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Don Banks Inside the NFL

Looking ahead

Patriots stacking up to be the cream of the crop this season

Posted: Thursday August 28, 2003 4:37PM
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It's early of course, but I don't see much new happening in the NFL this season.

From the vantage point of late August, it's going to be the Super Bowl champ from 2001 (New England) against the Super Bowl champ from 2002 (Tampa Bay), facing off Feb. 1, 2004 in Houston in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Who do I like? Here's a hint: The Patriots are undefeated in February Super Bowls.

It's prediction time, and now that I've unveiled the big one, I don't mind admitting that three of the NFL's eight divisions are ridiculously hard to handicap. You could put the AFC East, the AFC West and the NFC South in practically any order -- although it's probably prudent to have the Jets near the bottom and the Bucs and Patriots near the top in their respective divisions -- and I could be talked into your way of thinking. It's that close.

Clarity comes and goes in the NFL, but to be sure, the preseason version rarely resembles the final product produced by hindsight. Thus, take these division-by-division predictions with a healthy dose of reservation and qualification. Your favorite team's actual results may vary:

AFC East

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1. New England -- No one has done more to improve their Super Bowl chances than the Patriots, whose revamped defense has a chance to be special. They'll be playing deep into January if they can just find a way to win their brutal division.

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2. Buffalo -- Much like the Patriots, I like the way the Bills went about their offseason, concentrating on defense as the difference-maker. It's a big year for head coach Gregg Williams, but Buffalo will respond with its first playoff berth since 1999.

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3. Miami -- The Dolphins still have division-winning talent on paper. But something's always missing in South Florida, and my hunch is that Junior Seau, Sammy Knight and Brian Griese aren't going to significantly change the dynamic. That's not good news for Dave Wannstedt's job security.

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4. New York -- The Jets had already lost ground in the division before Chad Pennington was injured. Now with Vinny Testaverde back under center, this season could look more like early 2002 than late 2002. That said, never underestimate Herman Edwards' ability to adapt to any situation.

AFC North

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1. Baltimore -- This is a pick reflecting just how far I think the Ravens defense can carry Baltimore. The passing game will continue to be the biggest weak spot, but if Jamal Lewis and Ray Lewis both do their thing, there could be season-long echoes of 2000's winning blueprint.

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2. Steelers -- If the Ravens had the Steelers' explosive passing game, Baltimore would win this division in a cakewalk. But the Steelers' offensive line and running games remain question marks, and the secondary still has a lot to prove after the torching it received at times last season.

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3. Cleveland -- My gut says this is your basic take-a-step-back season in Cleveland, after the Browns surprised even themselves with a playoff berth in 2002. The defense has issues galore, and while Cleveland might win a handful of games 34-31, that's how you end up 7-9 in the NFL.

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4. Cincinnati -- Repeat after me: The Bengals are better. The Bengals are better. The Bengals are better. There. Believe it? I do. But after 12 consecutive non-winning seasons, let's give Marvin Lewis a little time to work. Five or six wins would represent a solid first step forward.

AFC South

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1. Tennessee -- The Titans can put their starting 22 up against anyone's and not flinch. But those No. 1's better stay healthy, because there's less depth in Tennessee than any time in recent memory. Two reasons to both respect and remember the Titans at all times: Jeff Fisher and quarterback Steve McNair.

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2. Indianapolis -- That playoff blowout against the Jets nicely obscured the fact that Tony Dungy improved the Colts' defensive ranking from 29th in 2001 to 8th in 2002. Still, there's more work to be done on defense, and Edgerrin James must be back in his 2000 form if Indy is to be a Super threat.

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3. Jacksonville -- Get the feeling that the Jags are trapped somewhere between their future and their past? Me too. Jack Del Rio has some talent to work with, but there remains a transition to forge through, and Jacksonville is still in the middle of that process, not the end.

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4. Houston -- The Texans might be a tad better, but that's really not going to amount to much. We're still talking last place in the division and four or five wins. Then again, if the Houston team that got dismantled by Dallas two weeks ago shows up, 2002 could start looking like the good old days.

AFC West

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1. Oakland -- I know Kansas City is the chic pick this year, and the average age of the Raiders' starters is 47.4. But in a division where all four teams could be separated by two games, I've got to believe playoff-drive experience will count for something. Thus, I'm sticking with the geezers.

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2. Kansas City -- I didn't see the Chiefs first-hand this preseason, but people who did that I trust say they're scary good on offense. The problem, of course, is that they were scary bad on defense the past two years. I'd like to go with the Dick Vermeil third-year formula alone, but it's not enough for me.

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3. Denver -- Pat Bowlen stepped forward and shut up all of us yapping dogs who were writing that the pressure is on Mike Shanahan this season. But contract extension aside, if Jake Plummer and the Broncos disappoint again, the atmosphere in Denver won't be all warm and fuzzy come winter.

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4. San Diego -- It pains me to assign the Chargers to last in the AFC West, because I think they have a chance to be pretty good in what new GM A.J. Smith is calling the team's "push year.'' As in push to the playoffs. But with the Chargers, you just can't ever count on them finishing what they started.

NFC East

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1. Philadelphia -- I can't quantify it, but something's not quite right with the 2003 Eagles. I foresee a third consecutive division title, which would bring the team its fourth playoff trip in a row, but it will be more of a struggle than Philly is used to. Last season looms as the Eagles' best shot.

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2. New York -- Expecting good things out of the Giants is risky business. When you write them off, they come back from the dead with a vengeance. When you build them up, they have a tendency to fall flat. Guess what? They're talking Super Bowl in New York. You know what that means.

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3. Washington -- No matter what you think of the Redskins' frenetic offseason of acquisition, this is a club that will rise and fall on the play of second-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Watch the Ramsey meter and it'll tell you how the Redskins are faring. Looks like six- to eight-win material to me.

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4. Dallas -- Everybody knows that a Bill Parcells renovation project doesn't reach playoff caliber until his second season. That means the Tuna will use his reunion tour season to find out who he can count on and who he has to run out of town. An oh-so-familiar 5-11 sounds about right for the Cowboys.

NFC North

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1. Green Bay -- Raise your hand if you're worried about that Packers defense. Yes, we see you there in the back, Mike Sherman. Green Bay is being awarded this division by default, and you can't really argue since none of the other three teams look playoff-ready. But about those linebackers ...

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2. Minnesota -- Positively no one wanted to play Mike Tice's Vikings last December, and it's not going to take them three months to start creating problems this time around. But they're still suspect enough on defense that it's hard to get them past the 8-8, 9-7 range. Progress? Yes. Playoffs? No.

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3. Detroit -- For a franchise that usually gets next to nothing right, the hiring of Steve Mariucci represented a major accomplishment. Mooch can't work miracles with this roster, especially on defense. But admit it, Lions fans, those days of Wayne Fontes-led mediocrity sound pretty good about now.

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4. Chicago -- Conventional wisdom nows says that the Bears were neither as good as they played in 2001's miraculous season, nor as bad as they performed in last year's lost cause. And I buy that. Unfortunately for Chicago and its fans, the hunch is 2001 was a much bigger fluke than 2002.

NFC South

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1. Tampa Bay -- It's been a while since anybody has really handled the year-after Super Bowl syndrome all that well. But having got a taste of what life in the winner's circle is like, Jon Gruden seems addicted to the high. If the Bucs can piece together a running game that works, what's not to like?

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2. Carolina -- OK, so there was a quarterback competition waged, but it was just to see who gets to hand off to Stephen Davis. With what John Fox has built on defense, the Panthers don't need a ton of points. If they don't beat themselves, and Davis can run out the clock, the playoffs are within reach.

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3. Atlanta -- Most everyone in the NFL hopes the Michael Vick injury isn't a precursor to a come-down season in Atlanta, but with the Falcons' history of never having consecutive winning years, you have to wonder. As tough as this division is, the Falcons' margin for error just got significantly smaller.

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4. New Orleans -- This is unquestionably the most questionable of my 32 picks. The Saints in last, with that talent? True, but somebody has to be last in the NFC South, and whoever it is it's going to be a pretty good team. Tell me which Aaron Brooks shows up all season and I'll revise the Saints' standing.

NFC West

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1. St. Louis -- Kurt Warner is motivated. Mike Martz is motivated. Marshall Faulk is motivated. Those are three pretty good reasons to believe that the Rams will wipe out the stench of last season. Maybe the Greatest Show on Turf won't make it all the way back, but St. Louis is again a force to be reckoned with.

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2. Seattle -- If things fall just right for the Seahawks, wild-card playoff contention is realistic. But was that the real Matt Hasselbeck that we saw chew up defenses in the season's final six games? And how much of Seattle's defensive improvement hinges on whether tackle Norman Hand can own the point of attack?

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3. San Francisco -- I'm probably underestimating the 49ers, but Jeff Garcia's tricky back, the unpredictable nature of Terrell Owens' contract year, and Dennis Erickson's go-for-the-jugular offensive approach all sound like risky planks of San Francisco's party platform. This is a good team, but one that appears in for a bumpy ride.

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4. Arizona -- The Cardinals finally pushed through the plans for a new stadium in the desert, and in the end, that may be the only real positive for this franchise in 2003. Emmitt Smith and Jeff Blake are the new hopes on offense, and at least they have proven resumes. You can't say the same for many starters on Arizona's defense.

Pick 'em

AFC Division winners -- New England, Baltimore, Tennessee, Oakland

AFC Wild Cards -- Buffalo, Kansas City

NFC Division winners -- Philadelphia, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, St. Louis

NFC Wild Cards -- Carolina, Seattle

AFC Championship -- New England over Tennessee

NFC Championship -- Tampa Bay over St. Louis

Super Bowl XXXVIII -- New England over Tampa Bay.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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