The time for waiting is just about over, as the NFL kicks off with tonight's Tennessee Titans-Pittsburgh Steelers matchup.
The Dolphins kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday in Atlanta, the first of three straight games against playoff opponents in 2009. So, how will the Fins do this year? My AFC East predictions follows, as well as my overall NFL predictions for 2009:
1. New England Patriots (11-5): Yes, Tom Brady is coming off a major knee injury, and the Pats just traded away five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour. But the Patriots have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, and with Bill Belichick at the controls, they are always a threat. Belichick may have done his best coaching job ever last season, when he took Matt Cassel and the Pats to 11-5, narrowly missing a playoff berth. With Brady back, look for fireworks similar to 2007, when New England set the all-time scoring mark, and Brady threw for 50 TDs and Moss added a record 23 receiving scores. The defense ranked 10th last year despite having a porous secondary. Belichick addressed that need by signing free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. Linebacker Jerrod Mayo should continue to improve, after massing 126 tackles last season. And Vince Wiflork anchors a good defenseive line that will benefit from the addition of Derrick Burgess. Still the team to beat in the conference.
2. Miami Dolphins (10-6): The Dolphins have a tougher schedule than in last year's worst-to-first campaign, but they are a better team than last year. Chad Pennington is now fully in control of the offense, after coming in off the street to play in Week 1 last year. Ted Ginn is entering the all-important third year when wide receivers typically start to flourish. And he has plenty of help behind him in rookies Brian Hartline and Patrick Turner, and veterans Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess. The team made its biggest strides defensively, as rookie corners Sean Smith and Vontae Davis were drafted to shore up a pass defense that ranked 25th a year ago. The additions of Jason Taylor and CFL sack master Cameron Wake should give Joey Porter the help he needs in the pass rush.
3. New York Jets (5-11): The Jets' opening schedule is as brutal as Miami's: at Houston, home against New England and Tennessee, at New Orleans and at Miami. I can't see them winning more than one game in that stretch. From there it doesn't get much easier, and breaking in a rookie starting quarterback and a new defensive scheme will take some time. Still, the Jets do have some good talent, with Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and sleeper Shonn Greene at running back. Dustin Keller is an emerging tight end, Kris Jenkins a good nose tackle if he can stay healthy and Darrelle Revis is becoming one of the best cover men in football. Kerry Rhodes and Jim Leonhard will comprise one of the best safety tandems in the league, and you can't overlook the impact former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott will have on the defense. This is definitely a team to watch in the future.
4. Buffalo Bills (4-12): It's never a good sign when you whack your offensive coordinator a week before the season starts, and an even worse sign when he says the team with Terrell Owens is trying to simplify things on offense. The addition of T.O. to a young and impressionable roster was already dicey, and if things go south -- as they should with Buffalo's schedule -- Owens won't be the happiest Bill in town. The Bills struggled to move the ball during the preseason, even with T.O. The jury is still out on Trent Edwards as a passer, and running back Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games following an offseason arrest for gun possession. Defensively, the Bills have an up-and-comer in second-year cornerback Leodis McKelvin, and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny was solid in his first season with 110 tackles. Defensive end Aaron Schobel is back after missing most of last season due to injury, and Marcus Stroud should hold his ground at defensive tackle. There are some good building blocks here, but the Bills are another year (and perhaps a new head coach) away from contending.
Now, for my truncated picks in the rest of the NFL.
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was injured in a motorcycle accident and struggled the following season, and the Steelers fell to 8-8 and out of the playoffs. After last year's Super Bowl win, Roethlisberger was accused of raping a woman, but the Steelers have too much talent to repeat a playoff miss in 2009. They will not win the division though, as the Baltimore Ravens are primed and ready to supplant Pittsburgh. Joe Flacco has grown more confident as a passer in this, his second year, and the Ravens are about to unleash coordinator Cam Cameron's version of "LT Lite," Ray Rice, who will do his best LaDainian Tomlinson impersonation, catching passes and running the ball all over the field.
Many are predicting the Indianapolis Colts' demise after the retirement of Tony Dungy and the release of all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison. But despite a rushing offense and defense that struggled last season, I think the Colts will be fine, and should win their division after a one-year absence. Peyton Manning is still running the offense, Joseph Addai will benefit from the addition of Donald Brown in the running game, and Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark will keep the passing game humming. I also like the fact first-year coach Jim Caldwell has beefed up a defensive line that was mainly responsible for the Colts' woes against the run. Now, I'm going to jump on the Houston Texans bandwagon and pick them to finally make the leap and finish second, qualifying for a playoff berth. The Texans simply have too much offensive talent, and they have some star defensive players who should help make the difference.
Clearly the worst division in the conference, with the only team worth mentioning being the San Diego Chargers, who should win their division more comfortably than last year. The Chargers have too many offensive stars, and linebacker Shawne Merriman and cornerback Antonio Cromartie are both healthy after injuries torpedoed their 2008.
Dark horse: Tennessee. The Titans have a difficult schedule and won't repeat last year's 13-3 season, but they have a rejuvenated Kerry Collins and the two-headed running back duo of Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Their defense remains sound, even without Albert Haynesworth. If Indy or Houston stumble, the Titans could sneak into the playoffs.
If not for injuries, free agent defections and the death of coordinator Jim Johnson, I would like the Philadelphia Eagles to win the division. But the fact is, the defense suffered too many losses and did not look good in the preseason. Thus, I go with the safe pick, the New York Giants. The Giants are largely the same team that went 12-4 and won the division last year, except Plaxico Burress is no longer on the roster, and the G-Men added to their already deep defenaive line with the additions of Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard -- not to mention the return of Osi Umenyiora after a torn ACL ended his 2008 season. This team would be my NFC favorite if not for one glaring weakness: Wide receiver, where Eli Manning must work with the likes of Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham and second round pick Hakeem Nicks. If one of those players can emerge and give Eli a reliable target, the G-Men may be booking hotel space in Miami in January. Despite the defensive issues, I still think the Eagles have more talent than the Cowboys, who have taken a clear step back since their 13-3 season two years ago. The Giants and Eagles will make the playoffs again.
With all the offseason moves, this division has supplanted the East as the toughest in the NFL. The Bears have the easiest schedule in football, and the addition of quarterback Jay Cutler should put them over the top. The offense is finally good enough to balance out what has been one of the best defenses in football the last few years. The Green Bay Packers are the second choice. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will join the elite this year, and he directed an offense that was unstoppable in the preseason. The defense was just as good, forcing 23 turnovers in just four preseason games. The Brett Favre experiment in Minnesota will end the way the Jets' did last year, with Favre's team out of the playoffs -- and Brett once again engaging in another long offseason Hamlet soliloquy.
The Atlants Falcons will continue their upward climb with a division championship in 2009. Quarterback Matt Ryan should be better in this, his second year, and he has plenty of offensive firepower in running back Michael Turner, receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Five new starters on defense -- including former Jacksonville Jaguars standout Mike Peterson -- should bolster a unit that ranked just 24th overall last season. Thanks to a difficult schedule (and Jake Delhomme at quarterback), the Panthers will finish second, but miss out on the postseason.
Like their AFC counterparts, the NFC West offers the least in 2009. The Arizona Cardinals had a dream season in winning the division and reaching their first Super Bowl, but losing Super Bowl teams usually miss the playoffs the following season. The problem is, none of their NFC West brethren are good enough to take the division from them. The Cards should cruise, with the resurgent Seattle Seahawks applying the pressure. St. Louis and San Francisco are at least a year away from contention.
Dark horse: Minnesota. The Vikings have the defense and the running game, and they've added weapons like Percy Harvin at receiver. But the biggest question is the quarterback. Can the 40-year-old Favre defy the odds (and his gunslinger mentality) to lead the Vikes to the playoffs? Well, Favre faded badly in his last five games with the Jets in 2008, and he does have a propensity for throwing bad interceptions to cost his team. If he can somehow curtail his tendencies -- and stay healthy all year -- Minnesota has a chance.
So, here's how I break down the playoffs:
Wild Card Round:
Steelers over Colts, Chargers over Texans, Falcons over Eagles, Packers over Cardinals
Patriots over Steelers, Ravens over Chargers, Bears over Falcons, Packers over Giants
Ravens over Patriots, Packers over Bears
Super Bowl XLIV:
Packers over Ravens
(Photo: Yahoo images)