- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
The hardest part of breaking down the 2007 schedule is figuring out the hot spots.
Divisional rivalries highlight a schedule, but the 2006 season clouded that picture. Call it parity or mediocrity, but it was hard to find great divisional races. The average margin of victory for an AFC divisional winner was four games last season. NFC races were tighter, but that was because only one team -- the Bears -- won more than 10 games.
Once again, the AFC's domination over the NFC took hold in 2006, and it played a major part in skewing the balance of power. After a 2005 season in which the NFC came within six games of playing even with the AFC, the NFC dropped to a dismal 24-40 record against the AFC.
Ten AFC teams had 3-1 or 4-0 records against the NFC while the Cowboys were the only NFC team with a winning record against the AFC. Clearly, interconference matchups might not be considered hot games until the NFC proves itself again, although that opening-week meeting between the Bears and the Chargers looks pretty appealing.
What's hard about picking the hot games in the AFC is figuring out which second-place team narrowed the gap enough to promote key divisional games. Last season, the Colts-Jaguars series looked pretty appealing, but the Colts ended up four games ahead of the Jaguars, and now there is talk Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio is on the hot seat. Technically, the Titans passed them in a tie-breaker for second place.
The AFC North may have one of the best races, but analysts will have to take a wait-and-see attitude about how the Steelers adjust to their first coaching change in 15 years. Mike Tomlin has replaced Bill Cowher, and even though Tomlin is a defensive coach, you wonder whether the Steelers will be as fierce as the steel-jawed Cowher made them in dominating the AFC North for so many seasons. The Ravens appear to be the class of the division, with the Bengals hoping to rebound after a season full of distractions.
So where are the hot spots in 2007?
1. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (Nov. 4): Some might argue that this is the regular-season Super Bowl. Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings. Peyton Manning has been fitted for his first. What's so fascinating about this series is how it has evolved. The Patriots had the Colts' number during their Super Bowl runs. Bill Belichick appeared to be in the head of Peyton Manning with the Pats' 3-4 scheme and forced Manning to make uncharacteristic mistakes. The Patriots won five straight games against the Colts. Thanks to Manning, things have changed. The Colts have won the past three games, including last year's AFC championship game.
Like the Patriots, Manning and the Colts thrived on playing close games until the final play. After playing so many of these games in Foxboro, the Colts finally landed a regular-season game in the RCA Dome. If both teams are division winners, the game has extra importance because it could be the tie-breaker in determining home-field advantage between the two during the playoffs.
2. San Diego vs. Denver (Oct. 7 at Broncos, Dec. 24 at Chargers): In a league coming off very few close division races -- particularly in the AFC -- this is evolving into one of the better showdowns in the league. With Mike Shanahan in charge, the Broncos are annual playoff contenders. Owner Pat Bowlen made sure Shanahan will be part of this equation by recently locking him up with a contract extension through 2011. The Chargers are loaded. General manager A.J. Smith has built one of the league's most physical defenses along with an offense able to put up 30 points a game. After losing five of six games to the Broncos, the Chargers swept last season's series against the Broncos and won the AFC West by five games thanks to a 14-2 record. Gone are Marty Schottenheimer and two top coordinators -- Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips. Norv Turner takes over with the pressure to not only equal Schottenheimer's regular-season success but to take the franchise deeper into the playoffs.
3. Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers (Nov. 11): The playoff matchup everyone wanted last season was the Chargers against the Colts. Manning has difficulty against 3-4 defenses, and the Chargers version of the 3-4 scheme gave him major headaches in 2005 in a 26-17 loss at the RCA Dome. Under Wade Phillips, the Chargers ran a more aggressive version of the 3-4. Defensive linemen were occasionally allowed to shoot gaps instead of just wrestling at the line of scrimmage in boring two-gap concepts. Linebacker Shawne Merriman has Lawrence Taylor presence with his ability to blitz. The Merriman-Manning pairing is a great headline alone. Combine that with Philip Rivers' ability to move the football and LaDainian Tomlinson's ability to destroy run defenses and the matchup is all the more intriguing. Manning doesn't have as many 3-4 challenges this season. The Chargers, Patriots and Ravens are the only 3-4 teams on his schedule, but he knows this will be a physical game.
4. Philadelphia vs. Dallas (at Eagles Nov. 4, at Cowboys Dec. 16): Until Joe Gibbs proves he has turned the Redskins around, this is as close to being the best divisional matchup in the less-dramatic NFC. Although the series lost some of its luster with the retirement of Bill Parcells, it still features Terrell Owens going against the Eagles team he betrayed. Owens is coming off major finger surgery, but he's still a major irritant to Donovan McNabb, Andy Reid and many of the Eagles he left behind. The Eagles, who have been the class of the competitive NFC East since the start of millennium, regained the edge on the Cowboys with last season's sweep. The key for the Eagles is keeping McNabb healthy the entire season, although it had to rile the Cowboys losing the division to an Eagles team led by Jeff Garcia.
5. Atlanta vs. Carolina (at Falcons Sept. 23, at Panthers Nov. 11): The NFC South emerged last season as the conference's deepest division thanks to Sean Payton's surprise playoff run with the Saints. The NFC South is quirky and the Falcons-Panthers series is one of the strangest. Despite the talent on the Panthers' defense, Michael Vick usually has great success against the Panthers. John Fox spent three years adding speed at the cornerback position and at linebacker to give him the luxury of containing Vick with blitzes. The strategy led to a sweep of the Falcons in 2005 after loses to Atlanta in nine of 10 games before that. The Falcons stunned the Panthers with a 20-6 victory in Carolina last season, setting a bad tone to this season. Although it's hard to believe, Fox is on the hot seat this season. Beating the Falcons after last season's split will help in securing his job status.
6. New England vs. New York (At Jets Sept. 9, at Patriots Dec. 16): Bill Belichick was supposedly mad Eric Mangini left his defensive coordinator job in New England before Belichick thought he was ready to be a head coach. Plus, Belichick wasn't happy he went to the rival Jets. Mangini proved he was capable as a head coach beyond his years by winning 10 games and going to the playoffs in '06. He particularly stunned the Patriots by beating them, 17-14, last November in Foxboro. There is tension between the two. Belichick didn't shake Mangini's hand after the first Patriots-Jets game, and the Patriots' coach looked as though he had just swallowed cod liver oil pushing cameramen aside to shake his hand after the Patriots' loss in Foxboro. Belichick was mad at the Jets for interfering in the Deion Branch negotiations, and the recent visit of Patriots restricted free agent Randall Gay only reminded them of that bad moment.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals (Sept. 30): Ken Whisenhunt's first game against the Steelers is the most fascinating. The former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator thought he had a good chance to be promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach, but he instead took the Cardinals job. Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm thought he had the Steelers job, but he was blindsided by the decision to hire Mike Tomlin. Grimm was bitter and left to link up again with his friend, Whisenhunt. Both coaches want to prove the Steelers wrong for not hiring them. Tomlin, 34, is a bright coach and inherits a playoff-caliber team. He has Ben Roethlisberger and a talented Dick LeBeau-coached 3-4 defense. The Cardinals finally may be rising in the NFC West with Matt Leinart at quarterback.
8. New England at Baltimore (Dec. 3) The Ravens are one of the most calculating teams when it comes to free agency. They draft so well that they figure to lose free agents. They've picked up a dozen compensatory picks in the past four years and figure to get four more during the next offsesaon. This game against the Patriots could be a problem. Linebacker Adalius Thomas left the Ravens, who figure to get a third-round choice next year for him. The problem is, Thomas is a dangerous, big-play defender and he goes to the creative mind of Bill Belichick. The Patriots paid $7 million a year for Thomas, and Thomas would probably love to earn a good portion of that money in this game. Although he left the Ravens on good terms, he's a proud, Pro Bowl player knowing this will be a showcase game.
9. Seattle vs. San Francisco (at 49ers Sept. 30, at Seahawks Nov. 12): Even though the Seahawks won the NFC West, the 49ers served notice last season that their divisional reign might be running out of time. The 49ers swept the Seahawks and hope to play them this season with as many as seven new starters on defense. The 49ers' offense has had an extra year to mature with Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and others. But the Seahawks still have Mike Holmgren and a talented offense. Concerned about giving up too many big plays, the Seahawks brought in two new starting safeties(Deon Grant and Brian Russell). They added one of the league's hardest working pass-rushers in Patrick Kerney. Once considered a joke, the NFC West is the league's most improved division. The Cardinals are better. The Rams are solid and added to their offense.
10. Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins (Dec. 30): Taking Joey Porter off the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster removed a rivalry in the AFC North. Porter challenged opponents. Sometimes, he was overzealous enough to challenge them in tunnels before games. Now, he brings an attitude to the Dolphins. What makes this game particularly interesting is Porter's battles against Bengals left tackle Levi Jones. They scuffled in a Las Vegas casino, and Jones is still furious. He claims he was attacked by Porter and others. Forget the "he-said-she-said." Those guys don't like each other, and they get to carry over their AFC North rivalry on a different stage.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
New England at Indianapolis is just one of the many intriguing AFC games in '07, John Clayton writes.