Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will try to join the Patriots as the only team to repeat as Super Bowl champions this decade.
Peter King's Mailbag
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
You'll find one very predictable thing in common with every top team in my annual Tick Off Half The Football Fans In America Post-Free-Agency, Post-Draft NFL Power Rankings: quarterbacks. The best teams have 'em. The worst teams don't, at least not that we can see yet. Look at the top dozen teams. Every one has a quarterback you wouldn't be shocked to see playing deep into the playoffs this year.
It's still 11 weeks before most teams enter training camp, but the personnel hay is in the barn for almost every team. Maybe Anquan Boldin gets dealt; maybe Brett Favre comes back (more on him in 10 Things). But there won't be much major roster-tweaking before the camp begins. So here we go, 1 to 32, with a surprise or two, starting at number four:
1. New England
Teams don't stay the same in the NFL. That's the old bromide. But tell me: What's the difference between the Patriots of 2007 and the Patriots who enter the season in 2009? I'll tell you the biggest thing -- concern about Tom Brady's knee. And if there were any real reason to be concerned, Bill Belichick wouldn't have traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City.
New England was seventh in the league in scoring with Brady playing one quarter in 2008; it'll be in the top three, easily, with him back. With new young talent in the defensive backfield -- Belichick can mix and match all the toys he's gathered over the past two offseasons, maybe playing Shawn Springs sparingly some weeks to keep him healthy for January -- New England should have enough ammo to be competitive with the best quarterbacks on the schedule. It was 5-1 down the stretch, including 4-0 on the road, as many of its young defenders grew up. I don't see much downside.
Other than losing Bryant McFadden (free agency, Arizona), nothing significant happened to a deep roster this offseason. You can be sure Mike Tomlin won't be much of a laurel-rester, but it's always quasi-impossible to repeat.
I had a friend of Ben Roethlisberger's tell me the best thing that could have happened to him was not being MVP of the Super Bowl. After he led one of the best playoff drives ever to give Pittsburgh its Super Bowl title, Santonio Holmes got the MVP. Big Ben said he was fine with it, but now he's got something else to shoot for and some perceived critics to shut up.
I worry a little about Hines Ward surviving another physical season, because there's not a good possession-receiver/playmaker behind him. I worry about Casey Hampton being in shape. When those are your biggest worries about a team, that team's in pretty good shape.
3. New York Giants
I've said I wished the Giants had acquired a veteran receiver like Anquan Boldin, because no team ever rides the backs of one or two rookie receivers to the Super Bowl. That's the biggest question on the deepest front-seven team in football (sorry, Ravens). Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese know you need to be six or seven deep on the defensive front because you'll have an injury or two or three along the way. The Giants have a strange schedule -- three of the first four on the road, two of the last three on the road -- but a veteran team that has always played well on the road should survive it. New York has an excellent chance to go to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
I may not like how Jay Cutler babied his way out of Denver, but by Labor Day, the football world will have forgotten, and by Thanksgiving, the most popular baby name in Chicagoland will be Jay. (Unless it's Jerry, as in Angelo, the man who stuck his neck out and made this deal.) Cutler's a big-time player, and I suspect we'll find out over the next few years if he has nerves of steel and can win the big game.
Now, there's two things we don't know about Cutler and this offense. There's not a great receiver in the house and no promise of one on the way (Angelo should have guaranteed Torry Holt more money to get him to come to the Windy City). So Cutler's going to have to make do with the Devin Hesters and Rashied Davises, apparently. (Not that there's anything wrong with Hester. But he should be a third receiver, using his speed to game-break.)
Two: How good of a leader can Cutler be, coming in with the knock that he chafes on some teammates. It'll be interesting to see if he meshes well with Brian Urlacher; I don't take for granted that he will. Because of the Cutler factor and because I don't love the defense the way I did two or three years ago, I didn't want to leap the Bears over so many other teams. But then I went back and looked at their 2008 numbers. The bedrock stats for a good defense, I've always thought, are opponents yards per rush, turnovers forced and opponents' yards per pass. The yards per rush, 3.4, was excellent, third-best in the league. Turnovers forced, 32, was very good, second in the league. And yards per pass play by foes, 6.20, was eighth in the league. All good. If Cutler can lead an offense that puts up 400 points, only a point and a fraction more than a year ago, the Bears should win 12.
As long as Peyton Manning walks, talks and leads the way he does, the biggest question about the Colts is what they do in January, not October. I'll be interested, as we all will be, to see what kind of tweaking takes place on the defense, with a more aggressive style now that Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks are gone and the more aggressive Larry Coyer has been hired to run that unit. I don't expect an overhaul of the Tampa 2, but I do expect the secondary to be more aggressive, particularly in some blitz situations, and I expect emerging star safety Melvin Bullitt to be used more, even with Bob Sanders in the game.
To me, this is the start of a two-year window for the Eagles. You don't know how much longer Donovan McNabb has at some form of his peak, and if he doesn't get the job done this year or next, the Eagles are sure to look for someone who can lift a talented team over the top. The offense will be younger and more explosive with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin sure to be used in many three-receiver sets, and maybe even some two-receiver sets. Andy Reid will find a valuable role for LeSean McCoy early, maybe even as the third-down back to give Brian Westbrook a consistent blow. McNabb has the best weaponry, in tandem, that he's ever had on offense. He's got to lift his game to a higher level in big games. I think this team gives him a better chance than the first Terrell Owens team in Philly.
7. San Diego
Philip Rivers' great 2008 season was lost in the fog of a weird, controversial 8-8 year. I bet there haven't been 20 seasons -- ever -- as statistically impressive as the one Rivers had last year: 65 percent passing, 4,009 yards, plus-23 touchdown-to-interception differential. Now Shawne Merriman returns with his wacked-out, Seau-like desperation to succeed, and first-rounder Larry English comes from the Mid-American Conference determined to prove A.J. Smith didn't reach for him. This team's good enough to win 13, but it has to survive the toughest road schedule in the league: at Pittsburgh, at the Giants, at Dallas, at Tennessee, all in the last three months.
Quick. Who is Greg Mattison? You're a big fan, and you didn't even recognize the name of the new Baltimore defensive coordinator. The big challenge for Mattison will be to get this group to respond to him the way it responded to Rex Ryan. But Ray Lewis and his men like smart guys, which everyone tells me Mattison and his defensive aides are. The one looming problem they have entering camp, now that Bart Scott has flown the coop, is making sure there's no job action by Terrell Suggs, who has been franchised and is skipping mini-camp activities for now. Suggs has to be on board, and I suspect he will be, when the Chiefs come in for an opening friendly on Week 1 of the season.
Maybe this is the year the Cowboys start putting the round peg in round hole. They have 25-, 24- and 22-year-old running backs -- Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, respectively -- who last year rushed the ball 360 times for 1,623 yards (4.5-yard average) and 12 touchdowns. Meanwhile, their quarterbacks dropped back to pass 578 times. When your backs are that good, they shouldn't be handed the ball on 37 percent of the offense snaps. I'm counting on Jason Garrett to make the run game much more of a presence this year. If he does, it's not a very distant limb to walk out on and say the Cowboys should win their first playoff game since 1996. But I've got to see it to believe it.
Second team in the top 10 that should have tried harder and offered more to get Holt. Still, Tennessee is good enough to win the South without anyone better than Justin Gage outside. And by the way, he played well enough last year (19.1 yards per catch) to merit a shot at being Kerry Collins' go-to-guy downfield and will benefit from the Titans' acquisition of ex-Steeler Nate Washington. I don't worry much about Collins, except about him surviving 16 games; he turns 37 this year and the team is up the creek without a paddle if he's not playing well.