The long-awaited start of the NFL season kicks off next week beginning with Thursday night action and continuing through Monday Night Football.
With the preseason coming to an end, bettors have to be selective in what they can take away from exhibition games, many of which are played without serious intent to win.
Based on what’s transpired so far, as well as how the teams finished last season, here’s a look at the top teams in each conference.
The season kicks with the Titans traveling to face the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers – an important matchup of two of the league’s top teams. Here is a look at some of the best of the AFC, the conference that has won nine of the last 12 Super Bowls.
Ravens (13-6 SU, 14-5 ATS): This is a talented team with a monster defense that is capable of beating anyone. The offense has been one-dimensional but got a boost last season from rookie QB Joe Flacco (60% completions, 14 TDs, 12 picks). He was steady despite a lack of wide out speed to work with. While they are a fine running team, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is good at deception and they are not afraid to throw deep.
The lack of a strong passing game was exposed in the playoffs, however, as the Steelers shut them down. They will have a winning season again behind a dominant defense that was No. 2 overall last fall. The Ravens are 55-22 SU, 45-28-3 ATS at home since their Super Bowl season of 2000.
Chargers (9-9 SU, 8-9-1 ATS): The 2008 San Diego Chargers were one the most bizarre teams in history, loaded with talent but starting 4-8. Then they became the only team to rally from that record and make the playoffs, winning the division as Denver gagged. The offense ranked 11th overall with plenty of talent, while the defense struggled and ranked 25th, replacing coordinators in mid-season.
The offense is loaded behind QB Philip Rivers (34 TDs, 11 picks, 4,009 yards), RB LaDainian Tomlinson (1,110 yards), WR Vincent Jackson (1,098 yards) and TE Antonio Gates. They have had trouble in the postseason of late, but should have little trouble rolling to another division title in the weak AFC West. San Diego is 24-18 SU, 25-15-3 ATS on the road the last five seasons.
Colts: Indy always shows nothing in the preseason, then comes out like gangbusters when the games mean something. However, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the 2009 Colts. WR Marvin Harrison is gone and the Colts have a new coach, a new offensive coordinator, OL coach and defensive coordinator. The defense suffered a lot of injuries in preseason, so we haven’t gotten a good look at their new personnel and schemes yet.
At least they still have a rock behind center in QB Peyton Manning (27 TDs, 12 picks in 2008), WR Reggie Wayne (1,145 yards) and TE Dallas Clark. At the end of the day, they will likely win more than they lose and be playing in January again.
Patriots (11-5 SU, 9-7 ATS): The story for this season begins and ends with the man behind center. Star QB Tom Brady was out for almost the entire 2008 season, going from a record 50 TDs in 2007 to none last year. He is back from a serious knee injury and all signs thus far have been positive. This offense will be one of the best again if Brady doesn’t have any setbacks, with slot receiver Wes Welker and 32-year old WR Randy Moss.
It’s the defense that is a question mark. The front line is solid with three former first-round draft picks in Richard Seymour, NT Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. The linebacking corps is thin and aging beyond Jerod Mayo, while the secondary was completely revamped in the offseason. That might not be a bad thing, as the Pats were second worst in pass defense and struggled badly in the red zone. They have a remarkable home-field edge, going 47-6 SU and 30-24 ATS in the regular season at home from 2003-08.
Steelers (15-4 SU, 11-8 ATS in 2008): Nothing much changed for the Steelers in the offseason – and that’s a good thing for a defending champion (two Super Bowl titles in the last four years). Their 37-year-old coach Mike Tomlin has a stocked defense, tops in the league last year. He is just the third coach for the Steelers in 40 years!
The offense looks to run-first, but has plenty of weapons when needed in QB Ben Roethlisberger (17 TDs, 15 TDs), RB Willie Parker, WR Hines Ward (1,043 yards), Santonio Holmes (821) and TE Heath Miller. We saw that in the final minute of the Super Bowl, when they put together a spectacular winning drive. Pittsburgh is an incredible 25-10 SU, 22-14 ATS on the road the last four years.
In the NFC, there appears to be more of a gap between the "haves" and the "have not’s." Here’s a glimpse of the conferences cream of the crop.
Eagles (11-7-1 SU, 12-7 ATS in 2008): Philadelphia had great balance last season, ranked ninth in total offense and third in defense. QB Donovan McNabb bounced back from a midseason benching to finish with 23 TDs, 11 picks and 3,916 yards while leading the Eagles to the NFC Championship game.
McNabb finally got some talented targets to work with in DeSean Jackson and this season they add Jeremy Maclin (Missouri) in the first round. Of concern is the loss of longtime stalwart defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in the off-season, one of the best in the business. Oh, and the Michael Vick signing, which could give the offense another weapon, or create some clubhouse tension.
Saints (8-8 SU, 11-4-1 ATS): One of these years the Saints are going to get a respectable defense and be a terror in the NFC. At least that’s the plan. The offense was No. 1 in football last season, as QB Drew Brees (34 TDs, 17 INTs) had one of the all-time seasons with over 5,000 passing yards.
And then there’s the defense, which finished 23rd in the NFL and kept them out of the playoffs. Once again they drafted to upgrade the defense, taking Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round. They open against the Lions and Eagles, two teams they are a combined 2-10 ATS against.
NY Giants (12-5 SU/ATS): Nobody was better than the defending champs last season, at least through Week 12, where they were 11-1 SU, 10-2 ATS. Then Plaxico Burress went ballistic and the offense went south. The Giants stumbled down the stretch and didn’t even win a playoff game.
This is the most talented team in the NFC, with monster lines on both sides of the ball, a terrific pass rush, a great running game and QB Eli Manning (12 TDs, 10 INTs). The early keys will be how they adjust without Burress and the loss of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Jim Fiest