NFL Preview

NFL Preview

2007 NFC North Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 08/16/2007

It's time once again for Doc's Sports NFL Divisional Previews and I know everyone's nipples are as hard as my own. I know you all were looking forward to individual team previews again last year - especially given the warm and loving reaction that they all got last year; I think my favorite e-mail started with "You don't know what the f*^# you're talking about!" - But my editor let me off the hook and weÕre going with one-stop shopping for each division.

I've decided to ease you all into it. Nothing startling. I'll save the bold predictions for when I make my case as to why the Colts won't win the AFC North and may not make the playoffs. But before we get into all that nonsense, we'll delve into the good ol' NFC North.

But even though the Bears will be the champions, we still have to try to handicap the other three wannabes. And it basically breaks down like so: the NFC North teams are kind of like mutant babies born in Hiroshima in the years after The Bomb. They're deformed and missing limbs that most "normal" teams are not. Don't get me wrong; these organizations don't lack talent. But they each have PRONOUNCED vulnerabilities that make you wonder if their respective general managers had their ventromedial frontal lobes wilt and decay due to radiation. For instance, Green Bay does not have one running back on its roster that has ever logged more than 95 carries in a single season, and its most "experienced" back has just 142 career totes. Minnesota's most experienced quarterback is its backup, Brooks Bollinger, and his "experience" tops out at nine career starts. And Detroit? Well, they still have Matt Millen and that's all that really matters. Despite fielding one of the worst defenses in the league, Millen surrendered to the will of Rasputin (a.k.a. - Mike Martz) and signed and drafted nothing but offensive pieces.

This one is simple: the Bears are going to win the Worst Division In Football. Don't bother trying to make a case for anyone else, especially since the next closest teams (Green Bay) are still two years away from being a legitimate contender in the NFC. Except for the Lions, who are on pace to win the division around 2041. The Bears have the most depth, skill and experience of any of the teams and they should again devastate the other third-rate regimes within the old Black-and-Blue Division.

Here's Doc's 2007 NFC North Preview:

1) CHICAGO BEARS


2006 Record: 15-4 (8-2 home, 7-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-8 (6-4 home, 5-4 road); 11-4-1 vs. total (9-1 h, 2-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 15th offense (14th pass, 15th rush); 5th defense (11th pass, 6th rush)
2007 Odds: 6/1 to win SB, 2/1 to win NFC, 1/6 to win NFC North, 10.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Basically, the Sex Cannon, Rex Grossman, is going to be tossing his deep balls all over the NFC North this year. That's right: Sexy Rexy is back and ready to party. And although the only thing the Bears needed to win a championship last year was a quarterback who minimized mistakes and didn't hurl balls up for grabs off his back foot when pressured, they continue to support a guy who is the exact opposite. Grossman is the key. And unless he can reign in his natural "gunslinger" mentality and show that he understands when to try to make a play and when to cut his losses the Bears will again fail to break out of their cage.

Beyond Grossman, the other X-Factor for this team is Cedric Benson. Benson is clearly mentally and emotionally unstable - I see him as the NFLÕs version of Andruw Jones or, if he's lucky, Manny Ramirez - but he also has the potential to be the 1,500-yard workhorse the Bears crave. The problem is that Chicago has no one behind him ready to take over when the inevitable ACL injury hits somewhere around Week 5. Which brings us to the only real weakness on this team - upper management's baffling decision to toss all of their eggs in one basket, gambling the entire season on unproven players at the two most important positions on the field. Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo either have balls of pure titanium or they are amazingly oblivious.

Chicago has a brutal opening schedule - starting out with three straight games against '06 playoff teams before jumping into three straight divisional tilts. However, if the Bears don't win the division it would be a colossal upset. They're 10-2 against NFC North foes over the past two years, they may be the first defense in NFL history to be considered "explosive", they have the No. 1 special teams unit in the league, and they have veterans and Hall of Famers dotting their sneaky-good offense. All in all, everything should be fine - unless Rex and Ced screw it up.

2) GREEN BAY PACKERS

2006 Record: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (2-6 home, 4-3-1 road); 7-8-1 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 9th offense (8th pass, 23rd rush); 12th defense (17th pass, 13th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 25/1 to win NFC, 4/1 to win NFC North, 7.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Folks, you can't win in the NFL without a legit running game and a capable defense. You just can't. Maybe you can win once in awhile, but to accomplish anything of substance you have to be able to run the ball and play good defense. It's not rocket science; it's just football. However, as it stands right now I am slated as No. 3 on the Packers depth chart at running back, right behind some guy named Verand and some dude named Noah. Seriously, did the Packers just forget that you play with a running back? They currently have eight RB's on their training camp roster and between those guys you have a total of 11 years of experience (or 22 games apiece) between them. So if you want to know why the Packers won't do any better than what they did last season it's just that easy - they have no running back.

It's too bad. The Pack has the foundation for one of the better defenses in the NFC. They have a pair of dynamic wideouts, and Brett Favre has just enough pop left in his gun to make things uncomfortable for opposing fans coming down the stretch. But the trouble is that - besides having no running game - the Mystique is gone. Teams don't fear Favre, Lambeau, or the Packers like they did five or 50 years ago. Their defense, with Kampman, Hawk, and Woodson all Pro Bowl talents leading some solid role players - will be good enough for the Pack to hang with or beat on teams of equal or lesser value. But when they run up against top-tier squads (San Diego, Chicago, Denver, etc.) their glaring weakness in the backfield will make them one-dimensional. And now Favre is more of a turnover dispenser than a miracle worker in those situations.

3) DETROIT LIONS


2006 Record: 3-13 (2-6 home, 1-7 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-10 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 5-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 22nd offense (7th pass, 32nd rush); 28th defense (25th pass, 21st rush)
2007 Odds: 125/1 to win SB, 40/1 to win NFC, 15/1 to win NFC North, 5.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Don't get suckered in. I repeat: don't get suckered into thinking that the Lions are going to be a good team this year. They sure as hell are no sleeper, and the people that say so are probably the same guys who were drinking the Arizona Kool-Aid last year. We saw how that turned out. Detroit is an organization that has averaged 4.0 wins over the past six years and I don't see where they've gotten appreciably better on either side of the ball. Yes, Mike Martz is a mad genius that can develop a passing game. But the running backs are injury prone, the offensive line is still shaky, they have a brittle linebacking corps, and their defense has little or no depth. Other than that, yeah, they're ready for Prime Time.

The Lions suck, and they will continue to be a "Play Against" only team. Jon Kitna can crow all he wants about winning 10 games, but the bottom line is that they had the No. 28 defense in the league last year and did absolutely nothing to improve it. In fact, they got rid of one of their best defenders (Dre Bly) and instead of picking anyone up in the offseason they drafted a wide receiver, traded for a running back and offensive lineman, ad signed yet another offensive lineman. They simply can't stop people. And say what you want about Martz, but the Lions were just No. 22 in total offense last year so let's not pretend the Lions have some elite scoring force. And Rod Marinelli was brought in to instill a tough, disciplined, physical style of football but he's clearly let Martz hijack the team. That's an obvious mistake by a young coach. The Lions are 4-13 SU as an underdog of 7.0 or greater over the past four seasons but are 11-5-1 ATS in those situations. That's about the best thing I have to say about them - they're bad, but they're not amazingly bad.

4) MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2006 Record: 6-10 (3-5 home, 3-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 7-7-2 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 23rd offense (18th pass, 16th rush); 8th defense (31st pass, 1st rush)
2007 Odds: 50/1 to win SB, 20/1 to win NFC, 12/1 to win NFC North, 7.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Vikings look like a chick with a butterface. (For those of you born before 1975, the "butterface" is used to describe a girl who has a slamming body but an incredibly ugly face. Everything looks good, but-her-face.) The Vikings have a stout defense that is nearly impossible to run against, a massive offensive line that gets great push against even the best defenses, and a one-two punch at running back that (when healthy) can cause a lot of problems for opponents. The body is good. But the face - the quarterback and the wide receivers - looks like ass and might constitute the worst passing game in the league.

I'm not ready to say that Tav Jackson can't be an NFL quarterback. But I am ready to say that his growing pains are going to sink the Vikings' season. It would be one thing if they were a team like Denver in the AFC - a club that has all the pieces in place and put their offense in the hands of a young QB. But the Vikings don't have any weapons in the passing game, they have an unproven coach who's running out of rope faster than anyone expected, and they have an owner that doesn't know if he's coming or going. There's just too much instability on this team to expect them to threaten for a playoff spot. Can they be profitable? Absolutely. With that defense they should be able to hang within some of the large cushions they'll be granted. But I wouldn't expect much when theyÕre forced to go to Chicago or to Dallas or some of the other difficult venues they'll have to play in.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 AFC East Preview
by Robert Ferringo

We began our in-depth division-by-division look at the National Football League by tackling the worst division in football, the NFC North. Now we're taking a small step up the food chain to deconstruct the second-weakest group in our beloved league this season: the AFC East.

The safest bet you could ever possibly make is that the New England is going to earn its sixth division title in the last seven years. Is it worth the -600 price tag that this wager currently calls for? I say yes. But really that's a personal choice, like religion or AIDS. It's truly easy money. The Patriots are 27-8 against the rest of the division since the start of 2001 and have almost as many players that have been to the Pro Bowl on their roster (12) as there are on the rest of the AFC rosters combined (16).

As for the rest of the runts, if the AFC East were the Jackson 5 then the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins would be Tito, Jermaine and Marlon, respectively. That would leave the Pats as Michael and Marty Booker as Jackie. The Jets are desperately trying to be the Patriots, only with half the talent. The Bills are in the eighth stage of a 27-stage rebuilding project that began at halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII. And Miami? They're still looking for an ample replacement for Jay Fiedler. I don't see how any of the three bastard brothers can make a playoff run in the stacked AFC.

But just in case they actually go through with the formality of having a contest to see who wins the AFC East crown, here's Doc's 2007 AFC East Preview:

1) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

2006 Record: 14-5 (6-3 home, 8-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread:12-7 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 8-11 vs. total (3-6 h, 5-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 11th offense (12th pass, 12th rush); 6th defense (12th pass, 5th rush)
2007 Odds: 5/1 to win SB, 5/2 to win AFC, 1/6 to win AFC East, 11 wins O/U
Outlook: I've already discussed on this very site why the Patriots won't win the Super Bowl, and it mainly has to do with lack of depth at key positions where they have injury-prone players. But beyond that, they are absolutely loaded. The offense is stacked, the defense returns nine starters from the No. 6 unit in the league last year, and they have the top quarterback in the world to go along with the best coaching. In a word: devastating. They, like Chicago in the NFC North, are in a division surrounded by perpetually rebuilding organizations. The Pats can almost skate through the regular season and will again be judged by what they are able to do in the postseason.

So now that we have New England penciled in around 13-3 straight up, what is their viability as a winning wager? The numbers on this team will be through the roof, and I expect them to be favored in at least 13 of their games this year. I also have them set to be a double-digit favorite in at least five games this season. It's almost like USC putting five teams from the Mountain West on the schedule. Can they cover such large chalk? New England is just 3-5 against the spread in its last eight games as a favorite of 9.0 or greater and they are just 7-8 ATS in those situations in the Belichick Era. That being said, they are still 34-21-1 ATS over the past three seasons and a remarkable 23-8-1 in regular season road games during that span. They are 14-9-1 as an underdog over the past five years, and I do expect them to be posted as a dog in Cincinnati and in Dallas, and possibly in Indianapolis and in Baltimore. I would love to say that the Pats are a team to fade this year, but I just trust the consistency and reliability of Belichick and Brady. I would look for spots to go against them (like if they're favored in those games I just mentioned) and look for value plays on underdogs against them (Philly and Pitt come to Foxboro). Tread lightly, and don't forget that the best team isn't always the best bet.

2) NEW YORK JETS

2006 Record: 10-7 (4-4 home, 6-3 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-6 (5-3 home, 6-3 road); 10-7 vs. total (5-3 h, 5-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 25th offense (17th pass, 20th rush); 20th defense (14th pass, 20th rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 15/1 to win AFC, 4/1 to win AFC East, 8.5 wins O/U
Outlook: The Jets were in this exact same situation just three short years ago. In 2004 they were a pair of shanked field goals away from the AFC Championship and were staked as a Super Bowl sleeper in 2005. They promptly fell on their face while going 6-10. The Jets were a surprise team last year, taking advantage of one of the easiest schedules in recent memory to go 10-6. The Jets played just four games against teams that finished over .500, and two of them were losses to division front-runner New England. So now they are again penciled in as a postseason favorite and are supposed to challenge the Mighty Patriots for divisional supremacy. This year they aren't going to sneak up on anyone and they are forced to play three of their first five and three of their last five on the road. (The good news is that they only leave the Eastern Time Zone once - a Thanksgiving game at Dallas.

So where does that leave us? Well, I say 8-8 and in a holding pattern. I really like Eric Mangini, and I think their unique systems on both sides of the ball are tough to game plan. Thomas Jones was a fantastic pickup, and they have game breakers all over the offense (Washington, Cotchery, Smith, etc.). However, I think they still rely more on guile than power, and I donÕt think this team is strong enough to line up and trade blows with the best teams in the conference. I think they have to be a team to fade early, as their first two against New England and at Baltimore are as tough as it gets. But I think after they start 2-5 you'll be able to find some value on them in the second half of the year.

3) BUFFALO BILLS


2006 Record: 7-9 (2-6 home, 1-7 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 10-6 (5-3 home, 5-3 road); 7-9 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 30th offense (28th pass, 27th rush); 18th defense (7th pass, 28th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 60/1 to win AFC, 15/1 to win AFC East, 6.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Scrappy. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think about this year's Buffalo team. I do see improvement, especially along the offensive line and on the attack group in general. However, I don't see how a team can lose the top three defensive players - TKO Spikes, Nate Clements, and London Fletcher - from an already average unit (No. 18 in the league) and expect to see an improvement in its record. They were feisty as an underdog last year, posting a phenomenal 6-2 ATS mark as a puppy. The last time they had a winning record as a dog? In 2004 they went 5-3. But then they came back in 2005 with less talent and more injuries and were just 3-7 getting the points. Look for history to repeat itself.

Marv Levy and Dick Jauron are doing a great job of laying a foundation of future success. And Bills fans are a patient, hopeful bunch so apathy will be more of a problem for this organization than pressure to win. J.P. Losman is a legit NFL starter and has a stable of quick, explosive wideouts. The defense will rally around Paul Posluzny and Angelo Crowell. The secondary is up-and-coming, and the offensive line is actually becoming a strength as opposed to a weakness. However, thereÕs still a ton of inexperience plaguing this team. As a result, I think the Bills will have a lot of trouble closing games and that will lead to a lot of heartache for both backers and Bills fans. This is the proverbial Step Backwards Year leading to the Step Forward next season.

4) MIAMI DOLPHINS

2006 Record:6-10 (4-4 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-10 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 7-7-2 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 20th offense (13th pass, 22nd rush); 4th defense (5th pass, 8th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 75/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC East, 7.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Hey, they're 2-0 in the preseason so maybe the Fins aren't as bad as I think they are. Naaaah. The Dolphins are still a steaming pile of mess, in my estimation, and one of the least talented teams in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, the specter of Cleo Lemon looms as shell-shocked Trent Green struggles to operate behind a Swiss cheese offensive line. I think Ronnie Brown looks fantastic, and I look for a huge season out of him. But their line is young, their wideouts have a tendency to disappear, and they now lack a legit option at tight end. Will they have their moments? Sure. No Cam Cameron offense can be that bad. But they wonÕt have enough pop to top upper echelon teams and won't be able to hang onto the ball long enough to support their aging defense.

I'm also looking for a noticeable drop-off from last year's No. 4 defense. Their defensive line averages 12 years of NFL experience and the Dolphins are leaning on aging, injury-prone linebackers Zach Thomas and Joey Porter. They have a new DC in Dom Capers, and Dom likes to blitz from all over the field. The problem is that the Miami secondary is very below average. They mustered just eight INT's last year (31st in the league) and a blitz-happy scheme is going to open the door for the big play and expose their corners and safeties. That's a big shift from the attitude they took last year - be stout and don't give up big plays. In the end, I think they are still a couple years from competing. However, I think if the starters are healthy they have enough pride and talent to cover some thick lines as a home. But they have four of their last seven against 2006 playoff teams, with two more coming against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They could provide a payday or two early on, but I don't see them hanging in there in December when they will be playing for a paycheck and their talented opponents will be playing for the postseason.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 NFC West Preview
by Robert Ferringo

I'm going to be completely honest with you - I have absolutely no idea who is going to win the NFC West. No idea. I can speculate. But that just makes me one of the bobbleheads. Much like Creationism, I truly don't believe there's anyone that can speak intelligently on the subject. And much like the 2008 Democratic Nomination, I would laugh in the face of anyone who said that they could predict the outcome with any certainty.

But hey, that's what I get paid for; conjecture and rampant hypothesizing is my life. So let's break this down according to what we know wins in The League: defense, coaching, running the ball, and quarterback play.

First, the NFC West is is The Division That Defense Forgot. The Seabirds had the best group of the bunch last year and that was with just the 19th-ranked unit in the league. San Francisco made some splashy free agent signings, but they still don't tackle well and don't appear to have settled on a 3-4 or 4-3 base. St. Louis has a solid defense, 1-11. But they are as deep as a reflecting pool and won't hold up under the grind of a 16-game slate. I love the daring of mad scientist Clancy Pendergast, but the Arizona defense is also stuck in limbo regarding its 4-3 or 3-4 base. But the bottom line is they don't play either one very well.

Next, we have to look at the coaches. Mike Holmgren is a proven winner with a system straight from the mind of the immortal Bill Walsh. Scott Linehan and Mike Nolan are each an up-and-coming whippersnapper that has laid solid foundations in St. Louis and San Francisco, respectively, but both still have a lot to prove. And Ken Whisenhunt is a rook. Again, Seattle has the edge with St. Louis and then San Francisco coming in behind them.

Further, we have the running game. San Francisco finished No. 6 in the league last year on the shoulders of Frank Gore's breakout season. Seattle stumbled and St. Louis - despite the superhuman efforts of Steve Jackson - was simply mediocre. Arizona? Well, let's just say that I'm sure Edge and his gold grill probably spent a lot of time wishing they had stayed hidden behind that massive Indianapolis offensive line.

Finally, we have the quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck is a stud on the field. Matt Leinart a stud off it. Alex Smith is developing into one of the top young QB's around. And Mark Bulger is the best of the bunch. QB play certainly isn't an issue in this division. The Rams also have the benefit of the top offensive line, with Seattle and San Francisco rolling up behind them. Arizona? Well, they're working on it.

So there you have it: a breakdown of each of the key ingredients for a winning football team. And after that 10-cent analysis you know what we've learned about who is going to win this division? Nothing. But what I do know is that this division is going to be pummeled by the physical play of the AFC North and the NFC East, the two divisions that it must go up against. Beyond that, we'll just have to play it by ear.

Here's Doc's 2007 NFC West Preview:

1) ST. LOUIS RAMS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-7 (4-4 home, 5-3 road); 8-7-1 vs. total (5-2-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 6th offense (4th pass, 17th rush); 23rd defense (8th pass, 31st rush)
2007 Odds: 40/1 to win SB, 18/1 to win AFC, 11/5 to win NFC West, 8.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Rams have always been my Lolita. They are a temptress, and more than once they've seduced me into a ridiculous and bank-busting bet. So my endorsement of them as NFC West champions should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar. Besides, I've already admitted that I have no idea what's going on in this group.

That being said, the Rams offense is absolutely overwhelming. It was very good last year, ringing in at No. 6 in the NFL. But then add on Pro Bowl talents like Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael, along with the multifaceted Brian Leonard, and you're looking at the No. 1 group in the league. The question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball, and in particular with the linebackers. Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon get sideline-to-sideline, but they're undersized. There's also a serious lack of depth throughout the D, and if any injuries crop to any of the key players then this unit will sink like a stone.

Here's a key stat about playing the Rams against the spread: St. Louis is 3-12 ATS in their second trip through the divisional circuit. Meaning that after they've played each of their NFC West brethren once, they cover the spread just 20 percent of the time. Money in the bank. That includes a 1-5 ATS at San Francisco and 1-5 ATS at home against Arizona.

2) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
2006 Record: 10-8 (6-3 home, 4-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-10-1 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 10-8 vs. total (4-5 h, 6-3 r)
2006 Rankings: 19th offense (20th pass, 14th rush); 19th defense (16th pass, 22nd rush)
2007 Odds: 15/1 to win SB, 11/2 to win AFC, 10/11 to win NFC West, 9.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Seahawks could be primed for a solid bounceback year. They're healthy and focused, and I think that everyone, from the top down, realizes that the window is almost closed. The veterans are exiting their prime and the rest of the division is getting younger, faster, and better. But there's a problem: before their Super Bowl season, which, like Chicago last year, was aided heavily by a cupcake schedule, the Seahawks were a good-but-not-great squad. Excluding that one Super season, the Seahawks have won an average of nine games per year, with 10 being the highest and seven being the fewest. Good, but not great.

The offense still executes as well as any in the league. And with Deion Branch there for a full season I think they'll be even better. They still haven't recovered from the loss of Steve Hutchinson in free agency two years ago, and that one move will keep them from being an elite unit. The primary problem with this team is the defense, where a lack of pass rush leaves the secondary exposed. The good news is that they do have the corners and safeties to keep up with the pass-happy division. But the bad news is that if they canÕt get to the quarterback they will have a hard time stopping their three rivals.

3) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2006 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-7 (4-4 home, 5-3 road); 9-7 vs. total (5-3 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 26th offense (29th pass, 6th rush); 26th defense (26th pass, 19th rush)
2007 Odds: 45/1 to win SB, 18/1 to win AFC, 4/1 to win NFC West, 8.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Let's take a step back before we go ahead and crown the 49ers as the new "It" Team in the NFL. They certainly have improved, building the roster both through the draft and through free agency. But this is a team that, with the exception of Bryant Young and Larry Allen, is not used to winning. They do have all the pieces, but this is a marked team and one that isn't going to sneak up on linesmakers at all this year because of The Hype.

In fitting with the mold of the prototype NFC West squad, the Niners defense is suspect and offense is potentially explosive. They added some nice pieces in the offseason to bolster their D, but watching them in the preseason I've noticed that they are having trouble tackling one-on-one and haven't been swarming to the ball. Even with the shiny new names, this is still the same system that surrendered the most yards in the league in 2005 and the most points in the league in 2006. I also worry about knees - specifically the ones belonging to Frank Gore and Larry Allen. They constitute two key pieces of the San Fran puzzle, and both have significant histories of injury.

The schedule also doesn't do the 49ers any favors. After their bye week in Week 5 - following a tough Pittsburgh-Seattle-Baltimore trifecta - San Francisco plays six of its next eight games on the road, including three East Coast trips. I think that even if they get off to a hot start you should look to start fading them right in the middle of that stretch.

4) ARIZONA CARDINALS

2006 Record: 5-11 (3-5 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road); 11-5 vs. total (5-3 h, 6-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 18th offense (10th pass, 30th rush); 29th defense (30th pass, 16th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 28/1 to win AFC, 5/1 to win NFC West, 7.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Do you think that Regis Philbin will anoint the Cardinals as his "sleeper" NFL team again this year? Yup, for about the fifth year in a row the one-time Phoenix franchise is supposed to rise from the ashes of its miserable history and stun the NFL World with it's ability. Sorry, but I wasn't buying last year and I'm not buying this year. Arizona has some championship pieces - if that championship is in your fantasy league - but from top-to-bottom this is not a playoff team.

The main problem is that they lack depth at every key position except wide receiver and linebacker. Problem No. 2 is that they are one of the weakest teams in the league along the offensive and defensive line. And problem No. 3 is that in a division with one established system (Seattle) and two others that are in their second or third years, the Cards have to break in a new coaching staff.

The area that I'm going to look for value is on totals plays. It's obvious to say that the Cards should score some points. But when you consider that after Week 6 they face just one defense that ranked inside the top 17 last year it is pretty clear that they'll be involved in some monster shootouts. And my fantasy football team will thank them for it.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 NFC South Preview
by Robert Ferringo

The NFC South might just be the most underrated division in football over the past six years. They have sent a representative to the NFC Championship Game in five consecutive seasons, and one of the four residents of this division has played for the right to go to the Super Bowl in eight of the past 11 years.

But the thing that sticks out the most to me about the NFC South is that, from a handicapping standpoint, it's basically a scissors-paper-rock league. What I mean by that is that seemingly no matter what the season or what the situation, certain teams just happen to always trump certain other teams when it comes to covering the spread. OK, try to see if you can follow this:

New Orleans owns Atlanta (5-1 against the spread) but has struggled against Tampa Bay (1-3 ATS). The Saints own the Panthers in Carolina (6-0) but can't cover against them at home in the Superdome (0-5). The Buccaneers hold their own against the Saints, but they cannot solve the Falcons (0-3) or the Panthers (2-6). Atlanta can't score against the Panthers either (1-4), and are even worse against the Saints, but they dominate the Bucs, especially in Tampa (3-1). And all of that leaves Carolina, who owns Atlanta and Tampa but has that weird home/away-thing going on with the Saints.

It's all pretty easy, really.

That's really what it's all about: who is going to cover when two divisional teams meet. The rest is for tourists. I'm not going to mess with the historical trends I'm just going to play on them. But for those of you who are curious as to what I think about these clubs as we approach opening weekend, here's Doc's 2007 NFC South Preview:

1) CAROLINA PANTHERS

2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 7-9 vs. total (3-6 h, 5-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 24th offense (15th pass, 24th rush); 7th defense (4th pass, 11th rush)
2007 Odds: 30/1 to win SB, 10/1 to win NFC, 9/5 to win NFC South, 9.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Focused. That's how this team looks right now. Will it be enough to make up for their lack of depth and unstable performance from their key players? I don't know. But what I do know is that John Fox does his best work from the shadows. Fox is basically Bret Saberhagen - he's only good in odd numbered years. In 2002 and 2004 Fox's teams posted matching 7-9 records. But in 2003 and 2005 they won a combined 27 games and appeared in the NFC Championship Game twice.

The burden of this season falls completely on the shoulders of Fox and Jake Delhomme. It wasn't just that Jake had a poor year last year, it's that he completely lost his cool while doing it. The zone-blocking scheme that new OC Jeff Davidson has implemented has appeared to help an underperforming offensive line. But that's just in the preseason. Will they be able to pick up that third-and-three late in December against Jacksonville or Dallas? I don't think so, but we will see. If Steve Smith plays 16 games and gets 90 touches though, I don't see how they aren't in a playoff hunt in the final two weeks.

As for the defense, it all comes down to the linebackers. I'm not even going to pretend that Dan Morgan can stay healthy. He'll be gone in Week 3. So the brunt of the defenses' performance falls on Thomas Davis and rookie Jon Beason. Here's an early prediction for you: Beason and fellow rookie Tim Shaw will end up starting together by Week 10.

The Panthers start the season with four of their first six games on the road. That seems like a tough draw, except that all four away games are winnable and three of the four are indoors. Carolina is 12-3 against the spread in domes in Fox's five years as coach. Look for them to rout Atlanta in Week 3 and if both teams have winning records when they meet in New Orleans, Carolina could be the perfect upset pick.

2) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2006 Record: 11-7 (5-4 home, 6-3 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-7 (2-6 home, 4-3-1 road); 7-8-1 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 1st offense (1st pass, 19th rush); 11th defense (3rd pass, 23rd rush)
2007 Odds: 12/1 to win SB, 7/2 to win NFC, 1/1 to win NFC South, 9.5 wins O/U

Outlook: You know what sucks? The week after Mardi Gras sucks. The hangover. The herpes. The high interest rates on the credit card that you maxed out. Not good times. Well, that's kind of what we're looking at here for the Saints. They rode the wave of emotion and momentum as America's Team last year. What now? I can assure you that the Saints won't sneak up on anyone this season, and with brutal road games at Indy, at Seattle, and at Chicago to close the season their path back to the postseason will be tougher.

Offensively, the Saints should again field one of the top six or seven units in the game. Their running back combo is the best in the league and Drew Brees has looked razor sharp in the preseason. I do think that they'll miss Joe Horn and I think Marques Colston will suffer the sophomore slump. But on the whole there won't be a huge drop off - assuming Jamal Brown returns at near 100 percent.

Defensively, it's a different story. The Saints were just 23rd against the rush last year and didn't really upgrade the front seven. The linebackers are good-but-not great, and I think that will catch up with them in January. The key will be if new starting DTs Kendrick Clancy and Antwan Lake will outperform last year's starters, Hollis Thomas and Brain Young. If the Saints defense can improve and work its way into the Top 15 then I think the Saints will be playing in January. If not, I just think that the pendulum will swing back the other way and that the breaks they caught last year could sink them, so to speak, this year.

3) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

2006 Record: 4-12 (3-5 home, 1-7 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 5-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 29th offense (26th pass, 28th rush); 17th defense (19th pass, 17th rush)
2007 Odds: 60/1 to win SB, 25/1 to win NFC, 4/1 to win NFC South, 7.5 wins O/U

Outlook: After their 2005 Wild Card run I was one of the only prognosticators in the country to predict that the 2006 Bucs would suck. And I took a lot of heat for it from the Doc's Sports fan base. But at the end of the day, the Tampa organization is still in a weird limbo that has wrapped its arms around several other bottom-tier teams in this league. Will they be better than a four-win team this year? It's possible. But I know they're not going to the playoffs, and this year that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

We've seen what happens to Jeff Garcia when he's expected to carry mediocre talent. He was the field general for three non-playoff teams - the 2003 49ers, 2004 Browns and 2005 Lions - that went a combined 9-20 in his 29 starts. He was injured and ineffective, failing to post a passer rating over 81.0 or complete over 59 percent of his passes in any of those three seasons. And if Tampa Bay thinks he's going to be its savior they are mistaken. He was at the right place at the right time in Philly last year so I'm not buying his career erection, er, resurrection. The line is reconstructed and should be improved, but the skill players are all inconsistent. I mean, how long can you ask a 52-year-old Joey Galloway to carry an offense.

The loss of Simeon Rice may end up being addition by subtraction on the Bucs defense. The guy is a jerk, and his continuous bitching wasn't exactly what the team needed. But Rice's release also highlighted another point about the once-mighty Tampa defense: it's really old. Right now it appears that five of their 11 starters have logged more then 10 years in the league. That's a lot of groin pulls and crack back hits. I'm not saying they won't be good, I just don't think they'll be good enough to carry a streaky offense?

4) ATLANTA FALCONS
2006 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 4-11-1 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 12th offense (32nd pass, 1st rush); 22nd defense (29th pass, 9th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win NFC, 6/1 to win NFC South, 8.0 wins O/U

Outlook: We've got some real structural, fundamental problems here. They have a first-year coach that's trying to implement a new system. Only he's got all the wrong players. For instance, the Falcons are stuck with smaller offensive linemen that were brought in to operate Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme. Well, Petrino likes a stonewall offensive line, and he doesn't have close to that. Petrino needs a QB whose strength is accuracy and receivers who can run precise routes, and he doesn't have close to that. And the offensive growing pains would be dulled if Petrino had a stout defense to rely on. He definitely doesn't have close to that.

Yeah, the Falcons are a bloody mess. They have injuries and confusion all over the field - to go along with the dark pall of some unfortunate offseason circumstances. They have zero depth and the fickle fan base is already jumping ship. There is absolutely nothing redeeming or exciting about this team (other than Jerious Norwood). I think this will be one of the best teams in the league to fade, especially early and late in the season. I wouldn't underestimate them downright tanking games to secure the No. 1 pick and Brian Brohm (Petrino's prodigy). It's going to get ugly, ugly down in the Dirty, Dirty.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 AFC South Preview
by Robert Ferringo

Yes, you're reading this right: I think that for the first time in four years someone other than Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts will hold the title "AFC South Champions."

And before I get a ton of e-mails from salty Colts fans, let me just reiterate that this has nothing to do with being a Manning Hater, some East Coast Bias against the hillbillies in the Midwest, or some grudge because they beat my beloved Bears in the Super Bowl. Trust me, I'm equal opportunity; I hate everyone. And I have nothing against the Colts. We've had our differences in the past, but they've been a dynamic team over the past few years and are a worthy champion.

But they're screwed this year.

Jacksonville is bigger, stronger, hungrier, and has twice the defense that Indianapolis does. The Colts lost five defensive starters, several key backups, and watched their starting left tackle take his ball and go home this offseason. This just isn't the same team that dry-humped Lombardi last February. And if anything happens to oft-injured safety Bob Sanders this year the defense could be even worse than last year's record-setting debacle of a unit. And if that happens my prediction gets even bleaker - if Sanders gets hurt the Colts won't make the playoffs.

A key ingredient to my bold prediction relies in the natural Letdown Factor that would engulf a franchise like Indy. You don't have to look any further than the St. Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball to see the perfect illustration of what I mean. The Cardinals have been outstanding this century, making the playoffs in six of the past seven years and winning 100 games twice. There were a couple times between 2000-2005 where they had outstanding teams, teams that were favored to win the World Series, but they didn't. Then last year, with a team that many "experts" considered their weakest in a decade, the Cardinals made an inspired run to claim that championship that had been so elusive.

See any parallels here? That's exactly the scenario that played out with Manning and the Colts. They had toiled for so long - to the point where it was just assumed that they would choke in the most gut-wrenching way possible - that when the team won the Super Bowl last year it was a moment that was nearly seven years in the making.

It's a cute story, but take a look at how St. Louis played as defending champions after reaching the summit of a six-year endeavor. They were awful to start this year, with injuries, defections, off-field distractions, and an obvious title hangover completely overwhelming their title defense. I expect a similar experience with the Colts. They're going to be shackled with huge lines, but they don't have the same firepower or magic that they had at the end of last year.

Slow start aside, I also think that the Colts' schedule will submarine them. A midseason stretch where they are at Jacksonville on Monday night, at Carolina off a short week, at home against archrival New England, and then at San Diego, is particularly gruesome. All of these factors, I believe, will lead to the Colts being one of the best Fade Teams since the 2003 Raiders and the 2006 Republicans.

Here's Doc's 2007 AFC South Preview:

1) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
2006 Record: 8-8 (6-2 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (6-2 home, 2-6 road); 9-7 vs. total (5-3 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 10th offense (24th pass, 3rd rush); 2nd defense (10th pass, 4th rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win AFC, 7/2 to win AFC South, 9.0 wins O/U

Outlook: I absolutely love the toughness of this team. Remember: they lost a ton of key guys last year (Reggie Hayward, Mike Peterson, Donovin Darius) and still finished No. 2 in the league in total defense. They dumped Darius - which I thought was a big mistake - but they managed to sign Sammy Knight as an ample replacement. Safety is the only pseudo-weakness on this D, but that's it. I look for them to club their division into submission behind one of the NFL's best units. Remember, if you can run the ball and stop the run you can win in this league. And the Jags do both as well as anyone.

The quandary, as it has been for the past three years, is in the passing game. Byron Leftwich is in a contract year and knows that his future is on the line. He is apparently comfortable in Dirk Koettner's new offense, which emphasizes the vertical passing game, but Leftwich needs a little help from his friends. Matt Jones has looked absolutely pathetic in preseason (I'm telling you, don't even think about drafting him on your fantasy team and laugh at anyone who does) and Reggie Williams may get cut. But they still have some decent tight ends and receivers, a massive offensive line, and one of the top backfield combos in the league. So the cupboard isn't completely bare.

Don't expect the Jaguars to be covering any monster numbers (-7.5 or more). Especially in the middle of the season if they get off to a hot start. The Jags will be grinding out wins, playing the field position game and winning games the old fashioned way: running the ball and playing great defense. Those words are music to my ears and money in my pocket.

2) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
2006 Record: 16-4 (10-0 home, 6-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 12-8 (7-3 home, 5-5 road); 9-11 vs. total (5-5 h, 4-6 r)
2006 Rankings: 3rd offense (2nd pass, 18th rush); 21st defense (2nd pass, 32nd rush)
2007 Odds: 11/2 to win SB, 3/1 to win AFC, 2/11 to win AFC South, 11.5 wins O/U

Outlook: I just cannot get over the serious red flags on this defense. Their front four is solid, but they have zero depth behind their starters. Their linebackers are below average and they also ditched both of their starting cornerbacks. Again, the performance of the entire defense rests on the shoulders of Bob Sanders. And by the way, one of those shoulders underwent offseason surgery. Sanders didn't even practice with the team until this week, and he can't be expected to be at 100 percent when the season kicks off for them on Sept. 6.

One trend that I do expect to somewhat reverse itself this year is that I am anticipating the Colts returning to their 'over' roots. Since their season-ending loss in New England in 2004, the Colts had played under the posted total in 23 of their past 38 games. That's a 61-percent clip. However, back in the days when they were putting up Tecmo Bowl numbers in 2003 and 2004, Indy played 'over' in 24 of its previous 33 contests (73 percent). Because the defense will be shaky and because the offense may have to play from behind more this year I anticipate the Colts reacquainting themselves with those 38-31 shootouts.

3) HOUSTON TEXANS
2006 Record: 6-10 (4-4 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-9 (4-4 home, 3-5 road); 8-8 vs. total (4-4 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 28th offense (27th pass, 21st rush); 24th defense (22nd pass, 20th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win AFC, 16/1 to win AFC South, 6.5 wins O/U

Outlook: Let me tell you, I love what the Texans have working right now. I love it. As it stands, the Texans in the AFC and the Washington Redskins in the NFC are my go-to, against the spread sleepers. Gary Kubiak has a year under his belt and now has a quarterback that can efficiently run his system. There are some holes here, but the Texans have a fantastic blend of youth and experience, and explosiveness and reliability. The defense should be improved (just a bit), the special teams will be better, and I think this team has 7-9 SU and 10-6 ATS written all over it.

What I like about Houston this year is that during the preseason they're running a lot of the same sets and formations that the Denver Broncos use. Not surprising, considering Kubiak's roots in the Mile High City. But I think that the counter plays, the misdirection, and the multiple looks that they're giving will help mask some of the deficiencies along the offensive line. That's been their real weakness since the franchise's inception. But with the steady hand of Matt Schaub (who is going to be very good) at the wheel I think this team has a lot of upside.

Defensively, it appears that they've finally settled on a 4-3 base. That has been another reoccurring issue through the organization's first five years. They have the requisite stud-leader in DeMeco Ryans, and I look for Mario Williams to do some good things this year. Also, don't look now, but their secondary has gone from young-and-full-of-potential to a relatively solid, veteran unit. They will miss Glenn Earl at safety, but if Williams and the rest of the D-Line can get any pressure (just 28 sacks last year) then I think that will help immensely.

4) TENNESSEE TITANS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-5 (5-3 home, 6-2 road); 12-3-1 vs. total (7-1 h, 5-2-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 27th offense (30th pass, 5th rush); 32nd defense (27th pass, 30th rush)
2007 Odds: 70/1 to win SB, 32/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC South, 6.0 wins O/U

Outlook: After last season's miracle ATS finish to the season - the Titans went 10-2 ATS to close the year - and a near-miss at the postseason there is nowhere to go but down for the Titans. Yes, down. The Titans simply didn't replace the talent they lost. They were -1.1 in yards per play last season - one of the worst differentials in the league - and I think that the lines will be a little skewed do to Vince Young's growing stature on the NFL landscape.

All of this is great for us, since the Titans are another of my top Fade Teams in the NFL. Tennessee has put together back-to-back winning seasons ATS just once in the past decade. They are a putrid 4-25 ATS when they don't score over 20 points, and with an offense that features no wide receivers, perennially disappointing running backs, and a horrendous passing quarterback I don't see them crossing the 20-point plateau too often.

I do like the defense though. They have a lot of veterans and this is a gritty group. Yes, they were No. 32 in the league last year. But they also spent the most time on the field - by far - of any defense in the league. Their third-down percentage was better than three other playoff defenses; they were just hung out to dry by a moribund offense. The schedule has a brutal start - with road games at Jacksonville and at New Orleans straddling a home opener against Indianapolis. It gets a bit easier after that, and don't be surprised to see a mini-run at the end of the year. But on the whole, I will be stunned if this team wins more than six or seven games and will be equally impressed if they match either of those numbers ATS.

And it will have nothing to do with the Madden Curse.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 AFC West Preview
by Robert Ferringo

The AFC West is the NLL League in the NFL: No Love Lost. All divisional rivalry games in professional football are salty, bloody struggles. But they are particularly testy on the Left Coast. And this year will be no different. The Chargers are the clear-cut No. 1 team in this division and have goals beyond a second-straight AFC West title. However, after that there is a steep drop-off in overall talent and the fight for second place should be a cold-blooded one.

Denver has the upper hand because of the overwhelming strength of its management. They have the second-most talent and the most experience in the division. Oakland is rebuilding around a stellar, scrappy defense, but will once again be leaving the offense in the hands of a Walking Disaster. Kansas City is in a bit of disarray. A quarterback controversy, the holdout of a star player, the suspension of their best defensive player, and some depth questions at several spots are all working against a repeat playoff appearance.

Here's Doc's 2007 AFC West Preview:

1) SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
2006 Record: 14-3 (8-1 home, 6-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-8 (5-4 home, 4-4 road); 10-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 3rd offense (2nd pass, 18th rush); 21st defense (2nd pass, 32nd rush)
2007 Odds: 6/1 to win SB, 3/1 to win AFC, 4/1 to win AFC West, 11.0 wins O/U

Outlook: My feelings about the Chargers are pretty clear: I just don't see how you can lose your head coach, both coordinators, and two starting linebackers and then come back and be better the next year. I just don't. There isn't much higher to go from the 14 wins they managed last season as is, but I still don't know if this is a Super Bowl squad. I mean, it's Norv Turner people. He's 58-82-1 as a coach for crying out loud.

The offense is still jacked. The defense is still vicious. I can't know the talent level. And I don't really have many complaints other than they don't have any proven receivers besides tight end Antonio Gates and their back seven isn't airtight (they can get to the quarterback just fine, but can they stay strong up the middle and can they defend the pass when teams do have time?). Also, their entire season rests on the shoulders of one player - and it's not LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers could manage with Michael Turner for 16 games. But if anything serious happens to Pro Bowl NT Jamal Williams this defense will crumble like a homeless person's shanty during a California earthquake. Also, the schedule is certainly more difficult this year, with games against Chicago, New England, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Baltimore dotting the schedule on top of the always-jovial divisional slate.

The Chargers have been the NFL's best team against the spread over the past three seasons (31-16-3), cashing at a phenomenal 66-percent clip. But how long can you really expect that to continue? This is the NFL, after all, and the books always correct the market on teams. The Chargers are a combined 2-14 against their opening three opponents (Chicago, New England, Green Bay) and I don't see them covering more than one of those lines. I think that start will set the tone for a season where the Chargers will return to the playoffs but won't be profitable while doing it.

2) DENVER BRONCOS
2006 Record: 9-7 (6-2 home, 3-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 12-7 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 8-11 vs. total (3-6 h, 5-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 21st offense (25th pass, 8th rush); 14th defense (21st pass, 12th rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 14/1 to win AFC, 1/6 to win AFC West, 9.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Prior to the preseason I had the Broncos pegged as the No. 1 team in this division. Mike Shanahan's famous pederast scowl is good for eight wins all on its own, and the running game and defense should be able to kick in two Ws on top of that. But the more I see from this team the less I like them. Injury, tragedy, free agency and trades have robbed them of talent and depth. Factor in that Jay Cutler isn't exactly what I would call a "winner" and things are shaky. A variety of red flags (weak/injured defense laying down at Dallas, memory of that choke job against San Fran in Week 17 last year, six of their last nine games on the road) have me bumping the Broncos out of the top spot and onto the playoff bubble.

I bust Cutler's balls about being a loser everywhere he's ever quarterbacked but the kid did look pretty good in the last three games of 2006. The Denver offense is well established and as user-friendly as Pam Anderson so it shouldn't be a stretch to think his numbers will be very good. Javon Walker is going to have a big year, but Rod Smith and Brandon Stokley are both already banged up. The offensive line is good, but not great, and although Travis Henry seems like a shoo-in for 1,400 yards keep in mind that he's only logged 300 carries twice in his six-year career (none since 2003).

Defensively, the Broncos were a disaster over the last seven games of the season. They were torched for an average of 27.7 points per game during that stretch and have certainly lost more from that unit than they've gained. Al Wilson, Michael Myers, Warrick Holdman, Darrent Williams and Gerard Warren were all key pieces of that unit. Besides swapping Dre Bly for Williams, none of the other starters have been ably replaced. Denver had trouble mustering a pass rush last season (35 sacks) so they spent their top two picks on ends (Tim Crowder, Jarvis Moss) that have been injured through most of camp. Two thumbs down.

3) OAKLAND RAIDERS

2006 Record: 2-14 (2-6 home, 0-8 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-10 (3-5 home, 3-5 road); 3-12-1 vs. total (2-6 h, 1-6-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 32nd offense (31st pass, 29th rush); 3rd defense (1st pass, 25th rush)
2007 Odds: 150/1 to win SB, 75/1 to win AFC, 15/1 to win AFC West, 5.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Just when you think that the Raiders get it, just when you think they're turning the corner, they do something to remind you why they are now one of the worst franchises in the NFL. To what am I referring? I'm referring to the fact that they seem ready to hand over the keys to one Daunte Culpepper. Stay with me here: Kerry Collins to Aaron Brooks to Daunte Culpepper. That's the trifecta right there. Those are the three worst quarterbacks to bet on, three of the most turnover-prone, soul crushing, overrated, maddeningly nonsensical, inconsistent quarterbacks that I have ever seen. And they are going to follow in a twisted, surreal, Polanski-like succession at the throne of the Raiders offense. Ken Stabler and Jim Plunkett are rolling over in their graves. Well, they would be if they had graves.

So that's it. The Raiders have one of the top five defenses in the league and a pair of solid running backs (LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes). However, the ceiling for this team is five wins with Culpepper under center. The man with hands the size of a six-year-old girl is good for at least two awful turnovers per game and all he will do is sell out that spectacular D. Pepper is going to constantly put the defense in trying positions and make critical red zone mistakes. I don't think that Josh McCown is a savior. However, he does have a 9-8 record in his last 17 starts, and that was with the disgustingly bad 2005 and 2004 Arizona Cardinals. I say give him the keys, tell him not to make mistakes, and try to grind out 6-8 wins.

But I doubt they will. And that's why they're the Raiders.

4) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

2006 Record: 9-8 (6-2 home, 3-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-9 (5-3 home, 3-6 road); 8-9 vs. total (4-4 h, 4-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 16th offense (22nd pass, 9th rush); 16th defense (18th pass, 18th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 35/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC West, 7.5 wins O/U

Outlook: Things have gone really badly, really quickly for the Chiefs. Last year they defied my humble preseason expectations and made a solid playoff run. Kudos to them. However, Herm Edwards' quarterback mismanagement has come to a head and the lack of a leader will be one of several factors that submarine this team's season. That being said, there is still enough talent on this roster where the Chiefs could be a sneaky team ATS. Their schedule is manageable and their defense is still strong, and getting stronger. But in the end, I think the ceiling here is somewhere around seven wins.

I was a huge Damon Huard proponent last season and I thought it was a major mistake that Herm went back to a shell-shocked Trent Green for the stretch run and playoffs. I also get the sense that he's about to make an even larger mistake by going with Brodie Croyle as the starter. The Chiefs play five of their first seven games against Top 10 defenses, and then meet Green Bay (12th) and Denver (14th) after that. If they try to go with Croyle they may average 13 points per game. Even if they go with Huard, behind that offensive line and with subpar receiving threats, things could get dicey.

There are also some very disturbing trends facing L.J. this year as well. Running backs off a 400-carry season generally suffer a precipitous drop-off the following season. Most get injured. Throw in the fact that he didn't have a training camp and I think that hurts him more than it helps. Finally, we don't have to look any further than Shaun Alexander last year to see what happens to the hunger of a star running back after he signs that fat contract. Not good. Not good at all. And I think that serves as an excellent barometer of what this team has to look forward to.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 AFC North Preview
by Robert Ferringo

Our eighth and final 2007 NFL Divisional Preview takes us to the AFC North, the division that I not only think is the best in the entire league but also the group that I feel best epitomizes what our bloody and brutal sport is all about.

I believe that the AFC North is the best division in football because the team that I have pegged to finish No. 3 (Cincinnati) is a crew that I think could be the champion of roughly four other divisions. While I don't think they have a team that is complete enough to win the Super Bowl, I do think that they have three legitimate playoff contenders and a trio of teams that can go toe-to-toe with Everyone's Favorite, New England. The best part: all three get to make the Patriots earn it because New England is on each of their schedules. Also, keep a close eye on how they dominate the NFC West, which I would consider the anti-North because of their soft style, in their interconference games this year. Those Left Coast clubs are going to get clubbed with a sledgehammer and the true power of the AFC North will reveal itself.

The teams in the AFC North play defense like a pack of starved jackals and attack offensively like a herd of drunken rhinos. They are cannibals, eating the flesh of their own division in order to produce a worthy conference challenger come playoff time. These teams have a classic approach to the game, like surgery without anesthesia. They run the ball and stop the run, like bull rushers in a boxing ring burrowing into the chest of their opponents. It's tough. It's physical. It's intimidating and dirty. It's AFC North football. No quarter asked for. None given.

Here's Doc's 2007 NFC East Preview:

1) PITTSBURGH STEELERS
2006 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (5-3 home, 2-5-1 road); 9-6-1 vs. total (6-1-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 7th offense (9th pass, 10th rush); 9th defense (20th pass, 3rd rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win AFC, 12/5 to win AFC North, 9.0 wins O/U

Outlook: I gotta admit, I'm feeling Mike Tomlin. He seems like a badass mofo and he seems to have fired up the troops. Questions remain over whether he's pushing a veteran team too hard early in the year and whether or not that will catch up with them in December. There are also issues about what he'll be like as a game planner and a game manager. But as far as the attitude and approach that he takes onto the field, I think that Mike Tomlin knows what Steelers Football is all about.

The main reason that I give the division to the Steelers is simple: Big Ben. Roethlisberger looks outstanding in the preseason. He looks confident and comfortable and in total control of the offense. He was the shell of himself last year, but he's regained the poise and control that made him the youngest Super Bowl winner ever. There is one potential pitfall: they will lose their identity and their soul if offensive coordinator Bruce Arians acquiesces to Ben's requests to "open up the playbook". Ben wants to throw the ball. But that's not who the Steelers are and not what they're about. If Willie Parker is healthy he'll be productive behind that offensive line. That will set up the play action and make them a difficult team to stop.

The defense will certainly be able to withstand the loss of Joey Porter on the field, but in a big divisional game in December they will feel his loss in the locker room. However, this is Troy Polamalu's unit now. And as long as he's on the field the Steelers defense is always lurking. Tomlin is staying with the 3-4 defense - an incredibly wise choice - and is leaving it in the hands of able-minded Dick LaBeau. The starting 11 can stack up with anyone, and there is depth at key positions. Casey Hampton needs to stay healthy as well. And look for some solid contributions from some young guys: Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, and Anthony Smith.

2) BALTIMORE RAVENS
2006 Record: 13-4 (7-2 home, 6-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 10-7 (6-3 home, 4-4 road); 6-9-1 vs. total (3-4-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 17th offense (11th pass, 25th rush); 1st defense (6th pass, 2nd rush)
2007 Odds: 10/1 to win SB, 5/1 to win AFC, 5/4 to win AFC North, 10.0 wins O/U

Outlook: All summer I said that there's no way the Ravens make the playoffs this year. None. I know that's counter to what everyone and their sister thinks is going to happen, but I've been absolutely convinced of it. McNair would get hurt. McGahee would get hurt. The schedule is brutal. They don't have any wideouts. They don't have enough depth at linebacker. And so on and so forth.

Then I saw them practice this preseason. Then I saw them play.

The Ravens are every bit as nasty as they have been for the past six years. However, I will point out that with this same skull-cracking defense the Ravens managed to average just eight wins per season from 2002 through 2005. Then they erupted for a 13-3 regular season last year. So why won't they do it again? Why isn't Baltimore a Super Bowl contender? Well, try all of the reasons I just mentioned. But I just can't get over how tough, rugged, and violent this team is. And I love it.

I think that we're all over the "Brian Billick is a genius" thing, so we can get right to the point about this team: the Ravens need McGahee to be the 1,400-yard back he's never been and for McNair to be the 16-game starter that he was last year. And they need both to do it behind an offensive line that is declining. Tall order. And even if those things do happen there is simply not enough explosiveness in the passing game for the Ravens to make it out of a loaded conference. As far as a team to bet on, they are 42-22-4 ATS at home in the eight-year tenure of Billick. They simply devastate opponents in the Charm City.

3) CINCINNATI BENGALS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-7-1 (3-4-1 home, 5-3 road); 7-9 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 8th offense (6th pass, 26th rush); 30th defense (31st pass, 15th rush)
2007 Odds: 12/1 to win SB, 8/1 to win AFC, 3/2 to win AFC North, 9.5 wins O/U

Outlook: The Bengals have had a blatant, clear, obvious flaw during the Marvin Lewis Era - they can't play defense. At all. I mean, not even close. Cincinnati is still a soft team. And in this conference and in this division that's the one thing you absolutely cannot get away with. I had the Bengals and Jaguars pegged as my top two teams for a bounceback season. But after watching Cincinnati over the past two months…not so much.

They can run their mouths all they want about their offense. (And they will.) But if you omit a 41-point outburst at Detroit two years ago, the Bengals have averaged just 18.3 points per game over their final five games in each of the past two years. They have the skill positions covered, but they've taken some serious losses on the offensive line. Both starting tackles, Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, have missed the entire preseason due to injury. In a division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh that's one area you don't want to have to count on your backups. Also, without Chris Henry for the first eight games this attack will be missing a key cog.

The defense? What can I say - it's a wreck. They lost any chance of playoff run when Odell Thurman was denied reinstatement by the league. The holes in the secondary that two years of record turnovers masked are now glaring. They lost Sam Adams so they now have no credible nose tackle. Their linebackers average less than three years of experience - with minimal depth to speak of. Will this unit ball hawk? Sure. But will they stop the running games of their division rivals, or the rush attacks of teams like New England, Seattle, Kansas City, or St. Louis? Not a chance. And that's why they may not be playing in January.

4) CLEVELAND BROWNS
2006 Record: 4-12 (2-6 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (3-4-1 home, 4-4 road); 6-9-1 vs. total (2-6 h, 4-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 31st offense (23rd pass, 31st rush); 27th defense (15th pass, 29th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win AFC, 25/1 to win AFC North, 6.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Poor Cleveland. They are actually better this year. They really are. I know they have averaged fewer than five wins per year over the past four years, but honestly, if they were in the NFC West they may have made the playoffs in one of those seasons. If this year is an ultimatum on the Romeo Crennel Era then you can already start the Pete Carroll Speculation.

I think that Cleveland's offense has a very good chance to be potent - next year. Jamal Lewis is a has-been. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. are not-yets. And the offensive line, though creeping towards respectability, is still a season away from really shaking itself out. The defense is even spottier. I know that Crennel had loads of success with the 3-4 in New England. But he also had talent there. The Browns simply don't have the bodies to play the type of defense that Crennel preaches. Kam Wimbley is a stud. But he's only one man.

No matter how hard I look, I don't see more than six wins on this schedule. And that's being generous. But I do think that this team can be a sneak ATS machine in the last month of the year. They are going to get maimed by Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and St. Louis in the first 11 weeks. But they close with the manageable part of the schedule: hosting Houston, at Arizona, at the Jets, hosting Buffalo, at Cincinnati, and hosting San Francisco. That's just one playoff team - and a team they beat at home last year - in their last six contests. They could be undervalued after some blowout losses, and if they get into a "Let's Do It for Romeo" mindset I could see them closing out with a 4-2 or 3-1 ATS run. Other than that it's going to be a long, cruel winter in The Forest City.

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Re: NFL Preview

Doc's 2007 NFC East Preview
by Robert Ferringo

The NFC East is one of the few divisions in the NFL that actually boasts two preseason Super Bowl contenders. Granted, it's the NFC and anyone from Arizona to Atlanta has a shot of doing some damage in this featherweight conference. But with Dallas and Philadelphia loaded up on both sides of the ball I think that the winner of this division will find its way into the NFC Title game.

But they won't win it.

Dallas and Philly are two tough customers. But much like the AFC North these teams simply demolish one another during their six divisional games. As a result it's incredibly difficult to secure home-field advantage, or even a bye in the opening round of the playoffs, and that all conspires against these teams when we get into January. This year should be no different. There doesn't appear to be a clear disparity in the level of talent from the No. 1 to the No. 4 team in the East. Each has its clear strengths and weaknesses and, to be honest, I could say that I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of the year the final standings were the exact opposite of what I've predicted here.

Here's Doc's 2007 NFC East Preview:

1) DALLAS COWBOYS
2006 Record: 9-8 (4-4 home, 5-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-7-1 (2-6 home, 4-3-1 road); 10-5-2 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 5th offense (5th pass, 13th rush); 13th defense (24th pass, 10th rush)
2007 Odds: 20/1 to win SB, 8/1 to win NFC, 9/5 to win NFC East, 9.5 wins O/U

Outlook: In my original rankings I had the Cowboys rated as the No. 2 team in the East, behind Philly, and was incredibly skeptical about all of the proclamations that this was a Super Bowl team. Not any more. The Cowboys have been the most impressive team I've seen in the preseason and their blend of talent, experience, and athleticism gives them the edge over the aging Eagles.

The Terrible T's - Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Tony Romo - form an exceptional trio. But the true strength of this team comes from its ability to whale away at an opponent with an improved offensive line, two outstanding running backs, and Jason Witten in the seams. They can attack in so many ways that they should be tough to stop. I think their defense has some holes, and I wonder if they can get a big stop when Dallas is behind, but Wade Phillips excels at teaching the 3-4 and has the Cowboys in full-out attack mode.

The Cowboys are going to be a tough bet this year for a few reasons. First, they are going to be faced with a ton of inflated lines. That's the price you pay for backing America's Team. But the Cowboys are perennially overrated and could be a decent fade option. They are 0-5-1 against the spread against the Giants (Week 1), 1-3 ATS at Chicago (Week 3), 1-3 ATS vs. St. Louis (Week 4) and 0-5 ATS against Minnesota (Week 7). Be wary of the thick lines and also keep an eye on how an unorthodox schedule (three of their last six games are on either Thursday or Saturday) affects this team.

2) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

2006 Record: 11-7 (6-3 home, 5-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 10-7-1 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 9-7-2 vs. total (3-6 h, 5-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 2nd offense (3rd pass, 11th rush); 15th defense (9th pass, 26th rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 8/1 to win NFC, 2/1 to win NFC East, 9.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Back in May each handicapper at Doc's Sports was asked to predict the Super Bowl representatives from each conference. My NFC pick was the Eagles - which further displays how ridiculous it is to make predictions nine months in advance. The Eagles are still solid - exactly what you would expect from an Andy Reid team - but injuries, age, the threat of injury from brittle players, and an ever-improving division are each conspiring against the Nasty Birds.

Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, the heart and liver of the Eagles offense, are both injury prone. McNabb has missed 14 games in the past three seasons while Westbrook has been wayward in eight. If either goes down for any extended period of time this team's Super Bowl dreams will dematerialize. Also, I would like to see them revert back to the post-McNabb 2006 offense where they were running the ball equal to the amount that they passed it. They have the top offensive line in the division and I think their receiving corps is as underrated as any in the league. Philly will score a lot of points, but will McNabb show the ability to manage and harness their offensive firepower to support the defense in the manner that Peyton Manning or Drew Brees have?

Defensively, as long as they have Jim Johnson they have a chance. The Blitzing Bandit will continue to bombard the opposition with inventive and intrusive attack packages. They were 26th against the rush last year due in part to their bend-but-don't-break philosophy. But they still need to be stronger up the center, especially to counter the power running games of their division rivals.

3) WASHINGTON REDSKINS

2006 Record: 5-11 (3-5 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 10-6 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 5-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 13th offense (21st pass, 4th rush); 31st defense (23rd pass, 27th rush)
2007 Odds: 50/1 to win SB, 20/1 to win NFC, 7/2 to win NFC East, 7.0 wins O/U

Outlook: Mark it down right now - and I am one of the first in the country to say it - the Redskins are going to be very, very good this year. So good, that if injury issues do creep up on the Eagles or Cowboys I think the Redskins have a chance to win the division. No, that's not a joke. This team is tough, motivated, and well coached. I'm a big Jason Campbell fan, and if he can bounce back from that knee setback I think this team can be dangerous.

Offensively, the line is stellar. And that was before they picked up Pete Kendall. They have as good a one-two running back punch as anyone in the league, and if Santana Moss can stay healthy for the whole season he will be a poor man's Steve Smith for the Washington offense. I mean, you can't tell me that any of the other teams in the division have skill players that are THAT much better than Washington's. That is, other than at the QB position. But in the second year of the Al Saunders System I think that the Redskins have the potential to be a very efficient and effective scoring team.

But what I really love is the nasty streak that this defense has. They've impressed me in the preseason with their physical play. Their first team has outscored their last two opponents' first team 20-10 in their last two games. Their opponents: Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two of the angrier teams in the league. I know it's just the preseason, but that is impressive. I'm telling you, this is going to be a sneaky ATS team this year and they'll come up big more than once.

4) NEW YORK GIANTS
2006 Record: 8-9 (4-4 home, 4-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-9-1 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 9-6-2 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 14th offense (19th pass, 7th rush); 25th defense (28th pass, 14th rush)
2007 Odds: 30/1 to win SB, 15/1 to win NFC, 5/2 to win NFC East, 8.0 wins O/U

Outlook: I have to hand it to the Giants; they've put off the inevitable for over a year. They've fought and scraped and clawed and bit and scratched and begged their way to back-to-back playoff appearances despite tough injuries, glaring weaknesses, and the added pressure of playing in The Big Apple. But it's time to pay the piper. This team isn't very good and they are bound to be exposed en route to a last-place finish in the East.

Needless to say, I'm not a big believer in the Manning Magic. The retarded, autistic younger brother of the goofy, funny, everybody-thinks-he's-nice Homecoming King simply isn't good enough to carry a team. Could Eli Manning be a strong quarterback on a team that was solid everywhere else? Well, no to that either. He's just too inaccurate and too inconsistent to be anything other than a B-/C+ quarterback. And with brooding, erratic skill position players like Plex and Shock denoted as the "leaders" I don't predict good things. Hell, they're more worried about what Tiki is saying about them and more focused on what happened last year than they are the fact that they have the a lame duck coach the lowest talent level in an improving division.

The Giants are always an easy team to cap: bet against them when everyone expects them to win and bet on them when everyone expects them to lose. They are 13-8 as an underdog of 7.0 or less under Tom Coughlin and 8-14 over the past 10 years as a favorite of -6.0 or greater. I'm looking for similar results this year. They'll be a tough team to topple as an underdog but you'll want to stay far, far away from them as a favorite.

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