Repeating, Bucs team to beat

Aug 26, 2003 5:07 AM

So can Tampa Bay repeat as Super Bowl champion? So far, the answer is yes.

The Bucs remain the NFL’s best defensive team and coach Jon Gruden’s passion to win appears undiminished. Most defenders deserve to be considered the best, so on that basis we label Tampa Bay the team to beat in 2003.

There are plenty of worthy challengers to the throne. With so much parity in the NFL, one key injury could make the difference between a playoff team and last place in a division.

Take the New York Jets, whose promising season in the AFC East took a severe hit with the loss of QB Chad Pennington (broken left wrist) last Saturday night against the rival Giants. In the same division, Buffalo suffered a scare when 1,400-yard rusher Travis Henry went down with a twisted ankle. Henry is expected to be ready for the season opener.

Then there’s Atlanta, which now must find a way to win with Doug Johnson at QB for at least a month while "the franchise" Michael Vick mends from a broken right leg that fortunately did not require surgery.

Not all the news was bad. QB Kurt Warner and RB Marshall Faulk comes off solid efforts for the Rams against Buffalo, RB Duce Staley ended his holdout with Philadelphia and Steve McNair looks like the league’s MVP favorite for Tennessee.

So, here’s an early Top 10 poll of the best NFL teams heading to Week 1, including the latest Super Bowl odds from the Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

1. Tampa Bay (5-1): Shaun King and rookie Chris Simms have given more than adequate support for starting QB Brad Johnson during the preseason. The acquisition of RB Thomas Jones from Arizona appears to have been a major coup. Jones could become the starter with the uncertain status of Michael Pittman regarding his off-the-field arrest.

2. Tennessee (10-1): Get your Super Bowl futures bets in now because these double-digits are going to vanish quick. Steve McNair, if healthy, is headed for the MVP. His statistics have improved every year, which could mean a first-ever 4,000-yard season. Eddie George, the defense, coach Jeff Fisher, the home success ”” it’s all good.

3. New England (12-1): The Patriots are our pick to win the AFC East. QB Tom Brady looks to be in 2001 form when New England won the Super Bowl. The Pats suffered the typical letdown but the fire seems back, especially on defense.

4. St. Louis (8-1): The Rams would like to believe all is fine with both Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. The offense is there but the problem has been defense, and especially special teams. St. Louis just has never recovered from losing burner Az-Hakim.

5. Philadelphia (6-1): This is the make or break year for Philly, which is not the way to approach a Super Bowl. QB Donovan McNabb is outstanding, but two straight NFC title failures and the loss of sack-master Hugh Douglas is a lot to overcame. Plus, Duce Staley is way behind after his holdout.

6. Oakland (7-1): The Raiders are in the same boat as Philly. It will be abandon ship for the old crowd, if the Silver and Black get off to a rocky start. Things could go south quickly in the highly charged AFC West. Any team with Rick Mirer has major concerns.

7. Pittsburgh (8-1): Provided QB Tommy Maddox stays healthy. Charlie Batch is worse than Kordell. Zereoue over the Bus is a good move. Defensively, the Steelers have a great front seven. Kelly Holcomb exposed the DBs and they must improve.

8. Miami (8-1): If the season ended in mid-November, Miami would be at the head of the class. They hardly ever lose in September and that quick defense became better with the addition of Junior Seau. Ricky Williams needs to stay healthy, of course.

9. San Francisco (15-1): The Niners are a good Super Bowl longshot. Many think the 49ers will rise or fall with the health of QB Jeff Garcia. Yes, Garcia is important but the Niners have a very capable backup in Tim Rattay. Coach Dennis Erickson is noted for speed teams, which will only make Terrell Owens more dangerous.

10. Green Bay (12-1): The Packers rate a Top 10 spot strictly out of respect for Favre. We’ll know early about Green Bay. The Pack open at Lambeau with NFC Central rivals Minnesota and Detroit. Then it’s winnable road games at Arizona and Chicago before returning home to face Seattle and Kansas City. We see a 4-2 start at worst.