NFC: Boys back on top

Sep 5, 2006 2:49 AM

There’s no better time of the year than the beginning of football season.

The salary cap and the draft are two large factors that keep the NFL competitively balanced and the No. 1 sport for viewers. The pro football season kicks off this week when the Dolphins travel to Pittsburgh to battle the defending Super Bowl champs.

Here’s a look at some of the best of the NFC.

Cowboys: Dallas is off a 9-7 season, ranking 10th in total defense and 12th in offense. So Bill Parcells figures this team only needs a little fine tuning to be a force in 2006. The Tuna rebuilt the defense a year ago, and this offseason he upgraded the offensive line adding Jason Fabini.

The running game sports Julius Jones. The coaching staff loves young TE Jason Witten (66 catches for 757 yards). And, veteran QB Drew Bledsoe gets to throw to WR Terry Glenn and newcomer Terrell Owens. T.O. didn’t contribute in preseason, but should upgrade this balanced and potentially potent offense. Dallas is 7-4 ATS its last 11 as an underdog.

Giants: A big test for Dallas in the NFC East will be the emerging Giants. The offense was extremely balanced last fall, ranking sixth in rushing and ninth in passing (No. 4 overall in total offense). Tailback Tiki Barber is a force (1,860 yards, 5.2 ypc) for demanding coach Tom Coughlin. There is talent everywhere with TE Jeremy Shockey, along with WRs Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burris.

Young QB Eli Manning threw for 3,762 yards, but just 52.8 percent completions with 24 TDs and 17 INTs. He should improve with so much talent surrounding him. A key is a defense that slipped to 24th overall and an awful 27th against the pass. Michael Strahan is terrific, plus they bring in LB Lavar Arrington and ex-Boston College DE Mathias Kiwanuka. Can they take a step higher? In 2005, the Giants were 10-2 SU, 8-4 ATS as a favorite, but 1-4 SU, 2-2 ATS as a dog.

Panthers: It’s been an impressive run for John Fox and the Panthers, making the Super Bowl three years ago and getting to the NFC Championship game in January before losing to Seattle. QB Jake Delhomme is solid behind center, anchoring a potentially exciting passing game with star WR Steve Smith and newcomer Keyshawn Johnson.

The running game is a Fox staple, and they have awesome depth. Carolina added rookie RB DeAngelo Williams to join Nick Goings and DeShaun Foster. The ball hawking defense led the way with a +17 turnover margin and ranked third in the NFL in total defense. Did you know that Panthers bark loudly as a dog? Carolina is 10-2 ATS its last 12 as a dog, and 18-3 ATS its last 21! Last season they were 4-1 SU/ATS as a dog.

Bucs: You can’t ignore a team that again was No. 1 in total defense, which led the way to a playoff appearance. The defense will lead the way again, while coach Jon Gruden grooms young QB Chris Simms. The main priority was upgrading a poor offensive line as the Bucs selected OG Dave Joseph (Oklahoma) and OT Jeremy Trueblood (BC) with their first two picks in the draft.

The running game has Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who had a fine rookie season with 1,178 yards, 4.1 ypc. Overall, this is a balanced, ball control offense rather than an explosive one. That’s OK because ace defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has another top-notch, speedy defense behind LBs Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece. That explains why the team was 11-6 ”˜under’ the total. Tampa Bay was 4-1 SU/ATS as an underdog last season.

Seahawks: Any team that plays in a division with the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals is a cinch to return to the playoffs! Seattle hopes to repeat as NFC champs with a different Super Bowl result. The Seahawks finished second in the NFL in total offense and had the fifth best rushing defense. RB Shaun Alexander (1,880 yards, 5.1 ypc), a strong offensive line and QB Matt Hasselbeck (24 TDs, 9 INTs) lead this exceptionally balanced attack.

This group was 11-6 "over" the total in 2004 and 12-7 last season. A big move was keeping sought-after DT Rocky Bernard (10½ sacks), and adding LB Julian Petersen. Seattle was 10-0 SU, 8-2 ATS at home in 2005.