Saints have first shot in Peyton’s Place

Sep 4, 2007 3:27 AM

The pro football season kicks off this Thursday in Indianapolis, where NFC finalist New Orleans battles the defending world champions.

Here’s a look at the Colts’ top challengers. The AFC conference has won 8 of the last 10 Super Bowls.

Steelers (8-8 SU, 7-8-1 ATS): A return to greatness? Why not? 2006 was a season of bad luck for the defending champs, lost in a brutal schedule, a sea of turnovers and a slew of close losses. The Steelers went 6-2 SU, 5-3-1 ATS to end the regular season, even winning the finale at Cincinnati in OT to knock the Bengals out of the playoffs.

The biggest change was Bill Cowher leaving, replaced by 35-year old Mike Tomlin as the new head coach. Tomlin had been the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings and is just the third coach for the Steelers in 38 years. While it is a transition year, there is a lot of talent to work with. QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy after dealing last year with a serious motorcycle accident and appendectomy surgery prior to Week 1. The defense is talented, physical and attacking in preseason. Pittsburgh is an incredible 16-3 SU, 14-5 ATS on the road the last two years.

Ravens (13-4 SU, 10-7 ATS): Still talented with a monster defense that is capable of beating anyone. The one-dimensional offense got a boost last season from veteran QB 34-year old Steve McNair (3,050 yards, 63 percent completions, 16 TDs, 12 INT). He was steady, but has lost a step and didn’t have much wideout speed to work with. The Ravens struggled in Games 3 to 6, leading Brian Billick to fire Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator.

Baltimore averaged 24.8 points over the next nine games, restoring Billick’s reputation as a play-caller. However, that offense was totally shut down by the Colts in the playoffs. The Ravens own a dominant defense that ranked No. 1 overall last fall. Baltimore is 45-16 SU, 35-21-3 ATS at home since their Super Bowl season of 2000.

Chargers (14-3 SU, 9-8 ATS): San Diego was riding high off a dominating 14-2 regular season a year ago. They had MVP RB LaDainian Tomlinson and the best crop of talent on both sides of the ball. The way to the Super Bowl was paved in Chargers gold, it seemed. Then came the first playoff game, a 24-21 defeat at home to the Patriots that featured a stunning fourth quarter collapse.

That defeat triggered a coaching chain reaction. New head coach Norv Turner takes over, known for his aggressive offensive mind. QB Phillip Rivers impressed in his first full season, passing for 3,338 yards, 22 TDs and just 9 picks. The Chargers are loaded on offense with RB Tomlinson (1,815 yards, 5.2 ypc, 28 TDs), TE Antonio Gates, and rookie WR Craig Davis (from LSU). San Diego is 16-8 SU, 16-6-2 ATS on the road the last three seasons.

Jaguars (8-8 SU/ATS): Last stand for Jack Del Rio? The Jaguars went from 12-4 and an AFC power in 2005, to blowing a postseason berth with an 0-3 SU/ATS finish last year. As a result, the heat is on. The defense is outstanding, No. 3 overall in 2006. Jacksonville used to be all-running on offense, but they bring in Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. Koetter, who worked previously at Boise State and Arizona State, is a pass-happy coach. During preseason, the Jaguars worked exclusively on the passing game and have tabbed David Garrard as the opening game starter. The Jags are 14-8-2 ATS their last 24 home games.

Pats (14-5 SU, 11-8 ATS): A first ever loss in the AFC title game to Indy started a whirlwind offseason for New England. Adding 29-year old Adalius Thomas (Ravens) upgrades an already strong linebacking corps. Up front the D-line features three first-round draft picks in Richard Seymour, NT Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.

New England finished 11th in total offense behind QB Tom Brady (3,529 yards, 24 TDs, 12 picks). The Pats added 26-year old WR Dante Stallworth, slot receiver Wes Welker and the dangerous Randy Moss. Brady has three Super Bowl rings, but has never worked with this kind of wideout talent. The Pats have a remarkable home-field edge, going 31-6 SU and 22-14 ATS in the regular season at Foxboro from 2003-06.

Saints (11-7 SU, 10-8 ATS): Wow! From 3-13 to 11-7 all the way to the NFC title game. Saints fans have a lot to cheer about and can thank head coach Sean Payton, QB Drew Brees and RB Reggie Bush. The Saints were No. 1 in the NFL in offense, averaging 25 points, 112 yards rushing and 280 passing. Free-agent QB Drew Brees was sensational, with 4,418 yards, 26 TDs, 11 INTs and 64 percent completions.

WR Marques Colston was a great story coming out of Hofstra, catching 70 passes for 1,038 yards. Throw in RB Reggie Bush (88 rec, 742 yds) and this passing game is lights out. The defense still needs work, especially in the secondary, but played well in August. New Orleans is 6-3 SU and 7-2 ATS on the road. The OVER is 9-5 in the last 14 Saints contests.

Bears (15-3 SU, 11-7 ATS): It was a magical season for the Bears until the Super Bowl. Defense leads the way behind LB Brian Urlacher. Chicago allowed just 10 and 15 ppg the last two seasons at Soldier Field, where they have gone 15-4 SU, 12-7 ATS.

For a team that made it to the Super Bowl, there were curious changes. DT Tank Johnson got in more trouble and was jettisoned. RB Thomas Jones went to the Jets, meaning the coaching staff put their chips on young Cedric Benson. If Benson can’t step up, it would place more pressure on QB Rex Grossman to carry the offense. Grossman was wildly inconsistent (23 TDs, 20 picks), after beginning the 2006 season with a 10-2 TD / INT ratio. Rookie TE Greg Olsen has had an impressive preseason. The OVER was 13-4 in Bears contests a year ago.