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The source for back issues of Football Thoughts.

For 9/16/2005

2005 NFL Preview
A couple of thoughts before you get to the meat of this one.

First, you'll notice that I've added a new element to each prediction and that's an Expected Record. (For those of you with nothing better to do, I can guarantee you that the league-wide summary of wins and losses adds up.) I will say that the NFL is unpredictable and subject to wild fluctuation so each team could go plus or minus 1 in the win and loss columns. I'm just setting a stake to mark the general vicinity of where I think the team will perform.

Second, and most importantly, this will be the last time that I do the detailed, division-by-division, team-by-team preview. I know a lot of you who read my stuff have come to look forward to this each year, but as the years go by, I've found that I have less and less time to work on this and give it the proper amount of research and analysis that quality work demands and you have less and less time to read all of it. So, enjoy this, as it's the last of its kind.

AFC East
1st place - New England Patriots

Expected Record: 10-6

Overview: After winning their second consecutive Super Bowl and third in four years, the guys who've directed the Patriots on-field activities over the past 5 seasons split up, with Romeo Crennel becoming the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Charlie Weis taking over Notre Dame's football program. As I said before, I don't expect the Patriots to have any problems defensively because Mangini has been an integral part of this defense since 2000, but I have serious doubts that the offense can duplicate its success without Charlie Weis. Not that the coaches don't understand the scheme, it's just that Weis' play-calling play-calling ability, which kept opponents off balance, cannot be reproduced.

When most people look at the New England Patriots, they see a team with a stalwart defense, an incredibly efficient offense, and lots of mental toughness. When I look at the Pats, I also see something else, something that I think has allowed them to be the team that's won 3 championships and that is a team that has tremendous depth and a commitment to developing its young players. As it was stated several years ago (by someone I can no longer recall), the 44th guy on the Patriots' roster is better than the 36th guy on almost every other teams' roster. This has allowed the Pats to plug players into the mix as injury replacements and continue without missing a beat.

Since the dawn of the Super Bowl era, no team in the NFL has ever won three championships in a row. In fact, only two teams have ever gone to the Super Bowl 3 or more years in a row. New England has, arguably, the toughest challenge in the NFL this year and they'll be attempting it without two of the cornerstones (Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi) who helped them reach 4 of the past 9 Super Bowls. My guess is that New England will struggle more this year than over the past two seasons combined. They'll win the division on heart and because of the character of the team, but I don't see them going deep into the playoffs because I think that there are holes that schemes just can't cover up.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Unless I'm dead-wrong about the state of the offensive play calling (the Patriots stuck to an extremely vanilla playbook for the preseason, featuring a VERY run-heavy offense), I'm expecting that you're going to see the World Champs rely on the running game to move the ball down the field with mostly short, high-percentage throws from Brady. Call it a hunch, but I believe that the coaches don't trust that they can throw the ball deep with the same degree of success that they have in the past.

2nd place - Buffalo Bills
Expected Record: 10-6

Overview: What a difference a year can make. Last year, no one expected that the Bills would make the kind of run at the playoffs that they did. This year, people are expecting them to take a shot at the playoffs, despite starting a 2nd-year QB who's totaled approximately 20 NFL snaps and looked awful (offal?) on most of them.

They say that good news usually comes in threes (just like bad news). The good news for Bills' fans is 1) that Drew "the statue" Bledsoe was released this spring, 2) the Bills were able to unload disgruntled RB Travis Henry to Tennessee (for a 3rd round pick no less), clearing the way for Willis McGeehee to be the featured tailback (fantasy footballers rejoice), and 3) that the team will be returning most of the players who helped it field the #2-ranked defense in the NFL last year. However, that's not what folks in Buffalo are paying attention to. They're focusing on their new starting QB.

When Buffalo's brain trust realized that Drew Bledsoe had relapsed into his "hold onto the ball way too long" mode, they quickly and decisively decided to part ways with the 12-year vet and promoted J.P. Losman, one of last year's first-round picks, to starter. Head coach Mike Mularkey is hoping that Losman, along with second-year starters McGeehee and Lee Evans, can form the nucleus of the Bills' offense for the foreseeable future.

I see the Bills as a sleeping giant who's playing cat and mouse with his snooze button. More than any other AFC team, they have the potential to break out this year and explode into the playoff picture with the subtlety of a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal. Things going for them: they're young, they're hungry, they've got a coach who's innovative and energized, and they play in the NFL's second-most inhospitable winter stadium. If all the pieces come together here, you just might see them in Detroit next February.

Who or What to Watch and Why: The same things all of the Bills fans are watching - Losman. Before the 2004 draft, my best source for information on college players said that Losman was the best QB prospect not named Roethlisberger. However, since then I've heard varied reports on Losman which have used less-than-glowing-terms to describe his persona, the least flattering of which dubbed him a "punk". My take is that this kid better produce between the lines if he's going to cause people fits outside of them.

3rd place - Miami Dolphins
Expected Record: 7-9

Overview: In 2004, the Dolphins posted only their third losing season in the past 35 years and the end result was that head coach Dave Wannstedt and the last vestiges of the Jimmy Johnson regime were replaced by Nick Saban, a college wunderkind who was given total control of the football operations. While the recent track record of college coaches coming to the NFL has been uninspiring at best, Saban has two things going in his favor, 1) some experience as an NFL position coach and coordinator, and 2) an owner who's willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on assistant coaches' salaries - Miami's 23 coaches (the largest staff in the NFL) will also post the league's highest average salary.

If you're looking for a sound-byte caliber assessment of the new Dolphins, it's that they will be aggressive and physical. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (who ought to be a head coaching candidate in the next few years) brings his vertical passing and power running scheme from the Vikings. If the preseason is any indicator of the direction the play calling is taking, new QB Gus Frerotte will be looking to throw deep to Chris Chambers once a possession. Miami's new defensive scheme is designed to attack offenses and might be best described (if somewhat oxymoronically) as a blitz-happy, bend-but-don't-break style.

Oddly enough, the running game, something that was a huge weakness for this team last year, looks as though it might become a fairly potent weapon this year as Ricky Williams returns from his year off from football to join #2 overall pick Ronnie Brown in the backfield. Of course, Miami's offensive line would also have to improve over last year as well before this happen.

This season, I expect the Dolphins will stumble out of the gate as the new players (the Dolphins have 25 players on the roster to start this season that were not on the roster at all last year) develop chemistry (i.e., that is learn to trust one another) and gain command of the scheme (i.e., learn to trust themselves and what they've been coached to do). Come mid-October, I expect that the proverbial light will come on for the Dolphins and they'll start playing far more competitively than they did in the early parts of the season.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Miami's offensive line. Last year, this unit was absolutely woeful - giving up over 50 sacks and responsible for the Dolphins posting the lowest average yards per rush in the NFL. Before any improvements can be made to the rest of their offense, the Dolphins need to get a consistent performance from the big guys up front.

4th place - New York Jets
Expected Record: 5-11

Overview: I keep seeing that "the experts" have picked the Jets to win an AFC wild-card berth. I don't see how. Herm Edwards is a good coach. In fact, I think that he's the best coach in the NFL at using positive motivation to get his players to perform. That said, I don't think for a minute that he's capable of motivating this team back to the playoffs this year, not with the talent (or glaring lack thereof) that it's going to be putting on the field, week in and week out.

In my mind, the Jets took a couple of small steps forward this off-season and some very big steps backwards. From the small steps forward department, trading Santana Moss to the Redskins to re-acquire Lav Coles and taking a flier on Ty Law, while risky, were both good moves and cutting Doug "I cost us a shot at the AFC Championship Game" Brien was a great move. But those were more than overwhelmingly eclipsed by the steps backwards, which include the utter failure to significantly upgrade the depth and talent in the defensive line and secondary or believing for a minute that the pop-gun arm of QB Jay Fiedler is going to be an adequate fall-back plan if (or more likely when) Chad Pennington gets hurt.

As I see it, the Jets are very thin (no depth) and weak on the defensive line as John Abraham's future seems to have him going from an every-down lineman to a pass-rushing OLB. Unless Edwards is planning on a stealth installation of the 3-4 defense, the Jets are going to have a fantastic rotation of LBs on the field who are going to be sandwiched between a line that will probably get run over against run and a secondary that looks a lot like a moth-eaten sweater. In addition to the problems on all facets of the defense, I'm also not sold on anyone who's going to line up under center. The Jets simply do not have a passer capable of pushing the ball down the field in a way that will effectively run Mike Heimerdinger's offense, especially when the officials are going to be allowing defenders to make more contact with receivers this year.

Coming off a 6-10 season in 2003, the Jets needed to make the playoffs last year to secure the jobs of both Edwards and GM Terry Bradway. Unfortunately for both of those guys, I only see higher expectations for them again this year because their owner is trying to get public financing for a new stadium in Manhattan and he'll be happy to make them into sacrificial lambs to create the illusion of a winning team.

Who or What to Watch and Why: With everything that I'm expecting to be going wrong for the Jets this year, I think that most people should focus on what will be going right, and that's Curtis "The Rock of Gibraltar" Martin. To this day, I still cannot believe that this guy wasn't a top-10 draft pick. All he does is go out there every week and crank out 1300-yard seasons. Amazing.

AFC North
1st place - Cincinnati Bengals

Expected Record: 12-4

Overview: The thing that you have like about the Bengals (who no longer deserve the moniker "Bungles") is the way they've put together the offense. They've got talent at QB, WR, RB, and along the OL. They throw the ball deep and attack down the field and can grind it out in the trenches too. If this team could just add a TE like Keith Jackson, they'd be a juggernaut.

As for the defense, you have to respect what Marvin Lewis has done in his first two years in Cincy, especially when you consider what he had to work with when he got to town. The basic premise of Lewis' blueprint for his defense is to attack the offense at the line of scrimmage. The idea is that it will stifle the running game by filling the lanes and pressuring opposing QBs into making bad decisions. The model was successful in Baltimore, although there were better personnel in place to execute it.

For those of you who haven't peaked ahead, I'll let you in on a secret - I'm expecting Cincinnati to post the best record in the AFC. As weird as this might sound for anyone who remembers what I had to say about this team 5 years ago, I think the franchise has made giant strides and now seems to be doing things the right way. They still have issues on defense and I think that they'll need to win more than a couple of games in shootout fashion, but they have the best offense in their division and they're going to have a good team this year. Now, all that said, it doesn't mean that I have great post-season expectations for them. In fact, I think that they'll be a lot like the '99 Colts in that they'll win their division, secure a first-round bye week, but lose their first playoff game. But they should be fun to watch.

Who or What to Watch and Why: When the Bengals selected Carson Palmer with the first overall pick some thought it was a reach and one draft pundit called him the second coming of Jeff George. Palmer, however, has shown that he isn't easily intimidated and really stepped up to be the leader that the Bengals needed last year. I think that this year, he'll post some spectacular numbers as he gains more confidence and the game continues to slow down for him.

2nd place - Baltimore Ravens
Expected Record: 9-7

Overview: Here's the generally accepted assessment of the Ravens since the start of the 2002 season: great defense, lousy offense. What makes it funnier is that Brian Billick is supposed to be an "offensive genius". So much for our collective ability to spot genius.

The biggest problem that the Ravens' offense has had is a compound one -- wildly inconsistent play from the QBs who've had their hands tied by a very conservative offensive philosophy. Think of it this way, since Jamal Lewis first donned a Ravens uniform, Baltimore has adopted a run the ball and play defense approach which has produced fair results (a 48-32 regular-season record) but has also atrophied their passing game to the point of league-wide laughing stock. Over the last 5 seasons, the Ravens have averaged 200 passing yards/game once and have posted exactly one season with a 1000-yard receiver. This year, things look to be different. The Ravens signed free-agent Derrick Mason drafted WR Mark Clayton in the 1st round. They are also claiming that they're taking the wraps off Kyle Boller and are going to allow him to air it out more often. I guess we'll see.

The Ravens have also scrapped the 3-4 defense they installed after the 2001 season and have returned a 4-3 style defense and plan to use aspects of the "46" defense that defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's dad (Buddy Ryan) developed in Chicago. The idea is to get MLB Ray Lewis "more involved in the defense". I have to believe that most offensive coordinators around the league find that prospect unappealing, especially in what ought to be a run-heavy AFC North.

For the second year in a row, the Ravens will be the odd man out come playoff time which means that big changes will be coming in the off-season, especially on an offense that doesn't seem to be able to hold a candle to its defensive counterpart.

Who or What to Watch and Why: QB Kyle Boller. The Ravens are going to find that the offensive transition from power running to balanced offense isn't as easy as they hoped it would be and the fans in Baltimore have reached the end of their patience with a QB who hasn't demonstrated that he can put the game on his shoulders and win it. The boo birds will be out in force come October and Boller, another Jeff Tedford protégé, has to show whether or not he's got the fortitude and skill to keep this job.

3rd place - Pittsburgh Steelers
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: Did you know that, since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule, that four teams have posted a 15-1 record during the regular season? Did you also know that the first two teams to do so not only went to, but won, the Super Bowl? Did you also know that the two most recent teams to post 15-1 records have not even made it to the Super Bowl?

The most recent member to one of football's most elite clubs was last year's Steelers team who was led by rookie QB phenom Ben Roethlisberger and an out of this world defense. But Big Ben fell apart in the playoffs and the vaunted defense, which had been dominant during the regular season, looked downright ordinary.

This year's outlook isn't rosy at all. Gone is a vertical threat in the passing game and injured are the running backs. The defense is trotting out most of the same old players it fielded last year when there were big questions about the state of the secondary and the depth of the linebackers. It all adds up to a team that I think is going to stumble.

Who or What to Watch and Why: For the better part of the past 35 years, the Steelers have been known for their running game: Rocky Bleier, Franco Harris, Merrell Hoge, Jerome Bettis, etc. This year, the Bus starts the season with a flat tire and the Duce's injury is a huge wildcard. Being that Pittsburgh's entire offense hinges on how well they run the ball, 3rd string Willie Parker has the chance to the MVP in Steel City.

4th place - Cleveland Browns
Expected Record: 5-11

Overview: Where do you start with a team that even the most ardent fans have described as having three needs: offense, defense, and special teams? Well, you have an Extreme Make-Over: NFL Style whereby all the guys in charge of football operations are fired and new, competent people, in this case, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel, are hired.

The new brain trust in Cleveland plans to build a franchise similar to the Patriots and the Ravens, in that it will develop its own talent internally and augment that nucleus of home-grown talent with select free-agent additions that don't break the bank financially. At least, that's the nice, condensed version which the flaks and marketers are going to spin to sell tickets. The problem is that, when you don't have that core of home-grown talent to start with, you're screwed.

The bad news for Browns fans is that, for the third time since their resurrection, the Browns are starting over. However, the good news is that it looks as though there's actually a plan this time. The basic framework will be to develop an offense that's capable of running the ball and protecting the passer and a defense that can hold its own against the run and prevent teams from picking it apart with the pass. Of course, this is much easier said than done, which is why the Browns are going to have a very rough time of it as they put the pieces together.

It's just my opinion, but I see the Browns getting run over for the first half of the season. In fact, they might just spend Halloween licking their wounds contemplating a 0-7 record. But the best indicator of an rebuilding team is never how you start, it's how you finish. With 5 of their last 9 at home and half of their last 8 against division rivals, the Browns have the opportunity to give everyone a good idea of where they are as a team with a strong finish.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Obviously, the thing that needs to be watched is the team's spirit and mental toughness. As I noted a couple of years ago, Butch Davis lacked the ability to lead an NFL team with the focus and direction that the position requires. Throughout his tenure, you could see that, whenever things started to go wrong for the Browns, they caved in as a team. If Crennel is going to be any kind of decent head coach, he must make sure that his team stays focused on the job at hand and doesn't give up when the road gets bumpy.

AFC South
1st place - Jacksonville Jaguars

Expected Record: 11-5

Overview: The Jaguars were my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl last year and they never even made the playoffs. Looking back on last year, my guess is that the problem stemmed from two things. The first was the ability of anyone on Jacksonville's defensive line to effectively rush the passer. The second was the fact that I really thought that Ephraim Salaam had the ability to replace Mike Pearson at left tackle when he got hurt (insert loud, obnoxious buzzer sound here).

Jack Del Rio is one of my favorite head coaches in the NFL (in fact, reminds me a lot of a young Bill Parcells) and I think he's done a great job in the 2+ years he's been running the show in River City. If there's one thing that that I would have to knock the guy on, it's the fact that he hadn't been able to find someone who can put pressure on the quarterback. But this year should be different. The Jags signed DE Reggie Hayward from Denver and are getting back DE Paul Spicer who, according to folks I've spoken with in Jacksonville, was well on his way to being the outside pass rush this team needed last year until he broke his leg in Week 2.

What I'm anxious to see is how Byron Leftwich handles himself this year. Last year, he showed a lot of poise and character, especially late in games where he needed to make plays to put his team in position to win. I'll also be watching Fred Taylor to see how his knee rebounds from reconstructive surgery - when healthy, he's the guy who makes this offense roll.

While I'm not expecting the Super Bowl, I do expect that you'll see a much better Jaguars team on the field this year as Pearson, Taylor, and Spicer are back from injuries and new offensive coordinator Carl Smith has installed a passing game that includes more deep passing and less dink and dunk. If they don't make the AFC Championship game this year, then I have totally overrated them.

Who or What to Watch and Why: WR Matt Jones. Six foot, six inches tall with sub 4.4 speed at 230 pounds. He was a college QB and power forward who's making the transition to wideout in the NFL. Once the light clicks for him, he's going to be an unstoppable force in the passing game. Think Randy Moss, only bigger and stronger.

2nd place - Indianapolis Colts
Expected Record: 10-6

Overview: Questions, questions, questions. All I have about the Colts are questions. Such as… How many times will Peyton Manning have to duplicate or exceed last year's out of this world performance (in which he set single-season records for TD passes and passer rating) before he gets to hoist a Lombardi Trophy over his head? When will the Colts and Tony Dungy put a defense on the field capable of actually stopping opponents from scoring, not just occasionally getting the ball back for the offense? (Do you know that the Colts led the NFL in turnover margin last year? Or that their defense ranked 3rd in the NFL in takeaways?) Brian Billick might have nailed it when he asked "How ironic is it that Tony has that great offense and I've got this great defense?"

The Colts are in their last year of a three-year window in which I'm expecting them to be legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl. Sure, they'll score a lot of points this year, Peyton Manning will make the "Peyton Manning face" a lot, and they might even beat the Patriots in the regular season, but they'll falter in the playoffs when someone finds a way to stop Manning and that will be the season. Again. But, after this year, things get interesting. Edge James will be gone (not sure where) and this team is going to have to take a long, hard look at itself and then make some changes in order to improve the overall product.

Did you know: Last year, 3 Colts receivers (Harrison, Wayne, and Stokely) accumulated 1000 receiving yards. As amazing as this was, it was not the first time that it had happened in the NFL. Back in 1980, the Chargers, under Don "Air" Coryell also had 3 receivers (Jefferson, Winslow, and Joiner) post 1000 yard seasons.

Who or What to Watch and Why: I'm sure that by now, you are all more than familiar with the adage "offense wins games, defense wins championships". Being that that's the case, the reason why the Colts have not won the Super Bowl should be obvious. Now factor in this: the Colts allowed an NFL-worst 28.6 points per game in this year's preseason.

3rd place - Houston Texans
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: I haven't exactly been able to put my finger on why, but the Houston Texans are the least exciting team that I can think of in the NFL. Sure, David Carr came out of his shell last year once he realized that Andre Johnson was the real deal at WR and the defensive front appears to have figured out how to execute the 3-4 properly, but I just don't get any sense of interest looking at this team. They are, for lack of a better way to put it, the NFL's equivalent to the Toronto Blue Jays. Present and accounted for with zero buzz.

Since they entered the league, the Texans have been steadily improving at the rate of about 1 win per season and I really don't seem them making any major leaps this year. Dom Capers reminds me a lot of Doug Collins (the guy who coached the Chicago Bulls before Phil Jackson) - he's a great coach for a young franchise because he instills discipline and teaches his players to play the game properly but he's never going to take them to the next level.

Who or What to Watch and Why: The defensive backfield. After hitting on Dunta Robinson in last year's draft, the Texans decided that they saw something in former-Oakland, first-round pick Phil "No Relation to Pat or James" Buchanon that made him worth a 2nd round pick. If the change of scenery can help return the promise Buchanon showed in college, then this team might step up and join the playoff hunt because you have to be able to defend the pass to compete in this division.

4th place - Tennessee Titans
Expected Record: 6-10

Overview: I have to start this part with the best nickname I've seen in a long time -- from one of the forums on came the instant gem "the flaming thumbtacks". How can you not love that?

What you can't love is the fact that Steve McNair was teetering about the decision to retire this spring. Or that the team parted ways with its best WR (Derrick Mason) and both starting CBs (Rolle and Dyson) for salary cap reasons. Or that the first-round draft pick was arrested before mini-camp. All of which are things that overshadow the fact that Titans acquired RB Travis Henry from the Bills (giving them a reliable running game again) and that backup QB Billy Volek looks like he could become the next Kurt Warner if ever given a chance.

Point of fact: after Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Tennessee's head coach, has the longest tenure of any head coach in the NFL. What that tells me is Tennessee's owner and GM like the job that he's doing and that they believe he can turn this team around quickly. I think that he's going to have a rougher time of it, but that the problems will be things beyond his control.

Who or What to Watch and Why: After last season's major bottoming out, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger headed for the big green in New York. Replacing him is former BYU and USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Chow is a guy that I'm very interested in watching because his offense is practical, suited to the talent at hand, and has made mincemeat out of opposing defenses for years. If he shows that he's not overmatched at this level, he could become a head coach candidate shortly.

AFC West
1st place - San Diego Chargers

Expected Record: 11-5

Overview: Played Marty-ball to perfection last year. Right down to the part where they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Go figure.

It struck me recently that one of the reasons this team plays a style of football that was popular in the NFL back in the 1980's - offensively, they love to run the ball and use the tight end as the focus of the passing game, while on defense the approach is bend, but don't break. If you're a fan of the old school, you've gotta love these guys, especially a team that has guys named Igor, Sammy Davis, and Lorenzo "Load Daddy" Neal.

This is going to sound funny, but the Chargers are my favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl -- although I'm not sure how they'll get there (especially with Marty's dubious reputation in the playoffs as a head coach). What I like about San Diego is that while they don't have a lot of outstanding players on their roster, they don't have a lot of holes either. The offense, from receivers through the line to the backs, is solid. The defense, from the line to the DBs, is solid. Unless another team shows that they have the breadth of talent and mental makeup that these players have, I think that you'll be seeing a lot of arguments as to whether or not the Bolts should wear the electric blue jerseys in Detroit next February.

Who or What to Watch and Why: QBs Drew Brees and Phil Rivers. First, you have to watch Brees to see if can duplicate the performance he gave last year, which was nothing short of a Pro Bowl season. I'm guessing he can't. Second, you have to watch Rivers to see if he can pick this team up and carry it into the playoffs like every other team he's played on. I'm guessing he can.

2nd place - Oakland Raiders
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: If there's one GM in the NFL who just never gets the credit he deserves, it's Al Davis. While most people know Davis as the enigmatic owner of the most ruthless team in the NFL, they also tend to forget that he's the guy who's been selecting the talent that this team has put on the field for over 40 years. And if there are two things that Davis loves to a fault, they're speed and the vertical passing game. That's why Oakland traded their first-round pick to the Vikings for Randy Moss and will keep Kerry Collins employed well beyond his normal shelf life.

While I really like the offensive unit that Oakland will be putting on the field this year, I'm not at all enthused about the defense and the special teams could also be shaky is All-Pro P Shane Lechler's leg injury is anything more than a slight nuisance. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (also Buddy Ryan's kid) has scrapped last year's experiment with a 3-4 alignment. The plan behind the return to a 4-3 scheme is to help make Warren Sapp more productive as well as help slow down opposing running games (a must in the AFC West), however, I don't like the talent with which the Raiders are trying to accomplish this.

Who or What to Watch and Why: RB LaMont Jordan. A quick look at Norv Turner's career as an offensive coordinator and head coach will show you that this guy is all about the power running game. I would not be surprised at all to see Jordon rush for 1500 yards and 15 TDs this year.

3rd place - Kansas City Chiefs
Expected Record: 7-9

Overview: Public perception is a wonderful motivator. Last year, the Chiefs replaced their defensive coordinator and made no significant personnel moves to the defensive unit. This decision was widely chastised by football experts who claimed that the cause of the problem was not the coaching, but the players. Well, the experts were right as the Chiefs again ran up points upon points on offense and proved that they couldn't catch a cold on defense. Therefore it should be no surprise that the Chiefs finally set about upgrading their defense by trading for Pro Bowl CB Pat Surtain and drafting award-winning LB Derrick Johnson.

Unfortunately, the anchor keeping the Chiefs from reaching the playoffs this year will be an aging offense. With most of the offensive starters on the wrong side of 30, KC is a victim of dragging its feet on the defensive overhaul it needed. But much like a GEICO commercial, there is some good news for the Chiefs and that is that the Priest Holmes-Larry Johnson tandem in the backfield will be among the best in the league this year (assuming that Holmes can stay healthy). The only problem is that they just might be carrying the offense.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Despite posting gaudy offensive numbers under Dick Vermeil, Kansas City's passing game looks to be in trouble. After Eddie Kennison (who is rebuilding his career nicely since returning to play for the guy who once cut him) and Tony Gonzalez, there are a whole lot of question marks at receiver. Dante "X-Factor" Hall has had his role on offense reduced, Marc Boerigter is returning from an ACL injury, and Johnnie Morton is no longer appearing in the red and white. As they say in Missouri, the Chiefs need to "Show Me" something.

4th place - Denver Broncos
Expected Record: 5-11

Overview: For those of you who might be surprised that I have the ponies finishing dead last, I want you to consider this - if all of the AFC West teams sat down and wrote a "what I did during the off-season" essay, they would look something like the following.

  • San Diego - We used our two first round draft picks to bolster our defensive front and upgrade our pass rush.
  • Oakland - We acquired the most physically gifted WR on the planet and signed the best free-agent RB that was on the open market.
  • Kansas City - We upgraded our defense by drafting the most athletic LB to come out of college since Seau and traded for an All-Pro CB.
  • Denver - We acquired the entire starting defensive line from the most hapless team in the NFL and drafted the biggest fraud of a RB to come out college in the last 10 years.

Still curious?

When I look at the Broncos, I see a team that has a major problem in the secondary, an ineffective QB, and a head coach who hasn't won a playoff game sine John Elway retired. Sure, they have an offensive system that's capable of turning Sam Horn into a 1000-yard rusher and some pretty good linebackers, but that's about the extent of things going right for Denver. But you know what, every team needs a stinker of a season every once in a while. It helps them acquire the top-end talent that they might not normally be able to land and it keeps the fans' expectations in perspective.

Who or What to Watch and Why: The passing game. As easy as it would be to simply lay the blame for that mess solely on the shoulders of Jake Plummer, it's not all his fault. His best receiver is 35 years old and the two guys they've brought in to replace him (Lelie and Watts) just haven't set anyone's hair on end with their play.

NFC East
1st place - Philadelphia Eagles

Expected Record: 11-5

Overview: How many of you would have liked to have been Andy Reid this spring? You've got not one, not two, but three players in contract disputes. You spend more time acting as a babysitter for a bunch of spoiled children than you do coaching football. But, on the bright side is the fact that you also run one of the league's model franchises. You have a fantastic pipeline for replacing veteran talent with youthful talent and you have the salary cap room to add players as you see fit. I guess it all evens out in the end, huh?

One thing about the Eagles that was never clearly apparent to me until last year was just how good the interior of their offensive line is. I mean, those guys are good. You'll notice that you hardly ever see anyone pressuring Donovan McNabb by coming right up the middle and that he usually has a clear sight lane for passing. The RBs also tend to have good holes through with to run. Hats off to Juan Castillo the offensive line coach, you're doing a good job dude. Another thing that I liked about the Eagles was the book that they wrote on how to beat Mike Vick. In what will surely be a best seller in NFL circles, the game plan for last year's NFC Championship game was sheer brilliance.

As I wrote earlier this year, I have to think that the Eagles are one of the most talented teams in football. And while Corey Simon might be missed occasionally, I think that Brian Westbrook's contract issue could seriously hamper this team's ability to progress into the playoffs this year. If he doesn't come back this year, you're looking at what could be another early post-season exit for the Iggles.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Not that I think he deserves even 1 iota more of public attention, but WR Terrell Owens to see if he pulls the same crap he pulled in San Francisco when he was unhappy with his contract situation - alligator arming passes and taking plays off. If that happens, he'll find himself on the express line out the door.

2nd place - New York Giants
Expected Record: 9-7

Overview: Much like his mentor (some dude named Parcells), Tom Coughlin has an uncanny ability to take a bunch of guys who you don't know about yet and turn out a team that can flat out play football. Given the state and shape of the roster he assumed control of last year, that's pretty much his plan to get the Giants back in the playoffs, as soon as this year. Another thing most people forget about Tom Coughlin is that he started as a wide receivers coach and he's not at all afraid to throw the ball. In fact, it's because of him that I think the Giants could have one of the best deep passing games in the NFC.

Last year, New York's better football team came out of the gate strong and sported a 5-2 record by the end of the day on Halloween. They then clawed their way to a 1-8 record over the rest of the season. I'm expecting an almost 180 degree change in the performance this year as the run defense tightens up and the offense starts to come into its stride. I also wouldn't be surprised to see them upset a team or two in the playoffs.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Eli Manning's right elbow. After a PR nightmare introduction to the NFL, Manning finished very strong last year. Unfortunately, an elbow injury on his throwing arm could derail what looked to be a promising season for the G-Men. If the injury truly is minor, then give these guys another win.

3rd place - Washington Redskins
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: I'm not a football player, so I can't explain why some guys make the decisions they do. But for the life of me, I cannot understand why any reasonably intelligent human being would willingly sign a contract with the Redskins. In my mind, Dan Snyder has turned a once proud and storied franchise into a something right out of the Twilight Zone (play eerie music here).

During his first go-round in the NFL, Joe Gibbs was considered an offensive innovator. He was credited with developing the two-TE/single back set (mainly to put another guy on the line to block Lawrence Taylor) and being the first guy who espoused the idea that the offense's foundation was the offensive line. Last year, his offense could move the ball or score points. This year's Redskins ought to do better as they have one of the better offensive lines in the game (at least on paper) blocking for RB Clinton Portis. However, they also got rid of any and all size at receiver and seem to think that they can get by with a mighty mouse WR corps that stands, on average, 5' 10½". Joe, that might have worked for you in the mid-1980's, but it won't fly today.

Fortunately, the Redskins posted a defense that ranked in the NFL's top 5 last year in terms of both yards and points allowed. They can pressure the QB and stuff the run. If they could just find a way to score more points, they'd be golden.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Whether Gibbs can stick with one QB. Last year, he yo-yoed between Brunell, who completely flopped, and Ramsey, who would just like to be given a legit shot, and got nothing or note from either. This year, he used his second first-round pick on Auburn QB Jason Campbell. You have to ask yourself, when is he going to find someone who can run the offense satisfactorily?

4th place - Dallas Cowboys
Expected Record: 5-11

Overview: In the course of football events, it often becomes necessary for people to dissolve the ties which have connected them with another. These words should be stated oft and emphatically to Bill Parcells when it comes to the identity of his starting quarterback because there is often a reason why teams give up on veteran signal callers and it usually means that you should avoid them.

Year 3 of the Bill and Jerry experiment kicks into high gear this year with the Cowboys looking like a list of waiver wire claims and other reclamation projects. I can count at least 5 high-profile players who were simply unloaded from their previous teams and now have a home in Dallas. And that's just on offense. The defense looks a lot better, but it's still undersized, especially for the 3-4 scheme that the 'Pokes will be running. Not sure why, but I get the feeling that this might be Duane Charles Parcells' last hurrah in the NFL.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Parcells didn't like the play he received from Quincy Carter in 2003 and cut him. He didn't like the play he got from Vinnie Touch-My-Verde in 2004 and nudged him towards retirement. I have a distinct feeling that he won't like what he's about to receive from Bledsoe this year because Drew has become as mobile as a statue and more stubborn than Mad Jack's mule from Grizzly Adams.

NFC North
1st place - Minnesota Vikings

Expected Record: 12-4

Overview: Possibly the most over-hyped team this offseason. Between February and August, the Vikings made headlines for scalping tickets, being sold to a black owner, trading Randy Moss, not being sold to a black owner, upgrading their defense, the Whizzinator, and having their best offensive lineman demand a contract guarantee or else he'd have season-ending surgery. Yet somehow, they are still the team to beat in their division and one of the few powerhouses of the NFC.

Despite being a notorious cheapskate, Red McCombs did one thing very right in the time he owned the Vikings -- he challenged the conventional approach that when you play players big money, you backload the deals. With a simple decision to count all of Antoine Winfield's signing bonus on last year's salary cap, the Vikings found themselves sitting atop another pile of available money this year and used it to rebuild the rest of a porous defense and upgrade a WR corps that was a little lighter without Randy Moss. I think the Vikings find themselves in Charlotte this winter playing for another shot at the Super Bowl.

Who or What to Watch and Why: The defense, because the Vikings haven't had a season in which they've allowed fewer than 330 yards per game since 1994.

2nd place - Detroit Lions
Expected Record: 9-7

Overview: More than any other NFL team, the Lions have made an investment in their offense. Since selecting Chris Claiborne with the #7 pick of the 1999 draft, the Lions have used each and every first round pick that they have had on offensive players, selecting linemen Aaron Gibson, Stockar McDougle, and Jeff Backus in 1999, 2000, and 2001, QB Joey Harrington in 2002, receivers Charles Rodgers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and RB Kevin Jones in 2004. Given all of that, I think it's very funny that the Lions have not been capable of averaging 20 points/game since 1999.

What it all that proves is that the Lions will likely go as their defense goes. This year, I've got the best feeling about their defense since Bobby Ross was the head coach. Most of which is due to the fact that former Bear's head coach Dick Jauron will be directing the group and he's got a fairly good track record in that department.

Who or What to Watch and Why: This summer, I mentioned that all of Jeff Tedford's former QB tutelages in the NFL were on the hot seat because they all followed a similar pattern of incredible college performances and, at best, mediocre NFL performances. Of those guys, no one can be thought of as being on a hotter seat than Joey Harrington, who now plays on a team with the most talented group of young WRs (when healthy) that has ever been assembled and a demon of a RB. If he finds a way to screw this up, he can kiss whatever thoughts he had of an NFL career good bye.

3rd place - Chicago Bears
Expected Record: 7-9

Overview: I have to feel for Bears fans, I really do. Since selecting QB Rex Grossman with the 22nd pick in the 2003 draft, his career stat line looks like this: 6 meaningful NFL games, 6 starts, 4 games completed, 3 season-ending injuries. At that pace, Grossman will suffer a season-ending injury for the 2006 season next Memorial Day. However, starting in his place will be 2005 4th-round pick Kyle Orton, a Purdue graduate who ran Joe Tiller's offense better than Drew Brees. I'm going on record with this, but I have a feeling that, in 5 years, Orton will be the best QB from the 2005 draft.

I'm sure that the die-hard fantasy football fans like my buddy Chris Avtges (the only guy I know who does NFL Europe fantasy football) already know this, but the Bears have one of the better up-and-coming defenses in the NFL. They were tied (with the Ravens) for the most defensive touchdowns in the NFL last year and they also scored 3 safeties. Year two of the Lovie Smith era should be a marked improvement in the pass rush and overall pass defense. While the new Monsters of the Midway probably won't score at the same pace of teams like the Vikings, they won't allow a lot of points either.

Who or What to Watch and Why: RB Cedric Benson. I cannot tell you how many arguments I had with people this preseason in which I tried to explain why Benson was not the guy you wanted your team to draft. My reason followed two premises: 1) Benson set the NCAA Div-1 record for most carries in a college career; however, he did not set the record for most yards gained in a college career - translation: he was overworked at the most physically battering position in the NFL; and 2) despite the bulk within the numbers Benson produced, his production disappeared in big games, Red River Shootouts (Texas vs. Oklahoma) and Bowl games. With the rookie QB, the Bears will be looking to build their entire offensive philosophy around running the ball.

4th place - Green Bay Packers
Expected Record: 4-12

Overview: Under Mike Sherman, Green Bay has developed one of the premier offenses in the NFL. Since acquiring RB Ahman Green, their running game has been fabulous and Brett Favre's mere presence makes the passing game potent. But, to say that the defense of late has been a disappointment would be an understatement. And this year things have not gotten much better. The Packers parted ways with three of their better players this spring (guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera and S Darren Sharper) because of cost issues. Clearly being thin at every defensive area, they proceeded to use their first-round pick on a quarterback and then used a second round pick to select a wide receiver. I don't get it.

I had to describe the Pack's upcoming season in one word, it would be painful. It will be painful to watch, it will be painful to read about, and it will most likely be painful to play there, especially if you wear #4, who is going to spend a lot of time getting hit by defenders who will be applying lots of pressure to a considerably weaker offensive line that will need to play catch up a lot because the defense will have a hell of a time trying to stop opposing offenses.

Who or What to Watch and Why: How Brett Favre handles this stinker of a season. Favre hasn't missed a start (let alone a game) since the 1992 season. However, he's talked about retiring after each of the past two seasons. This year might just make his decision an easy one.

NFC South
1st place - Carolina Panthers

Expected Record: 13-3

Overview: Here it is, right off the bat. I expect the Carolina Panthers to win the whole sha-bang this year and take the Lombardi Trophy home two years after losing one of the greatest, if not The Greatest, Super Bowl in history.

Here's why I think this. With Dan Henning running the offense, you know that the Panthers are going to run the ball. However, they've also shown that they are more than willing to let QB Jake Delhomme put the ball in the air 40+ times a game and I think that this year's group of receivers is better than they've ever been. But that's just the offense, and not what impresses me. That would be the defense. The Panthers have the most dominating defensive line in the NFL. They've also significantly upgraded their defensive backfield with the additions of CB Ken Lucas and SS Thomas Davis.

I also like the way that this team handles everything. John Fox has built a tough, resilient football team that doesn't back down from a challenge or crumble when things go wrong. In fact, I think that they are the best in the NFL at stepping up to a challenge. The one Achilles Heel this team had was finding a way to stop Michael Vick and they got that from the plan that the Eagles used in the playoffs last year. Next stop, Detroit.

Who or What to Watch and Why: DE Julius Peppers. If you read how impressive Jacksonville's Matt Jones' metrics are, here's some food for thought. Peppers is also 6 foot 6 inches, but he weighs 300 pounds and has been running in the 40-yard dash in sub 4.7 times. Think you have a solution to this man? Think again.

2nd place - Atlanta Falcons
Expected Record: 11-5

Overview: I'm not sure about you, but I can clearly recall all of the hype leading up to the 2001 NFL draft. There was an absolute furor surrounding Michael Vick's declaration of eligibility as well as rampant speculation about how good he was going to be at "the next level". However, when the conversation came to Drew Brees, we were constantly reminded of the fact that Brees was shorter than ideal for an NFL quarterback and that he might have problems being able to view his receivers over the line. Funny how so many pundits seemed to ignore that Brees was actually a quarter of an inch TALLER than Vick.

Why am I mentioning this is? Well, as a point of fact, each has played in exactly 43 NFL games through their first 4 seasons. And for their careers, Drew Brees has a higher completion percentage, more passing yards, more TD passes, and a higher passer rating than Vick has. Furthermore, for those who would argue in favor of Vick's mobility, Brees has produced more yards of total offense than Vick and has fumbled the ball fewer times than Vick has lost fumbles. What it boils down to is that, for the second consecutive preseason, Vick's skills as a passer are coming under scrutiny, especially his ability to make plays from the pocket. As the Eagles made abundantly clear in last year's NFC Championship game, if you can contain Vick and make him play within the pocket, he has not been able to show that he can make plays like Steve Young or Randall Cunningham could.

Aside from the huge wildcard that is Vick's ability to perform, the Falcons have a good team. They have a pretty potent running game powered by Duckett and Dunn (which sounds better than Dunn and Duckett) and the defense is absolutely ferocious - the like to bring pressure and they tackle very well. Aside from the small question at quarterback (ha-ha), they're a good team.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Mike Vick and what he does in the pocket. He's a great sandlot football player, but the NFL isn't a sandlot game.

3rd place - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: A friend of mine recently asked me for my take on the Bucs. My response was: "The offense ought to be decent, but I don't like the defense at all -- too old and too thin. Gruden's putting his stamp on this team alright, and it's all about old guys and lots of offense."

I don't know what the average age of the Buccaneers players is, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's above the league average. But, one thing that I do know is that Jon Gruden places a premium on offense and discounts defense to a fault. A quick glance at Tampa's 53-man roster confirms this because the Bucs have 22 defensive players on the team - enough for two full first and second teams - while they have 4th string players on offense.

Football, like ballet, requires balance to be done correctly. You need to balance the run and the pass, the offense and the defense, and young guys with veterans. Polarizing things doesn't work well at all and I see a polarized team in Tampa. The funny thing is that the Bucs used to be known for their defense and lack of offense. This year, I think that changes.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Booger McFarland. The first underperformed his way out of Minnesota. The other is a classic underachiever. The issue is that Monte Kiffin's defense revolves around these guys getting into the line and wreaking havoc. How well they can do that will determine how well this team can play.

4th place - New Orleans Saints
Expected Record: 3-13

Overview: I didn't have high hopes for the Saints this year before Katrina visited the Gulf Coast and that wiped out any such delusions of grandeur on my part. Jim Haslett has the Saints well on their way back to being the Aint's. The defense can't seem to decide whether or not it wants to be built on size and strength or raw speed. The offense, perfectly emblematic of the problem that the entire Saints team suffers from, is an exercise in poor execution. This is a team that, without trying, just seems to be able to find new and interesting ways to look ridiculous.

On an aside from football for a minute, I'd like to address the more important issue of the relief efforts being undertaken in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mobile, and the rest of the Gulf Coast. Please give whatever you can, whether it be money, food, clothes, blood, time, or any combination of the above, to help those who've had their lives and families turned upside down. As any football coach will tell you, how we respond to adversity is what defines us as people.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Competitiveness to judge team character. If they don't quit, then maybe Haslett keeps his job. But I wouldn't bet $20 that it will be the case.

NFC West
1st place - Arizona Cardinals

Expected Record: 9-7

Overview: The Redbirds are hoping to ride the NFL's recent trend of turning uniform changes into playoff berths. I don't think that they needed to actually change the uniform, but a little revolution is good for the soul. What's even better for the soul is getting to play in the NFC West where, much like the NL West in baseball, a team with a winning record is going to win the division.

While it follows his typical blueprint (high-powered offense and defense that won't embarrass itself), Denny Green's team is starting to look better than anything that they've seen in the desert in a while. The WR corps has a lot of talent, but again, you expect that on one of Denny's teams. Possibly what I'm most excited about is the offensive line. Green inherited a team that had used three top 35 picks on offensive linemen and was still without a running game or pass protection. Two of those guys are now gone and the third (Leo Davis, the #2 overall pick in 2001) has been moved back to his natural position at left tackle. If this doesn't work, he should fire the lot of them.

One thing I absolutely didn't like was the decision to sign QB Kurt Warner. Warner holds the ball far too long to be effective anymore. And while the offensive line is being improved, it's nothing like what Warner had in St. Louis. While the NFC West doesn't have much in terms of pass rush threats, no line can be reasonably expected to block for almost 4 seconds on every play. Warner's willingness to unload the ball quickly is going to be a big factor this year.

Who or What to Watch and Why: Point of fact, both of San Francisco's wins last year came at the expense of the Cardinals. Back in 1996, the Cardinals were the only team that the lowly 1-15 Jets could beat. This franchise has a shameful history of underachievement that all of Gandhi's karma would not cleanse.

2nd place - St. Louis Rams
Expected Record: 8-8

Overview: Opinions on Mike Martz vary widely. Some call him an idiot, others call him a genius. What you cannot say is that he lacks confidence in himself or in his team's ability to execute. I do not think that there is another head coach in the NFL who is more aggressive than Martz because most of them just don't have the lack of doubt that he does.

One thing that I really like about the Rams is the offense that they trot out onto the field, week in and out. It's a machine. While it holds the nickname the Greatest Show on Turf, what really makes it work is Marc Bulger's understanding of the plays and quick, accurate passing. For all of the hype that the WRs get, don't forget who sees them and gets the ball to them. He's the oil and the gears that make this offensive machine work.

Last year, these guys made the playoffs despite an 8-8 record because they could beat the Seahawks, which they did 3 times. Now, if they could just face the Seahawks 5 times a season, they'd be golden.

Who or What to Watch and Why: The defense as a whole because, last year, they were walked all over. There's only so many times the offense can score 14 points in 5 minutes to try an overcome a 20 point deficit.

3rd place - Seattle Seahawks
Expected Record: 4-12

Overview: Seattle beat the odds this spring and managed to retain all three of their key offensive free agents: QB Matt Hasselbeck, OT Walter Jones, RB Shaun Alexander. They were also able to acquire a some key defensive free agents to offset some of the players who left via free agency. However, much like the Buccaneers, I see this team as being heavy on offensive players and light on defensive skill. I also don't see a lot of depth on the defense which is humorous given that the biggest problems that this team had last year were injuries to the defense.

I have repeated over and over that the Seahawks will earn the first pick in next year's draft since March of last year. However, I just don't think that the non-football related events in New Orleans and San Francisco are as easily surmountable as simply having a team that executes poorly with a head coach that doesn't scare the players into performing at their peak level.

Who or What to Watch and Why: RB Shaun Alexander. He was a free agent after last year. He was franchised, shopped around for a 2nd round pick, and ultimately rejoined the team on a 1-year contract. He's got a chip on his shoulder but a bit of a bad attitude as well. He could take the attitude that he's going to go out there and show 'em or he could say the heck with it.

4th place - San Francisco 49ers
Expected Record: 3-13

Overview: It's not often that an improvement by 1 win over the previous season is a huge improvement, but that's what I'm expecting in San Francisco which really has nowhere else to go but up. New coach Mike Nolan takes over a squad that was decimated by injuries and chaos last year and has to try to restore the 49ers storied image. Fortunately, Nolan has a background which ought to allow him to be successful. The son of a head coach, Nolan did two stints as a defensive coordinator before joining the Ravens as their WR coach. After a year on "the other side of the ball", he switched back to being the defensive coordinator.

As for the 49ers team, they've got a lot of top-shelf talent on defense which they'll need. This season, they will be implementing a 3-4 defense (who isn't?) to maximize the fact that most of their talent is at linebacker. When the light goes on for this team, they'll start rushing the passer like no other team in this division.

Who or What to Watch and Why: First-year head coach Mike Nolan. Nolan's dad coached this team 30 years ago and was the first coach to put the 49ers into the playoffs in more than a dozen seasons. Nolan inherited a team that posted the worst record in the NFL last year, and has to rebuild the team and the front-office (can anyone say PR nightmare?) from the ground up. Couple that with the fact that a player died in the locker room after a preseason game and you have to know that the man's work is cut out for him.