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2011 NFL Preview: The Contenders

One things that always drives me crazy in NFL previews is when writers just assume the teams that were good the year before will be at the top of the league again. It seldom works out that way. I think this year might be an exception. I think there is a top tier that has clearly separated itself. One or two of these teams might underperform due to injuries or guys failing to meet expectations. I expect the champion to come from this group, though, and the vast majority to play into January. Along with each profile is my biggest concern for each team.

Atlanta Falcons

A lot of people expect this team to fall off. They might not go 13-3 again, but I think this is a team that could once again get the top seed in the NFC. There is a lot of young talent there along with excellent coaching. This current regime in three years has won 11, 9 (with a team decimated by injury), and 13 games. They added some big time playmakers on offense with the drafting of Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers. Now that Jones has a guy good enough to consistently get the ball (let's forget I said that), he is going to be dangerous as a second option across from Roddy White. The offensive line is still very good blocking for Michael Turner, and people do not appreciate how good Matt Ryan is.

Ray Edwards is going to be a great bookend for John Abraham.

Biggest Concern-Secondary Depth: Remember how they got shredded by Green Bay in the Playoffs? I really do not like any of their corners after Brent Grimes. That includes Dunta Robinson, who has not been very good since he tore his ACL a few years back. I remember sitting in Radio City Music Hall during the Draft convinced when they traded up in the first round, they were going to grab a corner.

More after the jump.

Baltimore Ravens

They have an excellent offensive line, arguably a top five running back, a talented young quarterback, and a defense consistently ranked highly. John Harbaugh has eliminated the inconsistency this team showed under Brian Billick. They have difference makers at all levels of the defense, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed. They should be right there with a chance to win it again.

Biggest Concern-Quarterback Play in the Clutch: Baltimore actually has a surprising number of concerns. You would be shocked by how pedestrian their pass rush was last year. They struggled to generate one outside of Terrell Suggs. The cornerbacks are also a huge question mark. My biggest concern, though, is Joe Flacco's ability to come through in a big spot. Everybody always hears about the four Playoff wins. He is a 53% passer with 4 touchdowns against 7 interceptions in the Playoffs. The Ravens are winning despite him, not because of him. Want to know the biggest difference between the Ravens and their arch rivals, the Steelers? It is quarterback play. Switch Ben Roethlisberger with Flacco, and do you think the Ravens would have gone to two Super Bowls in the past three years? If I need somebody to throw for 300 yards against Cincinnati in October, Flacco's my man. In the Playoffs? I will choose somebody else.

New England Patriots

I went to college in Boston. Ever since then, I have always been baffled by how a certain element Boston sports fans just cannot enjoy a good thing. This element always has to take things to absurd mythic proportions. The Patriots in 2010 were a great example. They had a fantastic 14-2 season. This was not enough, though. Some fans had to claim they went 14-2 in a "rebuilding" year. A team coming off a 10 win division title season with a top two quarterback in his prime that adds an infusion of young talent is not rebuilding. It is gunning for a championship. No matter what you call it, though, Pats fans have to be very happy with the future of their team.

Unlike the Colts, the Pats have set themselves up to be very good for a long time. They have supplemented their team with young talent so that others will be able to carry more the load as Tom Brady ages and slowly declines (and Brady is still going to be a top ten quarterback during this decline). With Brady still at the top of his game, New England is a Super Bowl favorite.

Something interesting has happened in Foxborough, though. They would never admit it. Some of their fans might not want to hear it. They are making moves as a direct response to the Jets. In many ways, they are chasing the Jets. New England has lost ten games since 2009. Three of them were to Gang Green. The Jets have beaten them three of five, gone deeper in the Playoffs the past two years, and knocked them out last year.

The Jets have a power run game built on a strong offensive line. The Pats rolled the dice on Albert Haynesworth. The Jets exposed New England's lack of an outside threat in the Playoffs by leaving their corners alone and clogging the middle of the field with defenders. The Pats go get Chad Johnson. Johnson might need a change of scenery. He might be near the end of the line. He will at least be a red zone target and a guy defenses have to respect.

On defense, New England should have a pair of really good corners. Devin McCourty should be even better after a very good rookie year. Leigh Bodden, back from an injury that cost him all of last year, is a solid cover guy. I could also talk myself into their defensive line. Shaun Ellis is still playing at a high level. I am sorry, but anybody who says otherwise is just flat out wrong. Albert Haynesworth only plays hard when he feels like it, but the thought of him putting it together for 20 snaps a game and playing next to Vince Wilfork is scary. Andre Carter was an excellent pass rusher two years ago in a 4-3, which is the look the Pats will give a lot this year. He fell off playing in Washington's 3-4. I do not expect this to be an elite defense, but a line with those four, McCourty improved, and Bodden back might be able to stop a nosebleed at least.

Biggest Concern-Pass Rush: It is one thing to say the defensive line has potential. It is another to just assume Haynesworth will suddenly become a model citizen, buy into a system that preaches self-sacrifice for the betterment of the team, and play hard for the first time in his career in a non contract year. It is also going out on a limb to assume Carter becomes a good pass rusher again. Even if he does, he is not exactly Trent Cole.

New Orleans Saints

I stupidly picked them to miss the Playoffs last year because of a Super Bowl hangover. I noted that I loved the Drew Brees-Sean Payton combo, though. I am still trying to figure out how I could expect a Super Bowl hangover when I praised the leadership coming from the two biggest leadership positions on their roster. In any event, the Saints look like real contenders again. They have Brees back. They have their stable of receivers. They added Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles to their running back stable, which will likely not suffer the unreal amount of injuries it suffered a year ago. Olin Kreutz should slide right in at center for former Jet Jonathan Goodwin.

Nobody is talking about the other side of the ball, but the Saints had an unbelievable offseason. They added perhaps the best tackle tandem in football, Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. Franklin is one of the most dominant nose tackles in the game. Rogers is going to be a beast at undertackle. His problem in Cleveland was that he tried too hard to beat his men and get upfield to make plays instead of doing his job, tying up blockers to keep the linebackers clean, and holding the point. In Gregg Williams' defense, his job is going to be win his assignment and make plays in the backfield. You know how people talk about the potential Wilfork and Haynesworth have if Haynesworth decides to play hard? That is what the Saints are going to have. I also love adding Martez Wilson at linebacker for Gregg Williams' blitzes on passing downs.

Biggest Concern-Left Tackle: Jerom Bushrod is a liability at the most important spot on the line. He is one blown block away from potentially ending this team's Super Bowl dreams.

New York Jets

We talk about them nonstop so I will not go into great detail. After two straight trips to the conference title game, they are on this level. A defense that was a "disappointment" by "only" being third best in the league brings back ten starters. Rex Ryan will always have his unit near the top. Mark Sanchez should be better with another year of seasoning.

Biggest Concern-Offensive Coordinator: It is always a mixed bag with Brian Schottenheimer. There are some brilliant games. Then there are games where he throws it 44 times with a struggling quarterback in the pouring rain or forces said quarterback to call his own plays against a great defense on top of all the other responsibilities of the position.

Philadelphia Eagles

You know about most of the free agents, but the Eagles even scored with free agent coaches, landing offensive line coach Howard Mudd from the Colts and defensive line coach Jim Washburn from the Titans. Washburn in particular was a great, great find. He puts together the most thorough scouting reports in the league for his players to succeed. Jason Babin will not be a one year wonder because he has Washburn back. He also has Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins to draw attention on the line. Then let's talk about corners. Having Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is scary.

On offense, you have Michael Vick, who makes everybody around him better because defenses have to respect his ability to run for a touchdown on every play. You have a complete back in LeSean McCoy and a homerun threat in Desean Jackson. I am just repeating what you have already heard.

Biggest Concern-Quarterback Prone to Taking Hits: You could say offensive line, but it goes deeper. Vick runs a ton and is prone to injury for the extra hits he takes as a runner. Even last year when everybody kept reporting on how much smarter he was to avoid those hits, he missed a lot of games due to injury. This team is one play away from having Vince Young as its quarterback, which is scary for a contender. I mean you might have to have Mark Brunell as your backup to feel worse. (Forget I said that.)

Pittsburgh Steelers

The defense has more elite guys at their position than guys who are not. They have a deep, diverse receiving corps. They have an excellent running back. They have a top five quarterback. They have great coaching. These guys are going to be right there again.

Biggest Concern-Offensive Line: Things should be better with Willie Colon back from an Achilles injury at one tackle spot, but the release of Max Starks, who was not really an All Pro to begin with, opens up a hole on an offensive line that did not need one. Ben Roethlisberger can take a pounding, but it is best to keep any quarterback as clean as possible.

San Diego Chargers

They had the top offense and the top defense in the league last year. Just by luck, their special teams should improve and not cost them three games again. If there is one unit easy to improve, it is that because backup special team aces are not that difficult to find on the market. Philip Rivers should carry this team back to the AFC West title.

Biggest Concern-Head Coach: I am going to say it. I think Norv Turner is a bad head coach. He won one Playoff game in Washington. He failed in Oakland. After Tom Cable's relative success, you can't use the "It was totally hopeless!" excuse anymore. His talented Chargers teams always underachieve. They get off to slow starts. They lost a home Playoff game in 2009. I think Norv is a liability.