The Difference Makers

Peyton Manning vs. Rex Grossman.

That was the quarterback matchup when Indianapolis beat Chicago last February to finally win the Super Bowl. And in many ways, it represents the difference between the AFC (strong) and the NFC (weaker) when the 2007 season starts on Sept. 6.

In fact, that ``traditional'' Thursday opener - traditional in that it's now in its sixth season - is one of the few games between top teams in the two conferences where the QB matchup is relatively even. It features Drew Brees and New Orleans at Manning and the Colts.
Even Brees is an ex-AFCer, coming over last season from San Diego to lead the Saints to the NFC title game after their miserable 3-13 record in 2005, during which they were made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

The buildup to the season has been eclipsed by the off-field troubles of Michael Vick, Pacman Jones and others who have fallen afoul of the law and commissioner Roger Goodell's tough disciplinary policies. It has become a preoccupation for almost everyone around the NFL, the commissioner most of all, although he hardly welcomes it.

``I don't think it's overshadowing the season. I think our fans are excited about football,'' says Goodell, who in his first year as commissioner has become as high-profile as his most famous (and notorious) players. But he acknowledged: ``I understand the interest in that story.''
Or as Falcons owner Arthur Blank said after Vick, his star quarterback, pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges: ``Most football people I talk to have more important matters in the football world and like to talk about football.''

Starting next week, football will take the spotlight. Hopefully. And not only in the United States, but for a week in London, where on Oct. 28 the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins will play the first regular-season game in Europe, a Dolphins home game.

The main story line, at least at the start of the schedule, is the discrepancy between the conferences - although the parity in the NFL and the knowledge that a key injury or two can completely dismantle a team's hopes often make story lines irrelevant by Week 2 or 3.

Still, the inequality is evident by the fact the defending champion Colts are rated no better than third in the AFC behind New England and San Diego in most preseason forecasts. Add in Baltimore and the conference might have four teams better than anyone in the NFC, including the defending conference champion Bears.

Chicago gave a decent account of itself in a 29-17 loss to the Colts in the Super Bowl. But until Grossman (or Brian Griese) establishes himself as a Super-Bowl caliber quarterback, the Bears will be a question mark.

Other than Brees, the top QBs in the league are in the AFC, starting with Manning and New England's Tom Brady and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. Plus youngsters Philip Rivers of San Diego and Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh. One AFC youngster who won't be there to start the season: JaMarcus Russell of Oakland, the first overall pick in the draft, who has been a summer-long holdout, ruining any plans new, 32-year-old coach Lane Kiffin had for starting him.

The NFC's QBs are more iffy. The best besides Brees, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, showed signs in an exhibition game last week of problems with a knee on which he underwent surgery eight months ago.

Of course, there's 37-year-old Brett Favre in Green Bay, who may be in his final season and, coming off a bounce-back year, is six touchdown passes short of Dan Marino's career mark. Beyond him are a lot of unknown quantities.

San Francisco's Alex Smith and Arizona's Matt Leinart. Plus Tony Romo, who became Dallas' starter in the sixth game last year, started fast, but finished slowly.

There's no surprise who's the favorite: New England, winner of three of four Super Bowls between the 2001-2004 seasons.

Despite no wide receivers of much merit and a banged-up secondary, the Brady-led Patriots got to the AFC championship game last season by upsetting San Diego, and led the Colts 21-3 in Indianapolis before finally losing 38-34 for the AFC crown. In the offseason, the Pats added linebacker Adalius Thomas, coach Bill Belichick's kind of versatile player, plus the wideouts they desperately needed: Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker and the former megastar, Randy Moss.

While Moss is the most intriguing, he's been hurt most of camp and may have lost some of his most electrifying skills. Indeed, the multipurpose Welker is a Belichick favorite because he gets open and does everything, including kicking extra points and a field goal for Miami in a 2004 game in Foxborough that seems to have endeared him forever to New England's coach.

The other two principal AFC contenders each have bigger questions.

For San Diego, which had the conference's best record last season at 14-2, it's a coaching change - Norv Turner for Marty Schottenheimer. The Chargers also lost both coordinators to head coaching jobs: Wade Phillips (defense) to Dallas and Cam Cameron (offense) to Miami.

Turner is one of the game's best offensive minds, and as coordinator in San Francisco last year, he turned around Smith after an awful rookie season.

But he was 59-83-1 as a head coach in Washington and Oakland. The only way he can satisfy expectations this year is by getting to the Super Bowl.

Turner shrugs that off as an occupational hazard. So when asked what would happen if the team went 11-5 and didn't get to the title game, he replied:``I've been doing it too long and I know that if this football team's 11-5, it's played pretty damn well, and that doesn't mean we're not going to have a better record than that. I understand, but it's so far off, you've got to handle each step at a time.''

The players seem to be there for Turner, led by LaDainian Tomlinson, who set a record for touchdowns scored last season and was the NFL's MVP. The offense also includes Rivers, who stood out in his first season as a starter, tight end Antonio Gates, and one of the game's better offensive lines. The defense is led by third-year linebacker Shawne Merriman, who is on his way to becoming an elite playmaker.

The Colts still have Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and defensive end Dwight Freeney, who signed a new deal this year that makes him the game's highest-paid defensive player. But they lost four starters on defense to free agency or injury, and Manning's health could be endangered by the retirement of left tackle Tarik Glenn. Rookie Tony Ugoh, a second-round choice, is currently his replacement, protecting the quarterback's blind side.

Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, has never been afraid to lose defenders, fitting players into his ``Tampa Two'' defense without losing much.

The Colts should still dominate the South. Tennessee looked like an up-and-coming team last season, but running back Travis Henry was traded to Denver, Jones was suspended and Vince Young, who led a late surge as a rookie, has had his troubles in camp, including being set down for the first exhibition game for leaving the team hotel to sleep in his own bed.

There's depth beyond those three AFC powers, including some teams that might be division favorites in the NFC.

Pittsburgh, the champion in 2005, has a new coach in Mike Tomlin, only its third since 1969, and hopes Roethlisberger will bounce back from a subpar season plagued by injury and illness.
Baltimore is still one of the NFL's top defensive teams and has more speed at running back in Willis McGahee. Denver is hoping Jay Cutler, in his first full season as quarterback, will fill a hole that's existed since John Elway retired nearly a decade ago. Cincinnati, which was troubled last season with nine players arrested, hopes it's past such woes.

Cincinnati has an explosive offense with Palmer and Chad Johnson. The Jets should be a playoff contender in Eric Mangini's second season as coach, although they've had offensive line problems in camp.

The Bears and Saints, who met in the NFC title game last season, are the de facto favorites in the NFC.

Chicago gets back safety Mike Brown, who missed most of last season with injury, and tackle Tommie Harris. It's hoping explosive return man Devin Hester can become an option at receiver in his second season.

But the Bears will miss defensive tackle Tank Johnson, cut after being suspended for eight games by Goodell for violating probation on a gun charge. And there's always the Grossman question; even when he plays well, he doesn't. In a preseason game against San Francisco, he threw for 211 yards in a half that the Bears put up 31 points, but was criticized for throwing an interception returned for a touchdown.

``You're never going to be satisfied as a football player - and I'm definitely not - but when you do score 31 points in a half, that's pretty good,'' Grossman said defensively, the same posture he had to exhibit before the Super Bowl as his skills were questioned.

New Orleans' questions are on defense. But Brees and the running back tandem of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister make the offense explosive enough to make up for lapses there. And two years removed from Katrina, the Saints remain sentimental favorites - they finished 10-6 and won the South last season after going 3-13 in that hurricane displaced season.

Everyone else is even more questionable.

In the East, Philadelphia and Dallas seem like favorites. But McNabb's knee makes the Eagles an uncertainty and Romo remains in that category, especially with Phillips replacing much-decorated Bill Parcells.

The Giants and Redskins don't look like challengers unless Eli Manning begins to play like his brother.
Detroit, 24-72 in Matt Millen's six years, is talking big. But while the Lions may improve, they're unlikely to challenge the Bears in the North. Neither are Minnesota or Green Bay.

Traditionally downtrodden Arizona seems energized by new coach Ken Whisenhunt. Along with the division's more recent doormat, San Francisco, Arizona might challenge Seattle and St. Louis in the West, a division where all four teams could end up 8-8.

The South? Vick's absence and the trauma caused by his case means the Falcons go nowhere under first-year coach Bobby Petrino, who didn't deserve this. Carolina's John Fox, like the Giants' Tom Coughlin, needs to win now, but probably won't. Same for Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, who is depending on 37-year-old QB Jeff Garcia.

Back to the beginning.

The last NFC team to win the Super Bowl was Tampa Bay after the 2002 season, Gruden's first. He was playing with Dungy's players and Dungy is now in the AFC.

Looks like the same theme: AFC all over the NFC.

By: Michael Cash - - Email Us

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