Predicting the future: Ten things that will unfold in the '08 season
Peering into my Roger Goodell-autographed crystal ball -- it's actually more oblong-shaped -- just hours before the NFL kicks off its regular season with the Redskins-Giants showdown at the Meadowlands, here are 10 things I foresee unfolding this year.....
1. Ex-Jets starter Chad Pennington will out-play current Jets starter Brett Favre in Week 1 in Miami, proving that one team's garbage can indeed be another team's treasure. Pennington's edge will be his familiarity with New York's defense, and his motivation to make the Jets rue their lack of faith in him. We know Favre gets a little hot and bothered with the idea of playing in warm weather, and with Sunday's high temperature of 88 predicted in the Miami area, might he and his Jets do a little wilting in the fourth quarter?
As for the rest of the season, the Favre-Pennington comparison in the AFC East will be a more subjective call. Favre has the better team around him by far, but Pennington will receive and deserve plenty of the credit for the Dolphins' offensive improvement. In the end, New York will go further than Miami, but both teams will rightfully be able to claim they're better off for the moves they made at quarterback in the preseason.
2. San Diego second-year veteran Jyles Tucker will replace the gimpy-kneed Shawne Merriman by midseason and, surprisingly, there won't be a drop-off in the Chargers' edge pass rush. Merriman, who has two torn ligaments in his left knee, is likely playing on borrowed time this season. He'll go as hard as he can, as long as he can, but when the inevitable happens and he succumbs to season-ending surgery, the Chargers won't be decimated at his outside linebacker spot.
That's because Tucker reminds many of a younger version of Merriman, one of the league's premier defensive play-makers. An undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest as a rookie last year, Tucker played his way from the Chargers practice squad to the active roster, and wound up winning the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week honor in Week 17, when he sacked Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell three times, forced two fumbles, and recovered one of them in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown.
No wonder Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, always looking to shrewdly lock up good young talent before the price tag goes up, last week signed Tucker to a five-year contract extension that makes him San Diego property through the 2012 season.
3. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won't be starting his own Ironman streak of any length this season, ála his famous predecessor. Playing behind a Packers offensive line that was dented for a league-worst 16 sacks in the preseason, Rodgers will get dinged up and have to give way to rookie reserve quarterbacks Matt Flynn or Brian Brohm at some point during the regular season. The days of Green Bay never having to make a starting quarterback change due to injury are as over as the Favre era in Titletown.
4. Speaking of ironman quarterbacks, this will be the year New England finally has to come face to face with its greatest fear: Trying to win a game or three without Tom Brady. We're not predicting major gloom and doom for the Patriots, like a season-ending whatever to the league's reigning MVP. But with New England's offensive line suddenly a point of real concern, protecting the Franchise won't be as seamless as the Patriots have made it look in recent years.
While I can't see any opponent succeeding in bum-rushing Brady like the Giants did to great effect in the Super Bowl, I also don't imagine No. 12 is going to have forever and a day to stand back there in the pocket and perform surgery on his opponent's secondary, as was the case so many times in the Patriots' record-breaking 2007 run. Teams are going to be sending the house against Brady this year, because they saw what New York accomplished and will realize anew that giving him time to throw is nothing but a recipe for defeat.
Matt Cassel, you've been put on notice. Better be readier than you looked this preseason. Otherwise the only thing the Patriots will be perfectly inclined to this season is a modest losing streak while Brady heals.