Taking the good with the bad
Predicting the best and worst of the season to come
Posted: Thursday August 30, 2007 1:44PM; Updated: Thursday August 30, 2007 2:27PM
As the preseason draws to a close and the pursuit begins in earnest for a trip to Super Bowl XLII, here's my assessment of some of the best and worst that the league has to offer. I've touched on everything from the best and worst division, running back combo, offense, linebacking corps, and even the teams most likely to suprise and disappoint.
The AFC North should be the most competitive division in the league this season. Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have enough talent to make deep playoff runs this season. Cleveland will not contend for a playoff berth, but with an improved offensive line and running game, it has enough firepower to make games competitive. These four teams will spend all season beating each other up, but the survivor will be battle-tested and playoff-ready.
The New Orleans Saints have emerged as the class of the NFC South and may face little resistance on their way to a second consecutive division crown. The Carolina Panthers are the most likely challengers, but their spotty play during the preseason makes it hard to jump on their bandwagon. The Falcons have spent the offseason dealing with the fallout from the Mike Vick scandal and the Bucs are struggling to create an identity. It is hard to imagine either team making a serious push for the division title.
Team most likely to surprise
The Oakland Raiders are poised to make a dramatic turnaround under new head coach Lane Kiffin. Their defense was strong last season, but was undermined by a woeful offense that failed to score enough points. Moreover, turnovers by the offense consistently forced the defense to play on a short field.
But Kiffin appears to recognize that his D is capable of winning games single-handedly, so he's running a low risk offense that should keep the Raiders in games. If the defense plays at the same level as last season, the Raiders will win as many as eight or nine games this season.
Team most likely to disappoint
Despite returning 20 of 22 starters from a team that finished with a league best 14-2 record, the San Diego Chargers are the most likely team to fail to live up to expectations. I'm sure this will not go over well with Charger fans, but let me explain my rationale.
The Chargers are adjusting to a new coaching staff while facing a daunting early-season schedule. After opening with league heavyweights (the Bears and Patriots), the Chargers have three consecutive division games before a bye in Week 7. They could enter the break with a sub-.500 record and spend the rest of the season trying to dig out of that hole. I still expect them to make a strong playoff run, but I do not think that they can match last season's phenomenal regular-season run.
Sean Payton has quickly assembled the league's most explosive offense down in New Orleans. The league's number one offense from a season ago improved by adding veterans Eric Johnson and David Patten to a talented core that features Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush and Marques Colston. The Saints now have the versatility to play "smash mouth" power football or a wide open passing attack, which means Payton can stay in attack mode regardless of the schemes that defenses throw at New Orleans. The Saints flashed signs of being a quick strike offense last year, but expect to see them produce even more big plays this year.
The Kansas City Chiefs are the most one-dimensional offense in the league. They have two of the most talented players in the league in Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez, but their offense lacks creativity and big play potential. They are a "smash mouth" unit that relies on the relentless power running of Johnson to free up Gonzalez off play action passes.
Veteran quarterback Damon Huard had success directing this conservative offense during his eight-game run as starter last season, but the offensive line is no longer the dominant unit that once blew defenses off the ball. Obviously reeling from the Will Shields' retirement and Damion McIntosh's injury, the offense has struggled moving the ball during the preseason behind the patchwork offensive line. The talented trio of Johnson, Gonzalez and Huard can keep the Chiefs afloat for a little while, but the Chiefs will not improve on offense until their offensive line and supporting cast steps up.