And now, 43 NFL predictions -- one for every Super Bowl, including the one in February.
1: The Patriots will make another serious run at perfection
New England's first five weeks of its schedule: Kansas City, at New York Jets, Miami, bye, at San Francisco. In order of toughness, I rank it, at Jets, at Niners, bye, Dolphins and Chiefs.
I kid, sort of. But seriously, you're going to have look hard to find many games, if any, in which the Patriots aren't going to be the favorites. That guarantees nothing (see, Super Bowl XLII), but it's not a bad perk.
The point is, Tom Brady and Randy Moss haven't forgotten how to play catch; Wes Welker isn't going to quit running drag patterns; the defensive line won't suddenly go soft; Bill Belichick isn't going to let them forget what happened in Glendale.
Will Brady's numbers approach last year's totals (50 TDs, 4,806 yards, 68.9 completion percentage, led league in paparazzi photos of him wearing sweaters tied jauntily around his neck)? Of course not. But there's still this essential football truth: Opposing teams don't want to see the Patriots' team bus pull up to the stadium.
The Pats won't be as dominating as 2007, but there's a reason they've won 14, 14, 10, 12 and 16 regular-season games the past five years: They adjust better than any other franchise.
2: NFC Rookie of the Year
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina.
3: AFC Rookie of the Year
Chris Johnson, Tennessee.
4: And the winner of the "Who's Better: Reggie Bush or Mario Williams?" debate is
Year 1 went to the New Orleans running back. Year 2 went to the Houston defensive end. Year 3 becomes sort of the tiebreaker.
No matter how it turns out, I owe Texans management an apology note. Those 14 sacks by Williams last year were no accident. He's good, and getting better. And barring injury, he'll probably be in the league longer than Bush.
That doesn't mean I'm giving up on Bush. He remains an electrifying player. Problem is, he's not plugged into the socket enough.
Bush will do better than last season, but so far, Williams is ahead on points. It is fair to mention, though, that the Texans spent a third-round choice on a running back who, according to the Pro Football Prospectus 2008, "is undersized, but very fast and a home-run threat in space. Probably not going to be an every-down back, but could be dangerous if [the offensive line] can create some of the same seams he saw in college."
Change the year to 2006, and PFP could have been describing Bush. Instead, it was West Virginia's Steve Slaton. So even the Texans realized a Bush clone wasn't a bad thing.
5: NFL Most Valuable Player
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego.
It was between Tomlinson, Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook and Gisele's boyfriend.
Tomlinson is 29, so I think he has one final 2006-like freakish season (Remember? 1,815 rushing yards, 31 total TDs, 56 receptions) left in him.
6: Brett Favre will lead the J-E-T-S to the P-L-A-Y-O-F-F-S
It'll be close, but I think he gets them a wild-card spot. The schedule is mostly kind, the running back situation solid and the offensive line improved. I'll take my chances with No. 4. He'll have his clunkers as he learns the playbook and his teammates, but I can see a nine-win season.
7: NFC East (order of finish)
Philadelphia Eagles -- Donovan McNabb hasn't played a full season since cheesesteaks were invented. He has a four-year injury streak, is 31 and just lost Kevin Curtis, one of the few decent receivers the Eagles have on the roster. Yet I figure he'll stay healthy long enough to lead the Eagles to a division title.
Rookie DeSean Jackson gives Philly a much-needed speed weapon in the receivers rotation, as well as a legitimate punt return threat. It might not sound like much, but the Eagles finally have a kickoff return man, too: Quintin Demps. And as long as Westbrook is an Eagles employee, life is usually good. The offensive line has age and depth issues, but I'm still rolling the bones on these guys.
Dallas Cowboys -- Last season's 13 wins weren't a fluke (OK, maybe the win at Buffalo, when Dallas overcame five interceptions of Tony Romo), but there are too many moving parts for the Cowboys to match that victory total in 2008. You remember the 12-1 start; I remember the 1-3 finish (6, 6 and 17 points in those three losses). Roy Williams isn't an every-down safety anymore, the O-line is getting AARP-ish and, just a reminder, Cowboys wide receivers not named Terrell Owens are dropping like crime bosses in the baptism scene of "The Godfather."
On paper, the Cowboys are the best team in the division. But I just can't take the full leap of faith yet.
New York Giants -- Enjoy that NFL Films commemorative Super Bowl DVD, fellas, because there will be no repeat. There might not even be a playoff spot. Generally speaking, it's not exactly a formula for success when you lose your two starting Super Bowl defensive ends before the first snap of the regular season. But that's what has happened. Michael Strahan was lost to TV and powder makeup. Osi Umenyiora was lost to an operating table. Sorry, that's a playoff deal-breaker.
Washington Redskins -- Daniel Snyder is the owner. Jim Zorn is the first-time coach. The NFC East is merciless. Gee, what could go wrong? Seven wins, tops.
8: NFC South (order of finish)
Carolina Panthers -- If quarterback Jake Delhomme's elbow holds up, Steve Smith quits Kimbo Slice-ing his teammates and someone finally pays the ransom to return the kidnapped Julius Peppers to form (just 2½ sacks in 2007), the Panthers flip their 7-9 record from a year ago. Maybe they even get to 10 wins.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- No, it's not true that Bucs management uses carbon dating to determine the ages of football fossils Jeff Garcia (38) and Joey Galloway (36). And if it does, who cares? Garcia and Galloway continue to deliver the goods. Truth is, the Bucs are probably a push with Carolina for the division. Garcia gives them toughness. The offensive line could be "Saw II"-scary. The secondary is mostly airtight. And the schedule is yummy.
New Orleans Saints -- Anything is possible in this division, including the Saints' marching past the Bucs and the Panthers. But none of it happens unless the New Orleans offensive line (this time without center Jeff Faine, who signed a free-agent deal with Tampa Bay) does a little something we like to call "pass blocking."
Atlanta Falcons -- I'll start with the good news: Bobby Petrino is Arkansas' problem now; the Falcons open at home against the Matt Millens; Jerious Norwood is one of the league's most underrated running backs; and No. 1 pick Matt Ryan doesn't even own a pit bull. The bad news: I'm not sure Atlanta would be a double-digit favorite against the University of Georgia.
9: NFC North (order of finish)
Minnesota Vikings -- Tarvaris Jackson needs to do four things: stay healthy, figure out a way to complete more than 58 percent of his passes, throw more than nine touchdowns and quit fumbling so much. If he does, then hello playoffs.
Chicago Bears -- If the Cubs or White Sox win the World Series, maybe nobody will notice the Bears until November. How's this for an equation: Kyle Orton, inconsistent O-line, forgettable wide receivers, rookie running back, injury-prone defense = another 7-9 season.
Detroit Lions -- It could be worse: Matt Millen could be president of Ford. Words they'll hear from Roger Goodell next spring: "With the fourth pick of the 2009 NFL draft "
10: NFC West (order of finish)
Anyway, back to the Seahawks, who subscribe to the motto that Defense Wins Championships. That's good because their running game won't. Designated boos recipient Shaun Alexander is gone, replaced by Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett and new O-line coach Mike Solari. Solari might make the biggest difference. The Seahawks win games, win division titles and, if their running game registers something on the EKG machine, could actually win a playoff game. The final season of coach Mike Holmgren's Seattle career deserves as much.
Arizona Cardinals -- If you need a starter for your hot tub beer bong team, Matt Leinart is your man. But the Cardinals need an actual NFL quarterback, so they're going with Kurt Warner, even though he's 36, had a combined 26 interceptions/fumbles in '07 and is as mobile as the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But you do what you have to do, and right now Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is going old school. It might work. Arizona's defense won't be much fun to face, and nobody is in a hurry to line up across from wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and disgruntled Anquan Boldin. If veteran Warner can reduce the mistakes, the Cardinals could cause the Seahawks to perspire a bit.
San Francisco 49ers -- Mike Martz will be the sixth 49ers offensive coordinator in as many years. The team could be looking for a seventh guy -- and a new coach to replace Mike Nolan -- if this latest move doesn't work. J.T. O'Sullivan, a Martz favorite, beat out former No. 1 pick Alex Smith. Not that it'll matter much.
St. Louis Rams -- They'll score points, give them that much. They'll also give up points. Lots and lots of points.
11: Alexander will be on someone's roster before Cedric Benson
Benson is five years younger and has more tread on his tires than 30-year-old Alexander. But the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 draft wasn't well-liked within the Bears locker room and is building a portfolio of police mug shots.
I'm not sure Alexander has much left, but he is only two seasons removed from an 1,880-yard, 27-touchdown year. That's 287 yards and 17 touchdowns more than Benson has in his combined three-season career. From 2001 to 2005, Alexander never gained fewer than 1,175 yards or scored fewer than 14 times.
12: The most vulnerable coach is
Mike Nolan, 49ers.
Hanging by a jersey thread.
Wait, make that Detroit's Rod Marinelli. No, Oakland's Lane Kiffin.
13: Followed by
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals.
One playoff game in five seasons (a 2005 wild-card loss at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers); one season above .500 (2005, 11-5); too many seasons of Chad Johnson silliness; the flip-flop on Chris Henry.
14: Honorable mention
Scott Linehan, St. Louis Rams.
15: The two AFC teams most likely to surprise us
Pittsburgh -- In 2005, the Steelers won a Super Bowl. The 2008 Steelers are hoping for a playoff spot. It happens if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't spend so much time pulling chunks of turf from his face mask, if rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall quits fumbling long enough to give the Steelers a nice one-two punch with Willie Parker and if they prevail in a mediocre AFC North.
16: The two NFC teams most likely to surprise us
Arizona -- The Cardinals are actually trending up. Go figure.
Atlanta -- Consider the season a huge success if the Falcons win five games and Ryan still has a spleen.
17: The most underpaid person in the NFL is
Whoever had to write Millen's bio in the 2008 Lions media guide. Millen probably gave the author a choice: Scrub the Ford Field roof with a toothbrush or write the bio.
Excerpts from the bio:
• For Lions President and CEO Matt Millen, success in the National Football League is simple: "The team that wins the Super Bowl is successful and the other 31 teams are not."
(Well, isn't that convenient logic. So Millen is saying that the Lions' 7-9, nonplayoff 2007 season was the equivalent of the Patriots' 18-1 record -- all because neither team won the Super Bowl? Uh, Matt, Lions fans would eat artificial turf if you'd guarantee them a Super Bowl loss. These people haven't seen the Lions in the playoffs since 1999, and haven't seen them win a postseason game since 1991.)
• Millen also believes that no team can achieve that success without the proper leadership from its head coach
(He should know; he hired three of them in his first six years.)
• and that is why the decision to hire Rod Marinelli in 2006 may prove to be the very best move Millen has made during his tenure as team president.
(Or not. The author left some wiggle room there.)
• During the Lions' head coaching search, Marinelli distinguished himself as the type of individual Millen believed was clearly needed to lead the Lions.
(Millen to Marinelli during interview process: "What type of individual are you?"
Marinelli to Millen: "The type who believes I'm clearly needed to lead the Lions."
Millen to Marinelli: "You have distinguished yourself.")
• Millen saw in Marinelli a head coach who would emphasize the game's vital elements, including what Marinelli refers to as the "non-talented characteristics" that players must possess in order to be successful in the NFL. Since then, Millen and Marinelli have worked in concert to formulate a roster of players who embody the "football character" qualities Marinelli adamantly deems are necessary for success in the NFL.
(Seriously, $100 to anyone who can tell me what the hell they're talking about.)
18: AFC East (order of finish)
New England Patriots -- Utility back Kevin Faulk is suspended for the opener after getting caught with some Pineapple Express in Louisiana. Offensive tackle Nick Kaczur is caught with hundreds of painkiller pills and later helps the feds catch the supplier. Never a dull moment with the Pats. What's next? A secret video of owner Robert Kraft dancing like studio exec Les Grossman/Tom Cruise in "Tropic Thunder"?
The Patriots went 0-4 in the exhibition season and Brady didn't play a snap. He has an unspecified right foot injury. All New England-related predictions go down the tube if Brady is hobbled. But if he isn't, the Pats remain the AFC favorites to reach Tampa in February. (Warning: Pay close attention to the development of rookie inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, as well as the cornerback situation.)
New York Jets -- I make no secret how I feel about Favre the QB. The Packers could have won a Super Bowl with him this year. Anyway, the Jets upgraded to first class at quarterback and offensive line in the offseason. Kris Jenkins will make a difference at defensive tackle. Rookie outside linebacker Vernon Gholston, the No. 6 overall pick, has been dazed and confused in the preseason. Still, the Jets will more than double their four-game win total of 2007.
Buffalo Bills -- So the Bills are trying to impress Toronto, eh? They just might do it. This is a nice, young team, poised to cause some unexpected damage. The keys: how quarterback Trent Edwards and running back Marshawn Lynch develop in the new offense and whether the defense is any better after finishing next-to-last in yards allowed per game and 29th in passing yards allowed.
Miami Dolphins -- Baby steps, that's what the Fins are taking. But at least the steps are forward, not backward. Sure, they'll finish last in the division, but at least it will be more interesting to watch.
19: AFC South (order of finish)
Indianapolis Colts -- The Colts go black ops when it comes to injury info (see Marvin Harrison, knee, 2007). But Peyton Manning himself says his surgically repaired knee is progressing nicely and he expects to start against the Bears in the opener. So expect Tweety Bird's 160-game consecutive regular-season start streak to live, though it's fairly obvious that Manning's recovery is still a work in progress. If healthy, or close to it, Manning will be Manning (touchdowns in the mid- to upper- 30s), wide receiver Reggie Wayne will be Wayne (awesome) and the Colts will punch their regular playoff ticket. Manning's injury gets the pub, but pay attention to the return of defensive end Dwight Freeney and the weekly health status of strong safety Bob Sanders.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- I wouldn't want to play these guys. If they were in the AFC North, they'd win the division going away. Anyway, just sit back and enjoy the continued development of quarterback David Garrard. It would be nice, though, if the Jaguars' defense could do better than 12th in total yards allowed per game and 15th against the pass.
Houston Texans -- Two wins in 2005. Six in 2006. Eight in 2007. Notice a trend? The Texans are getting better. Just think if quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson can stay healthy this season. Just think if the Houston defense figures it out. Lots of "just thinks," but I'm a believer.
Tennessee Titans -- I'm not sure what to make of the Titans. I never bet against coach Jeff Fisher, but Tennessee is doomed if Vince Young finishes with anything close to his 2007 totals (9 TD passes, 17 interceptions).
20: AFC North (order of finish)
Pittsburgh Steelers -- I was going to pick Baltimore, but the Ed Reed shoulder/neck injury and the Ravens' offense (or lack of it -- rookie Joe Flacco gets the first start at quarterback) was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. So I'll take the Steelers, though I'm not exactly thrilled about their prospects. Roethlisberger won't throw 32 TDs again, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Who knows what's going to happen with the offensive line, but the defense should be just good enough to help eke out a division title.
Cleveland Browns -- The schedule isn't going to be much fun (Dallas, Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Cincy, New York Giants, at Washington, at Jacksonville, Baltimore, Denver, at Buffalo, Houston, Indianapolis, at Tennessee, at Philly, Cincy, at Pittsburgh), and did anyone notice that Derek Anderson threw 19 interceptions and completed only 56.5 percent of his passes a year ago? The division is weak enough that the Browns could still win the thing, but no way do they repeat their 10-victory performance of 2007.
Baltimore Ravens -- The Ravens need Reed at safety. If his shoulder doesn't hold up, Baltimore's defense is driving without a few lug nuts attached to the tires. His replacement, Jim Leonhard, didn't exactly distinguish himself while with the Bills. The less said about the offense, the better. Injuries have the quarterback position in flux.
Cincinnati Bengals -- Quarterback Carson Palmer deserves better than this. Too bad he won't get it.
21: AFC West (order of finish)
San Diego Chargers -- It's not as though the Chargers are going to disappear because Shawne Merriman has a bad wheel. The D-line is a load, and Moss can tell you all about cornerback Quentin Jammer, and Peyton Manning can give you the skinny on the other corner, Antonio Cromartie. (Notice how I'm cleverly ignoring the fact that the Chargers gave up 296 yards to Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson in November -- about 22 percent of Peterson's season total.) Philip Rivers proved he was a gamer, LT is healthy and so is Antonio Gates.
Denver Broncos -- Still a year from being football relevant. This is Cutler's third season, so expect a spike in his improvement. The numbers might not reflect it, but he's a guy to watch for the future.
Kansas City Chiefs -- If Herm Edwards were alive, this never would have happened. Oh, wait, he is? The Chiefs were crummy last year; they'll be slightly below ordinary this time around. It's not necessarily Edwards' fault. The Chiefs got old, injured and dumb (some questionable coaching and management moves) at the same time. Remember what I said about Cutler and his third year? The same goes for Brodie Croyle.
Oakland Raiders -- The Raiders have exactly three playoff appearances in the past 14 seasons. Make it 15. Whatever Al Davis is doing in Oakland, it isn't working. The Raiders have won 19 games in the past five years. They should be able to run the ball (Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden), but not much else. That's because JaMarcus Russell is still wearing quarterback training wheels. Their best player: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
22: The team with the best chance to go winless
It's actually harder than you think to take an oh-fer in the NFL. The Dolphins had Cleo Lemon at quarterback for much of last year, and they couldn't do it (1-15). The Falcons had the tag team spectacular controversies of Michael Vick and Petrino, and they couldn't do it (4-12).
To be honest, I don't think any team fits the winless profile this season. But if you held a yard marker at my head, I'd say the Raiders have all the ingredients for a meltdown. Any team that signs defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to a $50.5 million contract is capable of anything.
23: Player most likely to break the Madden curse
24: AFC Flop of the Year leading candidate
The Raiders don't count because nobody expects them to be any good. But the Bengals now there's a team with some actual talent.
Chad Johnson officially changed his name to Chad Javon Ocho Cinco. If the Bengals aren't very careful in 2008, their record could end up being seis-diez (6-10).
(Just a thought, but if the Bengals want to mess with Johnson, they should change his jersey number.)
25: AFC Flop honorable mention
26: NFC Flop of the Year leading candidate
The Packers will survive the inevitable fluctuations of Rodgers' play because of safety nets: Green Bay has a running game, a solid offensive line, a conga line of wide receivers and an impressive defense. The Vikings have the right Adrian Peterson, a good O-line (better when Bryant McKinnie finishes serving his four-game suspension) and a defense you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, or the Metrodome.
Orton doesn't have those same safety nets, which is why the Bears might need a tourniquet to stop the losses. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but right now I see a rookie running back (Matt Forte), no established go-to receiver, an offensive line that has had its issues, a defense that seems to think it can flip the switch and a potential quarterback controversy. Is that a good thing?
27: NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Here's what I wrote before last season: "I picked him in 2006, I'll pick him again in 2007: Chargers linebacker Merriman will be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And unless he suffers a serious injury, I'm already picking him for 2008."
So what does he do? He tears two knee ligaments and still wants to play. What is it about these Chargers and playing with torn ligaments?
Anyway, I need a new pick. He isn't as flashy as Merriman, but I'm going with second-year Niners linebacker Patrick Willis.
28: At season's end, your fellow fantasy league owners will marvel at your wisdom if you have these three sleepers (and one star in the making) on your roster
Robert Meachem, WR, Saints -- Meachem was useless after being selected No. 27 overall in the 2007 draft. If the preseason is any indication, Meachem appears to realize that he doesn't want to spend his late 20s -- and all of his 30s, 40s and 50s -- selling whole life insurance. He'll become a nice complement to the great Marques Colston.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans -- Draft him higher than you think you should. Then thank me later.
Mendenhall, RB, Steelers -- I see lots of goal-line scoring opportunities.
Jerricho Cotchery, WR, Jets -- The budding star. Only four TDs last year, but that will change fast with Favre.
29: Your Week 1 Upset Specials
Tampa Bay, a 3½-point 'dog, beats New Orleans on the road. Houston, a 6½-point pooch, beats Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
30: Three quarterbacks who will make biggest improvement from a season ago
In the not-injured-a-year-ago category, Edwards of the Bills is the choice.
In the bench-warmer category, the Packers' Rodgers.
In the injured-a-year-ago category, the Texans' Schaub.
31: Ryan will have a better season than Russell
Russell has been in the league a year longer, but he's essentially still a rookie. While Russell was inactive for most of the 2007 Raiders season, Ryan was starting all 14 of Boston College's games.
It would be nice to see what's under Russell's hood, but the Raiders are still in conservative mode with him. Ryan will be asked to do more, partly because the Falcons don't have any other choice.
32: Surefire bar bet winner
Again, this comes courtesy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008: Name the quarterback who, if he passes for at least 3,000 yards this season (he threw for more than 4,000 last year) will move ahead of such QBs as Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw. And, if he can scrape together another season or two of comparable numbers, likely will end his career as one of the top 20 passers in league history.
33: AFC playoffs: Last team in
34: NFC playoffs: Last team in
35: AFC playoffs: Last team out
20: NFC playoffs: Last team out
37: Best Comeback Story -- Preseason Division
Ricky Williams, RB, Dolphins.
Bill Parcells wouldn't have given Williams a one-year contract extension unless he thought the yoga master was worth the trouble. The 31-year-old Williams, who would have been a free agent after this season, averaged 4.2 yards per carry during the exhibition schedule.
38: This year's Wes Welker
Anthony Gonzalez had 37 catches, 576 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie season for the Colts. Even if Marvin Harrison is close to his usual self, Gonzalez's numbers are going to dramatically improve.
39: Dear Geno, I have the first pick in my draft. Who should I take?
If you have to ask that question, you don't deserve the first pick. Tomlinson, of course.
First three running backs: LT, Westbrook, All-Day Peterson. (Lynch was a very close fourth.)
First three quarterbacks: Brady, Manning, Drew Brees.
First three wide receivers: Moss, Andre Johnson, Owens.
40: AFC Championship
New England vs. Indianapolis*.
All I ask is that we're not subjected once again to that Salvador Dali-like cell phone commercial with Manning, the one in which he's frantically running around some hotel or apartment hallway, sees Marvin Harrison surrounded by Philly cops, I mean, dolphins, and then some kid appears and says, "Clark." What the kid ought to say is, "Beat the Chargers at home this time, will you?"
(*If Manning's knee isn't right this season, San Diego plays the Pats.)
41: NFC Championship
Philadelphia vs. Green Bay.
Rodgers isn't Favre -- and he doesn't have to be to get the Packers this far. He just can't get hurt or go all Eli Manning (by that I mean Manning circa Nov. 25, 2008, to Dec. 23, 2008, when Eli might have been one of the five worst quarterbacks on the planet). I have more faith in the Packers as a whole than I do in Rodgers, but I have more faith in Rodgers than I do in DeSean Jackson.
And, no, I've got nothing against the Cowboys, but I do think Dallas could struggle more than you -- or Jerry Jones -- expect. I know the chalk says go with Dallas, but I'm taking the educated flier on the Eagles.
42: NFC Championship -- Part II
If the Buccaneers win the NFC -- and it's not out of the question -- they would become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
I'm just looking out for you, come bar bet time.
43: Super Bowl XLIII
Philadelphia vs. New England.
None of this matters if McNabb is McHurt, or if Brady's mysterious foot injury forces him out of the lineup for any extended period of time (say, longer than a minute), or if David Tyree is traded to the Eagles.
The Patriots have some soft spots, but they also have talent, motivation and the easiest schedule in the league. History and undefeated seasons are wonderful, but all they really want is to get their hands back on the Lombardi trophy.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.