The South shall rise again

Aug 30, 2005 6:16 AM

All the chatter this NFL preseason has been about T.O., the acronym we’re grown so familiar with and tired of, that seldom is heard about the New England Patriots.

Lest we forget, the Brady Bunch has taken three Super Bowl titles back to "Baaston" in the last four seasons, including two years in a row. Each victory was by three points, which could have made us a lot of cash here in Vegas had we known that margin would repeat itself.

Even more forgotten than the Patriots has been the Carolina Panthers, which happened to be one of those victims in 2004. Last year, the Panthers started 1-6 due to a host of injuries, most notably their fleet WR Steve Smith. Carolina regrouped to make a dramatic run at the playoffs, only to fall short thanks to an incredible Michael Vick touchdown scramble on a memorable late-season Monday night thriller.

Well, Smith is back and doing quite well in preseason. And, Vick is looking very frisky after his solid effort last week against Jacksonville. So, I’ve been thinking why not Carolina and Atlanta battling it out for the NFC title? Even if they are from the same division, to me they could well be the best two teams overall.

As for the AFC, logic has the league coming down to one game (Nov. 7) on a Monday night when Indianapolis and Peyton Manning visits their house of horrors — Foxboro. If the Colts can somehow summon the gods for a victory against the Patriots, most experts believe the AFC playoffs will run through Indianapolis. That would be a boost Tony Dungy has long waited for to erase the ghosts of championship games past.

If this scenario happened, we would have Indy against either Atlanta or Carolina at Super Bowl 40 in Detroit. No Super Bowl venue has ever featured a home team, so the Lions will have to wait another year.

But, I also have other dreams like Minnesota-New England, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh and even the Jets-Cowboys in the Parcells Bowl. I so would like to see my Jets kick that Tuna in my lifetime!

We can ramble on, but what’s the point. Let’s just take an early glance at all the divisions and try to successfully kick a few balls through the uprights.

AFC

East: New England, NY Jets, Buffalo, Miami. It’s the Patriots division to lose. Coaching departures, crucial injuries and retirements aside, New England still has Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the foundation intact. This is a true team with great chemistry and a lethal home field advantage.

Buffalo has a great defense and special teams. The Bills need a lot of Willis McGahee and belief that J.P. Losman is truly their QB of the present and future. The Jets are banking on the consistency of Curtis Martin and a 100 percent Chad Pennington. If both come through, the Jets are right there. Miami can talk about Ricky Williams while finishing last.

North: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland. The Steelers and Ravens rate as the co-favorites thanks to overpowering defenses. Big Ben takes a step back in his sophomore season at Steelers QB. Baltimore is all about the Lewis boys (Jamal and Ray). Unfortunately, we’re not Boller-ed over at QB with Kyle. So, we’ll back that Jaw and say Bill Cowher will beat out Brian Billick.

A notch below is Cincinnati, a coming power with Rudi Johnson barreling in for TDs by land and former Heisman winner Carson Palmer ready to emerge as a top QB through the air. Cleveland just can’t get past those Kellen Winslow Jr season-enders. But, they too are on the rise.

South: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Houston, Tennessee. This really has to be the year for the Colts since Edgerrin James becomes a free agent and probably won’t be back. Manning will sacrifice a few TDs in exchange for that November win against the Pats, which could secure home field advantage in the playoffs. That’s what Indy needs more than anything. The defense is adequate so long as Dwight Freaney is healthy.

Jacksonville can steal the division with luck. Byron Leftwich is right with Tennessee’s Steve McNair in the guts department, but has a younger and better supporting cast. We also like Jack Del Rio. It’s time for David Carr and Houston to step up above the .500 mark. Tennessee will need another Miracle in Nashville to win this division.

West: San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver. The Chargers are expecting a huge year out of LaDainian Tomlinson and why not? He’s capable of 2,000 yards rushing and 20 TDs, along with being a very capable receiver. If Drew Brees and Antonio Gates hook up like last year, it won’t be a surprise to see the Super Chargers atop this division.

Oakland and Dallas, once perennial powerhouses, are the most intriguing teams this NFL season. The Raiders have an awesome offense with Randy Moss in the fold, but can they stop anyone? Kansas City has Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez, but gives up too many points. Somebody has to fall back in this division, so Denver is our choice. The Broncos aren’t that bad, just that this is a tough division and Jake Plummer leaks too much.

NFC

East: Philadelphia, Dallas, NY Giants, Washington. The Eagles are a good football team with or without Terrell Owens. Those injuries, though, are mounting again. Andy Reed deserves much credit for keeping the forces together. If Donovan McNabb stays healthy, there’s still enough there to win the division. There is better depth at wide receiver this year, even if you can’t tell it without a scorecard.

The Cowboys will be in the hunt thanks to Julius Jones, the second coming of Emmitt Smith. Jones is going to surprise a lot of people this year. He could win the rushing title. Don’t laugh! Drew Bledsoe is the better of the two Drews. Defensively, the Cowboys are cat quick. The Giants are solid, but need a big year from Eli Manning and Jeremy Shockey. Washington will struggle again as Joe Gibbs wishes he never left NASCAR.

North: Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago. Look for Nate Burleson to have a huge season as the No. 1 receiver now that Moss is in Oakland. Daunte Culpepper is right with Manning in production and is built like a house. If Mike Tice can come up with a running game and defense, Minnesota could wind up making that short trip to Motown in February.

Detroit has an exciting offense but must get consistency from Joey Harrington. Green Bay does have Brett Favre, but we’ll be hearing those retirement questions all year if he doesn’t produce. Ahman Green is descending. The Bears may be in better shape for the future with Kyle Orton at QB instead of the injured Rex Grossman, who may be the greatest player never to have proven himself.

South: Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay. One heck of a division. We’ll give the edge to Atlanta, which has Vick, the perfect RB in Warrick Dunn and speed to kill. Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers are the heart and soul of Carolina, which was just three points away from winning that 2004 Super Bowl.

Deuce McCallister is a great football player, but the Saints just can’t get past the mistakes. Chris Simms is the man at Tampa Bay, but Jon Gruden will have to taste a few more losses in his rebuilding plan.

West: Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco. The NFL’s weakest division. We’ll be trendy and go with the new-look Cardinals, sporting uglier uniforms and a winning attitude with Kurt Warner. I never thought I would favor the Cardinals to win anything, but they can actually take this division at 8-8. We see 9-7.

Seattle is like New Orleans. A lot is being asked of Shaun Alexander, a touchdown machine in the red zone. Mike Holmgren has had six years to produce. The Rams can’t win with Mike Martz, who should have been canned years ago. The 49ers were a troubled team without that tragic death. Hopefully, Alex Smith is just having a hiccup in his learning process. Tim Rattay is good for three or four wins.