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 Chicago Bears
The Monsters of the Midway are in the midst of a three-year run as Super Bowl contenders. But even though coach Lovie Smith signed a lucrative contract, all is not Lovie-dovey. OLB Lance Briggs wanted out, DT Tank Johnson was released in June after his latest brush with the law, and RB Cedric Benson is an unproven workhorse who must replace 1,200-yard rusher Thomas Jones, who was traded to the Jets. The shaky Rex Grossman—nicknamed Wrecks Grossman—finished with a 73.9 QB rating and a waterlogged Super Bowl performance against the Colts. Maybe No. 1 draft selection TE Greg Olsen can speed up Grossman's development. The Bears' biggest weapon is Pro Bowl KR Devin Hester, who has been moved from the secondary to wide receiver. The Bears' defense, anchored by MLB Brian Urlacher, has plenty of teeth, although the departure of coordinator Ron Rivera won't help.
2 Green Bay Packers
The Cheeseheads are turning to Limburger off Lombardi Way. QB Brett Favre is antsy as he begins his 17th and maybe final season. He ranted at management for failing to land WR Randy Moss. Favre had every right to be angry. GM Ted Thompson let RB Ahman Green (1,059 yards) go, leaving Favre with WR Donald Driver (third in the NFC with 92 receptions for 1,295 yards and eight TDs) as his only big-play presence. Thompson is content rebuilding the defense—the last two No. 1 picks have been LB A. J. Hawk in 2006 and NT Justin Harrell in 2007. DE Aaron Kampman (an NFC-leading 15.5 sacks) provides the pass rush. But Favre needs more playmakers to improve on last year's 8-8 mark. He deserves better, but won't get it.
3 Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings had a shot at Brady Quinn, but because coach Brad Childress likes second-year QB Tarvaris Jackson, he drafted RB Adrian Peterson, even though Chester Taylor was coming off a 1,216-yard season. Peterson, especially behind a mountainous offensive line, will be a franchise back who can turn around a 6-10 team. The defense ranked No. 1 against the run. But do not mistake the unit for Carl Eller and the Purple People Eaters. The Vikes were 31st against the pass due largely to the absence of a strong pass rush. This looks like an 8-8 team.
4 Detroit Lions
How GM Matt Millen keeps his job defies the imagination. He has been the laughingstock of the NFL, except to owner William Clay Ford, who apparently can't see the fans walking out in mass protest (the Millen Man March). Last year's 3-13 bust marked the sixth straight losing season for Lions and yet somehow Millen earned a contract extension. "Matt Millen's record is pathetic and inept," observed ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf. It took nerve for Millen to draft another wide receiver with his No. 1 pick for the fourth time in five years, especially since two (Charles Rogers and Mike Williams) are ex-Lions. This time he may have struck gold with Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson, considered the can't-miss player on almost everyone's draft board. The 6-foot-5, 239-pound specimen will line up with WR Roy Williams and ex-Rams WR Mike Furrey, who led the NFC with 98 catches for 1,086 yards. Millen's 24-72 record is the worst in the NFL. Detroit has had double-digit losses every season under Millen's watch and the quarterback is still Jon Kitna.
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.
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