Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru analyzes the upcoming NFL season and predicts who will reach Super Bowl XLI
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
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4 New Orleans Saints
Now that he's a Saint, QB Drew Brees will get to eat some of the best food in New Orleans. "If he signs with us, I'll cook him his first meal in his house," promised the noted chef Emeril Lagasse. Well, what's he going to do for RB Reggie Bush? The Saints were blessed when they got the Heisman Trophy star, who was expected to be taken by Houston. Brees should feel comfortable with new coach Sean Payton, who specializes in working with quarterbacks, while Bush will be a nice complement to RB Deuce McAllister, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in game five against the Packers. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked their season, the Saints are praying for better than 3-13. But don't expect too many of owner Tom Benson's unsightly victory boogies.
1 Seattle Seahawks
With a 13-3 record, the best in their history, the Seahawks ran away with the West crown by seven games. Only a Super Bowl loss to the Steelers marred what would have been a dream season. Matt Hasselbeck was the NFC's best QB with 3,459 yards, 24 TDs and only 9 INTs, and Shaun Alexander was the league's best RB with 1,880 yards and a record 28 TDs while averaging 5.1 yards a carry. Signing Minnesota's Nate Burleson improves the Seahawks' speed at WR following Joe Jurevicius's departure. The defense, which ranked 26th in 2004, improved to 17th last season and will be further strengthened with the signing of 49ers LB Julian Peterson. And coach Mike Holmgren is back, with a well-deserved contract extension.
2 Arizona Cardinals
I have to believe the Cardinals are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL, and I never thought I would ever say that with such cheap ownership. The team finally spent some money, signing Edgerrin James. Arizona hasn't had a 1,000-yard runner since Ottis Anderson in the mid-1980s, but James will fill that void after gaining 1,506 yards for the Colts. In Larry Fitzgerald (103 receptions, 1,409 yards) and Anquan Boldin (102 catches, 1,402 yards), the Cards have the NFL's best WR tandem. They also have what many feel was the best QB in the draft in USC's Matt Leinart, who'll learn from veteran Kurt Warner. "It was a dream come true," beams coach Denny Green.
3 St. Louis Rams
It's hard to imagine the Rams playing like lambs the past few years. Last season's 6-10 finish cost Mike Martz his job and gave Scott Linehan his first head coaching job. Linehan will try to fix an offensive unit that fell to ninth and a defense that dropped to 30th. The offense struggled after a shoulder injury to QB Marc Bulger, who threw only 287 passes. WR Torry Holt (102 receptions, 1,331 yards) will be Bulger's primary target. RB Steven Jackson (1,046 yards) became a budding star in his first full season as a starter, while age has limited 33-year-old Marshall Faulk to situational downs. The Cardinals, the baseball ones, are more exciting in St. Louis.
4 San Francisco 49ers
Forget the Tony Bennett song. There is no heart left in San Francisco. The 49ers were last in offense and last in defense in 2005, and were so bad they made Alcatraz look good. PK Joe Nedney was the team's MVP. Now, how bad can you get? Alex Smith, the first overall pick in 2005, struggled at quarterback and finished with a 40.8 rating. Somehow, WR Brandon Lloyd wound up with 48 receptions and ended up in Washington. Frank Gore led an anemic rushing attack with 608 yards. The best thing that could happen to this franchise would be the return of former owner Eddie DeBartolo.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for USA Today for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events.
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