Every August, fans and media alike get swept up in hype, positive and negative. Consequently, assumptions form. And as these assumptions gain traction, they transform into genuine myths.
That's where I come into play.
The Myth: Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh, and will be a top-tier contender.
I respect coach Mike Tomlin. But the Pittsburgh Steelers have some major question marks. First of all, I'm not convinced the shotgun marriage between new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will work. What do you think NFL Network's cameras will capture on Thursday, Oct. 11, when Big Ben gets to the sideline after holding onto the ball too long against the Tennessee Titans? Have you studied the combustible Haley and Roethlisberger through the years?
Meanwhile, receiver Mike Wallace isn't in training camp. He wants Larry Fitzgerald-type money. The Steelers (wisely) won't give it to him. This situation can't be spun with the argument that Wallace knows the Steelers' system and won't be hurt by missing time -- Haley is implementing a new offense, after all.
Receiver Hines Ward is on TV. Linebacker James Farrior has left the building. Safety Troy Polamalu is older.
The Cincinnati Bengals are legit. Retaining both coordinators (Jay Gruden on offense and Mike Zimmer on defense) in the offseason was huge for growth and continuity. Zimmer always gets his units to overachieve. Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green will continue to blossom in Year 2. Right now, on Aug. 1, the Steelers have more issues than the Bengals.
The Truth: Peyton Manning quarterbacks the third-best team in the AFC West.
Before Peyton fanatics go nuts, Manning himself confesses he isn't 100 percent. He hasn't taken a hit yet; I respect Manning as a living legend, but this is kind of a big deal. He didn't play a single down last year. Let's not pooh-pooh the significance of that.
I like where the San Diego Chargers are headed. Seriously. Now, I've been "Norved" before. (It's a word that describes the effect underachieving San Diego teams can have.) But I think quarterback Philip Rivers pressed last year with the injuries on the offensive line. Tight end Antonio Gates is finally healthy. Talking to coach Norv Turner this offseason, he gushed about the potential of Eddie Royal in the slot and Robert Meachem replacing Vincent Jackson as a deep threat. The Chargers' pass rush and third-down defense were deplorable last year. Draft picks Melvin Ingram (linebacker) and Kendall Reyes (defensive end) and free-agent acquisition Jarret Johnson (defensive end) will help the defense right away. San Diego is the team to beat in the AFC West. Turner will get the Bolts over the hump this year. Seriously!
And don't sleep on the Kansas City Chiefs. They are healthy. Kansas City pretty much played without running back Jamaal Charles, defensive back Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki last season. We're talking about three of the best players on the team. Haley, the team's coach to begin 2011, had a convoluted system to get plays in that hindered quarterback Matt Cassel. Then Cassel himself was hurt. I don't have to guess if Cassel is good enough to lead K.C. to the playoffs; he has done it before. And don't forget about receiver Jon Baldwin. His rookie season was a waste, thanks to a broken thumb suffered in a locker-room fight with running back Thomas Jones that forced him to miss much of training camp and the first five regular season games. Baldwin, Moeaki, receiver Dwayne Bowe and receiver Steve Breaston are big weapons for Cassel. Coach Romeo Crennel is a defensive guru and the kind of even-keel leader Haley was not.
The Truth: Smith is only getting better and the Niners are one of the NFL's four best teams.
Nothing pains me more than listening to critics bash Smith. After years of rotating offensive coordinators and Mike Singletary's bombastic/clueless coaching, Smith finally reached his potential last year under Jim Harbaugh. The haters call him a "game manager." I saw an improved decision-maker who only tossed five picks, played spectacularly in an epic playoff win over the New Orleans Saints and was a Kyle Williams fumble away from potentially playing in the game's ultimate showcase.
Smith will finally have coaching stability from one year to the next. And San Francisco beefed up the receiver position by adding Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and drafting Harbaugh favorite A.J. Jenkins. Truth be told, I'm one of the media types who thought the Niners picked Jenkins (No. 30 overall) too early in April's draft. (Hi, Jim!) But he's talented nonetheless. Smith is only getting better and the Niners are one of the four best teams in football, along with the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and New England Patriots.
The Truth: Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow will work.
Let me give it to you in the simplest of terms. Tebow is the backup quarterback and will run the Wildcat. He is an upgrade over Mark Brunell. And because he is the omnipresent Timothy Richard Tebow, he will light a fire under Sanchez. In fact, he already has.
Sanchez made too many turnovers in big spots last season and lost the team. The Jets smartly moved to spark him. Talking to Sanchez, you hear an edge, a seriousness to him that hadn't been evident in his first three years. He is now the first guy in the building and the last one to leave.
New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is key. He has a no-nonsense style, and Sanchez has responded to his coaching. Sparano will run the ball, unlike former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who ruined Christmas with the 59 passes he had Sanchez attempt in a Dec. 24 loss to the Giants. Tebow is Sparano's New York version of Ricky Williams/Ronnie Brown. The polarizing signal-caller will run the Wildcat. Sanchez will be split out wide and deal with it, the way Chad Pennington did when the Miami Dolphins ran the Wildcat.
I'm not naïve when it comes to the power of Tebow. Every Sanchez miscue will be magnified, with chants of "Te-bow" heard in unison. But let's not forget that Sanchez does have four road playoff wins under his belt. The Jets' defense will help out, returning to prominence as a top-three unit. Last year was a lost season. The Tebow trade has actually helped Sanchez -- and the Jets -- find their identity again.
The Truth: Carolina will finish last in the NFC South.
I appreciate Ryan Kalil's moxie, taking out a full-page advertisement in the Charlotte Observer to declare that the Carolina Panthers would win Super Bowl XLVII. Kalil didn't back away when we pressed him on SiriusXM Blitz on SiriusXM NFL Radio. However, he's absolutely nuts. I know quarterback Cam Newton and Carolina are a trendy playoff pick. I think Carolina is the fourth-best team in its own division.
The New Orleans Saints are in a chaotic state, dealing with the stench of the "bounty" scandal and the season-long suspensions of coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. But they still employ quarterback Drew Brees and are loaded on offense. Steve Spagnuolo is a major upgrade over Gregg Williams at defensive coordinator. The Saints have more talent and experience than Carolina.
It's well-documented that the Atlanta Falcons struggle in January, but they don't skip a beat in the regular season. Quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White comprise a more polished passing attack than Newton, Steve Smith and Co. in Carolina. New Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a gem, to boot.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quit on coach Raheem Morris last season. Greg Schiano changes the culture. He's the right guy at the right time. Tampa Bay upgraded the offense in a big way this offseason, drafting physical running back Doug Martin, signing difference-making receiver Vincent Jackson and pilfering tackle Carl Nicks from New Orleans to solidify the offensive line. Martin is going to get 20 carries per game and will be my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Fellow rookie Mark Barron is a winner at safety, plain and simple. Quarterback Josh Freeman will bounce back under Schiano, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and the rest of the new staff. I love Tampa Bay to rebound this year and knock on the playoff door. The Bucs are the surprise team in the division -- and they're better than the Panthers.
I told Kalil when we spoke on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he had raised the bar too high. Carolina won six games last year. Eight wins in 2012 would represent progress. The Panthers still have gaping holes behind Smith at receiver. And the defense has a bunch of question marks, even after the savvy draft pick of linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kalil says he can take criticism because he is "fat, bald and has short arms." I love the self-deprecation. Better to laugh than cry when the Panthers are in the basement.
Yes, I'm the new guy here at NFL.com, and I'm overjoyed to be part of this incredible team. This season, I'll provide hard-hitting, informed, sizzling opinions. There is no gray area when you read my columns. And I value your take. I read your comments at the bottom of the page and encourage you to tweet me at @AdamSchein.