By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, September 7, 2006
On the eve of Week 1 of the NFL season, I'm counting at least 12 teams that with all their heart believe they can win the Super Bowl this season. And while some of those teams appear to be a bit more fortified than others, nobody in that group is delusional. Injuries and underperformance might doom half of them, but from where we sit today, the optimism seems fairly rational.
Certainly, the Washington Redskins believe they've put together a team good enough to win a championship. So do the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks and conference finalist Carolina Panthers. The Chicago Bears think they've got their best team since the late 1980s. The New York Giants have been loaded on defense several times in recent years, but they've never also had the kind of offensive weapons they have now. The Dallas Cowboys didn't see Terrell Owens as a piece, they see him as the final piece. Why else would they put up with all of T.O.'s drama? That's six in the NFC alone, not even counting Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, both of which are fairly giddy about what they've got starting the season.
The hot pick in the AFC is the Miami Dolphins, though they might have to climb over the defending champ, Pittsburgh, plus the defending champ once-removed, New England. Even with Edgerrin James having left Indianapolis for the desert, the Colts are still the betting favorite in some parlors. The Bengals, if Carson Palmer has really recovered from that gruesome knee injury, might show us this year that they were actually ready to win last year.
And the Broncos think they have their best team since John Elway retired.
That's six in the AFC -- not even counting the Chiefs and Ravens, who, with offseason nips and tucks, might be ready to return to the playoffs.
It's hard to recall a season, at the start, in which the NFL has had so many teams that appear to be competitive and capable of either seriously contending or dramatically improving. Only the 49ers, Jets, Texans and Packers start the season appearing to be absolutely forlorn.
For instance, you could pick the Cardinals to make the playoffs (though I won't) and do it with a straight face. Coach Dennis Green, in a recent conversation, wasn't at all hesitant to say he thought his team could reach double-digits in victories. Wow. It's not an exaggeration to say that Arizona has never been so excited about the Cardinals. It helps that there's a new stadium that looks like the headquarters of an alien colony that has settled in the desert. But the Cardinals, if you're looking for a team in which to fall in love, have added James to offensive personnel (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Kurt Warner) that last year produced 4,700 passing yards. The Phoenix Suns' pedal-to-the-metal style seems to have become infectious.
Yet nobody outside the Valley of the Sun is giving the Cardinals anything more than secondary consideration because of the number of teams above them in the NFC. That would include the entire NFC East, which Sports Illustrated in its NFL Preview issue predicted will be 9-7 top to bottom, all four teams. The NFC doesn't have a single monster team, but it does have depth.
I'm tempted to move the Eagles back to the top of the division, where they lived for four seasons, because T.O. is gone. But the lack of a primary, dependable, every-down running back is what might leave them out of the playoffs this season, though they could finish better than .500.
How in the world anybody can pick among the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants is beyond me. It's a coin toss, although the Cowboys could rate a slight edge because their strength of schedule is middle-of-the-pack while the Giants have the most difficult schedule in the league based on last year's results and the Redskins have the 11th-toughest schedule.
If there's one difference between the Giants and Redskins going in, it's certainty at quarterback. Eli Manning is starting his third season. The Redskins are in transition, holding their breath that soon-to-be 36-year-old Mark Brunell can hold up for one more season since it's doubtful that neophyte Jason Campbell is going to just step in and be a playoff quarterback.
And it's not like Manning has to do all that much. He's got Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey to help him on offense, which doesn't have to be consistently great because the defense is just as loaded. So put me down for the Giants to win the division, despite the killer schedule, and the Redskins to win the wild card, but only if Brunell and Shawn Springs are able to stay in the lineup in November and December.
Of all the story lines in the league, perhaps the most intriguing is in Indianapolis, where we'll be watching to find out about the resilience of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy, who will try to win at a level that has eluded one as coach and the other as quarterback for more than 10 years.
Beyond that, there's the matter of Reggie Bush attempting to lift a franchise -- the Saints -- and resurrect at least some of New Orleans' spirit. There's the question of whether the Chiefs' Larry Johnson will and should run for 2,000 yards. We wonder whether Brett Favre will simply stumble through a final season with the Packers, whether Michael Vick will ever become a truly great quarterback, whether Ben Roethlisberger can make it back to the field in one piece, whether a Super Bowl loser (Seattle) will simply make the playoffs after five straight runners-up have failed.
And since the job of a preview is, for better or worse, to pick the winners, here we go: In the AFC, the Patriots, Steelers, Colts and Broncos will win their divisions. The Dolphins and Bengals will go in as wild cards. The Colts will beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game.
And in the NFC, the Giants, Bears, Panthers and Seahawks will win their divisions. The Redskins and Cowboys will go in as wild cards. The Giants will beat the Panthers in the NFC championship game to reach the Super Bowl, where the Manning brothers will end the season just as they started it in Week 1: facing each other, but with just a little bit more at stake than family bragging rights.