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Let’s Hug it Out

 

Part II of the NFL Preview

 

By Adam Hoff

 

I am loving this new format where we break down the non-playoff teams first and save the playoff squads for Part II.  Not only is it more fun to write about the good teams (well, at least the teams that I think are going to be good), but there are also only 12 playoff teams compared to the 20 that don’t make the postseason.  So it’s less work. 

 

(By the way, I have to make quick comment on fantasy football while we are here.  Due to the fact that only 12 of 32 NFL teams make the postseason [37.5%], there should NEVER be an instance where more than half the teams in a fantasy football league make the playoffs.  Never.  Of course, I am in at least one league every year in which eight of 12 teams make the playoffs.  Go figure.)

 

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program (pardon the cheesy play-on-words).  Here are the 12 teams I have playing in January.

 

The Wire Group (five teams moving into the big time).

 

Just as I tabbed five 2005-06 playoff teams to exit stage left (Cinci, New England, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Washington), I have five teams that are on their way in to the mix.  This ascension seems to be best represented by the show The Wire.  This hidden HBO gem is one of the grittiest shows on television (well, sort of, we all know that it’s not television, it’s HBO, but you get the point).  It is superbly acted, well written, and generally remains captivating from week to week.  It finally seems to be getting its due in terms of audience share and critical acclaim, so it seems to be a good show to forward as the Patron Saint of rising playoff teams. 

 

Baltimore Ravens (10-6).  The Ravens don’t really look like much of a playoff team at first glance.  They have a lunatic for a coach, a reclamation project at quarterback in Steve McNair (who looks like he’s running on stilts), and a running back that got his soul taken somewhere in Cell Block D during the summer of 2005.  Plus, they play in the very difficult NFC North.  That said, I just have a feeling about the Ravens.  McNair, for all his issues, is a massive upgrade over Kyle Boler and he should have good chemistry with old Titan mate Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap.  The defense returns a healthy Ed Reed, who is the real MVP of this group, apologies to passing-rushing monster Terrell Suggs and ESPN’s Mike Patrick (who believes that Ray Lewis is the Messiah).  Plus, while I agree that Jamal Lewis is a broken man and that Mike Anderson is D-U-N, done, I also happen to believe that Musa Smith is a breakout star waiting to happen.  He will be toting the rock by week five and bringing back the old style of Ravens football, which is control the clock and score with the defense. 

 

Miami Dolphins (10-6).  I know the ‘Fins are being tabbed by everyone, but I can’t help falling for them as well.  I think Culpepper will shake off his nightmare 2005 season and do a nice job manning the quarterback position, that Ronnie Brown will move into Tomlinson/Johnson/Alexander territory by year’s end, that Chris Chambers will realize his full potential, and that the defense will be one of the league’s best.  Why do I believe all this?  Because I think Nick Saban is one of the best coaches at any level, in any sport.  I’m on board.

 

San Diego Chargers (11-5).  On one hand, this isn’t a real daring pick, as the Chargers were arguably one of the best teams in the NFL last year – just missing the playoffs because of the ridiculous depth of quality teams in the AFC.  On the other hand though, San Diego is an extreme pick when you consider that the team has been handed over to a first-time starter at quarterback.  It is an even riskier choice when you believe – as I do – that this is the year in which LaDainian Tomlinson finally misses some serious time with an injury.  He’s logged over 1,600 carries in his short career and has been wearing down at the tail end of each of the last two seasons.  Unless you are Christopher Walken, you usually don’t get better with overuse.  However, I think the Chargers have three things working in their advantage: 1) They have the perfect offense for a young quarterback.  With Antonio Gates working down the middle and LT affording an attractive dumpoff option, Rivers won’t be obligated to throw a lot of long outs or deep posts.  2) Michael Turner is one of the most talented backup running backs in the league and if LT does in fact go down, “The Burner” will take good care of the running game.  3) San Diego might have the best front seven in all of football, which is where titles are often won and lost.  Those three factors, for me, overcome the negatives. 

 

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5).  Like I lot of people, I think the NFC East is a good division.  Unlike most of those people, I think the Eagles are going to win said division.  With T.O. long gone, McNabb healthy, the receiving corps bolstered (Reggie Brown has a year of experience under his belt and Donte Stallworth is a major upgrade over any wide receiver not named Owens that Philly has had the last five years), and both the offensive and defensive lines looking formidable, I like the Eagles’ chances to have a big year.  Don’t forget that McNabb has enjoyed great success in the past with far less talent around him.  The NFC isn’t much better now than it was during Philly’s four-year run, which means that this team could get back to the Super Bowl when people least expect it.

 

Minnesota Vikings (10-6).  The thing I like most about Minnesota is that they have a revamped offensive line and a hungry running back in Chester Taylor to run behind it.  Brad Johnson knows how to “not lose” games (a valuable NFL skill) and the defense can make big plays.  I’m not sure their wide receivers make any sense whatsoever in a West Coast offensive scheme (Marcus Robinson and Troy Williamson are both vertical threats that should be playing for Oakland), but they should be able to make it work.  I also predict a big year at corner for the former ringleader of the sex boat, Fred Smoot.  Smoot Dog, go ahead and book your flight to Hawaii. 

 

 

The Curb Your Enthusiasm Group (the seven teams staying on top).

 

As you can probably ascertain, I love Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Larry David is pretty much my hero.  Not in the sense that he created Seinfeld, although that is certainly good.  But more because he wanders around all day getting into arguments with people over semantic points, custom, and other trivial matters.  I love him.  So it is a high honor indeed that is being paid to these teams.  Only the best for the seven teams that are staying in the playoff picture.  “Pretty, pretty, preeeeeeeettttty, pretty good.” 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4).  Part of me wants to predict a big slide for the Steelers.  I mean, their starting quarterback almost died this summer in a horrific motorcycle accident and only days ago went in for an emergency appendectomy.  It just doesn’t sound like a good omen.  That said, I honestly believe they are one of the best teams in the AFC.  Fast Willie Parker is going to be a monster as the full-time tailback, Heath Miller is an underrated tight end, and the receivers are better than average.  Plus, the defense is the stronger of the two units.  In spite of the pretty rough summer that Big Ben has had, I still think the Steelers can win the division.

 

Indianapolis Colts (12-4).  Let’s see … big regular season, followed by a big choke in the playoffs.  Sounds about right. 

 

Denver Broncos (11-5).  The award for most infuriating coach in the NFL goes to … Mike Shanahan!  For the third consecutive year, he is driving fantasy football owners made with his perverse brand of science.  In 2004 he anointed Quentin Griffin as the new starting running back (after jettisoning Clinton Portis in the offseason), only to pull the plug after two games and then turn the reigns over to converted fullback Ruben Droughns.  Last year he put Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell into an admittedly successful time share, but when Anderson was let go as a cap casualty, it seemed obvious that the explosive Bell (the closest thing to Reggie Bush in the NFL before there was Reggie Bush) was going to get his chance to blow up.  Fantasy owners planned accordingly, accepted the fact that Ron Dayne might get some goal line carries (nevermind the fact that he sucked as a short yardage runner for years in New York), and planned on enjoying a big year from the former Oklahoma State standout.  Well, halfway through the summer Shanahan announced that a Bell was indeed starting at running back … but it was some guy named Mike Bell!  Now we head into the opening weekend with both Bells and a dude named Cedric Cobbs all still competing for carries.  What a mess.  I hope the Broncos go 2-14 as punishment, but of course they won’t. 

 

New York Giants (10-6).  I’ve seen the Giants touted as a Super Bowl candidate, which I’m not so sure about.  Eli Manning still has a ways to go, Tiki Barber is hitting that scary “Wow, just last year Priest Holmes was still really good” age, and Plaxico Burress just might be the most unreliable number one receiver in the history of the game.  Plus, they have a pretty brutal schedule.  So why am I still picking them to make the playoffs?  In part because of their tremendous defense and in part because I’m just not feeling the other teams in the NFC.  I will say that I wavered on the Giants and thought about swapping the Rams in for them, but in the end, went with the superior defensive team. 

 

Chicago Bears (11-5).  I am going against every instinct by putting the Bears back in the playoffs.  Rarely does a team try to fix something that isn’t broke and get away with it, which is exactly what Chicago did with the whole Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson saga this summer.  They won 12 games last year by playing great defense and letting Jones do the heavy lifting on offense, yet for some reason, they decided to keep pushing for Benson to become the starting tailback.  They acted like some also-ran in the middle of a rebuilding process.  In the end (or the beginning, rather), Benson displayed the same immaturity that he showed during his jolting interview on draft day last April by making one mistake after another.  Now he’s lost the job back to Jones by some combination of a shoulder injury and bad behavior.  Whatever.  The point is that when you have Super Bowl aspirations, it is usually best to avoid running back controversies.  Oh, by the way, they also have a quarterback controversy on their hands.  Is it to late to change my pick? 

 

Carolina Panthers (11-5).  I don’t have them going to the Super Bowl like most pundits, but I will admit that they look mighty good.  The offense is explosive and they finally have Foster Insurance in the form of stud rookie DeAngelo Williams (who, I think, is already better than DeShaun).  The defense is there, the coaching is there, and the schedule isn’t bad.  That said, Steve Smith and his balky hamstrings bother me.  He is starting to feel like one of those guys that gets hurt every other year and takes fantasy teams down with him.  Plus, I have the Eagles and Seahawks getting the byes in the first round and home field advantage in the second and I don’t like Delhomme on the road. 

 

Seattle Seahawks (12-4).  The Seahawks enter the season fighting more against curses than they are the rest of the NFC.  They first must contend with a recent “Super Bowl Loser” curse.  The last five losers in the big game have followed it by winning fewer than eight games the next year (which is just a crazy dropoff).  They are also up against the Madden Curse, which is an absolute monster (see below).  But do we really believe in curses?  Seattle has a terrific offensive line (even after losing Steve Hutchinson), a better defense than people realize, tons of offensive weapons, and a great home field advantage.  I’m going with the product on the field and cursing the curses. 

 

(You’ve probably heard all this before, but here is a quick rundown of the Madden Curse.  Until the release of Madden 2000, EA Sports had featured John Madden himself on the cover of their signature football game.  However, that year they put a player, Barry Sanders, on the cover.  He promptly retired.  The 2001 game featured Eddie George, who eventually bobbled a key pass in the playoffs that was intercepted for a touchdown by Ray Lewis, basically ending his career.  He followed that up with the first serious injury of his career the next season and then dwindled into nothing.  2003 featured Marshall Faulk, who suffered an injury and had the worst season of his career.  He never ran for 1,000 yards in a season again.  For the 2004 version, Michael Vick landed on the cover and then managed to break his leg in a preseason game the day after the video game was released.  Most recently, Donovan McNabb suffered the disintegration of the Eagle’s playoff run, a series of injuries capped off by a groin tear, and a highly publicized dispute with Terrell Owens … all after gracing the 2006 cover.  All I have to say is, “Proceed with caution, Mr. Alexander.”)

 

Now that we have every team in the books, lets quickly break down my playoff predictions.

 

AFC Playoffs

 

Wildcard Round.

(3) Broncos over (6) Ravens – We should know which Bell is the guy by this point, which is nice.

(5) Chargers over (4) Dolphins – My love affair with the Dolphins ends here. 

 

Divisional Playoffs.

(5) Chargers over (1) Colts – A relentless blitzing attack on defense and sleight-of-hand on offense once again proves to be the formula for eliminating the Colts.

(2) Pittsburgh over (3) Denver – Plummer falls apart and the Jay Cutler era commences in Colorado.

 

AFC Championship Game.

(5) Chargers over (2) Steelers – In an ironic twist, the Chargers replicate Pittsburgh’s “Road Warriors” run through the AFC to reach the Super Bowl. 

 

NFC Playoffs

 

Wildcard Round.

(3) Chicago over (6) New York – The good news for the Bears is that this year, they win a playoff game as New York is not qualified to win at Soldier Field in January.

(4) Carolina over (5) Minnesota – As long as Smith is healthy, I don’t think the Vikings can win this game.

 

Divisional Playoffs.

(1) Seattle over (4) Carolina – The Seahawks have the Panthers’ number.

(2) Philadelphia over (3) Chicago – The Eagles top off a nice redemption season.

 

NFC Championship Game.

(1) Seattle over (2) Philadelphia – The NFC goes chalk.

 

Super Bowl.

Seattle over San Diego – For the second year in a row, the Seahawks come out of the NFC as the top seed and for the second year in a row, they get an underdog coming out of the AFC.  This time, in a battle for West Coast supremacy, Seattle comes out on top.  Their window is closing fast and I think they know it and will respond accordingly, curses or no curses. 

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer’s Association.  He can be reached by email at wis.insider@gmail.com.


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