Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NFL 2005

Preseason NFL football predictions abound. They're fun to indulge in, interesting to read--and quite often wrong. Who knew last year that the San Diego Chargers would do so well? Or that the Carolina Panthers would start out 1-7 and miss the playoffs? Or that the Jacksonville Jaguars would suddenly emerge as a force, while the division-rival Tennessee Titans would fall to 5-11? Rosters can change suddenly these days, through free agency, trades, injury, retirements and the draft, and the hopes of summer camp can look pretty dismal by the time December rolls around. But, like everybody else, SPORTS MEDIA AMERICA feels its obligation to get on record about the upcoming season.

Following is the predicted order of finish for NFL teams, with projected won-loss records and an accompanying thumbnail sizeup. Playoff predictions must inevitably be included, and they are, but don't quote me in Vegas. You'll probably lose your shirt.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (11-5)--For the first time in a while, the Patriots will be challenged. They've lost some key personnel from last year's 14-2 Super Bowl winners, some through unforeseen occurrence. Still, they've got Belichick and Brady and Corey Dillon, and they ought to be able to hold off the divisional wannabes.

2. New York Jets (10-6)--This team still has a few question marks, but if QB Chad Pennington stays healthy, they've got a chance to achieve at a high level. They were 10-6 last year, and showed moxie in the playoffs. Laveranues Coles rejoins the team, which is a good thing. (I think.) RB Curtis Martin needs to squeeze out yet another muscular season on the ground, but he's not getting any younger.

3. Buffalo Bills (9-7)--It's really tempting to predict that the Bills might even win their division. They've got an aggressive defense, young gifted receivers, and a supposed future superstar in RB Willis McGahee. It could happen. But their QB, J. P. Losman, remains an untested commodity. People want to believe he'll do for the Bills what Ben Roethlisberger did for the Steelers last year. That's a lot to believe. And I'm still not sold that McGahee is durable and great. Letting Travis Henry get away could come up and bite the Bills in the behind. The Bills were 9-7 last year. If they get continuity at the QB position, we could see a serious spike in the record. As it is, 9-7 still looks pretty good for a team with a virtual rookie behind center.

4. Miami Dolphins (6-10)--It's probably going to be brutal in south Florida this year. Head coach Nick Saban takes over a 4-12 train-wreck of a team, which has retreads at the QB position, problems along the offensive line, and question marks at receiver. Maybe QB Gus Frerotte (remember him??) will just hand the ball off all season to rookie Ronnie Brown and prodigal pothead Ricky Williams. The defense still has good personnel, and maybe the Dolphins surprise. Realistically, gaining two victories over last year seems hopeful.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)--This team has QB questions as well. Kyle Boller still has much to prove. But his receiving corps has improved with the addition of Derrick Mason, and when Jamal Lewis is your running back, there is potential to win every game. The defense looks as good as ever, and Brian Billick remains a top-echelon NFL coach. Last year's 9-7 finish takes a nice leap.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)--When you go 15-1, as the Steelers did last year, there's nowhere to go but down. Will Roethlisberger repeat last year's unprecedented rookie season? Seems unlikely. Furthermore, injuries at running back plague the team. Still a lot of good players here on defense, though.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)--Everyone's looking for this team to start competing for a playoff spot. They've got good young talent on offense. Not so sure about the D. If they were anyone else, I'd say last year's 8-8 finish gets boosted. They're the Bengals, though, and history has not been kind. Going above .500 seems a reasonable expectation.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)--Former Patriots defensive guru Romeo Crennel takes over this chronically underachieving bunch. They were 4-12 last year, and things could get worse before they get better. Trent Dilfer at QB? Yikes. Frankly, I have no idea who the key players are on this team. Pothead RB William Green? Ummmm...okay. Rookie WR Braylon Edwards? Yeah, he has potential. The Browns will be lucky to win a single game in their division. Expect the rest of the league to feast as well.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)--Peyton Manning notwithstanding, I see the Colts dropping one game off last's year's 12-4 finish. The offense should remain high-powered, but the defense still warrants improvement, and the divisional competition is getting stiffer.

2. Tennessee Titans (10-6)--Experts will scoff, but the Titans are going to surprise. They've undergone massive personnel change and have lost some All-Pro players like Samari Rolle, Derrick Mason, and Kevin Carter. However, they've got a huge supply of hungry young talent on the defensive line and decent linebackers headed up by the irrepressible Keith Bulluck. QB Steve McNair is healthy, Chris Brown and Travis Henry are quality runners, the OL is veteran, and there's a trio of good-looking rookie WRs--Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Roydell Williams--that could get into the offensive mix sooner than later. There are patched-up holes in the secondary--and #1 draft pick CB Pacman Jones could be a head case--but if head coach Jeff Fisher gets the team playing in their usual aggressive style, the Titans will spike well above last year's 5-11 finish.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)--They surprised last year, finishing 9-7 and almost snagging a playoff spot. The defense is rugged all right, but this team scored exactly half the number of points last season (261) as the Colts (522). Byron Leftwich is a gifted young QB, and Fred Taylor, when healthy, is a great runner. They've bulked up the receiving corps through trades and the draft, but it says here that Leftwich needs another year to get in total synch. Another 9-7 record will disappoint the locals, but it's still hard to know if last year wasn't a little flukish.

4. Houston Texans (6-10)--This could be the end of Dom Capers as head coach. The Texans made it to 7-9 last year, a high watermark for the expansion club. Anything below that will be frowned upon by fans. David Carr is a talented QB who needs to prove even more, and he has the quality receivers to do so. But questions about the offensive line still linger and the defense is only average. There's no reason to think that radical progress is just ahead, plus the division will be as tough as ever. Goodbye, Dom, thanks for getting us launched.

AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)--This is a very tough division to predict. There are any number of speculative scenarios involving potential and the expectations based on last year's records. Denver promises to fall off some, Oakland won't be quite ready to jump hugely forward, and no one knows how consistently good the Chargers really are. That leaves the Chiefs, who disappointed mightily with last year's 7-9 finish. Coach Dick Vermeil went out and got some defensive help, and his team still has explosive offensive weapons (the team scored 483 points last year, second only to Indianapolis league-wide). However, QB Trent Green has to stay healthy. Assuming he does, this team heads to the playoffs.

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)--Can they go 12-4 again? Only time will tell. They scored a lot of points last season with QB Drew Brees and all-world RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense was generally consistent, but occasionally porous. Maybe it's the Marty Schottenheimer Factor at work, but it says here that since last year was an apparent case of overachievement, the team loses some steam. The Chargers still look playoff-bound, though.

3. Denver Broncos (8-8)--Anyone else here think Jake the Snake is a fake? He led the team to a 10-6 record, but something about QB Jake Plummer does not inspire confidence. Until he puts up a dominant season of football, the jury is out on him. He's got good receivers (Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie), and everyone's talking about how former Giant backfield bust Ron Dayne has been tearing up the pre-season (all 253 pounds of him). The defense last year was average-to-good, but no serious additions have been made. With other teams improving, I think the Broncos take a hit in the W-L column.

4. Oakland Raiders (7-9)--They were 5-11 last year, mainly because the defense gave up 442 points, worst in the league with the exception of the crosstown San Francisco 49ers. Pothead WR Randy Moss--do we see a trend here?--comes aboard to assist QB Kerry Collins, which makes Jerry Porter an even better receiver on the other side. Plus, former Jet LaMont Jordan joins the backfield, and he could break out in a big way. Coach Norv Turner knows offense, and the Raiders should score plenty. Once again the team's fate is in the hands of the D. They have some young talent, though promising LB Napoleon Harris got away to the Vikings. Warren Sapp anchors the defensive line, and it's still unknown if that's a good thing or a bad thing. A two-game improvement is possible, maybe more if the offense takes it to a new level. They get a chance to show the nation what they've got on opening night, Sept. 8, against the world champion Patriots.

AFC Playoffs

Wild-Card Round:

Chiefs over Titans

Patriots over Chargers

Divisional Round

Ravens over Chiefs

Colts over Patriots

AFC Championship

Ravens over Colts

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)--They were 13-3 last year and made it to the Super Bowl. But every other team in their division was 6-10, and the Eagles swept all six of their intradivisional games. Their RB situation still looks suspicious to me, and after Terrell Owens, the receivers are only so-so. The great Jim Johnson-coordinated defense will have to perform again at a high level, and it says here that that's too much to ask. Philly drops a couple off last year's victory totals.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)--The rest of this division is mostly a mystery, but Coach Bill Parcells has been shaking things up in Dallas, bringing in a few new faces and drafting well. Drew Bledsoe is the new QB, and that could mean anything from total washout to consistent, occasionally spectacular play. He's still got a strong arm, and RB Julius Jones has potential star power. Rookie Demarcus Ware looks like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. Cowboys on the rise.

3. New York Giants (7-9)--A one-game improvement, as Eli Manning still tries to figure out NFL defenses. Tiki Barber is good. So is Jeremy Shockey. Otherwise, the Giants look marginal to me.

4. Washington Redskins (6-10)--Repeating last year's finish might be giving the Redskins too much credit. Their QB situation is tenuous at best. If Patrick Ramsey sputters, where does Joe Gibbs turn? To Mark Brunell, who was simply awful last year? Or to rookie Jason Campbell? The receivers are newcomers with experience by and large, but who says Santana Moss and David Patten are the second coming of Art Monk and Charley Taylor? There's some talent on the offensive line, and Clinton Portis is a versatile, productive RB, but you can't keep pounding the guy into the line as if he's John Riggins. That's what'll happen if the passing attack falters. Leaguewide, only the Chicago Bears (231) scored fewer points than the Redskins' 240 last season. Yet only four other teams, all playoff-bound, allowed fewer points than the Redskins' defense, and coordinator Gregg Williams' squad was solely responsible for keeping the 'Skins in their games. But DB Fred Smoot and LB Antonio Pierce are gone now, and LB LaVar Arrington is trying to rebound from injury. The defensive line plays aggressively but is not an elite unit. There are holes to fill here on both sides of the ball, and we still don't know if Joe Gibbs will ever return to form as the Hall of Fame coach he surely once was.

NFC North

1. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)--I'm not sold on Mike Tice as a head coach yet, and this division looks like a prognosticator's nightmare. But QB Daunte Culpepper is so gifted that even the loss of Randy Moss can be overcome. Nate Burleson is a talented WR, and rookie Troy Williamson has the speed to make fans forget Moss. The committee of RBs is a good, consistent bunch. On defense, Napoleon Harris joins the team at linebacker, and other improvements have been made, especially in the secondary. A team on the move, so long as their coach doesn't play the role of meathead.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-8)--This might be a gift pick, but the rest of the division is so conveniently unpredictable that history has to count for something. Bret Favre is still Bret Favre, and the Pack should be able to generate enough offense to break even. The D looks bad, though, injury-depleted and not that good to begin with, yielding 380 points last season. With bad luck, the Packers could fall a few more notches.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)--Coach Steve Mariucci has a chance to make serious progress with a team that went 6-10 last season. He's gonna bite his lip and go with Joey Harrington as his QB, with backup Jeff Garcia now out of commission due to injury. A world of potential at WR and a decent running attack give the Lions a chance to score more than their lackluster 296 points of 2004. It's all up to Harrington, though. The defense was also found wanting last year, with no obvious big-time additions. All things considered, the Lions have a legit chance to overachieve.

4. Chicago Bears (7-9)--I actually heard that some sports wag designated the Bears to win their division. Maybe that was before QB Rex Grossman went out for the year with an injury. Now the job falls to rookie Kyle Orton. He looked like he had a precocious wherewithal in the preseason, but that hardly means a thing. Just a ray of hope. Will rookie RB Cedric Benson get into the offensive mix? Eventually, yes, but the Bears' track record with running backs in the recent era has been...well... Anybody remember Raymont Harris? How about Ki-Jana Carter? The Bears acquired Muhsin Muhammad in the offseason to catch passes. He's good, but can Orton find him? The worst offense from 2004 now operates with a rookie QB. That may say it all. The defense is aggressive and has some talent, led by Brian Urlacher. The Bears will be fun to watch, but even a two-game improvement over last year's 5-11 could be iffy.

NFC South

1. Carolina Panthers (12-4)--After a 1-7 start last year, the Panthers got untracked and went 6-2 the rest of the way. They missed the playoffs, but did enough to dispel notions that their fabulous 2003 season was a mirage. A tough, young defense led by multi-purpose DL Julius Peppers mixes with a diverse offense led by cagey QB Jake Delhomme (the REAL Jake the Snake). John Fox is a good head coach, too. Chance to win it all.

2. Atlanta Falcons (9-7)--Last year's 11-5 record was achieved putting up mediocre offensive and defensive numbers. Michael Vick hasn't learned to operate seamlessly from the pocket yet, and until he does, the Falcons will remain in third gear. That's better than second gear, all right, but it's not fast enough to compete with the league's very best. Nevertheless, this is a good, balanced team, with a promising young head coach in Jim Mora, Jr. Carolina is still the better team, and the Falcons will struggle to make the playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)--I happen to be one of the relatively few people in the football biz who likes QB Brian Griese a lot. He's got a strong arm and a lot of poise. Whether he can lead this team to the playoffs is another matter, but the opportunity is there. Rookie RB Carnell Williams came into camp early and got started learning head coach Jon Gruden's system, and the kid's got talent. The defense here also has a lot of good, experienced players. Last year's 5-11 finish could have easily been a .500 record with a little luck. The luck should change this year. Possible wild-card berth.

4. New Orleans (4-12)--What more can be said about this jinxed organization? Everyone has always wanted to see the Saints do well. They start to achieve, then settle back into mediocrity (like years back when Jim Mora, Sr., coached 'em). They're poised to get a shot at a playoff berth under current coach Jim Haslett, then lose a bunch of games in a row at season's end. Now they have no city to call home. There are star-caliber players on the roster, like courageous QB Aaron Brooks, playmaking WR Joe Horn and durable RB Deuce McAllister. They ought to be improving over last year's 8-8 record. Yet they'll never play a game on their familiar home turf. (Can you say "San Antonio Saints"?) If Haslett equals the 2004 victory total, he's a lock for Coach of the Year.

NFC West

1. St. Louis Rams (10-6)--Another crazy-quilt division. The Rams might be the best of the bunch. Or maybe third-best. QB Marc Bulger has a major-league arm, and young RB Steven Jackson is ready to assert himself as a major force. Like every team in this division, the defense is suspect. Maybe the Rams win it by default. Even 10 wins could be a prayer.

2. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)--An exciting team with a hex on it. QB Matt Hasselback looks like the new Brett Favre. RB Shaun Alexander piles up yardage like nobody's business. Then receivers drop critical third-down receptions, and a porous defense takes the field. Mediocrity results, and coach Mike Holmgren can be seen tearing his hair out (what he's got left of it, anyway). The Seahawks are ready to repeat last year's 9-7 finish, but it won't get 'em a division title this time. Wild-card possibility, but that's it.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)--Another team that looks on the verge of success. Hard to be sure, since they finished 6-10 last year. Kurt Warner steps in as QB, in what will be his last-ditch effort to prove that he's still got All-Pro game. Rookie RB J. J. Arrington is being touted highly. Still a lot of question marks with Coach Dennis Green's defense, but improvement should come, and a definite surprise is possible.

4. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)--When you're coming off a 2-14 season, there's nowhere to go but up. Theoretically, that is. The Niners have a new head coach in Mike Nolan. They're going with Tim Rattay at QB, which doesn't really tell us much. Last year's offense was one of the league's worst, and the defense yielded 452 points, the absolute worst anywhere. Even winning five games might be a stretch, but unlike the Saints, the Niners at least get to play eight games before a friendly crowd.

NFC Playoffs

Wild-Card Round

Falcons over Rams

Vikings over Cowboys

Divisional Round

Panthers over Falcons

Vikings over Eagles

NFC Championship

Panthers over Vikings

Super Bowl

Panthers over Ravens

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