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 Green Bay Packers
The Packers are in such a rebuilding mode that Vince Lombardi is turning over in his grave. Not even Brett Favre can speed the process and, quite honestly, I was shocked that he decided to play a 16th season. The 37-year-old gladiator is coming off the worst season of his career, throwing 20 TDs and 29 INTs for a 70.9 rating. His best receiver, Javon Walker, has left, and Favre will have little else to work with, especially since rookie coach Mike McCarthy made Ohio State LB A. J. Hawk his No. 1 pick. RBs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport are coming off major leg injuries, and only WR Donald Driver, an ex-UPS driver, is a sure thing to deliver the goods.
1 Carolina Panthers
After reaching the NFC championship game last season, the Panthers will again be on the prowl in the Super Bowl hunt. A six-game tear helped them finish 11-5 and earn a wild-card spot, and they won two road games before losing in Seattle, 34-14. After missing the final 15 games of the 2004 season, WR Steve Smith returned with a vengeance. He led the NFL in receiving yards (1,563) and tied in both receptions (103) and TD catches (12). QB Jake Delhomme threw 24 TD passes and earned a Pro Bowl nod and RB DeShaun Foster, in his first year as a starter, rushed for 879 yards before hurting his ankle. WR Keyshawn Johnson signed as a free agent, giving Delhomme another dangerous weapon. "I came here because I feel Carolina is the team with the best chance to get to the Super Bowl," says Johnson. I agree with him.
2 Atlanta Falcons
What a difference a year makes. Coach Jim Mora was on a Buckhead binge when he got the Falcons to the NFC championship in 2004, but with several late-season meltdowns, the team went only 8-8 last year. QB Michael Vick didn't help by showing little progress in a so-so season. He threw for 2,412 yards with only 15 TDs and 13 INTs, prompting Atlanta to hire QB coach Bill Musgrave to tutor Vick. Gritty RB Warrick Dunn had career highs in carries (280) and yards (1,416), while TE Alge Crumpler helped out with 65 receptions. The Falcons made a major free-agent signing with the explosive DE John Abraham, who led the Jets with 10.5 sacks. "The Jets didn't want to pay him," snaps his agent, Tony Agnone, but he'll pay off for the Falcons, as will fellow free agent S Lawyer Milloy.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, coach Jon Gruden fooled the experts with an 11-5 campaign and a division title. QB Brian Griese, now a Chicago Bear, started 5-1 before being lost for the season and Chris Simms finished the job. Rookie RB Cadillac Williams made an immediate impact (1,178 yards) despite missing two games and WR Joey Galloway shook off an injury-filled 2004 season with a career year (83 receptions, 1,287 yards). Signing WR David Boston gives Tampa another big-play receiver, and the defense, led by Simeon Rice's 14 sacks, was ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Tampa has balance on both sides of the ball and will battle Carolina and Atlanta in a race that will be hotter than a Times Square Rolex.
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.
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