Friday, September 25, 2009

New SMA-Produced Webisode Analyzes the Early Season 2009 Performance of the Tennessee Titans



Sunday, September 20, 2009

SMA Continues Video Production Program

Sports Media America continues to partner in video production with new-media sports outlets. The latest effort features a two-part series on the 2009 Southeastern Conference football season, produced in association with VinettPicks.com. Catch the commentary at:

SEC West

SEC East

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #1

Notes and observations from the NFL’s opening week:
  • When it counts most, new Bears QB Jay Cutler stinks up Lambeau Field, tossing four interceptions as Bears fall to Packers, 21-15. Bears LB Brian Urlacher lost for season with broken wrist. Aaron Rodgers connects with WR Greg Jennings for game-winning TD with 1:11 on the clock.

  • In the “Isn’t life ironic?” category, new Broncos QB Kyle Orton hooks up with Brandon Stokley on a miraculously tipped, 87-yard TD pass with 11 seconds left on the clock, as Denver wins its opener on the road, 12-7, in Cincinnati for new head coach Josh McDaniels. Neither team shows much of anything except a long way to go. Broncs’ crybaby WR Brandon Marshall shows up and catches four passes.

  • Redskins again exhibit confusion and lack of killer instinct on offense, falling to the Giants, 23-17, in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. Giants don’t look great, but offense appears sound, and the return of Osi Umenyiora to the DL a definite plus. Justin Tuck a standout on D.

  • Rookie QB Mark Sanchez sets Jets fans to salivating with impressive first start (18-31, 272 yards, 1 TD), in surprisingly convincing 24-7 victory over Houston. Texans’ offense stalls out in front of home crowd of 70,718.

  • Titans and Steelers slug it out in the season’s inaugural game on Thursday night. Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger’s impressive, clutch second-half performance the difference in 13-10 Pittsburgh victory.

  • Falcons score solid home victory 19-7 over Dolphins, with sophomore QB Matt Ryan putting up good numbers (22-36, 229 yards, 2 TDs) and All-Pro TE Tony Gonzalez making an impressive debut in Atlanta after coming over in the off-season from Kansas City. Dolphins’ offense struggles early and often versus Atlanta D, led by former Jaguars LB Mike Peterson.

  • Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne the story in Colts’ narrow 14-12 home win over Jacksonville. First career win for new Indy head coach Jim Caldwell.

  • Brett Favre’s debut with the Vikings is overshadowed by the 180-yard running performance of Adrian Peterson. Minnesota pulls aways to 34-20 victory over Cleveland, scoring 24 second-half points. Browns keep it close, then can’t respond under QB-designate Brady Quinn.

  • QB Tony Romo has big day (16-27, 353 yards, 3 TDs), leading Cowboys to 34-21 victory on the road over Buccaneers. Bucs generate some offense under new QB Byron Leftwich, with RB Cadillac Williams gaining 97 yards on 13 carries. But Tampa defensive breakdowns prove team’s undoing.

  • Lions go on the road under new head coach Jim Schwartz and get more of the same, a 45-27 shellacking at the hands of the Saints. New Orleans QB Drew Brees throws six TD passes, while former Denver RB Mike Bell comes out of nowhere to gain 143 yards on 28 carries. Rookie QB Matthew Stafford’s Lions debut marred by three interceptions.

  • Ravens open at home with 38-24 victory over the Chiefs, with second-year stars Joe Flacco (26-43, 307 yards, 3 TDs) and Ray Rice (19-108 yards) leading the way. Chiefs keep it close under reserve QB Brodie Croyle, then Ravens bust game open with 21-point fourth quarter.

  • Eagles QB Donovan McNabb breaks a rib in what is otherwise a decisive Philly triumph, 38-10, over Carolina. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme throws four interceptions, and the game’s essentially over by halftime. Meanwhile, the Eagles have signed veteran signal-caller Jeff Garcia as a backup, pending McNabb’s recovery.

  • Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck announces his return to health with a big day (25-36, 279 yards, 3 TDs), leading his team to a 28-0 whitewash of the inept Rams and their first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo. Seattle RB Julius Jones resurfaces also with 117 rushing yards.

  • 49ers announce possible changing of the guard in NFC West with surprise 20-16 victory over the Cardinals in Arizona. QB Shaun Hill proves resilient and savvy for San Francisco, and the Niners’ D flexes its muscle at key moments.

  • The spunky Bills hold a 24-13 lead with five minutes remaining, then let the host Patriots back into the game on a critical turnover, whereupon Pats QB Tom Brady eats ’em alive, as New England ekes out 25-24 win. Old reliable duo of Brady (39-53, 378 yards, 2 TDs) and Randy Moss (12 catches, 141 yds) back in synch as Brady returns from knee surgery that
    scuttled his 2008 season.

  • Seesaw game in Oakland results in 24-20 win for Chargers. Raiders still look like an erratic team on offense under QB JaMarcus Russell, but tough-minded D seemed to get a boost from addition of former Patriots DL Richard Seymour. QB Philip Rivers looked good in the clutch for San Diego, and the big game-clinching TD was scored by RB Darren Sproles, whose obvious superior quickness may earn him a starting job over LaDainian Tomlinson.

Media Notes

I’ve had my mixed feelings in the past about Chris Collinsworth’s abilities as a broadcaster, but I have to say he seemed excellent doing the Titans-Steelers opener with Al Michaels. Maybe it’s the somewhat grating tenor of his voice that used to bug me, but his observations proved instructive and interesting, and that’s good enough for me. (Don’t push it, Chris. Just give it to us straight.)

Jon Gruden made his official season debut as a color man on ESPN, covering the Bills-Patriots game. He’s not bad at all, and his commentary helped to keep blowhard Ron Jaworski quiet for longer periods of time, which is a real blessing. Jaworksi’s uber-jockish enthusiasm is a meatheaded nightmare sometimes, and frankly, if you actually dissect the stuff he says, it sounds like BS. (Sorry, Jaws, I know you’re in earnest and all, but...) Jaws did make the point that the Patriots should kick off deep rather than go for the on-sides kick toward the end of the game, making him look prescient when the Bills’ return man Leodis McKelvin fumbled the ball. Of course, if McKelvin doesn’t fumble the ball, and the Bills successfully run out the clock, then Jaws looks like an idiot. Such is the nature of the beast.

For ESPN’s second game on the Monday night doubleheader, we had to suffer Greenberg as the play-by-play man (he missed his share of player IDs on tackles; bone up on that program, Mike). But also, we had to really suffer Golic doing color. The man is an absolute moron; he out-Jaws Jaws. If ever there were proof that sports broadcasting success is not based on meritocratic decision-making, Golic is it. He’s a big dummy who will never master the English language because he’s incapable of doing so. His presence on the airwaves is especially mysterious because he was a totally mediocre player in his time, hence he can’t even bring star power to his job. Unlike Hall of Famer Steve Young, who, as one of the finest newer analysts in the NFL, found himself sitting between these two desperate wannabes. Young helped the situation, but alas, Golic, having been encouraged all these years, thinks he ought to jump in all the time, then did so, thus robbing us of more Young.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Raspy, Wimp-Voiced Rick Reilly Debuts as ESPN Anchor

So whose knob is Rick Reilly polishing at ESPN? After slowly but surely insinuating himself into their web pages—with his signature "alternative" semi-humorous reporting—and then launching his ESPN "Homecoming" sports interview show (which, let's admit it, is kind of gay), Reilly showed up tonight doing anchorman work. Putting up with Reilly's raspy wimp-ass voice on an occasion isn't so bad, but hearing him do the extended rundown of a baseball or football game is a crime against nature. So why, when there have to be many, many, MANY professional-voiced guys all over the country who could do that job better, would ESPN expose us to Reilly at the anchor desk? Is Rick "re-inventing" himself? (God help us.) Publishing his books and riding on his rep as sports funnyman and wry observer not paying the bills?

Bad move. He sucks. His voice is annoying, and not authoritative, and his lame-ass attempts at humor thudded.

Even a dumb jock might be better. And that's saying something.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

NFL 2009: Predictions for an Unpredictable Season

The old-school NFL rule of thumb is that rookie QBs need to sit and watch for a while. Unless your options are limited. Or your team looks so bad—ahem, Detroit—that exposing a youngster immediately to the fires of stiff NFL defenses just looks like better public relations. Both caveats generally apply to the Lions’ Matthew Stafford (Georgia) and the Jets’ Mark Sanchez (Southern Cal). The other first-round QB draftee, Kansas State’s Josh Freeman, will be sitting in Tampa Bay, but who knows for how long. All it takes is an injury—or a mediocre couple of games from a suspect veteran—to sound the rookie battle cry.

There are plenty of other, non-rookie stories to follow in 2009. Brett Favre in Minnesota. Tom Brady’s return from injury. T.O. in Buffalo. Mike Vick in Philly. Jay Cutler in Chicago. Matt Cassel in K.C. Albert Haynesworth in D.C.

There are also tons of first-time head coaches: Raheem Morris (Bucs), Jim Schwartz (Lions), Rex Ryan (Jets), Jim Caldwell (Colts), Josh McDaniels (Broncos), Todd Haley (Chiefs) and Steve Spagnuolo (Rams), plus Tom Cable (Raiders) and Mike Singletary (49ers), who both begin their first full seasons in their teams’ top jobs. Add retread Jim Mora, Jr., newly helming the Seahawks and ex-Jets coach Eric Mangini moving over to Cleveland for his do-over, and there should be more new looks on the field than you’d find at a Paris fashion show.

Once again we’ve done our best to crunch the numbers, assess the ever-shifting talent pool and evaluate how the teams stack up against the schedules. Some years are more predictable than others, but this isn’t one of them. (Predicted records and results for 2009 are for entertainment purposes only.)

AFC EAST

New England Patriots (11-5 )
Last year’s 11-5 Patriots, even without Tom Brady, had to be one of the best teams ever to not make the playoffs. Even with an unproven guy (Matt Cassel) at quarterback, the Pats can (and did) excel under Bill Belichick. Ol’ Bill may be a bit of a grouch, but his system is proven, and his decision-making on personnel shows remarkable perception. He brings in veteran receivers and defensive backs, tries ’em out, pits ’em against rookies, and somehow comes up with effective combinations. Brady is back this year, and with a totally veteran starting offense underneath him—including newcomer 37-year-old (!) Joey Galloway—the Pats would seem a playoff lock. The running back situation looks rather graybeard, but Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and aging but still effective Fred Taylor seem capable of doing the usual Patriot thing on the ground—cranking out enough yardage to balance the passing game. Surprisingly, Brady’s only backup, as of this writing, is rookie QB Brian Hoyer, a real sleeper out of Michigan State. If Brady goes down, Hoyer will be hard-pressed to do what Cassel did in ’08, so that’s actually a pretty risky situation. The defense is also veteran, and with another year under their belts in New England, LBs Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas should kick some ass. (The loss of retired Tedy Bruschi will have minimal impact. The last-minute trade of longtime DE Richard Seymour may have more ripple effect.) Veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs are new off-season additions to the cornerback corps. Springs has battled injuries recently, and at 34 he could have his difficulties handling the better receivers. Bodden is talented, and at his peak, and Belichick has rescued him from the recent football hells of Cleveland and Detroit. Depth might be an issue, but rookie DBs Patrick Chung and Darius Butler could help. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit 90% of his field goals last year, and was 40-40 with PATs. The schedule is no picnic, but luckily most of the tougher out-of-division opponents—Atlanta, Baltimore, Tennessee, Carolina and Jacksonville—are home games. Brady’s health is everything, though.

Miami Dolphins (9-7)
There were plenty of teams in the NFL in 2008 who scored more points and allowed fewer points than the Dolphins. But first-year coach Tony Sparano demonstrated a knack for getting his team motivated, resulting in a surprise 11-5 record and the Fins’ first playoff appearance since 2001. Sparano was helped by the addition of savvy QB Chad Pennington, the emergence of the Wildcat offense, decent joint output from RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, exciting contributions from WR/KR Ted Ginn and a group-effort defense led by LB Joey Porter’s 17.5 sacks. The offense looks pretty much the same this year, but if Pennington can stay healthy, they should build on last year’s positives and show improvement. The D is anchored by excellent LBs, including Porter, Akin Ayodele, Channing Crowder, and the returning Jason Taylor, who had a bummer year in Washington but looks to be comfortable again in aquamarine and orange. The Fins went after DBs bigtime in the draft, and the kids appear to be sticking. There could be a period of adjustment there, though veterans Will Allen, Yeremiah Bell and free-agent pickup Gibril Wilson are the solid leaders. Alas, with success comes an upgrade in schedule, and Miami’s is brutal. Never mind the divisional matchups, which include two games against the Patriots; they also play Atlanta, Indy, San Diego, New Orleans, Carolina, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston and Pittsburgh. This team might be improved, yet actually take a step backward.

Buffalo Bills (6-10)
For a team with a fair amount of recognizable talent, the Bills sure are a question mark. They fired their offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert, on Sept. 4. Their preseason performance was limp, especially for QB Trent Edwards. Marquee RB Marshawn Lynch was set to sit out the season’s first three games on a suspension. Terrell Owens has a sore toe. First-round draft choice Aaron Maybin reported late. The Bills looked ready to leap forward in ’08, but after starting the season 5-1, they dropped 8 of their last 10 games. They begin 2009 looking wounded, but presuming they get healthy and everyone starts playing up to par, they could compete. The offensive weapons, including the marvelous Lee Evans at wide receiver, are, on paper, big league. Alas, the offensive line may suffer growing pains, with rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood seeing significant playing time. The defense has established talent strewn throughout—Aaron Schobel, Marcus Stroud, Kawika Mitchell, Paul Posluszny, Terrence McGee, Donte Whitner, Leodis McKelvin—and if DL Maybin can make up for lost time, he’ll definitely help. Finally, though, the variables just don’t add up for Dick Jauron’s team. Besides all that early season chaos, they’ve got to deal with tough divisional battles versus the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets, plus play the AFC South teams and the NFC South teams, which means games against Indy, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta. Which means they probably won’t even match last year’s win total.

New York Jets (5-11)
Excitement is high in Jetsville. A new coach. A new QB. A new attitude. Hmmm... Well, let’s see: Coach Rex Ryan is the son of Buddy Ryan, who was a first-rate assistant coach in the NFL but only so-so as a head coach. (We shall see how far the apple falls from the tree.) Mark Sanchez, savior quarterback, appears confident and had a modicum of success in the preseason. (When the bell rings for the real deal, we’ll see how poised he remains.) What else? Oh yeah, LB Calvin Pace misses the first four games due to suspension for using a banned substance, and DL Shaun Ellis misses the opener for smoking marijuana. So what’s good about the Jets? Offensive line, pretty good. Running backs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, pretty good, with rookie Shonn Greene (Iowa) a possible major contributor. Jerricho Cotchery’s the big wide receiver. (Eh.) Dustin Keller, a decent tight end, is in his second season. On defense, they added former Ravens Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard and former Eagle Lito Sheppard. Talented cornerback Darrelle Revis enters his third season. Kris Jenkins is the forceful down lineman in the middle. People may be surprised to know that last year only the Chargers and Patriots scored more points than the Jets in the AFC. So, really, the Favre Experiment, in those terms, was not a failure. Can Sanchez muster the same results? Opponents scored 22.3 points per game, but even so, at one point, Favre had the team at 8-3 and heading for the playoffs before the 1-4 meltdown. The D will need to step up, and that’s Ryan’s forte, but there’s still a lot to prove here. The schedule doesn’t help at all: The first five games include the Pats and Titans at home and road games at faraway Houston, New Orleans and Miami. The Jets might be 0-5 before they know what’s hit ’em. I’d hold off on the Sanchez love-fest for a while at least.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Goodbye, Tony Dungy. Hello...Jim Caldwell? I wouldn’t call Caldwell a household NFL name. He’s been with the Colts for seven seasons, more recently in the amorphous “assistant head coach” position. He has a background in offense, but otherwise he’s an unknown quantity. The team he inherits hasn’t changed that much, and based on the Colts’ 2008 year-end surge—nine straight victories, then a tough overtime playoff loss at San Diego—that should bode well. Expect plenty of Peyton Manning throwing to Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark, with Joseph Addai running the football, with help from versatile rookie RB Donald Brown (UConn). The modestly effective defense looks about the same as well, featuring Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the line, linebackers led by Gary Brackett, and an experienced secondary that nonetheless will probably be without talented but oft-injured safety Bob Sanders early on. Plus, K AdamVinatieri returns from surgery, and the verdict still seems to be out on that one. What the absence of the Dungy Factor will mean is something that will have to unfold. Statistically, the Colts have not been stellar on defense, though they’ve always gotten the job done at some level. Can Caldwell inspire that kind of play? Yet as long as Manning is there putting up scores, they’ll compete. Somehow, for a team coming off a 12-4 record, their schedule doesn’t look so tough, with matchups against the weak NFC West and the only so-so AFC East.

Tennessee Titans (10-6)
Last season’s 13-3 Titans team remains essentially unchanged. QB Kerry Collins has hit his stride at the age of 36, and his situation is bulwarked by a strong running game and talented, proven offensive line. So while RBs Chris Johnson, LenDale White and rookie hopeful Javon Ringer (Michigan State) should chalk up serious yardage, questions still remain at wide receiver. To address the issue, the Titans signed ex-Steeler Nate Washington in the off-season. They also drafted WR Kenny Britt (Rutgers) in the first round (#30 overall). But that still leaves veteran Justin Gage as the most reliable pass-catcher on the team, until convinced otherwise. Rookie TE Jared Cook (South Carolina) may emerge as a swing receiver. Collins effectively utilizes tight ends and running backs in the passing game, so the Titans offense should be productive, with any upgrade at the wideouts a bonus. On the defensive line, Albert Haynesworth is gone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if last year’s rookie surprises William Hayes and Jason Jones continue to improve. There’s creeping age here, though, with Jevon Kearse (33), David Thornton and Kyle Vanden Bosch (both almost 31) and Keith Bulluck (32) possibly heading toward twilight time. And CB Nick Harper turns 35 on opening night (Sept. 10). The other DBs are experienced and good. Kicking is in the solid hands (or foot) of Rob Bironas. As of this writing, the return game looks uncertain. A tougher schedule awaits head coach Jeff Fisher, and the idea that this is a juggernaut Titans squad will be seriously challenged. Besides the usual tough divisional games versus Indy, Jacksonville and improving Houston, they play the Steelers, Patriots, Cardinals and Chargers, plus a smattering of unknown-quantity mediocrities. Exceeding last year’s mark seems impossible, and a misstep here and there could result in disappointment.

Houston Texans (9-7)
Hope keeps springing eternal in Houston. Head coach Gary Kubiak now has two straight 8-8 finishes under his belt, but one more of those probably won’t please Texan fans. Seven of the Texans’ eight ’09 draft choices made the squad, which means more fresh blood on defense and some depth on the offensive line. But for a team that has supposedly focused on defense in the recent era, the Texans’ 24.6-point yield per game last season is not acceptable (and hence explains the .500 record). First-round draft choice LB Brian Cushing (Southern Cal) steps immediately into the starting lineup, joining young vet and Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans. The D-line has impressive recent draft choices Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye as its anchors, so that’s definitely a good thing. The cornerbacks are veteran Jacques Reeves and improving Fred Bennett, and also Dunta Robinson, who staged an offseason holdout and only reported to the team this week. The offensive line still appears to be developing, but after years of nightmarish performance there, they might finally be turning the corner with consistent younger vets. That’s good, too, because injury-prone QB Matt Schaub needs all the help he can get. If he goes down—as he has in both the last two seasons—it’s either ex-Lion Dan Orlovsky or ex-Bear Rex Grossman under center. Whoever’s handling snaps will gladly hand the ball off to second-year RB Steve Slaton, who had an exciting rookie year, gaining 1,282 yards on the ground and catching 50 passes. Talented—but also injury-prone—ex-Titan Chris Brown backs him up. Of course, the big talent on this offense is WR Andre Johnson, who caught 115 passes in 2008 for 1,575 yards and 8 TDs. Johnson is, as they say, a beast, and he gets acceptable assistance on the outside from Kevin Walter (60 catches, 8 TDs). Plus, Owen Daniels (70 catches, 12.3 average) is the tight end, who also performs like a WR. Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones are the excellent return guys, and the place-kicking is in good hands with Kris Brown. The Texans have the talent to exceed last year’s finish, and with a break here or there, they might be in the playoff picture. They need to beat their division foes a few times, ’cause the rest of the schedule—Raiders, 49ers, Jets, Bengals, Bills, Seahawks, Rams—offers plenty of opportunities to grab surer Ws.

Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
Hard to believe, but Jack Del Rio enters his seventh season as the Jags’ head coach. It’s been a roller-coaster at times, but last year’s 5-11 definitely wasn’t supposed to happen. Now it’s kind of back to the drawing board, and the Jags have cut loose some familiar vets, while eight of their nine draft choices made the ’09 squad. The QB is still David Garrard. He’s talented and versatile. Maurice Jones-Drew is the main running threat, and is also a force out of the backfield catching passes. The great Torry Holt was acquired in the off-season to bolster the receiving corps, which otherwise looks a little questionable with Troy Williamson, Mike Walker and Nate Hughes. TE Marcedes Lewis seems to be improving. The offensive line may feature two rookies, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, but off-season acquisition Tra Thomas has an All-Pro pedigree and 10th-year center Brad Meester’s proven. The once fearsome Jaguars defense still has power-hitters on the defensive line—Reggie Hayward, John Henderson—and the linebacking corps appears competent with younger, if unspectacular, vets. Rashean Mathis and Reggie Nelson anchor the defensive backfield, but veterans Brian Williams and Marlon McCree were let go at the last cutdown—leaving a potentially uncomfortable situation. The Jags should compete, but they probably need help on defense, and surprisingly they drafted lightly in that area. The out-of-division schedule looks quite merciful, with only Arizona and New England looming as ominous. If they can somehow break even against divisional foes, the Jags could surprise, but they’ll need some good performances at presently uncertain positions for that to happen.

AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
You know, if you browse through the Steelers ’08 stats, you don’t see that much—on the offensive side of the ledger. QB Ben Roethlisberger had okay stats. Nothing extraordinary, though. No 1,000-yard rusher on that team. One receiver, Hines Ward, had a Pro Bowl-worthy statistical year. Then you look a little closer, and you notice that this team had 51 sacks and 20 interceptions. And that tells the classic tale of winning football. The scary thing is that practically everybody returns to line up all over again at the exact same spots. RB Willie Parker may get pushed by Rashard Mendenhall, and WR Limas Sweed may start to get more opportunities to catch passes. Otherwise, it looks like deja vu all over again. Many of the Steelers nine draft choices made the team as well, which means depth is being developed with younger guys. Rookie Mike Wallace (Mississippi) is set to return kickoffs, and new addition, former CFL-er, Stefan Logan will return punts. I guess someone will beat this team at some point during the season, but their toughest out-of-division opponents—Tennessee, San Diego, Minnesota, Green Bay—all have to come to Pittsburgh to do that. When the Steelers go on the road, they play Detroit, Denver, K.C., and Miami. Who’s making these schedules?

Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
Believe it or not, the Ravens actually scored more points than the Steelers last season. But, like Pittsburgh, it was playing great defense that brought them a playoff berth. Defections have forced some changes for ’09. Not least of these is former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s departure to New York to coach the Jets. LB Tavares Gooden, a second-year man, steps into a starting role on the heels of Bart Scott’s departure (also to the Jets). DL Kelly Gregg returns after missing a year with a knee injury. Newly signed free agent Domonique Foxworth takes over one corner position, and safety Dawan Landry returns from injury after missing almost the entire ’09 season. These changes may affect the chemistry significantly. Greg Mattison is the new DC, and he’ll still have Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata, Samari Rolle and Ed Reed around, though all a year older. All the concerns about the D have made everyone fairly blase about Joe Flacco. Can the second-year QB improve on his surprise rookie year? He has many of his weapons back, especially since WR Derrick Mason decided to un-retire. Mark Clayton is a good receiver, as is TE Todd Heap. Le’Ron McClain emerged as a punishing runner in ’09, and he’s back. Second-year RB Ray Rice will push Willis McGahee for serious playing time. There’s a new center for Flacco, as free agent Matt Birk has come over from Minnesota. The Ravens’ draft was modest but has mighty proportions, including rookie OL Michael Oher (Mississippi) who moves into a starting role at right tackle, and also DE Paul Kruger (Utah) who could pay immediate dividends. Steve Hauschka is the new kicker replacing retired Matt Stover.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)
The big news for the Bengals, coming off a dour 4-11-1 2008, is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who went down with an elbow injury in last season’s fourth game. The excellent T. J. Houshmandzadeh is gone, but Old Reliable Chad #85 will be here to catch Palmer’s passes, provided he can get enough time from an offensive line that is short on experience and shorter on name recognition. To make matters worse, in typically pathetic Bengalian fashion, first-round draft choice OL Andre Smith (Alabama) signed late, then fractured his foot in camp. Ex-Jet Laveranues Coles is a new addition to the receiving corps, while sometime-bad boy receiver Chris Henry had a promising preseason. Cedric Benson, apparently staying away from his boating hobby for the time being, will attempt to put in a complete and productive season as the main running back. The so-so defense from last year returns mostly in tact, except for two major new additions: former Cowboys safety Roy Williams, coming off injury, and former Bears/Cowboys troublemaker defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Besides Smith, the draft brought LB Rey Maualuga (Southern Cal) and a new punter, Kevin Huber (Cincinnati). Undrafted rookie free agent Quan Cosby (Texas) made the team as a punt returner and spare receiver. A lot has to come together for this team to make a move, even if Palmer returns to form. Hard to believe Marvin Lewis still has his job, but maybe management figures no one would ever want to come in to replace him. And no schedule would look easy to this team.

Cleveland Browns (3-13)
Unfortunately for them, the Browns look a lot like the Bengals. They were 4-12 in 2008 and now new coach Eric Mangini, after some modest success with the Jets, enters football purgatory. Like the Bengals’, the Browns’ defense is not the worst, but it needs to be 10 times better because the offense is so erratic. The Brady Quinn/Derek Anderson QB derby is still afoot, aging Jamal Lewis is the main running back, and TE Kellen Winslow is gone. WR Braylon Edwards, great at times, returns, while Joshua Cribbs is being asked to step up and apply his elusiveness as a kick returner to the wide receiver position, a la the Bears’ Devin Hester. The O-line has some vets, plus high-profile 2007 draft choice Joe Thomas. As for the D, last year’s squad mustered but 17 sacks (by way of comparison, the Steelers had 51). But there are a few new faces. Arriving via trade from the Jets is SS Abram Elam and DL Kenyon Coleman. Also from the Jets are LBs Eric Barton and David Bowens, both pretty much journeyman types, but maybe Mangini thinks their familiarity with his system will help. They’ll team up with younger vets Kamerion Wimbley and D’Qwell Jackson to provide fairly assured middle-tier defensive play. Most of the secondary are returnees, and DL Robaire Smith tries to rebound from 2008 injury. Team sack leader Shaun Rogers is also back. There are a lot of retreads and unknown factors on this team. Plus, the draft added no earth-shaking immediate hope. And, just like the Bengals, no schedule would be kind to them.

AFC WEST

San Diego Chargers (11-5)
The Chargers finished 8-8 last year, lucked into the playoffs, then advanced by beating the Colts in the wild card game. I don’t know if that makes head coach Norv Turner a genius or an idiot. Maybe it’s the water in San Diego. It pansies you up or something. Anyway: good young QB, Philip Rivers; the great L.T., soon to be overtaken by Darren Spoles; talented WRs Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers; excellent TE Antonio Gates. The offensive line looks impressively the same, save for rookie Louis Vasquez (Texas Tech), who starts at right guard. The defense, which proved uncharacteristically porous in ’08, returns most everybody; more importantly, Shawne Merriman, who missed last year due to injury, looks back to form. One critical change is the addition of former Cowboys LB Kevin Burnett. Nate Kaeding is the reliable kicker. The schedule suits ’em. They oughta win the division, then get out-physicalized in the playoffs by a team from the East.

Oakland Raiders (7-9)
Actually, it’s a minor miracle the Raiders won five games last season. They changed coach in mid-season and their stats generally sucked on both sides of the ball. Still, there’s the makings here of a good defense. The returning vets in the secondary are led by the excellent CB Nnamdi Asomugha. Ex-Cowboy Greg Ellis and former Patriot Richard Seymour join an already veteran DL, while Jon Alston moves up from mostly special teams work to starting LB, supplementing tough, talented Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison. The offense is another, less obvious story. Is JaMarcus Russell any good at quarterback? Is Darren McFadden a marquee runner? The Raiders have spent a ton of money trying to find these things out. If Russell fails, there’s not much backing him up, since Jeff Garcia was canned. If McFadden falters, there’s Justin Fargas, and also Michael Bush, who showed flashes of excitement late last season. The receiving corps mixes experience (Javon Walker) with younger guys like Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins, plus #1 draft choice Darrius Heyward-Bey (Maryland), who could be a real find if someone can get him the ball. On balance, Raiders strive for upward mobility and find some growth. If Russell can really play, they might surprise a few teams.

Kansas City Chiefs (5-11)
They hope their long national nightmare is over in Kansas City. Not so fast. Just because it’s hard to repeat a 2-14 season doesn’t mean it can’t happen. New head coach Todd Haley is making changes, however—including sacking his offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, during the preseason—and this should prove to be an interesting team to watch. New QB Matt Cassel got hurt in preseason but supposedly will be ready to start. Can he repeat the magic of 2008, when he came out of obscurity, with little NFL game experience, to lead the Pats to an 11-5 record? The backups, Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen, doubtless would like a major crack at this task. (Actually, I rather liked watching Thigpen last year. Check his numbers. They’re not bad, especially for a guy who practically had to do it all alone.) Tony Gonzalez, all-world tight end, is now gone to Atlanta, leaving unspectacular journeyman Sean Ryan #1 on the depth chart. RB Larry Johnson is going to attempt to return to the 1,000-yard club, and he should get every opportunity. Hard to see who’ll push him, unless it’s second-year man Jamaal Charles. Dwayne Bowe is a great receiver, very unheralded, and the other starter, ex-Bear Mark Bradley, is trying to jump-start his once-promising career. There’s depth at wideout with Bobby Engram and Terrance Copper. The KC O-line is a mixed bag of rather unknown vets—Brian Waters, former Charger Mike Goff—younger strivers (Ikechuku Ndukwe, Rudy Niswanger), and 2008 first-round draft choice Branden Albert, from whom much is expected at left tackle. This year’s #1 draft choice, Tyson Jackson (LSU), gets thrown immediately into the fray at left defensive end, bookending the Chiefs’ other 2008 #1 draftee, Glenn Dorsey, in the 3-4 scheme. This is clearly a place of need, for surely the Chiefs must have been the only team in the NFL last year with more interceptions (13) than sacks (10). There’s yet another first-round draft pick (2006) at linebacker in Tamba Hali. He and holdover Demorrio Williams will be joined in the middle by new signees Corey Mays (ex-Cincy) and former Patriot Mike Vrabel, now 34 but apparently still capable. The youngish secondary welcomes veteran newcomer and former Bears Pro Bowler Mike Brown. The Chiefs yet again appeared to draft wisely with an eye toward foundation for the future, and they also found a new placekicker in Ryan Succop (South Carolina). Too much would have to suddenly jell for the Chiefs to take a major step forward, but teams shouldn’t score 440 points against them again. What is mostly unknown is whether Cassel’s success in New England was a fluke. For that alone, the Chiefs will get some close scrutiny this year. Clearly a sadist devised their schedule: Besides the Chargers twice, they play the Ravens, Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and Steelers. Even so, they should at least double 2008’s win total.

Denver Broncos (3-13)
Wow, where do we begin here? No more Cutler. Brandon Marshall hardly present. Question marks and age at every position. Plus a new coach whose apparent cockiness makes you want to see him fail. So how good can the Broncos’ defense be when they’re signing 33-year-old DE Vonnie Holliday at the last minute? This D gave up 448 points last year, so maybe Cutler is absolved from blame for the meltdown that made the Broncs miss the playoffs. Denver’s D amassed 25 sacks and—get this—6 interceptions all last year. Only Champ Bailey remains from that secondary, and Brian Dawkins—soon to be 36—has been added along with ex-Dolphins Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill. Only now the Broncs may have the oldest starting defensive backfield in football. Andra Davis, a very good linebacker formerly with the Browns, joins standbys Elvis Dumervil, D. J. Williams and Mario Haggan in the middle of the 3-4. Two unknown quantities, Ronald Fields and Ryan McBean, will try to help veteran Kenny Peterson muster a pass rush. Sadly, the offense doesn’t look much better. QB Kyle Orton is a gutsy fellow, but unless rookie Knowshon Moreno (Georgia) shows up in a big way, he’ll be handing the ball off to committee runners with mixed results. At the moment his big receiver is sophomore Eddie Royal, who looked great last year. But without a cooperative Marshall, you start turning to Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Stokley. The O-line is a work in progress. Hell, I don’t even remember who kicks field goals in Denver. (It’s Matt Prater.) A once-proud program appears to have hit the skids. But McDaniels is a genius. So don’t worry; be happy.


NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
The Cowboys finished a disappointing 9-7 in 2008, dropping three of their last four games. Now Terrell Owens is gone, but that could be a good thing. If coach Wade Phillips wants to keep his job, he’d better make the playoffs, and maybe do even more. This squad is poised to achieve. QB Tony Romo will throw to TE Jason Witten and WRs Patrick Crayton and (presumably rejuvenated) Roy Williams. Marion Barber and Felix Jones promise a potent duo at running back. The O-line is veteran but not decrepit, with the possible exception of Flozell Adams. The defense has added veteran former Falcon LB Keith Brooking, and along with Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys are strong indeed in the middle tier of their 3-4 scheme. Marcus Spears and Jay Ratliff apply the DL pressure along with newcomer ex-Charger Igor Olshansky, and the secondary looks to be a good mix of vets and comers, including the addition of former Jag Gerald Sensabaugh. The placekicking looks solid with returning Nick Folk, who hit 90.9% of his field goals in ’08. So, besides looking strong all over, the Cowboys have a relatively agreeable schedule, with their toughest non-division games—Carolina, Atlanta, San Diego—all in front of the home crowd.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Eagles are too often a bridesmaid, losing last year’s conference championship game to the Cardinals. They are being touted again as an NFC favorite, but we shall see. All the hubbub about Michael Vick won’t mean squat if the wins don’t come. Help has arrived from rookies in RB LeSean McCoy (Pitt) and WR Jeremy Maclin (Mizzou). If the O-line performs, QB Donovan McNabb should be able to work his options. I guess RB Brian Westbrook is up for another pounding, but at some point he’s got to wear down. WR/PR DeSean Jackson, last season’s acclaimed rookie, returns to add excitement whenever he gets his hands on the ball. The defense gave up the fewest points in the NFC last year, and most every one of this year’s starters was a part of that success. The newer faces (Akeem Jordan, Quintin Demps) are also products of the Eagles system. As a rookie, Demps was 2008’s kickoff returner, but now he moves to starting safety. David Akers is back to kick field goals. Stiff schedule, of course, but 10 wins should get ’em solidly into the playoff picture, though the NFC South teams will have something to say about that.

New York Giants (9-7)
Did they get complacent? The Giants entered 2008 as NFL champions, proceeded to go 12-4, tied the Cardinals for most points scored in the NFC—and then lost at home in the playoffs to the Eagles. Now they’ve lost RB Derrick Ward to free agency, WR Amani Toomer got old and was traded and WR Plaxico Burress is going to jail. There’s still talent on offense, though, mainly beastly RB Brandon Jacobs, QB Eli Manning and some decent receivers (Hixon, Smith, Moss). The O-line looks reliable again, too. Injured DE Osi Umenyiora returns to the defense, and that’s important, especially since the linebacking looks unsure. The secondary comprises all returnees from last year, though not all were starters then. The Giants, in fact, look vulnerable, especially on defense. Their draft yielded them WR Hakeem Nicks (North Carolina), who could surprise people, and LB Clint Sintim (Virginia), who might play more than originally expected. Otherwise, they didn’t appear to score much depth. The out-of-division schedule isn’t too toxic, actually, but there are critical tilts versus New Orleans, Arizona, San Diego, Atlanta, Carolina and Minnesota. Plus the six games versus Philly, Dallas and Washington. Giants losing momentum, it says here.

Washington Redskins (9-7)
I used to really like the Redskins. Followed ’em religiously. But ever since owner Dan Snyder and his whiny little countenance took over, the Skins are a trial to root for. They spend money, amass talent—Portis, Moss, Randle El, etc.—then play with no soul. Even the Gibbs Era II was mostly lackluster. I like Jim Zorn okay, though, and I’d like to see him succeed. A lot depends on QB Jason Campbell, but it’s anyone’s guess if his achievements will ever measure up to his promise. The Skins are hoping for contributions from last year’s rookie class of wideouts, namely, Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas. Portis is still a great runner, but the guy takes a punishing. Will he hold up? With the addition of Albert Haynesworth, the D-line takes an upward turn, especially since older folks like Cornelius Griffin and Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn have seen better days. Rookie LB Brian Orakpo (Texas) steps in to a starting role, and, along with vets London Fletcher and fourth-year man Rocky McIntosh, the Skins look strong in the middle tier. The secondary is stacked with talent: Carlos Rogers, DeAngelo Hall, LaRon Landry and last year’s rookie surprise Chris Horton. There’s a new punter, Hunter Smith. Mediocre Shaun Suisham again draws the nod to kick field goals, though that situation bears watching. Despite all their NFC East competition, this is still a very dangerous team—if it gets coached up right. The Redskins should improve, but by how much?

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Mediocrity haunted the 2008 Saints, who finished 8-8 despite the presence of Drew Brees and a potent passing offense. The offensive line allowed only 13 sacks, and if that continues, Brees should once again have ample time to get the ball to WRs Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Lance Moore. Jeremy Shockey is the tight end, presumably healthy. Running back is still iffy. Reggie Bush needs to rebound from injury to complement Pierre Thomas, who’s had his own preseason injury issues. The Saints had only four draft picks this year, yielding them Malcolm Jenkins (Ohio State), a promising cornerback, and a new punter, Thomas Morstead (SMU). The D has many familiar veteran names—Charles Grant, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Scott Shanle, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Darren Sharper. If they’re not too old, they’ll look to improve on a defense that last year gave up 393 points. Big things are expected from second-year DT Sedrick Ellis. And there’s good depth in the secondary, as a matter of fact. Let’s face it, you can have a great offense, but without some defense, you tend to achieve at the .500 level. The schedule provides opportunity. Will the Saints take advantage?

Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
While finishing 11-5 last year against a relatively easy schedule, the Falcons nevertheless had impressive road victories at Green Bay, San Diego and Minnesota. The ascension of rookie QB Matt Ryan was a huge story, and the Falcons look ready to contend again. It’s funny to me that, for years, people dissed WRs Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, and drew the conclusion that if only they were better, Michael Vick would have better numbers. Hmmm... Funny how since Vick has left these guys have learned how to catch a ball on the run. Credit Ryan with that development. Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood return at running back, and perennial All-Pro and probable Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez is now at tight end. As for the defense, it’s an interesting mix of older and younger, with veteran DE John Abraham returning from a career year (16.5 sacks) and 2007 #1 draft choice Jamaal Anderson ready to step it up a notch at the other DE. Former Jag Mike Peterson joins the youngish but talented linebacking corps—his leadership should help—and the secondary has aggressive, young guys ready to come into their prime. Of course, the schedule’s tougher. The Falcons might win one less game than in 2008; on the other hand, they could catch fire and even surprise themselves.

Carolina Panthers (10-6)
The 12-4 Panthers tanked in the playoffs in 2008, losing badly on their home field to the Cardinals. Once again, they look strong, and all but one of their seven draft choices made the squad, adding youth and depth. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the imposing 1-2 punch out of the backfield. QB Jake Delhomme has sharp targets in Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. The defense mixes youth and experience and obvious talent, with DE Julius Peppers, LBs Jon Beason and Na’ll Diggs, and a secondary poised to dominate. Reliable John Kasay kicks the field goals (90.3% in 2008). The schedule’s a stiff challenge, with non-division games versus Philly, Dallas, Arizona, New England, Minnesota and the Giants. And the division games will be every bit as tough, too. The Panthers could, with luck, equal last year’s 12 wins. They look really good on paper, but the games are played on the field. And come to think of it, they could perform well and still miss the playoffs, since Atlanta and New Orleans are definitely in the hunt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
The Bucs were 9-3 last year on the morning of Dec. 8, 2008, apparently headed for the playoffs. Then they dropped four straight to finish 9-7—including a finale at home to the Raiders, of all people—dropped out of the postseason race, and dropped Jon Gruden as their head coach. In the age of increasingly younger head coaches, the team tapped Raheem Morris, all of 33 years old and the former Bucs defensive coordinator. In a move that probably raised eyebrows in some quarters, Morris handed the QB job to Byron Leftwich, and this was followed shortly thereafter by the canning of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinksi hardly a week before the season started. (I’m guessing there is chaos in Tampa, but we shall see.) They’ve got some decent running backs—Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward, a rehabbed Cadillac Williams (who looked good in preseason)—and they’ve added Kellen Winslow to the receiving corps. But can Leftwich be consistent? He’s got an arm, all right, and he can do damage, but he’s also a bit of a plodder. His ascension also means #1 draft choice Josh Freeman sits, with third-stringer Josh Johnson also holding a clipboard. The defense, despite decent ’08 numbers, seems suspect, mainly because the name players are either aging or aren’t exactly premier talent, and the youngsters, like third-year man Gaines Adams, haven’t yet proven themselves. Possibly rookies Roy Miller (Texas) and Kyle Moore (Southern Cal) will help on the defensive line. Yet the Bucs begin the year with a nightmare schedule: Four of their first five games are against the NFC East. Then they have to go to London to play the Patriots on Oct. 25. (What fun THAT will be!) Plus road games at Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. Reaching .500 would probably be a dream for Raheem. But don’t bet on it.

NFC NORTH

Minnesota Viking (11-5)
Never mind the soap opera that is Brett Favre. He still looks capable, and if he stays healthy, this Vikings offense should be very exciting. Adrian Peterson’s the best runner in the league, and if any QB can exploit that situation, it’s Favre. The WRs are a capable mixed bag—Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Bobby Wade—but also the addition of rookie swingman Percy Harvin (Florida) opens up a range of varied (and scary) offensive possibilities. The Vikes’ O-line was already pretty formidable, but 6’8” 332-pound rookie Phil Loadholt (Oklahoma) comes aboard to bolster the right tackle position. (He already blocked for Peterson in college, mind you.) Plus, Chester Taylor is Peterson’s backup, and he’s really good. The defense mixes talent, youth and experience at every tier, and led by Jared Allen amassed 45 sacks in ’08 plus 12 interceptions. The schedule offers the Vikes a shot at getting out of the chute with a bang, but the three season-enders (at Carolina, at Chicago, the Giants at home) could have a lot to say about their playoff positioning. Doing much better than ’08’s 10-6 record is very possible but nothing’s a cakewalk in this league. (I’m not convinced Brad Childress is a good coach. Are you?)

Green Bay Packers (11-5)
The verdict’s still out on these Packers. Supposedly a really good team, they fell to 6-10 last year, when a highly regarded defense gave up 380 points (which is 157 more points than the champion Steelers gave up). You can’t blame QB Aaron Rodgers for the failures, that’s for sure. He threw for more than 4,000 yards, with 28 TDs and only 13 INTs. RB Ryan Grant gained over 1,200 yards on the ground. WRs Jennings and Driver each gained more than 1,000 yards. Those guys are all back, which is good news. But the Pack have had nagging injuries in the preseason on both sides of the ball, and were trading for secondary help the day after final cutdown. Depth could be a serious issue also along the defensive line; first-round draft choice B. J. Raji (Boston College) will be counted on, if he can stay healthy. Other first-round draft choice LB Clay Matthews (Southern Cal) got a lot of hype (with his family ties to the game), and he should see plenty of action. Funny thing is, having fallen last year, the Packers get a scheduling break. How are these for non-divisional opponents: Cincy, St. Louis, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Seattle? The bad news is Pittsburgh, Arizona, Dallas, Baltimore. If the Packers truly are any good, they could take advantage of the situation and win 12-13 games. But it’s like real life: When you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.

Chicago Bears (9-7)
It should be an eventful season in Chicago. A lot is expected from QB Jay Cutler, whom the locals hope will be an actual, by-golly real quarterback for the next 10 years. You know, the kind who can throw for 300 yards a game with lots of TD passes and has an ability to lead the team on game-winning, last-minute drives. Cutler will attempt this with question marks at wide receiver (unless you believe in the Devin Hester experiment and second-year man Earl Bennett). There are decent TEs, though—Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen—and also versatile RB Matt Forte, who had a wonderful rookie year in 2008 and led his team in receptions and rushing. The offensive line is a mixed bag of good vets (Kreutz, Garza), as-yet-untested quantities (Chris Williams, Josh Beekman) and one huge risk (aging former All-Pro Orlando Pace). Defensively, the Bears aren’t getting younger, though there are still many formidable names in the lineup: Urlacher, Briggs, Ogunleye, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris. They added ex-Ram Piso Tinoisamoa to the linebacking corps, and he could be a very nice fit. Manning and Vasher are the secondary vets, but otherwise that unit still has a lot to prove. The Bears added no obvious impact players through the draft. They finished 9-7 in ’08 and almost made the playoffs. The plan here is for Cutler to put them over the top. If he doesn’t, folks will probably start grousing. The schedule’s not that accommodating, either: Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Arizona, Philly, Baltimore plus four tough divisional matchups versus Minnesota and Green Bay. Exceeding last year’s record simply might not happen.

Detroit Lions (5-11)
Whatever difficulties the Lions face in ’09, their fortunes have to improve over last season’s historically pathetic 0-16. New head coach Jim Schwartz arrives with a modest but legit pedigree of success with defenses with the Titans, and he’ll need to work some magic on a team that yielded 517 points last year. That’s an astounding 32.3 points per game. In fact, Schwartz has some tools to work with, if he can inculcate a good system, and, most critically, if his veteran defenders can stay healthy. Grady Jackson, Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, Philip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, Marquand Manuel—their best days are probably all behind them. But if the Lions’ D looks like a halfway house for NFL retreads, there’s at least some experience there. A handful of rookie defenders need to step up and help, but whatever Schwartz concocts has to be an improvement. Of course, the big question on offense is about rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford. In the wake of recent trends, where the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and Ravens’ Joe Flacco have proven that rookie QBs can be successful, he’s getting the starting nod. (Besides, the alternative is Daunte Culpepper or worse.) Stafford will struggle, it seems assured, but he’s got two talented Johnsons he can throw to—Bryant and Calvin—presuming he can get protection from an evolving offensive line that mixes so-so vets with younger developing talent but also isn’t bad on depth. Rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma) could emerge as a favorite Stafford target. The running back is second-year man Kevin Smith, who gained 976 yards in ’08, with a 4.1 average and 8 TDs. Placekicker Jason Hanson is pushing 40, and recently had knee surgery, but he’s hit 82.2% of his career field goals and last year hit 21 of 22, and is now seventh on the all-time scoring list with 1,747 points. It’s tough to see the Lions winning more than five games, but their schedule is stacked with iffy opponents—St. Louis, Seattle, Cleveland, Cincy and San Francisco—and if they can somehow emerge out of their tough division with a win or two, they might exceed modest expectations.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
You know, the Cardinals gave up 426 points last year. They scored 427. Statistically, they were right there with a 9-7 team. But they caught fire late, and the Super Bowl run was magical. Most of the offensive pieces to the puzzle return—Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin—and this year the draft netted them RB Beanie Wells (Ohio State), who should team with second-year man Tim Hightower to enhance the ground game. If Warner stays healthy, expect the usual fireworks. If not, Matt Leinart is the man. The starting D looks essentially unchanged, except for the off-season addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden, who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers. I dunno. Seems like if you’re giving up 26.6 points per game, you’d want to do something fairly drastic to correct matters. But guess not. The draft, aside from Wells, only yielded a little depth, but most is on defense. Even with their light divisional schedule, exceeding last year’s win total could be a challenge.

San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
Shaun Hill gets the nod at QB, as Mike Singletary begins his first full season as 49ers head coach. Given the alternatives—Alex Smith, rookie Nate Davis (Ball State)—Hill looks like the best bet, and Singletary finished his partial year at 5-4 with Hill at the helm. (Actually, Davis is a fantastic athlete, so you never know.) Alas, the Niners’ big draftee, WR Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech), is unsigned and still sulking and may be of no help at all this year. Which means second-year man Josh Morgan and aging Isaac Bruce are the “marquee” WRs. Presuming TE Vernon Davis stays out of the coach’s doghouse, he should continue to reach his potential. Frank Gore is the veteran RB. He should still produce, but rookie Glen Coffee (Alabama) could push for playing time. (Remember DeShaun Foster? Pfffft!) More was expected of last season’s defense. They gave up too many points (381), and 30 sacks and 12 INTs can be improved upon. The basic unit remains intact—Lawson, Willis, Haralson and Spikes at LB in the 3-4—with some minor embellishments. DE Demetric Evans comes over from the Redskins, and third-year man Dashon Goldson will start at free safety joining secondary vets Michael Lewis, Nate Clements and (so far) ageless Walt Harris. Meanwhile, everyone’s waiting for last year’s #1 draft choice, DE Kentwan Balmer, to do something positive. Joe Nedney’s the solid veteran placekicker. If you include Crabtree, six of the Niners’ seven draft choices made the team, so that bodes well for an organization that’s refusing to stand still. Will Singletary’s tough-guy approach work? If they can score enough points, and the D improves as it ought, possibly yes.

Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
The good news is Matt Hasselbeck is back. But is that enough to turn a 2008 nightmare (4-12) into a playoff berth? Head coach Jim Mora, Jr., takes over from Mike Holmgren, and he’ll need all the luck he can get. The addition of T.J. Houshmandzadeh at wide receiver is a definite plus. The addition of RB Edgerrin James is...completely vague. But maybe he’ll be better than Julius Jones, who still needs to prove that he’s not the second coming of Kevin Jones. The Seahawks’ offensive line is a complete mystery to the average fan, especially now that the great Walter Jones needs knee surgery. Rookie Max Unger (Oregon) starts at right guard. There are some key changes to a defense that gave up 392 points last year. DT Cory Redding is in from Detroit. (Eh.) DT Colin Cole is in from Green Bay. (Who?) Ex-Panther (and once before a Seahawk) Ken Lucas takes over at one cornerback slot. And all eyes will be on rookie first-round draft choice (#4 overall) LB Aaron Curry (Wake Forest). Veteran DB Lawyer Milloy was added late in the preseason. Frankly, the Seahawks look like a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of kaligenous junk.” The nightmare continues, and Mora is probably no wizard.

St. Louis Rams (3-13)
After giving up 465 points last year, the Rams decided to import a defensive-minded new coach. Good call. Like the Niners, the Rams had 30 sacks and 12 INTs in ’08, but they must’ve tackled a whole lot worse to end up at 2-14. Of course, the offense sucked also, scoring only 232 points. So ex-Giants DC Steve Spagnuolo has his work cut out for him. The QB is Bulger or Boller. Not too exciting based on recent trends. Steven Jackson is a great RB, when healthy. Donnie Avery’s a talented WR, but the best the Rams can muster at the other wideout is Laurent Robinson, a third-year man over from the Falcons who was injured most all of last year. Maybe former Kentucky standout Keenan Burton can catch fire. TE Randy McMichael is very good. The O-line is veteran, and should be generally effective, with #1 draft choice Jason Smith (Baylor) waiting in the wings. The defense has been tweaked, but to what end is a mystery to be unraveled. DT Hollis Thomas, a 14-year veteran, comes over from New Orleans to join 12-year vet Leonard Little (6 sacks), 2008 #1 draft choice Chris Long (4 sacks), and unproven third-year man Clifton Ryan on the D-line. Will Witherspoon and Chris Draft are the veteran LBs, and they’re joined by #2 draft choice James Laurinaitis (Ohio State). The mostly unchanged secondary welcomes former Giant James Butler. The Rams look mediocre, without doubt, but anything’ll look good after 2008, even if it’s only one more victory.

AFC PLAYOFFS

Wild Card
Colts over Ravens
Titans over Chargers

Divisional
Steelers over Titans
Patriots over Colts

Conference Championship
Steelers over Patriots

NFC PLAYOFFS

Wild Card
Packers over Saints
Falcons over Cardinals

Divisional
Cowboys over Falcons
Vikings over Packers

Conference Championship
Cowboys over Vikings

SUPER BOWL
Steelers over Cowboys

Monday, September 07, 2009

Teens Sensational: It's Melanie and Caroline in the Open Quarterfinals

For the third straight match, teen tennis phenom Melanie Oudin ceded the first set to a supposedly superior opponent, then went on to take two out of three, advancing to the U.S. Open quarterfinal. Monday's victim for the 17-year-old Georgian was Russian Nadia Petrova, who fell 6-1, 6-7, 3-6. Oudin has now established herself as the unofficial American Russian killer in this tournament, having previously defeated Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Oudin's striking, almost boyish, athleticism, her incredible court savvy and her uber-confident approach to the task at hand is surpassed only by her infectious enthusiasm and sincere charm, which is winning her fans in droves with every passing day.

Oudin now will face Caroline Wozniacki (left), who outlasted Svetlana Kuznetsova, winner of the 2004 U.S. Open women's singles title. Wozniacki, only 19 herself, and a bit of a "Maria wannabe" in the looks department, has never played Oudin. Wozniacki is undefeated in her last nine matches and is higher-ranked than Oudin, but Melanie looks hungry, talented, and more importantly, touched by magic.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Maria Loses to Melanie in U.S. Open Third Round

Once more done in by poor service play, Maria Sharapova lost her third-round U.S. Open match today to 17-year-old American phenom Melanie Oudin, 6-3, 4-6, 5-7.

After keeping her tendency to double-fault at a minimum in the first two rounds of play—4 and 7, respectively—tennis goddess Sharapova sabotaged her early advantage with an astonishing match total of 21 double faults. Sharapova also received third-set trainer assistance when she appeared to strain her right forearm after a particularly intense serve. Sharapova regained her composure, and while her forehand and backhand looked as strong as ever, her continued problems with her service were her undoing. She had no problem breaking Oudin's service, but her inability to hold her own constantly provided Oudin with openings, which she exploited with crisp forehands and strategically placed shots that the lithe and lanky Sharapova could not reach.

The Russian-born Sharapova had easily won her first two tourney matchups, teasing her many fans to think that she had conquered the difficulties she has experienced since her rotator cuff surgery of late 2008. But the service problems are a big-time albatross around Maria's lovely neck.

Meanwhile, Oudin (left), herself nursing a strained upper left thigh, tenaciously wore down her opponent in much the same fashion as she vanquished fourth-ranked Elena Dementieva in a second-round matchup. Oudin is a freckle-faced cutie from Georgia with a great deal of spunky determination, and she definitely exhibits a strong knack for the big critical cross-court winner. In a field strongly represented by Eastern Europeans, Oudin has emerged as a fan favorite, not only because of her youth and poise but also because, aside from the Williams sisters, she represents the first breath of fresh American air on the ladies tennis scene in a good long while.

Oudin will face off against another Russian, 13th-seeded Nadia Petrova, for a place in the quarterfinals.