Last week it was the start of college football, while the pro game kicks off tonight. Here’s my preview of the Bears and the rest of the NFL:
1) Super Bears Super Bowl? Uhhh… – The people of Chicago are in their typical manic depressive mood about the Bears. On the one hand, the team is returning all of their starters from the 2005 NFC North champions, which includes one of the top defenses in football in the past decade. At the same time, the Bears finally have an experienced backup quarterback in Brian Griese just in case Rex Grossman snaps a leg again (better than even odds on that one). As a result, Bears fans are riding high with optimism going into this season.
However, most Bears fans are clairvoyant enough to realize that there aren’t only holes in a historically anemic offense, but the vaunted defense isn’t impenetrable, as well. As I alluded to above, the quarterback situation looks alright with Grossman, Griese, and our champion drinker Kyle Orton. The problem, though, is that those quarterbacks still have little to throw to outside of Mushin Muhammad as of today while having an unsettled situation in the backfield. Is Mark Bradley going to stay healthy enough to become a viable #2 wide receiver? Can the Bears incorporate the tight ends into their passing schemes even though the club didn’t use an opportunity to upgrade at that position through the draft? Will the team ever settle on an appropriate way to use both Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson at running back? Can we bring Matt Suhey out of retirement so that we have a viable fullback again? In the six weeks since the start of training camp, none of these questions on offense have been fully answered.
Meanwhile, the defense isn’t necessarily going to continue on an upward trajectory. The cornerback position is on the uptick with computer nerd beater Rick Manning Jr., but that’s countered by the injury situation with Mike Brown at safety. While Brian Urlacher has the national attention, Nike commercials, and 98 rating on Madden ’07, the performance of the Bears defense really depends upon the presence of Brown more than anyone else. Remember how Steve Smith was more open than the gap between the teeth of Flavor of Love’s Buckwild (if you took every single guest in the history of the Jerry Springer Show and put them into a blender, Buckwild would be the resulting smoothie) against the Bears in the playoffs last season? Well, it just so happened that Mike Brown had to sit out of that game due to injuries. That wasn’t a coincidence at all. If Brown is healthy and able to avoid the injured list, the Bears defense is going to improve upon last season with a stronger secondary. On the other hand, if Mike Brown ends up missing several games, the Bears are going to have a hugely disappointing year on the defensive side of the ball.
I don’t put too much stock in the fact that the Bears supposedly have the weakest schedule in the NFL based upon last year’s records since parity is so rampant in the pro football. However, I do believe that the rest of the NFC North is awful on the field and every single team in that division other than the Bears has a new head coach. This means that, at the very least, the Bears should be able to back into the playoffs even with some holes on offense and defense. How far they can go after that, though, depends upon whether they can answer all of those offensive questions and Mike Brown is healthy. I put the over/under on regular season wins for the Bears at 10.
2) NFC North Final Standings Prediction – As I said above, the Bears can back into the playoffs with these guys as the prime competition, although Minnesota and Detroit aren’t as bad as advertised. There’s no hope for the Packers. The projected NFC north standings: (1) Chicago Bears, (2) Minnesota Vikings, (3) Detroit Lions, (4) Green Bay Packers.
3) NFC East Final Standings Prediction – ESPN is going to slob the knob of the NFC East as being the best division in the NFL all year long. If you’re smart, you’ll ignore this sentiment and bet heavily against whoever comes out of this division in the playoffs. This division is definitely the most competitive from the standpoint that every team has a chance to finish on top, but that’s due to parity as opposed to quality. With or without Terrell Owens, the Cowboys are still a team where a geriatric Drew Beldsoe is battling for a spot with a quarterback from Eastern Illinois, which is not exactly the mark of a Super Bowl contender. That being said, when it comes to non-Bears games this season, I’m a whole lot more interested in the Dallas-Philadelphia matchups than the overblown “Manning Bowl” coming up on Sunday night. In fact, I think Philly will recapture a little bit of pre-T.O. debacle magic this year and surprise a whole lot of people (even though they shouldn’t be a sleeper considering that they made the Super Bowl two years ago). The projected NFC East standings: (1) Philadelphia Eagles, (2) New York Giants, (3) Dallas Cowboys, (4) Washington Redskins.
4) NFC South Final Standings Prediction – In terms of pure athletes, this division is stacked with Michael Vick, Reggie Bush, and Steve Smith. In terms of teams, there’s only one true Super Bowl contender, which is Carolina. Jon Gruden is due for some success, though, so I foresee a wild card spot for Tampa Bay. The projected NFC South standings: (1) Carolina Panthers, (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Wild Card), (3) Atlanta Falcons, (4) New Orleans Saints.
5) NFC West Final Standings Prediction – This division looks like the run-and-shoot west of the 1980s all over again. Seattle, St. Louis, and Arizona are all going to have high octane offensive units. I can’t tell you much about San Francisco other than the Niners still suck and have a really young quarterback at the helm. The Seahawks will continue to be the class of the division while the Rams will bounce back to take the second wild card spot from the fashionable pick of the Cardinals. The projected NFC West standings: (1) Seattle Seahawks, (2) St. Louis Rams (Wild Card), (3) Arizona Cardinals, (4) San Francisco 49ers.
6) AFC North Final Standings Prediction – This division is the real class of the NFL as opposed to the NFC East. Pittsburgh has the returning Super Bowl champs, Cincinnati looks to be back on track with Carson Palmer back in the fold, Baltimore will still have a top tier defense, and Cleveland has some playmakers on both sides of the ball with Willie McGinest and my main man Reuben Droughns (okay, Reuben isn’t exactly as barn burner, but I’ve got him as a #2 running back on one of my fantasy teams, so here’s to hoping). The Steelers and Bengals are locks to make the playoffs out of this division. The projected AFC North standings: (1) Pittsburgh Steelers, (2) Cincinnati Bengals (Wild Card), (3) Cleveland Browns, (4) Baltimore Ravens.
7) AFC East Final Standings Prediction – I’m going with old reliable here with New England. Miami is going to be an extremely interesting team with Daunte Culpepper in the fold, if only for the fact that a boat party on the Atlantic Ocean off of South Beach has got to be a step up over anything that could possibly be put together on Lake Minnetonka. I’m a believer in the coaching skills of Nick Saban, so I’ll slot the Dolphins as a Wild Card team this season. Feel free to ignore the team from New York and also that one from New Jersey called the Jets. The projected AFC East standings: (1) New England Patriots, (2) Miami Dolphins (Wild Card), (3) Buffalo Bills, (4) New York Jets.
8) AFC South Final Standings Prediction – NFL prognosticators across the world pick Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl before the season starts. Indy blows through the regular season with mind-blowing offensive stats, perpetuating the belief that they are unstoppable. Manning picks apart a subpar defense in the Wild Card round with a numbing number of audibles at the line of scrimmage, cementing the perception that he’s a quarterbacking genius. The Colts then get “stunned” in the next round of the playoffs by a team with a great defense (i.e. Steelers or Patriots), which leads to everyone questioning whether Manning can win the big one. Lather, rinse, repeat. The projected AFC South standings: (1) Indianapolis Colts, (2) Tennessee Titans, (3) Jacksonville Jaguars, (4) Houston Texans.
9) AFC West Final Standings Prediction – On fantasy football draft boards across the nation, a Chiefs running back was the consensus #1 pick. If he wasn’t taken in the first spot, he was almost certainly gone at #2 or #3. The name of that player was Priest Holmes and the year was 2004, which was only two seasons ago. Flash forward to 2006 and we see the current Chiefs running back, Larry Johnson, in the same vaunted position. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t the whole reason why Johnson rose in value so quickly was because Kansas City employed a platoon at the running back position and the reason why he got so many carries last year was that Holmes got injured? Even with a new head coach in Herman Edwards, is there any reason why the Chiefs wouldn’t go back to a tandem running back corps with a solid runner in Michael Bennett as the #2 guy? LJ is going to score a bunch of touchdowns, but his rushing yards aren’t going to be anywhere near what they were last season. Those that took division rival LaDainian Tomlinson, however, are going to be very happy. Back to real life… The projected AFC West standings: (1) Denver Broncos, (2) Kansas City Chiefs, (3) San Diego Chargers, (4) Oakland Raiders.
10) Super Bowl Prediction – I love my Bears, but I just don’t see a better team than Carolina in the NFC this season. In the AFC, I believe that Tom Brady is out for blood money after that ugly performance against Denver last year. Since the AFC is once again several steps above the NFC in quality… New England Patriots over Carolina Panthers.
11) Remembering Sweetness – When I was a young kid back in the mid-1980s, I owned an NFL Films video called “The NFL’s Greatest Hits”, which was a compilation of bone rattling tackles and hits by defensive players that would be penalized today in the wussy world that bans spears with the helmet and protects the quarterback like a piece of Waterford crystal. In middle of this ode to the great defenders of the day such as Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary, however, was a segment on Walter Payton. NFL Films included a special reel of Payton runs where he put his shoulder down and smacked the guys that tried to tackle him back five or ten yards. With apologies to Barry Sanders, that highlight reel epitomized why Walter Payton was and is the greatest football player of all time – never before and never again will you ever see another running back, or for that matter, any offensive player, get canonized on an NFL Greatest Hits video.
I searched all over YouTube for this film but wasn’t able to find it. However, I did come across this awesome Walter Payton montage that will give even the most hardened Packers fan goosebumps – I’ve already watched it ten times. If and when the Bears or whoever your favorite team is fumbles in the red zone or blows some coverage on a mediocre wide receiver this season, think back to this Payton film displaying a man that had the ultimate combination of class, skill, work ethic, and competitiveness. He’s the reason why I fell in love with sports. Rest in peace, Sweetness.
(Images from ImageShack, eBay, Deadspin, and Encarta)