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When attempting to handicap an eventual Super Bowl Champion in the NFL, it's always a good idea to take a look at the past few years results to see who's been knocking on the door lately. You'll rarely, if ever see a Super Bowl Champ that had a losing record the year before. More likely, the eventual champ has tasted success in the past. They've experienced winning as a team. Maybe they lost in the AFC or NFC title game the year before, or were eliminated early on in the playoffs. Last years Colts are a perfect example of the pattern. They were knocking on the door for years, and finally kicked it in last year.
So rather than bore you with a preview of all the NFL teams, let's simply cut to the chase and take a look at just the most likely contenders for the crown. There are more contenders in the AFC, so lets start there.
San Diego Chargers - 14-2 and then one and out on the playoffs in a game against the Pats they had no business losing. So it's out with Marty ball and in with Norv Turner. But Turner's an offensive mind. Offense wasn't a problem last year. It's the defense that needs the upgrades. 27-30, 38-24, 32-25, 49-41. Those are not the scores of a Super Bowl Champs games. The defense has to show improvement or it will be one and done again in 2007-2008. The schedule cooperated with the Chargers last year and to be honest, for a team that won 14 games, it doesn't look all that daunting this year either. They of course get rival Oakland twice, KC twice, the Titans, Detroit, Green Bay and Houston. So there's some W's on the card before the season even starts. It will be very interesting to see where San Diego stands after two weeks. They open up at home against the Super Bowl runner up Bears and then travel east for a HUGE revenge game against the Patriots. Revenge in the NFL is a rarity. It doesn't apply like it does with College kids. But this is one instance where you can apply it as there were very bitter feelings after last years playoff loss to the Pats, pertaining to the Pats celebration on the Chargers home field. It says here that the Chargers start this year 2-0, and then sweep the board right up to a showdown with the Colts November 11th. It looks like this team has the potential to win another 14 games this season. Expect them to win playoff games this year. If the defense can show a little improvement, this team has to be the choice to represent the AFC in the big show this year.
New England Patriots - Very hard to knock a team that does nothing but win. Rather than rest on their laurels, the Pats made some aggressive moves early in the off season to position themselves to once again contend for the crown. There's no rebuilding going on here. This team is built to win now. They picked up Linebacker Adalius Thomas from the Ravens and receiver Donte Stallworth from the Saints. Not to mention the infamous Randy Moss. Not unlike the Cowboys and T.O though, the Moss move could be a negative if the antics start. With the talent still in place and a bad taste in their mouths from last season playoffs, it's hard to imagine the Pats not contending once again come January 2008. In the age of NFL parity and free agency, the Pats remain the exception to the rule and figure to be the closest thing to a dynasty the NFL will ever see again.
Indianapolis Colts - It's very difficult to repeat in the NFL. Playing in the AFC, where the better teams are, doesn't help any. The Colts will take a hit like most Super Bowl Champs. They lost several key players from last years squad. They'll have to deal with the natural inclination to have a let down. They'll have a bulls eye on their backs as everyone wants to beat the champs. Even with all of the distractions and high expectations, the Colts should still be a playoff team. They still have a decent nucleus in tact not to mention one of the best QB's in pro football. So, no excuse for not making the playoffs, but what they do once there remains to be seen. It says here that the Colts will not be in the big show this year. There's simply too much talent in the AFC and the Colts have too many holes to fill, plus a defense that never really was championship caliber.
Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jags lost 7 games by a TD or less last year while en route to an 8-8 season. They played most of the season without QB Brian Leftwich. The talent is here. a year ago, this team beat the Cowboys, Steelers, Colts, Jets, Eagles, Giants and lost to the Pats by 3. The problem was, they lost to teams like Buffalo, Houston and Washington. Talk about inconsistent. So, 12-4 in 2005, and beating those playoff teams a year ago should leave little doubt in the minds of these players that they are a playoff caliber team that can play with anybody. With most of the talent still in place, it's now or never for the Jags so look for a big year in Jacksonville.
Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals have been hanging around for years. After 8-8 years in 2003 and 2004 the Bengals broke out in 2005 with an 11-5 mark and the playoffs, only to see their hopes fizzle when Carson Palmer went down with his leg injury early on in their playoff game against the Steelers. So hopes were high in 2006, only to see the Bengals return to mediocrity with yet another 8-8 season. But the building blocks are there. They were 8-8 a year ago but a play here and there could have made the difference. They dropped a few one and two point games to teams they should have beaten, the Bucs and Falcons. They had nice wins over the Steelers, Saints and Ravens and close games against the Broncos and Chargers. So this team can compete. Dropping their final three games kept them out of the playoffs a year ago but the schedule looks like it might cooperate this year. It looks like there's at least 10 possible wins on their card. The Defense is the obvious weakness on this team and you simply don't win championships without defense in the NFL. So it remains to be seen just how much the Bengals defense can improve in one year. We're talking about a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL, so don't expect miracles, and quite frankly, it's the defense that will more than likely be responsible for the Bengals coming up just short once again.
Denver Broncos - It remains to be seen what affect the off season will have on the Broncos. They had to deal with two player deaths and several new members of the coaching staff. But this is a team that has gone 10-6, 13-3 and 9-7 over the last 3 seasons and like some of the other AFC contenders, still has most of that talent in place to make another run. Jay Cutler will be the number one QB for the Broncos and the kid has talent. They'll have to contend with the Chargers of course, in the same division, however like other talented teams, there can be no excuses for not making the playoffs. This team should win a minimum 10 games and figures to be one of the top 4 teams in the AFC.
Pittsburgh Steelers - You can't exclude the Steelers from a list of contenders. Simply put, one mediocre year is not a death sentence, particularly when you take into account the two seasons prior, which saw 15 and 11 win seasons and a Super Bowl Championship. But it may not be all peaches and cream. Anytime there's a new head man, things can get rocky, and that's the case with the Steelers. Out with Cowher and in with first time head coach Mike Tomlin. We've all seen head coaches take talented teams and go nowhere with them. So only time will tell here. One thing is for certain. This team, talent wise, is pretty much the same team that won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. So there can be no excuses. The talent is there. They just need a skipper to show them the way. Is it Mike Tomlin?
New York Jets - After a 4-12 record in 2005, the Jets were handed a fairly easy schedule for the 2006 season, and they took advantage of it, going 10-6 before bowing out to the Patriots in the playoffs. Things will be much tougher this year. The reward for such a good year is a tough schedule for 2007. Aside from the usual double dose of the Pats, they'll also have to contend with the Ravens, Cowboys, Bengals and Eagles. But the Jets are a good team. Not great but good. At worst, they are an 8-8 team. A break here and there gets them to 9-7 and a possible playoff birth. But we don't expect much more than that from the Jets.
Kansas City Chiefs - We can't leave the Chiefs off of a list of contenders. They went 10-6 two years ago and 9-7 last year only to lose in the playoffs to eventual Champs Indy. Coach Herm Edwards is a players coach. He has a way of getting the most from his players. Players like to play for Herm. But this looks like another Chiefs team good enough to squeak into the playoffs but probably not do much more than that. It still remains to be seen who the starting QB will be, but hey, watch that new HBO reality show which brings us all into the Chiefs training camp and we'll all find out who gets the job almost as soon as the players themselves! But back to Herm for a second. As Jets fans will tell you, Herm may get the most from his players, but he falls short in the big games come playoff time and that's what we see in store for the Chiefs this year. A playoff birth perhaps, but the team doesn't look talented enough to do much more than that.
To Sum Up - The AFC is where the talent is in the NFL. There are far more good teams playing in the AFC. The eventual AFC representative in the Super Bowl this year figures to be one of the top 6 listed here. Chargers, Pats, Colts, Jags, Bengals or Broncos. It looks to us like the schedule breaks out very nicely for the Chargers. The Talent is there and they've been knocking on the door.12-4 in 2004. 9-7 in 2005 and last years 14-2. This is the year the Charges can kick the door down. Anything less would be unacceptable. So our pick in the AFC is the San Diego Charges to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.