Another NFL season has arrived... yee-ha!!
Of course, it's mostly an exercise in futility to forecast
the upcoming season. And of course, I always make that
statement immediately prior to making predictions anyway. What
the heck... it's fun, isn't it? Besides, it's a great
way to generate e-mail. People love to write me and tell
me how stupid I am. Funny thing, though... the vast majority
of time, I never hear from those individuals again once
the season has concluded and a handful of my picks have
come to fruition.
Enough of that already. Let's get on with the business
of glaring into a figurative crystal football...
American Football Conference
I have always been a defensive man at heart. It's what
I played most of the time when I sported the gear as a
kid, and it's a proven system for winning championships. No? Well,
OK... Tampa Bay had the NFL's most lethal offense a year
ago, right? Anyway, the state of Florida has a corner on
the defensive market in 2003, with the Miami Dolphins sporting
the AFC's stingiest group. On offense, the Dolphins will
grind it out on the ground with the first overall pick
in many fantasy drafts, RB Ricky Williams. But I also believe
Miami's passing game can be decent -- QB Jay Fiedler is
smart, and adept at avoiding mistakes. WR Chris Chambers
can kill you deep but he's also pretty tough over the middle.
Opposite starter Derrius Thompson, the former Redskins
backup, has emerged as a solid option. Tight end Randy
McMichael is above average... I really like the acquisitions
on defense made by the New England Patriots. They
capably filled the holes that ruined their bid to repeat
as champs last year. I believe QB Tom Brady will have another
strong season statistically, although the Patriots would
be much better off if WR Troy Brown was their second choice
as a receiver, rather than first. If RBs Antowain Smith
and Kevin Faulk can get it done between them, the Pats
can return to the playoffs... Obviously, the loss of QB
Chad Pennington is a major blow to the New York Jets,
but the truth of it is that I saw them struggling a bit
anyway. The loss of WR Laveraneues Coles to Washington
was a big deal, because neither veteran Wayne Chrebet nor
fleet-footed youngster Santana Moss are ideal as go-to
guys. The signing of veteran Curtis Conway might be great,
but Conway's track record of injuries combined with the
rough turf of The Meadowlands makes me believe the unit
won't be together for the full slate. And defensively,
the Jets rely a lot on emotion and other intangibles. That
could signal a slow start that they won't be able to recover
from, even if veteran QB Vinny Testaverde performs well...
The Buffalo Bills perplex me some. Their offense
should be pretty good again, and yet there are questions
as to whether either QB Drew Bledsoe or RB Travis Henry
can duplicate their numbers of 2002. In my opinion, WR
Eric Moulds is their only completely reliable piece. On
defense, I'm a big fan of Takeo Spikes -- if he has the
desired impact, the Bills could make a lot of noise late
in the campaign.
New England 10-6
New York Jets 7-9
It's my view that this division will take a fairly significant
downturn this season, which I realize goes against the
grain of many of my peers. But allow me to explain it this
way: I don't particularly like the Pittsburgh Steelers this
season, and yet I'm picking them to repeat as division
champs. I do applaud the change to Amos Zereoue as the
primary RB. Jerome Bettis is a big, lovable lunk... but
his glory days are behind him. Zereoue's explosive 19-yard
TD run in the Steelers' last preseason game is indicative
of what he gives to the offense, that Bettis doesn't. The
passing attack is solid, although I don't believe it will
be as a statistically prodigious as it was last season.
Still, WRs Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress form as good
a tandem as there is. QB Tommy Maddox has options. Pittsburgh
will be good on defense again, because the Steelers are
always good on defense, but not any better than a year
ago... The Baltimore Ravens are headed in the right
direction, because their defense is still pretty doggone
tough and the offense figures to be quite a bit better.
Rookie QB Kyle Boller is certainly the future of the franchise,
but Chris Redman has what it takes to guide a winning team.
If RB Jamal Lewis stays healthy, he's good for 1,500 yards
and 15 TDs. And the receiving group, led by TE Todd Heap
and improving WR Travis Taylor, is adequate... The decision
that Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis made regarding
the QB position was the right one -- Kelly Holcomb should
be the man. But even if Tim Couch had retained the job,
Cleveland's problems will stem from defense. Even with
the likes of RB William Green and four talented wide receivers,
I see the Browns losing their share of 35-31 games... Give
head coach Marvin Lewis some time with the Cincinnati
improvement will come in baby steps this season, perhaps
not reflected in the win-loss record. The offense, paced
by RB Corey Dillon and QB Jon Kitna, will be inconsistent.
I do, however, like the young receivers on this team, especially
Chad Johnson. It's the development of Lewis' forte, the
defense, which will delay Cincinnati's rise to contender
status until at least 2004.
It's looking like the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee
Titans are about to form the NFL's newest hot rivalry.
These two were the class of the division last season,
and are likely to be so again, but this time I look for
the Colts to inch past the Titans. With RB Edgerrin
James on the verge of returning to full strength, and
the dynamite Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison connection,
Indy won't have trouble scoring points. Defensively,
not all the pieces are in place yet. But head coach Tony
Dungy knows how to build a defense -- if nothing else,
he's proven that... The Titans are talented but brittle.
Virtually all of their key performers on offense have
a history of injuries, either last year or before. The
odds of the whole group remaining healthy aren't good.
And defensively, their top weapon -- DE Jevon Kearse
-- has the injury bug, too. It's a good team, but I'm
not sure it's an AFC finalist again... Although the Jacksonville
Jaguars have issues, I believe they'll be better
than many expect as long as RB Fred Taylor stays healthy.
Veteran QB Mark Brunell is still good enough to get it
done, and ease the transition long-term to rookie Byron
Leftwich. The Jags desperately need another WR to complement
veteran Jimmy Smith -- and step in for the suspended
former All-Pro as the go-to guy the first four weeks.
Maybe, just maybe JJ Stokes will finally show us something.
The defense is young but talented, and new head coach
Jack Del Rio is the right guy for that scenario... Make
no mistake, the Houston Texans are still an expansion
team. But they're headed in the right direction. What
they sorely lack is a game-breaking RB. QB David Carr
and rookie WR Andre Johnson will eventually be dynamic,
and the defense is pretty steady, so the franchise isn't
all that far from striving for a winning record -- but
not this year.
I see this group as a 4-team battle from start to finish.
Wouldn't surprise me to see all four clubs finish within
three or four games of each other. The defending AFC champion Oakland
Raiders have a ton of talent, but they're getting long
in the tooth. The consensus last year was that 2002 would
be this club's last hurrah, and yet numerous experts are
predicting a return to the Big Dance for the Silver and
Black. Well, I just don't see it. The offense should be
pretty good again, although I expect a slight drop-off
from QB Rich Gannon and a big one from veteran WR Tim Brown.
The amazing, incomparable Jerry Rice will still get it
done -- his decline much less noticeable, and ably compensated
for by emerging star Jerry Porter. On defense, I see a
lot of problems for the Raiders, potential holes up front
and in the secondary. The Raiders are good enough to make
it to the playoffs again, but I no longer consider them
the conference favorites... The Denver Broncos are
an intriguing team. If QB Jake Plummer can flourish in
the right situation, if RB Clinton Portis can prove his
rookie season was indicative of his long-term value, if
the defensive line can slow opposing RBs, then the Broncos
can win this division. And you know what? Because I believe
head coach Mike Shanahan is the best in the business, I
say they all but the first part will happen. I'm not convinced
Plummer will become a new QB with the Broncos, but he won't
hurt them enough to matter. Another fine coach is Marty
Schottenheimer, head man with the San Diego Chargers.
And I say the Chargers will win the division - next year.
This time around, their improved offense will be offset
by a declining defense that lost its two best players --
and its heart -- during the off-season... I believe the
writing is on the wall for the Kansas City Chiefs. Simply
put, I just don't believe their offense is as good as the
numbers it put up a year ago. I dare them to do it again.
QB Trent Green is good but not great, RB Priest Holmes
is a stud but only if he's totally healthy, and the receiving
corps outside of TE Tony Gonzalez is nothing special. The
defense is supposed to be improved, but enough to push
KC into the postseason? I don't think so.
Kansas City 7-9
AFC Championship Game Prediction: MIAMI over INDIANAPOLIS
National Football Conference
As good as the Philadelphia Eagles were last year,
they weren't really the class of this division by season's
end. The New York Giants finished the regular season
on a roll that was spoiled only by a bad call that resulted
in a playoff loss at San Francisco. So, going into 2003,
who should be favored? Well, the Eagles will be good again,
but maybe not quite as good. Their defense lost two key
contributors to free agency, and the offense is unsettled
in the running game while lacking depth at wide receiver.
Philly will make the playoffs again, but the Giants might
overtake them for the division crown. QB Kerry Collins
has settled in as bona fide field leader, and he's a streaky
but potent passer. RB Tiki Barber clearly can handle the
workload of a featured back, and the Giants also have star
pass-catchers in WR Amani Toomer and TE Jeremy Shockey.
Add to that a solid defense and decent special teams, and
coach Jim Fassel's squad will be right there again... The Dallas
Cowboys get credit for being improved because their
young should only get better, and their new head coach
has a pretty fair track record. Truth is, Bill Parcells
will need time to get this organization in top shape, but
based on history you can expect it to happen eventually...
As for the Washington Redskins, I'm starting to
second-guess my own analysis of head coach Steve Spurrier
about this time a year ago. Back them, I implied that a
good football coach is a good football coach, and that
we can expect the Redskins to eventually be winners because
Spurrier has been one throughout his college coaching career.
But I'm not sure Spurrier "gets it" when it comes
to preparing for weekly life in the NFL. Honestly, I don't
believe the Redskins will be as fair as they were last
year. Those annual Cowboys-Redskins clashes will lack their
usual oomph this season.
||New York Giants 10-6
This division features the surprise club of 2003 in my
estimation, and I'll get to them in a minute. It's not
the Green Bay Packers, who are the defending division
champs and poised for a repeat. QB Brett Favre still has
a lot of game left in him, and the offense is blissfully
balanced and well complemented by a better-than-average
defense. The Pack has no glaring weaknesses and may cakewalk
to another division crown... OK, the team I like as the "Cinderella" for
this season -- and there's always at least one team that
falls into that category -- are the Minnesota Vikings.
Yes, the defense may still be a problem -- it was woeful
last year. But the personnel is young and ethusiastic,
and chocked full of good athletes. A modest improvement
at the least is expected. Offensively, the injury to RB
Michael Bennett hurts but I like rookie Onterrio Smith
and/or journeyman Doug Chapman to fill in ably. QB Daunte
Culpepper and WR Randy Moss each need to have huge seasons,
and in fact count on each other for precisely that. If
WR D'Wayne Bates can take the next step in his development,
the Vikings could take advantage of a weak schedule and
slide in as a wild-card playoff qualifier... The Chicago
Bears have enough defense to stay out of last place,
but the squad is going to struggle beyond that. QB Kordell
Stewart will have flashes of brilliance, but he simply
isn't a long-term winning solution. RBs Anthony Thomas
and Adrian Peterson have too many questions between them,
and the Bears lack a strong candidate to ably complement
No. 1 WR Marty Booker. Maybe David Terrell will step up
this year, maybe not... At least a year away from making
any serious noise are the Detroit Lions. I love
the future prospects of the Joey Harrington-to-Charles
Rogers, but that will take time to develop and in the meantime,
the Lions don't have a running game nor much of a defense.
New coach Steve Mariucci will transform that franchise
into a perennial contender eventually, but he needs time.
||Green Bay 12-4
Without question, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have
enough to repeat as Super Bowl champs. And their defense
will probably guide them deeply through the playoffs. But
there are too many questions to ignore on offense, namely,
whether QB Brad Johnson can stay healthy for another season
and RB Michael Pittman can stay out of jail. WRs Keyshawn
Johnson and Joe Jurevicius are talented, but the Bucs need
someone to stretch the field... The Atlanta Falcons will
struggle without QB Michael Vick, and I write that without
trying to disrespect Doug Johnson. It's just that head
coach Dan Reeves has taken his time transforming his club
so that it suits Vick's special talents, so plugging a
traditional dropback guy in there just isn't going to net
the same results. I also believe WR Peerless Price will
sorely miss Eric Moulds opposite of him as was the case
last year in Buffalo, and the defense may not be quite
as good either. I believe that the perception of Atlanta
playing a bit over its head last season is accurate...
The New Orleans Saints will go as far as QB Aaron
Brooks can take them. The running game is set with RB Deuce
McAlister and the defense is mediocre but improving. If
Brooks has a big season, the Saints could sneak into the
playoffs through the back door. If not, expect more even-steven
stuff... As good as their defense is expected to be, the Carolina
Panthers probably won't be able to escape the cellar.
Choosing from among Rodney Peete, Jake Delhomme and Chris
Weinke to run your offense is like picking which is the
superior fruit from among an orange, apple and banana.
Each has its benefits, but isn't by itself anything special.
RB Stephen Davis should chew up yardage and carries, but
the passing game is going to be hurting even if WR Muhsin
Muhammad finally nears his immense potential for a full
||Tampa Bay 11-5
New Orleans 9-7
I'm sort of bummed, because I made up my mind even before
the April NFL draft that the St. Louis Rams would
rebound in a big way this season. Lo and behold, all my
fellow prognos are coming out with the same opinion. Oh
well, I can't change just because of that. If the Rams
can play enough defense -- and I believe they will if Aeneas
Williams can stay on the field -- they can return to the
Super Bowl. QB Kurt Warner has looked good in the preseason,
RB Marshall Faulk is reportedly healthy and feeling spry,
and they just have so many weapons. Coach Mike Martz may
not be the best game manager among NFL coaches, but he
sure can put together an offensive gameplan... I look for
the Seattle Seahawks to take the next step and qualify
for the playoffs. Their offense is on the rise led by QB
Matt Hasselbeck, RB Shaun Alexander and WR Koren Robinson,
their defense is led by coordinator extraordinaire Ray
Rhodes, and head coach Mike Holmgren is a proven winner...
On the other hand, and despite my respect for new coach
Dennis Erickson, I'm expecting the San Francisco 49ers to
step back a notch. Their defense is just not that good,
there are questions surrounding the health of QB Jeff Garcia,
the RB situation remains unsettled, and WR Terrell Owens
is the only guy they have who really threatens you. This
team will be good, but not much more... On paper, the Arizona
Cardinals should go about 2-14 this season. But I have
a feeling coach Dave McInnis will milk a little more out
of them than that. This team should run the ball decently,
so if QB Jeff Blake can hit for a few big plays and the
defense can keep them in the game, they could steal a few.
Still, last place is their destiny for 2003.
||St. Louis 11-5
NFC Championship Game Prediction: GREEN BAY over ST.
Prediction for SUPER BOWL XXXVIII -- MIAMI DOLPHINS
24, GREEN BAY PACKERS 20