The NFL season is finally here. It kicks off tonight when the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers play host to the 2009 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Athlon Sports' editorial staff made its predictions in the Athlon Sports Pro Football 2011 Preview magazine, and here they are.
Falcons (5) over Rams (4)
Saints (3) over Giants (6)
Packers (1) over Falcons (5)
Eagles (2) over Saints (3)
Packers (1) over Eagles (2)
SUPER BOWL XVLI
Packers over Patriots
1. New England Patriots
Belichick and Brady marching toward fifth Super Bowl berth. 2. New York Jets
Ryan still hungry after back-to-back trips to the AFC title game. 3. Miami Dolphins
Need more All-Pros to “take their talents to South Beach.” 4. Buffalo Bills
Gailey unveiling “hybrid” defense anchored by versatile Dareus.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Hits-burgh gunning for record ninth Super Bowl appearance. 2. Baltimore Ravens
Fans hoping this year isn’t farewell tour for Lewis and Reed. 3. Cleveland Browns
Just what curse of Cleveland sports needed, a Madden cover. 4. Cincinnati Bengals
Bungles are back; Dalton era starts now.
1. Houston Texans
Phillips bringing his 3-4 scheme south from Big D to Houston. It's all setup for Kubiak to win now. 2. Tennessee Titans
Munchak and Locker replacing Fisher and Young in Music City. 3. Indianapolis Colts
No Manning for 2-3 months means few wins for 2-3 months. 4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Garrard cut just days before the season begins, MJD coming off a bum knee, it's not looking good.
1. San Diego Chargers
Possible move to L.A. a black cloud hanging over sunny San Diego. 2. Kansas City Chiefs
Will offense remain as potent without Weis calling plays? 3. Oakland Raiders
Climbing out of the Black Hole after many years of obscurity. 4. Denver Broncos
New regime of Elway and Fox has a Mile High mountain to scale.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Super Bowl expectations for “Dream Team” assembled in Philly. 2. New York Giants
G-Men eager to put last season’s collapse and this preseason behind them. 3. Dallas Cowboys
New sheriff Garrett and healthy gunslinger Romo ready to ride. 4. Washington Redskins
Snyder and Shanahan most stubborn men in nation’s capital.
1. Green Bay Packers
Reigning champ Rodgers eyeing back-to-back title belts. 2. Detroit Lions
Motor City revving engines, eager for breakout season. 3. Chicago Bears
Egos bruised and flaws exposed by Packers in NFC title game. 4. Minnesota Vikings
Metrodome implosion symbolic of collapse as contenders.
1. New Orleans Saints
What lockout? Brees’ OTAs have Big Easy locked and loaded. 2. Atlanta Falcons
Bold draft-day moves prove Dirty Birds playing to win now. 3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Young Bucs older and wiser after playoff-less 10-win ’10. 4. Carolina Panthers
Newton bringing Cammy-Cam Juice and Midas touch to Charlotte.
1. St. Louis Rams
McDaniels joining Bradford for new-look Greatest Show on Turf. 2. San Francisco 49ers
Harbaugh hoping to follow Bill Walsh from Stanford to Super Bowl(s). 3. Arizona Cardinals
Paid king’s ransom in trade and contract extension for Kolb. 4. Seattle Seahawks
Hasselbeck and Tatupu leave leadership void on both sides of ball.
Can Aaron Rodgers add a league MVP trophy to the Super Bowl XLV MVP he won in February?
The 2011 NFL season kicks off with a Thursday night showdown between the last two Super Bowl champions, as Super Bowl XLIV MVP quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints march to Lambeau Field to take on Super Bowl XLV MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers — in the first of 256 regular season games that span from Sept. 8 until Jan. 1, 2012.
Before a snap has been taken, Athlon Sports looks into our crystal ball in an attempt to predict who will be award-worthy after the dust settles this season.
Will Mike Vick become a fantasy bust this year? The reason we think he will be if you make him a Top 5 drafted QB. Why? Because of trust.
We don’t trust that the 31-year-old will have the kind of year on the ground that he had last season, when he piled up 676 yards and nine scores. Since the 1960s, no quarterback who has rushed for even eight touchdowns in a season has come back to score more than five the next year.
We don’t trust that the career 55 percent passer will repeat his 62.6 percent performance from a year ago. He had eclipsed 55.3 percent passing in a season only one time before last year, and he did not hit last year’s 62.6 percent season mark in any of his final four games of the season.
We don’t trust that Vick’s offensive line has improved enough to keep him comfortable in the pocket, despite the fact that the Eagles need to do all they can to protect their key asset with Vince Young, never having run the West Coast offense, being the next man up.
In the six games after his monster 57.3-point fantasy effort against Washington, Vick attempted more than 38 passes five times — something he had not done in his first six games of the season — and he was intercepted in all but one of the games, fumbled nine times (lost three of them) and had 19 of his 34 sacks.
Did defenses figure him out? Well if they didn’t, they have certainly had nothing but time during this lockout to study all they need to about the new-and-improved Michael Vick.
And we had Vick ranked sixth at QB and 26th overall well before DeSean Jackson decided to hold out and long before knowing of Jeremy Maclin's health issues. These two factors don't help his cause much, either.
Combining all the above with the fact that we also don’t believe he will make it a full 16 games has led us to the following conclusion: Beware of Vick in 2011.
We DO trust the quarterbacks who have done it year in and year out in recent memory more than we trust a player who finally put it together for one season and didn’t even stay healthy in the process.
Our Old Reliables are Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers — all quarterbacks who succeeded with missing pieces last year and have been there at the top year after year.
That five-man group has started 537 of a possible 560 games (95.9 percent) since becoming starters for their respective teams. Of the 23 missed starts by these five, Brady accounts for 15. He tore his ACL and MCL a little over seven minutes into the first game of the 2008 season.
We are willing to take the chance that, while they may score fewer points than Vick, their chances of being upright from Week 1 to Week 16 are much greater than the Philly scrambler’s. Vick, who was incarcerated during the 2007 and 2008 seasons and had to sit the bench in 2009, has started only 77 of a possible 90 regular-season games (85.5 percent) since 2002 and has played a 16-game season only once.
So take the risk if you’d like and waste another pick in the middle of your draft to get some insurance. Meanwhile, we will take the safe, proven bet — pick up a player in that same round who we can use multiple weeks and see who gets to the championship.
WHAT A PHILLY BEAT WRITER SAYS: Q: Vick: Better or worse in 2011? A: Depends which part of the first year you’re comparing him to. Vick put up some ridiculous numbers in wins over Washington and the New York Giants but tailed off at the end of the season as teams began finding ways to blitz him into poor decisions. Best guess: Vick will be steadier in 2011, putting up reliably good numbers without as many extreme highs or lows. Also, expect his rushing totals — Vick had nine of the Eagles’ 18 rushing TDs last year — to be down. One thing Vick and the coaches want is for him to protect his body more.
— Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Inquirer
Here’s how the five QBs we have ranked ahead of Vick have fared when it comes to starting games from the time they ascended to the starting role on their respective teams. Vick has started 77 of 90 games in that time. Player, Years — Starts
Aaron Rodgers, since 2008 — 47 of 48
Philip Rivers, since 2006 — 80 of 80
Peyton Manning, since 2002 — 144 of 144
Drew Brees, since 2002 — 137 of 144
Tom Brady, since 2002 — 129 of 144 Total starts, since 2002 — 537 of 560
An in-depth look at the Packers offense, defense and special team this year.
Aaron Rodgers fancies himself as something of an amateur NFL historian, so it hardly came as a surprise when the Green Bay Packers quarterback had his answer at the ready when asked during the offseason what he and the Super Bowl XLV champions must do for an encore.
GREEN BAY • Inside the Locker Room
With Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com
Who is deserving of a higher draft pick: James Starks or Ryan Grant?
Grant. While Starks was a pleasant late-season surprise and showed flashes down the stretch, Grant had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons before his 2010 campaign ended with a broken ankle at the end of an 18-yard run in the season-opener at Philadelphia. While Starks does figure to take some carries away from Grant in the Packers' pass-oriented offense, rumors of Grant's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Whose value is hurt the most by the return of tight end Jermichael Finley?
Entering the season, the Packers’ offense was designed to flow through Finley, whose size-speed combination created matchup migraines for opposing defensive coordinators. After Finley’s injury, Jennings became the focal point. With Finley healthy again, it stands to reason that Jennings' numbers could drop slightly.
How can fantasy owners expect to see rookie Randall Cobb used in the offense?
With the (expected) free-agent departure of James Jones, who had 50 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns in 16 regular-season games, Cobb will have a chance to contribute. Still, he's likely to be, at best, the team's No. 4 receiver, and with a healthy Jermichael Finley back in the mix at tight end, his opportunities figure to be few and far between — especially after all the rookie draft picks missed out on the chance to learn the offense in the offseason, thanks to the lockout.
• Fantasy Playoff Run — Weeks 14-16: OAK, @KC, CHI
Does it really matter what the Packers’ playoff schedule is? The Packers are so potent and their weapons are so consistent, that you are advised to take whatever matchup may come their way. Just for the record: Once the Pack gets past the No. 2 pass D that is Oakland, they will face last year’s Nos. 17 and 20 pass defenses, Kansas City and Chicago.
• Athlon Best Bets
Sleeper: James Jones, WR Deep-Sleeper: Randall Cobb, WR Overvalued: James Starks, RB Top Rookie: Randall Cobb, WR Bounce-Back: Jermichael Finley, TE Top IDP: Clay Matthews, LB
• Try to Avoid
Donald Driver, WR
With Jordy Nelson and James Jones stepping up, Jermichael Finley returning and Randall Cobb joining the offense, the 36-year-old Driver’s value is greatly diminished after his worst season in Green Bay since 2001. WAIT UNTIL: 17th RD
• Draft Class Fantasy Impact
The rich simply got richer in the 2011 draft. The Packers gave Aaron Rodgers more weapons with the selections of Cobb, Green and Williams — all intriguing keeper options. Cobb will make his biggest impact right away on special teams. Green will serve as the No. 3 back this season.
In 1959, Vince Lombardi left his hometown of New York City and set out for tiny Green Bay, Wisc. Taking his first head coaching job with the Packers at the age of 45, Lombardi knew this was his first — and last — chance to make it big.
And make it big he did. In only nine years in Green Bay, Lombardi won enough championships, influenced enough people, and uttered enough memorable phrases to earn a place among the great icons of American sports. Even the NFL’s most coveted prize, the Super Bowl trophy, bears his name.