I wonder if the late Pete Rozelle and the other godfathers of parity ever had nightmares. Like waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming that every single team in the NFL had completed the season with an 8-8 record. League bosses would have to determine playoff participants entirely by looking at head-to-head intra-divisional results, intra/inter-conference records, strength of schedule comparisons, and then point differentials. Actually, such a scenario would be pretty funny, though it can’t possibly be what Pete & Co. envisioned all those years ago. The problem with 8-8 is that—let’s face it—it sucks. It’s fine and dandy if your team is trying to make the leap from a 4-12 record; otherwise, it’s barely acceptable—it’s nothing to aspire to.
I imagine that there will be some obviously topnotch teams come the end of the 2007 football season, but there have been a fair amount of coaching changes this year, as well as serious shakeups on the personnel side (especially at quarterback) and an influx of some interesting rookies. If ever there were a year where 8-8 might look pretty good—and pretty ubiquitous—this could be it. Divisional competition will be stiff almost everywhere, and that makes predicting finishes damn difficult.
This year, I tried to get a clue from looking at the casualties on final cutdown day. If a team is letting proven vets go, does that mean they’ve acquired clearly superior talent to replace them? Or is it just a budget decision and the replacement player isn’t necessarily a step up in grade? Hard to tell.
Ultimately, it’s the schedule that’ll dictate the rise and fall of key teams. When you’ve overachieved the previous year—the Jets, for example—you now have to face stiffer extra-divisional competition. Often, teams like that simply aren’t ready for the more challenging new gauntlet. Neither are we prognosticators, who can only look at the talent and decide who might make things happen at the right time.
Here are the SMA season predictions for 2007. Teams are listed by order of projected record and finish. The playoff projections are a bonus.
National Football Conference
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)—The Cowboys look to be the most balanced outfit in the East. Only time will tell if the coaching change to Wade Phillips will add or detract to the development of younger players like Tony Romo, Julius Jones, Marion Barber, etc., or have some kind of positive impact on a guy like Terrell Owens. There’s killer young talent on defense such as Marcus Spears and Demarcus Ware, plus a promising rookie LB in Anthony Spencer. A veteran secondary has been enhanced by the arrival of former Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin. There’s also a new placekicker, Nick Folk. This team might be better than 9-7, but they’ll have to prove it against a schedule that includes 6 tough divisional games plus tilts against the Bears, Rams, Patriots, Jets, Panthers and also teams like Minnesota and Detroit, who won’t be pushovers.
Key additions: Head coach Wade Phillips, FS Ken Hamlin, LB Anthony Spencer (R), K Nick Folk (R)
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)—The return to health of Donovan McNabb should help the Eagles’ bid for the playoffs. Their schedule is a tad lighter than the Cowboys, but they still face the Bears, Pats and Saints out of their division. Question marks remain. Will Brian Westbrook be able to produce as he has in the past after taking a pounding the past few years? How good are those receivers? The defense is mostly a veteran bunch, and the addition of Takeo Spikes should help, so long as he stays healthy (which has been a problem). Andy Reid always seems to coach up the Eagles beyond their value on paper. If they equal last year’s 10-6, it’ll be a small miracle. If McNabb should get hurt, the quarterbacking falls to rookie Kevin Kolb, who looked impressive in the preseason.
Key additions: LB Takeo Spikes, WR Kevin Curtis, QB Kevin Kolb (R)
Washington Redskins (8-8)—This could be Joe Gibbs’ last chance to prove his comeback as a head coach was worth the effort. The skill positions are loaded: Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, Antwaan Randle El, Santana Moss. Problem is, they were there last year when the team went 5-11. A lot depends on the improvement of quarterback Jason Campbell. The defense has youth and aggression in the backfield, plus veteran London Fletcher has been added to the linebacking corps. The pass rush, however, still needs to develop. There’s a ton of talent on this team, but putting it all together has been an elusive challenge.
Key additions: LB London Fletcher, SS Laron Landry (R)
New York Giants (8-8)—Yet another mystery team. Last year’s .500 finish was a huge disappointment in New York, but 8-8 could be a blessing this time around. RBs Reuben Droughns and Brandon Jacobs take up the slack left by the retirement of Tiki Barber. Meanwhile, QB Eli Manning tries to vault himself into the league’s higher echelon of signal-callers. Nagging preseason injuries to WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey don’t help that situation. The defense has question marks everywhere, either due to age or unknown quality. Youngsters may need to step up or else coach Tom Coughlin’s going to be holding more of those antagonistic press conferences. If he doesn’t win this year, he’s probably a goner.
Key additions: RB Reuben Droughns, K Lawrence Tynes, CB Aaron Ross (R)
New Orlean Saints (12-4)—The Saints advance from last year’s 10-6 record to post the best mark in the conference. Drew Brees is a great quarterback who is entering his prime. Reggie Bush’s second year should be exciting to watch. The young and talented receivers could get pushed by rookie Robert Meachem, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Not many changes on defense, but the off-season acquisition of Jason David from the Super Bowl-winning Colts can only help. Playing in the weaker South also helps the W-L record.
Key additions: CB Jason David, K Olindo Mare, WR Robert Meachem (R), S Kevin Kaesviharn
Carolina Panthers (8-8)—The Panthers are still struggling to find their mojo. Their schedule favors them if they can manage to re-assert their 2005 form. Yet coach John Fox’ record goes up and down like a yo-yo. Theoretically, this would be an “up” year. Jake Delhomme is a quality quarterback. RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams have talent. Ditto the receiving corps, led by Steve Smith. The defense looks healthier this year, and if rookie Jon Beason can achieve at linebacker, the veteran secondary will be that much better. The potential to surpass 8-8 is definitely there, but it’s impossible to know which Panthers team will be showing up.
Key additions: SS Chris Harris, QB David Carr, LB Jon Beason (R), WR Dwayne Jarrett (R)
Atlanta Falcons (5-11)—New head coach Bobby Petrino didn’t know he’d be walking into a psychological sawmill when he took this job. Still, there is some hope. Maybe Joey Harrington won’t be too bad at quarterback. Surely he can throw to TE Alge Crumpler as well as Michael Vick did, and maybe a balanced offense can squeeze another good year out of RB Warrick Dunn, with sophomore runner Jerious Norwood given broader opportunities to flash his speed and quickness. The receivers are still a mystery squad. The regulars never really seem to have a nose for the ball, but maybe vet Joe Horn, added during the offseason, can show 'em how it’s done. The defense has some talented hard-nosers throughout, but the worry is age and who would pick up the slack in the event of injury. Honestly, the Falcons could do much better than 5-11, but the recent karma, the challenges of life under a new coach, and the schedule—filled with teams in the same boat, striving to be better—seem to argue against that.
Key additions: Head coach Bobby Petrino, QB Joey Harrington, WR Joe Horn, K Matt Prater
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)—If newly acquired QB Jeff Garcia’s so great, why is this team finishing at 5-11? Possibly because the problem that reared its ugly head last year—sudden aging—hasn’t yet been alleviated. The Bucs’ defense has plenty of marquee names, plus the team acquired ex-Colts LB Cato June in the off-season. Essentially it’s the same crew that allowed 353 points last year on the way to a 4-12 record. To the team’s credit, they drafted a lot of defensive talent in April that seems to be sticking with the club. Meanwhile, Garcia will try to invigorate an offense that scored 211 points in 2006, lowest in the conference. RB Cadillac Williams’ sophomore season was a huge disappointment, so he needs to prove himself all over again. Plus, the receivers are getting long in the tooth, with Joey Galloway, David Boston and Ike Hilliard still on the roster. Heck, Garcia himself is 37. If this team overachieves and avoids injury, maybe they’ll improve, but it’s hard to know by how much.
Key additions: QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June, DL Kevin Carter, DL Gaines Adams (R)
Chicago Bears (10-6)—It’s very easy to want to make a case for the Bears’ demise. Last year’s 13-3 record seemed like a myth, yet the team did make it to the Super Bowl. They’ll try it again in ‘07 with Rex Grossman under center. But he won’t have RB Thomas Jones there to anchor the effort. Instead, the ground game falls to former first-round draft pick Cedric Benson, who, in two years so far, has yet to prove that he’s a durable every-down back. Benson looks to me like a goal-line bruiser, but that’s all. Obviously, the Bears are hoping he’s more than that, yet he’s been injury-prone also. Maybe scatback rookie Garrett Wolfe will get a chance to earn the job should Benson falter. At any rate, in many ways this looks like the same Bears team on both sides of the ball, minus miscreant Tank Johnson and plus Lamborghini-crashing malcontent Lance Briggs. Rookie TE Greg Olsen has been getting pre-season raves. But without a producer like Jones in the lineup, the Bears might be a very different offensive team, with more responsibilities resting on Grossman’s shoulders. Like Benson, he still has not yet fully established himself. Yet the Bears’ defense remains formidable, and that should help them make their way to the playoffs.
Key additions: S Adam Archuleta, RB Garrett Wolfe (R), TE Greg Olsen (R)
Detroit Lions (10-6)—Can a team really go from 3-13 to 10-6 in one year? Guess we’re going to find out. The Lions were better than their record last year. Behind QB Jon Kitna and a great receiving corps, they scored plenty of points, and they were only blown out three times. The offense, under guru offensive coordinator Mike Martz, should continue to improve this year, especially if rookie WR Calvin Johnson is who we think he is. So it’s the defense that has to rally in order for the sea change to occur. On paper, the talent is there, with younger vets poised to assert themselves as a unit. If that happens, and coupled with a relatively easy schedule, the Lions could turn it all around. Working against them are the years of bad karma, but maybe head coach Rod Marinelli can light a fire under these guys. Off-season acquisition Tatum Bell begins the season starting at running back, while injured Kevin Jones recuperates from a broken foot.
Key additions: RB Tatum Bell, RB T. J. Duckett, WR Calvin Johnson (R), DL Dewayne White
Minnesota Vikings (8-8)—The Vikings were clearly the best 6-10 team of 2006. They were in the playoff hunt until the last few weeks, mostly because their defense ranked fourth in the NFC in points allowed. This year they face the problem of a new quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, taking over the reins of the offense. For this reason alone, the Vikes may never even get close to .500, so this prediction is a definite reach. On the other hand, rookie RB Adrian Peterson should give the offense a huge lift. If Jackson can keep the big mistakes to a minimum, and the defense keeps playing to its potential, the Vikes might build on last year’s record. Like the Lions, they have a schedule that well suits their level of play. Games against the Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles will be tough, as will the home and-away series versus the division-rival Bears, but otherwise the Vikes have a shot at all other comers.
Key additions: RB Adrian Peterson (R), QB Kelly Holcomb, WR Bobby Wade, WR Sidney Rice (R)
Green Bay Packers (6-10)—Brett Favre turns 38 on Oct. 10. He’s still smart and productive. If he had first-rate talent surrounding him, he could take this team somewhere. But as far as we know, he doesn’t. The running game will rest on the performance of rookie Brandon Jackson; after him, it’s a totally speculative affair. Key WR Donald Driver is nursing a preseason injury, which leaves promising sophomore Greg Jennings to lead the rest of the no-names. Actually, the Packers’ defense offers hope. There are veterans at every tier, and if this unit gels the Packers might be able to keep most games close.
Key additions: RB Brandon Jackson (R), DL Justin Harrell (R)
St. Louis Rams (11-5)—The Rams could be the new kings of the West. The offense is unquestionably good and varied, with QB Marc Bulger, RB Steven Jackson and a first-rate receiving corps that now includes veteran TE Randy McMichael, picked up in the offseason. The defense has veteran talent throughout, still young enough to come together for the duration. Rookie DL Adam Carriker has been receiving raves, and if he disrupts opposing offensive lines early and often, the Rams’ linebackers and safeties become that much more effective. The Rams were 8-8 in ‘06, so the leap to 11 Ws is not a huge one.
Key additions: FB Brian Leonard (R), DL Adam Carriker (R), TE Randy McMichael
San Francisco 49ers (7-9)—The Niners were 7-9 last year. They’ll disappoint a lot of people if they repeat that performance, especially after adding talent through free agency and making some smart draft moves. If Alex Smith is the real deal at quarterback, then maybe they win more than 7. Terrific runner Frank Gore has been nursing a preseason injury, though, and it remains to be seen if former Seahawk Darrell Jackson is the answer to a prayer at wide receiver. The defense definitely should be juiced, though, especially if it can summon a pass rush. The Niners could be better than we know, but they still have to prove it.
Key additions: WR Darrell Jackson, LB Patrick Willis (R), LB Tully Banta-Cain, CB Nate Clements, SS Michael Lewis, OL Joe Staley (R)
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)—For a team that finished 5-11 last year and has a brand new head coach—Ken Whisenhunt—this squad surprisingly hasn’t changed much. The offense is strong in the passing game and gets only better with the continued development of second-year QB Matt Leinart. It remains to be seen if RB Edgerrin James—yet another year older—can produce at expected levels. It took him a good long while last season to get into gear, but he finally finished with 1,159 yards (yet a lackluster 3.4 yards per attempt). The personnel upgrades to a defense that yielded 389 points in 2006 are minimal. The Cards should definitely be better in ‘07. If they get lucky too, and build some momentum, they could be a surprise in the playoff picture.
Key additions: Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, DL Alan Branch (R), FS Terrence Holt, OL Levi Brown (R)
Seattle Seahawks (6-10)—They’ve been the class of the division for a good while now, but something tells me Mike Holmgren & Co. are due for a fall. The personnel hasn’t changed much since '06’s 9-7 squad, and, in 15 years of coaching, Holmgren has only posted two losing seasons (6-10 in 2000, and 7-9 in 2002). But the divisional competition has been upgraded, and the rest of the schedule includes games against Cincy, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Chicago, Philly, Carolina and Baltimore. It’s not that big a downward drop from 9-7 to 6-10. A bounce here, and a miscue there, is all it takes. The addition of vet Patrick Kerney should help the D-line play, and there are new faces in the secondary. Call this a speculative hunch.
Key additions: TE Marcus Pollard, DL Patrick Kerney, FS Brian Russell, S Deon Grant
American Football Conference
New England Patriots (12-4)—The Pats kept surprising football fans by continuously upgrading through free-agency in the off-season. They do look pretty invincible, especially if the wide receivers come through. In fact, throughout their recent dynasty, that’s the one position that was never manned by all-world talent; the idea of Tom Brady now throwing to Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth is fairly imposing, and there’s plenty of depth too. But the best addition was Adalius Thomas, a big, mobile and versatile linebacker, 30 years old and at the height of his powers. His presence takes on extra resonance with the recent injury to DL Richard Seymour. Former Dolphin Wesley Welker is also a huge addition; he’s an impact player on special teams and is going to be a sneaky weapon as a wideout. The Pats’ running game bears watching, however. Strangely enough, with all the offseason finagling, they’re really only left with Laurence Maroney as a front-rank running back. This becomes academic if he simply builds expectedly on his freshman resume. He’s good, for sure. He’ll need to stay healthy.
Key additions: WR Randy Moss, WR Donte Stallworth, WR Wesley Welker, LB Adalius Thomas, CB Tory James, CB Brandon Meriweather (R)
New York Jets (9-7)—Where do you go after you shock the world with a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance? That’s the question for second-year coach Eric Mangini. The Jets have most everybody back from last year, and if newly acquired RB Thomas Jones can maintain his health, the offense will have the consistent dimension it lacked at times last season. QB Chad Pennington needs to stay healthy, too. There’s been talk about him being challenged by young Kellen Clemens, but I don’t buy it. Pennington is a very smart quarterback—one of the savviest in the game. He produces, and that’s all that matters. Rookie Darrelle Revis arrived late to training camp, but he could eventually help the secondary.
Key additions: RB Thomas Jones, CB Darrelle Revis (R)
Buffalo Bills (7-9)—Given offseason additions and subtractions to this roster, the Bills look to be about where they were last year—struggling for .500. They should be respected because they have younger defensive talent ready to take it to the next level, and also some younger weapons on offense. And who’s to say they can’t overachieve? If they somehow win 9 games, I wouldn’t be surprised, but besides four games versus the Patriots and the Jets, they face the Broncos, Steelers, Cowboys, Bengals, Jaguars, and Eagles. Tough slate.
Key additions: CB Jason Webster, RB Marshawn Lynch (R), LB Paul Posluszny (R), QB Trent Edwards (R)
Miami Dolphins (5-11)—Quite frankly, I have no idea where this team is headed. The prediction says downward from last year’s 6-10. Of course, 2006 first-year head coaches Eric Mangini and Sean Payton took their teams to the playoffs—from virtually out of nowhere—and newbie Cam Cameron would love to do the same. He’s got Trent Green at quarterback, and Green compiled quite a resume with the Chiefs. RB Ronnie Brown should be solid, and there are good receivers in Chris Chambers, Marty Booker and maybe rookie Ted Ginn, who, no matter what, provides firepower on special teams. The defense is studded with veteran (maybe aging) studs—Vonnie Holiday, Keith Traylor, Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Channing Crowder, newly acquired (but ailing) Joey Porter—and mostly unknown quantities in the secondary. Six challenging divisional games, plus games against Dallas, Philly, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincy don’t make the road easy for Cameron.
Key additions: Head coach Cam Cameron, QB Trent Green, TE David Martin, K Jay Feely, LB Joey Porter, WR Ted Ginn (R)
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)—Defections the past two years from the defense make head coach Tony Dungy’s task a little more difficult in 2007. The offense is a given, and should be as good as ever. But since 2005, the Colts have lost Larry Triplett, David Thornton, Cato June, Nick Harper and Jason David from the defense, a unit that last year yielded 360 points. Like the cavalry, the D arrived in the nick of time for last year’s playoff run, and they were good enough to win a Super Bowl. Still, there’s got to be some period of adjustment here, and you can lose shootouts as easily as you can win them. The impact of offseason acquisitions and drafted talent to improve the situation is not yet apparent. Nevertheless, 11 wins looks do-able.
Key additions: WR Anthony Gonzalez (R)
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)—David Garrard is the quarterback, and the competition, Byron Leftwich, is gone. Otherwise, the big difference in the ‘07 edition of the Jags is health. Injuries affected the defense a lot last year. If they can get back to the dominance of ‘05, opponents better look out. If Garrard handles the O with aplomb, there are good weapons to exploit. His performance is still a wild-card factor at this point. But presuming the D keeps the Jags in most every game, they could win a lot and challenge the Colts for divisional supremacy.
Key additions: WR Dennis Northcutt, S Reggie Nelson (R)
Tennessee Titans (8-8)—Really, for all the talk about Vince Young as Superman, this is still a mystery team. Last year’s 8-8 was certainly a surprise, but can they build on that or will they only tread water? The Titans are a question-mark machine. Will LenDale White and Chris Brown become a formidable running back duo? Can a receiving corps led by Brandon Jones (50 career receptions), 34-year-old Eric Moulds, and lesser-knowns and rookies help Young’s development? If the draft choices spent recently on defensive linemen are so good, why did the team pick up oft-injured 30-year-old Corey Simon late in training camp? Can the special teams and defensive backfield pick up the slack left by the departure of Pacman Jones? To their credit, the Titans brass got on the Pacman thing immediately, signing free agents Nick Harper and Kelly Herndon and then drafting Texas safety Michael Griffin, who is being converted to cornerback. Rookie WR Chris Davis looked good in the preseason as a punt returner, too, and second-year man Cortland Finnegan looks like an able secondary role player and also a potential return man. But probably the biggest question is, If the Titans are only mediocre in most phases of the game, how far can Young take them on grit and talent alone? He’s got it all, for sure, but he’s only human. (Isn’t he?)
Key additions: WR Eric Moulds, DL Corey Simon, CB Nick Harper, CB Kelly Herndon, CB Michael Griffin (R), WR/KR Chris Davis (R)
Houston Texans (7-9)—It’s a tad tempting to project this team a little higher. They were 6-10 last year, and maybe they’ve made enough changes to warrant a two-game leap upward. But I dunno. Matt Schaub still has to prove he’s better than David Carr. The other big off-season acquisition, RB Ahman Green, is 30 years old and clearly not in his prime (which was 2003, when he rushed for 1,883 yards with an average of 5.3 yards per carry). The other runners are Ron Dayne and Samkon Gado. This team has the air of “Green Bay Packers South” about them, and I don’t know if that’s such a good thing. On defense, they’re waiting for '06 #1 draft choice Mario Williams to assert himself at the end position, and they’ve added another big young body at tackle in rookie Amobi Okoye. There’s some talent sprinkled into the linebacking corps and the secondary, and the acquisition of vets Shawn Barber and Michael Boulware might work out. Rookie WR Jacoby Jones got people excited during the preseason. Then, of course, there’s the schedule: six tough divisional games against Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee, plus Carolina, San Diego, New Orleans, and Denver. Interesting team to watch.
Key additions: QB Matt Schaub, RB Ahman Green, WR Jacoby Jones (R), DL Amobi Okoye (R), DB Michael Boulware, LB Shawn Barber
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)—I’m not sure how I arrived here. The Bengals still have players on suspension because of their off-the-field follies. They lost defenders like Kevin Kaesviharn and Tory James in the offseason. They have no decent backup quarterback behind Carson Palmer. Still, they have talent, and it just looks possible for them to take this division. If Palmer goes down, all bets are off, of course. But he’s terrific if he’s playing, and he’s got weapons to throw to. Rudi Johnson is still the best running back no one ever talks about (4,221 yards rushing the last three years). The defense needs some tweaking, but coach Marvin Lewis always has that unit playing hard. Good health and players keeping their noses clean (literally and figuratively) could pave the way for Bengals success.
Key additions: CB Leon Hall (R), S Marvin White (R)
Baltimore Ravens (9-7)—Why will the Ravens drop four games down from last year’s 13-3 finish? Well, the schedule is no picnic: At least four tough divisional games versus Pittsburgh and Cincy, then throw in the Jets, the Rams, the Chargers, the Patriots, the Colts and the Seahawks. They’re a year older on defense, and so is QB Steve McNair, whose backup is Kyle Boller, still waiting to show the world he’s a first-stringer in the NFL. Not to mislead anyone, however; the Ravens still have tons of talent, though the loss of LB Adalius Thomas to the Pats in the offseason has got to hurt. If RB Willis McGahee proves his mettle—suddenly, the kid’ll be 26 on Oct. 20, and he’s still not averaging 4.0 yards per carry in his career—that helps McNair mightily. The Ravens could repeat as division champs, but the road looks rockier.
Key additions: RB Willis McGahee, OL Ben Grubbs (R), WR/KR Yamon Figurs (R)
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)—If you’re like me, you’d never heard of Mike Tomlin before he was announced to replace Bill Cowher as coach of the Steelers. No one envies the shoes he has to fill, but Tomlin inherits a team that is intact and has a chance to rebound to 2005 form. The key players on both sides of the ball are essentially unchanged from ‘06, which means a lot of talent and a lot of aggressive ball-playing. If people achieve where they’re supposed to—Roethlisberger now healthy, Willie Parker looking great in the preseason, quality receivers, and a talented, hard-nosed defense throughout—Tomlin should succeed. The schedule’s tough, though, and factoring in the coach’s youth (he’s 35) and newness to his job, 9 wins looks pretty good. Yet it could be more.
Key additions: Head coach Mike Tomlin, LB Lawrence Timmons (R), LB Lamarr Woodley (R)
Cleveland Browns (6-10)—Charlie Frye has been handed the reins at quarterback. It may be a logical move, him being the incumbent and all, but it’s not like he’s Brett Favre. So, are the Browns’ brass hoping Frye does really well—so well that Brady Quinn sits all year long? It’s the conventional move—let Quinn stand and watch with a clipboard for a while. But I’m not sure I buy the old saw about young QBs losing confidence if they screw up early on, or are operating behind a lousy O-line and get sacked to death. I mean, that could go either way, right? For example, John Elway just got better. Ditto Peyton Manning. And Vince Young. The Browns are certainly hoping that Jamal Lewis will be maintaining form at running back, though it’s probably pie in the sky to think he’d ever return to his spectacular 2003 numbers. There are good receivers here—Edwards, Winslow, Jurevicius—which is only another reason to kinda think maybe Quinn should just start from the get-go. The defense has young, talented linebackers who are sandwiched in between a D-line and a secondary striving for recognition. The Browns dropped from 6-10 in 2005 to 4-12 in ‘06, but they weren’t a worse team. They play in a killer division—they were 0-6 last year versus Pittsburgh, Cincy and Baltimore—and then played everyone else respectably. It won’t be much different in '07, probably, which just makes me think Quinn should get the nod on opening day. Isn’t that why they drafted that big tackle Thomas ahead of him? Throw him in to the fire. Maybe he’s made of asbestos.
Key additions: QB Brady Quinn (R), RB Jamal Lewis, OL Joe Thomas (R)
San Diego Chargers (11-5)—If Mike Tomlin’s position isn’t enviable, how about Norv Turner’s? He takes over a 14-2 team. How do you improve on that? Well, just get ‘em to the playoffs and win a game or two, I suppose. The Chargers are loaded, and QB Philip Rivers has another year under his belt, which is good news for the offense. Not many changes have been made anywhere. The team could use help at wideout, though, and Turner hopes rookie Craig Davis is the answer. Despite drafting low, the Chargers managed to find a crop of youngsters good enough to make this team, so that bodes well for depth on both sides of the ball. Turner’s a good coach, and he’s never previously had such a talented club at his disposal. But he’ll be operating under the pressure to succeed in a big way, which probably won’t be much fun.
Key additions: Head coach Norv Turner, WR Craig Davis (R)
Denver Broncos (8-8)—If I were coach Mike Shanahan, I’d be up nights worrying: Is Jay Cutler going to be a great quarterback? Will Travis Henry stay healthy and avoid off-the field crud? Do I have enough beef on my defensive line to disrupt the opponent’s passing game? Am I getting old in the secondary? Who replaces Rod Smith? The Broncs finished 9-7 last year—not bad for a team transitioning at quarterback. But looking at the schedule, and factoring in the fact that Cutler is not yet walking in John Elway’s footsteps, it’s possible this team will be hard-pressed to exceed their '06 record. Still lots of talent here, operating within a proven system and very well coached. Newcomer Daniel Graham should help at tight end, and if rookie Jarvis Moss makes an impact at defensive end, Shanahan won’t have to worry quite so much about 36-year-old John Lynch, 34-year-old Nick Ferguson, and 30-year-old Dre’ Bly in the secondary. Heck, even CB Champ Bailey is 29 now. (Where do the years go?) Yet the late, recent roster addition of DL Simeon Rice, thought to be washed up, does make one wonder how desperate Shanahan is for finding ways to rush the passer.
Key additions: RB Travis Henry, RB Selvin Young (R), TE Daniel Graham, DL Sam Adams, DL Jarvis Moss (R), CB Dre’ Bly, DL Simeon Rice
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)—Damon Huard is the undisputed Chiefs quarterback. This is strictly a watch-and-see proposition. He’s performed well in his career when he’s gotten opportunities, but why is he finally getting his first full-blown chance at the age of 34? He didn’t even play in the the NFL in 2004 and 2005, yet has risen like the phoenix to become a starter after the team let Trent Green go. It’s an old story: If Huard can ”manage” the offense, mostly by handing off to RB Larry Johnson, then he’ll be counted as a success. The Chiefs have picked up two veteran linebackers, Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris, in the offseason, and they drafted two big bodies to help anchor the D-line. (In fact, the Chiefs had what looks to be a very productive draft overall.) The secondary has some age but also experience. If the D steps up and dominates, possibly the team matches last year’s 9-7 finish, in which they made the playoffs by a hair (then collapsed against the Colts). The postseason looks less likely in '07.
Key additions: LB Donnie Edwards, WR Dwayne Bowe (R), LB Napoleon Harris, DL Turk McBride (R), DL DeMarcus Tyler (R)
Oakland Raiders (4-12)—It’s progress to go from 2-14 to 4-12. Who knows, maybe new coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Daunte Culpepper can rally the troops to higher heights. Despite the holdout of #1 draft choice JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders drafted well. They’ll have a new tight end in Zach Miller, and possibly Johnnie Lee Higgins can provide excitement in the return game. Fact is, the Raiders’ D wasn’t that bad in '06—that is to say that plenty of other teams leaguewide (14) gave up more than the 332 points they yielded. LaMont Jordan looks poised for a good year running the ball, and when suspended Dominic Rhodes gets back on the team, the running game gets better. Of course, if Culpepper doesn’t excel, or proves to be direly immobile, the team’s outlook might turn bleak. Still, in a year that looks to be parity-rich, they could easily overachieve.
Key additions: Head coach Lane Kiffin, QB Daunte Culpepper, QB Josh McCown, RB Dominic Rhodes, QB JaMarcus Russell (R), TE Zach Miller (R), DL Gerard Warren, WR/KR Johnnie Lee Higgins (R)
[Note: Shortly after publication, it was reported in the sports media that Josh McCown would start the Raiders' opening game at quarterback.]
Wild Card Round: Panthers over Bears; Cowboys over Lions
Divisional Round: Saints over Panthers; Rams over Cowboys
Conference Championship: Saints over Rams
Wild Card Round: Colts over Ravens; Jaguars over Bengals
Divisional Round: Chargers over Colts; Patriots over Jaguars
Conference Championship: Patriots over Chargers
Patriots over Saints