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2006 NFL Preview

Are you ready for some football?

By Abe Schwadron, Online Managing Editor, Phillip Allen, Online Managing Sports Editor and Pia Nargundkar, Online Editor-in-Chief
September 7, 2006
Breathe. The months of waiting for pro football to return are over. Lord football is back and ready to reign once again. Whether you need to check up on your favorite team, analyze this year's Super Bowl contenders or just want to do a little light reading before the NFL kicks off later tonight, SCO's staff of NFL experts is here for you.

Below are all previews for all 32 teams, along with a Breakout Star to watch from each team and 2006 projections, including Super Bowl picks. And relax, football fans, your time is now.

NFC East

1. Washington Redskins
Coach: Joe Gibbs
2005 Record: 10-6

This off-season, the Redskins went out and did what they always do, they spent, spent, and spent. This summer they acquired game-breaking wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El, from the 49ers and Steelers respectively. They also signed powerful running back T.J. Duckett, defensive end Andre Carter and strong safety Adam Archuleta. All four of these players figure to play a major part in the success or failure of the Redskins this season.

The Redskins have arguably the most talented team in the entire NFC or even the entire NFL. All Mark Brunell has to do is get the ball to his game-breaking running back, Clinton Portis, or throw it down the field to any of his three speedy wideouts and the Redskins will be able to score points with anyone in the league.

The Redskins' secondary should be scary-good this year. Carlos Rogers now has a year of experience under his belt, and could be ready to make the next step to becoming a shut-down corner. On the other side, Shawn Springs will hold down the opposing team's top receiver. In between the two corners lurks Sean Taylor and Adam Archuleta, two of the best safeties in the game today.

Breakout Star: Chris Cooley, TE
Last season Mark Brunell found a favorite target in Chris Cooley. All the long passes were to Santana Moss, but the clutch third-down passes went to Mr. Cool himself. With almost 800 yards and seven touchdowns last season, Cooley could become a top receiving threat for Washington this season.

2006 Projected Record: 11-5
If Joe Gibbs can harness all of the Redskins talent and turn it into a team effort, the Redskins could go as far as (should I say it?) the Super Bowl.

2. Dallas Cowboys
Coach: Bill Parcells
2005 Record: 9-7

Last season's 9-7 record didn't satisfy Jerry Jones or Bill Parcells, so they went out and signed one of the best receivers in the game. They also signed one of the biggest locker room cancers in the game. They are the same person: Terrell Owens. Over the past six seasons, no receiver has been more consistent in his production than T.O. Over those six seasons he has averaged nearly 1,300 yards receiving with 14 touchdowns. The sad thing is even these numbers can be overshadowed by his off-field antics. Owens, while almost single-handedly carrying the Eagles in the Super Bowl, single-handedly tore the team apart by criticizing its unquestioned leader and quarterback Donovan McNabb. If Owens can stay out of trouble off the field, he will definitely be an asset on it.

The defense will be held together by Roy Williams, one of the best safeties in the game. Williams' hard-hitting style inspires his teammates to raise their level of play to his intense, dominating level.

Breakout Star: Marion Barber, RB
He will start the season as the backup, but last season Barber proved he has NFL skills. Bill Parcells isn't too close with Julius Jones so he will have to perform well early on to keep the job from Barber. Once Barber gets on the field, he could be the ground answer the Cowboys need.

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
The Cowboys could be a pre-season favorite to win the division if they didn't play in the NFC East, the toughest division in football.

3. New York Giants
Coach: Tom Coughlin
2005 Record: 11-5

Last season Tiki Barber became a new player and the Giants became a new team. He left his fumble problems behind and rushed for 1,860 yards.

If Barber remains a beast, the Giants offense should open up for Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress. Last season Manning made giant strides, throwing for 3,762 yards and 24 touchdowns. According to head coach Tom Coughlin, nobody worked harder this off-season to improve their game, and if that is true it should show up on the field. Last season Burress and Manning established some good chemistry and if that continues, the Giants should be able to exploit defenses through their mix of run and pass.

The Giants signed linebacker LaVar Arrington from the Redskins to help bolster their defense. Rejoined with former Skins teammate Antonio Pierce, the Giants defense should be much more athletic this season. The Giants also feature two of the best defensive ends in the game in Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Last season the two combined for 26 sacks. Having a good end on each side makes it tough for offensive lines to cover them both because they have to choose who to double team.

Breakout Star: Eli Manning, QB
If he really was as studious as Coughlin claims, Manning should be able to read defenses better and keep better control of the ball. Better vision should enable Manning to put his pinpoint accuracy to better use and could elevate him closer to Peyton-like status.

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
If Barber can replicate his 2005 season and young Manning can step up his game, the Giants have a shot at going deep in the playoffs.

4. Philadelphia Eagles
Coach: Andy Reid
2005 Record: 6-10

The Eagles begin anew this season without Terrell Owens. Donovan McNabb now has new options to throw to in Donte Stallworth and Reggie Brown. Stallworth has never been a number one receiver before, but he has the speed to be dangerous. In the backfield, Brian Westbrook will try to carry the load. He seems to be a big fragile and only played in 12 games last year, but still had a combined 1,200 yard season
both on the ground and through the air.

On defense, defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley looks to make an instant impact in the middle with the ageless Jeremiah Trotter right behind him in the middle linebacker spot. Brian Dawkins anchors the secondary with strong safety Michael Lewis.

Breakout Star: Reggie Brown, WR
Not only can he be a star, he needs to be a star for the Eagles to be successful this year. A 1,000 yard season is definitely reachable for this budding second year player from Georgia.

2006 Projected Record: 7-9
Although it looks like the Eagles have the least talent in the division, that shouldn't stop them from having a respectable season.


NFC South

1. Carolina Panthers
Coach: John Fox
2005 Record: 11-5

After losing in the NFC title game in 2005, the Panthers are this year's sexy pick to take home the Lombardi trophy. Carolina will wear down opponents by running the ball and playing stifling defense. And with clutch players who get the most out of their abilities and size, like quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith, this team will likely reside among the league's elite. The addition of wideout Keyshawn Johnson gives Delhomme a possession receiver perfect for third-and-short situations, and will also help keep opposing defenses from double-teaming the dangerous and speedy Smith (1563 yards receiving, 12 TD in '05).

As for Carolina's defense, it ranks among the best in the NFL, and its ferocity starts on the defensive line. Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and newcomer Maake Kemoeatu man the trenches for the Panthers on D—one that racked up 45 sacks in 2005. If offenses dare to pass, they will have to face two stellar corners in Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble (13 INT combined in 2005) and hard-hitting safety Mike Minter.

Breakout Star: DeAngelo Williams, RB
Although DeShaun Foster is first on the depth chart at tailback, his injury history and lack of durability mean that Williams will almost surely see significant playing time for Carolina. The rookie can shake-and-bake with the best of them, and could be just the sparkplug this team needs to reach the Super Bowl.

2006 Projected Record: 12-4
If the Panthers can beat up their division foes and take care of cupcakes like Cleveland, they can conquer the NFC and reach the title game. But if defenses lock down on Smith and Foster is roughed up, the Panthers will look to their defense to make big plays and keep them in games—something that unit is fully capable of accomplishing. A return to the postseason for the Panthers is all but a done deal.

2. Atlanta Falcons
Coach: Jim Mora Jr.
2005 Record: 8-8

Since making quarterback Michael Vick the face of the franchise, the Atlanta Falcons have been mired in disappointment, despite boasting one of the NFL's top defensive units. The Falcons have yet to put Vick in a system that allows him to flourish to his full potential, and even with his heroics, Atlanta struggled to help out their big-time QB; of the Falcons' 39 touchdowns in 2005, 21 came from Vick. Veteran running back Warrick Dunn (1416 yards rushing, 3 TD in '05) will be under pressure in the ATL this season after the team shipped backup running back and top goal-line threat T.J. Duckett (8 TD last season) to the Redskins.

On defense, the Falcons still field an intimidating group of physical defenders, especially along the defensive line. Defensive ends John Abraham and Patrick Kerney are sack machines, and tackle Rod Coleman emerged last year as a force up the middle, piling up 10 and a half sacks in '05. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall is perhaps the fastest player in the NFL, and the most respected young defensive back in the league. The only kink in the Falcons' defensive armor is their aging linebacking corps.

Breakout Star: Roddy White, WR
The UAB product has shown the potential for being Vick's number one receiver, and an impressive rookie season has coach Mora hoping he can provide upwards of 50 receptions this year. White can also burn most CBs in the league with ease—kid can fly.

2006 Projected Record: 9-7
The Falcons have improved their receiving corps for 2006 (adding much maligned ex-Bronco Ashley Lelie) and are still a team focused on defense and running the ball, so Atlanta should have a good showing this season, but won't make the playoffs—their division is too tough.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach: Jon Gruden
2005 Record: 11-5

Last season, the Buccaneers rallied to win the NFC South and a bid in the postseason, losing to the Redskins on Wild-Card weekend. In so doing, the Bucs reminded the NFL of their defensive dominance and alerted opponents to their new stud in the backfield, Cadillac Williams. Williams churned out 1,178 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie last season, and helped make first-year QB Chris Simms' job infinitely easier. This year, the Bucs will look to build around their running game and play grind-it-out football.

Tampa Bay's defense boasts some of the biggest names in the league, and their play has backed up the hype coming with those names in recent years. Hulking defensive end Simeon Rice piled up 14 sacks last season, while linebackers Shelton Quarles and Derrick Brooks each had upwards of 125 tackles. Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly give receivers fits despite giving up several inches in height advantage to most receivers, and the entire Bucs secondary snatches interceptions like no other team in the NFC.

Breakout Star: Michael Clayton, WR
If the Buccaneers ever decide to air it out, Clayton will be on the receiving end of most of Simms' passes. The third-year wideout missed several game last season due to injury, but a 6-4 he is a matchup problem for most corners, and he will be groomed for the number one wide receiver spot, as Joey Galloway enters his twelfth season in the league.

2006 Projected Record: 8-8
The Buccaneers had a dream season in 2005, and matching it in 2006 will be no easy task. The Bucs have the third toughest schedule in the NFL and have to play eight games against playoff teams. And although they're getting younger on offense, Tampa Bay's defense will start to show its age late in the season.

4. New Orleans Saints
Coach: Sean Payton
2005 Record: 3-13

After a disaster of a season in 2005, in which New Orleans felt the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints picked up perhaps the most dynamic player to come to the NFL since the dawn of the new millennium. If you don't know by now, Reggie Bush is a lightning-quick tailback with an arsenal of moves most often compared to Gale Sayers'. The Saints also added a young, experienced and gifted quarterback in Drew Brees, who takes over an offense that notched less than 25 touchdowns in 2005.

Unfortunately, Bush and Brees don't play defense. The Saints will struggle to stop teams this year after doing little to bolster their lackluster defense. New Orleans' defensive line is weaker than Deuce McAllister's ankles—other than the individual efforts of defensive end Will Smith (8.5 sacks in '05), the Saints won't get much a pass rush. As for stopping the run, the Saints ranked 27th in the NFL last season in rush defense.

Breakout Star: Reggie Bush, RB
Putting any other name in this slot is a joke. Though he'll split time with McAllister, and will likely need time adjusting to the speed of NFL defenses, Bush can make an immediate impact for the Saints as a kick and punt returner and as a third or fourth wide receiver in some offensive sets. Bush has a chance to be special, and he will show signs of his potential right away.

2006 Projected Record: 5-11
The Saints are better than they were last season, but unfortunately for New Orleans fans, that doesn't mean much. Losing speed demon wideout Donte' Stallworth won't help the receiving corps, which lists Joe Horn (1 TD last season) as its #1 option. Until the Saints make an effort to get better on D, none of their young offensive stars will make much of a difference in the standings.


NFC North

1. Minnesota Vikings
Coach: Brad Childress
2005 Record: 9-7

Lucky for Vikings players, the players' union limits a team's punitive capacities. After the scandal involving inappropriate activities on a team boat last season was discovered, the Vikings became the butt of many jokes. It didn't help that over the offseason safety Dwight Smith received misdemeanor chargers for inappropriate conduct with a woman in a nightclub and (now released) wide receiver Koren Robinson was arrested for drunk driving and fleeing the police. But all that's in the past, and the Vikings are ready to play football with new head coach Brad Childress. Childress traded QB Daunte Culpepper to Miami, instead opting to get behind 38 year-old Brad Johnson. Johnson isn't letting his age deter him, however, and insists he's ready to play and win. Unfortunately for him however, the Vikings released his number one receiver, Robinson, a few weeks ago. Even so, with Childress' new West Coast offense and new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's Cover 2 scheme, the Vikings have a lot to look forward to this season.

Breakout Star: Todd Pinkston, WR
Childress brought another Eagle to the Vikings, veteran receiver Todd Pinkston. He should help the depleted receiver corps after Robinson was released.

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
In the weak NFC North, the Vikings really have a chance to do well. If Brad Johnson and Todd Pinkston make a good combination, and the defense holds up, the Vikings can be looking at the divisional playoffs.

2. Chicago Bears
Coach: Lovie Smith
2005 Record: 11-5

Brian Urlacher is still mad about losing against Carolina in the playoffs. And when he gets mad, it normally means pain for the opposing team's quarterback. However, while Chicago's defense is looking strong with Urlacher and fellow linebacker Lance Briggs, its offense is sadly lacking. Both the starting quarterback and running back jobs are up for grabs. To make matters worse, fans booed current starting quarterback Rex Grossman at a home preseason game against Arizona. While Muhsin Mohammed is fairly dependable as a receiver, the Bears don't have another receiver they can count on. Not all is looking bad for the Bears though, all 22 of their starters from last year are returning, and they are the only NFC North team to retain their coach.

Breakout Star: Lance Briggs, LB
Returning for his 7th season with the Bears, MLB Brian Urlacher is as strong and formidable as ever. Although some say LB Lance Briggs only shines next to Urlacher, he is a budding star of his own.

2006 Projected Record: 9-7
With a solid defense, a complete set of returning starters, and a decent schedule, the Bears can hope to fair well enough to make a wild card spot. However, it hinges on quarterback Rex Grossman's performance, as well as lackluster performances by the other teams in the conference.

3. Detroit Lions
Coach: Rod Marinelli
2005 Record: 5-11

The Lions' discipline should be well improved under new head coach Rob Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Charles Rogers, the first-round draft pick in 2003, was kicked out after Marinelli was unimpressed by his work ethic. Also gone, another former first-round pick, QB Joey Harrington. With running back Kevin Jones and wide receiver Roy Williams, the Lions offense is looking up. On defense, rookies Ernie Sims (linebacker) and Daniel Bullocks (free safety) bring fresh talent to the team. However, the Lions still have plenty of holes to worry about. The offensive line is weak, and they protect a weak quarterback, Jon Kitna, who is starting this year after playing a total of seven games in the past two years with Cincinnati.

Breakout Star: Roy Williams, WR
This year could be wide receiver Roy Williams' year. While not the fastest, Williams is reliable downfield in traffic.

2006 Projected Record: 6-10
While the Lions have made improvements, there are still too many holes to make them a viable playoff contender. Once the rookies have had time to develop their talent, as well as undergo a few more years of Marinelli's discipline, the Lions will be seen in a whole new light.

4. Green Bay
Coach: Mike McCarthy
2005 Record: 4-12

Brett Favre is staying on for another season. He's entering his 16th NFL season (15th with the Packers) and is 36 years old. Now, everyone loves Brett, but is he doing his team and legion of fans a disservice by sticking around? The Packers offense is now packed with new, inexperienced players and an aging quarterback, which doesn't exactly make the best recipe for success. On the other hand, new coach Mike McCarthy is one of Favre's former quarterback coaches—someone who knows Favre's style and can help him get back to his prime. Additionally, the Packers defense has improved with the drafting of linebacker A.J. Hawk in the first round, and the free agency signings of a cornerback, a defensive tackle and a strong safety. Quarterback Brett Favre isn't going to prove his critics right. He has kept himself in excellent physical condition and has been practicing hard over the off-season. His performance is key to the Packers future this season.

Breakout Star: A.J. Hawk, LB
Hawk will give the lackluster Packers defense a shot of adrenaline and begin the youth movement for Green Bay. This kid can hit hard and cover tight ends equally well.

2006 Projected Record: 4-12
The new offense will need experience before they can work together and get results. Unfortunately, the Packers don't have that time, and will give up crucial early games to elementary mistakes.


NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks
Coach: Mike Holmgren
2005 Record: 13-3

The Seahawks, like 38 teams before them, suffered the ultimate let down last season. No matter how you look at it second place in the NFL is just another disappointment, only with the second to last draft pick in April. Lucky for them they maintained all the pieces of their NFC Championship run and have positioned themselves for another shot at the title. The Seahawks offense is just as potent with returning MVP Shaun Alexander and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselback. Seattle improve its receiving corps by adding Nate Burleson to replace Korean "drop ball" Robinson and preserved their O-line with the exception of left guard Steve Hutchinson. With the offense solid as usually, the team's only worries lie in the secondary of their defense. With one of the games top front-sevens, featuring linebackers Julian Peterson and Leroy Hill, the birds ability to stop the run will be unquestioned, but the loss of Free Safety Marquand Manuel leaves there backline vulnerable.

Breakout Star: Kelly Jennings, CB
Julian Peterson would be an easy choice for this role as he finally has found his way onto a contender but the more adventurous pick would be Kelly Jennings the first round draft pick corner. He's blazing fast, young and has a natural nose for interceptions. And hey, since he's from The U (University of Miami) he'll know what to do.

2006 Projected Record: 11-5
Seattle will prove that this team is no fluke and won't follow the trend of Super Bowl runner-up flops. Seattle remains the team to beat at least in the NFC West.

2. Arizona Cardinals
Coach: Dennis Green
2005 Record: 5-11

The time has come for Phoniex to drag themselves up from the depths of the NFL gutter. As easily the worst franchise since its conception (2 playoff births in 18 years), they finally have all the pieces for at least a wild card run. The offense is finally there; Kurt Warner calls the shots with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in the outside and now top-tier RB Edgerrin James lines up in the back field. That being said the defense has nearly as many holes as the offense has stars. Only pass rushing end Bertrand Berry really holds any merit.

Breakout Star: Bertrand Berry, DE
Bertrand Berry is just a little help way from a 15-sack season; this might just be the year.

2006 Projected Record: 9-7
This season the Cards will have a terrific offensive attack, and if their defense can hold teams to 20 points or less, the franchise's inaugural season in their new state-of-the-art stadium may be a winning one.

3. St. Louis Rams
Coach: Scott Linehan
2005 Record: 6-10

The Rams no longer qualify as the "Greatest Show on Turf". Professional Lacrosse has finally stolen that title. The only hope is they may still be entertaining. New head coach Scott Lienhan, who took over for Mike Martz, brings a new style—a more run-dominated offense that will take advantage of emerging star Steven Jackson's abilities. Marc Bulger still has his favorite targets in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce but with the evolving game plan it is unclear how many touches they will see. On defense, Jim Haslett has been hired to implement his new, more aggressive plan that may see some success but will require some serious personnel improvements before it can be most effectively run.

Breakout Star: Kevin Curtis, WR
Kevin Curtis, the team's third wide receiver is believed to be Isaac Bruce's replacement and may take over the veteran's spot by year-end. With mediocre speed but great hands and intuitive moves to elude defenders, Curtis should have an immediate impact.

2006 Projected Record: 6-10
The addition of Will Witherspoon at linebacker may help their defense, but with an aging team and a crummy defense, it remains only a remote chance this team wins eight games.

4. San Francisco 49ers
Coach: Mike Nolan
2005 Record: 4-12

There is one good thing for all 49ers fans to remember this season: last year the team was ranked last in both total offense and total defense. There is only one way to go, and that's up. Still, it seems unlikely when the team's best defensive player, Julian Peterson, was lost to division rival Seattle. The offense was enhanced with the addition of receiver Antonio Bryant and man-child tight end Vernon Davis, but quarterback Alex Smith is still not NFL ready. The silver lining is the emergence of Frank Gore as a potential workhorse back.

Breakout Star: Vernon Davis, TE
Vernon Davis the All-American out of Maryland has the potential to be the leagues most dominant tight end. He already has the largest contract in the positions history it's only a matter of time before he shows his true value.

2006 Projected Record: 3-13
San Francisco does have an outside shot at a Super Bowl…if a rule change is implemented that makes turnovers worth six points, Alex Smith and the 49ers will eclipse the competition. If not there's always next year.


AFC East

1. New England Patriots
Coach: Bill Belichick
2005 Record: 10-6

The Patriots are unmatched in the personnel department. When the Pats lose one good player, they add two more who no one has ever heard of or no one wants. Simply put, Bill Belichick is a genius. Take Laurence Maroney, for instance, the rookie running back from the University of Minnesota that New England added in the first round of the draft. With Corey Dillon aging quickly and the Pats lacking an open-field threat, Maroney is the perfect addition to an offense on the brink of monotony. Quarterback Tom Brady will look to his young tight ends as his primary passing options in '06 after Deion Branch's holdout and a depletion of the Pats' receiving corps.

New England's defense has taken a dip in efficiency in the last few years, with Belichick choosing instead to win shootouts and rely on the clutch performance of Mr. All-American, Brady. Still, the Patriots stuff the run effectively and have big playmakers like Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Their lone weakness is their corners, who led the team to be ranked 31 of 32 NFL teams in pass defense.

Breakout Star: Vince Wilfork, DT
Wilfork is one big fella. The 6-2, 325-pounder enters his third year in the NFL as New England's primary run-stopper. Wilfork is durable, tough and savvy, even as a 24-year-old. Offensive linemen beware…

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
The Patriots rule the AFC East, and their ability to win close games combined with stellar coaching makes them Super Bowl contender every year. Although they might not lift the Lombardi trophy, the Pats will grind through another year and add another double-digit win total to the record books.

2. Miami Dolphins
Coach: Nick Saban
2005 Record: 9-7

For a team that went into last season surrounded in controversy (Ricky Williams…Ricky Williams…get the point?), Miami salvaged a decent season and was able to build the foundation for successful seasons to come. Ronnie Brown emerged as the tailback of the future, and receiver Chris Chambers is poised for a huge year with the addition of quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Although Culpepper is recovering from a knee injury, his potential with the weapons in Miami is infinite.

Kevin Carter and Jason Taylor give the 'Phins a pair of bookend defensive ends that puts fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. As for a weakness, Miami will struggle in the secondary, a unit depleted by injuries and plagued with inexperience.

Breakout Star: Ronnie Brown, RB
Okay, so Brown might already be a star, but with headcase Ricky Williams out of his way and a revamped passing attack to draw defenders away from him, Brown should show his full potential in this, his second year in the league. Brown scored 4 TDs last season and rushed for 907 yards. Ronnie Brown is ready to blow up. Seriously.

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
The Dolphins are a much-improved team, and although critics say their D has slacked off from its dominance in recent years, a healthy Daunte Culpepper will lead them into the playoffs, and perhaps beyond. And if not, hey, the Super Bowl is still in Miami.

3. Buffalo Bills
Coach: Dick Jauron
2005 Record: 5-11

Last year, the Bills had one of the worst defenses in the NFL, and were ranked 31st in rush D. The addition of run-stuffer Larry Tripplett to the defensive line should help improve that rank, although the Bills defense may have to spend extended periods of time on the field due to their putrid offense.

J.P. Losman has been deemed the starting quarterback for Buffalo, although veteran backup Kelly Holcomb is waiting in the wings if Losman fouls up. If Losman can cut down on his bad decisions, he does have some nice offensive weapons to work with. Wide receiver Lee Evans put up solid numbers last year (48 receptions, 743 yards, 7TD), and ex-Bill Peerless Price hopes to make a triumphant return to Buffalo.

Breakout Star: Donte Whitner, S
Whitner is a physical defensive back with cover skills. Coming straight out of The Ohio State University, Whitner will look to give the Bills a taste of the future on a defense that will be searching for bright spots.

2006 Projected Record: 7-9
As a team in rebuilding mode, nothing could be tougher than playing in two games a year against both the Patriots and Dolphins, and Buffalo will also travel to Baltimore, Chicago and Indy in 2006. Bills fans can only hope that young QB J.P. Losman shows signs of his potential and endure another long losing season.

4. New York Jets
Coach: Eric Mangini
2005 Record: 4-12

Eric Mangini, yet another genius from the Patriots coaching staff, takes over at the helm in the toughest sports town in the U.S. Mangini will be wishing he hadn't signed up to coach the Jets by Week 3, because unless Chad Pennington can recapture his glory and the defense has a miraculous turnaround, this team is headed nowhere fast.

New York enters 2006 with Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver and the trio of Derrick Blaylock, Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow at tailback. On the defensive side of the ball, the Jets' strength is at linebacker. As they make the transition to a 3-4 defense, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Hobson and Eric Barton will start at linebacker in Week One. Rookie corner Justin Miller will have to adjust to the NFL real quick, or opponents will air it out against the Jets.

Breakout Star: Jonathan Vilma, LB
Alright, so Vilma may have already established himself as one of the best young linebackers in the league, but don't forget this kid is entering just his third NFL season. Vilma will be asked to anchor a Jets defense that will be burdened with keeping New York's pitiful offense close in games.

2006 Projected Record: 4-12
The J-E-T-S Jets are W-E-A-K weak this year, and without a real running back, quarterback or corner, New York will struggle mightily to win 5 games.


AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts
Coach: Tony Dungy
2005 Record: 14-2

With their stellar record last season, Colt's fans were sorely disappointed when their team didn't make it to the Super Bowl. But in fact, the Colts have made it to the playoffs the last four years, each time falling short of the big one. Could this year be their year? The answer depends on how well they recover from the off-season loss of star running back Edgerrin James. The Colts passed on him after he became a free agent, enabling James to sign with Arizona. Instead they opted to use Dominic Rhodes, James' former backup, and their first-round draft pick Joseph Addai. Addai has looked promising in practices, but both him and Rhodes are behind third-stringer Kory Chapman in preseason rushing yards. The other big off-season news was the acquisition of former New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinateri. Unfortunately, Vinateri has a sprained ankle and a bone chip and is questionable for the season opener. Yet, with the Manning-Harrison pair still in tact, Colts fans have plenty to look forward too.

Breakout Star: Adam Vinatieri, K
With 3,747 passing yards and 28 touchdowns last season, Payton Manning is one hot quarterback. Coupled with receiver Marvin Harrison, the dynamic duo will lead the Colts offense to many red zone trips this season. When they get there, keep an eye on Adam Vinateri. He may be "just a kicker", but this guy wins Super Bowls.

2006 Projected Record: 12-4
Despite the loss of James and the uncertainty Vinateri, the Colts have plenty riding for them. With Prow Bowl QB Manning at the head of the offense and the NFL's winningest head coach from '99-'05 Tony Dungy managing from the sidelines, the Colts should easily cruise to a first place spot in the AFC South.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Coach: Jack Del Rio
2005 Record: 12-4

The Jaguars turned around last year, making their first playoff berth since 1999. However, this year they will be hard pressed to make a repeat appearance. Starting fullback Greg Jones is out for the season with a torn ligament in his left knee and veteran wide receiver Jimmy Smith has retired. To make matters worse for the offense, quarterback Byron Leftwich, who missed the last five games of the 2005 season due to a broken ankle, hasn't looked too sharp in the preseason. He has been sacked seven times in three games and has failed to lead the starting offense to a touchdown against the opposing team's starting defense. However, coach Jack Del Rio's specialty is defense, and Jacksonville has certainly benefited from his instruction. Tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud are skilled, and with the addition of Reggie Hayward at DE, the Jaguars defense ranks in the top five.

Breakout Star: Matt Jones, WR
The Jaguars are still looking to find a replacement for Jimmy Smith, their number one receiver, and are hoping that Matt Jones can fill that space. Jones, who was a quarterback in college, lacks the speed but handles the ball well. Also keep an eye out for tackles Henderson and Stroud, whose strength and size anchor the Jacksonville defense.

2006 Projected Record: 8-8
The Jaguars have a much tougher schedule this year, and still have to work out the kinks with their running backs and receivers. Leftwich has to stay healthy and perform, and the defense has to stay solid. With a lot of ifs, the Jaguars might hope for a playoff spot.

3. Tennessee Titans
Coach: Jeff Fisher
2005 Record: 4-12
The Titans did a lot of reshaping over the off-season. They traded away veteran quarterback Steve McNair to the Ravens and drafted quarterback and 2006 Heisman contender Vince Young, as well as USC tailback LenDale White. They added depth to a rookie defense with free safety Chris Hope from the Steelers and LB David Thornton from the Colts. Drew Bennett and David Givens (if he can stay healthy) are promising wide receivers. Is it enough to turn the dilapidated team back around to the Super Bowl contenders that they were only 2 seasons ago? Well, no, not really. The starting quarterback position is still up for grabs, after the Titans signed 11-year veteran quarterback Kerry Collins and demoted former starting QB Billy Volek to third on the roster. Rookie Vince Young may start sooner than anyone expected. On the defensive side, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch had a breakout season last year with 12.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance, and hopes to duplicate that this season. The Titans still have a few holes to work out in the secondary (as well as ensuring CB Adam "Pacman" Jones doesn't get himself arrested again) before they can hope for an over-.500 season.

Breakout Star: Vince Young, QB
Even though he was taken third overall in the draft, no one really expected Vince Young to start in his first year in the NFL. However, with no official announcement about the starting quarterback job, Young may see his first NFL start sooner rather than later.

2006 Projected Record: 4-12
The Titans have a lot of work to do before they can think about the playoffs. This year will function as a transition year, as Young, White, and the rest settle into the NFL and Fisher's scheme.

4. Houston Texans
Coach: Gary Kubiak
2005 Record: 2-14
Gary Kubiak must have a hard time sleeping at night. The Texans coach passed up on the Heisman Trophy winning running back Reggie Bush and instead opted for DE Mario Williams, who hasn't produced much during preseason. Additionally, the Texans starting running back Domanick Davis was put on injured reserve after a prolonged knee injury. To solve their problem, the team signed RB Ron Dayne two days after the Denver Broncos cut him. But running back isn't the Texans only concern. After being the first pick of the 2002 draft, David Carr has hardly shined. He's been the NFL's most sacked quarterback for three out of the last four seasons, with a total of 208 sacks. Of course, that also speaks volumes about the Texans offensive line. On defense, the new coordinator, Richard Smith, has changed the scheme from a 3-4 base to a 4-3, which he hopes will make for a more aggressive, and hopefully not, more mistake-prone defense.

Breakout Star: Mario Williams, DE
The Texans are hoping Mario Williams will fare better in the regular season and be an anchor for the new 4-3 defense.

2006 Projected Record: 3-13
Luck is not on the Texans side. Ever since their creation in 2002, the Texans have struggled. This year doesn't look any different, unless David Carr can get his act together and Mario Williams can prove he was a worthwhile first pick.


AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Coach: Bill Cowher
2005 Record: 11-5

Normally a team looks to improve on their finish from last season, but for one lucky team, all they want to do is replicate last season's finish. That team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last season turned into a dream for the Steelers, winning Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis their first Super Bowls.

Running back ("Silly") Willy Parker and wideout Hines Ward will help move the ball and score points for the Steelers. The Steelers did lose the most versatile player in the NFL, game-changer and second wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El. Cedric Wilson will replace Randle-El, a significant drop-off. On defense, the Steelers have one of the most feared linebackers in the league in Joey Porter. With by far the biggest mouth and one of the biggest hearts in the NFL, Porter talks smack and backs it up. Strong safety Troy Polamalu proved last year that he was among the elite safeties in the NFL and his clutch play in the playoffs helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl. The Steelers secondary looks strong with Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and cornerbacks Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor.

Breakout Star: Willie Parker, RB
With the departure of Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker now becomes the only legitimate ground threat the Steelers have. Bettis won't take his goal line carries, and Parker's numbers should improve.

2006 Projected Record: 11-5
The Steelers look to stay on top of the league and win the most coveted championship in American sports for the second time in 2006. With Big Ben at the helm, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl will try to lead his troops again in 2006.

2. Cincinnati Bengals
Coach: Marvin Lewis
2005 Record: 11-5

The 2006 Cincinnati Bengals season hinges on the play of one player, Carson Palmer. If Palmer can stay on the field the Bengals have one of the best pocket passers in the game in their backfield. But with one sack, Palmer and the Bengals season could go down the drain. After ending last season with a torn ACL on a vicious hit by the Steelers' Kimo von Oelhoffen, Palmer and the Bengals look to improve on last season's superb regular season. With game-breaking weapons like Chad and Rudi Johnson Cincinnati has the tools to do just that.

On the other side of the ball, the Bengals have a young nucleus to build around. Outside linebacker David Pollack, middle linebacker Odell Thurman, and defensive end Justin Smith provide much needed speed on the defensive side of the ball.

Breakout Star: Chris Henry, WR
Henry will start the season as the Bengals' third wide receiver, but should either Chad Johnson or T.J. Houshmanzadeh go down, he will be moved into the starting lineup. At 6-4 with blazing speed, Henry is poised to make an impact this year.

2006 Projected Record: 10-6
The Bengals' potent offense and their speedy defense should provide another excellent season with plenty of highlights along the way.


3. Baltimore Ravens
Coach: Brian Billick
2005 Record: 6-10

The Ravens need better production from the quarterback and running back positions if they expect to get back to the playoffs. Two seasons ago Jamal Lewis rushed for over 2,000 yards. The 28 year old needs to get back to his old form and start punishing defenders again if the Ravens are going to win games.

The jury may still be out on Kyle Boller, but the Ravens obviously got impatient with his lack of improvement and picked up Steve McNair from the Titans. One of the best players in the last five seasons, McNair brings experience and leadership at the quarterback position; two things that Boller did not provide.

The Ravens will always be a tough beat for anyone as long as they still have Ray Lewis. One of the best linebackers of all time, Lewis still has that spark and passion for the game the ignites the entire Baltimore defense and frightens opposing offenses.

Breakout Star: Haloti Ngata, DT
A rookie out of Oregon, the defensive tackle has the tools to be a star in the NFL. At 6-4 and 340 lbs., he has the size to go against the best offensive linemen in the game. With a good defense around him, Ngata should have the opportunity to be a difference maker as a rookie.

2006 Projected Record: 7-9
If McNair can keep Derrick Mason happy and spread the ball around, the Ravens offense could surprise some people. And with Ed Reed and Samari Rolle in the secondary, the Ravens will try to keep games low scoring and beat teams with their defense first.

4. Cleveland Browns
Coach: Romeo Crennel
2005 Record: 6-10

The Browns are in full rebuilding mode with young, hopeful players on offense. Charlie Frye leads the offense with Reuben Droughns, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. supporting him. In only his second year out of Akron, Frye will try to make the jump from fill-in quarterback to full-time starter. Never seamless, the Browns could struggle to score points.

On defense, the mastermind Crennel has been doing his best with the players he has. Rookie D'Qwell Jackson will start in the middle of the 3-4 scheme with veteran Willie McGinest playing on the outside. Andra Davis will also play in the middle. Last year Davis recorded 149 tackles, a team high.

Breakout Star: Braylon Edwards, WR
A top five pick two seasons ago, Edwards has been plagued by injury throughout his NFL career. Back and finally healthy, Edwards will try to show everyone the electrifying ability he displayed while at Michigan.

2006 Projected Record: 4-12
The Browns don't have bonafide superstars on either side of the ball and could struggle mightily the season. However, look for Romeo Crennel to get the best out of the personnel he's got.


AFC West

1. Denver Broncos
Coach: Mike Shanahan
2005 Record: 13-3

The Broncos head into the 2006 Campaign with high hopes of improving upon last years success. After dominating their division last year only to lose a heartbreaking loss to the Steelers in the AFC championship, the front office not only kept the team nearly entirely intact but also added one of the most prolific wide receivers in the game. Javon Walker, who had a Pro Bowl year in 2004, suffered a season ending knee injury early in 2005, was snatched up by Denver to complement to the aging Rod Smith. If he has even half of the success he enjoyed in Green Bay the Broncos, with always improving Jake Plummer at the helm, they will have the best passing attack the team has had in years. Although there is turmoil in the backfield nearly anyone could run for 1,500 yard in this system. On defense they field the greatest linebacking core in the league anchored by Al Wilson. In the secondary is young but talented led by Champ Bailey and if the front line can put any pressure on the quarter back this just might be the year of the Bronco!

Breakout Star: D.J. Williams, LB
D. J. Williams the second year linebacker is often the fastest player on either side of the ball. If his unbelievable athleticism can be harnessed 100 tackles five sacs and five interceptions is not out of the question.

2006 Projected Record: 12-4
Javon Walker propelled himself into the upper echelon of the leagues receivers with his performance in 2004. The only question is whether his knee is fully healed from surgery he had less than seven months prior to the opener. If he is at a hundred percent the Broncos' offense may lead the league. If not it may be another run only year in Mile High.

2. San Diego Chargers
Coach: Marty Schottenheimer
2005 Record: 9-7

Marty Schottenheimer's squad took their biggest risk of the off-season by letting go of Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees leaving the reins of the offense to Philip Rivers. Lucky for him, the third year player out N.C. State comes into an offense he has minimum responsibility. With arguably the best running back in LaDainian Tomlinson, and the best tight end with Antonio Gates, Rivers only needs to stay healthy. On Defense, the Chargers possess one of the NFL's most stout front sevens. With the likes of linebackers Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo and Donnie Edwards and defensive tackle Jamal Williams, the Chargers finished No. 1 in the league against the run last season. Unfortunately, that was largely due to the secondary's ability to cover even the most trifling of receivers. As they have yet to seriously address this need the Charges will have to maintain the pressure with the front seven for any hope of a playoff birth.

Breakout Star: Philip Rivers, QB
Philip Rivers walks into such a well-oiled offensive machine, it will be hard for him to fail. But then again, first-year quarterbacks are never a sure thing.

2006 Projected Record: 9-7
Widely regarded as the best team not to get into the Playoffs last year, the Chargers head into 2006 as Denver's toughest competitor for supremacy in the West.

3. Kansas City Chiefs
Coach: Herman Edwards
2005 Record: 10-6

After taking over for Priest Holmes midway through the season last year, Larry Johnson rushed for 1750 yards and 20 touchdowns. Now Johnson has his chance to start a full season of games. But Johnson will be missing veteran Pro Bowl left tackle Willie Roaf, who retired over the summer, and Tony Richardson, one of the most underrated fullbacks in the NFL.

New coach Herm Edwards loves Johnson, but his focus has been with his defense, one that was ranked 25th overall in 2005. Defensive ends Jared Allen and rookie Tamba Hali represent a youth movement on the D-line, while the addition of Ty Law gives the Chiefs instant credibility in the secondary.

Breakout Star: Derrick Johnson, LB
Derrick Johnson is a freak. Seriously. Johnson stands at 6-3, 242 pounds and packs a powerful punch. In his rookie season last year, Johnson had 79 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The Texas product will anchor the Chiefs defense this season.

2006 Projected Record: 9-7
Larry Johnson is too good of a running back for the Chiefs to struggle offensively, and if Herm Edwards can mold his defense to his liking, the Chiefs could sniff a wild-card berth. But a tough division and a depleted offensive line could slow K.C. in '06.

4. Oakland Raiders
Coach: Art Shell
2005 Record: 4-12

The Raiders, who had a dismial showing in 2005, hope that new blood, in a old system can lead them back towards success. In the off-season their biggest splash wasn't in the free agent market but rather the hiring of new coach Art Shell. After an eleven-year hiatus he returns to his old job as the Raiders coach. His first act was to instill a new sense of team respect that has been lacking in the franchise since the loss of Jon Gruden. In terms of personal the offense is prolific as usual. In the back field resides proven number one back Lamont Jordan and lining up out wide is Randy Moss and Jerry Porter. A fine supporting cast but as in every offense the Quarterback is the lead actor. With Aaron Brooks there are some questions on accuracy and endurance enough so that Shell lured Jeff George out of retirement to serve as a back up. The offensive line is solid with 2004 first round pick Robert Gallery holding down the left side.

Breakout Star: Aaron Brooks, QB
Aaron Brooks will single handedly determine the teams offensive out put. All the pieces are their but they were also there in New Orleans. How he connects with his new teammates will make or break the Raiders.

2006 Projected Record: 6-10
Despite their improvements the Raiders will not win because their defense is atrocious. The front line can't pressure the quarterback and the secondary can't guard any competitive wideouts. Unless someone steps up as a leader on D, Oakland will have to score 40 point plus to win every Sunday.


Super Bowl Picks
Pia: Panthers over Bengals
Josh: Colts over Seahawks
Phil: Broncos over Redskins
Abe: Jaguars over Bears

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