If we had a crystal ball, this is how we would see the season

So here we are.

No doubt, yet another electrifying National Football League season is finally upon us, and, as usual, we have no earthly idea how it's going to play out.

In fact, the only thing we know for sure is that, starting this season, NFL play-by-play announcers can no longer refer to a tightly contested game thusly: "This sure has turned into one heckuva dogfight."

Oops. Thanks, Michael Vick!

Oh, and another age-old certainty once again remains as such heading into the season -- NFL head coaches still do not have crystal balls. It was confirmed just this week by the Bengals' Marvin Lewis, who gave this answer when asked how difficult it would be to cut down his roster to the regular season limit of 53 players:

"The difficult thing is that we need a crystal ball with some of these guys," Lewis said, "but we'll make the best decisions we can make for the team and move forward."

The clear inference: Lewis does not have a crystal ball. In fact, "I don't have a crystal ball" still ranks as my favorite coach press conference cliché, with "It is what it is" slowly gaining in popularity and moving up the chart with a bullet past "We can control only what we can control."

Because, let's be honest, if head coaches did, in fact, possess a crystal ball, then outrageously gutsy decisions like the one Jack Del Rio just pulled in Jacksonville would be a piece of cake. He'd know right away if David Garrard will prove more effective and successful than Byron Leftwich, the quarterback Del Rio had reaffirmed as the Jaguars starter back in February with conviction.

"Byron is our starting quarterback," Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We're not making it an open competition. The bottom line is we spent time and we've done our due diligence. ... (The whole organization has) looked at it, and what we really have is a confirmation that Byron Leftwich is our quarterback."

Of course, if Del Rio had a crystal ball, he could have gazed into the hazy quartz orb and seen himself stand at a podium six months later -- exactly nine days before Jacksonville's season-opening tilt with Tennessee -- only to announce Garrard as his starter, all but bidding Leftwich a thanks for the memories. A stunning turn of events, regardless of the timing; since his Combine announcement, the coach had given zero public indication that the job was still up for grabs.

Del Rio appropriately called the move "bold." Sure, Garrard is far more mobile in the pocket than the lumbering Leftwich. And forget his 15 missed starts over the past two years -- you know Leftwich is incredibly injury prone when a guy with Crohn's Disease is considered a safer health risk. But, whereas the Jaguars always had Garrard in their back pocket in case of another Leftwich groin tweak or bone break, they're now a heartbeat away from Quinn Gray, a fourth-year quarterback out of Florida A&M with 36 career pass attempts. Perhaps that's why NFL Network information maven Adam Schefter says the Jaguars are still interested in acquiring Andrew Walter, who presumably will lose the game of musical chairs in Oakland once JaMarcus Russell finally signs on the dotted line. If Russell ever does, since it appears the Raiders don't really, you know, need him. In fact, can any of you folks remember the last time a team chose a quarterback first overall in the draft and then went out and acquired two more quarterbacks?

Speaking of Daunte Culpepper ... how in the world did he not wind up in Atlanta? Here, I'd take a time machine instead of a crystal ball, just to go back and find out exactly why the Falcons didn't go after Culpepper hard once he was released from Miami and, while Vick had not yet been indicted at the time, it clearly looked like he was knee deep in Alpo. Did Atlanta feel Culpepper was damaged goods and not worth the risk? Did they believe in the 16-game stewardship of Joey Harrington, who, rumor has it, did not exactly find himself on Culpepper's holiday card list in Miami last year, and vice versa? Or did Culpepper, who acts as his own agent, reject Atlanta of his own accord? Maybe he thought Vick eventually might return in 2007 and that he wouldn't get a chance to start in Atlanta, which, according to Adam Schefter, also is interested in Walter once he pops free from the West Coast. And now word is that the Falcons are quizzically uninterested in the services of Leftwich, too. To the Falcons, who could use a bit of good fortune after their face-of-the-franchise's sudden and stunning fall from grace, I say: Good luck. By not going out and jumping on two experienced quarterbacks starving for a successful second act, they're leaving themselves very vulnerable if Harrington's third starting act of his NFL career plays out similarly to his first two. And even riskier, should Harrington get hurt, it will be the very green Chris Redman's show to run. Should that come to pass, the Georgia Dome could turn into the Georgia Done.

And then there's the quarterback situation in Cleveland. After months of speculation over who the starting quarterback would be, coach Romeo Crennel finally gave us an answer. But the answer was far from definitive. Six days before the Browns' season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Crennel announced that Charlie Frye had beaten out Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn for the starting job ... against Pittsburgh. And that's it. The soft-spoken head coach praised Frye for his leadership skills and experience. He unequivocally stated Frye gave his team the best chance to win. But Crennel steadfastly refused to give Frye a whole-hearted endorsement beyond Week 1. Indeed, the quarterback position in Cleveland will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. On one hand, it keeps pressure on Frye to keep his job and gives hope to anyone in the organization or fan base eager to see Quinn under center. On the other hand, it's a rare instance of an NFL head coach virtually inviting the media to ask him about the performance of his quarterback on a weekly basis. The Ohio media no doubt could not believe its ears, immediately pressing Crennel on why he wouldn't just name Frye his guy and proffer a policy of open-ended support rather than open-ended scrutiny. Crennel did not blink.

"I don't think anybody makes a guy a starter for the whole year because things happen in this game," Crennel said. "I think there's one team in the NFL (Jacksonville) who named a starter (Leftwich) and then all of a sudden named somebody else the starter (Garrard). So, hey, that's this business we're in. To say that a guy's the starter for a year, I can say that. But then if I leave him in the whole year, and if he's not doing good, then you're gonna say that, 'You're a bad coach, because you won't make a change.' So, it doesn't do me any good to sit here and say a guy's a starter for the whole year."

Get Rich, Quick

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In other words, Crennel doesn't have a crystal ball.

What he certainly has is one big mess if Frye falters. The Browns have the proverbial make-or-break schedule to start the season: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, at Oakland, Baltimore, at New England, Miami, bye week. Or, depending on how those first six weeks transpire, Bye-Bye Week. Talk about needing a quick start: The Browns will be completely done with the home portion of their division schedule by the end of this month. In order to have even a remote chance at a successful year, they must take two of those three home games against their AFC North brethren and one of their two games on the road (I'd suggest targeting the game at Oakland rather than the one at New England.) And I don't buy Crennel's line of thinking. Not on Frye as choice of quarterback. If the coach feels he's the best guy for the job, who am I to claim to know his roster and players better than he? No, I think Crennel should have said Frye was his quarterback for the forseeable future, rather than admit his quarterback is on a one-week leash every single week. Isn't a team supposed to be more prone to succeed when they know who their quarterback is? Aren't we, as NFL fans and observers, taught that the most successful teams are the ones with consistency at the quarterback position?

Crennel essentially told the Ohio media that if he named Frye his guy and stuck with him despite poor play just so he could back his word that Frye was his guy, he'd get roasted. But if Frye throws two picks in a season-opening loss to hated Pittsburgh and Crennel still sticks with Frye even after defiantly claiming his quarterbacks were on a week-to-week evaluation, Crennel would get roasted, too. Right? Or would Crennel really bench Frye after one week and go with Anderson or Quinn in Week 2 against Cincinnati, starting two different quarterbacks in as many weeks to start a season? If Anderson falters against Cincinnati, would Crennel go to the raw rookie Quinn or go back to Frye, thus angering a fan base eager to see Quinn as soon as possible? Talk about inviting controversy. Thanks to Crennel's stance, it's a weekly referendum on the quarterback position in Cleveland. If the Browns stumble out of the gate, the media will quickly start asking the players where they stand on the situation. And the Browns have a handful of brash inmates in their offensive asylum who could add considerable grease to this fire if they speak out of turn to the wrong reporter. Do you see how quickly this can spiral out of control?

Two of the game's greats (heretofore referred to as GOATs, as in Greatests of All Time) disagree with me. Both Marshall Faulk and Terrell Davis applauded Crennel's candor. On Monday's NFL Total Access, Marshall and TD said they believe many players in the Browns locker room appreciate Crennel's straight-forwardness in dealing with a position that usually gets handled with kid gloves. It's about time a coach put a quarterback on the same thin ice as virtually everybody else on the team plays, they said.

And then there's this point from the GOAT running backs: If the whole team knows Frye is on a short leash by what they hear out of Crennel's mouth in practice, and then see that same mouth publicly claim to back Frye indiscriminately, then Crennel could be viewed as a hypocrite by his own players.

Bottom line: Crennel needs Frye to play well and do so from the first snap this Sunday. But we didn't need a crystal ball to know that, did we?

Now for some quick thumbnails on each and every one of the 32 teams entering the season, based on the issues we've been talking about on NFL Total Access since Peyton Manning hoisted Lombardi in the Miami rain:.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots: So many people are fixated on Randy Moss and how he'll fit into the New England offense, especially since we didn't see him play one single down in the preseason. Again, I'm not concerned, although one reader did give me an answer to the question posed in my last posting: Give me the name of one risky player on whom the Patriots took a failed chance. The reader supplied an Exhibit A: wide receiver David Terrell. True, he didn't work out. But Terrell crapping out in New England didn't affect the team one whit. Should Moss not gel, it could be costly to New England. But, like I've said, it won't matter. Moss will flourish with Tom Brady, if healthy. And we all know it, too. The question on this team is on defense, which will have to do without Rodney Harrison for the first four weeks of the season, and Richard Seymour, who is on the PUP list for the first six weeks. Will the secondary be exposed if Adalius Thomas can't help jump start a defense that was one pass rush shy in Indianapolis last year to make the Super Bowl again? Perhaps we'll see in Week 1 in the Meadowlands against the ...

... New York Jets: Thomas Jones was a huge edition for a run-starved offense, but is he healthy? And then there's the offensive line. It appears the Jets sacrificed their cohesiveness by holding the salary line on Pete Kendall, a quizzical move for a team with a finesse quarterback who just finished the first injury-free season of his career. Will first-round pick Darrelle Revis fix the team's woes at corner even after missing half of training camp? Where does Jonathan Vilma actually fit in on that defense? And what can the Man-genius do to follow up a stellar first year as a head coach?

Miami Dolphins: Will Trent Green finally stop the revolving door at quarterback that has been spinning ever since Dan Marino hit the anchor desk? Or is Green, as Jason Taylor once supposedly said in jest, one hit away from being scrambled eggs? Is it Cam Cameron's system that makes people flourish, or does Cameron's system need LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates in it to flourish? Miami has neither. And just how wide open is that window of opportunity for an aging yet stout defense? I will be honest: I have absolutely no idea how this team is going to look. I have no crystal ball, either. They could win 10 games or lose 10 games. On NFL Total Access, Marshall Faulk picked the 10 wins. We shall see. It all starts at the Redskins this week.

Buffalo Bills: No Takeo Spikes. No Nate Clements. No London Fletcher. No Willis McGahee. No chance? Buffalo shuffled its deck chairs in such a way this offseason that everyone is talking about the Titanic. Bnd no less an authority than ESPN's Ron Jaworski came on NFL Total Access this summer and tabbed the Bills as his possible surprise team of the year (a la the 2006 Saints.) I need to be made a believer, and it's up to J.P. Losman to lead the believing. It's time for this guy to get it done, because from what I hear about rookie quarterback Trent Edwards (Marshall raves about him) the footsteps could get pretty loud for Losman in a hurry this fall. I'm also eager to see if Marshawn Lynch is the next coming of Marshall Faulk or not. If he's as explosive as everyone seems to think, the Bills may not be so troubled after all. They do have a rough opponent out of the gate -- the Broncos, albeit in Western New York -- on a schedule that ranks the toughest in the league, based on records from 2006.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts: Same old, same old for the World Champs. Can they stop the run, especially with Booger McFarland already done for the season? Will Bob Sanders stay healthy enough to keep that defense as solid as it needs to be? And on offense, a rare question has suddenly arisen on the subject of protecting Peyton Manning. With the training camp retirement of Tarik Glenn, the man who patrolled Manning's blind-side since he stepped off campus at Knoxville, it's now up to rookie tackle Tony Ugoh to watch Peyton's back. The Colts have been pooh-poohing the matter since the get-go, saying they'll slide protections and the like, but I'll need to see it first. They still own this division, however, and can already start printing playoff tickets.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Garrard be an improvement on Leftwich or will it be more of the same? It's not as if Garrard went 13-2 in the 15 games Leftwich missed. He actually went 9-6, just 5-5 last year. This team needs an identity on offense in the very worst way, and I'm keen to see if Maurice Jones-Drew can ride to the rescue on that front for a second straight season. On defense, the face of the franchise, Donovin Darius, is gone, and I was told this offseason that tackle John Henderson has stopped his pre-game practice of getting slapped in the face by his trainer, a ritual that lives forever on YouTube after first coming to the fore on NFL Network's Inside Training Camp series two years back. At any rate, Henderson no longer gets up for games by getting smacked, which could sound like he's gone soft. But I was told he dropped it because ... it wasn't rough enough for him anymore. I'm still digging on what Henderson is doing now before games. Bamboo shoots, perhaps?

Tennessee Titans: With Drew Bennett now in St. Louis and Travis Henry, uh, fathering the running game in Denver, who's going to catch and run the ball for the Titans? They can't live on the legs of Vince Young every game, can they? Can LenDale White get it together to provide the thunder to Chris Brown and Chris Henry's lightning? With the Titans' biggest playmaker on defense and special teams honing his wrestling career in his considerable down time, the Titans must find someone to fill in those voids. We will see if, on defense, that person is Nick Harper, signed away from the Colts this offseason. The Titans are still one of the youngest teams in the league and must play off the momentum that had them winning six of their final seven games in '06.

Houston Texans: Boy, it's about time for the Texans to no longer be an afterthought. Great stadium. Nicest owner. Most bland team imaginable. Who's the one guy you want to see play on this team? Their most talented player, wide receiver Andre Johnson, is as quiet as a church mouse at a position where players usually have megaphones for a larynx. They also have a young kid out of Lane College named Jacoby Jones who lit it up the preseason. That said, I hate to keep bringing it up, but until Mario Williams starts bagging quarterbacks on a regular basis (and having rookie Amobi Okoye now on the same line could help), this team could have had Vince Young under center or Reggie Bush confounding defenses. And guess who the Texans will see this year? Young twice and Bush once. Instead, Matt Schaub and his, to date, zero career wins will be handing off to 30-something Ahman Green. I hope those moves work out, and I'm not just saying that because NFL Network has the Denver-Houston game on our Thursday night schedule   later this year. This team needs a break. And it needs to win a winnable game this Sunday at home against Kansas City.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: I like this team again. Who doesn't like watching the Ravens play defense? It's a joy to watch. Passionate, hard-nosed, ball-hawking, coached by a Ryan. It almost makes me want to hit somebody. As always, Baltimore's fortune comes down to its offense, which will have Brian Billick at the controls from the get-go, along with Rick Neuheisel. Is Steve McNair on the downside of his career, or can he still get it done? And will Willis McGahee make more of a difference than Jamal Lewis? And will the great Jonathan Ogden have enough gas in his tank for another healthy season? The AFC North division crown rests on the answers to these questions.

Cincinnati Bengals: Perhaps the most confounding team in the league. The one year it seemed they got everything in synch -- offense, defense, player conduct -- their quarterback's knee got blown up on national television, then a large portion of the roster started acting off the field like it was playing for the Mean Machine rather than a National Football League franchise. It led to a highly inconsistent 2006 in all phases of their game, including special teams, which authored its own crucial botched snap in Denver last year to put a final nail in the team's coffin. That said, Cincy was still in it until late December, meaning the Bengals have one talented outfit, and I don't just mean those pumpkin uniforms. Carson, Rudi, T.J. and Ocho Cinco are all back for another run, with Chris Henry returning mid-season from a hopefully wrestling-free suspension. Can this defense finally stiffen and wrap some people up? What happened to the secondary that ball-hawked throughout the 2005 season? Rookie corner Leon Hall should provide some help on that front. We shall see.

Pittsburgh Steelers: With Bill Cowher getting ready for his close-up on CBS, it's anybody's guess how this team will perform without the Cowher game plan, mindset and psyche. I think they'll fare well, because I like what I saw out of Mike Tomlin and his crew during the preseason. At the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Tomlin had his troops in an absolute frenzy, half of them playing for their coach's attention and the other half proving that the attention they got from the previous coaching administration was worthy of the new staff. In other words, Tomlin's Steelers are not at ease, although Ben Roethlisberger appears more comfortable with Cowher off the sideline and out of his ear. To Cowher, Roethlisberger would have always been the young kid who took off his Huggies and won everybody's respect. To Tomlin, Roethlisberger is the Super Bowl-winning quarterback who is already "The Man" in Pittsburgh. I think Roethlisberger will flourish in this new dynamic, with Willie Parker just getting better behind a stout offensive line. My question for the Steelers is on defense. Many times last year, when teams threw deep on the Steelers, you could smell the burning toast. And with emotional leader Joey Porter in Florida, who is going to whip this team up? At Super Bowl XL in Detroit, the Steelers followed Porter's lead and fed off his bashing of Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens. Who's gonna be that guy for Pittsburgh now?

Cleveland Browns: We've already discussed the quarterback issue at length, so let's turn to the defense. Does it have a single playmaker of note? Second-year player Kamerion Wimbley appears to be emerging as one. The jury on the youthful secondary is still out, but the unit could be solidified by second-round character question mark Eric Wright out of UNLV. On offense, is this going to finally be the year an offensive line arrives in Cleveland? And will Jamal Lewis torch opponents the way he used to torch the Browns? Man, that's a load of questions on offense, to the point that the defense could wind up getting overburdened. Or the running game finally flourishes behind a resurgent offensive line and Brady Quinn gets to sit and learn from Frye as he leads the Browns back to the playoffs. Which will it be? Hmmm.

AFC WEST

San Diego Chargers: Holy smokes, does this team need to win a playoff game or what? With the Bears coming in for a visit Sunday and a trip to New England set for the following Sunday night, the Chargers sure have their work cut out for them right from Jump Street. I can't wait to see what this offense will look like with Norv Turner at the controls. If he helped Alex Smith and Frank Gore take light-year steps forward, what will happen to Philip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson? AndAntonio Gates. And a receiver corps now loaded with young talent. The only question I see here is on defense, what with their old coordinator now coaching the Cowboys and their current coordinator, Ted Cotrell, having been run out of a couple of NFL towns in his career, New York City first leaping to mind. And will the new coaching voices on all fronts be enough of a difference to get this team over the hump? It's one of the more dramatic storylines heading into the season.

Denver Broncos: It's a simple question on offense. Is Jay Cutler the guy? Will his five games as starter after Thanksgiving last year pay dividends by leading to more experienced play from the get-go this year and, ultimately, more wins? I know Terrell Davis hates this sort of talk, but the Denver offensive system seems made for a runner like Travis Henry. After a year in which Denver uncharacteristically put the "off" in offense, the situation does look improved -- as does its secondary. Champ Baileyand Dre Bly manning the corners? The Broncos have the proverbial "on paper" fantastic secondary. Once again, however, the Broncos are tinkering with their defensive line, signing Simeon Rice just this very week to bolster a front seven that had its issues in the preseason. In fact, the Denver first-team defense gave up six scoring drives this summer. A harbinger? Or no big whoop? It will be interesting to see how the Broncos contend in this division.

Kansas City Chiefs: Whew. It seems like the free football world has got a real bad feeling about this team, and it's hard not to justify those concerns. The Chiefs looked absolutely atrocious on offense in a preseason in which they did not win a single game. Now, everybody knows that a preseason record means bubkes when the season starts. But nobody wants to go winless. And nobody wanted the quarterback race to look so anemic that, going into the season, it's making the jettisoning of Trent Green look like the front-runner of the Worst Move of The Offseason Award. Now, Damon Huard can erase all that by playing as well as he did in Green's absence last year. And, of course, the Chiefs featured Larry Johnson on only three runs this entire preseason. L.J. could be the Mother of All Salves here. But the bottom line is that the Chiefs gave Brodie Croyle every opportunity to win the starter's job this summer, and, in the end, it's Huard with the role after taking a grand total of 21 snaps in August. And, to boot -- literally and figuratively -- the Chiefs are going with rookie place-kicker Justin Medwick, who missed so many preseason kicks that he may soon wind up as popular in Kansas City as Ray "Laces Out" Finkle was in Miami. Not good for an offense that will clearly be grinding to matriculate the ball down the field for points. Thankfully, the defense looks sharp -- Donnie Edwards was a great offseason pickup -- and Herman Edwards' teams usually play mistake-free football. But, still, there's this baaaaaad feeling.

Oakland Raiders: For the mere fact that it can't get any worse, the Raiders should be better this year. But, then, there's also the word that the morale in Oakland has completely changed with the young Lane Kiffin taking over the reins. But, then, don't forget the Raiders had a great, re-energizing preseason last year too. But, then, any change -- regardless if the coach is 31, 21 or 11 -- had to be good for a team that redefined the word moribund. And why is there part of me that thinks Daunte Culpepper is going to have a Drew Brees-like season in Oakland? You know, a season where everyone just expected him to be a place-holder and mentor for the hotshot holdout top-rated and top-drafted quarterback and instead he just takes firm control of the job and presents the front office with one of those "good" problems. For some reason, I just think Culpepper is going to work out well in Oakland and the Raiders are going to beat some people this year. But, then again ... maybe not. Josh McCown will get the season start against Detroit.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles: One of the most-asked questions of the offseason regarded Donovan McNabb's health and readiness for 2007. I think the answer is already in on that front. He's ready. But it's still the age-old question for him and the Eagles: Who is going to catch the football? McNabb made zero bones about the loss of Donte Stallworth (he wasn't happy), and it's time for Reggie Brown to become his No. 1 receiver. The addition of Kevin Curtis might be a nice new wrinkle in this West Coast Offense, but let's not kid ourselves. It's all about Brian Westbrook. And will there be enough balance in this offense that by season's end he and McNabb won't resemble the meat Rocky punched out? On defense, will the linebacking corps that got pummeled and exposed by the New Orleans Saints in last year's playoffs be more effective? Many Eagles fans were shocked to learn that Andy Reid and his staff thought part of the improvement of that unit involved the release of Jeremiah Trotter. I'll be keen to see how Jevon Kearse looks upon his return from knee surgery. And the Eagles defensive line is paging Bunkley, Brodrick Bunkley.

Dallas Cowboys: The honeymoon is in full swing in Dallas, people. The Cowboys won the bidding for the 2011 Super Bowl. T.O. is happy. Tony Romo officially has been coronated. There appear to be many card-carrying members of the "I'm glad that pain Parcells left for ESPN" club in Dallas, with running back Julius Jones and defensive end DeMarcus Ware appearing to lead that charge. Indeed, Wade Phillips has been hailed as the Anti-Tuna, bringing a more laid-back Texas-style atmosphere to the 'Boys that would make ol' daddy Bum proud. All that "retread" talk that got bandied about upon Phillips' hiring has vanished. Unless, of course, the Giants come into Texas Stadium on Sunday night and win. Just like any team, early season adversity could prove troublesome for Dallas. But, if the Cowboys get off to a good start, it will be awful tough to stop that ball from rolling. I'm interested in seeing how Phillips' style of defense -- the free-wheeling one that John Lynch complained was too aggressive for preseason -- will manifest itself employing the good young players that Parcells left behind. And let's not forget that, Cowboys fans. Say what you want about Parcells, but he left Dallas in much better shape than when he found it -- and he bequeaths Phillips with a solidified quarterback position, a young stud who he drafted in front of the stud Phillips helped hone in San Diego in Merriman and a happy Owens. That Owens views Phillips in a much better light because he's not Parcells could be Parcells' best parting gift of all.

New York Giants: Tiki punks Eli! Eli strikes back! Strahan holds out! Strahan reports just in time! Good thing there's still no drama in Giants camp. And now comes the season, one in which Eli must prove he's the Manning we all expected him to be. And telling Barber where he can stick his microphone was a very good start for Eli. Southern gentility does not play well in New York, where fans want to see hackles raised and skulls busted. Next up for Eli should be to tell Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress where they can stick their fingers if they start pointing at him and flapping their arms if a ball comes in too high again. It's time for Eli Manning to become the identity of this offense and jam it down the throats of his opponents. Then, southern gentility will play well in New York. Of course, with 50 percent of the Giants offensive production from 2006 now popping off from the NBC set, Manning and the rest of the offense will be hard pressed to find the yards and points Barber provided. Can Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns get it done on the ground? How about the offensive line whose loss of Luke Pettigout required reshuffling? And then there's that thorny matter of a defensive secondary that has had, shall we say, it's share of issues. Good thing Strahan came back because nothing helps a secondary quite like a ferocious pass rush, which the G-Men should have once again.

Washington Redskins: I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say the conversation on the success of the Redskins and perhaps the future of Joe Gibbs' tenure there comes down to two words: Jason Campbell. No pressure. His first full season as an NFL starter opens this Sunday. The good news: Campbell is real talented. And because of his talents, Gibbs will be more comfortable and inclined to let Al Saunders run the more wide-open offense that Mark Brunell struggled at running last year, which led to questions about the team's offensive identity, which helped cause a massive rift in the locker room and apparently the coach's meeting room last year. If Campbell succeeds, then maybe Washington fans will finally get introduced to Antoine Randel El. Perhaps Brandon Lloyd might show up, too. The trio of Clinton Portis, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley is as good a running back- deep threat-possession tight-end/H-back combination as any in the league. Campbell must be solid at these controls for Washington to have a chance. Of course, the defensive that shockingly disintegrated last year must rise from the ashes. Gregg Williams has no doubt lost many a 40-winks trying to figure out what in the world happened last year. First round pick LaRon Landry is going to have a big year, I think. I'm looking forward to the improvement of this team because nothing is better than when the NFC East is thriving. And I'm not just saying that because NFL Network on its fall schedule Dallas twice, the Giants once and the Redskins once at home against ...

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: Well, another year has gone by, and Super Bowl appearance be damned -- Rex Grossman still has something to prove in the minds of virtually every Bears fan on either side of the Mississippi. Good thing Lovie Smith doesn't have any hair to pull out. I like Rex. The upside on him is still greater than any other long-term option the Bears have. The guy still has only 24 career starts under his belt. Upside, Bears fans. Patience. Let's see how many steps forward he takes before counting the aggregate number of inevitable steps back he'll take this year. I'm intrigued to see how Cedric Benson will shoulder the full load of carries and what Devin Hester will look like on offense. Will he be a Reggie Bush type-player, used frequently as a decoy? How might the extra snaps affect his special special teams play? Defensively, the linebacking corps is still one of the best in the league -- with Brian Urlacher being their Rolls Royce and Lance Briggs their ... Lamborghini. Sorry, that was too easy. What will the defensive line look like without Tank Johnson and a convalescing Tommie Harris? I still think this team is the class of the NFC, only getting better as the season moves along.

Green Bay Packers: And I like Green Bay, too. I like the way they finished the season last year with four straight wins. I like their young players, like Greg Jennings and James Jones at receiver and even Brandon Jackson at running back. I like A.J. Hawk and Justin Harrell and Cullen Jenkins on defense. I like Charles Woodson, still. Donald Driver is one of the most underrated receivers in the game. And with the game on the line, I'll still take Brett Favre as one of the top five quarterbacks in the game to win me the game. The question is: How quickly can this team mature? Once again, the Packers put the green in Green Bay. For the second straight year, the Packers are the youngest team in the league with an average age of 26 years, 91 days. Can the offensive line protect Favre and blow open holes for a running game that is suspect for the mere fact that no one knows who is going to run the football for Green Bay? They better get old in a hurry -- the Packers open up at home with Philly, visit the Giants, host the Chargers and then play their first division game at rival Minnesota. If they can split those games somehow, the Packers can be in this mix.

Minnesota Vikings: As for the Vikings, they are on really thin ice thanks to their quarterback, Tavaris Jackson, he of Alabama State fame and only two career NFL starts under his belt. He looked completely lost at the end of last season. Good news is that this is a new season, in which Minnesota will have a great offensive line and a potentially explosive backfield with Chester Taylor and Adrian Petersen, a sure-fire frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Unless, of course, he's as injury prone as many teams feared he was at the Scouting Combine. Regardless, Jackson must prove he's a bona fide starting quarterback in this league. Minnesota smartly hedged it bet by acquiring Kelly Holcomb from Philly at the last minute. But, for Jackson, getting off to a good start at home against the wounded Atlanta Falcons this Sunday is an absolute must. And this defense has got to show it can defend the pass. With that huge honking pair of Williamses -- Pat and Kevin -- anchoring the defensive line, no one is going to try and run on Minnesota. Every opponent's game plan will be straight from the Patriots' Monday Night playbook against the Vikings last year, flinging it all over the yard from snap one.

Detroit Lions: Speaking of flinging it all over the yard, here come the Detroit Lions, who appear poised to field the sequel to the Greatest Show on Turf. They sure have the ingredients. They've got the ringleader from the first incarnation in Mike Martz. In Roy Williams, Mike Furrey and Calvin Johnson, they've got the wide receivers to pull it off. For the backfield, they acquired Tatum Bell and believe Kevin Jones will soon return from the foot injury that ended his '06 season. The same trade that brought Bell from Denver also netted Detroit a new left tackle in George Foster to bring much needed veteran stability to an offensive line that nearly got their quarterback killed last year. Ah, yes. Jon Kitna. What to make of him? Is he a Kurt Warner type who can wisely choose his receivers to the tune of 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns? Or, let's be honest, is he really a back-up quarterback? This is, without a doubt, Kitna's opportunity of a lifetime. For the life of me, however, I can't get the thought out of my head of what this Lions offense would be if Detroit had gone out and signed Drew Brees last offseason like they should have. Whatever you think, Kitna sure isn't short on moxie, predicting double-digit wins for the Lions this year. In fact, there are a lot of people hopping on this Honolulu blue bandwagon, believing Rod Marinelli will have a new and improved defense too. I don't know about 10 wins, but the proof starts showing up in the pudding Week 1 in Oakland.

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints: Speaking of Brees, what a preseason! Missing on only 4 of 39 passes! Talk about being ready for prime time, this offense is hands down the best in the NFC. Depth, youth and talent at every position. It's an absolute pleasure watching Sean Payton call a game. The man knows exactly which parts to put where and how to move them. So, I believe the Saints will only go as far as the defense will take them. Can the secondary run with the big boys? The team signed Jason David away from the Super Bowl champs, but the Saints don't play the Cover 2 that David is used to playing. Will he be lost in the new scheme? And what about the linebacking corps if they come up against a bruising offense like, say, Chicago? And then there's the target factor. Last year, the Saints snuck up on some people. This year, they're somebody's Super Bowl every week. How will they hold up under the scrutiny? I think they'll flourish and may even wind up playing in the last game of the year.

Carolina Panthers: Rod Woodson thinks David Carr was the biggest acquisition of the offseason. You might be able to infer from that comment that Rod doesn't think very much of Jake Delhomme, who didn't finish the season last year for the Panthers. Rod thinks he won't again, because Carr is going to take the job from him. If that's the case, how will the transition take place? Will Delhomme have to get hurt or will coach John Fox just make the change at some point. If it's the latter, then the team will have been struggling, and Carr will have his hands full trying to rally it. Certainly, we'll end up finding out if the problem in Houston was really Carr or the most sieve-like offensive line in recent memory. We know about Steve Smith and the rest of the young and talented receiving corps, but can Deshaun Foster just please stay healthy for 16 games and bust over 1,500 yards on the ground? The Panthers defense will be without Mike Minter for the first time ever, and Dan Morgan is either poised to be Comeback Player of the Year or the poster child for the league's new concussion prevention policy. I thought Carolina would fare much better than it did last year, so I'm loath to make any predictions here. But I believe the Panthers have the best chance to challenge New Orleans in this division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can the Buccaneers have any more quarterbacks? If you count Doug Williams in their front office, they have six -- Chris Simms, Luke McCown, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Plummer and their starter, Jeff Garcia. Now, as his play in Philly showed, you never count out Jeff Garcia. But that was just half a season. The last time Garcia played a full docket was 2002. Have the Bucs solidified their issues on the offensive line? And will Carnell Williams be the Cadillac of 2005 or the Edsel of 2006? As we saw two years ago, as Williams goes, so goes this offense that needs Michael Clayton to play the way he did when he first hit this league. If he does and Garcia remains spry and Williams can return to his beast form, this team has a chance to do some damage. It can't be as listless as it was last year, can it?

Atlanta Falcons: With Michael Vick set for a jumpsuit rather than a football uniform, I don't know of a single expert who doesn't expect the bottom to fall out for the Falcons. Although I don't know where Whoopi Goldberg falls on this subject. At any rate, in a league where so many demoted quarterbacks hold clipboards for years because they never get a second opportunity to prove their worth, Joey Harrington now has a third chance to show everyone he can be a starting quarterback in this league. Even after what happened in Detroit, happenstance led Harrington to get another chance in Miami. Cleo Lemon finished the year for the Dolphins. But now, thanks to, of all things, a dogfighting indictment, Harrington is back in the starter's saddle again. Nobody thinks he'll be able to pull this off. Perhaps, then, it's the perfect scenario for Joey because any plus is an unexpected plus. The same could be said for Bobby Petrino, who, one must assume, was hired by the Falcons brass because of his vision of best handling and honing Michael Vick. Now Petrino's primary mission is finding a way to be successful without Vick. Yikes. And the whole Vick controversy has overshadowed one huge issue that killed Atlanta last year -- it's injury-marred and porous defense. Can Jimmy Williams play safety? Who's going to rush the passer with Patrick Kerney in Seattle? Other than D'Angelo Hall, who's a playmaker? This could, indeed, be the first team on the clock this season.

NFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks: So, what did happen in Seattle last year? A Super Bowl hangover? Too many injuries to too many key players? Sure, Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander were hurt for much of the season, and no team fares well when its two top offensive players miss a combined 10 games. But, last I checked, neither Hasselbeck nor Alexander played defense for the Seahawks. And Seattle had oodles of issues on that side of the ball last year, especially in division contests. Indeed, Alex Smith looked more like Joe Montana on NFL Network Thursday Night Football last December as San Francisco swept Seattle for the first time since NFL Network's own Steve Mariucci was the coach there. Run stuffer extraordinaire Marcus Tubbs going down for the 2007 season thanks to an injury suffered in the final game of the preseason is a tough loss for Seattle, which, however, should be back to its top notch form on offense ... if everyone can stay healthy. A full year of Deion Branch along with a hopefully resurgent Nate Burleson should provide solid targets for the Seahawks, whose fan base won't have Jerramy Stevens to kick around anymore. Man, it sounded as if that guy got booed from the minute he left his house. I still believe this team is the front runner in the seemingly improved NFC West even though the bandwagon is full in ...

San Francisco 49ers: After a solid season in which the 49ers showed signs of life once again and a brilliant NFL Draft in which the team also picked up wide receiver Darrell Jackson via trade, everyone is picking this team as the Saints of '07. The bandwagon is so oversold, they're offering free tickets for a later bandwagon to anyone willing to give up their seats. But let's not put the bandwagon before the horse just yet. Alex Smith's guru -- the one same credited for the success of Frank Gore -- is now coaching the San Diego Chargers. How will the entire offense flow under different stewardship? Plus, Gore broke his hand in preseason. Will that injury have any lingering affects? Defensively, this team looks solidly built, with the signing of Clements and first-round pick Patrick Willis already receiving high praise as a front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. It's hard not to be excited about this 49ers team, especially since Mike Nolan has received permission to wear a suit on the sidelines for every home game. Way to go, Mike. Now go completely old school and put a 49ers patch on your left breast pocket. That should put you over the top in any playoff push.

St. Louis Rams: What in the world to make of this team? Marc Bulger has turned into one of the most prolific (and highest paid) quarterbacks in the league. Steven Jackson has pushed past Larry Johnson as the most popular fantasy football pick behind LaDanian Tomlinson. Jackson says he's taking aim at Marshall Faulk's single-season team record for all-purpose yards, and who here thinks he can't break it? Anyone? Bueller? Torri Holt is as great as ever, and the Rams have added Tennessee's top receiver Drew Bennett to the mix with the timeless Isaac Bruce. So why doesn't anyone mention the Rams when they talk about the NFC West? Because they have to play defense too. And boy did that unit struggle last year. Ranked 23rd in overall defense and 31st in run defense. Basically, you can't stop anybody if you have trouble merely tackling them. Poor Jim Haslett went from looking sick to his stomach on the New Orleans sideline to looking sick to his stomach on the St. Louis sideline. Enter rookie defensive lineman and physical beast Adam Carriker. Enter defensive end James Hall from Detroit. Marshall believes if the Rams stop playing linebacker Will Witherspoon out of position then maybe, just maybe, the bolts could be tightened enough on this defense for the Rams to make some hay. Or maybe they'll leave us all scratching our heads for another year.

Arizona Cardinals: And, finally, you have our Super Bowl hosts, the Arizona Cardinals, who, once again, have their fair share of optimists this year. One day, the Cardinals will prove them right. Perhaps this is the year. Matt Leinart already has the bulk of a playing season under his belt. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are one of the more talented receiving duos in the league. The team drafted Levi Brown with the fifth overall pick. And Edgerrin James can't be that disappointing two years in a row, can he? Plus, Ken Whisenhunt, the same guy who, on occasion, turned the tight-vested Steelers into a virtual three-ring circus is calling the plays in Arizona. However, can he coach an entire team? Defensively, this team is quick and, thanks to consecutive solid drafts, loaded with more talented youngsters than any defense you can find. And yet, in Arizona ... it never seems to matter. Something always bites this team in the you-know-what. Whether it's an injury or a bad turnover or poor execution, something always seems to set this team on a downward death spiral from which they can never recover. Don't forget, the team with the best divisional record in the NFC West last year ... was the Arizona Cardinals. Perhaps they can get some people to hop off the 49ers bandwagon and onto theirs right from the get go. The final game of Week 1 is Arizona at San Francisco.

Those are just a boatload of my two cents. But what do I know? I have no crystal ball.

I'll speak more with you all and share some of your emails from my previous posting when I get back from Indianapolis on Friday.

Until then. Enjoy the football. Thank goodness it's back.

Rich Eisen was the first on-air personality hired by NFL Network and has been the face of the network ever since.

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