|NFL 2007: A look at the upcoming season, by divisions|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 01 September 2007 07:09|
AP Graphics AFC TEAM CAPSULES, NFC TEAM CAPSULES, AFC TEAM LOGOS, NFC TEAM LOGOS
By BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer
How the NFL divisions stack up this season, with projected record in parentheses:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4)
Strengths: A winning atmosphere created by coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and defensive leaders Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. Strengthened receivers, including Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth. History of winning big games.
Weaknesses: They're getting a little old on defense, and there's questionable depth in the secondary and at running back. Moss has had injury issues. Harrison is headed for four-game suspension.
Players to watch: RB Laurence Maroney, LB Adalius Thomas.
Biggest change: Vast improvement in receiving unit.
Schedule key: Games 11-13 vs. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Why they will finish first: Patriots won the division last year - and they're even better.
NEW YORK JETS (9-7)
Strengths: Coaching, with Eric Mangini and staff extracting every ounce of talent from the roster. Intelligent performers in QB Chad Pennington, RB Thomas Jones, WR Laveranues Coles, LB Jonathan Vilma and S Kerry Rhodes.
Weaknesses: Must upgrade significantly the run defense and get more pressure on QBs. OL has struggled in preseason. Jones has been hurt.
Players to watch: KR Justin Miller, LB Bryan Thomas.
Biggest change: Adding Jones to so-so running game - if he's healthy.
Schedule key: Opening two weeks vs. Patriots and Ravens.
Why they will finish second: Tougher schedule than last year, nowhere near the talent of New England.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10)
Strengths: End Jason Taylor comes off Defensive Player of the Year performance. Linebackers are solid. QB Trent Green should be an upgrade, and WR Chris Chambers is a nice target.
Weaknesses: Little stability, with third coaching staff in four years. Suspect running game and weak offensive line.
Players to watch: Taylor, LB Joey Porter.
Biggest change: Cam Cameron taking over as coach.
Schedule key: Games 10-12 vs. Eagles, Steelers and Jets.
Why they will finish third: Because the Bills have even more problems.
BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)
Strengths: Probably the best special teams in the NFL, led by KR Terrence McGee and P Bryan Moorman. Active DL sparked by end Aaron Schobel. Game-breaking WR Lee Evans.
Weaknesses: Loss of leadership on defense (CB Nate Clements, LBs London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes); suspect and overpaid OL; linebacking.
Players to watch: Evans, Schobel.
Biggest change: Defensive moves that didn't improve roster.
Schedule key: Brutal opening five weeks: Denver, Pittsburgh, New England, Jets and Dallas.
Why they will finish fourth: Too many question marks on defense and offensive line, and killer schedule.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (12-4)
Strengths: A superb offense guided by QB Peyton Manning and loaded with weapons. A defense that showed its skills in postseason. With a title in their possession, the Colts should be, well, super confident and immune to deficiencies that plagued them in the past.
Weaknesses: Uncertain run defense, absence of retired OT Tarik Glenn.
Players to watch: S Bob Sanders, rookie WR Anthony Gonzalez.
Biggest change: Manning's protection could be shakier than it's ever been.
Schedule key: Games 6-10 vs. Jacksonville, Carolina, New England, San Diego and Kansas City.
Why they will finish first: Talent, confidence, experience, strong coaching.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (9-7)
Strengths: The NFL's best pair of DTs, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Dynamic CB Rashean Mathis. Good linebacking. The 1-2 punch of RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Weaknesses: Inconsistencies at quarterback, receiver and tight end. Recent failures in big games.
Players to watch: TE Marcedes Lewis, RB-KR Jones-Drew.
Biggest change: New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, David Garrard replacing Byron Leftwich at quarterback.
Schedule key: Games 12-14 vs. Indianapolis, Carolina and Pittsburgh.
Why they will finish second: The defense can stop anyone, but the offense won't challenge Indy.
TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10)
Strengths: QB Vince Young is a creative force and winner. LB Keith Bulluck is among the league's best. Both lines are steady, with leaders in C Kevin Mawae and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Weaknesses: Who will be the main running back? Who will catch the ball? How much has the Pacman Jones situation hurt?
Players to watch: Young, Bulluck.
Biggest change: Young behind center from outset.
Schedule key: Opening month vs. Jaguars, Colts and Saints.
Why they will finish third: They'll take a step back from last year's 8-8 as they retool.
HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10)
Strengths: Exciting WR Andre Johnson, Defensive Rookie of the Year LB DeMeco Ryans, CB Dunta Robinson all have yet to peak.
Weaknesses: QB Matt Schaub is unproven, as are his blockers and, aside from Johnson, his receivers. More is needed from the defensive line.
Players to watch: DE Mario Williams, QB Schaub.
Biggest change: No more David Carr at quarterback, but offensive line remains huge question mark.
Schedule key: Either opening three - Chiefs, Panthers and Colts - or closing three of Denver, Indy and Jacksonville.
Why they will finish fourth: After five seasons, Texans still are building foundation.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-6)
Strengths: After disappointing year following NFL title, team is on mission under new coach Mike Tomlin. QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and has strong receivers and runners around him. S Troy Polamalu is most feared DB in league. Team looks hungry.
Weaknesses: How will change in coaching affect them? Blocking is questionable, so are special teams.
Players to watch: TE Heath Miller, Polamalu.
Biggest change: Tomlin replacing longtime coach Bill Cowher,
Schedule key: Closing stretch against Cincinnati, New England, Jacksonville, St. Louis and Baltimore.
Why they will finish first: The most-balanced team in a tough division, and they were embarrassed by flop in 2006.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: Big-play defense led by LBs Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, CB Chris McAlister and S Ed Reed. RB Willis McGahee adds some versatility. QB Steve McNair is in second season at Baltimore. Good special teams.
Weaknesses: Some holes have popped up on offensive line and last year's top defender, LB Adalius Thomas, left for New England.
Players to watch: Reed, McGahee.
Biggest change: McGahee replacing Jamal Lewis.
Schedule key: Games 11-13 vs. Chargers, Patriots and Colts.
Why they will finish second: Showing some age and they will miss Thomas immensely.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (8-8)
Strengths: A dynamite offense with QB Carson Palmer throwing to WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, handing off to Rudi Johnson. Solid kicking game.
Weaknesses: Lack of discipline. A defense that has few standouts and can't get off the field to let big-play offense pile up points. Lots of injuries.
Players to watch: Chad Johnson (especially after a TD), S Madieu Williams.
Biggest change: Revamped linebacking, but is it better?
Schedule key: Five of first six are against 2006 playoff teams.
Why they will finish third: Defensive and coaching shortcomings will offset offensive flair.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
Strengths: TE Kellen Winslow and WR Braylon Edwards can be difference makers. OL has been upgraded, although it's still mediocre. RB Jamal Lewis is running hard and with chip on his shoulder.
Weaknesses: No proven QBs, little depth anywhere. Pass rush is so-so. Lots of injuries.
Players to watch: LB Kamerion Wimbley, rookie T Joe Thomas.
Biggest change: Could eventually be to rookie QB Brady Quinn. For now, all the moves on offensive line.
Schedule key: Four of first five include Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and New England.
Why they will finish fourth: Too many injuries, not enough depth, holes at key spots, uncertainty at QB.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (12-4)
Strengths: The best offensive player in the game, RB LaDainian Tomlinson. A terrific offensive scheme built on LT's skills, TE Antonio Gates being a mismatch for defenders, and precision of QB Philip Rivers. LBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, NT Jamal Williams are Pro Bowl talents.
Weaknesses: Uncertain secondary. Norv Turner has checkered history as head coach.
Players to watch: Tomlinson, Merriman.
Biggest change: Turner in for Marty Schottenheimer.
Schedule key: Games 9-12 vs. Colts, Jaguars, Ravens and Chiefs.
Why they will finish first: The most talented club in the division, if not the entire league.
DENVER BRONCOS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: The best cover cornerback in football, Champ Bailey, supported by experienced defenders and emerging star linebacker D.J. Williams. RB Travis Henry should continue 1,000-yard rushing tradition. Javon Walker is elite wideout.
Weaknesses: How will death of CB Darrent Williams affect them? Special teams are mediocre, and both lines have slipped a bit.
Players to watch: QB Jay Cutler, Bailey.
Biggest change: Cutler, in second NFL season, is starter from the get-go.
Schedule key: Games 3-6 vs. Jaguars, Colts, Chargers and Steelers.
Why they will finish second: If Cutler takes next step, offense will be dangerous.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-9)
Strengths: Larry Johnson is epitome of a workhorse RB. TE Tony Gonzalez is mainstay. Linebacking is promising, with Derrick Johnson the focal point. Cornerbacks are playmakers.
Weaknesses: Uncertain situations at quarterback and on offensive line, which used to be a strength. Was LJ's holdout divisive?
Players to watch: LJ, DE Jared Allen.
Biggest change: Chiefs no longer have dependable OL.
Schedule key: Four of five against Denver (twice), Indy and San Diego in midseason.
Why they will finish third: Not enough passing and the OL woes will slow them down.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12)
Strengths: New coach Lane Kiffin, 32, has great enthusiasm and solid training at Southern Cal. Defense has some standouts in the secondary and on the line.
Weaknesses: Who will throw the ball? Even worse, can the QB stay upright behind a leaky line? Kiffin's fervor could fizzle quickly.
Players to watch: OT Robert Gallery (headed for bust-ville), CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
Biggest change: Young, aggressive coaching staff that might get some freedom from Al Davis - might.
Schedule key: Must take advantage of first month, with games against Detroit, Cleveland and Miami.
Why they will finish fourth: Raiders might finish last in every division.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6)
Strengths: If healthy, Donovan McNabb is the NFC's best quarterback. RB Brian Westbrook is as versatile as they come, and the O-line is dependable. New LB Takeo Spikes and a strong secondary lead the defense, and Andy Reid is a fine coach.
Weaknesses: Where will the pass rush come from; the Eagles need to blitz too often to get pressure. Someone must emerge as the No. 1 receiver.
Players to watch: Westbrook, WR Kevin Curtis.
Biggest change: Depth at receiver.
Schedule key: Late-season stretch vs. Patriots, Seahawks, Giants, Cowboys and Saints, three of them on road.
Why they will finish first: Eagles have improved from last season, when they rallied to win division.
DALLAS COWBOYS (10-6, wild card)
Strengths: RB duo of Julius Jones-Marion Barber is first-rate, as is receiving corps. QB Tony Romo appears to be rising star. Look for big years from LBs DeMarcus Ware and Akin Ayodele, S Roy Williams and TE Jason Witten.
Weaknesses: New coach Wade Phillips has a mediocre record as head man. Offensive line is not as steady as it has been. CB Terence Newman has been plagued by foot injury. Expectations might be a bit too high in Big D.
Players to watch: Ware, WR Terrell Owens.
Biggest change: No more Tuna; Romo at QB from outset for new coach Phillips.
Schedule key: Successive midseason games with Eagles, Giants and Redskins.
Why they will finish second: Philly has the edge in several areas, including coaching.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7-9)
Strengths: RBs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts are almost as good as the Jones-Barber combo in Dallas. The defense will hit hard, led by LB Marcus Washington and safeties Sean Taylor and rookie LaRon Landry.
Weaknesses: That secondary doesn't cover very well, though, and the front four must bring more pressure. Young QB Jason Campbell will have growing pains, and the OL is unpredictable, although addition of G Pete Kendall helps.
Players to watch: WR Santana Moss, LB Washington.
Biggest change: Campbell as the starter from Week 1.
Schedule key: Face Patriots, Jets and Cowboys on road, Philly at home in midseason stretch.
Why they will finish third: Joe Gibbs is a Hall of Fame coach working with too many ordinary players.
NEW YORK GIANTS (7-9)
Strengths: DE Osi Umenyiora could become a special pass rusher. The receiving corps of TE Jeremy Shockey and WRs Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer (if he recovers fully from knee injury) can dominate games.
Weaknesses: The defense is suspect, particularly the secondary. The offensive line is in flux, although G Chris Snee is a comer. Injuries in preseason piled up. DE Michael Strahan held out until Labor Day.
Players to watch: RB Brandon Jacobs, Umenyiora.
Biggest change: Loss of best player, Tiki Barber, actually could improve locker room environment.
Schedule key: Three division games in first four weeks, two on road.
Why they will finish fourth: Still too much discord and distractions, which can't help Tom Coughlin's job security.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-6)
Strengths: Big-time offense with QB Drew Brees, RBs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, WR Marques Colston. Rapidly developing offensive line. Explosive pass rush of Will Smith and Charles Grant. Topnotch special teams.
Weaknesses: Saints don't force enough turnovers. Secondary is no better than decent. If Brees goes down, they're finished.
Players to watch: Bush, S Josh Bullocks.
Biggest change: Saints now are expected to contend for title.
Schedule key: Games 11-13 within division, two on road.
Why they will finish first: Last year's surge was just the beginning in the Big Easy.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (9-7)
Strengths: Coach John Fox knows how to turn around team after a bad season. RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams are ready to blossom. WR Steve Smith is a star. Defensive line has difference maker in Julius Peppers.
Weaknesses: Neither QB, Jake Delhomme or David Carr, puts fear in opponents. Secondary could be vulnerable without retired leader, safety Mike Minter.
Players to watch: Smith, Peppers.
Biggest change: It could come at quarterback if Delhomme struggles.
Schedule key: Games 14-16 vs. Jaguars, Seahawks and Cowboys.
Why they will finish second: Saints simply have more talent, but Panthers are a clear second.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (7-9)
Strengths: Coach Jon Gruden's diligence and enthusiasm, which tends to rub off on many players. RB Cadillac Williams, if healthy, and still dangerous WR Joey Galloway, can make big gains, and G Davin Joseph could be a Pro Bowler. LB Derrick Brooks and CB Ronde Barber remain formidable.
Weaknesses: The defense is aging and not as deep as it's been. Short-yardage back Mike Alstott is out for season. Gruden's act might have worn thin with some players.
Players to watch: QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June.
Biggest change: Defense no longer is considered elite, although it's still good.
Schedule key: Opening five games offer no breathers: Seahawks, Saints, Rams, Panthers and Colts.
Why they will finish third: Defense doesn't dominate any more in Tampa Bay and offense's performance is unpredictable.
ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)
Strengths: Running game with Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood. TE Alge Crumpler is solid. All three LBs are playmakers, and CB DeAngelo Hall should be. A healthy John Abraham can be a sacks machine.
Weaknesses: QB, considering the Michael Vick situation, which could destroy the season before it begins. Secondary is so-so, special teams are worse.
Players to watch: Crumpler, LB Michael Boley.
Biggest change: Not having Vick anymore.
Schedule key: Games 11-13 vs. Indy, St. Louis and New Orleans.
Why they will finish fourth: Poor Bobby Petrino has walked into a hornet's nest.
CHICAGO BEARS (10-6)
Strengths: A high-impact defense led by LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, DT Tommie Harris and a cohesive secondary. WR Bernard Berrian is ready to emerge as a star, and rookie TE Greg Olsen adds a new dimension if he is not sidelined for long by preaseason knee injury. KR Devin Hester is ultradangerous if healthy. C Olin Kreutz excels. Lovie Smith is a quality coach with a good staff.
Weaknesses: OK, can't avoid it - QB Rex Grossman is too inconsistent and must take another big step. Trading RB Thomas Jones to open job for Cedric Benson might be unwise. OL, other than Kreutz, is pedestrian.
Players to watch: Briggs (in contract year), Berrian.
Biggest change: No more reliable Thomas Jones to take pressure off Grossman.
Schedule key: Considering division, how about finale vs. New Orleans, which could decide a lot in the conference?
Why they will finish first: This weak division makes Bears a virtual shoo-in, and their defense seals it.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-8)
Strengths: QB Brett Favre's competitiveness and WR Donald Driver's brilliance. Excellent pass rush, with DE Cullen Jenkins about to break out and Aaron Kampman already established. If A.J. Hawk also comes on, linebacking could be special. Team should have some cohesion in second year of Mike McCarthy's regime.
Weaknesses: Suspect running game and receiving corps (outside of Driver). Inexperienced OL. Secondary has talent, but CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris are aging. Driver was injured in preseason.
Players to watch: Jenkins, RB Vernand Morency.
Biggest change: Defense has some versatility.
Schedule key: Pack can't get swept vs. Philly, Giants and Chargers in opening weeks.
Why they will finish second: Favre gives them edge over Lions and Vikings.
DETROIT LIONS (6-10)
Strengths: In second year under coordinator Mike Martz, offense could be explosive. QB Jon Kitna can throw to WRs Roy Williams, Mike Furrey and rookie Calvin Johnson. RBs Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell form a nice combo. Special teams are very good.
Weaknesses: Defense is a huge question mark, particularly up front and in secondary. Does DT Shaun Rogers have anything left and does he care? Will LB Boss Bailey finally develop? Offensive line also is weak.
Players to watch: Johnson, LB Ernie Sims.
Biggest change: Lions don't look like worst team in division.
Schedule key: Simple: beat Raiders in opener.
Why they will finish third: Detroit will score enough to avoid its usual spot in cellar.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (4-12)
Strengths: DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams can't be budged, so Vikings succeed against the run. Rookie Adrian Peterson and incumbent Chester Taylor should provide strong running game behind good line led by G Steve Hutchinson and C Matt Birk.
Weaknesses: Vikings have trouble covering in the passing game and throwing the ball; they have inexperience at quarterback and no standout receivers. They'll need to keep scores low to win, perhaps very low.
Players to watch: Peterson, CB Antoine Winfield.
Biggest change: Remember the pass-happy Vikes of Culpepper and Moss? Forget it, these Vikings will try to run.
Schedule key: Games 5-8 vs. Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Diego.
Why they will finish fourth: Minnesota has taken some serious steps backward this year.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-7)
Strengths: A team that knows how to win when healthy, which it wasn't last year. But Seahawks nearly returned to NFC title game anyway. RB Shaun Alexander, QB Matt Hasselbeck, T Walter Jones are elite players on offense and WR Deion Branch could be one. Linebacking is solid and defensive line got an upgrade. Mike Holmgren is a terrific coach.
Weaknesses: Other than Jones, there are questions on O-line. Secondary is suspect, as well, but will have time to develop because the schedule is kind - one 2006 playoff team in first nine games.
Players to watch: Branch, LB Lofa Tatupu.
Biggest change: Potential problems in blocking, which are rare in Seattle.
Schedule key: Midseason games with Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
Why they will finish first: Seahawks have been there before and know how to stay on top of a quickly improving division.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (9-7, wild card)
Strengths: RB Steven Jackson might have a Tomlinson type of season, and he's not the only top-shelf threat. WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce remain formidable, QB Marc Bulger has a new contract and loads of confidence, and TE Randy McMichael adds another dimension. Rookie DL Adam Carriker should complement star DE Leonard Little well.
Weaknesses: Linebacking and secondary have holes and Rams allow too many big plays. Special teams aren't special. Holt had preseason knee surgery.
Players to watch: Carriker, Jackson.
Biggest change: Rams have a tight end who can be big-time complement to wideouts and Jackson.
Schedule key: Play three of four vs. Baltimore, Seattle and New Orleans in midseason, but overall schedule is not imposing.
Why they will finish second: A darkhorse to go far this year if the defense improves, which it should.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8-8)
Strengths: Mike Nolan has enlivened a moribund franchise in his two years as coach. Alex Smith could be a precise QB and RB Frank Gore is a beast. TE Vernon Davis could be one, too. Addition of Nate Clements boosted secondary from mediocre to a strength. Rookie LB Patrick Willis is a keeper.
Weaknesses: Can they get a decent pass rush? Will any of the wideouts emerge? Can upgraded offensive line protect Smith? Gore broke hand in preseason, but appears ready.
Players to watch: Davis, Willis.
Biggest change: Secondary is primo now.
Schedule key: A quick start is needed with division opponents, plus Steelers and Ravens before a bye.
Why they will finish third: In the NFC North or East, they might contend for division. Here, the Niners will come close to wild card.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (7-9)
Strengths: New coaching staff under Ken Whisenhunt has brought a spark to the desert. QB Matt Leinart throwing to WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and using RB Edgerrin James liberally will get points. S Adrian Wilson could lift the defense.
Weaknesses: History of failure that must be shunted aside. Weak offensive line and so-so defensive line. No proven starters at linebacker.
Players to watch: Boldin, Wilson.
Biggest change: A fresh attitude thanks to impressive new coaching staff.
Schedule key: Must emerge from first five weeks - San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis - without bunch of defeats.
Why they will finish fourth: Cardinals will be better than under Dennis Green, but not enough to break even.