Sunday, September 30, 2007

Week 4: 420+

Green Bay 23, Minnesota 16 - Brett Favre literally carries the Packers on his back en route to a 4-0 start. Favre threw touchdown passes numbers 421 and 422, overtaking Dan Marino for the most all time. Even though Peyton Manning is on pace to break what is now Brett's record in the next decade, not enough can be said about Favre's amazing play.

Houston 16, Atlanta 26 - So much for all that Matt Schaub leading the Texans to the playoffs. In his return to Atlanta, Schaub is outplayed by Joey Harrington.

Buffalo 17, New York 14 - I have a hard time caring about a division that is so far apart from its leader, the New England Patriots.

Cleveland 27, Baltimore 13 - Are the Browns suddenly a surprise team or is it just that the banged up Ravens are overrated?

St. Louis 7, Dallas 35 - Tony Romo amazes me. The guy is so agile and makes 'streetball' plays all the time. Dallas is the NFC's clear front runner right now. Thanks to a ton of injuries, the Rams are done, their only touchdown was a Daunte Hall return.

Chicago 27, Detroit 37 - Brian Griese struggles in his debut as the Bears' starting quarterback. Thanks to Mike Martz, the Lions are like his old Rams in that they are simply going to outscore their opponents.

Oakland 35, Miami 17 - Daunte Culpepper scored all five touchdowns in his return to Miami. Call me crazy, but do the Raiders have a shot at winning their division?

Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 7 - This is why the NFC is so weak. Divisions like the South have no favorite whatsoever. Cadillac Williams is done for a while after that freak knee injury.

Pittsburgh 14, Arizona 21 - Props to Bill Simmons who called Ken Whisenhunt's influence in a surprising upset. With Kurt Warner winning a game now, what happens to golden boy Matt Leinart?

Denver 20, Indianapolis 38 - We know Manning owns the Broncos. Why even play this game?

Kansas City 30, San Diego 16 - Three loses in a row for the struggling Chargers. Instead of blaming the new coaching staff, upper management should bear the criticism for letting the entire 13-3 regime go.

New York Giants 16, Philadelphia 3 - McNabb goes from quarterback on the way out, to elite quarterback, back down to on the way out. With no Westbrook, a terrible offensive line, the still recovering McNabb stood no chance.

Seattle 23, San Francisco 3 - Keep on sleeping on my Seahawks, America. They just stormed into San Franciso and shut up everyone who doubted that the NFC West still belongs to Seattle. Matt Hasselbeck was sharp and the defense was dominating. Remember, the Seahawks are a fumble away from being undefeated. Super Bowl rematch in Pittsburgh next weekend.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Week 3: Separation Time

Talk about Separation Sunday. The best story of the weekend was the Green Bay Packers upsetting the San Diego Chargers at home. The Chargers are certainly in a funk, probably due to the completely new coaching staff, as exhibited by LT's frustration, even getting into it with his quarterback Philip Rivers on the sidelines. The Packers are 3-0, Brett Favre is playing like a whole new quarterback while the defense is quitly looking great. Watching this game, however, I did not like the lack of a running game on the part of Green Bay. Granted, the Chargers are great at stopping the run and have a weak secondary, but eventually the Packers are going to have to get some yards on the ground.

T.O. said the Dallas Cowboys made a statement by winning in Chicago on Sunday Night. Remember, the Cowboys were a botched snap away from advancing to the playoffs and going to Chicago, where they just proved they can win. Tony Romo is playing amazing, scrambling around and putting up huge numbers. Romo is in a contract year, and Jerry Jones is obligated to pay up soon the way he is playing. Hopefully it does not have some sort of crazy mental effect on the field.

The Patriots put up another 38 points in another blowout, and it the Brady to Moss combination is not even fair for opposing teams. In the AFC, the Colts and Steelers also advanced to 3-0.

The Ravens are good enough team to make some noise in that tough AFC, but again, it is way too early for Steve McNair to be banged up already. And how about Kurt Warner replacing Matt Leinart and nearly rallying for the win? Go figure.

Back to the NFC, where the Saints are already this year's most disappointing team. Sure, Dallas and Green Bay are looking good at 3-0, but let us not forget the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle is a fumble away from joining those elite teams at 3-0 after winning a wild west game against Cincinnatti, 24-21. You had safeties, fourth down and two point conversions, quarterbacks catching passes, and turnovers galore. While Carson Palmer and the Bengals put up big numbers again, Matt Hasselbeck is quietly having a good year. The fourth quarter featured four lead changes, including Hasselbeck's strike to Nate Burleson for the game winning touchdown. The ensuing kickoff was fumbled, and Palmer and the Benglas offense never got a chance to come back again. While the Seattle defense got eaten up statistically, new safeties Brian Russell and Deion Grant each caught interceptions and made several key plays. The banged up Shaun Alexander has yet to even get going. Hasselbeck was asked whether he'd like a little more national recognition for his hot start to the season. "I think it's better that we just chill out here [in Seattle] in the witness protection program," he said. "We're good. Let them talk about all the East Coast teams and their cool throwback uniforms." As the analysts start to make early judgements and separate the teams, do not sleep on my Seattle Seahawks, folks.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Week 2: Oops!

The Seahawks fumbled away a sure win in another wild weekend. Carson Palmer's SIX touchdown passes were not enough as Derek Anderson and Jamal Lewis led the woeful Cleveland Browns to a surprising 51-45 victory. This makes the 2-0 Steelers look more dominant, as were the New England Cheatriots who ran the Chargers out of town on SNF 38-14. Indy survived another Vince Young comeback while the Bears looked terrible despite winning their home opener. The Saints got blown out again while Dallas takes over as the highest scoring team. Denver lucks out with another Jason Elam game winner. Green Bay, San Francisco, Detroit, and Houston are all 2-0. In the immortal words of the legendary Vince Lombardi, what the hell is going on here?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bolts Bandwagon

With the Rodney Harrison suspension and the fines of Bill Bellichick and the Patriots organization for cheating, New England may just be the most disliked sports franchise right now. Heading into this Sunday Night's huge showdown against the San Diego Chargers, it seems nearly everyone would love to see the Patriots lose after such a controversial week. Other than the Denver Broncos, who would be justified in rooting against San Diego in hopes of winning the AFC West, I would think that fans of the other 30 teams in the NFL are pulling for an upset at Foxboro, happily hopping on the Bolts Bandwagon.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Oden Out

On May 22, I wrote: Portland last had the No.2 pick in 1984, selecting center Sam Bowie, a bust in comparison to the fellow who Chicago took next by the name of Michael Jordan. Deja vu anyone?

Oden was limited and missed much of his freshman season at Ohio State with a broken wrist. Then he missed most of the summer league with tonsillitis. Now, he is out for most of the year after microfracture surgery on his knee. Instead of being the NBA's next big star, Oden is unfortunately on track to be an injury prone bust.

Goodell Strikes Again

NEW YORK (AP) -- New England coach Bill Belichick was fined the NFL maximum of $500,000 Thursday and the Patriots were ordered to pay $250,000 for videotaping an opponent's offensive and defensive signals.

Commissioner Roger Goodell also ordered the team to give up next year's first-round draft choice if it reaches the playoffs and second- and third-round picks if it doesn't.

More on Pats

Now that the Patriots have been caught cheating, everyone around the NFL has thrown in their two cents, resulting in an even larger cloud cast over the New England organization and their three Super Bowl wins. Opponents are openly questioning how legitimate the Patriots' wins are while Sports Illustrated finds more occurrences of Patriot videotaping. The commentary and debates on this subject can be endless; the fact of the matter is that the Patriots cheated to gain some competitive advantage. Imagine if they go on to make another Super Bowl run again this year, something which is quite likely. Then the NFL's integrity would be no better than the NBA's after the referee scandal.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cheating Patriots

Let us do something out of the ordinary these days and present the facts:
  • NFL security officials confiscated a camera and videotape from Patriots video assistant Matt Estrella on the New England sidelines when it was suspected he was recording the Jets' defensive signals.
  • The league also was reviewing a possible violation into the number of radio frequencies the Patriots were using during Sunday's game, sources said. The team did not have a satisfactory explanation when asked about possible irregularities in its communication setup during the game.
  • Last season, the Green Bay Packers had an issue with a man wearing a Patriots staff credential who was carrying a video camera on their sideline.
  • The Patriots have not presented their case to the league, nor anyone else for that matter.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson: "I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, if you are not cheating, you are not trying" Keep in mind that LT has a running feud with the Patriots after last year's "classless" celebration on San Diego's turf after a playoff victory. Chargers stud linebacker Shaun Merriman was suspended four games last season for essentially cheating as well. Chargers visit the Patriots on Sunday night.
  • The New England Patriots beat the New York Jets 38-14 last Sunday, the seventh consecutive win at the Meadowlands for Tom Brady and company. The Patriots offense was effective largely because Brady had plenty of time thanks to his superb offensive line. Brady was never sacked, was not pressured much at all, and was only hit once. In other words, the Jets defense was basically helpless.
  • As perennial contenders, the Patriots are the front runners to win it all this year, and have won three Super Bowls in four years, prompting many to dub the team as a dynasty.

That dynasty's integrity is now in serious question. This is not an exaggeration folks. Even if these specific allegations are not as serious as they appear to be, there is no doubt that after being caught twice, at the very least, Bill Belichick's staff has been and continues to be up to something fishy. The extent of the spying and how much does it help the Patriots may never been known, but the fact of the matter is that there is already enough evidence for the NFL to punish the Patriots, most likely through monetary means and in the form of multiple draft picks.

Remember that the NFL is more about game planning and preparation than anything else. With the rapidly advancing technology, coaches are constantly trying to acquire any competitive advantage that may help in preparation.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What a Week One!

The first week of the NFL season is in the books, and it was quite a wild ride. The mere return of meaningful professional games would have been enough, but a bunch of entertaining matchups and amazing finishes provided for an even better weekend.

New Orleans 10, Indianapolis 41
By now the Thursday opener has had time to sink in. Peyton tears up the Saints for 31 points in the second half, but it was the Colts defense that impressed holding last year's No.1 offense to three measly points. The Colts are in an unprecedented circumstance as the defending champions with little pressure to repeat; more pressure is on arch rival New England Patriots who, with all the offseason improvements, everyone has winning the Super Bowl.

Denver 15, Buffalo 14
Kevin Everett's life threatening injury is more important than anything else here. The Broncos out gained the Bills 470 to 184 in total years, but trailed for the first 59:59 of the game! Jason Elam rushed onto the field and kicks the winner as the clock ticks down. Denver's defense is already great, but if Jay Cutler, Travis Henry, and the Bronco offense keeps it up, throw them into the long list of contenders in the AFC.

Tennessee 13, Jacksonville 10
I did not catch much of this game, but did notice the Titans running all over the Jags, while Jacksonville's was limited on the ground. Go figure. Maybe it is as simple as it sounds: Vince Young is a winner, he just somehow wins these types of games.

Miami 13, Washington 16 (OT)
Almost had a freak finish at the end of regulation. Jason Campbell shows promise, but these two teams are not going anywhere this year.

Carolina 27, St. Louis 13
I am going to continue the new trend of patting myself on the back as I called this upset. However, no one foresaw Steven Jackson being contained so well though. The injury to left tackle Orlando Pace pretty much kills the Rams season.

New England 38, New York Jets 14
The biggest story of the week, as the Patriots may have actually exceeded the large expectations placed before them. Tom Brady went off, and with Randy Moss stretching the field and keeping defenses conservative, that gives Brady more time in the pocket to tear up opposing defenses. There is already talk of a 19-0 season, but it will be interesting to see how the elite teams attack this scary offense. Say, San Diego on Sunday night.

Atlanta 3, Minnesota 24
Adrian Peterson continues to impress, emerging as the early frontrunner for offensive rookie of the year. The Viking defense dominates again, although it was against the woeful Falcons.

Pittsburgh 34, Cleveland 7
Big Ben and company looks goo, but similarly, it was against the woeful Browns. The Browns used two quarterbacks, neither of which were named Brady Quinn. After a beatdown by the Steelers, you have to wonder how great that Dallas trade is looking now. The Browns look like they could end up with one of the worst records in the league, consequently giving the Cowboys one of the top picks in next year's draft.

Philadelphia 13, Green Bay 16
The Packers won this game on defense and special teams. Watch out, when Favre gets the offense rolling, they could easily steal the NFC North division.

Kansas City 3, Houston 20
I am not sure whether to be impressed with Matt Schaub and the Texans, or whether it is just that the Chiefs are that bad.

Tampa Bay 6, Seattle 20
Ditto. A solid win for my boys up in Seattle, as the offense showed glimpses of their sharp 2005 form, and the defense was dominant. But then it was against the Buccaneers.

Chicago 3, San Diego 14
Watching games throughout the first week, and it is clear that defenses are far ahead of offenses. It takes more time for complex offenses to get in rythm before they start clicking and wearing down defenders. This was a defensive struggle, and the Chargers only blew this one open towards the end. After sitting out the preseason and coming in rusty against a great defense, LT had a rough start. Some are saying he had a bad game, but he still scored two touchdowns folks.

Detroit 36, Oakland 21
The battle of the losers was quite entertaining. The Lions put up points, and may finally make that breakthrough on offense that is expected in Mike Martz's second year. Daunte Culpepper gives the Raiders a better chance to win than McCown.

New York Giants 35, Dallas 45
What a game! I normally do not like divisional matchups as the featured Sunday Night game, but those NFC East teams always have great shootouts. Romo and Manning went wild, but Eli's fourth quarter shoulder injury kills the Giants season.

Baltimore 20, Cincinnati 27
Big win for the Bengals, although it is encouraging for the Ravens that after so many turnovers they still had a chance to win it at the end. It is a pity that Steve McNair and Ray Lewis are already hurt.

Arizona 17, San Francisco 20
Again, the defenses looked better than the new offenses here. Alex Smith came up big in the game-winning drive in another nationally televised thriller. Great finishes like these are why everyone is so glad that football is back!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bill & Aints

My belief that Bill Simmons is the most entertaining sportswriter is no secret. But he scored even more points with me this morning when he matched my Super Bowl pick of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. Sure, you may chalk it up to a couple of displaced Californians choosing their former hometown teams, but I say we are just both geniuses.

Speaking of which, the Colts thrashed the Saints in the second half of last night's NFL season opener, 41-10. In that same Super Bowl entry I wrote a week ago, I said:

"the NFL runs on preparation and game planning, and now that coaches have an entire year of Drew Brees and Reggie Bush running Peyton’s offense on film, look for defenses to be better prepared for a team that is no longer off the radar, as the magic of New Orleans and the mystique of the ultimate underdog fades away."

You think Tony Dungy had Sean Peyton's offense figured out, holding Brees and company to a measly three offensive points? I think this is where I am supposed to say 'I hate to tell you I told you so,' but that would simply be a lie.

Questionable Raiders Management

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Best Game I Never Won

After a terribly long day working at the bank after a convenient three day weekend, I came home, grabbed something to eat, and sought to redeem my exhaustion in the best possible way - on Xbox Live playing EA Sports Madden 08. I have been at this for a couple weeks already, and I have to say that playing on the newer generation of consoles online is a completely different experience. I do not mean to sound like a cheesy commercial for the service, but the ability to trashtalk against an old classmate late into the night during a back and forth football game is a lot better once you actually experience it yourself. As tired and frustrated as I already was after a grueling day at work, I stumbled upon what may just be the best game I have ever played.

My random opponent, selected automatically due to our similar records and experience level, choose to be the Chicago Bears. As the visiting Seattle Seahawks, I could already see another low-scoring matchup based on defense and field position. Of course, the score at the end of the first quarter is 14-14 after each quarterback tosses a couple touchdowns. Yes, the realism is uncanny. Rex Grossman comes back down to earth after a deep pass is picked off by Marcus Trufant, and I take a 24-21 lead into halftime. Once we get a feel for how to defend each other, my opponent begins to pound Cedric Benson against my smaller defense in the second half, slowing down the pace a little. The first punt of the game only comes late in the fourth quarter when I am killing clock to try to protect a 31-28 lead. Devin Hester comes up with a huge return down the sidelines, setting up the tying field goal kick and overtime.

Chicago wins the coin toss, but is stopped on a 4th and 2 attempt at midfield. One first down later, and my drive stalls at the Bears' 39-yard line. At this point, the similarity to the NFC Divisional Playoff Game is uncanny. Seattle only needed one completion, one more first down, one more big play, to win in overtime in Chicago, but was unable to do so. Josh Brown misses a tough 57 yard field goal, giving Chicago good field position to set up a short drive for their own game winning kick with seconds remaining.

But the Bears miss! Double overtime! Hasselbeck gets hot converting three consecutive passes. With confidence running high inside Chicago territory, I go for the win, running a deep pattern to the inside throwing high to D.J. Hackett only to be intercepted by Charles Tillman! With my heart broken after blowing a second chance to win the game, Grossman drives down the field inside the Seattle 30. But then a similar route results in a Julian Peterson interception! On a fourth and 1 attempt, I call my own number and sneak in for the first down with Hasselbeck who fumbles the ball going down. Can you say TRIPLE OVERTIME!?

My Seattle Seahawks force a Benson fumble and again storm back. With yet another opportunity to win the game, Hasselbeck makes the mistake of throwing to an open Nate Burleson down the middle of the field, only to be picked off by none other than stud middle linebacker Brian Urlacher in an amazing display of his athleticism. At this point I have been on an emotional roller coaster, all the while trying to keep my mind straight enough to stategize efficiently in what has quickly become an intense chess match. Note that nearly all of the overtime periods took place within each 30-yard line, keeping each of us conservative on both sides of the football. After several short passes and running plays, I adjust my defense keeping only one safety back deep. Grossman fakes yet another hand off, playing as the deep safety I bite on the play action just enough so that Rex chucks a bomb to, who else, Devin Hester, who simply cannot be caught up to.

Chicago 37, Seattle 31.

Matt Hasselbeck and Rex Grossman, with four touchdown passes each, finish with quarterback ratings well into the 100s. A combined ten turnovers, most of which coming during the overtimes, offset the miserable defensive performances in the first half when both of our offenses simply went up and down the field at will. I am sure many players have similar experiences, but this was simply one of those insane games that had me going nuts. Every play call, every movement, every execution that all falls on my shoulders, had an enormous impact. I can easily go to sleep tonight replaying the crucial plays pondering the many potential "what ifs." No wonder coaches are so stressed out as their hair turns grey or disappears. It was my own mistakes that narrowly cost me the game, and it is with that knowledge that, even when losing, made it such a great and enjoayable one. This was truly the best game I never won.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Random Labor Day Thoughts

Labor Day Weekend signifies several things. For most, it is a nice day off from work representing the end of summer. But for us cool guys, it means it is time for some FOOTBALL!!!

  • College kicked off this past weekend, and nothing made bigger news than Appalachian State's 34-32 stunning upset of No.5 Michigan which came on a blocked field goal. App State were heavy underdogs walking into Michigan, but wound up shocking the world with what many are saying is the greatest upset in the history of college football. While the talent was certainly a reason for the win, preparation throughout the summer focusing in on a big opener must have played a large role as well.
  • With the No.5 ranked team falling off the charts so early, the validity of the preseason poll must come into question. Heck, the whole poll system used in college is consistently being called out for its far too many flaws.
  • I paid most attention to the featured primetime game, in which Cal got its revenge over Tennessee, 45-31. While it was an impressive statement for the Pac-10 and quite an entertaining game, the highlight of it all for me was ABC commentator Brent Musburger calling out Berkley's "hippies in the trees" to quit protesting and allow the school to build a training facility in place of a small forest. Administrators have promised to plant three trees for every one they cut down. Musburger clearly wanted to say, stop living in the trees and go find something better to do with your lives, you weird Berkley hippies.
  • I am rooting for USC, LSU, and West Virginia, the top three teams in the country, to all go undefeated. This way, the national title game will be as controversial as ever, forcing the BCS to listen to the masses and do some major overhauling.
  • Watching college football after the NFL preseason makes the distinction in talent and organization level between the two levels all the more clear. The best athletes and programs are far better than their opponents compared to the parity driven NFL. Idaho cannot touch Pete Caroll's machine at USC, whose Colisium contains more people than Idaho University's entire city and surrounding area. Watching many of the games and most highlights, the big plays were not so much a result of good excecution as they were of missed tackles, which drive me nuts. I understand how there is often more excitement and passion in college football, but I still prefer watching the best players in the world compete in the best team sport in the world, and that can only be found in our beloved NFL.
  • This is probably the only weekend where college football overshadows the pros, but not for the tons of players who lost their jobs Saturday. NFL teams set their 53 man rosters, cutting many notable players, the most surprising of which was Jacksonville Jaguars' starting quarterback Byron Leftwich. Leftwich was entering a contract year and had already been declared the starter earlier in the summer.
  • New England Patriots' safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, admitting to using Human Growth Hermones. There are many good debates on this subject, but if this were baseball or any other sport, it would be a lot bigger story and everyone would be close to freaking out. Shawn Merriman went on to win defensive player of the year last season despite a similar suspension, and while there is no doubt he is an amazing athlete, the contrast to Barry Bonds' never ending scrutiny is inevitable.
  • The Seattle Times features a great story on Deion Branch. For every Michael Vick, there are quite a few good players such as these.
  • In addition to the normal chunk of cuts, the Seattle Seahawks pulled off a couple trades, shipping off one of my personal favorites, safety Michael Boulware to the Houston Texans. As Seattle's second round pick in 2004, Boulware was converted to strong safety after playing linebacker at Florida State. He had a surprisingly impressive first season, setting a team rookie record with five interceptions, three of which were game winning, as he quickly took over the starting job and appeared to be a promising future star on a rising defense. In 2005, Boulware started the entire season as a key member of a successful defense, picking off passes in both the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XL. After getting beat for several deep passes in 2006, Boulware lost his starting job, and a slight injury during 2007 training camp did not help his cause to make the team as a backup. Here's hoping that the good man who led the Seahawks' weekly bible studies has success in Houston.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Super Bowl XLI Prediction

New England Patriots

What is with Boston sports and their great offseasons? I normally shy away from bandwagon picks, but the fact of the matter is that the Patriots have had an uncharacteristically amazing offseason. Remember, the concern going into last season was Deion Branch’s holdout and Tom Brady’s completely new receiving corps, save for the ageless Troy Brown. This season, the storyline is similar in regards to a completely new receiving corps, but is looking a lot more promising. By now, everyone knows the additions: Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Kelly Washington, and Wes Walker. Even if the athletic Moss and speedy Stallworth are not catching long balls and putting up big numbers, their mere presence on the field forces defenses to adjust in respect to the deep passing game. This will open up the field for the versatile running back Laurence Maroney, not to mention Wes Walker coming out of the slot. While all of the additions are great talents, each is a gamble that could pay off large dividends or end up injured or a disappointment. Even then though, quarterback Tom Brady was only one big play away from defeating the Indianapolis Colts in their thrilling 38-34 loss in the AFC Championship game. With even a marginal upgrade in his offensive weapons, let alone acquiring four big name threats, Brady could have easily gone on to win the Super Bowl.

Granted, Tom Brady and company have never had a problem putting up points come crunch time. But in competitive AFC, they will not be well suited trying to simply outscore the dynamic offensives of the San Diego Chargers and defending champions Colts. The Patriots would have still had a great defense without going out and adding anyone to help genius Bill Belichick; it does not matter who he plugs in on defense, his excellent game planning and preparation usually proves to be effective. Nevertheless, New England threw $35 million at Pro Bowl linebacker Adelius Thomas, who had 83 tackles and 11 sacks as an important piece of the downright frightening Baltimore Ravens defense. Thomas will join controversial first round draft pick Brandon Meriweather as they add to the familiar cast of stingy Patriot defenders in Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Junior Seau.

The road to the Super Bowl for the Patriots may be the toughest of any other team’s. The AFC East is rapidly improving; the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets each beat the Pats last year, including a 21-0 shutout at Dolphin Stadium. The Pats have to play the toughest of the four NFC divisions, the NFC East, including the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Finally, the Pats will not only go up against each of the other three AFC division winners, but will likely meet a couple of them in the playoffs as well. The popular skepticism surrounding the San Diego Chargers is justified; the completely new coaching staff cannot be expected to even come close to last season’s amazing performances. While the great wealth of talent is still there, former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was known to make great halftime adjustments, leading to several comeback victories last year. The confidence in Baltimore is just as warranted. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have their swagger back as the defense returns to Super Bowl form and the signing of Willis McGahee should improve the offense. However, Steve McNair is only getting older, and seemed to wear down towards the playoffs last season, so it is doubtful that they can put up the points necessary to win in January. Finally, there is simply no way to dismiss the champions, specifically Peyton Manning and his unstoppable offense. While the Colts defense may be softer with the notable losses of each starting cornerback and leading tackler Cato June, the fact of the matter is that is likely to once again boil down to Colts and Patriots. There is no doubt that last year’s instant classic could have easily gone either way, but this year the New England Patriots’ new additions give them the slight edge.

Seattle Seahawks

This is the third consecutive year I have picked the forgotten men of the Pacific Northwest, but this time the argument may actually be the most convincing. Last season was a complete disaster in Seattle; everything that could have gone wrong did indeed go wrong. MVP Shaun Alexander broke his foot in the first game, Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck went down soon after, and the banged up offensive line was unable to regain its cohesive 2005 form. Football is a game of continuity and familiarity, so having so many players shuffled in and out of the starting lineup cannot breed success. While the superstitious chalk up the major injuries to the Madden Cover Curse and Chunky Soup commercials, throw in the Super Bowl loser hangover and the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx, and it is a wonder the Seahawks did not crash and burn. In fact, they somehow managed to win the NFC West and a literally wild playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, even taking the eventual NFC Champion Chicago Bears to overtime before falling short by a field goal.

Not unlike the New England Patriots, a healthy version of last year’s team is already good enough to make a Super Bowl run. Nevertheless, Seattle went out and signed Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney from the Atlanta Falcons. After giving up a number of blown plays on defense last season, the Seahawks acquired safeties Brian Russell and Deion Grant as the new starters and brought Jim Mora back home to coach the new and improved secondary. While I seriously considered completely changing this pick after yet another season ending injury to former first round draft pick and effective run stopper Marcus Tubbs, this year’s second round pick Brandon Mebane from California may help fill the enormous void. Marcus Trufant is quietly establishing himself as one of football’s top cornerbacks, and LeRoy Hill, Lofa Tatupu, and Julian Peterson have the potential to be the league’s best threesome of linebackers. However, this agile defense is built to succeed when playing ahead, so much will rest upon the shoulder’s of Mike Holmgren’s trademark offense.

As hard as it is to believe, Mike Holmgren is entering his ninth season in Seattle, most of which have been spent coaching up Matt Hasselbeck, who enters his tenth year in the league. Look for the man who produced hall of famers Steve Young and Brett Favre to draw out a breakout year for Matt Hasselbeck, who is in his prime. Deion Branch enters his first full year as a Seahawk, and with an entire summer and training camp under his belt, look for him to replace the oft injured Darrell Jackson. Holmgren is known to spread the ball around, so expect Nate Burleson and D.J. Hackett to have solid seasons, in addition to Hasselbeck’s ever reliable security blanket in slot receiver Bobby Engram. Tight end Marcus Pollard looks capable of providing Seattle with something they have never quite had in a dependable tight end, opening up the complex offense. With the offensive line getting younger and healthier, and Shaun Alexander poised for a big comeback year, Seattle is primed to return to its status as one of the league’s premier offenses.

It is as good as common knowledge that the NFC is supposedly weaker than the AFC. Whatever the case, the NFC does have more contenders. The NFC West division has been dubbed as the most competitive division top to bottom, in that any of the four teams could likely win the division. The Arizona Cardinals are the annual sleeper team, yet never fail to disappoint, especially with a feeble defense and shaky offensive line. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt will form a dynamic high scoring offense with Matt “Hollywood” Leinart throwing to stud receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, but it may take some time with a new offense and second-year quarterback. The excitement is San Francisco is only due to the Dan Snyder-like spending spree on free agents. While the defense looks solid, the loss of offensive coordinator Norv Turner will actually hurt the 49ers more than most believe, actually setting up Alex Smith to regress. Finally, the St. Louis Rams have actually become most balanced team in the division. Jim Haslett has set up a solid defense, while head coach Scott Linehan has drifted away from “the greatest show on turf” style into a more precise offense, using shorter passing routes and running the ball. Steven Jackson is expected to have an MVP type of year while Marc Bulger resumes his most-underrated-quarterback-ever campaign. The Rams and Seahawks have quickly formed one of the most entertaining rivalries in all of sports. Each of the two thrilling games last year were decided by game winning Josh Brown field goals, and Rams fans will be quick to point out that it could have easily been their team making the playoff run instead of Seattle. Despite Arizona and San Francisco’s improvements, the NFC West division will likely be decided between the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks yet again.

Seattle’s schedule for the upcoming 2007 season is most intriguing. Optimistic fans hope for a 4-0 start with Tampa Bay, Arizona, Cincinnati, and San Francisco opening up the season. Week Five features a visit to Pittsburgh where you know emotions will be running high due to the Super Bowl XL rematch. Seattle is also matched up with the other three division winners from last year, and likewise the NFC frontrunners. Although the Seahawks lost twice in Chicago last year, this time the Bears come to Seattle’s loud Quest Field in Week , known to be one of the best home field advantages.

The Philadelphia Eagles are the only more consistent winner in the NFC than the Seattle Seahawks. If Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook can stay healthy and return to their dangerous forms, the Eagles are an easy choice for a return to the Super Bowl. The complicated situation involving Andy Reid’s family troubles and the drafting of another quarterback behind McNabb may be the perfect amount of motivation for the team to rally around. That being said, the competitive NFC East teams have a tendency to beat each other up over the course of the season. Jim Johnson’s aggressive defense will host the Seahawks in December.

The sexy pick for the NFC is the New Orleans Saints, and understandably so. Sean Peyton’s offense proved to overwhelm opponents last year, and many expect it to develop into the league’s next Indianapolis Colts. However, the NFL runs on preparation and game planning, and now that coaches have an entire year of Drew Brees and Reggie Bush running Peyton’s offense on film, look for defenses to be better prepared for a team that is no longer off the radar, as the magic of New Orleans and the mystique of the ultimate underdog fades away. The Saints, thrown out of their comfort zone in cold and rainy weather, visit Seattle on NBC’s nationally televised Sunday Night Football in Week Six.

The NFL originally scheduled the Patriots and the Seahawks to meet in China this season, but supposedly scrapped those plans because Beijing was not ready to host the big game. In reality, they may have wanted to save the eventual Super Bowl for America:

Super Bowl XLI
February 3, 2008

Tom Brady is clearly the best player on the field, but a couple of questionable holding calls and an unusual offensive pass interference call in the endzone cost the Patriots. A Matt Hasselbeck run is ruled as a touchdown even though a replay review clearly shows he did not get in. Should sound familiar.

Seahawks 27, Patriots 21