NFL PREVIEW: I like it, I love it, I want some more of it

National Football Conference

NorthChicago Bears (10-6): If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Last year’s division champion will return all its starters from last season. While that’s good news for the defence-finished second in total yards and first in points allowed-it’s less so for the offence. To that end, the Bears acquired QB Brian Griese to put pressure on the underachieving Rex Grossman. Regardless of who starts, he will be anchoring an offence which remains almost entirely devoid of any playmakers. A weak schedule and an even weaker division are the Bears only saving graces.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9): With the Mike Tice era now regarded as a disaster, Brad Childress takes over a team thin at many positions. Brad Johnson filled in admirably at QB last year, but at 38, health must be a concern. WR Troy Williamson will be expected to produce, but beyond him the offence lacks weapons. Meanwhile, the defence has some solid elements but the linebacker corps must improve. The Vikings must regain their form of late last year to challenge for the division

Green Bay Packers (4-12): The Packers quietly made some impressive off-season moves on defence. LB A.J. Hawk was selected in the first round to be the rock on D for the Pack while CB Charles Woodson is another addition with playmaking ability. On offence though, question marks are abundant. QB Brett Favre can’t seem to figure out who he’s supposed to be throwing the ball to. Meanwhile, the running back situation hasn’t been solved. The defence will be good but it will be on the field far too much.

Detroit Lions (3-13): The selection of Mike Martz to fill the offensive coordinator’s seat creates an inevitable power struggle with new head coach Rod Marinelli. But this is just the beginning of the problems for the Lions, who also signed QB Jon Kitna, ending the Joey Harrington saga. Kitna will have tools to work with as WR Roy Williams is back to lead an extremely talented receiving core. But with a defence which is lacking everywhere, the Lions will need to put up some serious points through the air. It’s time to see what kind of offensive genius Mike Martz really is. -Charlie Blore

EastDallas Cowboys (12-4): For the Cowboys, the focus this season centres on the relationship between head coach Bill Parcells and WR Terrell Owens. Both men have plenty of ego, but don’t expect any major blowups this year. Owens is good for at least one season of cooperation. The addition of Owens, as well as K Mike Vanderjagt, means this solid offence could be one of the NFL’s best. In addition, an impressive defence and acclaimed special teams means the Cowboys have no particular weakness on paper and look poised to make some noise.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): The flip side of the T.O. ordeal lies in Philadelphia, where a messy divorce with the wide receiver left the Eagles in tatters. However, this year things will be different. QB Donovan McNabb has looked sharp this preseason. The rest of the team is good, but not great with some major questions at receiver. The Eagles are average on defence, but have a talented secondary which should minimize big plays.

Washington Redskins (10-6): Expectations are high after the Skins improved to 10-6. Offensively the team improved its depth, adding RB T.J. Duckett, and WR Antwaan Randle El to Pro Bowlers Clinton Portis and Santana Moss. Their problem, however, lies at QB. Mark Brunell is streaky and injury-prone but beyond him, no one has enough experience. Despite a good offence and a great defence, the Redskins will remain a team on the bubble.

New York Giants (6-10): While the Giants are decent relative to the rest of the NFC East, the fact is they are above average on both sides of the ball. LB LaVar Arrington will improve their linebacking corps, and CB Sam Madison leads a secondary which has been cobbled together by free agency. On offense, the G-men will need RB Tiki Barber to duplicate last year’s MVP-caliber season and for the receivers to remain strong. QB Eli Manning will be entrusted to run the offence which should concern Giants fans as he played awfully in the second half of last season. -David Campana

SouthAtlanta Falcons (13-3): QB Michael Vick has been hit or miss since exploding into the league in 2002. But surrounded by talents like TE Alge Crumpler and RB Warrick Dunn, the time to win is at hand. The addition of DE John Abraham gives the Falcons the league’s top D-line. Abraham and Patrick Kerney should wreak havoc around the edge, while DTs Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson bring plenty of push up the middle. The secondary will also be dangerous with playmakers CB DeAngelo Hall and FS Chris Crocker lurking in the weeds.

Carolina Panthers (11-5): Carolina’s big move was picking up WR Keyshawn Johnson. He will fill the void opposite Steve Smith since the departure of Mushin Muhammed. The defence, which remains largely intact, is once again anchored by the line. In addition to the dominant DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins will be returning from injury. The secondary should give quarterbacks nightmares with CBs Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble having combined for 13 picks in ’05. Look for the Panthers to battle the Falcons for the division crown.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): The Chris Simms era in Tampa has kicked off in earnest. Simms showed last season he has the tools to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Nonetheless he failed to shake the reputation he earned in college for being unable to win big games. Otherwise, the offense is young but talented, featuring rising stars RB Carnell Williams and WR Mark Clayton. While the defence should be up to the Bucs’ standard, the onus remains on Simms to demonstrate that he’s matured.

New Orleans Saints (4-12): Plain and simple, New Orleans hit the jackpot when Houston passed on RB Reggie Bush. The Heisman trophy winner showed his worth countless times last season, punctuated by a massive game against Fresno State. The signing of QB Drew Brees should give the team its first bona fide star at the position since Archie Manning. But that’s where the good news ends. The rest of the team is made up of no-names and will be led by new head coach Sean Payton.-CB

WestSeattle Seahawks (12-4): The Seahawks are the safest pick to succeed this year. Coming off a 13-3 season, they look to make up for the Superbowl loss. QB Matt Hasselbeck has matured nicely and is aided by a stellar offensive line which will excel again, especially against the poor defenses of the NFC West. RB Shaun Alexander will likely put up huge numbers, more than atoning for receivers that drop too many balls. They will certainly win this weak division.

Arizona Cardinals (10-6): For the last ten years Arizona has been expected to break through. This year, they just might. With a new stadium, a future star in QB Matt Leinart and All-Pro RB Edgerrin James, the Cardinals have a chance to start fresh. The improved running game will open up the passing game for WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The Cards’ success depends on a weak o-line and an average defence. But, if everything goes right, they could contend.

St. Louis Rams (6-10): With Mike Martz gone, rookie coach Scott Linehan takes the helm. Offensively, the Rams remain strong. QB Mark Bulger is solid and benefits from first-rate wide receivers. RB Steven Jackson is a talent, but the Rams will miss RB Marshall Faulk. The problems will again be on defence. After finishing 30th in total yards and 31st in points against, new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will not be enough to right the ship in St. Louis.

San Francisco 49ers (3-13): In a poor division, the 49ers will once again finish at the bottom. San Francisco isn’t ready to push sophomore QB Alex Smith. Poor receivers and an ineffective running game means Smith will put up pitiful numbers and could be replaced mid-season. On defence, things have gone from bad to worse. A
bad line, average linebackers, and an atrocious secondary will be ineffective guarding against big plays. -DC

American Football Conference

NorthPittsburgh Steelers (12-4): QB Ben Roethlisberger may have a bruised body and ego but his arm is fine. Big Ben’s motorcycle accident was the only bad news that emanated from Heinz Field this off-season. The Super Bowl champs’ roster is essentially identical, save for FS Chris Hope and RB Jerome Bettis. Versatile WR Antwaan Randle El has been replaced by speedy first round pick Santonio Holmes. With few stars, the Steelers understand the tenets of team defence and seem to do just enough on offence. Look for another run at the Lombardi Trophy.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6): For years, the strength of the Ravens has been their defence, buoyed by stalwarts LB Ray Lewis and FS Ed Reed. Therefore, any subscriber to the mantra “defence-wins-championships” must have been flummoxed by the offence, having done next to nothing to help keep the ship afloat. Incoming QB Steve McNair is a former MVP who simply cannot stay healthy. Consequently, the Ravens are again likely to rely on Kyle Boller. While the Ravens have the talent to propel them to a winning record, they have too many holes on both lines to advance far.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): “Coming back to earth” is what experts will be calling Cincinnati’s inability to repeat last year’s success. The reasons are myriad, starting with star QB Carson Palmer’s miraculously fast recovery from a devastating knee injury. In addtion, last year’s defence permitted a staggering average of 338.7 yards allowed per game, ranking them twenty-eighth in the NFL. Cincy has a tougher schedule and no opponent will take them lightly this year. If Palmer is indeed healed, coupled with exhilarating WR Chad Johnson, expect the 2006 squad to challenge for a wild card berth.

Cleveland Browns (6-10): The Browns spent their off-season spending aggressively in free agency after a fruitless 2005. They upgraded their defensive front, signing DT Ted Washington and LB Willie McGinest. The Brownies have chosen a more organic approach with their skill positions, allowing their young players to blossom into their roles. QB Charlie Frye is now the starter, but has done little to earn it. Many names are way too high on the depth chart in this organization. As long as Cleveland keeps employing people who could be mowing the field rather than playing on it, they will struggle.-Matthew Segal

EastNew England Patriots (10-6): It’s quickly becoming routine for the Patriots. Key losses in the off-season and turmoil in the dressing room lead pundits to salivate over the Pats’ demise, yet when the season has ended New England is always on top. Though the reigning AFC East champs may seem infallible, questions still abound. How much will they miss clutch K Adam Vinatieri? Will WR Deion Branch resolve his contract hold-out? But as long as head coach Bill Belichick is at the helm and star QB Tom Brady is healthy, the Pats seem playoff locks.

Miami Dolphins (8-8): After last year’s strong finish, Dolphin fans are brimming with confidence. Management did not rest during the off-season, importing gifted but enigmatic QB Daunte Culpepper from Minnesota. However, the quarterback has never taken a team deep into January, has a penchant for turnovers and is coming off a very serious knee injury. Even when healthy in 2005, Culpepper struggled; the Vikings won six in a row after the injury. This and expectations of playoff-calibre performances from an aging defence should prevent the Dolphins from exceeding their current state of mediocrity.Buffalo Bills ( 7-9): After a dismal 2005, owner Ralph Wilson turfed the GM for fellow octogenarian and former Bills coach Marv Levy. The pair will attempt to resuscitate the franchise from a 6-season playoff drought. Levy hired former Chicago Bears head coach Dick Jauron and made a host of less flashy moves, including trading star WR Eric Moulds. The biggest issue in Buffalo is young QB J.P. Losman, who struggled last year. If Losman can show more poise, the Bills will improve.

New York Jets (3-13): Fans of the J-E-T-S may want to cover their eyes, because pessimism prevails here. The problems that plagued last year’s team have only been compounded. Veteran head coach Herm Edwards has been replaced by newbie Eric Mangini. Any pass longer than 10 yards is still an adventure for QB Chad Pennington, whose arm troubles still linger. RB Curtis Martin has been beset by injuries and is succumbing to old age. His replacement Kevan Barlow scares no one.-MS

SouthIndianapolis Colts (13-3): Last season was nearly perfect for QB Peyton Manning and the Colts. However the playoffs were the same old story, as Indy just couldn’t win the big game. The only major addition was replacing K Mike Vanderjagt with ex-Pat Adam Vinatieri. All-pro RB Edgerrin James, however, was allowed to bolt for the Arizona desert. Last year’s defence, led by DE Dwight Freeney, should hold up again, so look for the Colts to continue their regular season dominance. Despite the lack of meaningful changes to team chemistry, this may be Indy’s year.

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5): The Jags feasted on a soft schedule last year and was able to return to the playoffs. The hope for the Jaguars in 2006 is that they keep maturing. WR Jimmy Smith retired, leaving a serious void at receiver, but watch for freakishly athletic WR Matt Jones to excel in his second year catching passes from steady QB Byron Leftwich. The Jags are built on their staunch team defence and merely competent, yet clutch, offence. Jacksonville will not blindside anyone this year, but they will reach the postseason again.

Tennessee Titans (7-9): Quarterback represents the Titans’ biggest problem as has-been Kerry Collins, career backup Billy Volek or green Vince Young will not frighten opposing defences. The running back jumble is similar: Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White could all be starters if healthy, but figure to split carries. The team does have some talent on defence, including CB Pacman Jones, a remarkable athlete who was disappointing in his rookie season, both on and off the field. Tennessee will struggle to get past the .500 mark.

Houston Texans (4-12): The reward for finishing dead last in the NFL is the first overall pick. With it, the Texans selected DE Mario Williams, instead of Heisman Trophy winner RB Reggie Bush. The better pick will be judged over time, but this season, Williams’s impact will not change the Texans’ fortunes. The team has journeyman at some positions and slow developing youngsters at others–QB David Carr and WR Andre Johnson. Neophyte head coach Gary Kubiak has been charged with rebuilding. Hopefully, with some stability and new blood, the Texans will begin to improve.-MS

WestKansas City Chiefs (10-6): KC is built from the offensive line out. If the O-line is humming along, fans will have their eyes on RB Larry Johnson. In Priest Holmes’s stead, he casually gained 1,351 yards in nine games as the featured ‘back. A tougher approach to defence under new head coach Herm Edwards is not likely to keep points off the board, but it hasn’t mattered much in past. As long as the big guys keep opening holes, the Chiefs will find themselves back in the postseason.

Denver Broncos (9-7): Head coach Mike Shanahan can make a 1,000-yard rusher out of anyone, and this year that player will be named Bell, Mike or Tatum. Jake Plummer at the pivot may not sound too imposing, but Plummer is 32-11 as Denver’s starter. Even so, their confidence in Jake the Snake must be waning as he will be shadowed by slick rookie QB Jay Cutler. Every year the Broncos enter the season with questions. While it seems they always rise slightly above the pack, this year they will finally fall short.

San Diego Chargers (7-9): The Chargers were arguably the best team that did not qualify for the postseason last year. However, they eschewed two-
time Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees and elected to go with third-year pro, Philip Rivers, who has yet to start an NFL game. Antonio Gates is the best tight end in football, but can Rivers deliver the ball to him and prevent defences from stacking the line against the otherworldly RB LaDainian Tomlinson? And is the secondary any better than last year?

Oakland Raiders (3-13): Oakland reached into its past by hiring former head coach Art Shell. However, he may have trouble adapting to the 21st century NFL. They jettisoned QB Kerry Collins and replaced him with chronic underachiever Aaron Brooks. The weapons are there on offence–RB LaMont Jordan, WR Randy Moss– f Brooks can be consistent, but there’s no reason to believe this. Oakland’s defence still stinks, especially with CB Charles Woodson and DT Ted Washington gone. The only thing the Raiders will be playing for in 2006 is moral victories.-MS

*all records are predictions for the upcoming season. Teams are listed in order of projected finish within division.

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