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Surprises Will Be Plentiful This Season In NFL, But View From The Top Should Stay The Same

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Five months ago, we weren't sure we would even get to this point. Two weeks from today is the official start of the 2011 NFL season, and a month from now, it will seem as if none of this lockout and labor nonsense ever happened.

The Baltimore Ravens are our pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVI
The Baltimore Ravens are our pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVI

After a three-and-a-half-month labor lockout and an atypical six weeks of training camp, the NFL schedule is back on track and poised to get another season under way, as always. Except the 2011 season will be different than most as a result of all the offseason activity - or should we say, inactivity?

Given all the rookie players who didn't get their first exposure to their new teams or the NFL until the first day of training camp and the parade of players who changed teams as a result of free agency in a frenzy of activity just days after the collective-bargaining contract dispute ended, the NFL this season is undoubtedly going to be like Forrest Gump's mother described life: "...like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get."

The preseason schedule has given us no clue of how the coming season may be impacted by the lengthy lockout and contract dispute because we haven't seen much of anybody who is going to truly matter when they start playing games for real. The players we have seen entering Week 3 of the exhibition season in large part won't even be on the opening-game rosters after final cut-downs.

Largely because of the long spring-summer layoff, teams are taking special care to protect their key talent during preseason workouts and training in an effort to prevent major injuries that could result from less-than-typical offseason conditioning. Some experts are predicting play to be a bit on the sloppy side in the early going and injuries to be more frequent than might be the case to start any other year.

My sense is that all the talk about poor on-the-field play execution, mental mistakes and conditioning issues that the doomsayers would like us to prepare ourselves for is being grossly exaggerated. It might take the first-year players and some of the free-agents a little while longer than usual to get fully acclimated into their new teams and the new systems they're having to learn, but I don't see that dramatically changing the style and excitement of the game action we are used to seeing in the NFL. Any fan who thinks or witnesses otherwise, in my humble opinion, is only fooling himself.

The season is set to kick-off for real two weeks from today with a rematch of the 2011 Super Bowl opponents as the World Champion Green Bay Packers play host to the 2010 Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints.

The following Sunday, Sept. 11, there is a full slate of season openers on tap, with several headliners. American Football Conference North Division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore will waste little time getting after each other when the two playoff teams from last season meet in Baltimore on opening Sunday. The Indianapolis Colts, most likely without the services of All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, and the Houston Texans, the two teams expected to challenge each other for the AFC South title, will battle each other in the Texans home-opener, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins are matched up in an NFC East contest in the nation's capital, and the Sunday night game of the week features the Dallas Cowboys taking on the New York Jets at spectacular Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The Chiefs' opponent on the first Sunday of the new season is the Buffalo Bills. The Bills visited Arrowhead last season and came perilously close to pulling off the upset were it not for a 35-yard field goal off the foot of the Chiefs' Ryan Succop as time expired in overtime that preserved a 13-10 Kansas City victory. The Chiefs won the AFC West a year ago with a 10-6 record, a six-game turnaround from the previous season in coach Todd Haley's first year in Kansas City.

As a result of winning their division a year ago, the Chiefs will face a much more difficult schedule this season. Six of their 16 games are against playoff teams from last season, including five in succession beginning Nov. 21, when they travel to Foxborough, Mass., to play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Looking ahead, the way the schedule sets up this season, there could be as many as nine teams finish the year with four losses or less. Similarly, as many as seven teams could end up winning no more than four games. If that were to happen, half of the league could finish between five and eleven wins, which is the group in which the Chiefs most probably will fall.

Teams whose arrows should be pointing up this season and result in much-improved years are Green Bay (only 10-6 a year ago), Dallas and Minnesota in the NFC, and Baltimore, Houston and San Diego in the AFC. At the other extreme, in all likelihood this will be a very long and disappointing year for the Carolina Panthers, the Chicago Bears, the Seattle Seahawks, the Miami Dolphins and the Denver Broncos.

Throughout the 2011 season, I will preview the top games of the week in the NFL and make weekly predictions on the full slate of games for each week. To kick off all of this, here is how I see the 2011 NFL season playing out. I'm convinced that by the end of the season, all of us will have long forgotten the NFL lockout of 2011.

2011 National Football League Season Predictions

 

National Football Conference

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles 14-2

Dallas Cowboys 12-4

New York Giants 7-9

Washington Redskins 5-11

NFC North

Green Bay Packers 15-1

Minnesota Vikings 13-3

Chicago Bears 4-12

Detroit Lions 2-14

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 12-4

New Orleans Saints 11-5

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Carolina Panthers 0-16

NFC West

St. Louis Rams 8-8

San Francisco 49ers 8-8

Arizona Cardinals 5-11

Seattle Seahawks 4-12

American Football Conference

AFC East

New England 15-1

New York Jets 10-6

Buffalo Bills 7-9

Miami Dolphins 2-14

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens 15-1

Pittsburgh Steelers 14-2

Cleveland Browns 5-11

Cincinnati Bengals 2-14

AFC South

Indianapolis colts 12-4

Houston Texans 8-8

Jacksonville Jaguars 6-10

Tennessee Titans 5-11

AFC West

San Diego Chargers 12-4

Kansas City Chiefs 7-9

Oakland Raiders 6-10

Denver Broncos 3-13

NFC Playoffs

Dallas over St. Louis

Atlanta over New Orleans

Green Bay over Atlanta

Philadelphia over Dallas

AFC Playoffs

San Diego over New York Jets

Pittsburgh over Indianapolis

New England over Pittsburgh

Baltimore over San Diego

Baltimore over New England

Super Bowl XLVI

Baltimore over Philadelphia