Preseason pro football is winding down and the first full slate of college games kicks off this weekend. Here’s a look at some of the AFC teams that hope to claw back to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville (Fla), with the odds to win the Super Bowl in parenthesis.
New England (5-1): Are the defending champs a shoe-in to repeat? Of course not, partly because it’s so difficult to win back-to-back NFL titles. The Patriots have a better chance of making a run than after they won the 2002 Super Bowl (and seeing Miami lose Ricky Williams). The defense (No. 4 last season) is younger and deeper with the addition of top draft pick NT Vince Wilfork (Miami) and the return of LB Roosevelt Colvin, who missed most of 2003 with a hip injury.
The Patriots also added RB Corey Dillon, though QB Tom Brady is still the focal point of the offense. New England has the best coaching staff in the NFL, with the same trio of Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel that has won two of the last three Super Bowls. A key will be stopping the run, something the Pats failed to do in 2002 after winning their first title. The kids have to step in up front to ease the loss of mammoth run-stuffer NT Ted Washington. New England is 22-5 SU and 19-7-1 ATS at Foxboro over the past three years.
Kansas City (9-1): The Chiefs were the epitome of extremes in 2003. They had an unstoppable offense, but also a horrible defense. The Chiefs look for better balance this time with the addition of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. He wants an aggressive, hard-hitting unit, a complete contrast to last season’s "see and react" defense.
The run defense allowed an NFL worst 5.2 yards per carry and will be the key to any improvement because this offense is armed to the teeth. Dick Vermeil’s spread offense was No. 2 overall behind QB Trent Green (4,039 yards), RB Priest Holmes, TE Tony Gonzalez, and special teams weapon Dante Hall. The Chiefs averaged 30.3 points, 248 yards passing and 120 rushing. KC is 22-11 "over’’ the the last two years — a trend that may continue if the defense doesn’t show improvement.
Indianapolis (9-1): Indy has 10 or more wins in four of the last five years. They reached the AFC Championship game in January, falling to the Patriots, 24-14, in the snow. A powerful offense (No. 3) is the backbone of this team. QB Peyton Manning (4,267 yards, 29 TDs, 10 INTs) teams with WR Marvin Harrison (94 catches, 1,272 yards, 10 TDs) to anchor a passing attack that was No. 1 in the NFL.
The passing game is complimented by RB Edgerrin James (1,259 yards, 4.1 yds per carry). The defense is young and the weak link, finishing 20th against the run last season (4.5 yards per carry allowed). The Colts didn’t do a lot to shore that area up either, partly because Manning’s giant contract handcuffed them in the free agent market. Notice that Indy carries an 11-5 "over" the total run into the new season.
Baltimore (12-1): While the Colts are all offense with an average "D," the Ravens couldn’t be more opposite: Sensational defense, no offense. Actually, no offensive "balance" is more appropriate: The Ravens led the NFL in rushing behind workhorse Jamal Lewis (2,066 yds rush, 5.3 ypc, 14 TDs). The passing offense, with little speed, finished last in the NFL behind young QB Kyle Boller. Baltimore’s attempt to land Terrell Owens failed.
The defense finished No. 3 overall, fourth against the pass, sixth against the run (96 yards rushing per game, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry). That formula carried Baltimore to the Super Bowl title four years ago. Note that Baltimore was 7-0 SU/4-1-2 ATS as a home favorite in 2003 and 24-10 SU, 19-12-3 ATS in Landover the last four years.
Denver (18-1): The Broncos had a talented team that finished seventh on offense and fourth defensely a year ago. The ending was a big downer, however, as the Broncos were thoroughly embarrassed in a 41-10 loss at Indy in the playoffs. Denver hopes for more consistency with the addition of star CB Champ Bailey from Washington for RB Clinton Portis. Bailey upgrades a secondary that was already No. 6 in the NFL.
The offense has to replace Portis, but has plenty of candidates and depth with Quentin Griffin, Mike Anderson, veteran Garrison Hearst and rookie Tatum Bell. QB Jake Plummer was an improvement over Brian Griese and has strong receiving targets in WR Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie. The Broncos buck better than they bark: Denver is 4-10 SU, 5-9 ATS as a dog the last three years.