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Pats, Colts, and Bolts - 2007's Elite Trio

Pats, Colts, and Bolts - 2007's Elite Trio

Pats, Colts, and Bolts - 2007's Elite Trio
May 21st, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - May is "National Hyperbole Month" in the NFL, a time for prognosticators from coast to coast to scour over projected 2007 rosters and make breathless pronouncements about the imminent ascendance of whatever team has improved itself in the most tangible manner during the preceding months.

In the spring of 2007, the object of our collective affection has been the New England Patriots. In fact, earmarking the Pats for greatness is so easy Sean Salisbury can do it.

We all recall how New England was one defensive stop away from representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLI this past February. We all know about the Hawking- like genius of their head coach, and have considered the trio of titles engineered by the golden boy quarterback. None of us has to leaf through the Sporting News' Pro Football Register to understand what names like Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker, and Adalius Thomas could do to enhance the quality of the sitting "Team of the Decade."

And so we gush, even though New England is but one of three potentially elite- level teams that will be wading through a contentious AFC in 2007.

The reigning World Champion Indianapolis Colts still have that guy wearing No. 18, still have those two receivers that few can cover when it matters, and still have the coach for whom players would run into burning buildings.

The San Diego Chargers are one season removed from an NFL-best 14-2 regular season, return basically everyone of import from the roster that forged that mark, and will enter the year spitting mad over the way their 2006 campaign ended, with a shocking home playoff loss to the Patriots.

With apologies to other probable double-digit-win teams like the Bears, Ravens, Saints, and Bengals, it is New England, Indianapolis, and San Diego that will begin the upcoming season as those against which all others will be measured.

Which of the three will actually match the hype, if any? That's where we come in.

Below we take a "Tale of the Tape"-style look at the rosters of the Patriots, Colts, and Chargers, evaluating the strongest areas of all three teams entering the 2007 campaign and identifying the true favorite:

Quarterbacks: 1. Colts, 2, Patriots, 3. Chargers

You could make a real case for Tom Brady being the preferable quarterback to Peyton Manning just a few short months ago, but that sales pitch is a stretch at this point. Manning has won three straight against Brady head-to-head, including two in New England and one in the playoffs, now has a Super Bowl title in his hip pocket, and frankly, is the more consistent player. That said, there's no shame in being the second-best quarterback in the NFL, which Brady is. No one with a lucid sense of reality would place Philip Rivers anywhere other than third on this list, though he did a commendable job in his first year as a starter last season.

Running Backs: 1. Chargers, 2. Patriots, 3. Colts

LaDainian Tomlinson is arguably the finest running back of his generation, and now that Manning has won the big one, the "L.T. has never won a playoff game" storyline figures to get trotted out with more frequency beginning this season. The presence of backup Michael Turner and fullback Lorenzo Neal should give Norv Turner few backfield worries. New England's Laurence Maroney and Indianapolis' Joseph Addai are similar talents, but the Patriots get the edge here because they have some credible NFL players (Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans) beneath him on the depth chart at running back. As it stands now, if Addai goes down, Indianapolis would be handing the football to someone named DeDe Dorsey.

Wide Receivers: 1. Colts, 2. Patriots, 3. Chargers

Based purely on potential, you would have to give the edge here to the Patriots. New England added Moss, Stallworth, and Welker to a group that already included capable players like Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. But when analyzing the corps of receivers that will actually be more productive, the smart money is on Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and first-round draft choice Anthony Gonzalez. San Diego's group of receivers is a distant third, especially now that Keenan McCardell has been trimmed from the roster. Eric Parker and Vincent Jackson figure to be the Chargers' Week 1 starters at wideout, with first-round draft choice Craig Davis (LSU) looked to for a contribution as well.

Tight Ends: 1. Chargers, 2. Patriots, 3. Colts

The Patriots' Benjamin Watson and Colts' Dallas Clark inspire their fair share of worry among NFL defensive coordinators, but nothing close to the gnashing of teeth that goes on over the prospect of having to stop San Diego's Antonio Gates. Add in the presence of the underrated Brandon Manumaleuna and 6-7 rookie Scott Chandler (Iowa), and the Bolts have an especially scary contingent working the middle of the field. New England gets the number two spot thanks to backups David Thomas and Kyle Brady, who have a little more versatility than Indy's backup duo of Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher.

Offensive Lines: 1. Chargers, 2. Patriots, 3. Colts

These three offensive trench units are remarkably similar in their makeup, all being effective and reliable despite the lack of real star power in the mould of a Jonathan Ogden or Steve Hutchinson. You'd have to have to give a narrow nod to San Diego here, however, since the left side of tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman, center Nick Hardwick, and right tackle Shane Olivea are all regarded as being among the top tier at their positions. New England's left side of tackle Matt Light and guard Logan Mankins is solid, as is center Dan Koppen. There is a widespread belief around the league that Manning makes his line look good, and not vice-versa, though there is no doubt that players like left tackle Tarik Glenn and center Jeff Saturday stack up with the NFL's best.

Defensive Lines: 1. Patriots, 2. Chargers, 3. Colts

Comparing the three-man front of the Patriots and Chargers to the Colts' 4-3 unit is a little unfair, since responsibilities within those schemes are dissimilar. That said, since Indianapolis didn't stop the run or rush the passer very well during the 2006 regular season, it is an easy pick for last place on this list. If tackles Anthony McFarland and Raheem Brock can stop the run as well as they did in the 2006 postseason, and if ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis revert to their pre-'06 production, Indy will move up this chart. New England's trio of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren is spectacular when healthy, and San Diego's group of nose tackle Jamal Williams and ends Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky is strong in its own right.

Linebackers: 1. Patriots, 2. Chargers, 3. Colts

Adding Adalius Thomas to a group of linebackers that already included Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Roosevelt Colvin, and Junior Seau gave New England the most recognizable second line of defense in the league. San Diego's outside duo of Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips gives the Chargers' the pass-rushing edge, though New England receives the overall nod because less is known about the new San Diego inside duo of Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm. Indy is a distant third here, due to the fact that problems at the linebacker position were a major reason for all those rushing yards the team surrendered a year ago. Gary Brackett and Rob Morris are penciled in at two of the linebacker slots a lot, but following Cato June's defection to Tampa Bay, who will end up on the weak side is anyone's guess.

Defensive Backs: 1. Patriots, 2. Colts, 3. Chargers

New England has had as many injury issues in the secondary as any other team in the league, but if the likes of cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs, Asante Samuel, and strong safety Rodney Harrison can remain healthy, the Pats will have the makings of a talented group. Offseason additions like veteran corner Tory James and first-round safety Brandon Meriweather figure to help as well. Indianapolis has a major (though oft-injured) talent in Bob Sanders at free safety, and a blossoming one in Antoine Bethea at strong safety, but following the offseason defections of Nick Harper and Jason David, the corner slots could be left to Marlin Jackson and the inexperienced Kelvin Hayden. San Diego's secondary has long been its Achilles heel, though the early selection of cornerback Antonio Cromartie and strong safety Eric Weddle in the last two drafts helps a bit.

Returns: 1. Patriots, 2. Chargers, 3. Colts

Ellis Hobbs gave the Patriots a big spark on kickoff returns a year ago, and if New England commits to allowing Wes Welker to handle punts (he is currently listed behind Kevin Faulk at that position), Belichick's squad could be lethal in that area. San Diego's Michael Turner was outstanding on kickoff returns last year, though the return of Darren Sproles after a 2006 season lost to injury could limit Turner exclusively to backup duties. Sproles is a candidate for punt returns as well. Indianapolis has not re-signed free agent Terrence Wilkins, who handled 73 of the team's 81 punt/kickoff returns in the '06 regular season, and their direction with respect to both positions is unclear.

Kicking: 1. Colts, 2. Chargers, 3. Patriots

Indianapolis has a clear edge over most other NFL teams in the kicking game, with the ultra-reliable Adam Vinatieri still going strong at the age of 34 and Hunter Smith remaining a top-flight punter. Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding was consistent last season and boasts a big leg, but is better known for his huge misses in the team's last two playoff games. San Diego punter Mike Scifres is one of the best in the business. Gostkowski kicked well during the second half of last season, but is still somewhat erratic, and punter Josh Miller is coming off an injury-marred 2006.

Coaches: 1. Patriots, 2. Colts, 3. Chargers

Though they have far different approaches, Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy are perhaps the two most highly-respected coaches in the league. Belichick's three rings break the tie. In contrast, there might not be a bigger concern for Chargers fans this year than the team's new coaching regime. The twice-fired Norv Turner is now the head coach, and San Diego also lost some major assistant coaching talent like offensive coordinator Cam Cameron (now the head coach of the Dolphins), defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (head coach, Cowboys), tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski (offensive coordinator, Browns), linebackers coach Greg Manusky (defensive coordinator, 49ers), and secondary coach Brian Stewart (defensive coordinator, Cowboys).

Overall: 1. Patriots, 2. Chargers, 3. Colts

OK, so maybe it's not just hyperbole. New England is the most complete of the AFC's three top contenders, though obviously the team's ability to deliver on its immense promise is contingent on intangibles such as health and chemistry. San Diego's ability to reach Super Bowl XLI (or win its first playoff game since the early 90's, for that matter) figures to be a tall order given the gauntlet the club will face in the traditionally strong AFC West, and Norv Turner's history of winning big games is even less distinguished than that of his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer. As for the defending champs, most of last year's best-known horses will be at the starting gate, but the Colts' depth is not what it was in 2006 and the Super Bowl hangover is always in play. Thus, the early nod in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy goes to New England.

And may the hype bus roll on.

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