Colts out,Ravens in!

Sep 4, 2007 8:01 AM

It begins this week. America’s long hibernation is over.

The NFL regular season begins Thursday night as defending Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis hosts last season’s surprise NFC runner up, New Orleans.

There is tremendous talent spread throughout the NFL. What often separates the 13-3 team from 3-13 is how that talent is utilized and the way coaching staffs identify the strengths and weaknesses. How well a franchise is managed is also a key ingredient of success. Often the greatest difference between winning and losing teams is the combination of depth and avoidance of injuries.

If history has taught us anything over the past decade or so it is that every season there is a surprise team or two on both sides of the ledger.

Here’s a forecast of how the 2007 season may unfold, followed by a look at the 16 games to be played over the opening weekend.

”¡ Since the NFL expanded its playoff format in 1991 to include a dozen teams, half failed to make the playoffs again a season later.

”¡ Only once have as many as 8 teams repeated from one season to the next.

”¡ Only once have only as few as 4 teams repeated.

Division realignment in 2002 changed the playoff composition from 6 Division winners and 6 Wild Cards to 8 and 4.

The forecast this season does call for eight teams to repeat their playoff appearances of a season ago with seven Division winners repeating. That ties 1995 for the most overall playoff repeaters. The more talented teams are again in the AFC where it is more likely a team that did not make the playoffs in 2006 could do so this season.

AFC forecast: New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego to repeat as Division winners. Wild Cards: Jacksonville, Denver.

NFC forecast: Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina and Seattle as Division champs. Wild Cards: Dallas and Washington.

Spoilers who missed the playoffs last season but could gain a berth this year include Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (NFC) along with St. Louis (NFC).

Super Bowl XLII matchup: Chicago vs Baltimore.

World champion: Ravens.

Now for Week 1

Thursday, Sept. 6

Saints +5½ at Colts (51½): The Colts are the one team every opponent wants to beat. The defense is a concern especially after numerous offseason personnel losses. The Saints again feature a high octane offense with QB Drew Brees and RB Reggie Bush the two most prominent stars. The total is not high enough given the ideal conditions in a dome. OVER.

Sunday, Sept. 9

Chiefs +3 at Texans (38): The Chiefs have concerns on offense as RB Larry Johnson works himself into football shape following his lengthy holdout. Houston has a new QB in Matt Schaub and an offense that should show gradual improvement. UNDER.

Broncos -3 at Bills (37): Denver has the talent to be a playoff team especially with several key additions on defense. Buffalo played great football over the second half of last season as QB J.P. Losman assumed more of a leadership role. The Bills could be the shocking surprise team of 2007. BILLS.

Steelers -4½ at Browns (37): Pittsburgh should be a force this season with QB Ben Roethlisberger fully healthy starting the season. Cleveland has been slow to show progress under coach Romeo Crennel and appear overmatched. STEELERS.

Titans +6½ at Jags (37½): Tennessee has an exciting QB in Vince Young who was sensational as a rookie last season. But the Titans were more fortunate than good in 2006 and should regress this season. Jacksonville has historically started quickly and, in fact, has covered 8 straight season openers. JAGUARS.

Panthers +1 at Rams (42): Both teams have the talent to make the playoffs. The Rams will have one of the top offenses in the NFL. The Panthers have depth at RB and one of the league’s top receivers, Steve Smith. Carolina has the better defense, but this one shapes up as a shootout. OVER.

Eagles -3 at Packers (43): Philadelphia has been an elite NFC team since the turn of the century, missing the playoffs only in 2005 when QB Donovan McNabb was lost to injury and dealing with the "TO" fiasco. Green Bay appears to be on the rebound, but at some point must face life after Brett Favre if ever again to again be a playoff contender. The Eagles have better balance and a proven running game. EAGLES.

Falcons +3 at Vikings (36): Atlanta begins life without QB Michael Vick, but Joey Harrington might actually be a good fit for new coach Bobby Petrino’s offense. The Vikes are relying on talented but unproven QB Tavaris Jackson and have an exciting rookie RB, Adrian Peterson. The Vikings should improve throughout the season but the Falcons are better set for a quicker start. ATLANTA.

Dolphins +3 at Skins (35): Both teams are rebuilding with Miami starting over again with new coach Cam Cameron and QB Trent Green. Washington was beset by many significant injuries last season, but has solid talent especially at RB. The game has not passed by Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs just yet. REDSKINS.

Patriots -6½ at Jets (41): The Pats are the team to beat in the AFC East but will start the season without a pair of key defensive players, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. The offense will be potent with upgrades at receiver, including Randy Moss. The Jets were a major surprise in 2006 but have also made an upgrade at RB. The teams have great familiarity with one another’s coaching styles. UNDER.

Bucs +6 at Seahawks (41½): Tampa coach Jon Gruden has failed to do much with the Bucs since winning Super Bowl XXXVII largely with former coach Tony Dungy’s players. His reputation as an offensive guru has not proven out. At full strength, the Seahawks are again a contender. SEAHAWKS.

Bears +6 at Chargers (43): The Bears are still the class of the NFC North and have the best defense in the conference. After winning 14 games in 2006 the Chargers turned the reins over to Norv Turner. SD has perhaps the best overall talent in the league. CHARGERS.

Lions +1½ at Raiders (40): Both teams had miserable 2006 seasons although the Raiders did have a top notch defense. Detroit should be potent on offense with rookie WR Calvin Johnson and RB Tatum Bell added in Mike Martz’ second season as offensive guru. LIONS.

Giants +6 at Cowboys (44): Over the past few seasons under coach Tom Coughlin the Giants have been well prepared to start the season, but have faded late. Dallas has a new coach, Wade Phillips, whose expertise has been on defense. The Giants have to replace RB Tiki Barber but they should be bolstered with Michael Strahan after a long holdout. GIANTS.

Monday, Sept. 10

Ravens +3 at Bengals (40½): Baltimore’s strength is defense, while the Bengals have one of the league’s top offenses. The Ravens offense should be much improved over last season, but the Bengals have won four of the last five meetings. UNDER.

Cards +3 at 49ers (45): Both teams are better on offense than defense. The Niners allowed the most points in the NFL last season, but have made some key off season acquisitions. OVER.