In spite of the Olympics starting today, sports fans around the country are concerned with the NFL's version of the Hot Stove League. With several big names expected to move, the complexion of the league can change dramatically so don't expect to see the same teams winning big next year.
Most notably Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in when it comes to retaining the services of Antwaan Randle El. He is an unrestricted free agent and his tremendous versatility makes him very desirable. He is a great number two receiver but he's so athletic he could be poised to become the latest Steve Smith.
Pittsburgh gave Hines Ward a huge contract and has to work hard to create cap room to fortify the running game and the defensive line. It's unlikely that they will be able to match offers made to Randle El by other teams, particular Chicago, who desperately needs some explosive playmakers on offense.
With all that happening, Pittsburgh will likely finish 11-5 again but not have the fortitude to make a miracle run through the playoffs. The Bengals should have enough flexibility to get stronger and dominate the AFC North if not the entire AFC.
Forget about the Colts. Tony Dungy is too laid back to get that team to play tough. I thought he got shafted when Tampa sent him packing and John Gruden came in to win a championship with Dungy's team, but after watching the Colts fall apart this year I realize that Dungy is a lousy head coach. Exhibit A: Peyton Manning waving off the punt team on a fourth and two at midfield with a lot of time on the clock. Yes, the Colts converted, but it was a bad idea to go for it in that situation. Peyton is not the one who would have taken the heat had they turned the ball over on downs. You might win big in Vegas putting everything you have on 13, but that doesn't mean you were smart, does it?
Manning is a menace. He buys into the hype around him and believes he really is the smartest man in the universe. Move over Hawking. Peyton calls the plays and audibles relentlessly. It seems to work during the regular season but in the playoffs manning gets too cute. He audibles more and tries to outthink the defense on every play when anybody in football can tell you that sometimes you just have to outplay your opponent. You can't catch the defense off guard every time you snap the ball, but it seems as though that it exactly what manning tries to do. Instead he outsmarts his own team. Don't take my word for it, look at the numbers. The Colts stink in the post season. Period. Manning stinks in the post season. Until the Colts put the screws to Manning or simply send him packing they aren't going to win anything more than a division title. Overrated thy name is Manning. All three of you.
Oh yeah, Edge is talking about leaving. Big deal. I know that James thinks he's the heart and soul of that team, but running backs are a dime a dozen in this era. Seriously. Did the Broncos miss Clinton Portis? Nope. The Colts have a good offensive line and a great passing game. All they need is a serviceable back. James is a waste of money. Two words Indianapolis: William Greene. No kidding. The Browns don't want him and in that scenario he isn't worth a roster spot, but in Indianapolis the star crossed bench warmer could shine. It's not like he'll bring more baggage than James did and he'll cost less too.
As long as the Chargers want to play Marty-ball they'll come up short. Everybody seems so impressed with Schottenheimer's career record, but tally up the results from his post season and you'll notice two things. He hasn't gotten to the playoffs as often as you'd expect and he doesn't get much done once he's there. It's not bad luck, the guy is an idiot. Nice fit for San Diego, though. Talk about a franchise built on bad decisions.
The Broncos aren't going anywhere either. Not with Wake and Bake Jake. The guy put together one decent year amidst a career's worth of bad decisions. He proved that he's not a go-to-guy and if you want to win it all in the NFL you have to have a QB that can carry you once in a while. No, Roethlisberger didn't carry the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but he did put that team on his back in the playoffs and got them in the big game. Plummer tried to carry the Broncos past Pittsburgh and ended up doing more harm than good.
You have to figure that the Dolphins are due to make a postseason splash. With Saban calling the shots and some good personnel decisions being made, the Dolphins aren't nearly as bad as their record would suggest. I wouldn't be surprised to see them make some noise this year, especially if they can make a few moves in the off season. What do they need? Mostly just for everybody they have to play up to their potential. In all honesty that's not a bad team.
You can't rule out the Patriots. Had they not been hampered by injuries all year they would have been in the thick of things yet again. They'll acquire some depth in their defensive back field, find some parts for the offensive line and find the perfect scheme to bring it all together. Until they are out of the playoff hunt you have to consider them a favorite to go all the way.
Call me biased but I think that Romeo Crennel is going to have enough talent in place to make a playoff run next season. The Browns look so far out of contention, especially with a late 41-0 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers, but Crennel will get more of the right pieces into place for that 3-4 defense he loves to run and the Browns will be working hard to bring Charlie Batch along this off season. If they can catch lightning in a bottle by drafting a few guys who can contribute immediately, especially at the linebacker position, they could steal a wild card spot and I think Crennel's good enough to upset anybody once.
The AFC is wide open. Only the Raiders, Jets and Texans seem to be in dire straits. That's thanks to leadership. The Texans failed to build a strong offensive line, the Raiders have a madman calling the shots and the Jets invested heavily into marginal talent when they looked a little competitive a couple of years ago. Now they have complete mess on their hands. The Titans are a step above these three deadbeats, but not by much. Tennessee has no playmakers.
The NFC is a different animal. Where the AFC is strong top to bottom, with four exceptions. The NFC is weak with three or four exceptions. Chicago was 1-3 against AFC opponents last year. They lost to the Browns. In the NFC they were 10-2. That tells you a lot about the quality of the NFC. Washington was 0-4 against the AFC and 10-2 in the NFC. The second best record in the NFC last year was 11-5 with four teams sharing that record. The Seahawks won 13 games, but did so by achieving a perfect record in a terrible division...St. Louis finished second in the NFC West with a 6-10 record...and of course the Seahawks were 8-0 at home. They did go 3-1 against the AFC, but would they have gone 13-3 if they were still in the AFC West? Not likely.
Does it really matter who can win in the NFC right now? The Giants should be the cream of the NFC East crop, but what is that really saying? The Redskins are supposed to be a tough team, but tough in the NFC doesn't translate into Super Bowl wins. Especially when you don't have an offense. The Eagles need to find a running game, but don't have the horses to carry the load, will they find an every down back in the draft? If so will they be able to acquire a quality wide receiver?
Dallas is interesting. Parcels is a tough coach who is trying to build a winning team. Dallas was threatening to make a run for the playoffs last year, but came unglued down the stretch. Dallas might be ready to take ownership of the NFC East next year. In fact Dallas might be the best team in the entire conference next year. They need to bring in a few players to shore up the defense and find some consistency on offense, but they aren't far from being a 12-4 team.
In the Central I don't see much to be impressed with. We'll see if the Bears are for real when they face a tougher schedule. The Vikings aren't exactly dead, but winning the Central Division title means about as much as one of those gold stars your kindergarten teacher handed out for being brilliant enough to say please and thank you. Who cares. This conference is dead. The winner of the NFC Central should be allowed to stay in the NFL while the losers are relegated to NFL Europe until they can figure out how to play.
Green Bay needs to cut Favre loose. Favre is tough and you have to love his spirit, but he's sloppy and that gunslinger nonsense doesn't cut it in the NFL today. Favre's a little slower and the defensive backs are a little faster. That means more passes are being broken up. Green Bay should have looked for Favre's understudy four years ago and replaced Favre two years after that. You hate to tell a guy he's too old, and Favre could do great things for a team like Washington, but in Green Bay Favre's outlived his usefulness. And let's not talk about Detroit. The Toledo Mudhens play better football than the Lions.
As far as division go, the NFC south is actually tough. Tampa and Carolina both got to the playoffs last year and should make similar runs this year. Tampa should benefit from the development of Chris Simms and a few quality acquisitions to improve the offense might turn that 11-5 performance into a 13-3 showing. A healthy Joey Galloway could bring some homerun capability to the team and the defense should be stout once again.
Speaking of a stout defense, Carolina was excellent last year only allowing a total of 259 points. Impressive considering that they got 391 from the offense. Carolina would have been a better team if it hadn't been for injuries stretching them so thin on both sides of the ball. They managed to recover from midseason ailments to make a playoff run, but the bumps and bruises were too much and they eventually fell short against Seattle. They should be better this year with their biggest obstacle being a tough division. They could use another playmaker to compliment Smith, and a little depth on defense could help them spell Julius Peppers late in the season, but Carolina could stand pat this off season and still make waves.
Atlanta is the wildcard that makes the South such a tough conference, but Vick isn't the type of QB you can win big with. The NFL is all about the pass. Mobile quarterbacks can hurt you, but only if they throw really well all the time. Vick doesn't like to hear criticism of his passing ability, but until he can hike that passer rating up over 80 and show that he is a consistent passing threat the Falcons will beat weaker teams and lose to the better teams. He's had one or two great passing performances in his career. So has Chad Pennington. It's not good enough. That's why 8-8 is the standard finish for the Falcons. The bad thing about 8-8 is that you don't get anything for it. No postseason glory, no high draft picks and you don't get any scheduling help either. The Falcons are a one dimensional team with a good defense. The dimension they lack rests in Vick's hands, or rather, his arm.
New Orleans might as well be in the NFC West with the rest of the dregs. St. Louis has the potential to climb out of the basement and maybe win a playoff game or two, but that's going to depend on how well they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Mike Martz drama probably served as a distraction last season and with a fresh start awaiting them things could get better in a hurry. Steven Jackson is a beast of a back and should be ready to break out next season. If the team can shore up the line and get some help on defense...a lot of help on defense...the NFC west could be theirs.
Seattle's talented. They have a solid team all the way around but Seattle fans who wonder why their Seahawks aren't getting respect need to understand that the Seahawks played a soft schedule and call a weak division home. Tough calls notwithstanding, Seattle lost the Super Bowl to a team they should have beaten because the Seahawks failed to make key plays. These guys just seem to lack heart. That's a Holmgren trait. The Packers lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl because they played a soft game. With a difficult schedule looming it won't be easy for Seattle to win 11 or 12 games this year and the Shaun Alexander contract saga hasn't even begun to play out. That could prove to be a front office distraction.
San Francisco? Are you serious? Have you seen these guys play? It's going to take 3 years worth of serious rebuilding to get this team back on track and who can explain the Cardinals? The NFL should take operational control of this franchise in order to make sure everything is being done to make it competitive.
Obvioulsy a lot is going to happen between now and the start of the season, and we all should be concerned with things more immediate but the NCAA tournament doesn't start until next month, the NBA finals won't start until June and the Olympics don't matter unless there's nothing else on TV. Seriously, does anybody really care about the opening ceremonies? No. So we talk about football. Someday, when the NHL markets a product we want to watch we'll spend February talking about guys on skates, but until then we enjoy the afterglow of the NFL.
In the spirit of the season I offer my 50 week Super Bowl Prediction (everybody else is doing it, so why not?) : Dallas vs. Miami...
this pick is subject to change several times before the next Super Bowl.