Welcome to the all-gimmick Salon 2007 NFL Preview, featuring lots of gimmicks!
We'll start with the AFC today, then talk about that other conference tomorrow. First gimmick: Not even mentioning how ridiculously superior the AFC is to that other one. Second gimmick: Not even mentioning the other one.
You know, the NFC.
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AFC WEST [PERMALINK]
1. Denver Broncos (9-7, second-place tie in 2006)
A horrible offseason away from the game: Cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed, and running back Damien Nash collapsed and died after a charity basketball game. The Broncos will try to use the twin tragedies as motivation and inspiration this season, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.
Football-wise, the Broncos had a good spring and summer, adding running back Travis Henry, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Daniel Graham and using the draft, rather than the Cleveland Browns discard pile, to strengthen the defense. This column makes a habit of predicting a Broncos decline, and then being wrong, though they slipped a bit last year. I think they'll overtake San Diego this time around.
Best gimmick: They reinvent themselves and contend every year.
Worst gimmick: The vaunted offensive line is in decline -- or, since this is Denver, maybe just transition.
If they were a female pop star they would be: Madonna
2. San Diego Chargers (wild card) (14-2, first place)
Look, I wouldn't have been one of those idiots calling for the Chargers to fire Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season if I'd known they were going to hire Norv Turner, the NFL's prime example of the Peter Principle. He's a great offensive coordinator and a lousy head coach, as he showed in stints at the helm of Washington and Oakland.
With Philip Rivers standing behind a great line, handing off to LaDainian Tomlinson and throwing to Antonio Gates, the Chargers are loaded on offense, and Turner won't hurt there. The questions are on defense, where San Diego has a big pass rush, but may have problems replacing departed linebackers Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey.
Best gimmick: LaDainian Tomlinson and the most talent in the conference.
Worst gimmick: A two-time failure, third-time retread as the new head coach.
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes"
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7, second-place tie, wild card)
The Chiefs made the playoffs last year by winning their last two games after a three-game skid. That may have been a last gasp. Second-year coach Herm Edwards is well into the process of turning the Chiefs from Dick Vermeil's high-flying offensive juggernaut to a defensive power that's conservative with the ball.
That's a more reliable way to contend, but in the meantime, the offensive decline appears to be moving along at a faster pace than the defensive improvement. This could be a long year in K.C. The Chiefs will give the ball to Larry Johnson a lot, and, especially given the preseason holdout that has him saying he might not be ready for Week 1, if he survives the season intact, it'll be a miracle.
Best gimmick: Playing in the same division as the Raiders
Worst gimmick: That offensive line finally got old
If they were a female pop star they would be: Britney Spears
4. Oakland Raiders (Don't ask)
Al Davis is the Beach Boys of NFL owners. He just wanders around playing his old hits now. Last year he hired his old coach Art Shell. Didn't work out. This year he's gone with a 32-year-old whiz kid, Lane Kiffin, late of USC. You might remember a couple of other fresh-faced Davis hires: John Madden and Jon Gruden. Maybe Kiffin will be another inspired choice, but there was whispering in the college ranks that he'd have been over his head as a head coach down there.
We've also heard this before: Kiffin's staff will have more autonomy from Davis than has been usual. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper will try to rebuild his career after a lost year in Miami, but only if he can beat out Josh McCown for the starting job, still up in the air with the opening game five days away.
Given Oakland's offensive line, that's one of those competitions where the winner might envy the loser. Either one will just be keeping the chair warm for JaMarcus Russell, who is still holding out and could sit out the entire year and reenter the draft in 2008. That's ordinarily a crazy thing to do, but it might be a better long-term bet for a 21st century quarterback than donning the silver and black.
Best gimmick: The defense was actually pretty good last year
Worst gimmick: Just being the Raiders
If they were a Marx Brother they would be: Gummo
AFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4, first place, Super Bowl champs in 2006)
It's a very simple question: Which defense was the real Colts defense? Was it the horrible regular-season unit, which the historically great offense overcame on the way to a 12-4 record? Or was it the dramatically improved playoff defense that complemented Peyton Manning and company on the way to winning the Super Bowl? We may never know, but with Nick Harper, Cato June and Mike Doss among the losses to free agency, the smart money points to a 2007 defense that looks more like the '06 regular season than the playoffs.
Still, as long as Manning is at the helm of a healthy unit, the Colts will have to be reckoned with.
Best gimmick: Peyton Manning
Worst gimmick: Trying to defend the Lombardi Trophy
If they were a Darrin Stephens they would be: Dick York
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (wild card) (8-8, second-place tie)
The Jaguars have a ton of talent, especially up front. They can run and they can play defense. And last year, they managed to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs thanks to two losses to the Houston Texans. What?
The big news is that Byron Leftwich is out, David Garrard is in at quarterback. Garrard was one of those backup QBs who's the most popular guy in town. He's about to learn who the least popular guy in town is. This looks like a playoff team, but can you ride a quarterback like Garrard to February?
Best gimmick: Most unpredictable team in the league
Worst gimmick: The QB thing
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: "Beneath the Planet of the Apes"
3. Tennessee Titans (8-8, second-place tie)
The Titans were almost as big a surprise as the New Orleans Saints in 2006, but while the Saints' improvement should stick, it doesn't figure to be that way in Nashville. Rookie quarterback Vince Young led a late-season six-game winning streak that was thrilling, and that turned around what had been an 0-5 and 2-7 year. The Titans finished 8-8.
But there were some wacky games in that streak, and since then the Titans have lost Pacman Jones, Drew Bennett, Travis Henry and Bobby Wade. Watch as Young gets knocked for a "sophomore slump" that's really a matter of not having the same weapons. Generally speaking, the Titans know what they're doing, but they're not as far along in the rebuilding process as it looked last year, and losing Jones to the Stupidly Unable to Perform list won't help.
Best gimmick: Turning their season around
Worst gimmick: Creating unrealistic expectations
If they were a female pop star they would be: Paula Abdul
3. Houston Texans (6-10, fourth place)
After three years of sitting behind Michael Vick in Atlanta, Matt Schaub gets handed the reins in Texas, and we'll see. He certainly looks like an NFL quarterback. Then again, so did David Carr, now on clipboard duty in Charlotte.
The Texans have a habit of picking defensive linemen in the first round, most famously Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. That might just work out someday. An improved offensive line would go a long way toward Schaub producing better results than Carr did, and keeping free agent signee Ahman Green, who's 30, on the field. The Texans seem to be casting around a little bit, but they were a competitive team last year, and I'll pick them third just for the heck of it.
Best gimmick: Wide receiver Andre Johnson
Worst gimmick: No winning seasons, ever
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: "Escape From the Planet of the Apes"
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AFC NORTH [PERMALINK]
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, second-place tie in 2006)
Most of the experts are picking Baltimore to repeat in this brutal division, but I'm going to go with a comeback by the Steelers. Remember, this team finished last season 6-2 and almost made the playoffs. I figure Ben Roethlisberger should bounce back from his lost season, and I like the idea that new coach Mike Tomlin figures to accelerate the Steelers' transition from running team to passing team, something I thought should have happened several years ago.
The defense will miss linebacker and leader Joey Porter, who was cut this offseason in a contract move. How it responds could be the key to whether the Steelers are elite or just good.
Best gimmick: Change coaches as often as Egypt changes presidents
Worst gimmick: Free motorcycles for all players
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: The original
2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8, second-place tie)
The Bengals tanked in '06, losing their last three to miss the playoffs. Combine that with their replacing the Portland Trail Blazers as the most arrested team in sports and it looks like the franchise is headed back to the chaos that defined it for about 15 years before Marvin Lewis started to turn things around in 2003.
But hang on. The troubles have resulted in the loss of two key players, linebacker Odell Thurman for the year and receiver Chris Henry for half of it, but all is not lost. This is still one of the best offenses in the game, led by Carson Palmer, who got better as 2006 went along and he got more confident in his reconstructed knee.
They'll go as far as their defense -- awful in '06 -- can allow them to go, which doesn't figure to be far given the stiff schedule this division provides. But if that unit can improve at all, which isn't asking much, the Bengals will contend for a playoff spot again.
Best gimmick: Palmer to Chad Johnson
Worst gimmick: They give up a lot of points
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: "Beneath" -- they can fight it out with the Jags
3. Baltimore Ravens (13-3, first place)
The latter stages of last year, after the canning of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, suggest that the Ravens finally have enough offense to provide balance for their great defense. The plan is to open things up a bit this year, with the old I-formation replaced by more three-receiver sets. Good.
Trouble is, this team's getting old on both sides of the ball, as symbolized by quarterback Steve McNair, who is like 50, and Canton-bound tackle Jonathan Ogden, who decided at long last not to retire this offseason. I think the window is closing for this team. If they stay healthy they're as good as anyone. I don't think they will.
Best gimmick: They don't give up points
Worst gimmick: Shouldn't you be able to get a really good quarterback, still in his prime, in Baltimore of all places?
If they were a Marx Brother they would be: Chico
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12, fourth place)
Four of the Browns' first five games are against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and New England. Better win the other one, against Oakland. The Browns' best day of the year was probably draft day, when they landed tackle Joe Thomas, then traded up to draft quarterback Brady Quinn.
Until he's ready, it'll be Charlie Frye handing off to the faded Jamal Lewis and throwing to talented but not yet good Braylon Edwards and supremely talented and good Kellen Winslow Jr. -- who's coming off microfracture knee surgery, which makes him a question mark. Cleveland's defense isn't good enough to make up for the offensive shortcomings. It's yet another rebuilding year, which is to say a building year, in Cleveland. If the task for Romeo Crennel's team is to improve on the 4-12 disaster of 2006, the chances for success are pretty good.
Best gimmick: Old-timey uniforms
Worst gimmick: Never having enough good football players
If they were a female pop star they would be: Ashlee Simpson
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AFC EAST [PERMALINK]
1. New England Patriots (12-4, first place in 2006)
Hope you enjoyed the brief era of the Patriots not being the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
A key weakness for the New England team that came within a win of the big game last year was at wide receiver. All you need to know for 2007: Reche Caldwell, the leading receiver in '06, was released last month. The Pats abandoned their bargain-basement approach and signed Donte' Stallworth for Tom Brady to throw to. They also traded for Wes Welker, and then they made a low-risk, high-reward trade for Randy Moss on draft day.
The defense will miss safety Rodney Harrison, out four games because of a drug suspension, and Richard Seymour, gone for at least six after being put on the Physically Unable to Perform list. He had offseason knee surgery. But the newfangled venture into the high-dollar free-agent market included the defense too, as the Pats signed linebacker Adalius Thomas away from Baltimore. He'll anchor an aging linebacker corps that figures to be New England's one potential Achilles heel.
Best gimmick: Great coach, great quarterback, great system
Worst gimmick: Losing a game to the Dolphins every year
If they were a Marx Brother they would be: Groucho
2. New York Jets (10-6, second place, wild card)
The excellent "Pro Football Prospectus 2007," put out by Aaron Schatz and his crew at Football Outsiders, explains why the Jets' 10-6 record last year was largely driven by luck. They had an easy schedule, their opponents were horrible at kickoffs and field goals and the Jets recovered three out of every four fumbles their defense forced, which is half again more than they should have, since fumble recoveries are random.
This all allowed the Jets' poor defense to rank sixth in points allowed. That kind of luck never holds out, but the good news for the Jets is that the franchise is moving in the right direction under Bill Belichick disciple Eric Mangini. Running back Thomas Jones should take some pressure off quarterback Chad Pennington, who doesn't have the arm strength or the receiving talent to throw the Jets into the playoffs. If everything breaks right, they'll contend.
Best gimmick: The Patriot Way
Worst gimmick: Chad Pennington's shoulder
If they were a Darrin Stephens they would be: Dick Sargent
3. Buffalo Bills (7-9, third place)
The Bills invested heavily in their offensive line this offseason, but they also dealt away workhorse running back Willis McGahee and will rely on rookie Marshawn Lynch, who didn't impress in the preseason. They also lost Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher-Baker and Nate Clements from the defense.
With J.P. Losman at quarterback and Dick Jauron on the sidelines, it's a decidedly non-glam approach. I'm not sure I get it, but I love me some Marv Levy, the former coach who came back as general manager last year, and I have a sneaking suspicion he knows what he's doing.
Best gimmick: It's a youth movement, baby
Worst gimmick: Not making the playoffs lately
If they were a Marx Brother they would be: Zeppo
4. Miami Dolphins (6-10, fourth place)
Ah, heck, you're tired of reading and I'm tired of writing. Last year I said this wretched team would win the division, so let's not waste each other's time.
Cam Cameron is the new head coach. It's a new gimmick: Instead of having a successful college coach come up and fail in the NFL, the Dolphins hired an unsuccessful one.
Best gimmick: Ronnie Brown
Worst gimmick: Cold-weather games late in the year
If they were a "Planet of the Apes" movie they would be: "Battle for the Planet of the Apes"
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Here, for ease of ridicule, are my AFC picks:
East: New England
Wild cards: San Diego, Jacksonville
AFC champion: New England
Previous column: Appalachian State changes nothing
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