Ranking the Contenders
Another NFL season is upon us, and it’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders. There are of course the regulars on the list, such as New England, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. But a few teams have jumped in contention with solid drafting, off season trades and signings and not least of all, simply getting key players healthy again.
- New England Patriots: Sure there are concerns of how they will adjust to the loss of both their coordinators as well as linebackers Ted Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Charlie Weis is an excellent and creative play caller, and that is what will be missed most. Execution and game planning will not be an issue as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still in place and are the real reason for the success at both. Defensively, they don’t miss a beat. Belichick is still the premier defensive guru in the NFL, and Eric Mangini (they new coordinator) was the man responsible for keeping the injury ravaged secondary together last year. Chad Brown and Monty Beisel were brought in to address the LB depth in the case that Bruschi couldn’t play. They have a big responsibility learning the defense, and their play will dictate much of the success of the unit.
Why they’ll win: Because that’s what they do. They are the most balanced; the best coached and deepest team in the NFL. They adjust to adversity better than any other team in the league.
Why they won’t: Because Tom Brady gets hurt. He’s the one guy they can’t replace. Doug Flutie is a nice backup, but there is a reason why he’s been a backup for the past 3 years. Also at some point they are just going to get unlucky.
- Indianapolis Colts: The best offense in football is back and looking to repeat last year’s regular season success. And with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerin James all back, they probably will. But they’ll have to do things a bit better in January to reach their goal, a championship. And against popular opinion, it’s not the defenses fault. The team is based around the offense. That’s where they spend their money, and that’s how they win. The offense has to execute like they do in the regular season in the post season, and they have not. They win by scoring and putting pressure on the other team’s offensive unit to keep up. It’s not my philosophy; it’s theirs, so send the hate mail to Indiana. But their defense wasn’t all that bad last year, they rushed the passer very well and created a ton of turnovers helping them lead the league in turnover ratio. Corey Simon is a big signing and will help improve the run defense that did struggle at times.
Why they’ll win: Because they take advantage of a fairly easy schedule and clinch home field advantage. They are a better offense indoors, Manning has thrown 33% more TD’s on turf than on grass over the past 3 years.
Why they won’t: Because they end up having to beat a good team on the road. Manning has struggled in the playoffs when facing physical teams outside in the elements in January.
- Philadelphia Eagles: Like the Patriots they are great at dealing with adversity. They were put to that test before they even strapped on the pads with the whole Owens contract issue. The Eagles also fill holes as well as any team in the league through solid player development and roster management. Terrell Owens and Donavan McNabb do not need to talk to play at a Pro Bowl level. The loss of Corey Simon and Derrick Burgess would hurt most teams, but again the Eagles seem to always have players in waiting that can fill in. The offense will need young players like Greg Lewis, Reggie Brown and LJ Smith to step it up and help the passing game be a bit more diverse than McNabb to Owens. The Eagles are a talented and well balanced team who’s only weakness, may be the lack of a power running game, and that may be addressed by rookie Ryan Moats.
Why they’ll win: Because once again they are the cream of the crop of the NFC, will get to the Super Bowl and the McNabb to Owens show eclipses last years performance.
Why they won’t: Because tension between McNabb and Owens finally explodes affecting team chemistry and their best offensive force
- Baltimore Ravens: Their defense is the best in football and that’s because they also have two of they best defensive players in the league. Ray Lewis is among the best ever to play linebacker, Ed Reed’s play draws comparisons to Ronnie Lott and now they have added Samari Rolle to an already talented secondary. Offensively they need improvement from Kyle Boller. In his 3rd season he’ll have the weapons to succeed and the onus is on him to make it happen. Derrick Mason is one of the best receivers in the game and the Ravens hope he can make it a 3rd year in a row with 95 catches. A healthy Todd Heap is another player that will help Boller improve. Rookie 1st round wide out Mark Clayton will also be looked to make an impact. The running game should be solid with Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor backing him up.
Why they’ll win: Because their tough physical play led by a dominating defense and running game is the perfect style for the playoffs and winning on the road.
Why they won’t: Because Kyle Boller can’t utilize the talent around him making the Ravens offense one-dimensional.
- Carolina Panthers: The Panthers not only started off last year with a tough start to their schedule, but also with a slew of injuries. They where hit hard on both sides of the ball and it took them half the season to get back on track. Jake Delhomme capitalized on his 2003 Super Bowl appearance season with a great 2004 season. Not only can he put up numbers, he can do it against the best. They will need to get health and consistency at RB. Deshaun Foster can be a big time maker, but he’s got to be on the field to do so. The loss of Mushin Muhammad should be made up by the return of Steve Smith who missed all but one game last season. Their defense will be outstanding as usual.
Why they’ll win: Because Foster and Davis stay healthy allowing John Fox to play the physical type of football that got them to the Super Bowl 2 years ago.
Why they won’t: Because of injuries. They have to keep guys healthy because unlike Philly and New England they don’t have the depth to just plug in another player. Davis and Foster need to be on the field in December.
- Minnesota Vikings: Would you trade Randy Moss for a top 10 defense? Well the Vikings sure hope they did. Maybe the top 10 is a stretch, but they should be much improved from last year where they finished 28th in yards allowed, gave up over 24 pts per game and created only 22 turnovers. Fred Smoot and Darren Sharper teaming up with Antwoine Winfield should give them a very good secondary that will help cut down on yardage and increase turnovers. Offensively you’ll see much of the same even with out Moss. The WR squad may be the most talented and deepest group outside of Indianapolis. Dante Culpepper proved last year he is not only one of the best passers in the game, but that he can do it without the aide of Randy Moss.
Why they’ll win: Because Dante Culpepper plays like the elite QB he is. An improved defense will help, but he is the one that has to lead the Vikings.
Why they won’t: Because the defensive talent doesn’t gel and because Mike Tice continues to make questionable decisions that should get him fired.
- Pittsburgh Steelers: You would think that a 15-1 team that lost the AFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl champs would be higher. But with Jerome Bettis joining Duce Staley on the sidelines, the dominating running game that led them to a 15-1 record is on shaky ground. They’ll be dependent on Ben Roethlisberger early on to step it up and create offense. He’s been shaky in the preseason which may cause them to lose some games early that they shouldn’t. Plaxico Burress’s big play ability will certainly be missed. Their defense should be stellar again and their tough physical play will be too much for some opponents to handle.
Why they’ll win: Because they get Bettis and Staley back healthy and back to being one of the best running tandems in football.
Why they won’t: Because Roethlisberger has a sophomore slump and makes too many costly mistakes.
- Atlanta Falcons: Ed Hartwell is a great addition to an already solid defense. They led the league in sacks and should continue to harass opposing teams QB. Offensively it’s time for Michael Vick to be more of a QB than RB. Dunn, Duckett and Vick will assure that Atlanta is one of the top rushing teams again, but they’ll need to get more out of the passing game to beat the better teams in the post season. Vick will have to do without Peerless Price, but with what he added, it wasn’t much of a loss. Alge Crumpler will again be his main target, but someone in the receiver core needs to step up and give Vick another option.
Why they’ll win: Because Vick finally makes the most out of his ability and adds a passing game to his arsenal.
Why they won’t: Because Vick doesn’t take that step forward and the lack of a passing game sends them home early again. He may be the most important player to any team good or bad.
- San Diego Chargers: The Chargers had a great season behind Drew Brees and that was without LT at his best. Sure LT ran for 1300 yards and 17 TD’s, but there were games where he struggled to be consistent in the running game. He’s much better than that and he will need to be to get this team to the next level. Hopefully Gates missing camp and week 1 will not hurt the chemistry he had with Brees last year and hopefully a full preseason with Keenan McCardell will give Brees another solid option in the passing game. Defensively they are led by one of the best run stopping units in NFL which gave up only 81 yards a game in 2005.
Why they’ll win: Because the overtime loss to the Jets motivates them to be better and they start beating good team (1-5 vs. playoff teams last year).
Why they won’t: Because Brees takes a step back and Philip Rivers has to take over.
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Jack Del Rio finally took off the leash he had on Byron Leftwich in week 4 against Indy last year. They started 3-0, but failed to surpass 150 yards passing in any game the 1st 3 weeks. The next 4 weeks he averages 318 yards a game completing 70% of his passes. Then he got hurt in Houston and was never the same. IF Leftwich can pull it together and it looks like he did in those 4 games, good things will be in store for Jacksonville. It also looks like last years number 1 pick, Reggie Williams, is finally stepping up to help with a solid camp. Fred Taylor had off season surgery, but will be the starter and health is a concern once again. They’ll need another solid season from him or one of backups. The defense is solid, but needs to rush the passer better to be dominant. In the off season they brought in DE Reggie Hayward and his 10.5 sacks from last year to help that happen.
Why they’ll win: Because Byron Leftwich becomes a top QB he showed glimpses of in 2004.
Why they won’t: Because Fred Taylor is not fully healthy and LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman can not replace him