Five first-timers (cont.)
Posted: Friday February 9, 2007 12:06PM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 6:13PM
New Orleans -- I just don't see anything shaky about the way the Saints won in 2006, and that convinces me they're going to be back banging on the door again next season. Head coach Sean Payton has laid a solid, winning foundation, and the team's roster got an infusion of young talent in 2006. There was nothing fluky about what Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston or Devery Henderson accomplished, and the team's offensive line and Deuce McAllister-led running game is another strength.
Defensively, the Saints could use some help in the secondary, especially at the cornerback slot that Fred Thomas struggled in down the stretch. But the front seven has dependable playmakers in ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, and linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle.
Add it all up, throw in the uncertainty that seems to exist with their division opponents in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina, and the Saints still have ceiling room to work with after their surprising 10-6 in 2006.
Philadelphia -- From the start of their troubled 2005 season and through the first 11 games of 2006, the Eagles went 11-16 and looked nothing like the team that methodically advanced to four consecutive NFC title games from 2001 to 2004. But during the course of their season-ending five-game winning streak and two-week playoff run, Philly morphed back into the tough, tenacious, fundamentally sound club that Joe Banner and Andy Reid have built since arriving in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Eagles know how to take care of business in the NFC East, and with their inside-out philosophy of roster construction -- fortify the two lines first -- they're well-suited to win the kind of games this division is known for. Philadelphia went 5-1 in the division, 9-3 in the NFC -- with only Chicago's 11-1 topping that -- and had a 5-3 mark both at home and on the road. And the Eagles will always have a chance because they play defense. Their 328 points allowed were the fewest in their division and fifth-best in the conference.
That said, retaining quarterback Jeff Garcia -- a potential free agent -- figures to be pivotal to their Super Bowl chances in 2007. With incumbent starter Donovan McNabb returning from November knee surgery, the Eagles may not be able to count on their veteran starter in the season's first half, making Garcia's continued presence a necessity.
Tennessee -- While our first three nominees for next year's Super Bowl champion were all 2006 playoff qualifiers, the Titans (8-8 in 2006) break that pattern. They fall under the heading of chic pick based on their strong second-half run, which included winning six games in a row after a dismal 2-7 start. While the impetus for most of the excitement in Nashville last year was the debut of rookie quarterback Vince Young, the Titans had more going for them than just No. 10's electrifying talents.
Tennessee also discovered it had a 1,200-yard rusher in the resurgent Travis Henry, a big-play cornerback/return man in 2005 first-round pick Pacman Jones, and a clutch, strong-legged kicker in Rob Bironas. While the Titans defense struggled from a statistical standpoint, the sum of the unit was better than its parts, and Tennessee did hold nine of its 16 opponents to 22 points or fewer. There's talent to build around on defense, and the Titans have quietly assembled the most depth they've had in years.
Head coach Jeff Fisher proved once again that he belongs to be mentioned among the upper one-third of the league's headset crowd, and he has quality coordinators in Norm Chow and Jim Schwartz at his side. The Titans aren't going to be favored to win the rugged AFC South, but in December they proved they can beat both Indianapolis and Jacksonville, and they're a club that's still on the rise.
Cincinnati -- True, going with the Bengals to reign over everyone at the end of next season takes a little bit of faith and a whole lot of imagination at this point. Nobody in the NFL was humbled by 2006 quite like Marvin Lewis and his headline-making team. They lost games they should have won. They lost their standing as one of the NFL's best young teams. And they lost face as a franchise, thanks to the seemingly never-ending string of arrests that Bengals players were responsible for.
But there's still so much talent in Cincinnati, and perhaps the Bengals can use their lost season for motivational fodder in 2007. It all came apart in the season's final three weeks, against Indy, Denver and Pittsburgh, but don't forget Cincy was 8-5 and looked like a very dangerous playoff-bound team as late as mid-December. Over the course of the four-game winning streak the Bengals mounted in Weeks 11-14, Cincinnati beat two playoff teams in New Orleans and Baltimore, with its much-maligned defense allowing just 33 points total (8.3 per game).
As the leader of a team that appears to have lost institutional control within its own locker room, Lewis will be under pressure next season. Pressure to both win, and end the franchise's outlaw era. Sometimes having the stakes so clearly defined can be a good thing.