It's NFL preview time, and rather than the usual long, nearly football-content-free conference previews this column has offered up in the past, this year we'll be taking advantage of the new bloggy format and doling them out one division at a time.
I figure this way the previews can be even longer and even more free of actual football content. Teams are presented in predicted order of finish. Don't worry, I'll eventually collect all the picks in one place for ease of ridicule. As always, we go against the current, west to east, south to north, so we'll start with the NFC West.
1. Arizona Cardinals (8-8, second place in 2007)
Every year, the Cardinals are a chic pick to finally put it all together and make a run to the playoffs. But this year might finally be the year the ... Cardinals ... wait ... am I really going to say it?
The Cards made the great leap forward to .500 last season under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has reportedly changed the culture in Phoenix in much the same way it was said Marvin Lewis had done in Cincinnati in 2003.
The Bengals haven't exactly turned into consistent winners, but after 12 seasons without a winning record and only one .500 mark, Cincinnati's three 8-8 finishes and one 11-5 in Lewis' five years look pretty good. Whisenhunt could benefit from similar low standards as the leader of what used to be the other sad-sack franchise.
From 1999 to 2006, the high-water mark for the Cardinals had been seven wins, so going 8-8 was no small thing. Leading Arizona to its first winning season since 1998 and only its second since 1984 might make Whisenhunt the biggest thing to hit the state since air conditioning. The Cardinals haven't won 10 games in a season since the Gerald Ford administration.
Can it happen? A popular thing to do around now would be to point out that because of their improved record, the Cardinals will face a tougher schedule this year, but, hobbyhorse alert, that's bunk. The part of the schedule that's affected by last year's record amounts to a grand total of two games. This year that means the Cardinals, who finished second, get to play fellow runners-up Carolina and Minnesota. If they'd finished fourth they'd have gotten New Orleans and Detroit instead.
It looks now like Arizona has it tougher than the last-place team, St. Louis, in those two games, but it might not look that way in 17 weeks. Last year's good and bad teams sometimes change places.
And even if not, the difference in those two games is overcome by the fact that good teams get to play the bad teams in their own division, but not one of the good ones -- themselves. Vice versa for the bad teams, who don't get to fatten up on themselves.
If anything, the Cardinals look like they've got a shot to get a big jump with a soft early schedule. Their first five games are at San Francisco, Miami, at Washington, at the New York Jets and Buffalo. That would seem to be a good opportunity to let inconsistent and still learning quarterback Matt Leinart gain some confidence in winnable games, but Whisenhunt announced over the weekend that Kurt Warner would be the starter.
Warner was way better last year after Leinart got hurt than many of us ever thought he was going to be again, but expecting him to last long without another injury is hoping to hit the lottery twice. This will be Leinart's team eventually, but if it gets to the playoffs, it'll have to be on the back of a better defense. Look for the Cardinals to start strong and have to hold on for dear life.
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6, first place in 2007)
It's Mike Holmgren's last year. Well, we heard that about Brett Favre, didn't we? But Holmgren already has a successor at the ready in Jim Mora. Oh, wait, Favre did too.
It's decidedly strange for a coach to have his announced successor on his staff. Will it mean a smooth transition or will there be a pre-handoff power struggle? Will the team gel as it tries to win one last time for Holmgren or will it break down into Holmgren and Mora factions?
We'll have to wait and see, but fortunately for the Seahawks, the most important question in the NFC West will be, once again, can anybody other than Seattle manage a winning record? The last time an NFC West team that doesn't have a bird on its helmet won nine games was in 2003. Barack Obama was a state senator at the time.
The answer to that question, as usual, is: Not unless the Cardinals can finally do it. That seems to be a little more likely than normal this year, but not exactly a slam-dunk.
The Seahawks, who went to the Super Bowl three years ago as an offensive powerhouse, have become a team that wins with its defense, built around one of the game's best linebacking units. They'll get a boost from playing San Francisco and St. Louis twice each, assuming those teams are as bad as they look, and, barring factional fighting, the Seahawks have a pretty good chance of sending Holmgren out the way they've sent him into most of his Seattle off-seasons, with a playoff loss.
I'm taking the Cardinals to finish ahead of them because I've done it so many times I don't want to be left out on the off chance it ever happens. Don't mistake that for my actually believing in the idea.
3. St. Louis Rams (3-13, fourth place in 2007)
This column's pick to win the division last year, so take that Cardinals pick with an even bigger pound of salt than you'd already planned to do. The Rams were brutalized by injuries last year. Just not having anybody walk in front of a moving train should get them an extra couple of wins this time around.
But things could fall apart quickly with an apparently brutal early schedule that includes the entire NFC East plus the Seahawks and the New England Patriots in the first seven weeks. If endangered coach Scott Linehan can't keep his team together through that rough stretch, it could be another disastrous season. If the Rams can get two or three wins in those first seven games, they could end up moving in the right direction.
The Rams took defensive end Chris Long with the second overall pick. I always think it's a good sign when teams spend one of the first few picks on linemen. It shows they're thinking the right way.
4. San Francisco 49ers (5-11, third place in 2007)
The 49ers weren't as good as their record last year. They won their games by three, one, six, seven and two points. They were only within a touchdown of their opponent in three of their 11 losses.
Compare that to the four teams that only went 4-12: Atlanta, Kansas City, the Jets and Oakland. All of them had at least one win of more than a touchdown and at least four losses of a touchdown or less. Even the Rams, at 3-13, had two wins wider than a touchdown and five losses within a score.
Close games get decided by funny bounces, single plays, luck. The 49ers kept winning those. Blowouts paint a clearer picture. The 49ers got blown out a lot.
Coach Mike Nolan, whose seat is so hot he was able to spend a San Francisco summer sitting outside on it, is hoping that bold hire Mike Martz will turn the offense into a high-scoring unit that can overcome the team's many other shortcomings. The team will start the season not with former top pick Alex Smith at quarterback but with journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan, who was with Martz in Detroit last year.
Martz has a history of making big things happen with unknown quarterbacks -- Warner and Marc Bulger, and to a lesser extent Jon Kitna. If O'Sullivan can lead this undermanned bunch anywhere near a .500 record, Martz's worth might actually match his self-worth.
All NFL previews