Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10, 25th O/19th D) at Carolina Panthers (7-9, 31st O/2nd D)

Those of you who read my old football posts probably don’t remember a damn thing about them, but I made two bold predictions. The first was that Tom Coughlin would be out of a job in Jacksonville come this off-season. Players just tuned him out, and free agency and cap problems ravaged this team. My other prediction was that Carolina’s defense was going to come up big and the Panthers were going to win some games. It did, they did, and as a result defensive guru Jack Del Rio comes into Jacksonville to replace Coughlin. Personally, I think moving Del Rio into the head spot was premature, but anyone’s better than Coughlin, and Del Rio is a player’s coach kind of guy. QB Mark Brunell is looking at his last season as the starter for the Jaguars. He may not even make it through this season, but the job is his to lose despite clamoring from all the idiot football analysts to the contrary. Brunell knows it and he has been sharper than ever in camp. Still, Brunell is a latter-day Steve Young; tough and smart, but perpetually one hit away from the bench. Byron Leftwich came in after a hold-out and went off in a preseason game, which stirred up this artificial QB controversy. "Who needs training camp?" Del Rio quipped. Rookies do, Jack. He knows that, he was just being facetious. Brunell will start, and what’s more, he’ll look good. Sooner or later, though, he’s going to get a lick, and then it’s up to Leftwich to wow them in a real game. See, he did get to move up to #2 as David Garrard is nursing a bad hammy. Garrard’s injury and Leftwich’s holdout were just a few events in Jacksonville’s awful camp, probably the worst of any team. Adding to the misery was the suspension of #1 WR Jimmy Smith for 4 games after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, 3 players were hospitalized for heat illness, and RB Fred Taylor eschewed waiting until the first game of the season to get injured and did it in camp instead, and had to sit out 3 weeks. Worse yet is Smith’s suspension makes newcomer WR J.J. Stokes the #1 guy. Man, he couldn’t handle being the #2 or #3 guy in San Fran, what the fuck is he going to do now? He couldn’t get open when a linebacker was on him, what’s he going to do when he gets double-teamed? Or injured, as he often does? That leaves Matthew Hatchette who has pulled down 2, count ‘em 2, receptions since 2000. What else? Oh, TE Kyle Brady wanted more money and he didn’t get it, so he’s unhappy, but his contract did get reworked. Oh my f’in God. It sucks that Taylor is already gimpy; he started all 16 games last season and got 1,314 yards in spite of a lame-ass line. Del Rio did the usual and nabbed whoever was willing from his old team and brought in G Jamar Nesbit. This moves Brad Meester to center, which may or may not work out. That’s not enough of an upgrade of the line, which means the running game will struggle, and sooner or later Brunell is going to get knocked out of the game, never to return.

The Jags’ 19th-ranked defense was better against the pass than the run, where it ranked 25th. Well, now we know why Del Rio was brought in. He wants physical punishing DTs, and he doesn’t really have them in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Stroud only plays really well when he’s mad, so Del Rio should make rookie kicker Seth Marler slap Stroud in the face or something before every game. The good news: Jax now has DE Hugh Douglas. The bad: he’s 32, and he’s no longer an every-down guy, and the Jags are going to make him one. But, he’s healthy and serves as a much-needed leader on defense. Del Rio likes small fast LBs that can cover receivers and make plays sideline-to-sideline, so he brought in Mike Peterson and Keith Mitchell to complement Akin Ayodele "Hee Hoo." SS Donovan Darius was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, and he deserved it with his run-stopping skills. I’d like to see more out of him in coverage, though. FS Marlon McCree snagged 6 INTs last season, but guess what, Marlon: you need to play even harder. Del Rio likes big CBs, a rare commodity in this league, so he took Rushean Mathis in the draft to eventually replace either Jason Craft or Fernando Bryant, both of whom are li’l guys. Whatever, pass on Jax anyway.

The Jaguars are a cluster looking for a place to fuck. They’re looking at another losing season too; they have far too many issues and the Titans and Colts are going to roll them. Leftwich will be in by the season halfway mark and instead of camp, Del Rio will be asking in earnest "Who needs painkillers?"

The reason for Del Rio’s job op is obvious: he, along with Panthers head coach John Fox, took a bottom-rung defense and made it #2 in just one year. That’s great and all, but the offense still sucks. Fox wants a ball-control style of offense, which is smart because that’s the best approach when you have an elite defense. Facilitating that offensive style is RB Stephen Davis, the perfect fit. The QB spot is interesting in Carolina. You’ve got Rodney Peete, who was a leader and cool in the pocket last season, but he obviously isn’t more than a temporary starter as old as he is. So, when do you start the future? QB Jake Delhomme has the tools to be a solid starting QB, mark my words. He’s energetic and smart, and had been a back-up in New Orleans since the days of the 2 Billy Joes. Whether or not Chris Weinke ever works out is independent of the fact that Delhomme is ready now. There will come a point sometime this season where Peete, due to poor play or injury, will be out and Delhomme will come in, and stay in. Part of the ball-control offense relies heavily on short and especially medium-range passes, which is where WR Muhsin Muhammed excels. It also means #3 slot receiver Ricky Proehl will get some catches. #2 WR Steve Smith is the team’s burner and will be called upon to make the odd breakaway passing play when the defense starts to crowd the box. TE Wesley Walls jumped to Green Bay, so Carolina drafted Mike Seidman in the third round to complement Chris Mangum in the Panthers’ 2-TE sets. Ball-control means a heavy dose of running, which is why the roster reads like this: RBs Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster (if/when he’s healthy) and FB Brad Hooooooover. That’s a great running game waiting to happen. There’s just one thing holding this offense back: its line. Who knows how it will play this year, with rookie RT Jordan Gross the only guy coming in who has a permanent starting job on the line. LT Todd Steussie is good, but he’s more of a pass-blocker than someone who sets up running lanes. Nobody else on the line is up for it, either.

The vaunted Panther defense has the potential to be even better this year, since it made its nut last season in spite of key injuries and suspensions. DE Julius Peppers will be even better this year which is quite a thing, since he had 12 sacks in 12 games last season. He’s bigger, faster, and more experienced. Rucker, Jenkins, and Brentson Buckner round out a solid, quality line. The LB corps is captained by Dan Morgan, who was a standout on this defense back when it sucked. SLS Mark Fields was a dominant force and led the team in tackles last season, but he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and is out. That’s a big loss, and whoever replaces him will not be of equal talent. SS Mike Minter is Pro Bowl caliber; he’s a great tackler and excels in coverage. FS Deon Grant sometimes gets burned on big plays, and he might lose his starting spot if he’s not up to snuff. CBs Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard rely on the great pass rush too look good. God forbid the rush isn’t there, because Cousin is small and Howard is slow. Nickelback Dante Wesley steps up in place of departed Emmanuel McDaniel, and he’s just fine. The bottom line is, teams with a staunch offensive line and a QB with a quick release can burn Carolina.

The Panthers ought to do well this season, but they’ll probably end up 3rd in their division behind New Orleans and Tampa Bay. But, that’s not a foregone conclusion; Tampa might get complacent (as they have in the past) and New Orleans may stumble down the stretch (ditto). Hosting the Jaguars in week one is helpful; they’ll win.

New England Patriots (9-7, 21st O/23rd D) at Buffalo Bills (8-8, 11th O/15th D)

Three or four completely different things had to happen to keep the Patriots out of the postseason last year, and they all happened. What’s funny is, the Patriots still played to their potential and beyond, and they still found ways to win. Also, QB Tom Brady’s numbers and performance improved over his unlikely Super Bowl-winning run 2 years ago. Coach Bill Belicheck knows this, and he’s going to rely on Brady’s arm more and more. So, the receiving corps gets expanded and faster to facilitate this. WR Troy Brown is #1, but #2 guy Deion Branch could be the #1 guy elsewhere, but even so he’s fighting for #2 with David Patten, who’s done some impressive things over the last 2 years. Plus, free agent Dedric Ward comes in, and he is also starter-material. With David Givens rounding things out, I don’t know why the Patriots drafted WR Bethel Johnson in the first round. Because he’s tall, and most of the other guys are short? Well, a beefy receiving corps is good, since nothing has been done to improve the Pats’ 28th-ranked rushing offense. It’s still Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk, who must have both been a fluke in ’01. Smith failed the team’s conditioning test for the 3rd consecutive time, and Faulk is great until a defender touches him and he falls down immediately. Faulk is good in space, so expect to see him get short swing passes and screens. Spearheading those plays will be C Damien Woody, who rightfully earned his first Pro Bowl last season. The rest of the line comes with injury, age, and performance questions, so plays are going to have to develop as fast as possible.

Belicheck is moving to the 3-4 defense primarily, which means Pro Bowler Richard Seymour moves to end and Ted Washington is in at NT. Free agent OLB Rosevelt Colvin adds needed speed and skill, as Colvin can drop back in coverage or rush the passer. Colvin alone gives Belicheck the ability to disguise his 3-4 as a 4-3 and vice-versa. Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi are both inside in the 3-4, and Mike Vrabel is outside opposite Colvin. Trading SS Tebucky Jones for Rodney Harrison is an upgrade. He’ll play off the line, since SS Lawyer Milloy can react quickly enough playing deeper. Yes, they’re both strong safeties, but the Cover-2 doesn’t make a true distinction between FS and SS. Opposite the consistently-great CB Ty Law is rookie Asante Samuel, replacing the departed Otis Smith. Nickel will most likely be rookie Eugene Wilson, so pump fakes and play-action to keep Harrison close to the line and freeze Law long enough to toss a medium-range throw to the slot is the key to beating the Pats in the pass. Those rookies may be great but they’re, you know, rookies. Belicheck knows – and pretty much proved in the Super Bowl – that outstanding special teams is a game-breaker, and he has one of the best kickers in the league with Adam Vinatieri. PR Troy Brown is great as well, and Bethel Johnson gets KR duties, and he has looked good. Poor Adam; he was the league hero after the Super Bowl and champion of the oft-maligned kicker position thereafter, even scoring a favorable ad spot. Now, thanks to Colts K Mike Vanderjagt’s idiotic remarks last year (yeah Mike, Manning didn’t try hard enough), kickers are back to being the laughingstock of the league. There’s Adam being scoffed at by Ray Lewis (from "Just kickers, baby!" to "Kickers will speak when spoken to!" in about a year); alas, Adam.

The Patriots actually have more talent on their team than ever this season. However, the AFC East is the toughest division in football still, even more so. I think they’ll do well, but the Dolphins and Bills (and Jets, but Pennington’s injury will do them in) want it more, which edges the Pats out of the postseason.

The Bills were a funny team last season. Going 8-8 is both impressive and disappointing at the same time, for essentially the same reasons. Their roster should have shot them into the playoffs, but the coaching was fucking terrible. The 64 Defense, which hasn’t been run by anyone since the Bears in the mid-80’s, was used by the Bills with predictably mediocre results. There’s a reason nobody uses it, it’s predicated on gambling surrendering big pass plays to get turnovers. Yeah, the Bears did it because they had stellar players and it was a surprising scheme at the time. It’s the anti-Cover-2, and it usually fails. So, the Bills 15th-ranked defense is a surprise to me, but nowhere near first in takeaways at any rate. In regards to the offense, the Bills came out like everyone thought they would, shooting the lights out every game. In the second half of the season, however, they continued to play like everyone thought they would – literally. Outs and fades, outs and fades, opposing defenses knew it and it was a breeze to defend the Bills. QB Drew Bledsoe kept throwing INTs and the Bills kept losing. OC Kevin Gilbride, when asked why his offensive plan was so predictable, responded by saying since it worked early on, why change anything? Thanks Kevin, you’ve made #1 on my Stupidest Assistant Coaches List, beating out the Giants’ DC and OC for handing San Fran the playoff game last season. Message to coach Gregg Williams: come on, Gregg, you have the receivers to switch things up. WR Eric Moulds is one of the best WRs in the game. He should be put in motion more, as he has requested. Let his legs make some plays instead of depending on Bledsoe to find him somewhere downfield. WR Josh Reed moves up to #2 in place of departed Peerless Price, but I hope he isn’t going to be asked to be a deep threat as Price was. Reed performs better in traffic; in other words, he’s better as a #3 guy. Bobby Shaw has said in no uncertain terms that he wants the #2 spot, and he’s actually better suited for it. There is plenty of depth at WR. TE Jay Reimersma left but Mark Campbell is a competent replacement. Speaking of receiving options, RB Travis Henry should be used as receiver more often as well. I don’t know why the line has played so poorly as it has last season (54 sacks given up) and this pre-season, it looks good on paper.

The defensive line is likewise talented as well as deep, thanks to free agency and the draft. Free agent DT Sam Adams is fat but uses his fat well. He’ll help Pat Williams do what Williams does best already, which is get into the backfield. DE Aaron Schobel has improved by adding to his repertoire of counter-moves, and Marcus Jones is expected to rebound from his knee problems and get something close to the 13 sacks he pulled down in 2000. Expect some complicated and aggressive LB packages with a LB roster that has free agents Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey on it. They’ll have some demands put on them, because the safeties aren’t that impressive, experienced (as safeties), or deep with Pierson Prioleau and Coy Wire and nobody else. Fortunately, CBs Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements are a very good tandem and are excellent in man-to-man.

The Bills still ought to do well this season, and will challenge for a playoff spot. What’s scary is that last season they were the healthiest team in the league, losing only 3 starters for a total of 6 games. That might mean an injury plague this year. If you could point out Drew Bledsoe’s – and by extension, the Bills’ – worst performance last season, it was against the Patriots. Nobody knows Bledsoe’s weaknesses like his former mentor Belicheck, and I don’t think Drew has done much to change his game to potentially outwit him. So, the Bills are going to lose; Patriots.

St. Louis Rams (7-9, 13th O/13th D) at New York Giants (10-6, 6th O/9th D)

13-up, not bad rankings for a sub-.500 team. Coach Mike Martz didn’t drop down to #3 on my Stupidest Coach List just by virtue of Bill Callahan’s Super Bowl laziness and Spurrier's roster hi-jinx. Martz went out and nabbed nasty OT Kyle Turley and steady C Dave Wohlabaugh to help protect his QB Kurt Warner and cement the offensive line. This is smart because for all the crowing everyone’s doing about the "old" Kurt Warner being back, it only takes one nice fucking shot to get the "new" Warner again. Opposing teams are going to be dying to get that shot, not to mention that Warner’s two greatest weaknesses outside his health are his mobility (he has none) and his decision making skills (which suffer when a defense hassles him). Meanwhile, Marc Bulger is in no danger of starting until then. The old Kurt Warner is still the league’s most accurate passer. Warner is expected to do things few QBs are ever expected to do, on a regular basis. Hitting your fast WRs in full stride is one thing, but Warner can put the ball in 3 totally different places: out, low, and over-the-shoulder, and Warner adjusts those spots on the fly in response to a DB’s positioning. Every pass he makes to his wideouts are made while they are in full stride. WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce get big stats every year thanks to Warner and this scheme. Rookies Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis are burners. McDonald will be #3 until Curtis recovers from a broken fibula. The TEs Manumaleuna and Cam Cleeland have had strong camps, which is good because Manumaleuna hasn’t impressed until now and Cleeland is injury-prone. Last season, it took RB Marshall Faulk to go into Martz’ office under his own steam and practically demand to get the ball for Martz to realize his worth as the best RB in the NFC, if not the whole league. Faulk has the best vision and cut-back skills of any RB I can think of, present or past. Martz sure didn’t know any of that in the Rams’ last Super Bowl, as Faulk was criminally underused and the Rams pretty much lost because of it. Faulk Went Off™ last season after getting handed the reigns, to the surprise of Martz and absolutely nobody else. Turley and Wohlabaugh come in and fit right in with Andy McCollum (who moves from C to LG), Adam Timmerman (who is fantastic in space, as Faulk will tell you), and Orlando Pace, who holds out more than Kobe Bryant’s wife. Grant Williams could be a starter on another team, and he’ll spell Pace to keep him from wearing out in the second half if the defense is too aggressive. Nice job, Orlando; hold out for more money when you’re going to be expected to do less anyway. How mean is Turley? He consistently gets voted into the Pro Bowl despite getting zero votes from players on the other 31 teams. Man, that’s just mean.

The defense has a few change-ups, but it should perform well. Ryan Pickett is the best NT nobody’s ever heard of, and his anonymous ability will be maximized with first round pick Jimmy Kennedy. Kennedy is scheduled to come out of the 3 Technique Position as a DT who lines up between an opposing guard and tackle and tries to shoot the gap upfield. Pickett, DT Damione Lewis and DEs Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little ought to be able to tie up OLs well enough to allow for Kennedy to make plays. Tampa Bay alum LB Jamie Duncan lost his starting job to second round pick Pisa Tinoisamoa, who is faster and a better tackler. He’ll go strong side, moving Robert Thomas inside and Tommy Polley remains on the weak side. Polley is a potential Pro Bowler if he stops fucking injuring himself. SS Adam Archuleta is a hitter in the mold of John Lynch, but his coverage skills lack. Jason Sehorn was brought in to be FS even though he hasn’t played safety since college. This apparently won’t matter since he’s back to playing his more familiar position, IR-list benchwarmer. Aeneas "Rhymes With…Well, You Know" Williams is 35, and as a general rule CBs aren’t as good as they used to be when they get 10 years older than their jersey number. He has to move to FS too, since Kim Herring is out. That leaves CB Travis Fisher (who was a surprise as a rookie last year) and Jerametrius Butler (who hasn’t started a game in the NFL) in since Dre’ Bly and Dexter McCleon are gone. All of this adds up to Pass On the Rams.

The Rams are garnering a lot of buzz as contenders to win the Super Bowl. Nope; they may make the playoffs, but they have some serious issues that they have to address, and I think Warner is going to get hurt again, and Bulger won’t be the big hero he was last season. The biggest advantage the Rams have is their final 8 games are against losing teams.

Giants QB Kerry Collins has steadily gotten better every season. He was fantastic in the second half of last year. He’s strong, accurate, reacts quick to pressure, and he’s only 30. His limited mobility is offset by his ability to throw from awkward positions. He’s as durable as any QB in the league and hasn’t missed a game since 1997. Keeping Jason Garrett around is a good idea as he’s not only a capable back-up (although Jesse Palmer is being groomed to eventually replace Collins), he’s a close friend of Collins and is a wealth of information. The Giants ought to go into this game pass-happy, because in addition to the questionable Rams secondary, the Giants have a great receiving corps. WRs Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Ron Dixon, Tim Carter and TE Jeremy Shockey (who can and does line up as a wideout) are all premium targets for Collins. Amazingly, Shockey played most of last season with a toe injury. I guess he got it beating up gays or something, the raging homophobe. If TE Vishante Shiancoe works out like he thus far appears to be, coach Jim Fassel will be going with more 2-TE sets. Since RB Ron Dayne is a bust (and locker room poison; he asked to be traded in the off-season) and Tiki Barber must remain healthy, Dorsey Levens had been brought in to get the bruising short yard gains. Officially, the #2 RB isn’t even Dayne anymore, it’s Delvin Joyce. The line looks pretty good and questions that arouse at the beginning of last season regarding their performance can be squashed for the most part. Still, RG is rookie Davi Diehl, and rookie linemen suffer at the hands of crafty defensive linemen.

There are 3 starters on the roster at DT, but they all come with questions. Keith Hamilton enters his 12th season and is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Cornelius Griffin, who was outstanding in ’01 but so-so last season, is coming off ankle surgery. Thus, first round pick William Joseph will contribute right away vs. the run. Second round pick DE Osi Omenyiora will be called upon to help vs. the pass, along with Keith Washington, so Micheal Strahan and Kenny Holmes will get some help. Even though MLB Mike Barrow, in his 11th season, hasn’t yet appeared to lose a step, Nick Greisen is being groomed to eventually replace him and will be in the rotation to facilitate that. SS Shaun Williams has been excellent since moving from FS, and even though FS Omar Stoutmire is good, he hasn’t gotten an INT since ’99. C’mon Omar, that’s what a FS does. The CB duo Will & Will (Peterson and Allen) are a great tandem, but like Stoutmire, they need to get more INTs. In other words, this secondary is a bend but not game-break type.

As much as I like the Giants and their chances for the season (they’ll fly under the radar as everyone yammers on about the Eagles), they tend to start slow. That’s bad, because their easiest games are at the beginning and end of the season, and they’ll need to start 3-1 or 4-0. The Rams, with a healthy Warner, will not start slow and will pass all over. DBs need a chance to get it together too, but the Giants’ secondary isn’t going to get that chance. New York isn’t notorious for coming from behind to win, and they’re going to find themselves lagging behind the Rams. A good game nonetheless, but the Rams will win and every football analyst will no doubt jump on the bandwagon of the Rams’ return to Super Bowl glory.

Atlanta Falcons (9-6-1, 14th O/20th D) at Dallas Cowboys (5-11, 30th O/18th D)

My God, you just can’t go near a football website or rag without a dozen articles on shortening the preseason, thanks to injuries to QBs Micheal Vick, Pennington, Jeff Blake and RB James Stewart. As I said before, it’s a tough argument on the surface until you simply realize it’s all about the money made charging tickets for those games. Anyway, all these guys were hurt in the first drive (Pennington and Blake were hurt on the first play). Have you seen a preseason game? Maybe players don’t "turn it on" until it counts, but one way or another, they need the near-real game exposure. There isn’t a coach in the league who would argue against that. Injuries can happen at any time – Broncos DL Daryl Gardener injured his hand in a fucking IHOP – but the only unjust time for an injury appears to be in preseason, which is as necessary a time as any for players. The arguments for shortening the preseason never boil down to injury risk – star players typically only play a series or three in the first two games (maybe not at all in the first), the first half of the third game, and none of the fourth (star players with injury concerns won’t even put on a helmet at all) – it boils down to wearing out players, since the time schedule for camp is still based off the old days, when players had other jobs in the off-season and didn’t condition all year round. I consider the typical NFL player to be a highly-motivated, athletic guy with a love for the game. So when most players say the second-best feeling in football after winning the Super Bowl is breaking camp, you have to wonder about it. My point? Stop bitching about the injustice of preseason when your star player goes down. Of course, my favorite part of the preseason, beyond the glimpses of my favorite players as a teaser for the upcoming real games and the occasional QB controversy (of which there was a wealth of this preseason), is finding the guy in the #1 jersey. That guy never makes the team. He could be a WR, a LB, a DB, whatever, it doesn’t matter. He may as well be a contest winner, "Spend the Preseason With an NFL Team". The rules for entry simply call for guys with a severe love of football. You know, guys who played in college and did pretty well. Show them what they’ve won, Don: a few months in camp with your name taped to your helmet! A letter of release signed by the coach! Lucky winners may even get the bonus prize of being on the practice squad for awhile!

Anyway, QB Michael Vick is an idiot. Vick, once quiet and studious like his cousin Aaron Brooks, ended up in Atlanta as its would-be savior. Coach Dan Reeves, in a very smart move, didn’t throw Vick to the wolves from day one like those clowns the Bengals usually do. He eased Vick into his role as eventual starting QB, putting him in series in actual games of increasing variety and complexity, and let him use his feet to create if necessary. It was a guarantee that Vick would start at some point, because backing up Chris Chandler is the polar opposite of backing up Brett Favre. During the season and all off-season, Vick worked and studied and sought the tutelage of would-be Hall of Fame QB Steve Young, who set the standard for the new NFL rushing QB. Vick’s performance last season validated his hard work: he Went Off™ and couldn’t play a game without doing something jaw-dropping, including stomping Green Bay at home in the playoffs. I remember that game well. In the first quarter, Green Bay was flailing and Atlanta put up two TDs in the first 5 minutes or so. I called my friend, who was working late and thought that game was a non-issue, and told him he needs to turn on this game, because Green Bay is going to lose. So, what did Vick do in the off-season last year? Not much beyond soak up the spotlight. Hey, he earned it, but he didn’t earn a fucking Get Out of Off-Season Workout Pass. But there Vick wasn’t, not at any workouts. Remember when Colts RB Edgerrin James pulled that maneuver last off-season? Hmm, interesting.

No need to go into the QB situation Atlanta is in, you can’t swing a dead ball foul without hearing about it. Blah blah blah more pocket passing since that’s what Doug Johnson is and maybe the Falcons still have a chance. No they don’t. They don’t have a chance to beat Tampa Bay (they barely had a chance with Vick, he got clobbered in their meetings) and they aren’t going to beat the Saints or Panthers in their first meetings. Vick will be back on the field as soon as he’s remotely healthy, which means the game plan isn’t going to change right away, because they won’t want him trying to run for awhile. Instead of a pure pocket passer running pure pocket passing plays Michael Vick, who’s still learning to be a pocket passer, is going to run them. So the Falcons will be at an even bigger disadvantage the first few games Vick plays. 3-5 at best by midseason? You bet. Hitting the Falcons without Vick will be as desirable as hitting the Rams without Kurt Warner; it’s a shot of opportunity. The upside of the switch means more action for RBs T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn. Dunn will get more plays out in the open field, in the flat or on a swing. How about the receivers? Peerless Price played fantastically last season. Oh, no shit, he was playing out his contract and about to enter free agency. Well, he got his fat payday in Atlanta so now he’ll play a step lower. At least WR Brian Finneran plays his balls off. Mar-Tay Jenkins checks in and TE Alge Crumpler always figures in big in the passing game, so even if Price isn’t playing full-out, there are still better options than Atlanta had last season. The offensive line is in good shape as long as C Todd McClure plays well.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (like Ray Rhodes, a head coaching disaster but a defensive guru) prefers the 3-4, which is interesting since their DTs are small and not suited for that scheme. Well, Ellis Johnson is decent-sized, and Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith may be small, but they’re mad fast and they never give up, combining for 55 tackles last season and posting high sack totals over the last 2. Plus, they have bench guys to spell them vs. the run. The Falcons have a deep and talented LB troupe as well. ILB Keith Brooking is the heart of this defense. FS Keion Carpenter is great and I hope he’s over his neck surgery. SS is free agent Corey Hall, who beat out incumbent Gerald McBurrows. CB Ray Buchanon was getting too big (muscle-wise) to still play CB, Phillips thought, so Ray was threatened with being switched to FS. Buchanon avoided this by dropping 20 lbs and will remain the quality CB he is. He wasn’t so hot last year, but he had a nagging abdominal injury early the entire season. CB Tyrone Williams and nickel Tod McBride, both from Green Bay, bolster the hell out of the secondary. We have a seriously upgraded defense here, folks. The Falcons get a lot of help on special teams; K Jay Feely and P Chris Mohr always get it done.

Overhauled defenses need time to get it together, which means some disarray and below-potential performance early in the season, another reason why I see the Falcons starting weak but ending strong. It may not be strong enough, though, so I don’t see the Falcons making the playoffs.

The Falcons are in luck to some degree, because they have shorter to go to get it together than Dallas does. Oh, coach Bill Parcells will work his magic in time. I have been clamoring for owner Jerry Jones to stop pretending he knows anything about football and pay the big money he has to get a dude who can run the show right. The winning Dallas coaches have traditionally been strong-willed men, Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson and the like, not subservient toadies. However, at the moment Jones is in the same frame of mind as his team, the frame of mind that is perfect for a guy like Parcells to come in. Quote Jerry: "I want to win that badly." Jones and Parcells have thus far had a good relationship, one based on equality and respect. That’s a sight better than Parcells’ past relationships with club owners. Parcells used to talk down to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and barely spoke at all to Jets owner Leonard Hess. Jones asks for updates and hangs about as usual, but his probing is more akin to getting progress updates and not meddling or backseat coaching. Parcells is hilariously fat and annoying, but he’s the smartest coach in the league. He rides into town to fix a team that hasn’t won in forever and overhauls them with his totalitarian regime. The players are talented but unfocused and spiritless from losing all the time. Parcells works them relentlessly and once they start winning, nobody cares. Then he bails before players start tuning out the Tuna and his vitriol (are you listening, Tom Coughlin? Never mind). The team manages to still stay improved over the way they were pre-Parcells (see New England and the Jets), so he still gets credit post facto and doesn’t hang around for when the team suffers setbacks due to salary cap or whatever. It is more than that, however. Parcells’ game plan rewards hard-working players with opportunities (such that they will follow Parcells to other teams) and he’s turned talented but as-yet unspectacular players – typically QBs – into marquee material (see Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde). It’s tough love, but it works. QB Quincy Carter fits this profile to the letter. Carter is physically gifted and possessive of streaky talent, but he needs focus and direction. Discipline is what I’m saying, and who the hell in the league is more a disciplinarian than Parcells? NFL pundits predict Parcells will jettison Carter and all the QBs in the lineup (he will with Hutchinson, I can just see him saying "This guy was a fucking baseball player. We don’t hire baseball players, we hire football players!") next off-season; he already ditched Clint Stoerner. Unless he scores Tim Couch or someone really outstanding, he’ll stick with Carter because he’ll have molded him in his image of what a QB should be by the end of this season. Parcells will have other concerns by next off-season. WRs Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant are in for it; Parcells runs his WRs ragged, both mentally and physically. I think that’s why Parcells brought in WR Terry Glenn. Glenn isn’t a good receiver without Parcells to coach him, whom Parcells once referred to as "she." Glenn was run out of New England after Parcells departed, and he deserved it. He was run out of Green Bay last year, and although he didn’t deserve it per se, he was supposed to be a deep TD threat and the #1 receiver. He was neither of those things, but as a slot guy who can occasionally surprise by going deep and being a known factor in Parcells’ mind, he’ll be good in Dallas. Michael Wiley will line up to create mismatches with LBs trying to cover him. Parcells told RB Troy Hambrick in no uncertain terms that he wanted him smaller, so he could turn the corner as well as zip in between the tackles. You know, like Curtis Martin. So Hambrick dutifully dropped to 240, and his speed has improved. I saw him taking the corner pretty well in preseason. FB Richie Anderson, who rose out of who-dat status under Parcells in New York, comes in to be a serious factor, especially on 3rd down if Hambrick can’t pull it off. The biggest upheaval of tradition in the arrival of Parcells will be the offensive line, in time. Parcells likes quicker, more athletic (i.e. smaller) linemen. In other words, more like Ryan Young and less like Flozell Adams. OT Javin Collins, in that same model, will no doubt get more time as a result as Parcells likes smaller quicker linemen so he can run lots of screens.

Now, Parcells isn’t a fan of small DLs or LBs, but that’s what he’s got. However, the LBs are quick and highly-motivated, so the plan is to have DTs LaRoi Glover (in pass), Michael Myers and whoever the hell is going to replace John Nix (who wasn’t all that great anyway) hold the gap so LBs Dexter Coakley, "Who" Dat Nguyen and Al Singleton can shoot it. Two-time Pro Bowler Coakley ought to thrive in that scheme and earn a 3rd trip to Hawaii. The secondary can be left alone, because it’s fine the way it is with SS Roy Williams, FS Darren "Another’ Woodson, and CBs Derrick Ross and first round pick Terrence Newman, who beat out mediocre Mario Edwards for starting CB.

This overhaul is going to take a little time. Expect to see a big finish from Big D, but a shaky start. Too bad they’re in a division that doesn’t forgive that, and they somehow have the toughest schedule in the NFL this season, so they’ll finish below.500. The Falcons have a game plan and have the personnel to execute it, although they’ll have fits. Ugly game, Falcons win it.

New Orleans Saints (9-7, 19th O/27th D) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9, 7th O/28th D)

What the fuck is happening to QB Aaron Brooks? The dude has been on a serious downhill slide over the last 3 years. Yeah, yeah, injuries and overworking and all, but still: his completion percentage has declined every year, and he’s committing way too many turnovers. I can define inconsistent for you: sweeping the Bucs in the regular season and barely getting above .500. The Saints fold at the end of the season like the Dolphins used to. They could have wound up 12-4 but they dropped their last 3 in depressing fashion. It’s not a good sign when a team sends its QB to a leadership seminar (can you imagine? Some corporate goofball saying "Aaron, I want you to look in the mirror every day and tell yourself how strong you are!"), but apparently Aaron is so soft-spoken, his teammates can’t tell what play he’s calling in the huddle. He’s it, though; back-up Todd Bouman is even more inconsistent, and his troughs are deeper and longer than his peaks by far. If Brooks gets it together, the Saints are a real-time threat to make the playoffs. Apparently, having the Bucs’ number is huge and New Orleans has scored big in the draft and through free agency over the last few years. The receiving corps is still deep. #1 WR Joe Horn needs to make more game-breaking plays, however. #2 WR Donte Stallworth made some highlight reels last season and he needs to keep that up. WR Jerome Pathon is a great #3 guy due to his versatility – he can line up pretty much anywhere. Coach Jim Haslett intends to use a lot of 3-WR / 2-TE sets, so TEs Ernie Conwell and David Sloan will get some action. All Deuce McAllister needs to become a franchise RB is improve his route running and pass-blocking. He has the speed and the hands, however. What he does not have is anyone behind him worth a damn. Re-signing C Jerry Fontenot was a smart move because along with RG LeCharles Bentley, who simply dominates, and LG Kendyl Jacox, who is reminiscent of Larry Allen in his heyday, the interior line is among the league’s best. That’s good, because the dudes taking OT Kyle Turley and Willie Roaf’s places are a step down from those fine gentlemen. Well, to be fair, Wayne Gandy has protected Brook’s blindside pretty well.

There has been some major overhauling done on the defense. Incumbent NT Grady Jackson is fat and would rather sit at home and eat then report to the off-season conditioning program, no doubt called the New Orleans Saints’ Show Up Grady You Fat Fuck Conditioning Program, since I can’t think of anyone on the team who consistently needs conditioning more than Jackson. He needs more conditioning than Macy Gray’s hair. Norman Hand is gone too, so it’s Kenny Smith or even rookie first rounder Johnathan Sullivan might take his place. MLB Charlie Clemons bailed for Detroit, so free agent Orlando Ruff replaces him. The other LB positions will invariably be a revolving door, since none have stood out as of yet. Even Ruff will play only on early downs and have Darrin Smith step in must-pass situations. FS Sammy Knight is gone and SS Jay Bellamy has been demoted. Aside from some occasional stellar performances, neither Knight nor Bellamy were very consistent as defensive forces. FS Tebucky Jones may be an improvement; he has the speed and size to cover all but the most punishing elite WRs. SS Mel Mitchell is good but kind of stiff in coverage. The CBs are geezers: Dale Carter at 33 is past his prime and off a 10-game suspension, so he’s old and rusty. Ashley Ambrose is 32 and can’t cover a top WR in man-to-man. Are you listening, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammed, and Peerless Price? Maybe Fred Thomas will challenge for a starting spot but like my dick, he’s small and gets beat up a lot.

The Saints are still managing to fly under the radar, sitting in the NFC South as they are. Well, they’re about to become a real big blip; with Vick out, New Orleans will get the slack they need to go to the playoffs, including – you heard it here first – winning their division.

The Seahawks finished with a top ten offense, but most of that was in season garbage time. However, that’s not to take away from the offense’s accomplishments; indeed, the Seahawks ought to do pretty well this season. Coach Mike Holmgren relinquished his GM title to concentrate more on just coaching – good move, Mike. Back to that big finish, QB Matt Hasselbeck cemented his starting spot with it, averaging 475.8 yards per game in the ‘Hawks last 6 games. Matt comes in this season in better shape and with full knowledge of Holmgren’s intricate system. Holmgren became confident with Hasselbeck’s ability and starting running an aggressive game plan with great results. Hasselbeck’s stellar late-season performance had an impact on QB Trent Dilfer as well; he’s accepted his back up role and is taking part in teaching Hasselbeck. With all the offensive targets Seattle has, Dilfer is teaching Hasselbeck to spread the ball around more, a skill which Trent has in spades. From promising rookie to league scapegoat to Super Bowl champ (immediately) to pariah to wise teacher, Dilfer’s been through it all. The WRs by contrast are ready for anything, including a modicum of notoriety. WR Darrell Jackson is as good as any WR and will face less double teams thanks to the flourishing of Koren Robinson and the steady play of Bobby Engram (50 catches, half of which were on third down and 43 for first downs). If TE Jerramy Stevens could quit screwing around off the field, he could remain an imposing force on it. RB Shaun Alexander, after putting up 1,175 yards and 16 TDs last season, heard the last 3 words he wanted to hear out of Holmgren: "I want more." What, Mike, no team you ever coached had a marquee RB. RB Maurice Williams will spell him, but it’s still Alexander’s shoulders where the large bulk of the running game will obviously rest. The offensive line is above-par, with LT Walter Jones (who earned a franchise tag this year) is a 3-time Pro Bowler and LG Steve Hutchinson, if healthy, will soon be on a plane to Hawaii as well.

Holmgren lured friend and defensive guru Ray Rhodes away from Denver, and Rhodes will have his guys play aggressive. The Seahawks dealt a 6th round pick to the Saints for Norman Hand (how's that feel, Norman?) , and hopefully they'll get the Norman Hand who commands double teams and stuffs the run and not the Norman Hand who commands double portions and stuffs his fucking face. The problem is, Chad Eaton is hurt and won’t be able to play until mid-September. John Randle is still around to wear too much eyeblack and rush the passer but Seattle doesn’t want to play him on more than 3rd down, and he’s going to have to with Eaton out. Why is DE Chike Okeafor playing for Seattle now? Because the Seahawks were dead last vs. the run last year. The LBs weren’t any help obviously, so in comes MLB Randal Godfrey to hopefully help out. Further to that cause, FS Damien Robinson replaces lame-ass Marcus Roberts helping out SS Reggie "No Nickname Necessary" Tongue, both of whom excel against the run. The problem is that for all this run defense help, the pass defense might suffer in the secondary. That’s bad when you consider Seattle is in the same division as the apparently-resurgent Rams and the newly-appointed pass-wacky Niners. CBs Shawn Springs and Ken Lucas are very good, though. Springs, already a Pro Bowl candidate, turns free agent next year, so look for him to play his balls off. Seattle needs some better special teams play; aside from PR Engram, their special teams blow.

The Seahawks have traditionally started slow under Holmgren, and with the overhauled defense the same may be expected. The ‘Hawks ought to start winning games sooner though, and will play spoiler in their division, and may even snag a wild card.

The Seahawks D is still trying to get its act together and when the Saints offense is on, it’s on all the way. I think New Orleans is going to win this one, but nobody’s going to feel like playing Seattle by midseason; Saints.

Chicago Bears (4-12, 29th O/25th D) at San Francisco 49ers (10-6, 8th O/ 14th D)

Losing in the Super Bowl can cause burnout, but simply making the playoffs should not. What the fuck happened to Chicago? These guys Went Off™ in 2001, winning their division and nabbing Dick "Mike Shanahan Look-Alike Runner-Up" Jauron Coach of the Year honors. Last year: nothin’, even though there weren’t any significant upheavals in the lineup other than SS Tony Parrish hopping to San Fran. How’s this for the sad state of affairs in Chico? They wanted QB Jake Plummer but they ended up with Kordell Stewart instead. That’s like asking for a blowjob from an eager virgin and getting a hand job from a gay carnie. Stewart just might do okay, but do you really want to find out? One excuse bandied about for Stewart’s lame showing in Pittsburgh was that he never got to play with the same offensive coordinator for more than one year at a time. Well, OC Mike Mularkey was there for two and Stewart improved somewhat, but then wavered and Tommy Maddox was head-and-shoulders better. Well, here’s Stewart with a new OC in Chi-town, so forget it. He will get more plays where he will be called upon to run, however. Just make him a WR already. He wasn’t all that thrilled when Chicago traded for QB Rex Grossman, a first round pick. See, the Bears told Stewart they wouldn’t use a first round pick on a QB; they didn’t, they traded for one. Har har on you, Kordell. So what happens when Kordell sucks, Chris Chandelier breaks, and all that’s left is Grossman? I dunno, but it’ll probably be gross, man (groan). Sooner (although later is preferred) Rex will be the Rx for the Bears’ inevitable offensive woes. The good news is that WR Marty Booker is off his first Pro Bowl season, yay. WR Dez White has speed but needs some extra skills to accompany it. WR David Terrell got big money, so he didn’t participate in the "voluntary" off-season workouts and will no doubt dial in his performance this season. Free agent TE Desmond Clark figures to get a lot of playing time, since the Bears tend to use a lot of TE action (they have 4 on the roster, so that’s just a wild guess on my part). RB Anthony Thomas had his nickname revoked due to his generic play last year (the Bears were dead last in rushing), but having a shitty line and running a predictable game plan didn’t help. Back up RB Adrian Peterson is going to play more to shake things up. The line ought to do better this year, with C Olin Kreutz leading the charge, and a gang of good guys with him. The only problem is that last year’s first round pick OT Marc Colombo is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Big-ass DTs Ted Washington and Keith Traylor are gone, and all that’s really left is Bryan Robinson. The loss of DE Rosevelt Colvin means the loss of the pass rush more or less. Well, except for LB Brian Urlacher, the best MLB in the NFC.WLB Warrick Holdman is very good in space. The safeties are essentially interchangeable in the Bears’ scheme, but Mike Brown isn’t interchangeable with anyone. He’s definitely the leader in the secondary, and he pushes Mike Green to do better. Green needs to get over giving up a big play when it happens; it affects him for the rest of the game. They have their work cut out for them as the CBs boil down to R.W. McQuarters, who gets hurt a lot, Jerry Azumah, who is better vs. the run, and a bunch of clowns for nickel. The Bears are going to get annihilated in the passing game, and they’re in the wrong-ass division to have a poor pass D. They do have one of the best kickers in the league with obsessive-compulsive Paul Edinger; only Lions K Jason Hanson has more tics and routines.

I don’t know if the 49er players realize this, but this season is probably their last chance for awhile to do anything. Two main reasons: a ton of players become free agents next year, including WR Terrell Owens, QB Jeff Garcia, RB Kevan Barlow and LB Julian Peterson, and club president John York is a fucking cheap idiot who will ruin the storied 49er franchise in any case. I almost fucking fainted when I read a quote from York, who seriously asked his staff if some players could play both sides of the ball to save money on salaries. Sure John, we’ll just bring Bronco Nagurski and Red Grange out of cryogenesis for you, you fuck. Ask the Bengals or the Clippers what having an idiot owner will do for your team. Focusing on this year, new coach Dennis Erickson is an enigma. He got the job because he’s a friend of York’s. Now there’s a good reason to hire a coach for your football team. But he’s making all the right noises and moves. Erickson wants to stretch the field and put the ball in QB Jeff Garcia’s hands more often and get him to throw more deep passes. I like that, because history (or, at least, the first Rams game, the Raiders game, and especially the Giants playoff game last season) has shown that when you let Jeff get in a rhythm, he’s deadly. Statistics show that around 80% of all scoring drives in football involve a play that gained 20 or more yards. So, big passing plays mean points on the board. The new offense gives Garcia a chance to do that which could help him with his shortcomings, that of giving up on plays too early and dumping off the ball. As everyone knows, Garcia enters with a degenerative disc in his spine. That’s one of the worst ailments a player can have, because few injuries come with such a wide variety of uncertain outcomes. Garcia will probably start, but aggravating that back could land him on the IR list permanently, and it might write his ticket out of football. Ask former Bronco Mark Schlereth as he sits (uncomfortably) in his suit and tie on ESPN’s NFL Live what he thinks about that injury, the one that prematurely ended his career. Owens reaps a benefit of Erickson’s new game plan as well, and we all know keeping Owens happy is a dubious must. Erickson plans to use more play-action to help Owens get free. Owens is in his contract year and will be playing even harder as a result, which makes him a serious MVP candidate. Owens, as well as #2 WR Tai Streets (replacing the departed and perpetually underachieving J.J. Stokes) and #3 Cedrick Wilson, will run more post patterns. There will be more backfield motion by the RBs to threaten the run, which has been legitimate for awhile now, thanks to the resurgent Garrison Hearst and Barlow. FB Fred Beasley, one of the best in the game, will get more action too; Erickson likes him and plans to use him as a modified halfback, putting him in motion a lot in those backfield schemes. Maybe Erickson Mk. II will suck like the premier version, but it won’t be for lack of trying. The injury to TE Eric Johnson, which will keep him out until about midseason, might serve to prompt Garcia to look long. TE Aaron Walker is 6’6" but isn’t proven. The offensive line has traditionally been solid, owing in large part to the tutelage of the late great Bob McKittrick. The line still performs to the legacy he set, with Newberry-Stone-Heitmann securing the interior, and Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg, who will eventually lose his starting job to first rounder Kwame "Rhymes With Game" Harris. Gragg’s impersonation of a red carpet in the postseason game vs. the Bucs helped with the decision to draft Harris. Noteworthy stat: Deese himself hasn’t surrendered a sack in almost 2 years.

The Niners’ defense may have come in at a respectable 14th overall, but we’ve all heard about their 32nd place at third down defense. What have they done to improve that perennially-bad pass rush this year? Nothing beyond praying none of their starters get injured. NT Bryant Young has become old enough that he’s only a force if he’s healthy; his shoulder injury last year limited him. The other DTs are Jim Flanigan who ain’t shit (and missed most of camp with a leg injury), and rookie Anthony Adams. To his credit, Adams is small (5’11") but very quick, and he will be expected to assist in the anemic pass rush. Someone’s got to help DE Andre Carter, the best defensive lineman on the team. Carter pulled down the QB 12 times last season, not bad. John Engleberger will help. He’s replacing the departed Chike Okeafor who was a more complete end, but John is good vs. the pass. There are some good bench guys to come in vs. the run. The run is in good hands otherwise anyway, with a great LB unit. Julian Peterson earned (and I mean earned – he shut down Tim Brown in the Raiders game last season) his first of many Pro Bowl appearances last season. Assisting him are tackle-master MLB Derek Smith and surprise Jamie Winborn. Winborn was out most of last season but Jeff Ulbrich played well in his place, and will still get some time in as the Niners plan to utilize their talented LBs and add a heavy dose of 3-4. They can pull it off if Young is healthy. Injuries resulted in playing time and impressive performances out of the entire linebacking depth chart. Speaking of injuries, FS Zack Bronson and SS Tony Parrish need to stay healthy. They are as good a safety combo as you can find when they are. However, the talent level drops sharply when John Keith or Ronnie "Seen But Not" Heard is on the field as a starter. CB Ahmed Plummer added 15 lbs of muscle in the off-season to expand his coverage ability. He’s a Pro Bowler waiting to happen, in contrast to Jason Webster, who seems to be an accident waiting to happen. Webster tripped over his own shoelaces or something and is out 4-8 weeks. He ain’t so great when he’s healthy, though. Teams threw all over him and Mike Rumph last season. Rumph, for his part, was a rookie and has been doing everything he can to improve. Judging by his camp and preseason game play, he is indeed Taking It To The Next Level ™. That’s good, since Webster is better as a nickel, or at least isn’t really up for the starting CB job at any rate.

Just because this is San Fran’s last grasp for glory for awhile doesn’t mean it will add up to one. Hoping division mate St. Louis implodes again isn’t a very good plan, and it’s all they have. It will all be predicated on whether or not Erickson’s plan works. If it does, the Niners will nab a wild-card spot. If not, they’ll console themselves in the fact that thanks to Arizona, they aren’t last in their division.

When adding up the question marks and comparing the Niners’ to the Bears’, the Niners have less. I give this to San Fran. Stewart, if he ever becomes anything again, won’t in Week One; Niners.

Oakland Raiders (11-5, 1st O/11th D) at Tennessee Titans (11-5, 17th O/10th D)

Akin to the "Super Bowl Hangover," there’s also what I like to call the Curse of the Super Bowl Losers. Witness the Rams last season, the Giants the season before that, the Titans before that, the Packers before that, and the Falcons before that. Go on and check, the best any of them did was New York, who got knocked out of a playoff spot because Philly beat the Raiders. Last year, the Rams were a goddamn disaster. Returning most of their starters and not getting eviscerated by cap casualties and free agency helped the Giants hang in there, and the Raiders return 19. What does that bode for QB Rich Gannon? On paper, Gannon is still considered elite: he’s highly accurate, has great field vision, and usually makes good decisions. I say "usually" because if Gannon gets thrown off his game, his performance suffers mightily. The 5 losses the Raiders got were in a row, indicative of an attitude problem, one that I believe started with Gannon and worked its way down. Bill Callahan’s meh coaching ability didn’t help. Hey Bill, maybe the next time you play the Buccaneers, how about not running the same plays you ran all season long, and how about not using the same goddamn audibles for them, the ones Gruden made up? Good God. Back to Gannon: his arm is too old to heave any 30+ yarders, and as such he relies heavily on his WRs to get YACs. I think this is the year that Gannon’s ability seriously wanes, which is too bad since I don’t know if Marques Tuiasosopo is up for it, and Rick Mirer sure as hell ain’t. Speaking of the WRs, the best one on the team now is barely penciled in at #2, Jerry Porter. Jerry Rice is the #1 receiver, which is silly to me since Rice has matured (quite well, mind) into a slot receiver primarily, since that’s how he made his nut in San Francisco in the progenitor West Coast Offense. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed anymore, so it takes a severe misstep on a DB’s part for Rice to pull a long one. Tim Brown still has the ability to make some yards, but neither Rice nor Brown are like Porter at this point in time. He’s big and fast, in the mold of Terrell Owens, with the potential to be just as prodigious as Owens has been. Either way, coupled with TE Doug Jolley (along with TEs Teyo Johnson and Roland Williams, since Callahan likes all 3 and plans to use 3-TE sets), Gannon does have a plethora of targets. The running game is still top-notch with the one-two punch of RBs Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley. Garner is the most complete back in the AFC, threatening or breaking 1000 yards in both rushing and receiving in the past 3 seasons. Wheatley could start for a team with ease and he makes a great between-the-tackles guy to spell Garner and both stay fresh as a result, a tandem similar to the 49ers’ Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. FB Zack Crockett will still come in for short yards and goal line situations where he has traditionally done well. The area of concern is on the line as C Barrett Robbins, in the wake of his Super Bowl eve freak out, had been trying to prove himself as worthy again, but failed. He was released, so it’s either Adam Treu or Matt Stinchcomb in his place. Otherwise the line returns all of its starters, all big monsters who are great when healthy. Health is a moderate concern for all of them, but the depth is there.

The Raiders had the 3rd best run defense in the league last season, and that’s almost all because of DT John Parella. Double-team him, he doesn’t care. Dana Stubblefield replaces Sam Adams, which I think is a pretty good switch, since having a monster like Parella means your other guy should be more athletic, and Stubby is more athletic than Adams, relatively speaking. Starting DEs Tony Bryant and Trace Armstrong are off pretty big injuries, and Regan Upshaw up and left, so it’s all those rookies Oakland got in the Gruden trade to the rescue. Tyler Brayton, (1st), Sam Williams (3rd), and Shurron Pierson (4th) are all speedy guys. Speaking of Gruden, attention all Raiders fans: Jon Gruden did not leave your team; he was traded. He didn’t speak to the Bucs’ owners until Al Davis called him and told him. He wasn’t a traitor, he was traded. Anyway, the LBs for the Raiders are a solid unit. WLB Eric Barton Went Off™ last year and Napoleon Harris filled in great for Greg Biekert and Bill Romanowski. Travian Smith will check in for blitzes due to his strength and speed combo. FS Rod Woodson rounds out the Gang Geriatric role call. I thought maybe SS Derrick Gibson would learn from Rod; nay. CB Charles Woodson, when healthy, is the best CB in the AFC if not the league. When he’s healthy nobody throws at him, so he just comes in and exerts excellent run defense as well, the talented bastard. CB Phillip Buchanon is a big-play dude but he gambles too often to get those big plays, and big athletic WRs laugh at his feeble attempts to cover them. Terrell Owens shrugged Buchanon off like he was a Dallas fan in their game last season, which in large part was why the Niners won. The nickel situation is uncertain among 2 guys who suck and a rookie who didn’t play CB until his senior year of college. Bleah. Go ahead and pass on the Raiders, in both picks and game plan. The Raiders have a great punter in Shane Lechler, but PK Sebastian Janikowski has been oddly erratic in preseason. C’mon Seabass, get it together.

The Raiders are gonna get schooled this season. Division mates Denver, KC and San Diego are all hungry and poised to make a playoff run. Oakland blew its wad last year, and they’re just a bump in the road to the other younger, hungrier, revamped teams in their division. They won’t even make the playoffs.

The Titans have been a surprise since their impressive Super Bowl bid a few years back. I cannot think of a team that finds a way to win, no matter how ugly, more often than the Titans. I love reading their post-game stats, stupid shit like 43 rushing yards and 154 passing yards total, yet winning 31-17. These guys started 1-4 last year, virtually a postseason write-off. But you can’t write off the Titans prematurely; they went 10-1 to finish off the season. I used to think QB Steve McNair was overrated as a starting QB. I was wrong, he’s underrated, actually. He’s also the toughest QB this side of Green Bay and the biggest QB running threat this side of Atlanta. Speaking of running, McNair is Lesson #1 for would-be running QBs: learn to become a pocket passer first and use running as a safety valve. Once you have established yourself as a running threat, opposing defenses will have to commit a guy (a quick LB, usually) to always keep his eye on you, which expands your passing options. McNair needs to stay healthy, because the Titans had to release dependable back-up Neil O’Donnell. Unfortunately for McNair, what was once a deep, talented receiving corps has dried up. Besides WR Derrick Mason, there aren’t any standouts. Coach Jeff Fisher plans to use 3-WR sets to get Mason open. WR Drew Bennett is big but slow, but Justin McCareins is both big and fast, but unproven. TE Frank Wycheck doesn’t get open like he used too, either. The Titans are looking for a quality RB to spell Eddie George so he doesn’t have to carry the offense. This is in part due to the fact that McNair has Stepped Up™ whenever George has been hurt. Options are RBs Chris Brown (a rookie, but he’s tall and quick) and John Simon (as a decoy in passing downs, really) and FB Robert Holcombe. For George’s part, he needs to make the most of the carries he gets; he hasn’t averaged 4.0 yards per carry (he hovers around 3.5 lately) since their Super Bowl bid, which wasn’t a coincidence. The offensive line is talented and experienced except for the center, which is a question mark.

Defensively speaking, DTs Henry Ford and John Thornton are gone, so Albert Haynesworth and Robaire Smith are in. Haynesworth is a worthy replacement, though; he’s quick off the line and can control the point of attack, but he has to learn a little more. DE Kevin Carter will line up inside in nickel defense, and with Jevon Kearse (if he’s healthy) and Carlos Hull, who was a major surprise as a rookie last season, may all line up together. That makes for a great line, but Kearse must be in top form, and I don’t think he is. The deepest roster on the team is at linebacker. MLB Peter Sirmon is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, and his instincts allow the Titans a variety of zone arrangements as they trust Sirmon will be in position. FS Lance Schulters and SS Tank Williams can do it all. Both are physical and force turnovers with regularity. Both have a tendency to come up injured, but rookie Donnie Nickey has looked so good, the Titans are confident he can fill in for either if necessary. CB Samari Rolle is fantastic and Andre Dyson is merely very good, so Dyson will get all the throws, because nobody throws near Rolle. Rolle is one of those CBs that force opposing teams to X out whatever half of the field he’s on as a passing zone. One big problem in the secondary is that the Titans traditionally play in nickel, and they have no solid CB to play nickelback. Expect opposing offenses to go 3 or 4 wide to work that deficiency. Fisher values outstanding special teams play, and P Craig Hentrich is one of the best punters in the league. It’s also why Mason and McCareins are on return duties.

This is the first season in a long while that McNair hasn’t had surgery or was nursing a major wound (even though he beat the shit out of himself and at least one innocent equipment locker during the season) coming in, so he’ll be fresh. If he can stay that way – but I don’t think he will – the Titans are a legitimate post-season threat. Actually, they are regardless, but they’re always one or 2 key injuries away from trouble, so they’ll get there barely, if they do. The Curse starts early for the Raiders this season; Titans win.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4, 24th O/1st D) at Philadelphia Eagles (12-4, 10th O/4th D)

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this match-up is the first Monday Nighter: Tampa Bay and Philly shared the best record in the league last season, along with Green Bay. Also, it’s one of those retarded "Rematch For Revenge" games the NFL loves to promote. I haven’t seen a MNF promo with the snarling announcer vowing revenge from Philly for last season’s NFC Championship, but it’s coming. It’s a hell of a way for both teams to start the season, in any case.

QB Brad Johnson is never going to get much credit for the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl win. It’s small wonder when the defense outscores the opposing team, similar to the ’00 Ravens. At least Johnson didn’t get canned like Trent Dilfer did after nabbing the Lombardi. Let’s put this into perspective: Brad Johnson set club records for the Bucs last season with his 22 TDs (and only 6 INTs) and 62.3% completion rate. As his completion percentage suggests, Johnson is highly accurate, and he makes good decisions and is a great leader on the field, all of which are qualities that coach Jon Gruden desires in a QB. Shaun King remains as a decent back-up, now that Rob Johnson has moved on to the Redskins. Rookie Chris Sims was (still) a steal in the 3rd round, slipping there since he’s developed a (deserved) reputation for dumping big games. He’s got the tools though, and Gruden would like to develop him as the eventual marquee starter in the proper way; namely, carrying the clipboard. All that aside, the Bucs need to have Johnson in and playing, or they’re not going to win games. Continuing our perspective lesson, Gruden’s offensive plan blew the Raiders’ defense away and many of the new tricks Grude pulled out of his bag will persist into this season. One of those tricks will be the "bunch" formation, the lining up of two or three receivers next to each other in an effort to confuse DBs off the line. It worked in the Super Bowl, and it ought to work well this season. Maybe speedy WRs would maximize this formation, but Gruden likes his receivers big, since they fit his ball-control style of offense. WRs Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius are all big guys. Jurevicius wasn’t in on the offense as much last season as he was before in New York, but he maximized his opportunities when he had them (especially in the post-season, where #3 WRs tend to get important real quick) so he’ll get more time, which accounts for Jacquez Green getting his walking papers. TE Ken Dilger is just the sort of TE Gruden likes. Gruden wants to run more 2-TE sets, but Rickey Dudley is out for a month or so with a high ankle sprain. The pass is likely to see more action, because the Bucs have some issues on the ground. RB Michael Pittman wrote his exit ticket by getting charged with 2 counts of felony assault. He was traded to Arizona for RB Thomas Jones. Jones couldn’t do anything there, beats me what the hell he’s supposed to be able to do for Tampa. By default it’s RB Aaron Stecker, but he just doesn’t look like the solution to me, at least not as an every-down back. He’s also the KR, but he doesn’t have the hands for catching in the flat. In other words, not at all like RB Charlie Garner, the best all-purpose back in the AFC whom Gruden no doubt misses above all the other players he had in Oakland. That means FB Mike Alstott gets a lot of carries, but that’s a problem. Alstott does better when he gets saved for the second half, when he can come out fresh and roll over a tired defense. He has consistently gotten injured and less effective when he’s had to carry the load in the running game, as seen in past seasons when RB Warrick Dunn would get hurt and Alstott would get the load. Mark my words, there will be trouble with the running game if Gruden isn’t judicious. There will be some clunky first halves early on for the Bucs as the running game tries to figure itself out. Losing C Jeff Christy seems bad at first, but replacement John Wade is actually bigger and tougher than Christy. The rest of the line is troubling, as Whittle recovers from a broken leg, Jenkins is kind of slow, Walker can be beaten on the blitz, and Roman Oben was meant to be a back-up swing tackle but is forced to start as he did last year (but he was pretty good).

Obviously, the defense is going to bail out any problems the offense might have. How scary is this defense? Apparently very scary; everyone the Bucs played in the post-season last year wimped out dramatically. The defense returns 10 starters, and the one addition – LB Dwayne Rudd – actually might improve the defense. This defense is just incredible. Most defenses hope that one playmaking leader is on the roster, but Tampa Bay has one at every layer of their defense. The line has, obviously, the garrulous Warren Sapp. Pair Sapp with Anthony McFarland and you’ve got the best DT pair in the league. There’s some quality depth behind these guys, too. At end there’s Simeon Rice, who has thrived in Tampa’s one-gap scheme to stop the run. They need him, as tough between-the-tackles RBs have been able to move the ball against Tampa in the past, and they’re in a division with RBs T.J. Duckett, Stephen Davis, and Deuce McAllister. Greg Spires has gotten stronger and as a result has become an even more dangerous pass rusher. At LB, there’s Derrick Brooks, the best OLB in the league. Each layer has a captain, but Brooks is the major for the whole defense. Sapp may flout his bravado at any person or reporter in earshot, but he’d never put himself before Derrick. Brooks has Shelton Quarles in the middle, who simply thrived there last season. Incoming is free agent Rudd and if he plays to his past level, he’s an improvement over the still-capable Al Singleton. Rudd’s mere presence will allow Brooks to blitz more, which is something no goddamned offense in the league wants to hear. Tampa’s blitzing strategies are genius; they eschew the telegraphed-obvious third down blitzes and come at you on first and ten, second and six. As in, when nobody is expecting it and more importantly, their defense is good enough to pull it off. The only stress this defense faces is in the loss of FS Dexter Jackson. Dwight Smith moves up from the nickel position, but he’s a starter. This means SS John Lynch, who puts both the "strong" and "safety" in strong safety, will have to be on his toes. He is anyway, so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern. It’s hard to find a better CB duo than Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, but they have their weak spots. Barber doesn’t jam at the line, and Kelly can get torched by a speedy WR, providing the pocket stays intact long enough for a deep passing play to unfold. Stepping in at nickelback is Corey Ivy, who is fast and good in coverage, but those big targets that tend to go over the middle and draw the nickelback can outmuscle him. Someone might come in to handle kickoffs, because PK Martin Gramatica, for all his enthusiasm, has been battling a sore groin and hamstring since last season and may have to be saved for figgies and PATs.

I don’t think the Bucs are going to go all the way this season, but they still ought to make the playoffs. The NFC South will be the toughest division in the NFC, and I don’t think the Bucs are going to sweep it. I have a feeling that Brad Johnson is going to get hurt and be out two or three games, and the Bucs are going to lose those games.

The Eagles are garnering a lot of buzz this season, and many have picked them to go all the way. It’s not hard to figure why. It seemed like any ol’ QB you threw under center could thrive in Andy Reid’s unbelievably refined system. It didn’t even matter if you had to replace QBs during a game, a fucking Monday night game at that, as the Eagles had to vs. the 49ers, and they crushed San Fran. The only thing scarier than a system that good is when you put a marquee QB in it, and Donovan McNabb is riding a QB buzz secondary only to Michael Vick. Before fracturing his fibula in week 11 last season (the same injury Vick suffered this preseason), McNabb was a strong MVP candidate, and he deserved it. Speaking of strength, McNabb is bigger and stronger this season. AJ McFeeley’s 4-1 record as a starter rightfully let him supplant Koy "Shoo Fly Off My Crotch" Detmer, even though Detmer looked pretty good until he got clobbered in that Frisco game. Odd stat: even though WR Todd Pinkston is obviously McNabb’s go-to guy, Pinky averaged 3.5 catches a game with him, and 5.0 with the back-ups. Guess Pinkston knows how to Step Up™. WR James Thrash is as dependable as a possession receiver can be, and he often performs above and beyond what is expected of a receiver of his type. WR Freddie Mitchell rounds things out; he needs to play like the guys around him. TE LJ Smith looks pretty good. Finally, RB Duce Staley returns to the lineup. I’ve never thought much of Staley; I think he’s overrated, a holdover from the days when the Iggles sucked and were happy to have a RB who could break 1000. I wish RB Correll Buckhalter hadn’t blown out his leg, he would have made Staley obsolete in Philly, and perhaps that’s the best thing if recent events are any indication. FB Jon Ritchie comes in which is interesting, since Reid’s schemes rarely call for the FB to do anything but block. That isn’t to say Ritchie’s other talents will be squandered; Andy Reid isn’t stupid. The offensive line is rock-solid, but it doesn’t have much depth. Among Fraley, Mayberry, Welborn, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, my only real concern is, strangely enough, Thomas. Thomas’ pass protection has slowly but steadily declined over the years. He was plain shit in the NFC title game last season, but everyone crumbled against the Buccaneers last postseason.

The Eagles’ defense returns with some shake-ups in the lineup. Still, the line is deep, talented, and young. However, DTs Darwin Walker and Corey Simon must improve; they only combined for 2 sacks last season. Replacing the departed Hugh Douglas is first-round pick Jerome McDougle, but he’ll have the usual rookie growing pains, especially since he’ll be in on the left side, and he’s used to the right. LB Nate Wayne comes over from Green Bay to fill in for the departed Shawn Barber. If it’s the Wayne from ’01, the LBs are in good hands; if it’s the injury-riddled Wayne from last year, oops. MLB Mark Simoneau comes in from Atlanta to replace both Levon Kirkland and Barry Gardner. Simoneau is quick and great in coverage but has iffy run-stopping skills. Fortunately, mainstay SLB Carlos Emmons is good at both. 3-time Pro Bowler FS Brian Dawkins is one of the best in the league; he covers like a CB and hits like a LB. SS Michael Lewis replaces Blaine Bishop, which may be a surprising upgrade. CBs Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor are as good as it gets, and even with Al Harris traded away, the Eagles still have uncommon quality depth at this position, like no other team in the league. With kicker David Akers, the Eagles have the best kicker in the NFC. Akers laughs at long distances and shitty weather, and he’s invaluable since Reid inexplicably gets conservative with his offense at times. You have Donavan McNabb, Andy, knock it off already.

No team in the NFC is as hungry and poised to go all the way than the Eagles. It may be an easy pick to pick them, but I’m going to. The Eagles will win the Super Bowl.

This game ain’t an easy one to call, which is why it’s on Monday night. I’m giving it to Philly for two reasons: it’s in Philly, the worst best crowd in the league, and the Bucs usually start slow, even more so due to the infamous "Super Bowl Hangover" they may very well have. The Eagles, however, have traditionally started hungry.

Bill Dungsroman

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