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Well, it’s that time of year.  The kick-off of the 2007 NFL Season is upon us.  That means that it’s time for me to publish my fourth annual NFL Preview, complete with picks and predictions on how your favorite teams will fare.  Are they destined for Super Bowl rings or the first draft choice in next year’s draft?  I’ll tell you.  Will your favorite player be the NFL’s MVP, or your Head Coach the first one fired?  I’ll tell you.   Let’s dive in, shall we?

So, how do I do it?  Last season people were standing around the water-coolers at their office scratching their heads.  Naming the NFL MVP; naming the first coach fired; naming the Super Bowl Champions – and all of this before the first game of the regular season even kicked-off.  Calling the Madden Curse; predicting the Super Bowl storylines; and naming many of the season’s newsmakers – and all this before the opening whistle.  Then, I followed it up with a weekly prognosticating average of better than 75% over the season – people want insights.  Okay, I’m willing.

First of all, I’m all about patterns.  For example, the Patriots of the Bill Belichick era are competitive no matter who comes and goes on their roster.  Look for that to continue.  The Texans play like an expansion team, no matter how many seasons they have under their belt.  Look for that to continue.  There are always division winners who have gone from worst to first.  Count on it.  The ‘sexy picks’ every year wind up being busts (just ask the Arizona Cardinals of 2006).  Stay away from them.  And so on.

Secondly, drama follows drama-queens and real heroism follows real heroes.  And, closely akin to that: stories in the NFL don’t go away until they go away.  So, be sure that there will be clouds of drama surrounding everything T.O. or Clinton Portis does.  Be sure that there will be a magnificent story to be told involving Warrick Dunn or Derrick Brooks.  Know that the fireworks will continue around Tom Coughlin, and that beginning with his first regular season snap, every Packer game will include speculation that this may be Brett Favre’s last season.

Finally, if you really want to amaze your friends with your own prognosticating prowess – and this is my best advice – let me do the work for you.  Read my TBO/Pigskin Preacher Blog on a weekly basis and let me give you the insights and observations that will make you the water-cooler quarterback in your neck of the woods.

Here goes the 2007 Season Preview.  Take notes.

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New England Patriots – After falling just a breath short of the Super Bowl last season, the Patriots went and loaded the arsenal to make sure they are more than in the running this time out.  I think this team won the titles for both best draft class of 2007 and best free-agency class of 2007.  People are expecting big things with the additions of LB Adalius Thomas and WR Randy Moss.  They won’t disappoint.  But, the additions that may mean the most to the Pats could be first round draft pick FS Brandon Meriweather or free-agent KR Wes Welker.  The muskets are loaded.  Look for another 12 win season… and more.

New York Jets – If I missed on one team last season it was the Jets.  I thought the task of building the Jets into a winner was a multi-year project.  Head Coach Eric Mangini had the thing pointed in the right direction quickly.  Adding RB Thomas Jones was a great move.  I’m still not sure that Chad Pennington is the answer under center, but Mangini apparently is.  I tell you, Jets fans better hope that Pennington stays upright, because there is no one on the depth chart behind him that you want to see in Regular Season action.  If Chad stays healthy and Kellen Clemmons doesn’t see the football, the Jets may get another sniff of the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins – Well, the Nick Saban era sort of stunk, eh?  Owner Wayne Huizenga had to be asking himself, ‘Why me?’  Make no mistake, new Coach Cam Cameron was hired with stability in mind.   I expect that he will bring it, but that it will take a year or two to recover from the whiplash Saban caused the organization.  The ‘Fins have some weapons on both sides of the ball.  Their offense should revolve around Ronnie Brown (Ricky Williams has watched another year go up in smoke).  The defense should be anchored by Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor.  Rookie Ted Ginn Jr. – I know, I can’t believe they spent their first pick on him either – should add some flash to Special Teams.  At least, he better.

Buffalo Bills – Duh Bills.  How do the Bills follow up on letting a good QB go in favor of a prospect?  They let their playmaking RB go in favor of another prospect.  Willis McGahee gone?  Marshawn Lynch better bring his A-Game.  And just when Bills fans thought it could get no worse, the Bills decided to let half their starting defense walk away.  So, is it a make it or break it year for J.P. Losman?  It’s likely to be a shake him and break him year.  Don’t forget folks, this is a team being built by Dick Jauron and 112 year old Marv Levy.  I know, I really should give Bills fans something to be encouraged about.  Okay, here it is: you guys have a great punter in Brian Moorman and kicker in Rian Lindell.  That’s good.  They’ll be busy this year.

tomlin.jpgBaltimore Ravens – Be afraid, NFL.  Be very afraid.  Add a functional offense to the best defense in the NFL , and what did you get? A 13 win Raven team in 2006.  How did they follow up the 13 win season?  They upgraded to Willis McGahee, a younger, faster replacement for departing Jamaal Lewis at RB.  QB Steve McNair looked like an answer for now, at QB.  He’s creeping up there in years, but he has the weapons around him to make this a very good season for the Ravens.

Cincinnati Bengals – Behind them, they hope, are all the arrests and off-field drama that was the Bengals’ story at the start of the 2006 season.  The question to be answered: Are the Bengals the 11 win team of 2005, or the mediocre 8 win team of 2006?  They have a load of talent at all the skill positions.  If you used one word to describe the Bengals last season – and that word wasn’t ‘convict’ – it would be streaky.  They won a few in a row, and then went on a skid for a few weeks.  They will need to avoid the roller-coaster if they are to be a player in this division.  Look for them to be better than ’06, but not quite the marvels of ’05, when it’s all said and done.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Bill Cowher’s steel jaw will be missed on the Steelers’ sideline.  Not that Mike Tomlin won’t be a great coach – he has all the potential.  But it won’t seem the same to watch the Steelers and not see that clenched mandible and fists roaming the chalk.  Those who watch for patterns will note a 15 win 2004 followed by an 11 win 2005 (the Super Bowl year), and then followed by an 8 win 2006 campaign.  Do you think Cowher chose to ride into the sunset for a reason?  Sure he did.  Look for it to be a rebuilding couple of years in Steel-town.  Hey, but good news, Steeler fans!  You open against the Browns.

Cleveland Browns – O Romeo, O Romeo, How doth thou savest thy job?  Start Charlie Frye at QB?  No, no, no.  Derek Anderson?  Nyet!  I know, how about starting the kid from Notre Dame?  Well, starting Brady Quinn might buy Romeo Crennell some sympathy for the hard work of preparing the rookie for the future, but it’s likely too little too late.  Look for Romeo to be gone if the Browns fail to finish about .500.  Or, should I say, ‘when’ the Browns fail to finish about .500.

 

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Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning.  Marvin Harrison.  Reggie Wayne.  Joseph Addai.  Dallas Clark.  Okay, on offense – enough said.  Defensively, isn’t this always where the questions abound for the Colts?  How does a team give up 200 plus yards on the ground, and a few weeks later win the Super Bowl?  Ask the Colts.  The Colts will go as far as their defense will allow them to go.  And this defense is missing many key ingredients.  The departures of LB Cato June, DB’s Jason David, Mike Doss and Nick Harper, DT Montae Reagor and the season ending injury to DT Booger McFarland will really hurt and already suspect D.  The Colts better score 40 points every week, because God knows their opponents are likely to.

Jacksonville Jaguars – What do you do when your back-up QB has a better winning percentage, better pass completion percentage (78% to 51%), better grasp on the offensive scheme, and a better attitude than the starting QB?  Well, if you’re Jack Del Rio you say the heck with all that and proclaim the starter to be Byron Leftwich anyway… in February.  David Garrard waits.  Then, on the eve of the season, you proclaim the back-up your new starter, and tell everyone that was your plan all along.  Good news for the Jags offense?  They have one of the best RB tandems in the league.  Look for Maurice Jones-Drew to break out this year.  And, don’t forget the Jags have a playoff caliber defense.  You would think the Jags stand poised to do something significant – if it weren’t for the drama with the QB position.  If David Garrard can make all the drama subside, the Jags will rise.  Otherwise… does anyone have Mark Brunnell’s number?

Tennessee Titans – QB Vince Young is back for his second NFL season.  I’m surprised that Head Coach Jeff Fisher is here to see it.  I really thought when they chose Vince Young over Matt Leinert (who has history with Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow from his USC days), that signaled that Fisher and company were enjoying their farewell tour.  Not so fast, Preacher.  Fisher is back, and there is talk of extending his contract.  Whoa!  But (and this is a big but), the opposition has had a whole year to think about how to contain young Vince.  That means he may get that ‘welcome to the NFL’ this time around.  Don’t overlook the fact that the Titans have even less of a defense than the one they had last year since Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones is off wrestling, rapping and otherwise creating alibis for his life of crime.  Tough sledding for the Titans. 

Houston Texans – The question: Are the Texans any closer to being competitive in their sixth year than they were in their first?  They sent QB David Carr out of town on a rail.  Head Coach Gary Kubiak, they say, didn’t have confidence in him.  Well, newsflash: David Carr didn’t have confidence in the O-Line that turned giving up sacks into an art form.  He was sacked like 1100 times.  He didn’t drop back to pass.  He stopped, dropped and rolled!  Enter Matt Schaub, the former back-up to Mike Vick in Atlanta.  I hope Schaub knows his insurance agent on a first name basis.  Well, figure that last year’s number one Mario Williams will improve – and he needs to.  You recall they chose him over… well, I won’t rub it in.  I suppose that Ahman Green is an upgrade at RB.  Perhaps.  Their first ever winning season?  Not!

sappx-large.jpgSan Diego Chargers – How do you improve on a 14-2 record?  You fire the Head Coach.  At least that is the Chargers’ plan.  Gone is Marty-ball and in is Norv Turner.  The question is: Are the Chargers so good that they will make this change look like a great decision, or will it prove once again that just because a man has great success as a Coordinator that doesn’t mean he will as a Head Coach?  And, haven’t we learned this lesson from Norv before?  Twice?  (Cough… 58-82-1… cough, cough)  I’ll tell you, I don’t think the Bolts will miss Marty as much as the two departed Coordinators – Wade Phillips to play puppet for Jerry Jones in Big D, and Cam Cameron to sop up the oil spill Nick Saban left in Biscayne Bay.  Year two of the Phillip Rivers era, and that looks promising.  Anytime you hand the ball off to LaDanian Tomlinson 20 plus times a game you’re going to have a good year.  The defense looks very formidable.  So, it will come down to the Norv-Factor.  I say they will look a lot like last year’s version – a playoff run… and then watching the big game on a big screen.

Denver Broncos – If I were to pick a ‘sleeper’ to make a bit of a stir, it might be the Broncos.  Jay Cutler is a year wiser.  The Broncos system always equals a thousand yard running back – then they send the guy packing, go figure.  Let’s see: Portis (03), Droughns (04), Anderson (05), and Bell (06).  This year’s thousand yarder… and next year’s bound for elsewhere… looks to be Travis Henry.  Shoot, start a cheerleader at tailback, it’s the system, remember?   It was the defense that sort of collapsed midway thru last season.  Mike Shanahan cleaned house among his coaches.  So, I’m not into the trendy picks, but this is one team that might fly in from under the radar.

Kansas City Chiefs – Why this team did not go after a QB in the off-season I will never understand.  What did Herman Edwards see in Brodie Croyle that led him to think this guy was the answer?  Brodie stunk up the pre-season.  Herm is back where he was when Trent Green came up seeing double last year – the keys have been handed to Damon Huard.  Damon will manage a game for you, but don’t look for him to go out and win too many.  Chiefs fans breathed a huge sigh of relief when Larry Johnson ended his holdout and came into camp.  Of course, it was the Chiefs braintrust that got a preview of their team without L.J. and ordered a dozen armored trucks to deliver a mountain of cash.  So, everyone will know the gameplan: L.J. right.  L.J. left.  L.J. middle.  Look for L.J. to break his own record for carries in a season, and for the Chiefs to struggle to see .500.

Oakland Raiders – So, will it be the Raiders that go from worst to first in their division?  Ha!  But, they will improve.  Gone are Art Shell and his mix of coaches from the seventies.  In is Lane Kiffin and his staff with acne riddled faces.  The defense is respectable.  They’re going to keep the Raiders in games.  Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown will fare better at QB than we think.  JaMarcus Russell will watch from his mother’s porch in Alabama.  Will he ever sign?  You have to think so, don’t you?  I’ll be brave and predict that the Raiders will at least equal their win total from last year (okay, so that’s wimping out as the Raiders have both Cleveland and Houston on the schedule).  I’ll be braver still and say they may double last year’s win total.  How’s that?

coughlin1114.jpgPhiladelphia Eagles – Drama and injuries: these have been the achiles of the Eagles the last few years.  If it wasn’t Rush Limbaugh, it was Terrell Owens.  If it wasn’t Brian Westbrook, it was Donovan McNabb.  Now, as the 2007 season dawns, Head Coach Andy Reid’s progeny threatens to be the distraction.  D-Mac is back and insiders say that he has never looked so sharp.  Jim Johnson’s defense appears ready to rumble, if they can stay healthy.  Tossed to the curb were last year’s starters Jeremiah Trotter and Dhani Jones.  That signals some great depth, and the Eagles’ liking what they see in new addition Takeo Spikes on the weak side.  So, it’s all about the ‘ifs’ for me: If they can stay healthy, and if the drama doesn’t envelope them, then the Eagles look to win the East.

Dallas Cowboys – I know, I know.  Everyone is picking the Cowboys to win the East and make a deep playoff splash.  I’m not buying.  Although I like Wade Phillips as the replacement to Bill Parcells, I don’t think the Cowboys are quite ready for primetime.  Tony Romo will have a lot to say about it.  If he plays as well as he did last year, save the butter-fingers on that field goal attempt (notice that they brought veteran Brad Johnson in to be a back-up – don’t think for a moment that his consistency over 16 years of holding for placekickers didn’t cross their minds), the Cowboys will be in the mix.  They need more consistency from their defense, and that’s a good thing, because that’s Wade Phillip’s area of expertise.  One other note of caution for Cowboy fans: Wade ain’t no Bill where it comes to Jerry.  Bill Parcells seemed to put owner Jerry Jones back into the Owner’s Box during his tenure.  If I were a Cowboy observer, I’d be a little concerned that Jerry Jones hand-picked Jason Garrett to be the Offensive Coordinator.  Does Parcell’s departure mean that Jones will be back to his meddling ways?  If so, not good.

Washington Redskins – If Redskin fans are looking for encouraging signs, here’s a biggy: Daniel Snyder didn’t go buck-wild in the free-agency market this past off-season.  The Redskins and their Richy Rich owner have revamped their roster every off-season with a collection of high-dollar has-beens (their coaching staff on a few occasions too) and all to field mediocrity.  With one winning season in the last five to their credit, it is likely do-or-die time for this Gibbs era.  A lot of the Redskins fortune depends on young QB Jason Campbell and the health of RB Clinton Portis – physical health, mind you, because Portis’ emotional health has been a question mark for quite some time (as he dons his Ronald McDonald wig and clown glasses…).  I’d say that the deeper issue on offense might be the different philosophies – run, run, run says Joe Gibbs; throw early and often says Al Saunders.  A meeting in the middle might do wonders.  On defense, the team can only improve. 

New York Giants – Tiki torched.  The guy is a newscaster for NBC and he still has the most sway in the Giant’s lockerroom.  Will Eli lead the team?  Let’s ask Tiki.  Does Coach Tom Coughlin make it to the end of the season?  Let’s ask Tiki.  Is Michael Strahan holding out for more money?  Let’s ask Tiki.  This much is clear: Tom Coughlin is done.  Eli might survive, only because it will take most Giants fans another year or three to figure out that he’s not Peyton.  Shoot, some of the fans that live in Jersey think he’s Archie.  And Michael Strahan has decided he will play, but that might only add more lockerroom and newspaper drama.  The Giants will be a giant disappointment this season.

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Chicago Bears – Da Bears (not to be confused with Duh Bills).  Super Bowl runners-up a year ago, the monsters of the midway look to be among the NFC top tier again in ’07.  The one discouragement for Bears fans is that the nightmare that plagued them last season remains – the inconsistent play of QB Rex Grossman.  I screamed all year on my blog that the answer was standing on the sideline wearing #14, but Coach Lovie Smith insisted that Brian Griese was the back-up QB and would only see the field if Rex was injured.  Well, the Bears with Rex at the helm won 13 games and went to the Super Bowl.  So there.  Look for Rex Grossman to be on a shorter leash this season, with both the coaching staff and the fans.  If his problems persist, his starting role won’t.  The offense will miss the departed Thomas Jones, but figure that Cedric Benson will produce.  Seeing Devin Hester take snaps with the offense has to strike fear in opponents who tried so hard to steer punts and kicks away from him.  Once again, it is the Bears defense that will carry this team.  And it will likely carry them to the NFC North title, and beyond… deja-vu.

Green Bay Packers – Let’s get it out of the way right now, shall we.  No.  This will not be Brett Favre’s last season.  Are you kidding me?  The Packers ripped off four in a row to end last season and missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker whiff.  They’ve improved the old fashioned way – developing players as opposed to sinking a boatload of cash in a bloat-load of cache.  Their stable of running backs is a huge question mark after the departure of Ahman Green, but the Pack brain trust believe that between rookie Brandon Jackson and third year pro Vernand Morency, they can compete.  A pretty stout pass rush and a developing group of linebackers will lead an improved defense in ’07.   Weak-side LB A.J. Hawk will be a Pro-Bowler this season.  Look for the Pack to break the .500 mark, and take a swipe at a wild-card birth.  Oh, those tiebreakers.

Detroit Lions – QB Jon Kitna shocked his teammates this past week when he guaranteed a winning record and talked about a Lions playoff birth.  I believe in Jon Kitna.  Unfortunately, he plays for the Lions.  Head Coach Rod Marinelli will turn this team around, but it’s more like a three year plan (five if Matt Millen has anything to say about it).  Mike Martz is steadily improving the offense, and I think we will all be surprised at the progress when this team hits the field.  Adding in former Bronco thousand yard RB Tatum Bell will help until Kevin Jones is back to full speed.  And, aside from the Arizona Cardinals, the Lions may have the best starting WR tandem in the league.  Defense is Marinelli’s specialty, but his human resource coffers are a little thin.  It will be interesting to see LB Ernie Sims in his second year, and to see if some of the roster and depth chart shifting of the offseason pays off.  My guess: Kitna’s confidence is a year away.  Make that guarantee next season, and we’ll see.  This time out, shoot for 7 wins.

Minnesota Vikings – Brad Childress thought it a good idea to go into this season with untested Tavaris Jackson as the only QB on the roster who had a shot at starting.  Not good.  At the eleventh hour he pulled the trigger on bringing in career back-up (but impressive when called upon) Kelly Holcomb to hold a clipboard.  The Vikings defense was amazing against the run last season, and formidable against the pass, but remember that Mike Tomlin, last year’s Defensive Coordinator left for Pittsburgh.  Another disciple of the ‘Tampa 2′, Leslie Frazier, will have to keep up the momentum.  My guess, good enough for a fourth place finish in the NFC North, but competitive in almost every game. 

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New Orleans Saints – Last season’s Cinderella story may well become this year’s true story.  The Saints are deep on offense, and deep on defense.  They grade out in the ‘A’s’ at most positions.  Then they had a great draft, and a great haul of free-agent signings.  Do you remember the day when no one wanted to play in New Orleans?  I had it all wrong last year when I predicted that Drew Brees chose the city where QB’s go to die.  With Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the backfield, and with a collection of young stud recievers, the Saints look to get on their opponents.  If there is a weakness, it is in the area of pass defense, but it is an area that the Saints addressed with the additions of former Colt cover man Jason David and in the draft with Kent State speedster Usama Young.  I’d say the Saints are for real, and a good bet for a deep playoff run.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It looks to be do-or-die time for Head Coach Jon Gruden.  The Bucs have upgraded a number of areas that were problems last season, most notably at QB bringing in veteran Jeff Garcia from Philadelphia.    Garcia’s presence alone, and the threat of a passing game and mobile QB, should breathe life back into the Bucs running game for Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.  The offensive line is a work in progress, but may finally be a work that is showing some progress.  The Bucs have invested in a few years worth of draft picks and free-agents trying to solidify their line.  Another area the Bucs addressed was that of youth and speed on the defensive side of the ball, two things that have always been constants for the Bucs until last season.  If the Bucs are going to return to form as one of the NFL’s elite defenses, another of those things that was always a constant for Tampa needs to make its return in 2007 - sure tackling.    Look for the Bucs to compete, and get close.  How close?  Jon Gruden wants to know.

Carolina Panthers – Sometimes you have to go with a gut feeling.  Sometimes when you have a gut feeling you should just take an antacid.  If I were going with the gut here, I’d tell you I feel like the Panthers are on the verge of some turmoil.  I don’t know if it’s a brewing QB controversy, with David Carr on the sideline and Jake Delhomme struggling, or if it is the battle between DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams for the ball out of the backfield.  Shoot, maybe it is some more of the Panthers’ psycho cheerleaders beating up bar patrons in the toilet of the local pubs.  Something feels tenuous.  A solid core, and they look great on paper, maybe it comes down to whether WR Steve Smith and the injury ravaged O-Line can stay healthy this season.  Going with my gut, I’d say right around .500.

Atlanta Falcons – Wow.  Talk about the wheels falling off.  For a team that has been all Michael Vick, all the time, the future looks very uncertain.  New Coach Bobby Petrino even came to Atlanta figuring to work his gameplan to suit Vick’s talents – he didn’t know at the time the talents of Michael Vick that awaited him were his dog-handling and gambling skills, not running and passing.  What’s left?  Well, one of the best RB tandems in the game in Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood.  Look for Joey Harrington to hand the ball off to them often.  The receivers are huge underachievers.  The defense was mediocre so they brought in a new coordinator in Mike Zimmer from Dallas.  The problem there is that he is a 3-4 guy, and Atlanta has been built to be a 4-3 team.  It will be interesting to see how things adapt.  127 year old kicker Morten Andersen has finally ridden off into the sunset, and the kicking game has a huge question mark over it.  How long until Petrino is watching the Help Wanted ads for a coaching position at his Alma Mater?  Oh wait, that was last year.

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St. Louis Rams – You know that I always go out on a limb somewhere in my forecast every year.  This year it’s going to be with Marc Bulger and the Rams offense.  Face it, the whole offensive unit is made up of Pro-Bowl performers.  Now if only the defense could hold their own.  Isn’t that the way we talked about the Rams of the Super Bowl years?  Uh huh.  Look for Jim Haslett to get the defense in the game.  Look for FS O.J. Atogwe to become a household name… okay, well maybe at least a name that is mispronounced in many households.  The Rams believe that first rounder Adam Carriker will become a perennial threat, especially because he lines up alongside Leonard Little.  So here’s my reach – Rams to surprise us all and win the NFC West.  And, I’ve got some more where the Rams are concerned in the Xtras section.

Seattle Seahawks – Let’s face it, the Seahawks of 2006 were not the same Seahawks that went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season.  A somewhere-below-middle-of-the-pack offense and a defense that gave up 30 plays of 30 or more yards during the course of the season, were it not for the division they found themselves in (the NFC Wuss Division, as I declared it last year), the Seahawks would not have made a return trip to the playoffs.   Granted, injuries sidelined many of their mainstays last season, but age appears to be catching up with them, and their window of opportunity appears to be closing, as the rest of this division is rapidly improving.  Matt Hasselbeck needs to rebound from what was a disappointing ’06 campaign.  Shaun Alexander needs to get back to his attacking style of running, and free himself from the nagging injury bug.  Mike Holmgren is hoping that the defense will stiffen, with new secondary coach Jim Mora Jr. and some free agent additions in the secondary.  Look for the Seahawks to find the going tough, and to tough out the kind of win/loss record that has them watching playoff scenarios very closely at season’s end.

San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are this year’s sexy pick to go to the Super Bowl.  At least the fantasy forecasters have stayed in the same division – last year it was Arizona, you recall.  No doubt the 49ers were vastly improved under Mike Nolan last year.  But to put them in the Super Bowl?  Let’s think this through.  First of all, the loss of Norv Turner will hurt Alex Smith.  It might be offset because Trent Dilfer is still there, and make no mistake about it, Dilfer is an invaluable mentor to Smith’s development both on and off the field.  Secondly, consider that fact that last season was a tale of two halves for the Niners’ defense – the first half of the year in which they were on pace to set the kind of records defenses don’t want to set, and a second half where they stiffened considerably.  Which team shows up this year?  My thinking here is that the Niners will not sneak up on anyone this year.  They’ll be a tough opponent and surprise us, but definitely not by showing up in the Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals – “You want to crown their asses?”  Sorry, little Denny Green flashback.  Well, I tell you what – a lot of prognosticators had egg on their face last year over their crowning the Cardinals as last year’s sexy pick.  Make no mistake, the Cards are on the rise, but it’s a more subtle trajectory.  QB Matt Leinert is the real deal.  His receiving corps are arguably the best in the business.  Edgerrin James is still piling up the yards.   The Cardinals issues are in the trenches, where on both sides of the ball they tended to lose the physical match-ups.  Look at their draft and their free agency signings.  They brought the beef.  Look again.  They brought in some tough slabs of beef.  Though they are on the rise, I think the Cardinals are still a year away from making an ascent to the top.

In the AFC there will be little or no surprise in the playoff picture.  Everyone expects New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Diego to cruise to their respective division titles, and they will.  Houdini Mangini and his New York Jets should put the handcuffs on the first wildcard spot.  The second wildcard will come down to a tiebreaker scrum, players including Denver, Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  I look for Denver to back into that last slot.

The NFC will offer us the storylines.  The division winners won’t be the slam dunks like they are in the AFC.  Philadelphia will hold off Dallas in the East, and St. Louis will surprise us all by edging out the competition in the West.  New Orleans should bring home the South title for the second year in a row.  Chicago will win the North with their defense.  This year’s sexy pick, the 49ers, won’t make the playoffs – sorry to all you romantic types.  But their division will put two teams in the playoff picture, as Seattle will hold on for the first wildcard.  The second wildcard will be a shootout, Tampa Bay edging out Carolina (by virtue of their division record) and Dallas (by virtue of conference record).  

So, who winds up facing off on February 3, 2008 in the Arizona desert?  Well, let me tell you. 

The AFC representative should come as no surprise.  Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots are the team of the new millennium.  He’s done it in the past by leading a team of home-growns.  This year he will do it by leading a team including many big name free-agents.  While Randy Moss, Adelius Thomas and Wes Welker will make huge contributions, it will still be Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison who lead this team back to paydirt. 

The NFC representative, as I see it, comes as a surprise to most prognosticators.  The St. Louis Rams will ride their tremendous offense, led by Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson, and their improving defense to the big game.  This sets up a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI. 

Look for XLII to look similar to XXXVI on the field – right up to and including a last minute field goal attempt by the Patriots.  But this time, they don’t have Adam Vinitieri.  No worries.  They have Stephen Gostkowski.  He will do.  His kick will bring the bling back to New England.

What?  You thought I was going to predict the Bucs run the table in the playoffs and shock the Patriots en route to the title?  Well… I almost did… could happen, you know… but, I’m guessing that’s next season when Bill Cowher is coaching the Bucs.  Patriots over Rams by a field goal.  Take it to the bank.

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Now, this is what they should pay me the big bucks to tell you.  Impress your friends with these Xtras as you gather around the aquarium in the corner office or the roach-coach at the job-site.

League MVP this season?  LaDanian Tomlinson?  Possibly.  Too predictable.  I’d bet on the Rams QB Marc Bulger.

Coach of the Year?  Everybody is thinking Mike Nolan of the 49ers.  No.  If there were such an award, he would win Best Dressed.  But the coaching job of the year will go to Scott Linehan of the Rams.

Rookie of the Year?  Raider QB JaMarcus Russell.  NOT!  But, I’ll go with a feel-good story here: Brady Quinn – you know, that other QB from the first round in Cleveland. 

Comeback Player of the Year?  Falcons QB Joey Harrington?  Are you kidding me?  No.  But another Dolphin cast-off from last year – Daunte Culpepper looking good in Raider Nation.

First Head Coach Fired?  Oh come on.  You can do this: Tom Coughlin in New York.  How soon?  What time is it now?

And for fun… Will the Madden Curse bite Vince Young?  Absolutely.  Evil, I say.  Evil.  Will JaMarcus Russell leave the hammock in Alabama and report to the Oakland Raiders this season?  Yes.  I say it will come sooner rather than later.  But that he will not contribute much this season (see Comeback Player of the Year above).  Will this be Brett Favre’s last season?  Nope.  He’s chasing George Blanda.  Will Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones play football in 2008?  Nope.  It’s a better bet that he will be foxy boxing with Tonya Harding on pay-per-view.  Michael Vick?  Nope.  He will be in jail, or at least in Roger Goodell’s doghouse for a couple of seasons.  Will there be a wardrobe malfunction at this year’s Regular Season Kick-off event?  Nope.  No one wants to see John Mellencamp’s nipples.

So there you have it.  The Preacher has spoken.  Have fun matching your prognosticating prowess with mine.  I’ll see you at TBO.com all season long.      

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