Pittsburgh’s success
likely to continue

Aug 29, 2006 3:43 AM

EDITORS NOTE: Veteran GamingToday handicapper Jim Feist will feature his five best teams from the NFC in next week’s edition.

The pro football season kicks off next week when the new-look Dolphins travel to Pittsburgh to battle the defending champs. Here’s a look at some of the best of the AFC along with their straight and against the spread records from last season.

Steelers (15-5 SU, 13-7 ATS): Bill Cowher got Pittsburgh back to the power running game two years ago (No. 2 in 2004, No. 5 in ’05). Combined with a physically tough defense, the combo proved deadly. The Steelers went 15-1 in 2004 and last season won the Super Bowl —fifth in franchise history. With so much success, don’t look for that formula to change.

The key piece of the puzzle for Cowher was finding a talented QB in Ben Roethlisberger, who passed for 17 TDs against just nine picks. Big Ben had a poor Super Bowl, but was magnificent in road playoff wins against Indy and Denver. Roethlisberger is 27-4 as a starter!

There aren’t many changes. Jerome Bettis retired, but ran for only 368 yards. Speedy RB Willie Parker (1,202 yards, 4.7 ypc) leads the way with free agent WR Antawn Randle-El replaced by rookie Santonio Holmes. Pittsburgh is an incredible 16-3 SU, 14-5 ATS on the road the last two years.

Colts (14-3 SU, 9-7 ATS): While the Steelers are old-fashioned power football, the Colts couldn’t be more opposite. Their strength is a 21st century speedy air attack led by QB Peyton Manning and WR Marvin Harrison. Indianapolis had the No. 1 passing attack in football in 2004 and No. 4 last season. The Colts boosted the offense further, adding free agent kicker Adam Vinatieri from rival New England.

The Colts come off the most depressing 14-3 season in NFL history. They had a 13-0 start, home field for the entire playoffs, then flamed out again, losing 21-18 to the Steelers. They also saw the departure of star RB Edgerrin James (1,548 and 1,506 rush yards the last two seasons) to Arizona. The defense is smaller, too. "We want to be faster," Dungy said this summer. "Hopefully that’s faster and bigger, but it may not always be the case." Indy could be susceptible to power running teams.

Broncos (14-4 SU, 12-5 ATS): Like the Colts, the Broncos had a great 2005 that was wiped out in their surprising home loss to the Steelers in January. Denver always has great running teams behind its zone blocking schemes (No. 2 in rushing). Despite a new offensive coordinator (Mike Heimerdinger) the deep ground game will again lead the way behind Mike Bell, Tatum Bell, Ron Dayne and Cecil Sapp. Jason Elam, beginning his 14th season with Denver, remains one of the league’s best field goal kickers.

The defense is strong with one of the top linebacking corps in the league. The big story will be at quarterback. The offense went conservative to minimize the pressure on QB Jake Plummer and he responded with a relatively mistake-free season.until the AFC Championship game against Blitz-burgh. That’s why coach Mike Shanahan moved up to No. 11 on draft day to take Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler. Jittery Jake’s days are numbered in Denver. The Broncos are 21-5 SU/12-12-1 ATS at home the last three seasons.

Dolphins (9-7 SU, 7-9 ATS): Miami was a huge surprise, going 9-7 under first-year coach Nick Saban. It was a fascinating offseason. The big story was the trade (or steal) for Vikings star QB Daunte Culpepper, who had a terrible 2005 with season-ending knee injury. Culpepper is 29-years old and had a fine 2004 season with 4,717 yards passing, 39 TDs and 11 INTs. Good quarterbacks are rare, and adding Culpepper was a no-brainer.

Saban upgraded the running game a year ago with the No. 2 pick in the draft, grabbing Auburn workhorse Ronnie Brown. The defense still has veterans Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor and DE Kevin Carter. The secondary slipped to 20th against the pass, so they drafted Tennessee safety/cornerback Jason Allen at No. 16. They also carry a 6-0 SU, 4-2 ATS run into the new season. Note that Miami is 15-9 ATS on the road the last three seasons, yet 12-12 SU and 6-18 ATS at home!

Patriots (11-7 SU, 9-9 ATS): New England went 34-4 from 2003-04 and consecutive Super Bowl titles, to a back-to-the-pack 11-7 season. Injuries were the last season as the defense was second worst against the pass. Viniateri has since departed, along with DE Willie McGinest and WR David Givens. The Pats could be slipping back to the pack, or reloading for a serious Super Bowl run again.

The secondary is still a concern until safety Rodney Harrison returns. The front line is terrific with young studs Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. Junior Seau postponed retirement to join New England, where he adds depth at LB. The offense appears loaded, with Corey Dillon looking sharp after a new offseason workout program.

First round pick RB Laurence Maroney has dazzled in preseason. TE Ben Watson is a budding star and the coaching staff likes speedy rookie WR Chad Jackson. Of course, the Patriots still have one of the NFL’s top head coaches in Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady, who led the NFL with 4,110 yards passing. The Pats are a stellar 25-3 SU and 19-8 ATS in the regular season at home in Foxboro from 2003-05.