Right Field

Five NFL Storylines to Watch in 2011

(1). Is Aaron Rodgers now the league’s best quarterback? Before the 2010–11 playoffs, the Green Bay signal-caller was widely regarded as a top-tier QB. Then he engineered a remarkable post-season run, capped off with a Lombardi Trophy and a Super Bowl MVP award, which vaulted him into megastar territory. He was ruthlessly efficient in last night’s opener against the Saints, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. ESPN’s intrepid NFL reporter Adam Schefter now considers Rodgers to be the league’s best player. But what do the players themselves think? In a poll conducted earlier this year by the NFL Network, they ranked Patriots QB Tom Brady No. 1, followed by Colts QB Peyton Manning. Rodgers checked in at No. 11. Many experts agreed that Brady deserved the top ranking. (After all, his 2010 regular-season numbers — 36 TD passes, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 111 — were off the charts.) The fans, however, placed him third, behind Rodgers (No. 2) and Manning (No. 1).

(2). Have opposing teams figured out Michael Vick? No question, what the Eagles QB did in 2010 represents one of the greatest comebacks in NFL (and perhaps overall sports) history. Vick burst out of the gate with a series of MVP-caliber performances: In his first six games, he threw eleven touchdown passes and zero interceptions, while also rushing for four TDs and fumbling only twice. But the speedy southpaw looked much less spectacular — and took more hits — down the stretch, largely because he faced more blitzes. In his last seven games, Vick tossed seven picks and fumbled nine times. His final two games were both home losses, to the Vikings in Week 16 and to the Packers in the wild-card playoff round. After a busy summer in which they acquired a bevy of Pro Bowl talent — including cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back Ronnie Brown, wide receiver Steve Smith, and QB Vince Young — along with standout defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay last February), the Eagles are the most hyped team in the NFC. Yet their fate remains inextricably tied to the 31-year-old (and oft-injured) Vick, who looked shaky during the preseason.

3). Is the NFC South “becoming the best division in football”? ESPN analyst John Clayton thinks so. It boasts two of the league’s best young QBs (Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan), plus a veteran superstar and Super Bowl MVP (Drew Brees). It has produced the NFC’s top playoff seed each of the past two years (New Orleans in 2009 and Atlanta in 2010), and it was the only division in 2010 to have three teams finish above .500 (Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay). (The Buccaneers missed the playoffs despite compiling a 10–6 record.) On the other hand, Carolina had the NFL’s worst record (2–14) and probably won’t be much better this season. Oh, and the Saints’ defense was abysmal last night at Lambeau.

4). Is the NFC West still the worst division in football? It sure looks that way. Writing at NFL.com, Pat Kirwan lists three reasons why the NFC West might actually be worse in 2011 than it was in 2010. First, the division has lost several of its better players, including QB Matt Hasselbeck, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and linebacker Takeo Spikes. Second, its four teams (Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis) will have harder schedules this year: The NFC West is matched up with the NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Redskins) for intraconference play and with the AFC North (Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Steelers) for interconference action. Third, the jet-lag factor: NFC West squads will “make the three-time-zone, west-to-east trip [a combined] 16 times and play at 1 p.m. ET in 13 of those games. That is a recipe for disaster.”

(5). Will the Lions finally make the playoffs? They are tied with Buffalo for having the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. Indeed, the last time Detroit participated in a postseason contest — Jan. 8, 2000 — Tom Brady was still at Michigan (fresh off the last, and best, game of his college career), Aaron Rodgers was still in high school, and future Lions defensive star Ndamukong Suh was still in middle school. The Lions went 6–10 last year, but they ended with a four-game winning streak (including victories over the Packers and the Buccaneers); their talented young QB (Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft) is finally healthy, and he’ll be passing to one of the league’s best wideouts (Calvin Johnson); and the Lions have a tough, aggressive defensive line. Sports Illustrated NFL maven Peter King has picked Detroit to finish 10–6 and qualify for the playoffs. It wouldn’t surprise me.

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