the fact that Aaron Rodgers rapidly became one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.  The offense, which ranked No. 8 overall in 2008, could crack the Top 5, meaning the Packer defense — which has made the switch to the 3-4 — is all that stands between Green Bay and another NFC North title.  One of the NFL’s weakest schedules should also help propel the Packers to double-digit wins.

NFC South Champs — New Orleans Saints (10-6)

The Saints shocked everyone by winning 10 games and the NFC South in 2006 before regressing to seven and eight wins respectively over the last two years.  But they too, like the Packers, lost a lot of tough games in 2008 (five by three points or less).  In a league that has become defined by aerial attacks and a division that crowns a new champ each season, it’s hard to argue against the Drew Brees-led Saints, who boasted the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL last year and figure to have an improved running game with Pierre Thomas expected to come into his own in his first season as a featured back.  The defense remains suspect, but the Saints should be able to win four games in their division simply by outscoring inferior offenses.

NFC West Champs — Seattle Seahawks (9-7)

After Arizona’s Super Bowl run, most NFC West talk has been relegated to the desert going into the 2009 season.  The justifiable buzz surrounding the Cardinals has enabled the Seahawks to uncharacteristically fly under the radar.  We are, after all, talking about a team that won four straight division titles from 2004-07 before getting chomped by the injury bug in ’08.  Matt Hasselbeck appears to be fully recovered from the pinched nerve that cost him nine games and rendered him a shell of his former self in a handful of other contests last year.  Nate Burleson and Deion Branch return from injury-riddled campaigns to join newly acquired wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh.  Combined, that foursome should do wonders for Seattle’s air attack and help the ‘Hawks retake the West.

NFC Wild Card — Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb seem to take nothing but heat from the city of Philly, but year in and year out the Eagles contend.  That’s a testament to the coach and quarterback.  Granted, their glaring weakness — the two-minute offense — has been a death blow in the past, but that hasn’t prevented them from appearing in five NFC Championship Games in the last eight years.  With or without a significant contribution from Michael Vick (don’t count out the former), the Eagles are built for sustained success because of a consistent defense and the playmaking abilities of McNabb and Brian Westbrook.  Look for second-year wideout DeSean Jackson to make the leap and give the Philly offense an added big-play dimension the team hasn’t had since Terrell Owens blew in and out of town a few years back.

NFC Wild Card — Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

Now that a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the Williamses, Kevin and Pat, we know that the Minnesota defensive line will be intact for the duration of the 2009 season.  Which is to say the Vikings figure to again trot out the league’s top-rated rush defense.  On the offensive side of the ball, everyone is naturally talking about Brett Favre, when in reality the story should be all about Adrian Peterson.  He’s the best running back in the league, and he’ll have a chance to feast on some poor rush defenses early on (CLE, DET, SF, STL), which should in turn allow Favre to save some gas for the stretch run (as opposed to last year when he all but broke down for the Jets in December).

Week 1 Picks (home team in CAPS)

PITTSBURGH over Tennessee

INDIANAPOLIS over Jacksonville

NEW ORLEANS over Detroit

Dallas over TAMPA BAY

Philadelphia over CAROLINA

BALTIMORE over Kansas City

HOUSTON over NY Jets

ATLANTA over Miami

CINCINNATI over Denver

Minnesota over CLEVELAND

NY GIANTS over Washington

ARIZONA over San Francisco

SEATTLE over St. Louis

GREEN BAY over Chicago

NEW ENGLAND over Buffalo

San Diego over OAKLAND

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