9 NFL Teams to Watch in 2010

Over the course of the past decade, parity in the NFL has all but killed the idea of an underdog. Thanks to obsessive fantasy football and absurd amounts of preseason analysis, enough homework gets done every summer that predictions and expectations generally don’t yield many surprises at the end of the season.

I inserted the above paragraph (and this one) to act as a qualifier for this piece. The NFL is a league of 32 teams, so the prospect of identifying 9 teams that will genuinely surprise people or upset predictions is a) daunting; and b) pretty damn impossible. Consequently, the teams to look out for on this list aren’t necessarily scrappy underdogs or predicted to go undefeated, but rather teams that have a compelling storyline and could possibly exceed or fail to meet fans’ expectations for reasons I will list.

1. Washington
washington-redskins-logoIt’s hard to imagine a more turbulent offseason than the spring and summer of 2010 for the Skins. Quarterback shakeup? Biggest one of the season with McNabb stepping in (with a possibly gimpy ankle). Massive strategy overhaul? Perhaps you’ve heard news of Haynesworth’s skepticism of his roll in the new 3-4 defense. Superstar drama? About a month ago, every local TV show had its sports anchors running shuttle sprints to see if they were faster than a guy that’s contracted for $100 million.

All those distractions in a division in which you can afford none. Washington is expected to be a decent, uncertain team in a tough division. There is little doubt that if one team falters here, it could be a three-way scramble to the playoffs. With so many questions, the constitution of this team in flux will be tested week and week again against solid division opponents. They have the tools to respond, but with all the drama that’s gone on, can they use them?

2. Cincinnati
cincinnati_bengals_150x150Runner-up to Washington in terms of offseason spectacle would probably be the Bengals, thanks almost exclusively to the Twitter accounts of two outspoken receivers. Carson Palmer, while having fallen off his game a bit since 2006, has been dealt a hand that includes two talented, wildly egocentric, and aging receivers. TO made virtually no noise in Buffalo last year and unceremoniously left.

Can 85 and 81 complement each other at the risk of starving their hungry egos? Carson has suggested over the past few years that he probably doesn’t need another distraction in completing the tasks at hand. I doubt TO and Ochocinco can clam up, so they will need to really step up their game to make Palmer’s life easier.

And if they needed to guild the “crazy” lily any further, the Bengals are also home to one Tank Johnson. Expect them to aggressively pursue Pacman Jones in attempting to assemble the NFL’s answer to the Bad News Bears. Good luck, Carson. Good luck Coach Lewis. Good thing you’re a defensive specialist.

3. Baltimore
baltimore_ravens_150x150Some teams garner attention through hard work, good coaching, and sound front-office strategy. These teams command respect. Then there’s the teams that make the leap from “good” to “very good” or “great” simply due to their strength of schedule. While they were able to, in the offseason, pair a good quarterback in Flacco with a very good receiver in Boldin, and a good receiver in Mason.

So their passing game is looking sharp. But I don’t think they will have to hurt themselves too much to make it through the season into the playoffs in the AFC North. The Browns are the Browns, the Bengals are (see above) slated for a subpar year, and the juggernaut that is Pittsburgh has their fearless leader in sensitivity training until week 5. Though their playmaker Polamalu is back from injury, they aren’t seen as real contenders after their 4-week handicap. Baltimore’s real test should come further down the line once the playoff pictures starts to take shape.

Their acquisition of Donte Stallworth indicates this should be an exciting season for both pedestrians and motorists driving when bars let out.

4. Dallas
dallas_cowboys-blue-ipad-1024sandAs Baltimore’s cause is helped by their schedule, it’s possible that Dallas’ might be hurt by theirs. Despite some positive news in shakeups at receiver (goodbye Crayton, hello Bryant) and further development of second stringers in Martellus Bennett and Tashard Choice, the Cowboys aren’t getting much love from the sporting world going into this season. And it’s not ONLY because people love to hate the Cowboys this season.

Their schedule may have something to do with it. Playing in the NFC East over the past couple seasons has been a bit like sprinkling your regular season roster with a few playoff games. With playoff threats every where you look and non-division ROAD games against Minnesota, Green Bay, Indy, and Houston, even the most optimistic Cowboys fans are sweating. Toss into the mix a suspect-at-best kicker and the Cowboys have a recipe for some pretty interesting football this year, regardless of which way their season goes.

5. Tennessee
tennessee_titans_150x150Over the past five years, Tennessee has been blessed with good offenses and good defenses. Unfortunately for them, these blessing never seem to happen at the same time. After a remarkable year coming off the bench, Vince Young restored both his game and his reputation by going 8-2. With that monkey off his back, let’s see what he can do with a full and the excellent Chris Johnson getting D’s to respect the running game and the playfake. Even in a vacuum, Chris Johnson’s hype on the fantasy boards will have everyone tuning in, expecting great things. By all accounts, he can deliver, the attention paid him and Young’s fragile constitution could be a big stumbling block if these guys don’t hit the ground running.

However, since the offense is on the rise, it means the defense is waning. Their pass defense was second worst last year, though my analysis could become moot any minute now, as it appears Haynesworth is the subject of talks between the Redskins and the Titans. If they can get Albert healthy, happy and on their D-line, they will be able to direct more linebacker resources to coverage, which could help the shabby pass D.

6. Detroit
detroit-lions-150Detroit in 2010 will be a team that you want to watch but won’t want to cheer for. Since Matt Millen’s reign of terror ended two years ago, these guys have started to right the ship nicely. Yes, they won two games last year. But, no, they weren’t actually that bad. Stafford met the expectations set for him and the team has constantly been taking steps forward with few steps back.

Another big trade the team is probably still celebrating is the acquisition of Alphonso Smith, a solid cover corner for the bargain basement price of the Lions’ #4 tight end, Dan Gronkowski. A shrewd GM can turn any team around, but in the Lions’ instance, even a compent front office is a stealer improvement, and GM Martin Mayhew keeps raising the bar with his maneuvers.

On D, Ndamukong Suh is showing more than a passing resemblance to a young Warren Sapp in both physique and his passion in tossing QB’s like ragdolls. With the premium put on rookie talent in the NFL, it’s rare to see a rookie become a highlight-reel player, but Suh is demonstrating some tou de force performances that show him shaping up to be a blue chip NFLer soon.

7. Green Bay
green_bay_packers_150x150After falling short in the playoffs last year, Green Bay has rallied the NFL community to believe that this year they are a tier 1 team with a quarterback who, after two stellar seasons, has cemented himself on the A-list. Aaron Rodgers will likely trend upward this year, especially if Donald Driver can prove he still has something in the tank at age of 35. Their running game is sound, but nothing to write home about, with Ryan Grant leading the charge.

On the other side of the ball, things are looking good and they’re only getting better with the NFL’s #1 run defense last year orchestrated by a defensive genius in Dom Capers. The Pack didn’t change much in the past year, which suggests they ain’t fixin’ it cause it’s not broke.

Many experts have Green Bay as the team to beat in the North, so expect some heated contests in between the Vikings and Packers through the regular season and possibly in the playoffs.

8. Seattle Seahawks
seattle_seahawks_150x150Newly-crowned head coach Pete Carroll has proven he can do great things with a football team. In college. He’s proven he can do some pretty bad things with a football squad in the pros. Which guy will show up in his third stint in the NFL? We shall see.

After going 5-11 last years, it’s clear that Carroll doesn’t have everything figured out after eight months on the job. He has hinted that he doesn’t think Hasselbeck is the man for the job, but the introduction of Charlie Whitehurst into the QB competition seems to be more of a stopgap than a solution. Carroll is taking the college approach that no one’s starting job is safe, which has been known to create some tension in the clubhouse. However, with such an unspectacular team, he can afford to shake things up in weak division.

“Rebuilding” year sounds harsh, but we’ll watch the Seahawks this year to see where it takes them.

9. Indianapolis
indianapolis_colts_150x150The team that Manning built is becoming dangerously close to “the team that Manning is.” After a bumpy Super Bowl, followed by hyperbolic criticism, we have no reason to believe that Peyton is off his game at all. He’s a year older, but in terms of mobility, you can never miss what you never had, so don’t expect to see much fall off from the Eldest himself.

However, if the passing game is to succeed, a running game needs to be established. With a banged-up, ramshackle O-line, things won’t get easier for the Colts’ backfield. However, one look at how much the Colts favor the air game should let the world know that a little will go a long way on the ground. However, it appears the fate of the Colts’ playoff run hangs on the knees and backs of whatever starting five Indy is able to line up.

Tags: Baltimore Ravens, dallas cowboys, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, NFL, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins,