In Wednesday's NFC preview, I picked two division winners to repeat and predicted last year's wild-card teams would win the other two divisions, so I had four of six playoff teams returning to the postseason.
I took a little heat for it in the comments section and my in box. "Every year, there's a huge turnover in playoff teams, and yet you picked almost all the same teams to make the playoffs," wrote one reader. "Very boring picks."
Just two years ago I was lambasting this column's readers and the national media for picking way too many repeat winners for the 2004 season, six of them in the eight divisions.
I reminded you that in the NFL's "Wait, I've been away for a year and now you're telling me that what team won the Super Bowl?!" era, teams rarely repeat, how the salary cap and free agency make it difficult to sustain success and possible to go from the cellar to Super Bowl contention in the space of a year.
"Folks, last year is over," I wrote. "You need to get behind some new teams."
So what happened? Did I forget my own admonition? Well, yes. Yes I did. But fortunately I can cover my tracks with a theory and no one has to know.
The theory is that the landscape is changing a bit in the NFL. We all know the New England Patriots have figured out how to manage the salary cap and sustain success over a number of years. They're on a streak of five straight winning seasons, with, as you may have heard, three Super Bowl victories in that stretch.
But I think more and more teams are figuring it out. The Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts have four straight winning seasons and they look like winners again this year. The Philadelphia Eagles would have been in the group too if not for the injury- and Terrell Owens-driven meltdown last year, which really wasn't a salary-cap, parity issue. This kind of widespread stability would have been unheard of four or five years ago.
I'm not saying it's becoming easy for teams to sustain success. It's still really hard. But it's possible, and we're starting to see a little more stability in the standings. After all, you all and the commentariat were right about four of your picks in 2004, the three repeat champs that year, the Eagles, Colts and Patriots, plus the Seattle Seahawks.
Last year, three more teams repeated -- the Colts and Patriots made it three straight division titles and the Seahawks won for the second straight time. And another defending division champ, the Pittsburgh Steelers, tied for their division but lost to the Cincinnati Bengals under tie-breaking rules.
I mention all this because I'm about to turn to the AFC, where I'm going to predict that three division champs are going to repeat, bringing my leaguewide total of predicted repeat division champs to five.
And you have to have some theory to back up that kind of dumb picking.
Since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, there hasn't been a year with even four repeat division champs, never mind five. But I don't think it's out of the question anymore. I also don't think anybody's slipping anything funny into my morning coffee. Why do you ask?
If the 49ers, Saints, Texans and Browns are having at each other four months from now on the best football day of the year, you'll know my theory's all wrong. In the meantime, here's the AFC preview, traveling bravely west to east, with teams listed in order of predicted finish and with last year's results in parentheses.
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AFC WEST [PERMALINK]
Denver Broncos (13-3, first place in 2005): Javon Walker replaces Ashley Lelie at receiver, and if he's healthy, he's a better player. Running back Mike Anderson is gone, but we all know by now that random strangers corralled off of Colfax Avenue gain 1,000 yards for the Broncos. It'll be Mike Bell this year. Or Tatum Bell. Whichever.
The Broncos used the odd gambit of signing a bunch of Cleveland Browns last year and it worked. The defense is mostly unchanged this year. If Jake Plummer's solid 2005 wasn't a fluke, and I don't think it was, the Broncos should repeat.
San Diego Chargers (9-7, third place): LaDainian Tomlinson is only 27, but between rushes and catches, he's averaged 416 touches a year in his five-year career, counting his one playoff game. The Philip Rivers era dawns now, and if Tomlinson, who has "will age quickly" written all over him, picks this year to decline or start getting injured, the Chargers will be in serious trouble.
Not that that's necessarily likely. It's just possible. Rivers has good weapons in tight end Antonio Gates and receiver Keenan McCardell, plus the great Tomlinson, but how good will he be at finding them in his first year at the helm? The Chargers must think he'll do pretty well or they wouldn't have let Drew Brees go. It doesn't help that left tackle Roman Oben has struggled with a foot injury and will miss at least the first third of the season.
The defense is stout against the run and weak against the pass, and losing pass-rushing linebacker Steve Foley for the year after he was shot early this week won't help. If everything goes right, the Chargers could have a great year. They could also win seven or eight, but I'll go with them to take a wild-card spot.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, second place): New coach Herman Edwards is a defense guy, so the Chiefs defense should improve -- I know, we heard this two years ago with new coordinator Gunther Cunningham on board and last year with a bunch of new players -- but the powerful offense is showing its age. All-time-great left tackle Willie Roaf has retired and the replacement is Kyle Turley, who's been mostly inactive the last two years and wasn't Willie Roaf before that. Look out, Trent Green.
Running back Larry Johnson will be a monster and the Chiefs will still score, but while corner Ty Law was a great signing, I think they missed their window to improve the defense enough to ride a great offense to late January.
Oakland Raiders (4-12, fourth place): Art Shell did some nice work in his first stint as Raiders coach before it all fell apart a dozen years ago, and it's something of a scandal that he didn't get another shot until now. If anybody else had hired him, it'd be a nice story. But the Raiders doing so just looks like Al Davis pining for a glorious past that's long gone.
Installing Aaron Brooks as the quarterback doesn't inspire a lot of confidence either. Randy Moss is back and he's phenomenal when he's healthy and motivated, but to put it bluntly, What the Heck are the Raiders doing?
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AFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]
Indianapolis Colts (14-2, first place in 2005): We're about to find out how important Edgerrin James was to the Colts' highflying offense these last few years. I suspect the answer is: Very. Former backup Dominick Rhodes ought to be able to carry the football adequately, and LSU rookie Joseph Addai should be a decent receiver and blocker, but James provided all of that in one body, and he did it better than Rhodes, and no doubt better than Addai.
Peyton Manning still has tons of talent and a bunch of weapons, chiefly Marvin Harrison, but the Colts may not be able to score at will anymore. The defense has been improving for several years now, and the increased balance means the Colts are still on the shortlist of serious contenders.
Tennessee Titans (4-12, third place): The Titans have overhauled themselves over the last two years, with the big move this year being the departure of Steve McNair. Kerry Collins will keep the quarterback spot warm for Vince Young for a while, though the Titans are talking about Young being ready a lot sooner than anyone expected.
Wide receiver David Givens and center Kevin Mawae were the big offseason signings, though Givens has a bum hamstring entering the season. Most experts seem to think the Titans will win about six games. For no other reason than that I think this franchise knows what it's doing, I say they'll hang around the wild-card race to the end and be the biggest surprise in the NFL.
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4, second place, wild card): The Jaguars won a bunch of close games against bad teams last year and finished 12-4. They'll be hard-pressed to win 12 again. Or 10.
Everything relies upon the defense, which is built around two huge tackles, John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, and middle linebacker Mike Peterson, who's questionable for the opener against Dallas with a twisted knee.
But at some point, Byron Leftwich has to step up and become an elite quarterback and make this a top-notch offense. The retirement of receiver Jimmy Smith will be a devastating blow to that effort. The Jaguars will be very tough, and it's possible to win with a great defense and not much of an offense. I'm betting the Bears will do it in the junior conference. But it'd be a lot more likely with an offense worthy of the defense.
Houston Texans (2-14, fourth place): Big stories this offseason. Longtime Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak hired as the head coach. Defensive end Mario Williams, not Reggie Bush, taken as the first pick of the draft. And then just this week, running back Domanick Davis out for the year with a knee injury.
Williams brings an immediate upgrade to the pass rush, but the defense still has a long way to go and poor David Carr is going to get sacked a lot again. Kubiak's a sharp guy and the Texans should improve, but six wins would be a lot.
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AFC NORTH [PERMALINK]
Cincinnati Bengals (11-5, first place in 2005): Five Bengals have been arrested since December, and another, linebacker Odell Thurman, will miss the first four games to a substance-abuse suspension. That provides a lot of material for talk-show hosts but too much can be made of it.
Of far greater concern is Carson Palmer's knee. If it's sound after that horrific injury in the playoffs last year, then surgery, the Bengals should again have a formidable offense, with Palmer throwing to Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry and former Packer Antonio Chatman and handing off to Rudi Johnson.
The defense is only not awful, surprisingly given the pedigree of head coach Marvin Lewis, and hasn't even been that against the run. The Bengals signed Sam Adams to clog up the middle, but the line remains ordinary. The idea here is still to outscore people, and with Palmer healthy, that's definitely possible.
Baltimore Ravens (6-10, third place): The Ravens certainly did get old this offseason, signing quarterback Steve McNair, 33, and running back Mike Anderson, who'll be 33 in a few weeks. The defense, led by Ray Lewis, who's starting to slow down, is a year or two past the greatness of the early years of this century.
McNair should give a big boost to the offense if he can stay on the field, but that's a big if, and I say that as an unabashed admirer of McNair's toughness and ability to play while actual body parts are falling off of him. That sort of thing can only go on so long. If he can do it, the Ravens could rise up. I think Kyle Boller will see plenty of action, which could mean another year of struggling, but I'll take a little flier on them hanging around the wild-card race.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, second place, wild card): The Super Bowl champs replaced Antwaan Randle El with draft pick Santonio Holmes of Ohio State, and there's no replacing Jerome Bettis, exactly. Ben Roethlisberger appeared to recover from his motorcycle injury just in time to undergo an emergency appendectomy, so he'll miss some time early, though maybe only one game. Holmes may have to miss time late in the season to stand trial on domestic violence charges.
Top receiver Hines Ward, who with Randle El gone becomes the primary receiver who used to be a quarterback for trick-play purposes, missed the preseason with a hamstring injury and is probable for Thursday's opener.
Still, on paper, there's no reason to think the Steelers can't chase a second straight title. But throw in coach Bill Cowher's uncertain status beyond '06 and the year is just starting to shape up as one of those post-Super Bowl stumble seasons.
Cleveland Browns (6-10, fourth place): Willie McGinest and Ted Washington join their old pal Romeo Crennel and upgrade the defense. Kellen Winslow may actually see the field for a change, but what has missing most of his first two years done to him?
Quarterback Charlie Frye had a nice year last year, but he's still a little raw. Running back Reuben Droughns is a real talent, not just a product of the Broncos' patented automatic 1,000-yard running back generator. Receiver Braylon Edwards, injured last year and expected to miss about half a dozen games, is likely to play in the opener.
The Browns are headed in the right direction and they should win some games against good teams, but they'll also take some lumps. If you asked me to name an out-of-the-blue, dark-horse team, this would be it.
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AFC EAST [PERMALINK]
Miami Dolphins (9-7, second place in 2005): Now that Ronnie Brown doesn't have to give up carries to Ricky Williams, he should really emerge. Daunte Culpepper is the new quarterback, and if he has recovered from a devastating knee injury, he should turn the Dolphins, who ended last season on a six-game winning streak, into an elite team.
Culpepper, who will make his debut in the opener Thursday, has been walking around with a pronounced limp, according to Jerome Bettis, now with NBC, so that's a big if. And yes I know that six-game winning streak came against mostly weak opposition. That's how most NFL winning streaks go. Early in the season, when the Dolphins were lousy, they beat the Broncos and Panthers. A stout defense will keep the Dolphins in games, and a newly explosive offense will win a lot of them.
I'm not sure I really believe any of this, but despite that business about things changing in the NFL and repeat champions becoming more likely, I'm picking the Dolphins in the East just to avoid predicting a successful title defense in all four divisions.
New England Patriots (10-6, first place): The Patriots lost David Givens and Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri to free agency and they've so far lost Deion Branch to a holdout, and if you think that'll matter a whole lot, you haven't been watching the Patriots this century.
And not because of the out-of-character signing of former superstar and briefly retired linebacker Junior Seau, which looks like a rare case of sizzle over steak for Bill Belichick's team. Tom Brady still presides over the offense and the Pats still have solid lines on both sides of the ball. Everything else, they fill in. And it's easy to forget, since the Patriots have been so good for so long, that they're overall a young team.
Tackle Matt Light and safety Rodney Harrison are back from last year's parade of injuries. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi will likely be back from a broken wrist soon. Receiver Doug Gabriel was a sweet pickup late in the preseason. Whether or not the Patriots look like a Super Bowl contender Labor Day week -- and they do -- they will be on New Year's Day.
New York Jets (4-12, fourth place): With Belichick and Scott Pioli protégés Eric Mangini as the new coach and Mike Tannenbaum as general manager, the Jets will be the Patriots' mini-me. I like the idea of using two first-round picks on offensive lineman, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. I'm coming around to the idea that almost all first-round picks should be used on linemen unless someone thoroughly spectacular is available.
But Chad Pennington is probably never going to lead this or any other team anywhere important, the running game looks lost without injured and possibly finished Curtis Martin, and there are big holes on defense, especially the one that used to be filled by John Abraham, who was traded for one of those picks. The Patriots approach might work. It certainly has up north there. But not here, not yet. The Jets will battle the Bills to stay out of the cellar.
Buffalo Bills (5-11, third place): Former coach Marv Levy, an innovative thinker, is the new boss, and he hired ... Dick Jauron? A guy who's proved over the years that his ceiling is defensive coordinator. Well, the Bills do need to improve on defense. Also offense.
A salary purge rid them of most of their recognizable veterans, and they're in full-on rebuilding mode. J.P. Losman probably has one more year to prove he's an NFL quarterback. Kelly Holcomb or longtime Favre caddy Craig Nall will pick up the pieces if he falls apart. This team still has a lot of work to do. I wouldn't bet against Levy, even at 81, being a guy who can get it done. But the early work hasn't been encouraging.
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Here, for ease of ridicule, are my AFC picks:
Wild cards: San Diego, New England
AFC champion: Indianapolis
I do think the Colts will miss Edgerrin James, but I still think they're the best team in the conference. And now, just to make things really easy for the hecklers, here again are my NFC picks, and my Super Bowl pick:
Wild cards: Atlanta, Philadelphia
NFC champion: Chicago
Super Bowl: Indianapolis over Chicago
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NFL Week 1, Part 1 [PERMALINK]
We'll get to the full Week 1 slate Friday, but let's not ignore the Opening Night game. Last year's records in parentheses, this column's pick in all caps.
MIAMI (9-7) at Pittsburgh (11-5): I guess I ought to go with my risky pick to win the AFC East over the Super Bowl champs, who I'm saying will miss the playoffs. It helps that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss this one after an appendectomy. Charlie Batch is the replacement. Daunte Culpepper on one leg -- literally, hopping -- is better than Charlie Batch.
Season record: 0-0
Last season: 166-90 regular season; 7-4 playoffs
Last season's What the Heck picks: 6-10
All-time record in these season-opening Thursday games: 1-2
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Real-world event open to all [PERMALINK]
I've been informed by Salon honchos that the first-ever King Kaufman Sports Daily real-world event -- viewing of the Denver Broncos-St. Louis Rams game Sunday at the Black Thorn Pub in St. Louis -- is not restricted to Salon Premium members. Come one, come all.
The Black Thorn is at 3735 Wyoming St. at Spring south of Tower Grove Park. Doors open at 11 a.m. CDT, game starts at noon. Salon will spring for some pizza and drinks.
Previous column: NFC preview
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