Yes, yes… I’m at it again. It’s late August, right? That means time for my annual preseason prognostications. Be sure to take notes, because at least some (maybe 20 percent) of the following will actually turn out to be true.
American Football Conference
They are the two-time defending champions. They’ve won three of the last four Super Bowls. So picking against the New England Patriots would be nothing shy of foolish, right? Well… yes, of course it would be. Are you kidding me? Let’s look at this objectively. The Pats have the most balance on offense, the most consistently excellent defense, and a head coach who seems to have it all figured out. Yep, I’ll take ‘em… The New York Jets will be a handful every week once again because their defense is solid and QB Chad Pennington has those intangibles that make him a winner. But can ageless Curtis Martin stand another year as the featured back?... A lot of pundits are pointing toward the Buffalo Bills as serious contenders. I dunno. Maybe young QB J.P. Losman can pull off a Ben Roethlisberger-like transition and lead the Bills to the postseason. But I think they’re a year away. Mark it down now – playoffs for Buffalo, in 2006… The Miami Dolphins can’t help but be better, and the return of Ricky Williams will be a huge boost to the franchise. But when you are lauding the signing of Gus Frerotte, you clearly have QB issues, and the Dolphins’ defense isn’t what it was two years ago.
Predictions: PATRIOTS 12-4, JETS 9-7, BILLS 8-8. DOLPHINS 5-11.
I look for this to be the league’s most fascinating division, because in my opinion three of the four teams have a shot to win it. The Pittsburgh Steelers made me look good last year, winning the division as I predicted when most opted for the Baltimore Ravens. So, I’m not going to turn my back on them now. If Roethlisberger can avert the dreaded sophomore slump, and if receiver Antuan Randle El becomes the player many believe he can be, the Steelers can hold off the Ravens because of their offense… Sorry, but I don’t see the Ravens being anything that they weren’t last season. Their defense will again be strong, and the offense will again be led by Kyle Boller. Sure, Derrick Mason joining the receiving corps is an upgrade. But Boller has to get him the ball, and he simply won’t do so with the frequency that Steve McNair did when Mason was with Tennessee. If RB Jamal Lewis is his old self, however, Baltimore could do quite well… It appears that QB Carson Palmer is ready to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs. Everything is in place. But this is a franchise known for shooting themselves in their collective cleats. I’ll wimp out and keep them third… Romeo Crennel’s first year as coach with the Cleveland Browns will be a far cry from the success he enjoyed as a New England assistant. The QB is Trent Dilfer, there’s indecision on who will carry the load as featured back, the receivers – save for rookie Braylon Edwards – are average at best, and the defense isn’t even that good. Ugh.
Predictions: STEELERS 10-6, RAVENS 9-7, BENGALS 8-8, BROWNS 4-12.
While the North should be fairly close, this division measures up as a runaway for the Indianapolis Colts. In addition to not being impressed with the competition, it’s a matter of the Colts being loaded again. I have a strong hunch that this defense will be significantly improved over previous versions, now that coach Tony Dungy has been at the controls for a while. QB Peyton Manning won’t toss 49 TD passes again, but he’ll get at least 35, probably 40-plus… Another hunch is that the Tennessee Titans will bounce back to respectability. Jeff Fisher is an outstanding coach, and the acquisition of RB Travis Henry will be huge, because Henry has a chip on his shoulder created by losing his job at Buffalo to Willis McGahee when Henry did nothing to deserve the demotion. The defense is still iffy, though… The Jacksonville Jaguars improved significantly last year, but just whom do they have? Seriously? QB Byron Leftwich is OK, but he has yet to demonstrate himself as anyone special. RB Fred Taylor is always hurt, WR Jimmy Smith is old. True, the defense is solid. This is essentially Baltimore, Deep South…I expect the annual improvement of the Houston Texans to continue, because I believe QB David Carr and WR Andre Johnson are a first-rate hook-up, and RB Domanick Davis is poised for a breakout. The defense is respectable, but not deep.
Predictions: COLTS 13-3, TITANS 8-8, JAGUARS 7-9, TEXANS 6-10.
Remember when I wrote, above, that the AFC North might be the most fascinating division? Make that second-most fascinating. In the AFC West, we literally have a shootout with any of the four teams staking a legitimate claim to the title. The Denver Broncos are the pick because they have the division’s best defense, by a nose. QB Jake Plummer had a pretty good first season in Mike Shanahan’s offense, and RB Tatum Bell has all the tools to excel. The veteran WR group has another year of productivity in it, I believe… If the Kansas City Chiefs ever figure out how to play defense in the Dick Vermeil regime, the other three will be playing for wild-card berths. The NFL’s most explosive offense west of Indianapolis will score again, and the defense will get scored on. Still, I like KC to make the playoffs this time around. The Oakland Raiders have a renewed strut to their step. Acquiring the game’s most dynamic receiver in Randy Moss can do that for you. And if Moss isn’t busy taking plays off to light up a doobie, he’ll have a big impact. The defense seems better as well, but let’s give this recipe a year to settle before forecasting anything truly lofty… One thing I’m very confident about is that the San Diego Chargers won’t defend their division crown. They never do, and coach Marty Schottenheimer’s teams always seem to fare well when expected to struggle, and vice-versa. And being that they won the division last year, the expectations will be there. Look for a first-to-worst scenario in a tough division.
Predictions: BRONCOS 10-6, CHIEFS 10-6, RAIDERS 8-8, CHARGERS 7-9.
National Football Conference
Even with all the distractions they’ve put up with in recent weeks, the Philadelphia Eagles remain the class of the division. If WR Terrell Owens returns and contributes, they’re Super Bowl contenders. If not, they win the division anyway… I’m a big believer in Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. He needed a year to get re-acclimated with NFL life, but he’s a winner. The defense is already pretty good, so if RB Clinton Portis can rebound and have a dominant season, and if young QB Patrick Ramsey can take the next few steps, the Redskins could be wild-card contenders… There’s no question that Bill Parcells is a great coach, but he’ll need to be legendary to keep the Dallas Cowboys from regressing a little. The offense, outside of promising young RB Julius Jones, has a host of questions. And the defense has had some turnover, and has questions of its own. If the Cowboys make the playoffs, Parcells is Coach of the Year. Period… I’m giving QB Eli Manning another learning-curve year for the New York Giants. Simply put, this team is too mediocre everywhere else to expect more than a .500 finish.
Predictions: EAGLES 11-5, REDSKINS 8-8, COWBOYS 7-9, GIANTS 6-10.
Ok, fans, ready? Here we go. Just about every year, there’s a surprise team that rises up and makes the playoffs when virtually no one expects them to. My pick for that team this year? The Detroit Lions, with a downright formidable offense and improving defense. Now I realize that the Lions are a popular pick to be improved. That’s essentially a no-brainer when analyzing them on paper. But I’m saying 10 victories and a division crown. I believe QB Joey Harrington is ready – finally – and there’s no way WR Charles Rogers will get hurt again, right? But the real reason I like the Lions is they’ve bolstered their lines on both offense and defense… I have no doubt that QB Brett Favre will do something amazing in his final season as QB of the Green Bay Packers. The Pack will win some shootouts this year – they’ll have to, because the defense might struggle… The defense of the Minnesota Vikings will be better, but the offense will miss Randy Moss even more than they believe. Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor, rookie Troy Williamson…none can impact a game like Moss. And I don’t like Minnesota running game much, either, aside from QB Daunte Culpepper… I’m not going to waste much time with the Chicago Bears. They’re already toast. They will lose 17-10 (or by a similar score) a dozen times this season. When QB Rex Grossman returns and is fully healthy, so too will the Bears’ chance at decent fortunes.
Predictions: LIONS 10-6, PACKERS 9-7, VIKINGS 9-7, BEARS 2-14.
The Atlanta Falcons are sort of like the Chargers of the NFC. They occasionally rise up and have a great season, but they never seem to string them together. I’m not as big a fan of QB Michael Vick as most, because I prefer my excitement to come via RBs or slash-type guys rather than QBs who somersault into the end zone but struggle completing a 10-yard out. But I’ll say this – the Falcons win when he’s in there. If Vick plays at least 14 games, Atlanta probably reaches the playoffs again… Coach Jon Gruden is good enough to turn around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who endured an alarming slide after winning Super Bowl XXXVII. Is the defense good enough to win this division? Probably. But can QB Brian Griese direct the offense to consistent success? I’m not convinced… The Carolina Panthers defense is good enough, too, but questions surrounding the running game and the offensive line steer me away from this club… There’s a lot I like about the New Orleans Saints. But the defense is the division’s worst, and I’m still not a fan of QB Aaron Brooks. RB Deuce McAlister will have to run for 1,800 yards and 15 TDs for this team to make the playoffs.
Predictions: FALCONS 9-7, BUCCANEERS 8-8, PANTHERS 7-9, SAINTS 6-10.
I’m not sure that anyone in this division will play defense. None appear to measure up as anything better than ordinary. And so, we look at talent. It appears that the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks might again go down to the wire for division honors. The Rams have young RB Stephen Jackson, deceptively effective QB Marc Bulger, and those wonderful receivers. Seattle has RB Shaun Alexander, and improving QB Matt Hasselbeck. My pick is the Rams, because their receivers drop fewer passes, and the Seahawks no longer sport inconsistent but talented Koren Robinson… I read one publication which predicted the Arizona Cardinals to win the division. Why, I ask? QB Kurt Warner is a big name, but let’s face it – his skills, for whatever reason, have seriously deteriorated. Rookie RB J.J. Arrington has a ton of talent – but he’s a rookie, nonetheless. The receivers are talented, but they’re a factor only if Warner can get them the ball. And the defense? Unproven, at best. Dennis Green is a winning coach, and I fully expect this team to be competitive. But a division title is too much of a reach at this point. The San Francisco 49ers will be really good – in about three years.
Predictions: RAMS 10-6, SEAHAWKS 9-7, CARDINALS 8-8, 49ers 3-13.
AFC Championship Game Prediction: INDIANAPOLIS 24, NEW ENGLAND 17
The Colts finally get to face the Patriots in a playoff game at home, and that’s the difference as the franchise reaches the Super Bowl for the first time in 35 years.
NFC Championship Game Prediction: PHILADELPHIA 27, GREEN BAY 13
Favre is heroic getting the wild-card Packers this far, but the Eagles overcome early-season troubles and dominate at home in their fifth straight conference title game appearance.
Super Bowl XXXX Prediction: INDIANAPOLIS 33, PHILADELPHIA 21
MVP Peyton Manning gets to hoist the trophy that his father, Archie, never came close to doing during an otherwise distinguished career.