The NFC preview safely out of the way, we turn, licking our chops, to the AFC, where all but a few teams have playoff hopes, and at least half of them can talk about going to the Super Bowl without dissolving into giggles.
The New England Patriots rule the conference, having won it the last two years and three of the last four, going on to win the Super Bowl each time. Even one of the greatest offensive showings in history by the Indianapolis Colts and a 15-1 season by the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't dislodge the Patriots last year.
The Colts knuckled under to the Patriots in the playoffs. The Steelers, who had beaten the champs in the fall, were tossed aside in the AFC Championship Game. New England went on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.
You have to consider the Patriots the favorites to win the Super Bowl every year until someone beats them in a playoff game, something that last happened in 1998, long before coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady came on watch.
But the AFC is packed with good teams. The Steelers and Colts will try again, the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers both lost earlier in last year's playoffs than they thought they should have, and the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs can make arguments of varying believability that this is their year.
This is the NFL, so not only have stranger things happened than this Patriots team not going to the Super Bowl, stranger things have happened than this Patriots team not going to the playoffs. In fact, this Patriots team could miss the playoffs without it being the strangest thing that happens this year, though something else pretty strange would have to happen too.
I'll wait while you read that paragraph again.
Continuing our brave tradition of going west to east, and our even stranger tradition of bragging about that, we look first at the left side of the map, the better to get the slop out of the way.
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AFC WEST [PERMALINK]
That's right, I said slop.
I know, the Chargers went 12-4 last year, and the Broncos always make the playoffs and always will, and the Chiefs have revamped their defense to go along with that crazy offense, and the Oakland Raiders have Randy Moss and their old swagger.
I'm not impressed. This division's better than that thing in the other conference that we discussed Tuesday, but the AFC champion will not emerge from the West.
The Broncos, the perennial power of this division, made some interesting moves this offseason, and I mean interesting in the sense that you mean it when your friend asks you what you think of his new band, the one that plays 21 different cover versions of "Wild Thing," all of them using car parts as instruments and in 9/5 time.
Unsatisfied with their defense, the Broncos pretty much went out and signed the Cleveland Browns defense. Interesting.
They also drafted Maurice Clarett in the third round, about two rounds ahead of where most people thought he'd go. I have to admit I thought Clarett was worth taking a flyer on in the draft, but I didn't mean picking him in the third round.
The theory that anybody could put on a Broncos uniform and gain 1,000 yards was tested severely by Clarett, who evidently didn't spend those second and third years beyond high school getting all mature and stuff, which is the supposed idea behind the NFL age limit he fought unsuccessfully in court. His training camp consisted of a pulled groin, a bad attitude and an early exit.
On offense, this is still Jake Plummer's team, and where I once thought Plummer would develop into a top quarterback by cutting down on his mistakes while still making sensational plays, I now think those mistakes are as much a part of his makeup as the sensational plays, and he'll never change. He's not going to be the guy to make them forget John Elway in Denver.
No one is, but you know what I mean.
I've also stopped thinking Ashley Lelie will become an elite receiver, though he did finally have a decent year last year -- a year when a lot of receivers improved because of the crackdown on contact by defensive backs.
Speaking of elite receivers, Jerry Rice, as elite as anyone ever, won't be suiting up as Denver's fourth receiver, having announced his retirement this week.
Rod Smith, meanwhile, is getting old. The Broncos do have two potentially good, if unproven, backs in Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell.
What I'm saying is I don't think the Broncos will continue their habit of going 10-6 and then losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Colts, which they've done each of the last two years.
So that means the Chiefs or Raiders are going to have to win this thing, because there's no way the Chargers don't take a step backward after last year right?
Well, right, but hang on a second.
The Chargers were legit last year. After Week 6, their only loss was a 34-31 overtime humdinger at Indianapolis. They'd have beaten the Jets in the first round of the playoffs if not for a missed 40-yard field goal in overtime, and let's just sit for a moment and think about the fact that 12-4 wasn't good enough in last year's AFC to get a first-round bye.
The Chargers are an illustration of an interesting little thing -- and by that I really mean interesting -- that the boys at Football Outsiders have discovered that's useful in predicting future performance. That thing is performance on third-down.
Over time, the Outsiders say, a team will play about equally well on every down. So, on either side of the ball, a team that plays poorly on third down one year relative to how it plays on first and second down is a good bet to improve the next year. Conversely, a team that overachieves on third down is a good bet to decline.
Sounds like a lot of hooey, but the Outsiders counted on it as they went pretty much solo in picking the Chargers, who were horrible on third down in 2003 as they went 4-12, to have a top offense in 2004. That did happen, and with an improved defense, the Chargers went 12-4 and won the AFC West. And guess what: The Chargers were superb on third down. They also fattened their record against a weak schedule.
So yeah, the Chargers are not going to go 12-4 again. But the Chargers are a good team, good enough to win the West and create a threat in the deadly AFC playoffs, though I think not good enough to get through them.
Drew Brees leads an offense highlighted by a superb receiving tight end, Antonio Gates, a deep if unspectacular receiving corps and superstar runner LaDainian Tomlinson, who actually had a down year in 2004 because of injury. The defense, which is led by the linebackers, who are led by Donnie Edwards, is good, if not quite elite.
The Chargers, you'll recall, traded Eli Manning after the 2004 draft to get North Carolina State's Philip Rivers, whom they thought of as their quarterback of the future. They figured he could sit behind the previous quarterback of the future, Brees, for one more lousy year, then take over.
But Brees was terrific. The Chargers kept both, a cap-space luxury, but they'll probably have to decide between them soon and trade one. It'll be interesting to see if Rivers gets a chance should Brees regress toward his pre-'04 standard.
The Chiefs looked like world beaters early in 2003, riding an explosive offense to a 9-0 start, which actually had people talking about an undefeated season. Yeah, well, not so much. They went 4-3 the rest of the way, then got bounced by the Colts in the first round of the playoffs.
Turns out you need some defense, too, so the Chiefs ... did nothing. Actually, they changed defensive coordinators, hiring former head coach Gunther Cunningham. The result? More of the same, and a 7-9 finish. Prior to a late-season four-game winning streak, the Chiefs had gone 7-15 since that 9-0 start and visions of the '72 Miami Dolphins.
So this offseason, the Chiefs decided that changing coordinators wasn't enough, they had to go out and get better players. Which they did. They signed linebacker Kendrell Bell -- nursing a shoulder injury after a groin pull kept him out of 13 games last year in Pittsburgh -- and defensive backs Sammy Knight and Patrick Surtain, and they drafted Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, and the defense should be better, at least good enough to make a team with a spectacular offense a contender.
And maybe they will be, but I have a feeling this offense is about to get very old very fast. Priest Holmes is about to turn 32, ancient for a running back. He's coming off an injury and the Chiefs don't throw to him much anymore, a tipoff that he's not what he once was. Backup Larry Johnson is good, but isn't Priest Holmes.
Quarterback Trent Green is 36. Even the great Tony Gonzalez is 29, which in tight end years is pretty close to the cliff. Left tackle Willie Roaf, at 36, is one of three starters on the Chiefs' powerful line who are 32 or older.
These guys could put up 29 points a game or more, the way they've done the last three years. But they could also stumble. That's my bet.
The Raiders could also be looking at 30-ish points a game if everything comes together with their new vertical offense, Kerry Collins throwing to Randy Moss, who'll make Jerry Porter better, and LaMont Jordan coming over from the Jets to improve the running game.
Unfortunately, scoring 30 points doesn't do you much good if you give up 35, which is what it looks like the Raiders are going to do.
Predicted finish: San Diego, Kansas City, Denver, Oakland
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AFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]
The Colts and their spectacular offense had this division to themselves last year as the Tennessee Titans tumbled from 12-4 to 5-11 and the Jaguars stumbled through the middle part of the season on the way to 9-7, three games behind Indy.
The Jags, who have missed the playoffs five straight years, have been making steady progress during Jack Del Rio's tenure, now entering its third year. The defense, anchored by Pro Bowl tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, is stout, and after the Jaguars improved from 5-11 to 9-7 a year ago, you'd think they'd be poised to take that next step into Super Bowl contention.
Probably not, though they're a definite playoff contender. They're going to have to figure out how to score.
Del Rio has brought in former USC assistant Carl Smith to open up what had been a West Coast-style offense. The idea is to create an offense better suited to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who has a big arm and not much in the way of touch. Leftwich has to get better for the Jaguars to succeed, but even if he does, he won't have a whole lot of help.
Jacksonville lacks depth at receiver beyond Jimmy Smith, a very good player who's 36, though he doesn't appear to have slowed terribly. Former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones, a big, athletic kid drafted as a wide receiver, has had an impressive preseason, as has Reggie Williams, the first-round pick who struggled as a rookie last year.
But the trouble with giving practice-game performances credence is that you also have to note that Smith dropped three passes in limited duty in four games. Maybe he's slowing down, after all.
Meanwhile, running back Fred Taylor says he's healthy after offseason knee surgery. But he's pushing the magic age of 30 and has a history of injuries. Do you believe him? LaBrandon Toefield, 3.3 yards a carry last year, is the backup.
So what about the Texans? They also appear to be on the rise. They won four games in 2002, their inaugural year, then five in '03 and seven last year. Gotta like that trend line.
And you can just keep right on liking it, provided the Texans can block a little bit and keep quarterback David Carr from getting smeared half a dozen times a game. This blocking thing has never happened in the Texans' brief history.
With receiver Andre Johnson and running back Domanick Davis, Carr has a nice balance of weapons if he can stay upright. The defense is nothing special and struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks last year. Without an improvement there -- and the Texans made no major personnel moves -- Houston isn't ready to capture a playoff spot in this tough conference.
It's a rebuilding year in Tennessee, so this really is still the Colts' division. It might be their conference too.
Except for tight end Marcus Pollard, who was made expendable by the emergence of Dallas Clark, all the big names are back in the Colts' offense. Peyton Manning, of course, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne. Brandon Stokley is due back after missing the preseason with a shoulder injury.
The Colts, coached by defense guy Tony Dungy, could benefit from an improved defense, and signing defensive tackle Corey Simon, a former Eagles holdout, on the eve of the season was a sweet move. Indy drafted defenders with their top three picks, but none appear ready to crack the starting lineup.
Not much improvement is needed, though. The Colts' problem, as everyone knows, is that they can't win in New England in the playoffs, but it's not as if they've been blown out by the Patriots in all of those games. Their problem has mostly been that the Pats have shut down the Payton Manning show.
That may be because of New England's great defense, but until it's proven otherwise the Colts are sticking to the story that it's because of New England's weather. If the Colts can just play well enough in the regular season to get that playoff game against the Pats at home, indoors, on the carpet, well, we'll see what happens.
The Colts are good enough to earn that home field and good enough to beat the Patriots. Will they? Well, we'll see what happens.
Predicted finish: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Houston, Tennessee
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AFC NORTH [PERMALINK]
Best division in football.
The Steelers went 15-1 with a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens can still play defense and they've added some receivers, giving quarterback Kyle Boller a chance to succeed and an end to excuses. The Cincinnati Bengals, with Carson Palmer leading the explosive offense, are finally ready to get back to the playoffs if they can avoid their newly habitual 1-4 start.
The Steelers are bound to take a step backward. In today's NFL, nobody goes 15-1 because they're good enough to go 15-1. They go 15-1 because they're good enough to go 13-3 and they get a couple of breaks. That's what happened with the Steelers last year.
Throw in the way Roethlisberger was looking flustered and indecisive in the playoffs last year -- and this preseason -- the loss of receiver Plaxico Burress to free agency and the injuries that have hit running backs Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, and 15 wins looks a long way away.
Pittsburgh wins by controlling the clock with its running game and shutting the other team down with its front seven. Staley, who had arthroscopic knee surgery a month ago, and Bettis, who has a strained calf, are both expected back in the early part of the season, as early as Week 1 for Staley, but they're both good bets to miss a lot of time.
Staley is 30 and has a history of injuries, including the hamstring that kept him out of six games last season. Bettis is 33 and has a million miles on him. If the Steelers can't keep them healthy, we're talking Willie Parker as the starter. At any rate, we're talking eight men in the box and opponents daring Roethlisberger to win games with his arm.
I think he'll struggle more than he did during the regular season last year, but not as much as he did during the playoffs. The Steelers will ride their rugged defense to a playoff spot.
But I'm taking a flyer on the Ravens winning the division. Boller's been mostly lousy for the last two years, but he's had a good excuse: no receivers. That hasn't explained the bad mechanics and decision-making, but it's still been a pretty good excuse.
This offseason was Operation Make Kyle Boller a Quarterback. Ravens coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and replaced him with former Giants coach Jim Fassel. The Ravens signed receiver Derrick Mason after the Titans salary-capped him and drafted Oklahoma wideout Mark Clayton.
Those moves and the return of tight end Todd Heap, if he can stay healthy, give Boller some targets. The Ravens also brought in former college head coach Rick Neuheisel to be Boller's quarterback -- and Final Four pool -- guru. No more excuses.
The Ravens still have Jamal Lewis, a former 2,000-yard rusher who hurt his ankle last year and spent the offseason in the graybar hotel on an old drug trafficking rap. He's only 26, but he's taken a pounding as the Ravens' only offensive option for the last few years, and his ankle isn't fully healed. There's also the dominating defense led by the still-great linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed.
The pieces have been in place for a Super Bowl run for a while now, except at quarterback and receiver. If Boller can play like an NFL signal-caller, the Ravens should give the Patriots, Colts and anybody else in the mix a run for the conference championship. If not, another 9-7 type season and a just miss or a wild card and early exit.
For no reason other than loyalty to the old alma mater, I'm guessing that Boller will deliver and the Ravens will win the North.
If not, the Bengals will be waiting. Palmer directs a high-octane offense with receivers Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Kelley Washington, plus running back Rudi Johnson. It's the defense that's keeping the Bengals from serious title contention, giving coach Marvin Lewis something in common with Dungy of the Colts as a defensive coach whose team thrives on offense, not defense.
The Bengals have gone 8-8 each of the last two years, which counts as a wild run of success for this franchise, which last had a winning season in, get this, 1990. How long ago was that? Ickey Woods was on that team and I could still drink on weeknights.
This might be the year Cincy gets that magical ninth win, and if the Ravens aren't any good the Bengals are a great candidate to take their playoff spot.
The Cleveland Browns are in rebuilding mode, which I guess we should call building mode since they've never won anything, and that's right I said never, and don't make me make that Jim Brown didn't play for these Cleveland Browns argument again.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is the new head coach, and he's smart. He'll have them headed in the right direction eventually, but five wins would be a bang-up year in 2005.
Predicted finish: Baltimore, Pittsburgh (wild card), Cincinnati, Cleveland
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AFC EAST [PERMALINK]
Just as the NFC East comes down to "Can anyone catch Philadelphia?" the AFC East is a matter of "Can anyone catch New England." Only in the AFC East, there are actually some candidates.
The Bills went 9-7 last year despite a 1-5 start. They went into the final game of the season on a six-game win streak during which they simply abused people, beating the Seattle Seahawks by 29 points on the road, pounding the St. Louis Rams by 20, the Browns by 30, the San Francisco 49ers by 34.
They outscored opponents 228-89 during the streak. Those foes ranged from mediocre to astonishingly bad, but I don't care if you're playing the Little Sisters of Charity, 38-15 is a pretty impressive average score.
All the Bills had to do was beat Pittsburgh in their last game to make the playoffs. The Steelers were 14-1, but they rested their first string. The Bills lost, and stayed home.
The Buffalos bring back their powerful defense, maybe the best in football, and powerful runner Willis McGahee. The big difference is at quarterback, where Drew Bledsoe has been replaced by J.P. Losman, a second-year man out of Tulane.
It's rare for a young quarterback to step right in and succeed, but Losman is a good athlete with a strong arm, and he's in the right situation to be the exception, on a running team with a strong defense. Just ask Ben Roethlisberger. If he can keep his mistakes to a minimum and manage the ball-control attack, the Bills will be a playoff team.
The Jets were a playoff team last year, and came within two missed Doug Brien field goals of beating the Steelers in the divisional round and moving on to the AFC Championship Game. Of course, they also came within a missed Nate Kaeding field goal of losing to the Chargers in the wild-card round, but never mind.
The Jets have their problems, though. Quarterback Chad Pennington is coming off shoulder surgery, and running back Curtis Martin, who carried the offense last year, is 32.
I was wrong when I said Martin was probably past it at 31 last year. What he was past was opposing defenders. He led the league in rushing, is all.
The Jets fired conservative offensive coordinator Paul Hackett and brought in Mike Heimerdinger, formerly with the Titans, to open things up, so Martin won't have to carry as heavy a load, but I still expect him to decline. But even if he doesn't, an easier workload for Martin is only good news for the Jets if the passing game clicks.
New York also lost nose tackle Jason Ferguson to free agency, which will hurt, though the Jets are still pretty formidable up front on defense. But moving away from the ball-control offense may hurt the Jets defensively, leaving it on the field for more plays, which could lead to the front seven wearing down and exposing the secondary. That bunch was so-so last year. It should be better this season with Ty Law, but still won't be great.
The Dolphins weren't as bad last year as you probably remember them being. They had a good defense and were in every game, losing by more than 10 points only twice, at New England and the Jets, on the way to a 4-12 record. Still, they were really bad.
They were hideous on offense after the sudden retirement of Ricky Williams, though I think they would have been pretty bad with Williams, who I think was through anyway. It didn't help that coach Dave Wannstedt just kept running the ball, without benefit of a good running back. He's gone now.
Nick Saban, late of LSU, is the new coach, and he brings energy, smarts, a no-nonsense approach and NFL experience under Bill Belichick. I think he's got a good chance to be closer to the Jimmy Johnson end of the former college coach spectrum than the Dennis Erickson end.
But it'll take a while. That defense is aging, and the offense is in the hands of new starting quarterback ... I can scarcely bring myself to type it ... Gus Frerotte. Saban is turning the roster over and will try to rebuild using the Patriots' model. For now, this is another team for which five wins would be an achievement.
So. The Patriots. Not only have they won the last two championships, they've also been the best team in the league both times. Those two don't always go together. And they're the best-run, best-coached franchise in the league.
The Patriots were the first team to figure out how to manage success in the salary-cap era. Belichick and general manager Scott Pioli have done a brilliant job of finding useful role players who fit the team's needs perfectly. The Patriots are so good they can lose key personnel and just keep on winning. Out of defensive backs? No problem, we'll just plug in a wide receiver and adjust the scheme a little.
Handicapping the AFC has come down to looking at the Patriots and trying to figure out if there's something you can hang your hat on, some excuse you can give yourself to pick against them, because it's kind of boring to pick them year after year.
Here's this year's hat rack: The Pats have lost their starting inside linebackers, Tedi Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Bruschi will miss the season after having a mild stroke. Johnson retired. Ty Law, the anchor of the secondary, is also gone, a free agent who signed with the Jets.
Perhaps more importantly, since the Patriots can pretty much pull guys out of the stands to play any position and it works out, they lost both coordinators.
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is the new coach at Notre Dame and defensive chief Romeo Crennel has gone to the Browns. Belichick will lead a committee to guide the offense, while longtime Belichick assistant Eric Mangini takes over the defense.
Mangini's the guy who coached the secondary last year, when it had so many injuries the Patriots had to use scarecrows and they still kept winning. If he could deal with that turmoil in the backfield in 2004, he's probably not a bad bet to deal with the loss of Law, Bruschi and Johnson.
Anyway, the Patriots don't so much stop opponents with superior personnel as with superior game planning.
The offense has lost wide receiver David Patten, who had a nice year but isn't anything special. More importantly, there has to be concern about Corey Dillon, who was fabulous in his first year in red, white and silver after a lifetime of losing in Cincinnati, but he carried the ball 410 times, playoffs included. That's a lot of miles at any age, probably too many at 30.
But put the ball in Tom Brady's hands and everything's going to be all right. Deion Branch is an ace receiver and David Givens is just fine. Kevin Faulk provides relief and change of pace for Dillon. The offensive line is like the rest of the team: No stars, just a bunch of guys who do their jobs really well.
Is there enough to hang your hat on to pick against the Patriots in the AFC East? No way.
Predicted finish: New England, Buffalo (wild card), New York, Miami
But is there enough to hang your hat on to pick against the Patriots in the entire conference? Who knows, but I'm hanging mine anyway. I'm going with the Colts. Don't worry, it's a cheap hat.
I know, I wrote last year that I'd taken the oath, that I wouldn't pick against the Patriots again until somebody beat them in a playoff game. I'm hear to tell you that I'm jumping off the wagon.
I wouldn't do that, wouldn't go back on my word that way, if I didn't have a good reason, and the good reason is this: I dunno, I just feel like it.
I think the losses on defense, the change in coordinators and some plain old law of averages stuff will cost the Pats a couple of games and the Colts will ride their improved defense, Roman candle offense and soft schedule to home-field advantage in the playoffs. And, playing indoors on their own rug, I think the Colts will finally get that win over New England.
I really think that.
OK, so I don't really think that, but I'm saying it anyway because it's boring to just keep picking the Patriots year after year.
OK, so I only picked them for game after game, two games, before going back to being stupid. What can I say? I'm easily bored.
I'll take the Colts over the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
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NFL Preview recap [PERMALINK]
Here, for ease of ridicule, are my NFL picks for the year, with handy links to the preview for each conference and division.
Super Bowl champion: Indianapolis
Previous column: NFC preview
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