Is the NFL ready for its own Tampa Bay Rays? The Patriots have been the gold standard, but with Tom Brady hurt they look old and disinterested. Who knows what’s going on with Peyton Manning’s knee? Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora is done for the year and there is noise in New York about trying to lure Michael Strahan out of retirement. The winds of change may be blowing as the NFL counts down to the Sept. 4 opener. An early look at teams that figure to get out of the gate quickly, and some that might not:
Has any Super Bowl champion ever gotten less love than these Giants? You beat the 18-0 Patriots one day, and 24 hours later the wise guys are saying you won’t even make the playoffs next season. The press in New York wants Michael Strahan to come out of retirement to shore up the banged-up defensive line.
OFF TO A FAST START –Dallas Cowboys- There’s a bit of a problem at WR, where Terry Glenn’s departure could force Terrell Owens to catch more balls in traffic. And you wonder how long Tony Romo will survive by running around. Still, the Cowboys have the most talent in the division and the early going isn’t exactly Normandy.
STICK A FORK IN . . . the Eagles. There are always issues with Arlen Specter’s homies. Brian Westbrook has a new contract, but he’s touched the ball 1,461 times (carries and receptions) over six seasons. Eagle fans will learn that Asante Samuel gambles a bit too much and can give up big plays.
Ok, it was only an exhibition. But Tampa Bay was going up against the Patriots’ starting Front 7 in the second preseason game, and the Bucs dominated. If New Orleans can’t figure out what went wrong last year, and fix it, Tampa can go 9-7 again and steal this division. Fans in Florida were shocked when reserve safety Donte Nicholson was tasered and arrested during a late-July scuffle with police at a St. Petersburg nightclub. Who knew St. Petersburg had nightclubs?
OFF TO A FAST START – Just a guess here - New Orleans. The Saints have moved the ball well in exhibitions, Jeremy Shockey should behave for at least a few months before mouthing off, and maybe Reggie Bush will finally get it. The opener, at home against the Bucs, could set the tone for the season.
STICK A FORK IN . . . the Falcons. Who else? Jim Plunkett was tossed around like a rag doll early in his career but survived. Hopefully Matt Ryan will stay off the operating table long enough to figure out NFL defenses.
You know you’ve had a bad season when San Francisco and Arizona are in your division, and you still finish last. But the Rams have been dead in the water since losing to Carolina in the 2003 playoffs, going 25-39 since that day. Maybe the team is suffering from perpetual jet lag, since it has to travel halfway across the country for division roads games at San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle.
OFF TO A FAST START – Seattle Seahawks– Seattle plays like manure in big road games, and the Seahawks are at the Giants in Game 4. But if they can get by the opener in Buffalo, they have two layups at home (49ers, Rams) and would be 3-0 with lots of momentum heading into the Giants game. Health of Matt Hasselbeck and wide receivers is a huge concern, though.
STICK A FORK IN . . . the Arizona Cardinals. On paper these guys should be all right. But WR Anquan Boldin is trying to shoot his way out of town, and Matt Leinart hasn’t shown that he’s mature enough to be the starting quarterback on a team ready to make a playoff run.
Does anyone have Spergon Wynn’s cell phone number? This division is desperate for a quarterback. Brett You-Know-Who has taken his act to New York, and basically that leaves us with the Pips minus Gladys Knight. Aaron Rogers may or may not be ready, Jon Kitna throws way too many INTs, Tavaris Jackson is hurting and the Bears could barely make up their mind between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton.
OFF TO A FAST START - Detroit Lions (?!) - The door is wide open for Rod Marinelli’s Lions. Incredibly, the Lions do not face a top-quality quarterback until Dec. 14 at Indianapolis. They could actually be good enough to keep people awake on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. That 2-6 road record has to improve, though.
STICK A FORK IN . . . da Bears. The offensive and defensive lines are a mess, and the running game is a work in progress. They might be outscored by the Chicago Fire this season.
Red flags are up from Montpelier to Cape Cod after the Patriots mailed in three exhibition losses. But can the Jets or Bills make a serious run at the Tyrannosaurus Rexes of the NFL? It’s an axiom in politics that you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and that applies here. Brett Favre is a nice addition, but aren’t the Jets morphing into the old Redskins by signing every over-the-hill veteran on the market? The Dolphins appear light years from contending, and Buffalo/Toronto will continue to be a tough out but doesn’t appear to have enough juice offensively to make the playoffs.
OUT OF THE GATE FAST – New England Patriots - First four opponents: KC, Jets, Dolphins and 49ers. That’s all you need to know. According to one publication’s mathematical formula, New England has the easiest schedule of any team since 1992, which should soften any dropoff.
STICK A FORK IN . . . the Dolphins. San Diego in the opener. Ugh. On a positive note, Ricky Williams is reportedly playing well.
How can you not like the Jaguars? They play hard, they don’t whine, they work in the weight room. You know they went to see “300” and not “Sex and the City.” Beating Pittsburgh and New England back-to-back on the road in the playoffs last year was just too high a hill to climb. They’re not going away.
OUT OF THE GATE FAST – Indianapolis Colts, assuming Peyton Manning is OK. But if the Colts head into November at less than 5-2, there is a very uncomfortable five-game stretch that includes a home game against New England and road grinders at Pittsburgh, San Diego and Cleveland.
STICK A FORK IN . . . nobody. OK, if you crave negativity, defenses might figure out that Tennessee’s Vince Young is not developing as fast as everyone in Music City wants. But come on. The Titans went 10-6 last year without Pacman Jones (or maybe because he was gone). As mathematically impossible as it sounds, every team might be at least .500 against this season.
Everyone seems to like the Chargers, and a benign early-season schedule should grease the skids for them. But there’s something about those guys that makes me a bit queasy. Can’t Philip Rivers shut his mouth and play? Did LaDainian Tomlimson have to spend that entire AFC Championship Game planted on the bench with his helmet on? When (or is) Shawne Merriman coming back?
OFF TO A FAST START – San Diego Chargers. It’s hard to figure out a scenario in which the Chargers don’t win this division. All they have to do is survive early; the last part of the schedule includes a slew of bottom-feeders.
STICK A FORK IN . . . the Denver Broncos. Consider this: Denver gave up almost as many points as the Dolphins did last season, including 44 to Detroit. And they resorted to signing 37-year-old Tyrone Poole to shore up a secondary that is already banged up. If you’re thinking the Chiefs should be here instead, note that they have Oakland at home in Week 2 and are at Atlanta in Week 3.
OK, you give Derek Anderson a ton of money in the offseason, commit to him as your QB and then allow him to get knocked senseless in an exhibition. There’s good reason the Browns have never been to a Super Bowl. Not much is settled in this division. Everyone plays each other early before crossover games start against the NFC East and it’s possible that every team could be 2-2 at the quarter pole. The only thing certain here is that this division will not produce a wild card team.
OUT OF THE GATE FAST – The best bet would be Pittsburgh, which at least has a stable quarterback. Baltimore hasn’t had any traction since the Super Bowl in 2001, Cleveland’s defense doesn’t appear as strong as advertised, and Cincinnati, as always, is a mess.
STICK A FORK IN … the Ravens. Don’t you get the feeling that every football, hockey, basketball and baseball franchise in the Baltimore/Washington corridor is stuck in quicksand?