by Greg Doyle
As the Patriots prepare to open their 2006 season next Sunday at home versus Buffalo, now would be a good time to take a look around the NFL at the rest of the Patriots division, the AFC East, as well as the other divisions in the league to see where the competition stands coming out of training camp:
The Patriots main competition is thought to be Miami. However, in their role as this year’s flavor of the month and media darling, there are a few problems with Miami that seem to have been overlooked. First, during their six game winning streak to end last year, its rarely mentioned the running back who was doing the best work for them was Ricky Williams, who is gone for the year to a drug suspension. He was one of the best backs in the NFL down the stretch last year and its rarely mentioned what a loss that could be. The other back, Ronnie Brown, is undoubtedly talented and a very good back. But he’s never handled the role alone, even in college he split time with Cadillac Williams at Auburn. It remains to be seen whether he wears down with an increased workload and the depth behind him is pretty thin. Its also rarely mentioned that six game winning steak was somewhat illusory as four of the wins came against Buffalo, the Jets, Tennessee and Oakland, including squeakers against Buffalo, the Jets and Oakland. They also won another game against the Patriots backups, barely, after the Patriots had clinched the division. At quarterback, Daunte Culpepper arrives. But will it be the former MVP candidate Culpepper or the Culpepper who was among the worst quarterbacks in the league prior to getting hurt last year? I personally always thought Randy Moss made a lot of plays for Culpepper and although Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers is very good, he’s not quite on the level of Moss in his prime. Culpepper will surely be pretty good, but great? I don’t know. He makes mistakes. And he made a lot of plays on the move, will his mobility be the same after a serious injury? We shall see. Up front, the Dolphins didn’t upgrade their mediocre line much and already have lost their starting center, Seth McKinney, for the year. On defense the Dolphins are always pretty tough. But Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas aren’t quite the players they used to be. They replace 4 of their 5 top defensive backs in the secondary. They have top notch defensive coaches on hand in head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Their homefield advantage is among the best in the NFL. I see the Dolphins as a good, but not quite ready team, that should be around 9-7 or 10-6. That could spell a wild card birth, but not much more.
Buffalo may be a little better than expected. Quarterback J.P. Losman looked better in preseason than at any time last year. Though the jury is definitely still out on him and the first returns last year were disasterous. They have a quality runningback who looks rejuvenated this year in Willis McGahee and one of the better young receivers in the league in Lee Evans. The problem is mainly on defense where they have some good young talent, but they are in transition. The return of Takeo Spikes at linebacker should help and Nate Clements is a top quality cornerback, but there isn’t much else to like, yet, on this side of the ball. Dick Jauron is a smart coach. He’ll play conservative, keep some games close and probably pull off some upsets.
Down in New York, former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini has his hands full. He has very mediocre talent all around. Quarterback Chad Pennington is below average and posseses one of the worst arms of any quarterback in the NFL, even before he injured it. The running backs aren’t playmakers and the line young in spots or too old in other spots. The defense has few playmakers beyond linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The staff is inexperienced. It’ll be a long year for the Jets.
Pittsburgh brings back their power running game and bruising defense. They should be back in the playoffs. However, the loss of Antwan Randle-El costs them a certain game breaking ability on offense. With coach Bill Cowher unsigned for next year, a few injuries and the post-Super Bowl effect could send them into a tailspin around midseason with a few bad breaks. If they can avoid that misfortune, they’re still a team no one will want to play come playoff time.
Cinncinati has a very explosive offense led by recuperated quarterback Carson Palmer. Rudi Johnson is a workhorse back and Chad Johnson among the best receivers in the NFL. Their offensive line is very good. Their weakness is defense, but they showed progress there in the preseason. Still, the personnel is largely the same and they’re still going to have to outscore teams to go anywhere. That’ll probably get them to the playoffs, perhaps even a division championship, but they don’t have the defense to win it all.
Cleveland is improved under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell. But they also lack playmakers on offense. Reuben Droughns is solid, but not a top back. There receivers are pedestrian and they have a young quarterback. They’ll have to wait another year in the Mistake by the Lake.
Baltimore added quarterback Steve McNair and even an aging, beat up former MVP like McNair is better than the Kyle Boller. At running back, Jamaal Lewis appears to have seen his best days a few years ago. There isn’t anything too impressive behind him. That will hurt the running game. They do have an impressive stable of young receivers such as Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, and a top tight end in Todd Heap. But the lack of a running game will make them an average at best offense. On defense, they’re not the stout defense of days gone by. Ray Lewis is still good, but no longer the best defensive player in the NFL. Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers in the league. They have a top cornerback in Chris McCallister and a All-Pro safety in Ed Reed. The defense will keep them in games and, with some close wins, they could be a playoff threat. But not a championship threat.
Indianapolis is another media darling. The thought there is the new kicker, former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, is going to push them over the top. This is hard to fathom being a factor before the post-season, given that their kicker last year didn’t miss more than two kicks during the regular season. It’ll be pretty hard to upgrade the regular season performance anyways. And the loss of one of the more underrated keys to their offense, running back Edge James will be much more fatal than a shot in the dark hope you’re season might come down to a kick in January. You sorta got to get there first. Maybe the media is forgetting that. A significantly downgraded running game could actually cost the Colts things like home field advantage, bye weeks and easier opponents come playoff time. To the point that the upgraded post-season kicking game, in theory, never will even come into play. The proposed replacements for James at running back have been frightful in their preseason performance and while they should improve in the regular season, you simply can’t replace an All-Pro with lesser players and think its not going to hurt. On defense, they lost three starters there as well. The Colts still have some talent, but their window is rapidly closing. They will likely still make the playoffs, but their days as a threat have ended. If it even ever existed that is.
Houston will be a much improved team in 2006, though it may take a year in the new system under new head coach Gary Kubiak for it really to come together. David Carr has always shown flashes, but has been one of the more harassed quarterbacks in the league in his young career. If they can give him time, he can be a good player. They are a little thin at running back, but look for receiver Andre Johnson to return to his old Pro Bowl form and for an upgraded defense behind young stars like Mario Williams and Dunta Robinson.
Jacksonville could be a team worth watching in the AFC. They got a taste of the playoffs last year. The loss of their best receiver Jimmy Smith to retirement will hurt, but they have a young crew in Ernest Wilford, Matt Jones and Reggie Williams ready to pick up the slack there. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is a gamer, but inconsistent. Their line is decent, but not great. Where Jacksonville really makes their bones is on defense where they have the best tackle tandem in the NFL in the middle of it in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Cornerback Rashean Mathis is a borderline Pro Bowler and heart and soul Donovan Darius, the Jaguars Rodney Harrison, returns from injury after only playing two games last year. Look for the Jags to be back in the playoffs and perhaps ready to make noise.
In Tennessee, the Titans are still rebuilding. They have some young talent in running back LenDale White and quarterback Vince Young. They’ll likely be playing by season’s end to get them experience in a lost season.
San Diego has one of the NFL’s top back in LaDaniana Tomlinson. That alone can keep them in games. They also have perhaps the games best pass catching tight end in Antonio Gates. On defense, Shawne Merriman enters his second year and could be a Defensive MVP type player. A big question mark is can new quarterback Phillip Rivers replace the departed Drew Brees effectively? I’m guessing no. Rivers has the bigger arm, but will prove to not be yet ready to be the game manager Brees was.
Denver looks to be another solid Super Bowl contender in the AFC. They have a slew of young running backs. As usual its anyone’s guess which one will emerge. I’m guessing a combination of the more complete back Mike Bell, a rookie, and the blazing fast Tatum Bell. They add Javon Walker, an upgrade over the departed Ashley Lelie at receiver and still have some playmakers on defense, such as the great cornerback Champ Bailey. Look for them to win the West and be a threat for the number one seed in the AFC. Still, with Jake Plummer at quarterback, the Broncos are skating on the edge of another disasterous playoff performance he tends to have.
Oakland should be a tougher, more cohesive team with a more definite philosophy under new head coach Art Shell. He’ll certainly want to play a little tougher brand of football than the Raiders have played in recent years. Still, the talent is mediocre and Aaron Brooks not an ideal quarterback for any team that has aspirations of being good. Their defense has few playmakers. If they reach .500, it’ll be an accomplishment for Shell.
Kansas City has Larry Johnson, a premier back which will keep them scoring points. They also have a top weapon in tight end Tony Gonzalez and a decent defense led by young linebacker Derrick Johnson. They also have a top home field advantage and were one of the better teams to miss the playoffs in recent years. But alas, they also have a charlatan as their new head coach in Herm Edwards and this will prevent them, even were they otherwise capable, of doing anything of substance.
Dallas certainly has some weapons on offense, from running back Julius Jones to their top notch tandem at receiver of Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn to tight end Jason Witten. They’ll score points. The betting here is Owens will keep his head on straight for the most part his first season in a new place and have an excellent year. Glenn seems to be playing the best football of his career at this point. On defense, they aren’t great, but decent. They are a definite contender to win this division.
Washington, on the other hand, looks primed to take a step back. They go into the season with their running back banged up in Cliton Portis. He’ll be back, and he’s good, but he never seemed to fit perfectly Joe Gibbs more power running game philosophy and Gibbs did inherit Portis and his big contract. Santana Moss is a very dangerous receiver, but one wonders if the quickly aging Mark Brunnell can still get him the ball enough from the quarterback position. They lack playmakers on defense. This could be a basement dwelling team.
Philadelphia has questions, but here is betting they answer them and return to the playoffs. Donovan McNabb, it seems to be forgotten, is a very good quarterback who has a decent stable of receivers led by Donte Stallworth and Reggie Brown and a good pass catching tight end in L.J. Smith. They utilize running back Brian Westbrook in both the passing game and running game and he’s dangerous at both and they add a power runner with the return of Correll Buckhalter from injury. On defense, they’re still good and essentially have the core of their Super Bowl defense from two years ago intact. The addition of pass rusher Darren Howard at defensive end adds another dimension. I’m picking Philadelphia to return to form, win this division and return to the Super Bowl from the NFC.
The New York Giants have a good young quarterback in Eli Manning, one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL in Tiki Barber and a preseason terror on defense in the form of Mathias Kiwanuka at defensive end. They are a good but great team and could be back in the playoffs. But they lack the overall talent at all positions to be a Super Bowl team.
Chicago has some great players on defense including linebacker Brian Uhrlacher, defensive lineman Tommie Harris and cornerback Nathan Vasher, Pro Bowl quality players all. They mix it up with other very solid players at virtually every defensive position. They’ll be tough to score on if they stay healthy. On offense, the production should be improved with Rex Grossman healthy entering the year at quarterback. Running back Cedric Benson is as talented as they come, he could be primed to breakout. But if not, they have another good running back in Thomas Jones. They’ll visit the Patriots this year and that should be a very entertaining game and a possible Super Bowl preview.
Detroit brings in a new head coach in former Tampa Bay assistant Rod Marinelli. They have some good players, running back Kevin Jones, wide receiver Roy Williams and tackle Jeff Backus. But they lack depth and are playing with a new system. It’ll be another long year, with perhaps some hope for the future with some good young players developing.
Minnesota is another pedestrian looking team in this very bad division. There just isn’t much top talent on this team, though there are many solid players. In a weak division and with their homefield advantage, they may be able to squeek out 8-8 or 9-7. But they aren’t a serious contender.
Green Bay should be improved, if only because the division is so weak. Ahman Green returns from injury at running back. A.J. Hawk is the rookie hope at linebacker and be primed for another year of “will he or won’t he?” in regards to ancient quarterback Brett Favre. The Patriots visit historic Lambeau Field this year and that should be interesting to watch.
Carolina has always been a favorite of some for their tough play. And they played a great Super Bowl against the Patriots a few years back, no doubt about it. But something isn’t there for me when I look at them. DeShaun Foster is a good, but not great, back who has battled injuries every year. DeAngelo Williams showed some flashes in preseason that indicate he could be a ground weapon. Steve Smith amazes at receiver what he gets done at his smallish size and the line is good. On defense, they’re solid there as well. Chris Gamble is an up and comer at cornerback. They’ll challenge and probably win this division, but I don’t see the consistency on offense to win the NFC.
Tampa Bay was a very one dimensional team last year. Shut down their run on offense, and they couldn’t threaten much. I’m not sold that Chris Simms has the arm or pocket presence to win consistently in the NFL. Cadillac Williams is a good young back and they have a good defense still, but I see them taking a step back from their playoff season of last year.
Atlanta Quarterback Michael Vick can play great games at times and single-handidly win them. But he is still is inconsistent and not yet a top quarterback as a passer, if he ever will be. He has improved weapons around him now, with tight end Alge Crumpler in his prime and Michael Jenkins developing at receiver. Warrick Dunn is a very good tailback. On defense, they have some great players led by lineman Patrick Kerney and linebacker Keith Brooking. DeAngelo Hall could be ready to be a Pro Bowler at cornerback. Look for Atlanta to also be a factor in this competitive division.
New Orleans should be an interesting team to watch, if only for the electrifying Heisman Winner Reggie Bush arriving as a rookie at running back. Drew Brees arrives and should bring some game management skills and improve the offense. On defense, there is some talent there up front, but the linebackers are weak and the secondary lacks depth. They’re headed for the basement but could pull some exciting upsets at times. They’re return to the Superdome one year after Hurricane Katrina on Monday Night Football September 25th should be must see TV for any NFL fan.
The returning NFC champs Seattle figure to be at the top of this division again. Shaun Alexander is among the best backs in the NFL, if not the best. Adding receiver Nate Burleson gives quarterback Matt Hasselbeck another weapon and the defense was much improved last year.
Arizona made a lot of improvements, adding running back Edge James on offense, a big-time move. They also feature two of the best receivers in the league in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. They should be tough to stop in their new stadium this year. If they can get some defense, they could sneak into the playoffs. Watch for cornerback Antrell Rolle to return from injury and help out quite a bit.
In St. Louis, good offense will be on display as usual with weapons Steven Jackson at running back and receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis the threats. They also have a solid defensive line. But they’re adapating to a new system after years under the old one and are a little thin on defense. They’ll be .500 at best under new, inexperienced head coach Scott Linehan
San Francisco made some progress last year and got out of salary cap hell by suffering for a year and cutting big veteran contracts. This year they’ll look to develop young, talented guys like quarterback Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, both in their second year and continue the defensive improvement they showed last year. Look for marginal improvement, but they’re at least a year away from .500, maybe two years away.