Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Time to eat some NFL 

Here's what I have to say about all 32 teams. The order is a little scatter-brained, but it works.

The pick:
I made my prediction for this year the day after the last Superbowl: Eagles over Patriots. Back then I was absolutely sure of it. Now, both teams have exhibited cause for concern -- Pats lose some Tedy Bruschi (their D's heartbeat), Ted Johnson, and Ty Law on defense, not to mention both offensive and defensive coordinators; Philly has T.O. problems and no insurance behind Brian Westbrook -- but I don't believe that any other teams have improved to the point where they're better than these two. So, I'm sticking with it. Eagles over Patriots.

The playoff race, however, is wide open in both conferences. The AFC is more top-heavy, but there will be heated competition for the wild card spots. And in the NFC, the only team without playoff aspirations (you can already pencil them in for the #1 next year) is SF, while Philly is the only lock.

Philadelphia - Really, the only thing the Eagles need to be concerned with is the on-field relationship between Donovan and T.O. If the Eagles don't get off to a flying start (they should, but you never know) then watch out for some meltdowns and fireworks on the sidelines. Owens, however, recently came out publicly and said he aims to mend the fractured relationship he has with his QB. We shall see. Hopefully, it isn't too much of a sideshow. Also, depth at running back is an issue.

New England - We know what New England lost during the off-season, but we also know that it's still New England. Their offense is as good as ever and, last I checked, Bill Belichek is the best coach in the league (that actually makes a difference in the NFL). They still have big play capability on the defensive side of the ball no matter what the situation. Until proven otherwise, all roads in the AFC run through Foxboro. These guys just know how to win, plain and simple.

Right there:
Indianapolis - The Colts are everyone's favorite team to watch and for some reason people think that translates automatically into Superbowl. The defense has been the knock on this team ever since Peyton Manning & Co. came to power. They've added some personell, now, (like Corey Simon) and appear ready to make a serious push at the crown. However, the road to the promised land still runs through New England. I'll believe the Colts can win at Foxboro (or any open air, cold-weather stadium in December and January) when I see it. It's not even just the Patriots that should concern the Colts. There's also...

Pittsburgh - The Steelers bring back pretty much everyone except for Plaxico Burress and he was a headache anyway. The concern for this team is injuries. The preseason has been unkind to their running backs as both Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis are already sidelined. Does unheralded Willie Parker step right in and relieve pressure off of Ben Roethlisberger? Steeler fans better hope so. As last year's AFC title game showed, Big Ben is best when he is trying to minimize mistakes rather than force big plays.

Baltimore - Staying in the AFC (where most of the contenders lie), the Ravens have one issue to address this year: Kyle Boller. If the QB can put up roughly 200 yards a game and minimize his mistakes, the Ravens will be a scary team to contend with. We know about the defense and we know about Jamal Lewis who's prison time is now behind him. If Boller can open up the passing game, who is to say that Baltimore couldn't shock everybody?

Carolina - The greatest threat to the Eagles is the team that knocked them off in the NFC Championship game two seasons ago. That year, Carolina went to lose perhaps the best played Superbowl ever on a last second field goal to New England. No team was hotter in the second half of last season than Carolina. If not for injuries at the start of the year and an Adam Vinatieri Superbowl field goal, who knows? Maybe we would be talking about the Panthers going for their third straight Superbowl instead of the Patriots. Hard to fathom, but true. Their defense is still terrific. The running game (their strong suit with Davis and Foster) is healthy and QB Jake Delhomme may be the best in the league behind Brady and Favre at rallying his troops. The loss of Muhsin Muhammad (the NFL's leading receiver last year) should, surprisingly, be minimal. Steve Smith will be healthy and fill in at the top spot and Keary Colbert is ready to emerge as a weapon. Watch out for Carolina!

Potential overachievers:
Jacksonville - They could just as easily flop, but this team showed last year that they can win ugly and in this league that counts for a lot.

St. Louis - Playing in the weakest division in football, facing the softest schedule in the league, and possessing one stellar offense. The Rams could win ten games this season.

Kansas City - The Chiefs addressed their defense... finally. We know they can score points. Now, with the additions of Patrick Surtain and rookie linebacker Derrick Brooks, to name a couple, on defense, perhaps KC will be able to win games without having to get into a shootout. The special teams is still strong. Let's not forget Dante Hall's big play ability returning kicks. Larry Johnson has also shown that he is a ready, able, and studly back up who can easily fill in for Priest Holmes if the super RB has more problems with his hip... or knee... or ankle...etc...

San Diego - I think the Chargers will finish with fewer wins than last year's division-winning team. So how could they potentially overachieve? Well, last year's Chargers were supposed to be one of the worst teams in football. The personell hasn't changed at all. Drew Brees has to prove that last year wasn't a fluke against a tougher schedule and what has suddenly become the toughest division in football. The Chargers may not win the war in the AFC West, but they could still nab a wild card spot. Even though that would be a slight regression from last season, I think San Diego would be very happy with it. Particularly given that their top picks expected to help the defense -- LB Shawn Merriman among them -- still are unsigned.

New York Jets - Another playoff team from last year. I put the Jets here for one reason: no one is talking about them. Weird! Still a killer defense which just added Ty Law (!), still have workhorse Curtis Martin. Chad Pennington is healthy and his favorite target, Lavernious Coles, returns after a year in Washington. The Jets could be a spoiler this year. I love what coach Herm Edwards brings to that team.

Potential underachievers:
Atlanta - I think we've all seen this Atlanta Falcons movie before. Never in franchise history has the club had back-to-back winning seasons. Their schedule is no walk in the park, either. It's conceivable that they could lose their first five games of the season making 7-9 or 8-8 not out of the question. #1 rushing attack in the league or not, their offense is still one-dimensional. People may just have it in their subconscious that this team is set up for failure.

Seattle - If not for back-dooring their way into last year's playoffs, Seattle could be perrenial underachivers. They still don't have balance on offense and their defense is suspect. I'm actually befuddled as to why "experts" tout the Seahawks as contenders every year since Mike Holmgren became coach. This has to be the make or break for him. The Seahawks fate rests on the shoulders of one man. Again. Shaun Alexander. Not having to worry about a franchise tag is huge for his open market prospects. Seattle is going to be in deep deep deep trouble when they're unable to resign him next off-season. Without Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks offense is a joke.

Minnesota - Speaking of perrenial underachievers, the Vikings own it. Every year a hot start followed by a horrible finish. Do things change this year with the departure of Randy Moss? Perhaps a little. There will be less strife in the locker room and the defense is supposedly better, but who knows? You can't count on this team. Their running back situation is anything but secure for the moment, though I love Mewelde Moore's big play ability in the face of Michael Bennett's suspect health. The NFC North isn't too strong, again, so Minny may yet claim the division. Just don't expect them to make a run in the playoffs.

Cincinnati - I'm hesitant to place the Bengals in this category because despite showing improvement during the last two seasons (both 8-8 finishes) they haven't made the playoffs. Yet people across the board are high on Cincy's prospects this season. Looking at the offense, who could blame them? Chad, Rudi, Carson, and the boys look good. It's the defense that should have everyone worried. The Bengals still haven't proven they can stop the run and, uh, they play in the same division as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That's bad news.

Denver - The Broncos are a mystery to me. Solid regular seasons, wasted in the playoffs. Granted, the last two seasons, it was the Colts who ran them off the field, but you start to wonder if Denver's window has finally closed. The division battle may hurt them too much and I could very easily see them finishing 9-7 but losing out on a playoff spot due to a tie-break. Simple fact is this: Jake Plummer will not take you to the next round of the playoffs, let alone the promised land.

Lost in the mix:
Green Bay - There are plenty of reasons to like and dislike this year's Packer incarnation. The good is that their offense looks pretty strong -- great pair of receivers in Javon Walker and Donald Driver, Green and Davenport in the backfield. They're a potent group and, oh by the way, they have the ultimate gamer in Brett Favre. The bad side is that this team and Favre in particular are old and the defense is weak. Yet, in spite of those two negatives, the Packers could very well claim yet another division title if only because of Minnesota's shortcomings. It's strange to think that a division winner can get lost in the mix, but then no one rightly knows what Green Bay will do from week to week.

Detroit - The weapons they have on offense are scary, but Joey Harrington still has to step up to the plate. If he can't deliver with this kind of insanely good talent at his disposal, the Lions are doomed. Backup QB Jeff Garcia broke his leg last week, so it's all on Harrington to finally have a breakout season.

Houston - Any and all injury concerns to the slight Dominick Davis are stopping hearts in Houston. The season hasn't even started yet. That's not good. And is this finally the year the David Carr breaks out? Andre Johnson is an excellent receiver and the Texans offense might be able to generate some excitement if they're healthy and get solid play from the offensive line. On defense, their secondary leaves something to be desired.

Miami - they figure to be awful, but could steal a couple extra games behind their renewed running game. Remember, it was Ricky Williams' unexpected departure that sunk this club a year ago. The entire offense was based around him. Now, he's back and the Dolphins drafted Ronnie Brown. Problem is, they still don't have a quarterback and Nick Saban is untested in the NFL. Their defense is still good. They just need to not spend so much time on the field.

Dallas - Probably the most overhyped team heading into the year. I like Bill Parcells and he seems to have a star running back in Julius Jones, but that's all the Cowboys have. Bledsoe at least provides some stability at quarterback, but his age is showing and the defense probably hasn't improved as much as Parcells wanted it to.

Tennessee - Who knows what to make of this club? Consensus is that they'll be pretty bad this season. I used to be of the opinion that as long as Steve McNair is healthy, the Titans can play with anyone. Now, I'm not so sure. Everyone will be watching to see if this offense takes off under mastermind offensive coordinator Norm Chow. I expect they'll be competitive, but come up too short too often. On the other hand, maybe they're this year's San Diego and shock the world! Could be...

Tampa Bay - I actually don't really have anything good to say about the Bucs other than their defense will keep them in games. They're relying on Brian Griese to return to the form he had in 2000. In Gruden's offense, that may well be possible. Especially with analysts' new favorite receiver, Michael Clayton, and a fresh running back, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, in the fold.

New York Giants - Eli Manning gets a full season at the helm. Let the games begin. Giant wide receivers had something, like, 0 touchdowns last year. We'll see if new arrival Plaxico Burress and his big mouth can change that. New York gains an extra home game due to Hurricane Katrina, as the Saints are forced to change venue for their "home opener." Other than that, I don't imagine a lot breaking in the G-Men's favor. Tiki Barber is a game-breaker, though.

Arizona - Live by the sword, die by the sword. That will be the tale of this year's Cardinals. They turn to Kurt Warner who is so far removed from his glory days that it seems unlikely he'll ever return to form. never mind the unfriendly offense he had to operate with the Giants last season, if he held the ball too long and turned the ball over too readily and frequently in St. Louis (with all the amazing talent they had on the o-line, receivers, and backs) how the hell is he going to fair better in Arizona? I hope J.J. Arrington can deliver in the backfield, but the offensive line is shaky at best. A healthy Boldin and Fitzgerald represent one of the most lethal WR combos in the league. But it won't matter if Warner keeps throwing interceptions. AZ's saving grace is that they play in the NFC W(orst)est, where 8-8 and a possible playoff spot are definitely attainable.

Buffalo - JP Losman is effectively a rookie quarterback and yet to establish himself. That's not good when you already have a weak passing game (even if your receivers are good). Willis McGahee is a stud running back, but until Losman shows that he knows what he's doing, expect opposing defenses to key in on McGahee all the time. And I mean all the time. But the Bills defense keeps them in with a shout. If last year's strong finish is an indicator, the Bills could play the role of spoiler all the way to a wild card spot in the playoffs. Though I doubt that'll happen. The AFC appears too deep.

Washington - No one expects the Redskins to do much this year. After all, Patrick Ramsey is still the QB. But if Clinton Portis isn't overworked like he was last season and used correctly, things could improve. The defense, despite key losses, is competitive. The Skins won't light the world on fire, but they should be able to at least beat the bad teams.

The dregs:
San Francisco - Worst team for the 2nd straight year

Cleveland - Will be interesting to see if Romeo Crennell can make this a smash-mouth team as planned.

Chicago - Even if Rex Grossman was healthy and Cedric Benson wasn't playing catch up, the Bears are in trouble. Teams will pull away from them in the second half when the defense begins to tire from being on the field all the time.

The sentimental favorite:
New Orleans - It'll be hard times this year for the Saints. Whether they play the rest of their "home games" after New York in Baton Rouge or San Antonio won't really matter. People will be cheering for them, regardless. Already a shaky team heading into the new season, their psyche has to be completely blitzed. I wonder if they'll be able to ever get on track this year.

My boys:
Oakland - Raider Nation, stand up and cheer, our boys could be as good as 10-6! Oh, but wait, they could just as easily go 6-10. It's likely that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The offense made significant upgrades with the acquisitions of Randy Moss (best WR in the game) and LaMont Jordan (I love this guy running the ball). Those two will allow the Raiders to spread the ball and balance their attack. Jerry Porter is set to put up career numbers, lining up opposite Moss. Inconsistent QB, Kerry Collins, has never had weapons like these at his disposal before. He may still chuck 18-22 interceptions, but he'll be launching 28-33 touchdowns in the process. The downside? Our defense is terrible. Thank the lord they're reverting back to a 4-3 scheme after the 3-4 failed so miserably. The secondary is ghastly. This team didn't tackle last year and they didn't bring anyone in who can do that this year. The Raiders will be winning with shootouts, if at all. Bias aside, they're potentially the second best offense in the league behind Indianapolis. It's their defense and the brutal AFC West that will keep them from making the playoffs. But I have faith. Committment to excellence. Just win, baby!

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