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  OVERS AND UNDERS: THE BIG BLACK TABLE NFL PREVIEW.  
   
 

The gravy train is back on Thursday. The last time we saw the train, it had Janet Jackson's breast, streakers getting pummeled and a fairly decent football game

This time, it will include Jessica Simpson, Destiny's Child (their first performance together in 2 ½ years!!), Toby Keith and, um, Elton John. Needless to say, we at The Black Table will breathlessly be awaiting this concert and hoping for clothing to come flying off just about anybody except Elton John. (That means you, Toby!)

There also is talk of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots on Thursday night, two apparently good teams, a bunch of stuff about officials calling games differently to help offenses, hot new quarterbacks in new places. Yes, the NFL will actually peek its head out after the league tries to bring in the non-football fans with its pregame "entertainment."

And following that star-studded opening night will be what is sure to be an exciting, wacky and unpredictable regular season that will result in the large-scale transfer of money from fans' hands into various shady Las Vegas characters. Before you get knee-deep in debt, here is a guide for the 2004 season -- and the over/under lines for each team -- that might help you come out ahead by a few more bucks than you would otherwise.

Not that The Black Table would ever condone that sort of thing.

 

 
   
 

 

New England Patriots

Are the Patriots a dynasty? Two titles in three seasons usually wouldn't cut it, but these are unusual non-dynastic times in the NFL. Dynasties usually include outstanding teams that often overwhelm teams. But, again, these are unusual times. What makes the Patriots great is that they don't have any flaws, and that puts them way ahead of most other teams. So, when looking at them this season, it is hard to bet against them on anything, whether it's winning all 16 games or taking another Super Bowl. They have a nice blend of youth and experience, although the talent appears a bit weaker on defense, which is where Bill Belichick's coaching prowess really shows through.

Over/under: 10.5 wins. Betting on 11 wins is extremely risky, but with the Patriots, the over is the only reasonable bet. You're better off just avoiding them.

New York Jets

A year ago, we were talking about how great the AFC East was. Then Chad Pennington got hurt, Drew Bledsoe got really, really old and Ricky Williams retired. Suddenly it's the Patriots and everybody else. I put the Jets second in the division only because they are less bad than everybody else. Pennington, Santana Moss and Justin McCareins form a top-notch passing game that should score plenty of points, dynamic enough to allow Curtis Martin to eke out one more good season. The defense is another story, and the Jets probably will play plenty of 31-28 games.

Over/under: 9 wins. A high number, but I'm optimistic enough to take the over. I think this is the year we could find out how good Pennington really is. There aren't many career 66 percent passers out there.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills are a strange team. They have a very good top-to-bottom defense and a weird offense ready to begin a major overhaul. All this hype about Willis McGahee could be a distraction, but the Bills should push it off until they are out of the playoff hunt. Travis Henry is a heck of a back, and Buffalo might be doing a smart thing by pissing him off enough to motivate him into a huge season and driving up his trade value. Then they could satisfy themselves with a couple good games from McGahee late in the year when he is actually healthy and go into next season with him as their feature back.

Over/under: 8 wins. Go under. I don't like Bledsoe any more as a quarterback, and the Bills lost his top two backups to injuries in the preseason, forcing them to sign Shane Matthews. The line is shaky enough that it will give up plenty of big hits, one of which could sidetrack the Bills' season.

Miami Dolphins

We'll be talking about Ricky Williams' retirement all year, but if the Dolphins were smart, they would move on and think about something else. Trouble is, they do not have much else to get excited about. Jay Fiedler is a good enough quarterback when he has somebody like Williams at running back. The wide receivers are talented but not when a quarterback such as Fiedler is throwing to them without a running back such as Williams to take the pressure off him. Got that? The defense is also going to look really old really fast if they are forced to play more this season when the offense can't stay on the field.

Over/under: 8 wins. Under. The Dolphins aren't going to get very close to that number, and coach Dave Wannstedt will be out of work, which should have happened after last season and might have kept Williams in the league.

 

 
   
 

 

Baltimore Ravens

So, you take a defense with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Chris McAlister and add Deion Sanders. Then you wonder if Sanders, at 37, still has the speed that made him so great and, if he does, will he be good enough to lead another defense-driven title run. Then you realize it doesn't matter how great he is because he can't help but be better than incumbent starter Gary Baxter, who gets relegated to a more deserving a more minor role. This business about Sanders being only a nickel back is well and good for now, but wait a couple months and he will be starting. Then, if you're playing the Ravens, you'll realize that you can't run on them and you can't pass on them, and you have no idea what to do.

Over/under: 9 wins. Over. A 10-6 record in this division should be pretty easy, unless Jamal Lewis lands in jail, which is unlikely.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers' problem is that they tried to burden quarterback Tommy Maddox with too much responsibility last year. He is much better suited to a less pressure-filled role surrounded by a good running game, which is what Pittsburgh has in mind for this year. Duce Staley is a sturdy, reliable back who will work well ahead of Jerome Bettis. Also, the Steelers appear to have something in rookie Willie Parker should Staley and Bettis go down. That will allow a pressure-free Maddox to thrive. He knows he will be booted out the door soon for Ben Roethlisberger, so what does he have to lose? The concern is the defense, but coordinator Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher have enough of a track record to make something out of almost nothing.

Over/under: 8 wins. Go over because the Steelers will threaten to make the playoffs. They might give up plenty of big passing plays, though. Last year's first-round pick, safety Troy Polamalu, looks as lost as any high draft pick as I've seen in years.

Cincinnati Bengals

You know the drill: They could be better even if their record isn't any better than last year's 8-8, especially with quarterback Carson Palmer having some learning to do. He has a rifle arm, surprising mobility and all that offseason work with the first team will help. But once defenses start throwing some hidden blitzes and coverage schemes at him, he'll throw some picks. Long-term, I think the Bengals still have significant work to do. They have major work to do to build their defense, but coach Marvin Lewis will be up to the task eventually. If these really are the new, non-cursed Bengals, they are still two or three years from doing something special.

Over/under: 8 wins. Another bet to stay away from, but I like the under. There is too much that could go wrong and sabotage the season from many different angles.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are the easy favorite for the worst management in the league. They handed coach Butch Davis all the team's power, even though he has done nothing to deserve it. That led to the ugly firing of several trustworthy front-office employees and left a lot of bad feelings. The really stupid thing is that Davis could be fired if he has another bad season. The Browns need to show considerable progress, which they haven't since somehow making the playoffs two years ago. And if they end up bailing on Davis, well, that's chopping off the leader they just gave all the power to. Who's running this show? Owner Randolph Lerner, who inherited the team from his dad, and John Collins, the former league executive blamed for Janet Jackson's boob job in the Super Bowl.

Over/under: 7.5 wins. They'll be under, with a pretty porous defense and little help along the defensive line. Part of me thinks this team is similar to the New England Patriots in 2001, who I thought would be one of the worst teams in the league that year. They did the same deal with giving Belichick an apparently inordinate amount of power. And I thought he was a dolt, too.

 

 
   
 

 

Indianapolis Colts

The new enforcement of pass-defense rules could boost the Colts more than any other team. After all, Colts general manager Bill Polian was one of the big proponents of calling things more closely. Quarterback Peyton Manning throws enough and has all kinds of good targets -- receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, right end Dallas Clark and even running back Edgerrin James -- that he ought to take full advantage of, with the penalties going his way. End Dwight Freeney is the only reliable defensive star, but coach Tony Dungy knows a thing or two about defenses. If gets the defense in gear, they could be a title contender.

Over/under: 10 wins. A popular pick; you won't win much money, but you should take the over. The Colts have a fairly tough schedule and will be well-tested by the time they hit the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans

Once again, it will be the Colts and Titans 1-2 in their division, even after all the changes Tennessee has had. Nobody has done a better job managing all the roster turnover, and they probably won't be hurt too much by it. Eddie George is a big name to replace, but he hadn't done much the past few seasons anyhow, and Chris Brown certainly looks up to the task. The real engines of this team are quarterback Steve McNair and receiver Derrick Mason. Not much stops the pair -- even injuries. Tennessee's downfall probably will be defensive, even though coach Jeff Fisher is a defensive coach. The line has a ton of young talent that will need most of the season to get acclimated.

Over/under: 9.5 wins. Take the over. The Titans, despite ever-changing casts, have won at least 11 games four of the past five seasons.

Houston Texans

The Texans are a popular pick to do well, but I don't see it. Coach Dom Capers' blueprint is a top-notch defense with an offense that's just good enough. He eventually could be a contender for big things with this group because his offense, centered by quarterback David Carr, receiver Andre Johnson and running back Domanick Davis, has the potential to be very, very good. But the defense was ranked 31st last year. While the Texans made some upgrades, rookies Dunta Robinson and pass rusher Jason Babin won't be ready for a while. Once they are, if the young skill-position stars on offense keep improving, they will have the perfect recipe for a contender.

Over/under: 6.5 wins. The Texans could squeeze over. An easy schedule early will give them enough confidence to score a couple upsets in the tough, middle portion before getting a couple extra wins down the stretch.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are probably the most-hyped "surprise" team after a respectable 2003, as respectable as 5-11 can be. The defense is good -- tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are the league's best young interior duo. But it has no pass rush and question marks at cornerback - so, throw on this team. The offense is not so hot. Running back Fred Taylor had foot problems in the preseason, and first-round pick Reggie Williams looks lost. Taylor probably only has one or two more good years left in him, so if the Jaguars plug some holes in that time and start thinking about another franchise back, coach Jack Del Rio will get where everybody thinks he already is.

Over/under: 7.5 wins. Should be an easy under. They could finish in last place in one of the league's better divisions, and there are at most five apparent victories on the schedule.

 

 
   
 

 

Kansas City Chiefs

The signs of the end of the Chiefs' incredible offensive run are apparent, which means the defense better be good enough to win this year before coach Dick Vermeil re-retires and the whole team is torn apart. Priest Holmes will be 31 in October and can't keep going forever, no matter how little work he got early in his career. The team is woefully thin at wide receiver, and the incredible three-year run of the offensive line is about as long as a dominant group of players can stay together in the NFL. So enjoy it while you can. They easily are good enough to score 450 points again. And I do think the defense will be better. It was actually quite good in the first half of last season, coming up with one big play and turnover after another.

Over/under: 10 wins. The money is surprisingly almost split on this bet. A slightly tougher schedule could bump Kansas City down to 11-5, from last year's 13-3, but take the over -- they are the class of what will be a shaky division.

Oakland Raiders

I'm very intrigued by the Raiders, and I'm not really sure why. I might just be overwhelmed by the fact that Jim Gray hosts their preseason telecasts, but I do think they could have a good team too. I like the defense, led by beefy, if old, defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Ted Washington. Nobody is talking about Sapp, and Sapp isn't talking to or about much of anything -- which is a good sign. I'm not sure which Charles Woodson we'll see, but if we see the good one, he could spearhead a very good defense.

Over/under: 8 wins. I'm going over, with a 9-7 season possible on a schedule that isn't particularly noteworthy one way or another. And we didn't even talk about the offense, which I like. Good offensive line, fast, young receiver, good enough running backs and, hopefully, Kerry Collins at quarterback.

Denver Broncos

For the first time in coach Mike Shanahan's tenure, the Broncos are a mess on offense. The defense has been the thing, with cornerback Champ Bailey and first-round linebacker D.J. Williams being the big offseason acquisitions. And the defense already was ranked fourth last year. Denver just might not be able to score any points. I'm not sold on running back Quentin Griffin, and rookie Tatum Bell didn't impress me as much as I hoped he would in preseason games, although he was slowed by a hand injury. It is at wide receiver where things get really ugly: aging, slowing Rod Smith, inconsistent Ashley Lelie and very raw Darius Watts. Just when I figured they'd throw about 100 passes to Byron Chamberlain in a tight end-heavy offense, Shanahan cuts Chamberlain, giving the job to Jeb Putzier. Which sounds like something you say when your fantasy quarterback throws an interception in the end zone. "Grrr, jebputzier."

Over/under: 9 wins. Sorry, Bronco-land. Don't see it. Under.

San Diego Chargers

I wonder what would happen if the over/under for San Diego were one win. I mean, what would you do? Logic says that they must win more than one game. But why? This is a horrible team. My fondest wish is that Marty Schottenheimer is fired before LaDainian Tomlinson's career is over because the Chargers won't be any good until then. But I really think Schottenheimer might be back next year. He can argue that this year ought to be thrown out, because he has to go with Drew Brees early after the front office couldn't sign Philip Rivers in time. Then when Rivers does play, Schottenheimer can argue to his bosses that all unprepared quarterbacks stink. And with two of the first five draft picks next year (thanks, Giants), it's no time to change horses, right? Balder, balder, balderdash. Schottenheimer hasn't had a winning season since 1997.

Over/under: 4.5 wins. It's like free money, come on. This is how messed up the Chargers are: They kept four quarterbacks. I would have dumped Doug Flutie three years ago, but I can understand if Schottenheimer feels some kind of inner peace having the old guy around. But Cleo Lemon? What, do the Chargers want to develop a young quarterback in case Rivers falls through? Is he trade bait? And third-year center Jason Ball is holding out for some reason. He has no hope of getting anything out of this holdout, so he basically is saying that he'd rather not play football than play for the Chargers. Can't say I blame him. Under.

 

 
   
 

 

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are the easy and only logical pick to win the NFC East, still having collected the most talent in the division. An enormous amount of attention has been given to the acquisitions of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, and deservedly so. But they overshadowed some more troubling developments, such as:

  • No depth at running back behind smallish, injury-prone Brian Westbrook.
  • An overhaul in the secondary.
  • Significant questions at linebacker and on the defensive line.

In fact, the Eagles, who always have had a statement defense, might have the worst defense of coach Andy Reid's six seasons.

Over/under: 9.5 wins. An easy over, although you won't win much money (about $4 on a $10 bet). But I wouldn't bet on the Eagles reaching the Super Bowl. Teams always concern me when they go out of character, which the Eagles did in overpaying Kearse and Owens. Both have a history of problems, problems that probably will resurface at some point. And that is when chaos could ensue. If a solid NFC contender emerges, the Eagles will be ripe to be picked off.

Dallas Cowboys

Coach Bill Parcells makes no secret about his love for veterans, but this is absurd. Starters Vinny Testaverde (17 seasons), Eddie George (eight), Terry Glenn (eight), Keyshawn Johnson (eight) have a combined 41 years of NFL experience. George, Glenn and Johnson were three of the top 14 draft picks -- in 1996. They're all old, and they're all slow; a bad combination. Sure, the Cowboys will be Parcells-tough, but is that enough? Not when plenty of other NFC teams can ring up points, and the Cowboys' defense, while solid, is not good enough to carry the team for several weeks.

Over/under: 8.5. Go under. Parcells will find a way to eke out a few extra wins, but it is hard to find nine of them on the schedule. Early season tests against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will determine which way the year will go, and those clubs are younger and faster, even if they aren't as tough. This looks like a sideways year for Dallas after their unexpected playoff run in 2003, which raises the possibility that Parcells might stick around for more than the two or three years expected of him when he came to Dallas.

Washington Redskins

The lovable coach Joe Gibbs is back in the NFL, this time to try to save the hide of pitiful Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. And Snyder better hope Gibbs succeeds, because he has gone steadily up the legend chart to find coaches and, in Washington, nobody is above Gibbs. This is an interesting team, with current and future stars, including running back Clinton Portis, linebacker LaVar Arrington, rookie safety Sean Taylor and quarterback Mark Brunell. With Gibbs' beloved blocking H-backs and tight ends in place, the offense will be fine as long as Brunell is upright. The defense should be improved, but Arrington and Taylor won't make enough plays to overcome holes on the line and the other linebacker slots.

Over/under: 9 wins. Take the under. Rampant enthusiasm has bid up the line too high, and this team will need several weeks to settle down. You won't have to worry about this team not being prepared. Now that former coach Steve Spurrier is gone, it is astonishing to learn about some of his coaching "oversights" that have leaked out in the press, like not practicing live punt returns and not practicing run blocking. You know, little stuff like that.

New York Giants

The long-term relationship between Giants fans and new coach Tom Coughlin should be interesting because neither side will ever give an inch. Give Coughlin a year or so to turn over the roster, and he will win enough games to satisfy fans, even if he never reaches the elite level in Jacksonville. For now, the offensive line is a mess, he doesn't have a quarterback who can win games and he has a running back he doesn't trust. Oh, the defense is also lacking playmakers, outside of aging pass rusher Michael Strahan.

Over/under: 7 wins. An easy under. Reaching seven wins will take heroic efforts from nearly every player, and that won't happen, not after several get ticked when Coughlin runs them ragged in the middle of a five-game losing streak in November. The No. 1 pick in 2005 the Giants gave up to get quarterback Eli Manning will be very high and will hurt a lot. Manning, though, should be good, though probably not quite as good as brother Peyton.

 

 
   
 

 

New Orleans Saints

I always have been accused of being far too supportive of the Saints, and the charge is mostly true. But -- yet again -- I truly think this year will be different because the Saints quietly have built a very strong and deep defensive line, taking a page from Carolina's fast path to success. The line includes Charles Grant, Darren Howard, rookie Will Smith, Johnathan Sullivan, free-agent pickup Brian Young and veteran Willie Whitehead. That's three first-round picks and a second-rounder since 2000, along with two reliable veterans. They all will mix and match and play everywhere and, if the Saints are lucky, spearhead a strong, physical defense. There are many questions behind that line, but it can hide many of them.

Over/under: 7.5 wins. I have them pegged to win the division, so I'm all about the over. This is a very even division and 10-6 record might win it. The Saints are good for that, before inconsistent quarterback Aaron Brooks torpedoes them in the playoffs with one of his many costly turnovers.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers won eight games by six points or less last year, including five by just a field goal. If nothing else, the law of averages will cost them a few wins. They are a very tough and talented team and aren't a one-year wonder. But you've already seen a bit too much swagger from them, and they spent a bit too much time in the offseason making names for themselves. Such things happen to Super Bowl teams, but it usually winds up costing them a win or two the following season. In the tight NFC South, that alone will be enough to knock the Panthers out of first.

Over/under: 9 wins. The safe bet is under, although you might wind up with a push. The secondary and offensive line both are almost entirely new, and the mistakes of the newcomers will contribute to a few early losses.

Atlanta Falcons

That Michael Vick guy is back, sort of. He hardly played in the preseason because the Falcons are petrified he would get hurt again, like when his broken leg and ankle ruined their season last year. Well, he got hurt anyhow, missing a slew of practices because of a bad hamstring. He knows next to nothing about the team's new West Coast offense, a system that doesn't suit his strengths anyhow. It demands accuracy, and Vick does not have a lot of that. Aside from Vick, the Falcons don't have a lot. They're trying to rebuild the defense, which will miss top pick cornerback DeAngelo Hall for most of the season because of a broken hip. On offense, tight end Alge Crumpler is a nice player but needs to be more consistent; receiver Peerless Price isn't as good as he thinks he is; and the Falcons have two running backs, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, because alone, neither one is good enough.

Over/under: 9 wins. Everybody loves Vick, giving the Falcons an artificially high number. Take the under and the easy money.

Tampa Bay Bucs

You will hear plenty of jokes about the Bucs dragging players out of the retirement home and putting them on the field. They are funny because they're true. Receivers Tim Brown and Joey Galloway, running back Charlie Garner, even holdover quarterback Brad Johnson … these guys have lost whatever it was that made them special. New tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese were available because their former teams, Carolina and San Francisco, replaced them with younger players. That once-great defense? The heart is gone; Warren Sapp and John Lynch left in the offseason, and the Bucs have not added any significant new talent in a couple years.

Over/under: 9 wins. The third team in this division at nine wins, the Bucs are the least likely to make a run at the number, so take the under. Several key parts will break down at some point, and this team really is just in a holding pattern until quarterback Chris Simms is ready to start, maybe in 2005. Then we'll find out how good a coach Jon Gruden really is.

 

 
   
 

 

Green Bay Packers

The Brett Favre retirement watch is in full swing, but he probably has another couple years in him. The Packers want to give him another title, and it will be up to their defense. The Favre-led offense, with a great running game and good receivers, will score plenty. But the defense is lacking star cornerback Mike McKenzie (holdout), and how quickly rookies such as Ahmad Carroll can contribute could dictate how far the Packers get. They also need to find somebody to rush the passer, other than Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Over/under: 9 wins. Should be a pretty easy over, considering the Packers have at least 10 wins in seven of the past nine seasons. Their offensive depth is so great that only an injury to Favre could derail them, and that, literally, has never happened.

Minnesota Vikings

Like the Packers, Minnesota's season will come down to its defense. The Vikings potentially could have a much better defense than Green Bay, although they have even less experience. Give them another year, and they could be very good, when guys like end Kenechi Udeze and linebacker Dontarrious Thomas know what they are doing. The secondary is interesting because new cornerback Antoine Winfield, while not much of a playmaker himself, is reliable enough to free up players such as safety Brian Russell to roam a bit more.

Over/under: 8.5 wins. Should be pretty easy to get to 9-7 with that potent Daunte Culpepper-Randy Moss offense scoring plenty of points, so consider the over. It should be so easy that this low line is a bit disconcerting. With oddsmakers, the only easy money is the money that leaves your pocket.

Detroit Lions

In the next year or two, I might have to revise my belief that general manager Matt Millen is a dolt. He, finally, has laid the foundation for a great offense, coach Steve Mariucci is a proven winner and even the defense shows potential. Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson anchor the interior line, and cornerbacks Dre Bly and Fernando Bryant are better than most teams' starters. Linebackers Tedy Lehman and Boss Bailey both could be stars, though Bailey is done for most of the season because of injuries. And that's the weaker side of the team. Quarterback Joey Harrington has to become reliable in his third season because if he doesn't, Mariucci will turn to wild backup Mike McMahon. Mariucci seems to like McMahon more than Harrington, and part of me thinks Mariucci could harness all that playmaking and make him an adequate starter.

Over/under: 6 wins. Reluctantly, I'll go over. I'm reluctant because so much is unknown with this team. The talent is off the charts, but there are so many new, unproven players in new situations. Weird things can happen. Plus, we might be all wrong about that talent because Millen really is a dolt.

Chicago Bears

I don't see much to like with the Bears. They are convinced Rex Grossman is their quarterback for the future, and God bless them for that. They think that Thomas Jones will be a reliable running back, and, well, God bless them for that too. And they think their defense can be a strength this year, even though they are relying on a couple rookie linemen, have no playmakers at linebacker other than Brian Urlacher -- and even he is not the sure thing he was a couple years ago -- and have serious depth and injury questions in the secondary outside of Charles Tillman, a rising star at cornerback.

Over/under: 6.5 wins. Under, easily. Coach Lovie Smith will have plenty of work in his first year, and he will find that this whole coaching thing isn't so easy.

 

 
   
 

 

Seattle Seahawks

This is the Seahawks' time, with the offense finally rounding into shape, the division open for the taking and several defensive additions giving the team confidence. But the Seahawks have underperformed in recent years, and while that probably won't entirely be the case this year, a Super Bowl run is a bit much. The defense was exposed as horribly soft in last season's playoffs and will be improved, although not enough immediately to make a run. They will win the division but have to hope their title window remains open in 2005 when the defense is even better.

Over/under: 9 wins. Take the over, especially since the presence of San Francisco and Arizona in the same division mean the Seahawks are starting at four wins.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams are sort of throwing around some smoke and mirrors this season; if something goes wrong, things could really go wrong. What could go wrong? Start with the somewhat brittle Marc Bulger trying to play behind a very shaky offensive line. The Rams had to talk two players out of retirement just to field a line for Week 1. Running back Marshall Faulk is older and virtually assured not to play 16 games. The Rams have been searching for a replacement for several years and none of their attempts have worked out. Steven Jackson might be better than Lamar Gordon and Trung Canidate, but the Rams' complicated offense is very difficult for any rookie to pick up. Then, there is the defense, which is ugly and being transformed after the departure of coordinator Lovie Smith. Season-ending injuries to cornerback Travis Fisher and lineman Jimmy Kennedy already hurt.

Over/under: 9.5 wins. A lot of money is on the under already, and the under is the safe bet. At least one of the above things will go wrong and, if enough of them go bad, coach Mike Martz will be kicked out of town. Martz, by the way, is one of those rare "geniuses" who has never won a Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals

I think that Dennis Green is a good coach, a guy who, with a four-win team, is good for three or four wins by himself. But these are the Cardinals, who already have been decimated by injuries. They are basically cursed, and not cursed like baseball's Cubs or Red Sox, who are decent every now and then. The Cardinals need a lot of help on defense and are way below average now on offense after injuries knocked out running back Marcel Shipp and receiver Anquan Boldin. Now, they are relying on creaky old Emmitt Smith and a more "mature" Troy Hambrick. First-round pick Larry Fitzgerald better get healthy and be as good of a receiver as Green says he is.

Over/under: 5 wins. Because I think Green is a decent coach, I'll give the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt and take the over, though I'm not sure how they'll win those six games.

San Francisco 49ers

If somebody knows what the 49ers are doing, please let me know. They are going through their second salary-cap purge in about five years and don't have much to rebuild around, except for three former seventh-round picks at quarterback with a total of three NFL starts, all by Tim Rattay. Julian Peterson is a first-rate all-around linebacker with virtually no help on defense. His career is being wasted the same way LaDainian Tomlinson's is in San Diego. Even with his best efforts, the 49ers still might give up 28 points a game. And they don't have the offense to score that many points in most months.

Over/under: 5.5 wins. Go under. This is a bad, bad team.

 

The Playoffs.

NFC division winners: Philadelphia, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle.

Wild cards: Minnesota, Carolina.

AFC division winners: New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City.

Wild cards: Tennessee, Oakland.

In case you couldn't tell from reading all of this, defense will make a big difference when we get into the playoffs. A lot of teams can score, but if somebody can keep the points down, they might have a chance to succeed. In the NFC, the Eagles aren't any better than they were last year. Green Bay is the choice, assuming they can form some semblance of a secondary without McKenzie.

In the AFC, any of the four division winners look like legitimate Super Bowl teams, but nobody repeats, so the Patriots are out. I still can't give Kyle Boller a title, even though Jamal Lewis will be doing all the heavy lifting. And I'll give the Chiefs the edge over the Colts because maybe if they play in Arrowhead in January again, the weather will be horrible and that will give Kansas City the edge it needs.

A repeat of Super Bowl I between Green Bay and Kansas City would be great for the public relations machine. And it'd be a pretty good game too. Two teams of destiny with great offenses and so-so defenses. I'd take the Chiefs, because I think their defense will be better by that point.

 

Matt Pitzer is an editor and fantasy football expert for USA Today Sports Weekly. He chats weekly on the USA Today Web site every Thursday about fantasy football right here.