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2007 Football Forecast

Another season of NFL action is here and Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru gets down and dirty to make his predictions

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1 Carolina Panthers
The Panthers were the popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl but finished a disappointing 8-8. They were a very streaky team, prone to second-half collapses and red zone lapses, with the inconsistency of QB Jake Delhomme the main culprit. Delhomme could be pushed by free-agent QB David Carr, who was hit more times than Jake LaMotta during his tenure with Houston. The Panthers will miss WR Keyshawn Johnson's 70 receptions, but another USC wideout, No. 2 draft pick Dwayne Jarrett, will be the new partner for WR Steve Smith (83 receptions for 1,166 yards). DE Julius Peppers (13 sacks) is the catalyst on a defense that is not as fearsome as it once was up front, but welcomes first-round draft pick LB Jon Beason.
2 New Orleans Saints
What a magical year for hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, whose Saints defied the experts and made it to the NFC Championship game in Chicago after winning only one playoff game in their 40-year history. First-year coach Sean Payton was an innovative winner and QB Drew Brees came all the way back from a serious shoulder injury to throw for an NFL-best 4,418 yards, 26 TDs and only 11 interceptions. He finished with a 96.2 rating. The two-headed running back monster that is Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush makes for an explosive offense. First-year WR Marques Colston was a revelation with 70 catches and 1,038 yards. The Saints lost WR Joe Horn to Atlanta but used their No. 1 pick on talented Tennessee WR Robert Meachem, who could start. A toast on Bourbon Street if the defense can stop the run.
3 Atlanta Falcons
Michael Vick was indicted on federal felony charges related to dogfighting during the off-season, which upset new coach Bobby Petrino and owner Arthur Blank. It's up to Petrino, an offensive whiz at Louisville, to take Vick's game to the next level. Vick is a 53.8 percent career passer, but Petrino's target is 65 percent. "His first instinct is to get outside the pocket. but I'd like that to be his third instinct instead," said Petrino. The ball is squarely in Vick's hands since backup QB Matt Schaub was sent packing to Houston. RB Warrick Dunn had another good season (1,140 yards), but Petrino needs veteran WR Joe Horn to be a go-to guy for Vick. On defense, No. 1 draft pick Jamaal Anderson, a pass-rushing defensive end from Arkansas, replaces Patrick Kerney.
4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have had three losing seasons in four years since beating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. This has coach Jon Gruden, with his matinee-idol looks, desperate to upgrade the league's 29th-ranked offense. After QB Chris Simms was knocked into the hospital, Gruden decided to import wise old QB Jeff Garcia, who led the Eagles into the playoffs last season. Gruden also traded for QB Jake Plummer, who promptly said thanks but no thanks and retired. It probably won't matter who the quarterback is to WR Joey Galloway (1,057 receiving yards). RB Cadillac Williams suffered through the sophomore jinx (798 rushing yards) after darting for 1,178 yards as a rookie. With DE Simeon Rice on his last legs, No. 1 draft pick Clemson DE Gaines Adams is expected to sack plenty of quarterbacks and keep Gruden from getting sacked.
1 Seattle Seahawks
After struggling most of the season, the Seahawks took to the sky and became one of three teams (along with the Patriots and Colts) to win their division three straight times. All it took was a 9-7 record. Injuries to their two key offensive players contributed to a lackluster season: RB Shaun Alexander (896 yards) didn't get his 1,000 yards and QB Matt Hasselbeck, sacked 34 times in 12 games, passed for only 2,442 yards and 18 TDs. The club has neglected the offensive line after foolishly losing Pro Bowl G Steve Hutchinson to the Minnesota Vikings. To make matters worse, the Seahawks, without a No. 1 pick, didn't have a very good draft. Of the eight players they selected, only two were offensive linemen. The underachieving defense (341 points allowed) was in the middle of the pack.
2 San Francisco 49ers
Coach Mike Nolan used free agency to import seven new starters in hopes of improving on a 7-9 season. It was almost as if former owner Eddie DeBartolo was back spending money correctly. QB Alex Smith showed dramatic improvement, although the loss of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, now the Raiders' head coach, could impede his development. RB Frank Gore (1,695 yards) was the NFC's top rusher and a weapon in the passing game (61 receptions) as well. WRs Ashley Lelie and Darrell Jackson should help make the offense more potent. Defense wins championships, so Nolan lassoed elite CB Nate Clements from the Bills and LB Patrick Willis with his No. 1 pick. Nolan and the Niners also struck gold in the draft with Michigan T Joe Staley and Washington State WR Jason Hill.
3 Arizona Cardinals
Dennis Green is out after three futile seasons (16-32) and former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is in. Owner Bill Bidwill hasn't had a winning team since 1998, but Whisenhunt, the club's eighth head coach in 19 years, is the perfect fit to find the oasis in the desert. The Cards are loaded on offense with second-year QB Matt Leinart, Pro Bowl WR Anquan Boldin (1,203 yards), WR Larry Fitzgerald (946 yards) and RB Edgerrin James (1,159 yards). Leinart will flourish under Whisenhunt, who tutored Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. If ex-Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm fixes the Cardinals' unit, the team could fly to the top of the roost.
4 St. Louis Rams
Coach Scott Linehan finished last season on a three-game winning streak. If he doesn't stay on a roll, owner Georgia Frontiere could be on track to have another ex-coach. Linehan added Titans WR Drew Bennett and Dolphins TE Randy McMichael to the second-highest-scoring NFC offense. Marc Bulger ranked fourth in the NFC with a 92.9 QB rating. In Torry Holt (93 catches, 1,188 yards, 10 TDs), he has an elite receiver. RB Steven Jackson had a breakout year, scoring 16 TDs and leading the NFL with 2,334 yards from scrimmage. No. 1 draft choice Nebraska DE Adam Carriker will help a defense that allowed a mind-boggling 4.9 yards per carry and finished 31st against the run. However, with RB Marshall Faulk gone and WR Isaac Bruce in the twilight of his career, the Rams could be the greatest no-show on turf.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for USA Today for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events.
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