Before I begin, I want to note that this is the most fruitless exercise in the history of fruitless exercises. That said, it's a fun way to kick off the season, so I'm going to do it, anyway.
Hopefully, by January, you'll forget this post was ever written, and you don't worry about looking back at the picks I made in September to see how horrifically wrong most -- if not all -- of them were.
With that in mind, let's get started on this NFL season. I'm ready for some football!
1. New England
2. N.Y. Jets
Look. I like Rex Ryan. I like his bravado, and I like what he brings to this division. It's made the Jets-Patriots rivalry fun for the first time that I can remember (at least from the perspective of a guy who isn't a fan of either team and doesn't live on the East Coast). But his team isn't as good as New England. They won a playoff game in Foxborough, and good on them for that, but I don't see them beating out Brady and Co. for the division title. Buffalo added some intriguing pieces to the defense, and I think Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than other people do. We'll see if they can run the ball well enough behind a potentially shaky line. Miami is a mess at quarterback, and I don't think their offense is good in general, outside of Jake Long and Brandon Marshall.
When will this division not be defined by Pittsburgh and Baltimore? It will happen, I think, but not this year. The Ravens have a good team, but probably not quite good enough to take down the Steelers, who have enough guys returning from a team that felt like they let the Super Bowl get away from them. Cleveland should be better, but I'm not sold on the pieces surrounding Colt McCoy, specifically at wide receiver. Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis tries to avoid the jinx this year, but it seems Drew Brees did all right with that in 2010. Cincinnati is simply not a very good team, even if Carson Palmer walks back through that door, and I'm just not seeing that happening.
Peyton Manning's injury throws a king-sized monkey wrench into this whole division race. Sitting here, I have no earthly idea when we'll see Manning running the Colts offense again. Without him, I don't think this team can be nearly as good. Some teams are about the coaches and the systems they run. The Colts run a good offensive system, but Manning is the key guy. I liked Houston already, and the Manning news doesn't hurt. Of course, if Arian Foster isn't ready to go, that won't help matters. Jacksonville is in a make-or-break situation for Jack Del Rio. They can finish second, but that might not be enough to save the coach's job. Tennessee has Chris Johnson, but you know the holdout bit by now.
1. San Diego
2. Kansas City
The Chargers were a top offensive and defensive team last year, but were swept by the Raiders and missed the playoffs last year. That should tell you plenty about the overall talent on the team, as well as the overall value of statistics. Kansas City was good last year, and they'll be good again, but they aren't as good as the Chargers. The bottom of this division is bad. Oakland lost its best players on both sides of the ball, with little effort made toward passably replacing them. Denver is rebuilding, and while I think Kyle Orton is a fine quarterback, the Broncos just don't have enough talent on defense to compete.
2. N.Y. Giants
This division is probably going to be close, and don't think I'm just buying into the "Dream Team" hype with Philadelphia because they are my pick. This is a solid team with a great set of cornerbacks, and they'll shut down a lot of offenses. I'm not as sold on their offense being gangbusters, but it shouldn't need to be most weeks. The Giants have a solid team that could win ten or eleven games, but I haven't trusted Eli Manning much in his career, and last year gives me no reason to just start now. Looking at Dallas, I see some potential, but is Tony Romo the right guy to lead them forward? Mike Shanahan is trying in Washington, but until someone steps up at the quarterback, they are a bottom feeder.
1. Green Bay
No matter how you slice it, a defending champion that gets back three starters who missed most of last season -- and only loses one key guy to unrestricted free agency (Cullen Jenkins) -- is going to be a tough team to pick against. The Packers have the division's best offense, and the defense might be tops, too. I like this Vikings group to finish second and contend for a playoff spot, but they have a lot to show me on the offensive and defensive lines before they'll be better than that. Donovan McNabb is a good bridge to the Christian Ponder era. Detroit has talent, but until they show they can be trusted to stay healthy, I can't pick them any higher than this. It's tough putting the Bears fourth, but the offensive line looks like it could be shaky, no matter what magic Mike Tice has in that pencil he carries around.
1. New Orleans
3. Tampa Bay
Atlanta and New Orleans should be the best division title battle in the NFC. The Saints get the edge based on their defense. Atlanta was exposed a bit in the playoffs last year, and I'm not sold in their improvements there. No matter what happens, I sincerely hope Matt Ryan can get a playoff win this year, so he can get the hell away from all this "When will 'Matty Ice' Win A Playoff Game?" talk. As a Packers fan, I know how annoying that all is. Tampa is an intriguing young team that could steal a wild card spot, and while Carolina is not an intriguing young team, they'll be better than last year.
1. St. Louis
4. San Francisco
Sam Bradford will have a much more productive year with Josh McDaniels running the offense, and it doesn't hurt that he has Mike Sims-Walker to throw to. The Rams are my pick in a division that will improve this year, but still will be the scorn of many NFL observers. Larry Fitzgerald and Kevin Kolb won't be good enough to beat them out, but they'll be good enough to knock Seattle back to third. No idea what the Seahawks are thinking at quarterback. None. San Francisco has a new coach in Jim Harbaugh. Now they need to find a quarterback. How about Andrew Luck?
Houston over N.Y. Jets
Pittsburgh over Baltimore
New England over Houston
San Diego over Pittsburgh
New England over San Diego
St. Louis over Atlanta
New Orleans over Tampa Bay
Green Bay over St. Louis
New Orleans over Philadelphia
New Orleans over Green Bay
SUPER BOWL XLVI
New Orleans over New England