Philadelphia Eagles (12-4): Despite getting hit as bad as anyone in the league in free agency, the Eagles are my pick to win the Super Bowl this season. Not only do I like the guys they targeted to bring in via free agency (Jon Ritchie, Nate Wayne, Mark Simoneau) and the guys they selected in the draft (Jerome McDougle, LJ Smith, Billy McMullen, Jeremy Bridges), but I also like the guys they have targeted to fill in for some of the departed vets. The Eagles have been consistently solid for the past three seasons, going 11-5, 11-5, and 12-4. They've gone 45 consecutive regular season games without back-to-back losses. They have the best secondary, and one of the best offensive lines in football. And ever so importantly, in Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, they have an excellent head coach and a blossoming superstar at quarterback. After knocking on the door for the past three seasons, I believe the Eagles time has come.
New York Giants (9-7): Most people are higher on the Giants than I after what I considered a very questionable off-season. I liked the fact that they addressed the special teams in free agency (signed Ryan Kuehl-now hurt, Jeff Feagles, Mike Hollis, Brian Mitchell) but I find it hard to believe that they let three of their top six offensive linemen from a line go from a front that greatly overachieved last season. Many are once again counting on the Giants offense to be amongst the most potent in the league, but I believe issues on their line will prevent that. Also, I'm not a big fan of the way the Giants draft, and after the pick of William Joseph in round one, I found their draft highly questionable. Of course, this is a talented team. Barber, Shockey, Toomer, and Hilliard are a very solid quartet of weapons at the disposal of Kerry Collins. The defense should be solid but lacks depth. I have the Giants just missing the playoffs this season.
Washington Redskins (7-9): One would think that the "Fun and Gun" offense employed by coach Steve Spurrier will be a bit more potent this season with one QB (Patrick Ramsey) firmly entrenched as starter. Also, the personnel surrounding Ramsey was upgraded this season with Trung Candidate, Laverneus Coles, Taylor Jacobs, Patrick Johnson, Randy Thomas, and Dave Fiore all brought in this off-season. While this new set of players is likely better suited for Spurrier's offense, is it better suited to win football games at this level? I cannot see them running Trung Candidate off tackle on a key 4th and one play. Defensively, losing a coordinator as good as Marvin Lewis will never help. The Skins will be more exciting this season, but do not appear to have the talent necessary to win ten games and push the Giants and the Eagles.
Dallas Cowboys (6-10): Bill Parcells struggled in his initial seasons with the Jets and the Patriots before turning the ship around, and I expect more of the same here in his first season in Big D. I just don't see the pieces being in place offensively for this team to compete. Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick are unproven commodities with questionable backups behind them. Also, losing 2nd round pick and projected center Al Johnson for the year hurts the team up front. Defensively, this team has a chance to be good. Their defensive core of LaRoi Glover, Greg Ellis, Dat Ngyuen, Dexter Coakley, Darren Woodson, Roy Williams, and Terence Newman is one of the best in football. In the end, I see the Cowboys improving slightly on the five win total they've posted each of the past three seasons, but not enough to get in the playoff mix. Yet.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6): Nearly all the prognosticators have the Packers walking through the NFC North again this season, but I'm not so sure. The Vikings offense should once again be one of the best in football, even with the loss of Michael Bennett for the first half of the season. Their offensive line is very solid, and Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss both appear poised for huge bounce back seasons. As always, with the Vikings, it will come down to defense. They added two very intriguing players early in the draft in Kevin Williams and E.J. Henderson, and also added Chris Claiborne, Ken Irvin, and Denard Walker via free agency. Also, many of the young players they've drafted over the past two seasons started to play well as the season wore down last year. I like the Vikes to be one of the surprise teams in football this season, and win the NFL North.
Green Bay Packers (10-6): Last season's 12-4 Packer team was not as good as their record suggested, as evidence by their first round playoff loss at home to Atlanta. The team was keyed by a +17 turnover margin, as well as the fact that they played in football's poorest division. However, this is a well balanced team (#12 ranked offense and defense last season) that should be playing with a sense of urgency knowing that Brett Favre hath not have many seasons left. Also, the Pack once again has an easy schedule, starting off with four home games and road contests at Chicago and Arizona over the first six weeks of the season. I expect the Pack to make the playoffs once again, and once again I see them falling in the first round.
Detroit Lions (5-11): In Steve Mariucci, Joey Harrington, and Charlie Rogers…the Lions have put together a solid base that they can build on in the years to come. The team should still struggle this season as Mariucci can only do so much with the league's 28th ranked offense and 31st ranked defense. They signed Earl Holmes, Dre Bly, and Wali Ranier and used high draft selections on Boss Bailey, Corey Redding, and Terence Holt to help revamp the defense. Harrington should be improved with a year behind him and Rogers to throw to. The Lions will be an improved team after winning just two and three games the past two seasons…but still are a couple of years away.
Chicago Bears (4-12): The Bears only free agent acquisition this year, coming off a four win season, was signing Kordell Stewart to play quarterback. Need I say more? Kordell failed in Pittsburgh under ideal circumstances with a great line and running game, and now the Bears have signed him to lead them with huge questions at each of those two areas. To compensate for not signing any free agents, the Bears also said goodbye to Jim Miller, Marcus Robinson, Big Cat Williams, Ted Washington, Christian Peter, Roosevelt Colvin, Walt Harris, and Tony Parrish. The Bears do have some good young players, and I like Dick Jauron as a coach. For this reason, I do not have them digressing from last season's win total.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5): Jon Gruden proved to the world what a great head football coach he is, and for good reason, the team is favored to repeat this season. The Bucs lost no one of great significance this off-season, simply replacing Al Singleton with Dwayne Rudd, swapping Jeff Christy for John Wade and Jason Whittle, and bringing in Chris Simms and Jim Miller to replace Rob Johnson. Oh yeah, they also lost Dexter Jackson to the Cardinals. I don't need to tell you the reasons Tampa will be so good again this season. We saw them at their best in the Super Bowl against the Raiders. It was tough not to pick the Bucs to repeat. A last second change of heart had me picking Philly to beat them in a rematch in the NFC Championship.
Carolina Panthers (9-7): Defense. Defense. And boy do the Panthers have a good one, including the best front four in the game and one of the top defensive minds in the league in John Fox as their head coach. If the Panthers can produce anything offensively this season, they could be looking at a playoff berth despite playing in one of football's toughest divisions. I like what they did to upgrade on offense this off-season. They upgraded their line with the high draft selections of Jordan Gross and Bruce Nelson as well as the free agent signing of Doug Brzezinski. They added Stephen Davis to bolster the running game. They signed Ricky Proehl at receiver, and brought in Jake Delhomme to push Rodney Peete and Chris Weinke at quarterback. I like the Panthers to make some strides offensively and push hard for a wild card spot this season.
Atlanta Falcons (8-8): The combination of a tough schedule and losing Michael Vick for the first six weeks may be too tough for the Falcons to overcome this season when attempting to repeat their playoff appearance (and win) of a year ago. Doug Johnson is a serviceable enough backup, but he exposes flaws in the Falcon line and running game when pressed into action. The Falcon defense is quick, and above average, and are one of the few teams that employ a 3-4 attack. If the Falcons can get through the early part of the season above .500, they have a chance to make the playoffs even though the schedule really toughens up right about the time Vick should be back. If he does come back week six as anticipated, his first six contests will be at St. Louis, vs. New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, at NY Giants, at New Orleans, and vs. Tennessee. That may be too much too soon, especially if the team gets out to a 2-4 or 3-3 start under Johnson.
New Orleans Saints (7-9): To me, the Saints are a boom or bust team that could win anywhere between six and ten games this season. New Orleans has been plagued by a complete and utter collapse of their defense down the stretch the past two seasons, and they saw Norman Hand, Charlie Clemons, Ken Irvin, and Sammy Knight depart via free agency this off-season. To replace those players, they added Derrick Rodgers, Ashley Ambrose, Tebucky Jones, and drafted Jonathon Sullivan #6 overall. The offense should be fine again, but I just don't see the defense being strong enough as a whole to put the Saints in the post-season. Their defense will almost assuredly be the poorest in a very tough division even if they do make strides as a unit.
St. Louis Rams (11-5): If the Rams can keep their key parts on offense healthy, they should be able to regain their place amongst the elite teams in the NFL this season. Despite being wracked by injuries and turnovers, and winning just seven games a year ago, the team had the league's 9th rated offense and 12th rated defense. The offensive line, with the additions of Dave Wohlabaugh and Kyle Turley, has the potential to be the best in football and much better than the unit that helped lead them to a title in 1999. The defense is a bit revamped this season, and still very well coached under Lovie Smith. Their top two draft picks, Jimmy Kennedy and Piso Tinoisamoa both are expected to see plenty of action, and have impressed thus far. The secondary saw Dre Bly and Dexter McCleon depart, but the team drafted three corners, added Jason Sehorn, and is very high on Travis Fisher, a draft pick of a year ago. Should the Rams get their offense rolling once again, sans the injuries and turnovers, the sky is the limit for this team this season. Their schedule is one of the easiest in the league this year as well.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6): Another one of my sleeper specials, the Seahawks offense could quite possibly feature one of the most potent offenses in the league this season with a solid offensive line, and weapons such as Shaun Alexander, Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson, and Jerramy Stephens for the rejuvenated Matt Hasselback to choose from. Defensively, Seattle struggled last season, especially against the run. In response, Seattle brought in defensive guru Ray Rhodes to run the defense, and acquired Norman Hand, Chike Okeafor, and Randall Godfrey. Also, the team used high draft picks on Marcus Trufaunt and Ken Hamlin, two talented young defensive backs. Lastly, the Seahawks play what will likely be the easiest schedule in all of football with two games against Arizona, and out of division games against New Orleans, Chicago, Cincinnati, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore.
San Francisco 49ers (8-8): I'm a bit down on the 49ers this season. They lost Steve Mariucci, J.J. Stokes, Dave Fiore, Dana Stubblefield, and Chike Okeafor in free agency and added no one. Their top draft pick, Kwame Harris will sit and watch and prepare to replace Derrick Deese in '04. Dennis Erickson was hired after four unsuccessful years in Seattle in the mid to late nineties, and should bring with him a more aggressive attack then the high percentage west coast style employed by Mariucci. The key to the Niners this season will be Jeff Garcia and his ailing back. With him, the team is talented enough to repeat the ten wins and playoff appearance from last season.
- Rich Swerbinsky