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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Fortunately, the new sheriff in town means business. He has a new personal conduct policy in place and to make his point loud and clear, Goodell dealt a regular-season suspension to Tennessee's troubled Adam "Pacman" Jones and eight games each to Cincinnati's Chris Henry and former Chicago Bears lineman Tank Johnson."It's a privilege to represent the league, not a right," proclaimed Goodell, and his firm hand was applauded by the owners.
"I hope this sends a message to people in our league for how to conduct themselves," said esteemed New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Goodell's code of conduct also extends to the playing field. Spiking a ball after a touchdown will incur a five-yard penalty. Despite all the negative press generated by player indiscretions, the NFL still managed to set an attendance record last year (22,199,712), which was 400,000 more than the 2005 mark. This prompted the league's power brokers to look to Europe for additional fandom. For the first time ever, a regular-season game will be played overseas. The October 28 matchup between the Giants and the Dolphins at London's Wembley Stadium was well received by Britons, who snatched up 40,000 tickets at the 90,000-seat stadium in an hour and a half.
Such enthusiasm could portend one overseas game per team as part of a 17-game regular season being studied by the NFL, perhaps as early as 2009. Looking ahead to 2011, the owners awarded the Super Bowl to the Cowboys' newly constructed 100,000-seat-capacity stadium, where the price of a ticket is projected to be at least $900. Big D means Big Dollars. In these pages last September I picked the Colts to win the Super Bowl. This season I like the Patriots to capture their fourth championship in seven years (over the Panthers). I know this much: I'm making this year's AFC representative a seven-point favorite, no matter who shows up from the NFC.
1 New England Patriots
The Patriots are primed for another Lombardi Trophy after a dynamic off-season shopping spree netted several lethal receivers for QB Tom Brady. Wide receiver Randy Moss, acquired from the Raiders for a fourth-round draft pick, is looking to recapture the success he had with the Vikings and should send shivers down opponents' spines. Other additions to the receiving corps are Danté Stallworth, who averaged 19 yards per catch last season with the Eagles, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington. New England also bolstered a defense that yielded the second fewest points, signing free-agent OLB Adalius Thomas. The Patriots' muskets are loaded and you'll see Brady and his girlfriend, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, in Arizona on February 3.
2 New York Jets
Long-suffering Jets fans haven't seen a championship since Super Bowl III (and like to think Joe Namath sold his soul to the devil for that one), but under Eric Mangini there is hope. In his first season, Mangini inherited a 4-12 team and confounded the experts with a 10-6 finish. One of the reasons was QB Chad Pennington, who completed a season without injury for the first time, throwing for a career-best 3,352 yards and completing 64.5 percent of his passes. A brilliant trade for RB Thomas Jones, who led the Bears with 1,210 rushing yards, gives the Jets a legitimate replacement for RB Curtis Martin and will make life easier for receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Look for rookie CB Darrelle Revis to help the secondary match up with the Patriots.
3 Miami Dolphins
Miami fans are upset that management passed on Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, the big fish that could have solved the Dolphins' post—Dan Marino quarterback problem. Instead, they drafted lightning-fast receiver and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. from Ohio State and acquired veteran QB Trent Green from the Chiefs for a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft. To mollify fans, coach Cam Cameron, Nick Saban's replacement, announced that the Dolphins are "drafting the whole Ginn family." Huh? In the free-agent waters, the biggest splash the Dolphins made was signing Steelers OLB Joey Porter, who immediately made his own splash with an altercation in Las Vegas. Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor (13.5 sacks) leads a strong defense, but don't look for a championship celebration at Shula's Steak House anytime soon.
4 Buffalo Bills
The Bills were $30 million under the salary cap, but spent little in the free-agent market to improve on a 7-9 record. What's more, coach Dick Jauron took a big hit on defense with the departures of LB London Fletcher-Baker, LB Takeo Spikes and CB Nate Clements. J. P. Losman has finally settled in as the starting quarterback and is teamed with deep threat WR Lee Evans, who caught a career-high 82 passes for 1,292 yards. The Bills had a quality draft, landing LB Paul Posluszny from Penn State and RB Marshawn Lynch from the University of California to replace Willis McGahee. There's no way the Bill's will get a chance to lose a fifth straight Super Bowl.
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.
1 San Diego Chargers
After a 14-2 season, it's ludicrous that coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired after another playoff shortfall. But new coach Norv Turner, getting his third crack as head man, is a respected offensive coordinator, meaning the high-powered Chargers offense could generate more voltage. League MVP LaDainian Tomlinson led the league in rushing (1,815 yards) and TDs (31) and caught 56 passes. Philip Rivers, in his first year as a starting quarterback, was the AFC's fourth-ranked passer, throwing for 3,388 yards and 22 TDs, making Giants fans wonder why their team liked Eli Manning better. Despite missing four games on a steroids suspension, Shawne Merriman was the league's top sackmaster with 17. The Chargers boast 11 Pro Bowlers, including premier TE Antonio Gates, on a roster that needs a No. 1 wide receiver, which could turn out to be No. 1 draft pick Craig Davis of LSU.
2 Denver Broncos
The Jay Cutler Era begins in earnest. Coach Mike Shanahan yanked QB Jake Plummer during the playoff run and handed the ball to the prized rookie, who showed promise with nine TDs and only five interceptions. Shanahan, displeased with the tandem of Tatum Bell and Mike Bell, continued to play musical running backs, and imported Travis Henry from Tennessee in the off-season, as well as TE Daniel Graham, whose blocking will help. Shanahan is hopeful that free-agent receiver Brandon Stokley can take some pressure off WR Javon Walker. On defense, CB Dre' Bly comes from Detroit to team with CB Champ Bailey, whose 10 interceptions tied for the league best, while No. 1 draft choice DE Jarvis Moss will be asked to upgrade an ailing pass rush.
3 Kansas City Chiefs
After QB Damon Huard went 5-3, Trent Green, who was recovering from a concussion, became expendable, so the Chiefs shipped him to Miami for a 5th round 2008 draft choice. Huard finished as the league's second-ranked passer (98.0) behind Peyton Manning, throwing for 11 TDs with only one interception. Running back Larry Johnson proved his worth with 1,789 yards and 17 TDs on a league-high 416 rushing attempts. Thanks to TE Tony Gonzalez (73 receptions, 900 yards), the Chiefs were an excellent red zone passing team, and the addition of WR Dwayne Bowe, their No. 1 pick from LSU, will make them even more formidable inside the opponent's 20. Adding LBs Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris improves the defense. The Chiefs don't have enough talent overall to make a serious run.
4 Oakland Raiders
I like what Al Davis did. He cleaned house after a 2-14 campaign and took big steps towards restoring the Raiders' "Commitment to Excellence." He started by hiring USC's Lane Kiffin (at 32, the youngest coach since 1921), perhaps envisioning another John Madden. Kiffin was chosen to jump-start an offense that scored only 12 TDs. The top player in the draft, LSU QB JaMarcus Russell, could be the answer, as the 6-foot-6, 265-pound rookie has a rocket arm. As for receivers, trading WR Randy Moss for a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft was addition by subtraction. Now Davis has to shore up the offensive line so Russell can get the ball to WR Jerry Porter and WR Ronald Curry and take the heat off new RB Dominic Rhodes, who was suspended for four games after violating the league's substance abuse policy. Warren Sapp leads a stingy defense that won't embarrass Raiders legends such as Ben Davidson and Jack Tatum.
1 Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid is a coach who doesn't get the credit he deserves for getting the Eagles into the playoffs year after year, even though Donovan McNabb has missed 15 games over the last three seasons. Reid is optimistic that the injury bug that has plagued McNabb is gone and the quarterback will send the Eagles soaring. Reid brought in WR Kevin Curtis to help WR Reggie Brown, and WR Hank Baskett, who averaged 21.1 yards on only 22 receptions, is dangerou. Running back Brian Westbrook, Reid's version of Tiki Barber, avoided injuries for the first time and responded with career highs in rushing (1,217 yards), carries (240), receptions (77) and TDs (11). Former Bill Takeo Spikes strengthens the linebacker corps.
2 Dallas Cowboys
Bill Parcells's dictatorial act grew tiresome in Dallas and the players, no longer walking on eggshells, have welcomed easy going Wade Phillips with open arms. Given the parting shots by WR Terrell Owens and RB Julius Jones, it appears that the Tuna was about as welcome as Barry Bonds at a Bud Selig barbecue. "Everybody's just happy-go-lucky," Jones said. Phillips needs to develop QB Tony Romo, who is still a work in progress after spending the off-season trying to forget the muffed field goal snap that cost the Cowboys the playoff game in Seattle. T.O., for all his antics and all the turmoil that swirls around him, authored the best season (85 receptions, 1,180 yards and an NFL-best 13 TDs) for a Cowboys receiver since Michael Irvin in 1995. Still, he'll have to cut down on his drops (17). A defensive specialist, Phillips needs to light a fire under the underachieving defense.
3 New York Giants
Eli Manning's glacial development as the Giants' quarterback is a concern and coach Tom Coughlin better solve it before he's thrown out by new GM Jerry Reese. Manning's interception total swelled and he made few crunch-time plays to finish with a 77 QB rating. With RB Tiki Barber retired, Manning must assume leadership and deliver the ball to TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Plaxico Burress. The Giants added WR Steve Smith from USC, who provides insurance following WR Amani Toomer's knee surgery last season. But G David Diehl or T Guy Whimper better be able to replace LT Luke Petitgout and protect Manning's blind side. RBs Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns won't come close to replacing Barber. Mark my words, the Giants will have a new coach next season. Could Bill Belichick be ready for a new challenge if he wins his fourth Super Bowl?
4 Washington Redskins
This is a team in flux. Bad free-agent signings and unrest in the locker room resulted in a 5-11 mess. The defense went from ninth in yards allowed to 31st, while forcing only 12 turnovers, the lowest in NFL history. The team's 19 sacks were also a franchise low. At least No. 1 pick LaRon Landry and Sean Taylor, a No. 5 pick in 2004, will give defensive guru Gregg Williams a Batman & Robin safety duo. Now that he has taken over for Mark Brunell, QB Jason Campbell will be in the spotlight. It's time for him to show better accuracy than Dick Cheney on a quail hunt. Ladell Betts was the Redskins' rushing leader with 1,154 yards. Other than WR Santana Moss, Campbell's receiving corps is hardly "Mmm, mmm good." At least owner Daniel Snyder can sleep knowing the 'Skins led the NFL in attendance.
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.
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