2007 Football Forecast
Another season of NFL action is here and Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru gets down and dirty to make his predictions
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007
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1 Cincinnati Bengals
If the Bad Boy Bengals were conducting cheerleader tryouts, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears would undoubtedly be at the top of their list. With 10 members of his team apparently thinking team meetings were being held at the local police precinct, coach Marvin Lewis has too many cons and not enough pros. But the Bengals can be dangerous on the field, too. Carson Palmer is one of the game's elite quarterbacks, throwing for 4,035 yards and 28 TDs despite enduring 36 sacks. His top receiver, T. J. Houshmandzadeh, was fourth in the AFC with 90 catches for 1,081 yards and Chad Johnson added 87 grabs for an NFL-leading 1,369 yards. Rudi Johnson balanced the offense with 1,309 rushing yards. Drafting CB Leon Hall in the first round is a godsend for a defense that desperately needs one.
2 Baltimore Ravens
Steve McNair seems to have solved the quarterback problem that has festered in Baltimore for five years. McNair, targeting TE Todd Heap (73 catches), provided the kind of leadership for the offense that LB Ray Lewis does for the defense, as the Ravens finished 13-3, conquering the division by five games. The offense thrived under coach Brian Billick, who took over the play-calling midway through the season. Left tackle and 10-time Pro Bowler Jonathan Ogden decided not to retire, which is music to the ears of RB Willis McGahee, who replaces Jamal Lewis. As for the defense, expect another season like last year when it led the league in fewest points allowed (201), fewest first downs allowed (236) and fewest yards per game allowed (264).
3 Pittsburgh Steelers
First-year coach Mike Tomlin has big cleats to fill following the retirement of Bill Cowher. At 35, Tomlin is young, has smarts and is a good communicator, but the loss of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and assistant coach Russ Grimm makes his task grimmer. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a disappointing season, largely attributable to a serious motorcycle accident and an appendectomy prior to Week 1. He wasn't ready physically or mentally, as evidenced by his 75.4 quarterback rating and AFC high 23 interceptions. RB Willie Parker (third in the AFC with 1,494 rushing yards) and WR Hines Ward (74 receptions) give Big Ben options. Pittsburgh filled the vacancy left by Joey Porter's departure to Miami with No. 1 draft pick Florida State OLB Lawrence Timmons. The mandate along the Monongahela doesn't change now that Cowher is a talking head with NFL Today on CBS. Just chin, baby.
4 Cleveland Browns
In the last 10 years, the Browns have drafted 71 players. None have made the Pro Bowl. Maybe they ought to hook up with UPS and see what brown could do for them, or rent LeBron James on Sundays. Still, GM Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel came up big when they surrendered their 2008 No. 1 draft choice to the Cowboys and landed QB Brady Quinn with the 22nd pick of the first round after already drafting highly regarded Wisconsin LT Joe Thomas with the third pick. The Browns need Thomas to help a suspect offensive line keep its quarterback upright and open holes for RB Jamal Lewis. Crennel is on the hot seat and his fate could be determined in September when the Browns play their three division opponents.
1 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are only the second team in NFL history with four straight seasons of 12 victories or more. With QB Peyton Manning at the helm, they could easily make it five. Not only did he register a 101 quarterback rating with an AFC-leading 4,397 yards and a phenomenal 31-9 TD/INT ratio, he also shook the big-game monkey off his back, leading the Colts to a championship in Super Bowl XLI. Manning still has his two favorite targets: Marvin Harrison (95 catches, 1,366 yards and 12 TDs) and Reggie Wayne (86 receptions, 1,310 yards and nine TDs). Rookie RB Joseph Addai capably took over for Edgerrin James with a 1,081-yard season and will be expected to do even more now that Dominic Rhodes is in Oakland. Although the Colts have 19 returning starters, losing OLB Cato June and CB Jason David hurts the defense. But when in doubt, there's always K Adam Vinatieri, a.k.a. Mr. Clutch.
2 Jacksonville Jaguars
If QB Byron Leftwich could ever enjoy an injury-free season, the Jags just might make it to the next level. They fell from 12-4 in 2005 to 8-8 last season largely because neither Leftwich (six starts) nor his backup, David Garrard, had a number one wide receiver who could make big plays. On the ground, jitterbugging rookie RB Maurice Jones-Drew (941 yards) teamed with RB Fred Taylor (1,146 yards) to give the Jags a powerful run attack, and an improving defense registered two shutouts while limiting six opponents to 10 or fewer points. Jacksonville will be helped by its number one draft pick, free safety Reggie Nelson, whom coach Jack Del Rio hopes can become his Ed Reed.
3 Tennessee Titans
Jeff Fisher did an outstanding coaching job after the team lost its first five games, as the Titans finished 8-8. Rookie QB Vince Young sparked the turnaround after he took over from Kerry Collins and looked as if he never left the University of Texas. But it won't be as easy the second time around, as Young lost top receivers Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade, as well as leading rusher RB Travis Henry (1,211 yards), to free agency. The Titans will also miss CB-KR Pacman Jones to Commissioner Goodell's season-long suspension for conduct unbecoming a professional. There are also questions about running back LenDale White's commitment that surfaced when he ticked off the club in the off-season by reportedly ballooning up to 260 pounds.
4 Houston Texans
Coach Gary Kubiak went out on a limb when he acquired Atlanta's Matt Schaub to replace David Carr as the Texans' franchise quarterback. It's a big gamble simply because Schaub has started only two games in his three-year career playing behind Michael Vick. Yet Schaub will quickly discover that Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson, who hauled in a league-leading 103 passes (for 1,147 yards) is the real deal. The addition of RB Ahman Green will improve the 28th-ranked offense, but the Texans will suffer for not improving an offensive line that left Carr shell-shocked. Texans fans desperately want to believe that No. 1 pick DT Amobi Okoye will help the defense and DE Mario Williams, who was picked over Reggie Bush and hometown hero Vince Young in the 2006 draft, much to the fans' chagrin.
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