Back again with another preseason edition of The Crystal Ball, a column made much tougher to write over the last couple seasons due to the rampant parity we've seen in the NFL as of late. Last season I just missed on my Super Bowl prediction of the Eagles over the Patriots, and the season before … was lucky enough to nail my pre-season prognostication of Tampa over Oakland.
|x - New England Patriots||11-5|
|New York Jets||8-8|
Top to bottom, the Patriots are still likely the most talented team in the league, and let's not forget … this team takes a 15 game winning streak into this season. It's very tough to repeat in the NFL, and the rest of the league will be out gunning for the champs. Remember though, the Pats missed the playoffs after winning the Bowl in '02, showing nothing is guaranteed in this league.
The Bills are a team I like this season, and could be a potential sleeper to make a run. Bringing in Mike Mularkey to replace Gregg Williams was a good first move, and should help revive Bledsoe and an underachieving OL. The defense is solid and the team continues to add exciting options at the skill positions offensively.
The Jets got off to a poor start last year when Chad Pennington went down early, and will look to reverse that with a soft start to their schedule this season. Justin McCareins and Jonathon Vilma will make immediate impacts, and the Jets are one of several teams in the AFC that could easily rise up and secure a playoff berth with ten or eleven regular season wins.
Many immediately wrote off the Dolphins when Ricky picked the water bong over the pigskin, and David Boston went down. So I'll do the same here. The defense will still be strong, but Jay Fiedler and a host of suspect runners behind a revamped OL will not produce enough points to compete in this tough division.
|x – Cleveland Browns||9-7|
The Browns are going to be a better football team than most suspect this season, and those of you who know me know I do not shill for this team. This is a more talented squad than the one that won nine games two seasons ago, but also a football team that must stay healthy on the offensive and defensive lines to have a chance to advance to the playoffs. The Browns will ride a season sweep of the Ravens and wins in their final three games versus San Diego, Miami, and Houston to a 9-7 record and AFC North title.
The Ravens will once again feature one of the league's top defenses, but still have major question marks at the skill positions on offense … complicated even further this season by Jamal Lewis' former part time job as a coke dealer.
The Steelers should be better offensively this season after a frustrating year for Maddox and their OL, but I'm not sure this team as a whole is much better than last year's 6-10 version. Still, I feel this division will be a tight three-team race all season.
Many are high on the Bengals this year, but I am not one of those people. They face a much tougher schedule this year, and will be going with a rookie QB. Marvin Lewis has this team headed in the right direction, but I feel they take a step back this year before moving forward.
|x - Tennessee Titans||12-4|
|y - Jacksonville Jaguars||10-6|
|y - Indianapolis Colts||10-6|
I just get the feeling that this is the year of the Titan. This is a well-coached team laden with talented veterans that knocked on the doorstep last season. Despite bidding adieu to Eddie George, Justin McCareins, and Jevon Kearse … I'm not sure they will be worse off for it with guys like Chris Brown, Drew Bennett, Tyrone Calico, Carlos Hall, and Albert Haynesworth ready to step in.
The Jaguars are a team on the rise behind coach Jack Del Rio. Despite going 5-11 last season, they ranked 12th in the league offensively and 6th defensively … and did that despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the league last year! The OL and defense are young and underrated, and Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor are still high quality players that will help ease the burden on future star Byron Leftwich.
The Colts are a carbon copy of last year's team. Having to extend out Peyton Manning this off-season disabled the team from making any free agent acquisitions. Also, the team lacked a 1st round pick and 2nd rounder Bob Sanders is on the shelf. Like last year, the offense will be great, and the defense will not be good enough to take this team to the Bowl despite the fact they are coached by a defensive genius.
If the Texans were in another division, they would be another of my sleepers this season. They have a young emerging offense and a stout defense … but they have six tough division games, must travel to play Kansas City, Denver, and the Jets and also host the Vikings and Packers.
|x – Denver Broncos||9-7|
|Kansas City Chiefs||11-5|
|San Diego Chargers||2-14|
The Broncos were 9-2 in games Jake Plummer started last season, and added Champ Bailey, John Lynch, and D.J. Williams to the league's 7th best defense from a year ago. History tells us that Griffin, Bell, and Hearst should be able to replace most of the lost production of Clinton Portis … and the Broncos will win this division because they have a better defense and easier schedule than the Chiefs.
The Chiefs should once again be one of the better teams in football, and should once again put up serious numbers offensively. But how much better will this defense be than the one that embarrassed them in the playoffs versus the Colts? Gunther Cunningham will help, but ultimately they lack the personnel defensively to advance any further than they did last season.
The Raiders are a hard team to get a read on this season, and a return to prominence would not surprise me if Gannon can rebound, which will be an easier task behind a bolstered offensive front. Sapp, Ted Washington, and Ray Buchanan are upgrades to the departed Rod Coleman, Romanowski, and Rod Woodson.
The Chargers are going to suck this season. They are going to suck badly, and they have the league's most dynamic offensive player, which really tells you a lot about the rest of this team. It will be a couple years before Marty can even think about The Gleam in San Diego.
|x – Philadelphia Eagles||11-5|
|y – Dallas Cowboys||9-7|
|New York Giants||3-13|
It would surprise no one if the Eagles went to their 4th straight NFC Championship game. They again have one of the games best offensive fronts, and in Terrell Owens, finally have a legitimate threat for McNabb to throw to. They lost both of their cornerbacks, but have able replacements, and also added Kearse, Dhani Jones, and Jeremiah Trotter in the front seven. The Eagles will again be there at the end, and again come up just short.
The Cowboys are not a popular pick to go back to the playoffs this year, and most detractors point towards the 40 year old Vinnie Testaverde as a liability. Even an aging Vinnie is an upgrade over Quincy Carter, and the ‘Pokes have two intriguing young backups in Drew Henson and Tony Romo. This is still one of the top defenses in football, led by the one of the greatest coaches in history. And Eddie George and Julius Jones have been added to aid the running game. The Cowboys go back to the playoffs.
Like the Raiders, the Redskins are a tough team for me to figure. A weak schedule and the additions of Joe Gibbs, Clinton Portis, Shawn Springs, and Sean Taylor could lead to a ten or eleven win season. In the end though, the loss of Jon Jansen up front and remaining questions in the front seven defensively will likely leave them just on the outside looking in.
The Giants are another team that is going to be bad this year. Two new quarterbacks behind the league's worst OL is a more dangerous combination than Jamal Lewis and a kilo of coke. Add in aging wideouts, and the fact that they lost all three starting LB's from a year ago, and six wins seems like it would be a helluva first year in the Big Apple for Tom Coughlin.
|x – Minnesota Vikings||13-3|
|Green Bay Packers||7-9|
The Vikings just may be the most talented team in football this season with the additions of Kenechi Udeze, Antoine Winfield, and Marcus Robinson. Offensively, they have a multitude of weapons and a great line and the defense has a chance to be formidable this season after creating a ton of turnovers last year. The Vikings play eleven games in domes, are well coached, and may be poised to make a Super Bowl run this season.
I've always been a big Lovey Smith guy, and the Bears, like the Texans, are a deep sleeper I will be keeping an eye on. For the team to be successful, Rex Grossman and Thomas Jones must have solid seasons … a huge variable. They've improved themselves dramatically in the trenches with the acquisitions of John Tait, Adewale Ogunleye, and Tommie Harris.
I just have a gut feeling that the Packers are going to have a down season, and that the Favre consecutive game streak will fall. Offensively, the starting personnel is once again very strong but the depth is questionable. The Pack still has questions defensively, and are outclassed personnel-wise by the Vikings.
The Lions are a chic sleeper pick this season with Harrington, Jones, Williams, and Rogers all now at Steve Mariucci's disposal offensively. The Lions will continue to progress under coach Mooch, but like the Bengals, may still be a year away from being able to truly contend.
|x – Carolina Panthers||10-6|
|y – Tampa Bay Buccaneers||10-6|
|New Orleans Saints||8-8|
Very few people are picking the Panthers to go back to the Super Bowl, and I say "why not?" The defense should be even better with the additions of Chris Gamble and Jessie Armstead, and Delhomme, Foster, and Smith form a solid nucleus of this run heavy offense. The key for the Panthers will be overcoming the losses of Jeno James, Todd Steussie, and Adam Meadows on the offensive line.
I'm confident that Jon Gruden will have the Buccaneers back in the playoffs this year after a one season hiatus. Despite a 7-9 season, the Bucs last year had a top ten offense and a top ten defense, and also faced the league's toughest schedule. I feel Tampa will have one of the leagues best offenses this season thanks to the additions of Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie, Charlie Garner, Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, and Tim Brown. And the last time I checked, Booger McFarland, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber were still four of the better defensive players in football.
The Saints again had one of the leagues worst defenses last year, and again suffered from red zone turnovers offensively. Top to bottom offensively, there are few teams with more talent offensively, but the defense was not upgraded enough to enable the Saints to compete with the Panthers and Bucs. This is a make or break year for both Aaron Brooks and Jim Haslett.
If Michael Vick stays healthy, the Falcons could easily repeat their playoff appearance and subsequent first round win of two seasons ago. Their OL is questionable, and Vick may struggle integrating the west coast offense, but his presence alone will help make Dunn, Duckett, Price, and Michael Jenkins all better players. The Falcons also make several intriguing acquisitions defensively this off-season, and new coach Jim Mora will have an impact on that side of the ball as well.
|x – Seattle Seahwks||11-5|
|St. Louis Rams||5-11|
|San Francisco 49ers||2-14|
The Seahawks will have this division wrapped up in late October, and are a legitimate title contender this season. All the key pieces return from a powerful offense, and Grant Wistrom, Bobby Taylor, and several draft picks have been added to bolster the defense. Holmgren won a Super Bowl with Green Bay in year # 5 and will look to do the same in the Pacific Northwest this season.
Denny Green has a lofty task ahead of him in trying to rebuild the Cardinal franchise. I was disappointed to see Anquan Boldin get injured as I was intrigued to see him play with Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. The defense and running game are still huge liabilities in the desert, and anything over four or five wins will be a good start for Denny.
The Rams are in for a down year in my opinion. Their offensive line is in shambles, and Bulger is a very overrated player in my view. They are the worst coached team in football, are getting old at many of the speed positions, and lost a lot of mid-level guys in free agency without adding much of anything. How Mike Martz still has a job after the playoff debacle versus the Panthers is beyond me.
The consensus is that the 49ers will be one of the worst teams in football, and I see no reason to disagree with that thinking. Aside from RB Kevan Barlow, the rest of the entire offense is filled with huge question marks across the board after saying goodbye to Garcia, Owens, Streets, Hearst, Stone, and Deese. The defense also lost some bodies and added no one of significance. Should be a long year by the bay.
#6 Indianapolis Colts 30
#3 Denver Broncos 33
#5 Jacksonville Jaguars 13
#4 Cleveland Browns 10
#3 Denver Broncos 20
#2 New England Patriots 21
#5 Jacksonville Jaguars 16
#1 Tennessee Titans 31
AFC Championship Game
#2 New England Patriots 16
#1 Tennessee Titans 17
Wild Card Round
#6 Dallas Cowboys 14
#3 Seattle Seahawks 17
#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6
#4 Carolina Panthers 16
#3 Seattle Seahawks 24
#2 Philadelphia Eagles 20
#4 Carolina Panthers 10
#1 Minnesota Vikings 31
NFC Championship Game
#3 Seattle Seahawks 27
#1 Minnesota Vikings 28
Tennessee Titans 30 Minnesota Vikings 20
Post Season Awards
|NFL MVP||QB Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota|
|Coach Of The Year||Mike Tice, Minnesota|
|Offensive MVP||RB Deuce McAllister, New Orleans|
|Defensive MVP||DE Julius Peppers, Carolina|
|Offensive Rookie Of The Year||TE Kellen Winslow Jr., Cleveland|
|Defensive Rookie Of The Year||LB Jonathon Vilma, NY Jets|
|Comeback Player Of The Year||QB Rich Gannon, Oakland|
|NFL Executive Of The Year||Wayne Weaver, Jacksonville|