Has it really been seven months since Janet Jackson bared her breast at the Super Bowl? Is it really a whole year since Britney Spears stripped to reveal those tiny shorts at the Opening Night pregame show, almost that long since Warren Sapp did his booty dance tribute to Beyoncé in the end zone?
Yes, yes and yes, and now here we are, ready to start another year of NFL football, and with the first game of the year still hours away in Foxboro, Mass., I'm already in midseason form using cheap tricks to get more hits from search-engine users.
The NFL opens Thursday night with a post-Janet, toned-down, five-second-delay version of that pregame party it did last year, and then a rematch of the AFC championship game, where on the same field the New England Patriots busted up the Indianapolis Colts, 24-14.
The Patriots' defensive backs so manhandled the Colts' receivers in that game that the league changed the rules this offseason, or rather instructed officials to more strictly enforce the existing pass interference and defensive holding rules, which prohibit contact with the receiver beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage.
This will have the following effect on the passing game this season: I don't know. If NFL zebras stay true to the form of their officiating brethren in other sports, they'll enforce this new rule strictly for a little while, then go back to the old way. One thing that we can be sure of, though, is that there will be more complaining than ever this year from both receivers and defensive backs, with each camp making its case for exactly what the new rules mean and how well they're being enforced.
With that fearless prediction behind us, and keeping in mind that just before the Pats mugged the Colts in last year's conference title game -- the score doesn't begin to reflect how one-sided that game was -- I forecast a Colts victory, we turn now to my annual NFL prognostications.
I'll forego my usual reminder that trying to predict how an NFL season will go is a silly, hopeless exercise because the league changes so much from year to year and because one injury can have such a huge effect on teams in the era of parity and lack of roster depth. You know all that.
Instead I'll merely remind you that, as always, I stand alone among this great nation's typists, without fear for my personal safety, professional reputation or financial standing, in organizing this sort of thing from west to east.
Everybody in the world seems to think the Seahawks are going to run away with this division. I wish I could be a contrarian, but that would mean picking the Rams, 49ers or Cardinals, and I really don't think that would be wise.
The Seahawks, loaded with offensive weapons, were supposed to win this division last year, especially if quarterback Matt Hasselbeck followed up his terrific second half of '02 with a good year. He did. Seattle also had to get better on defense, a situation it addressed by hiring defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, who had resigned from Denver after failing to improve the Broncos' defense.
Lo, the Seahawks improved on defense -- as did the Broncos, thus making Rhodes simultaneously the bum whose departure helped Denver and the savior whose arrival helped Seattle.
The problem was the Seahawks stunk like dead fish on the road last year, finding creative, disturbing ways to lose and managing only two wins, one each in Phoenix and, in the last week of the year, in San Francisco. This from a team that went 8-0 at home. Also, the Rams played better than most people thought they would, improbably riding a stout defense to a 12-4 record.
I think both of those things won't happen again, and the Seahawks have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl run. The Rams, who are suddenly looking old and not very talented, would do well to play .500 ball. The 49ers and Cardinals will be bad, but with new coach Dennis Green, the Cardinals won't be as horrendous as we're used to them being, which isn't saying much.
Predicted finish: Seattle, St. Louis, Arizona, San Francisco
The Chiefs ran away and hid last year, winning their first nine games. Then they split their last six, lost their first playoff game and went home. I think they were living a charmed life. They rely heavily on Priest Holmes, who will turn 31 in a month. That's old for a running back.
Holmes didn't take a lot of hits early in his career, when he mostly sat on the Ravens' bench, but in the three years since coming to Kansas City he's rushed 960 times and caught 206 passes. That's a lotta licks. If he breaks down, the Chiefs' offense will be OK, with that terrific offensive line, Larry Johnson likely filling in for Holmes and Trent Green doing his solid thing with an ordinary group of receivers, but it won't be elite. It won't matter, though, even if Holmes stays healthy. The Chiefs did nothing to improve their atrocious defense, and that's going to catch up with them.
I'm picking the Broncos to win this division. I just think they're solid. I like the Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey trade, on the theory that impact defensive players are more important than impact offensive players, a theory I like even though I have no idea if there's any truth to it.
Jake Plummer, playing behind a good line, is a fine quarterback -- the Broncos were 2-3 without him last year, 8-3 with him -- and while receiver Rod Smith is declining, he's still pretty good. They'll miss great tight end Shannon Sharpe, who retired, but I'm with the Broncos in thinking Ashley Lelie will have a breakout year. The defense won't be good enough to take them all the way, but they'll be a division winner and a threat in the playoffs.
The Raiders and Chargers will be marginally better than a year ago, a prediction I make so I can have something to say about them.
Predicted finish: Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, Oakland
At some point, the Packers are going to fade, and I think that point is now. Yes, the Pack have Ahman Green, an elite running back, and they actually rely on him quite a bit. But this team goes as far as quarterback Brett Favre takes them, and I think the signs point to Favre falling off a cliff.
Favre will be 35 next month and he hasn't missed a game since the Bronze Age. Remember how Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-game streak eventually took its toll? Favre's been in decline for two seasons. This year, it turns to freefall, or injury. And all you need to know about the Packers' confidence in backups Craig Nall and Doug Pederson is that they signed, and then released, Tim Couch this summer.
So that leaves the Vikings, unless you believe in the Lions or Bears, and why shouldn't you? They both have reason to believe they're on the way up. The Lions have an good coach, Steve Mariucci, and a whole buncha young speed arrayed around quarterback Joey Harrington, who I think is going to be pretty good.
If the Lions could ever win a road game -- they haven't since the Clinton administration -- they might be all right. They went 5-3 at home last year, and they ought to be better this year. They're a good dark-horse playoff contender.
The Bears looked like they were going to be hideous last year, but ended up going 7-9. That got coach Dick Jauron, a defensive specialist, fired, because you can't win with just defense, right? So the Bears went out and hired defensive specialist Lovie Smith. Jauron, meanwhile, became the defensive coordinator in Detroit, where he has the chance to simultaneously become the bum whose departure saved the Bears and the savior whose arrival helped the Lions. I doubt it on the former, though.
Unconvinced by the Rex Grossman thing, not to mention the lack of weapons, I'm puzzled about where the points will come from, but you can go a long way with defense, and Smith is a sharp guy. I think the Bears aren't as good a dark-horse playoff candidate as the Lions, but they're not bad.
So we're back in Minnesota, where the Vikings should have walked away with the division a year ago but pulled a face plant worthy of Buster Keaton. They won their first six games, mostly against weak opponents but there was a win in Green Bay and one over the Broncos. Then they lost their next four -- three of them to the Giants, Chargers and Raiders, the dregs of the league -- and never again won consecutive games, finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs. I've seen slasher movies with prettier second halves.
But I think they'll respond. I don't know why I think that, I just do. Last year I spent the whole season saying I didn't know why but I didn't believe in the Vikings and I turned out to be right, so there you go. Imagine, you get this kind of analysis for only 9.6 cents a day, and Joe Conason too!
Predicted finish: Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago
The Ravens are the class of the division, with an overpowering defense and a powerful running game, though a Nov. 1 trial on serious drug charges is hanging over the head of star running back Jamal Lewis. There's no secret here: This team is good enough to go all the way if Kyle Boller turns into an NFL quarterback in his second year and Lewis remains a free man.
Not entirely because he's my homeboy, but not entirely not because of that either, I think Boller will turn into an NFL quarterback, and it's never a bad bet to think a rich, famous athlete can keep himself on the right side of the metal doors. I think the Ravens will go deep in the playoffs, maybe all the way.
The Bengals were the NFL's best story last year, improving from extended oblivion to within sight of a playoff spot and an eventual 8-8 finish under first-year coach Marvin Lewis. But they're going to find that it's easier to go from 2-14 to 8-8 then to go from 8-8 to 10-6 -- I just made that up, but I think it's true -- especially when you turn the offense over to a quarterback, Carson Palmer, who has thrown this many passes in the NFL: zero.
The Browns just seem like a mess to me. Signing Jeff Garcia was an OK idea, but I think he's past it, and it wouldn't matter much if he weren't. Kellen Winslow Jr. should be fun to watch, though.
The Steelers still have Tommy Maddox at quarterback, and that's just not cute anymore. The future will start when Ben Roethlisberger takes over, and I think it might be a good idea to throw this season to the winds and put him in there to start learning and taking his lumps, which is what Palmer's going to be doing in Cincy.
Predicted finish: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland
A fascinating little division. I spent all of last season not believing in the Panthers, right up until the Super Bowl, when I finally became convinced that they really were a good team, though I still picked them to lose to the Patriots, which they did. That was the only smart thing I said about them all year.
And you know what? I don't think they're going to repeat. Panthers fans, who are extremely sensitive, are going to send me outraged e-mails. They're outstanding up front on defense -- I mean the Panthers, not the fans -- and have some solid players on offense, but I think last year they got every bounce and this season they're going to have to pay the piper. For an atheist, I sure can get all mystical sometimes, but no repeat for the Panthers.
So who? The Falcons? They were supposed to ride Michael Vick to the playoffs last year but he broke his leg during the decades-long preseason and they were awful -- until he got back! When they went 3-1! He's still back! (Even though he's hurting some.) And the Falcons have a new coach, Jim Mora, who's supposed to be able to fix the defense.
The Saints? They look like they have the talent every year, and they go in the tank in December, Miami Dolphins style. In coach Jim Haslett's four years, the Saints have gone 5-11 in the last quarter of the season. They're 29-19 the rest of the time. I'd have fired him for that kind of consistent drooping, but the Saints didn't, and if quarterback Aaron Brooks ever stops turning the ball over -- a big if -- they have the talent to win the division.
The Bucs? Well, I think Jon Gruden's a sharp guy and all, but they were kind of lousy last year, and they're better this year how? Because they lost Warren Sapp and picked up Charlie Garner? It's time for the Buccaneers to start over.
My answer? The Saints should win, but the Falcons will, with the Saints sliding just little enough to snag a wild card.
Predicted finish: Atlanta, New Orleans (wild card), Carolina, Tampa Bay
The league changed the rules, or at least enforcement of them, in response to the best quarterback, Peyton Manning, looking horrible in the AFC title game when his receivers got manhandled in the snow. Must be nice to be Peyton Manning. Presumably, the Colts high-octane offense will benefit from this.
The Colts' problem, unfortunately, is defense. It isn't as bad as you probably think it is. The offense is so good it creates an imbalance that makes the defense look bad. It's not, but it isn't great either. And if you're going to try to win the Super Bowl by being great on one side of the ball and OK on the other, my advice is to be great on defense. But the other way isn't impossible, and the Colts will try it again. They're the Super Bowl pick of you, this column's readers.
They'll have to be better than they were last year, though. The tone of that AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots was set early when New England was able to do whatever it wanted offensively on its first few possessions. The Colts fell behind and never recovered. The Colts, coached by defensive guy Tony Dungy, have gone younger in their secondary. We'll see if that works, but Dungy's record with building defenses is pretty good.
The Colts' main competition, as usual, appears to be the Titans, who tied them for first place last year at 12-4, the Colts taking the division title on tie-breakers. The Titans have been remarkably consistent, winning at least 11 games in four of the last five years, but -- ya gotta have hunches in the NFL -- not this year.
Quarterback Steve McNair is my favorite NFL player, the toughest quarterback I've ever seen, Brett Favre included. His routine over the last few years has been to miss practice all week with injuries, then drag his team kicking and screaming to victory on Sunday. The silliest thing you hear every week in the NFL is "Steve McNair is doubtful for Sunday." He's always doubtful, he always plays, and he usually wins. I've seen him win games with actual body parts falling off of him. He nonchalantly pops them back onto his body on the way back to the huddle, like a mud monster.
He's taken such an awful beating, though, that he's 31 going on 37. I think it catches up to him this year, and without McNair, the Titans don't look so fearsome.
So I'm staying on the Jacksonville Jaguars bandwagon, the one so many people have jumped off over the summer. Last season the Jax seemed to be putting it together in the second half. After losing their first four and seven of their first eight, they went 4-4, with two of those losses coming to the Titans and Patriots, both smoking at the time.
I think quarterback Byron Leftwich will be much improved from his promising rookie year, and Fred Taylor is probably the best running back in the league who's not routinely thought of as one of the best running backs in the league. He's been fragile in the past, and he carried the mail a punishing 345 times last year, which is worrisome, but if he can stay healthy, the Jaguars are solid enough on both sides of the ball to have a shot to be good. Not Super Bowl good, but wild card good.
I guess we're supposed to assume that because the Texans improved so nicely from Year 1 to Year 2, they'll do the same again this year and get into at least the wild card mix. I don't see it.
Predicted finish: Indianapolis, Jacksonville (wild card), Tennessee, Houston
A Steve Spurrier story from a wonderful oral history of the AFL called "Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It" by Jeff Miller: In the first combined AFL-NFL draft in 1967, the Dolphins needed a quarterback and were trying to decide between Spurrier, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida, and Bob Griese, the Heisman runner-up from Purdue.
Dolphins general manager Joe Thomas brought both young men to Miami. The rest of the story is related by former Dolphins announcer Larry King (yeah, that Larry King): "Joe Thomas met with Spurrier and Griese and told me, 'As I was talking with Spurrier, he was looking out the window. Griese was asking questions about the city, the people in the city, the surroundings, what the Orange Bowl was like.' And he thought, 'That's the kind of guy I want.'"
Spurrier doesn't sound like he's changed much in the last 37 years, does he? He was fired in the offseason and Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs was brought in. That's enough right there to improve them from 5-11 to wild-card contention. The Redskins will miss cornerback Champ Bailey, but they're going to like running back Clinton Portis, and the new ball-control offense will take a lot of pressure off of a defense that had to spend a lot of time on the field in the Spurrier era.
This next sentence might be the strangest thing I've ever written, and I can't believe I'm going to say it, but here we go. If Vinny Testaverde stays healthy, the Cowboys will win the NFC East. I kid you not!
Here's the theory: The Cowboys went 10-6 in Bill Parcells' first year at the helm. A truism about Parcells is that it's in his second year on the job when his system takes hold and the team improves. In his three previous jobs, with the Giants, Patriots and Jets, his teams have gone 17-30-1 in his first year, 31-17 in his second. The Cowboys broke the mold by playing well in Parcells' first year, but that doesn't mean they won't play well this year.
Of course, the big news of the preseason was the Cowboys cutting quarterback Quincy Carter because he reportedly failed a drug test. This seems to be why so few pickers are picking the Cowboys to make the playoffs. People, if you can win with Quincy Carter, you can win with Vinny Testaverde.
If he stays healthy, that is. The problem is Testaverde's age. He was a backup bus boy at the Last Supper. It's a tall order for him to stay healthy, and if he goes down, you're looking at Drew Henson, late of the New York Yankees minor league system, taking snaps in anger for the first time in four years.
Unless the Cowboys can find a breathing quarterback on the waiver wire. Or even Tim Couch. What's Neil O'Donnell doing?
The Eagles are the default choice to win this division, especially since they finally went out and used some of that cap space to get Donovan McNabb a decent receiver. More than decent, they got him Terrel Owens. They also got Jevon Kearse for the defensive line. Impressive, but I think the Eagles are going to take a step back this year after winning 12 games two years in a row and 11 each of the two years before that. Just another hunch.
The Giants aren't going anywhere, but they'll be able to consider the season a success if Kurt Warner can stay healthy and play so Eli Manning can watch and learn for a year without taking a pounding. The chances of this happening are precisely zero.
Predicted finish: Dallas, Washington (wild card), Philadelphia, New York
The Patriots. What else do you need to know?
The Pats use the salary cap better than anyone else, loading their roster with good players, not great ones, so they don't have to scrimp over here to pay for the superstar over there. They're on a 15-game winning streak, not having lost since Sept. 28, and if they can get past the Colts in the opener Thursday, all they have to do is win at Arizona a week from Sunday to go a calendar year without a loss.
And there's not really any reason to believe they're going to take a step back this year, except that championship teams are always vulnerable to a letdown. The Pats seem to be uniquely suited not to let that happen, but then again, they let it happen two years ago.
But if they stay healthy -- and maybe even if they don't, if you remember all the injuries they had in the first half of last year -- and if new running back Corey Dillon, an upgrade, isn't a total whiny-ass disruption, the Patriots should be awfully good again in 2004. I'm not taking them to repeat only because picking a repeat champion is a bad bet, as I learned, again, last year.
The Dolphins are in for a long, long year, and then next year a new coach. So the question here is, will the Jets or Bills, both mediocrities last year and not picked by many to do much this year, step up and contend? I like the Jets.
With quarterback Chad Pennington healthy at the start of the year, they should pick up where they left off in 2002, when they won eight of their last 11 and won a brutal AFC East, then beat the snot out of the Colts in the playoffs before losing to the scorching-hot Raiders. Last year, with Pennington on the shelf, they lost their first four (with Vinny Testaverde at QB!) and never recovered.
The Jets will need some luck. Running back Curtis Martin is 31 and past his sell-by date. And the revamp to the awful defense is going to have to work at least reasonably well. If those things happen, the Jets will win a tough wild-card race.
The Bills will improve on last year's dismal slide, which can best be illustrated by their first and last games of the year, a 31-0 win over the Patriots and a 31-0 loss to the Patriots. New coach Mike Mularkey will put a charge in the offense, but behind a terrible offensive line, Drew Bledsoe will do nothing to advance the argument that he's more than just a pretty good quarterback.
Predicted finish: New England, New York (wild card), Buffalo, Miami
Handy recap for ease of ridicule:
West: Seattle Seahawks
North: Minnesota Vikings
South: Atlanta Falcons
East: Dallas Cowboys
Wild card: New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins
Champion: Seattle Seahawks
West: Denver Broncos
North: Baltimore Ravens
South: Indianapolis Colts
East: New England Patriots
Wild card: Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets
Champion: Baltimore Ravens
Super Bowl champion: Baltimore Ravens
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NFL Week 1 [PERMALINK]
I'll once again be picking the winner of every game this season. Last year I went 157-99 in the regular season, precisely the record I'd have had if I'd simply picked the home team in every game, which would have saved me a lot of work. I'll be comparing my picks to those of ESPN.com's experts, as usual, and maybe to some other folks' as well. I'm hoping to improve on last year's meager showing.
This year will also mark the return of my What the Heck Pick of the Week, in which I pick one winner for no reason at all because, you know, what the heck. This feature remains open for sponsorship, and let me again suggest that the perfect sponsor is a hamburger chain whose food is apparently so bad its advertising slogan is "[Assumed part: What the heck] Ya gotta eat [assumed part: something]!"
My Week 1 picks will appear Friday, but I have to get the Thursday opener in, so I'll take the Colts in an upset. My son, Buster, coin-flippinest 1-year-old in America, will be wielding his quarter again this year. I'll update you on how he's doing periodically, but for now, he's taking the Ponies too.
Previous column: Readers and experts' NFL picks
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