The Race To Tampa Is Ready To Begin
TBO.comTAMPA - Looking ahead to the heart of Florida's snowbird season, 32 NFL vultures have earmarked Tampa as their prime winter destination for the week ending Feb. 1.
Published: August 31, 2008
Published: August 31, 2008
Only two clubs will emerge from the flock to square off at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl XLIII, the fourth time the Bay area has been chosen to serve as host site for the league's showcase event.
The Redskins and the defending champion Giants kick things off Thursday night in the Meadowlands, and the postseason begins four months later on wild-card weekend.
Here's a division-by-division look at what might happen in between.
The Bucs appear to have the best defense, by far, in this group as they attempt to avoid the usual division title hangover. New Orleans should be better on both sides of the ball, especially if MLB Jonathan Vilma and rookie DT Sedrick Ellis invigorate a ragged defense, and second-year WR Robert Meachem can get open downfield.
There's a sense of urgency in Carolina, where the Panthers have been drab for the past two seasons and DE Julius Peppers went AWOL in 2007. A healthy Jake Delhomme should make a major impact in the passing game, but WR Steve Smith still needs some help. The Falcons are rebuilding under rookie QB Matt Ryan as first-year Coach Mike Smith accents a ground game led by free-agent addition Michael Turner.
It has been a difficult offseason for the Giants, losing DE Osi Umenyiora to injury, seeing DE Michael Strahan retire and trading TE Jeremy Shockey to New Orleans. That ramps up the pressure on Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning in what could be the NFL's most competitive division.
The Cowboys might have the most talent in the league, but QB Tony Romo needs a better backup and Coach Wade Phillips is winless in four playoff games. A healthy Donovan McNabb should lead the Eagles back into the postseason, while the Redskins appear to be a little short in the trenches for rookie Coach Jim Zorn.
If young QB Tarvaris Jackson plays with maturity, the Vikings will be tough to beat. Minnesota was No. 1 in both rushing and stopping the run in 2007, and new DE Jared Allen gives this defense a nasty attitude.
The Bears and Packers enter the season with unproven quarterbacks under center, hoping Kyle Orton and Aaron Rodgers play up to their potential. WR Calvin Johnson looks poised for a breakout year in Detroit and rookie RB Kevin Smith has been impressive, but the Lions are teeming with defensive issues.
Mike Holmgren's 10th and final season on the Seattle sideline figures to end with a fifth consecutive division title, but the Seahawks are still looking for the next Shaun Alexander. A veteran defense boasts playmakers but lacks depth.
The Cardinals still have to learn how to win on the road, and QB Matt Leinart isn't developing. The Rams can't stop anyone, and the 49ers can't score.
The Patriots looked awful in the preseason, but Tom Brady will cure many of those ills when he shreds Kansas City in Week 1. Yes, New England has some age on defense, but the schedule appears favorable, and the Pats have ripped off 19 consecutive regular-season wins.
Brett Favre might help New York score more points, but the Jets need help up front on both sides of the ball. The Bills haven't posted a winning road record since 1999, so QB Trent Edwards must provide poise following an erratic rookie season. The Big Tuna's track record suggests Bill Parcells will turn the Dolphins around, and the 2008 draft class looks like a winner.
The transition from Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin didn't rob Pittsburgh of its aggressive personality. The Steelers still run with authority, play stingy defense and boast an elite triggerman in Ben Roethlisberger.
The Browns took a significant step forward in Romeo Crennel's third season, as QB Derek Anderson blossomed and Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow combined for 162 receptions and 21 TDs. Now, it is time for the NFL's 30th-ranked defense to do its part. The Bengals are desperate for a pass rush, while it's hard to believe the sloppy Ravens are only two years removed from a 13-win season.
Before you bury the Colts, remember that Indy is the first NFL franchise to reel off five consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins. Still, Peyton Manning's bursa sac is a concern, Marvin Harrison is 36 and the Jags are coming on strong.
Jaguars fans say this is Jacksonville's best chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. This team believes in QB David Garrard, but the pass rush has to show up in January. Houston's Andre Johnson is the league's most underpublicized receiver, but the Texans must be more stout against the run. Unless QB Vince Young takes a big leap forward, Tennessee will continue to struggle offensively.
This used to be a heck of a division. Now, it's San Diego and three pretenders. The Chargers are bursting with star quality, even if they end up playing without Pro Bowl LB Shawne Merriman, and QB Philip Rivers won over teammates with his toughness in 2007.
The Broncos are going in the wrong direction, especially on defense, while the Raiders have lost at least 11 games in five consecutive seasons, matching the infamous record of the 1985-89 Buccaneers. Even an impressive draft class won't help Kansas City win more than five games.
In 2007, nine of the 12 playoff teams began their regular season by winning the opener, with Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and the Super Bowl champion Giants able to overcome a Week 1 setback.
Excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season, since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, 53 percent of teams that won their openers made the playoffs, and 31 percent ended up winning division titles.
That's in sharp contrast to the teams that lost on Week 1 since 1978, with only 23 percent recovering to advance to postseason play and just 13 percent finishing as division winners.
•REVIEWABLE PLAYS: Instant replay expanded to include field-goal and extra-point attempts.
•FORCEOUT RULE: The forceout call has been eliminated. A player who receives or intercepts a ball must land with both feet inbounds.
•INCIDENTAL FACEMASK: Fouls for incidental grasp and release of the facemask have been eliminated. Twisting, turning or pulling the facemask remains a 15-yard personal foul.
•DEFENSIVE HELMET RADIOS: One defensive player on the field each snap will be permitted to compete with a radio in his helmet.
In 2007, the top five teams in sacks combined for a 60-20 record, and all five made the playoffs:
Team Sacks Record Result Giants 53 10-6Super Bowl champions Patriots 47 16-0 AFC champions Cowboys 46 13-3 Lost in NFC divisional round Seahawks 45 10-6 Lost in NFC divisional round Chargers 42 11-5 Lost in AFC title game PASSING FANCY
Seven QBs threw for at least 4,000 yards last season, the largest group in the NFL's 88-year history. Here are the top five seasons with the most 4,000-yard passers:
Year 4,000-yard passers Quarterbacks 2007 7 Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Jon Kitna, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo 1999 5 Steve Beuerlein, Favre, Brad Johnson, Manning, Kurt Warner 2004 5 Daunte Culpepper, Favre, Trent Green, Manning, Jake Plummer 2006 5 Marc Bulger, Brees, Kitna, Manning, Palmer 1995 4 Favre, Jeff George, Scott Mitchell, Warren Moon 2002 4 Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Manning TURN, TURN, TURN
Most NFL coaches will tell you that turnover margin is pro football's key statistic. Here are the cumulative top five and bottom five clubs in turnover ratio the past 10 seasons:
Patriots plus-59 108-52 Jaguars plus-55 89-71 Chiefs plus-48 80-80 Buccaneers plus-45 86-74 Jets plus-43 82-78 WORST
Texans minus-32 32-64 Raiders minus-32 68-92 Browns minus-54 50-94 Rams minus-67 85-75 Cardinals minus-74 58-102
It has been a busy offseason for NFL players switching teams.
Player Position New team 2007 team Transaction Brett Favre QB Jets Packers Trade Jared Allen DE Vikings Chiefs Trade Asante Samuel CB Eagles Patriots UFA Jeremy Shockey TE Saints Giants TradeJeff Faine C Bucs Saints UFAJonathan Vilma LB Saints Jets Trade Michael Turner RB Falcons Chargers UFA Jason Taylor DE Redskins Dolphins Trade Marcus Stroud DT Bills Jaguars TradeKris Jenkins DT Jets Panthers TradeDeAngelo Hall CB Raiders Falcons TradeAlan Faneca G Jets Steelers UFABernard Berrian WR Vikings Bears UFAShaun Rogers DT Browns Lions TradeWarrick Dunn RB Bucs Falcons UFA