Just as an NFL game is broken into four quarters, I've often found it instructive to break a season down into the same. Over the next four days, I'll be taking a look at each quarter with a mini-scouting report of each team and perchance some tomfoolery. Let's roll:
Week One: @ San Francisco 49ers
The Back Story - NFC West rival that have long been a perceived threat and a consistent under-performer. The picture of coaching staff volatility in the NFL (well, along with the Seahawks), the one thing they've kept steady is a bizarre commitment to QB Alex Smith.
Key Additions - Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Braylon Edwards, Donte Whittner, oh... and new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Key Subtractions - David Baas, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, amongst others.
Prognostication - The 49ers have played an odd game this off-season. They've let a lot of the talent on their defense leave, in some cases pushing them out the door, and yet haven't seemed too concerned with a) replacing that talent or, b) improving their offense. That's not entirely fair: Braylon Edwards improves their receiving corps and a healthy, happy Frank Gore won't hurt things. Still, committing early to Alex Smith made many question whether they were joining the Andrew Luck sweepstakes intentionally. I don't think that's the case, but I do fail to see what the game plan really is for these 2011 49ers. They look like a 5-7 win team to me.
Week Two: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Back Story - I'm sure you've all forgotten it by now, but a long time ago in a coaching staff far, far away your Seattle football Seahawks faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. Not ringing a bell? Don't worry about it.
Key Additions - Cameron Heyward, Jerrico Cotchery
Key Subtractions - Max Starks, Antwan Randle-el... Holy crap, they've got 46 returning players.
Prognostication - The Steelers are very good at playing futbol americano. Though their defensive stalwarts continue to age, and their offense lacks any superstars, the Steelers are primed to go toe-to-toe with the Ravens (yet again) for AFC North supremacy. Coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Packers, the black-and-gold will be looking for revenge. They look set to lock up either their division or a wildcard berth, but over the past five years they've been just inconsistent enough to avoid being a regular playoff team in the mold of the Patriots or Colts.
Random Trivia - The "Steelers" is not the team's original name. They were originally the Pirates, and briefly both the Steagles (merged with the Eagles during WWII), and "Card-Pitt" when they merged with the Cardinals.
Week Three: Arizona Cardinals
The Back Story - Ya'll, they straight up competition. The Cards represent the third, wobbly, "established" team within the NFC West. By bringing in Kevin Kolb and re-signing Larry Fitzgerald, Whisenhunt hopes to keep his job and maybe even win the wide open division. Unfortunately for Whiz and the Cards, they've had a massive talent drain since their Super Bowl defeat.
Key Additions - Kevin Kolb, Patrick Peterson, Todd Heap, Daryn Colledge
Key Subtractions - Steve Breaston, Tim Hightower, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Prognostication - They've mortgaged the farm on Kolb, and that could pay off... but whether it will certainly remains to be seen. I can see the Cardinals finishing anywhere from 4th to 2nd in the NFC West, but I don't see them as a better than .500 team. Their defense has progressively gotten worse, and though there offense cannot possibly be worse than it was last year behind Derek Anderson/Max Hall/John Skelton, barring a major breakout year by Kevin Kolb, they still look average at best.
Random Trivia - Despite feeling like they have no real history (in part because they've been the military kid of the professional football, moving around before they can really make friends), the Arizona Cardinals and their predecessors are the longest continually running franchise in pro football, founded in 1898. Also, Max Hall is no part of their legacy.
Week Four: Atlanta Falcons
The Back Story - The Falcons went 13-3 last year, including a victory over the Seahawks that saw Matt Hasselbeck implode like an improperly baked souffle.
Key Additions - Julio Jones, Ray Edwards
Key Subtractions - Michael Jenkins, Jerious Norwood
Prognostication - The NFC South is the arguably the strongest division in the NFL, and the Falcons were the belle of da ball last year, and they appear to have gotten better this season. They've got the quarterback, the defense, the wide receivers, and the running back -- assuming Turner can stay healthy -- to be right in the position for a run at the Lombardi trophy. They also traded the NFL equivalent of a Halloween candy haul to the Browns for the right to take Julio Jones, indicating that they know their close and the window may be brief.
Random Trivia - Arthur Blank is the reanimated corpse of Walt Disney.