While doing my best to capture yet another fantasy baseball title, I take time out to take a to-the-point look at the upcoming NFL season, team by team. I do this every year around this time, and the results are usually mixed at best. But it's so much fun, I can't resist... just like many of you who can't resist informing me that I'm full of it.
So here we go... the projected best, and the rest, for 2004:
American Football Conferense
The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots appear on paper to be every bit as formidable as last year's club, and the one which won it all two years before that. The addition of RB Corey Dillon could be huge to the offense, which is led by sturdy QB Tom Brady. If this offense has a weakness, it's big-play potential from the receivers. Defensively, the Pats should be among the league's strongest again... I like the New York Jets as one of my sleeper teams for this season. I have a lot of confidence in the playmaking talents of QB Chad Pennington, and I believe Santana Moss is ready to break out as an elite wideout with the assistance of newly-acquired WR Justin McCareins. The running game is somewhat of a question mark -- aging Curtis Martin is still the starter, with young Lamont Jordan gaining fast. The defense played well down the stretch last season and got a boost through the draft. Head coach Herman Edwards is a solid leader and strategist... The retirement of RB Ricky Williams can't help but knock the Miami Dolphins down a few pegs. Travis Minor and Sammy Morris are not the answer. The passing game might improve, with WRs Chris Chambers and recently-obtained Marty Booker forming a nice tandem to go with talented tight end Randy McMichael. The Dolphins will be competitive because their defense remains first-rate, but it looks like a lot of 17-13 losses in the end... The Buffalo Bills are the division's toughest team to figure out. There's talent there, to be sure. In fact, the Bills have two legitimate every-down rushers in Travis Henry and Willis McGahee, and a terrific veteran wideout in Eric Moulds. Young receiver Josh Reed also has ability. But for me, it comes down to QB Drew Bledsoe, who I simply don't believe can do the job long-term on a consistent basis. He's immobile, and his decision-making - never a strength - has deteriorated more with age. The defense played well last season for the first three months, then was awful down the stretch. If it rebounds, the Bills could escape the division cellar. Otherwise...
Predictions: PATRIOTS 12-4, JETS 9-7, DOLPHINS 7-9, BILLS 6-10
The defending division champion Baltimore Ravens will be in the thick of the chase again, because of the same reason they're always in the hunt - defense. But a team still has to have an offensive attack to win consistently, and I'm not sold on the Ravens yet. RB Jamal Lewis is first-rate, but he has some off-field issues which could interfere. And the only other skill player worth boosting is TE Todd Heap. Sure, QB Kyle Boller may be real good eventually. But other than Heap, the targets of his passes are unimpressive. WRs Kevin Johnson and Travis Taylor are okay, but not game-breaking. The pressure is on the offensive line to continue to open holes for Lewis and keep the pressure off Boller... If preseason results are any indication, and usually they're not, the Pittsburgh Steelers will enjoy a rebound season. Personally, I like them. I believe QB Tommy Maddox will answer the challenge of the Steelers' selection of phenom Ben Roesthlisberger in the draft, I like RB Duce Staley to add more balance and flow to the attack, and the WR tandem of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress is as good as just about any in the league. If the defense improves, this club could go far... Alas, the Carson Palmer era will begin for the Cincinnati Bengals. Palmer, the talented USC QB taken first overall in the 2003 Draft, supplants effective Jon Kitna... and he has some weapons. RB Rudi Johnson is legit, and without having to worry about his playing time he could come up huge. WR Chad Johnson is the best young receiver many people still haven't heard of and Peter Warrick ain't bad as a No. 2 guy. The defense is more of an uncertainty, but it's hard to imagine a Marvin Lewis coached team being easily scored on... The addition of QB Jeff Garcia might be big for the Cleveland Browns, but I honestly don't think so. Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis are solid receivers, but neither is Terrell Owens. Garcia might really enjoy throwing to rookie tight end Kellen Winslow, but for the offense to work RB Lee Suggs must step up and prove he's for real, because it's not likely that William Green could be counted on. On defense, the consistency must be improved for the Browns to escape last place in this very balanced division.
Predictions: STEELERS 10-6, RAVENS 8-8, BENGALS 7-9, BROWNS 6-10
It all came together last season for the Indianapolis Colts. The offense was its usual potent self most times, and the defense was more than respectable as the team rolled to the division crown. Is more of the same in store for this season? Well, yes and no. Yes, the team will again be good. No, it won't achieve what it did in 2003. It will go farther. Head coach Tony Dungy has struck the right balance with the Colts, a level he never did quite accomplish with the boring but effective Tampa Bay teams he skippered. If RB Edgerrin James can stay healthy, the Colts will again be among the AFC's elite... The Tennessee Titans will be competitive, because if for no other reason than because Steve McNair is still their QB. But the Titans lost too many key players to reach last year's 12-4 level. RB Eddie George, WR Justin McCareins and DE Jevon Kearse are gone, and none were replaced at a similar level. The running game will count on young Chris Brown to carry the load. Drew Bennett becomes the second receiver behind steady Derrick Mason. And the defense has some questions beyond just Kearse's departure... It's time for the Houston Texans to step up. The pieces are in place. QB David Carr should be ready to shine, RB Domanick Davis is solid, and there are fine targets in the passing game. Coach Dom Capers' defense has been respectable practically from the get-go. Contention for the playoffs? Uh, let's give it one more season... For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it will come down to the offense beyond QB Byron Leftwich. Veterans Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith are talented but aging. Rookie WR Reggie Williams obviously has promise, but he's a rookie. WR Troy Edwards is a journeyman. The defense under coach Jack Del Rio is actually pretty solid, yielding more than 20 points only twice in its last seven games a year ago. But there's not enough firepower for this club to expect significant improvement.
Predictions: COLTS 12-4, TITANS 9-7, TEXANS 7-9, JAGUARS 5-11
Perhaps the most fun team to watch is the Kansas City Chiefs, who rolled to a conference-best 13-3 record a year ago on the strength of a great offense and a dynamic kick returner. Well, the same cast on offense is still here and return man Dante Hall also remains. But can the Chiefs improve a defense that, quite simply put, was all that prevented them from winning everything? The way I look at it, KC can't help but be better on defense. But I also don't believe the Chiefs can maintain the same level of offensive excellence. Defenses adjust. Coach Dick Vermeil's team will be very good again, but not like last season. It's too much to expect... The flipside of this are the Denver Broncos, who always seem to get the most of their talent. Make no mistake, RB Clinton Portis will be missed after he was dealt to Washington for CB Champ Bailey. But Bailey is a premiere defender, and the Broncos are known for cranking out productive backs as if they were boxes of cereal. Whether it's veteran Garrison Hearst, or fleet-footed Quentin Griffin or rookie Tatum Bell, the job will get done. QB Jake Plummer and the passing game is adequate, and the defense is the same. A tough call, but things very well could fall into place in Denver... If there's one thing that seems a safe bet, it's that the Oakland Raiders won't again lose 12 games. Although some of it is aging, there's still talent there. Head coach Norv Turner adds excitement to the club. The QB situation is sticky - because everyone knows that Rich Gannon deserves to be the guy while Kerry Collins is obviously better-suited to how Turner goes about things. The closest to a truly dynamic running back the Raiders have is second-year man Justin Fargas, yet the depth is strong. WR Jerry Porter is due to re-surface as a big-game threat and complement ageless Jerry Rice. The defense has to be better than it was last year. Unquestionably, the Raiders will be back. But it will take some time... The San Diego Chargers have a hard enough time getting out of their own way. RB LaDainian Tomlinson is remarkable, the best all-around running back in the game arguably, but everyone else is so bad that frustrations could again boil. Rookie Phillip Rivers probably will replace Drew Brees as QB, but not right away. The passing game lacks any truly reliable weapons, unless Kevin Dyson can actually remain healthy. TE Antonio Gates is promising. The defense? Made up of a lot of unknown quantities, but coach Marty Schottenheimer has proven adept at bringing such teams together well enough to play over their heads for a spell. Still, it looks like another rough year.
Predictions: CHIEFS 11-5, BRONCOS 10-6, RAIDERS 7-9, CHARGERS 3-13
National Football Conferense
Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles are getting annoyed. This is the bridesmaid franchise of the 21st century so far -- several NFC title game appearances, but no victories. Can this be the year the team gets off the schneid? Perhaps, because new WR Terrell Owens will do his best to make it happen. A broad look at this team shows that a 12-4 conference finalist added without significant subtractions. QB Donovan McNabb now has a premium wideout to throw to, with a solid No. 2 in Todd Pinkston also being key. RB Brian Westbrook appears ready for great things, and the defense is still stout... Head coach Bill Parcells' accomplishments with the Dallas Cowboys last year were impressive. For this year, there are several questions on offense while the defense figures to be every bit as good as Philly's, if not better. Ancient Vinny Testaverde is the QB, two relatively old guys in Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn are the primary wideouts (although Antonio Bryant is also key), while the running game will fall to another comparative geezer, Eddie George, or rookie Julius Jones. I don't know about y'all, but I see a host of potential problems in Big D unless the 'D' can carry them. Stay tuned... Legendary coach Joe Gibbs returns to the Washington Redskins and the franchise is hopeful of eventually winning a fourth Super Bowl under his tutelage, and a fifth, etc. First, though, the team has to establish an identity. Veteran QB Mark Brunell has been brought in to run the show on the field, and the team traded for star RB Clinton Portis. The receiver corps is ultra-deep led by productive Laveranues Coles. But can the defense raise its level of play and help out? The Redskins allowed at least 20 points in all but three games a year ago, and that was with Champ Bailey as the primary cover corner... The New York Giants have the potential be very bad or decent, which means they'll probably fall somewhere in between. It's obvious that rookie QB Eli Manning will eventually take over, but can veteran Kurt Warner win games in the interim? Can Tiki Barber remain productive and actually hold on to the ball, or will slimmed-down Ron Dayne displace him? Will the defense resume caring this season. How will the club react to the iron-fist approach of new coach Tom Coughlin? Inquiring minds...
Predictions: EAGLES 13-3, COWBOYS 9-7, REDSKINS 8-8, GIANTS 6-10
I believe that analyzing the Green Bay Packers comes down to a pretty simple formula: if the Pack's defense improves some, the team will win another division title. Certainly, QB Brett Favre isn't the player he once was. But he's still pretty darn good, and his supporting cast is talented. RB Ahman Green is a workhorse guy who's a dream for his fantasy owners because he rarely has a bad day. The receivers are deep and experienced, with Robert Ferguson the most likely of the bunch to blossom into a star. The offensive line is solid. So it's about defense, and the Pack's penchant for gambling and trying to make too many brilliant plays at the expense of necessary tackling and gap-filling... The Minnesota Vikings, coming off a bitterly disappointing end to the 2003 season when a last-second loss at Arizona cost them a spot in the playoffs, has already endured a setback with RB Michael Bennett, who might not be available for the club's season opener. Minnesota put itself in position to get a playoff berth because of improved play from the defense, however, and if that continues the Vikes can be there again. QB Daunte Culpepper-to-WR Randy Moss is a fixture that opposing D's simply can't do much with. But Bennett's health is a key... The Chicago Bears have a new coach in Lovie Smith, a young QB in Rex Grossman, and unproven players at numerous key positions. Sounds like I'm not very high on the Bears, right? Well, you're right. I'm not. RB Anthony Thomas rebounded well last season, but he's still not perennially proven. Bringing in Thomas Jones to start should improve that one area however. The receiving situation is a mess when Justin Gage is your best guy. And the defense has to improve its week-to-week consistency to give the Bears a legitimate shot at clipping either Green Bay or Minnesota... The Detroit Lions should be an exciting team to watch, but unfortunately they probably won't be a winning team until 2005 at the earliest. Offensively, the team is counting almost exclusively on kids -- from QB Joey Harrington to rookie back Kevin Jones to the toddling tandem of Charles Rogers and rookie Roy Williams. Lots of raw talent, but coach Steve Mariucci needs some time to make these kids work effectively together. Defensively, I expect last year's improvement to continue.
Predictions: PACKERS 10-6, VIKINGS 8-8, LIONS 6-10, BEARS 4-12
Despite being the division from which hails the defending conference champion Carolina Panthers, I believe this grouping is the most wide-open and unpredictable in the league. The Panthers now know they can get it done, and coach John Fox has proven himself with and among the elite. The defense should be strong again. There are some offensive questions, though. For instance, how much of the rushing attack will feature Stephen Davis, and how much DeShaun Foster? And bear in mind that the Panthers won a bunch of close games - only two of their 11 regular season victories last season were decided by more than a touchdown - a sign that Carolina not only was good, but also caught its share of breaks... The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will rebound from last season's 7-9 effort, but there are too many questions on offense to anoint them division favorites. The status of RB Michael Pittman is a question, the stability offered by QB Brad Johnson, and as talented as he is, new No.1 WR Joey Galloway has never managed to make himself a true impact player. The defense will be decent, but will miss leader John Lynch... The recent track record for the Atlanta Falcons has gone like this: win when QB Michael Vick plays, lose when he doesn't. The rest of the team is average at best, but Vick has the ability to elevate an entire squad. For the team to be successful, WR Peerless Price must step up and be a legit go-to guy... The erratic New Orleans Saints have the tools, and the team finished the '03 campaign on a high note. But the defense doesn't appear to sport enough play-makers, and as a group the WRs are unproven outside of veteran Joe Horn.
Predictions: PANTHERS 10-6, BUCS 8-8, FALCONS 7-9, SAINTS 6-10
The St. Louis Rams tend to spoil true fans of the game. The franchise has been steadily successful for the last four years, yet seems to under-achieve compared to the talent level of the roster. Last year, the Rams won 11 of 12 games at one point, but a home loss to Carolina - in OT - in the division playoffs seemed to nullify what was otherwise a great year. Offensively, there's no reason to believe the Rams won't continue to rank among the league's most prolific scoring units. Yes, there are some offensive line questions. But that probably spells early-season scuffling, rather than season-long struggles. On defense, the coordinator is gone but most of the personnel remains. It's a team that could win anywhere between 7 and 13 games... On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Seattle Seahawks. They won 10 games and made the playoffs a year ago, sport one of the most innovative head coaches in the game, and yet it's tough to get overly excited about them. I do believe, though, that this will be the season that the offense clicks. If the D follows suit, look out... Although I have respect for coach Dennis Erickson, it looks like the San Francisco 49ers are bound to struggle this season. There's no proven QB, and a void of talent catching the ball. RB Kevan Barlow is the real deal, but he might see some eight-man fronts, especially early on. Defensively, the Niners (natives of the area hate that term, just as they despise "Frisco") were woefully inconsistent last season. Improvement must come in a pronounced fashion for this club to contend... The Arizona Cardinals must be picked to finish last because, well, they always seem to finish there. But if anyone can raise them up beyond their apparent potential, it's new head coach Dennis Green. Still, it's a baby QB in Josh McCown and an elderly RB in Emmitt Smith, complemented by two intriguing young WR talents and a questionable o-line. The Cardinals won't contend, but they might escape the cellar if they catch a break or two.
Predictions: SEAHAWKS 11-5, RAMS 9-7, CARDINALS 6-10, 49ers 6-10
Super Bowl XXXIX Prediction: PHILADELPHIA 26, INDIANAPOLIS 20