The 2005 NFL season starts Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the Oakland Raiders, which is just all wrong. Even though it's on a Thursday, the game kicks off the final season of "Monday Night Football" on ABC, which is all right with me.
It's a hobbyhorse of mine that in the first week of the season, when the schedule allows for it, the Thursday night opening game should be a rematch of one of the previous year's conference championship games and the Monday night game should be a rematch of the other.
This would tie the two bookend games of the opening weekend to the exciting finale of the previous season in a very cool way, and in most years it would be possible. Division champions often meet in conference title games, and division champs always play each other the next year.
Even when one of the teams is a champ and the other a wild card, there's a one-in-three chance they'll meet again the next year. The teams in eight of the last 10 conference championship games have met the following season.
The schedule would have allowed for it this year, and the NFL got it half right by having the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons, last year's NFC Championship Game combatants, meet in the first Monday night game. But The Patriots should be playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opener, not the Raiders. Instead, the Pats and Steelers meet on Sunday afternoon in Week 3.
It's just wrong.
I'll have my Week 1 picks in Friday's column, but I'm taking the Patriots in the opener. The Raiders should be a lot of fun to watch this year, with what looks like a high-scoring offense and a higher-allowing defense. A team like that can shock anybody, but I don't think anybody's going to shock the Patriots in New England in a marquee game.
Continuing a tradition that's fast becoming one of the most ignored in football, this column has assembled a panel of "experts" and will track their preseason predictions throughout the year.
Last year's winner was the consensus picks of the authors at Football Outsiders. And by the way, to clarify something I wrote Wednesday, the Outsiders didn't use their third-down findings to pick the Chargers to win the AFC West, but to have a top offense. The Outsiders failed to foresee San Diego's defensive improvement and picked them to go 8-8. I've fixed the archives.
In 2003 Don Banks of Sports Illustrated took the coveted prize, which is dinner at my house, home cooking not implied.
The 27 experts I'm tracking -- I'll give you the full list in a second -- pretty much agree that the Eagles are going to return to the Super Bowl, where they'll meet the Colts.
That's right, the Colts. Seventeen of the 27 experts picked Peyton Manning and Co. to win the AFC, the Pats a distant second with four votes. I guess I'm not the only one who's failing to take my own very good advice not to pick against the Patriots until someone beats them in a playoff game, which last happened when Natalie Imbruglia and Paula Cole were famous singers.
The experts are divided on who's going to win that Eagles-Colts game, each team getting eight votes. Three experts think the Pats will win a third straight title. The Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens got two votes each.
And I can tell you that there is at least one person who gets paid to predict NFL outcomes who thinks each of the following teams will win the Super Bowl: The Kansas City Chiefs, the Raiders, the Steelers and the St. Louis Rams.
Here's a roll call of our panel:
From ESPN, which provides more than a third of the experts: John Clayton, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Merril Hoge, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Len Pasquarelli, Mark Schlereth, Michael Smith, Joe Theismann and Steve Young.
From Sports Illustrated: The magazine's picks, plus those of Banks, Peter King and Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman, whose division, wild-card and postseason predictions I've extrapolated from his season-opening power ratings.
From Football Outsiders: The consensus of the site's author's, plus the picks of lead author Aaron Schatz. From Outsports.com, Cyd Ziegler Jr. and Jim Buzinski, who was the champ at picking division winners in 2003.
From CBS.SportsLine.com, Clark Judge and Pete Prisco. From the Sporting News, Dan Pompei and Vinnie Iyer. Plus the newstand annuals Athlon Sports, Pro Football Weekly and Street & Smith's, and yours truly.
I'm running the contest a little differently this year. In the past it's been about the regular season only, with the winner being the entry that best predicted the playoff lineup. After about four seconds' consideration, I've decided that's stupid, and this year I'm including the postseason.
So each entry will get one point for each correct prediction of a division winner, a half point for picking a division winner that wins a wild card or vice versa, two points for picking a conference champ and four points for getting the Super Bowl winner. Anyone who didn't make postseason picks doesn't get to play. Otherwise, the criteria are that an expert's picks have to appear someplace national -- no local papers -- and easy for me to find.
The consensus picks of our panel o' experts, arrived at by awarding each team two points for each first-place prediction and one for each wild-card pick, are:
West: St. Louis
Wild cards: Atlanta, Dallas (see below)
NFC champion: Philadelphia
West: San Diego
East: New England
Wild cards: Pittsburgh, New York
AFC champion: Indianapolis
Super Bowl champion: Philadelphia/Indianapolis (tie!)
The second NFC wild card was actually a three-way tie between the Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals. But I awarded the playoff spot to the Cowboys because they got 10 wild-card votes, more than any other team except Atlanta's 13, while the Cardinals got four and the Seahawks none.
The three teams ended up with the same point totals because Dallas got only three first-place votes in the East, while Seattle got eight and Arizona six in the West, so the tie was a function of the experts thinking the Seahawks and Cards have a better chance of winning their weak division than the Cowboys have of knocking off the Eagles.
There were some surprises from the experts, continuing to use that term loosely because it includes me. The San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins all failed to garner a single vote for anything, which isn't shocking, but the Houston Texans didn't get any either. I thought somebody'd at least take a flyer on them.
Washington and the Tennessee Titans both got a wild-card vote, after all, and the Raiders got a vote to win the Super Bowl. Both the Raiders and Washington pick came from one place, though: Theismann has them meeting in the Super Bowl. Whoa, Joe.
I was surprised the experts took the Ravens over the Steelers in the AFC North, by the slimmest of margins, and that the Chargers didn't win the polling in the West by more than they did -- they had 32 points to 14 for the Kansas City Chiefs, nine for the Denver Broncos and eight for the Raiders. The lack of love for Denver surprised me too.
The only other division that was even remotely close was the NFC South, where the Panthers beat the Falcons 42-33. That surprised me a little, as did the fairly solid plurality for the Rams in the West, 30 points to the Seahawks' and Cardinals' 16. I expected the experts to go for Seattle.
I also expected a little more wild-card support for the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars, but they each got three first-place and two wild-card votes, leaving them well out of the running.
I thought the Detroit Lions might get a few more votes than the one first-place and one wild-card tally they got. I guess more experts think Kyle Boller's going to figure out how to play quarterback in Baltimore than think Joey Harrington is going to do so in Detroit.
And speaking of knowing how to play quarterback, no love at all for Brett Favre. The Green Bay Packers got a lone wild-card vote. I think the Packers will be lousy, but I thought that last year too and they won the NFC Central. I figured the Favre magic would pull some votes.
I should note that two of the three wild-card votes the New Orleans Saints got came in ESPN the Magazine, which was printed long before Hurricane Katrina. CBS.SportsLine's Prisco took the Saints as a wild card in a column published Tuesday, but didn't elaborate.
The great thing about all this is we're all going to be wrong. In my two years of collecting expert picks, no one has picked more than six of the eight division winners, and only one (1, uno) person, Buzinski of Outsports.com, has gotten six right.
The NFL offers up surprises every year. In 2004 we had the Steelers, the Chargers and the Falcons more than doubling their win totals and taking divisions. Who will it be this year? Joe Theismann thinks maybe Washington and the Raiders. I'm pretty comfortable saying he's wrong about Washington. We'll get a look at the other half of his Super Bowl parlay in a few hours.
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