by Scott Benson

I mentioned earlier this week that we’ve been getting a few notes from people who say they’ve been enjoying Game Day. It’s gratifying to know we’re not the only ones clicking on this page.

But we’re about to piss away any goodwill we’ve managed to bank. We’re about to hand you material that will allow you – nay, invite you – to mock us for months. Years, even.

That’s right – it’s prediction time.

I’m sure at some point, we’ll be deleting this entry entirely, and pretending it never happened. Unless we turn out to be right. Then we’ll be crowing about it for a good long time.

Here goes.

In many quarters, the Miami Dolphins are predicted to wrest the AFC East title from the Pats, who have held it since 2003. The Dolphins’ schedule is 6th easiest in the league (based on last year’s W/L percentage of its 06 opponents, for whatever that’s worth). How do you see the AFC East finishing?

Bruce: The Dolphins have taken some big steps forward the last two years, there’s no doubt about it. I think they’re going to be right there with the Patriots for much of the season in the W-L record, one reason being the schedule that both teams face this season. However, Dante Culpepper just doesn’t do it for me, and while Ronnie Brown is an impressive back, I think not having Ricky Williams around might result in Brown getting a little worn down over the course of the season. I think the Bills and the Jets will both give opponents some tough games over the course of the season. It’s not going to be a cakewalk for the Patriots, but I’m seeing Patriots>Dolphins>Bills>Jets as the order of finish.

Greg: There are some things to like about the Dolphins. Their coaching staff is top notch, they enjoy a great homefield advantage, their defense is tough, they have a good young running back. Chris Chambers is also a good receiver and Randy McMichael a good option at tight end. Still there are some questions that seem to be ignored by the Dolphins boosters. First, their o-line is weak. Daunte Culpepper is returning from injury and was terrible last year before getting hurt. He has never proven he can be a good quarterback without Randy Moss. The win streak they had to end last year was illusory as it mostly came against lesser or disinterested opponents. And the running back who carried them thru that streak down the stretch, Ricky Williams, is now gone. That is a major loss no one is talking about. I see them as around 9-7 again. The rest of the division shapes up with Buffalo third. They are improved, but still a project team with a lot of questions and young players they need to develop. The Jets are very bad. Young at spots, old and decrepit at spots and just not talented overall. Their staff is inexperienced. They’ll be awful. The Patriots win this division going away.

Scott: Obviously, I have the Pats first. This isn’t Dolphins Rear View, or Fish Tank, or whatever the hell it might be. Have I mentioned how badly I want to see the Dolphins lose every game? It’s just the way everybody got on their (unprintable) because they won NINE games last season. NINE? Now all of a sudden they’ve lapped the Pats? Hold on a minute, aqua men. How about winning something first? Has anybody gotten more mileage out of something that happened 30 goddam years ago? Besides Notre Dame and the Beach Boys, I mean. Anyway, I’ve always thought Marv Levy was cool, and I think Dick Jauron is a better coach than we give him credit for. I’ve got him getting the early bump over Eric Mangini’s Jets, but a year or two from now? I’d guess it’s the other way around.

The Patriots enter the season with a schedule only slightly more difficult than Miami’s. What record will the Pats finish with?

Greg: I’ll go with 12-4. The schedule is easier than last year and they’re bound to be less injury riddled on defense. I see major improvement on defense with a more qualified, veteran and innovative coordinator and fewer injuries.

Scott: I like them to go 5-1 in the division (I’m allowing for a stupid, preventable loss in Miami that will send me into the fathoms of depression for nearly 24 hours), 4-0 in the NFC (North; Brett Favre is already talking trade to avoid playing the Patriots), and 4-2 in the AFC. I’m girding myself for some sort of split against the playoff group comprised of the Broncos (home), Bengals (away), Colts (home) and Jaguars (away). So add that up and it makes 13-3, which sounds like a first round bye and home semi-final playoff game. Giddyup.

Bruce: Put me down for 12-4. (Dolphins 10-6) Scott’s schedule breakdown is pretty much how I had it, but I’m planning in another surprise loss here or there, perhaps even within the division. There are a couple back-to-back weeks on the schedule that make me uncomfortable at this moment. (@Bengals – a week after playing the Broncos at home, and @Vikings – the week before the Colts come to town) I’m sort of counting on the team rounding into full steam come December, as Belichick teams have traditionally done, but the Dolphins and Jaguars, both on the road, each offer a tough late season test.

For a changeup, here’s a Steve Burton question. Deion Branch?

Scott: I’ve been downplaying this since July, saying Branch is a good guy who is simply using what little leverage he has to get a new deal commensurate with his recent production. They’re just making the sausage, I claimed, and eventually, the outcome would justify the stomach-turning process. Well, buddy, there’s pig guts all over the goddam place. Because for whatever reason, Deion Branch and his agent have declared war on the Patriots. They claim the Patriots have been negotiating in bad faith when it was they who walked away. They claim they, and not the Patriots, will determine what the team takes in a trade. Then they claim they’ll seek damages from the team if their grievances are denied. Three words: Oh, for crissakes. Let’s face it; what are the chances that Deion Branch will ever willingly play for the Patriots again? It’s purely about winning and losing now; reconciliation seems impossible. Prevail in the hearings, slam his litigious ass in the deep freeze until November, garnish his wages every step of the way, and then franchise him into oblivion next spring. They made it a war, so it’s now incumbent on the Patriots to win it decisively.

Greg: I’m tired of Branch. He’s worn out any goodwill I had for him. You have a contract Deion, it has a year left. Stomping your feet and holding out was a very dumb move and the character you’ve displayed in your tactics is very low. It’s disappointing. I am at the point I hope he does hold out, gets fined the maximum, plays for little this year and then gets franchised next year and the Patriots never trade him until they get an extremely strong trade deal. Deion Branch needs to be made an example of. The classless way he has handled himself, considering he has a signed contract, has mandated that a message must be sent.

Bruce: Who? I can only talk about the players that are in camp, on the roster.

Each week, we’ll follow the matchups involving the Patriots division competitors and those teams that will be vying for conference playoff spots at season’s end. We’re leaving out Miami, Pittsburgh and the Bills this week for reasons that should be obvious. All right, boys, here they are. Straight pick ’em.

Denver at St. Louis; New York Jets at Tennessee; Cincinnati at Kansas City; Dallas at Jacksonville; Indianapolis at New York Giants; San Diego at Oakland

Greg: Denver is a good team, one of the top AFC contenders. Even on the road, against a St. Louis team adjusting to a new system under new coach Scott Linehan, Denver will prevail. In Kansas City, the moment the Chiefs named a charlatan like Herm Edwards coach, the downward spiral began. It will take awhile to manifest itself. I like the Chiefs to score against the Bengals and hold them down just enough on offense to take a close game at home. I like Dallas. They have a lot of weapons on offense and Jacksonville is inconsistent on offense themselves. I see an upset with the Giants knocking out the run-challenged Colts. Look for numerous picks by Lord Peyton in a now predictable offense. It won’t make a difference whether they upgraded their field goal kicker or not when they lose by 10. I’ll go with Oakland to pull an upset at home against San Diego. I’m not sold that Phillip Rivers, the new San Diego QB, is ready to be the game manager former QB Drew Brees was. Oakland should be a bit improved and at home, they take it.

Bruce: I HATE Denver. Always have. I think they’ll take out St. Louis and their new coach in his first game, though I think the Rams will surprise people this season. I think the Jets might be jacked and pumped enough to hand the Titans an opening loss. Cincinnati should have the fire power to outshoot Herm Edwards and the Chiefs. The Cowboys will handle the Jaguars, the Colts will romp on the Giants and San Diego will take out Oakland.

Scott: Denver annoys me enough that I’m convinced they’ll be around through January just to make me miserable. In the other games, I’ll go with the hometown kid in his first game against the lousy Titans. I’m worried about my Cincinnati pick already; won’t the Chiefs offense run the Bengals off the field? I’ll take Team Tuna against the Jags, and Tony Dungy’s so goddam nice I can’t pick against him, even though he’s on the road. Why did I throw San Diego in here? Oh, yeah, Ladanian Tomlinson and Shawn Merriman. I’ll go with them, even against all those frightening makeup jobs. As Count Floyd used to say – Ooooooo! Scary!

EDIT: A loyal reader points out our first mistake – we originally had Dallas, at home, taking on the Jaguars; the game is in fact in Jacksonville. I’d probably like to change my prediction, and Greg may too; but it’s too late. Prognostication is a tough town.

Moment of truth now. Pats, Buffalo, Sunday afternoon at Gillette. What’s your outcome and final score?

Greg: I don’t see the Bills challenging much. The Patriots are home, relatively healthy and simply a better, more experienced team. I’ll go with 27-13 Patriots.

Scott: It’s a divisional game, which is always tougher, even though the Patriots haven’t lost to the Bills since Lawyer’s Revenge in September of 2003. I’m going to bet that the Patriots offense stays on its pre-season pace, and the Pats defense hangs in with Willis McGahee and keeps the young quarterback from becoming comfortable. I’ll go with the Pats, 23-10.

Bruce: As mentioned, no division game is easy. The Bills will be pesky. A couple keys for the Patriots: keeping Aaron Schobel from dropping Tom Brady to the ground repeatedly, as he has done in the past, and containing the explosive Terrence McGee in the return game. Both have been problems for the Patriots in the past, though as Scott mentions, it hasn’t been TOO bad for New England over the last three seasons. Patriots 24-16.

We can’t go home until we pick a Mediot of the Week.

Scott: I’ll leave Borges for somebody else, although I will say he’s done enough in the last ten days alone to warrant the retirement of this weekly feature. Instead, I’m going with a tag team. In this corner is the Original Screaming Woman, Wendi Nix of ESPN, who had Laurence Maroney out of this Sunday’s game with a knee injury. On MONDAY MORNING, two days before the injury report was released. Must be quite a scoop. In the other corner is Screaming Woman Redux, Michael Felger of ESPN Boston, who called Nix’s sources ‘impeccable’. Felger dug his spike heels in deeper even after Maroney practiced on Monday by saying he trusted Wendi’s ‘womanly intuition’. Eddie Andleman, is that you? When the injury report was released Wednesday, the rookie wasn’t even listed. Nice call guys (and you too, John Tomase). I’m sure they’ll blame Belichick for all of it.

Greg: Let’s go with Mike Adams, talking non-stop about the sinking Red Sox season (and not doing it very well, insightfully or interestingly) on the eve of the NFL season. Not to mention his non-sensical Manny bashing obsession. I understand Adams knows a little bit, but not much, about baseball, but nothing about any other sport. Stuck with the Hobson’s Choice of talking about something he knows nothing about or merely next to nothing, he chooses baseball. Understandable. But given the circumstances, does this no longer entertaining and bitter sounding flunky really deserve a radio show on a major station? I’d say no.

Bruce: I already took Borges to the woodshed this week. Happily, (or sadly) there is still no shortage of worthy candidates. I think I’m going with Alan Greenberg. The Hartford Courant Patriots writer concluded his “Breaking it down” column on Wednesday with the following:

It’s a fact: Belichick is the best coach in football. But his uncompromising attitude toward his own free agents cost him three key players (Vinatieri, McGinest, Givens), and it’s not clear they have been adequately replaced.

The key question: Will Belichick’s arrogance catch up with him?

The skinny: Owner Bob Kraft, who stepped in to help make sure free agent Troy Brown stayed, was very upset over the loss of Vinatieri. It seems inevitable that he and Belichick will clash.

Is this straight out of the Steve Buckley school of “throwing it out there” or what? Have we heard any rumblings that Kraft is unhappy with Belichick in any way? Even if he was saddened and disappointed with the departure of Vinatieri, (as most of us were) would this move Kraft to challenge, much less “clash” with the coach that has brought him so much success? Also, in just what part of running the team has Belichick proved to be “arrogant”? Here is arrogance, as defined by Webster: “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” So where is this arrogance being displayed? I’m not seeing it. It’s an easy buzzword that a reporter that has already had a public spat with the coach this preseason can insert into his column to take a shot, while at the same time ostensibly appearing to be making a point.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Tune in later today for a new column by Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders, and naturally, we invite you to check in on Sunday as we blog the season opener between the Pats and the Bills.