After much consideration, and with last year's pick of the Ravens to live up to, I offer my playoff predictions for the 2001 NFL season. We're just getting them up on Monday, but I assure you that I did not have the benefit of Sunday's games in order to do some last-minute tinkering. I wrote these on Friday, Sept. 7, and announced them on the radio that day.
So what if my two Super Bowl picks won on last-second field goals? These are my picks and I like 'em just fine.
East -- Miami Dolphins
Miami's defense is one of the top five in football. Offensively, Lamar Smith is legitimate at the running-back position and, provided QB Jay Fiedler is not asked to win games, the Fish will be in the thick of things in a division that's a little suspect.
Central -- Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens will do the one thing they didn't do last year -- win the division. The addition of QB Elvis Grbac is obviously an upgrade from Trent Dilfer, but it doesn't make up for the loss of RB Jamal Lewis. If I had a choice of Dilfer and Lewis, or Grbac and Terry Allen, I'd take Dilfer and Lewis.
West -- Oakland Raiders
The Raiders' success starts with Jon Gruden, who is one of the best coaches in the league. The players respect him and play for him. Oakland's running game has improved from last season with the addition of RB Charlie Garner. Garner and Tyrone Wheatley make a great one-two punch. WR Jerry Rice, who quietly caught 80 passes in San Francisco last year, will also be a welcomed addition. The Raiders' defense is an opportunistic one. On special teams, kicker Sebastian Janikowski has one of the strongest legs in the game. However, Janikowski needs to be more consistent than he was in his rookie season.
The Colts are like a watered-down, AFC version of the St. Louis Rams. They're not as good as the Rams on either side of the ball but Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison assure the Colts will be in every game they play. So while the Colts' game is one-dimensional, it's explosive.
Comparable to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Titans have a great defense and a conservative offense -- too conservative for my taste. I'd like to see them open up a bit. Head coach Jeff Fisher relies on a strong defense and ball-control offense with RB Eddie George. As a result, the Titans usually either win or lose by a single-digit margin. Kicker Joe Nedney, who comes in for Al Del Greco, could prove to be the difference and may be the Titans MVP this year. It would all be easier in Nashville if QB Steve McNair took his game up just one more notch.
The Broncos' offense will be as explosive as anyone in the AFC with a legitimate MVP candidate in QB Brian Griese, All Pro receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, and a three-way competition at running back between Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary. It will be interesting to see which back ends up with the most carries. I was leaning towards picking the Broncos to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but their defense has some questions. For example, what kind of impact will the additions of DT Chester McGlockton and Leon Lett provide?
East -- New York Giants
It's not a ringing endorsement. The Giants are a good team, but not a great team.
Central -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have a great defense, but coach Tony Dungy's offense is a little too conservative. I'd like to see Warrick Dunn handle the ball the way Marshall Faulk does with the St. Louis Rams. Expectations are high in Tampa because, at least on paper, the Bucs have got all the artillery to make it happen -- especially with the addition of QB Brad Johnson. This team is playing knowing that there are jobs on the line -- starting with Dungy. WR Keyshawn Johnson needs to be satisfied with being the first Keyshawn Johnson, instead of the next Randy Moss.
West -- St. Louis Rams
I like the Rams' offense, though Kurt Warner could throw fewer interceptions. The defense has to be better than last year with key free-agent signings like LB Mark Fields, DB Aeneas Williams and S Kim Herring. Rookie DT Damione Lewis looks like the real deal, too. Biggest pickup? New defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who came over from the legendary defense in Tampa Bay and brought more than a few secrets with him. So that offense with a better defense should mean a big season in St. Louis.
New Orleans Saints
The league leader in sacks last season, the Saints continue to have one of the best defenses in the NFC. Offensively, their wide-receiving corps has been upgraded with the addition of Albert Connell. QB Aaron Brooks needs to prove he can do it for 16 games. Rookie RB Deuce McAllister gives solid backup to Ricky Williams. Coach Jim Haslett is among the best in the league.
QB Donovan McNabb may be the second coming of Brett Favre, but he'll have to be with question marks at the running attack and the health of Duce Staley. WR James Thrash will have to live up to expectations. The Eagles' defense is solid. Beware of the artificial turf.
Green Bay Packers
One reason: QB Brett Favre. Favre is capable of squeezing nine, maybe 10, wins out of the Packers. Help may emerge in the form of RB Ahman Green proving to be more than a one-year wonder, and Antonio Freeman proving to be a No. 1 receiver for more than seven weeks in a season.
As they did 21 years ago, the Oakland Raiders travel to New Orleans -- but they won't win this time. The Raiders will fall to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
I like the New Orleans Saints enough to almost choose them to represent the NFC. But I think the streak that no team will play a Super Bowl on its home turf will continue this year.