New-look NFL blasts off!

August 27, 2002 3:55 AM
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Pro football has a new look this fall. There’s a new team in town (Houston Texans) with a shiny new Carr (David, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft). There’s also a new divisional alignment that the NFL hopes will spawn closer geographic rivalries. Here’s a look at the first half of eight new divisions and the teams battling for January’s postseason play.

AFC East

The Miami Dolphins have made the playoffs five consecutive seasons, yet they have a 3-5 SU postseason record and have failed to advance to the AFC championship game. Miami had the best pass defense last year, the 5th best defense overall, but a poor running game (ranked 23rd) was a key weakness. The Dolphins rolled the dice by trading for RB Ricky Williams.

The Dolphin ”˜D’ should be dynamite again and the addition of the 25-year old Williams could open up the field for QB Jeff Fielder (20 TDs, 19 INTs) and WRs Oronde Gadsden, James McKnight and Chris Chambers. Miami has gone 12-5-1 ATS at home the last two years.

Few believe the 2001 miracle New England Patriots have a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions. What the Pats do have is an outstanding coaching staff (Bill Belichick and innovative offensive coordinator Charlie Weis), a brand new stadium, and a 25-year old Super Bowl MVP in QB Tom Brady (18 TDs, 12 INTs). They don’t dazzle with statistics (19th ranked offense, 22nd rated defense), but they play hard-nosed, team-oriented football. The Pats were 8-3 ATS as a dog in 2001.

The New York Jets lacked balance last year with the 18th rated defense (29th against the rush, 5th against the pass) and the 23rd rated offense (4th rushing, 29th passing). There are stars with workhorse RB Curtis Martin, QB Vinny Testaverde, TE Wayne Chrebet and WR Santana Moss, but they were often unpredictable under first-year coach Herman Edwards (3-5 SU/2-6 ATS at home, 7-2 SU/6-3 ATS on the road).

The Buffalo Bills upgraded their offense immensely by grabbing 30-year old QB Drew Bledsoe. He’ll have a slew of talent to throw to in Eric Moulds, Peerless Price, rookie Josh Reed, but the defense (21st overall, 26th against the run) doesn’t look any better. Buffalo may go OVER the total with regularity.

AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the AFC favorite after a terrific 2001 season, ranked No. 1 in total defense, No. 3 in total offense (12-5 ATS). They have a dominating ground game (173.4 yards rushing per game) and coach Bill Cowher will have this team playing smashmouth football again. Speedster Antwaan ­­Randle El may be Rookie of the Year.

The rest of the division is a mix of a team slowly on the rise (Cleveland), one on the way down (Baltimore), and one going nowhere again (Cincinnati). The Browns have a talented coach in Butch Davis, a strong defense and hope RB William Green can provide balance to gifted QB Tim Couch (3,402 yards, 60% completions).

The Bengals made great strides defensively (9th in total ”˜D" last year), and have a weapon in FB in Corey Dillon (1,315 yards). But Cincy QB is still a weakness with a below-average rotation of Gus Frerotte, Jon Kitna and Akili Smith. Last year, Bengal QBs had 12 TDs and 26 INTs. The Ravens had a financial housecleaning, losing 23 players while signing only two. They also lost talented defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to the Washington Redskins. It’s hard to believe they were champs just two years ago.

AFC South

The Indianapolis Colts don’t have any excuses this season. A poor defense should be improved under new head coach Tony Dungy. The offense is terrific (No. 2 in the NFL, 25.8 ppg) led by QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James, WR Marvin Harrison and newcomer Qadry Ismail.

The Tennessee Titans flamed out in 2001 with a lethargic 7-9 campaign (5-10-1 ATS). The talent is there, but the defense was particularly lazy (31st against the pass). This team has slipped each year since making the 2000 Super Bowl.

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ time may also have passed (22nd defensively against the pass, a running game ranked 26th). WR Jimmy Smith’s preseason holdout hasn’t helped matters and if often-injured RB Fred Taylor goes down, the running game will suffer again.

The expansion Houston Texans have a star in rookie QB David Carr, but the offensive line and defense are very weak (the over/under for wins is 4½.)

AFC West

The Oakland Raiders are gearing up for one last run. The offense is old, but deadly with QB Rich Gannon, WRs Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, RBs Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley. The defense has Heisman winner Charles Woodson alongside veteran Rod Woodson. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan, takes over as coach.

The Denver Broncos need good health to be very good again. Denver’s defense made outstanding progress under first-year coordinator Ray Rhodes (8th in total ”˜D’). The offense has plenty of depth with WRs Ed McAffrey, Rod Smith, rookie Ashley Lelie, TE Shannon Sharpe, and RBs Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Clinton Portis. Denver was 6-2 ATS at home in 2001, but 1-7 ATS on the road.

QB Drew Brees is the future in San Diego, but the Chargers ranked 21st and 20th in rushing the last two years. The K.C. Chiefs are also retooling. Both teams will be closer to .500 than the playoffs and note that San Diego started 4-2 ATS before going 0-8-2 ATS to end the season!

NFC East

This should be a competitive division. The Philadelphia Eagles are off consecutive 11-5 seasons and made it to the NFC championship game. They are young and talented enough to get there again and are 15-4 ATS on the road since 2000.

The New York Giants hope to bounce back from a lethargic season and return to their Super Bowl form of 2000. Rookie TE Jeremy Shockey turned heads with some inspired preseason play and he may provide a spark to a team that played like dogs as a dog (0-6 SU, 2-4 ATS when getting points).

The Washington Redskins have been the talk of the preseason under offensive wizard Steve Spurrier. The Redskins went 8-4 ATS to end last year and Spurrier should improve an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL.

The Dallas Cowboys have rebuilt their defense (4th in the NFL in 2001) but still have QB concerns and a passing offense that ranked last in the NFL in 2001. It didn’t help that WR Rocket Ismail was just lost for the season.

NFC North

The Green Bay Packers won 13 games and look even stronger. The Packers had outstanding balance (6th in offense, 12th in defense) and have a great QB in Bret Favre (3,921 yards, 32 TDs, 15 INTs). The Pack may be even better as they added speedy WR Terry Glenn. And the remarkable home field edge this team has bears repeating: Green Bay was 8-1 SU/6-3 ATS at home in 2001.

The Chicago Bears went 13-3 SU/11-4-1 ATS behind a solid defense (2nd against the run). But they got a lot of lucky bounces, still have an average QB in Jim Miller, and a weak pass defense (29th) that the Eagles exploited in the playoffs. They may be in for a fall this fall and their over/under for wins is 8½.

The Minnesota Vikings will score points with QB Daunte Culpepper and WR Randy Moss, but the awful defense (27th overall) might be just as bad again. The Vikes are 7-18-1 ATS on the road since 1999.

The Detroit Lions had the 26th rated defense in 2001 and were 28th in rushing. They are rebuilding and hope young QBs Mike McMahon and rookie Joey Harrington will eventually lead the way. But don’t look for any quick turnarounds, as the Lions are poorly coached: Marty Mornhingweg inherited a team that was 9-7 and went 2-14 in his inaugural season. Don’t be surprised to see a repeat performance of GM Matt Millen burying his face in his hands.

NFC South

Tampa Bay gave up a bundle to get coach Jon Gruden, but the biggest break the Bucs get is the new division. They have talent on both sides of the ball and Gruden may be the shot in the arm this underachieving bunch needs. He’s installed a quick-strike pass offense to take advantage of WR Keyshawn Johnson and rookie Marquis Walker. They should look very different from the ultra-conservative Dungy days.

The New Orleans Saints (6-10 ATS) have young talent on offense with QB Aaron Brooks, RB Deuce McAllister and rookie WR Dontae Stallworth. But they had a tumultuous offseason with several players and coaches moving on. The team also seemed to quit on coach Jim Haslett, losing their last four games in blowouts (1-6 ATS to end the season.)

The Atlanta Falcons will go as far as young QB Michael Vick takes them (around .500). The Falcons have been terrible as an underdog the last three seasons going 6-26 SU and 12-20 ATS.

The Carolina Panthers are rebuilding from scratch. Carolina hasn’t won a game since September 9 but they do play harder at home: The Panthers have gone 4-3-1 ATS at home in each of the last two years.

NFC West

This will be a two-headed race again. The St. Louis Rams outscored teams by a remarkable 31-18 average and their defense (#2 in the NFL) improved by leaps and bounds under first-year coordinator Lovie Smith. Rookie Eric Crouch is the fastest player on the team adding another dimension to the #1 ranked offense.

The San Francisco 49ers are also one of the elite teams in the league. QB Jeff Garcia (30 TDs), RB Garrison Hearst, WRs Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes form a dynamic offense (ranked 3rd in the NFL, while the ”˜D’ ranked 13th.) The 49ers were 5-2-1 ATS at home in 2001.

The Seattle Seahawks lack skill position players on an offense that ranked 25th in the NFL. Coach Mike Holmgren is still searching for an effective QB. He thinks Trent Dilfer is the answer over young Matt Hasselbeck, but it didn’t help when Dilfer got hurt in the preseason.

The Arizona Cardinals still have too many weaknesses (28th defensively, 18th offensively). A nonexistent running game (27th) means teams can easily blitz QB Jake Plummer and another losing season is in the Cards. After going 1-7 ATS on the road in 2000, Arizona was 6-1-1 ATS last year.