The NFL season starts for real this Thursday when the New York Jets visit our nation’s capital to face the Washington Redskins. Last season’s Super Bowl champ, Tampa Bay, leads a field of 32 teams on a five-month journey that culminates in Houston next February 1 in Super Bowl XXXVIII. That’s Super Bowl 38 for you non-Romans.
History suggests that there will be at least four teams that did not make the playoffs in 2002 to make the playoffs this season.
With that in mind, here are some bold predictions for the 2003 NFL Season. In the AFC, Miami should win the East, Tennessee the South, Oakland the West and Baltimore the North.
The projection is for Cleveland and Denver to earn Wild Card berths, leaving the New York Jets, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis as teams not to repeat their 2002 playoff appearances.
The NFC should find Philadelphia edging the New York Giants. Green Bay is still the class of the North as is Tampa Bay in the South. Seattle should win the NFC West with both the Giants and Carolina securing Wild Cards. That means Atlanta and San Francisco will be on the sidelines after the regular season.
It’s so tough to repeat as Super Bowl Champion but Tampa Bay has as good a chance as any recent champ based on an improving offense, and outstanding defense.
Still, Philadelphia is a well coached team with a solid defense and one of the game’s top quarterbacks, Donovan McNab, who is still improving.
In the AFC, look for the Tennessee Titans to emerge. The Titans have won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons and already have one Super Bowl appearance to their credit, losing to St. Louis a few years back. They also have an outstanding quarterback, Steve McNair, who is approaching his prime. The Titans are projected to defeat Miami for the AFC title.
In Super Bowl XXXVIII irony finally gets it due as Tennessee — formerly the Houston Oilers — will defeat Philadelphia 27-20 to win the title on the field of their successors, the Houston Texans.
With that out of the way, here’s a look at all 16 games that will played this weekend.
New York Jets (+3) at Washington (40Â½): Despite losing starting QB Chad Pennington to injury, the Jets are still the better team. Backup QB Vinny Testaverde led the Jets to the playoffs two seasons ago and the Jets have excelled as road underdogs. The preference is the Jets.
St. Louis (Pick ”˜em) at New York Giants (46Â½): The Giants made some significant personnel moves in the off season. The Rams still have to show they can be a force on defense, an area in which the Giants are fundamentally sound. The preferred play is on the Giants.
New England (+1) at Buffalo (46Â½): Patriot coach Bill Belichick has always been able to devise a defense to take away the strength of an opponent. In a match-up of an outstanding offense against an outstanding defense the percentages favor the defense. The preference is New England.
Baltimore (+6) at Pittsburgh (39): Baltimore coach Brian Billick knows something about offense and would not start a rookie unless he was confident of success. The Pittsburgh QB situation is a cause for concern. The preferred play is on Baltimore.
Jacksonville (+4) at Carolina (35Â½): Jacksonville has a new head coach, Jack del Rio, who should breathe new life into a franchise that had grown stagnant. The Panthers have a solid defense and will be better balanced on offense. The preference is for the UNDER.
Houston (+13) at Miami (35): It’s always dangerous laying double digits in the NFL, but given Miami’s poor road performance last season and their failure to make the playoffs, a strong start is imperative. The preferred play is on Miami.
Indianapolis (+1Â½) at Cleveland (45Â½): Cleveland’s problems remain on defense while Indy should show improvement under second year coach Tony Dungy. There was an early move towards a high scoring game. It makes sense. The preference is for the OVER.
Denver (—6) at Cincinnati (43): Denver has won only one playoff game since QB John Elway retired. The Bengals have a new coach, Marvin Lewis, but much of the old talent remains. Improvement will come slowly during the season. The preferred play is on Denver.
Arizona (+4) at Detroit (39): Arizona coach Dave McGinnis has shown he can coach but has been given little talent with which to work. An old adage says when two bad teams meet, take the points. The preference is for Arizona.
Minnesota (+6) at Green Bay (46Â½): Minnesota is a team that could challenge with a strong offense led by QB Daunte Culpepper and WR Randy Moss. Both teams have major questions on defense. The preferred play is on the OVER.
San Diego (+5Â½) at Kansas City (46Â½): San Diego lost some key players on defense during the off season, while the Chiefs should be even deeper on offense. There are concerns about the Chiefs defense. The preference is for the OVER.
Atlanta (+2) at Dallas (36Â½): Atlanta must start the season without star QB Mike Vick. Dallas is off of three straight 5-11 seasons but six of the losses were by 6 points or less. The preferred play is on Dallas.
New Orleans (+3) at Seattle (48): Both teams have solid running games with questions on defense. Saints’ coach Jim Haslett’s background is defensive in nature. Seattle’s coach Holmgren is known as an innovator on offense. The preference is for New Orleans.
Chicago (+7) at San Francisco (40): Chicago had one of the weakest offenses in the NFL last season. The 49ers had one of the better offenses. Chicago will try to emphasize the running game to control the clock. The preferred play is on the UNDER.
Oakland (+3) at Tennessee (46Â½): Oakland defeated Tennessee twice last season by large margins. But the Raiders are an aging team on the decline while the Titans are poised to improve. Revenge and the site makes a difference here. The preference is for Tennessee.
Tampa Bay (+3) at Philadelphia (36): Although Tampa Bay won the game that counted in the NFC Title game last season the Eagles did win the regular season contest. Both teams have solid defenses. Thus, the preferred play is on the UNDER.