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Music City march to glory

Titans will outduel Patriots and Seahawks to capture Super Bowl XXXIX

Updated: Tuesday September 7, 2004 9:42PM
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The Titans' Steve McNair had a 100.4 passer rating last season.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Remember the Titans. That's all I'm saying.

Making NFL predictions at this time of year doesn't make you an expert. But getting them right sure helps. And last year, my preseason Super Bowl pick of New England to win it all stood the test of time.

This year, as much as I still believe in the plucky, team-oriented Patriots, I'm casting my lot with Tennessee, which I have beating New England in the AFC title game. Let's face it: Whereas the Patriots own two of the past three Super Bowl rings, the Titans' window of opportunity is closing. Five years after their Super Bowl near-miss against the Rams, there's a sense of urgency surrounding Jeff Fisher, Steve McNair and the rest of Tennessee's roster, and there may never be another chance that looks as promising as 2004.

While most folks focused on who the Titans lost this offseason -- running back Eddie George, defensive end Jevon Kearse, and receiver Justin McCareins among them -- it was easy to forget that Tennessee went 12-4 last year and came within a field goal of beating out Indianapolis (also 12-4) for the AFC South title. In the playoffs, the Titans logged an impressive road win at Baltimore, trading smash-mouth football with the tough Ravens, and came oh so close to upsetting the Patriots in the frigid cold of Gillette Stadium (losing 17-14).

This year, with the clock ticking, the Titans will take care of business. And McNair will earn his career-capping ring. To get there, Tennessee will have to go through NFC champion Seattle in the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. Yes, the Seahawks are the chic pick this preseason, but deservedly so. In an NFC that appears devoid of powerhouses, Seattle has the look of a team on its way to bigger and better things.

One disclaimer: These picks are mine, and should not be confused with the ones dished out in Sports Illustrated's NFL preview issue.

AFC East

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Tom Brady's Patriots have won 15 straight games.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

1. New England (12-4) -- As wily as he is, Bill Belichick is entering his 10th season as an NFL head coach without ever qualifying for the playoffs in consecutive seasons. That's a streak that is guaranteed to end this year, but the Patriots won't have quite enough karma to make it back-to-back Super Bowl titles, and three out of four.

2. Buffalo (9-7) -- You have to give the Bills' No. 2-ranked defense credit last season for not turning mutinous on Buffalo's inept offense. I believe in new head coach Mike Mularkey and his ability to get things pointed the right way. If the Bills receive anything resembling decent offensive line play, a 9-7 wild-card berth is there for the taking.

3. N.Y. Jets (7-9) -- Scanning the Jets roster, it's hard to figure out who they have that would keep an opponent awake at night. Their offensive impact players really aren't game-breaking types, and their defense is a collection of solid but unspectacular talents. Add it up and it has third place written all over it.

4. Miami (6-10) -- After all the energy the Dolphins spent trying to upgrade at both quarterback and receiver this offseason, it's not going to wind up making much of a difference if they can't at least field a nominal running game. Sorry, Dol-fans, this has all the tell-tale signs of a lost season. Wonder if Dave Wannstedt's still pumped about getting that extra year?

AFC North

1. Baltimore (11-5) -- When the Ravens defense has its mojo going, it's a thing of beauty to watch. All that speed. All that athleticism. All that flying to the ball. But it's the passing game that will determine whether Baltimore can go all the way for the second time in five seasons. The passing game may be ugly at times, but Kyle Boller and his receivers have to earn their varsity letters this year.

2. Cincinnati (8-8) -- The Bengals are on the right track, especially on offense, where their skill players are the best in the division. It's the defense, head coach Marvin Lewis' forte, that will keep Cincinnati from challenging Baltimore's AFC North supremacy. But there's hope, because the Bengals secondary looks better with Deltha O'Neal and Kim Herring in place.

3. Pittsburgh (7-9) -- The Steelers are mired in that great mass of mediocrity in the middle third of the NFL: Good enough to beat anyone anywhere, and capable of losing to a bottom-feeder. They're committed to running the ball again in true Steelers fashion, but it feels like this is just a treading water kind of year until quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is ready in 2005.

4. Cleveland (5-11) -- I still can't figure out how Butch Davis went 5-11 last season and still managed to earn a contract extension and consolidate more power than Vladimir Putin. The Browns have talent, and I loved the Jeff Garcia signing, but I don't know if Davis has a lot of true believers in his own locker room. And, yes, that does matter in today's parity-packed NFL.

AFC South

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The Colts' Dwight Freeney recorded 11 sacks last season.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

1. Tennessee (12-4) -- You'd think it'd be hard to overlook a 12-4 season and a road playoff win, but somehow Tennessee gets left out of the discussion a little too often when it comes to the league's elite teams. Other than lack of depth, a result of the salary-cap era, the Titans really don't have a weakness. Every year they lose players, but they always seem to lose the right ones.

2. Indianapolis (11-5) -- The hope is that the lights start going on in year three of Tony Dungy's defensive system, but this still looks like a team too lopsided toward offense for its own good. Other than speed rusher Dwight Freeney, the Colts defense is woefully shy of playmakers. A brutal early season schedule that includes trips to New England and Tennessee doesn't help.

3. Jacksonville (7-9) -- The surprise-team-to-the-Super Bowl storyline has become so common that we convince ourselves there has to be one every year. Thus did Jacksonville enjoy a brief flurry of Super Bowl-pick hype this offseason. But that's over and now Jack Del Rio can get back to his rebuilding program. The Jags are better, but they're not ready for February just yet.

4. Houston (6-10) -- I get the feeling that head coach Dom Capers knows he's doing it the right way this time. In Carolina, his expansion Panthers went to the NFC title game in their second season, setting the bar impossibly high. Capers' Texans won four games in 2002, and five last season. A 7-9 or so this time around, and things are on track for that 2007 Super Bowl push.

AFC West

1. Kansas City (11-5) -- All I know is that if the Chiefs go 13-3 and earn a first-round bye again, K.C. fans might start shooting arrows through their own heads. In 1995, '97 and again last season, the 13-3, first-round bye quinella has brought nothing but heartbreak in the form of one-and-out playoff appearances. For Dick Vermeil and his boys, it feels like now-or-never time.

2. Denver (9-7) -- Everybody seems all worked up about the Trade, but I don't think the Broncos' season is going to sink or swim based on Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey. Denver's running game will be just fine. I'm not so sure about the passing game, which has to rely on Jake Plummer throwing to a 34-year-old Rod Smith and the still-unproven Ashley Lelie.

3. Oakland (8-8) -- How's this for insight: The Raiders won't be the train wreck they were last year at 4-12, or anywhere near as good as the 11-5 Super Bowl team of 2002. Oakland's best addition? It's not Warren Sapp. Try new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. If his players stay healthy, Ryan will make his unit one that will fight you ever step of the way.

4. San Diego (4-12) -- Alas, the Chargers aren't going to be very good again, and it hurts. San Diego is the best trip on the NFL map, unless you're partial to San Francisco. Either way, there's more bad football on tap in California this season. But there's a part of me that will keep track of the Bolts, if only to see if they can finish with more wins than the Giants and Eli Manning.

NFC East

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The Eagles are hoping that Jevon Kearse can help them improve their team total of 38 sacks last year.
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

1. Philadelphia (11-5) -- First, we answer the big question. Sorry, but I don't see Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse putting the Eagles over the hump. Philly gambled heavily on two players who have sizable question marks surrounding them, and the moves still smack more of desperation than inspiration. That said, the Eagles will once again be there come playoff time.

2. Dallas (8-8) -- The Cowboys overachieved last year and that's going to create the perception of taking a step back in Dallas this season. But how far back I really don't know. One of my colleagues, Peter King, picked them to win the NFC East. Another, Paul Zimmerman, has them in dead last. I'm splitting the difference and putting them a hair ahead of third-place Washington.

3. Washington (7-9) -- All you have to do is give Redskins fans the slightest bit of hope, and they go crazy. Giving them Joe Gibbs back was almost unfair. I mean, can it lead to anything but disappointment on a massive scale? Gibbs II can't possibly live up to Gibbs I, and we're not afraid to say it. Can he still win in this league? Yes. Can he dominate, like he did in the 1980s? Uh, no.

4. New York Giants (4-12) -- Oh, how quickly things change in the NFL. Last year, the G-men reported to camp talking Super Bowl and nobody snickered because many of the pieces seemed to be in place. But after watching those pieces come apart during the course of 2003's 4-12 finish, the Giants are starting over. Something tells me the first steps back won't be pretty.

NFC North

1. Minnesota (10-6) -- It's rare that you get to be the toast of the NFL, and then almost toast, all in one season, but that's what Vikings head coach Mike Tice experienced in 2003. This is a league that can slap you on the back and then kick in you in the gut all in the span of a few weeks. But Tice and his Vikings will be better off for having endured last year's rollercoaster ride.

2. Green Bay (8-8) -- They're not exactly the Atlanta Braves of the NFL, but with 12 consecutive non-losing seasons and nine playoff trips in the past 11 years, the Packers do seem to keep right on rolling. Until now. I have only one NFC North team making the playoffs, and it won't be Green Bay. This year the Vikings won't fall apart and hand the Pack a gift postseason berth.

3. Detroit (7-9) -- Don't look now but the Lions -- yep, the Lions -- have the makings of a pretty high-powered offense. I think you'll be surprised at how much better Joey Harrington looks with weapons such as Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Kevin Jones surrounding him. Playoffs? No. But the days of Detroit being somebody's second bye week are finally over.

4. Chicago (6-10) -- The Bears need a lot to go right to get to .500 this season, but there's talent on defense that new head coach Lovie Smith can build around. The problems are on offense, where second-year quarterback Rex Grossman has nobody of note to throw to. Running back Thomas Jones might just wind up being the Bears' leading rusher and receiver.

NFC South

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Michael Vick and the Falcons will use the West Coast offense this season in Atlanta.
AP

1. Carolina (10-6) -- The way the Panthers won all those close games last season makes you nervous, because that sort of magical run tends to go the opposite way the next year. But there's something just so solid about what John Fox has built in Charlotte that I can't foresee him letting things slide. The Panthers are going to run the ball and play great defense. And win again.

2. Tampa Bay (9-7) -- All offseason I thought Jon Gruden looked like some first-time fantasy footballer, grabbing up every name player he could without considering how they fit into the grand scheme of his roster. The phrase hodge-podge kept coming back to mind. But now I think he's just good enough to coach this bunch of veterans back into the playoffs, albeit barely.

3. New Orleans (7-9) -- Saints coach Jim Haslett has tried to get tough about his team's perceived discipline problems. But as one NFL head coach told me this summer, "You win with character, and not characters. And the Saints have too many of them." Another head coach added: "You crack down at first and then loosen up. It doesn't work too well the other way.''

4. Atlanta (7-9) -- It's become a cliché to say how even teams are in the NFL, but with the NFC South, I could make a case for every team finishing first, and all but Carolina finishing last. The Falcons can't be feeling too good on the old Michael Vick meter these days, but to Jim Mora's credit this is no longer a one-man team.

NFC West

1. Seattle (12-4) -- There aren't any truly dominant-looking teams in this year's NFC, but the Seahawks have a chance to put together a season that ends up earning them a No. 1 playoff seed. If the defense can grow up a bit, and overcome the early-season absence of outside linebacker Chad Brown, Seattle should be in for its first real postseason run since 1984.

2. St. Louis (10-6) -- Most of the key Rams aren't youngsters anymore, so this season in some ways has that last-shot feel to it. At least until you watch rookie running back Steven Jackson run the ball and realize there's more offensive firepower on the way. The Rams really have only one team to worry about. If they can beat Seattle, they're still the best in the NFC West.

3. San Francisco (4-12) -- They might win three, they might win five. But no more. In his most honest moments, Dennis Erickson must be thinking he could sue the organization for false advertising, given that he believed he was taking over a pretty good NFL team when he replaced Steve Mariucci in early 2003. Oh, well, at least owner John York has made the books come out even.

4. Arizona (3-13) -- Now we know why Dennis Green drafted another first-round receiver (Larry Fitzgerald) despite his team's other needs. Maybe he foresaw this preseason, when the Cardinals barely had enough healthy pass-catchers to practice. Things may get worse before they get better, but with Green on hand, and a new stadium on the way in 2006, there's some hope in Arizona.

NFL playoffs

Wild-Card round

AFC: Baltimore over Buffalo, Indianapolis over Kansas City

NFC: Carolina over Tampa Bay, Minnesota over St. Louis

Divisional round

AFC: Tennessee over Indianapolis, New England over Baltimore

NFC: Seattle over Minnesota, Carolina over Philadelphia

Championship games

AFC: Tennessee over New England

NFC: Seattle over Carolina

Super Bowl XXXIX

Tennessee 27, Seattle 24

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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