No question, the St. Louis Rams are the team to beat in 2002. Mike Martz has created something special in St. Louis -- and it goes beyond the talent. The Rams have character because Martz has it, and every player he signs better have it, or that player will be gone.
Their offense is also a Martz creation. It has amassed more points and yards than any team in NFL history during a three-year stretch. And if Kurt Warner's thumb allowed him to hit a few routine passes in the first half of Super Bowl XXXVI, then the Rams would be shooting for its third Super Bowl win in four seasons -- an achievement accomplished only once in league history by the Dallas Cowboys ('92, '93 and '95).
|Ahman Green could have a Marshall Faulk-like, MVP season, with more than 2,000 combined yards.|
Understand, this is not supposed to happen in the era of the (ugh) salary cap. I think it can happen with the Rams -- well, at least going to three Super Bowls in four years, and winning two of them.
I just think it won't happen.
Yes, the Rams are good enough, but it's a very tough thing to pull off. It just takes a little something here and there to throw things off track. Is Warner's thumb really going to hold up? What happens if Warner and Marshall Faulk both go down?
The defense is supposed to be better, but the Rams did lose middle linebacker London Fletcher via free agency. The offense took a free agency hit with Az-Zahir Hakim, a perfect No. 3 receiver, and a fairly dependable right tackle in Ryan Tucker. Even the coaching staff took a hit when Ron Meeks, an outstanding secondary coach, was hired by Tony Dungy to be the Colts' defensive coordinator. Because they are still the Rams, every week is a Super Bowl for the opponent.
If any or all of these changes or nuances cause a slip, I believe there are at least three teams in the NFC ready to pounce -- the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers. Of those three, I like the Packers a little more than the Eagles and 49ers.
I like the Packers to go to the Super Bowl and win. I like the Packers to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXXVII. Brett Favre can regain the sweetness of a memorable victory on the same San Diego field where he took his last bitter Super Bowl defeat to the Denver Broncos.
Ahman Green will do for Favre what Terrell Davis did for John Elway. Green will take a burden off Favre -- maybe even more than Favre desires - and allow Favre to do what no other quarterback has ever done -- win three Super Bowls and three league MVP awards in his career.
What about a fourth MVP for Favre? True, it seems almost unfathomable that the Packers could win the NFC and Favre would not be the MVP, especially if new receivers Terry Glenn and rookie Javon Walker are as good as the Packers think they are.
But for this to happen, I think Green will be the league's most valuable player. He's 25, and he almost has Bo Jackson speed and power. The coaching staff feels he may be the most improved player on the team, and that's coming off a Pro Bowl season. It's easy to envision Green having a Faulk-like season (2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards) with a little different style.
The Packers also are my pick because I think their defense is really good with a chance to be great. Their defensive front is deep, and the addition of ex-Saint defensive end Joe Johnson was one of the offseason's most unheralded acquisitions. It will make Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila a defensive-MVP candidate with a chance at 20 sacks. Dare we even suggest that Biamala might even make a run at Michael Strahan's 22.5-sack record, which some say came compliments of Favre?
Hardy Nickerson was another exceptional addition at middle linebacker. He won't play in the Pro Bowl, but he will make plays and fill the leadership void left by LeRoy Butler and, previously, by Reggie White.
And if Biamala isn't a defensive MVP candidate, then I'd bet your mortgage that safety Darren Sharper will be in the running.
I guess the assumption is that the Packers must win home-field advantage to return to the Super Bowl. Probably. Lambeau Field in January is a distinct advantage. I don't know that it's a must, though. This Packers team has a little more speed than in the past and should adjust better to the artificial turf fields.
||I like the Packers to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXXVII. Brett Favre can regain the sweetness of a memorable victory on the same San Diego field where he took his last bitter Super Bowl defeat to the Denver Broncos.
The Eagles will fly as high as Donovan McNabb can take them. But there are new expectations in Philadelphia, a tough town when even a mediocre season is apparent. I can see things getting a little sticky in Philly. I think their Super Bowl trip will come in 2003, when the Eagles break in a new stadium.
I'm having a little trouble getting a grip on the 49ers. They need a game-changing defensive player to pull it off. Is defensive end Andre Carter ready to be that guy? And now that Jeff Garcia has established himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback, can he meet the burden of proof that Joe Montana and Steve Young established -- a Super Bowl championship?
In the AFC, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are not to be dismissed. But it's different for the defending champs. Ask anyone who has done it.
The Steelers have the weapons in place to achieve Super Bowl status again. Except for their special teams, their coaching staff is intact for the second straight year. While their defense should be typically stubborn, the offense has a chance to be special with the maturity of Plaxico Burress and the addition of Antwaan Randle El. Instead of a step back, Kordell Stewart should take a big step forward at quarterback.
The Steelers may be challenged, perhaps within their own division by the Cleveland Browns. The Raiders believe they're more talented. The Dolphins have high expectations with Ricky Williams. The Jets think they can be this year's Patriots. But the Steelers are the best bet, and they might even be good enough to beat the Packers.
Packers 27, Steelers 20 in Super Bowl XXXVII.