The 2010 NFL season in 10 story lines

In August 2007, Shawn Schrager of SportingNews.com contacted me about writing a couple of weekly columns. After confirming he hadn’t called the wrong number, we worked out an arrangement.

Since then, on two or three occasions per week, I’ve submitted items of varying length and quality, guided as to possible topics by the sage advice of Marcus DiNitto and Barry Reeves. It has been a great run, but we’ve reached the end of it.

So I’ll leave you with a season preview of sorts, with the entire 2010 campaign boiled down to 10 takes. Thanks to Sporting News for giving me this space for the past 36 months.

1. The Battle for New York

The Giants have gathered attention over the years by commanding it. The Jets, long believed to be second fiddle to the established, old-guard NFL powerhouse, are collecting attention by demanding it.

Though they won’t play each other during the regular season, the joint tenants of the new Meadowlands Stadium have developed all the tension of twice-a-year division rivals. Plenty of people quickly are tiring of the spotlight-seeking Jets, and plenty of those people work for and/or root for the Giants.

So it’ll be interesting to see whether the team that won a Super Bowl three years ago will fare better this year than the team that has called its shot in unprecedented fashion, laying claim to the Lombardi Trophy even before the first preseason game was played.

In the end, there’s a chance neither makes it to the playoffs. There’s a slimmer chance both will qualify for Super Bowl 45. Though it probably won’t happen this year, there’s an emerging sense that this rivalry will be resolved by an eventual winner-take-all battle on the sport’s biggest stage.

2. Big Ben’s big mess throws a wrench into AFC North

After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games, a penalty that likely will be cut to four games, Pittsburgh became an afterthought in the race for the AFC North. Writing them off, however, would be a mistake.

Regardless of how it all plays out, the Steelers will have endured an unprecedented situation. Roethlisberger is healthy and available throughout the preseason, and he’ll be sent away once the regular season begins. Given that he’s getting plenty of reps in camp, coach Mike Tomlin apparently is confident Byron Leftwich and/or Dennis Dixon can get it done during the hiatus despite giving up practice time to Roethlisberger.

Ultimately, the team’s success in 2010 will hinge on how the Steelers play against the rest of the division. The Ravens, despite an injury-filled August, are coming on strong. Swept by the eventual division champs in each of the past two seasons, the Ravens could lay the foundation for a Super Bowl run by taking care of business against the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens.

And when the Steelers and Ravens get together for the first time, Big Ben will be absent. Perhaps more important, receiver Santonio Holmes, who has owned the Ravens of late, no longer plays in Pittsburgh at all.

3. Don’t write off a repeat

As the 2010 season approaches, few league observers regard the Saints as a legitimate threat to win Super Bowl 45 and it’s not because of their strengths or weaknesses, but because they’ve just won the last one.

The concerns are legitimate. The Saints embarked on an extended victory lap after winning it all, culminating in a White House visit that encroached on the 2010 training camp. Also, with 31 other teams arguably wanting to win it all a little bit more than the team that’s still working a toothpick over the remnants of Fat Sunday, when the going gets tough in 2010 the Saints could decide to say, "We’ve already climbed that mountain."

One team that won’t be taking the Saints for granted is the Falcons. After racking up two straight winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, Atlanta will want to knock off the Saints worse than any other team. Whether the Falcons have enough to get past the defending champs could depend on how badly the champs want to defend.

The consensus that the Saints won’t be able to do it again plays into their hands. What better way to get the team to not rest on its laurels than to persuade the players that their accomplishments have been undermined by those who believe it was a one-time fluke? Look for coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to exploit that angle to the fullest, and for the Saints to make another march toward the playoffs, and possibly beyond.

4. Favre may be wise to stay away

With the latest edition of "will he or won’t he?" capturing most of the discussion as it relates to the Vikings, the team’s other struggles largely have been overlooked.

Adrian Peterson has had hamstring issues. Percy Harvin has had migraine issues, and he officially is on the "left squad" list. Sidney Rice has a bum hip, which could be influenced by his desire for a bigger contract.

The defense has gotten older, and there’s no reason to think it’ll be any better than the unit that was picked apart on just enough occasions to blow home-field advantage in the playoffs — and ultimately to allow the Saints to drive down the field (albeit fueled by a few bad calls) for the NFC title.

While many believe the Vikings will pick up right where they left off, it won’t be quite that easy. Especially after opposing defenses have had an entire offseason to break down Brett’s first year in purple.

Meanwhile, the Packers seem to be on the rise, and it’s safe to say they’re still motivated to knock Favre down a peg or two — or knock him out a time or two.

In the end, Brett’s best move could be to blame it all on his ankle, and to give up his quest to walk into the sunset with a second Super Bowl win.

5. It’s the Year of the Cowboy, unless it isn’t

A year after finally winning a playoff game for the first time since 1996, Dallas coach Wade Phillips faces a ton of pressure to get to the Super Bowl that will be played in the North Texas Football Cathedral.

And if he gets there, Phillips will face even more pressure to win it.

Many believe the Cowboys can get it done, but it won’t be easy. Swept last year by a Giants team that didn’t even make it to the playoffs, the NFC East remains wide open, making it hard to generate the kind of total won-loss record that will secure home-field advantage for the postseason.

So while some would like to think it’s time to put a crown on the helmet with the star, it won’t be easy to get to the Super Bowl. Given the quality of the AFC elite, it won’t be easy to win it, either.

6. For Chris Johnson, it’s 2,500 yards or bust

On a team level, the Jets have pointed to the Lombardi Trophy, and they’ve essentially said they’ll own it. On an individual level, Titans running back Chris Johnson has aimed even higher.

He plans to generate more rushing yards than anyone ever has in league history — by nearly 400.

It’s highly unlikely he’ll do it. The real question is whether he’ll get close. Even if he comes within 394 yards, he’ll still own the single-season record.

7. The T.O. Show, with Chad Ochocinco

In March, the Bengals brought in two receivers for visits — Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. After T.O. left, Bryant bagged a four-year, $28 million contract. Owens got a free hat.

But with Owens still on the market in late July, the Bengals remained interested, especially after Bryant’s knee acted up. In the end, the Bengals opted to sign T.O., with intense lobbying from receiver Chad Ochocinco.

And it’s fitting that Chad gladly plays the role of Robin in this caped crusader escapade; the Bengals knew when they signed Owens that they were getting a guy who wants to get the ball, a lot. So when Ochocinco complains because Batman is getting the attention that Batman typically merits, the Bengals can shrug and say, "Sorry, Chad. You wanted him."

8. Eagles corner the market on Tums

In April, after months of denying that quarterback Donovan McNabb would be traded, the Eagles traded him. To the Redskins.

Some think the Eagles were willing to ship McNabb to another team within the division because the Eagles don’t fear facing McNabb. But they should. If, at any point during McNabb’s tenure in D.C., the Redskins finish higher in the standings or go deeper in the playoffs than the Eagles, the Philly brain trust will look like a pack of fools for letting McNabb go to a home-and-home rival.

It’s enough to keep coach Andy Reid up all night, every night.

Meanwhile, the addition of a legitimate starting quarterback makes Washington a semi-serious contender. Though they’d be favored to win the NFC West, it will be very hard for the Redskins to climb to the top of the NFC East.

But not as hard as it would have been without McNabb.

9. NFC West is wide open

If any of the teams of the NFC West had traded for Donovan McNabb, that team would have been the odds-on favorite to win the division, both this year and in any other year that McNabb would have been on the team.

Without McNabb in the division, it’s assumed by many that the 49ers will take the crown. Some think the Cardinals can survive, even after the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner and the departure of receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby, and safety Antrel Rolle. Others think that a healthy Seahawks team (something the Seahawks haven’t been in two-plus years) could take the crown.

No one thinks the Rams have a chance.

But, in the end, the team that stays the healthiest and gets the best quarterback play will be in the best position to win the division and capture the guaranteed home playoff game that goes along with it. Even if it’s the Rams.

10. Texans take their shot

There’s no reason to think the Colts won’t have a chance to finish the job they started in 2009, going 14-0 before deciding not to try to go 16-0. But the Texans, buoyed by their first winning season in franchise history, believe they can finally overcome Indy.

The Texans get their shot in Week 1, and the Colts already think the Texans are too excited about toppling the team that has owned the Texans ever since they entered the league in 2002.

Though many think it’s the Texans’ time to shine, the Colts will be a tough out for as long as Peyton Manning is playing. So instead of trying to win the division, the Texans should settle for finagling a wild-card berth.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

In August 2007, Shawn Schrager of SportingNews.com contacted me about writing a couple of weekly columns. After confirming he hadn’t called the wrong number, we worked out an arrangement.

Since then, on two or three occasions per week, I’ve submitted items of varying length and quality, guided as to possible topics by the sage advice of Marcus DiNitto and Barry Reeves. It has been a great run, but we’ve reached the end of it.

So I’ll leave you with a season preview of sorts, with the entire 2010 campaign boiled down to 10 takes. Thanks to Sporting News for giving me this space for the past 36 months.

1. The Battle for New York

The Giants have gathered attention over the years by commanding it. The Jets, long believed to be second fiddle to the established, old-guard NFL powerhouse, are collecting attention by demanding it.

Though they won’t play each other during the regular season, the joint tenants of the new Meadowlands Stadium have developed all the tension of twice-a-year division rivals. Plenty of people quickly are tiring of the spotlight-seeking Jets, and plenty of those people work for and/or root for the Giants.

So it’ll be interesting to see whether the team that won a Super Bowl three years ago will fare better this year than the team that has called its shot in unprecedented fashion, laying claim to the Lombardi Trophy even before the first preseason game was played.

In the end, there’s a chance neither makes it to the playoffs. There’s a slimmer chance both will qualify for Super Bowl 45. Though it probably won’t happen this year, there’s an emerging sense that this rivalry will be resolved by an eventual winner-take-all battle on the sport’s biggest stage.

2. Big Ben’s big mess throws a wrench into AFC North

After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games, a penalty that likely will be cut to four games, Pittsburgh became an afterthought in the race for the AFC North. Writing them off, however, would be a mistake.

Regardless of how it all plays out, the Steelers will have endured an unprecedented situation. Roethlisberger is healthy and available throughout the preseason, and he’ll be sent away once the regular season begins. Given that he’s getting plenty of reps in camp, coach Mike Tomlin apparently is confident Byron Leftwich and/or Dennis Dixon can get it done during the hiatus despite giving up practice time to Roethlisberger.

Ultimately, the team’s success in 2010 will hinge on how the Steelers play against the rest of the division. The Ravens, despite an injury-filled August, are coming on strong. Swept by the eventual division champs in each of the past two seasons, the Ravens could lay the foundation for a Super Bowl run by taking care of business against the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens.

And when the Steelers and Ravens get together for the first time, Big Ben will be absent. Perhaps more important, receiver Santonio Holmes, who has owned the Ravens of late, no longer plays in Pittsburgh at all.

3. Don’t write off a repeat

As the 2010 season approaches, few league observers regard the Saints as a legitimate threat to win Super Bowl 45 and it’s not because of their strengths or weaknesses, but because they’ve just won the last one.

The concerns are legitimate. The Saints embarked on an extended victory lap after winning it all, culminating in a White House visit that encroached on the 2010 training camp. Also, with 31 other teams arguably wanting to win it all a little bit more than the team that’s still working a toothpick over the remnants of Fat Sunday, when the going gets tough in 2010 the Saints could decide to say, "We’ve already climbed that mountain."

One team that won’t be taking the Saints for granted is the Falcons. After racking up two straight winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, Atlanta will want to knock off the Saints worse than any other team. Whether the Falcons have enough to get past the defending champs could depend on how badly the champs want to defend.

The consensus that the Saints won’t be able to do it again plays into their hands. What better way to get the team to not rest on its laurels than to persuade the players that their accomplishments have been undermined by those who believe it was a one-time fluke? Look for coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to exploit that angle to the fullest, and for the Saints to make another march toward the playoffs, and possibly beyond.

4. Favre may be wise to stay away

With the latest edition of "will he or won’t he?" capturing most of the discussion as it relates to the Vikings, the team’s other struggles largely have been overlooked.

Adrian Peterson has had hamstring issues. Percy Harvin has had migraine issues, and he officially is on the "left squad" list. Sidney Rice has a bum hip, which could be influenced by his desire for a bigger contract.

The defense has gotten older, and there’s no reason to think it’ll be any better than the unit that was picked apart on just enough occasions to blow home-field advantage in the playoffs — and ultimately to allow the Saints to drive down the field (albeit fueled by a few bad calls) for the NFC title.

While many believe the Vikings will pick up right where they left off, it won’t be quite that easy. Especially after opposing defenses have had an entire offseason to break down Brett’s first year in purple.

Meanwhile, the Packers seem to be on the rise, and it’s safe to say they’re still motivated to knock Favre down a peg or two — or knock him out a time or two.

In the end, Brett’s best move could be to blame it all on his ankle, and to give up his quest to walk into the sunset with a second Super Bowl win.

5. It’s the Year of the Cowboy, unless it isn’t

A year after finally winning a playoff game for the first time since 1996, Dallas coach Wade Phillips faces a ton of pressure to get to the Super Bowl that will be played in the North Texas Football Cathedral.

And if he gets there, Phillips will face even more pressure to win it.

Many believe the Cowboys can get it done, but it won’t be easy. Swept last year by a Giants team that didn’t even make it to the playoffs, the NFC East remains wide open, making it hard to generate the kind of total won-loss record that will secure home-field advantage for the postseason.

So while some would like to think it’s time to put a crown on the helmet with the star, it won’t be easy to get to the Super Bowl. Given the quality of the AFC elite, it won’t be easy to win it, either.

6. For Chris Johnson, it’s 2,500 yards or bust

On a team level, the Jets have pointed to the Lombardi Trophy, and they’ve essentially said they’ll own it. On an individual level, Titans running back Chris Johnson has aimed even higher.

He plans to generate more rushing yards than anyone ever has in league history — by nearly 400.

It’s highly unlikely he’ll do it. The real question is whether he’ll get close. Even if he comes within 394 yards, he’ll still own the single-season record.

7. The T.O. Show, with Chad Ochocinco

In March, the Bengals brought in two receivers for visits — Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. After T.O. left, Bryant bagged a four-year, $28 million contract. Owens got a free hat.

But with Owens still on the market in late July, the Bengals remained interested, especially after Bryant’s knee acted up. In the end, the Bengals opted to sign T.O., with intense lobbying from receiver Chad Ochocinco.

And it’s fitting that Chad gladly plays the role of Robin in this caped crusader escapade; the Bengals knew when they signed Owens that they were getting a guy who wants to get the ball, a lot. So when Ochocinco complains because Batman is getting the attention that Batman typically merits, the Bengals can shrug and say, "Sorry, Chad. You wanted him."

8. Eagles corner the market on Tums

In April, after months of denying that quarterback Donovan McNabb would be traded, the Eagles traded him. To the Redskins.

Some think the Eagles were willing to ship McNabb to another team within the division because the Eagles don’t fear facing McNabb. But they should. If, at any point during McNabb’s tenure in D.C., the Redskins finish higher in the standings or go deeper in the playoffs than the Eagles, the Philly brain trust will look like a pack of fools for letting McNabb go to a home-and-home rival.

It’s enough to keep coach Andy Reid up all night, every night.

Meanwhile, the addition of a legitimate starting quarterback makes Washington a semi-serious contender. Though they’d be favored to win the NFC West, it will be very hard for the Redskins to climb to the top of the NFC East.

But not as hard as it would have been without McNabb.

9. NFC West is wide open

If any of the teams of the NFC West had traded for Donovan McNabb, that team would have been the odds-on favorite to win the division, both this year and in any other year that McNabb would have been on the team.

Without McNabb in the division, it’s assumed by many that the 49ers will take the crown. Some think the Cardinals can survive, even after the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner and the departure of receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby, and safety Antrel Rolle. Others think that a healthy Seahawks team (something the Seahawks haven’t been in two-plus years) could take the crown.

No one thinks the Rams have a chance.

But, in the end, the team that stays the healthiest and gets the best quarterback play will be in the best position to win the division and capture the guaranteed home playoff game that goes along with it. Even if it’s the Rams.

10. Texans take their shot

There’s no reason to think the Colts won’t have a chance to finish the job they started in 2009, going 14-0 before deciding not to try to go 16-0. But the Texans, buoyed by their first winning season in franchise history, believe they can finally overcome Indy.

The Texans get their shot in Week 1, and the Colts already think the Texans are too excited about toppling the team that has owned the Texans ever since they entered the league in 2002.

Though many think it’s the Texans’ time to shine, the Colts will be a tough out for as long as Peyton Manning is playing. So instead of trying to win the division, the Texans should settle for finagling a wild-card berth.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

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