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Sept. 4, 2007

2007 NFL Preview

by Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor, Nitin Sukumar, Online News Editor and Copy Editor and Elsi Wu, Online Sports Editor
Ah, September. The falling leaves and falling thermostat, the gradual transition back to the hallowed halls of Blair, and most importantly, the start of football season. Hope springs eternal in the NFL as all 32 teams stand undefeated. Savor it while it lasts, 'Skins fans. As always, SCO offers our predictions and insight, so that we can be ridiculed to no end come February. What time is it? It's game time!

Projected Standings (Click on a division for team-by-team previews)

NFC EastAFC East
1. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
2. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)*
3. Washington Redskins (7-9)
4. New York Giants (6-10)
1. New England Patriots (12-4)
2. New York Jets (9-7)*
3. Buffalo Bills (7-9)
4. Miami Dolphins (5-11)
NFC NorthAFC North
1. Chicago Bears (13-3)
2. Detroit Lions (7-9)
3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
4. Green Bay Packers (5-11)
1. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)
NFC SouthAFC South
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
2. Carolina Panthers (10-6)*
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
1. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)
3. Tennessee Titans (8-8)
4. Houston Texans (6-10)
NFC WestAFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
2. St. Louis Rams (8-8)
3. San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
4. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)
1. San Diego Chargers (11-5)
2. Denver Broncos (10-6)*
3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

*wild card berth


NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys
Coach:
Wade Phillips
2006 Record: 9-7

Quarterback Tony Romo isn't going to forget the botched snap that ended the Cowboys' wild card game last year any time soon. And neither is anyone else. Many believe that Dallas's poor performance in the playoffs drove head Coach Bill Parcels out of Dallas. Whether former San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be the solution to last year's failure is the big question. Will Phillips be able to "handle" Terrell Owens? T.O. is notorious for behaving well his first year, only to raise hell from then on. Will his expectations for the defense be too high? Phillips has far from a stellar record as a head coach.

Other than Phillips, the attention will be on Romo, who will start the season as quarterback for the first time. Even with some of the uncertainties though, the Cowboys season is looking up. Romo had a promising season last year before his slip up and the Marion Barber-Julius Jones combo seems to be working out. Add that to a strong receiving staff and a solid defense, and the Cowboys are looking at another playoff berth.

Player to watch: Terrell Owens, WR
Wherever he goes, it's always about him. As much as we don't want it to be, it is. So, if ol' T.O. can keep his attitude in check and, who knows, maybe even like the new head coach, the rest of the team can focus on actually playing rather than worrying if he's going to commit suicide.

2007 Predicted Record: 10-6

2. Philadelphia Eagles
Coach:
Andy Reid
2006 Record: 10-6

If Donovan McNabb can stay healthy and perform at 100 percent, things are looking good for the Eagles offensively. Running back Brian Westbrook is a force both in the running game as well as the passing game and is shooting for some more carries this year. Between Reggie Brown and L.J. Smith the Eagles are covered for their receiving corps, and their offensive line is one of the few in the league that is dependable.

On the defense though they are lacking in the pass rush, which will cost them when they play teams like Seattle. And in the end, their place in the division could be determined by a few games, so it'll be important to see how quickly McNabb acclimates back to his starting quarterback role.

Player to watch: Kevin Curtis, WR
With Donte Stallworth off to the Patriots, all eyes are on ex-Ram Kevin Curtis. Will he fit into the Eagles' offensive scheme, and if so, will he trump Reggie Brown as the go-to man?

2007 Predicted Record: 9-7

3. Washington Redskins
Coach:
Joe Gibbs
2006 Record: 5-11

Quarterback Jason Campbell is expected to lead the Redskins back to respectability in 2007.

<i>Photo courtesy of Joe Murphy/Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Quarterback Jason Campbell is expected to lead the Redskins back to respectability in 2007. Photo courtesy of Joe Murphy/Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports
Yeah, yeah, we're all Redskins fans, but let's be realistic for a moment. Every offseason there is a huge hype about new overpriced player or coach acquisitions, leading everyone to believe this season must be the Redskins' season…only to have them finish below .500 for another year. Then again, this offseason has been relatively quiet, so will it actually be the year of the Hog? Well, running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts have worked out a nice role-sharing combination, not unlike the Cowboys' Jones-Barber one, and Jason Campbell will be starting as quarterback from week one this year. The defense has its strengths with Marcus Washington, Sean Taylor and now rookie LaRon Landry but like the offensive line, it's rather unpredictable. The Redskins should improve from last year's woeful performance but let's not get too carried away.

Player to watch: Chris Cooley, TE
With his six-year, $30 million contract locked away, Cooley can fully concentrate on bringing this team around. A single source of brightness during last year's 5-11 run, fans are looking for his continued strength and reliability on the field. If Campbell and Cooley can continue that chemistry, the Redskins may start seeing some fire in their offense.

2007 Predicted Record: 7-9

4. New York Giants
Coach:
Tom Coughlin
2006 Record: 8-8

The Giants had a lot of distractions this preseason. First there was Michael Strahan's epic holdout that threw the defense off for the entire training camp, and leaves them a little out of sync for their opener against the division rival Cowboys. Then there was the feud between ex-running back Tiki Barber and quarterback Eli Manning. Barber accused Manning of being a bad leader; Manning responded by saying Barber wasn't too admirable either, with his midseason retirement announcement and gripes about head coach Tom Coughlin.

All these distractions can't help a team reeling from the loss of its best player and abound with uncertainties about its coach's job security. Sure Eli Manning is gaining more confidence each year, and the receiving corps is looking strong, but the secondary and offensive line are questionable. It'll be a transition year for the Giants, with better luck in years to come.

Player to watch: Brandon Jacobs, RB
With Tiki Barber gone, it's all up to his "mentee" Brandon Jacobs. If he can doge linebackers as well as he dodged the Barber-Manning controversy, things might be looking up for the Giants.

Predicted Record: 6-10


NFC North

Chicago Bears
Coach:
Lovie Smith
2006 Record: 13-3
Bouncing back from a Super Bowl loss is no easy task (just ask the Raiders), but if anyone can do it, the Bears can. With two consecutive NFC North titles and a very likely third, the Bears are again, definite contenders for the Lombardi. Defense is a no-brainer in Chi-town as the squad returns most of its clamoring line-up. Of course, the question lingering on everyone's mind is that of the quarterback. As Lovie has said many a time, Rex is their man. He's not perfect, but he got them to the Super Bowl once, and he can probably do it again. For a little extra help, Bernard Berrian, Cedric Benson, Greg Olsen and Devin Hester at wide receiver are just what the doctor ordered for Grossman's chronic fumble-itis.

Player to watch: Greg Olsen, TE
A rookie out of the U, Olsen is a Jeremy Shockey clone with a magic touch, in the pre-season at least. It'll be interesting to see if the newbie can still catch everything Rex slings his way in the heat of the regular season.

2007 projected record: 13-3

2. Detroit Lions
Coach:
Rod Marinelli
2006 Record: 3-13

Quarterback Jon Kitna has high hopes for this season and is positive that this team is capable of at least ten wins. Do we believe him? Ehh, not so much. It's true that Kitna has a droolworthy trio of wideouts in Roy Williams, Mike Furrey and Calvin Johnson. If Johnson is as good as advertised and Williams continues his development, 30 TD passes is within reach for Kitna. On the flipside though, so is 30 turnovers. On the other side of the ball, the Motor City's defense, ranked 28th last season, is going to have to start its engines of this team has any hope of improving on last season's dismal outing.

Player to watch: Roy Williams, WR
Having been with the Lions program the longest of Detroit's three receiver bunch, Williams is going to have to step up his game and make his mark as Kitna's go-to receiver, especially on third downs.

2007 projected record: 7-9

3. Minnesota Vikings
Coach:
Brad Childress
2006 Record: 6-10

Talk about young talent. Second-year coach Brad Childress is putting the franchise in the hands of rookie quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Childress is confident in his quarterback's abilities (apparently he's better than McNabb was at this point in his career), but it doesn't matter how good the kid is, the fact is, he's still a kid. And a kid with no reliable weapons, at that. Sure, the ground tandem of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor will relieve some of the pressure, and the left side of the offensive line is probably tops in the league, but youth and inexperience are going to take a serious toll on Minnesota this season.

Player to watch: Adrian Peterson, RB
Rookie of the year potential, and with Jackson clamoring out of the shotgun, Peterson's going to get plenty of opportunities. Injury concerns have been the only thing capable of stopping AP his entire career, so watch his status week-to-week.

2007 projected record: 7-9

4. Green Bay Packers
Coach:
Mike McCarthy
2006 Record: 8-8

Brett Favre is still playing? Why? The NFL's resident ironman begins his 17th campaign, but riding off into the sunset doesn't seem likely. His top weapon Donald Driver is already dealing with a sprained knee, and his backfield mate is rookie Brandon Jackson. The only intrigue in Favre's season will be which record he breaks first: Dan Marino's career touchdown mark (Favre is six behind), or George Blanda's career interceptions mark (Favre is four back). Despite his recent struggles, Number Four is still a god in Wisconsin, so unless coach Mike McCarthy likes lynch mobs, sitting Favre for youngster Aaron Rodgers is not an option. Don't expect many defensive stops, either. The unit has some talent, like linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett as well as a decent secondary, but not enough to compensate for Favre's erratic gunslinging ways.
Not a lot of Lambeau Leaps are in the 2007 forecast.

Player to watch: Brandon Jackson, RB
The rookie from Nebraska will be the featured back for the Packers. Green Bay's offensive line has been in shambles since Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle defected in 2005, so running room will be sparse. It'll be fun to play alongside an NFL legend like Favre, but Jackson will need an incredible year if Cheeseheads want anything to cheer about this year.

2007 projected record: 5-11



NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints
Coach:
Sean Payton
2006 Record: 10-6
Few expected the transformation from flailing franchise to offensive juggernaut that went down in New Orleans last year, and first-year coach Sean Payton more than deserved to win NFL Coach of the Year. However, the hurricane honeymoon is over, and the Saints will sneak up on nobody this year. Their offense is the real deal though, as Drew Brees is a stud at quarterback, and Reggie Bush lived up to the hype as a dynamic playmaker. Throw in bulldozer Deuce McAllister and breakout wideouts Marques Colston and Devery Henderson and you have yourselves one heck of an offense.

Reggie Bush and Drew Brees lead the explosive New Orleans Saints offense.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Orlin Wagner via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Reggie Bush and Drew Brees lead the explosive New Orleans Saints offense. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Orlin Wagner via Yahoo! Sports
Their defense was sketchy though, especially in the secondary, and although the signing of Jason David fresh off the Super Bowl is a plus, the unit as a whole is still far from impervious. Scott Fujita proved to be a shrewd pickup, and a repeat performance from him and his linebacking buddies Mark Simoneau and Scott Shanle will be vital to success. With most of their key offensive players under contract long term and a passable defense in tow, the Saints look to be not only a frontrunner for the NFC crown this season, but a conference powerhouse for years to come.

Player to watch: Marques Colston, WR
Colston was the steal of the 2006 draft, a 7th-rounder who emerged as the top weapon in the most explosive offense this side of Indianapolis. The Hofstra product seemed to have snuck up on a lot of teams in his rookie year, but must prove this year that he can continue to put up flashy numbers now that defenses are keyed into his presence and game-planning to stop him.

2007 Predicted Record: 12-4

2. Carolina Panthers
Coach:
John Fox
2006 Record: 8-8
A preseason darling a year ago, the Panthers fell flat on their face when games counted. This season, Carolina is back with a vengeance, after just missing the playoffs. Speedy receiver Steve Smith is completely healthy, although his quarterback Jake Delhomme is still a question mark. The once-fearsome defense too has lost some it's former mojo, but defensive end Julius Peppers is still wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, and youngsters like former first-rounders Chris Gamble, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason have flashed their potential. Look for a rebound year and a wild-card berth for the black cats.

Player to watch: Dan Morgan, LB
Dan Morgan was once a tackle machine at middle linebacker, one of the most fearsome in the league. However, his injury history is encyclopedia-like. If Morgan can overcome concussion issues and play full strength in 2007, the Panthers will have a tremendous asset in the middle.

2007 Predicted Record: 10-6

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach:
Jon Gruden
2006 Record: 4-12
This is far from the same team that won the Super Bowl four years ago. Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Shelton Quarles, John Lynch, Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson? All gone. The offense a year ago was terrible after Chris Simms went down, as Carnell Williams couldn't recapture his rookie magic, and rookie Bruce Gradkowski's play was as puzzling as his last name. Healthy personnel should help, but a bounce-back is far from guaranteed. So far, Gruden's quarterback carousel has been an interesting offseason soap opera. Veteran Jeff Garcia seems to be the frontrunner, but Chris Simms, no matter how bad he has looked so far, offers the most potential. On the other side of the ball, Gruden's cover-two defense is simply no longer the force it once was. Derrick Brooks is a shell of his old self, and rookie Gaines Adams steps into some big shoes trying to replacing Simeon Rice. With a questionable offense and a raw defense, another sub-.500 rebuilding year is in the offing.

Player to watch: Carnell Williams, RB
After a 1000+ yard rookie season, Cadillac was atrocious a year ago, averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per carry and scoring just one touchdown.

2007 Predicted Record: 6-10

4. Atlanta Falcons
Coach:
Bobby Petrino
2006 Record: 7-9
The Falcons had the good fortune of having their $100 million franchise quarterback suspended indefinitely after pleading guilty to operating an underground dog-fighting ring. Not exactly what first-year head coach Bobby Petrino signed up for. Now Atlanta, with an unenviable tandem Joey Harrington and Chris Redman under center, may have some serious seller's remorse if Matt Schaub excels in Houston. Harrington has been a work in progress his entire NFL career, and though he has showed flashes of brilliance, he is no Michael Vick, though similar statements about untapped passing potential have been made. Running backs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood will be the focal points of the offense. The talented defense underachieved last year, and the loss of Patrick Kerney won't help their case this season. Advice for Falcon fans? Look towards 2008. Brian Brohm, anyone? The Petrino-Louisville connection is there...

Player to watch: Jerious Norwood, RB
Joey Harrington doesn't exactly imbue excitement at the quarterback position, so more than ever, the Falcons will have to rely on the run. With Warrick Dunn aging fast and already showing some nicks, the offensive load will be on the speedy second year back's slight shoulders. Norwood sparkled in limited touches last year, averaging a ridiculous 6.4 yards per carry, but the questions remain: How will he hold up after a year's worth of wear and tear, and can he perform even with a bull-eye on his chest and nine men in the box? Life without Vick will not be easy on anybody in the ATL, especially Norwood.

Predicted Record: 4-12


NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks
Coach:
Mike Holmgren
2006 Record: 9-7

Despite winning the NFC West crown last season, the Seahawks were no doubt disappointed with an end to the Bears in the postseason. Nagging injuries to both then-reigning MVP running back Shaun Alexander and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck left the offense in the hands of inexperienced players. With both entering training camp apparently 100 percent, the offense looks ready to start where it left off in 2005. The most significant gap comes from the departure of wide receiver Darrell Jackson, but his inconsistency and attitude won't be missed too much. Wideout D.J. Hackett will have an opportunity to prove himself as he lines up opposite Deion Branch.

The defensive line was solidified by the signing of Patrick Kerney, a left end who will team up with linebacker Julian Peterson to create a formidble pass rush. There are plenty of questions in the secondary, especially at the safety positions. Michael Boulware just didn't get the job done last year, so the Seahawks will likely trade him away.

Player to watch: D.J. Hackett, WR

Each of the NFC West teams has a high powered offense and the Seahawks will need to find a solid replacement for Darrell Jackson to keep up. The faster Hackett develops chemistry with Hasselbeck, the faster the Seahawks will re-develop a lock over this airtight division.

2007 Projected Record: 9-7

2. St. Louis Rams
Coach:
Scott Linehan
2006 Record: 8-8

Following the NFC West theme, the Rams are loaded with talent at the offensive skill positions. Quarterback Marc Bulger has the weapons to throw for over 30 TDs with Steven Jackson and Torry Holt playing. The invincible Jackson is right up there with running backs Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson and is probably a better pass-catcher than either of them. The offensive line looks as sharp as ever, giving Bulger an opportunity to take his time and gun it. The biggest acquisition wasn't tight end Randy McMichael or the dangerous Drew Bennett, but Dante Hall, one of the most dependable return men in the NFL.

Unfortunately for them, the Rams enter the season with few tools to fix their pitiful run defense, after giving up an average of 145.4 yards per game last season. The line virtually fell apart through various releases and off-field issues. But draft pick Adam Carriker is a versatile end who may switch to the tackle position to give some quality to the weak line. Linebackers Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon are superb cover players, but find it hard to break through the line to rush the quarterback.

Player to watch: Steven Jackson, RB

It might be obvious to say it, but Jackson is St. Louis's ultimate weapon. Even after an amazing 346 rushing attempts and 90 receptions last season, he has the capability to push the limits even further, maybe even past the 2500 total yards mark. The Rams aren't afraid to give the durable Jackson the ball more often than the average back, and he should be the focal point in the offense-oriented team.

2007 Projected Record: 8-8

3. San Francisco 49ers
Coach:
Mike Nolan
2006 Record: 7-9

Running back Frank Gore jumped to the top tier of NFL backs after rushing for an NFC-high 1695 yards in 2006. He returns to an offense with big additions at wide receiver with Darrell Jackson, stolen from rival Seattle, and Ashley Lelie. Young quarterback Alex Smith has the potential to keep up with the NFC West's talented QBs, leap frogging in performance from his rookie year to last year. Above all, tight end Vernon Davis is a physical beast who showed signs of greatness last season and looks to break out this year.

The 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements to a lucrative contract to address the glaring defensive issues that held back the team last year. San Francisco gave up the most points per game in the NFL last year. With the additions of linebacker Tully Bunta-Cain and safety Michael Lewis, the defensive squad has absolutely nowhere to go but up in '07.

Player to watch: Vernon Davis, TE

Davis will become a playmaker and a go-to guy for Alex Smith this year. His size and speed are seemingly unrivaled and will give him the chance to add explosiveness to this rebuilding team.

2007 Projected Record: 8-8

Arizona Cardinals
Coach:
Ken Whisenhunt
2006 Record: 5-11

Out with Kurt Warner, in with Heisman-winner Matt Leinart. Leinart won't be getting too excited though. Even with gamebreakers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald lining up as wide receivers, the young QB doesn't have an outstanding line to protect him. Rookie tackle Levi Brown could give some instant help, but the line is weak at center and tight end. Edgerrin James has shown some resolve this preseason, vowing to return to his Indianapolis form after losing his edge last season. He never really had a chance to prove himself with his line getting forced back over and over again.

The Cards have a lockdown corner in Antrel Rolle and a hard-hitter in safety Adrian Wilson, but beyond that the situation is grim. Arizona hopes that former Lion Terrence Holt will be able to pick up the slack at full safety alongside Wilson and has numerous candidates for right cornerback. The defensive line is looking weak again, with only nose tackle as a surefire position. Both rookie Alan Branch and Gabe Watson are promising at the position.

Player to watch: Edgerrin James, RB

Can the "Edge" return to his once-beastly form? Part of it depends on whether or not he can get used to having a fullback around, part of it depends on his own determination. But Whisenhunt loves the running game, so Edge will have plenty of opportunities to fix his flaws. Matt Leinart needs him to take some of the pressure away so that he can fuel the passing game.

Projected Record: 6-10



AFC East

1. New England Patriots
Coach:
Bill Belichick
2006 Record: 14-2
After falling to the eventual-Super Bowl champion Colts in the AFC title game a year ago, the Patriots made a splash in the offseason, nabbing marquee linebacker Adalius Thomas in free agency and dealing for enigmatic wideout Randy Moss, making the Pats a popular pick for the 2008 Lombardi Trophy. Dreamboat quarterback Tom Brady has appeared to have settled his baby-mama drama, and for the first time in his career, has an array of legitimate targets to throw to. New acquisitions Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington and the vastly underrated Wes Welker team with Moss to form a WR corps that will leave the Foxboro faithful asking "Reche, who?" The passing weapons will no doubt open up the running game, and with Corey Dillon gone, Laurence Maroney is poised to be the feature back. He has the talent, if not the durability to succeed.

This season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has targets to throw to, especially star wideout Randy Moss.

<i>Photo courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports</i>
This season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has targets to throw to, especially star wideout Randy Moss. Photo courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports
Even with the addition of the versatile Thomas, the defensive unit has some question marks, especially in the early goings of the year: veteran safety Rodney Harrison is suspended for the first four games of the season, Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour will start the year on the PUP list, inactive for at least the first six games of the year, and top cornerback Asante Samuel just ended his holdout. The unit has been dominant for many seasons now, but some vital cogs like Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel have begun showing their age.

Player to watch: Randy Moss, WR
The talent is in place, so one of the biggest issues for New England will team chemistry. Randy Moss was an outright cancer in Oakland, but has vowed to change his ways, taking a pay cut to play as a Pat. However, he's already causing headaches with the mysteries over his health and week one availability. Bill Belichick was able to milk a Super Bowl season out of former Cincinnati malcontent Dillon. Can he do the same with Moss? His talent can generate a deep playoff run, but his attitude can derail one.

2007 Projected Record: 12-4

2. New York Jets
Coach:
Eric Mangini
2006 Record: 10-6
Year two of the Mangini era begins with high expectations, after a 2006 that saw a six-win turnaround and a surprise wild card berth after winning five of their last six. Still, like their week 8 loss to the Browns indicated, Gang Green is still a work in progress. Offensively, trading for Chicago's Thomas Jones should settle the backfield carousel we saw last season. His preseason calf injury is not thought to be serious and his availability should not be curtailed week one against New England. A stable ground attack will free up the passing game even more, as Jerricho Cotchery continues his development alongside Laveranues Coles, who racked up a 90 catch, 1000 yard season a year ago. The biggest question mark will be quarterback Chad Pennington, a perennial question mark thanks to his china doll-esque durability.

On defense, Mangini is switching to the 3-4 scheme he used in his days with the Patriots. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma and safety Kerry Rhodes are playmakers that will thrive in the 3-4, as will first-round rookie Darrelle Revis. The Mangenius must prove his moniker if he hopes to come close to the Pats, but another wild card is not out of the question.

Player to watch: Chad Pennington, QB
Pennington's arm is probably one of the weakest, yet most accurate, in the entire league. An interesting factoid: 2006 was the first time in his seven-year career in which Chad played in all 16 games. That's some worrisome history. Kellen Clemens has looked sharp as his backup, but like it or not, ol' Chad offers the best chance the Jets have of winning.

2007 Projected Record: 9-7

3. Buffalo Bills
Coach:
Dick Jauron
2006 Record: 7-9
The Buffalo Bills are a team on the rise, but in this division, getting better isn't good enough. Over the offseason, Buffalo overpaid for offensive lineman Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, but the additions should shore up a glaring weakness from a season ago. A breakout season may be in the works for quarterback J.P. Losman, and his top receiver, Lee Evans is on the verge of joining the AFC's elite. Running back Willis McGahee is gone, and his replacement is rookie Marshawn Lynch, who had a solid showing at Cal in limited work, and should be a solid receiver out of the backfield for Losman.

Last year's defense was surprisingly solid, but this offseason saw the departure of top cornerback Nate Clements and linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes. Second year safeties Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson, pleasant surprises a year ago, and rookie linebacker Paul Posluszny will have to step it up. Buffalo's divisional schedule is brutal, and the rest is no cakewalk either, with a matchup against Denver to open the season. With a couple lucky breaks though, a late-season run at the wild-card is more than possible.

Player to watch: J.P. Losman, QB
All eyes will be on fourth-year quarterback J.P. Losman. His decision-making and mechanics are not always sound, having shown a predilection for a singling out the hot receiver and throwing off his back foot, but his arm is a cannon, and his progress has been enormous. Though Losman's targets not named Lee Evans are nothing special and Marshawn Lynch is still only a rookie, the potential is definitely there for the former first-rounder.

Predicted 2007 record: 7-9

4. Miami Dolphins
Coach:
Cam Cameron
2006 Record: 6-10
Dan Marino already has a bust in Canton, yet down in Miami, the Dolphins are still looking for his replacement. Stability at QB in South Beach is something that has missing since the days of Number 9, capped off by the failed Daunte Culpepper experiment and a trade for 37-year-old Trent Green. Although Green is a veteran who can manage a game, he is far from a long-term answer, and his injury history makes him one big hit away from joining Marino in the booth.

2006 head coach Nick Saban showed his restless feet again, bolting for the University of Alabama, and his replacement Cam Cameron has already made his presence felt, informing former second-overall pick Ronnie Brown that his job is far from secure. Although Jesse Chatman and Lorenzo Booker shouldn't many touches, Cameron has made it clear that lackluster efforts aren't tolerated. If Cameron can work the same magic he had going in San Diego and get Brown in an LT-lite role, then Miami's offense should be better than advertised. The Dolphins defense looks vicious down the middle with the addition of linebacker Joey Porter, which should free up tackle machine Zach Thomas and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor. Still, with question marks in the secondary, and an anemic, line-less offense, this looks to be another year in the cellar for the Fins.

Player to watch: Ted Ginn Jr., WR/KR/PR
Dolphins management took a great deal of heat for drafting Ginn seventh overall this April, passing on Brady Quinn, a potential franchise QB. Ginn hasn't seen much action thus far, thanks to foot woes that have plagued him since the BCS Championship Game. However, he has the potential to have a Devin Hester-like impact on special teams when healthy, and will be expected to deliver immediately. The what-if game will most definitely be played if Ginn pans and Quinn shines.

2007 Projected Record: 5-11


AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens
Coach:
Brian Billick
2006 Record: 13-3

The aging Ravens enter the 2007 season with the NFL's top defense, even after losing versatile linebacker Adalius Thomas in free agency. Jarrett Johnson is the top dog in the competition to replace Thomas in the elite linebacker corps partly responsible for the staggering 60-sack season. Ray Lewis may be getting a bit old, but youngster Terrell Suggs is one of the league's top pass-rushing defensive ends. The secondary is anchored by Pro Bowlers Chris McAlister and Ed Reed. Cornerback Samari Rolle was a bit of a disappointment last year, hampered by an ankle injury throughout the season, but looks to rebound. All in all this star-studded defense will come in handy when playing against its offense-oriented division rivals.

Willis McGahee. This great acquisition will give the Ravens a new dimension to their offense after departed runningback Jamal Lewis went from everything to nothing last year. The Ravens suffered as the seventh worst rushing squad in the league, but McGahee has the agility to bring them back to the top. He will have to make due without a proven fullback, seeing as Ovie Mughelli left, but he didn't have problems without one in Buffalo. The effective running game will also give quarterback Steve McNair some breathing room as defenses will not be able to focus solely on the pass.

Player to watch: Jarrett Johnson, LB

With Adalius Thomas gone, the Ravens can't afford to let teams exploit a weakness in the linebackers. But like Thomas, Johnson is extremely versatile and can easily become the key blitzer for the defense.

2007 Projected Record: 10-6

Quarterback Carson Palmer and his top target, Chad Johnson a.k.a. Ocho Cinco.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Al Behrman via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Quarterback Carson Palmer and his top target, Chad Johnson a.k.a. Ocho Cinco. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Al Behrman via Yahoo! Sports
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Coach:
Marvin Lewis
2006 Record: 8-8

Defense wins championships? The Bengals had better hope not. Maybe the Bears/Colts Super Bowl last year will give them some inspiration. After all, they do have a healthy Carson Palmer taking the helm this year. Wideouts Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh rival Indy's Harrison and Wayne, and powerful back Rudi Johnson has worked hard over the off-season. Center Rich Braham retired and guard Eric Steinbach left for Cleveland, leaving the offensive line porous, so Palmer will need to adapt accordingly.

The Bengals are an annual failure in the pass-defense, falling to second worst last season. First rounder cornerback Leon Hall will be expected to jump into the starting squad quickly. Defensive ends Robert Geathers and Bryan Robinson are complimentary in the pass and rush defenses, but must take the next step this year to at least begin to solve the Bengals woes.

Staying out of the courthouse would help on both sides of the ball. With commissioner Roger Goodell cracking down on the NFL's many thugs, Cincinnati will need to spend some time reviewing crucial life lessons. Several Bengals were arrested last year, including red-zone threat Chris Henry, who won't see action until Week 10.

Player to watch: Leon Hall, CB

With a dismal pass-defense last year, the Bengals need an instant fix at cornerback. Hall is a smart rookie who can fit into any defensive scheme. He might warm the bench during Week 1, but expect him to take a starting role by Week 5.

2007 Projected Record: 9-7

3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Coach:
Mike Tomlin
2006 Record:8-8

No more motorbikes and appendicitis for Big Ben. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is poised to lift the Steelers early on in the season, rather than force a late stretch to stay in the playoff race. Mike Tomlin has been experimenting with five receiver sets, giving Roethlisberger free rein to take the passing game to a new level. The ever dependable Hines Ward and Heath Miller return along with second-year receiver Santonio Holmes. After the retirement of fan favorite power back Jerome Bettis, "Speedy" Willie Parker filled in seamlessly, packing in over 1,400 yards rushing to go with 16 total TDs.

Letting linebacker Joey Porter skip off to Miami through free agency was no doubt a questionable move. Porter, an emotional leader, had a team-high seven sacks in the high-class Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers will look to second rounder LaMarr Woodley to help keep up the dominating pass rush this season. The secondary is led by dominating strong safety Troy Polamalu, one of the most feared players in the league. Polamalu gives the Steelers a speedy, hard-hitting insurance against the long pass or run.

Player to watch: Ben Roethlisberger, QB

Big Ben got off to a rocky start with the accident last year and never really found time to hit his stride. Pittsburgh has given him the weapons to win; combined with a solid defense, the Steelers could have the most balanced team in the AFC North. Of course, the team needs his rocket arm and consistent focus to make this claim come to life this year.

2007 Projected Record: 8-8

4. Cleveland Browns
Coach:
Romeo Crennel
2006 Record: 4-12

In a remarkable draft, the team's executives landed both offensive tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn in the first round, after Quinn fell to the 22nd pick from his projected top-10 group. Thomas joins new face Eric Steinbach and the returning-from-injury LeCharles Bentley to give the Browns a completely revamped offensive line this year. This line will be used to protect either Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson or Quinn, who had the strongest showing during the preseason. Fans want Quinn, but head coach Romeo Crennel won't say who has the starting job yet. Former Raven Jamal Lewis has also looked sharp in the preseason, showing signs of returning to his old 2000-yard rushing self after a horrible 2006 season in Baltimore. Tight end Kellen Winslow and wideout Braylon Edwards figure to be the top receivers this year; both are young with tremendous upside.

The Browns fans have never had so much hope, but the Cleveland defense will hold the team back this year. Despite the young talents in the linebacker corps and the addition of rookie Eric Wright at cornerback, the Browns still have issues with the run stop. Nose tackle Ted Washington is on the brink of the 40-year-old mark and the team's defensive ends have struggled to stuff opposing backs consistently.

Player to watch: Kellen Winslow, TE

Winslow is a rising tight end coming off of microfracture knee surgery looking fresh; it's his season to lose. The Browns need him to develop into a reliable receiving option on the field and a reliable leader in the locker room.

2007 Projected Record: 5-11



AFC South

Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning finally got over the hump in '06-'07, triumphantly hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

<i>Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Chris O'Meara via Yahoo! Sports</i>
Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning finally got over the hump in '06-'07, triumphantly hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Chris O'Meara via Yahoo! Sports
1. Indianapolis Colts
Coach:
Tony Dungy
2006 Record: 12-4

Life is good for world champions. You go to Disney World, work on your golf game and bask in the shiny glory of the Lombardi trophy…for about a month. Although the Colts have finally gotten rid of the "can't win the big one" curse, they're hard back at work and definitely still hungry for a second championship. With choice fantasy picks Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison humming along in their scoring rhythm, the Colts offense is fairly intact, but the possibility of a weak offensive line lingers with the retirement of Tarik Glenn. The defense could be another Achilles' heel for the team, since opponents will be looking to run the clock to keep Manning off the field as much as possible.

Player to watch: Peyton Manning, QB
One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, hands down. Who wouldn't want to watch him?

2007 projected record: 10-6

2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Coach:
Jack Del Rio
2006 Record: 8-8

It's a big year for the Jags. After a few very up-and-down seasons, this team is just screaming for some semblance of consistency. Coach Jack Del Rio hopes this will come in the form of an additional offensive coordinator, former Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter, but this could just mean too many overpaid cooks in the unstable kitchen. The real thing to watch on offense is going to be the quarterback juggle. Byron Leftwich has been cut, and David Garrard has been handed the starting gig. The career backup is in the hot seat in Jacksonville, as is coach Jack Del Rio.

Player to watch: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
The Jags ranked third in rushing last season, a trend the team hopes to continue with Jones-Drew and his backfield buddy Fred Taylor. The duo racked up some impressive numbers last year. However, Fred Taylor has been synonymous with "injured" his entire career, and the burden of carrying the load falls solely on human bowling-ball Jones-Drew.

2007 projected record: 9-7

3. Tennessee Titans
Coach:
Jeff Fisher
2006 Record: 8-8

There's not much to say about the Titans besides these two words – Vince Young. The success of the team rides on the second year quarterback, and sailing is not going to be as easy as it was last season. With fewer receivers at his disposal with the losses of Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade, and defenses more keen on zoning in on his run, Young will need to pull out more tricks from up his sleeve to keep his team afloat. Don't count on the defense to be of assistance either.

Player to watch: Vince Young, QB
Will the Madden curse hold true? Young single-handedly jumpstarted the Titans season last year with his impressive skills on the ground, but the video game gods may have other plans for him.

2007 projected record: 8-8

4. Houston Texans
Coach:
Gary Kubiak
2006 Record: 6-10
It's cute that the Texans are optimistic for this season, but let's be realistic, it doesn't look nearly as pretty as David Carr's luscious locks. After a season of countless sacks, Coach Gary Kubiak brought in Falcons backup QB Matt Schaub in the offseason to takeover the starting job from Carr. Let's just hope that Kubiak has a plan B for when Schaub hits the turf just as much as Carr did and he realizes that the problem isn't the quarterback, but the front five. Another great offseason acquisition: aging runningback Ahman Green out of Green Bay. Less than four yards per carry is not worth a $23 million contract.

Player to watch: DeMeco Ryans, LB
Last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Ryans and the rest of the Texans defense have a lot of weight to carry this season. This could be the year for him to establish himself as a real playmaker.

2007 projected record: 6-10


AFC West

Reigning MVP LaDainian Tomlinson looks to lead San Diego back into the postseason.

<i>Photo courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images via Sports Illustrated</i>
Reigning MVP LaDainian Tomlinson looks to lead San Diego back into the postseason. Photo courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images via Sports Illustrated
1. San Diego Chargers
Coach:
Norv Turner
2006 Record: 14-2

The Chargers have gone from laughingstock of the league to powerhouse team in just a few seasons. With last season's 14-2 record and 492 points scored (both league-bests), San Diego fans are daring to cast off the memories of the Ryan Leaf years and utter the "SB" words hopefully. For the rest of us, it's questionable.

Team president Dean Spanos fired veteran coach Marty Schottenheimer in February after the relationship between Schottenheimer and Chargers' management became strained. Schottenheimer played a large part in the Chargers' turnaround, but was notorious for faltering in the playoffs. Will the less experienced Norv Turner (and his four new assistant coaches) be the solution? If second-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers can remain strong, star running back LaDainian Tomlinson can continue to anchor the team and the Chargers' defense (minus veteran LB Donnie Edwards) stays solid, San Diego is looking at another year at the top of the AFC West.

Player to watch: Philip Rivers, QB
When you think Chargers, most people think LaDainian Tomlinson, arguably the best running back the game has seen. But what the Chargers need to improve their playoff luck is a strong performance from their quarterback. While Rivers exceeded expectations in his starting role last year, he began to get shaky near the end of the season. A little bit of consistency can go a long way.

2007 Projected Record: 11-5

2. Denver Broncos
Coach:
Mike Shanahan
2006 Record: 9-7

The Broncos were a little roughed up in the preseason, but they still head into the season opener as playoff contenders. After just barely missing the playoffs last year, they are rearing up for a stronger performance this time around. With a quarterback firmly in place, and a returning crew of decent backs and receivers, the Broncos O is looking up.

Denver's defense on the other hand, has been lacking in the preseason. Last year it was touted as one of the best defenses in the conference, after it allowed only one touchdown in its first five games. Preseason may not matter much, but still, it is a little disconcerting to see one of the league's "finest" let the San Francisco offense tear it apart for 144 rushing yards.

Player to watch: Jay Cutler, QB
With Jake Plummer officially gone, this season will mark Cutler's first full season as the starting quarterback. Cutler was the third quarterback selected in last year's draft, right behind Vince Young and Matt Leinart, with some regarding him even as the best quarterback in the draft. Will this J.C. be the Broncos' savior?

2007 Projected Record: 10-6

3. Kansas City Chiefs
Coach:
Herm Edwards
2006 Record: 9-7

The Chiefs finally solved their running woes when Larry Johnson agreed to a six-year $43.2 million extension in late August. The Johnson agreement put to rest the worry of having to bring back Priest Holmes before he's fully recovered, but the Chiefs still haven't fixed their problems at quarterback. After trading Trent Green to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason, the Chiefs were left with yet another quarterback controversy, this time between backups Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle. Who? Yeah, exactly. The Chiefs also lost marquee players guard Will Shields and return specialist Dante Hall. Coach Herm Edwards has improved the Chiefs' defense a bit from a few years ago, with the addition of Ty Law in the secondary, but the defense isn't strong enough to carry the team while the quarterback situation works itself out.

Player to watch: Brodie Croyle, QB
He's only a second-year man, and it looks like he'll start the year as Damon Huard's backup, but some in Kansas City are touting him as the "quarterback of the future." Whatever he turns out to be, it'll have a large impact on which direction the Chiefs go this season and beyond.

Predicted 2007 record: 7-9

4. Oakland Raiders
Coach:
Lane Kiffin
2006 Record: 2-14

It appears that the Chargers have passed their "laughingstock of the league" title to their AFC West rival Raiders. The Raiders, who can't seem to stick with a head coach, named their fifth head coach in seven years this January, former USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin, 32, will be the youngest head coach in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger. Maybe Raiders' owner Al Davis thinks that some fresh blood will jump-start his lethargic team. It'll take more than that, Al.

The Raiders' most likely starting quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, has been slowed by knee injuries the past two seasons and with him fumbling snaps left and right like he did in the preseason, the Raiders one salvation, running back LaMont Jordan, may be slowed down as well. Plus, first overall pick JaMarcus Russell still isn't signed. Even worse, the Raiders lost receiver Randy Moss to the Patriots in the offseason. If there's one hope for the Raiders this year, it'll be found in their schedule. Of the 10 non-division teams they face, eight had .500 or below records last year.

Player to watch: Jerry Porter, WR
Porter had a pathetic season last year, after numerous spats with head coach Art Shell left him sidelined for a lot of games. If he shapes up this year under Kiffin, the Raiders may start on the path to better times.

2007 Projected Record: 3-13



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  • 08 on October 18, 2007 at 12:00 PM
    the packers, in week 6, have already matched your predicted win total

    and the bears have already lost more than you predicted
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