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July 23, 2008 

Patriots Still Team to Beat, but the Chargers Could Win It All


By Nathaniel Shockey 

Undisclosed sources have suggested that more is going on in the NFL than Brett Favre’s faux retirement. It seemed worth investigating, and believe it or not, there is a wealth of information to back up this claim.


For starters, there will be an NFL season, including both a preseason and a postseason, not to mention 17 weeks of football in between. For the Maddenites who probably wouldn’t even realize football beyond Favre, you should probably stop reading. For real football fans, perhaps the following NFL preview will whet your appetites.


The Super Bowl is still the New England Patriots’ to lose, which they accomplished in wild fashion only six months ago. Anyone who thinks differently is kidding themselves. Last year was a case of divine intervention – either some New York Giants fan’s life depended on the Giants being victorious, or the Patriots were simply not allowed to win because of Spygate. Maybe Bill Belichick threw the game because his conscience finally caught up with him. It doesn’t matter. They were the heavy favorite last year, and they remain a heavy favorite because of two men: Tom Brady and Randy Moss.


The better question is, will this still be the Peyton Manning show? Brady stole the spotlight, but Peyton is still one of the greatest passers the game has ever seen, and he’s got stats piled upon stats to back it up. Last year, however, he did throw almost as many interceptions as games played, which was the most he’d thrown since 2002. If you watched him, although the accuracy was there, the spark he used to have when he, not a guy in Boston, was the main event was clearly missing. One can only wonder how he’ll respond to being bested not only by Brady, but his younger brother, who only needed three full regular seasons to win the big one. There is a Daddy complex in this family if I’ve ever seen one, and you’re crazy if you think Eli’s big day won’t affect big brother.


Concerning the Giants, anyone betting on a repeat shouldn’t be trusted with money. There has been no shortage of drama, with Plaxico Burress playing the diva at training camp and Jeremy Shockey, finally traded to the Saints, reeking of egotism. But having unloaded the cockiest man to ever do nothing to help his team win a championship, things are looking up for the Giants. But of course, remember that aside from divine intervention, the only technical reason they won last year was that Brady had about two sneezes worth of time to throw the ball on every play, and Michael Strahan is gone. And no offense to Eli, but there is still no comparison between him and Peyton. He succeeded last year by making very few mistakes. But offense will not carry this team, and without Strahan, neither will defense.


As for the other heavy hitters, the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers, they’re both legitimate contenders to win the big game. The Cowboys because, really, who else is there in the NFC? And the Chargers? They were one gutsy LeDanian Tomlinson performance away from bringing down the Pats last year. It’s not hard to imagine them moving in to take a legitimate number two spot in the AFC, as opposed to their usual three spot behind the Indianapolis Colts and the Pats. And really, who has a better chance at bringing down number one than number two, especially when it’s a team that nearly succeeded with a one-legged quarterback just two NFL games ago?


The Chargers are too good to be called a sleeper. So how about this? Look for them to win it all this year. Unless the Patriots come to their senses defensively, the Chargers just might come out atop the AFC ready to gobble up the Cowboys.


NFC East

And the rest of the league? Well, there is plenty to anticipate, unless of course you’re a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Asante Samuel was a nice pickup, but let’s face it, even if their defense captures a shadow of its former glory, the offense is still going to stink. We can look forward to another mediocre-at-best season from Donovan McNabb, who will, once again, legitimately complain that he has no one to throw to, while Bryan Westbrook once again carries the team on his shoulders. But let’s be realistic. On top of playing both the Cowboys and Giants twice each, they’re also playing the Pittsburgh Steelers twice and the Patriots once. I’d be surprised if they won three of those.


By the way, have I been clear enough that I’m ready to consider this team in the middle of a “rebuilding stage”? I wish someone would tell Andy Reid this, and maybe we’d be lucky enough to see a lot less of No. 5. I think everyone, even McNabb himself, would be happier. OK, OK, everyone but him.


I have yet to mention the Washington Redskins. It would be surprising to see them finish above .500 with a new coach, Jim Zorn, and his West Coast offense. I love the offense, but how quickly his team will adapt is tough to guess.


NFC North

Keep your eye on the Detroit Lions. A lot has changed since last year, when they effectively threw away the season by losing seven of their last eight games. With a new offensive coordinator, a promised renewed emphasis on the run and a threatening receiving duo of Roy Williams and the developing Calvin Johnson, they could be a legitimate contender to come out of the NFC North.


But the Green Bay Packers could still come out on top of the division, simply because their team is good with or without Brett Favre. This year in Green Bay will be the year of Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown for a total of 329 passing yards in his career. If he leads the Packers into the playoffs, then they will be a serious threat a few years down the line. But he could also flop, and the Packers will be exactly where they should have been four years ago had they rid themselves of the floundering Favre.


The Minnesota Vikings, with their strongest defense in years and rookie-of-the-year Adrian Peterson in the backfield, will likely rise or fall on the improvement of third-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.


NFC South

The NFC South should be similar in lousiness to the North. And there’s one primary reason. There aren’t that many great quarterbacks playing right now, and there aren’t any great quarterbacks playing in the NFC.


The big question is whether Jake Delhomme will come back strongly for the Carolina Panthers. He is one of the few good quarterbacks in the NFC, and the Panthers, having traded their 2009 first-round pick for the chance to get tackle Jeff Otah, are really counting on him. Look for them to win the South. The New Orleans Saints, however, are a legitimate contender, having revamped their defense at linebacker and defensive end. And who knows, perhaps Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and the aforementioned Jeremy Shockey will actually make something happen. Don’t expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Atlanta Falcons to do much, although it should be interesting to watch Matt Ryan go out there and try to single-handedly recover Atlanta from the wreckage of Hurricane Vick.


NFC West

The NFC West is also a pretty lousy division, save for the Seattle Seahawks. As usual, I’d expect them to come out on top of the division without much trouble. The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams, a combined 8-24 last year, have not done much to resolve their respective situations, aside from the 49ers picking up former Rams receiver Isaac Bruce. Unfortunately for the Niners, they’re still stuck at quarterback with the once-promising Alex Smith, who has convinced most of us that we vastly overestimated his potential. The Arizona Cardinals, going a respectable 8-8 in 2007, are resting their 2008 season in Matt Leinart’s hands. Coming off his foot injury, this season will set the tone for the rest of his career. If he comes back strong and gives his team a legitimate chance to challenge the Seahawks, we can finally look forward to seeing him become the player we all assumed he would be.


I think he’ll continue to be mediocre. He has shown little promise since his much-anticipated entry into the league. In addition to his talent appearing below NFL standards, his attitude has done little to challenge the pretty boy/party boy image he created for himself. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cards finish 7-9, or even 6-10. All that could save them is four games against the Rams and the 49ers.


AFC East

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Patriots will win the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills showed some serious promise toward the end of the 2007 season, aside from a solid drubbing from the Patriots, and have given their defense some serious buffering. But with a tough schedule, it would be quite surprising to see them finish with a better record than last year’s 7-9.


The funny thing about the Miami Dolphins is that, with all the talk about “replacing Jason Taylor”, there’s not that much talk about replacing the rest of the team. If my memory serves me correctly, they were almost as bad as the Patriots were good. Bill Parcells has really gutted the team, which seems like the right idea for an organization that almost couldn’t possibly do worse. I’d look for them to win five games this year. The New York Jets don’t seem to have gotten much better than last year, although it is hard to imagine them finishing with a worse record.


AFC North

Moving to the AFC North, one would have to guess that the Steelers will come out on top. Having picked up some depth at receiver and running back, anticipate their offense to be re-energized and lethal in a Pittsburgh sort of way. With the Baltimore Ravens, it will be all about their new coach, John Harbaugh, whose presence the Eagles enjoyed as special teams coach for quite a few years. For a team that has, year after year, relied on defense, you’d have to guess that a hard-nosed guy like Harbaugh would be a good fit. Whether or not this will make a big difference is up for debate, but I think they’ll finish with at least a .500 record this year. The Cleveland Browns could very well come out on top of the North this year if their newcomers perform as well as expected. With significant attention being paid to their defense, and the addition of Donte Stallworth to their receiving corps, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them finish 11-5 or even better. Whether or not the Cincinnati Bengals can compete with the mire of Chad Johnson is up for debate, but I don’t see them contending in a real way for the division, much less on a larger scale.


AFC South

Once again, the AFC South is a strong division, with the Colts as the usual favorite but the Jacksonville Jaguars not far behind. If new Jaguars receivers Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson deliver, the Jaguars could well overtake the Colts, who, my gut tells me, are on the decline.


Perhaps the biggest acquisition for the Tennessee Titans was former Eagle Jevon Kearse, whose tenure in Philadelphia was lackluster at best. The Titans defense did not need much help, however, so sadly, I can only imagine another player will leave Philadelphia and play much better somewhere else. I still don’t see the Titans overtaking the Jags or the Colts, but they should be a good team, and don’t be surprised to see them seriously competing in the AFC South, if not, at the very least, for the Wild card. Despite signs of life last year, it doesn’t seem like the Houston Texans will be able to compete with this tough division. I’d be surprised to see them finish with more than six wins.


AFC West

Finally, we have the AFC West, which was the most lopsided division around last year, with the Chargers winning almost as many games (11) as the rest of the division (15). As I mentioned earlier, I think the Chargers will run away with this division. The Oakland Raiders stink, as anyone who lives, as I do, around northern California will assure you. With JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden and Javon Walker all playing together, there could be some sparks, but it would be quite surprising if it lit any sort of fire under this team. I expect the fans will be as crazy, or even slightly more so, by the end of the season. The Kansas City Chiefs have a nice lineup of rookies, but that doesn’t bode well for this year. I’d be surprised to see them finish with more than five wins, but give them a few years and they might start mixing it up as they did in years past. The big question in Denver is whether the Broncos can find a formula that works, as they have plenty of new names on offense but not many guarantees. They could be a legitimate sleeper for the wild card this year, and are perhaps one of the hardest teams to predict.


Aside from Green Bay’s number one diva, it hasn’t been the noisiest of off-seasons in the NFL, which is nice because it allows us to follow the same plots that began last season. I still think the most interesting thing to watch will be how the Patriots respond to last season. Yeah, the Patriots are old news, but they’re still the team to beat. Expect the AFC to continue to be the varsity league, as the Cowboys (I cringe at the thought) seeming to be, once again, the NFC’s best hope at winning another Super Bowl.


It’s hard to remember a time when I felt like the Eagles were further from a championship than I do right now. I guess we’ll just see. They had their chance. Unfortunately, I foresee another year of the Patriots. 19-0? I doubt it. But they certainly have the best shot at winning the one at the end.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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