The Colts will capture the Lombardi Trophy
The NFL is in the midst of a transformation, with young, energetic teams like the Cardinals and Lions will beat out aging, traditionally powerhouse teams like the Rams and Packers for playoff spots. The Patriots are the NFL's defending champions for the third time in four years, and the "dynasty" label has been slapped on Tom Brady, Corey Dillon, and the rest of the Patriots. But in spite of the Pats' dominance, the Indianapolis Colts' top-ranked offense and improved defense will finally beat the Patriots in the playoffs, something the team has never done with Peyton Manning at the helm. Here are the rest of our picks for the NFL in 2005.
1. New England Patriots 12-4
The Patriots, winners of three of the past four Super Bowls, have the intangibles and ability to plug holes in their lineup that makes them the easy top pick in the East. Despite losing linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, the Pats added Chad Brown and Monty Biesel to take over inside, and although both Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left their coordinator posts to pursue head coaching opportunities, the Pats still have the best defensive strategist in the NFL, head coach Bill Belichick, and one of the most consistent offenses in the league. The Patriots play one of the toughest schedules in the NFL in 2005, including two showdowns with the Jets in December, but will take the division with their heart on D and their offensive consistency, led by RB Corey Dilllon (1,635 yards in 2004) and always-reliable QB Tom Brady (3,692 yards, 28 TDs).
2. New York Jets 10-6*
The only reason the Jets won't win a division title this season is because they play in the same division as the Patriots. But the Jets will pressure the Pats with their solid running game and improved defense. The Jets' aging tailback, Curtis Martin, led the NFL in rushing last year, and if he should slow down, Derrick Blaylock is ready to go. In 12 games backing up the oft-injured Priest Holmes in '04, Blaylock rushed for 539 yards and 8 TDs. Santana Moss, the Jets' undersized, underachieving WR, was swapped in the offseason for the Redskins' Laveranues Coles, whose second stint with the Jets has gotten off to a good start; Coles and QB Chad Pennington established chemistry with each other in the pre-season. The Jets defense, led by second-year tackling machine Jonathan Vilma, features a front four of John Abraham, new acquisition Lance LeGree, DeWayne Robertson and Shaun Ellis. New York also picked up former Patriot Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, who gives the Jets a true cover corner with game-breaking ability. Law should be extra-motivated in the Jets' two matchups with the Pats.
3. Buffalo Bills 8-8
In any other division, the Bills would have a shot at a wild-card berth and a playoff spot, but not in the AFC East. Still, the Bills have a chance to turn some heads, despite throwing second-year quarterback J.P. Losman into the fire. The Bills' second-ranked defense played a large part in the team's 9-7 record last year, and the D will return all but one starter. The Bills have one of the most impressive and scary defensive backfields in the NFL, starting Terence McGee (92 tackles, 3 interceptions in 2004) and Nate Clements (78 tackles, 6 INT) at corner with Lawyer Milloy (62 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) and Troy Vincent, (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) at safety. Linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher are among the scariest in the NFL as well. On offense, the Bills will look to a healthier, stronger, faster Willis McGahee to carry the load, and without Travis Henry in front of him, McGahee is poised for a breakout season.
4. Miami Dolphins 4-12
The Dolphins are bad, and worse, they have to play the NFL's toughest schedule with a new head coach, a new quarterback, a rookie running back and Ricky Williams. Despite one of the league's top defenses, the Fins will have a tough time improving on their 4-12 record in 2004. Miami has so many problems it's hard to count, but their D is not one of them. With Jason Taylor (9.5 sacks in '04), and new addition Kevin Carter, at defensive end, and a linebacking core led by Zach Thomas (145 tackles, 2 sacks), the Dolphins will at least not be blown out. However, Miami will have to find a way to score. Last season, the Dolphins ran for an average of less than 84 yards per game. To turn this around, Miami drafted Ronnie Brown, who should provide immediate help, but the re-signing of Ricky Williams will provide more distractions than support at running back " Williams looked weak in the pre-season, and hasn't played football in a more than a year. Plus, Miami will start Gus Frerotte (yes, Gus Frerotte) at quarterback.
1. Baltimore Ravens 10-6
Baltimore is home to the NFL's best defense, and if young quarterback Kyle Boller can avoid turning the ball over, the Ravens could be Super Bowl-bound. The Ravens' D is scary, especially after adding corner Samari Rolle and outside linebacker Tommy Polley in the offseason. When a team can boast Deion Sanders, still a better-than-average cover corner, as their third cornerback, watch out. Strong safety Ed Reed, the NFL's 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, has the ability to change a game on a single play, and oh, yeah, some guy named Ray Lewis still plays for Baltimore. The Ravens also finally landed a true No. 1 wideout in Derrick Mason, who had 96 receptions for 1,168 yards and seven TDs with the Titans in 2004. Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap is healthy again, and Jamal Lewis' legal situation has finally been sorted out after he spent more than a month in jail over the summer. Be on the look out for backup RB Chester Taylor, who ran for 714 yards and 2 TDs filling in for Lewis in '04 and has shined in the pre-season.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8
The Steelers were a game away from the Super Bowl in 2004, but will slip this season because of injuries, a weaker offense, and a sophomore slump by Big Ben. One thing that won't change is Pittsburgh's defense, ranked first in the NFL last year. The D will return playmaker LB James Farrior and gamebreaker strong safety Troy Polamalu (94 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT in 2004). But with both Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis nicked, the Steelers will be forced to go with the inconsistent, streaky Willie Parker at running back. Parker does not conform to the Steelers' grind-it-out offense, and will not make QB Ben Roethlisberger's job any easier. Big Ben, who tossed 17 TDs and 11 interceptions in '04, lost his favorite target, Plaxico Burress, to the Giants, and although Antwaan Randle El and Cedric Wilson will fill his position, Big Ben's weaknesses were shown late last season, and now the rest of the league is clued in. Don't be surprised if the Steelers end up behind the Bengals.
3. Cincinnati Bengals 8-8
The Bengals have a good nucleus of young players on offense and an improved defense, but in a division with perennial playoff contenders, Cincinnati is overmatched and undermanned. Carson Palmer, the Bengals quarterback, has a year of experience under his belt and one of the best wide receiving cores in the NFL. He has matured as the Bengals had hoped into a consistent, strong-armed QB. Pro Bowler Chad Johnson, one of the top five receivers in the NFL, leads the strong team of receivers, including T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a speedy No. 2, Kelley Washington, and rookie Chris Henry. To help Palmer and his receivers, running back Rudi Johnson (1, 454 yards, 12 TDs in '04) provides solid downhill running and keeps the defense off the field. The Bengals' mediocre D is highlighted by their secondary, which had 16 INTs in 2004, half of which were by corner Tory James. Free safety Madieu Williams has quietly become one of the best deep men in the league. Still, the Bengals will have trouble getting past the Ravens and Steelers in the North until their young players have matured and gained experience.
4. Cleveland Browns 4-12
The best thing about the Cleveland Browns 2005 season is that they have Miami and Chicago on their schedule. Seriously, the Browns are terrible, and except for new head coach Romeo Crennel and rookie wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the city of Cleveland shouldn't be too excited about football season. Edwards heads a group of wide receivers with playmaking ability but lacking in proven play. Unfortunately, the Browns apparently couldn't find anyone else, so have inserted the aging Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Dilfer and his receivers won't be helped by a running game without a definite starter, as the battle between Lee Suggs, last year's main man, Reuben Droughns, a product of Denver's system in '04, and William Green, a disappointing and underachieving back, has produced nothing but more uncertainty about who will run the ball for Cleveland. The Browns' do have a decent secondary, led by new addition Gary Baxter, a good corner who was stuck on the bench in Baltimore. Until Crennel can get the players and coaches he needs to make the Browns succeed, Cleveland will have to stick to rooting for the Cavaliers.
1. Indianapolis Colts 13-3
The Colts proved in 2004 that their multi-faceted, high-flying, unpredictable offense is unstoppable (unless you're the New England Patriots), and have shown no signs of slowing down. The Colts have stumbled on their way to the Super Bowl because of their defense, which ranked number 29 in the NFL. Though no major acquisitions were made in the offseason, the Colts' defense, led by the freakishly Jevon Kearse-esque sack machine Dwight Freeney, totaled 45 sacks in '04, third in the NFL. If the secondary can hold opponents to a minimum and make tackles in the open field, coach Tony Dungy will be happy, and the offense will be back on the field in a hurry. That offense, led by the record-setting heroics of Peyton Manning, was the best passing offense in the NFL, and with a healthy Edgerrin James in the backfield, the Colts should have no problem outscoring their opponents. With Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, the Colts have the best second and third receivers in the league to complement Marvin Harrison, who caught 86 balls for 1,113 yards and 15 TDs. In 2005, the Colts scary squad plays only four games against 2004 playoff teams.
2. Houston Texans 9-7
In their fourth season as an NFL franchise, the Texans will finally make strides toward making the playoffs, as they have established their starters on both offense and defense, and for the first time will not start any rookies on either side of the ball. Quarterback David Carr has matured in his role, and if he can cut down on his bad decisions, he will have an array of offensive weapons at his disposal. Running back Domanick Davis has become a top rusher, racking up 1,188 yards and 14 TDs, along with 68 receptions out of the backfield. Andre Johnson, the Texans' top wideout, is among the quickest in the league, and hauled in 79 passes for 1,142 yards and 6 TDs in 2004. Houston's D also has a number of big-time playmakers, including cornerback Dunta Robinson, who in his rookie year had an astounding 87 tackles, 6 INTs, 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Opposite Robinson, the Texans added Phillip Buchanon, a good cover corner and possible return man who was maligned in Oakland after an injury and a feud with Raiders owner Al Davis.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars 8-8
The Jaguars have a top ten defense, led by hard-hitting strong safety Donovin Darius (89 tackles, 5 INTs, countless wide receivers limping back to the sidelines) and hulking All-Pro defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson (combined 129 tackles, 10.5 sacks), but their offense will be what drops them to third in the South. Byron Leftwich, the Jags' young QB, has a cannon for an arm and can avoid sacks with his size and strength (similar to Donovan McNabb), and WR Jimmy Smith is a seasoned vet who caught 74 passes for 6 TDs and more than 1,000 yards. However, Reggie Williams, the team's No. 2 wide receiver, caught only 27 passes for one touchdown last season, disappointing stats for a kid with size and leaping ability. Still, the Jags' passing game has a chance to flourish, but holes in the running game will allow defenses to key in on Leftwich and his receivers. Jacksonville will run an aging, injury-prone Fred Taylor behind a suspect O-line. The Jaguars were rumored to be in the market for Travis Henry, but now have Labrandon Toefield as Taylor's backup. Don't be surprised to see Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala get some carries.
4. Tennessee Titans 5-11
Steve McNair is finally healthy. Unfortunately, it's a bit too late. The Titans lost their best receiver, Derrick Mason, to the Ravens, and despite drafting corner Adam "Pacman" Jones, Tennessee's defense has been gutted. In fact, the Titans are a shell of what they used to be. Despite bringing in new offensive coordinator Norm Chow from USC and adding running back Travis Henry, the Titans will have trouble climbing out of the cellar of the South. The Titans' passing game is weakened with Drew Bennett as the No. 1 wideout. Bennett is a decent complementary player but not a top guy, despite finishing with 80 receptions, more than 1,000 yards, and 11 TDs alongside Mason in 2004. The Titans hope Tyrone Calico, a speedy receiver with injury problems, can provide some help to Bennett. Tennessee will split carries between 1,000-yard rushers Chris Brown and Henry and hope that McNair will hold up over 16 games. On D, the only bright spot (other than Jones) is Keith Bulluck (152 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT in '04), who has emerged as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
1. San Diego Chargers 10-6
San Diego had the third-ranked rush defense in the league last season, the best pass-catching tight end in football in Antonio Gates, and surprisingly good play from quarterback Drew Brees. The Chargers made the playoffs under the direction of head coach Marty Schottenheimer. But the reason the Chargers will win the West and make some noise in the playoffs can be expressed in two letters: LT. LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 1,335 yards and 18 TDs and caught 53 passes for 441 yards in 2004, is the NFL's best running back and perhaps its best overall player. No one is more valuable to the Chargers, whose weak wide receivers force much of the load on LT. Tomlinson's rushing opens the field for Gates, whose size and athleticism makes him a wide receiver at the tight end position and a tough matchup for any linebacker. The Chargers also have an improved defense, with underrated linebacker Donnie Edwards (151 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs), as well as skilled and consistent corners Drayton Florence and Quentin Jammer.
2. Kansas City Chiefs 9-7*
For years, fans in K.C. have said, "If we only had a defense." Now, that time has come. The Chiefs devoted their offseason to improving their 31st ranked defense, adding four pieces to their starting defense and transforming their secondary. Defensive backs Sammy Knight and Patrick Surtain, each with 4 INTs in 2004, join a rejuvenated defense that also added two key pieces at linebacker. The Chiefs drafted outside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who has the size and speed to become a Ray Lewis-like tackler. LB Kendrell Bell is an extremely vocal, energetic player who will inject life into K.C.'s lifeless D. The Chiefs' offense was ranked first in the NFL last season, due in large part to their big three: Priest Holmes, Trent Green and Tony Gonzalez. Holmes, who finished the season with almost 900 yards rushing and 15 TDs despite only playing in eight games, is an elusive runner whose cutbacks leave defenders frozen. And when he goes down, Larry Johnson has shown the capability to fill in and keep the running game going. Green makes a mediocre group of receivers better, and is a steady QB. Gonzalez is a versatile tight end who can block, catch, run and make his teammates better.
3. Denver Broncos 7-9
The Broncos offensive scheme has made 1,000-yard rushers out of almost every running back to start for Mike Shanahan (see: Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson), and this year will be no different. Though Mike Anderson will begin the season as the starter, second-year man Tatum Bell will likely become the featured back by mid-season. Jake Plummer, the mobile but inaccurate quarterback for the Broncos, had problems with his decision-making in 2004, and unless he can stop turning the ball over (20 interceptions in '04), Denver will struggle. The Broncos starting wide receivers, Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie, both caught more than 50 passes for 7 TDs and more than 1,000 yards, and with Darius Watts and Triandos Luke adding a few receptions in key spots, the Broncos have the potential for a deep receiving core. On the other side of the ball, the Broncos have a great set of linebackers, with D.J. Williams, Al Wilson, and Ian Gold, who combined for almost 300 tackles in 2004. And with Champ Bailey and John Lynch as DBs, the Broncos will be able to stop opponents' vertical routes. However, the Broncos signed three-fourths of the Browns D-line, which ranked worst in the league in rush defense, so stopping the run will be hard for Denver.
4. Oakland Raiders 6-10
The Oakland Raiders made the biggest offseason acquisition in the NFL, adding wide receiver Randy Moss, the best playmaking wideout in the league. Moss (13 TDs on only 49 receptions in '04) will line up opposite Jerry Porter, a strong receiver who will complement Moss perfectly. The Raiders also added LaMont Jordan, a big running back who was intended to be the Jets future in the backfield, before Curtis Martin revitalized his career. Jordan finally gives Oakland a top running back, and their days of platooning Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett at RB are over. With these weapons around him, quarterback Kerry Collins should help the Raiders outscore opponents (as long as the O-line holds up). All the Raiders defense has to do is keep opponents from scoring more than 20-24 points per game to give their offense a shot. Unfortunately, this may not be possible. The D is heralded by a bunch of big names with smaller stats, and though excellent pass rushing defensive end Derrick Burgess was added to the D-line, he will line up alongside Ted Washington and an aging Warren Sapp, making a weak line, backed up by a weak secondary. Despite having the best wide receiving core in the division, the Raiders will struggle because of their defense's inability to stop opponents.
1. Philadelphia Eagles 11-5
Terrell Owens is the Eagles' pride and joy on the field and nightmare off it. For better or for worse, the Eagles success hinges on the play of T.O. After threatening to hold out through the summer Owens reported to training camp late and was promptly sent home for a week by head coach Andy Reid. Through the media he bashed his team and quarterback Donovan McNabb. Despite all this, in T.O.'s first preseason appearance in 2005, he and McNabb hooked up on a 64-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage. Owens (77 receptions, 1,200 yards, and 14 TDs in '04), spreads defenses thin and should allow for speedy, shift RB Brian Westbrook to rush for over 1,000 yards this season. With a defense anchored by pressure from Jevon Kearse (31 tackles and 7.5 sacks last year) and a stifling secondary, loaded with Pro Bowl caliber DBs like Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, and Sheldon Brown, the Eagles will roll through their division.
2. New York Giants 8-8
Eli Manning better be ready. As the full-time starter in his second year, Manning has been given the weapons to do damage in the East, and now we get to sit back and see what he can do. In the offseason, the Giants added lanky wide receiver Plaxico Burress (5 TDs with the Steelers in '04) to complement veteran wideout Amani Toomer and athletic tight end Jeremy Shockey, who ended 2004 with 61 receptions and 6 touchdowns. The running game is solid, with Tiki Barber (1,518 yards, 15 TDs) carrying the load, and the offensive line has been upgraded with the addition of Kareem McKenzie at right tackle. The D, however, is suspect in the secondary and features a weakening defensive line- Michael Strahan keeps getting older. Still, the Giants stole key LB Antonio Pierce from the Redskins and should have enough of a defense to pull into second in the East. Plus, the Giants get a boost from being the only NFL team to have nine home games this year due to the flooding in New Orleans (the Giants and Saints were to meet in the Super Dome in week 2).
3. Dallas Cowboys 8-8
As much as it hurts to say it, the Cowboys have improved " more than the Redskins " but not enough to propel them into the playoffs. With their running game solidified by Julius Jones (803 yards and 7 TDs in seven games as a starter in 2004), Bill Parcells filled the 'Boys' obvious needs on defense and at quarterback. After finishing 27th in points allowed last season, the team changed to a 3-4 defensive scheme, added OLB Demarcus Ware via the draft and also picked up nose tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Anthony Henry through free agency. Parcells has also been re-united with QB Drew Bledsoe (the pair teamed up in New England in the early 90s), the third starter in Dallas in three years. The Cowboys' wide receivers, however, are sub par, and Dallas' special teams are unspectacular. If the offensive line can open gaps for Jones and protect Bledsoe and the defense can hold opponents to less than 20 points a game, the Cowboys could jump the Giants and challenge the Eagles.
4. Washington Redskins 6-10
Last year the Redskins defense ranked third in the NFL despite the loss of Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington to injury early in the season, and despite losing LB Antonio Pierce to the Giants, the defense can only get better under the direction of D-coordinator Gregg Williams, considered one of the best defensive strategists in the NFL. Despite the heroics of the Skins defense, it's the offense that presents a problem. Washington revamped their receiving core, trading unhappy Laveranues Coles back to the Jets for speedster Santana Moss and signing Pats' WR David Patten (7 TDs in '04), but the Skins passed on potential playmaker Mike Williams in the draft, instead opting to bolster their secondary by taking CB Carlos Rogers. At quarterback, neither Patrick Ramsey nor Mark Brunell have taken charge with their play or leadership, and Gibbs has shown he will not hesitate to swap them on the depth charts mid-season. The Redskins can only hope that RB Clinton Portis's 3.8 yards per carry last year improve, and if coach Joe Gibbs doesn't work a miracle, the Redskins are looking at another losing season. Let's hope they prove us all wrong.
1. Atlanta Falcons 12-4
After running over the rest of the NFC South in 2004, the Falcons will look to keep it up in 2005, and as long as Michael Vick suits up at quarterback for Atlanta they will have the ability to dominate their division. As a team, the Falcons ranked first in the NFL in total rush yards with 2,672, (5.1 yards per carry and 167 per game). The Falcons will return their entire offensive line, and with running backs Warrick Dunn (1,106 yards and 9 TDs) and T.J. Duckett mixing their styles in along with the unpredictable, athletic ability of Michael Vick, there's no reason why they should slow down. The Falcons also return almost their entire defensive unit, upgrading at linebacker by adding Edgerton Hartwell's 97 tackles in 2004 to an already proven front seven with the likes of Patrick Kerney (13 sacks) and Keith Brooking (102 tackles). Atlanta's only weakness is their inexperience at wide receiver; after releasing the under producing Peerless Price, the Falcons will start Michael Jenkins and Dez White, who combined for less than 40 receptions and only 2 TDs last season.
2. Carolina Panthers 9-7*
Coming off an injury-plagued season in 2004, the Panthers finally have their full complement of talent back on the field. After running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster both went down with injuries, and wideout Steve Smith went down with a broken leg, the weight of Carolina's offense fell once again on Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers lost Muhammad and his league-high 16 TDs to free agency, but with the rest of the offense returning, the Panthers should still have the ability to put points up on the scoreboard. Muhammad's departure gives young talent Keary Colbert an opportunity to start opposite Smith, and both Foster and Davis are ready to go. The Panthers' real strength lies in its stupendous defense, which added CB Ken Lucas and SS Thomas Davis to bolster their secondary, already with DBs Chris Gamble (6 INTs in '04) and Mike Minter. The Panthers front four, Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins, and Mike Rucker, is the scariest in the league, and combined for almost 20 sacks in 2004. With a healthy offense and stifling defense, the Panthers should be returning to the playoffs in 2005.
3. New Orleans Saints 6-10
No matter how well the Saints play in 2005, it will be a tough year for New Orleans. Coming off the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints' home, the Super Dome, will not be available for the NFL season, putting added stress on an already fragile team. In fact, the Saints will be forced to play what would have been their home opener on the road. The Saints' offense has plenty of talent in RB Deuce McAllister (1,074 yards, 9 TDs in 2004), QB Aaron Brooks and the wide receiving tandem of Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth (combined 150 receptions, 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns). They have also added two solid offensive linemen in rookie tackle Jammal Brown and guard Jermane Mayberry. But New Orleans's defense has more holes than its levees. The linebacking corps is shaky, and both Fakhir Brown and Jay Bellamy can be exploited in the secondary. Corner Mike McKenzie has the ability to shut down one side of the field, but the other is left susceptible to attack.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4-12
Tampa Bay is a team in transition. The Bucs haven't been the same since winning Super Bowl XXXVII. During the offseason, the team made no significant free agent signings, and although they did add RB Cadillac Williams through the draft, the Bucs will struggle on both sides of the ball. Brian Greise will start at quarterback after earning the respect of coach Jon Gruden, and despite the emergence of WR Michael Clayton, who had 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in 2004, the Bucs will struggle to score. Tampa Bay's defense is not as prolific as it once may have been, but with DE Simeon Rice, CB Ronde Barber, LB Derrick Brooks, CB Brian Kelly and the addition of tackle Chris Hovan, the Bucs still boast one of the best defensive units in the league. The Bucs will have a long season as long as their offensive line is made up of rookies and inexperienced linemen. No starter on the O-line started for more than 11 NFL games last season, making Williams' and Griese's jobs that much tougher.
1. Minnesota Vikings 11-5
Plain and simple: the Vikings are better off without Randy Moss. In the trade that sent Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota got linebacker Napoleon Harris and a first round pick that they used on speedy wide receiver Troy Williamson. Losing Moss is addition by subtraction. Losing Moss will allow the Vikings to get focused without his distractions and also allowed the team to sign key players on D. Since 1999, Minnesota is the only team to be in the bottom 10 in yards allowed every season. With the 42 million dollars opened up by Moss' departure, the Vikings signed former Bills run-stuffer Pat Williams, MLB Sam Cowart, cocky ex-Redskin cornerback Fred Smoot and Pro Bowl strong safety Darren Sharper. With all these additions on defense, the offense will be able to flourish with their immense talent. Vikes' Pro Bowl QB Daunte Culpepper (4,717 yards passing and 39 TDs in 2004) now will use underrated wideout Nate Burleson (1,006 yards and 9 TDs on 68 receptions) as his main target. Despite some shaky running backs, Daunte and his wideouts combined with an improved D make the Vikings a dominant pick in the NFC.
2. Detroit Lions 9-7*
Joey Harrington has reached the make or break year of his career. The fourth year quarterback has been surrounded with a new and improved offensive line. The Lions have also used their top picks each of the last three years on wide receivers (Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams) and added Pro Bowl tight end Marcus Pollard. Kevin Jones (1,133 yards and 6 TDs last year) has proven himself as an explosive running back. The offense is a powder keg ready to explode, if only Harrington can find the spark. Detroit's defensive front seven is stacked, featuring Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson up the middle and linebacker Earl Holmes (111 tackles in 2004), but the secondary is the Lions' Achilles heel. Corner Dre' Bly is a great one-on-one cover man, but division-rival QBs Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper have to be licking their chops about going against the rest of the last line. If Harrington can finally find his arm and quit making bad decisions, the Lions should coast into second in the North.
3. Green Bay Packers 7-9
The Green Bay Packers had a very uneventful offseason, bringing in General Manager Ted Thompson to help improve the aging, struggling team. The Packers' biggest need going into the offseason was clearly their dismal defense, which gave up a league worst 33 touchdown passes and also allowed the second most yards per carry in the NFL. With these glaring figures you would think a newly hired GM would strive to fill the holes, but no. Thompson mad no significant defensive adjustments other than naming Jim Bates as the new D-coordinator, G.B.'s third in as many years. Sure, the team still has a well built offense headed by running back Ahman Green (1,163 yards and 8 TDs), an aging but fully functioning Brett Favre at QB and Javon Walker, who hauled in 89 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 TDs last season, but its hard to win with a second rate defense.
4. Chicago Bears 3-13
The Bears terrible upcoming season got off to a terrible start before it even began, losing starting quarterback Rex Grossman to injury. Kyle Orton will now start in week one against the Redskins. Who? Orton, a fourth round draft pick out of Purdue, will have to grow up quick if the Bears want any shot at winning more than three games. The Bears have a decent defense, led by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (69 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and DB Mike Green, a good tackler and ballhawk. The Bears did add running back Cedric Benson out of Texas and signed WR Mushin Muhammad, who led the league in receiving TDs last season. Unfortunately, with a unproven quarterback, shaky offensive line, and terrible corners, this team is going nowhere but down.
1. Seattle Seahawks 10-6
The Seahawks did something perfectly this offseason that very few teams succeeded in doing. Seattle kept the part of their team that did well in 2004 and improved the parts that didn't. Last year the Seahawks' offense cruised with the mix of running from Shaun Alexander, who finished with 16 TDs, and arm strength from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had an almost 60 percent completion percentage. The offensive line is one of the best in the business led by Walter Jones at tackle and Steve Hutchinson at guard. Last season, wide receiver Darrell Jackson (87 rec, 1,199 yards, 7 TDs) played well, but No. 2 man Koren Robinson caused too many off the field problems. As a result the team signed WRs Peter Warrick, Joe Jurevivius and Jerome Pathon to fill the gap. The defense was decent in '04, but needed a replacement for DB Ken Lucas, who was lost to free agency. The team went out and signed DBs Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon. A team with so much talent on both sides of the ball finally has the experience to propel themselves deep into the playoffs.
2. Arizona Cardinals 9-7
It is the year of the Cardinal (finally). After a long stint as the NFL's cellar dwellers, the Cardinals will finally top the .500 mark. The Cardinals made a real splash in the free agent market by adding veteran QB Kurt Warner to take the reins of an offense loaded with talented recivers. Wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald make up one of the league's most imposing tandems, and with Bryant Johnson working out of the slot, the Cards should be going downfield alot. Arizona's defense, which surprisingly ranked 12th in the NFL in points allowed, added defensive end Chike Okeafor, linebacker Orlando Huff, safety Robert Griffith and rookie Antrel Rolle at DB. Anchored by defensive end Bertrand Berry's 14.5 sacks and linebacker Karlos Dansby tackling skills, the Cards should have no problem wrapping up opponents. J.J. Arrington, a rookie out of California, will carry the bulk of the load at running back for Arizona, with backup Marcel Shipp providing a spark on third downs and special situations. Unlike last year, the Cardinals finally have the talent that head coach Denny Green needs to build a successful franchise in Arizona, and the Cards will be the NFL's surprise team of 2005.
3. St. Louis Rams 8-8
The Rams sneaked into the playoffs in 2004 with a lowly 8-8 record, and with an aging team, St. Louis won't be able to keep up with the fresh legs of the Seahwks and Cardinals. During the offseason, the Rams addressed one of their major needs, upgrading their atrocious defense by bringing in linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, who combined for 125 tackles last year. St. Louis also added two new offensive linemen in rookie Alex Barron and tackle Rex Tucker. The Rams are loaded on offense, with quarterback Marc Bulger (3,964 yards, 21 Tds in 2004), top-flight receiver Torry Holt (94 receptions, 1,372 yards, 10 TDs) and young running back Steven Jackson, who will get a chance to start this year. However, the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who starts opposite Holt, has lost a step and an aging O-line won't give the immobile Bulger any time to run from pass rushers. Marshall Faulk, the face of the franchise for years, has now faded into a backup position, but his continuing role in the offense will stifle Jackson's development.
4. San Francisco 49ers 4-12
The rebuilding of the 49ers franchise continues in 2005, with no real end in sight. The 49ers made Utah quarterback Alex Smith the first overall pick of the NFL draft. Though Smith will be the future at QB for the Niners, Tim Rattay beat him out for the starting job to open the season. The team revamped their offensive line with the addition of guard Adam Snyder, tackle Jonas Jennings and center David Baas. The return of franchise linebacker Julian Peterson from injury helps to strengthen an already strong front seven. However, San Francisco's secondary is inexperienced and lacks playmakers. The defense is a bright side though, because although the Niners will use a tandem of Kevan Barlow and rookie Frank Gore in the backfield, their wide receivers are among the worst in the NFL. Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle, the 49ers' starters at WR, lack quick feet and have bad hands- the two combined for just 51 receptions a year ago. Unless San Fran's D and special teams can work miracles, the 49ers will have trouble finding the endzone.
*= Wild Card Team
Colts over Ravens
The Colts will ultimately present too many matchup problems for the Ravens, who can't keep the game close. With Stokley and Dallas Clark setting up in the slot, Manning has the time and options to pick apart the Ravens' secondary. Freeney and company beat up Kyle Boller, who collapses like a folding chair while Manning calmly avoids pressure. The key to the game? James has a big game on the ground after Manning and company spread the field.
Vikings over Eagles
The Eagles will return to the NFC Championship game for the fourth straight year because of their great defense and the on-the-field chemistry between McNabb and Owens, but the Vikings will go to the Super Bowl because of Culpepper's new favorite target, Burleson. The Vikes' front seven stops Westbrook and forces the Eagles to play from behind. Without a respectable No. 2 receiver, the Minnesota will double T.O. and force McNabb to beat them. Look for Smoot to come up with a big pick.
Super Bowl XL
Colts over Vikings
In a battle of offensive juggernauts, the Colts will simply have too many weapons for the Vikings, who are burned by Wayne and Stokley. In the end, Manning will keep Minnesota's D on the field for long-winded drives, revealing the Vikings' lack of depth on their defensive line. Freeney chases Culpepper out of the pocket and pressures running backs Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore in the backfield. Manning, coach Dungy and the Colts finally get their Super Bowl ring in '05.
Phillip Allen. Phillip Allen is a CAP junior who basically is a fascinating kid. Though he possesses little writing ability he was accepted to both the Communication Arts Program and now Silver Chips Online. He follows the Washington Redskins, Wizards and Nationals religiously. He plays soccer (for ... More »
Abe Schwadron. Abe is a huge basketball, baseball, and football fan that likes to read up on sports in SLAM, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN magazines. Hobbies include streetball, poker and film-making. A sneaker addict, Abe likes to keep his kicks fresh. Abe likes reggae and hip-hop music, ... More »