With a new season starting tonight, Ron Borges casts an eye over the teams across all divisions and picks out some key figures in the quest for Super Bowl glory.
Pittsburgh steel will land crown
They are many people's favourites and the New York Giants not only have the deepest pass rush in the NFL but also an offence that can consistently run and pass the ball to great effect. However, their National Conference (NFC) rivals Philadelphia Eagles beat them twice last year and have added offensive weapons to a team whose defence gave the Giants' fits.
The other likely challengers are the Minnesota Vikings who may have a better defence than either of them as well as the game's best young running back in Adrian Peterson. Many felt they were a proven quarterback away from being a contender before signing 40-year-old, future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, luring him out of retirement with the promise of one last run at the Super Bowl. Although the defending NFC champions, the Arizona Cardinals, are better than anyone thought they would be last season, they may not be as good as people think they should be this year.
Same is true of the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. They will have their moments but none will survive until the end. In the AFC, the New England Patriots are the consensus pick but the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers will have a lot to say about that, as will the health of Tom Brady. Brady is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him all season but he looked brilliant this summer until his right shoulder was slammed into the ground in a pre-season game.
Brady will not play again until the team's opening game on Monday. If he is ready the Patriots will be too. If not, the Steelers may repeat as conference champions. That could happen any way because they have the league's best defence and one of the most reliable offences with Ben Roethlisbeger leading it. Last year he took them to a Super Bowl title despite a spotty running game. If it returns to form the Steelers could be as formidable as New England.
The Indianapolis Colts will be dangerous because of Peyton Manning's presence and the Tennessee Titans will be as well because of a ferocious defence and a running game that is much the same. San Diego Chargers' offence, Baltimore Ravens' aging but still daunting defence and Miami Dolphins' scrappiness add to the competition. And the winner? Giants versus Pittsburgh in the big one. Pittsburgh wins.
The Giants have a simple formula: pound the run and pound you with their defence. They do both so well it takes pressure off quarterback Eli Manning, who is still without a proven elite receiver. Philadelphia upgraded both their offensive line and receiving corps, adding size, speed and explosiveness. Then they signed Michael Vick to make things even more interesting for quarterback Donovan McNabb. All that offence and the league's third-ranked defence make the Eagles solid contenders. Dallas were a better soap opera than team last year. After a house cleaning, that could change but not enough. Washington Redskins are stout on defence but Jason Campbell will have to prove he is a reliable playmaker at quarterback.
The Vikings were already the division favourite even before landing Brett Favre, a division legend from his days with the Packers. Favre will not have to do much because the defence and running game are how they intend to win. All he has to do is manage his ego. Green Bay have an easy opening schedule and must use it well. The pressure will be on a newly-installed 3-4 defence and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is the reason the Packers forced Favre out two years ago. Chicago could be a surprise if newly-acquired Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler can make average receivers better than they appear but he cannot help a defence that has faded from the 2006 Super Bowl season. The Detroit Lions will win a game. That's not saying much but when you go 0-16 it is a start.
The Falcons were the surprise of the division last year, fuelled by the superior play of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, who carried 376 times. If he does that again his career will be short and so will the Falcons' success. New Orleans Saints have a Super Bowl offence but do they have a play-off defence? The Saints finished 26th in scoring defence and must be more aggressive this year. Carolina Panthers were a play-off team that fell apart in the post-season. They must prove they are more the former than the latter. To do that, quarterback Jake Delhomme and the defensive line must re-establish themselves. Tampa Bay Buccaneers are rebuilding and that will take time.
This is football's weakest division even though the Cardinals are defending NFC champions. They have an explosive pass offence as long as aging quarterback Kurt Warner is healthy but the defence was 28th in points allowed and 28th in red zone defence. That is a lot of defensive problems to survive. The San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St Louis Rams are not likely to expose them but play-off calibre teams will. The 49ers are on the upswing but need a quarterback. The Seahawks have a quarterback when Matt Hasselbeck is healthy but wants to run the ball and may not have the backs to do it. As for the Rams, they lost 27 of the past 32 games for a reason.
New England are the heavy favourite as long as Tom Brady stays healthy. After missing last season he is back guiding arguably the most dangerous offence in football. The defence is suspect but Bill Belichick will worry about that in the play-offs. Miami were a surprise play-off team last year and will be in that hunt again despite playing the league's most difficult schedule. The Dolphins need to run the ball more effectively and continue to improve on defence to keep pace with New England. The New York Jets will start rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and a blitz-crazy defence. The Buffalo Bills brought in Terrell Owens to revive the offence. He may try but it is unlikely he will not succeed.
The Steelers return 21 of 22 starters and that means they will have the stingiest defence again and an offence that should run the ball better but does not have to because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can carry it if he has to. Baltimore may have a hard time repeating last year's 11-5 record. They lost two top-notch players from their rock-ribbed defence and second-year quarterback Joe Flacco will be forced to do more as opponents focus on shutting down his running game. Cincinnati Bengals are finally improving on defence but not fast enough. If Carson Palmer and Chad Ocho Cinco do not explode on offence the Bengals will implode. Then there is the lowly Cleveland Browns. Enough said.
This is a two-team race with Indianapolis trying to hold off the fast-rising Titans. The Colts surrendered the division to the Titans a year ago but as long as Peyton Manning is at quarterback it is difficult to pick against Indy. Long-time head coach Tony Dungy retired and has been replaced by Jim Caldwell, who has 20 of 22 starters back from a year ago, when the Colts reached the play-offs for the eighth straight season. The Titans had a league best 13-3 record in 2008 and should be just as dominating on defence and punishing with the run but must fill a hole left by All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans will chase them but will not catch them. The Jaguars are on the downslide. Houston are improving after two 8-8 seasons but must play a consistent defence to challenge.
San Diego are the class of the division. The Chargers' offence is explosive and their defence will be aggressively creating pressure with an increased use of the blitz. The only thing that can stop them is an injury to Philip Rivers, one of the game's elite young quarterbacks. The rest of the division is battling for second place. Denver Broncos have a new offence, no defence, new coach, new GM, new quarterback and old problems. Kansas City Chiefs should be better but only because they cannot be worse than going 2-14 in 2008? The Chiefs have a new coach, new quarterback (ex-Patriot Matt Cassel) and a suspect offensive line. Oakland Raiders have not won more than five games since 2002 and will not this year unless Marcus Russell makes huge improvements at quarterback. Even if he does 8-8 would be a miracle.