Photo by Al Diaz
When the National Football League finally put an end to the drawn-out lockout this summer, the first thing that popped into my mind was that the embarrassment was over. There would be no more talk of negotiating from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith and the players themselves. Enough was enough, and now that the abbreviated training camp and preseason are over, let's take a look at some of the top stories heading into the 2011 regular season, which begins Thursday when the New Orleans Saints visit the Green Bay Packers on Lambeau Field.
First question: How good are the Eagles? I don't necessarily believe the team from Philly will get much brotherly love from neutral fans outside the city, but the team did significantly upgrade its roster. When you add cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (whom the team picked up in a trade), defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, defensive end Jason Babin, running back Ronnie Brown, quarterback Vince Young and wide receiver Steve Smith via free agency, you'd better be good. Plus, the Eagles re-signed starting quarterback Michael Vick to a six-year, $100 million contract — $40 million of which is guaranteed. This team has to win the division over the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins. If it doesn't, say hello to the Miami Heat of football.
Can the Packers repeat? The defending Super Bowl champions picked the right time to get hot at the end of last season, winning out down the stretch in order to clinch a postseason wildcard berth before capturing the Lombardi Trophy over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. I say the Packers can win it all again, and here's why: Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback in the league who can spread out defenses with wide receivers Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Meanwhile, the defense under Dom Capers, linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, and 6-foot-2, 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji will get after you.
Can any team in the AFC East quiet Rex Ryan and the Jets? Let's start with Miami. The Dolphins have missed the postseason the past two years, finishing third in the division with identical records of 7-9. Despite the addition of electrifying running back/special-teams specialist Reggie Bush, Miami still has a biggest question mark at quarterback. Can Chad Henne lead the Dolphins back to the postseason? Ask coach Tony Sparano, and his answer is yes. Remember, Sparano is the same guy who backed Henne during training camp when fans were calling for Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. If Sparano's defense can hold up, if Bush can electrify the crowd and if the wildcat running game can somehow resurface and be effective enough to take the pressure off Henne, then watch out for Miami. Of course, those are big ifs. The Patriots (14-2) and Jets (11-5) finished first and second, respectively, in the division, and as it stands, those two appear to be the teams to beat. Expect Ryan to run his mouth as usual to stir the pot with everyone. But even with the Jets' addition of Plaxico Burress, I don't see how they can overtake the Patriots' Tom Brady and Chad Ochocinco atop the standings. The Bills (4-12) are still the Bills, and in order for them to leave the basement of the AFC East, they need to figure out if Ryan Fitzpatrick is the answer at quarterback.
Which AFC team is poised to make some noise? I think the Kansas City Chiefs will make another run at repeating as divisional champs. The Chiefs took the AFC West title last season at 10-6, and quarterback Matt Cassel should improve upon his stats from last season (262 completions; 450 attempts; 3,116 passing yards; 27 touchdowns) as long as running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe stay healthy. Of course, the Colts need Peyton Manning to be at full-strength in order to do any damage in their division, while the Ravens and Steelers will go toe-to-toe, as usual, in their infamous rivalry.
Contact Jason Stromberg at email@example.com.