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In case you missed it, we tackled the NFC on Thursday. Onto the AFC picks ...AFC Central
6. CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-12)
Why they'll stink: A legacy of losing that simply transcends the sport ... only the Bengals would still have a holdout first-rounder in the era of the rookie cap ... Jon Kitna is the Steve Sanders of NFL QBs -- he's fun to have around, but you don't want him involved in any key plots ... dreadful secondary ... it's too bad Peter Warrick isn't around anymore (wait a second, he is?) ... "Dick LeBeau" has to be a stage name ... when will somebody release the Kitna-Smith-Mitchell traning camp battle on DVD, with bonus footage and director's commentary from Craig Whelihan and Rusty Hilger?Silver Lining: The Corey Dillon Era ... I mean, has anyone done more with less? Do you realize he rushed for nearly 5,000 yards over the past three seasons, not to mention three games of 200-plus yards? Key to Season: If CBS had a sense of humor, we could have the funniest network promo of all-time in Week 7 ... "KITNA!!! MATTHEWS!!! It's the Bears and the Bengals, Sunday on CBS!" Random statistic: If you add up the first seven games of every season from the past five years, the Bengals have a 5-29-1 record against the spread during that span. Even Bob Dole and Len Dawson don't start this slow.
5. CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
Why they'll stink: If you were playing the Browns on "Franchise" mode in "Madden 2002," you would have pressed the RESET button by now.Silver lining: New coach Butch Davis isn't a bad start. Too bad we're starting in Year Three. Key to Season: Start winning games before Browns fans push for Art Modell to purchase the franchise again. Random Observation: Has anyone gotten a free ride quite like Browns personnel guru Dwight Clark? We're now in Year Three of the New Browns Era -- not only did this team have top-three picks in each of the past three years, but they should benefitted in free agency from tons of cap room since they were didn't have carryover bonuses, dead weight or any of that cap-hampering stuff. And yet this team still looks like an expansion team, and they're already on their second coach. Makes no sense. (The whole thing makes me angry, frankly. I was fired up to have the Browns back -- I didn't think we'd be getting The Junior Bengals.)
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (6-10)
Why they'll stink: Everyone seems to be slowly turning on Tom Coughlin like he's Piggy in "Lord of the Flies" ... no depth -- they were decimated with cap problems last winter ... their best two players are consistent health risks (Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor) ... Mark Brunell's stock dropped far enough that Seattle went after Matt Hasselbeck over him last spring ... any time a team goes from 14-2 to 7-9 in 12 months, that's a 25-foot red flag.Silver lining: Since I can't think of one ... what about that Sampras-Agassi U.S. Open match on Wednesday? I'm not sure what was more exciting, the four tiebreakers, the constant buzz from the crowd, the repeated cuts to Bridgette Wilson-Sampras in the stands or the Anne Heche "I've been crazy for 31 years" interview that was running on 20/20 simultaneously on ABC during the third set. What a TV night! I'm still a little giddy. (Note to my editors: let's think about hiring Bridgette as a Page 2 intern. She could sit in my office and watch me type my columns ... every time I write a good joke, we could train her to leap up from the sofa and pump her fist at me. And she could get me the USA Today and sodas and stuff. I'll even watch "Billy Madison" with her every few weeks to boost her self-esteem. Get her agent on the phone.) Key to Season: The Jags could start off strong in the first six games if they stay healthy -- Pittsburgh, at Chicago, Tennessee, Cleveland, at Seattle, Buffalo. There hasn't been a lineup that looked that easy since the girls from "American Pie 2" presented an MTV Movie Award. Random Thought: The NFL season hasn't officially started until Taylor re-injures his hamstring during a Monday Night Football game. Unfortunately, the Jags don't play on Monday night until Dec. 3. Not sure what this means.
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-9)
Why they're intriguing: Quietly coming off a 9-7 season (including a sparkling 11-5 record vs. the spread) ... they get to play the Bengals and Browns twice apiece ... did you know that Jerome Bettis rushed for 1,341 yards and 8 TDs last year? ... the lightbulb allegedly went off over Plaxico Burress' head this summer ... these replacement referees might cause Bill Cowher's head to explode like the guy from "Scanners" during a game this season.Mitigating Factor: Yup, Kordell's finally happy ... he's ready for his breakout season ... he's finally comfortable in this offense ... he's back to being the old Kordell... (Wait a second ... what's that? Good God! That ... that's Tommy Maddox's music!!!!) Burning Questions: Did they anger the Football Gods by moving out of Three Rivers Stadium? Will they have the same deafening home-field advantage in Heinz Field? Does the sentence "Heinz Field is rocking right now" sounds ridiculous or is it just me? Random Thought: I've been working on this two-part NFL preview for so long that my Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afal just fell asleep.
2. BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4) Why they're in the hunt: Defending champs ... best defense in football (and they didn't lose anyone from last year) ... Brian Billick gives them a little swagger with his "I'm acting like one of Brad Wesley's cronies in 'Road House' " routine ... they've earned "America's Team" status after being featured on HBO's engrossing "Hard Knocks" series ... the rookie who imitated Shannon Sharpe during the rookie talent show in Episode 5 was a full-fledged comedic genius (and it's always good to have a comedic genius on your team) ... going from Trent Dilfer to Elvis Grbac isn't just an upgrade, it's an UPPPPPPgrade.
Mitigating Factor: They seem a little snakebitten -- two key players (Leon Searcy and Jamal Lewis) went down in the preseason. And they haven't adequately replaced Lewis (torn ACL) yet; I mean, has every team in the league employed Terry Allen at this point?Key to Season: Last season, they relied on their defense and took as few chances as possible offensively ... but now they focus of the offense shifts from Lewis to Grbac. Will they put more pressure on the defense? Less? Will they be able to control the clock like they did last season? (Just for the record, I think they'll be better in the regular season but less potent in the playoffs, when everything slows down and you need to move the ball on the ground.) Random Thought: The strangest by-product of that HBO show -- other than the fact that Dwayne Missouri and Reggie Waddell suddenly have an inordinate amount of fans in their corner for two practice squad guys -- was that Ray Lewis emerged as the most likable, genuine guy on the team (with the possible exception of Rod Woodson). I'm not kidding. I really liked Lewis. I don't even have a joke here.
1. TENNESSEE TITANS (13-3)
Why they're in the hunt: This was the most consistently good team of the past two years, if that makes sense ... they could have made the Super Bowl with a few breaks in last year's AFC divisional playoff game (remember, the Ravens offense produced just 134 net yards) ... 16-2 at home over the past two years ... brought in Kevin Carter as this year's token toy for the defense ... Derrick Mason's probably worth three wins ... you have to love Jeff Fisher ... a legitimate Super Bowl contender.Mitigating Factor: How long will we be waiting for Steve McNair's "breakout year"? What happened to the guy who showed so much promise in January 2000? I wish we could just write him off, but he made some electric plays that month ... I dunno. I'm perplexed by the whole thing. Key to Season: Can Eddie George step it up against the quality teams in the league? Let the record show that Eddie rushed for 1,509 yards last season -- 462 of them coming against the Bengals and Browns. (That's why ESPN.com pays me the big bucks, for stats like that.) Random Thought: Bob Ley needs to produce an "Outside the Lines" show on the hasty demise of Carl Pickens's career. What happened to that guy? Even Patrick Swayze didn't lose it that fast. AFC East
5. BUFFALO BILLS (4-12)
Why they'll stink: Rebuilding year for the Bills; they're even admitting as much ... new GM Tom Donohoe failed to bring back five veteran starters on the defense, including budding star Marcellus Wiley ... QB Rob Johnson apparently is made out of paper mache ... new coach Gregg Williams described as "a thinking man's Wade Phillips" ... this is the only team I've beaten during my "Madden 2002" season so far (and I'm in Week 15).Silver Lining: The Schedule Fairy treated them very nicely (only three 2000 playoff teams on the docket -- Indy, Miami and New Orleans). Key to Season: Obviously, it's Johnson, who produced two of my favorite stats when I was doing my research this week: 1.) Johnson started 18 games over the past three seasons, finishing just nine of them; and 2) according to STATS Inc, Johnson has the worst ratio of "Pass Plays Per Sack" (6.6) of any QB since 1969. Even Madonna hasn't been on her back that much. Random Thought: Last June, I went to San Diego for a wedding and ended up spending an afternoon in La Jolla (FYI: the Chargers practice there). On that particular day, it was 80-degrees -- no humidity, not a cloud in the sky -- and the Sports Gal and I were sitting on one of those dopey outdoor bar/decks, drinking margaritas and discussing how much we despised the Northeast. And for some reason, I started thinking about former Bills star Marcellus Wiley, who signed with the Chargers for big bucks this year. Here's my point: can you imagine playing in Buffalo for four consecutive years, then becoming a free agent ... and your agent flies you to San Diego to meet the Chargers people, and they show you around the area for a few days? At what point do you find yourself saying the words "Where the hell do I sign?" Within the first five minutes? The first 10? Why doesn't San Diego lure every top-notch free agent? It's mystifying.
4. MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9)
Why they'll falter: A monster schedule (road games against the Titans, Rams and Jets in the first six weeks alone) ... last time I checked, Jay Fiedler was still prominently involved ... I like Lamar Smith and all, but would you really want your offense revolving around him? ... here's the group of receivers: James McKnight, Oronde Gadsden and Chris Chambers ... any time your kicker (Olindo Mare) is your odds-on favorite for offensive MVP, that's never a good sign.Silver Lining: Solid defense, great cornerbacks. They'll try to repeat the 2000 Ravens formula (don't gamble on offense, make things happen on defense) and see where it goes. Not a bad plan. You can't really say this enough: if Trent Dilfer can win somebody a Super Bowl, anything's possible. Key to Season: Can Dave Wannestadt finally grow a mustache that comes in on both sides? Random Prediction: I just have a bad feeling about these guys this year. Can't explain it.
3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (9-7) Why they'll surprise: Serious "Ewing Theory" potential without Terry Glenn ... they were surprisingly competitive for a 5-11 team last year (with a few breaks, they could have been 10-6, and no, I'm not drunk again) ... manageable schedule ... after sticking a giant stamp on the 2000 season, All-Pro cornerback Ty Law spent the summer hooked up to the Juvenation Machine ... the secondary seems competent for the first time in three years ... Bill Belichick won't be hosting "Night at the Apollo" any time soon, but he knows his stuff. Mitigating Factor: I'm a Pats fan, and I refuse to pick them for anything less than 9-7. Warrants mentioning.
Key to Season: Team Belichick spent the offseason doing something very interesting -- instead of splashing money around on a couple of name free agents, they signed a number of second-tier, "Character Guys" (Bryan Cox, Larry Izzo, Mike Vrabel, Mike Compton, Matt Stevens, Charles Johnson, David Patten, Marc Edwards, etc.). They even approached the draft that way, passing up highly-ranked WR David Terrell for D-lineman Richard Seymour and admitting that they thought Seymour was a better "fit" for the locker room.(There was just a congenial, workman-like vibe coming from the Pats camp all summer; that's why Glenn's removal was so crucial. This looks like the type of team that gets along tremendously, doesn't get sidetracked by any controversies and ends up overachieving. At least that's the plan.) Random Question: Why spend all that money on Drew Bledsoe ($100 million for 10 years, with an out clause after the four year) and not find him a capable tight end? Drew's best skill over the years was his ability to find his tight end -- because of his height, he could always throw over the defensive line and rifle in that 10-yarder to a big target. And ever since Ben Coates started fading from the picture three years ago -- with nobody waiting in the wings -- Bledsoe started fading right along with him. In fact, from 1998-2000, the average QB rating for an NFL QB was 77.8... and Drew's was 77.8 over that same span. So why not bring in a top tight end for him? Why saddle him with Rod Rutledge and Jermaine Wiggins? Makes no sense.
2. NEW YORK JETS (10-6) Why they'll make the playoffs: They upgraded the receivers (Matthew Hatchette & the emerging Laveranues Coles) so Vinny won't have to dump balls off to receivers every down ... Curtis Martin keeps chugging along ... underrated defense ... things fell apart down the stretch last year in a "Last 15 minutes of 'Family Man' " kinda way ... new coaching staff ... J ... E .... T ... S ... JETS! JETS! JETS!
Silver Lining: Going from Al Groh to Herman Edwards was probably the upgrade of the NFL season. Jets fans were haunted by the image of Groh standing on the sidelines, wearing that goofy gray sweatshirt and looking like the gardener from "Bad News Bears in Breaking Training."(Remember that scene, when the Bears fooled their parents into thinking that the brain-damaged gardener was their coach/chaperone for the Houston trip to Houston even though he was brain-damaged and could only repeat the phrase "Hello! It's nice to meet you!" over and over again? High comedy. What a flick.) Key to Season: Rookie defensive end John Abraham was coming on like a freight train last season until he injured a stomach muscle at New England in Week 6 (the most underrated injury of the entire 2000 season). Now he's back and he's healthy. Think Forest Whitaker in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" after Spiccoli totalled his car. Random Jets note: That improbable Monday night comeback against Miami last October was one of the five or six greatest games I've ever seen in my life. Seriously. One of those 1,000,000-to-1 TV moments when you're watching a game and saying to yourself, "This team could come back if A-thru-Z happens, in order" and it actually happens. Best game I've seen since the Chargers-Dolphins game 20 years ago. All it was missing was John Madden gushing, "This is what it's all about" as the guys were hugging each other at the end.
1. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6) Why they'll be in the hunt: The Big Three: Manning, James and Harrison. (And for the 97th straight year, this is the season that the defense will finally step it up in Indy! I think we've heard that one before.)
Mitigating Factor No. 1: Let the "Peyton Manning can't get it done in the clutch" talk begin! Can we start calling him "The Mailman"?Mitigating Factor No. 2: Let's just say that NFL Films isn't hard at work on a DVD called "Jim Mora's Greatest Playoff Moments." Key to Season: Other than Manning and Edgerrin James staying healthy? Probably every other receiver not named "Marvin Harrison" stepping up. Harrison exploded with seven 100-yard games in the first half of the season ... then he only broke 90 yards once in the final eight games once teams started quintuple-teaming him. That can't happen again. Random Thought: Is there anything more annoying then those generic "After a tough season, they're bouncing back!" football stories that run in newspapers and magazines every August? Indy's defense is finally ready to take some pressure off Manning and the offense!!! Kordell Stewart has finally settled down! Fred Taylor is ready to explode! Jake Plummer is ready to make The Leap! Steve McNair is finally ready to air it out! Some Hollywood equivalents to this phenomenon: This could be the hit movie that Alec Baldwin fans have been waiting for! Kevin Smith finally crosses over into the mainstream! You're gonna fall in love with Charlize Theron! David Spade's best movie since Tommy Boy! AFC West
5. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (6-10) Why they'll fall short: Survival of the Fittest (the AFC West shapes up as the strongest division in the league) ... Dick Vermeil is trying to run his Rams offense here, but things unfold a little differently when you're using Priest Holmes, Derrick Alexander, Snoop Minnis and Chris Thomas instead of Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Ike Bruce and Az Hakim.
Silver Lining: Probably the one team nobody can get a handle on ... this is one of those Peter Gammons Teams. You know when the Guru does his spring training previews and he lists like 37 "ifs" -- "If Bret Saberhagen can come back, if Carl Everett gets his head straight, if Nomar's wrist is healthy, if Jose Offerman can get on base, etc." and finally ends it with the sentence, "Then this could be a team to watch"?That's what the Chiefs are like this year. If Trent Green gets cranking, if the receivers work out, if Tony Gonzalez thrives in this offense, if the defensive line can play as well as it did last year, if the secondary can come together ... Key to Season: Can they protect homecourt at Arrowhead? The Chiefs were only 16-8 at home over the past three years ... during the previous seven years (1991-97), they went 50-12. In the old days, you didn't bet against the Chiefs at home unless there was a really good reason. Random Bad Omen: According to STATS, Inc, when the Chiefs hired 65-year-old Dick Vermeil last spring, he became the oldest head coach ever to be hired by an NFL team. The only other senior citizen/new coach was 65-year-old Ted Marchibroda in 1996 -- Old Ted ended up going 16-31-1 with the Colts before getting the Scatman Crothers treatment. Strangely enough, Marchibroda was replaced by 63-year-old Jim Mora, the third-oldest coach ever hired by an NFL team. Even stranger, Mora, now 66, is the oldest head coach in the league, one year older than Vermeil, who's the oldest new coach in the league. (Note to reader: You can read more about this phenomenon in Mitch Albom's upcoming book, "Tuesdays with Mora.")
4. OAKLAND RAIDERS (9-7)
Why they'll disappoint: Because 2000 was one of those seasons where everything went right for them ... because they're playing in the toughest division in football ... because 35-year-old Rich Gannon started every Raiders game over the past two years -- he's the proverbial "Injury Waiting to Happen," especially with all the scrambling he does ... because their schedule includes road games against all the other AFC West teams, as well as Philly, Miami, Indy and the Giants ... because I needed a token "Disappointing AFC Contender" for this column.Silver Lining: They've already won one award this season -- Darrell Russell was named the "2001 Athlete of the Year" by High Times Magazine. Key to Season: Can they milk another quality season out of Gannon? How many athletes peak in their 30's? And since when did NFL quarterbacks get better with age? (In my opinion, only three things get better with age: "Caddyshack," red wine and Rene Russo. I'm not willing to lump Rich Gannon in there yet. Sorry.) Random SAT Question: Let's say two people are having a staring contest. One of them is using the Troy Aikman Concussion Face; the other person is using the Jon Gruden Missed Field Goal Face. Who cracks first? (I'll let you mull that one over ...) (Keep thinking about it ...) (One more second ...) Here's the answer: The Aikman Face wins out. Nobody can stare at the Aikman Face for more than 10 seconds without cracking up. It's physically impossible.
3. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7) Why they could surprise: Some serious "Out of Nowhere Team" potential here, thanks to an easy schedule that kicks off like this: Washington; bye; at Dallas, Cincy, at Cleveland, at New England (Good God) ... no team improved itself more on both sides of the ball -- Doug Flutie, Marcellus Wiley, LaDanian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Tim Dwight ... Junior Seau's still around ... and Ryan Leaf's long gone ... can't you see the "Chargin' Forward!" story appearing in the Oct. 21 issue of Sports Illustrated this year?
Mitigating Factors: Wayyyyyyyy too many people on the "San Diego is a sleeper" bandwagon. That always scares me. Head coach Mike Riley won't be receiving any Norman Dale comparisons any time soon. And I'd be much more excited about Tomlinson's impact here if there was an offensive line in front of him. Doesn't it seem like a stretch to ask him to pull a Corey Dillon and rush for 1,300 yards by himself?Key to Season: Don't underestimate the Flutie Factor here. Flutie wins ballgames. It isn't pretty ... but he always wins ballgames. And nobody's done more to advance the cause of the mullet haircut over the years. (Here's a list of everyone who played QB for San Diego over the past four seasons: Jim Everett, Jim Harbaugh, Stan Humphries, Erik Kramer, Ryan Leaf, Moses Moreno, Todd Philcox, Craig Whelihan. Combined touchdown passes? 54. Combined interceptions? 109. And you think Flutie isn't going to make an impact?) Random Thought: You ever have that random guy on another team who you've always inexplicably liked? Mine is Tim Dwight, the former Falcons receiver/kick returner who signed with San Diego this season and kinda looks like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. There's just something fun about a goofy white guy with freakish, Forrest Gump-like speed, especially when he's returning kicks and bringing back memories of Phil McConkey. And it's not just me ... the makers of the "Madden" video games always make him much better than he should be. All right, I'm babbling ...
2. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-7)
Why they'll surprise: Loads of new faces, including two premium first-rounders (Koren Robinson and Steve Hutchinson), a new QB (Matt Hasselbeck), two new defensive linemen (John Randle and Chad Eaton) and a new middle linebacker (Levon Kirkland) ... that's pretty impressive ... and Chad Brown, Shawn Springs, Ricky Watters, Michael Sinclair and Walter Jones are still around ... so is the always-underrated Mike Holmgren, who somehow coaxed a playoff appearance out of Jon Kitna two years ago ... and the schedule shapes up pretty well.(I'll be honest, I was torn between San Diego and Seattle as the "Out of Nowhere Team" in the AFC. Even up until game time, I didn't know where I was headed ... these are the moments when I wish I could look over to the sofa for a Bridgette Wilson-Sampras fist pump.) Mitigating Factor: Hasselbeck looks great on paper ... but what happens the first time his signals start getting drowned out at Arrowhead Stadium, or when he's looking up at Junior Seau after getting bodyslammed? You never know how these Practice QBs will turn out. Mark Brunell worked out. Jay Fiedler's up in the air. Rich Gannon made it (eventually). Damon Huard fell short. So did Ty Detmer. You just never know. Key to Season: Can the revamped defense come together soon enough for the Philly/Oakland/Jacksonville/Denver stretch from Week 3 to Week 6? Random Thought: If Trent Dilfer comes off the bench to replace a struggling Hasselback, turns the Seahawks' season around and leads them to a Super Bowl victory ... well, start stockpiling water and canned goods to prepare for the apocalypse.
1. DENVER BRONCOS (13-3) Why they're the favorite: They just look like the most talented, deepest, smartest team in the league to me -- gamebreakers on both sides of the ball, All-Pro caliber players at every skill position, a steady offensive line, a decided homefield advantage, veterans with big game experience and a coach who's probably worth 3-4 wins per season ... and they beefed up their defense, which helps ... according to last year's records, they have the easiest schedule in the league.
Mitigating Factor: Somehow I'm not going to be as terrified as a Pats fan when my team is heading into Denver to play at "Invesco Field at Mile High."(That reminds me, here's the weird stat of the year -- the Patriots and Broncos will play this season for the seventh consecutive year, even though they've been in different divisions the entire time. How random is that?) Key to Season: How will this three-man RB situation shake out? Which guy will emerge, seize the starting job and cause a near-panic in every fantasy league across America? My money's on Mike Anderson ... Terrell Davis scares me for some reason. I don't care what happens as long as they don't try to platoon them. Random Thought: A Broncos' Super Bowl victory means that Denver owner Pat Bowlen will be standing on the podium once again with his two favorite trophies: the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Mrs. Pat Bowlen. Good times ... good times. AFC Predictions
First round: Jets over Colts, Ravens over Seahawks Second round: Broncos over Jets, Ravens over Titans AFC Championship: Broncos over Ravens Super Bowl: Broncos over Saints 30-24 Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.
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