Friday, September 29, 2006

The Pedro Fallout

Pedro is done for the year.

The optimist will say that the Mets have pretty much been without Pedro for half the season, and been just fine. And in fact, the way he's pitched when injured, he would have been more of a liability than anything.

I, unfortunately, am not an optimist. I am worried about the Mets in the postseason, and think the Yankees will end up with World Series title #25. The AL has gotten weaker in the last couple weeks; Detroit suddenly doesn't look like all that, Minnesota doesn't have Liriano, and Billy Beane's shit still don't work in the playoffs.

The Mets' one genuine advantage over the Yanks was pitching; the Yankees are probably the only team that can boast a better lineup than the Mets. Now, that advantage has been eliminated. I am unbelievably pissed that they didn't go out and get Zito at the deadline. I was pissed at the time, and now, I'm super-pissed. Think "Eddie (bleep)in' Moore" pissed.

Now, Steve Trachsel (a near-lock to get rechristened "Steve (bleep)in' Trachsel" in the playoffs) will be in the rotation when he should have been an emergency starter or long reliever. Instead of a perfectly acceptable rotation of Zito, Glavine, Hernandez and Maine, it's Glavine, Hernandez, Maine, Trachsel, which would probably give the Mets the worst starting rotation of the 8 playoff teams.

None of those current playoff starters have a fastball worth the name and make their living on the corners and off the plate. That may be fine against free-swinging, mediocre lineups, but in the playoffs, you're facing the best lineups baseball has to offer, and so hitters will be more disciplined. This is a point made very astutely by Orel Hershiser, who knows a couple things about pitching in the playoffs. The Yankees, with their patient, disciplined lineup, would absolutely kill the Mets pitching staff as it stands. Honestly, I would feel better with Oliver Perez in the rotation than Trachsel. That sounds crazy, but at least Perez gives the Mets a different look, with his electric, if sometimes eccentric, fastball and seems to be on the rebound since he started working with Rick Peterson. His ERA for August, with 4 starts, was 4.74, and he had a very nice 28/9 K/BB ratio in 24.2 IP. That won't happen, of course, because Willie Randolph loves him some Proven Veterans.

At this point, the game plan has to be to pray for 6 solid innings, and then the bullpen takes over. But, that 'pen is going to get worn down if the Mets play many extra inning games, and extra frames always happen in the postseason. I still have nightmares about Bobby Valentine trotting out Armando Benitez in the 1999 NLCS. Benitez takes much of the blame for that infamous Game 6, but in truth, he was completely out of gas from having been used so much.

The only saving grace is that the Kris Benson deal worked out better than anyone could have hoped. Well, anyone except me; I said from the start that I thought John Maine, not Jorge Julio (who was soon moved for El Duque), was the key to the deal. The Mets effectively dealt Benson for two superior starters, Hernandez and Maine, who cost much less.

I still think the Mets are the class of the NL, even without Pedro, but that's more a statement on the weakness of the rest of the NL than anything else. And if they run into the suddenly-hot Houston Astros, who boast an Oswalt-Clemens-Pettitte trio, they may be in trouble. But at least that won't be in round 1; it looks like the Mets will get the wild card in the first round, since the Phillies are doing their usual fade.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

T.O., B.S., and More.


How could ESPN run this graphic without a subtitle like "Do you smell what Jeff Gordon is cookin'?"

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I'm not sure what happened with Terrell Owens, but I'm not buying this "allergic reaction" story. The guy's probably been taking painkillers for ages. He's a football player; he gets beat up every single week. Further, he's probably been taking whatever supplements he's been taking for a long time, too. Now, all of a sudden, he develops an allergic reaction to the two? I know that sometimes that can happen with penicillin and related drugs, but it seems unlikely. (Actually, my first thought was that he had a drug problem, which appears to have been ruled out.)

I'm also not entirely prepared to dismiss the report from the cops as easily as many others are. These guys were there, on the scene, saw everything that was going on, and said it was an attempted suicide. Everyone else is Monday Morning Quarterbacking (and not in the good, Peter King-like, way). That first-hand observance counts for a lot with me.

Do I think he tried to kill himself? I think it's more likely than it's being given credit for right now. The outward signs would seem to point against it; it's hard to believe that someone so phenomenally arrogant would do that, but we don't know what he's like on the inside. Does he compensate for a low feeling of self-worth with endless bragging, posturing and general behavior consistent with a jackass? It's certainly possible. More possible, I believe, than a suddenly ultra-fit football superstar suddenly developing a mysterious allergy to a combo painkillers and supplements that he's probably been taking for some time.

We're probably never going to find out what happened, though, so at this point, it's all academic.

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Jason Whitlock got fired by ESPN? Wow, what a f*&kin' tragedy, let's go buy some butts.

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Every time Bill Simmons cranks out a turd for a column, like this, or this, or pretty much anything that has the header "Note: this appears in an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine", and I get pissed, I have to remind myself of that fourth-wall breaching exchange from the Poochie episode of "The Simpsons"...

Comic Book Guy: Last night's episode of Itchy and Scratchy was the worst episode ever. I was on the internet within moments expressing my displeasure.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn't great, but what right do you have to complain?
CBG: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe it to me.
Bart: Owe you? What could they possibly owe you? They've given you thousands of hours of free entertainment! If anything, YOU owe THEM!
CBG: Worst...episode...ever.

I try very hard to maintain a sense of perspective about this stuff. I think Bill Simmons is the most entertaining (if not the best) sportswriter I've ever had the privilege to read. I've burned many crappy workdays sifting through his Page 2 archives and spent hundreds of lunch hours devouring his Friday NFL column along with a sandwich. But there's little denying that his work's gone downhill. Maybe it's because he's been overexposed. Maybe it's because he's become a different person since getting married and having a kid. Maybe it's because the taste of failure from his stint on Jimmy Kimmel's show still lingers. Maybe he got a big new deal from ESPN, cashed out and stopped giving a shit. I don't know.

Don't get me wrong, he's still fun to read most of the time, and still at least marginally informative. It's not like he's become Rick Reilly or anything. But the belly-laughs are a lot fewer and farther between, and it seems like most everything is a rehash of something he's written before, with a slightly different cast of characters.

Anyway, I'm not sure how to feel about all this. Disappointed, sure, but what right do I have to bitch? I'm genuinely conflicted about this; I'm not trying to make some sort of grand point with a rhetorical question.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sport + TiVo = ???

Some traditionalists will tell you that the only way to watch a sporting event is live. TiVo, they say, is for losers. To them, I say this: "horseshit". Hey, I love playoff baseball as much as the next guy, but when those jerks at FOX start the game at 9:07 pm on the East Coast, and the game's set to finish around 12:49 am, and I've got to get up for work at 6, it's a major pain in the ass. I love watching the World Cup, but I'm not about to risk my job by coming home at noon and returning at 3. This ain't Europe, you know.

From an officially licensed couch potato and certified sports junkie, here's my official rating of the major sports, and how they translate to TiVo. For the purpose of this article, we're using hockey, basketball, baseball, football, soccer and auto racing as the major sports. I recognize that hockey's a stretch, but let's throw those traditionalists a bone, okay? We'll also include tennis and golf, just to make all things fair...even though I'd sooner watch paint dry.

Here we go, from worst to first:

8. Hockey - Hockey's the fastest paced sport to begin with. What could possibly be gained from speeding it up even further?

7. Tennis - See above; tennis already moves pretty fast. The only advantage is being able to hit the slo-mo button and see how high Maria Sharapova's skirt comes up on a serve. And no, I'm not above trying that. Come to think of it, that alone should move tennis up on the list.

6. Basketball - The 30 second feature might help you get through a timeout, which is nice, while the announcers prattle on about who's getting the ball, and what the teams are trying to do (usually inane). And at the end of games, when you get timeouts by the dozen, it's a big help, but it's really no help to the in-game action.

5. Golf - Do we REALLY need to see Tiger Woods kneeling, lining up his putt, kneeling to look at it some more, lining up again, stepping out, lining it up...you know what, screw it. If you're watching golf in the first place, you're too damned old to figure out TiVo anyway.

4. Baseball - If you've got a very slow pitcher on the mound, you can probably utilize the 30 second skip between pitches. But otherwise, you end up skipping into the middle of the next pitch. Fast forwarding through pitching changes is helpful, as is the fast forward while someone like Nomar Garciaparra does his Rain Man routine. And if you're the type that wants to compress a 3 hour game into 45 minutes, baseball lends itself marginally well to a continuous fast forward. Personally, I embrace the strategy and thought that goes into each and every pitch, but your mileage may vary.

3. Auto racing - Let's not kid ourselves, sometimes you're just looking for a big wreck. I've watched entire races on fast forward before, and you often don't miss a lot. The only downside is that NASCAR announcers tend to be, in my opinion, the best of any major sport. They tend to be very informative, and not to fill the air with lots of idiotic platitudes. It might be the only sport where the announcers are genuinely a plus.

2. Soccer - Soccer lends itself extremely well to a continuous fast forward. It's a slow moving sport to start with, so the guys just end up looking like they're running really fast. You miss just about nothing.

1. Football - Here's the fantastic thing I discovered about football on TiVo once: except in a hurry-up offense, there's almost always at least 30 seconds between plays. So, as soon as the play is dead, you hit the 30 second skip, and you get right to the next snap. It's amazing, you miss absolutely nothing but inane announcer patter and massive steroid freaks pulling themselves off the ground. And you wonder why DirecTV was able to produce "Short Cuts" so efficiently.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I Hate You, Brian Maxie.

I don't know Brian Maxie personally. But, I know his old phone number.

I know this not because I stalk random people in the 585 area code, but because, for reasons unexplained, when I changed my cell phone number a few months ago, I got Brian's old phone number, whoever Brian may be. I know I got his old phone number because, for the last few months, I got calls asking for him.

I accepted the first couple as a simple wrong number. Maybe he's got a lot of friends who aren't too bright and who mix up phone numbers. Hey, I've got friends like that, too. Then I got a phone call from Sprint. Then another, and another. I would have been less bothered by this if: a. they weren't calling about a delinquent account, b. Sprint was actually my cell phone carrier, and oh yeah, c. the phone call was for me. Nope, it seems Brian owed Sprint some money, which they repeatedly, despite clear instructions to the contrary, called me in a feeble attempt to collect.

My friends do not know me as a patient man, though I believe they would agree that I very rarely lose my temper. Yet, perhaps because my sister once worked as a telemarketer, I displayed the patience of Job with these hapless individuals. One day, I lost it. I lost it because, just 3 hours after I had been assured I would never receive another phone call from Sprint for the ne'er-do-well Mr. Maxie, I received another, from Sprint, attempting to collect. My voice rose several octaves, as did my decibel level. I may have dropped a few F-bombs, and at least one threat to contact the Better Business Bureau and maybe the FTC.

(This is a major reason I don't lose my temper. See, I have a very nasal voice, so when I start to shout or scream, it's somewhat hard to take seriously because of its nasal, somewhat high-pitched quality. My buddy Alex has a much better "angry voice". It's not on par with Clint Eastwood's or anything, but it's quality. I envy it, quite frankly. Back to the story...)

That ended the calls from Sprint. And so, I hoped, would the saga of Brian Maxie. Alas, once in a blue moon, I'd get a call, and politely point out that "no, this isn't his number and no, I don't know how to reach him." I still got a few more wrong numbers that I couldn't identify, and then a few more people asking for Brian. The phone calls would slow down, and then the last few weeks, they became greater in number. Finally, I gave up. I went to my wireless carrier to ask for a new phone number. It was a sign of defeat, really.

I can only assume that Brian fled town on the heels of a warrant. In his haste, he neglected to contact his friends and loved ones. (Not to mention the good people at Sprint.) I like to imagine he's adopting a new identity as a Jeffers-worshipping bigamist in Utah, or a fluffer for a B-level pornographer in Southern California, or perhaps a Cherokee hair tampon producer in Colorado. We'll never know.

So Brian, if you're googling your name, and happen to be reading this, you're a lousy friend and a deadbeat. But, I wish you all the best on your new life, wherever it might take you.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chase For The Nextel Cup Odds

With that title, I just lost 75% of my readers. Yup, three readers just tuned out. Bummer.

Anyway, here's my attempt at handicapping the field...

3-1 - Matt Kenseth. He's peaking at the right time, he's consistent, and he runs pretty well just about everywhere. Better still, the bulk of the tracks on the schedule are the intermediate-type tracks at which he runs best. Right now, he's the guy to beat.

5-1 - Jimmie Johnson. I don't buy the whole "they've gone into the tank" yap. Rather, I think they've been sandbagging for a couple months, just like Tony Stewart did last year. Here's the thing, though: when Stewart did it, the #20 car still ran well. Johnson hasn't. A month ago, I thought he was the class of the field. Now, I'm not entirely sure he's the best bet at Hendrick Motorsports.

5-1 - Jeff Gordon. Before Richmond, the four-time champ was running better over the last two months than anyone. Even Kenseth. They've got the intermediate track program figured out, which killed them last year. There are just three tracks at which he's never won a race: Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. The last three tracks on the Chase schedule? Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. But if that intermediate track setup looks as good as it did at Michigan, Chicago and California, he could run away with it.

6-1 - Kevin Harvick. Harvick's another guy who's looked really good over the last two months, after some early season jitters. Only problem is, the schedule doesn't set up real well for him: he's historically weak at Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta and Kansas.

13-2 - Kyle Busch. With some coaching from Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Busch has learned to be a more patient driver. I'd rate him higher if I didn't have the eerie feeling that he was going to do something really stupid and kill his chances at some point.

8-1 - Kasey Kahne. Leads the field in wins, and would be a lot higher if not for some rotten luck. I'd rate him higher if I didn't have the nagging feeling that he used up his best stuff just to make the Chase, and will let down now that he's there.

1-0 - Tony Stewart. Wow, what a f&*kin' tragedy. Let's go buy some butts.

10-1 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt is actually my nominee for driver of the year. Yes, NASCAR has an award for "Driver of the Year", and it doesn't automatically go to the champion. I know it's somewhat inane, so don't bother bringing it to my attention. That said, Junior has been saddled with some lousy cars this year, and has nursed them to good finishes. I used to think he was overrated as a driver, but I happily retract that opinion. If anything, he's underrated; it's his equipment that's overrated. If Earnhardt drove for Hendrick or even his daddy's old team, he might well be the odds-on favorite this year. Instead, he's a longshot because there's no guarantee that DEI will give him a top 10 car every week.

15-1 - Denny Hamlin. No Pocono on the Chase schedule. Sorry, Denny. Hamlin's "checker or wrecker" style just won't cut it in the Chase. I would bet he'll win a championship in the next five years, though.

20-1 - Mark Martin. After the Richmond race, Martin called Tony Stewart "the greatest driver of this era". Absolutely. Good call, Mark. Because Tony's got two championships. To be considered a greater driver in this era, you'd have to still be active, and have more championships than Stewart. I mean, it's not like there's an active driver, currently in the Chase, who has, say, FOUR.

30-1 - Jeff Burton. Looked great early in the year, but faded badly over the last couple months and made the Chase by the skin of his teeth. Really the only guy in the field I would write off immediately.

Monday, September 11, 2006

AFC Preview

Okay, so I’m cheating a little. I had hoped to have this up before week 1. Unfortunately, real life has a way of intervening sometimes. Okay, that’s a lie; I could have done this Saturday, but opted to sit on my butt and watch college football all day instead. Like you wouldn’t have done the same thing.

Anyway, I didn’t make any big changes, except for one division. Apart from the AFC West, everything is where I originally predicted it.

As for the AFC East, I tried hard. I really did. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pick the Phins to knock off the Patriots. Not this year, not even with the Patriots so decimated at receiver that Irving Fryar, Hart Lee Dykes, Ben Jacobs and Scott Rollins are getting tryouts.

But believe me, no one hopes I’m wrong more than I do.

AFC East
Predicted record and order of finish:
1. New England (12-4), 2. Miami (11-5), 3. Buffalo (6-10), 4. New York Jets (5-11).

New England Patriots
What I Like: The Patriots could surround Tom Brady with 10 underclassmen from Northeastern, Tufts and UNH, and Bill Belichick could still coach them to no worse than 8 wins. And yes, it hurts me to dispense that sort of praise, but three Super Bowls in five years commands tremendous respect. The defense remains one of the NFL’s best, particularly in the front seven. The depth in that unit is impressive. The Pats should run the ball extremely well this year between Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, and if their wide receivers are weak, they do have plenty of good targets at tight end.

What I Don’t Like: They need Deion Branch back, and soon. Even if Branch wants more than he’s worth, the passing game will struggle without him. Also, the defense is getting on in years, and it seems the Patriots keep plugging holes with old-timers like Junior Seau. At some point, that’s going to cease being effective. I’m still not wild about their corners, though they do have talent.

Outlook: It hurt me to do it, but in the end, I asked myself, “if my life depended on getting it right, who would I pick to win the division?” The answer, sadly, has to be New England. The Patriots are plenty good enough to challenge for another AFC title.

Miami Dolphins
What I Like: His fourth quarter jitters in the opener notwithstanding, Daunte Culpepper should lead an explosive offense. Chris Chambers is on the cusp of being an elite wide receiver, and Ronnie Brown should become a top running back this year. Randy McMichael remains one of the best receiving tight ends in the business. On defense, no team is deeper on the defensive line than Miami, and the Phins should rush the passer extremely well. Even if Jason Taylor is blocked effectively, there are simply too many guys who can get to the QB. Zach Thomas and Channing Crowder are both excellent linebackers, and the corners, assuming Travis Daniels is healthy, are in good shape.

What I Don’t Like: The season opener exposed Miami’s two big weaknesses for all the world to see: interior run blocking and safety help in the passing game. The guards and center simply are not that talented, and Hudson Houck will have a major task on his hands to make the interior run blocking even adequate (the pass blocking is already fairly good). While the corners seem pretty good, the safeties were a disaster; the combination of a holdout and injuries have hindered the development of Jason Allen. If Allen doesn’t improve, and fast, the Phins will get beaten deep a fair amount.

Outlook: The Dolphins have the talent to win the division, if enough things go right. But right now, they look like an “almost but not quite” team: good enough to beat the weak to mediocre teams on the schedule, but not enough to win the big games, particularly those on the road. They should make the playoffs, however.

Buffalo Bills
What I Like: The Bills have a decent defense, with some star talent (i.e. Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, Nate Clements). Couple that with RB Willis McGahee, and teams have won with less. WR Lee Evans is a burner who can stretch the field.

What I Don’t Like: The offensive line, as ever, remains a problem. And we might never find out Evans’ ceiling until the Bills get a real QB. JP Losman seems not to be the answer, and this will probably be his make or break year. The Bills really needed a run-stuffing defensive tackle, and I’m not sure drafting John McCargo was the answer. More than anything, I’m not wild about the direction of this team: a retread coach and an ancient GM whose first draft was not distinguished.

Outlook: Cheer up, Bills fans; hockey season starts soon. At least that should be good.

New York Jets
What I Like: The linebackers, led by Jon Vilma, are quality, and only getting better. Eric Mangini seems, at least early on, to know what he’s doing, and in any event, the team needed a change in coaching. I also like the overhaul on the offensive line, which will be good sooner than later. The secondary isn’t bad either. I realize that’s not a ringing endorsement, but the pickings are slim on this team.

What I Don’t Like: The Jets stink at the skill positions; Kevan Barlow, Laveranues Coles and Door #2 at wide receiver? Ugh. In 2003, that would be an impressive collection of talent, but the bloom has fallen off those roses. Chad Pennington is an injury waiting to happen, which may not be a terrible thing, given his noodle arm. The loss of John Abraham hurts a defensive line that wasn’t great at rushing the passer to begin with. If Dewayne Robertson doesn’t finally step up then Vilma’s going to be exhausted from having to make about 200 tackles.

Outlook: The Jets seem headed in the right direction, but it will be at least a year and probably more before they’re ready to contend in the AFC East.

AFC North
Predicted record and order of finish:
1. Pittsburgh (12-4), 2. Cincinnati (10-6), 3. Baltimore (9-7), 4. Cleveland (7-9).

Pittsburgh Steelers
What I Like: Having the best defense in the NFL (yes, better than Chicago) goes a long way in my book. The Steelers simply have no weaknesses on defense; every single player is at least league-average, and most are better. Hines Ward is an excellent wide receiver, and is outstanding in pressure situations. Willie Parker looks like the real deal, and TE Heath Miller might well be the #2 receiving target that they need in the absence of Antwaan Randle-El. Finally, the Steelers are in good shape at QB, even with Roethlisberger’s health in question.

What I Don’t Like: Defending Super Bowl champions tend not to have lots of problems. I’m not too wild about their receivers after Ward, and I’m still unsure whether Parker will hold up for an entire season. But there’s not much to complain about, though the situation with Bill Cowher possibly leaving after the season could become a distraction.

Outlook: If they’re not the AFC’s best team, they’re darn close.

Cincinnati Bengals
What I Like: There may not be a team in the league with a more impressive offense, now that the Colts have lost Edgerrin James. Carson Palmer looks fully recovered from his knee injury, and their talent at the skill positions is outstanding. The offensive line is among the top 5 in the NFL with three potential Pro Bowlers: Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach and Willie Anderson. The defense has a high talent level, and the team is well-coached.

What I Don’t Like: WAY too many headcases. Enough has been written about this, so I won’t bore you, but teams with that many problem children frequently underachieve. Despite the talent level, and the presence of defensive mastermind Marvin Lewis, the defense seems to be more about the sum of the parts than the whole.

Outlook: There’s a compelling argument to be made for the Bengals, but for now, I’ll put them behind the Steelers, and slot them into a wild card spot.

Baltimore Ravens
What I Like: For a few years, this team was a decent QB away from making some noise. Well, now they have Steve McNair. Granted, he’s over-the-hill at this point, but still, I’d take McNair on one leg over Kyle Boller. Jamal Lewis looks to be in good shape; he ran very well against a super-tough Tampa Bay defense in week 1. RB depth is a strength, and McNair will have a couple good weapons in Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. The defense, as ever, is pretty strong top to bottom, especially in the back 7.

What I Don’t Like: The offensive line has been sliding for a few years, and at this point, it’s a declining (if still excellent) Jon Ogden and four below-average guys. With an injury-prone QB and RB, that’s an issue. The defensive line lacks its usual stoutness, unless Haloti Ngata comes along quickly. Ray Lewis lacks his old quickness and will need guys taking on blockers in front of him more than ever. Finally, Brian Billick is very much on the hot seat, and with one losing streak, his job security will become an issue.

Outlook: In the NFC, the Ravens could probably challenge for a wild card, but there are just too many teams that are better in this conference.

Cleveland Browns
What I Like: Romeo Crennel seems to know what he’s doing, and the defense is coming along pretty well, especially the front seven. There are few standouts, but things are definitely progressing. The Browns are in better shape than one might think at the skill positions; you could do worse than Reuben Droughns, Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius, Dennis Northcutt and Kellen Winslow II.

What I Don’t Like: I think they’re a little too in love with Charlie Frye, personally, even if it’s commendable that they’re actually giving a young QB a chance to succeed. The offensive line stinks, and the secondary still has a long way to go. Even if Droughns is a decent RB, he’s nowhere near good enough to make up for that line. The signing of Willie McGinest adds leadership to the defense, but his tank’s on E at this point.

Outlook: The Browns aren’t a terrible team, but they’re stuck in a really tough division. Finishing 3rd would be a huge accomplishment, actually.

AFC South
Predicted record and order of finish:
1. Indianapolis (12-4), 2. Jacksonville (9-7), 3. Tennessee (5-11), 4. Houston (4-12).

Indianapolis Colts
What I Like: Peyton Manning and his merry band of wide receivers are as good as it gets in this league. (I love his new Sprint ad, by the way.) The Colts pass-block as well as anyone, and that ensures that Manning stays upright. Tony Dungy is a quality coach who doesn’t deserve his label as a guy who can’t win the big one. The defense has come light-years from the unit Dungy took over. And if they’d had Adam Vinatieri LAST year, they probably win the Super Bowl.

What I Don’t Like: I’m not bullish on their corners, and I don’t think their run defense is quite as good as it looked last year. The run game looks like a real question mark at this point; I’m sure they would have much preferred that either Dominic Rhodes or Joseph Addai had become The Man by now. Finally, whether it’s fair or not, the legacy of playoff catastrophes in the Manning/Dungy Era has got to take some sort of psychological toll.

Outlook: They’re the best team in the division, but are they good enough to finally make the Super Bowl? Anything less will brand the season a failure.

Jacksonville Jaguars
What I Like: Booing by ignorant Jaguar fans aside, Byron Leftwich is a good quarterback. And the Jags have stockpiled a pretty talented collection of receivers and running backs, even if there are few standouts. I like the defense as a unit, and love their defensive tackles. This team is hard to run against, and if you can stop the run, you can win. It’s that simple.

What I Don’t Like: Leftwich is a good, but injury-prone QB, and there’s almost certainly going to be a controversy at some point. While the Jags’ depth at RB and WR is impressive, they don’t yet have a guy they can point to as a go-to man when they need a first down. And the aged, oft-injured Fred Taylor doesn’t count. While the defense is solid as a whole, LB depth is a concern, and their secondary could stand an upgrade. The loss of Reggie Hayward will hurt an already mediocre pass rush.

Outlook: The Jags look just a little bit short, but if a couple things break right, they can make the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans
What I Like: They’ve got some talent at running back: a tandem of Chris Brown and Travis Henry, with LenDale White waiting in the wings, should be effective. And a pass-catching tandem of Drew Bennett, David Givens, late bloomer Bobby Wade and TE Ben Troupe isn’t bad. They’ve got a few good pieces in place on defense, with DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and LB Keith Bulluck. And with Jeff Fisher on the sidelines, they’re at least well-coached.

What I Don’t Like: Apart from Vanden Bosch and Bulluck, the defense is a disaster, especially at DT, where they have no depth whatsoever. The offensive line is inside-out; the interior is pretty good, but the tackles aren’t. At QB, the front office’s insistence on forcing Vince Young into the lineup will disrupt many perfectly good drives.

Outlook: It’s sad to say, but this season may end up costing a good coach his job. The Titans can’t hope for better than third in the division, and with Young a long-term project, the Titans may look to change things up after the year.

Houston Texans
What I Like: I like the steady infusion of talent, especially on defense. The Texans are doing a decent job of adding talent in the place where it can turn a team around quickly. DeMeco Ryans, Mario Williams, and Dunta Robinson will be anchors for what should be a good defense sooner than later.

What I Don’t Like: Williams over Reggie Bush remains an absolutely indefensible decision that made no sense at the time and less now. Williams should be a good player in his own right, but unless he becomes Reggie White, this will haunt the Texans for years to come. Apart from Andre Johnson, there’s not even a mediocre skill position player on the roster. The offensive line remains lousy until conclusively proven otherwise. And even if things are moving in the right direction, the defense still has a long way to go.

Outlook: Maybe they can catch the Titans, but anything more than 6 wins is a pipe dream.

AFC West
Note: I originally swore that I wouldn’t dramatically change my preseason picks based on week one performances. Well, after some of the events of week 1, that seems foolish for this division.
Predicted record and order of finish: 1. San Diego (10-6), 2. Denver (9-7), 3. Kansas City (7-9), 4. Oakland (6-10).

San Diego Chargers
What I Like: LaDainian Tomlinson and a very good defense. It’s not a traditional recipe for success in the wide-open AFC West, but it’ll work. The offensive line is in decent shape, and Philip Rivers should at least be just good enough to keep the defense from stacking 8 in the box against Tomlinson. As long as he knows where Antonio Gates is on the field, the kid will be okay. The front seven on defense is among the very best in the NFL.

What I Don’t Like: We’ll see how Rivers plays; he should be at least respectable, but he’s a definite unknown at this point. The wide receivers are, to say the least, uninspiring. Maybe second year pro Vincent Jackson can step up, but a tandem of Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker scares no one. And as awesome as the front seven is, the secondary is still an area for concern. Finally, there’s the assurance that somehow, some way, Marty Schottenheimer will honk a big game.

Outlook: Best team in a very flawed division.

Denver Broncos
What I Like: As ever with the Broncos, their offensive line and running game (for whomever the Bell tolls) should be good. And their talent at wide receiver is still excellent; Rod Smith can still get it done, and Javon Walker is plenty good. The defense is pretty good, and features some imaginative scheming; for example, I like the idea of using Elvis Dumervil as an undersized DT pass rusher. The linebackers, led by Al Wilson, are excellent, and CBs Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth have progressed much faster than expected, meaning that throwing away from Champ Bailey is no longer a winning strategy.

What I Don’t Like: Jake Flippin’ Plummer. If you discount quarterback play, the Broncos are the best team in the West, and it’s not particularly close. Mike Shanahan did a phenomenal job of getting Plummer to “play within himself” last year (coachspeak for “don’t suck as much as usual”). Well, Plummer fell apart in a very winnable AFC Championship, and it looks like that’s carrying over to this season. Plummer absolutely killed the Broncos against the Rams, with three interceptions…and the Rams aren’t even that good on defense. It was a miracle that Denver’s defense held the Rams to 6 field goals.

Outlook: If Shanahan gets Plummer back to the 2005 pre-AFC Championship version, they win the division. As you can see, I’m betting against that.

Kansas City Chiefs
What I Like: Larry Johnson is the best running back in football and is single-handedly capable of putting this team on his shoulders. The defense is making gains, and has steadily been adding talent, with guys like Jared Allen, Derrick Johnson and Kendrell Bell. The corners are old, but still good. Tony Gonzalez remains a reliable, if suddenly underused, red zone target.

What I Don’t Like: Missouri is called the Show Me State. Well, until the Chiefs Show Me a good defense, I’m not buying all the talk. They remain crappy where it counts: up the middle. The loss of both starting OTs is obviously having an effect, and is forcing Gonzalez to stay in and block more, rather than playing to his strength: catching passes. The injury to Trent Green is a major problem; it sounds like he’ll be back before too long, but every week he’s out, they’re playing Damon Huard, which is a recipe for disaster. But more than anything else, the Chiefs have a major problem on the sidelines. His name is Herm Edwards. Allow me to digress for a moment: my buddy Lan is a huge Chiefs fan. He’s been excited with the Edwards hiring (though he wanted Al Saunders instead). I told him that Edwards is a lousy coach, and he challenged me to name 10 better coaches. I was barely halfway through the AFC, and he had already rejected my claim that Nick Saban, Marv Lewis and Jeff Fisher were all better coaches. At that point, I gave up; arguing with a wall would have been more effective. Here’s the point: Edwards is just good enough to give people hope…and thus stick around long enough to really screw things up. He’s a powerful speaker, he seems reasonably bright in interviews, his players love him and he’s had just enough success to look competent. Unfortunately, he’s a terrible, awful, putrid in-game tactician. Someone once said that Edwards is a great coach six days of the week, and lousy on the seventh. That’s a perfect description. Edwards was terribly overmatched in that Bengals game; the Chiefs got creamed at home in week one, despite having an entire summer to prepare for the Bengals. That doesn’t happen to well-coached teams.

Outlook: Way too many holes to seriously challenge for the playoffs; LJ can only do so much.

Oakland Raiders
What I Like: No team with Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan should be all that bad on offense. And the Raiders are making strides on defense; like the Chiefs, they’ve been adding some talent here and there. The offensive line should be pretty good; this could be the year Bob Gallery becomes the road grader they expected.

What I Don’t Like: Bill Simmons once proposed a scale of rating how shaky a team’s QB and coach were, on a scale of 1 to 10, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick each being a 1. The theory was that if they added up to a 15 or higher, that team couldn’t possibly make the playoffs. The Raiders are at least an 18 on that scale. Aaron Brooks and Art Shell put together inspire plenty of confidence…in the opposition. The Raiders can also be put in the Chiefs’ class; the defense stinks until conclusively proven otherwise.

Outlook: Maybe they challenge for third if everything breaks right, but on paper, this is definitely the division’s worst team.

Playoffs:
NFC Teams and seeds: 1. Seattle, 2. Carolina, 3. NY Giants, 4. Chicago, 5. Tampa Bay, 6. Dallas. (Boy, do these picks look great one week later. Ugh.)

AFC Teams and seeds: 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Indianapolis, 3. New England, 4. San Diego, 5. Miami, 6. Cincinnati.

First round NFC Playoffs: NY Giants over Dallas, Chicago over Tampa Bay.
First round AFC Playoffs: New England over Cincinnati, Miami over San Diego.

Second round NFC Playoffs: Seattle over Chicago, NY Giants over Carolina.
Second round AFC Playoffs: Pittsburgh over Miami, Indianapolis over New England.

NFC Championship: Seattle over NY Giants.
AFC Championship: Indianapolis over Pittsburgh.

Super Bowl: Indianapolis 31 Seattle 24.

Monday, September 04, 2006

NFC Preview

You’ve probably read a few dozen NFL previews by now, so there’s not really much need for a great big intro. Because I’m still making up my mind about the AFC, let’s get this thing started with the NFC.

I will add this before getting started: for all the talk about how the AFC is so much better than the NFC, it seems to me that the gap has closed considerably. I still think the AFC is the better conference, of course, but there’s a pretty good case to be made that the NFC has the two best divisions in the NFL: the NFC East and NFC South. I could see any of the four NFC East teams taking that division, and in the South, you can make at least a plausible case that if a few things go right, New Orleans could challenge for the playoffs. The big difference in the conferences is not at the top, but in the middle; the AFC’s 8-8 teams look a lot better than the NFC’s 8-8 teams, if that makes sense. But the playoff teams from each conference should be pretty evenly matched. It’s not like Major League Baseball, where the Mets are the only NL team that would contend for the playoffs in the AL.

Without further ado, the NFC preview:

NFC East
Predicted order of finish and record:
1. New York (11-5), 2. Dallas (10-6), 3. Washington (9-7), 4. Philadelphia (7-9).

New York Giants
What I Like: This might be the best offense in the NFC; it’s almost certainly them or Seattle. I think Eli Manning is ready to make a huge leap this year, he’s got tremendous talent at the skill positions to work with, and a quality offensive line, and I love the connection he’s building with Jeremy Shockey, and how Shockey complements Plax Burress. Tiki Barber remains awesome, of course. The defense is also better than advertised and they’ve got the best pair of defensive ends in football, with Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Finally, it’s year three of the Tom Coughlin Regime, which means the players are still responding to his dictatorial style, and won’t turn on him for at least two more years.

What I Don’t Like: The secondary really doesn’t light my fire; they’ve got Sam Madison on the downslope of his fine career, and Corey Webster’s injuries last year hurt his development. I also think they’re banking on a lot from a pair of injury-prone LBs: Lavar Arrington and Antonio Pierce. If both those guys stay healthy, they should be excellent. But otherwise, they’re in trouble. They’re also very shaky at DT. Run defense as a whole may be a problem. The schedule is a killer, however, and could easily cost Big Blue that crucial first round bye in the playoffs.

Outlook: The present and future both look good in New York, and if the Giants’ run defense is even mediocre, they stand an excellent chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Dallas Cowboys
What I Like: Bill Parcells has his most talented defense in several years. The Cowboys should make big strides from last year’s unit and could easily be a top five defense. The line is nothing to write home about, but the back eight are stellar, and there’s sufficient depth. There’s also plenty of talent at the skill positions on offense, with Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Julius Jones, Marion Barber and Jason Witten all capable of big plays. Parcells, of course, remains one of the best coaches in NFL history, and is a guy you want on the sidelines in a tight game.

What I Don’t Like: The Owens situation is already becoming a problem (boy, I’m sure glad the Dolphins didn’t sign him like this hack writer was hoping), which shatters T.O.’s previous record for wearing out his welcome. While one suspects things will go better when the lights go on for real, this isn’t going nearly as well as many thought. And if Bill Parcells is a guy you want on the sidelines of a close game, so is Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe’s developed a penchant for game-killing interceptions of late. The offensive line also isn’t up to usual Cowboy standards, and that’s a problem exacerbated by Bledsoe’s lack of mobility. If Bledsoe gets hurt and is replaced by Tony Romo, there will be a big-time QB controversy, as Dallas fans (as fans often do) are solidly behind the backup.

Outlook: More than a few people like the Cowboys to win the East, and it’s understandable; they look a little better on paper than the Giants. But the Owens situation, and the potential for a QB controversy, coupled with the fact that the Cowboys aren’t great in the trenches on either side of the ball makes me put them in the second spot.

Washington Redskins
What I Like: Phenomenal defense, top to bottom. I like the addition of Andre Carter; the Redskins lacked that one really good pass rusher, and now they have him. There’s plenty of depth, as well. The team as a whole is very well-coached, and the defense in particular has benefited from Gregg Williams’ presence. The offense has quality at the tackle spots, and with Santana Moss now flanked by Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El, he’ll no longer be double or triple teamed all the time. Chris Cooley has also become a fine receiver. Clinton Portis, if healthy, is phenomenal, and if he’s out, TJ Duckett is more than capable of carrying the load.

What I Don’t Like: Mark Brunell is getting old and is very brittle. You’ve got to wonder whether he can last the season. Todd Collins is not what you’d like from a backup and while Jason Campbell should be ready to take the reins if need be, the Redskins would probably opt for Collins instead, under the theory that they want a veteran QB under center. Moreover, the offensive line is very shallow; if they lose a starter to injury, they’re in big trouble. Portis’ injury could be a problem as well.

Outlook: The Redskins are capable of winning the East and perhaps much more, but so much hinges on Brunell’s health, and that’s why I’m going with the Giants instead.

Philadelphia Eagles
What I Like: Donovan McNabb remains an elite quarterback and has succeeded with much less offensive talent than he has now. The tandem of Donte Stallworth and Reggie Brown could be a very intriguing pair of receivers. Brian Westbrook might actually be the team’s best pass catcher, and could be in line for a 1000-1000 season if everything goes right. The return to health of Correll Buckhalter is a nice bonus as well, as he’s the complement the team needs for Westbrook. The defense still features one of the best secondaries in football, and the addition of Darren Howard will definitely help the pass rush.

What I Don’t Like: Westbrook is the key to the offense, and has a hard time staying healthy. And while Brown and Stallworth have talent, they’ve proven little so far. The front seven and the offensive line, both long-time strengths for this team, are not what they used to be. Jevon Kearse is no longer the monster he was in Tennessee, and the trade of Mark Simoneau leaves the Eagles very thin at linebacker.

Outlook: Right now, the Eagles look like the weakest team in the NFC East, but they’re still dangerous, and could be dangerous if a few things go right.

NFC North
Predicted order of finish and record:
1. Chicago (9-7), 2. Minnesota (7-9), 3. Green Bay (6-10), 4. Detroit (5-11).

Chicago Bears
What I Like: Geography. Seriously, that’s the only reason this team wins the division. I feel like the Bears caught a ton of breaks last year, and in almost any other division, wouldn’t seriously threaten. The Bears’ defense is superb, of course, particularly if they can keep Mike Brown healthy. Brian Urlacher justifiably gets the lion’s share of credit, but Brown is a fantastic safety who serves as the glue for a very good secondary. The running game and offensive line are both respectable as well, whoever ends up carrying the ball between Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.

What I Don’t Like: I’m not sure I understand the fascination this franchise seems to have with Rex Grossman. He’s in his fourth year, has played a total of 8 regular season games, and has a QB rating of 68.8. Brian Griese will win the job by week 6, either because Grossman gets hurt or plays poorly. The Bears have a very weak receiving corps; Muhsin Muhammad really should be a #2, and no one else looks ready to make an impact. Any way you slice it, this team will struggle to score points.

Outlook: The Bears do one thing extremely well: play defense. And that alone makes them better than the rest of the NFC North. In reality, they’d be a second or third place team in any other division in football, but they fattened up on the NFC North last year (5-1, 5-5 against everyone else), and should do so again and take the title.

Minnesota Vikings
What I Like: The Vikes should have a monster offensive line this season, with the addition of Steve Hutchinson flanking what was a pretty talented (if poorly coached) line. Chester Taylor may not be faster than the departed Michael Bennett was, but he definitely brings stability to the running game, and Mewelde Moore is a fine third down back. The defense has loads of talent, some of which may be ready to make a major leap this season, especially on the line, with Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James at end and the Williamses, Pat and Kevin, in the middle.

What I Don’t Like: It just seems like this is a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole, especially on defense. The Vikings have recent first round picks and Pro Bowlers all over the place, but can’t seem to put it together and become a quality defense. The wide receiving corps follows the same path: Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor and Marcus Robinson all have plenty of talent, but the results are questionable. I’m also far from sold on Brad Johnson, who looked washed up before last season. The season-ending injury to Chad Greenway was a major blow; they really could have used him there. Finally, Brad Childress’ constant bad-mouthing of Daunte Culpepper after his trade to Miami seems a sign of poor judgment.

Outlook: Though I like the Bears to win the division, I think the Vikings would be more dangerous in the playoffs, if that makes sense. If the Vikes are in the playoffs, it means all that talent has come together and Brad Childress has pried his head from his rear end.

Green Bay Packers
What I Like: They’ve got Brett Favre, and with Favre, it’s hard to ever truly count the Packers out of a game. They’ve also got better offensive personnel than they showed last year; any offense with Ahman Green and Donald Driver can’t be that bad. The defense should rush the passer well, with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and the rising Aaron Kampman at end, plus the addition of AJ Hawk at LB to play next to the unheralded Nick Barnett. Finally, the Packers play a Charmin-soft schedule.

What I Don’t Like: They’ve got Brett Favre, and with Favre, it’s hard to ever truly count the Packers’ opponents out of a game. The roster is pretty much devoid of depth everywhere outside the skill positions. The loss of Ryan Longwell will hurt a lot more than the team seems to appreciate; Longwell’s skill at kicking in rotten weather might have been worth a win every other year. Kids and journeymen man the interior lines on both sides of the ball, and as we all know, winning football starts in the trenches.

Outlook: In such a weak division, the Packers can’t truly be counted out, and if they stay healthy, a run for the division title isn’t totally out of the question.

Detroit Lions
What I Like: New offensive coordinator Mike Martz is just the guy to get the most out of Detroit’s talented underachievers: Kevin Jones, and Roy and Mike Williams. Jon Kitna is a short-term improvement at QB, and Josh McCown could be the Lions’ long-term answer there. The offensive line is also better than most think, with Jeff Backus and Damien Woody on hand. The defense has some talent, and Shaun Rogers’ presence should help the development of guys like Shaun Cody and LBs Ernie Sims and Boss Bailey.

What I Don’t Like: Right now, apart from Rogers and maybe CB Dre Bly, there’s not an established, above-average player on defense. And Bly takes way too many chances in coverage to be rated as well has he often is. On the whole, the defense will probably be in the NFL’s bottom third. At the moment, Roy Williams is the only quality wide receiver on the roster; Mike Williams looks like a bust, even if it seems a bit premature to judge him. And even though Backus and Woody are good, and the other starters are at least serviceable, the offensive line has no depth to speak of.

Outlook: Too many lousy drafts have crippled the depth of this team, and that’s going to spell doom for the Lions.

NFC South
Predicted order of finish and record:
1. Carolina (11-5), 2. Tampa Bay (10-6), 3. Atlanta (7-9), 4. New Orleans (5-11).

Carolina Panthers
What I Like: The team is solid from top to bottom. Steve Smith is perhaps the NFL’s most dangerous receiver, and if Keyshawn Johnson checks his ego at the door, the Panthers could have a tremendous passing game, as Jake Delhomme is capable of lighting it up. The running game will be quality, whoever ends up carrying the ball. The Panthers also boast arguably the NFL’s best defensive line, with Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Ma’ake Kemoeatu, and a very good secondary. The special teams are very good, and probably got even better with the addition of DeAngelo Williams. John Fox is one of the NFL’s best coaches.

What I Don’t Like: Johnson has screwed up a good thing before, and has always griped when he hasn’t gotten the ball enough. Delhomme’s connection with Smith means Key will seldom end up with more than 3 or 4 catches per game, and that may not be enough to keep him happy. The offensive line lacks depth, and while the team has depth at defensive tackle, the injury-prone Kris Jenkins could go down at any time.

Outlook: There’s a pretty convincing argument to be made that this is the NFC’s best team. Only a rough division schedule might keep the Panthers from home field throughout the NFC playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What I Like: Chris Simms is becoming a better QB every day, and with Cadillac Williams, Joey Galloway and the sure-to-improve Michael Clayton at wide receiver, he’s got plenty to work with. The defense remains a top unit, without a weakness in the starting 11. Few defenses can boast as many elite players as the Bucs can: Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are all among the very best at their respective positions.

What I Don’t Like: What on earth did Jon Gruden do to tick off the NFL schedule maker? Tampa’s last eight games are against Carolina, Washington, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and Seattle. And they visit the Giants two weeks before that murderous stretch begins. They’ll have to start extremely hot just to make the playoffs, let alone challenge for the division title. The special teams are lousy, save punter Josh Bidwell, and the offensive line is adequate at best. Simms looked dreadful in the playoffs last year, too, and one wonders if that will haunt him. A repeat of Michael Clayton’s 2005 season could really cripple the offense, given the lack of depth behind him and Galloway at receiver.

Outlook: On paper, the Bucs have enough to challenge for the Super Bowl if Simms continues to progress and Clayton returns to form. But there are too many little things that are a concern for this team to be considered a favorite.

Atlanta Falcons
What I Like: The addition of John Abraham gives the Falcons a tremendous pass-rushing defensive line; Abraham, Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman can all get to the quarterback. Keith Brooking and DeAngelo Hall are also stars on defense. Michael Vick, of course, is the most gifted quarterback in the NFL, and probably NFL history, for that matter, and his mobility allows him to make something out of nothing on a lot of plays. Warrick Dunn remains a reliable running back and he and Alge Crumpler give Vick quality short-range passing targets. The team also has some downfield speed at wide receiver.

What I Don’t Like: I’ve never liked the idea of shoehorning Vick into the West Coast Offense, and I like his receivers in that system even less. Vick was frustrated last year, and if things don’t improve soon, the team may have a battle between its star player and head coach. The offensive line isn’t great, and suffers from a ridiculous lack of depth, as does the defensive line. The secondary, outside Hall and safety Chris Crocker, is a liability. The ancient Lawyer Milloy lines up at one safety spot, and rookie Jimmy Williams figures to start at corner opposite Hall.

Outlook: Like the Bucs, the Falcons have several elite players on defense. Unlike the Bucs, they don’t have the solid guys everywhere else to make the unit top-five material. Even if Vick makes strides with the West Coast Offense, I still think this team will struggle to score points consistently.

New Orleans Saints
What I Like: The Saints have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, with Joe Horn, Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush all threats to scorch a defense and Drew Brees is a good enough quarterback to make it all work. If the Saints can figure out how to keep Bush involved in the offense, and if Brees is healthy, the team will have no problem scoring points. Will Smith and Charles Grant are a very good pair of defensive ends, too.

What I Don’t Like: The Saints may have the worst back seven in football. Even with the addition of Mark Simoneau, their linebackers are terrible, and their secondary has been a travesty for years. Mike McKenzie has underachieved since leaving Green Bay, and absolutely must play back to his former level for the Saints to stop anyone through the air. I’m also not sure how this team will stop the run; they just aren’t that strong at DT. Brees’ health remains a concern, as he didn’t exactly set the world afire in preseason, and one wonders if Sean Payton is creative enough to ensure that Reggie Bush gets the touches he needs. The Saints also, despite winning all of 3 games last year, managed to somehow draw the league’s third toughest schedule.

Outlook: Look for the Saints to lose a lot of 35-28 games.

NFC West
Predicted order of finish and record:
1. Seattle (12-4), 2. St. Louis (7-9), 3.Arizona (6-10), 4. San Francisco (4-12).

Seattle Seahawks
What I Like: Everything. The ‘Hawks have an explosive offense with Matt Hasselbeck throwing to Darrell Jackson, Nate Burleson and Bobby Engram (and soon, maybe Deion Branch, too), and Shaun Alexander on the ground. The offensive line should be plenty good enough to make up for the loss of Steve Hutchinson. The defense features few standout performers, but has enough depth and quality to be a good group as a whole. And perhaps as a consolation prize for having to deal with some of the worst officiating in recent memory in the Super Bowl, Seattle managed to draw one of the league’s easiest schedules.

What I Don’t Like: Jackson’s health is a potential concern, obviously enough to the team that they’re looking at Branch, and Burleson looked great in 2004, but lost in 2005. So, there’s at least the potential for the receiving corps to go south in a hurry. The team’s reliance on the Julian Peterson signing to bolster the linebacking corps could backfire as well, given his injury history. The corner spot opposite Marcus Trufant may be a concern, with rookie Kelly Jennings and the so-so Kelly Herndon competing for a spot.

Outlook: There is no bigger lock in the NFL this year than the Seahawks in the NFC West. This team remains a serious threat to win the Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals
What I Like: Loads of skill position talent; there is no better receiver tandem in the NFL than Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The addition of Edgerrin James will take lots of pressure off those two, and give Kurt Warner a short yardage passing option as well. The defensive line is better than you might think; Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor are a quality pair of ends, and Darnell Dockett and Kendrick Clancy aren’t bad in the middle. Adrian Wilson’s standout play at safety should ease the pressure on the corners. Neil Rackers and Scott Player are two of the best specialists in football.

What I Don’t Like: This might be the worst offensive line in football. It’s certainly in the bottom five. Having spent his whole career behind a top-10 line in Indianapolis, James may struggle at times. And having a QB as injury-prone as Warner behind this line is going to end badly at some point. Karlos Dansby is becoming a very good linebacker, but the rest of that group leaves much to be desired, and apart from Wilson, the secondary is a mish-mash of inexperienced, if talented players, and journeymen. I’ve also never been sold on Denny Green as a coach; his teams always seem just good enough to look impressive in defeat.

Outlook: New Orleans West; look for lots of 35-28 losses.

St. Louis Rams
What I Like: Mike Martz and the Greatest Show on Turf are gone, but there’s still plenty of talent on offense. Few teams wouldn’t trade their skill position personnel for Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis. After years of searching for an adequate right tackle, it appears that Alex Barron is the quality bookend for Orlando Pace the team needs. As a result, the offensive line should be pretty good. The addition of Will Witherspoon, coupled with Pisa Tinoisamoa means the Rams have a pair of decent linebackers to build upon. DE Leonard Little provides a quality pass rush.

What I Don’t Like: The defense will be one of the worst in football. The secondary is poor, the defensive line can’t stop the run and depth is absent everywhere, and apart from Little, the team lacks a quality pass rusher. The Rams drafted a lot of quality players on defense, but it’s going to take time for them to come together. In the meantime, opponents will run the ball down their throats. The youth movement goes to the sidelines as well; Scott Linehan is a first-time head coach, and will make the mistakes that first-time coaches always do.

Outlook: If the defense comes along faster than expected, the Rams could make a run at the playoffs, but in reality, they’re probably a year or two away.

San Francisco 49ers
What I Like: The defense is coming along pretty well, which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the success head coach Mike Nolan had with building defenses in Baltimore. There are no standouts, but it’s a reasonably good unit, especially if LB Manny Lawson develops quickly. You can do much worse than to have Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Brandon Moore as the inside LBs. Frank Gore has the ability to be a very good ball carrier, and the offensive line isn’t bad. Nolan’s philosophy of simply grabbing the best available player has led to two quality drafts in his two years so far.

What I Don’t Like: QB Alex Smith will show progress, but he’s got a long way to go, and looked dreadful last year. He doesn’t have much to throw to; I’ve never been a big Antonio Bryant fan, and TE Vernon Davis is a rookie who didn’t look great in preseason. The secondary needs some work, too; the Mike Rumph experiment failed, and now the Niners are looking at the over-the-hill Walt Harris as a starter, which isn’t a good thing.

Outlook: The Niners are getting better, and if Smith keeps progressing, they could make life difficult for someone at the end of the year. But for now, Niners fans will have to be content with the knowledge that it looks like Mike Nolan knows what he’s doing, and the rebuilding program is on track.