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.
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.
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.
4 Cleveland Browns
Romeo Crennel went on a free agent frenzy with the signings of DE Willie McGinest, DT Ted Washington, WR Joe Jurevicius, C LeCharles Bentley, OT Kevin Shaffer and P Dave Zastudil. Rookie QB Charlie Frye showed enough the last five weeks to merit a starting role in 2006; he spent the off-season working out heavily with WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow Jr., both of whom were recovering from serious leg injuries. RB Reuben Droughns (1,232 yards) became the first Cleveland back to rush for 1,000 yards since 1985, when Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack both did it. The Browns, who are 36-77 since returning to the NFL, shouldn't have trouble improving on last year's 6-10 record.
1 Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning remains the NFL's premier quarterback. He led the NFL last season with a 104.1 rating, throwing for 3,747 yards and 28 touchdowns. But Manning has yet to take the Colts to the Super Bowl. With the loss of RB Edgerrin James to Arizona, the road could get bumpier this time. Manning still has his top receivers, led by Marvin Harrison (82 catches, 1,146 yards and 12 TDs) and Reggie Wayne (83 receptions and 1,055 yards), and WR Brandon Stokley (41 grabs, 543 yards) will see more action in a three-receiver set. Dominic Rhodes is the returning running back, but coach Tony Dungy is hoping No. 1 draft pick RB Joseph Addai from LSU can step right in. Signing clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri (100 points) was big. Sparked by DEs Robert Mathis's 11.5 sacks and Dwight Freeney's 11 sacks, Indy improved with an 11th-ranked defense. The Colts can win shootouts.
2 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars had a softer-than-Kleenex schedule last season, finishing 12-4 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Nine of those wins came against teams with a losing record and the Jags were exposed in the playoffs by a 28-3 whipping in New England. QB Byron Leftwich needs to remain healthy if the team is going anywhere with a tougher schedule. He won't have WR Jimmy Smith, who retired in May with 862 receptions, seventh most in NFL history. He caught 70 passes for 1,023 yards last season and led the team in receiving yards for the last 10 years. Jacksonville didn't have much of a running game with Fred Taylor's 787 yards, so coach Jack Del Rio took UCLA's Maurice Drew with his second draft selection.
3 Houston Texans
There were howls across the state of Texas, and they weren't from coyotes, when the Texans rejected USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and made North Carolina State DE Mario Williams the No. 1 overall selection. The fan favorite was Bush, but Williams has a big upside, drawing comparison to Carolina's Julius Peppers, and will be an immediate starter. Offensive-minded Gary Kubiak takes over as head coach and QB David Carr, who was sacked 68 times, will be his first project. Free agent WR Eric Moulds was recruited to help Carr as Andre Johnson caught only 63 balls. Domanick Davis (976 yards) is a solid runner, but he's no Bush. The Texans need a lot more smoking guns on offense, which is why they hired Kubiak away from Denver.
4 Tennessee Titans
The Titans got their QB of the future, and maybe the present, grabbing Texas Longhorn Vince Young with the third pick in the 2006 draft. Young is a lethal weapon who can beat you with both his arm and legs, and he'll have gifted offensive coordinator Norm Chow to groom him. Billy Volek is the incumbent QB who could be pushed by Young. Chris Brown (851 yards) is set at RB but must keep a step ahead of No. 2 draft pick LenDale White of USC. The Titans, who need receivers, got a proven one in New England's David Givens. Tennessee was also busy in free agency, signing C Kevin Mawae, LB David Thornton and S Chris Hope, all of whom will be in the starting lineup with Young before the season is over. How the mighty have fallen. It's hard to believe the Titans were a Super Bowl team seven seasons ago. Owner Bud Adams needs to butt out.
1 Denver Broncos
Coach Mike Shanahan is on a Rocky Mountain high. He moved up in the first round to nab Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler and made another good move in trading for WR Javon Walker from the Packers. "I feel Cutler will be the best of the three [Vince Young and Matt Leinart are the other first-round QB picks]," declares former Panthers college scouting director Tony Softli, now the Rams' vice president of personnel. Shanahan added fast second-round pick TE Tony Scheffler (4.5-second 40-yard dash) and 6-foot-4 WR Brandon Marshall in the fourth round, giving the Broncos the makings of an offensive machine to repeat as West champions. Jake Plummer improved his quarterback rating to 90.2, with his favorite target being WR Rod Smith (85 catches, 1,105 yards). Tatum Bell takes care of the running (921 yards) and will see more carries this year, but CB Champ Bailey (8 interceptions) needs help in improving a 15th-ranked defense.
2 Kansas City Chiefs
It's now or never for the Chiefs, simply because they have 16 players who are 30 years of age or older. The team has averaged 10 wins a season the last three years, but has no championships to show for it. It's no fault of QB Trent Green or RB Larry Johnson. Green threw for 4,014 yards as the NFL's No. 8 passer, and when Priest Holmes went down with a head/neck injury, Johnson took over and had a dynamic year, leading the AFC in rushing (1,750 yards, 20 TDs) in only nine starts. Former Jets coach Herm Edwards takes over a club that led the NFL in offense, but was undermined by a 25th-ranked defense, losing two late-season games that kept the Chiefs out of the playoffs.
3 San Diego Chargers
If the front office rift between general manager A. J. Smith and head coach Marty Schottenheimer continues, the Chargers could short-circuit again. Schottenheimer wanted to keep QB Drew Brees, but Smith let him go to New Orleans as a free agent. That made Philip Rivers, who was landlocked for two years, the starting quarterback by elimination. "I haven't played a ton, but I know the abilities I do have," says Rivers. Everyone knows the abilities that RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates have. Tomlinson caught 51 passes and ran for 1,462 yards and 18 TDs, while Gates was the AFC's No. 2 receiver (89 receptions, 1,101 yards). WR Keenan McCardell proved he could still play (70 catches, 917 yards and 9 TDs), but there has to be peace if the Chargers want to light up the sky.
4 Oakland Raiders
Sage owner Al Davis reached back into Raiders glory to restore a franchise that has gone 13-35 the last three years. He brought back Hall of Famer Art Shell, who coached the team for six years (1989—94) and owns the team's third-best winning percentage behind Hall of Famer John Madden and Tom Flores. It was an excellent move. The first thing Shell must do is restore discipline to a team that has been sabotaged by penalties. With Kerry Collins gone, he also needs to generate a comeback for QB Aaron Brooks, who came over from New Orleans. The Raiders have special wideouts in Jerry Porter and Randy Moss and a workhorse RB in LaMont Jordan (1,025 yards). They also have DE Derrick Burgess, the NFL's sack leader with 16. Shell could be the deliverer if he had a quarterback like Kenny Stabler.
1 Dallas Cowboys
This is coach Bill Parcells's fourth year in Dallas, and at age 65, one season with Terrell Owens could make it his last. The Big Tuna is itchy and geared for a Super Bowl run with Owens and WR Terry Glenn giving QB Drew Bledsoe two deep threats who can stretch the field. "In this offense you're not going to catch 100 balls," was the message Parcells delivered to Owens. Bledsoe likes the controversial receiver. "This is a guy that's going to help us right now," he exclaims. So will FG kicker Mike Vanderjagt, but first the Cowboys must upgrade an offensive line that allowed 50 sacks and needs to produce better blocking for RB Julius Jones. With rookie Ohio State LB Bobby Carpenter a perfect fit in Parcells' 3-4 defense, owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are ready for a showdown at the OK Corral.
2 Philadelphia Eagles
The turmoil created by Terrell Owens doomed the Eagles to a 6-10 mark and last place in the East. Like him or not, Owens's departure left a playmaking void and QB Donovan McNabb was limited most of the season with a hernia. When the season ended, 10 of the 22 starters from Super Bowl XXXIX were injured. McNabb threw for only 2,507 yards, mostly to TE L. J. Smith and RB Brian Westbrook, both of whom caught 61 passes, and the Eagles scored the fewest points in the East. Yet it was the defense, which gave up the most points in the division (388), that caused more pain than McNabb's hernia. Coach Andy Reid is a winner with an excellent staff, and with McNabb coming back healthy to exorcise the T. O. curse, the Eagles will claw their way back near the top perch.
3 Washington Redskins
The Redskins went on a tear in coach Joe Gibbs's second year, making the playoffs with a 10-6 record and beating Tampa Bay in the wild card game. "When I told my wife I was thinking of coaching again, she said, 'You're going to ruin your reputation,'" confesses Gibbs. "After my first year (6-10), I said, 'Well, we're halfway there.'" QB Mark Brunell had a comeback year with 3,050 yards, 23 TDs and only 10 INTs to rank No. 5 in the NFC and WR Santana Moss profited with 84 receptions and 1,483 yards. Adding WR Antwaan Randle El gives Brunell another target to go along with RB Clinton Portis, who finished last year third in the NFC with 1,516 rushing yards and 11 TDs. Owner Daniel Snyder, who has the NFL's most valuable franchise, has the Redskins on the warpath.
4 New York Giants
The maturation of QB Eli Manning is far from complete and his late-season struggles, particularly in a playoff blowout against Carolina, are a big concern. It was bad enough that RB Tiki Barber questioned coach Tom Coughlin's game plan. Barber had a sensational season, producing personal highs in attempts (357), yards (1,860) and total yards from scrimmage (2,390), while losing only one fumble. The Giants have a new look on defense with the addition of LB LaVar Arrington from Washington, along with an overhauled secondary. "Who are teams going to block with Michael Strahan (11.5 sacks), LaVar and myself?" asks DE Osi Umenyiora (NFC-leading 14.5 sacks). The "D" makes the Giants dangerous.
1 Chicago Bears
The smashmouth Bears were the surprise of the North last season, finishing 11-5 to win the title under coach Lovie Smith, who can run for Windy City mayor. Led by LB Brian Urlacher, the Bears had the NFC's second-ranked defense and they needed to be Monsters of the Midway after losing QB Rex Grossman for practically the entire season. QB Kyle Orton did a yeoman's job filling in and won 10 games in 15 starts. RB Thomas Jones carried the ground load (1,335 yards, 9 TDs), while Muhsin Muhammad took care of the air travel (64 grabs, 750 yards). The truth is, the Bears need more playmakers and I was surprised they didn't draft any, instead using their first five draft picks on defense.
2 Minnesota Vikings
New owner Zygi Wilf didn't know what he was getting into when he purchased the Vikings. Although they went 9-7, he fired coach Mike Tice, who rallied the team from a 2-5 start, and hired inexperienced Brad Childress to replace him. The low point came with the infamous Viking players' love boat cruise. The Vikes followed Tice's firing by trading QB Daunte Culpepper to Miami and then firing GM Fran Foley after three months on the job and replacing him with Rick Spielman, who had flopped in Miami. Minnesota is left with 38-year-old QB Brad Johnson, who went 7-2 after Culpepper's leg injury sidelined him for the season. As it stands, the Vikings desperately need to fix the leaks in their boat.
3 Detroit Lions
One of these years, president and CEO Matt Millen is going to get it right, but when? As with Donald Rumsfeld, I can't understand why he hasn't been fired. Under his stewardship, the Lions have been as shaky as the car industry in Detroit. He's had three head coaches in five years, the latest being Rod Marinelli, yet Millen was surprisingly rewarded with a contract extension. With QB Joey Harrington gone to Miami, Jon Kitna and Josh McCown are all that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has to work with. The Lions are still waiting for WR Charles Rogers to play up to his first-round potential and help WR Roy Williams and RB Kevin Jones (664 yards). Martz has already discovered that he doesn't have a go-to guy, simply because Millen's draft picks have been horrible.
4 Green Bay Packers
The Packers are in such a rebuilding mode that Vince Lombardi is turning over in his grave. Not even Brett Favre can speed the process and, quite honestly, I was shocked that he decided to play a 16th season. The 37-year-old gladiator is coming off the worst season of his career, throwing 20 TDs and 29 INTs for a 70.9 rating. His best receiver, Javon Walker, has left, and Favre will have little else to work with, especially since rookie coach Mike McCarthy made Ohio State LB A. J. Hawk his No. 1 pick. RBs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport are coming off major leg injuries, and only WR Donald Driver, an ex-UPS driver, is a sure thing to deliver the goods.
1 Carolina Panthers
After reaching the NFC championship game last season, the Panthers will again be on the prowl in the Super Bowl hunt. A six-game tear helped them finish 11-5 and earn a wild-card spot, and they won two road games before losing in Seattle, 34-14. After missing the final 15 games of the 2004 season, WR Steve Smith returned with a vengeance. He led the NFL in receiving yards (1,563) and tied in both receptions (103) and TD catches (12). QB Jake Delhomme threw 24 TD passes and earned a Pro Bowl nod and RB DeShaun Foster, in his first year as a starter, rushed for 879 yards before hurting his ankle. WR Keyshawn Johnson signed as a free agent, giving Delhomme another dangerous weapon. "I came here because I feel Carolina is the team with the best chance to get to the Super Bowl," says Johnson. I agree with him.
2 Atlanta Falcons
What a difference a year makes. Coach Jim Mora was on a Buckhead binge when he got the Falcons to the NFC championship in 2004, but with several late-season meltdowns, the team went only 8-8 last year. QB Michael Vick didn't help by showing little progress in a so-so season. He threw for 2,412 yards with only 15 TDs and 13 INTs, prompting Atlanta to hire QB coach Bill Musgrave to tutor Vick. Gritty RB Warrick Dunn had career highs in carries (280) and yards (1,416), while TE Alge Crumpler helped out with 65 receptions. The Falcons made a major free-agent signing with the explosive DE John Abraham, who led the Jets with 10.5 sacks. "The Jets didn't want to pay him," snaps his agent, Tony Agnone, but he'll pay off for the Falcons, as will fellow free agent S Lawyer Milloy.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, coach Jon Gruden fooled the experts with an 11-5 campaign and a division title. QB Brian Griese, now a Chicago Bear, started 5-1 before being lost for the season and Chris Simms finished the job. Rookie RB Cadillac Williams made an immediate impact (1,178 yards) despite missing two games and WR Joey Galloway shook off an injury-filled 2004 season with a career year (83 receptions, 1,287 yards). Signing WR David Boston gives Tampa another big-play receiver, and the defense, led by Simeon Rice's 14 sacks, was ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Tampa has balance on both sides of the ball and will battle Carolina and Atlanta in a race that will be hotter than a Times Square Rolex.
4 New Orleans Saints
Now that he's a Saint, QB Drew Brees will get to eat some of the best food in New Orleans. "If he signs with us, I'll cook him his first meal in his house," promised the noted chef Emeril Lagasse. Well, what's he going to do for RB Reggie Bush? The Saints were blessed when they got the Heisman Trophy star, who was expected to be taken by Houston. Brees should feel comfortable with new coach Sean Payton, who specializes in working with quarterbacks, while Bush will be a nice complement to RB Deuce McAllister, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in game five against the Packers. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked their season, the Saints are praying for better than 3-13. But don't expect too many of owner Tom Benson's unsightly victory boogies.
1 Seattle Seahawks
With a 13-3 record, the best in their history, the Seahawks ran away with the West crown by seven games. Only a Super Bowl loss to the Steelers marred what would have been a dream season. Matt Hasselbeck was the NFC's best QB with 3,459 yards, 24 TDs and only 9 INTs, and Shaun Alexander was the league's best RB with 1,880 yards and a record 28 TDs while averaging 5.1 yards a carry. Signing Minnesota's Nate Burleson improves the Seahawks' speed at WR following Joe Jurevicius's departure. The defense, which ranked 26th in 2004, improved to 17th last season and will be further strengthened with the signing of 49ers LB Julian Peterson. And coach Mike Holmgren is back, with a well-deserved contract extension.
2 Arizona Cardinals
I have to believe the Cardinals are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL, and I never thought I would ever say that with such cheap ownership. The team finally spent some money, signing Edgerrin James. Arizona hasn't had a 1,000-yard runner since Ottis Anderson in the mid-1980s, but James will fill that void after gaining 1,506 yards for the Colts. In Larry Fitzgerald (103 receptions, 1,409 yards) and Anquan Boldin (102 catches, 1,402 yards), the Cards have the NFL's best WR tandem. They also have what many feel was the best QB in the draft in USC's Matt Leinart, who'll learn from veteran Kurt Warner. "It was a dream come true," beams coach Denny Green.
3 St. Louis Rams
It's hard to imagine the Rams playing like lambs the past few years. Last season's 6-10 finish cost Mike Martz his job and gave Scott Linehan his first head coaching job. Linehan will try to fix an offensive unit that fell to ninth and a defense that dropped to 30th. The offense struggled after a shoulder injury to QB Marc Bulger, who threw only 287 passes. WR Torry Holt (102 receptions, 1,331 yards) will be Bulger's primary target. RB Steven Jackson (1,046 yards) became a budding star in his first full season as a starter, while age has limited 33-year-old Marshall Faulk to situational downs. The Cardinals, the baseball ones, are more exciting in St. Louis.
4 San Francisco 49ers
Forget the Tony Bennett song. There is no heart left in San Francisco. The 49ers were last in offense and last in defense in 2005, and were so bad they made Alcatraz look good. PK Joe Nedney was the team's MVP. Now, how bad can you get? Alex Smith, the first overall pick in 2005, struggled at quarterback and finished with a 40.8 rating. Somehow, WR Brandon Lloyd wound up with 48 receptions and ended up in Washington. Frank Gore led an anemic rushing attack with 608 yards. The best thing that could happen to this franchise would be the return of former owner Eddie DeBartolo.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for USA Today for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events.