By Joey Merkel
Is your favorite baseball team out of contention? Do you have no interest in the U.S. Open? Mad about the Olympics being over? Worry not sports minions, the NFL is back, and not just preseason.
After four long weeks of agonizingly uninspiring, preseason play, the football season officially commences next Thursday the 4th with the defending champion New York Giants and the hometown Washington Redskins. The teams kickoff at 7:00 p.m. at the Meadowlands in New York.
This year all but promises to be very similar to last year. The top teams in the AFC haven’t really shuffled too much. The under-achieving San Diego Chargers, the over-achieving New England Patriots, and the Indianapolis Colts will most likely fight for the AFC spot in the Super Bowl.
Interestingly enough, all three of the teams have either lost a top player or have impact players currently injured. The Patriots lost a large part of their defense after losing both of their starting cornerbacks; Asante Samuel to the Philadelphia Eagles and Randall Gay to the New Orleans Saints.
The Chargers, who looked poised to contend, are still waiting to hear whether pro-bowl linebacker Shawn Merriman’s knee injury will be season-ending or possibly career-ending. While down in Indianapolis, Quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison are both coming off knee surgery. Both players are back practicing but only time will tell how the players will handle the regular season.
In the AFC East, the biggest news of the off-season was obviously the acquisition of Brett Favre by the New York Jets. I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make but in that division, the Jets are already forced to contend just a wild card spot in the playoffs. I see the Patriots winning the division again this year. The Bills and Jets will most likely hover at or right around a .500 record while the Dolphins’ season is filled with quarterback controversy and a losing record.
Like the AFC East, the West probably won’t be much of a competition. The Chargers will take the division and I see the Broncos and the Raiders in a tight race for second. The Broncos have already lost their number one wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, for the first two, possibly three games of the season due to legal troubles and haven’t had an established running back since Terrell Davis. The Kansas City Chiefs will have a tough time running the ball with their offensive line and a tougher time throwing because their quarterback is Brodie Croyle.
In the South, on paper the Colts are the best team but that’s not to say that the Jackson Jaguars won’t be nipping at their heels all year. The Jags have a fierce two-headed monster running attack in Maurice Jones-Drew and the Not-So “Fragile” Anymore, Fred Taylor. If they don’t wing the division, I think the Jaguars could easily get a wild card and have some people worried in the playoffs if they can establish their receivers. The Titans and Vince Young might finally become the team they are on paper, a mediocre lineup with no receivers and no established running game, by an actual running back. Until the Houston Texans change their offensive line, their quarterback’s life will always be at risk. They at least tried this year, drafting offensive tackle Duane Brown out of Texas in the first round.
In the AFC, the only division lead that isn’t all but written in stone is up in the North. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns will most likely be vying for the lead and possibly the second wild card spot. The Browns only got better in the off-season, adding Donte Stallworth, Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers. The Bengals could be a dark-horse candidate for the top spot this year but with the apparent shoulder injury to Chad Johnson, it seems like another season of mediocrity.
The Baltimore Ravens added depth to their secondary this year, signing cornerback Frank Walker and Fabian Washington. Becuase their quarterback situation isn’t settled their fans can hope for a .500 season.
Playoff teams this year should include the Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Steelers and Jaguars. For the last wild card spot, the Browns and the Jets seem like the best bet.