Starr: NFL Preview

When it comes to preseason predictions, pro football is impossibly oblique. Sure, I’ll go on the record and take my best shot at column’s end for the pleasure of your ultimate ridicule. But these picks are, well, strictly for sport. The magic of the NFL is its ultimate unpredictability. Tonight’s opener—the champion Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Miami Dolphins—embodies that as well as any game could. Having survived a potentially fatal motorcycle accident, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been felled by the mundane peril of appendicitis, and Pittsburgh’s repeat hopes rest on how well Big Ben emerges from his twin traumas. The Dolphins, with hot young coach Nick Saban at the helm and Daunte Culpepper—the team’s best quarterback talent since Dan Marino hung ‘em up—under center, are a fashionable pick. But such hopes also revolve around how Culpepper rebounds from both a serious injury (knee) and a serious embarrassment (the Vikings’ party boat shipwreck ). My take on the key trends and personalities this season:

The cloning of Belichick: The famously controlling coach Bill Belichick—just try getting an honest injury report out of him; the league certainly hasn’t been able to—has led his New England Patriots to three Super Bowl wins in the past five years. Imitation being the sincerest form of NFL coaching, other NFL teams are trying to get in on the Patriots’ tight-lipped act—several teams, including division rivals New York and Miami, are now led by former Belichick aides. The New York press is already bristling at Eric Mangini’s control-freak version at the helm of the Jets, suggesting that he hasn’t yet earned the right to be so withholding. But they miss the point: withholding, at least in the theory, helps you earn the right. The Jets players may lament the departure of nice-guy coach Herm Edwards, but the franchise is ready to prosper. The clearest signal that the Jets are headed in the right direction came in the draft when Jets rejected all the sexy picks for D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who will anchor the offensive line for years to come (not to mention maybe protect QB Chad Pennington’s oft-injured shoulder from blindside pass rushers.)

The cloning of Belichick’s playbook: The Patriots coach has never appeared to value wide receivers all that much, and his current stalemate, getting nastier by the day, with former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch reflects that opinion (though, despite Branch’s legal grievance, Belichick and the Patriots appear to hold all the cards). In the meantime, the whole NFL is watching to see what Belichick does with a passel of tight ends, including former first-round picks Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, and two rookies who can also catch the ball. You may be seeing plenty of three- and four-tight-end sets, which could, along with Corey Dillon’s improved health and the arrival of first-round-pick running back Laurence Maroney, rejuvenate the Pats running game. The question is how much of a passing game can Tom Brady generate absent his favorite receiver.

Recovering QBs: Roethlisberger and Culpepper are only two of the signal-callers whose teams are relying on recoveries to propel them to the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Carson Palmer looked as good as any quarterback in the game last season, and many believe Pittsburgh’s march to the championship would have ended in the first round had Palmer not gone down with a serious knee injury in the game’s opening minutes. The Bengals are loaded on offense, but their arrival in the front ranks of the NFL comes with a major upgrade in schedule that will test an iffy defense. Who’d have guessed that a team coached by Marvin Lewis, architect of the fearsome Baltimore Ravens defense, would have major questions on the defensive side of the ball? But it’s Jacksonville that boasts the biggest quarterback controversy (if you don’t count whether Bret Favre should retire rather than endure another numbingly bad season). The Jags rode their defense to the playoffs last season, but the offense sure looked better with David Garrard running it than with Byron Leftwich when he returned from injury just in time for the playoffs.

QB on the hot spot: That’s pretty much every one of them, but the hottest may be settling under Atlanta’s Michael Vick. He is the league’s most thrilling quarterback, but nobody believes you can ride a quarterback’s legs to the Super Bowl. Can Vick master the West Coast offense and use his running ability as a complement and not the main weapon? It will be hard with the Falcons seemingly weakened at both running back and wide receiver. Runner-up is Jake Plummer, who thought he had found redemption with the Broncos last season until he revealed all those old, bad habits against the Steelers.

Manning the attack: It is hard to carp about anything Indianapolis Colts demigod Peyton Manning does during the regular season. But come the January fray, he seems decidedly mortal. And this year he will miss handing off the ball to Edgerrin James. It’s been a long time since a shootout offense prevailed in the Super Bowl rather than a shutdown defense. And unless the Colts defense improves as much this year as it did last, they don’t qualify as such. Little brother Eli may not be quite the talent, but there’s more balance on his New York Giants team and less formidable opposition in the conference. The G-men drew a brutal schedule, but I still contend Eli has a better chance of playing in February than his celebrated older brother.

Two quarterbacks: Instead of carrying the traditional three, about a quarter of the NFL’s teams are entering the season with just two quarterbacks on the roster. Is this a sign of a leaguewide dearth of talent at the position—or the realization that, if a third quarterback is going to be called upon, the game is probably already lost? Taking snaps as the Pats third quarterback this preseason: Do-it-all-from-any-position (though normally a receiver) Troy Brown. Shades of Baltimore Colts running back Tom Matte, who, those of a certain age will recall, filled in as emergency quarterback when Johnny Unitas and his backup were injured.

Coach on the hot spot: Again, all of them, since there couldn’t be 10 new ones this season if it wasn’t such a perilous profession. But San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer has had more year-to-year success than almost any coach without gaining the affection and, ultimately, faith of owners and fans. The Chargers slipped notably last year and it will be hard to resurrect their fortunes with Philip Rivers, who’s talented but essentially a rookie quarterback, even if he has had the benefit of a couple of years in the system. Runner-up is Joe Gibbs, who righted the ship last year but could be in trouble if injured running back Clinton Portis isn’t ready to carry the load. Redskins owner Danny Snyder falls in and out of love fast. If the Redskins stumble, Tom Cruise could be coaching the team by Thanksgiving.

AFC superiority: There seemed, finally, to be some leveling of the two conferences last year, and the Seattle Seahawks were more than a worthy challenger in the Super Bowl (and, had a few tough calls gone their way, might have even beaten the Steelers). Most of the iron remains in the AFC, but there are a now some competitive teams in the NFC, and two of its divisions, the East and South, can make a claim to be the toughest across the board in the league. Seattle will become the first Super Bowl loser in years to avoid the runner-up jinx by returning to the playoffs.

T.O. vs. Parcells: Despite Terrell Owens’s extraordinary talents, it’s hard to believe that Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is thrilled to have this troubled troublemaker on his field. Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe is notoriously slow afoot and glacial in his decision-making—something Belichick recognized when he let Bledsoe go five years ago—and, thus, will often miss an open Owens downfield. It is not in T.O.’s nature to be discreet about such shortcomings. But when the sparks fly—and they inevitably will—they may be between the coach and owner-G.M. Jerry Jones, who brought in Owens.

Mr. Clutch: Adam Vinatieri, who has kicked three of the greatest last-second, fourth-quarter field goals in NFL history (two of them to win Super Bowls, though the Snow Bowl kick against Oakland was the best) has left the Patriots for the perpetually close-but-no-cigar Colts. Much has been made of what a difference-maker Vinatieri could be for Indianapolis, which is kind of silly given that the Colts have coasted to their recent division title—they scored TDs and seldom worry about field goals—while boasting the highest percentage kicker in NFL history in Mike Vanderjagt. If the difference comes, it will show up in the postseason, where last year the former Colt kicker jagted his big chance wide enough right, losing the game to the Steelers.

Balanced schedules: With 32 teams and eight divisions, the schedules are neatly balanced—which isn’t exactly the same as being equal. Every team plays eight of the same teams outside its division and just two that ain’t the same. But often they ain’t the same in a major way. In the most balanced division, the NFC East, that’s the difference this year between playing the playoff-bound Bears and Seahawks, as the Giants do after finishing first in 2005, or playing the cellar-bound Lions and the Cardinals, as the Cowboys do after finishing third. Two games mean a lot.

Breakout Seasons

Offense: Everyone still raves about the play Patriots tight end Ben Watson made last year in running 90-plus yards from the opposite side of the field and catching speedy Broncos defensive back Champ Bailey before he got into the end zone with an interception. This could be the year that Watson’s speed and size is put to more use catching the ball. If Branch sits out for long, Watson could establish himself as the team’s go-to receiver. Same for receiver Matt Jones, a 6-foot-5 former quarterback, in Jacksonville now that Jimmy Smith has retired. In the absence of Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown looks fully capable of carrying the rushing attack in Miami. And while there is eager anticipation of rookie tight end Vernon Davis in San Francisco, the guy poised for a breakout season there is Frank Gore, who averaged almost five yards a carry last year while sharing duties. Defense: If the Ravens defense has a revival, the big difference may the arrival of a 340-pound run-stuffing rook named Haloti Ngata. Dallas rookies DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears emerged as a high-energy tandem in the Cowboys front seven last year and should make the transition of Dallas’s top draft choice, Ohio State linebacker Rob Carpenter, that much easier. Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson is a stud; he had 108 tackles last year, including eight sacks.

Four NFL Conventional Wisdoms, and Why They Will—or Won’t—Come True

1) Carolina for the Super Bowl: As good a pick as any, though I would not be surprised to see the Giants, despite a brutal schedule, the Seahawks or the defensive-minded Bears there out of the NFC come February. And I still see on the of three AFC teams—Denver, New England or Pittsburgh—winning the game.

2) Dolphins to oust the Patriots in the AFC East: Great coach, talented quarterback, but they will miss Ricky Williams’s hammer now that his latest spiritual quest—in the form of another drug suspension—has taken the running back to Canada for the season. Pats played a brutal schedule last season and, with a lot easier one in 2006, should hold off a Miami challenge for at least one more year.

3) Ravens to surprise in the AFC South: Baltimore finally has a competent veteran quarterback in Steve McNair, but he is old and battered. And while the Ravens defense has been waiting for the team to find a quarterback, it has gotten old too. Ray Lewis is not the singular force of yesteryear. I can’t see the Ravens sneaking past either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

4) Arizona to be vastly improved: Everything appears to be in place in Denny Green’s third year at the helm. With USC glamour boy Matt Leinart waiting in the wings, with two stellar 100-reception wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, with the veteran star Edgerrin James loosed from Indy to remedy the greatest passing/rushing imbalance in the league, with the game’s best young kicker in Neil Rackers and a beautiful new half-billion-dollar stadium that will, finally, produce sellout crowds in the desert, all the stars are aligned. Unfortunately, the lines—neither the offensive nor the defensive—aren’t stars. I fell for the Cardinals' hype last year. Won’t get fooled again.

2006 regular-season picks: It is too preposterous a task to pick the whole enchilada. I’ll just aspire to get the regular season right, then start from scratch come the playoffs. Last year I tried to be very clever. I wasn’t all that clever, but was very, very wrong.

AFC East: New England Patriots—The Pats added a lot of speed to its offense, if rookies Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson can shake off injuries and get on the field. The defense, at least beyond the front line, can be spotty, but, with Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi, does not lack for first-class leadership.

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers—The champions get to avoid both New England and Indy by virtue of having finished in second place behind Cincy in the division. The Bengals had the schedule advantage last year; their positions are now reversed and so too should be the standings.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts—The perfect regular-season team. Indeed, too many weapons can mean the Colts clinch too early and appear to lose their edge. But if Vinatieri is lining up a game-winner at the gun in the playoffs, somebody in management will look brilliant—unless he misses, of course.

AFC West: Denver Broncos—A brilliantly coached team with a great home-field advantage adds Bret Favre’s favorite target, Javon Walker, to the mix. Many experts believe that’s a ticket to Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

AFC Wild Card: Miami Dolphins—The Fish sent a signal with a six-game winning streak at season’s end. They should be right up with the Patriots in a two-tiered division. And they already get the first break by missing Roethlisberger in game one.

AFC Wild Card: Cincinnati Bengals—Too many weapons on offense to be denied, as long as Palmer’s comeback stays on track.

NFC East: New York Giants—A well-balanced team on both sides of the ball. Will need to capitalize this year before the inevitable burnout at having Tom Coughlin as coach.

NFC Central: Chicago Bears—The Bears' defense, with Brian Urlacher as Dick Butkus reincarnate, should be sufficient to dominate this division. If they find a serviceable quarterback between Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, they could be Super Bowl bound, reminiscent of the championship Ravens of recent vintage.

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons—The Falcons have rejuvenated their defense with some veteran talent, most notably John Abraham providing an outside rush and Lawyer Milloy veteran savvy on the back line. Now all the Falcons need is for Vick to get in touch with his inner and outer greatness. This is that year!

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks—Seattle is just too strong in a weak decision to suffer any serious reversal stemming from last year’s Super Bowl loss. Matt Hasselbeck may not be one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, but he’s high up in the next group—and that’s enough in Mike Holmgren’s system, with all the talent surrounding him.

NFC Wild Card: Carolina Panthers—If the Panthers can keep their running backs upright for an entire season, they, too, could contend for that February trip to Florida. They have all the other pieces in place.

NFC Wild Card: St. Louis Rams—Stephen Jackson may not make folks forget Marshall Faulk. But he could help propel the Rams back to the playoffs.