(Pre-)Season's Greetings 

Sizing up the NFL season

Sit down, because I wouldn't want anybody to faint in the face of the innovative notion of ... writing an NFL playoff-predictions column. Here's who I think will be vying for the right to bookend Bruce Springsteen's halftime performance in Glendale, Ariz., this February.

Whereas others predict outcomes based on prior-year success and free-agent acquisitions, there is no science to my method. (Except for consulting the woman in my office who picks her office pool based on uniforms and mascots -- and who didn't know that Jacksonville had a team.) Also, I apply a principle noted by some smart sports geek: In any group of 12 playoff teams from any given year, it's likely only six will return the following season.

Which six will go and which will golf?

If Andy Reid doesn't have a stroke on the sidelines of one of their warm-weather games, the Philadelphia Eagles should win the NFC East. During the preseason game at a relatively cool Heinz Field, Reid was nearly purple on the sidelines from the heat. He is a terrific coach, so Donovan McNabb might want to start bringing celery and green tea for his coach to snack on during team meetings.

The San Francisco 49ers will win the NFC West. I'm not kidding. If QB Alex "Small Hands" Smith improves on his TD-to-INT ratio, the 'Niners should be able to win a weak division. Sorry, Seattle fans.

Rex or no Rex, the Bears will win the NFC North -- because who else is going to win it? The Detroit Lions? They seem to be a sexy pick, except one thing: They are the Detroit Lions. Their GM is Matt Millen, who can proudly boast of being the only GM in all sports with a worse track record for evaluating talent than the Pirates. For crying out loud, the team is coached by Rod Marinelli. (And yeah, I had to look that up.)

The New Orleans Saints will win the NFC South, because last year was no fluke. I mean, come on: Drew Brees. Marques Colston. Robert Meachem. Deuce McAllister. Oh yeah, and a guy named Reggie Bush.

The Carolina Panthers cannot continue to underachieve. Can they? They've got a soft schedule -- and two of the starting QBs playing elsewhere in their division are Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia. This team is good for 9-7, which should be enough for a wild-card spot in the NFC. If not, you'll see Bill Cowher scowling on the sidelines at Bank of America Stadium next season.

As for who will earn the other wildcard spot, I'm going with the Washington Redskins. Provided, of course, that somebody assassinates meddling owner Danny Snyder by mid-season so that Joe Gibbs can coach in peace.

Turning to the AFC, though the San Diego Chargers are the most talented team in the AFC West, two words keep me from penciling them into my playoff brackets: Norv Turner. The man with a lifetime coaching record of 58-82 is clearly the guy to take control of the team with the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL, and of talent like Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson. I guess Rich Kotite wasn't available. The Raiders and Chiefs both stink, so Denver's ferret-faced Mike Shanahan can't mess this up.

The Indianapolis Colts will win the AFC South because Tony Dungy loves God.

New England's Bill Belichik is a genius, in case you hadn't heard. Truly. I heard he took one of those online IQ tests and blew away Stephen Hawking's score. Of course, Hawking is a Jets fan. The Patriots are too loaded not to win the AFC East.

And in the AFC North? The Steelers, of course. Because I'm from Pittsburgh and if you're not a Steelers fan -- well, I don't have to tell you what you are. Or aren't. You know what I mean.

It pains me to say this, but the Baltimore Ravens will win a wild-card berth because they have a player more inspirational than Mahatma Gandhi, fiercer than Ray Nietzsche, and more devout than St. Francis of Assisi. Ray Lewis is God's Linebacker. (The Tennessee Titans should lock up the other wild-card berth because of Jeff Fisher's mini-mullet. Who doesn't love that?)

Elsewhere in the division, Jamal Lewis will gain fewer than 750 yards with the Browns. And few things are as much fun as listening to Cincinnati's Carson Palmer whine in the off-season.

I love football.


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