Pro football prognostication is the easiest game in town. All you have to do is start with a disclaimer that in the NFL, where this year's 5-11 team is next year's Super Bowl champ and vice-versa, trying to predict anything is impossible. Next you point out that the difference between the best teams and the worst (Cincinnati Bengals excepted) is so small that a few injuries, which are impossible to forecast, can change everything.
Then you confidently make your picks, pretending you have a clue what you're talking about, and you only mention them again on the off chance that you're right about something.
So as Thursday night's season-opening game between the New York Jets and the Washington Redskins approaches, I'll begin my NFC preview by reminding you that last year I picked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go to the Super Bowl. And I'll hope you won't notice that in my AFC preview Wednesday, I'm not going to mention who I picked to win that conference.
On Thursday, you'll get your chance to embarrass yourselves, so send me your predictions about who will win each division, the wild card spots, the conference championships and the Super Bowl. (Please put the word "predictions" in the subject line.) We'll compare your picks to mine and to various national "experts," who of course don't know any more than we do. This will also give me a chance to adopt a favorite reader tactic and ridicule your incorrect picks after the season has played out. Fair is fair.
As always, I remain fearlessly alone among the national media in organizing this sort of thing from west to east.
Seattle Seahawks: The big question is whether quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's dynamite second half last year was a fluke or the real thing, and I'm proud to be able to answer it: I don't know. But even if he falters and loses his job to Trent Dilfer, as he did in 2001, this is a damn good offense, with running back Shaun Alexander and receivers Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson. The problem has been the defense, which was awful last year. New coordinator Ray Rhodes and a good bunch of linebackers should mean just enough improvement to not be awful again.
But the key coaching move was head man Mike Holmgren giving up his general manager duties. Why is it that head coach and general manager are the only two full-time jobs anyone ever wants to do simultaneously? No one ever wants to be GM and head trainer, or head coach and chief groundskeeper. Holmgren checking his ego and concentrating on coaching is a good move. Seattle started 1-5 last year, and it seemed like the Hawks were charging hard at the end, though all they did was finish 6-4, winning their last three. And five of those six wins came against non-playoff teams. But even the pretty-good Seahawks of last November and December would be good enough to win this weak division.
St. Louis Rams: Let me get this straight. The key to the Rams' fortunes this year is keeping quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk healthy. Last year, Warner kept insisting he was healthy. When he played, the Rams were 0-6. When backup Marc Bulger played, they were 6-0. Why is it again that keeping Warner in the lineup is so important? Oh, I see: Because Warner keeps insisting he's healthy.
OK, I get that it's really because the Warner of 1999-2001 was just about unbeatable. Well, the Bart Starr of 1961-63 was pretty tough to beat too. Why not get him? Warner is a banged-up 32-year-old, with three years in the brutal Arena Football League in his past. What's especially banged up is his right hand, and those little bones -- ask any 32-year-old fighter with brittle mitts -- don't really get better. Warner might surprise me, and I hope so because he was a wonder to behold during that three-year run, but I think he's no longer what he was, and it's time to turn this team over to Bulger, which isn't going to happen unless Warner gets good and hurt.
Meanwhile, Faulk is 30, the magic age when running backs' bodies begin to break down in earnest. Oddly, so did mine, which is the only thing I have in common with NFL running backs. The Rams won't start 0-5 again, but I think this team's moment has passed.
San Francisco 49ers: Speaking of moments passing. The 49ers rewarded Steve Mariucci for rebuilding them into a playoff team by firing him. Office politics are a drag, even if it's not your office. Getting the successful, dynamic, young Mariucci out of the way so that they could hire mediocre retread Dennis Erickson is just the kind of move that organizations in chaos make. Throw in quarterback Jeff Garcia's aching back and you have yourself the formula for a losing season.
Arizona Cardinals: You know how it's already almost impossible to picture Thurman Thomas in a Dolphins uniform, or how you pretty much have to be reminded that Tony Dorsett ever played for the Broncos or O.J. Simpson for the 49ers? That's how it's going to be with Emmitt Smith's career-ending stint in the desert. When this franchise concentrates on building a winner instead of just raking in the profits from the NFL's revenue-sharing plan, things will be looking up for football fans in Arizona. And when those fans do look up, they'll see snow.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: It's a fool's game and a sucker's bet to pick anyone to repeat in the NFL, but call me a fool and a sucker. I think the Bucs are going to be even better than they were a year ago, when they won the Super Bowl. Remember how last year they were supposed to be a year away, because it would take a year or so for the personnel to catch up to new coach Jon Gruden's offensive system? Remember that? Well, here we are a year later. Ready? Here are your NFC champs.
The offensive line, which was Tampa Bay's, um, weakness last year, has been shored up, though the potential loss of running back Michael Pittman to the pokey might make that an overall wash. The big question will be whether quarterback Brad Johnson can stay healthy. He's serviceable, not special, but there's no backup. The defense lost linebacker Al Singleton and safety Dexter Jackson, but they were hardly the key guys, despite Jackson's Super Bowl MVP award. The Bucs will still be great when they don't have the ball. They'll have a first-place schedule and a target on their backs this year, but they're also the best team in the conference. With the usual NFL caveat about injuries, the only thing that can stop the Buccaneers is if they rest on their laurels. Tough to picture when "Chuckie" is the boss.
New Orleans Saints (wild card): Damn, this is a fun team to watch, even when Kyle Turley, now gone to St. Louis, isn't throwing helmets around. With Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Parthon receiving and Deuce McAllister running, the Saints can score a whole lot of ways. Inconsistent quarterback Aaron Brooks has looked strong after offseason surgery to fix a rotator cuff that sapped his arm strength last year. The Saints don't need a great quarterback to score, just a good one, and Brooks should be that.
So. The defense. The Saints tried to upgrade by trading for safety Tebucky Jones, signing corner Ashley Ambrose and linebackers Orlando Ruff and Derrick Rodgers, and drafting tackle Johnathan Sullivan. We'll see. They're probably faster than they were last year, when they were the sixth-worst defense in the league. But that secondary is pretty old. Still, even a marginal improvement would make the Saints awfully dangerous, because they're going to score a lot of points. The big issue might be whether New Orleans can avoid the late-season collapse that's become a habit. Last year, 9-4 and in the thick of the playoff picture, they lost to the Vikings, Bengals and Panthers. They're 1-7 in the last quarter of the last two seasons. Another stumble like that and coach Jim Haslett should pack his bags.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers went 7-9 last year, and given recent history that ought to make them favorites to go the Super Bowl this year. They have a fierce, young defense built around second-year end Julius Peppers, who missed four games because of a drug suspension last year. Which reminds me: Why does the media avoid the word "drugs" so fastidiously? Players always have substance-abuse problems, substance-abuse suspensions. Why is that dumb euphemism so ubiquitous? Julius Peppers was suspended for using something you can buy at the drug store, not the substance store. Players with more serious problems don't have their substance dealer on speed dial.
But I digress because I'm trying to avoid talking about Rodney Peete, the Panthers' starting quarterback and a fine old gentleman. I have a soft spot for Peete because I watched him play shortstop for USC, which I think is kind of cool. This was back when the spitball was legal. Twenty-eight-year-old Jake Delhomme, late of New Orleans, is the quarterback of the future, and -- if I may indulge in an old joke -- always will be. But what the heck: Here's your Super Bowl dark horse.
Atlanta Falcons: This was going to be the team to watch this year, with Mike Vick really coming into his own in his third NFL season. The loss of the NFL's most exciting player to a broken leg in an early preseason game was a crushing blow. Backup Doug Johnson is an OK quarterback, so the Falcons are saying it's not such a tragedy to lose Vick. Yeah, and it wasn't so bad when the Three Stooges lost Curly. It's true that Johnson's not bad -- in the sense that Shemp wasn't bad -- but Vick's running ability and rifle arm make up for a lot of faults on the offensive line. This team's fortunes are tied to the left-hander as much as any team's are to any one player. The good news is Vick might miss as few as four games, but that's still a quarter of the season, and that's a lot in what should be a very tough division. I'm picking the Falcons to finish last in the South, but that would be no shame. And second place wouldn't shock me.
Green Bay Packers: The way the Packers' 2002 season ended -- they got demolished by the Jets in the season finale and then routed by the Falcons for their first-ever playoff loss at Lambeau Field -- makes them a great candidate for a floperoo in 2003. But they still have Brett Favre and they still play in a pretty weak division. Time is running out for them, but I think they'll still win the North.
Aside from the continued greatness of Favre, who will turn 34 in Week 6, the Packers aren't terribly exciting. They just win, racking up a dozen W's in each of the last two years. They'll win in double figures again and take the North, despite being not much better than, say, Atlanta, and then they'll lose in the playoffs. Have I sufficiently hedged my bets on the Falcons yet?
Minnesota Vikings: I really want the Vikings to be my sleeper pick. I keep looking for a reason for this team, 6-10 last year but with a three-game winning streak at the end, to break out and win the division. I just can't convince myself. Yeah, Daunte Culpepper is a big ol' horse at quarterback, and he has Randy Moss to throw to. But ... so? Culpepper hasn't exactly shined of late even when he's had speedy Michael Bennett to hand off to, and thanks to Bennett's broken foot, he won't have that for most of the season. Rookie Onterrio Smith gets a lot of ink, but he got beat out by Moe "900 yards in six seasons" Williams.
On defense, the Vikes signed linebacker Chris Claiborne and corners Denard Walker and Ken Irvin (out with a sore toe at the moment), so they'll probably be a little better. They were third worst in the league last year, though, so a little better won't be enough. And about that momentum from the end of last season? Those three wins came against free-falling New Orleans, typically end-of-season bad Miami and woeful Detroit. Don't read too much into them. Still, I keep thinking the Vikings are going to be good. I don't know why.
Detroit Lions: This is really my upset NFC pick of the year, the Lions not finishing last. The mere presence of new coach Mariucci, replacing Marty "Let's Kick Off in Overtime" Mornhinweg, ought to be good for a three-game improvement. The Lions went 3-13 last year, but they lost in overtime three times, and another five games by a touchdown or less. Quarterback Joey Harrington should come along nicely, and rookie receiver Charles Rogers will have an impact, especially if he stops the on-field whining that marked his college days and concentrates on catching the football. Crying for interference before the ball even reaches you doesn't fly in the NFL.
Chicago Bears: You know the Bears' story. Two years ago they were 13-3, last year they were 4-12. They weren't as good as their record would indicate in '01, and they weren't as bad as their record would indicate in '02. This year they should straighten everything out. They'll go 4-12 again, but this time they really will be that bad. And I'm one of those guys who thinks that, given the right situation, new quarterback Kordell Stewart, cast off by Pittsburgh, can be an effective player. This just isn't that situation. The Bears aren't creative enough to take advantage of his skills.
New York Giants: This is a good team. The Giants don't knock you out. They just play well on both sides of the ball. With a better line and a better quarterback than Kerry Collins the offense could be spectacular, with Tiki Barber running and Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Jeremy Shockey catching. Actually, with a better line and a better quarterback than Kerry Collins almost anybody could be spectacular, but I think you get my point. Collins is good, but not top-tier. It's become kind of fashionable to cut Shockey, the second-year tight end, down to size by saying he hasn't lived up to his hype. The backlash has reached the point where a position-by-position analysis of the Giants in Monday's New York Post neglected to mention Shockey. It's true he hasn't lived up to his hype, but that's because of the intensity of the hype, not Shockey's failings. He had a solid rookie season and figures to get better.
On defense, Michael Strahan is still a brilliant leader, but he needs some help up front, especially in terms of depth. Everyone remembers that decisive botched snap in the playoff game at San Francisco last year, but the only reason the 49ers were even in the game was because of a collapse for the ages by an exhausted Giants defense, which blew a 24-point lead in a little over a quarter. The Giants tried to address that problem by drafting William Joseph and Osi Umenyiora, who are both expected to contribute right away.
Philadelphia Eagles (wild card): The Eagles are either finally ready to take that last step after losing the last two NFC Championship Games, or they've jumped the shark, to use an expression that has seen better days. Until last year, quarterback Donovan McNabb got all the attention even though it was the defense that carried the team. Last year McNabb got hurt and the Eagles pounded the 49ers behind Koy Detmer. Then Detmer got hurt and the Eagles went 4-1 behind A.J. Feeley, the only loss an overtime game against the red-hot Giants, who unlike Philly hadn't clinched the playoffs yet. Hmm. Maybe it's not all about McNabb. And even with the loss of sacker Hugh Douglas, the Eagles' gambling defense figures to be as good as ever.
But something tells me the Eagles have lost their edge. It's almost impossible to maintain success for more than three years in the NFL, and the Eagles have won 11, 11 and 12 games in the last three seasons. Duce Staley's moronic preseason holdout was the most visible symptom. The Eagles' talent will carry them to the wild card, but their days as serious Super Bowl contenders are behind them.
Dallas Cowboys: The rest of this division is long on interesting coaches and short on talent. I wanted to pick the Redskins to finish ahead of the Cowboys for no other reason than that I think Steve Spurrier is more fun than Bill Parcells. It's sort of like picking a team based on better uniforms, though if that were the plan I'd take the Boys, especially when they wear their throwback duds. I am, in fact, picking the Cowboys for third -- are you still with me? -- because there's no reason to think that Parcells won't be able to pull off the same kind of turnaround in Dallas that he did with the Giants, Patriots and Jets. Yeah, he has Quincy Carter at quarterback, Troy Hambrick at running back and a weak offensive line, not to mention a defense that's not exactly Buccaneer-esque despite the addition of ex-Buc Al Singleton. But the Cowboys weren't as bad last year as you probably think they were. Six of their 11 losses were by less than a touchdown, and just the addition of Parcells ought to turn two or three of those into wins. Like everybody else, I think the Parcells magic won't take effect until the second year, same as it always has, but it wouldn't stun me if the Cowboys snuck into the playoffs this year.
Washington Redskins: With personnel that still doesn't fit Spurrier's fling-it-around philosophy and not much happening on defense, the Redskins would do well to match last year's 7-9 finish. But I think the leaguewide gloating over Spurrier's having to eat humble pie after his brash statements of a year ago is premature. I'd love to see him prove the NFL establishment wrong when it says the wide-open style that Spurrier developed coaching at the University of Florida won't work in the pros. I think he will, someday. Just not this year. I don't know that Patrick Ramsey will be the long-term answer at quarterback, but at least Spurrier seems to have ended his practice of bringing in every former Florida arm still connected to a warm body.
Handy recap for ease of ridicule
Wild cards: Saints, Eagles
NFC champion: Buccaneers
Wednesday: The AFC
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