1. The Arizona Cardinals will be an improved team in the 2005 season, but the question will be, just how good can Dennis Green's historically weak Cardinals be? This year, if they can keep veteran quarterback Kurt Warner on his feet, this team could become a playoff contender.
Much of the fanfare attributed to the Arizona off-season has been to the signing of Warner, but he is past the point in his career where he can carry a team and there remain reservations about his durability and physical presence. While Warner remains a staunch competitor, there is a quiet consensus within the Arizona organization that they must do all they can to protect Warner and their season.
With the trio of Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver, the Cardinals have supplied Warner with a serious group of receivers, which will lead the Arizona coaching staff to maximize this facet of the offense, along with a blend of rushing to balance the attack.
Now, just how often will the gambling Green max-protect his perceived ‘fragile' quarterback will be the next question. If often, this Arizona team is going to be very competitive in the NFC West.
2. Will the New England Patriots continue their run toward immortality, in a football sense, or have the football gods begun to strike down the closest thing we have witnessed to a dynasty in the NFL? Losing both the offensive and defensive coordinators in the off-season, the Patriots march forward and don't appear worried about sliding into mediocrity.
While Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland), two of head coach Bill Belichick's most trusted and valued assistants branch the Belichick tree out into other venues, it is what remains in New England which raises the question of whether the Patriots will be a contender or pretender. Belichick will serve as his own offensive coordinator, with the up-and-coming defensive assistant Eric Mangini running the defense.
Linebackers Tedi Bruschi (stroke) and Ted Johnson (retired) won't be on the field for the Patriots in the 2005 season. While both played a major role for the team, the loss of Bruschi will be heart-felt, as he was truly the heart of the defensive unit and quite a steady performer. Chad Brown (Seattle) and Monty Beisel (Kansas City) have been added to provide further experienced depth.
The loss of Weis may not be of a significant impact due to Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady's knowledge of the offense, the defense may be another question. While Belichick is a genius on the defensive side of the ball, age, injuries, and roster turnover defensively will eventually catch up to the Patriots, and the 2005 season will be where the foundation begins to crumble, but this team will remain good enough to challenge for the AFC Championship.
3. Has linebacker Ray Lewis lost a step? Do the Baltimore Ravens really value the play and recognition the linebacker brings to the Ravens? In the ever-changing face of the NFL, you never really know, but in the case of Lewis, he is a much better player when he has a couple wide-bodied defensive tackles keeping the offensive guards off him.
Talk of Lewis wanting a contract extension or new contract are true. While the veteran standout believes he remains the best in the game, those in Baltimore wonder if the linebacker has become delusional. The Ravens recognize Lewis has been a great linebacker for the team and rewarded him with a significant contract just a few years ago, but the organization has shown no desire to rework his deal.
With the team switching back to the 4-3 base defense in the 2005 season, Lewis should again become a force in the middle of the Baltimore defense, as he was prior to the team switching to the 4-3 defense a couple seasons back. The Ravens are a talented defensive team, one which is good enough to keep the questionable Baltimore offense in games.
Speaking of the offense, the addition of wide receiver Derrick Mason (FA-Tennessee) and Mark Clayton (draft) are huge moves for the offensively deficient Ravens. Now, can quarterback Kyle Boller manage the game and get the ball into the hands of these two potentially explosive talents? He'd better. The Ravens' 2005 season rides on it!
4. Cincinnati? The Cincinnati Bengals are a playoff contender? Say it isn't so, but it is. Marvin Lewis' Cincinnati club is a serious playoff contender and could be the toast of the AFC North division in short order.
Lewis, a defensive coach has a stellar offense, led by young quarterback Carson Palmer, wide receiver Chad Johnson, and running back Rudi Johnson. Offensively, the Bengals have the potential to be the best in the North division. With a little love from the defense, Cincinnati could be on the verge of something huge in the Queen City.
Looking to improve upon an inconsistent defense, Lewis was at the forefront in revamping the look of this unit with the addition of defensive end/outside linebacker David Pollack and linebacker Odell Thurman in the draft. Both players are expected to contribute immediately, fitting into the aggressive scheme of the Lewis defense.
The process of learning to win in Cincinnati is in its late stages, with a talented defensive backfield, a defensive line which is solid, yet unspectacular, and a linebacking corps which is on the rise, the Cincinnati Bengals are going to be a difficult team to deal with in the 2005 season.
When asking Lewis what separates his team from those of the upper-echelon, you hear a couple of mistakes or penalties separate those team from the ones that play .500 ball. The Bengals have played .500 ball, but now the transformation into an 11-5 team is going to be unveiled.