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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.
Danny Sheridan
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 4)

This off-season was one of the quietest in years. The April draft was remarkably uneventful and a steroid scandal involving the Carolina Panthers gained little steam only months after commissioner Paul Tagliabue's stringent policy was applauded at the same congressional hearings that exposed Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig as soft on the issue.

The loudest noise came when the Oakland Raiders acquired All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss from the Minnesota Vikings; Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow wrecked his knee—and possibly his career—in a motorcycle accident; and controversial Terrell Owens pushed the Philadelphia Eagles to renegotiate his contract just one year into a seven-year, $49 million deal.

New head coaches took the helm of the San Francisco 49ers (Mike Nolan), Miami Dolphins (Nick Saban) and Cleveland Browns (Romeo Crennel); and a New Jersey real estate developer, Zygmunt "Zygi" Wilf, became the new owner of the Vikings. Brett Favre didn't quit, Jerry Rice, at age 42, wouldn't quit, and Ricky Williams, who quit last year, decided he wanted to return to the Dolphins.

2004 saw increased attendance and higher television ratings, which translated into more revenue for the league's coffers, and the NFL expects 2005 will attract the same fan interest. As the season kicks off, one question stands out above all others: can anybody prevent the New England Patriots from winning their fourth Super Bowl in five years?

I'm making the same preseason prediction I made last year: New England over Philadelphia. Once again, close but no cigar for Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens and head coach Andy Reid.

AFC EAST

 

1. New England Patriots
The Patriots are the closest thing to perfection in the NFL and the model franchise other teams strive to emulate. It starts at the top with chairman and owner Bob Kraft and his son, and vice chairman, Jonathan. It continues with the league's best coach in Bill Belichick and the hottest player personnel guru in Scott Pioli, and together they've constructed the first dynasty in the salary cap era. The centerpiece is quarterback Tom Brady, who was rewarded for his Montana-esque poise and savvy with a six-year contract extension. Losing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to Cleveland, not to mention five starting players, is huge, but running back Corey Dillon (1,635 yards) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (31 field goals in 33 attempts) are back. The Patriots are like Noah's Ark—they have two of everything and remain favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

2. New York Jets
The Jets figure to give the Patriots the most trouble in the AFC East, provided quarterback Chad Pennington is healthy coming off rotator cuff surgery. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles returns after two years with the Washington Redskins and will be Pennington's primary target, along with wide receiver Justin McCareins and new tight end Doug Jolley. Mike Heimerdinger replaces Paul Hackett as offensive coordinator, which should make the offense more daring and unpredictable, something Pennington and Jets fans have been waiting for. Gang Green did lose running back LaMont Jordan to free agency, but Curtis Martin continues to amaze and, at 31, was the oldest player to lead the NFL in rushing with a career-best 1,697 yards. Defensively, the Jets are sparked by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the Associated Press's NFL Rookie of the Year, and on special teams, newly drafted kicker Mike Nugent should make fans forget last year's painful playoff memory of Doug Brien.

3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills said goodbye to quarterback Drew Bledsoe after three mediocre years and have placed their hopes on young J. P. Losman, an athletic quarterback who provides more mobility, even after having his rookie year cut short by a broken leg. Head coach Mike Mularkey, who brought the Bills back from an 0-4 start to finish 9-7, has told Losman to study the movie Patton to learn about leadership. Willis McGahee, who overcame his own serious leg injury last year and ignited a 9-2 surge with 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns, provides the Bills with a legitimate rushing threat. Wide receivers Eric Moulds (1,043 yards) and Lee Evans (9 touchdowns) are a dependable duo, and an opportunistic defense (24 interceptions and 15 recovered fumbles) won't make Buffalo a nice place to visit, especially when the weather turns cold.

4. Miami Dolphins
After failing to reach the Promised Land under Dave Wannstedt, the Dolphins begin a new chapter in their history: the Nick Saban era. Saban, who coached LSU to the NCAA championship in 2003, will need some time in south Florida, however. The Dolphins haven't had a quality quarterback since Dan Marino and there are doubts about A. J. Feeley, who cost Miami a No. 2 draft choice. Saban took Auburn running back Ronnie Brown with the second pick of the first round and he should have an immediate impact, even with a Ricky Williams return. Saban also solidified his defense by signing safety Tebucky Jones and defensive ends Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday. However, somebody should have told him about upgrading his offensive line, which was literally offensive last year, with opposing defenses blowing through it like a hurricane.

AFC NORTH

 

1. Pittsburgh Steelers
How a team with a 15-game winning streak and the best record (15-1) in the league never reached the Super Bowl defies the imagination. Oh, yeah, the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship on their home turf, the fourth time a Bill Cowher team has suffered such an indignity. At least Cowher found a quarterback in rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who took over in the second game and became a media darling. Jerome Bettis also took over, bouncing back from injuries to churn out 941 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. This year it's Duce Staley's time to bounce back, which will give the Steelers even more smashmouth. Virginia's Heath Miller, the No. 1—rated tight end in the draft, fills a void left by the defection of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh will again be steel tough.

2. Baltimore Ravens
After starting 7-3 last year, the Ravens lost four of their last six and missed the playoffs. This year, running back Jamal Lewis, who missed four games in 2004, is looking to repeat his 2,006-yard rushing performance of 2003. But head coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Jim Fassel need quarterback Kyle Boller to break out. Free-agent wide receiver Derrick Mason and drafted wide receiver Mark Clayton are offensive upgrades, but can Boller, who had the second-worst quarterback rating (70.9) in the AFC, get them the ball? On defense, the Ravens boast all-world linebacker Ray Lewis and strong safety Ed Reed, who led the NFL in interceptions (9). They've added free-agent cornerback Samari Rolle to the mix, and 38-year-old Deion Sanders has signed for another year of "Prime Time."

3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals finished 8-8 in 2004, but figure to be better this year after closing out the season with seven wins in their last 11 games. Most of the run was attributed to quarterback Carson Palmer (the No. 1 pick in 2003), who lost 20 pounds to increase his mobility, wide receiver Chad Johnson (95 receptions for 1,274 yards) and running back Rudi Johnson (1,454 yards and 12 touchdowns). The Bengals were glaringly weak against the run, a surprise since coach Marvin Lewis earned his stripes as a defensive coordinator. The team was 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, which is why Lewis made defensive end David Pollack and linebacker Odell Thurman, both from Georgia, his first two draft picks.

4. Cleveland Browns
There is some kind of jinx over this city, which new coach Romeo Crennel must exorcise. He takes over a 4-12 team that lost nine straight games and was so bad that coach Butch Davis resigned with five games left in the season. Crennel got a taste of the jinx during the off-season when tight end Kellen Winslow, the team's No. 1 pick in 2004 who missed 14 games with a broken leg, was injured in a May motorcycle accident that will keep him out in 2005. Crennel temporarily solved the quarterback dilemma by bringing in Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore, and also drafted two gems, wide receiver Braylon Edwards from Michigan and quarterback Charlie Frye from the University of Akron. Frye is the future, but Edwards is the present, as is running back Reuben Droughns (1,240 yards), obtained from the Denver Broncos.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

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.

AFC WEST

 

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.

4. Denver Broncos
Coach Mike Shanahan must be a UPS man believing in the company's slogan: "What can Brown do for you?" He signed four underachieving defensive players from Cleveland—tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers and ends Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban. Shanahan also raised eyebrows by drafting running back Maurice Clarett in the third round after being out of football for two years while sending Reuben Droughns and his 1,240 rushing yards to Cleveland. Quarterback Jake Plummer set a club record with 4,089 yards, but again failed to win a playoff game. Wide receivers Rod Smith (79 receptions, 1,144 yards) and Ashley Lelie (54 receptions, 1,084 yards) are prime targets, but the Broncos lack depth. Newly signed Jerry Rice would help more if he were 10 years younger.

 

NFC EAST

 

1. Philadelphia Eagles
here's trouble in the City of Brotherly Love and it has nothing to do with Allen Iverson. Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who set a club record with 14 touchdowns, was a no-show at minicamp as he demanded a new contract and then took a jab at quarterback Donovan McNabb, saying, "I wasn't the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl." McNabb, who had a big year (3,875 yards, 31 touchdowns, 104.7 rating), refused to get into it with Owens, but the relationship is strained. With Freddie Mitchell released, McNabb needs another receiver and may have gotten him with the second-round draft pick, Georgia's Reggie Brown. Amazingly, the Eagles were well under the cap, but didn't sign anyone of note in free agency. Still, with Owens, McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, and elite defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, they're solid enough to win the division for an unprecedented fifth straight time.

2. Dallas Cowboys
Coach Bill Parcells has a penchant for bringing back former players, which is why quarterback Drew Bledsoe, after three lackluster years in Buffalo, is replacing quarterback Vinny Testaverde. It's also why Drew Henson remains at the backup spot. Parcells appears to have solved his running back problems with Julius Jones, so he's turned his attention to the other side of the ball after the Cowboys were lassoed defensively, giving up 405 points and 31 touchdown passes. He zeroed in on the draft to install a new 3-4 defense and came away with six defensive players, including LSU defensive end Marcus Spears and Troy outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who reminds the Tuna of Lawrence Taylor. Parcells, in the third season of a four-year contract, is getting itchy.


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