By Bill Simmons
Page 2

I pulled out all the stops for the 2006 NFL season: Bought multiple magazines and newspapers; stalked the NFL Network; bookmarked every team's home newspaper; TiVo'ed exhibition games; even slammed my right pinky in a car door to look more like Brian Baldinger. I'm not just prepared, I'm overprepared. To the point that my head hurts. Constantly. I'm not kidding. I think I need a CAT scan.

But even a throbbing head couldn't stop me from breaking out the thumbs for the 2006 NFL season:

To the Dolphins, who took half a decade to realize, "Hey, maybe we should stop going after crappy QBs whose names start with the letter F" (Frerotte, Feeley, Fiedler … ) and splurged on Daunte Culpepper, the first potential All-Pro QB they've had since Dan Marino left his fastball on the "Ace Ventura" set.

Daunte Culpepper
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Enjoy Daunte now, Dolphins fans -- before he flames out in January.

To the Dolphins, who apparently didn't watch Culpepper play last season. Has any athlete in any professional sport shattered that many fantasy seasons in a six-week span? He couldn't have been worse. It's not possible. Then the boat cruise happened, Culpepper blew out his knee, the Vikings took off with Brad Johnson … and everyone seemed to forget that Daunte was a total bridge collapse. (Note: I'm tired of writing the word "train wreck"; wanted to mix it up.) Now he's a savior in Miami, a team hoping to win with the Belichick recipe (good coaching, good running game, good defense and special teams, smart decisions). I don't get it. Culpepper's inevitable January implosion will be the easiest thing to predict since Haley Joel Osment's mug shot.

(Fortunately for Dolphins fans, they might have the easiest schedule in the league -- Chaz Batch in Week 1, four against the Bills and Jets, two against the Packers and Lions, one against the Titans, one against Indy's second string in Week 17. That's 10 wins right there. Well, unless Culpepper implodes sooner than later.)

To my favorite USA Today headline of the exhibition season: "Barlow Apologizes For Calling Ex-Coach Hitler." Sorry about comparing you to a racist dictator who committed mass genocide. My bad.

To my least favorite story line of the preseason: Anything involving the words "Brett Favre" and "retirement." Enough. I would rather watch footage of Barbaro grazing on newspaper sports sections that had stories about Barry Bonds, BALCO and the WNBA playoffs.

To my favorite story line of the preseason: The Cardinals turning down a $30 million offer to sponsor their stadium from the Pink Taco restaurant chain. Can you imagine the Goodyear blimp hovering overhead during a Fox broadcast as Joe Buck says, "There's an overhead shot of Pink Taco Stadium … you know what, this is awful! This is a disgrace! This is a disgusting act! I apologize to our viewers who had to see that!"

To the dumbest round of preseason stories: glowing features about Art Shell's coaching comeback with the Raiders, which proved the age-old adage, "If you let enough time pass in sports, people are bound to forget just about anything." Shell's 14-year absence from the sidelines had nothing to do with color; he was a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE game coach. Do you know why we started using the phrase "bad clock management"? BECAUSE OF ART SHELL!!!! During the last two minutes of a half, Art Shell's math skills made Herm Edwards look like Will Hunting. Really, nobody remembers this? For God's sake, that's why he got fired! That's why I've been making "Art Shell School of Clock Management" jokes in my column for the past 10 years! That's why he hasn't worked since!

Art Shell
David Paul Morris /Getty Images
Art -- the clock ... the clock .. don't forget to check the clock.

Everyone forgets this, too, but those Raiders teams were almost criminally loaded; it's astounding they never appeared in a Super Bowl, although they did end up going down as the greatest Tecmo Bowl team of all time. In real life, they committed 12-15 penalties per game under Shell and were a mortal lock to blow any close game. Eventually, Al Davis got tired of watching this stuff and canned him (a big deal at the time), and Shell never coached another NFL team … much to every savvy gambler's chagrin. These are the facts. But this was 15 years ago, so nobody remembers this stuff. For instance, most people don't remember that Julia Roberts was smoking hot, but when "Sleeping With the Enemy" pops up on cable, you're reminded that, hey, Julia Roberts was smoking hot. Unfortunately, no channel shows old Raiders games from the Art Shell Era, so nobody remembers how he stood frozen on the sidelines as the announcers said things like, "Wow, ANOTHER holding penalty on the Raiders; that's their 10th today!" and "I'm not sure Art Shell knows that you can't carry over timeouts from one half to the other." Watch what happens this season. Don't say I didn't warn you.

To the Raiders, for having the foresight to team up Shell (the shakiest game coach of my lifetime) with Aaron Brooks (the dumbest QB of my lifetime). For gambling purposes, I feel like Marty McFly when he stumbled across Biff's sports almanac in "Back to the Future 2." This is too good to be true. I don't want to jinx it. In fact, let's move on. Quickly. Before somebody changes their mind here.

FYI: We just released the paperback version of my Red Sox book ("Now I Can Die In Peace"), which includes a 20-page afterword (with footnotes) that I made just long enough that you can't read it in a bookstore without starting to feel uncomfortable because you've been standing for so long. Also, I handed in the afterword in June, about six weeks before Boston's season fell apart, making it the first afterword that was already dated before the book was released. So that's always fun. (You'll especially love my glowing words about Josh Beckett. Shoot me.)

Just for kicks, we even included a photo of me and my buddy J-Bug holding the 2004 World Series trophy (with matching deer-in-the-headlights looks, no less). And there's a shocking story about the time I punched out Johnny Pesky at the Cask and Flagon. All right, I made that last one up. But you can find the paperback in any bookstore, or you can order it on for a measly 10 bucks. So get the thing already. Come on. I don't ask for much.

To the Texans. First, they passed on the next Gale Sayers (Reggie Bush) to take a project defensive lineman (Mario Williams) and nearly caused a riot with their beleaguered fan base. Then they explained their mind-set by saying, "We need help on defense, we don't need a running back when we already have Dominick Davis," which was like Vanity Fair passing up a chance to run the Suri Cruise photos because they were already locked into a photo spread with Gwyneth Paltrow's second kid. Then they dumped GM Charlie Casserly, which always makes your fans feel good when you follow up the biggest decision in franchise history by immediately firing the guy who made it. Then Davis' knee problems grew worse and worse, culminating in his getting placed on injured reserve this week. Then somebody named Wali Lundy was named the starting running back for Week 1. And this entire sequence unfolded in the span of five months.

So why am I giving the Texans a thumbs up? Because it took 21 years, but we finally have a scenario that knocks Bowie-over-MJ off the board. See, Portland taking Sam Bowie was at least SOMEWHAT defensible -- nobody knew MJ would be a superduperstar, they had Clyde Drexler (a future Hall of Famer) playing the same position, and everyone forgets this, but Sam Bowie would have been an All-Star center if he stayed healthy. In fact, when he was healthy during the 1985-86 season, the Blazers gave the World Champion Celtics (who ended up going 82-18) more trouble than anyone -- they even were the only team to win in the Garden that season, and Bird had to toss up 49 points, a game-tying shot in regulation and a game-winner in OT just to fend them off in Portland. Sam Bowie was no joke. The guy was good. And by the way, the Rockets also passed on MJ for Hakeem. Nobody remembers that part.

Reggie Bush
Tim Umphrey/Getty Images
Who needs Reggie Bush when you can just give the ball to Wali Lundy?

Look, I'm not condoning the move -- Portland should have taken MJ. But the Blazers' logic for taking Bowie was, at the very least, understandable. Houston's logic was never understandable; the Texans' decision to pass on Bush was shockingly brainless from the moment it happened, if only because you can't disappoint your fans to that degree unless there's a really, really, REALLY good reason. Now it looks like the dumbest sports decision of the past 25 years … and that's before we find out Reggie Bush's ceiling, both as an impact running back and personality. I just find the whole thing to be amazing. In a weird way, I'm glad it happened. Incompetence is always more interesting than competence. So thumbs up, Houston Texans. Well done. You're the sports version of Enron.

To the NFL teams that ended the coaching reigns of Norv Turner, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett and the Mikes (Sherman, Mularkey, Tice, Martz) … I mean, do you realize how much comedic fodder was destroyed in one spring? Now all I have is Art Shell. This is terrible. On the bright side …

To the Lions for hiring Martz as an offensive coordinator. Here's a guy with a gigantic ego, a checkered history of butting heads with superiors, and a penchant for putting his own elaborate game plans ahead of the welfare of his teams … and he's working under a first-year coach saddled with Jon Kitna and a slew of underachieving first-rounders? Let the back-stabbing and undermining begin! I'm getting flashbacks to the "Melrose Place" episode when Alison took over D&D and stupidly re-hired Amanda as an assistant to help her out. This is gonna be great.

To the dumbest plan of the year: the Redskins investing in two free agent receivers (Antwan Randle-El and Brandon Lloyd) and an expensive offensive coordinator (Al Saunders) to go with their expensive gamebreakers (Clinton Portis and Santana Moss) … only they're going with a washed-up Mark Brunell at QB again. How does that make sense? Does Joe Gibbs do this with NASCAR, too? Does he spend a ton of money on his cars and pit crews, then find the most mediocre drivers possible? Which reminds me …

To everyone who keeps pushing the whole "there's no division tougher than the NFC East" crap. Dallas is stuck with Drew Bledsoe for another season (to the point that the phrases "QB controversy" and "Tony Romo" came into play last month), as well as mediocre running backs and the inevitable T.O.-Parcells / Vanderjagt-Parcells soap operas. The Skins went 0-4 in the preseason and looked like they were filming scenes for "The Replacements 2." Everyone seems to forget that (A) the Giants completely rolled over and quit on their coach at home in the playoffs last season; (B) Eli had the full-fledged Manning Face from Halloween through the New Year; and (C) their big free agent move was LaVar Arrington (who's good for 6-7 games this season). I don't get it. What's so great about the NFC East?

• Dolphins (PK) over Steelers

Meanwhile, everyone's counting out the Eagles, who absolutely REEK of Ewing Theory potential after T.O.'s departure and everyone acting like they were a 6-10 team last season, when the reality was this: Their defense was decimated by injuries; they lost McNabb in Week 7 and Westbrook in Week 8; and the T.O soap opera and residual bitterness from the Pats' Super Bowl destroyed what was left of their season. Well, who has an easier schedule -- @Hou, NYG, @SF, GB, DAL, @NO -- over the first six weeks? With the exception of Dallas and Chicago, who has a better defense in the NFC? Why is everyone so willing to count out a team with a quality coach that's loaded on the offensive/defensive lines? Couldn't they do a reasonable impression of the 2005 Bears, only with a much better QB? I love the Eagles this season. More on this later.

(Another reason to love them: After hitting rock bottom last winter, Philly seems to be in the middle of an under-the-radar resurgence, between Ryan Howard putting the Phillies on his back, the success of "Invincible" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," Billy King somehow avoiding a mindless Iverson trade (although there's still time), the upcoming Rocky movie, the hysterical M. Night Shyamalan book … I mean, all we're missing is the reunion of D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at this point. I'm feeling good things ahead for the Eagles. Can't explain it.)

To new Vikings coach Brad Childress, who brought some much-needed discipline back to the Vikes, but with the added bonus that he looks like someone who'd wander into the kitchen of one of those "Dateline NBC: To Catch A Predator" shows holding a 12-pack of MGD and three adult DVDs. I love this guy. Couldn't you picture him living in a trailer with Ron Gardenhire, wearing matching wife-beaters and fighting over Powerball tickets?

To Mike Shanahan for playing another season of Running Back Roulette and messing with the psyches of millions of fantasy owners everywhere. This year he came up with a nefarious wrinkle -- platooning two guys named Bell, just to make it even more confusing and frustrating every time you're flicking channels just as "Bell" is breaking a big run and the announcer is screaming "and Bell breaks through the hole; he could go!" Mike Shanahan is an evil, evil man. He needs to be stopped. We need to bring him down. I've had it.

Mike Bell
Tim Umphrey/Getty Images
One thing is certain -- Bell will have a big year for the Broncos.

(Fantasy note: Since Denver's success inadvertently spawned a trend of running back platoons throughout the league, could this be leading to us drafting team running games instead of individual runners, kinda like how we draft team defenses? We might have to make the move. The Pats, Colts, Jags, Titans, Texans, Broncos, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Bears, Falcons, Panthers and Saints all have possible platoon situations this season. That's 13 teams! This is terrible. I hate Mike Shanahan. I really do. He's the Dr. Oppenheimer of this whole thing. And you know he's doing it intentionally. That's what kills me. He's toying with us. Maybe we should frame him for murder or something. This needs to end. I can't take it.)

To the Panthers … I have yet to read a convincing case about why they won't be representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLI. Which makes me not want to pick them, actually. By the way, everyone in the NFC knows not to trash-talk Steve Smith, right? We're all clear on this, correct?

To the poor Jets, who rolled the dice on young Eric Mangini by using the always dubious, "Hey, he worked under a coaching genius, and he kinda looks like the guy, maybe we could catch lightning in a bottle here" logic. The last time this line of reasoning happened in professional sports, Randy Pfund was involved. Who's Randy Pfund? Exactly. I should also mention that my East Coast fantasy draft went 14 ROUNDS before the first Jet was taken. That has to be a new record. Let's hope this leads to Jets fans showing up at games with paper bags over their heads. Always enjoy when that happens.

An e-mail from famed Hollywood producer Bob Ryan:

"Hey, Bill, I have a movie pitch for you, I want you to write it. Let's say there's this new football announcing team, and one of the guys has been allowed to contradict himself and make dumb proclamations for far too long, to the point that it's hard to take him seriously anymore, and then his network decided to team him up with someone who's conditioned from years and years of radio and TV work to challenge every dumb sports-related argument he hears. And these guys were forced to announce games together for the next 17 weeks. Is that something you might be interested in?"

To the Broncos, who could have won it all had they caught a couple of breaks early in that Pittsburgh game last January (like Champ Bailey holding onto that sure INT TD). Why derail a possible Super Bowl season by (A) taking a QB in the top 12 when he won't help you this season, and (B) creating a situation where the incumbent QB (Jake Plummer, already Renee Zellweger-level fragile) has to deal with Denver fans pining for the future QB (Jay Cutler) as soon as something goes wrong? That's a terrible idea, right?

Look at it this way: Let's say your wife pumped out a couple of kids, gained 75 pounds, stopped having sex and constantly said things like, "You're gonna leave me; you're not attracted to me anymore." Would it make the situation better or worse if you hired a 20-year-old gorgeous Danish au pair to help her around the house? She'd probably go off the deep end and end up looking like Johnny Sack's wife, right? Well, the Cutler pick was Shanahan bringing a 20-year-old Danish au pair into the fold. And I'm not saying that this wasn't the best move for the long haul. But it will inevitably kill the Plummer-Shanahan marriage this season … and by extension, the 2006 Broncos. Unless Cutler pulls a Roethlisberger and plays right away. You never know.

To the Saints for staying in New Orleans, to Drew Brees for signing with them, and to Reggie Bush for embracing the city. See, sometimes sports isn't all bad. And I don't care if I sound like Peter King right now.

Matt Leinart
Mike Moore/
Matt, if you need parenting advice, Kurt and Brenda aren't far away.

To everyone who jumped on the "Cards are a sleeper" bandwagon over the past few weeks. First, it's not a sleeper anymore if everyone thinks it's a sleeper. You should know that by now. Second, it's the Cardinals -- they suck bettors and experts in every August and it's never worked out once. Third, everyone's missing the real sleeper in the NFC West because they're too busy ogling the Cards (more on this in a second).

And fourth, you realize that the Arizona QBs are Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart, right? Warner was washed up three years ago; Leinart lost me forever during the episode of "Punk'd" when the cops mock-arrested him and a friend for soliciting a prostitute, then agreed to drop Leinart's charges if he sold out his buddy … followed by Leinart incredibly agreeing to do so … followed by an ecstatic Ashton Kutcher leaping out of a van to tell him he'd been Punk'd. Does that sound like something a great QB would do? Would Tom Brady or Brett Favre EVER sell a buddy like that? No way. That show told me everything I ever needed to know about Matt Leinart's future as an NFL quarterback. Pencil them in for 6-10.

(See, that's the kind of hard-hitting analysis you just don't get from Peter King and the NFL Network.)

To the most underrated signing of the offseason -- the Browns plucking Willie McGinest from the Pats. You only need a couple of veterans to completely transform the attitude of a football team, and if you read SI's feature a few weeks ago, you can already see it happening with Willie and the Browns. It's the little stuff, like Willie forcing everyone to drink tons of water, coordinating stomach crunch drills after practice, even pulling out his three Super Bowl rings before the first game to get everyone sufficiently fired up. Sounds dumb, but it's not. In the age of perpetual putridity, we're seeing five or six really good teams every season, along with three or four hopelessly crummy teams and a swollen middle class where everyone has similar talent, with their records deviating because of four factors, and only four: Coaching, luck, schedule and chemistry. That's it.

So when you nail the chemistry battle and get everyone on the same page, that's an enormous advantage. Willie might be at the end of his career, and they may have overpaid for him … but you can't put a price on the little stuff. If Cleveland's schedule wasn't so brutal and the Browns weren't so unsettled at center, I'd even have them as my AFC sleeper. As it is, I'm picking them as the proverbial "Gritty Underdog That Goes 8-8 But Finishes 12-4 Against the Spread." Love those teams.

Madden cover
EA Sports
We have Week 3 in the "When does Shaun Alexander blow out his knee" pool.

To the poor Seahawks for battling two insurmountable curses at the same time: The Super Bowl Loser Curse (no 21st-century Super Bowl loser has ever bounced back to win even eight games) and the Madden Cover Jinx (which replaced the SI Jinx in terms of relevance, cultural impact and undeniable consistency). And that's before we mention Steve Hutchinson's departure, Mike Holmgren's constant complaining about the officiating in Super Bowl XL (yeah, like the refs won't be holding a grudge), a brutal slate of road games (including K.C., Denver, Chicago, Tampa and the Detroit/St. Louis domes), the depleted WR group and everything else. Would you want to be one of Shaun Alexander's anterior cruciate ligaments right now? Me neither. Pencil them in for 7-9. Do it. Do it right now.

To the Ravens for bringing Brian Billick back, but only if he promised to relate better to his players and not have as big an ego. This is the same guy who once allowed himself to be filmed by HBO's "Hard Knocks" crew reading Rick Pitino's "Success is a Choice" while lying on a hammock. Now he's supposed to rein it in? Yeah, right. But for gambling purposes, I couldn't be more delighted. He's a mortal lock to the be the first coach fired. I won't even consider putting odds on this -- it's like coming up with odds that Jerry Lewis will cry at the end of his Labor Day telethon. Can't be done.

(By the way, there's desperate, there's really desperate, and then there's "let's trade for Steve McNair" desperate … really, the final nail in the coffin for Baltimore's lame attempt to build an offense over the last five season. That's why I liked what the Bears did last spring -- instead of panicking in a draft with weak receivers and QBs like the Ravens with the Kyle Boller/Travis Taylor picks, they went the other way and beefed up an already excellent defense. Hey, why not? You can win 10-12 games these days simply by controlling the clock and making plays on defense. The thing is, the Ravens KNEW THIS -- that's how they won the Super Bowl. Now their defense isn't as good, they wasted a bunch of prime draft picks, their playoff hopes rest on a QB whose odometer currently reads 173,458 miles, and if that's not enough, they killed Boller's confidence for good when he looked good down the stretch last season. You figure it out.)

To everyone picking the Colts to win the Super Bowl. Really, we have to go through this every season? They choke every January, Manning walks off the field in shock, we all agree they can never win the Super Bowl, Skip Bayless' face turns dark maroon talking about it on Monday morning's "Cold Pizza" … and then nine months pass and it's almost like the NFL brainwashed us to forget what happened. I mean, Peyton Manning could be 63 and walking around with a colostomy bag and Peter King would still be claiming that this will be his season. Give it up. It's not happening. If anything, he's one more January collapse from going A-Rod on us.

To new NFL commissioner Roger Goodall, who started as an intern in the NFL offices in 1982, then worked as a PR intern for the Jets in 1983 … and now he's running everything. The guy was a former Jets intern!!!!!!!!!!!! Can you think of a more inspiring story for office temps, interns and college grads still living at home and waking up at 1:30 every afternoon? Just 23 years ago, some schmuck with the Jets was telling him, "Yo, Roger, here are the keys to Johnny Lam Jones' Corvette, you need to get this thing washed and bring it back before the end of practice or you're out of a job." Now he's running the league? I find this amazing.

(Seriously, do you think Roger lived at home in the mid-'80s, played Intellivision until the wee hours every night and had his mother busting his chops to find his own apartment? Would he go drinking with the other interns on Friday nights, return to someone's house for some bong hits, then confidently declare to everyone in the room, "Some day, I'm going to run the NFL," before eating about 75 Sour Patch Kids at once? When he got the job, did one of his old intern buddies watch the news coverage on ESPN and say, "Wait a second, that's Rog! Last time I saw him, we were Xeroxing our butt cheeks in the Jets offices!" I demand more info about this. Roger Goodall just replaced Monica Lewinsky as the most successful former intern of all time. This isn't a major story?)

Tom Brady
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
It's Tom Brady, four-time Super Bowl champ.

To Tom Brady, who has the same look on his face that Uma Thurman had after she left the hospital in "Kill Bill." I don't think he's cracked a smile since the Denver game: No more magazine covers, very few interviews, very few public appearances … just a lot of lifting, throwing and scowling for nine straight months. The man is possessed. You have to believe me. And wait until you see how they perfected the two-tight end gimmick. Load up on the run and they send the big guys downfield. Play the pass and they chip away for four yards a pop with Dillon and Maroney. And did I mention that a pissed off Brady will be doing the audibling at the line? It's like an unstoppable Madden offense sprung to life. Throw in an easy schedule and you can put the Pats down for 11-12 wins, even without Deion Branch (who dropped a number of big catches last season, by the way). I know, I know, you think I'm biased. Just wait.

(One Patriots-related subplot I don't like: The whole Branch thing. Why allow him to explore his market value and open the door for a division rival to go through the charade of offering Branch a ridiculous contract without giving up anything just to screw the Pats over … which is exactly what the Jets did. Also, the Pats' logic was inherently flawed -- he's not worth market value for a No. 1 wideout, but he's worth a No. 1 pick? How does that make sense? Just trade him for a high No. 2 and be done with it. Thanks for listening.)

To Billy Volek, who was so atrocious in the preseason that Jeff Fisher actually said the words "call Kerry Collins" and "tell him he can start right away, and I mean, right away, like tomorrow!" On the bright side, Vince Young successfully memorized the first 10 pages of the playbook this month. He should have it down by 2008.

THUMBS EVERYWHERE: To the surreal Bledsoe-Owens tandem, which gives me the same giddy, get-ready-for-anything feeling I get every time Flava Flav is handing out clocks to drunken bimbos at the end of "Flava of Love." Here's Owens, the worst teammate alive, someone with a history of selling his QBs out and getting frustrated when they screw up … and they throw him together with the oversensitive Bledsoe, who takes more bad sacks, throws more dumb picks and fumbles the ball in more key spots than just about anyone? How could this possibly unfold smoothly? Is anyone else getting flashbacks to the Michael Westbrook-Stephen Davis fight? And why am I fully aware that this is a disaster waiting to happen, but I'm more than willing to hand the Cowboys a wild-card spot? You figure it out.

To my 2006 sleeper! Come on, after I nailed the Bears last year, you've been waiting for this one. Admit it. So here we go.

Steven Jackson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Steven Jackson, NFL MVP in '06?

We go through this every year, but it's worth mentioning again: True sleepers can only be teams that everyone is writing off -- like the Bears last season, who came out of nowhere to win their division (to the shock of nearly everyone). Ten teams fit the bill this season: Green Bay, New Orleans, San Fran, St. Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland, Tennessee and the Jets. I'm telling you, one of those 10 will make the 2006 playoffs, followed by the alleged experts writing/saying, "Oh my God, how did that happen?" and "Absolutely no one saw this one coming!" Happens every year.

My 2006 sleeper is … (drumroll please) … the Rams of St. Louis.

The explanation: Last year's team underachieved because of the ongoing Martz soap opera, Marshall Faulk's awkward situation and various injuries. The Rams have a fairly easy schedule that includes San Fran, Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay in the first five weeks, followed by a clash against rival Seattle at home in Week 6 (and Alexander's ACL should have exploded by then). They beefed up a lousy defense with three marquee free agents (Corey Chavous, La'Roi Glover and Will Witherspoon, who was great for the Panthers), drafted corner Tye Hill in the first round and hired Jim Haslett as their defensive coordinator. (Note: I like when teams hire former head coaches as coordinators, they're almost overqualified for the job).

AFC Playoff Teams
1. Indianapolis, 13-3
2. New England, 12-4
3. Denver, 11-5
4. Pittsburgh, 10-6
5. Miami, 10-6
6. San Diego, 10-6

NFC Playoff Teams
1. Philly, 12-4
2. Chicago, 11-5
3. Carolina, 10-6
4. St. Louis, 10-6
5. Dallas, 10-6
6. Minnesota, 9-7

AFC also-rans: Jacksonville, 9-7; Cincinnati, 9-7; Cleveland, 9-7; Baltimore, 8-8; Kansas City, 7-9; Tennessee, 6-10; Buffalo, 5-11; Houston, 4-12; NY Jets, 4-12; Oakland, 3-13.

NFC also-rans: Tampa Bay, 9-7; Atlanta, 9-7; NY Giants, 8-8; Seattle, 7-9; Washington, 7-9; Arizona, 6-10; Detroit, 6-10; Green Bay, 5-11; New Orleans, 4-12; San Fran, 3-13.

Playoff Picture
Round 1 winners: Denver, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Dallas
Round 2 winners: Indy, New England, Philly, Carolina
Championship Weekend: New England over Indy, Philly over Carolina
Super Bowl Pick: New England 27, Philly 20

The Rams have genuine firepower on offense (Steven Jackson, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Marc Bulger, even Kevin Curtis), as well as a new head coach, Scott Linehan, who worked under Nick Saban and seems exceedingly competent by all accounts. Throw in Seattle's inevitable collapse and the Rams absolutely REEK of sleeperdom. That's why I'm picking them.

To the readers who take the time to add up all my projected records in the related chart to the right, then e-mail me because I miscounted and had two more wins than losses. Look, I'm handing this column in at 2:30 in the morning. Cut me some slack. I can't even see straight right now.

In fact, let's just get to the big Super Bowl pick and call it a day. I narrowed it down to eight teams that could win it: New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Carolina, Dallas, Philly, Chicago and Miami. Nobody else made sense. From there, I crossed off Chicago, Miami and Denver because of their QBs. I crossed off Carolina because waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many people are riding that bandwagon; that never ends up working out. I crossed off Dallas because of the T.O.-Bledsoe thing, which seems destined to explode at the worst possible time. And I crossed off the Colts because they're the Colts. That was easy.

So who's left? New England and Philly. Just keep in mind, I have been to exactly three Super Bowls in my life, with each trip having been decided well in advance. Each time, my favorite team (the Pats) showed up and won the title. I'm three-for-three.

Why is this relevant, you ask? Because I'm going to the Super Bowl next February in Miami … and so are the Patriots. It's destiny.

Pats 27, Eagles 20.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on and in bookstores everywhere.