Football Night in America: Alex's 2006 NFL Preview
That’s right, the NFL is back. The defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the season by hosting the revamped Miami Dolphins at the Ketchup Bottle. With the Bus having moved on to the broadcast booth, and the now appendix-less Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines, it could be a tough start to the season for the black and gold.
Tonight also marks the regular season debut of NBC’s coverage, featuring Bob Costas as the pre-game and halftime anchor, as well as a whole bunch of other guys. But Costas is back, and that’s the important thing.
I even dug up an old school video to get you in the mood:
Am I the only one who misses the network blazers? I was so inspired that after watching this clip, I went to visit my tailor. He’s currently putting together a Sports Matters blazer for me to wear while I work on posts.
Back to the games. We all know that Miami’s going to win tonight, but what about the rest of the season? I’d look into my crystal ball, but I trashed the stupid thing after it spewed out a Denver-Seattle Super Bowl two years ago, and a New England-Minnesota prediction last year. So instead we’re going to go on gut feelings, instincts, and all of the other intangibles that I can dig up:
Sure they may not have a #1 or #2 receiver on the roster, a proven secondary, or a linebacker under the age of 42, but the New England Patriots have Brady-to-Ben Watson, and a fleet of talented running backs. They’re also strong along both lines, and as long as Belichik is calling the shots, you can’t count them out. Pencil them in for the division title, and at least 10 wins.
The Miami Dolphins are a trendy pick. They have an easy schedule, a quarterback coming off major knee surgery, and a feature running back who hasn’t been an every down player since high school. On the plus side, they have a great group of receivers, a talented front seven, and Nick Saban is such a good coach that everyone is willing to overlook the fact that they have a rebuilt and unproven secondary. Oddly enough, that’s the same situation that the Patriots find themselves in, but somehow Saban’s mentor, the guy with three Super Bowl rings as a head coach, doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt.
Finally, am I the only one who thinks that Sex Boat Culpepper is going to get himself into trouble off of the field living in Miami? I mean, if he can do that in Minnesota, what’s he capable of in a party city like Miami? And it’s not like Coach Saban can watch him 24 hours a day.
Anyway, to summarize: the Dolphins are good, but not that good. They’ll beat New England at home in December, like they always do, but finish 2nd, and take one of the wild card spots.
Over in Buffalo, this is the year that JP Losman and the offense finally put it together. At least, that’s what I tell myself now, having spent high draft picks on Willis McGahee and Lee Evans in one of my fantasy leagues. What this probably means is that Losman will struggle, get yanked for Kelly Holcomb by Week 5, and the Bills will finish 6-10.
The New York Jets will be bad, really bad. But they also get Detroit, Houston, and Oakland at home, which might be enough to knock them out of the pole position in the Brady Quinn sweepstakes. If they somehow don’t win 2 of those games, they deserve to be relegated to NFL Europe for 2007. Bring on the Amsterdam Admirals!
Killer schedule or not, this is the year the Cincinnati Bengals make the leap. Carson Palmer has looked great in the pre-season, and they are stacked everywhere on offense. Even if their D doesn’t come around, I don’t see any reason why they can’t pull an Indianapolis Colts (circa 1999-2004), and just outscore everyone for 16 weeks. My prediction: they go 11-5, and win the division by beating Pittsburgh in the final game of the season. The key to the game: a cutblock by Levi Jones on Kimo Von Oelhoffen to open the game, injuring the defensive lineman and keeping Carson Palmer safe for another day.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be good, but not real good. With Big Ben recovering, and Willie Parker about to be exposed for being overrated, they’re going to get off to a very slow start. They’ll turn things around when they abandon the run and go pass-heavy in the second half, and do well enough to sneak into the second wild card spot.
As for the other teams in the North, Cleveland will be a spoiler all year, but doesn’t have the horses on offense to compete. Baltimore struggled last year, and things are going to get a lot worse. Injuries, age and a lack of depth will push them to the bottom of the division.
Indianapolis should be just fine without Edgerrin James. They have enough weapons in the passing game, and some combination of Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai will produce a serviceable running game. I’m more intrigued to see how the losses on defense (Larry Tripplet, David Thornton) affect them. They could be forced to win more 38-35 games than they have been in recent years. Pencil them in for the division crown, but they’re not about to make another run at perfection.
Jacksonville is good, but they’ll take a step back with Jimmy Smith having retired, and no reliable backup to Fred Taylor, who will inevitably get hurt. The defense will keep them in games, but the 9 or 10 wins they’ll put up will put them just short of the playoffs.
Houston won’t be a playoff team, but they’ll mature as the season goes along, and will be a second half spoiler, and I don't just mean on the field. They'll spoil the seasons of most of their fans by refusing they made a mistake in the draft even after Mario Williams does absolutely nothing all season. As for the Tennessee Titans, no matter which combination of their three quarterbacks and three running backs emerges, it’s going to be a rough year. They’ve added some good players, but they’re not ready to be a contender yet.
Here’s a bold prediction. The Denver Broncos will get off to a slow start, prompting Mike Shanahan to pull the plug on Jake Plummer and go with rookie Jay Cutler at quarterback by mid-season. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Broncos, behind Cutler and fellow rookie Mike Bell, will charge past the Kansas City Chiefs to win the division. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson will disappoint countless fantasy football players by establishing himself as merely a very good running back, not an extraordinary one. San Diego will have a rebuilding year, culminating in 6 or 7 wins, and the replacing of Marty Schottenheimer with a more player-friendly coach come January. Oakland will be bad, but they’ll find a way to win 4 or 5 games and play their way out of contention for the first overall draft pick.
It’s all about the Philadelphia Eagles. The defense is loaded, Donovan McNabb is healthy, and the receivers will be improved. That should be enough to compensate for Brian Westbrook’s annual injury. Not only do the Eagles have enough firepower to win the division, they should take homefield advantage through the playoffs.
I’m putting the Dallas Cowboys second, based on their strong defense, but also the belief that the New York Giants will take a step back as Tiki Barber struggles, and coach Tom Coughlin alienated his players. Washington has a gimpy-armed quarterback, a hurting running back, and an overpriced defense. 6-10 is not the way Joe Gibbs intended to go out, but it’s probably what lies ahead for him.
If Lovie Smith knows what’s good for his team, he’ll go to game manager extraordinaire Brian Griese sooner rather than later. If he does, I can’t see any reason why the Chicago Bears won’t comfortably win this division. The defense is great, they have playmakers on offense, and they play in the weakest division in the league. 12 wins wouldn’t surprise me.
As for the rest, Green Bay finishes second by default. They’ll surge down the stretch after an abysmal first half, prompting countless commentators to urge Brett Favre to come back for one more year, and therefore putting us through another insufferable “will he or won’t he retire?” saga. Minnesota and Detroit will both finish in the 4-5 win range, but on the bright side, the Vikes will avoid any major scandals, and the “Fire Millen” people will be lost to apathy, ensuring a controversy free year in the Motor City.
NFC Dirty South
I anticipate a big year for the Carolina Panthers. I’d really like to go against the grain, since they’re everyone’s popular pick, but I just can’t do it. They’ll win the division, and take the second spot behind the Eagles in the playoff seedings.
Tampa Bay will repeat their strong 2005 performance, and the Chris Simms-Cadillac Williams-Joey Galloway offensive trio will lead them to a playoff berth, where Simms can revive his college reputation for disappearing in big games.
Atlanta will be okay, but Michael Vick will continue to stagnate as a quarterback, and that will keep the Falcons from doing any better than .500 (I could even see them doing much worse). That is, unless Vick gets hurt. He’s the most obvious candidate for the Ewing Theory since Patrick Ewing himself. I’m convinced that the Falcons would be at least a 10-win team with Matt Schaub at QB. I may explain this more in my post “Why The Falcons Should Trade Michael Vick”, which means there’s about a 95% chance that I never will.
New Orleans will be fun to watch, since their offense will be dynamite. Unfortunately, they play in the NFL, not the Arena League, so their defense will do its part to keep them mired in mediocrity.
I hate to be a Simmons-bot, but look for a big year from the St. Louis Rams. I have them winning the division, with Seattle taking a wild card spot. I think Bulger is a good quarterback, Jackson is a monster back, and they have one of the deepest receiving groups in the league. Most importantly, Scott Linehan understands the importance of protecting his QB, unlike his predecessor as head coach. The defense is also improved, so look for 10-12 wins out of this group.
I’ll give Arizona some respect once they put an offensive line and a secondary together. Until that time, I have to believe that they’re heading for another sub-.500 season. But on the bright side, at least they should be a trendy pick yet again next summer.
The less said about San Francisco the better. They should be slightly improved, but they overachieved last year, so that may not translate into a better record on the field. In any case, they’re at least two seasons away from contention, so I’ll be happy if Alex Smith progresses, Vernon Davis isn’t a complete bust, and they draft well in 2007.
Philadelphia is my pick in the NFC. Chicago doesn’t have the offense, Carolina is everyone’s pick (meaning they won’t win), and I’m not ready to gamble on St. Louis. The Eagles’ defense is strong, and if they have Brian Westbrook healthy, they can control the game on the ground. I have them edging out the Panthers in the title game.
I want to pick New England, but I can’t do it. I have a sinking feeling that the defense is going to implode, due to a combination of age, injuries, and lack of depth. Tom Brady may be a great quarterback, but one player can’t carry a team in football.
So who’s going to win the AFC? Pittsburgh and Miami aren’t quite there this year, Indy always chokes, and the Broncos will lack experience at key positions. Who does that leave? The Cincinnati Bengals. Though I expressed concerns about their D earlier in this post, I think it’s serviceable at worst if everyone stays healthy. Most importantly, they have balance on offense, and this is the year that Carson Palmer makes the leap to super-duper stardom. What better way to do it than by knocking off the Colts and/or Patriots on his way to a Super Bowl appearance.
Who dey, who dey, who dey think they gonna beat them Bengals?
Prediction: Cincinnati 31, Philadelphia 20. Chad Johnson catches 2 touchdowns, is named Super Bowl MVP, and does the Super Bowl Shuffle to celebrate.