The NFL lockout lasted for 132 agonizing days, finally ending in late July after Roger Goodell’s owners broke DeMaurice Smith’s players and effectively dunked their heads in one of those long urinal troughs. Since the national media adores Goodell and covers him with the same biting objectivity of a father coaching his 6-year-old’s soccer team, they quickly and happily accepted his post-deal “win-win!” narrative instead of realizing that, after you’ve just gotten the better of someone, that’s exactly what you say.
Think about it: If we swung a fantasy trade and I knew you were getting screwed, would I actually say that? Of course not! I’d say things like, “That was a win-win!” and “I think John Lackey is gonna do great for you.” Which is exactly what Goodell did. Maybe the NFL lockout wasn’t Super Bowl XXIV (San Francisco 55, Denver 10), but at the very least, it was Super Bowl XXI (Giants 39, Broncos 20). What the owners pulled off was fairly incredible: Their franchises weren’t appreciating at quite the same insanely good rate as usual, so they spent six months torturing us, making us worry about a canceled season and playing high-speed chicken with the players which, of course, led to the players’ caving and the system being recalibrated in the owners’ favor without anyone asking things like, “Wait, aren’t you guys a tax-exempt entity under federal law?” or “Why do you need to build new billion-dollar stadiums to play eight football games a year again?” or even “If you don’t like owning an NFL franchise, why not sell to the one of the dozens of rich dudes who would overpay to buy into the league because it’s pretty much the biggest American ego purchase you can make?”
Remember Eddie Murphy’s routine in Raw about pulling a Jedi mind trick on Mr. T so Mr. T wouldn’t kick his ass?
–Mr. T (angry): “I heard you did some jokes about me!”
–Eddie: “No you didn’t.”
–Mr T: “Maybe I didn’t.”
Wasn’t that the NFL owners this year?
–Us (angry): “Why are we having a lockout? We heard you guys were raking in shitloads of money!”
–Owners: “No you didn’t.”
–Us: “Maybe we didn’t.”
What’s crazy is that, for a few weeks there, the owners had seemingly overplayed their hand, hoping the legal system would support their bogus belief that they should be hauling in TV revenue whether there was a season or not (their lockout nest egg, if you will). When that nefarious ploy failed, they hopped in their cars and drove 85 miles an hour right at the players and on cue, the players panicked and veered off the road.
What actually happened? The owners “conceded” things they didn’t actually care about like “shorter training camps,” “no more two-day contracts,” “46-man active rosters,” “the Legacy Fund” (which made them look good anyway), “higher minimum salaries” and “no 18-game seasons” while flipping the revenue split in their favor from 47/53 to 52/48. (To put that in perspective: NBA owners can’t convince their players to consider a 50/50 split.) They lowered the salary cap $8 million by dramatically chopping rookie salaries (which were far too high, especially for the premium guys). They coerced DeMaurice Smith’s side into screwing over last year’s marquee free agents (Logan Mankins, Vincent Jackson, etc.) to make this year’s deal work; when those players rightfully bitched about it, the consensus reaction was, “Shut up guys, we’re not missing any games!” With their TV contract expiring in 2013, they locked the players up to a 10-year labor deal — 10 years!!! — then immediately started negotiating lucrative extensions with ESPN, CBS, Fox and everyone else. Even if future salary caps will rise with newfound revenue, who agrees to a ten-year deal without knowing exactly how much revenue will be riding on Years 4 through 10?
The big “victory” for the players was the “guaranteed spend” by every team,1 a wrinkle that allegedly forces small-market teams to spend more money and worked splendidly Tuesday when the Jaguars (already $28 million under the cap) waived David Garrard to save another $8.075 million. Maybe the deal wasn’t a catastrophe for players, but they certainly lost the staring contest. And then some. There’s a feeling within the NBA’s labor negotiations — and not just from David Stern’s side — that Billy Hunter has been dragging things along from his end because he’s afraid of getting beaten like DeMaurice Smith just did.
Every team now has to spend above a certain total salary threshold, which will be 99 percent for 2011 and 2012, then 95 percent after that but that number can be skewed by the number of teams that go over the cap. From 2013 to 2016 and 2017 to 2020, every team has to spend at least 89 percent of the cap.
What does this have to do with the 2011 NFL season? The past six weeks (a whirlwind of player movement and “wait, he went WHERE?” moments) were delightfully enjoyable for football fans; our fantasy drafts went off without a hitch; we had enough time to make our future bets; and our season starts on time with tonight’s Packers-Saints battle. As Goodell would say, win-win-win-win. There were only five casualties.
1. No Hard Knocks. Wednesdays in August just never felt right. I thought it was weirdly fitting that, a few days after the lockout ended, Baltimore released Todd Heap our token “Young and Wide-Eyed Rookie With The Smoking-Hot Wife/Girlfriend” character from the first Hard Knocks season who was mentored by Shannon Sharpe.2 That was the enduring theme of the show, right? The circle of life? (Thinking.) Do you want to take the Antonio Cromartie joke here, or should I take it? Please, you take it. I insist.
Back in 2001, I reviewed the first episode and gave it a “7 out of 10,” which may have been my single worst call of the past 10 years. Also, that column posted about three weeks after I started as a full-time ESPN.com employee; they ended up chopping like 12 of my favorite jokes in there. You can even see when you’re rereading it — there are parts that feel like, “Wait, did they take out the joke that was supposed to be there?” It’s a weird reread. Yes, I’m still holding a grudge 10 years later.
2. We didn’t have enough time to reflect on Michael Vick’s redemption heading into this season. The 351,091 magazine features, Internet columns and TV segments weren’t nearly enough; I’ll always feel like we left something on the table.
3. The Packers skipped the “here’s where we blow smoke up your asses for six months, keep rehashing how great you were and inflate everyone’s egos to the point that players start bitching about their salaries, then Pat Riley’s ‘Disease of More’ inevitably sets in and a slew of injuries and bad breaks are unleashed” stage that usually follows winning a Super Bowl title, because we spent all that time fretting about the lockout. That’s bad for the other 31 teams — on paper, the 2011 Packers are more explosive than the 2010 Packers.
4. Poor Peyton Manning got robbed of 24/7 Favre-ian news coverage in July and August, when his neck injury should have been a much bigger deal only with our heads spinning from the labor settlement and all the player movement, we never had time to fully beat that story into the ground. Have you actually read the details of this injury? He had been bothered by a herniated disc in his neck; they ended up operating on it and shaving part of that disc off. What???? That sounds terrible! Any pro wrestling fan can tell you that, once doctors start shaving herniated discs, you never move quite the same. (Cut to the Shawn Michaels fans nodding sadly.) And as someone who had a herniated disc in his lower back that flares up every so often, lemme tell you something that thing NEVER goes away.
For the record: I’m a Patriots fan and a Colts hater, but I want a healthy Manning in the league. I love watching him, love having him around, love rooting against him. It’s a less fun league without him in it. But I don’t think he’s playing this season, and here’s why: There’s a good chance the Colts will be terrible anyway. Do you realize they whiffed on five straight no. 1 picks from 2006 through 2010?3 There’s a good chance that Bill Polian went Donnie Walsh on us about five years ago and we never realized it. They just don’t have the same talent any more. When Mike Lombardi did his blue chip/red chip rankings last month, he settled on 66 elite players (the blue-chippers) and 65 borderline-elite players (the red-chippers) who Lombardi considered top-10 at their respective positions. The Packers (six blues and four reds) and Steelers (four blues, six reds) had the most representatives. The Colts? They had four blues and zero reds and one of the blues was Manning.
Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez, Donald Brown, Jerry Hughes and the no. 1 they dealt for the rights to Tony Ugoh.
Remember, the Colts haven’t bottomed out for a decade. They were overdue, especially with Jim Caldwell running the show. Doesn’t this feel like the year? And if Manning misses the first few games and the Colts flounder, why rush him back? Why not shelve him for the season, get him healthy, use 2011 to rebuild and emulate the 1997 San Antonio Spurs (who tanked after David Robinson got injured and were rewarded with Tim Duncan) with the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes looming? Or does that make too much sense? Either way, we didn’t have nearly enough time to digest this story — it affects not just the AFC South but some potential sleepers, as well. For instance, the Browns host Cincy in Week 1, travel to Indy in Week 2, then host Miami and Tennessee at home; remove Manning and that’s a possible 4-0 start. Tampa Bay hosts Indy on Monday night in Week 4; remove Manning and that goes from “We’re not beating Peyton on Monday night” to “Look at our schedule, we could be 5-0 when the Saints come to town in Week 6.” So if you’re trying to predict this NFL season, you need to take a stance on this Manning issue and my stance is, “I’m writing him off for the first six weeks at the very least, and after that, they’d be crazy to bring him back anyway.”
(Late breaking note: Two hours after I handed in this column, word leaked that Manning underwent a second surgery that’s called “one-level cervical neck fusion.” Looks like he’s missing at least half the season. Whoa.)
5. Because of the post-lockout player chaos, we’re either headed for the most predictable gambling season in a while, or the most erratic gambling season in a while. With no in-between.
You know how NFL talking heads speak their own language, rely too much on recognizable code words and take 100 words to say something that could be said in 15?4 Like, instead of saying, “Brandon Jacobs is a good backup running back” they might say, “In the National Football League, you need backs who can run downhill to win football games, and with a guy like Brandon Jacobs, here’s a guy who makes you start talking about a guy who can come right in and run downhill against tired defenses, and when you have a guy like that, guys, there’s a guy who ohbytheway can help you win in the National Football League.”
I probably shouldn’t talk.
Well, those guys are going to be banging home a new code word in September and October. You’re going to hear it all the time. You’re going to hear it so much that, when you fall asleep, it’s going to be ringing in your ears.
The word? Continuity.
See, here’s the thing with continuity — when you talk about continuity, you’re talking about a word that means things are GOING to continue one way or the other, but because of the lockout, guys, if you don’t know how things are continuing one way or the other, then that continuity can be thrown out of whack, and now you’re talking about a word that ohbytheway can have a HUGE effect on things in the National Football League.
Did you get all that? I keep coming back to the same question: How much of an advantage will continuity-friendly contenders and semicontenders (New England, New Orleans, San Diego, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Dallas, to name six) have over everybody else? I’d define “continuity” here as “kept the same coach and quarterback, didn’t totally overhaul the roster, didn’t lose THAT many guys, isn’t relying too much on 2011 picks,” or put another way: “Everything Oakland did, only the opposite.” Combining a lack of continuity with a drastically shortened preseason feels like a recipe for disaster.
For instance, here’s how the 2010 offseason went for the Patriots: Start of free agency (March 5); start of offseason workouts (March 15), NFL draft (April 22-24); rookie camp (April 30-May 1); organized team activities (May 24-27; June 1-4; June 7-8; June 10-11); mandatory minicamp (July 15-17); rookies report to training camp (July 25); vets report to training camp (July 28); first exhibition game (Aug. 10); final 53-man roster cutdown (Sept. 4); first regular-season game (Sept. 12). So rookies and free-agent pickups had nearly six months to (a) learn the playbook, (b) get to know their new teammates and coaches, (c) work out with each other, (d) go to strip clubs together and (e) figure out who had the best pot connection. If they were living near the practice facility and working out there every day, even better.
For the 2011 season? Everything basically started on July 26 and I mean, EVERYTHING. For a team without any continuity from 2010, you’d think this experience would be like moving into a college dorm freshman year — those first few weeks are going to fly by, you’re going to make a few mistakes, you might be a little homesick, you’ll make at least one friend whom you’ll drop by October once you realize he or she sucks, you’ll definitely get too drunk at least twice, and by Thanksgiving weekend, you’ll look back and be happy you survived without failing out or running out of money. For the teams with continuity, you’d think it would be more like sophomore year: Yeah, there are some new faces on the floor, but you know your friends, know where to go, and know what to do. It’s a different level of confidence. It just is.
Remember all the years we heard things like, “Quarterback X should be much better now that he has a full year with that playbook under his belt” and “Quarterback Y and Wide Receiver X spent the summer throwing and trying to develop a chemistry?” Well, what do we make of things like
• Matt Hasselbeck signs with Tennessee and has seven weeks to get to know a new coach, new offensive coordinator, new receivers and learn a new offense that ISN’T the West Coast offense he just played in for the past decade oh, and he’s also living in a new city after spending the past 10 years in Seattle?
• Andy Dalton goes from “Minding my own business, staying in shape, hoping the lockout ends” to “Hey Andy, it looks like Carson Palmer isn’t coming back, we know you’re a rookie but you’re starting for us, we have seven weeks to make this work.”
• The Falcons go all-in on the 2011 draft with speedy receiver Julio Jones, who was supposed to spread the field for them and unleash Roddy White even more than Roddy White was already unleashed and by late July, they have just seven weeks to teach a 21-year-old kid the playbook and hope he develops a connection with Matt Ryan. Again, this was their Super Bowl X-Factor.
I don’t know what to make of this. I love football, I follow it voraciously, I’ve tried to learn as much about the sport as I possibly can but there comes a point where people like me just don’t know. It might be easy for Hasselbeck or Dalton to adjust that quickly, and it might be easy for Jones to step right in and run the same three speed patterns that Randy Moss ran for 15 years. But if it’s that easy, then why don’t quarterbacks ever get traded during the season? Why do receivers always struggle to adjust if they switch teams midseason? Why does the media always make such a big deal about rookie holdouts (think Michael Crabtree) “missing too much time” and “falling too far behind the curve” if we could actually round these dudes into tip-top shape in seven weeks? Why, every time an offensive line gets racked by injuries, do we always hear talking heads say things like, “They need to develop some continuity on that line” and “Offensive line play is about chemistry, and if you don’t have enough time to develop that chemistry, you’re screwed?”
That’s why I’m incorporating the word “continuity” into my 2011 gambling blueprint. Let’s rip through the Week 1 lines and you’ll see what I mean.5
(Home Teams in Caps)
PACKERS (-4.5) over Saints
I have New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans as my four “continuity contender” locks. If you subscribe to the “it’s all about the quarterback and the coach, everything goes through them” theory — and I’m a longtime subscriber — then find me four more stable coach/QB situations. You can’t. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 1: New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans will win
50 48 regular-season games combined.
Steelers (+1.5) over RAVENS
Every year, either six or seven playoff teams return to make the playoffs again which means five or six drop out. Of the Eagles, Falcons, Jets and Ravens, isn’t Baltimore the most likely free-faller? Tough schedule, weak corners, semishaky QB, soft pass rush, two aging defensive stars, a sketchy offensive line what am I missing? Do you realize that, right after the lockout ended, the Vikings waived Bryant McKinnie because he showed up weighing nearly 400 pounds. They didn’t have a replacement and didn’t care; they just wanted him out. Now he’s guarding Joe Flacco’s blind side ahead of the guy from The Blind Side? OK. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 2: Baltimore misses the 2011 playoffs.
BEARS (+3) over Falcons
Every season from 2003 through 2010 had at least one no. 1 or no. 2 seed that missed the following season’s playoffs (and dropped at least four wins). Last year, I dubbed this team “the grenade” because I had been watching too much Jersey Shore. This year? I’m still watching too much Jersey Shore. (And I’m not happy about it — I wish we could just fast-forward 15 years to the day when everyone’s out of my life except for Sammi Sweetheart, who will be almost definitely be feuding with Brett Favre on Celebrity Rehab.) Anyway, we’ve had 13 NFL grenades in the past eight years (an astonishing 40.25 percent),6 not to mention the ones The Situation brings home every night and pretends to almost hook up with before concentrating on more important things, like assaulting a cement wall with his forehead. This year’s grenade? Put it this way: So many Vegas sharps banged Chicago’s initial over/under total (8½ wins) that it was downgraded to 8 (and yes, people are still banging it). It’s the most obvious grenade pick in the history of grenade picks; I don’t even need to list the reasons because you can rattle them off yourself. If the Bears win eight games or more, I’m giving you a full refund for this column.
Those 13 teams: ’10 Vikings (6-10, minus -6 from 2009); ’10 Chargers (9-7, minus-4); ’09 Titans (8-8, minus-5), ’09 Panthers (8-8, minus-4); ’09 Giants (8-8, minus-4); ’08 Packers (6-10, -7, grenade); ’07 Bears (7-9, minus-6); ’07 Ravens (5-11, minus-8); ’06 Broncos (9-7, minus-4); ’05 Eagles, (6-10, minus-7); ’04 Chiefs (7-9, minus-6); ’03 Bucs (7-9, minus-5); ’03 Raiders (4-12, minus-7)
So why am I picking them for Week 1? Because I don’t love the Falcons, either — even if they fit the “continuity contender” parameters, they drew too much hype for a textbook schedule/luck/momentum overachiever. I see them struggling for a few weeks, then turning it on late and fighting Tampa for a wild-card spot. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 3: The Bears upset Atlanta in Week 1 and STILL realize full-fledged “grenade” status.
BUCS (-1.5) over Lions
That’s right, I said Tampa! Why do so few people still believe in JAAAAAAAASH FREEMAN!?!?!?!?? Even if the Bucs had some schedule/luck/momentum help last season, don’t they get credit for overcoming a rash of crippling injuries (they lost five starters in two weeks at one point, including stud cornerback Aqib Talib and center Jeff Faine) and gritting their way to 10-6? What about a full year from LeGarrette Blount? Why is everyone so eager to say how much better Sam Bradford will be in Year 2, but they never say this about Freeman (also entering his second full year as a starter)? Have you seen their schedule for god’s sake?7 And haven’t we learned that it’s much better to be the “Nobody Believes In Us!” team (Tampa) than the “Everyone Believes In Us!” team (not just Atlanta but Detroit, as well)? Relatively Bold Prediction No. 4: Tampa makes the playoffs, Atlanta and Detroit do not.
First five weeks: Detroit, at Minnesota, Atlanta, Indy, at San Francisco. And they have two Carolina games AND Jacksonville in December during a month that promises to be a furious Andrew Luck Tankathon.
Bills (+6) over CHIEFS
Every season since 2003, at least three playoff teams dropped out the following year and lost at least four more games. Hmmmm Bears, Chiefs, Colts done! That took me 0.23 seconds. I didn’t like the Chiefs even before Tony Moeaki went down for the year. I see the Bills either winning this game or coming damn close and sadly, it becoming one of the highlights of their season. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 5: By April 2012, Todd Haley will be the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets.
Titans (+2.5) over JAGUARS
TEXANS (-9) over Colts
I’ll try to condense the annual “A sleeper can’t be a sleeper if it’s wide-awake” rant into one sentence: If you’re picking a sleeper that isn’t (a) a team you think will jump at least five wins from 2010 to 2011, and (b) isn’t one of the 11 teams with little to no buzz in 2011 (in order: the Titans, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders, Redskins, Vikings and Panthers), then you didn’t pick a sleeper. Sorry.
Anyway, I love the AFC South because it’s the total package of weirdness: The Jags already checked out for the season with the McCown/Garrard white flag; the Texans went 2-8 in their last 10 games, never fired Gary Kubiak and somehow became The Next Great AFC South Team (how does this happen?); the Colts might stink for the first time in a decade; and the Titans have all the sleeper makings (low expectations, talent on both sides of the ball, underachieved last year because of a truly messed-up QB/coach situation, two dynamite offensive players in Kenny Britt and Chris Johnson), and yet, they have a new coach (Mike Munchak) and a new quarterback (Hasselbeck), which means they’re failing my “continuity” rules. Then again, wouldn’t stability count as pseudocontinuity here? How was that Vince Young/Jeff Fisher quagmire even remotely stable? And isn’t the state of Tennessee overdue for some good sports news? Relatively Bold Prediction No. 6: Tennessee vaults Indy, wins 10 games and takes the AFC South.
BROWNS (-6.5) over Bengals
Had there been a full offseason, I would have wondered about Cincy’s sleeper potential because of its sneaky-good defense, A.J. Green and the salient question, “Can Andy Dalton REALLY be that much worse than Carson Palmer these past two seasons?” But getting Dalton and Green ready in seven weeks? Please. Meanwhile, remember this about sleepers: Since 2003, we’ve had at least one playoff team every year that jumped 5-plus wins in the standings.8 I keep staring at the Browns as a pure schedule pick: they go Cincy, at Indy (no Manning), Miami, Tennessee, BYE, at Oakland, Seattle, at San Fran, at Houston, St. Louis, Jacksonville and at Cincy in their first 11 games — can you bake a bigger creampuff than that??? — followed by a brutal next four (Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at Arizona and Baltimore), then a Possibly Resting Everybody Steelers in Week 17.
The complete list: 2010 Chiefs, 2009 Bengals, 2008 Dolphins, 2008 Falcons, 2007 Browns, 2006 Saints, 2005 Bears, 2004 Chargers, 2003 Cowboys.
Even if it’s weird to think of Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis playing a wild-card game, fast-forward to next summer: Who will be next year’s horseshoe team (as in “They’re going to regress, the only reason they made last year’s playoffs was because of their schedule and some lucky breaks”)? Feels like the Browns, right? Can’t you see Bill Barnwell writing 1,200 angry words next July about how much the 2012 Browns are going to suck? (You know, assuming Barnwell doesn’t die in Vegas within the next 10 months?) Relatively Bold Prediction No. 7: The Browns will be one of our two 2011 sleepers and sneak out a wild card ahead of Baltimore.
RAMS (+4.5) over Eagles
You don’t know how badly I wanted to bump the Eagles from the playoffs as the NFC’s “Too Many People Believed In Us” team (as well as the “Why Did Everyone Think Mike Vick Could Play 16 Games When He’s Done It Only Once?” Team. Too much talent though. And they have enough Reid/Vick continuity at this point to survive any stumbles coming out of the gate. You know, like blowing this game in St. Louis. As for the Rams, sign me up for the “Josh McDaniels has unleashed Sam Bradford!” express in a typically lousy NFC West; I even spent seven bucks on Danny Amendola in my West Coast auction this week. That wasn’t a misprint. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 8: The Rams win this game and go on to win the NFC West.
REDSKINS (+3) over Giants
I had written off the Giants even before they lost half their defense in the preseason. As for the Redskins, they’re a semi-intriguing sleeper pick until you start thinking about things like, “Wait, I’ve seen Rex Grossman play” and “Wait, I’ve seen Tim Hightower play.” Relatively Bold Prediction No. 9: The Redskins will win more games than the New York Football Giants.
Panthers (+7) over CARDINALS
I see Kevin Kolb being a 2011 continuity cautionary tale: In the span of seven weeks, he went from “I don’t know where I’m playing this season” to being the savior in Arizona, a team that desperately needed a competent quarterback after last year’s Anderson/Skelton/Hall horror show. New offense, new receivers, new coaches, new playbook, longing “please, just put the ball within three feet of me and I’ll f-ing catch it, all right?” stares from Larry Fitzgerald and are we even sure Kevin Kolb is good? I’m leaning toward no. (Remember how scared he looked in Week 1 against the Packers last season?) Throw in a couple of unexpected Cam Newton highlights and I feel comfortable typing the following: Relatively Bold Prediction No. 10: The Panthers will either beat the Cards in Week 1 or come damned close.
Seahawks (+5.5) over NINERS9
Year 7 of Alex Smith! Year 7! He’s the According to Jim of NFL quarterbacks; you see him and say, “Wait, how is this still on?” Part of me wonders if Jim Harbaugh is throwing away this entire season just to get Andrew Luck; I mean, if you were doing that, wouldn’t you say things like, “We’re going with Alex Smith!”
I know it’s heresy to take Tarvaris on the road — I’m going with the “Seattle, San Fran and Arizona should NEVER be favored at home by more than four points over anyone” corollary here.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks evacuated their bandwagon by signing Tarvaris Jackson; it was like they set off a blaring fire alarm and told everyone to run for their lives. Quick story: I participated in an NFL Team Wins pool this year in which 10 guys selected three NFL teams (most total wins for those three teams wins the pool).10 Only two teams went undrafted the Panthers and Seahawks. And in Grantland’s Bad QB Fantasy League, the Seahawks were the second team taken. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: It probably wasn’t a good idea to turn the keys over to Tarvaris Jackson. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 11: The Niners pull out every stop to win the Luck Sweepstakes (and succeed).
Very cool pool, by the way. You draw for the 10 spots and the order works in a way that it’s fair for everybody. First team gets the first pick, then picks 20 and 26. Team Two: 2, 16, 29. Team Three: 3, 13, 30. Team Four: 4, 18, 25. Team Five: 5, 15, 27. Team Six: 6, 19, 22. Team Seven: 7, 11, 28. Team Eight: 8, 17, 21. Team Nine: 9, 14, 23. Team Ten: 10, 12, 24. I ended up with the Patriots, Titans and Redskins.
Vikings (+8.5) over CHARGERS
I circled the Vikes for about two weeks as a 2011 sleeper because they upgraded from Brad Childress and Brett Favre to “two competent bodies,” and also, because I’m not buying the Lions or Bears. But McNabb looked mildly washed up last season; I just can’t pull the trigger. “9 and 7 with a monster Adrian Peterson season” sounds right for them. More important, since 2003 the league has featured one “creeper” — my term for a team that jumped at least four wins from the previous season and grabbed a no. 1 or no. 2 seed.11 San Diego finished in 9-7 in 2010 during one of those “Jeez, what else could go wrong?” seasons; that means they can climb to 13-3 and realize full-fledged “creeper” status.
Note: Last year we called it a 5-win jump, but it didn’t happen — the Falcons and Bears each jumped four wins, not five. And if you’re scoring at home, every season since 2003 featured three teams jumping at least 4-plus wins (and into the playoffs) and at least three teams falling out of the playoffs with a drop of five or more wins. For 2011, I see the jumpers being San Diego, Tennessee and Dallas, and the free-fallers being Chicago, Kansas City and Indy.
Of course, that would require the Chargers to stop screwing up September but given their continuity advantage and the new kickoff rules (which reduces the impact of atrocious special teams), that seems realistic. Scary offense, scary team. I see them falling behind early in this game, making every Chargers fan scream, “No, not again!!!!!” then rallying for a comeback win, shedding their September curse, getting to 13-3 and summarily choking in the playoffs like always. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 12: Everyone who bet Phil Rivers at 12-to-1 as MVP cashes in.12
Some other bets I like: Mike Wallace will lead the NFL in receiving yards: 15 to 1; Minnesota finishes with more than seven wins: -120; Ben Roethlisberger will finish with 235.5 passing yards more than Michael Vick: -115; Andre Johnson will finish with 1.5 more TD catches than Chad Ochocinco: -155; Miami finishes with fewer than 7.5 wins: -120; Tennessee finishes with more than 6.5 wins (-120); an AFC team will win the Super Bowl: even odds.
COWBOYS (+4) over Jets
You don’t know how badly I wanted to pick the Jets to miss the playoffs. Considering they made two straight AFC Championship Game appearances and lost some key guys from last season, it wasn’t totally far-fetched but still, it’s just too hard to imagine them NOT winning 10 games. So if you’re looking for a little boldness, let’s go here: Everything that could have went wrong with last year’s Cowboys season did; even the first JerryWorld Super Bowl turned into a full-fledged disaster. They finished 6-10. You’re telling me they can’t jump four or five wins with a healthy Romo, a healthy Dez Bryant and an awake head coach? Relatively Bold Prediction No. 13: Everyone who bet Dallas to win the NFC East at +300 cashes in.
Patriots (-7) over DOLPHINS
Remove my homersexuality from the equation it’s fair to call the 2011 Patriots the ultimate “continuity” team, right? Thanks for agreeing with me. I appreciate that. As for the Dolphins, let’s forget about Chad Henne’s shortcomings for a second (and they’re significant); am I the only one who remembers Miami’s owner chasing Jim Harbaugh last winter, not pulling it off, then awkwardly going into, “Look, that wasn’t a reflection of how I felt about Tony Sparano at all, I was just sniffing around” mode? If I’m a Dolphins player, that little saga told me that my coach is on thinner than thin ice. As we saw with Wade Phillips, Brad Childress and even Jeff Fisher last season, once the players smell blood in the water, it’s over. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 14: Tony Sparano is the first 2011 coach to be fired. And also: Relatively Bold Prediction No. 15: The Patriots win 12 games and somehow don’t get a first-round bye.
BRONCOS (-3) over Raiders
Do you think the other 31 teams look back fondly on having Josh McDaniels in two NFL drafts the same way we look back fondly at those two or three years when one of our buddies’ idiotic friends made a one-year fantasy league cameo and did things like drafting a kicker in the fourth round? It should take a solid year for Denver to undo the damage. As for the Raiders, they’re the ultimate 2011 continuity story: For the umpteenth straight season, they’re a complete and total mess. Some things never change. Relatively Bold Prediction No. 16: Neither of these teams make the Super Bowl instead, we have a Packers-Steelers rematch that Pittsburgh wins in a shootout, 37-34. Yes, even Super Bowl XLVI will have continuity.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
Previously from Bill Simmons:
Summer of Mailbag V: Passing the Buck
Summer of Mailbag IV: Dawn of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag III: Attack of the Mailbag!
The Glorious Return of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag: The Revenge
Red Sox Report Card
‘Good Lord! That’s His Music!’