With the NFL regular season about to begin, it is time to sort out what we have learned, what we still don't know, and some new questions that surfaced during the preseason.
What we've learned
-- The Indianapolis Colts look more than capable of successfully defending their Super Bowl crown. Sure, they've taken some big hits, especially on defense. However, they haven't lost a beat at the positions that are the most vital to their ability to repeat -- quarterback, receiver, and running back. If anything, Peyton Manning and Co. are more hungry for the second ring than they were for the first. And Tony Dungy's unflappable approach is perfect for a team trying to navigate one of the trickiest roads in professional sports.
-- You have to watch out for the Arizona Cardinals. Good coaching from Ken Whisenhunt, good quarterbacking from Matt Leinart and a great corps of receivers make this a very dangerous team.
-- The Philadelphia Eagles confirmed the widespread expectation that they are the strongest candidate to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The main reason is that Donovan McNabb has made the concerns over whether his surgically repaired knee would be healed enough for him to return to top form disappear. Will McNabb's health still be an issue? Yes, because he has a history of struggling to stay in one piece.
-- The Oakland Raiders have better quarterbacking situation than appeared to be the case before Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper demonstrated that they are solid acquisitions. Even if JaMarcus Russell never signs with the Raiders, first-year coach Lane Kiffin should feel confident that his offense is in good hands regardless of whether McCown or Culpepper is under center. We also learned that with Rob Ryan's defense performing at a high level, the Raiders could be more of a factor than many of us believed.
-- The Cleveland Browns have reason to be hopeful about their quarterback situation, even if impressive rookie Brady Quinn doesn't see the field until a month or so into the season. Quinn can only gain from watching and learning because he will pay close attention to the finer details of what opposing defenses will show beginning with the Browns' Sept. 9 opener against Pittsburgh. He will see plenty that he never saw during his preseason appearances.
What we still don't know
-- Can the Chicago Bears trust their running game to Cedric Benson? He did nothing in the preseason to make anyone forget Thomas Jones, the man with whom he once shared the rushing load. If Benson doesn't step up his game in the Sept. 9 opener against San Diego, it will only place even greater pressure on Rex Grossman, whose performance is also something we're still left wondering about after the preseason.
-- How will Frank Gore's right hand, which he broke on the second day of training camp, respond to contact in a game? San Francisco's running back sat out the entire preseason to allow the hand to heal, and he is expected to start when the 49ers open the season against Arizona on Sept. 10 on Monday Night Football. But will Gore, who will have a protective pad on his hand, be able to protect the football? Will he, consciously or subconsciously, adjust the way he plays to compensate for his hand? Will he need additional time to get used to being hit again?
-- Have the Buffalo Bills done enough to improve their woeful run defense? Paul Posluszny looks like he'll be a big-hitting playmaker in the middle, but he's a rookie and susceptible to being pulled out of position by the offensive trickery he'll see during the regular season. The poor tackling the Bills showed for much of the summer also is unsettling.
-- If Tarvaris Jackson falters as the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback, who steps in? After a horrendous preseason by Brooks Bollinger, the Vikings clearly have serious concerns about their depth at the position. Their late addition of Kelly Holcomb, most recently of the Eagles, smacks of desperation. Jackson did show some promising signs this summer, especially when it came to blitz recognition. However, his inconsistent accuracy as a passer left something to be desired.
-- Will the New England Patriots be able to weather the six-week absence of injured defensive end Richard Seymour and the four-week suspension of safety Rodney Harrison? Seymour's loss is the greater concern. Besides his status as one of the NFL's very best at his position, he apparently has a lingering problem since undergoing offseason knee surgery. It raises questions about exactly when, and in what condition, he will return to action. The Patriots do have an excellent track record of overcoming such challenges, and their upgraded offense should do its share to offset whatever defensive shortcomings there might be early in the season. Still, when I picked the Patriots as my Super Bowl team, I did so with Seymour and Harrison, the glue of their secondary, on the roster.
-- After the shocking release of Byron Leftwich, the Jacksonville Jaguars have put their starting quarterback job in the unaccomplished hands of David Garrard. No, Leftwich wasn't a whole lot more accomplished, but there was reason to believe that if (and it was a big if) he could stay healthy the Jags would be mostly competitive. Now, it is anyone's guess where this team is headed.
-- Will the Dallas Cowboys' season of high expectations get off to a bad start because of a long injury list that includes cornerback Terence Newman (heel), wide receiver Terry Glenn (knee), and linebackers Greg Ellis (Achilles) and Kevin Burnett (ankle)? Also, given the angry public reaction of safety Roy Williams, will there be any lingering acrimony from the Cowboys' decision to release veteran cornerback Aaron Glenn? And how much will the surprising suspension of quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, who will miss the first five games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, affect the early season progress of Tony Romo?
-- Do the New York Jets have a problem at quarterback? A year ago, Chad Pennington had no problem putting to rest doubts about his ability to overcome two operations on his throwing shoulder. This summer, his performance has raised all sorts of questions about his future. Meanwhile, his young backup, Kellen Clemens, had an impressive enough preseason to suggest that he could supplant Pennington at some point in the season … maybe sooner rather than later.
-- Will the Washington Redskins have the one-two running punch that is supposed to be the strength of their offense? Clinton Portis, the first part of that punch, missed the entire preseason with knee tendinitis and could require at least a month to return to top physical condition. Ladell Betts is capable of picking up a good portion of the slack in the Redskins' ground game, but it won't be easy if Portis isn't able to contribute fully.