Pigskin Picks by Andy Iskoe | The dress rehearsals described by the NFL as the preseason but called by millions of fans the exhibition season are over.
The 2008 NFL regular season starts for real this Thursday as the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants host division rival Washington. The first week of the new season concludes with a Monday night doubleheader that also features a pair of divisional matchups.
In fact, half of the games this week (eight in all) are divisional meetings, making this a key week in terms of half the league getting off to good starts in their most important games – those against divisional rivals.
Every team, regardless of the talent on the roster or the brain power in the front office, begins the season with hopes of making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl next February. Not every team’s hopes are realistic, however.
Here’s one more fearless forecast for you to track throughout the season.
First, a little history lesson. Since the NFL expanded to include 12 teams in the playoffs following the 1990 season, on average 6.3 teams repeat making the postseason.
In 1995 a record eight teams repeated making the playoffs after having made them in 1994. In 2003 a low of just four teams repeated their playoff appearance, but that was largely due to the NFL’s realignment in 2003 that increased the number of divisions from six to eight and reduced from six to four the number of Wild Cards.
In both 2005 and 2006, only five of the previous season’s 12 teams again made the playoffs. Last season, just five of the teams that made the playoffs in 2006 made them again in 2007.
It’s always easy to make a case for last season’s playoff teams to repeat the following season. After all, that’s what we remember most – what happened most recently. But history suggests a strong likelihood that this season’s playoff field will have significantly different look from last season.
Beginning with the stronger AFC, New England should easily win the East and San Diego should win the West. Indianapolis is still the team to beat in the South. And Pittsburgh is poised to repeat in the North. So that’s four teams from last season’s playoffs repeating. So in looking at history we’ll go with Buffalo and Denver each making the playoffs as Wild Cards. Sorry, Jacksonville and Tennessee.
The NFC is where we should see the greater turnover of teams from last season but we’ll start with Dallas winning the NFC East and Seattle winning the NFC West. That makes six playoff repeaters already. Minnesota appears to be the top team in the NFC North and New Orleans is forecast to win the NFC South.
A pair of non-repeaters are forecast to earn Wild Cards as both Carolina and Philadelphia make the playoffs. That means Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Washington and the defending Super Bowl New York Giants won’t be back in the postseason.
In the Playoffs the forecast is for Indianapolis to win avenge last season’s playoff loss to San Diego and win the AFC Title game. In the NFC look for Dallas to defeat Minnesota and advance to a Super Bowl showdown against the Colts. Indy will be seeking a second title in three seasons and for a Manning three-peat (Peyton-Eli-Peyton).
The projection for Super Bowl XLIII is for Dallas to defeat the Colts and earn their sixth Super Bowl title, breaking the tie with Pittsburgh and San Francisco for most SB victories.
But before we can see how accurate these projections fare, the regular season has to be played.
Here’s a look at the opening week’s games.
Thursday, Sept. 4
Redskins +3½ at Giants (41): The Giants enter the season with a mindset that they have not been given due credit for winning the Super Bowl last season. The Redskins are implementing a new offense under new coach Jim Zorn that will take time for the players to master the timing and rhythm. GIANTS.
Sunday, Sept. 7
Bengals -1½ at Ravens (39): The Bengals remain the NFL’s most dysfunctional team despite having loads of talent. Cincy has regressed since going 11-4 in its first playoff season in more than a decade in 2005. Baltimore has some key issues on offense, especially at QB, but their defense is solid enough. RAVENS.
Jets -3 at Dolphins (36): The Brett Favre era with the Jets begins for real this week. Doing the tossing for the Dolphins is the QB Favre replaced, Chad Pennington. The ex-Jet leader has much knowledge of the Jets’ playbook and philosophy. And the Dolphins were not as bad as their 1-15 record of last season suggests. DOLPHINS.
Chiefs +16½ at Pats (46): New England doesn’t figure to be challenged here with the Chiefs having a very weak offense. Patriots QB Tom Brady missed the preseason nursing a foot injury and his sharpness may be called into question. Still, there is that aggressive Patriots defense. UNDER.
Texans +6½ at Steelers (43½): Houston is expected to be a team on the rise following its 8-8 season of 2007. Pittsburgh statistically plays the toughest schedule this season. But this should not be one of their stiffer tests. The Steelers have fared well on recent Opening Days, winning five in a row and four by double digits. STEELERS.
Jags -3 at Titans (37): These teams met in Tennessee last season in Week 1 with the Titans upsetting the Jags 13-10 as 8-point road underdogs. That loss snapped a streak of eight straight opening game covers by Jacksonville. Jacksonville clearly has been well prepared over the years to start the regular season. JAGUARS.
Lions -3 at Falcons (41): Rookie Matt Ryan gets the QB start for the rebuilding Falcons while veteran Jon Kitna is at the controls for the Lions, a team that consistently underachieves. Detroit did start last season 6-2 before fading in the second half. The Lions are one of the few teams Atlanta can beat. FALCONS.
Seahawks +1 at Bills (39): Seattle coach Mike Holmgren has announced this will be his final season. Playing in the weak NFC West, the Seahawks have made the playoffs five straight seasons, winning four straight division titles. Buffalo is a team on the rise and is improved entering this season. BILLS.
Bucs +3 at Saints (42½): Concerns surrounding Hurricane Gustav have the Saints practicing in Indianapolis this week and there remains a real chance that this game could be shifted to Tampa. The Saints have the more potent offense and a defense that is supposedly improved. Tampa is 7-2 ATS in last nine with Saints. BUCS.
Rams +7 at Eagles (44): St. Louis has all sorts of problems on both sides of the ball and only recently got star RB Steven Jackson into camp after a lengthy holdout. The Eagles, when healthy, have been a playoff team for most of the past decade. Both teams have offenses that figure to outperform their defenses. OVER.
Cowboys -5 at Browns (49): Dallas is the most talented team in the NFC while Cleveland looks to prove last season’s 10-6 mark was no fluke. Fact is the Browns benefited from the second easiest schedule in the league and defeated just one team with a winning record. The ‘Boys are the better team on both sides of the ball. COWBOYS.
Panthers +9½ at Chargers (42½): The Panthers are a well-coached team and when healthy can compete with the best in the league. Coach John Fox rates an edge over the Chargers’ Norv Turner and San Diego begins the season with key players banged up on both sides of the ball. PANTHERS.
Cards -3 at 49ers (41½): The 49ers won both meetings last season including here on opening day as a 3-point favorite. Season after season the Cardinals are proclaimed the sleeper team by astute observers of the game. The Cards have covered just once in seven tries as a road favorite over the past 10 seasons. 49ERS.
Bears +9½ at Colts (44½): Chicago QB Kyle Orton is considered the lesser of two evils and gets the start over Rex Grossman. Indy QB Peyton Manning is expected to start in this game after sitting out the entire preseason following "minor" knee surgery. Even with a rusty Manning, the Colts’ defense will be a force. COLTS.
Monday, Sept. 8
Vikings +3 at Packers (38½): Green Bay swept the season series each of the past two seasons. A new era begins with Aaron Rodgers taking over for Brett Favre at QB. Minnesota made major upgrades to a solid defense during the offseason and we can expect the Vikes to pressure Rodgers much of the night. UNDER.
Broncos -3 at Raiders (41½): Denver had won six straight and 8 of 9 versus the Raiders before Oakland won the second meeting last season. The Broncos had a rare losing season in 2007 and can be expected to bounce back this season. Oakland upgraded its defense, while the young offense should struggle early. UNDER.