So I'm taking this opportunity to predict how things will turn out in the National Football League — even though the regular season doesn't start until the Titans play the Steelers on Thursday, Sept. 10.
Let's start with the NFC:
- The East is of most interest to football fans around here, since that is the division in which the Cowboys compete. Dallas really blew it at the end of the last regular season and didn't even make the playoffs after being many fans' preseason pick to play in the Super Bowl.
I'm not a Cowboys fan, but I have to pick someone to win the East so I'll pick last year's division winner, the New York Giants. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised to see Philadelphia come on strong. The Eagles, who clinched a wild–card spot with their season–ending rout of the Cowboys, could be deeper at the quarterback position, with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, than any other team in the division, but Vick still has a few things to prove after a two–year layoff.
- In the North, Minnesota fans think the acquisition of Brett Favre is the missing piece in their playoff puzzle. I'm not so sure about that — Favre will turn 40 in October — but I'm going to pick the Vikings to repeat as division champs — mainly from lack of apparent competition. Still, it's going to be interesting to see what happens when they play Green Bay.
Yes, I know that great things are expected from Jay Cutler in Chicago and rookie Matt Stafford in Detroit, but I'm not convinced that either one will be ready to emerge as the NFL's next great quarterback this season. Cutler has some talent around him in Chicago, but he needs to make the adjustment to his new team and its system first.
And Stafford will take the helm of the NFL's first–ever 0–16 team — a daunting assignment. Eventually, he may lead the Lions back to the playoffs — but it won't be in 2009.
- In the South, Carolina won the division last year, but Atlanta was competitive enough to win a wild–card berth and Tampa Bay might well have won the division if not for a season–ending four–game losing streak.
Clearly, the South was wide open last year. Will it be that competitive this year? It might be. It seems to me there are a lot of intangibles in the NFC South this year. Carolina probably has the most solid coach in John Fox. Atlanta may have the most promising young quarterback in Matt Ryan. Tampa Bay has an unproven coach and a quarterback (Byron Leftwich) who would probably like to make folks forget about his years in Jacksonville. New Orleans scored more points than any team in the division last year but brought up the rear in the standings, finishing 8–8 after giving up more points than anyone else in the division.
I'm probably going out on a limb, but I'll pick Atlanta.
- In the West, many people may be picking the Arizona Cardinals to repeat last year's astonishing Super Bowl run.
But lots of folks tend to forget that Arizona was only 9–7 in the regular season last year — worst record of the four division champs.
And most of the Cardinals are not accustomed to the spotlight that shines on Super Bowl teams. They're going to be under a lot of pressure, and I'm not sure they will be able to live up to it.
I might have been inclined to pick Seattle, but the Seahawks are in a bit of a transition. The 10–year Mike Holmgren era ended last season, and I think it is going to take awhile for Seattle to be competitive again.
So I'm going to pick the team that finished second in the West last year, the San Francisco 49ers. I know, it's been awhile since the 49ers were genuine contenders, but I think they might be positioned pretty well this season. Anyway, we might get a good idea if San Francisco is going to be ready for prime time pretty early. The 49ers play the Cardinals on Opening Day.
The two teams opened the season against each other last year, too, and the Cardinals won by 10. If the 49ers had won that game, they would have tied Arizona for the division title. If they had won that game and the rematch on Nov. 10, they would have won the division outright.
And now, let's look at the AFC:
- In the East, I think most people consider it New England Patriots territory, even though the Patriots didn't make the playoffs last year. And I'm inclined to agree — as long as quarterback Tom Brady is able to play.
Even without Brady last season, the Pats shared the division title with Miami and lost a wild–card spot on a tiebreaker. This year, I think they will win the division and return to the playoffs.
- In the North, I think Pittsburgh will repeat as division champs, but I think they will have a tough fight with Baltimore. The outcome is likely to be the same — Steelers win the division, Ravens take a wild–card slot.
Neither Cincinnati nor Cleveland look ready to compete. That frees Cleveland to start focusing its attention on the Cavaliers. I don't know what Cincinnati is going to do.
- In the South, I'm going to pick Peyton Manning and the Colts. Tennessee might give them a run for awhile, but I don't think the Titans will repeat as division champs.
Last October, Tennessee beat Indianapolis, 31–21. The Colts won the rematch in late December, 23–0. If the Colts had swept the series, they would have won the division. As it was, the Colts grabbed a wild–card berth.
Tennessee might grab the other wild–card slot. I'll get to that in a minute.
- In the West, I'm going to pick the San Diego Chargers. I know they had a miserable regular season last year (8–8) and barely got into the playoffs. But that is a sign of just how weak the West is.
Denver shared the division, but, I think, the Broncos will be weaker, with a new coach and a new quarterback. I think 2009 will be a learning experience for them.
Oakland and Kansas City have their moments, but neither of them are ready to compete. So, by default, I'm picking the Chargers.
I'm going to pick the Dolphins to win in what will probably be an upset. Then, when the regular season is over, Miami will have the tiebreaker if needed. One way or the other, I think that game on Dec. 20 will be significant.
How about the playoffs? Well, in the NFC, I'm going to say that Green Bay will play at San Francisco and Dallas will play at Atlanta in the wild–card round. I pick the Packers over the 49ers and the Falcons over the Cowboys. The next week, Green Bay travels to Minnesota and Atlanta travels to New York. I'll take the Giants and the Vikings. Then, in the title game, the Giants defeat the Vikings.
In the AFC, I predict that Miami will play at Pittsburgh and Baltimore will play at San Diego in the first round. I predict the Steelers and Ravens will win. In the next round, Baltimore travels to New England and Pittsburgh travels to Indianapolis. I'll pick both home teams to prevail, with the Colts defeating the Patriots in the title game.
That sets up the long–awaited All–Manning Super Bowl — Eli with the Giants, Peyton with the Colts. I'll pick older brother Peyton to win his second Super Bowl ring.
Do you suppose Daddy Archie will come to the game wearing a baseball cap that has Giants on one side and Colts on the other?