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2003 NFL Preview
by Bob Cunningham
August 31, 2003
 

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

EAST DIVISION

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.

Prediction Miami 12-4
New England 10-6
Buffalo 8-8
New York Jets 7-9

NORTH DIVISION

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 Bengals. The 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.

Prediction Pittsburgh 10-6
Baltimore 9-7
Cleveland 7-9
Cincinnati 5-11

SOUTH DIVISION

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.

Prediction Indianapolis 10-6
Tennessee 10-6
Jacksonville 6-10
Houston 3-13

WEST DIVISION

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.

Prediction Denver 10-6
Oakland 9-7
San Diego 8-8
Kansas City 7-9

AFC Championship Game Prediction: MIAMI over INDIANAPOLIS

National Football Conference

EAST DIVISION

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.

Prediction New York Giants 10-6
Philadelphia 10-6
Dallas 6-10
Washington 5-11

NORTH DIVISION

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.

Prediction Green Bay 12-4
Minnesota 8-8
Chicago 5-11
Detroit 4-12

SOUTH DIVISION

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 campaign.

Prediction Tampa Bay 11-5
New Orleans 9-7
Atlanta 9-7
Carolina 6-10

WEST DIVISION

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.

Prediction St. Louis 11-5
Seattle 9-7
San Francisco 9-7
Arizona 3-13

NFC Championship Game Prediction: GREEN BAY over ST. LOUIS

Prediction for SUPER BOWL XXXVIII -- MIAMI DOLPHINS 24, GREEN BAY PACKERS 20