The 2005 NFL season starts Thursday when the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the Oakland Raiders. That means it's time for the annual NFL Preview, an end-of-summer festival of hunches and unfounded opinions.
This column stands alone among national typists by organizing this sort of thing from West to East. That works out nicely for this year's NFL because both western divisions are pretty bad, so in addition to bravely rowing against the tide, it allows me to dispense with the dreck at the start.
For pretty much the same reason, we'll start with the NFC today and look at the AFC, where almost all of the league's good teams play, on Wednesday.
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NFC WEST [PERMALINK]
The NFC West has two coaches who are probably on the hot seat, and the funny thing is they're the coaches of the teams that finished 1-2 and went to the playoffs last year.
Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks went 9-7 and won the division despite losing twice to Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams, who went 8-8, won a wild-card spot and beat the Seahawks yet again in the first round of the playoffs. But you can be a really bad team and win the West or a wild-card spot in the NFC, and these were two really bad teams. And if they don't get better, Holmgren and Martz will probably be looking for jobs.
After a terrific seven-year run in Green Bay that included two Super Bowl appearances and one title, Holmgren's streak of mediocrity will be too long to sustain if it continues into his seventh season.
Martz has had more success in St. Louis, 14 wins and a conference title in 2001, his second year, and 12-4 in 2003, but he's not popular or well-liked enough to survive consecutive down seasons, especially with a team that still has so many high-profile players from the 1999 Super Bowl champs, whose presence creates high expectations, however unfairly.
The division's other two coaches aren't in danger of losing their jobs because they're too new. Dennis Green's Arizona Cardinals showed some life in his first season last year, especially on defense, as they went 6-10. They were even in the playoff picture until Green instituted his revolving-door quarterback gambit.
The San Francisco 49ers have a new coach, Mike Nolan, and while they're still an organization in chaos, they'll improve from their 2-14 record just by accident if nothing else.
As we learned last year, somebody has to win this division, though we never found out why. The question is, will this year's winner be any more worthy than last year's? The answer is the same as the answer to most preseason questions in the NFL: Who knows.
But the Seahawks and Rams both tinkered rather than overhauling and the Cardinals don't look much better than decent at best, so my hunch is no.
The Seahawks and Rams both look to me like six- to eight-win teams that with a few breaks and lucky bounces could ride a soft schedule to a 10-6 record, with 9-7 being plenty good enough to win this division. They both got plenty of breaks last year to go 9-7 and 8-8, so maybe we should look elsewhere for the division champion.
Like Arizona? It sounds crazy, but listen, the San Diego Chargers got good last year. The Cardinals don't even have to do that.
The Cards only improved from 4-12 to 6-10 in 2004, which doesn't sound like much. It's right in line with their historical mediocrity: They've had between four and six wins in 12 of the last 20 seasons. But 2004 really was different. The Cardinals seem to be moving in the right direction. Green apparently believes that 8-8 is not a satisfactory goal, a revolutionary idea around that team.
The aggressive defense is solid enough to keep the Cardinals in games and give the offense a chance to win. There's a talented group of young receivers led by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and rookie back J.J. Arrington, the leading rusher in the nation last year at Cal, gives the running game a boost behind what could be a decent line.
But there's a problem, aside from the fact that this is the Arizona, formerly St. Louis, nee Chicago Cardinals, a franchise that always finds a way to be awful: Green has handed the quarterback job to Kurt Warner.
Mark my words: No team will ever succeed again with Kurt Warner at quarterback. You'll read and hear that Warner has looked sharp in preseason games this summer. You may have even witnessed this yourself. It doesn't matter. Practice games are mirages. Warner's through.
Warner's inevitable injury or benching will lead to either Josh McCown, who had the job when things were going decently for a while last year, or former Michigan quarterback John Navarre, a seventh-round pick in 2004, taking over. Probably McCown. He should be competent enough for Arizona to take this weak division.
The worst thing that could happen to this team would be Warner playing just well enough to stay in the lineup too long, but I wouldn't lose any sleep worrying about that.
The 49ers will -- bold and pointless prediction! -- win five games.
Predicted finish: Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco
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NFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]
Michael Vick is the most exciting player in football. The question: Is he even a halfway decent quarterback? The answer, of course: Who knows.
There's almost no way to measure the Falcons' offense with Vick at the controls and conclude it's a good one unless you value leading the league in rushing in the absence of a passing game, which is sort of like having a car with a really fast first gear. This team went 11-5 last season and reached the NFC Championship Game because of its improved defense.
Or did it? The thing is, over the last two years the Falcons went 15-5, playoffs included, when Vick played and 2-12 when he didn't or made only a brief appearance. In 2003, when their defense wasn't much good, they were 2-10 with Vick injured and 3-1 after he returned to the starting lineup. Maybe we haven't figured out how to measure him yet.
Having said that, I thought the Falcons were a little paper tigerish a year ago. Not only did they get to play four games against the NFC West, they got to start the season with three games against that division. Win, win, win. Nice way to begin. Then they got to go to Carolina and play the Panthers in the midst of that team's injury nightmare of a 1-7 first half. Win.
From then on, the Falcons went 7-5, losing to the Detroit Lions and getting blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Bucs. They did post nice wins over the Chargers and at the Denver Broncos, and they beat the Panthers again late in the year when Carolina was hot.
The schedule isn't so friendly this year. The Falcons open at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, who pounded them in the title game last year, and also play the Super Bowl champion Patriots and the very tough Jets in the first seven games, not to mention '04 playoff teams Seattle and Minnesota.
You can make the argument that new middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, a former Baltimore Raven, makes the defense a little better, and that rookie receiver Roddy White and sophomore Michael Jenkins will finally present Vick with decent targets besides tight end Alge Crumpler.
I'll believe the latter when I see it, but even if it's all true, the Falcons look like a wild-card team to me, not a division champ. I'm picking Carolina to win the South.
Now, regular readers who are Panthers fans know I'm pretty much always wrong about their team. The only time I've ever been right about them is when I wrote before the Super Bowl two years ago that they'd give the Patriots a tough time but lose a close one.
Panthers fans rejoiced, thinking my prediction of a Panthers loss would guarantee yet another victory. They couldn't have seen it coming that I'd get one right.
So I'm sure the Carolina faithful will be mortified to learn that I think their team has the stuff this year, especially because it's nothing more than a hunch.
Carolina's 6-2 second half was impressive last year because after a rash of injuries and a 1-7 start they had every right to mail in the rest of the season. Instead, they damn near made the playoffs.
They really didn't beat anybody in those six wins -- exactly none of their wins came against teams that finished with a winning record -- but that's how a lot of NFL hot streaks go. And though they'd gotten healthier, they were still without pretty much all of their offensive weapons, plus defensive end Kris Jenkins. Even quarterback Jake Delhomme, who managed to stay on the field, had a bad thumb.
The Panthers are healthy again. The question will be whether they can score points, and you know the answer to that by now. Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster are back at running back, but Davis is 32 and I don't think much of Foster even when he's healthy. Receiver Steve Smith is back, but Muhsin Muhammad is gone, which is a little better than a wash for the Panthers.
But the Panthers have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, and it gets way better with Jenkins back. You think Vick is the best athlete in the league? Not even in the division. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers is a monster, and he's still learning the game. And get this: The Panthers have made noises about lining up the 6-6, 300-pounder on offense. At wide receiver!
Plus, they're due for some luck after last year. They'll need a running back -- old or new -- to emerge, and someone other than Smith to catch some passes, and they'll need to figure out a way to beat the Falcons, who've just had their number. I think that'll happen.
The Buccaneers were lousy last year and don't appear to have improved, but at least they're getting younger.
That leaves the New Orleans Saints. I'd like to think the Saints will respond to their historically unique troubles by having a season for the ages. It would certainly be an inspirational, feel-good story, and, as has been the case for years, the Saints have the talent to be a pretty good team.
But boy, it's asking a lot. They're likely to play their whole season on the road, in one sense or another. Their "home" opener against the New York Giants has been moved to the Giants' field in New Jersey and it's unclear where they'll play the rest of their games, but it won't be in New Orleans. They'll also be living and practicing away from home, and wrung out from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
This on top of already being a team with a genius for underperforming. I'd like to say I'll be rooting for them, as I suspect a lot of people will be, but I'm guessing owner Tom Benson is going to make that difficult by talking way too much about moving his team to San Antonio or Los Angeles while recovery and cleanup are still in their early stages.
In any event it's going to be a long, tough year for this bunch.
Predicted finish: Carolina, Atlanta (wild card), Tampa Bay, New Orleans
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NFC NORTH [PERMALINK]
A lot of questions in this division.
The answers: Yes, yes, maybe and, of course, who knows.
The Packers are done. "At some point, the Packers are going to fade," I wrote at this time last year, "and I think that point is now." I looked pretty good as the Pack started 1-4. Then they reeled off six straight wins before gliding into the playoffs by splitting their last six games for a 10-6 record.
It was fool's gold, though, and the Packers have realized it. Brett Favre is still there, but the team has gone ahead and started rebuilding. Favre can still fling that ball, but he's a liability on the run now, so teams should just throw blitzes at him and wait for him to throw interceptions. The defense won't stop anybody. This will be a rebuilding year.
The Vikings will miss Moss, make no mistake. They were a much better offensive team with him in the lineup than without. He made the running game better, he was so dangerous. Maybe he was a locker room cancer and the Vikes were never going to win big with him on the team, but winning, period, got tougher the day he left.
But there's good news. Though they were overshadowed by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, Daunte Culpepper and the Vikings had a big offensive year in 2004 with the best passing offense in the NFC, and that was with Moss out or hurting for more than half the year. So they can slip some and still be pretty good.
More good news is they've upgraded the defense, which was as bad last year as the offense was good -- Minnesota scored 25.3 points a game and allowed 24.7. The Vikings signed free agent tackle Pat Williams, linebacker Sam Cowart, corner Fred Smoot and safety Darren Sharper, all of whom should help.
Linebacker Napoleon Harris was the return from Oakland in the Moss trade. He was a disappointment for the Raiders, but the Vikings think moving him to the outside will make him better.
If the Vikes defense can just improve from lousy to decent, the offense should carry them to the division title.
The bad news is that coach Mike Tice, though he's kind of an entertaining character with his pencil behind his ear and his "Super Bowl tickets for sale" shingle, is the leader of a coaching staff that's paid peanuts in a you-get-what-you-pay-for world.
The Vikings have had the talent to win this division each of the last two years also, and twice they've gone 3-5 in the second half of the season. Even with the Packers out of the way, it's tough to bet on the Vikings, but I'll do it anyway.
The Lions are one of the most intriguing teams in the league. They've drafted a passel of offensive weapons over the last few years, meaning that if the offensive line holds together and Harrington can figure it all out, they should be a scoring machine. Those are big ifs.
The defense figures to be pretty good up front, not so good toward the back, but overall decent enough to keep the Lions in games. If Harrington is throwing strikes to Pollard and wide receivers Roy and Mike Williams and Charles Rogers, and Kevin Jones is pounding away through opened up defenses, the Lions should win a lot of those.
My hunch is it'll be a fits-and-starts year on offense, and the Lions will just miss the playoffs.
The Bears will play solid defense and lose a lot of low-scoring games. If Kyle Orton is a revelation at quarterback, they could be a surprise, but I think this'll be a take-your-lumps year for him.
Predicted finish: Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago
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NFC EAST [PERMALINK]
So let's see, so far I've picked the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings to win their divisions. I better get a sure thing in there: The Eagles to win the East.
The Eagles are the Patriots of the NFC, a well-run, well-coached team that makes smart personnel decisions, allowing it to overcome the tendency of NFL teams to slide back to the back after a couple of good seasons. The cutting of popular lineman Hugh Douglas, who is coming off surgery and near the end of his career, was a typically unemotional move.
Even more emblematic was the Eagles rescinding the franchise tender they'd given defensive tackle Corey Simon, who'd been holding out for a contract extension. That made Simon a free agent, and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles are deep at tackle, but wow.
But it's hard to argue with Philly's methods. The Eagles have won at least 11 games five years in a row, at least 12 in each of the last three. They've played in the last four NFC Championship Games, finally winning one last year before losing to the Pats in the Super Bowl.
Thank goodness for Terrell Owens.
Not for getting the Eagles over the title-game hump. He was hurt for the two playoff games, remember? They won without him.
Thank goodness for Owens bringing his trademark petulance and idiocy to the Eagles and making things interesting in the NFC. Without the disruption of Owens' tone-deaf public whining about his contract and his popular quarterback, we might as well just hand the conference title over.
We still probably should, but at least now we can sit around and wonder if Owens' act will cause enough disharmony to throw the Eagles off their game. I think it might. With all this tsuris, the Eagles might only win 13 games even if they don't treat the last two games as scrimmages, as they did last year.
There's also the Super Bowl losers' jinx, if you believe in such things. The last four teams to lose, the New York Giants, the Rams, the Raiders and the Panthers, have stumbled the following season, missing the playoffs. You have to believe pretty hard to think the Eagles are going to follow that trend.
As Donovan McNabb has pointed out repeatedly, he doesn't have to like or even speak to Owens to throw him the ball, and Owens is a dynamite receiver. There's also running back Brian Westbrook, who is this generation's Marshall Faulk -- an NFL generation being about three years -- though he's also unhappy about his contract.
The defensive line and secondary are both terrific, covering up for some weakness, relatively speaking, at linebacker. And just for good measure, the Eagles have the best kicker in the league, David Akers.
Here's another sign of the way the Eagles do things: As training camp ended, they signed a couple of spare parts, wide receiver Darnerian McCants and running back Lamar Gordon. McCants was just cut by Washington, Gordon by the Miami Dolphins. So two lousy teams have decided they have no use for these fellows, and with good reason.
Watch them contribute in Philly.
If there's a challenger to the Eagles in the East, it's the Dallas Cowboys. What I mean by that is, the Cowboys are going to chase a wild-card spot this year.
The Bill Parcells magic worked in reverse during his first two years in Dallas. The Cowboys made an unexpected run to the playoffs in his first year, then were lousy in his second. In his 48 previous stops in the NFL, it's gone the other way around.
Now he's brought in his old New England quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, to throw the ball to the Gee, When That Guy Was Younger I Thought He Was Really Going to Be Something All-Stars, Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Peerless Price, and hand off to Julius Jones, one of the top two running backs in the league named Jones.
I'm not a believer in Bledsoe, but the Cowboys will succeed if their overhauled defense pulls together. Dallas, which plans to use a 3-4 as its base scheme, had three of the first 42 draft picks, and they used them on defensive ends Demarcus Ware of Troy and Marcus Spears of LSU and linebacker Kevin Burnett of Tennessee. The Cowboys also signed nose tackle Jason Ferguson from the Jets and cornerback Anthony Henry from the Browns.
I think they've done enough to win a wild card, and even give the Eagles a run for the division if the champs really do fall down the stairs.
The New York Giants will be the Eli Manning show. There's enough talent on this team to make the playoffs if Manning plays like a Manning after being ridiculously awful in going 1-6 last season. The defense, already decent, should improve with a healthy Michael Strahan and the addition of free-agent middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.
But Manning, though he showed some improvement at the end of last year, still has a long way to go. He'll certainly have some weapons at his disposal -- Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey -- but 2005 will likely be a take-your-lumps season for him. If everything breaks right, this team could contend this year, but I think they're a year away.
Four separate trips to the West Coast, to play at San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Oakland, won't help, but the Giants will get an extra home game because their Week 2 game against the Saints has been moved to Giants Stadium.
The good news for Washington is that Forbes magazine again says it's the most valuable franchise in the league. The bad news: You can't, technically, buy victories.
Washington is a mess, and if Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs has any good ideas about how to fix things, he's keeping them to himself.
Predicted finish: Philadelphia, Dallas (wild card), New York, Washington
I'm picking the Eagles to repeat as NFC champions. I realize it's unwise to predict any repeat performances in the NFL, especially for a team that's already had a long run of success. Parity says the Eagles can't go to the NFC Championship Game for a fifth straight time, never mind the Super Bowl for the second.
But I can't find anybody else in the conference good enough to pick, and I think the Eagles, like the Patriots, have figured out how to handle the forces that drive teams toward the middle.
Here, for ease of ridicule, are my NFC picks:
Wild cards: Atlanta, Dallas
NFC champion: Philadelphia
We'll turn to the AFC on Wednesday, and then to the picks of various national typists and chatterers on Thursday. As usual, I'll be comparing my weekly game picks to those of some of these "experts" this year, as well as to those of a certain coin-flipping toddler. The What the heck Pick sponsorship is still available.
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