Good, bad omens for season ahead for all 32 NFL teams

Good, bad omens for season ahead for all 32 NFL teams

What lies ahead

Good, bad omens for season ahead for all 32 teams

I've seen enough. Enough training camps, enough preseason games. With less than 10 days remaining until the NFL kicks off its 2007 regular season, the time is now to make some educated guesses about things to come.

First things first, next February's Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., will be a three-point win for New England over New Orleans. It'll be a fourth ring for the Patriots, and a historic franchise first for the Saints.

As I first wrote in May, I don't see anyone stopping New England, although the Chargers, Colts, Ravens, Jets and Broncos won't make the Patriots' trek through the AFC easy in the least. In the weaker NFC, I don't see anyone but Philadelphia capable of denying New Orleans. But in the end, the powerful Saints have too much offense for the Eagles to contend with.

Division by division, in order of finish, here's a 32-team look at how I predict the NFL will play out in '07, with playoff projections at the end:

AFC East

1. New England Patriots

A reason to believe: Nobody had a talent infusion like the one the Patriots received during the offseason. New England bettered itself on offense, defense and special teams (thanks to Wes Welker's return skills), and its coaching staff enjoyed some rare continuity.

The thing that makes you nervous: After Randy Moss' lost August, we don't know any more than we did in May, June and July regarding the receiver's impact. Were the Pats saving him for the season or are his legs just that iffy?

2. New York Jets

A reason to believe: The addition of running back Thomas Jones makes New York more balanced offensively, and gives the Jets a ground game they can win with when the weather turns nasty in the AFC East.

The thing that makes you nervous: Will Kellen Clemens pushing Chad Pennington at starting quarterback be a plus, or turn into a season-long sub-plot that the Jets couldn't probably do without?

3. Buffalo Bills

A reason to believe: With J.P. Losman, Lee Evans and Marshawn Lynch, the Bills have young, emerging play-makers in their impact positions on offense.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Bills are banking on all that youth on defense growing up quickly, and cohesively. That's a lot to ask in a league where experience is so critical.

4. Miami Dolphins

A reason to believe: The defense is solid enough to keep the Dolphins competitive while new head coach Cam Cameron gets innovative with the modest talent Miami does have on offense.

The thing that makes you nervous: We're still not buying that Trent Green will be the season-long answer at quarterback. He's 37 and coming off a year in which his play regressed dramatically after that severe concussion.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts

A reason to believe: Despite losing four starters, the Colts defense is better. That's right, better. The unit has played stout against the run in August (2.7 yards per rush) and the tackling is noticeably improved. Nobody's missing Cato June, Jason David, Nick Harper, or even Anthony McFarland at this point.

The thing that makes you nervous: We all know what a quality offensive left tackle means for the health of your right-handed starting quarterback. The Colts are depending on rookie Tony Ugoh to handle the role previously held by Tarik Glenn. It's a gamble, and Peyton Manning's blindside is the stakes.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

A reason to believe: The Jaguars can run on anybody and stop anyone's run. That's a pretty good starting point for any potential playoff team. The tandem of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor gives Jacksonville two game-changing rushers, and on defense, the Jags' massive tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, set up the rest of the unit's success.

The thing that makes you nervous: I just get the feeling that the Byron Leftwich era in Jacksonville isn't in for a happy ending. He's in the final year of his contract, and the pro-David Garrard movement has already stirred to life this preseason.

3. Tennessee Titans

A reason to believe: The Titans' late-season six-game winning streak last year changed the equation in Nashville, and convinced the players that success wasn't years away from unfolding. Tennessee has proven coaches who get the most out of the talent at their disposal.

The thing that makes you nervous: As gifted as he is, quarterback Vince Young won't be immune to second-year struggles against teams that are more familiar with what he likes to do. He'll still flash his magic at times this season, but his passing game can't take a backseat to his running skills.

4. Houston Texans

A reason to believe:Matt Schaub looks like the real deal at quarterback. If the Texans can protect him better than they ever did David Carr, coach Gary Kubiak has the efficient and cerebral passer who can make his offense work.

The thing that makes you nervous: You have to like the young talent that the Texans are compiling on defense, but if 2006 No. 1 pick Mario Williams isn't disruptive early on, the pressure on the man who took Reggie Bush's draft slot could quickly build to a crescendo.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens

A reason to believe: The Ravens have that swagger back on defense, and nobody does a better job than D-coordinator Rex Ryan of creatively game planning to attack and exploit an opponent.

The thing that makes you nervous: Everyone in Baltimore seems to believe that Steve McNair will be even better and more proficient in Year 2 in the Ravens offense. But I can't get that egg he laid in the playoffs against Indianapolis completely out of my mind.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

A reason to believe: New head coach Mike Tomlin has swept the stale air out of the Steel City, and his drive to build the Steelers back into a hungry, disciplined team that knows how to impose its will is going to pay off sooner than later.

The thing that makes your nervous: It's hard to picture the Steelers returning to the playoffs if Ben Roethlisberger's mojo doesn't return in '07. This is a pretty pivotal fourth season for Big Ben in terms of which direction his career is heading.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

A reason to believe: When you can trot out Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh every game, you've got a chance to beat anyone in the league.

The thing that makes you nervous: I'm not breaking news here, but the Bengals' pass defense isn't good enough to play with the heavyweights of the AFC. Cincy will win some games this season by out-gunning teams, but that's a formula for another 8-8.

4. Cleveland Browns

A reason to believe: No more calls, we have a winner. It may take a few weeks or even a month for him to fully earn the job, but the Browns have finally found a quarterback in Brady Quinn who can elevate the play of the offense around him.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Browns' snake-bit offensive line is unquestionably better. But with guard Eric Steinbach nursing a knee injury, and tackle Ryan Tucker about to start his four-game regular-season suspension, Cleveland still has no idea what continuity up front would feel like.

AFC West

1. San Diego Chargers

A reason to believe: The Chargers, by consensus, owned the most talented roster in the NFL last season, and yet they clearly have improved it with the likes of rookie receiver Craig Davis, rookie safety Eric Weddle and a couple other members of their '07 draft class. Stacked doesn't do this depth chart justice.

The thing that makes you nervous: A new head coach and two new coordinators? That's not exactly the blueprint for how you keep the train rolling. Norv Turner, Clarence Shelmon and Ted Cottrell could require a little time to master their assignments, and in the rough-and-tumble AFC, that could prove too costly.

2. Denver Broncos

A reason to believe:Jay Cutler has upside all over him. If you can watch him play quarterback and not see how much room for improvement there is in comparison to the Jake Plummer era, then you must be a member of Plummer's immediate family.

The thing that makes you nervous: Denver's defense has looked a bit tentative this preseason in adjusting to the schemes of new coordinator Jim Bates. The 49ers, Cowboys and Browns all had some success against the Broncos' first-team defense this month, and that's not a good omen for Denver, which faces early season matchups against potent offenses like San Diego and Indy.

3. Oakland Raiders

A reason to believe: There's nowhere to go but up when you score 12 offensive touchdowns in 16 games, as the anemic Raiders managed last season. New head coach Lane Kiffin won't let that happen again. His aggressive approach has been just what Oakland needed, and he shows signs of putting his players in the position to succeed.

The thing that makes your nervous: With newly acquired Dominic Rhodes facing a four-game league suspension to start the season, the Raiders' running game is going to have to rely again, at least early on, on LaMont Jordan. The ex-Jet was a bust last season, and his goal-line fumble and 2.8-yard average carry in his preseason starting debut against the Rams last week did not inspire confidence.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

A reason to believe: This is the best cause for hope I can point out, Chiefs fans: Head coach Herman Edwards came to his senses over the weekend and named Damon Huard his starting quarterback to start the season, rather than the overmatched Brodie Croyle. Huard was 5-3 as a starter last season with roughly the same team to work with.

The thing that makes you nervous: The state of the offensive line has been highly scrutinized, and the news is mostly bad. Pro Bowl guard Will Shields retired, leaving a void, and then new left tackle Damion McIntosh was felled by a preseason knee injury. The Chiefs, for the first time in years, have problems up front on offense. And that's going to make Huard and running back Larry Johnson's jobs even harder.

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Re: Good, bad omens for season ahead for all 32 NFL teams

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles

A reason to believe: By now it's apparent that the Eagles won't be held back this season by the state of Donovan McNabb's surgically repaired right knee. Philly's veteran quarterback has been so sharp this month that questions about it now sound hopelessly dated. Next topic?

The thing that makes you nervous: Newly installed starting middle linebacker Omar Gaither doesn't have the run-stopping pedigree just yet of the departed Jeremiah Trotter, and that's not all that comforting to consider given that the Eagles finished 26th against the rush last season.

2. Dallas Cowboys

A reason to believe: We happen to think that old re-tread Wade Phillips was a pretty inspired choice to be the Cowboys' head coach, because his history of success with the 3-4 defense melds perfectly with the talent that Dallas has on that side of the ball. I expect the Cowboys' dominating front seven to be one of the early season stories in the NFL, and Phillips to generate some coach of the year buzz by October.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Cowboys' secondary was a concern already, but things look a bit bleaker now that No. 1 cornerback Terrence Newman is suffering from a case of plantar fascia that figures to linger all season to some degree. The job of covering up safety Roy Williams' deficiencies in pass coverage depends somewhat on how well Newman handles his role.

3. Washington Redskins

A reason to believe: The Redskins' defense still seems almost afraid of takeaways, but Washington will put a better product on the field with the addition of rookie safety LaRon Landry and free-agent linebacker London Fletcher, and the return to health of tackle Cornelius Griffin.

The thing that makes you nervous: That Redskins offensive line, which was bolstered via a trade last week for veteran left guard Pete Kendall. With starting left tackle Chris Samuels missing the entire preseason with a knee injury, the line's early play could be pivotal in how things start off this year for both young quarterback Jason Campbell and the Washington running game.

4. New York Giants

A reason to believe: Count me among those who think the addition of quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer to Tom Coughlin's staff is going to translate into Eli Manning's best, most consistent NFL season yet. Maybe not slam-dunk Pro Bowl material, but Manning's game will smooth out under the direction of the well-grounded Palmer.

The thing that makes you nervous: No matter how much the Giants try to keep the focus on the field, something inevitably comes along to distract them from the task on hand. Either it's Tiki Barber's retirement, Barber versus Coughlin, Michael Strahan's absence, or Barber versus Manning. That's the sign of a team with a fatal flaw in the chemistry department.

NFC North

1. Chicago Bears

A reason to believe: The loss of defensive tackle Tank Williams supposedly made the defensive interior line a question mark, but even that concern has been mitigated by the acquisition of veteran Darwin Walker and the emergence of Dusty Dvoracek. This is the deepest defense in the conference and it's possible it still hasn't played its best football.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Rex Factor. How much longer can the roller coaster ride that is Rex Grossman at quarterback continue? The Bears don't need great quarterbacking to win their division. They just can't have their starter harming their cause with turnovers.

2. Detroit Lions

A reason to believe: The Lions should finally scare some people on offense. With coordinator Mike Martz having Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Mike Furrey, Tatum Bell and Jon Kitna together, there's no way Detroit shouldn't be more explosive than in any time in recent memory. The running game has yet to show up this month, but it should come in time.

The thing that makes you nervous: Whatever hopes the Lions have of contending for a playoff spot in the weak NFC this season, they revolve around protecting Kitna at quarterback. Reserve J.T. O'Sullivan played the whole game against the Colts last weekend and proved himself a journeyman. Dan Orlovsky isn't much of an option either. It's Kitna or else.

3. Green Bay Packers

A reason to believe: The Packers have this much going for them: They play in the weakest division in the NFL. Green Bay went 5-1 in the division last season and that made up a huge part of its surprising 8-8 finish. The Packers faced bleak prospects entering last season and wound up overachieving, so you can't rule them out of wild-card competition this year.

The thing that makes you nervous: We're less than two weeks away from the regular season and the Packers running game is a mess. Rookie second-round pick Brandon Jackson suffered a concussion Sunday, and veteran Vernand Morency has missed the entire preseason with a patella tendon problem. Green Bay is down to three healthy backs, and none have proven track records.

4. Minnesota Vikings

A reason to believe: Rookie running back Adrian Peterson gives the Vikings offense the home-run threat it lacked throughout coach Brad Childress' first season on the job. Peterson's ability to get outside should make opposing defenses respect the run, which should add options to second-year quarterback Tavaris Jackson's game.

The thing that makes you nervous: Jackson is still largely unproven, and the Vikings finally conceded this week that they need more of an insurance policy at backup quarterback than Brooks Bollinger. Monday's trade for Kelly Holcomb gives Minnesota a Plan B should Jackson's development this season be painfully slow.


NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints

A reason to believe: How can you pick just one? New Orleans' offense has looked scary good the past two preseason games, and there appears to be an embarrassment of riches at most every position. My gut tells me that Sean Payton, one of the league's brightest young coaches, will find new ways to use all those weapons this season.

The thing that makes you nervous: At this point, the only thing the Saints need to guard against is overconfidence and a tendency to believe the Super Bowl hype is right before they go out and prove it. But there are few signs that New Orleans will fall victim to the expectations game.

2. Carolina Panthers

A reason to believe: The Panthers have been labeled a Super Bowl contender the past couple seasons, and only teased. This year, the bar of expectation is set considerably lower, with the playoffs not even approaching a sure thing. If you're looking for a silver lining Carolina fans, head coach John Fox and his Panthers usually do their best work when the odds appear against them.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Panthers still seem to lack the type of No. 2 receiver who can draw coverage away from their No. 1, Steve Smith. Rookie Dwayne Jarrett, Drew Carter and Keary Colbert are the current cast of characters competing to fill the void, but Carolina continues to suffer from a viable secondary threat.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A reason to believe: If they can keep him healthy, Jeff Garcia gives the Bucs their best starting quarterback since Brad Johnson in '02. The position was a nightmare for Tampa Bay in '06, but Garcia will lend stability and professionalism to Jon Gruden's offense.

The thing that makes you nervous: Once again the offensive line has been re-tooled, but it's too early to say it's improved. Luke Petitgout was signed at tackle, but his back has been problematic. John Wade is still the center by default, and rookie right guard Arron Sears has a sore ankle and may not start the season.

4. Atlanta Falcons

A reason to believe: New head coach Bobby Petrino has a track record. The man knows offense, and knows how to build a program. His challenge in Atlanta this season is unlike any he has encountered before, but in some ways, the Michael Vick debacle has removed much of the pressure that would have been on Petrino and his Falcons this year.

The thing that makes you nervous: The quarterback depth chart reads Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Casey Bramlet. Enough said.

NFC West

1. St. Louis Rams

A reason to believe: Fourth-year Rams running back Steven Jackson is one of the most dazzling talents in the NFL today, and he's the centerpiece of a St. Louis offense that looks ready to take another step in '07. Jackson has only touched the ball twice this preseason, which tells you what the Rams think of him. If you get the LT treatment these days, you're valuable.

The thing that makes you nervous: Defense is always the question in St. Louis, and it's no different heading into this season. The Rams have an impressive young defensive lineman in Adam Carriker, but they'll need stepped up contributions from the entire front seven if they're going to improve their long-standing weakness against the run.

2. Seattle Seahawks

A reason to believe: The Seahawks are the only team in their division to post a winning record from '04 on, and that experience at winning has bred a confidence in Seattle. Mike Holmgren's club wins the games it has to in the regular season, and that should count for something for when another playoff berth is on the line in December.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Seahawks' vaunted running game slipped a notch last season with the loss of guard Steve Hutchinson, and there are some who wonder if Shaun Alexander's 3.6-yard average carry last season was the beginning of his decline? Maybe the toll of three consecutive 300-plus carry seasons ('03-05) have caught up with Alexander.

3. San Francisco 49ers

A reason to believe: The 49ers have assembled an impressive nucleus of young talent, and this could be the season where those players grow into a cohesive unit capable of making a wild-card run. Quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, and running back Frank Gore give the 49ers the makings of something that could be special on offense.

The thing that makes you nervous: San Francisco's switch to the 3-4 defense on a full-time basis fits its personnel, but it's rare that such a move is seamless in the first year. There will likely be some painful stages to the transition, as young players such as Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson mature in their roles.

4. Arizona Cardinals

A reason to believe: Quarterback Matt Leinart looks poised to surpass the limited success of his rookie season, and he looks comfortable in the offense that new head coach Ken Whisenhunt brought with him from Pittsburgh. Leinart's rapport with his talented receivers is stronger as the weeks go by.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Cardinals' defense has been a sieve the past two weeks of the preseason, getting shredded by Houston's Matt Schaub and San Diego's Philip Rivers. As much talent as we know Arizona has on offense, it won't matter much if the defense can't stop anyone.

Playoff predictions
AFC East -- New England
AFC North -- Baltimore
AFC South -- Indianapolis
AFC West -- San Diego
Wild card -- New York Jets
Wild card -- Denver

AFC Championship -- New England over San Diego

NFC East -- Philadelphia
NFC North -- Chicago
NFC South -- New Orleans
NFC West -- St. Louis
Wild card -- Dallas
Wild card -- Seattle

NFC Championship -- New Orleans over Philadelphia

Super Bowl -- New England over New Orleans

sportsillustrated.cnn.com

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