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