Funny how a season progresses: In Weeks 9-14, the Giants went 3-3, losing three times by double digits and winning by six, five and three points. Then, ka-boom.
Moving forward, the Giants will be fortunate if Michael Strahan plays. I think he'll retire because he always said he was playing for a ring, and now he's got it, and a cushy Fox job awaits. But the Giants will still be able to kill the passer if he does because Mathias Kiwanuka will be back healthy.
Eli Manning had a charmed postseason, but he's got to be more accurate than 56.1 percent for the Giants to be better than 14th in scoring offense, which they were a year ago. The encouraging thing about Manning is that the day after the Super Bowl, he was already talking about the things he needed to do to get better. Smart, because he knows he has to be more consistent to be a top quarterback. This should be a maturing offensive team and a threatening team on D.
7. Minnesota. I can hear you all out there saying, "Too soon." Well, here's my question: What year in recent NFL history hasn't a Green Bay (2007), New Orleans (2006), Chicago (2005) or Pittsburgh (2004) jumped from nowheresville to Super-Bowl contention?
The Vikings do have a totally unproven passing game, but they still outscored Philly, Washington and Denver last year with the best running game in the league for about half the season. Minnesota had the biggest (by far) edge in average rushing margin per team last year, rushing for 5.3 yards a tote while surrendering 3.1 yards per carry. And though I don't love the Jared Allen signing for the long haul (too dangerous), I love it for 2008. Allen's quickness on the turf of the Metrodome ... scary. Maybe 20-sack scary.
8. Green Bay. This pick is predicated on two assumptions: That Aaron Rodgers is almost as good for 16 weeks as he was for one half in Dallas last November and that Ryan Grant's last eight weeks of 2007 are no mirage. If Rodgers can play and Grant can stay upright for 16 weeks, this is an 11-win team, or better.
I don't worry about the loss of defensive tackle mainstay Corey Williams to Cleveland because of the depth Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have built. And I don't worry about the loss of Brett Favre sending Green Bay into a tailspin. Late last year Rodgers told me, "I'd be worried about playing now and the team accepting me if I hadn't seen it on the faces of these players. I think they trust me to be able to win football games for us.'' I do, too.
9. Cleveland. How can a draftless team improve? Because this team had its draft in free-agency. A couple of things worry me, as they should every Browns fan. Will Shaun Rogers be a player for half the season and an unproductive blob the other half? I don't know. And will Kellen Winslow hold out or do something Chad Johnson-ish to ruin the great karma of the NFL's new national TV darlings?
This team has five prime-time games for the first time since Paul Brown prowled the sidelines and Jim Brown was a runner, not a protester. "I think our guys will like it,'' said GM Phil Savage. "I think they'll take to the challenge.''
Nice words and maybe even true ones. But Cleveland's opponents -- like Dallas on opening day -- will think they're going to have to play really well to beat the Browns. In other words, Cleveland's not going to catch anyone by surprise. The pressure's on. I think leader types such as Willie McGinest and Jamal Lewis, who have been there before, will help keep heads on straight.
10. Carolina. Surprise. Take your leap-of-faith pill and follow me. Jake Delhomme threw 35 balls with some velocity the other day at mini-camp, his first good throws in a team drill since he wrecked his elbow last year. Jonathan Stewart and his surgically repaired turf toe should be ready to pound defenses by Labor Day. Julius Peppers can't be as bad this year as he was last year. (This team had 23 sacks last year. Peppers should contend for two-thirds that number himself every year.)
So I'm counting on the offensive line, fortified by the deal for rookie tackle Jeff Otah, to be better, and I'm counting on Peppers to put significantly more pressure on the quarterback. There is no way a John Fox team should give up 30 points five times, as it did last year, and I expect a more competent offense to possess the ball more this year. It has to for Fox's team to grind out some wins, and it will with the brawny Stewart in the backfield.
ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS
11. Philadelphia. The story's the same as ever in Reid-land: Donovan McNabb has to stay upright for 16 games for this team to have a chance to play deep into January. He's missed two, four and seven starts in the last three years. That's partly why the Eagles have fallen considerably short of their second Super Bowl appearance in the McNabb era.
Two assists for him this year. Lorenzo Booker's a better alter-ego to Brian Westbrook than Correll Buckhalter has been. And DeSean Jackson, even at 170 pounds soaking wet, should be a bit more of a stretch-the-defense third or fourth receiver than McNabb has had. If Jackson does nothing else, at least he'll spice up the blah return game (8.1 yards per punt return and 21.7 on kickoffs is no way to win ball games). Oh, and it would be nice if McNabb's tackles could block the Giants.
12. Pittsburgh. This has nothing to do with the toughest schedule any of us has ever seen -- all 10 non-division foes were .500 or better last year -- because if it did, the Steelers would be slightly lower. I worry about the Pittsburgh offensive line, and I worry about the pass-rush. Both areas broke down while the Steelers lost four of their last five (two to Jacksonville at home) in the last month of the season.
But I think they'll be at least as good as they were last year, all things considered. Ben Roethlisberger (32-to-11 touchdown-to-interception differential) was terrific last year, and he could be better with a big target, rookie Limas Sweed, roaming down the seam on third downs. And a Parker-Mendenhall-Davenport rushing trifecta means the Steelers should have a run-pass percentage more like 55-45 than the 51-49 of 2007. A dominant running game has always been a Steelers staple, and it has to return for Pittsburgh to control the ball against the best teams in the league, most of whom the Steelers will face this year.