The NFL season gets under way Thursday night when the reigning Super Bowl champions Green Bay Packers take on the 2009 winners the New Orleans Saints. This season is one of the most anticipated in years after an off-season interrupted by strikes, lockouts and turmoil over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The disruption wasn’t all bad, however. Fans were eventually treated to a frantic free agency period that created intrigue and shock signings and trades comparable to the January transfer deadline day in the English Premier League. With the four pre-season games now completed, Sports News Ireland looks at the contenders for the coming season.
The modern day NFL is built with parity in mind. All 32 teams must deal with a salary cap, while the worst teams every year get the chance to select the best talent from the college game in the Draft. The result is a league that sees an average of five new teams in the playoffs each year and established successful teams disappoint. Despite this equality, some teams manage to remain contenders on an annual basis. The reasons are normally similar, as teams who draft well, have a good quarterback and coach and who can rush the passer generally tend to succeed.
The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts have been the only AFC conference representatives in the Super Bowl in the last eight years, while the same three clubs have won a total of six Super Bowls since 2001. The competition has been fiercer in the NFC conference, where ten separate teams have contested the Super Bowls in the past decade.
The Green Bay Packers enter the season as the pick of the Super Bowl favourites. Green Bay won the Super Bowl last season despite suffering from a long list of injuries. With key players now returning, the Packers will be an even more formidable outfit.
Green Bay have all the crucial components of a Super Bowl winner. The franchise’s GM Ted Thompson drafts well, Mike McCarthy is a quality coach, the offence is explosive and the defence boasts playmakers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the league’s best and is entering his prime, while their defence boasts the pass rushing ability of Clay Matthews and shut down corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris. The biggest problems for the Packers are a questionable running game and the difficulty of winning successive Super Bowl titles.
Elsewhere in the NFC, The New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles begin the season as the main challengers to the Packers’ NFC Championship crown. The Saints surprisingly lost to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs, but Sean Payton’s men still possess the prolific Drew Brees and his explosive offense.
The Falcons boasted the NFC’s best record last season when they went 13-3, but Atlanta bowed out of the playoffs at the first hurdle. The Falcons have added explosive rookie receiver Julio Jones to play opposite Roddy White and improved their pass rush with the signing of Ray Edwards, who has 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
The most intriguing side in the NFC are the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been labelled the Dream Team after a free agency shopping spree. The Eagles biggest signing was that of highly sought after cornerback Nmandi Asomugha, who was given a $60m contract. Philadelphia also added the likes of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Green bay Packers defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, New York Giants wide receiver Steve Smith and former top five draft picks Ronnie Brown and Vince Young.
The Eagles will still be reliant on quarterback Michael Vick, who became the first ever player to be given two $100m contracts in his career. Vick was sensational last season when he accumulated 3,018 passing yards and 21 passing touchdowns, while rushing for 676 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing four games. With his enigmatic running style, however, Vick is always an injury risk.
Once again the Patriots and Steelers remain strong contenders in the AFC, although the Colts look set to struggle if Peyton Manning fails to recover fully from neck surgery.
The Steelers team that won two of the last six Super Bowls is still mainly intact. Rashard Mendenhall gives Pittsburgh their traditional powerful running game, while the punishing defence still contains the pass rushing ability of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the defensive line strength of Casey Hampton and the all round brilliance and playmaking ability of safety Troy Polomalu. Ben Roethlisberger, despite certain flaws, also remains a clutch quarterback.
The Patriots, despite their porous secondary, looked set to steamroll the playoffs last season before the Jets surprisingly dumped them out in the Divisional Round. New England have failed to win a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game, but the Patriots remain strong contenders for the Super Bowl crown as long as Bill Belichick is the coach and Tom Brady is the quarterback. Their defence has changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and have been revitalised with the surprise signings of the mercurial defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Shaun Ellis, who signed from the rivals Jets. Fans will still worry about their secondary, however.
The other early contenders for the AFC title include the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens. The Jets have made it to two AFC title games in succession and Rex Ryan’s vibrant and ever-changing defensive packages can cause problems for any offence.
San Diego led the league in offensive and defensive yards last season, but missed out on the playoffs. It would be a surprise if the Chargers, lead by the powerful arm of Philip Rivers, don’t make the playoffs and challenge for the AFC title this season.
The Ravens will again be powered by their strong defence, but Baltimore will need quarterback Joe Flacco to show more consistency if they are to make the Super Bowl.
Arguably the best facet of the NFL is that it is so unpredictable. The changeover of playoff teams yearly is pronounced and pre-season favourites can be blown away in the playoffs by an upstart young club with something to prove.
Two franchises with considerable upside entering the season are the Detroit Lions, who have drafted well in recent years, and the Houston Texans, who have been a vogue playoff pick repeatedly in recent seasons.
The Lions will likely make the breakthrough in the next couple of seasons, but have a difficult division that contains the Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. The Texans, especially with doubts surrounding the Colts, could ride their explosive offence to the AFC South crown if their porous pass defence can improve significantly.
The St Louis Rams benefit from a weak division and an upcoming talented quarterback in Sam Bradford and could also surprise this season.
Teams in trouble
The Indianapolis Colts are one team who could be in trouble. The Colts, lead by Peyton Manning’s cannon arm, have been one of the NFL’s juggernauts throughout the past ten years. Indianapolis racked up the most wins of any team in any decade in the 2000s when they won 115 regular season encounters. With Manning’s recovery from neck surgery slower than expected, however, the Colts could struggle this season. Manning has already been ruled out of their opener against the Houston Texans and if he misses a substantial portion of the season, the Colts are unlikely to stay in playoff contention.
New Orleans Saints @ Green Bay Packers, 1am Friday on Sky Sports 2