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Coming down the stretch: NFL predictions for the final quarter of the season and the Playoffs

Rant (with a few blurbs from The Pundit)

At one of the Packers’ recent press conferences, head coach Mike McCarthy made a statement about the Packers dropping games, noting, “It’s November, we need to be winning football games.”  I thought, damn straight man, the playoff picture is starting to take shape. Here’s some insight on how Rant thinks it will all go down. And going down the last quarter stretch of the season, we get to separate the men from the boys, which is always fun, if you ask me. (Editor’s note: Are the men or the boys more fun for you, Rant?)

NFC Playoff Picture

New York Giants  (11-1)

The Giants have hunger and character. They were not, nor will they ever be, satisfied with their Super Bowl win. Eli Manning took a huge step during the 2007 postseason, and has now joined his brother in top-tier QB status. This is the best overall team in the NFL at this juncture, and it just so happens that they play in the toughest division in the league, as well.

Eli Manning is chucking the ball to whomever he wants, and has developed a good rapport with second year man Steve Smith, journeyman Domenik Hixon and the ageless Amani Toomer. (Editor’s note: And now, without Plaxico around, it’s safe once again to use the shotgun. Ahhhh, making fun of Plax really is a blast). Then there’s the powerful running game led by “Earth, Wind, and Fire” as they say in New York, and their ridiculous defense. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnola has the perfect blend of youth and experience on his defense right now. The Giants will continue to execute, and in turn, will win games. They won’t wow anybody with finesse, but they’ll smash people in the jaw during the playoffs.

Remaining Schedule:  vs. Philadelphia (W), at Dallas (W), vs. Carolina (W), at Minnesota (L)

The Giants will further assert themselves over the next three games, then Coughlin will rest his starters and allow the Vikings to get into the playoffs by dropping a loss in Minnesota.

Final Record:  14-2

Playoff Spot:  No. 1 Seed; NFC East Division Champion

The Pundit’s Take: I agree with Rant – the Giants are playing too well right now to doubt them. But are they peaking too soon?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers  (9-3)

Any winning team led by the always consistent Jeff Garcia is dangerous, especially with that tenacious Tampa D. Look for the Bucs to take their division in the next couple of weeks and head into the playoffs with confidence. Their 4th ranked defense is going to scare some teams, compounded by the fact that Jeff Garcia does not turn the ball over. (Editor’s note: He’s only thrown 3 picks this year, and only 9 in his last 30 games. Impressive. Hey, if it smells like a game-manager, and looks like a game-manager…)

They have a great 1-2 punch in running backs Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn, and Antonio Bryant is probably the best wide receiver nobody knows. (Editor’s note: May be better for him that way – when people know about him, it’s normally for the wrong reasons). But Tampa’s defense will have to step up if their offense starts to struggle in the playoffs, and I think they’ll do it. This is a solid team that will continue to play consistent football into the playoffs.

Remaining Schedule:  at Carolina (W), at Atlanta (W), vs. San Diego (W), vs. Oakland (W)

The Bucs will assert their control on the NFC South with a good win over Carolina on Monday, and win out the rest of this season if Jon Gruden decides he doesn’t need to rest his starters the last game of the season.

Final Record:  13-3

Playoff Spot:  No. 2 Seed; NFC South Division Champion

The Pundit’s Take: I agree, though I think they lose the last week of the season, resting their starters, as the Giants will already have top seed in the playoffs locked up. They settle for the two-seed at 12-4.

Arizona Cardinals  (7-5)

This team is all about Kurt Warner right now, who is statistically up there with Drew Brees this year. (Editor’s note: And a possible MVP candidate). Ken Wisenhunt decided to go with Warner over Matt Leinart, and it’s paying dividends. By the way, I don’t know what is wrong with Leinart; when he got drafted, I thought he was the most NFL-ready QB I’d ever seen. (Editor’s note: Hmmmm…statue in the pocket, not a very strong arm, came in thinking he was a playboy instead of being a player). Anyway, Warner is having success in large part because of stud receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. That being said, I don’t think the offensive line isn’t getting enough credit, led by second-year tackle Levi Brown out of Penn State (YEAH BOY!).

Despite their pass-blocking abilities, the O-line hasn’t helped the one-dimensional Cardinals support much of a run game.  This and their lack of consistenty on defense will bite this team in the playoffs after they finally win their division after years of people predicting them to do so.  It would be cheap to say that anybody could win the NFC West, because the Cardinals are playing good football, at least offensively. We’ll just ignore their horrible game here in Philly.

Remaining Schedule:  vs. St. Louis (W), vs. Minnesota (W), at New England (L), vs. Seattle (W)

Winning 3 of their last 4 will amp up the Cardinals for the playoffs, allowing this team to bounce back from their reality check this past Thursday in Philly.

Final Record:  10-6

NFC Playoff Spot:  No. 3 Seed; NFC West Division Champion

The Pundit’s Take: I agree again. It’s as though we’ve been discussing football a lot lately, or something. St. Louis and Seattle are gimme’s, the Patriots will have too much at stake for the Cardinals to beat them, and they will feast on Minnesota’s 21st ranked pass defense.

Minnesota Vikings  (7-5)

Looking back now, we all know that Tavaris Jackson was a letdown, but what else has kept this team mediocre? They boast arguably the best run-blocking O-line in the NFL and arguably the best runner in Adrian Peterson.  But QB and receiver is a problem for Minnesota’s offense. Gus Frerotte has filled in adequately, but certainly cannot be asked to do much more than manage a game. Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian are decent wideouts, but nothing that will scare defenses. The Vikings will suffer in playoff contention, as defenses will be keying on the run, making it difficult for this team to survive.

Minnesota’s defense is the team’s stronger side, but was just weakened with the loss of DT tandem Pat and brotha-from-anotha-motha Kevin Williams. Unfortunately for Minnesota, that suspension is for the rest of the regular season, all for using a diuretic that masks steroids in urine testing. These two guys are behemoths in the middle of Minnesota’s stifling D-Line, averaging 6’4″ and 314 pounds between them – that’s a lot of man to move (Editor’s note: Two things here: first of all, that’s what she said. Second, I gotta think they were using the diuretics for weight loss, and not to get stronger – each are already gargantuan).  The D’s strongest point has just been broken, but it won’t be enough to stop this team from winning their division.

Vikings Remaining Schedule:  at Detroit (W), at Arizona (L), Atlanta (L), New York (W)

What will help this team is their piss-poor division.  Like the Cardinals in the pathetic NFC West, the Vikings will almost win their division by default, though Chicago will be nipping at their heals.  This will take Brad Childress off the hot seat temporarily. (Editor’s note: Is he on already?)  I see the Vikings beating Detroit (duh) and a resting New York team the last game of the season, but losing at Arizona and against Atlanta because of their losses on the defensive line.

Final Record:  9-7

NFC Playoff Spot:  No. 4 Seed; NFC North Division Champion

The Pundit’s Take: In agreement once more. Arizona will go pass-happy on them, beating them in a shoot-out, and Atlanta will pound the ball right up the gut, where the Williams Wall used to be.

Carolina Panthers  (9-3)

Next in line, the fake Carolina Panthers.  Fake, you say?  Yeah, because they are faking fans and Vegas betters alike that they’re a semi-legit team, which they really aren’t (Editor’s note: For reference, check their cake schedule: their best wins this year are against Arizona, Atlanta and Chicago. They don’t have one big, signature win).  Jake Delhomme is too inconsistent to lead this team to playoff glory, and though he has put up solid numbers this year, you don’t know what kind of performance he’s gonna give you from one game to the next.

The Panthers have retained a solid defensive unit the past couple of years, led by beast Julius Peppers.  And fortunately for the Panthers, they’ve picked up a great ground game this year, though I seriously doubt it will be enough for this team to make a big playoff run. Still, this season has probably moved John Fox off the hot seat for another year. Don’t get too comfortable though, John – you still need a more consistent QB if you wanna stay in Raleigh.

Remaining Schedule:  Tampa Bay (L), vs. Denver (W), at NY Giants (L), at New Orleans (W)

The Panthers will show their inferiority against Tampa and New York, but will earn a playoff spot with their win at New Orleans the last game of the season.  Some people might think Carolina will lose this game, but I think the Panthers will run the ball effectively against a porous Saints D, keeping the ball out of the hands of the ever-dangerous Drew Brees.

Final Record:  11-5

NFC Playoff Spot:  No. 5 Seed; Wild Card Seed No. 1

The Pundit’s take: Agree, though I can’t stop focusing on the Denver game. If they get a hot Denver team, they may be in trouble. A cold Denver team is an easy win for them. I think they make the playoffs at 11-5.

Washington Redskins  (7-5)

The always interesting Redskins; they show dominance, then they come out flat. The only thing I can tell about this team is that they’re good, but don’t have the identity or mentality to win a championship. New head coach Jim Zorn has done well in his first year with Washington, but his team can’t seem to quite put it all together at once. Jason Campbell is playing well, but he still hasn’t gotten to the level where he can lead the team to victory on his own. Clinton Portis has been running all over people, but his multiple injuries are coming to the surface at the wrong time.

The defense is looking good, especially after acquiring castoff CB DeAngelo Hall, adding great depth in the defensive secondary.  I’m still not sure why they went after 34 year-old Jason Taylor, but I’m not calling the shots in Washington, owner Dan Snyder is.  Snyder is still convinced that overspending on free agent players and coaches, along with drafting overrated college receivers, is the quick and easy way to win a championship.  Sorry Dan, but there is no easy button for Super Bowl winners.

Remaining Schedule: at Baltimore (L), at Cincinnati (W), vs. Philadelphia (W), at San Francisco (W)

The Skins will lose this Sunday at Baltimore with or without a banged-up Clinton Portis, but will rattle off 3 straight victories and get into the playoffs.  The Redskins get the nod over Dallas in the Wild Card tiebreaker because they will finish with a better division record:  Washington 3-3, Dallas 2-4. The Redskins then get the spot over Atlanta in the Wild Card tie breaker because they will finish with more wins in conference, 8 to 6.  What a mess of shit my predictions brought along with them!

Final Record:  10-6

NFC Playoff Spot:  No. 6 Seed; Wild Card Seed No. #2

The Pundit’s Take: This is where I begin to differ with Rant. I don’t see the Redskins beating Baltimore, but the game that will haunt them is their match-up with the Eagles, who I think will exact revenge against the ‘Skins. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t see the Eagles running the table to finish the season. However, they probably should have beat them the first time around, and who knows if Portis will be healthy for round two. That, and the Eagles defense has cranked it up a few notches since their last meeting. I see the ‘Skins finishing at 9-7 and missing the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys  (8-4)

Maybe Terrell Owens is right when he says he needs to get the ball in order for the Cowboys to win.  Regardless, the soon to be 35 year-old shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, a benefit from keeping his body in peak physical condition year round. Oh yeah, and his quarterback isn’t going to be slowing down either. Romo is back to his loose and mobile self once more after returning from a broken finger on his throwing hand. I don’t know if Wade Phillips and Jerry Jones gathered their team together the past couple of weeks to try and rid themselves of the off field crap, but this team is getting some momentum going at the right time.

We all know what the Cowboys are capable of and look for them to make a statement down the stretch.  I don’t think it will be enough to take the division from the Giants, but I do see this team grabbing an NFC Wildcard spot if they can beat the Eagles in Philly the last game of the season; unfortunately for this team, it won’t be able to do that.  Andy Reid will want to give his city something to celebrate and give McNabb a nice sendoff gift before he is kicked out of town.  The Eagles will play fired-up football and knock Dallas out of playoff contention, ending Philly’s season on a high note.

Remaining Schedule:  at Pittsburgh (W), vs. NY Giants (L), vs. Baltimore (W), at Philadelphia (L)

Dallas will beat Pittsburgh convincingly, lose a squeaker to the Giants, then crush Baltimore.  But losing in Philadelphia will drive a steak into their playoff hearts, adding yet another saga to the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry.

Final Record:  10-6

NFC Playoff Spot:  OUT

The Pundit’s Take: Again, I can’t agree with Rant. The Cowboys have a BRUTAL finish to their season, but I think they’re about to catch fire. I think they win every game except a battle against the Giants. As much as I despise myself for even thinking it, I think they beat the Eagles with their own playoff spot hanging in the balance, finishing 11-5. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find some rope, a step-ladder and a high ceiling.

Atlanta Falcons  (8-4)

Who would’ve thought we’d be talking about the Atlanta Falcons as a potential playoff team this year?  Billionaire Arthur Blank found a good one in rookie head coach Mike Smith, who captured the trust of his team in a matter of months.  Part of this must be due to players believing in a sound system that Smith has installed in Atlanta.  The other part is probably due to Smith drafting rookie sensation Matt Ryan, who has gotten his team behind him faster than my friend the Pundit likes to get behind good-looking men at the bar. Oh, SNAP! (Editor’s note: Ahahahahahahaha.)

The Pundit’s Take: Alright Rant, I see what you did there. I’m not even going to retaliate. No sir, not my style. I won’t mention that Rant has Barbara Streisand’s entire library of music, or that he tried to mix me an appletini the other night. Nope…not going to stoop to his level.

The Falcons, led by phenom Matt Ryan, road-grader Michael Turner, and rising star receiver Roddy White, are truly this year’s Cinderella team. I’ve been saying even before the draft that Matt Ryan has whatever “it” is to be an NFL quarterback while many of my colleagues dissed me. Now I’m laughing in their faces about it because the kid seems to have his team in position for a playoff run. Oh yeah, and the rook has his team ranked 6th in total offense (9th in scoring). ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THIS GOOD AT SLINGING THE BALL!!!

But the Falcons fall short on the other side of the ball, with a 24th ranked defense; this will come back to haunt them. Doesn’t matter though, as the football starved fans in Atlanta are glad to move their franchise into a new chapter in Falcons history.

Remaining Schedule:  at New Orleans (L), vs. Tampa Bay (L), at Minnesota (W), vs. St. Louis (W)

The Falcons will drop two straight division losses, with a tight loss to the Saints and a huge defeat against the Bucs. Atlanta will then win its last two games, but it won’t be enough to beat out Washington for the remaining playoff spot.

Final Record:  10-6

NFC Playoff Spot:  OUT

The Pundit’s Take: Yup, I see it the same way. New Orleans is tough at home, 5-1 below sea level this year. And Tampa Bay is more experienced and boasts a tough D. Hell of a season, though, especially for a team that is probably about two years ahead of schedule after the Mike Vick debacle and DeAngelo Hall’s unfriendly departure.

Chicago Bears  (6-6)

Oh, da Bears. Another team I could care less about, and you should too.  This team could win the struggling NFC North but are not a playoff team. The Bears still can’t field a consistent offense for 16 games, and it will stay that way until they get a real quarterback and some more playmakers. Matt Forte was a step in the right direction for the Bears’ offense, but quarterback and receiver remain an issue. (Editor’s note: Forte is the truth). Some people are sold on Kyle Orton, but I’m not; he’s not their answer at QB and he showed that against Minnesota this past Sunday.

The Bears will have to ride a heroic defensive effort if they want to make the playoffs, though it’s not as stingy as it has been the past couple of years, ranking 16th in total defense and points allowed. Unfortunately for Chicago, they’ll lose when they can’t score points for their slumping offense. This team seems to have some identity issues after making the Super Bowl two years ago.

Remaining Schedule:  Jacksonville (W), New Orleans (L), Green Bay (W), at Houston (L)

I see the Bears dropping losses to New Orleans and Houston, moving to 8-8 on the season and losing their division and playoff hopes all in one.  The momentum in the NFC North swung in the direction of Minnesota after Chicago’s forgettable performance this past Sunday at the hands of their division rival.

Final Record:  8-8

NFC Playoff Spot:  OUT

The Pundit’s Take: I agree with the 8-8 record, though I would swap the Green Bay and Houston results.

Teams not mentioned:

Philadelphia and New Orleans: Each would need to run the table to make the playoffs, and I don’t see it happening.

The Pundit’s Take: Agreed.

Rant’s NFC Playoff Seeds

1. New York Giants

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3. Arizona Cardinals

4. Minnesota Vikings

5. Carolina Panthers

6. Washington Redskins

The Pundit’s NFC Playoff Seeds

1. Giants

2. Bucs

3. Cardinals

4. Vikings

5. Cowboys

6. Panthers (How did the Cowboys edge the Panthers, each team possessing an identical record? Well, they didn’t play head-to-head, so that got tossed out. And they each finished 7-5 in my prediction. On to like foes: against GB, NYG, and TB, the Cowboys were 2-2, while the Panthers were 1-3).

Rant’s NFC Playoff Predictions

Wildcard Round: Panthers over Vikings, Cardinals over Redskins

Divisional Round: Giants over Panthers, Bucs over Cardinals

NFC Championship: New York over Tampa Bay

The Pundit’s Playoff Predictions

Wildcard Round: Cowboys over Vikings, Panthers over Cardinals

Divisional Round: Cowboys over Tampa Bay, Giants over Panthers

NFC Championship: Cowboys over Giants (The Cowboys will come into this game having won eight of their last nine games, and I don’t think the Giants can beat them three times in the same season. I don’t know, I just have a feeling this team is about to come to life. I really, really want to be wrong, and I’m hoping I’m jixing the living hell out of them).

Look for AFC predictions this evening.

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Quick Quips from the Day in Sports

– Donovan McNabb is a big fan of President Elect Barack Obama, according to an article on ESPN.com.

“It reminded me of, obviously, when Martin Luther King spoke and the messages that he spoke about,” McNabb said Wednesday. “As a man, if you teared up, it was acceptable because it was that deep.”

The story fails to mention that, only a few minutes before Senator McCain conceded, McNabb had been vomiting profusely. Thanks to T.O. for that scoop. (Editor’s note: And, the sound of crickets). Don’t mean to downplay a big day in the life of Mr. McNabb, African-Americans, and our United States of America – but hey, when T.O. calls…

– Apparently, the Dodgers are making Manny Ramirez a huge offer to stay in LA.

The Dodgers on Tuesday night offered Ramirez a contract with the highest average salary in Dodgers history, and the second-highest average salary among current players, Colletti told reporters Wednesday… That means that the average salary offered to Ramirez was somewhere between $22.9 million and $27.5 million per year.

Most likely, the Dodgers offered Ramirez a two-year contract worth just over $50 million. Colletti said the Dodgers also offered an option year, but declined to specify the exact length of contract.

If somebody asked me if I wanted to play baseball for them for 2 years and get paid about $50 million to do so, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t need to think too hard about my answer. Wouldn’t really be too tough of a decision for this guy. (Editor’s note: I’m fairly certain that The Pundit would wet himself in glee over a contract worth 40 G’s, a company Escort and limited health benefits).

– As is to be expected at this point in the College Football season, with a multitude of highly ranking teams losing and controversy starting to rear its snarling head, the old Playoff vs. BCS argument is coming to the forefront once more. Certain coaches, like Joe Paterno and Pete Carroll, are all about the playoff system, while others, mostly the ones who aren’t protected by national prestige and complete job security, “support” the BCS. Surely, the BCS has its strengths: every week, every high profile match-up takes on a playoff atmosphere. No game can be taken for granted, and no opponent can be taken lightly. Still, who wouldn’t like to see the top four, or even eight teams battle it out on the field? Wait, wait, what’s that you’re saying? You’re saying you’ve already heard these arguments, time and time again? Wait, this argument isn’t newsworthy anymore, it’s just rubbish being thrown around because it sparks the same old heated argument, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over? You already know that a playoff isn’t happening anytime soon, and have resigned yourself to just enjoy some great football, even if the system for determining the National Champion always leaves a bit to be desired? Yeaaaaaahhhhhh…moving on.

– Allen Iverson is a Piston, and will actually play for the Pistons soon. He is excited about the prospect of putting out a duel rap album with Rasheed Wallace, and can’t wait to join the destructive riots in Detroit if he is able to lead the Pistons to an NBA Championship. (Editor’s note: Oh, that’s just chock full of stereotypes right there. For the record, The Pundit has routinely claimed that Allen Iverson is one of his favorite athletes – and this is how he shows his support. You’re an asshole, Pundit).

– The Raiders have waived cornerback DeAngelo Hall in another strange move by the Silver and Black.

“I’ve never been in a situation where you cut one of the best players,” said safety Gibril Wilson, another of the team’s offseason acquisitions. “That’s strange to me. It’s almost like we’re throwing in the towel.”

The Raiders waived Hall on Wednesday, bringing a disappointing end to a short tenure in Oakland. The Raiders sent a second-round draft pick in 2008 and a fifth-rounder next season to Atlanta in March to acquire Hall, who immediately was given a seven-year contract.

At this time, Oakland has not shown any indication that they will cut Al Davis. However, Mr. Davis has expressed interest in hiring Matt Millen for an advisory role.

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NFL Preview Part One: The AFC West

For the next 8 days, I’ll be doing an overview of each team, highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, question marks and their fantasy outlook. On day 9, I’ll offer a full prediction for the upcoming season, including each team’s record, playoff predictions and the Superbowl champ.

Denver Broncos

Strengths: Their offense should produce, though not having Brandon Marshall early (suspended for at least 2 games Actual Editor’s note: only suspended for one, first game back will be without pay) will hurt. All indications are that Jay Cutler is primed for a big year. They’ll run the ball well, even if Andre Hall somehow ends up as their starter by year’s end. The secondary is solid, and Champ Bailey is arguably the best corner in football. D.J. Williams is a stud at LB.

Weaknesses: Basically, the defensive line. They gave up 142.6 rushing yards per game last year, 3rd worst in the league. The only real bright spot was Elvis Dumervil, who posted 12.5 sacks. Can recently added DT Dewayne Robertson (Jets) shore up the middle? Will anybody on this unit step up? If the defense can’t get stops and get off the field, the offense, which is expected to be solid, will suffer.

The question marks: The offensive and defensive lines. Can the O-line protect Cutler? Can the D-line stop anybody’s running attack and generate a pass rush?

Fantasy Forecast: He may be out for two one week, but Brandon Marshall is worth keeping in your back pocket. Keep your eye on the R situation, and work the waiver wire. My money says Selvin Young won’t be the only guy getting significant carries this season. Tony Scheffler may surprise you. As for Mr. Cutler – take him as your second QB, and see what he does. Don’t bother with their defense.

Overview: The Broncos are a tough call. They’ve got solid players at key positions: Champ Baily and Dre’ Bly at corner, D.J. Williams at LB, Brandon Marshall when he returns at WR, Jay Cutler (if he’s ready to explode as being predicted) at QB. They always run the ball well, and expect Cutler to spread the ball around a bit better than last year (Marshall led the team with 102 catches, and Scheffler was next with 49). But can the defense, and specifically, the D-line, step up? I don’t think so, and it will be their Achilles heel all season long. Their schedule before their bye in week 8 is absolutely brutal, with games against San Diego (week 2), New Orleans (week 3), Tampa Bay (week 5), Jacksonville (week 6) and New England (week 7). If they can start the season at 4-3 or better, they may have a shot for one of the wildcards.

Kansas City Chiefs

Strengths: Um, I’ll list them individually. Larry Johnson (if he can get any sort of blocking), Tony Gonzalez (if Brodie Croyle can get the ball to him), Dwayne Bowe has a lot of potential, Glenn Dorsey is going to be a beast, and all indications are that Derrick Johnson is primed for a break-out year. Their overall linebacking corps (Johnson, Donnie Edwards, Demorrio Williams, Napolean Harris, Pat Thomas) is solid.

Weaknesses: (Editor’s note: The Pundit just took a deep breath, as though this may take a while). Is Brodie Croyle really the long-term solution for this team at QB? Because it’s doubtful he’s a short term fix. After Gonzalez and Bowe, I’m not sure who he’ll throw to. The offensive line will likely struggle to get a push in the running game, even with the addition of rookie Branden Albert. Doesn’t help that LJ has probably lost a step anyway. Losing Jared Allen (Vikings) will significantly hurt their pass rush, unless Tamba Hali can have a career year. Their secondary is suspect. They should be stout against the run, unless Glenn Dorsey is a bust (Editor’s note: Highly doubtful). They are very young, and as excited as Herm Edwards is pretending to be about that, they will lose games due to mental mistakes. They are still forming their identity – not a formula for success.

The question marks: Brodie Croyle and the pass rush. Croyle is a gigantic, enormous, monumental, colassal, gargantuan (Editor’s note: He’ll keep going unless I stop him) question mark. If he comes out and manages the game well, occasionally connecting with Bowe for big plays, he may be able to keep the defense off-balance. Doubtful, though. If the D can’t generate a pass rush, it doesn’t matter how they defend the run: their secondary simply isn’t good enough to cover for extended periods of time. No pass rush = a long season for Chiefs fans.

Fantasy forecast: Obviously, Larry Johnson will be a guy taken in the top two rounds. Which I think may be a bit high, but he’ll get his touches. Tony Gonzalez will be a top five TE. Dwayne Bowe has Greg Jennings break-out potential, if Croyle cooperates, of course.

Overview: This team will struggle. When the question marks on your offense are the quarterback and the offensive line, you won’t strike fear in the hearts of many defenses. Their own defense will probably appear to overachieve, given the mediocrity of their offense, but will most likely get picked apart by solid passing attacks. Their youth and inexperience will plague them in close games. They will very likely have another top ten pick in next year’s draft, if not top five.

Oakland Raiders

Strengths: Solid defensively, with an excellent secondary bolstered by the offseason additions of DeAngelo Hall (Falcons) and Gibril Wilson (Giants). Very good core of running backs, with Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. TE Zach Miller showing promise, quickly becoming a favorite target of JaMarcus Russell.

Weaknesses: Pretty much their entire passing attack. The offensive line is better at blocking for the run, and has a few serious question marks of its own. The receiving group is thin after a season ending injury to Drew Carter. Russell is still developing at the QB position.

The question marks: JaMarcus Russell and Tommy Kelly. If Russell can competently manage the offense, and minimalize his mistakes, the Raiders may be able to replicate the Vikings offense of last year and beat teams on the ground. Can Tommy Kelly improve his play and improve a defense that allowed 145.9 rushing yards per game, second worst in the NFL? If he does (and early indications are that he is), along with the rest of the front seven, this will be a defense to be reckoned with.

Fantasy forecast: McFadden and Fargas are both worth owning. I don’t trust Javon Walker, but Ronald Curry could be a sleeper. Avoid Russell. Keep an eye on Zach Miller and their defense – each could become viable options down the line.

Overview: They have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Darren McFadden could be a star, and Justin Fargas is darn good insurance if he isn’t. If the Raiders can improve their run defense, create turnovers, control the clock and wear down defenses with their run game, they will surprise people (Editor’s note: Oh, is that all?). I believe the key for their season is the development of JaMarcus Russell – if he can make just enough throws to keep the defense off-balance, their running attack (6th in the NFL last year) will do the rest. But if he’s throwing picks, and keeping the D out on the field, they don’t stand a chance. They don’t have a terribly difficult schedule – I project them as a middle of the road team that could hover around the .500 mark.

San Diego Chargers

Strengths: Their entire defense, basically. They led the NFL in turnovers last year with 48, and they shouldn’t regress much from that. Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie make up one of the best cornerback pairs in football. Jamal Williams and Luis Castillo are excellent run-stuffers. Their linebackers get constant pressure on the quarterback, led by a guy you may have heard of named Shawne Merriman. Right, their defense is good. Oh, they also have this pretty good running back named LaDainian Tomlinson, i.e. the best running back in the NFL. The offensive line is steady. Antonio Gates, when healthy, is an impossible mismatch for defenses. The Chargers, on paper, are very, very good.

Weaknesses: Shawne Merriman’s knee ligaments. The potential that Antonio Gates is not 100 percent healthy. The wide receivers, though really I’m nitpicking, because Chris Chambers has now had a full training camp to get acclimated with Philip Rivers, and Vincent Jackson showed marked improvement in the second half of the season last year. Oh, wait, I’ve got one – Norv Turner. Yeah, Norv Turner. And the nice weather, because maybe instead of practicing, they’d rather be enjoying the weather. Or something like that.

The question marks: Philip Rivers and Shawne Merriman. Their offense will always be most effective when LT has the ball, but an efficient passing attack could make them almost indefensible. A big year for Rivers and this team is Superbowl bound; a mediocre one, and a brief playoff visit is likely. Then, there’s Mr. Merriman and his knee. Merriman at 75 percent is still a better option than a lot of OLB’s out there, and that’s assuming that he won’t play at a higher level than that. He may, but I don’t know if he lasts the season. If he doesn’t, the defense will not only lose effectiveness, but swagger as well. They are talented enough across the board to survive without him, but he makes them special.

Fantasy forecast: If you had the first overall pick, and you didn’t select LaDainian Tomlinson, you’re an idiot. (Editor’s note: Easy there, Pun). Antonio Gates is in the top tier of tight ends along with Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Tony Gonzalez. The defense should be one of the first ones of the board, if not the first. Their receivers could be late round steals.

Overview: They should be very, very good. But, I predicted them to win the Superbowl last year, and though they didn’t accomplish that, they at least made the AFC Championship game. Expect them to better last season ‘s dismal 1-3 start, and remain steady throughout the year. In my mind, they are one of four legitimate Superbowl contenders in the AFC.

Be sure to check in tomorrow for the AFC South.

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