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Football Forecast

Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru analyzes the upcoming NFL season and predicts who will reach Super Bowl XLI
Danny Sheridan
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

The NFL is the best damn sports league, period. Everyone watches it. Everyone bets on it. Everyone gets fired up for it each September when a new season of bone-crunching action and high drama kicks off. • This September, the Terrell Owens soap opera comes to Dallas, where Bill Parcells makes what could be one last, turmoil-filled run at a Super Bowl. The old gunslinger Brett Favre hopes to recapture the joy of his youth in Green Bay, and Eli Manning looks to outduel his older brother Peyton to Super Bowl XLI. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick gun for their fourth Super Bowl in six years in a league where the salary cap is supposed to prohibit dynasties, Big Ben Roethlisberger tries to ride the Steelers back to the top of the football mountain without Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, and the highly touted Reggie Bush steps in to help the healing in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. All that, plus labor peace, 10 teams with new head coaches and a $3.1 billion-per-year television contract to boot. • And unlike baseball, where division contests are frequently settled long before the playoffs, the NFL offers spine-tingling division races that usually go down to the final weekend of the season. This time around, I'm picking the Indianapolis Colts to beat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl in Miami on February 4. And, if the league held a "Stupor Bowl," the San Francisco 49ers and the Tennessee Titans would be in it.

AFC EAST

1 New England Patriots
Despite heavy losses to free agency—notably WR David Givens, DE Willie McGinest and kicker extraordinaire Adam Vinatieri—Bill Belichick has enough muskets to win a fourth straight division crown if his team can stay healthy. Last season, the Patriots, who have won three of the last five Super Bowls, were ambushed by injuries that cost them a deep run into the playoffs. They are led by QB Tom Brady, who topped the NFL with 4,110 passing yards and guided the Pats to a third straight 10-win season. LB Tedy Bruschi (who returned last year after a mild stroke), DE Richard Seymour, LB Mike Vrabel and DB Rodney Harrison provide veteran leadership. WR Deion Branch is coming off his best year (78 receptions, 998 yards) and will be Brady's go-to guy, while rookies RB Laurence Maroney, WR Chad Jackson and TE Dave Thomas give New England strong replacements.

2 Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins made headlines during the off-season when they traded for Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper. The only concern is if he'll be ready to open the season after rehabbing a knee injury. "We're not going to rush him," promises coach Nick Saban, who turned the 9-7 Dolphins around in his first season. For insurance, Miami also traded for Detroit Lion bust QB Joey Harrington. WR Chris Chambers had a breakout year—82 receptions, 1,118 yards and 11 touchdowns—and should prosper even more with Culpepper's strong arm, while RB Ronnie Brown, who rushed for 907 yards as a rookie, will carry the load with RB Ricky Williams playing out his suspension in Canada. The big question is whether Culpepper can play 16 games.

3 Buffalo Bills
Does anybody know what's going on in Buffalo outside of cold winters? Owner Ralph Wilson, an American Football League original, cleaned out his front office by firing president and general manager Tom Donohue and hiring Dick Jauron as head coach, but the Bills are a far cry from the Jim Kelly teams that reached four straight Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993. Wilson has brought back the venerable Marv Levy, the coach of those teams, as the general manager and vice president of football operations to help get more players like RB Willis McGahee (1,247 yards). An unsettled quarterback situation with J. P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall is a concern, as is an aging defense, which was ranked in the top five two seasons ago but tumbled to 29th last year. Where is Bruce Smith when you need him?

4 New York Jets
The woebegone Jets have a new head coach after being jilted by Herm Edwards who defected to Kansas City. Eric Mangini, the youngest head coach in the league at 35, and first-year GM Mike Tannenbaum have their work cut out for them. The Jets had seven draft picks in the first four rounds, but did not draft a playmaker and passed on Matt Leinart despite a murky QB situation that hinges on Chad Pennington's twice-repaired shoulder. The Jets did land the best offensive lineman with No. 1 pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson (6-6, 313 pounds and a 7-foot, 3-inch wingspan), who will start at left tackle. Yet the Jets need another speedy receiver and a running back to help 33-year-old Curtis Martin and, with John Abraham gone to Atlanta, a pass rusher to help rising star LB Jonathan Vilma.

AFC NORTH

1 Pittsburgh Steelers
What a feel-good year the Steelers enjoyed. Bill Cowher's team was 7-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs when they went on a tear, winning their last four games and then beating the AFC's top three seeds before knocking off Seattle in Super Bowl XL. It was their first championship in 26 years. Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl (23), is the catalyst of the Steelers offense after finishing third in the NFL with a 98.6 rating. (He has a zero rating riding motorcycles.) WR Hines Ward (69 catches, 975 yards) is one of the game's top clutch receivers and RB Willie Parker emerged from now-retired Jerome Bettis's shadow with 1,202 yards and an average of 4.7 yards a carry. The Steelers replaced Antwaan Randle El by drafting two wideouts: Ohio State's Santonio Holmes and Florida State's Willie Reid. With a fourth-ranked defense led by LB Joey Porter and SS Troy Polamalu, they should win the North again.

2 Cincinnati Bengals
After an 11-5 campaign, the Bengals' continued success rests with the recovery of QB Carson Palmer from a devastating knee injury he suffered in the playoffs. "I keep thinking of all the naysayers who don't believe I'll make it back," snaps Palmer. "I'll prove them wrong." Palmer finished as the NFL's second-ranked quarterback with a 101.1 rating and threw a league-leading 32 touchdown passes. He has two big weapons in receivers Chad Johnson, who led the AFC with 97 receptions and 1,432 yards, and T. J. Houshmandzadeh (78 catches, 956 yards), and RB Rudi Johnson (1,458 yards) gives the Bengals an even louder growl. However, coach Marvin Lewis needs to upgrade his defense, which ranked 28th in the league.

3 Baltimore Ravens
At least the crab cakes are good in Baltimore. The Ravens were supposed to contend for a playoff berth last year, but finished 6-10. To make matters worse, the Ravens haven't won a road game since November 14, 2004, against the Jets. Coach Brian Billick, who is regarded as an offensive guru, can't seem to reach the end zone and is on the firing line. Kyle Boller turned in a 71.8 quarterback rating with only 11 TD passes, so what does Billick do? He brings in a battered Steve McNair (61.3 QB rating). Billick also acquired Mike Anderson, a 1,000-yard runner with Denver, to counter RB Jamal Lewis's lack of production. WR Derrick Mason (86 receptions, 1,073 yards) and TE Todd Heap (75 grabs, 855 yards) were the lone stars on offense, while LB Ray Lewis, who missed 10 games with a hamstring injury, returns to lead a ravenous defense that was fifth in the league and should improve with DE Trevor Pryce, a four-time Pro Bowler with the Broncos.


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