Patriots Look Super To Repeat NFL Championship
By Michael Avallone
Entering the ‘04-’05 season as the defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots have to feel quite comfortable where they stand. No major player losses, a top-of-the line coach, a QB that cannot seem to lose, the best defense in the league, and an 18-game winning streak. Name me a team that is a surer bet to reach Super Bowl XXXIX. I didn’t think so....
The Jets have to feel confident heading into the ‘04 season. Chad Pennington is healthy, a younger and faster squad is on the field, and Herman Edwards remains a great motivator. Although the playoffs are no guarantee, J-E-T-S should stick around all year and sneak in.
Four of the Bills’ 10 losses last year were by a combined 11 points, so with a bit of luck, their record could have easily been 10-6 instead of 6-10. Will Drew Bledsoe return to his pre-2003 form? Who will get the majority of carries at the RB position, Travis Henry or Willis McGahee? A lot of questions, but also a lot of talent. The playoffs are not out of the realm of possibility.
With Ricky Williams, the Dolphins were a viable playoff contender. The star running back who had rushed for over 3,200 yards his first two years in Miami abruptly retired on the eve of training camp, deciding that smoking grass was more important than playing on it. Miami does have some talent, particularly on defense but with either A.J. Feeley or Jay Fiedler running the offense, will it matter?
No player is more feared than Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis who heads a stellar defense. Nabbing Terrell Owens would have been a major coup offensively, but instead, the Ravens have to rely on QB Kyle Boller continuing his maturity and hope that 2,000-yard RB Jamal Lewis can stay out of jail on a cocaine charge.
For Cincinnati, a step back may be an improvement despite what fans and critics think. Coach Marvin Lewis is putting his neck on the line by replacing QB John Kitna (26 TD’s in ‘03) with franchise player Carson Palmer. While Palmer will probably become a upper-echelon QB, chances are 2004 will not be that year.
Bill Cowher returns for another year in the Steel City, but for how long? Although the draft of QB Ben Roethlisberger will pay huge dividends, the Steelers will not benefit from them this year. A suspect defense and a mediocre offensive line are two holes that will keep Pittsburgh from the playoffs in ‘04, even in a weak AFC North.
The drafting of Kellen Winslow II by the Browns should spark excitement both on and off the field. There is no doubt the tight end will be one of the best players in the NFL but will his mouth create more sparks than his play? Replacing QB Tim Couch with Jeff Garcia was a positive step, but the ex-49er is 33-years old and coming off an injury plagued year.
The Indianapolis Colts may play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, but they are still the class of the AFC South. Led by co-MVP Peyton Manning, Indy is only a better defense away from challenging the Patriots for the best bet to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The Titans are written off each year and every year coach Jeff Fisher has his team at the top of the league. Although co-MVP Steve McNair returns to lead the offense, Eddie George, Jerome Kearse, and Frank Wycheck have all left Tennessee. The Titans should remain a top-tier team, but a lot of the heart and soul of this squad is playing elsewhere.
The Jaguars have to be pleased with the progress of QB Byron Leftwich. Although he is not ready to lead this team to the playoffs yet, Leftwich proved he has the talent and poise to be an NFL quarterback. Coach Jack Del Rio is quietly building a team the right way and the ‘05-’06 season may bear the fruits of his labor.
After a rough first season in ‘02, David Carr showed last year that he has the tools to become a top playmaker in the NFL. With a solid RB in Domanick Davis and a potential big-game threat in WR Andre Johnson, Carr has several offensive options available to him. The playoffs won’t happen but Houston is on the right path.
Kansas City will again try to patch together some sort of defense to go along with their superior offense. Not an easy task for coach Dick Vermeil. Led by RB Priest Holmes (and his 48 TD’s the past two seasons), TE Tony Gonzalez, and QB Trent Green, the Chiefs’ offense will again be second-to-none.
Mike Shanahan continues to get the most out of a team that is devoid of superstar material. Losing a 1,500-yard rusher in Clinton Portis is not easy on an offense but with the way Shanahan produces 1,000-yard backs, someone will more than likely step up. Jake Plummer must do more as the QB if the Broncos hope to compete with the Chiefs for the division title.
Although the team has gotten younger and looks to be in good hands at QB with either Rich Gannon or Kerry Collins, the Raiders still have too many question marks. Drafting Robert Gallery was a smart move and will pay off for years to come but it remains to be seen if a change of scenery will help Warren Sapp regain his status as a top defensive play-maker.
The Chargers cannot figure out which way is up. San Diego has not had a winning season since their Super Bowl run 10 years ago and things do not look much brighter in 2004. Star RB LaDanian Tomlinson continues to put up great numbers despite the lack of talent around him, a problem again for the ‘04 season. Drew Brees will start at QB but Philip Rivers will take over as soon as he gets his feet wet.
New England:13-3, New York:10-6
Buffalo: 7-9, Miami: 6-10
Baltimore: 10-6, Cincinnati: 7-9
Pittsburgh: 7-9, Cleveland: 6-10
Indianapolis: 12-4, Tennessee: 10-6
Jacksonville: 7-9, Houston: 6-10
Kansas City: 11-5, Denver: 9-7
Oakland: 8-8, San Diego: 4-12