In 2005, it was No. 3 in total defense and was No. 2 in takeaways. It also had 45 sacks. The defense lost one starter from 2005 (Will Witherspoon) and played the season without Kris Jenkins, who will turn from injury in 2006. Carolina signed six veteran starters in free agency (two linebackers, two defensive linemen, a center and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson) who should be a big help. Carolina's bye will be Week 9 and it will play Dallas, Pittsburgh and the Giants at home. Carolina will end the season with road games against Atlanta and New Orleans. Johnson and rookie running back DeAngelo Williams (Memphis) should help an offense that finished No. 22 last season.
In 2005, the Colts were ranked No. 11 in total defense and No. 2 in sacks, had 31 takeaways and scored four defensive touchdowns. Adding kicker Adam Vinatieri was BIG. Also last season, the Colts offense was No. 3 in rushing. Losing Edgerrin James was big, but remember that Dominic Rhodes rushed for 1,000-plus yards (as an undrafted rookie) in the season James missed with a knee injury. Rookie running back Joseph Addai (LSU) has a chance to be very good. Peyton Manning, who is entering his ninth season at age 30, still is very good and so are his receivers (Harrison, Stokley, Wayne). Last year, Manning had 28 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions -- not as good as 2004, but still very good. The bye will come in Week 6. Indy has road games against Denver, New England and Dallas in a four-week span (Oct. 29 through Nov. 19).
The Steelers lost three starters to free agency and Jerome Bettis retired. The defense finished No. 4 overall and No. 3 in scoring defense with 30 takeaways and 47 sacks. The Steelers will have to play road games against the Jaguars, Chargers and Panthers, and will finish the season at Cincinnati. On offense, the Steelers need Willie Parker and Duce Staley to come through to help the running game, which is so important to the team's success. Draft choices Santonio Holmes, Anthony Smith and Willie Reed need to help take up the slack for the departed players they will replace. Of course, Ben Roethlisberger's injuries are a concern. The bye will come in Week 4. Someone must successfully fill the void Antwaan Randle-El left if the team is to return to the Super Bowl, but this is a well-coached team and an outstanding organization.
The previous five teams that lost the Super Bowl have failed to post a winning record the following season, but this will not happen to Seattle. Last season, the Seahawks had 27 takeaways and led the NFL with 50 sacks, but finished No. 16 in total defense (No. 5 against the run; No. 25 vs. the pass). First-round draft choice Kelly Jennings (Miami, Fla.) should help the pass defense. Seattle will play road games against Chicago, Kansas City and Denver, and the season finale will be at Tampa Bay. Eight games will be played against teams with new head coaches in 2006. The offense had a league-high 57 touchdowns last season (including Shaun Alexander's league-record 28). Matt Hasselbeck is one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, and Alexander re-signed with the team after rushing for a league-high 1,880 yards last season. A big key will be to replace Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson, who left for Minnesota.
5. New England
The Patriots were the only team to make the playoffs in 2005 with more turnovers (18) than takeaways (24). Last season, the Patriots were No. 7 in total offense, No. 26 in total defense (No. 31 against the pass), and ranked near the bottom with games missed by injury. They have good young players on both lines. Tom Brady had a great season in 2005 and should be even better this season. Don't be surprised if rookie running back Laurence Maroney has a great season. Tight end Ben Watson will be a factor. New England will plays Denver, Indianapolis and Chicago at home. The bye will come in Week 6, and New England will end the season with road games at Jacksonville and Tennessee. The big job will be to find a capable replacement for Adam Vinatieri.
The Cowboys were 5-2 when left tackle Flozell Adams was lost for the season. They went 4-5 the rest of the way. Thanks in part to kicking problems, the Cowboys lost three games by three points or fewer, but now they have Mike Vanderjagt. The Cowboys had more giveaways (31) than takeaways (26). A young defense played well in 2006 and should be better in 2006. Terrell Owens' presence should improve the passing game; Dallas has only 71 touchdown passes over the past six seasons. Dallas has road games at Jacksonville, Carolina and Atlanta. The bye week will be early (Week 3) and the Cowboys' final two games will be at home. The team has done a very good job of drafting and signing free agents the past two seasons.
People keep forgetting this team won the AFC North crown last season, not the Steelers. All 22 starters from last season will return, plus Pro Bowl kicker Shayne Graham. The Bengals led the NFL last season in takeaways (44) and turnover ratio (plus-24). If Carson Palmer can return to form after major knee surgery, this team will score a lot of points, but will he be ready for Week 1 at Kansas City? The defense has to stop people (No. 28 in total defense and No. 22 in scoring defense last season). Cincinnati's final three games will be at Indianapolis, at Denver, and home against Pittsburgh. The bye will come in Week
With 36 takeaways last season, the Broncos were second in the NFL in turnover ratio (plus-20). They also were No. 5 in total offense and No. 15 in total defense (but No. 29 against the pass). Denver, which has one of the NFL's best home-field advantages, will play host to Indianapolis, Seattle and Cincinnati this season. The trade for Javon Walker should help a passing attack that ranked No. 18 last season, and Jason Elam has scored 100 or more points in 13 seasons, but the player to watch is running back Tatum Bell. Mike Shanahan, one of the league's best play callers, has led his team to at least 10 victories in each of the past three seasons.
Nick Saban took a team that went 4-12 in 2004 and guided it to a 9-7 mark in 2005 despite a glaring weakness at quarterback. Miami traded for Daunte Culpepper to direct a passing attack that ranked 16th last season, and also traded for Joey Harrington as a backup and possible early-season starter. The loss of Ricky Williams will hurt the running game, but Culpepper will be a huge upgrade at quarterback if he is healthy. The team hired two coordinators who were head coaches in 2005. Miami will play at Pittsburgh, Chicago and Indianapolis, but has only one cold-weather game (Dec. 17 at Buffalo). The bye will come in Week 8, right before the game in Chicago.
The Bears improved from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 and a first-round bye in 2005, and all 22 starters will return in 2006. That includes Rex Grossman, who has played in only three games in each of the past two seasons. Last season, the Bears were ranked No. 2 in total defense, and allowed a league-low 202 points. Chicago also had a plus-6 turnover ratio. The Bears drafted Danieal Manning and Devin Hester to help the return game, and also signed free agent Ricky Manning to bolster the pass defense. Chicago was No. 29 in total offense and No. 31 in passing offense last season, but Cedric Benson's return and the addition of Brian Griese should help. Four of Chicago's first five games will be against teams with new head coaches. Seattle, Miami and Tampa Bay will come to Soldier Field, but the Bears will play three consecutive road games in November (Giants, Jets, Patriots). The bye will be in Week 7.
With their 12-4 mark, the Jaguars would have been in first place in six other divisions last season, despite Byron Leftwich missing five games (David Garrard went 4-1 as a starter). They ranked No. 6 in total defense and scoring defense, had 28 takeaways and had a plus-11 in turnovers. Jimmy Smith's retirement will hurt, so Fred Taylor needs to stay healthy. Jacksonville's top two draft picks (Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew) should help the offense, which was ranked No. 15 last season. The team will start the season at home against Dallas and Pittsburgh, and the Giants and Patriots also will come to Jacksonville. In Weeks 3 and 4, Jacksonville will travel to Indianapolis and Washington. The bye will come in Week 6.
The Redskins need to win this season, and the signing of free agents Adam Archuleta, Andre Carter and Antwaan Randle El -- plus the trade that brought in Brandon Lloyd -- should help. Expect another good season out of Gregg Williams' unit, which finished No. 9 in total defense last season and No. 3 against the run. Mark Brunell needs to stay healthy; Washington was No. 11 in total offense last season but No. 21 in passing offense. Randle El will help the punt-return game, which was ranked No. 28 last season and had no return longer than 18 yards. Look for another big season from tight end Chris Cooley, who had 71 receptions and scored seven touchdowns last season. Joe Gibbs loves to run (Clinton Portis) and throw to the tight end. Washington will play road games at Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, and its bye will be in Week 8.
13. Kansas City
A new head coach (and a very good one), Herman Edwards, takes over the one of the NFL's most proficient offenses. New offensive coordinator Mike Solari is very good, but he might have problems if future Hall of Fame linemen Will Shields or Willie Roaf decides to retire. Larry Johnson rushed for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns last season despite starting only nine games. Trent Green has started 80 games in a row and has surpassed 4,000 passing yards in each of the past three seasons. The 2005 team gave up 110 fewer points than the 2004 team, but still was ranked No. 25 in total defense and No. 30 against the pass. The team had 31 takeaways but only 29 sacks. Last season, Kansas City became only the second team since 1990 to go 10-6 and fail to make the playoffs (2003 Dolphins). The bye will come in Week 3.
14. Tampa Bay
The 2005 Buccaneers might have been the first team in history to go from worst (5-11) to first (11-5) while starting three rookies. Running back Cadillac Williams, who set an NFL record with 434 rushing yards in his first three career starts, was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Tampa Bay was No. 1 in the league in total defense. I don't know if someone has ever been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame based on a career as an assistant coach, but Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin deserves some consideration. The team will play road games against Dallas (on a short week), Pittsburgh and Chicago. The Buccaneers need another big season from Joey Galloway, and Michael Clayton needs to bounce back to 2004 form. Keep an eye on second-year tight end Alex Smith; he could have a big season. Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden do an outstanding job of running the team. The bye will come in Week 4.
15. N.Y. Giants
The Giants had 36 takeaways in 2005, which was second best in the NFC. But overall, they ranked 24th on defense and 27th against the pass. Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora had 26 of the team's 41 sacks. To help the pass defense, the Giants signed Sam Madison, R.W. McQuarters and Will Demps. LaVar Arrington should help at linebacker. The Giants have a very good offense with Tiki Barber gaining a franchise-record 1,860 yards last season. He also had a league-high 411 touches. The Giants have a very good special-teams unit. The team's first game is against the Colts (Manning vs. Manning), the bye week comes after a road game in Seattle, and they also have to play Jacksonville and Carolina on the road.
The Falcons have led the NFL in rushing for the past two seasons, but they finished 27th in passing last year and 30th in 2004. Atlanta also broke even in turnover differential last year. Drafting Jimmy Williams and signing free agent Lawyer Milloy will help that defense. A new quarterback coach should help Michael Vick improve after he finished 29th in completion percentage in 2005. The bye comes in the fifth week, they play road games at Cincinnati and Washington, and they finish on New Year's Eve in Philadelphia. The Falcons will have a new kicker, and DeAngelo Hall is a rising star at cornerback.
Last year I picked the Cardinals to win the NFC West, but they finished 5-11, allowing 387 points while scoring 311. The team rushed for 1,138 yards, the franchise's second-lowest total since 1970. The Cards signed free-agent running back Edgerrin James, a two-time NFL rushing champion, who will be just 28 years old on Aug. 1. Larry Fitzgerald is a great young player. He and Anquan Boldin caught 205 balls for 2,811 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2005. Kurt Warner was the key as the team finished eighth overall in offense and defense. But the downfall was that the team finished 30th in the league with a minus-11 turnover margin and was 27th in scoring defense. Special teams were good. Neil Rackers made 40 of his 42 field-goal attempts, and Reggie Swinton did a good job returning kickoffs. The Cardinals drafted their QB of the future in Matt Leinart with the 10th overall selection.
18. San Diego
A new quarterback, Philip Rivers, holds the key. He has thrown just 30 passes in two years as a pro. LaDainian Tomlinson is an outstanding running back who was injured in 2005 and didn't play up to his 2004 form. On defense, the Chargers were ranked No. 1 against the run and sacked the opposing quarterback 46 times. But the team only had 20 takeaways and finished minus-8 in that department. After five games in the Eastern Time Zone last year, San Diego has just three this year. If Rivers plays well, this can be a playoff team.
19. St. Louis
With a new coaching staff, this team needs to play better defensively. A good start was the signing of free agents Will Witherspoon and La'Roi Glover, and the drafting of cornerback Tye Hill. The Rams ranked 30th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed last season. Marc Bulger played in only eight games due to injuries, but Torry Holt still caught 102 passes. The team has a good schedule, playing Denver, Kansas City, Chicago and Washington all at home.
The team played without Donovan McNabb for the second half of the season. The Eagles also ranked 23rd in total defense, 26th in points allowed and had just 29 sacks. The team needs to improve the running game and hopes young receivers like Reggie Brown step up. The Eagles were minus-7 in turnovers last year after being plus-6 in 2004. Philly had a very good draft in April, and the signing of Darren Howard should help the pass rush. The bye comes in Week 9 and the Eagles play both San Francisco and Houston on the road. It's a very well-run organization. So don't expect another losing season, even though the NFC East has some very good teams.
A new quarterback in Steve McNair brings a new hope that he can return to his form from 2003 and '04, as well as running back Jamal Lewis from that same time period. Receiver Mark Clayton is a future star, and the signing of free-agent running back Mike Anderson will bolster the ground game. The team finished fifth in total defense despite the fact that Ray Lewis missed a significant amount of time. Safety Ed Reed is very good and he has signed a new contract to stay in Baltimore for years to come. The Ravens played road games in Tampa Bay, Denver and Kansas City. It's a very hard team to figure out, and the AFC North is going to be very good this season.
22. Green Bay
The Packers have a new head coach in Mike McCarthy, a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive system. Last season, the team ranked 30th running the ball after ranking 10th in 2004. Brett Favre threw 29 interceptions and no one is sure how he will be in the West Coast offense. The defense played well last season, ranking seventh overall and first against the pass. The big problem was the 45 giveaways. Green Bay drafted A.J. Hawk who will become a leader and a star on defense. General manager Ted Thompson will build a strong team, but don't expect success overnight.
The Vikings have a new head coach in Brad Childress and new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who will run the Cover 2 system he used at Tampa Bay. The West Coast offense is a better fit for QB Brad Johnson, who played well last year. The defense was ranked 21st overall and had 24 interceptions. Minnesota signed Ryan Longwell, a good and reliable placekicker and running back Chester Taylor, Koren Robinson and Mewelde Moore are good return men. The team will on Monday, Sept. 11, against Washington and will play Seattle and Miami on the road. First-round draft choice Chad Greenway is a very good player.
24. New Orleans
With a new head coach (Sean Payton), a new quarterback (Drew Brees), and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, who will be outstanding as a rookie, the Saints could be a surprise team in 2006. This team has much better players than its 2005 record would indicate. The return of RB Deuce McAllister from injury (knee) should also help. The Saints had 19 takeaways and 43 giveaways; their minus-24 turnover ratio tied Green Bay for the worst in the NFL. The pass defense ranked third overall last season. The inspired Superdome crowds will be a big factor this season. New Orleans has a bye in Week 7 and will play road games against Dallas, Pittsburgh and the New York Giants.
Another new coach and new offensive coordinator. The offense went from No. 2 in the league in 2004 to No. 29 in 2005. Buffalo's first five draft picks were defensive players, all possible starters. The return of LB Takeo Spikes, who missed last season due to injury, will help the defense. The question on offense is who will play quarterback. Lee Evans is a very good wide receiver and RB Willis McGahee has gained 1,000-plus yards in each of the past two seasons. Buffalo will play road games at Chicago, Indianapolis and Baltimore.
Art Shell, who coached the Raiders from 1989-94 (56 victories, three trips to the playoffs), returns as head coach. The team will have a new starter at quarterback, either Aaron Brooks or Andrew Walter. The Raiders ranked 21st on offense and 29th running the ball last season. On defense, the team ranked 27th overall and had only five interceptions, the second fewest in NFL history (Houston Oilers had three in 1982). Kicker Sebastian Janikowski connected on only 20 of 30 field-goal attempts and only 7 of 15 from 40 yards or longer. The Raiders' bye will come in Week 3 and the team will play road games against Baltimore, Seattle and Cincinnati. This team might surprise people if it can play better pass defense. First-round draft pick Michael Huff will help.
The future of the Titans is in place with the drafting of QB Vince Young. This team has some good young players and is well coached. The question is how well will Billy Volek be until Young is ready to play. After several years of salary-cap problems, the team was able to go out and sign some free agents -- David Givens, Kevin Mawae and David Thornton, who should help on defense. The unit finished 19th overall and 29th in points allowed. Four of the first six games are on the road against possible playoff teams. Tennessee needs to keep Chris Brown healthy and hope LenDale White is ready to play.
The Browns have a young quarterback in place (Charlie Frye). But the question now is will Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards be ready. Edwards is not expected back until late October. The team scored a league-low 232 points in 2005, but did have their first 1,000-yard rusher since 1985. The defense ranked 30th overall and forced only 23 turnovers. Kicker Phil Dawson is coming off a very good season (27-for-29 on field goals). The Browns will be better, but have to play Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore twice. They have a solid head coach in Romeo Crennel.
29. San Francisco
The team lost more games to injuries than any other team in NFL history (106 in 2005) and started a rookie quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked 29 times and suffered 11 interceptions. The team finished 32nd in both total offense and defense. San Francisco hired Norv Turner to straighten out Smith like he did with Troy Aikman at Dallas. A big help to the offense should be the return of tight end Eric Johnson and the drafting of Vernon Davis. Remember the name of drafted rookie Michael Robinson to help make things happen on offense. Also look for Frank Gore to run the ball. I think the team has turned the corner and the first six games in 2006 will be against teams that did not make the playoffs last season.
Detroit has a new coach for the third time in the past six years. Rod Marinelli will bring a certain toughness and work ethic to this team. He hired Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson as coordinators. The Lions have won only 31 games over the past five years. This team has some talent. Roy Williams, Kevin Jones, Jeff Backus and Shaun Rogers are all good players. The Lions signed two free agent QBs -- veteran Jon Kitna and four-year player Josh McCown. The team will play Seattle, Miami and Atlanta at home. Eddie Drummond needs to return to his 2004 form. The team could surprise. It has great fans and stadium.
The team has a new coach in Gary Kubiak, who will be very solid, a great owner and a new defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4). Quarterback David Carr played better in 2005 -- 14 TDs and 11 INTs while completing 60.5 percent of his passes. Look for the team to run the ball and play-action pass. The defense ranked 31st last season and could not stop the run. The offense ranked 30th overall. The team's rookie kick returner (Jerome Mathis) was selected to the Pro Bowl. Houston plays in a division that has two very good teams (Jacksonville and Indianapolis). This team has some good young players and did a great job in the last draft. Rookies Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans could be very good.
32. New York Jets
Another new head coach in Eric Mangini who comes from the Patriots. The Jets went from a team that was a missed field goal away from playing in the 2004 AFC Championship Game to a team that won only four games in 2005. The Jets need a running back to replace Curtis Martin, who for the first time in his career did not gain 1,000 yards. The hope is that Chad Pennington is able to return to his pre-injury form. I like the Jets' draft -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold should start for a long time. The steal of the draft could be QB Kellen Clemens. The Jets will play Buffalo twice, Tennessee, Oakland, Houston, Detroit and Green Bay, which should give the team a chance to win some games.
NFL PREVIEW 2006
Published: July 1, 2006, 4:33 am