Thank you, thank you. At long last, I got it right. In this space a year ago, I said once again that the Indianapolis Colts would win the Super Bowl, reasoning that if I continued to pick the talent-laden Colts, I might eventually be correct.
Ding, ding, ding!
Okay, so the real reason they won was that they had that talent on both sides of the ball for a change. But didn’t I say so? I made fun of my picking the Colts again, sure, but the truth is I believed they had what it takes.
But they won’t repeat. Too many questions on defense have re-surfaced. Too many other quality teams out there to get in the way.
In fact, it’s my assertion that this year is more wide open in terms of determining a Super Bowl favorite than at any time since before the Dallas multi-title run of the 1990s. What it comes down to, more often than not, is defense and running the ball (Peyton Manning not withstanding).
So I look around the NFL and try to determine what teams have the best combination of rushing offense and total defense? There’s one that stands out the most. But it’s not an easy call.
The Chargers have one question mark coming into the ’07 campaign… arguably only one. But it’s a biggie. Much maligned coach Norv Turner takes over for the departed Marty Schottenheimer. A change was made, purportedly, because Schottenheimer can’t win the big one. Okay, fine. But how many Super Bowls has Turner won as a head coach?
Answer: The same number as Schottenheimer. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Interesting hire, ey?
But that aside, the Chargers have the balanced defense to be among the very best in the game, and they have a running back in LaDainian Tomlinson who has already established himself with crystal clarity that he’s the very best in the game. A lethal combo. The Bolts get the nod.
Let’s take a look at everyone, division by division:
It’s impossible to justify picking against New England, so I won’t… pick against the Patriots, that is. Their defense should again be among the league’s elite, and QB Tom Brady has the best cast of receivers to throw to that he’s ever enjoyed there. Because of the winning environment, I believe WR Randy Moss will excel… One of the most improved teams in the league will be Buffalo. The Bills offense started to click down the stretch last season and although their defense was average at best for much of the campaign, I think the continued offensive improvement – RB Marshawn Lynch is the real deal – will propel the Bills to wild-card contender status. The New York Jets overachieved a little under first-year coach Eric Mangini last season, but I like the acquisition of Thomas Jones to boost the running game. Miami is the most difficult team to figure in this group. QB Trent Green, if he stays off his back, can lead this offense to success. The running game is OK, as are the receivers, but the offensive line is a work in progress and the defense, while still sturdy, is seeing its stars age rapidly.
This might turn out to be the NFL’s most competitive division, with three teams fighting it out and at least two qualifying for the postseason. Baltimore won the division a year ago, and the Ravens defense remains at the top of the league. The offense remains fairly pedestrian, and I don’t expect the arrival of RB Willis McGahee to make that big of a difference… Pittsburgh is just a year removed from winning it all. The Steelers arguably are the best-balanced club in the division, and there’s a lot to be said for hiding weaknesses well… Cincinnati has the explosive offense to make things interesting all year, but are the Bengals good enough on defense to slow anyone?… As for Cleveland? The Browns are around so that the division can qualify for league membership by having four teams. Improvement is relative.
I’ve already stated that Indy won’t repeat their championship, but the Colts are still clearly the class of the division. Super Bowl MVP Manning is the game’s best quarterback. They win it going away despite defensive issues… Jacksonville is a hard team to figure out. There’s not much to like about the Jaguars attack outside of multi-talented RB Maurice Jones-Drew, but their defense is pesky and they tend to win the close games, a mark of a good team... Tennessee finished 2006 on a roll and the year of experience undoubtedly will benefit talented young QB Chris Young. The Titans will go as far as their young defense can take them. They are my darkhorse team of the conference… I was wrong about Houston last year – clearly they weren’t ready to step up as I thought they would, and now they have either too little experience (QB Matt Schaub) or too much (brittle RB Ahman Green) at most key positions. But the Texans’ defense should keep them in most games.
San Diego enjoyed a banner 2006 campaign, but stumbled again in the postseason – the Chargers played relatively well against New England, but that’s not good enough – and highly successful coach Schottenheimer was given the boot, replaced by Turner. The move may have left some fans scratching their heads at the logic, but Turner may indeed be a better fit for the club. If the defense continues to progress as it did a year ago, and the offense (in particular, the passing game) steps up another level, this will be the best team in the game by year’s end… Denver is poised for another playoff run because the defense is stellar, and the offense will be rejuvenated with RB Travis Henry being featured and young QB Jay Cutler having enough experience under his belt to benefit from it… I believe the Oakland Raiders are going to surprise some people. Their offense will continue to struggle, even after Daunte Culpepper takes over as the starting QB, because the receiving corps isn’t very good. I like the presence of Dominic Rhodes once he returns from his suspension in Week 5, and the Raiders sport a play-making defense that will give up some home runs but score some points of their own… Kansas City might be in for a long year. The Chiefs have no real experience at QB (Damon Huard is great as a backup, as your No. 1 guy he’s lacking), and the passing game in general looks like a dog. RB Larry Johnson has signed and is in camp, but it’s a lot to ask for him to shoulder so much of the load yet again. On defense, KC was middle-of-the-pack and hasn’t really done anything to improve the unit.
Once again, I consider this division the most balanced in the league. In terms of overall talent, I have to give the edge to Dallas. The Cowboys have several legit weapons on offense headed by a gifted young QB in Tony Romo, and the defense will probably be the division’s most improved… Philadelphia will go as far as QB Donovan McNabb takes them. If he stays healthy and plays well, the Eagles can certainly win the division. If he goes down early, so will Philly because Jeff Garcia plies his trade in Tampa these days… The Giants are puzzling, because the offensive pieces are there if you consider the RB tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns being formidable. I do, because I think one can feed off the other. I’m not sold on the Giants defense, however… Washington will be competitive, but no one has convinced me as of yet that young QB Jason Campbell can guide a team to the playoffs. The key to that team will be a rebound season by playmaker Santana Moss – he can’t be good for just three or four weeks and disappear the rest of the time, as he did a year ago.
It’s not so much that I believe the Chicago Bears are great – I’m still not a fan of QB Rex Grossman and the injury to fleet-footed returner Devin Hester will hurt – as much as how unimpressed I am with the rest of the division... Green Bay has numerous questions on offense (although I’m one of the few who doesn’t consider Brett Favre among those questions), and you never know what the Pack is going to bring on the other side of the ball… It seems to be a yearly ritual that we get excited about the potential of the Detroit Lions offense, and we end up disappointed. In one fantasy league I partake in, Jon Kitna was the fourth QB taken (after Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer). Say what? Look, the Lions definitely have potential – and I have WR Roy Williams in that same league so I certainly hope they improve – but it seems to me like a lot to ask, and can the Lions stop anyone regardless?... Minnesota’s defense will allegedly be improved, but the Vikings simply won’t score enough points to make any kind of a meaningful run. QB Tavaris Jackson is improving, but simply put, he’s the fourth-best QB in this division.
Here’s the Comeback Player of the Year for you – Carolina QB Jake Delhomme. Okay, so maybe someone who was out with an injury or some other malaise a year ago will actually garner the award – Delhomme was merely disappointing a year ago – but the point is I believe the veteran Panthers signal-caller will have a big bounce-back season. The RB duo of Deshaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams is pretty De-talented, and No. 1 WR Steve Smith has two respectable complements in Keary Colbert and rookie Dwayne Jarrett. Add on a solid defense and I see a division winner… New Orleans is a very good team. The Saints’ appearance in the NFC Title Game in January was no fluke. But I don’t believe the Saints defense has progressed enough to anoint them favorites… Tampa Bay will move up a bit because savvy veteran Garcia will find a way to get woefully disappointing wideout Michael Clayton more involved while still appeasing productive veteran Joey Galloway… The Michael Vick debacle will literally dog the Falcons indefinitely. QB Joey Harrington will be better than many think, but Atlanta will still be home to a last-place club this time around.
Remember when I said that the NFC East was the most unpredictable division? Well, I’ve reconsidered. This year, it’s definitely the NFC West. A case can be made for all four teams – defending division champ Seattle was in the Super Bowl barely more than 18 months ago, and has the bulk of the nucleus of that team still in place. St. Louis has been there before, and has the explosive offensive potential that could run away with this division if the defense and special teams hold up their end. San Francisco is the up-and-comer with the most potential for anything from excellence to agony. And Arizona has all that offensive talent… but then again, the Cardinals had it last year, too. Well, if defense decides this division, I have to give the nod to the Seahawks… The 49ers will be formidable, with RB Frank Gore having another big year and young QB Alex Smith blossoming into a force. I like TE Vernon Davis, too… The Cardinals… are the Cardinals. They have a ton of scoring talent, and there’s a lot of excitement in the desert, but I can’t get myself to forecast anything beyond mediocrity… The Rams still figure to have issues on defense, which is young, and special teams, which were brutal a year ago. And the offense has had difficulty getting untracked in the preseason.
AFC Playoff Qualifiers: Chargers, Colts, Patriots, Steelers, Broncos, Bengals
AFC Title Game: Chargers over Patriots
NFC Playoff Qualifiers: Panthers, Cowboys, Bears, Seahawks, Saints, Eagles
NFC Title Game: Cowboys over Panthers
SUPER BOWL XLII: Chargers 30, Cowboys 17