It may have taken some serious courtroom haggling at the 11th hour and there was many an anxious moment, but the 2011 NFL season will indeed be going on as scheduled.
The grand game that has become America's preferred source of fall entertainment won't be exactly the same as fans may remember it, however, as the new collective bargaining agreement approved following the five-month tug-of-war between the owners and players has brought about some considerable alterations for this upcoming campaign and beyond. But even though the guidelines may have changed, the overall product won't stop continuing to deliver the intrigue and heart-stopping excitement that has made Sunday afternoons the most anticipated time of the week during the autumn and winter months.
And for that we can all rejoice.
So without further adieu, the Sports Network presents its guide to the 2011 season, beginning with seven occurrences that seem likely to transpire over the coming months.
1) The new kickoff rule won't be as big a deal as some are making it out to be. Many fans and insiders were screaming bloody murder over the most controversial change of this offseason, proclaiming the switch to having kickoffs taken from the 35-yard line will send one of the most exciting plays in football into extinction. The reality is that moving the kickoff line up five yards will lower the overall rate of returns, but only marginally. There isn't a returner in the league who doesn't believe he can score anytime he touches the ball, even when he's fielding it eight yards deep in the end zone. The most profound effect from the change will come in field position, with the offense's average starting spot likely to decrease significantly. And that leads to the second point:
2) Scoring will be down, especially early on. The 2010 season set an NFL record with 11,283 points produced, and the average cumulative total of 44.07 points per game was the league's highest average since 1965. Look for that number to tick downward this year, in part due to the revised kickoff rule, but mostly because offenses have had far less preparation time because of the absence of offseason workouts and a reduced training camp practice schedule brought about by the new CBA. It's going to take a little while for many teams to get up to speed, giving the defenses a little more of an advantage at the season's outset.
3) Penalties will be up. The league has clearly put a greater emphasis on player safety by expanding the range of what constitutes unnecessary roughness and launching calls, and anything that's remotely close to being deemed excessive is going to be flagged. But the real reason there'll be an increase in yellow markers dotting the field is there are too many officials whose primary objective seems to be about making an impression on their bosses at 280 Park Avenue in hopes of working the big playoff games.
4) Games will be longer. More penalties means more stoppage time, and now that every touchdown is going to be reviewed from a replay official upstairs, the process is definitely going to be dragged out a little further than before. Since getting those calls right is the most important thing, fans should be able to live with the extra five minutes tacked on to the broadcast. But if your favorite team is playing in the second part of a televised Sunday afternoon doubleheader, don't have your hopes set on witnessing the opening kickoff.
5) Brett Favre can rest easy. Inevitably, some media member will throw out the idea of a Favre comeback when an injury to a prominent quarterback takes place during the course of this season, for no other reason than to make headlines. It's not happening. The 41-year-old legend's body has finally betrayed him, and No. 4's got way too much pride to step onto an NFL field again as a mere shadow of his old self. Plus it appears as if Favre won't have to worry about his most cherished accomplishment, the consecutive games streak, being threatened anymore with Peyton Manning almost certain to miss at minimum the 2011 opener while making a painfully slow recovery from neck surgery.
6) Matt Ryan will finally win a playoff game. Now that Aaron Rodgers got the monkey off his back with last season's sensational showing during Green Bay's championship march, Ryan assumes the mantle as the game's best quarterback yet to win in the postseason. With the Falcons adding gifted rookie receiver Julio Jones in the draft and signing Ray Edwards to give John Abraham a pass-rushing complement over the summer, Atlanta's in excellent position to make a serious run at a title this year.
7) The New England Patriots will finally win a playoff game. Of course, the Pats have won plenty of postseason matchups during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady tenure. That hasn't been the case as of late, though, with New England following up its memorable upset loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII with a playoff miss in 2008 and back-to-back first-game exits the past two years. This season's outfit looks to be loaded, however, and it would qualify as a major shock if the Pats aren't able to do some damage in January this time around.
Below you'll find a more detailed glimpse into the Sports Network's crystal ball for NFL's 92nd season, complete with a projected overall standings as well as an awards section. Full preseason previews for all 32 teams can also be browsed at the following link:
Philadelphia (11-5) N.Y. Giants (10-6) Washington (8-8) Dallas (8-8)
New Orleans (13-3) Atlanta (11-5) Tampa Bay (6-10) Carolina (3-13)
Green Bay (13-3) Detroit (9-7) Chicago (6-10) Minnesota (6-10)
St. Louis (8-8) Seattle (5-11) San Francisco (4-12) Arizona (3-13)
NFC Wild Card Round: Eagles over Giants, Falcons over Rams NFC Divisional Round: Falcons over Packers, Saints over Eagles NFC Championship: Saints over Falcons
New England (14-2) N.Y. Jets (12-4) Miami (7-9) Buffalo (2-14)
Houston (11-5) Indianapolis (10-6) Tennessee (7-9) Jacksonville (3-13)
Pittsburgh (15-1) Baltimore (11-5) Cleveland (5-11) Cincinnati (4-12)
San Diego (11-5) Oakland (8-8) Kansas City (7-9) Denver (5-11)
AFC Wild Card Round: Chargers over Ravens, Jets over Texans AFC Divisional Round: Steelers over Jets, Patriots over Chargers AFC Championship: Patriots over Chargers Super Bowl XLVI: Patriots over Saints
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, New England Offensive Player of the Year: Brady Defensive Player of the Year: Darrelle Revis, N.Y. Jets Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Defensive Rookie of the Year: Von Miller, Denver Coach of the Year: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Comeback Player of the Year: Tony Romo, Dallas
Our two roving editors, Shawn Clarke and Mike Rushton, have also offered their picks for the coming year:
NFC East: Philadelphia Philadelphia NFC North: Green Bay Green Bay NFC South: New Orleans Atlanta NFC West: St. Louis St. Louis NFC Wild Cards: Atlanta, N.Y. Giants New Orleans, Detroit
NFC Wild Card Round: Saints over Giants Falcons over Lions Falcons over Rams Saints over Rams NFC Divisional Round: Eagles over Falcons Eagles over Saints Saints over Packers Falcons over Packers NFC Championship: Eagles over Saints Falcons over Eagles
AFC East: New England New England AFC North: Baltimore Baltimore AFC South: Indianapolis Indianapolis AFC West: San Diego San Diego AFC Wild Cards: N.Y. Jets, Pittsburgh N.Y. Jets, Pittsburgh
AFC Wild Card Round: Steelers over Chargers Steelers over Patriots Jets over Colts Jets over Chargers AFC Divisional Round: Steelers over Patriots Colts over Steelers Ravens over Jets Ravens over Jets AFC Championship: Ravens over Steelers Ravens over Colts
Super Bowl XLVI: Eagles over Ravens Falcons over Ravens
Tim Hightower, Redskins. The ex-Cardinal's one-cut running style is a perfect match for Mike Shanahan's zone-block system that turned such marginal talents as Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns into very productive players in Denver, and his only competition on the current Washington roster comes from the notoriously-brittle Ryan Torain and raw rookie Roy Helu. The fourth-year back averaged nearly seven yards per carry during the preseason, perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come.
OFFSEASON ADDITION WHO WILL MAKE THE BIGGEST IMPACT
Lee Evans, Ravens. Nnamdi Asomugha's arrival in Philadelphia will surely make a difference, and fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph was a much-needed get for Houston in its defensive overhaul. Evans, however, could be the missing piece for a Baltimore team that has just about everything else in place for a serious Super Bowl run, as the veteran wideout offers a field-stretching element the Ravens' offense has lacked for arguably the franchise's entire existence in the Charm City. His presence could also be a boost to Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice, which would give the Ravens an explosion factor it also hasn't had in quite some time.
OFFSEASON ADDITION WHO WILL DISAPPOINT
Kevin Kolb, Cardinals. Kolb won't have anything near the offensive luxuries the coveted quarterback grew accustomed to in Philadelphia. Except for injury- prone tight end Todd Heap, the Cardinals are without reliable receivers opposite all-star Larry Fitzgerald and are shaky along the offensive line, not the best of signs for a player who's had trouble staying healthy during his brief time as a regular. It's plausible that Kolb could be the solution to Arizona's problem at the position, but it also wouldn't be a shock if he follows A.J. Feeley and Donovan McNabb as signal-callers who struggled with new teams after finding success under Andy Reid in Philly.
PLAYER YOU MAY NOT KNOW NOW, BUT YOU WILL LATER
Denarius Moore, Raiders. The rookie wide receiver doesn't come with the hype of first-round headliners Julio Jones and A.J. Green, but showed big-time potential by running polished routes and catching everything in sight during training camp. And since he's an Al Davis draft pick, you know he's got some wheels. The fifth-round selection should have a opportunity to be an instant contributor in an Oakland receiving corps that's rife with inconsistency (Darius Heyward-Bey) and injury risks (Chaz Schilens).
FIRST UNEMPLOYED QUARTERBACK TO FIND WORK IN 2011
David Garrard. To those expecting Brett Favre to get off his Wrangler jeans on his Mississippi farm, forget about it. Carson Palmer? Not gonna happen, with Mike Brown steadfastly determined to punish his team's fans and ticket-holders just to prove a point to his old quarterback. Marc Bulger was going to be the pick here, but Garrard's recent release makes this an easy choice. The exiled former Jaguar actually had a halfway decent season last year, and could make for an instant upgrade in places like Seattle, San Francisco and possibly Miami.
FIRST UNEMPLOYED RUNNING BACK TO FIND WORK IN 2011
Brian Westbrook. Sorry, Tiki Barber, but the complete lack of interest from potential suitors during this summer's proposed comeback is a pretty telling sign that your chances of ever playing another down in the NFL is only marginally better than reclaiming your former gig on The Today Show. Westbrook may be 32 and no longer capable of filling a major role, but could draw interest from teams in need of an experienced third-down back in an emergency.
FIRST STARTING QUARTERBACK TO LOSE HIS JOB IN 2011
Luke McCown, Jaguars. McCown is merely serving as a placeholder until the Jacksonville brass deems Blaine Gabbert ready for action, which will likely be sooner than later. If Gabbert's not under center when the Jags host New Orleans in Week 4, it'll qualify as a major shock. Honorable mention goes to Washington's Rex Grossman, who'll be on a very short leash with Mike Shanahan darling John Beck waiting in the wings and the Redskins believing they can contend this season.
TEAM THAT REALLY WILL BE THAT GOOD
New England. The Patriots have suddenly become more synonymous with early playoff flameouts, but on paper appear to be even better than the team that won a league-high 14 games during the 2010 regular season. New England still has the NFL's best player in Tom Brady and should be less submissive on defense after some offseason fine-tuning. Though the trades for Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth garnered more attention, it's the more subtle moves like plucking crafty veterans such as Brian Waters, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis that may make the Pats a much tougher out in 2011.
TEAM THAT WILL BE BETTER THAN EXPECTED
Washington. By ridding themselves of unhappy campers Donovan McNabb and Haynesworth, the Redskins may have added simply by subtracting. A better indicator that Washington's ready to improve off its six-win total in year one of the Shanahan era is an influx of better talent to a defense that was abhorrent in 2010, with the team adding veterans Barry Cofield, O.J. Atogwe and Josh Wilson along with promising rookie pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan. And while the Beck/Grossman combo at quarterback isn't all that inspiring, keep in mind that Shanahan's molded playoff teams with journeymen like Brian Griese and Jake Plummer guiding the offense in the past.
TEAM THAT WON'T BE AS GOOD AS EXPECTED
Chicago. The Bears defied the experts by winning 11 times during the regular season and reaching the 2010 NFC Championship Game, but a veteran defense that carried the team to the doorstep of a Super Bowl appearance is now a year longer in the tooth and an offensive line that had major problems protecting Jay Cutler last season remains a substantial work in progress. It doesn't help matters that Chicago will open the season with two of its best offensive weapons not in the starting lineup, with tight end Greg Olsen traded to the Panthers and speedy wideout Johnny Knox presently relegated to a bench role behind the underachieving Roy Williams, or that cornerstones Matt Forte and Lance Briggs are having issues with their current contract status.
TEAM THAT WILL TAKE A STEP BACK
Kansas City. Todd Haley was able to squeeze 10 wins and a surprise AFC West title out of a combination of neophytes and castoffs last season, but the Chiefs' dismantling at the hands of Baltimore in the playoffs showed the group played well over its heads. The offense also went south once coordinator Charlie Weis bailed for the University of Florida near the end of the year, and the unit's abysmal performance in the preseason makes one wonder whether it can return to a satisfactory level in 2011.
TEAM THAT WILL TAKE A STEP BACK, BUT NOT FOR LONG
Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers became the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to deliver a winning record while having 10 rookies start at least one game last season, but were also aided by a schedule that was inundated with cream puffs, as all but one of the team's 10 victories came against opponents that ended with sub-.500 marks. This year's slate doesn't look as if it will be as forgiving, and Tampa Bay won't be taken lightly by foes after last year's accomplishments. The baby Bucs are certainly headed in the right direction, but that progress may not be reflected in their 2011 results.
TEAM THAT'S READY TO TURN THE CORNER
Detroit. The Lions finished their 2010 campaign with a flourish, winning its final four contests, and appear ready to finally start reaping the rewards of a series of bountiful drafts under general manager Martin Mayhew. With rising young stars such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh at the forefront of an impressive young nucleus, the talent's now on hand for Detroit to conceivably put an end to a forgettable 10-year stretch of consecutive losing seasons. Stafford's going to need to stay on the field, though, as the 2009 No. 1 overall pick played in just 13 of a possible 32 games over his short career due to injuries.
TEAM THAT'S NOT READY TO TURN THE CORNER
Buffalo. Like the Lions, the Bills are in the midst of an 11-year drought without a playoff appearance, and that dry spell isn't likely to be halted in 2011. Having to compete in the challenging AFC East is a tough enough obstacle to overcome, but doing so with a stop-gap quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a turnstile offensive line and by relying on veteran reclamation projects such as linebackers Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett seems to be a recipe for disaster. And unlike Detroit, the Bills haven't drafted well at all in recent years in spite of their bottom-barrel status, with the majority of the team's high picks ranging from questionable calls (Leodis McKelvin, C.J. Spiller) to flat-out busts (Aaron Maybin, John McCargo, James Hardy). At least 2011 first- rounder Marcell Dareus looks like a keeper, and there's also a potential windfall waiting in the wings if Buffalo continues to flounder. Which brings us to...
THE MOST LIKELY "LUCK-Y" LOSER
Buffalo. The Bills' best course of action may be to tank this 2011 season in hopes of securing the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft and landing Stanford star Andrew Luck, considered by nearly all accounts to be the best quarterback prospect to come along since Peyton Manning became eligible in 1998. The cerebral young gunslinger would finally give Buffalo a bona fide franchise player to build around and inject a breath of fresh air into a lethargic fan base. Of course, there's always the chance that Luck, a junior with the Cardinal this season, could pull a Manning and return to school for his final year of eligibility, in which case the Bills would be out of Luck.
LEADING TEAM IN THE MATT BARKLEY SWEEPSTAKES:
Seattle. Barkley, a junior at the University of Southern California, has been hailed as the best quarterback prospect not named Luck in next year's draft class, and the Seahawks may be in prime position to snare the talented Trojan after Tarvaris Jackson and/or Charlie Whitehurst likely leads the defending NFC West champs into the abyss. That would make for a very interesting scenario, considering current Seattle sideline boss Pete Carroll was Barkley's coach during his freshman year at USC.
COACH WHO NEEDS TO WIN, AND WILL
Gary Kubiak, Texans. The lockout may have spared Kubiak a place in the unemployment line after Houston nose-dived to a 6-10 record in 2010, and he won't be so fortunate if the Texans can't meet high expectations this coming season. Luckily, Houston is housed in an AFC South division that appears ripe for the taking with Peyton Manning's neck surgery leaving perennial powerhouse Indianapolis in an extremely vulnerable position and both the Titans and Jaguars in rebuilding modes. With a strong offense and a remodeled defense that performed well in the preseason, the Texans may just be able to earn an elusive first-ever playoff berth.
COACH WHO NEEDS TO WIN, AND WON'T
Tony Sparano, Dolphins. Sparano was all but fired last January after a second straight 7-9 season that ended with three straight embarrassing losses, but received a stay of execution after owner Stephen Ross wasn't able to lure Jim Harbaugh to South Beach. Another mediocre record and failure to qualify for the playoffs isn't going to cut it with Ross, who's hell-bent on making the Dolphins a marquee attraction, but unless the skittish Chad Henne can quickly transform into a top-flight quarterback, this year's Miami team will most likely bear a striking resemblance to the last two.
BEST PRIMETIME GAME
New England at N.Y. Jets, Nov. 13. This one has all the elements for must-see TV. Two expected championship contenders residing in the same division, one of which shattered the other's Super Bowl dreams in last year's playoffs, and with Brady and Chad Ochocinco on one side and Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan on the opposite sideline, there'll be no shortage of either star power or colorful characters. And then there's the sure-to-be periodically mentioned fact that these teams simply don't like one another very much. This is just one of several excellent games on this year's Sunday Night Football slate, with Packers-Falcons (Oct. 9) and Ravens-Steelers (Nov. 6) -- another terrific rivalry -- also worth mentioning.
WORST PRIMETIME GAME
Rams at Seahawks, Dec. 12th. While this game should have playoff ramifications due to the sordid state of the NFC West, the lack of brand-name talent and overall quality of the participants may be enough to send husbands volunteering to spend their Monday evening at the local mall shopping for holiday gifts with their spouse instead of having to endure three hours of Jon Gruden gushing over Sam Bradford like a 13-year-old schoolboy. And if the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year somehow can't participate, there'll be better ways to spend the time than having to yawn through an A.J. Feeley/Tarvaris Jackson matchup.