2005 Pigskin Preview
Strap in and hang on. A new NFL season is here and it guarantees all the hard-hitting action you crave. Which teams will make it to Detroit and Super Bowl XL? Our gridiron guru takes a closer look.
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005
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1. Indianapolis Colts
What more can Peyton Manning do? Last year, America's poster boy set NFL season records in touchdowns (49), passing yards (4,557) and quarterback rating (121.1), and was more popular than a Thanksgiving turkey in November, throwing 19 touchdowns in four games. The Colts have the hottest trifecta in the league, with Manning, running back Edgerrin James (1,548 yards) and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (86 receptions and 15 touchdowns). Manning also has a new lethal weapon in Reggie Wayne, who caught 77 passes for 1,210 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, the only notable player on defense is defensive end Dwight Freeney (16 sacks), which explains why Indianapolis drafted six defensive players. The Colts may be Secretariat on offense, but they won't get to the Super Bowl with a defense that turns every game into the Indy 500.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
This should be quarterback Byron Leftwich's breakout year. The 9-7 Jaguars were 5-2 in his second season before he missed four games with an injured knee. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith (1,172 yards) can still cut it, while running back Fred Taylor overcame injuries to run for 1,224 yards. Coach Jack Del Rio, a former linebacker, has assembled a hard-hitting defensive unit, but his team is vulnerable in the secondary, which is why he drafted three defensive backs. The real buzz, however, is No. 1 pick Matt Jones, a 6-foot-6, 242-pounder. A quarterback at Arkansas, Jones runs a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash and will be converted to a wide receiver. The Jags can now play jump ball in the red zone, which is crucial for a team that had 11 games decided by seven points or less in 2004.
3. Houston Texans
The third-year expansion Texans continued their progress with a 7-9 season in 2004. Playing behind one of the NFL's worst offensive lines, quarterback David Carr endured a league-high 49 sacks, yet threw for 3,531 yards. The signing of tackle Victor Riley in free agency won't necessarily keep Carr from having more sleepless nights, since Houston brass paid little attention to the offensive line in the draft. Running back Domanick Davis rushed for 1,188 yards and 13 touchdowns, while wide receiver Andre Johnson starred with 79 receptions for 1,142 yards. Now if head coach Dom Capers could only persuade Yao Ming to suit up and play tight end, the Texans might have something. Defensively, the Texans have plenty of question marks after finishing 24th in pass defense and last in the league in sacks with only 24, which is why they drafted defensive tackle Travis Johnson in the first round.
4. Tennessee Titans
Head coach Jeff Fisher will be fighting for his life this season after a disastrous 5-11 campaign. And with no additions in free agency, he's in dangerous waters. Quarterback Steve McNair, injured most of the season with a bruised sternum, talked about retirement but has decided to come back after off-season surgery. Although wide receiver Tyrone Calico is healthy again, McNair will have less to work with after wide receiver Derrick Mason's departure due to salary cap restraints. Maybe former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow can work his magic. If not, somebody throw Fisher, who lost five starters to free agency, a life jacket.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have firepower. Yet even though they finished first in the league in offense and second in scoring, they missed the playoffs. The problem? Try a defense that was ranked 31st in the NFL. Fortunately, the free-agent additions of linebacker Kendrell Bell, defensive end Carlos Hall and defensive backs Sammy Knight and Patrick Surtain will immediately help, as will linebacker Derrick Johnson, a No. 1 draft pick out of Texas. Quarterback Trent Green set a Kansas City record with 4,591 yards in 2004, passed for 27 touchdowns and connected on 66 percent of his throws. Tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 102 passes for 1,258 yards, while running back Larry Johnson was also a bright spot, gaining 581 yards filling in for Priest Holmes. The Chiefs are a dangerous team that can shoot it out with anyone.
2. San Diego Chargers
Even though they face a tougher schedule than last year, the surprising Chargers are still the team to beat and may be better than 2004 when they won the AFC West (12-4). The boobirds were after Marty Schottenheimer, but he proved that he's one helluva coach. Quarterback Drew Brees, a victim of the same bird droppings, soared as the NFL's third-ranked passer (104.8) with 3,159 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in leading the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time since 1995. It helps to have running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who gained nearly 1,800 all-purpose yards and scored 18 touchdowns last year. So, too, tight end Antonio Gates, who came out of nowhere with 81 receptions, 964 yards and 13 scores. The Chargers didn't lose anybody significant to free agency, and drafted speedy Maryland outside linebacker Shawne Merriman for their 3-4 defense.
3. Oakland Raiders
Shrewd owner Al Davis orchestrated the biggest trade in the off-season when he snatched Randy Moss, the league's best wide receiver (13 touchdowns), from the Vikings. The networks recognized as much and booked the Raiders for five national games beginning with the the NFL opener against New England on September 8. "It's payback," says Davis with a smile. Lining up with speedy wide receiver Jerry Porter, Moss gives the Raiders the vertical passing game they've advocated so strong-armed quarterback Kerry Collins can deliver the bombs. Davis also took care of the running game by luring bruiser LaMont Jordan from the Jets, but needs defensive tackle Warren Sapp to bounce back from an off year. The Raiders went 5-11 in coach Norv Turner's first year, but are loaded on offense and could challenge for the West title if they can play better defense.
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