Niners poised to rise
Los Angeles Times
The 49ers have gone seven seasons without making the playoffs. That drought will end. For the first time in a long while, they are the stable team in the NFC West, having made no changes at coach, either coordinator or quarterback. They were close to a breakthrough last season when they went 5-1 in the division and swept the Cardinals. With Kurt Warner retired, the 49ers will fill the vacancy at the top.
As for the Vikings, they are very talented — probably the NFL's best team last season — but already fissures are forming on both sides of the ball. He's headed for Canton, yes, but Brett Favre won't be the same player as he was during his spectacular 2009 season. He was coming off biceps surgery then. Ankle surgery is far more difficult to overcome, especially as he's approaching 41. The Packers will win the NFC North.
Jets not equal to hype
Every year in the NFL, a handful of teams makes most predictions look foolish. One with the ability to do that this year is the 49ers. Mike Singletary's program is starting to take root now that he has been in charge for two-plus years. He has the kind of players he wants in place. Quarterback Alex Smith should benefit from the stability. It will help the 49ers that they play in what looks to be a relatively soft division.
The overhyped Jets, meanwhile, might have their hands full in the tough AFC East. The Jets have a solid roster and are well-coached, but expectations may be unrealistic, especially considering the inexperience of quarterback Mark Sanchez. If the second-year pro doesn't make significant strides, the Jets could be just another 9-7 team that misses the playoffs.
Raiders sure to improve
My surprise team is the Raiders. The guy who makes them better is offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the former Ravens quarterbacks coach who helped mold Joe Flacco. He will make Jason Campbell or Kyle Boller better than they've been. Bank on it.
I also like the 49ers to finally adopt Mike Singletary's disposition and tear up the NFC West. And I like the Dolphins to surprise the AFC East. Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall were the best additions of the offseason.
As for disappointments, I see no way the Jets can live up to their enormous hype. They're good but not great, especially on offense.
I also think Josh McDaniels will continue to take the Broncos in the wrong direction. That's what you get when you deal your two best offensive players. Finally, the Bills will go so far south from 6-10 that they might wind up going north to Toronto.
Pats, Vikes showing age
If Houston, behind camp-sensation running back Arian Foster, can finish even in the middle of the pack in rushing offense — the Texans were 30th in 2009 — look out.
Other non-playoff teams in 2009 on the upswing: the 49ers and Dolphins.
I see the rapidly aging and increasingly ailing Patriots and Vikings as 2009 playoff teams that will fall out of the mix. The Pats' defense looks awful, and their offense is no longer otherworldly.
In Minnesota, Brett Favre will be fortunate to have his touchdown passes outnumber his interceptions.