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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NFL Preview 2006 

I’ve decided to do a brief NFL preview which I will post jointly on A Citizens Blog and The Bird Blog, my old quasi-defunct Eagles blog. I don’t blog the Eagles because I don’t have enough time and working with the baseball stats is so much fun: stats aren’t nearly as important in football, where so much is done that cannot be measured and is left up to opinion (e.g., blocking, coverage techniques, etc). I will chime in from time-to-time this season on how I think things are going.

Last year was a terrible year for the Eagles and I hope that they’ll improve. What I saw from Donovan in the preseason suggests that they’ll bounce back quite nicely: Donovan looked crisp and sharp, moving around with authority in the pocket and really zipping the ball. I think he’ll do well.

Overall, I’d say that there is a lot of parity in the NFL this season. The Steelers aren’t clear favorites to repeat, and the talent gap between the NFC and AFC is much narrower. Things are wide-open this season. Here are my predictions, starting in the AFC:

AFC East: (Playoff Seeding)
1. New England Patriots (2)
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets

AFC East: The Dolphins have made some moves, but it is hard not to be impressed by the continued resiliency of the New England Patriots. Other teams add flashy players and make noise, but the Pats win by consistency and toughness. Tom Brady is a winner too. As long as they have a ground game, the Pats are the class of the division. Are the Dolphins really improved? Everyone assumes to now that they’ve got Dante Culpepper, but I am not sure Culpepper is an improvement. He’s a flashy QB and he’s got talent, but he’s also too error-prone to be an effective field general like Brady. The Dolphins will be solid on defense, but Culpepper makes too many mistakes. The Bills are busy rebuilding and won’t challenge the Pats and Dolphins. This is a franchise stuck in neutral. As for the Jets, the less said the better. I feel a lot of pity for these guys. I think the careers of Curtis Martin and Chad Pennington’s are at an end and that their defense is broken down. This is the start of a rebuilding campaign in New York.

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (5)
3. Baltimore Ravens
4. Cleveland Browns

AFC North: The North was once the weakest division in the NFL, but it has gotten much stronger of late. I like the Steelers to win the division again. They’ve got a pretty good defensive unit and even without Jerome Bettis they’ll run the ball quite effectively. My only question I have about the Stillers is Roethlisberger: he looked rusty in the Steelers-Eagles preseason game and I have to wonder if the accident is messing with his head. The Steelers apparently want to throw the ball more this season, which I think is a major mistake: Roethlisberger is the ball-control QB. He’s not a gun-slinger. The Bengals have a major question mark: Carson Palmer. Is Carson Palmer 100%? I’m not so sure. He had a great season in 2005 and seemed poised for greatness. Will his injury destroy that promise? It is a major if. Otherwise I think the Bengals are actually more talented than the Steelers: they have a lot of weapons on offense and seemed to get better as the season wore on. They had the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season. Their defense is good but not great. If Carson Palmer is 100% this will be a good duel between the Bengals and Steelers for the AFC North, otherwise the Steelers can weather the QB storm better than the Bengals can because they can rely on their defense. (I think the Bengals would have won last year's wildcard game if the Steelers hadn't broken Palmer's leg.) As for the Ravens, they’ll be better than last year because they have a major upgrade at QB with Steve McNair. But is McNair the difference-maker? I doubt it. The Ravens feel like they’ve worn down, all those seasons of the defense having to pitch shutouts in order for the Kyle Boller-led offense to win. What they really need is for Jamal Lewis to return to his pre-prison form and become their star running back again. The Ravens will be good, but they won’t do much better than 9-7 or 10-6 at best. If McNair had joined the Ravens 2-3 years ago, this would be a huge shift in fortunes for the Ravens, but not anymore. The Cleveland Browns are hopeless. They really are. This team has no QB and their star player is Kellen Winslow, who acts like he has an IQ of 6. This team looks like 3-13 and a high draft pick.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts (4)
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Houston Texans

AFC South: I actually think there will be a close race for the division title between the Jags and Colts. I like the Colts, though they will be nothing even remotely as good as last year’s squad. I like Peyton Manning a lot, but this team won’t be as good as last year. Their spectacular implosion after starting the season 13-0 was impressive. This team has no mental toughness and I doubt that it will be able to return to the playoffs and make the push to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning will continue to throw for 4,000 yards a season and throw 35-40 TD passes a season, but the Colts D isn’t tough enough (yes, they ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, but that was a function of their offense holding onto the ball) and their running game won’t be that good in 2006. Look for teams to put more pressure on Manning and clamp down on his wideouts more. I like the Jaguars and I think that Byron Leftwich will make strides as the Jags QB, but this team needs to improve its defense in 2006. They gave up too many rushing yards to the opposition and didn’t move the ball consistently enough. They are a year away. I look at the Titans and I wonder if they didn’t make a major mistake with Vince Young. Yes, he looked spectacular in college. Clearly, the Titans are hoping Young has Michael Vick-like talent. The problem is that Vick himself hasn’t realized his own talent: he is a maddeningly inconsistent QB. One minute he looks like a genius, the next he’s throwing picks and making bad choices. I suspect Young will be more streaky than Vick. In the here and now, I expect Young to take over as the Titans QB later in the season and he’s going to struggle. There isn’t much talent left back there. This team needs to forget about those glory days when they were trying to win the Super Bowl and concentrate on rebuilding. As for the Texans … this team passed on Young and Reggie Bush and selected a D-lineman. They need help at nearly every position on offense and show no signs of making a run at a 8-8 record, let alone a 11-5 one. This is a franchise that has “also-ran” stamped on it.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers (1)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (6)
3. Denver Broncos
4. Oakland Raiders

AFC West: I really like the Chargers. I like the Chargers as a 13-3 team with definite Super Bowl aspirations. Here are some of the reasons why I like the Chargers: 1) They were the NFL’s top defense against the run in 2005, allowing just 84 yards a game. 2) They were the NFL’s fifth-highest scoring offense. 3) They were the NFL’s fifth-best team at converting on third down. 4) They were the NFL’s fifth-best team at getting to the quarterback. This team has a lot of weapons. LaDamien Tomlinson is probably the best running back in the league and Phillip Rivers is going to step into the breach and play much better than Drew Brees. Bottom-line: this is the AFC’s best team. The Chiefs are a great team and I’d like to pick them to win the division, but I don’t think the Chiefs are tight enough on defense to make it happen. They will score points in droves. And Larry Johnson, despite being a Penn State alum, is a good running back. But this team needs an overhaul on defense. I was not surprised at all when the Denver Broncos lost the AFC title game to the Steelers: I suspected Jake Plummer was going to collapse under the pressure and sure enough he did. I like Mike Shanahan, but he needs to drop Jake Plummer like a hot potato and move on to Jay Cutler. This is a talented team, but their QB is holding them back. Meanwhile, in Oakland, the Randy Moss show enters season two. The Raiders used to be a great franchise but have been shells of themselves since Jon Gruden left to go to Tampa. They need a toughness and aggressiveness that I don’t think Art Shell is going to provide. Their biggest problem is that they don’t have a QB: Aaron Brooks never played well enough to justify his inconsistency. Their lack of a QB is going to drive Randy Moss nuts. He’s going to catch 50-60 passes and be lucky to hit 1,000 yards, and that is going to cause Randy Moss’ head to explore in fury. As long as this team has a pain in the ass distraction like Moss on the roster they will struggle to rebuild. My advice to Art Shell: cut Moss, start rebuilding. This team is a flop.

Playoffs:

The AFC playoffs kick off with the Steelers defeating the pesky Chiefs in a tight game that sees a bit of a role reversal: the Steelers throwing the ball while the Chiefs pound it on the ground. Home field gives the Stillers their edge as they win. Meanwhile the Bengals and Colts have a high-scoring track meet in the Dome that the Bengals win due to their toughness. In the divisional round the Bengals are routed by the Chargers, who thwart the Bengals at every turn with a high-scoring offense and a tough D. Carson Palmer is hurried all game long. Meanwhile, the Patriots continue their domination of the Steelers, winning on a late field goal in Foxboro. The Chargers and Pats square off the next week but the warm weather helps the Chargers to emerge victorious.

Wildcard round
(3) Pittsburgh Steelers over (6) Kansas City Chiefs, 16-13
(5) Cincinnati Bengals over (4) Indianapolis Colts, 38-31

Divisional Round
(2) New England Patriots over (3) Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-20
(1) San Diego Chargers over (5) Cincinnati Bengals, 38-15

AFC Championship Game:
(1) San Diego Chargers over (2) New England Patriots, 24-21

On to the NFC ...

NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles (1)
2. New York Giants
3. Washington Redskins
4. Dallas Cowboys

NFC East: Everyone keeps talking about how improved the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys are. The most improved team in the division has to be the Eagles. 1) They get Donovan McNabb back. 2) They have depth again in the D-line with Darren Howard and Jevon Kearse being 100%. 3) They got rid of T.O. 4) Correll Buckhalter is going to have a monster season. I’m impressed from what I saw in the preseason. The Birds look to be united, McNabb looks focused and determined and the defense looks rested and ready. The Eagles are a veteran team loaded with a nice mix of younger and veteran players. In the four seasons before T.O. came to Philly the Eagles went 11-5, 11-5, 12-4, and 12-4 and made the playoffs each year. This team looks like those pre-T.O. teams. As long as the Eagles establish a running game with Buckhalter and Westbrook, they will once more put points on the board. Look for L.J. Smith to be the breakout player, catching lots on red zone TDs. I like the Giants for second, although this team will struggle. Adding Lavar Arrington leaves me profoundly unimpressed. He’s a college superstar who can’t live up to the hype. Same with Eli Manning. Same with Jeremy Shockey. There are a lot of players on the Giants who look good on paper but games aren’t played on paper. As for Tom Coughlin, he is a terrible coach for a team of veterans like this. Coughlin was just what the Jaguars needed circa 1995 and 1996, a tough disciplinarian who whipped them into shape. Naturally, after that the Jaguars broke down and never got to the top because Coughlin was too narrow-minded and too rigid to adjust his approach to the game. These Giants will chafe under Coughlin’s demands and I expect this season to be very rocky. Same old Redskins. They added a few players and Antwaan Ranel-El will play well occasionally for the ‘Skins, but this team needs a new QB. Mark Brunell isn’t cutting it. It is pretty much the same old story for the Redskins: they add people via free agency, spend a lot and don’t get much of a return. I expect a tough year for Joe Gibbs. This team will go 7-9. I look at the mess in Dallas and can’t help but want to point at Cowboys fans and laugh. Suckers. He’s YOUR problem now. Same old T.O. Just by bitching about his hamstring and stating that he doesn’t need to practice he’s gotten under Bill Parcells skin and given the ‘Boys a major distraction. This guy is a cancer. Add in he problem that the ‘Boys need a new QB – Drew Bledsoe is past his prime and too immobile to be an effective QB anymore – and you can see the makings of a loooong year in Big D. Honestly, I expect this season to be so miserable for Parcells, I’d expect him to leave town at the end.

NFC North
1. Chicago Bears (3)
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Green Bay Packers
4. Detroit Lions

NFC North: The Bears will win this division by default. They have a weak offense and one of the best defenses in the NFL. Playing six of their games against the Lions, Vikes and Pack, they are going to win the division. This is the only team in the NFL that can consistently win 9-7 games. Will they be better at QB with Rex Grossman? I doubt it. They don’t have much talent on offense, but with their D, they’ll still win the weakest division in football. I think the Vikes are a year away. They’ve got some talent, but Brad Childress needs some time to install his system and get things going. They might be a nice dark horse at the end of the year, but not now. This will be Brett Favre’s last harrah in Green Bay, but it won’t be a good one. Favre is starting to really struggle these days and should have retired last season. There is talent on the Packers, but they really need to sit down and rebuild and prepare for life after Favre. The less said about the Lions the better. All of those years picking wideouts who never do anything. Joey Harrington. Matt Millen is the worst GM in the game and needs to leave ASAP. This team needs to tear down and rebuild from the bottom up.

NFC South
1. Carolina Panthers (2)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5)
3. Atlanta Falcons (6)
4. New Orleans Saints

AFC South: Is this the best division in the NFL? Maybe. I think the Carolina Panthers are a great team. They have a nasty defense that takes the ball away from the opposition, they have an explosive offense that can move the ball and control it on the ground. They also have a cagey QB in Jake Delhomme. The Panthers are a great team. I am not a big fan of the Buccaneers, specifically Chris Simms. I think the Bucs got lucky in ’05 and played over their heads. That said, this is still a good team. They will run the ball well with Williams and they will corral Michael Vick twice a year. That ought to be good enough for 10-6 and a wildcard. With the Falcons and Michael Vick I keep waiting to be impressed. There is a ton on talent on this team and their QB is sanctified by the rest of the NFL as being the “Michael Jordan on the NFL”, and yet they only ranked fourteenth in the NFL in points scored. Huh? They were eighteenth in points allowed. There is something wrong with these guys and the way they play football. If Vick could ever convert his talent into results, he’d live up to his hype, but now I’d say the Falcons will fight to go 9-7 and make the playoffs. With Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the backfield, the Saints could have one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL. I like what I see from Reggie Bush: he’s got moves and he looks difficult to bring down. I think the Saints might surprise a lot of people and be halfway decent in 2006. Maybe even be in the playoff mix. They have a lot of promise for 2007.

NFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks (4)
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. St. Louis Rams

NFC West. I was surprised that the Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Steelers was so close. The Seahawks were a paper tiger, blitzing through a weak schedule (never beating a team with a winning record, aside from the Giants), catching the offensively-challenged Redskins and the running-game-less-Panthers in the playoffs before inevitably losing to the Stillers. Even so, it was a surprise to me that the Seahawks nearly won, despite the referees bias for the Black and Gold. That said, the Seahawks are back and are the class of a weak division. I see this as a re-play of 2005, although the Seahawks will finish 10-6 instead of 13-3. They have a good collection of talent, but aren’t particularly strong. I think the Cardinals might surprise some people. They’ve got weapons with Edgerin James and Larry Fitzgerald, and when Matt Leinart takes over for Kurt Warner, they are going to put some points on the board. If any team can beat the Seahawks, it is them. The 49ers are making strides. Alex Smith looks like he’s going to have a good season as the Niners QB. The problem is that the rest of the team needs to keep upgrading. The Niners have to hope for an 8-8 record at best. As for the Rams, at least St. Louis fans have fond memories of those two Super Bowls when it looked like the Rams were dynasty in the making. Those days are gone. This team has no talent and no shot at making a run.

NFC Playoffs

The class of the NFC are the Eagles and Panthers, who will have to wait to rematch the 2003 NFC Title game once more. In the wildcard round the Bears will corral Michael Vick in the cold of Chicago, while the Bucs manhandle the less-physical Seahawks. In the divisional round the Bears inability to run or pass leaves them at the mercy of the Panthers, who win easily. The Eagles, meanwhile, avenge the 2002 NFC Title game as well, defeating the Bucs easily. The 2006 NFC title game is a close contest, but the Eagles prevail thanks to an improved running game and an improved run defense. On to Super Bowl XLI.

Wildcard Round
(3) Chicago Bears over (6) Atlanta Falcons, 10-7
(5) Tampa Bay Bucs over (4) Seattle Seahawks, 17-7

Divisional Round
(1) Philadelphia Eagles over (5) Tampa Bay Bucs, 31-21
(2) Carolina Panthers over (3) Chicago Bears, 28-20

NFC Championship
(1) Philadelphia Eagles over (2) Carolina Panthers, 27-24

Super Bowl XLI will be between the Chargers and the Eagles. Sadly for those fond of history it won’t be a rematch of a previous Super Bowl or a grudge match between two coaches who don’t like each other. Marty Schottenheimer will be the sentimental favorite, coaching in his first Super Bowl after all of those years with the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers. It will be a battle between two high-octane offenses, as Phillip Rivers and Donovan McNabb move the ball up and down the field at will. In the end, the Eagles newfound ability to stop the run will be the decisive factor. Call it, Philadelphia Eagles 31, San Diego Chargers 24.

Back to baseball...

Wildcard Watch! Ryan Howard tied Mike Schmidt for the single season Phillies record for home runs hit with 48. I think Ryan can easily hit another dozen, so sixty is very much in the offing … The better news was that the Phillies won 10-6 over the Nats and made up a little ground in the wildcard race. The Phillies are now much a ½ game back of the Padres in the wildcard. The Reds have fallen into a tie with the Phillies with their second consecutive loss to the Dodgers. Much to my surprise the Florida Marlins are fighting to stay in the picture. It is like 2003 all over again…

Wildcard Standings:
1. San Diego: 67-65
2. Cincinnati: 67-66 (0.5)
3. Philadelphia: 66-65 (0.5)
5. Florida: 65-66 (1.5)
4. San Francisco: 65-67 (2.0)
6. Arizona: 64-68 (3.0)
7. Houston: 64-68 (3.0)
8. Atlanta: 62-68 (4.0)
9. Milwaukee: 62-70 (5.0)
10. Colorado: 61-70 (5.5)

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