Predicting the 2008 NFL season
There are exactly 267 games that matter in an NFL season, and it's always a guessing game to predict the winners and losers. But when I searched for my projected Super Bowl matchup after six weeks of watching, listening and learning this preseason, I kept coming back to two teams that have what I consider the key factor in any Super Bowl run: Motivation that borders on an obsession.
In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers have it in droves. They've gone an impressive 27-9 the past two regular seasons, but both times they've had their dreams cruelly ended by the Patriots in the playoffs. Finding a way to get past the folks from Foxboro has occupied nearly every waking second for Chargers general manager A.J. Smith these past two years, and I think he has finally built a team to get the job done.
In the NFC, Saints head coach Sean Payton put it to me best during an early August stop at New Orleans' training camp: In the NFL, you always try to bank on the motivated player. The guy who wants it a little bit more than anyone else. In terms of his Saints, that would be Jeremy Shockey, trying to prove to the Giants he was an asset, not a minus. That would be Jonathan Vilma intent on showing the Jets that they gave up on him prematurely. And that would be players such as Reggie Bush, Jason David, Bobby McCray, even Drew Brees, all of whom have a reason to play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulders this season.
So put me down for the Saints-Chargers in Super Bowl XLIII. New Orleans is hungry again after last season's expectations went unmet, and the Chargers, having finally ended their playoff-win drought with a pair of January victories, are poised to take the biggest step of all. The Chargers over the Saints next February in Tampa. In late August, before the games that count even begin, it all makes sense to me at this point. But let's see if the next five months changes everything.
1. New England (11-5) -- Winless preseason or not, the Patriots are still the NFL's gold standard. The schedule looks soft (a league low .387 opponents winning percentage), but there's a lot of travel involved for a team that's starting to show some age. New England will cruise to its third consecutive AFC title game, but those late-game playoff meltdowns are starting to become a habit.
*2. Buffalo (9-7) -- The endless Jason Peters stand-off could be the loose thread that unravels the whole suit, but the Bills are better defensively and they have just enough increased firepower on offense to end a playoff drought that has stretched an AFC-high eight seasons.
3. New York Jets (9-7) -- The J-E-T-S are undeniably better after an offseason (and preseason) of making major headline acquisitions, but they still need a lot of pieces to fall into place just right to close the gap on New England. They'd be better off just trying to catch the Bills.
4. Miami (5-11) -- Rock bottom was reached last year, and that means the onetime playoff perennial Dolphins are on their way back. But nobody goes worst to first in the AFC East. The Fish will be bigger, and play tougher and smarter. That's enough progress for '08.
1. Cleveland (9-7) -- At the start of the preseason, I was convinced the Browns were ready for their close-up, and they'd continue to be the team on the rise in their division. Now the bar of expectation appears close to falling on their heads. It may not be pretty early, but they'll persevere.
2. Pittsburgh (8-8) -- The Steelers will be the same old Steelers, albeit slightly more explosive with Rashard Mendenhall around on offense. But their schedule is far tougher than last year's, and I'm still not convinced Pittsburgh's offensive line won't be its eventual undoing.
3. Cincinnati (6-10) -- New coordinator Mike Zimmer better be able to work mini-miracles on defense, because this is a team that can't win unless its front seven takes a quantum step forward. My gut tells me Bengals fans are in for another maddening season of underachievement.
4. Baltimore (5-11) -- I look for Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh to spend his first season figuring out which guys he can win with, and which guys are part of the problem. The culture change he has begun in Baltimore won't pay dividends right away, but give him time.