The Thigh's Crystal Ball: 2011 NFL Predictions | Sharapova's Thigh

The NFL season begins on tonight, when the Green Bay Packers play the New Orleans Saints. Yes, it's here. FINALLY.

Anyway, yeah, I'm quite pumped up for the season to start. I can't stop thinking about it. And I figured with how much I'm thinking about the NFL right now, I might as well get my season predictions on paper for you, Thigh reader.

So, here's my predictions, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments(as I'm sure you'll disagree with quite a bit of this)...

Division & Playoff Predictions:

AFC East
1. New England Patriots
2. New York Jets
3. Miami Dolphins
4. Buffalo Bills

The Jets are capable of winning the division, especially if Mark Sanchez makes big strides at quarterback. But the Patriots finished three games ahead of them last year, winning an NFL-high 14 games. And there's no reason to think this Patriots team won't win 11+ with how they look on paper. I think the Jets are at least one more year away from the AFC East crown.

As for the bottom of the division, the Dolphins have a horrible quarterback situation right now, but their offense could be improved with running backs Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas joining the team. But, I don't see them doing better than their 7-9 record of '10.

The Bills' defensive line is improved after drafting Marcell Dareus(who looks like the real deal and could end up being the best player from the entire '11 draft class), but they allowed 170 yards on the ground per game last year, so they need SIGNIFICANT improvement from their front-seven play. And even if that happened, there's not enough talent on the roster for them to make noise in the AFC East.

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Cleveland Browns
4. Cincinnati Bengals

Two Super Bowl contenders at the top half of the division, and two worst-record-in-the-NFL contenders at the bottom half of the division. The Ravens and Steelers open the season against each other in Baltimore, so that game will give us a better idea of who has the better chance of winning the division.

But, in the end, I just can't pick against the Steelers, who represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last year, and have not had a losing record since the 2003 season. I will say that I absolutely love the Lee Evans acquisition for the Ravens, though. He's one of the elite deep threats in the NFL, and will be a very nice addition to the Ravens' offense.

I think the Browns will not be much different than their team that won five games last year. There do appear to be a couple of nice, young pieces for them on the offensive side of the ball though. Aside from a couple of rough games against the Ravens and Steelers last season(and hey, few quarterbacks do well against those teams) Colt McCoy showed some nice things at the quarterback position and has the ability to get quite a bit better. And at running back, you don't need to look any further than the Madden '12 cover to realize how good Peyton Hillis was last year. But, this team still needs much more talent on both sides of the ball if they want to have a legitimate chance at competing with the Ravens and Steelers.

The Bengals absolutely appeared to be the worst team in the NFL before preseason started, and they really appeared to be the worst team in the NFL once preseason ended. Andy Dalton looks very much like a rookie at quarterback. Predicting four wins with this group would be very optimistic.

AFC South
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Indianapolis Colts
4. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Texans' secondary last season was the worst I've ever seen in the NFL. That's not an exaggeration; they were that bad. They allowed a 100.5 QB rating per game, and 4,280 yards through the air, which was 93 yards more than the second-worst team. They allowed passing 33 touchdowns and had only 13 interceptions. Well, they addressed their secondary issues in free agency, by signing an outstanding cornerback in Johnathan Joseph away from the Bengals, and a rock-solid safety with plenty of range in Danieal Manning(who is also an elite kick returner) away from the Bears. And they brought Wade Phillips on to be the defensive coordinator. I like this team to win the division.

And another BIG reason I like the Texas in the AFC South is because of the health status of Peyton Manning. Today, it was announced that he will miss at least two to three months after undergoing cervical fusion surgery on his neck this morning. There's a good chance the Colts will end up putting him on injured reserve, but they will surely wait until it's clear Peyton can't return this season. In comes Kerry Collins to start at quarterback, but the Colts can't expect him to do much more than "manage" the offense. I really don't think there's another team in the NFL where a single player matters so much as Peyton Manning does to the Colts. The Colts were probably a 10-win team with him, and may not even win half that many games without him.

The Titans added veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the offseason, but his better days are well behind him. The 35-year-old(36 later this month) threw just 12 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions last season, although he didn't have much help from the Seahawks' receiving corps. But, if he could play efficiently like Kerry Collins did there a few years ago, they could surprise if Chris Johnson looks more like his '09 self.

I think third and fourth place in the division are a toss up, but ultimately went with the Titans finishing third after the Jaguars released quarterback David Garrard. Garrard's a much better quarterback than Luke McCown, who will now be the starter for the Jaguars. Garrard was due over $8 million this season, and with the Jaguars unlikely to contend, they decided to let the veteran go. And now this gives them an easier opportunity/excuse to get their 2011 first round pick, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, on the field quickly.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Denver Broncos

It really seems that the average fan doesn't realize just how good Philip Rivers is. He has QB ratings over 100 each of the last three years, and threw 92 touchdowns, compared to just 33 interceptions, over those years as well. Last year, he threw for an NFL-leading 4,710 yards. The Chargers' passing game will obviously be explosive again, and I think their rushing offense will improve with Ryan Mathews healthy in his second year. And defensively, the Chargers ranked first in the NFL against the pass in '10, and fourth against the run. This should be a solid team with the potential to contend for the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs were one of the surprise teams in the NFL last season, as they went 10-6 and won the AFC West. However, it should be much more difficult to reach 10 wins this season. Their schedule is rough(Chargers twice of course, at the Lions, at the Colts, at the Patriots, versus the Steelers, at the Bears, at the Jets, versus the Packers), and they just lost tight end Tony Moeaki(who was their second-leading receiver last year) for the season. Moeaki's loss certainly won't help a passing offense that ranked 30th in the NFL in '10. Thankfully for them, their running game is superb, led by Jamaal Charles. But, this is probably a .500 team.

The Raiders also surprised in '10, going 8-8. But in free agency, they lost superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and great pass-catching tight end Zach Miller. Oh, and they let go of their head coach from last year, Tom Cable, because Al Davis is out of his mind. Hue Jackson comes in as his replacement and we'll see what he can do. This team has a great running game and defensive line, but their offensive line and secondary are major question marks.

The Broncos are the most intriguing AFC West team to me. Their quarterback situation is getting all of the talk around here(I live in Denver so I know this), but it's their defense that should be the main concern. Their defense ranked last in the league, and was particularly terrible against the run(second-worst with 154.6 yards allowed on the ground per game). They missed tackle after tackle, and it could be an issue again this year with a defensive line having injury woes. However, John Fox takes over as head coach, and brings a 4-3 scheme in to replace the 3-4 the Broncos had been using, so maybe that will help their run defense. The one thing the Broncos defense should be able to do exceptionally well, is get to the quarterback. Elvis Dumervil is back(and switching from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end) after missing the entire '10 season due to a torn pectoral muscle. And he had a whopping 17 sacks in '09. The Broncos had a TOTAL of 23 sacks in '10, which was three less than any team in the NFL. So Dumervil will help greatly there, and strongside rookie linebacker Von Miller will as well. Miller looked as good as advertised in the preseason.

NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. Dallas Cowboys
3. New York Giants
4. Washington Redskins

The Eagles are no "Dream Team"; they have some question marks, especially on the offensive line. Additionally, while I don't like to put much into preseason performances at all, Michael Vick had some very bad decision-making that was reminiscent of his Falcons days, rather than last year when he was an incredibly efficient quarterback. Still, I think he'll be fine, and I think the team will be very good. They're loaded with speed everywhere on offense, and they have an incredible secondary, with Nnamdi Asomugha of course headlining it. Bad injury luck should be the only thing preventing them from a division title.

The Cowboys are really hard to get a read on. There's talent here, but there always seems to be talent there, and they always seem to underachieve. This year could be different though. Rob Ryan takes over as the defensive coordinator, and he's known for his ability to confuse offenses. He has talent to work with on this Dallas defense too, so they could make big strides on that side of the ball. Offensively, Tony Romo is back and healthy after missing 10 games with a broken clavicle. Felix Jones is finally going into the season knowing that he is the running back in Dallas, and is primed for a breakout season. And speaking of offensive players that are primed for a breakout season, the Cowboys have another one in second-year wide receiver Dez Bryant. He could be a special one at the position.

If there's a team that wishes they didn't have to play any preseason games over the last month, it's the Giants. It seems like they've lost 30 cornerbacks to injury over that span. They've already lost cornerback Terrell Thomas, linebacker Jonathan Goff, linebacker Clint Sintim, and defensive tackle Marvin Austin to injured reserve. This defense is quickly going from what appeared to be a very good one, to potentially one of the most vulnerable ones in the league. They are going to need backups to step up and perform well, or else this team is going to be below .500.

Rex Grossman isn't quite as bad as people make him out to be, but he needs a good supporting cast. He doesn't have that in Washington. Well, I think he will at running back actually, as I absolutely think Tim Hightower will be a beast this year. He's showing terrific burst as a downhill runner and cutback ability; a great fit for Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. But, this team is going to need a lot more than Hightower, even if he performs as I expect him to.

NFC North
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers are a better team on paper right now than the team that just won the Super Bowl. They lost plenty of players to injured reserve in '10, with tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant being the most notable names. I think Finley could be the most productive tight end in the NFL this season, and Grant joins James Starks to give the Packers a solid running back rotation. And we know their passing game will be elite. Defensively, they're absolutely loaded as well. I don't even need to say much about this team, because they don't have a glaring problem right now.

You probably are aware by now that I'm a Bears fan(and I hope to launch my "Da Bear Necessities" blog VERY soon). And while many seem to be very down on this team, I actually like this group(and that's rare for me to say), maybe even more than last year's team which hosted the NFC Championship Game.The offensive line is getting most of the talk, and for good reason after how many sacks they allowed last season. But, they got much better as the season went along, and are much further along right now than they were at this time last year. The offensive line may not be "good" by any means, but I don't think it will be quite the issue it was last season.One thing that should definitely hurt the Bears, though, is the new kickoff rule that will limit the kick return chances. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are threats to take it to the house every time, and at least left the Bears with great field position usually. With an offense that ranked 30th in the NFL last year, the field position was a huge deal to this team. What also could be rough for the Bears is their schedule: They start with the Falcons, Saints, and Packers. It's very possible they could start out 0-3, and who knows if they could ever recover from that.

The Lions are the sexy pick this year, and there's a ton to like about their team. Matthew Stafford could be a damn good one at quarterback, but we won't know exactly what he is until he can stay healthy for a full season, something he's been unable to do in his first two seasons. He has an incredible wide receiver to throw to in Calvin Johnson, and there's a solid overall supporting cast. On the defensive side of the ball, they are getting much better, with the defensive line especially being terrific. Ndamukong Suh is an absolute beast at defensive tackle, and a great candidate to win the Defensive Player of the Year. Playing next to him this year, and potentially for many years to come, is defensive tackle Nick Fairley, an extremely talented first round pick out of Auburn. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Lions had a winning record and made the playoffs, but I still think they're one year away from taking that next step. There's no doubt that this team is headed in the right direction though, and their fans have plenty to be excited about for the first time since the Barry Sanders era.

34-year-old Donovan McNabb is now the Vikings' quarterback, after throwing 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for the Redskins in 2010. He still has a big arm, and if he can limit the turnovers, the Vikings will be satisfied with his play. Let's be honest- This is still Adrian Peterson's offense. However, the Vikings don't want teams loading the box with eight+ players which would give Peterson little room to run. As for the defense, the Vikings have some new players on the defensive line, but defensive end Jared Allen is still there to wreak havoc. Look for the Vikings to win a few games that they weren't expected to, but don't expect more than six wins or so overall.

NFC South
1. Atlanta Falcons
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4. Carolina Panthers

'10's #1 seed in the NFC added to their already loaded offense with wide receiver Julio Jones, their first round pick in the '11 draft. He got rave reviews all camp, and is ready to step in as a starter opposite Roddy White from day one. He has great speed, size, and is even an exceptional blocker. So, their offense should be better, and their defense looks improved as well. However, their defense will need to be much better if they want to beat the Packers this year in the playoffs, after losing to them by the score of 48-21 last year in the Divisional round.

Speaking of adding to loaded offenses with rookies, the Saints did the same thing by drafting running back Mark Ingram. They added a big play guy in Darren Sproles to their backfield/return game as well, and already had Pierre Thomas in place at the position. So, their running game that ranked 28th in the NFL last year should be much better this time around. On the other side of the ball, they added Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, and Cam Jordan to the defensive line. While I don't think this team wins the division, they have a terrific shot to get a Wild Card berth at least.

It doesn't seem like many people noticed, but Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions last year in his first full season as an NFL starter. Those are absolutely fantastic numbers, and he looks like he could be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for a long time. He also has some solid young players surrounding him on the offense, such as wide receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. They can score points, but they'll need to do a much better job of stopping the run(28th in the NFL last year) if they want to hang with the Falcons and Saints in this division.

Three very good teams in the NFC South... and then the Panthers. They. Will. Not. Be. Good. At least their fans will get to see what Cam Newton has to offer, and can already start thinking about who to take with a top-three selection in the '12 draft.

NFC West
1. St. Louis Rams
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. Seattle Seahawks

Sam Bradford sure looks like the real deal at quarterback. and now he has a great offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels to call the plays. They don't have any #1 wide receivers, but they have several solid players at the position, including newcomer Mike Sims-Walker. And Steven Jackson is a beast at the running back position. Their offense could be very good, and they added some quality veterans to a decent defense. In a terrible NFC West division, I think they definitely have enough to finish first place.

The Cardinals acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb from the Eagles in the offseason, and that move alone should give them a great chance to compete in the West. In the preseason, we already got a glimpse of what he and Larry Fitzgerald can do together. I think the Cardinals will air it out this year, and they may be forced to with a questionable running game. Seven or eight wins for this team.

We'll see what Jim Harbaugh can do in his first year as an NFL head coach for the 49ers, but I love the hire. And really, he may not be able to do much with this current roster. I'm sure he wishes he could've brought Andrew Luck along with him from Stanford to the 49ers.

And speaking of Andrew Luck, if the Seahawks are trying to set themselves up for the #1 pick to draft him, they're doing a great job so far. Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback? Charlie Whitehurst? Like it matters. No way this team repeats as NFC West champs.

AFC Playoff Seeds
1. New England Patriots
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Houston Texans
5. New York Jets
6. Baltimore Ravens

NFC Playoff Seeds
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. St. Louis Rams
5. New Orleans Saints
6. Chicago Bears

AFC Wild Card Round
#3 Chargers over #6 Ravens

#5 Jets over #4 Texans

NFC Wild Card Round
#3 Falcons over #6 Bears

#5 Saints over #4 Rams

AFC Divisional Round
#1 Patriots over #5 Jets

#2 Steelers over #3 Chargers

NFC Divisional Round
#1 Packers over #5 Saints

#3 Falcons over #2 Eagles

AFC Championship
#1 Patriots over #2 Steelers

NFC Championship
#1 Packers over #3 Falcons

Super Bowl
Packers over Patriots

I really think if anybody picks a team other than the Packers right now, they're kidding themselves. Going into the season, this absolutely looks like the best team in football. And yes, I hate it as a Bears fan.

Awards & Random Predictions:

Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers

Offensive Player of the Year
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers

Defensive Player of the Year
Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears

Offensive Rookie of the Year
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Rookie of the Year
Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

Coach of the Year
Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams

Comeback Player of the Year
Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers

Breakout AFC Player
Patrick Chung, S, New England Patriots

Breakout NFC Player
Tim Hightower, RB, Washington Redskins

Most Improved AFC QB
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Most Improved NFC QB
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Most Surprising Team
St. Louis Rams

Most Disappointing Team
New York Giants

Biggest Team Offensive Improvement
Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Team Defensive Improvement
Houston Texans

Biggest Team Offensive Decline
Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Team Defensive Decline
New York Giants

Pro Bowl MVP
Just Kidding

Get The Latest Thigh Updates By Following Us On Twitter.