Wilson: What future holds in the AFC

Thanks to the keen insights of ESPN's football experts, blogger Ryan Wilson gets a glimpse into how the 2006 season will unfold. The good news? No mention of motorcycles in Big Ben's future. The bad news? Well, you'll just have to keep reading …

I think Vic Ketchman has it right:
"ESPN has an amazing ability to puts its finger on the pulse of the television viewer's interest. The all-sports network has created a mania with its recent NFL predictions and evaluations. Really, I think they could rank stadium bathrooms and people would get angry that their favorite stadium's toilets were disrespected."
Earlier this week I got to experience this silliness first hand. I rarely catch SportsCenter and only watch the Network for PTI and sporting events I can't find on other channels. Anyway, in an effort to give viewers as little actual news as possible, SC introduced a new feature this off-season: The Ultimate Depth Chart.

During the NFL's slow days of summer, ESPN thought it would be a good idea to have Sean Salisbury, Mark Schlereth and Mike Golic (with Trey Wingo moderating) give us their take on the 2006 season, all the way through the Super Bowl. (Isn't that kinda like asking MC Hammer and Mike Tyson for financial management advice?) Aren't these the same "football experts" who routinely bungle their picks on a weekly basis during the regular season? Here's my question: Why stop with this Super Bowl? I mean, why not just pick the rest of the games this decade? Take a page from the Skip Bayless playbook: Don't settle for just being wrong, be more wrong than anybody else, and then yell about it. Do that enough times and you'll get your own show (or at least get to co-host one with Woody Paige).

Okay, I'm probably overreacting, and who knows, maybe this is the year the talking heads get it right. The laws of probability have to even out at some point, right? While we sit around waiting for the future to finally vindicate these guys, I've provided, for your reading pleasure, a transcript of Tuesday's telecast. Mr. Wingo picks things up with the 2006 AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Trey Wingo: "… This time this game is in Pittsburgh like it was two seasons ago for the AFC Championship game and Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season. What happens?"

Mike Golic: "I don't think it matters. I think the Patriots are coming back from the injuries, obviously you still have Tom Brady leading the way, (Tedy) Bruschi is going to be back to his old self, on the defense you have (Richard) Seymour … I just think this Patriots defense, in the NFL of today, can be more of confusion. Nobody did it better than Pittsburgh last year because they weren't bringing six or seven guys, they were bringing four and five and just confusing you. I think the Patriots can match that. I have the Patriots moving on to the Super Bowl."

Well, that didn't take long. I could only go a paragraph before having to call B.S. Okay, what reason do we have to believe that Bruschi will be back to his pre-2005 form? He's 33 years old, 18 months removed from a mild stroke, and Willie McGinest, arguably the best linebacker on the team, is now in Cleveland. In addition to McGinest, the Patriots still are looking for an adequate replacement for Ty Law. I'm pretty sure former Steelers retreads don't count. And neither does a guy who didn't make it with one of the league's worst past defenses. These facts make Golic's "defenses succeed through confusion" comment all the weirder. He cites the 2005 Steelers as Exhibit A and magically concludes the Patriots will have similar success in 2006, even though their defense, at least on paper, is worse now than it was at the end of last season. But it gets better …
Sean Salisbury: "I do too, Mike. Aside from the obvious – the Bradys – I don't believe Martin Gramatica is going to be kicking at this time of the year. I think somehow, someway, there will be another field goal kicker. I don't believe he will be – he'll hold the fort down, and by the time we get here (AFCC), there will be someone else kicking.

"When it comes to running, Corey Dillon has got to play better and I think he will. We know that they've sewed up more physical on defense – we can expect more out of them. And guys, they may have the best corps of tight ends in the league – depth-wise you know – second, third, fourth …"

Wingo: "Including (Mike) Vrabel." (laughing)

Salisbury: "… and you know what? No. 12. I need not say more. I like the Patriots although the guy in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger, ain't half bad."

So let me get this straight, a big part of New England's success will be not having Martin Gramatica on the team in January? Holy crap, that's might be the worst answer to an honest question I've ever heard. Salisbury, like Golic, continues to perpetuate the Patriots-will-have-a-great-defense meme, even though there is no evidence to suggest such a turnaround. And why does Dillon have to play better? He wasn't the reason the defense couldn't stop the run, was he? Even if he starts to slow this season, didn't the Patriots take Laurence Maroney in the first round? I'm just asking. And the depth-at-tight-end angle is priceless. (I'm especially keen on Wingo getting in his Vrabel reference – it was very "You forgot Poland!"-esque.) I don't expect Bill Belichick to show a lot of four tight end sets, so it's not clear to me why this is the missing ingredient for a Super Bowl contender. On we trudge …
Mark Schlereth: "To me there's no question that when you talk about the Patriots you're talking about the best quarterback in the National Football League. Tom Brady just gets it done, he delivers. That's a football team that understands how to win, had a lot of young guys depth-wise that to play because of injuries last year. Those guys are just going to add quality depth to the Patriots team. I think this Patriots team …"

Salisbury: "… And you get Maroney. We're talking like the Patriots were stiffs last year. Do you realize they were one game away from the AFC Championship game?"

Wingo: "One fluke play actually where they were going in for a score and was taken the other way by Champ Bailey, the cornerback for the Broncos."

Salisbury: "Well, until he got down to about the five and Ben Watson tracked him down."


Yeah, we get it, Tom Brady is super dreamy. He is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, but this team lost last year in the divisional playoffs, which kinda negates the whole, "The Pats understand how to win" thing. Concerning Salisbury's comment about New England being one game away from the AFCC, uh, so were the Colts. It's probably safe to assume that the 2006 Indy media guide won't be touting last year's team as, "Only a game away from the Conference Championship, and only two removed from the actual Super Bowl!" And memo to Trey Wingo: Throwing a ball directly to a player on the other team isn't a fluke play. It's poor decision making. Ask Tommy Maddox.

So, there you have it: The Steelers will make it to the Conference Championship for the third year in a row. Unfortunately, there won't be any repeat in '06, at least according to the Peanut Gallery. Look, I love to hate the Patriots as much as the next Steelers fan, but I willingly admit how good New England has been the last five seasons. Belichick is an amazing coach and Brady is, well, Brady, and maybe they will get their fourth ring in Miami. It just won't be for the harebrained reasons discussed above. Well, except for that part about Gramatica. That was spot on.

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