Preseason pro football is underway and the first college game kicks off next weekend.
Next week I’ll examine some of the top AFC teams that hope to claw their way to Super Bowl 39 in Jacksonville. This week, it’s the NFC. (The odds to win the Super Bowl are in parenthesis.)
Philadelphia (9-2): With three straight trips to the NFC title game, the Eagles certainly have been doing something right. However, three losses makes one begin to wonder if their time has passed. Philly won’t go quietly, with star QB Donovan McNabb being joined by newcomer WR Terrell Owens. Throw in free agent Jevon Kearse on defense and the Eagles believe they added pieces to get them to the next level.
Yet, there are issues, too. The Eagles defense slipped from seventh (2001) and fourth (2002) overall, to 21st last season. The inability to stop the run (4.5 yards per carry allowed) was their undoing against Carolina in the playoffs. They also lost starting cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. There were key additions, but also subtractions. The Eagles can be very good again, especially if they come close to last year’s 7-1 SU/ATS road record. Philly is 20-6 ATS since 2001.
Green Bay (10-1): Last roundup for the old veteran quarterback? Brett Favre turns 35 in October, but doesn’t have to carry this team. Green Bay finished third in the NFL rushing the football led by Ahman Green (1,883 yards, 15 TDs). The passing offense was 16th, though Favre led the NFL in TDs.
The defense was strong against the run (10th) and the only weakness was a pass D ranked 22nd. Sadly for Green Bay fans, that liability haunted the club in the playoffs against the Eagles when they failed to stop a fourth-and-26 pass late in the game. Rookie CB Ahman Carroll was drafted in the first round and a new defensive coordinator (Bob Slowick) steps up. The Packers are 22-5 SU, 16-11 ATS at Lambeau the last three years.
Seattle (12-1): Perhaps the up and coming kids on the block. Coach Mike Holmgren already has a Super Bowl title with Green Bay and now hopes to make a run with Seattle. QB Matt Hasselbeck blossomed last season with 3,841 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs. He has a ton of young weapons in RB Shaun Alexander along with WRs Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson.
The defense needs work after finishing 14th against the run and 27th against the pass. Seattle hopes newcomer DE Grant Wistrom (Rams) provides some much needed pass rushing ability up front. The Seahawks know how to win at home (8-0 SU, 5-3 ATS) but in order to take the next step they need to improve on their 2-7 SU, 4-4-1 ATS road mark. By the way, the Seahawks carry a 7-2-1 ATS run into this season.
St. Louis (15-1): There’s certainly talent on the Rams, who represented the NFC in the Super Bowl after the 1999 and 2001 seasons. The offense finished third overall as QB Marc Bulger passed for 3,845 yards and 22 TDs in Mike Martz’s pass-happy attack. However, Bulger also threw 22 INTs and the running game ranked 31st.
The season ended in stunning fashion, too, with a 30-20 loss at Detroit to end the regular season followed by an OT loss at home in the playoffs to Carolina as a 7-point favorite. Martz again was not at his finest in a big game. St. Louis also lost standout defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, now coaching the Chicago Bears. Despite the playoff defeat, the Rams play best at home (8-1 SU/6-2-1 ATS) on the carpet, where all that speed helped them go 6-3 "over" the total.
Tampa Bay (15-1): The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002, missed the playoffs, then bounced back to win it all last season. Tampa Bay hopes to follow the same script. After winning the 2003 Super Bowl, the Bucs flamed out and missed the playoffs last season. Jon Gruden has put his stamp on this team, letting WR Keyshawn Johnson and Warren Sapp leave.
The Bucs added RB Charlie Garner and depth to the offensive line in an attempt to find more balance (22nd rushing attack, sixth in passing). The defense still has plenty of talent and will again be the cornerstone of any success. The D helped Tampa Bay go 10-6 "under" the total last season (6-2 at home). TB is 12-5 "under" at home since 2002.