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Our NFC division winners have all been ‘Super’

Sep 2, 2003 10:09 AM

Let the games begin!

I think we’ve all had enough of exhibition football, and the first kickoff takes place this Thursday when the Jets take on the Redskins. After picking Miami, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Oakland to win their respective divisions in the AFC, it’s time to predict the four first-place teams in the NFC.

EAST

NY GIANTS: Perhaps no team can wait for the season to begin more than head coach Jim Fassel. Expectations are high for the Giants, who open against the Rams. The last time the G-Men played a meaningful game was that painful 39-38 playoff loss at San Francisco, where New York blew a 38-14 third quarter lead.

There is a ton of offensive talent, led by QB Kerry Collins (4,073 yards, 61 percent completions), WR Amani Toomer, and RB Tiki Barber. Just as important is that the offense caught fire late last season when Fassel took over the play-calling duties. When TE Jeremy Shockey (ribs) gets healthy, he can only add to this potentially strong offense.

The Giants/49ers game showed the importance of special teams. New York had a chance to win the game on the final play with a field goal, but never got the kick airborne because of sloppy special teams. The front office made several upgrades to the kicking game during the off-season, shoring up a key weakness.

The defense looks decent (18.4 ppg allowed), led by DE Michael Strahan and 6-foot-5, 310-lb rookie DT William Âí­Joseph from Miami. The bread and butter of this team is still the offense. Remember that in the first seven games of ’02 they averaged 12.7 points and 89.6 rushing ypg. After Fassel began calling the plays, New York averaged 25.7 points and 138.7 rushing ypg.

NORTH

GREEN BAY: The last two seasons the Packers have gone 16-2 SU and 11-7 ATS at home, while struggling to a 9-8 SU and 7-10 ATS marks on the road. It seems like that’s the way it’s always been, with the Pack having a remarkable fan following and home field edge. That’s what makes last season’s ending ”” a 27-7 home loss to Atlanta in the snow ”” still difficult to swallow. It was the first postseason loss ever for the Pack at Lambeau Field.

Coach Mike Sherman has the luxury of an ace quarterback in Brett Favre and a weak division. Green Bay was 12-4, six games better than second place Minnesota. The defense slumped a bit against the run, finishing 21st overall, and lost some key players to free agency. That "D" has given up some points this preseason, too, so Green Bay may be worth a look as an "over" team this fall.

There are no question marks with the offense. Favre, though not the player he once was, still comes off a solid year where he hit 61.9 percent of his passes and threw for 27 TDs and a respectable 16 INTs. He’s still the embodiment of a great athlete ”” tough, smart and competitive.

Favre has plenty of weapons in versatile RB Ahman Green (1,240 rushing ypg, 57 catches) and WR Donald Driver. There are young up-and-coming teams in the NFC North, but in 2003, the old veterans in Green Bay should be playing in January again.

WEST

ST. LOUIS: Any way you slice it, the 2002 Rams were disappointing losers: 7-9 SU, 4-12 ATS. Injuries and an Âí­apparent hangover from losing Super Bowl XXXVI crushed St. Louis last season. If the starters remain healthy, there’s no reason they can’t fly high again.

The defense has added speed and third-year coordinator Lovie Smith has done a terrific job rebuilding a unit that gave up the most points in the NFL in 2000, the year before he arrived.

The offense is loaded with speed and if healthy could be explosive again. Despite all the injuries, the Rams had the No. 2 passing offense behind Kurt Warner and solid backup Marc Bulger. WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are game-breakers and both had over 1,000 yards receiving.

Two keys are the offensive line and RB Marshall Faulk. Faulk is the best back in the league when fit and, like Warner, looks to bounce back from a season of health problems. The offensive line was banged up a lot last year and this preseason. C Dave Wohlabaugh has missed time (broken finger) and Orlando Pace recently signed, so the line may be Âí­better later in the season.

SOUTH

TAMPA BAY: The Bucs had flaws last season, most notably an offense that ranked 22nd with a running game that was fifth worst in the NFL. Yet, who needs balance? This team went 13-6 ATS, including 10-5 as a favorite.

The reasons were talented first-year coach Jon Gruden, who brought some life and innovative game plans to the offense, and a choking defense that was No. 1 (12.3 ppg allowed). They don’t look much different this year, which is bad news for the rest of the league.

Tampa Bay hopes new offensive linemen John Wade and Jason Whittle can help the ground game. Veteran QB Brad Johnson will utilizes a slew of tall wide receivers, anchored by Keyshawn Johnson (76 rec, 1,088 yds).

The defense should be devastating again, led by Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, and a speedy secondary. A huge plus was the retaining of talented defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

The Bucs surprised many observers with a 27-10 rout of the Eagles in the NFC Championship game as a +4 dog. This week Monday Night football features the rematch, a great way to begin the new season.