Posted: Thursday September 1, 2005 11:52AM; Updated: Friday September 2, 2005 2:17PM
1. VIKINGS (9-7)
Yeah, I'll put them in the playoffs because of all the new guys they have on defense and because Daunte Culpepper has turned into such a terrific quarterback. But not deep into the playoffs, and I wrote this only recently, because I just can't get the vision out of my head of Mike Tice unable to pull the trigger and get the challenge flag out when T.O. scored his phantom TD in last year's NFC divisional playoffs. Oh boy, I can hear it. Johnny One Note ... get off it, pal, it's only one play. Sorry, but game-day coaching is part of the big picture and I don't like it here.
2. PACKERS (8-8)
Third defensive coordinator in three years. Head coach gets a new contract. That's great, keep blaming the assistants while the top guy slips by. I don't like this defense much better than I did the last two. I don't like an O-line that's minus both big-league guards. I'm rooting hard for Brett Favre because the poor guy has suffered enough, after Hurricane Katrina added to many other worries by leveling his home.
3. LIONS (8-8)
The schedule's friendly enough that eight victories seem logical. But then we saw that exhibition game against the Rams. Wham! This is a team headed for the toilet, for oblivion. But I harken back to a conversation I had with the late Lyle Alzado, when he grabbed me by the shirt and yelled, "Never forget this! Exhibition games mean nothing! Absolutely nothing!" I never forgot it, and whereas once I would at least partially judge a team on what it showed on the Field of Zero, I now treat that as a ball of fluff. And after all that is said ... gee, didn't Joey Harrington look worse the other night than he did as a raw rookie?
4. BEARS (3-13)
My West Coast correspondent, coach TJ, a Bears fan, e-mailed me, "Did you pick that 3-13 yourself or did the editors make you do it?" Yeah, they made me, TJ. I could take the lighted cigarettes, but when they shaved my wife's head, that was too much. He feels that a defense as good as theirs will spring many upsets, create much havoc. I feel that, well, could someone please look up the following for me and e-mail your answer to Andrew: What's the record for starting QBs who have gone down, one after another, the following year, either by injury or the waiver wire? I count four, and this will make a hell of a trivial question some day. Grossman, Krenzel, Quinn, Hutchinson. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
1. PANTHERS (12-4)
Wednesday I was told that any restaurant in Charlotte will comp me on a meal because I picked Carolina to win Super Bowl XL. The problem is that there aren't any good restaurants in Charlotte. ("You sure know how to turn friends into enemies in a hurry," says the Flaming Redhead). I'm not wild about the Panthers' offensive-line situation. The running back position is unsettled. I don't care. I like their coach, John Fox. I like how hard this team played for him last year, when things seemed hopeless. This is a pick from the heart, from an emotional platform. Bettors beware!
2. FALCONS (10-6*)
Last year Michael Vick was sacked once every 6.97 times he threw the ball. That's the worst figure of any of the 33 qualifiers. He's going into his fifth year. This has got to stop. He's got to learn what all of us who have grown up in big-city crowds teeming with pickpockets already have learned: Pocket presence. Not presents. Sure he's a miraculous runner and he sells lots of T-shirts, but his problems behind the line are holding things back. I think the Falcons' offensive and defensive lines are strong enough to put them in good playoff position. Secondary? Only so-so.
3. SAINTS (8-8)
I saw one story quoting a "league official," about whether or not they had a chance to play the Sept. 18 home opener in the Super Dome. He said they'd have to wait and see. At the time, 20,000 people were sweltering in the stadium, without any air conditioning, or water or hope. I have no way of estimating the terrible final toll of Hurricane Katrina or how it will impact our insular little world of football, and in this case, the Saints. I get a little sick, seeing something of this magnitude focusing on something so trivial.
4. BUCCANEERS (7-9)
A handicapper I know told me to keep an eye on the Bucs' defense. "Aging," he told me. "Best days are behind it. Ready to fold." Well, I disagree. It's no older than it was in the Warren Sapp, John Lynch days. And it did lead the league in pass defense last season. Nope, I think the Bucs' recent misfortune is a problem that can be fixed with a strong running game. I always get a kick out of the rookie running back lottery. Queen for a Day, who will it be, la la la? RonnieBrown? Cadillac Williams? Cedric Benson? J.J. Arrington as a sleeper? Maurice Clarett in NFL Asia? If the Bucs hold the winning ticket and Cadillac is the man, and if the line settles down and does some serious drive blocking, well then what? An 8-8 record maybe? Perhaps 9-7? This kind of flippancy usually comes back to haunt me, because at the end of the year, when the team is 12-4 or something, somebody's angle is always, "Remember that guy from SportsIllustrated who said ... ?" etc.