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Thursday, September 8, 2005
Welcome back, NFL

By Bill Simmons
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So what do we make of the 2005 NFL season? I spent the last three weeks sifting through every possible magazine, surfing the Web daily to find every newspaper I could find that covers its local team, watching so many TiVo'ed episodes of "NFL Live" that the Sports Gal now flinches when she sees Mike Golic, consulting my friends who love the league ... I mean, I literally lost my mind. One of these years, I want to predict all 12 playoff teams before a season. Heck, I'd settle for 10.

Without further ado, my awards and predictions for the upcoming season:

Ben Affleck
Front row seats, hanging with Jennifer Garner. Yup, Ben is just one of us.
The Ben Affleck Memorial "Too Many People On the Bandwagon" Award
To the Cardinals, who haven't won in the playoffs since 1998 but emerged as a consensus sleeper choice to steal the NFC West. Believe me, I'm seeing it: quality coach, quality defense, playmaking receivers, a quarterback who reportedly renewed his deal with Satan for three more years, some snazzy new uniforms ... but doesn't the consensus "Watch out, these guys are gonna be good!" team always end up stumbling like the Jags did last season? Screw it -- I'm still picking them. If the Patriots can win three Super Bowls in four years in the same decade that Pete Carroll became the modern-day Bear Bryant, anything's possible.

The Peter Gammons Award for "Team with the most tantalizing ifs"
To the Broncos, who probably deserve their own Gammons column at this point. If Jake Plummer can control his mistakes, if Mike Anderson can regain his 2000 form, if Rod Smith and John Lynch have one more quality year left, if Courtney Brown can stay healthy, if they can light a fire under Gerard Warren, if Ashley Lelie can become an elite receiver, if David Terrell can finally find a home ... has any team had more ifs that could potentially result in a fantastic season? Even when you're playing them in "Madden," by the end of a game with six-minute quarters, Madden has you believing that Plummer is Superman, Quentin Griffin is the next Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice still has five years left in him (and Rice and Griffin aren't even with the team any more). Just a bizarre team. And yes, I think this will be the year when Shanahan's head explodes into smithereens on the sidelines.

The Aamer Haleem Award for "Worst idea about getting the band back together"
To the Dallas Cowboys, who decided to reunite Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn about eight years too late. Come on, when Bledsoe couldn't beat Pittsburgh's second-string defense in a game that could have put Buffalo in the playoffs, wasn't that the definitive sign that he'd gone Bernie Kosar on us? Now he's getting another chance?

(And while we're on the subject, how is it possible that the quarterback position is the most glamorous position in any sport, going back even to high school, where the quarterback always had his choice of the best-looking girl in school. So you would think all the best athletes would want to play this position, and this country pumps out dozens of good prospects every year ... and yet the NFL is so desperate to find decent quarterbacks, Miami actually had a battle for its starting job between Gus Frerotte and A.J. Feeley this summer? Frerotte and Feeley? Why not invite Spurgeon Wynn and make it a full-fledged crapfest? How is it possible that we can't find 30 good quarterbacks and 30 good punters in the entire world? I spend my nights wondering about this.)

The Young Bud Fox/Anacot Steel Award for "Easiest stock tip of the year"
Last year, AFC teams went 44-20 against the NFC -- and if anything, the NFC got worse over the summer. You could even make a case that nine of the best 13 teams are in the AFC right now (including four of the five best). So when you're wagering on an interconference game this season, just remember: Blue Horse Shoe loves the AFC.

Bill Belichick
Forget how they look, you'd wear them, too so be quiet.
The Bananarama Award for "Cruelest moment of the summer"
After the ESPY's were filmed, my buddy Hench e-mailed me to tell me that he knew one of the guys producing the show, and apparently there was a funny cut to Belichick when Manning accepted his "Record-Breaking ESPY" Award that was off-the-charts funny. So I ended up TiVo-ing the show just to see it. And sure enough, there's Manning heading up to the stage to collect an ESPY, and there was the closeup of Belichick sitting there, applauding Manning with a small smile on his face ... and all three Super Bowl rings sticking out noticeably on his left hand as he's clapping. If that wasn't the definitive moment of the Pats-Colts rivalry so far, I don't know what was.

The Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes/Andre Rison Award for "Most inevitable yet shocking breakup"
To Terrell Owens and the Eagles. Back in Week 2, I wrote the following:

"Let's say you have a buddy who's dating a crazy chick. You know she's crazy. Hell, HE knows she's crazy. But everything is cool for a few weeks, to the point that people start saying, 'All right, maybe she really isn't crazy, maybe she's gotten her act together.' And then a few weeks pass ... and she turns into a complete lunatic. She makes Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction' look like Mrs. Cleaver. Just like you thought. Your poor buddy can't get out fast enough. And you're looking back in disbelief that you suckered yourself into this thing working out. That's T.O. It's only a matter of time. But for this week? We're still in the honeymoon phase."

Followed that up in Week 10 with: "By the way, how was the T.O. honeymoon period for you? If this was a relationship and T.O. was the chick, we'd be at the point where the Eagles just found out that T.O. stinks up the bathroom, can't cook to save his life, doesn't like sex as much as he claimed, and flips out whenever you don't want to do something with him and his family. In other words ... um ... maybe this was a bad idea."

Here's the point: This was so overwhelmingly inevitable, anyone with half a brain could see it coming. They rolled the dice with T.O., got one fantastic season out of him, nearly won the Super Bowl when the Pats ran out of D-backs, and now they're stuck in the relationship from hell. Was it worth it? Actually, yes. The goal is to win a Super Bowl, right? So it was worth it since they almost won. Even if he ended up cutting up all their clothes and setting their house on fire.

The Blueboy Award for "Most disarming, unpreventable odor"
Everyone has one friend who quietly locks the windows in the car when he's driving, then passes gas, waits for everyone to say, "Omigod, who did that?" ... only they can't roll down the windows. They eventually freak out from the stench as the driver laughs hysterically. My friend who does this is the Blueboy -- he even quietly turns on the heat when you're not looking to bring the smell to another level. And I guess my point is this: If you're a Packers fan right now, after they brought Mike Sherman back, after that ridiculous draft, after the lifeless preseason, after the way Favre looked ... I mean, can't you see them trying to roll down the windows, screaming in horror and doing anything to get away from that stench right now? That's a 4-12 season waiting to happen. I'll even predict it.

Colonel James
If you've seen "Boogie Nights" and you just read "you think so doctor" and didn't laugh ... sorry, you're dead.
The Colonel James Memorial "You Think So, Doctor" Award for "Easiest way to figure our which teams will be better and worse this season"
Here's the thing about the NFL: If you're looking for teams to jump a level, it's the same recipe every year. You need an easy schedule, or at the very least, a manageable one. You need a couple of horses (like the Chargers with Gates, Tomlinson and Jamal Williams). You need to get lucky in the draft with 3-4 contributors, need to nail your free agent signings, need a good coach, need to avoid deadly injuries in the preseason and the first 2-3 weeks, and need to avoid screwing up your cap space with those Peerless Price/Jeremiah Trotter-type contracts.

So which non-playoff teams are jumping a level? Carolina, definitely. Baltimore, definitely. Kansas City, probably -- assuming Green stays healthy. Arizona, possibly -- you never know with those guys. Those are the four best bets. I don't trust anyone else except maybe the Jags. On the flip side, Pittsburgh should be worse -- tougher schedule, some injuries, no Plax to stretch the field. Something feels wrong about Seattle. Something is wrong with Green Bay. I don't like all the question marks in Denver. You could make a case that San Diego will struggle with a tougher schedule, as will the Jets (and Pennington's shoulder scares me).

One longshot pick to potentially fall apart. What about Philly? This is an actual excerpt from John Clayton's "First and 10" column this week: "This was a bumpy offseason for Philadelphia, beyond Owens' antics. There was the Jerome McDougle shooting; Todd Pinkston blew out a knee; Correll Buckhalter is out for the season; Brian Westbrook held out and wants a new deal; and Corey Simon had the franchise tag pulled and signed with the Colts."

Good Lord! In New England, the most traumatic event of the summer was Deion Branch's getting rested throughout the exhibition season because Belichick wanted to save him for the playoffs, so there was a rumor that Branch was hurt (it turned out that he wasn't). Meanwhile, Philly had so many things happen, a player got SHOT and it was casually thrown in the middle of the paragraph. Unbelievable. In a sport that ongoing distractions really can kill your season, the Eagles seem to be pushing the limits. We'll see how it goes. In the AFC, they could have been broken. In the NFC, they'll probably still go 11-5, even with all this stuff happening.

So who's the big sleeper going to be? Let's give them their own award ...

The Dr. Gregory House Award for "Legitimate sleeper that absolutely nobody saw coming"
Because that's the thing about sleepers: Nobody should be able to predict them. Last year, the Chargers came out of nowhere. The year before, Carolina. In 2001, New England and Chicago. When you hear people throwing the word "sleeper" around for teams like Arizona and Cincy, those are NOT real sleepers. You need to choose someone from this putrid group: Redskins, Giants, Bears, Bucs, Niners, Raiders, Titans, Browns, Bills and Dolphins. I'm telling you, one of those nine teams will make the 2005 playoffs, and everyone is going to say, "Oh my God, how did that happen????"

Brian Urlacher
Urlacher might finally make "the leap" from "that guy in the soup commercial" to "that guy on the Bears."
So here's my pick: The Chicago Bears. Easiest schedule in the league. Inferior division and conference. Underrated running game. One All-Pro receiver in Muhsin Muhammad. A defense that has a chance to crack the top-five, helmed by some playmakers (Briggs, Urlacher, Harris, Tillman) and what could turn out to be the best secondary in the league (now that Mike Brown is back). A sizable home-field advantage, especially in November and December. Very good coach (Lovie Smith) who had them playing hard in October and November until their quarterbacks did them in. And best of all, NOBODY is talking about them. In fact, Sports Illustrated ranked them 32 out of 32.

What's the big problem here? The quarterback. They're playing a fourth-round rookie (Kyle Orton) who's loved by the coaches and players ... but he's still a fourth-round rookie. So here's my question: Even if he's hit-or-miss, it's not like he's going to be much worse than Kyle Boller, Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Patrick Ramsey or half the crappy starters in the league. Anyway, that's my 2005 sleeper -- I think they're going 10-6 and losing by 30 points in the first round of the playoffs. You heard it here.

(And if they finish 4-12, you didn't hear it here.)

The Jamba Juice Matcha Green Tea Blast Award for "Most Underrated Invention of 2005"
How 'bout DirecTV's finally pushing it to another level? Not only do we have 100 HD games this season, not only is there a Red Zone channel (where they switch to games whenever somebody gets inside the 20) and an "Eight games at the same time" channel, but they're even editing condensed versions of EVERY GAME into tidy 30-minute packages -- just play after play after play after play ... I mean, are they trying to end my marriage? Seriously, this could do it -- this might be the final straw. Has anyone ever introduced the "It was DirecTV's fault" defense in a California divorce hearing before? If so, could you send me the case number?

The Johnny Lam Jones Award for "Worst ongoing story that makes Jets fans want to throw up in their mouths"
After the 2004 season ended, Herm Edwards gave a motivational speech at an ESPN function on one of those company retreats we have from time to time. A friend of mine who was there said that Herm was fantastic, and you could see why guys would love playing for him ... but Herm ran long by 15 minutes. Even during the offseason, Herm can't manage the clock. Needless to say, I'm not picking the Jets to make the playoffs.

SPORTS GUY'S AFC PREDICTIONS
AFC EAST
New England: 12-4
NY Jets: 9-7
Miami: 7-9
Buffalo: 6-10

AFC NORTH
Baltimore: 11-5
Pittsburgh: 9-7
Cincinnati: 8-8
Cleveland: 5-11

AFC SOUTH
Indianapolis: 13-3
Jacksonville: 10-6
Tennessee: 8-8
Houston: 4-12

AFC WEST
Kansas City: 11-5
San Diego: 10-6
Denver: 9-7
Oakland: 6-10

The Danny DeVito Award for "Easiest way to realize that something is going to be disappointing before you actually see it."
Ever watch a movie trailer and it looks pretty good, and then you hear the narrator say, "From director Danny DeVito ... " and you immediately change your mind? Same goes for NFL coaches. The four Mikes (Martz, Tice, Holmgren and Sherman) will always be outmatched by a good coach. Any team with Dom Capers or Norv Turner at the helm will underachieve. Herm Edwards' teams will always screw up at the end of games. Mike Shanahan's teams will always be 7-6 with three games remaining in the season (and everyone saying, "Those guys should be 10-3!"). Joe Gibbs was away from the game so long that it's sad to watch. Writers will keep making excuses for Steve Mariucci and Marvin Lewis even as their teams keep underachieving. Marty Schottenheimer will always tighten up in the playoffs. And Danny DeVito will always direct crappy movies.

Look, you can pick these teams, you can wager on them ... heck, some of them may even make the playoffs this season (I think Tice and the Vikes will be there). Just don't trust them in any parlays or teasers, don't expect much from them in big games, and definitely don't pick any of them to win the Super Bowl.

(And this is where the Broncos fans say, "We won two with Shanahan!" Actually, Elway and TD won two -- Shanahan was along for the ride. You know who else won a Super Bowl? Barry Switzer and George Seifert. Settle down.)

The Paradise Hotel Award for "Most potentially combustible situation that almost seems contrived, it's so potentially combustible"
To America's new favorite love triangle: Randy Moss, Norv Turner and Kerry Collins. Whose idea was it to put Randy with a pushover coach AND a pushover QB? Why does anyone think this could work for more than 4-5 games? Once they start losing, Moss will make the T.O./McNabb situation seem happier than a press junket with the cast of "Ocean's Twelve" by the end of the season. And where can I wager on Collins' overthrowing Moss during the late stages of a 20-point loss, followed by Moss' just continuing his pattern all the way off the field, under the tunnel and into the locker room? I can't wait to see how this plays out -- let's just hope it crests with something worse than the fake moon, followed by Joe Buck's having another hissy fit.

(And speaking of hissy fits, please do yourself a favor and watch Bryant Gumbel's end-of-the-show monologue on "Real Sports" about how NFL networks shouldn't show the Gatorade celebrations anymore. He actually compared Gatorade baths with naked streakers running across a baseball field. You have to see it. I don't ask for much. It's an astounding three minutes of TV -- he actually climbs on a nine-foot horse and rides off at the end of the monologue. All right, I made that last part up. But everything else happened.)

SPORTS GUY'S NFC PREDICTIONS
NFC EAST
Philly: 11-5
NY Giants: 8-8
Dallas: 8-8
Washington: 5-11

NFC NORTH
Minnesota: 10-6
Chicago: 10-6
Detroit: 5-11
Green Bay: 4-12

NFC SOUTH
Carolina: 12-4
Atlanta: 10-6
New Orleans: 6-10
Tampa Bay: 4-12

NFC WEST
Arizona: 9-7
St. Louis: 8-8
Seattle: 6-10
San Fran: 3-13

The Sopranos Award for "Best ongoing franchise that everyone takes for granted because they've been so good for so long"
To the three-time champion New England Patriots. Normally when Super Bowl champs are picked not to repeat, it's usually for valid reasons (injuries, free agency losses, coaching changes, whatever.) With the Pats, they lost Tedy Bruschi (one of the 7-8 indispensable guys on the team, no question) and both coordinators (who cares?), and that's it ... but people are making it seem like it's a completely different team defending the title. Actually, it's the best Patriots team of the decade -- best secondary, best defensive line, best offensive line, Brady and Dillon in their primes, tons of flexibility (wait until you see them unleash the two-TE offense with Graham and Watson), and a bunch of big game guys still around. Plus, Brady and Belichick are 9-0 in playoff games -- that matters, right? -- and the Pats haven't lost a home game since December, 2002. If that's not enough, they have beaten the other AFC favorite (the Colts) four straight times. And they still have Vinatieri playing the Mo Rivera role.

I ask you again: Why isn't this team favored to win the Super Bowl? What am I missing? They have pretty much mastered the salary cap. They don't screw up draft picks. They have franchise players in big spots. They have the best coach AND the best big-game quarterback. What's left? Why would anyone possibly wager against this team until somebody beats them in a big game? I'm flummoxed by this. Actually, keep betting against them. Please.

(By the way, here's my theory on "highly regarded coordinators" -- doesn't nearly every guy who worked with a great coach end up bombing on his own? Have you checked out the career records of Dave Wannstadt, Dave Campo or Norv Turner lately? What about Pete Carroll's big year as the DC of San Fran, which he parlayed into a calamitous stint with the Patriots? How have Parts 1 and 2 of the Steve Mariucci Coaching Eras been for you? Did you enjoy Ray Rhodes' work? How 'bout Joe Bugel? Al Groh? I'd keep throwing out names, but I don't have enough room in the column.)

SPORTS GUY'S PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Round One: KC over SD, Jax over Balt, 'Zona over Atlanta, Minnesota over Chicago

Round Two: Indy over KC, NE over Jax, Carolina over Zona, Minnesota over Philly

Title Games: NE over Indy, Carolina over Minnesota

Super Bowl Pick: New England 37, Carolina 34.

The Terence Trent D'Arby Award for "Most inspired gathering around a wishing well."
To everyone picking the Colts to win the Super Bowl this year -- a shocking amount of "experts" aboard considering that defense and coaching wins in January (and the Colts are suspect on both fronts). Isn't it amazing how people can completely forget what happened eight months ago? Seriously, nobody remembers the Colts' getting killed in Foxboro? Now they're the Super Bowl favorites? This makes sense?

Could it happen? Sure, why not. They can't win in Foxboro. It's not happening -- the coach, the crowd, the defense and the QB would never allow it. But they could imitate the '99 Rams, take advantage of an easy division, get home-field advantage for the playoffs and turn the Pats game into a track meet. That might work. In fact, I'm picking them to get home-field advantage in the AFC, if only because they have a much easier schedule than the Pats (who play the Raiders, Panthers, Steelers, Chargers, Falcons and Broncos in their first six games).

Here's the X-factor: This Pats-Colts "rivalry" has replaced the old Red Sox-Yankees "rivalry" in that Indy's failures against New England have somehow become part of their overall identity. If you see a Manning interview, the Pats are guaranteed to come up. Same with a Dungy interview, or any national Colts story. It's just something that's always there. And it can't go away until they beat the Patriots. One problem -- the Red Sox had to assemble a gang of self-proclaimed idiots who couldn't have cared less about the Yankees, Babe Ruth or anyone else -- even when they were down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, they were still dumb enough to think they could come back. I don't know if that can work in football -- you have one game and waaaaaaaaaay too much time to think about it. But I guess we'll see.

The Bill Simmons Award for "My favorite football theory that has never failed me."
Every season, six playoff teams make it back, six playoff teams drop out, and six other teams fill those spots. This is how it works. This is how it always works. After examining everyone 20 times over, I managed to whittle the season down to these three groups:

THURSDAY'S PICK
How will the defending champs do tonight?

Sports Guy's pick: Pats -7.5 over Raiders

Returning playoff teams: New England, San Diego, Indy, Philly, Minnesota, Atlanta (wild card).

New playoff teams: Jacksonville, Kansas City, Baltimore, Chicago, Arizona, Carolina.

Dropping out: Pittsburgh, Jets, Denver, Green Bay, St. Louis, Seattle.

Final prediction: The Patriots over Jacksonville (Round 2), Indianapolis (on the road, AFC Championship game) and Carolina (Super Bowl XL).

One more thing: I decided to leave the Saints out of this preview, but I did want to pass along the Red Cross link just in case you haven't given money to the relief efforts yet. Here's the link. Make sure you click on the "Hurricane Katrina" choice so the money goes directly to relief effort in New Orleans. And yes, it's tax-deductible.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. You can preorder his upcoming book "Now I Can Die In Peace" on Amazon.com