The NFL season starts next week, and since The Common Man grew up in Minnesota (where the college football team's motto is "we're bound not to suck one of these years") he has been a far greater fan of the pro game. Also, the pro game, for all its faults, just seems manlier than college. And so, The Common Man devotes his time to the NFL when his attention is not squarely on the ballfield. Here's how he sees the NFC season shaping up this season (tomorrow, the AFC):
Dallas Cowboys (12-4) - Dallas added Zach Thomas and Pacman Jones to a good defense, and is likely to have one of the top in the league this year. Tony Romo, if his head is on straight, is a solid quarterback with a Hall of Fame receiver to throw to and a very good back behind him (Marion Barber). And the offensive line has its own gravitational field, and should swallow up most of the rush before it has a chance to touch him. A very tough schedule schedule out of the gate (@ Cleveland, Philly, @ Green Bay) will set the tone for the rest of the way. If they start out 2-1 or better, they'll coast the rest of the way.
New York Giants (10-6) - Last year's Super Bowl champs have lost TE Jeremy Shockey and have injury troubles on both sides of the ball (including the season-ender to Osi Umenyiora last week). And everyone is going to be gunning for them. But they have a smart and flexible coach, a battle-tested and healthy QB (and two intriguing backups in David Carr and Andre Woodson) and a strong offensive line to run behind and take some pressure off a depleted defense. A tough schedule (road games against Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Philly, and Dallas) could stand in their way.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8) - Philly has some great players on defense, especially after stealing Asante Samuel away from the Pats. And Brian Westbrook is a force. But an old O-line will not be able to protect Donovan McNabb, and when he goes down Kevin Kolb and AJ Feeley will not be able to make up the slack, even against their easy 2nd half schedule. Look for Kevin Curtis to come back to Earth this year.
Washington ________ (6-10) - An easy schedule helps, but they just don't have the talent, regardless of how well Jason Taylor plays. Another full year of Clinton Portis quotes should dull the pain. Change your damn mascot.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) - The most important name in the NFL this year is Tavaris Jackson. If he plays adequately, the Vikes will easily win 10, and maybe more. If not, they'll struggle to be .500. Look for an MVP-type year for the Purple Jesus (Adrian Peterson), strong O-line play, and the best defense in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers (10-6) - OK, maybe the most important name in the NFL this year is Aaron Rodgers. With the much publicized departure of Brett Favre, Rodgers takes the reins, and creats a big question mark at QB. He has more talent than Jackson, but his supporting staff is not as impressive. This division is a toss-up, but the loser will probably get the Wild Card. Rodgers must (MUST) start hot, or this locker room and fanbase could be in open revolt before Week 5.
Detroit Lions (6-10) - Detroit is Minnesota circa 2001. Very good receivers, but no one to get them the ball. The QB is diminishing, there's no consistent running back. A good secondary, but no pass rush to take the heat off. This team maxes out at 7 wins.
Chicago Bears (5-11) - Call The Common Man skeptical of the Kyle Orton era. No QB + running game in flux + losing best receiver to division rival (Bernard Berrian to Vikings) + rough D-line play = bad juju. This is Lovie Smith's last stand, especially if the defense underperforms again.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) - The good news: Swapping out Shaun Alexander for Julius Jones shouldn't hurt as much as you think. The O-line is solid, the defense is good. Matt Hasselback is still one of the 5 best QBs in the NFC. The bad news: The receivers are old and/or injured and/or inconsistent. Their brutal schedule takes them to Dallas, New York (Giants), and Tampa Bay, while the Patriots, Jets, Eagles, and Packers all come to town. If they win three of those games, they should coast to the division title.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7) - Two good receivers and a solid RB are not going to make up for a quarterback controversy, chemistry problems, and the most apathetic fan base this side of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Anquan Boldin has asked to be traded, Matt Leinert's has lost the confidence of his team, and Kurt Warner moves as well in the pocket as a tuna does in a net. Yes, the Cardinals kept it close all last year, but color The Common Man incredibly skeptical. These are, after all, the Cardinals. Throw in a schedule that ends with Minnesota, @ New England, Seattle, you can expect Arizona to be limping over the finish line.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10) - Frank Gore is an excellent running back who will help the team grind and hold leads (if they get any) and the defense will be improved with the addition of Takeo Spikes and Justin Smith. Question marks at QB (J.T. O'Sullivan??? Why isn't he just Irish McIrelandpants?), head coach (the Mike Nolan era has not gone well), and the offensive line (the worst in the league last year, and largely unimproved upon). A manageable schedule helps, and so will new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. But it won't help enough and Nolan is dead man walking. Wherefore art though Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig?
St. Louis Rams (4-12) - The Common Man just thinks the Rams are set to fall apart this year. The O-line is healthy for now, but fragile. Bulger can't move enough to avoid the rush. Steven Jackson is coming in late following an extended holdout. Torry Holt has lost a step or three. The defense is attrocious. Head coach Scott Linehan may not last the season.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) - Drew Brees, with an improved pass game and Deuce McAllister back, will lead this team to a nice rebound year. Look for McAllister's return to open up more opportunities for Marques Colston deep and new toy Jeremy Shockey over the middle. And it will also allow the Saints to use Reggie Bush creatively as well. Bush may never be the superstar he was billed as, but he can be an explosive playmaker in the right situation. Look for a stronger defensive rush to make the entire secondary look better.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) - Age finally catches up to the Bucs, as injuries and ineffective play will dog them all year long. Cadillac Williams will be the lone bright spot on offense and Jon Gruden will leave with a bag over his head at the end of the year. Jeff Garcia, Joey Galloway, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, and Ronde Barber? If this were 2001, this team would steamroll the league.
Carolina Panters (7-9) - Carolina could jump the Bucs, especially if Tampa's age issues cause a freefall. Jake Delhomme is a strong QB and is apparently throwing at 100%. And Steve Smith is one of the best receivers in the league. But Smith is out for the first two games (suspended for punching out a teammate), and their defense is suspect everywhere except linebacker (Dan Connor will turn out to be an excellent pick for them). To go anywhere, DeAngelo Williams is going to have to carry the ball a lot, and run very far. Otherwise, they won't be able to dig themselves out of an early hole.
Atlanta Falcons (2-14) - This is a lost season. Rookie QB Matt Ryan will be learning on the job and RB Michael Turner will be shouldering the load as a feature back for the first time. Michael Vick's implosion set this team back five years, and they're only in year 2.
In the playoffs:
1st Round: Vikings over Giants, Seahawks over Packers
2nd Round: Vikings over Cowboys, Saints over Seahawks
Championship: Vikings over Saints (What can The Common Man say? He's a homer.)