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Monday Morning QB (cont.)

Posted: Monday September 4, 2006 10:13AM; Updated: Monday September 4, 2006 10:21PM
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AFC East

Daunte Culpepper completed 73.3 percent of his passes during the preseason.
Daunte Culpepper completed 73.3 percent of his passes during the preseason.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
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1. New England, 11-5:  Writing the Patriots off because they lost Adam Vinatieri and David Givens in free agency and may be without Deion Branch is like writing the Yankees off because they lost Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. Just as New York still has four or five guys who may reside in Cooperstown someday, the Patriots have Tom Brady and a still-formidable supporting cast. The running game, bolstered by quick and powerful Laurence Maroney, should be the best in the Belichick Era, and the defense should be good enough with which to win.

2. * Miami, 10-6: Talking with Nick Saban the other day, I wondered when he knew Daunte Culpepper was going to be A-OK for the season. Saban shared a  conversation he had with Culpepper the night before the second preseason game at Carolina (where the QB had shredded his knee 10 months earlier). "You know, you don't have to play in this ballgame if you don't want to,'' Saban old him, concerned that Culpepper might have some flashbacks to the injury. Culpepper said he absolutely wanted to get out there and compete.

I think Saban was leaning hard toward Drew Brees last winter, until he got a negative vibe about the readiness of Brees' shoulder for the season. But he made a great call on Culpepper, who, with the exception of his mobility, has looked superb this summer, and the mobility should get better with time.

3. Buffalo, 4-12: The Bills are going to have to win a lot of 16-13 games with Willis McGahee running wild and the league's best special teams winning a game or two. McGahee looks trim and powerful. He's lost some weight -- he didn't have a lot to lose -- and will eat up offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild's running style because it will focus so heavily on what McGahee does well, running both in space and with power. But a schedule that has them going to New England, Miami and Chicago in Weeks 1, 2 and 5 does the Bills no favors.

4. New York Jets, 4-12. "How do you like our team?'' GM Mike Tannenbaum asked over the weekend. Well, I don't really know what it is. I don't know who'll be quarterbacking by midseason and I don't know who the running back is. The offensive line starts two rookies and wasn't good to begin with, and the defensive line is hugely suspect. Other than that, it's a heck of a team.

I will give Tannenbaum credit for trying to shore up the defensive line in the last 72 hours. He engineered a very cool three-way trade, exchanging fourth-string quarterback Brooks Bollinger (who would not have made the team) to Minnesota for 314-pound defensive tackle C.J. Mosley and an '08 seventh-round pick, then turning around and dealing that draft choice to Oakland for defensive end Bobby Hamilton. Then the Jets claimed 325-pound DT Rashad Moore from the Raiders after final cuts. Mosley, Hamilton and Moore all likely will be on the Jets' final 53-man roster on opening day, and coach Eric Mangini will use Hamilton, a veteran of the Belichick defense that Mangini is using, to play defensive tackle in the 3-4.

AFC North

1. Cincinnati, 11-5. All we needed to see was Carson Palmer being competent just once in the preseason, and we saw it in late August. He shredded Green Bay's defense (OK, it's not Chicago's or Tampa's) and proved that even if he's having some flashbacks to the Kimo von Oelhoffen hit last January, he's mentally right enough to play at the start of the season. Will the defense be good enough? That's the big question. But if Palmer stays upright, Cincinnati should repeat as conference champs.

2. Pittsburgh, 10-6. Too much bad karma. The Roethlisberger appendicitis. The Cowher contract. The Bettis absence. The Ward hammy. There's still the core of a very good team, but remember one thing: Before the Steelers went on their magic carpet ride with all the pieces in place last fall, they were on a three-game losing streak, sitting at 7-5 and in severe danger of not making the playoffs. Brutal road sked, too. At Jacksonville, San Diego, Atlanta, Carolina and Cincy, the latter two in the last three weeks of the season.

3. Baltimore, 9-7. I wish I knew what Steve McNair has left. He looked extremely good in the preseason -- 35 of 46, 76 percent completion rate, for 335 yards. As long as he's healthy, Baltimore should contend to win the division. For all the hype about the Jamal Lewis/Mike Anderson power backfield we heard in the offseason, every time I saw a highlight of the Ravens in the preseason, I saw Musa Smith (16 carries, 134 yards) running wild. If McNair plays 16 weeks, I could be regretting my Ravens non-playoff prediction.

4. Cleveland, 6-10. There's something about Romeo Crennel that I trust. He's been through too much under too many smart coaches to be entering his second year in Cleveland with a bad team. And though on the surface I don't like a lot of what I see, I like the mixing and matching Crennel and GM Phil Savage have done at positions of great need. When they lost LeCharles Bentley at center, they plugged and hunted and mixed and matched until finally, on Saturday, they snagged the best center on the trade market, 10-game-playoff-starter Hank Fraley of the Eagles. The Browns might be better than we think.

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