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Weakest links for Super Bowl contenders
Every one of these teams has Super Bowl aspirations this season.
But like most teams, they too have a weakness, a missing ingredient that could undermine their run toward championship season.
Arizona Cardinals -- Quarterback
Ken Whisenhunt got a well-deserved contract extension for doing the seemingly impossible with the Cardinals: Win two straight division titles, plus another playoff game. But he won’t have Kurt Warner and his 26 touchdown passes and incomparable 66 percent accuracy.
This month, the coaching staff is working with replacement Matt Leinart on his “nemesis pass,” the one that sails wide left. And if Leinart doesn’t cure his footwork, the Cards are left with ex-Brown Derek Anderson. And although they have shown no interest in him, Bodog.com has the Cardinals as the 3-1 favorites to sign JaMarcus Russell because of a coach-agent connection.
Baltimore Ravens -- Middle linebacker
Yes, Ray Lewis is slowing down. This will be his 15th season, he’s 35 and simply can’t run to the sideline like he once did and is making too many tackles way behind the line of scrimmage. Besides, he’s an emotional leader and one of those highly instinctive players. And there are no guarantees that Jameel McClain or Tavares Gooden can replace him when it comes to being a living icon.
It’s not so much the regular season as the question of where will Ray be physically in the playoffs? Otherwise, the Ravens have no holes as long as safety Ed Reed returns healthy and wide receiver Anquan Boldin proves to be the open target for Joe Flacco.
Dallas Cowboys -- Left tackle
Everyone is euphoric in Big D over first-round sensation Dez Bryant, who will wear Michael Irvin’s No. 88.
But what about protecting the triggerman, Tony Romo? Granted, Flozell Adams was earning too much and got beat sometimes by speedy rushers, but he was one nasty dude who would go to any lengths to protect Romo.
Now, they are entrusting Romo’s blindside to Doug Free, who is technically sound. And if he isn’t tough enough they just traded for ex-Ram Alex Barron, who failed miserably protecting Marc Bulger. The running backs had better pass protect well.
Yes, old man Mark Tauscher saved the season when he returned to start the final eight games and prevent Aaron Rodgers from being broken in two. Remember, Rodgers had a penchant for holding the ball too long and was sacked 50 times last season.
Both of the Packers’ veteran tackles have faulty knees and that’s why they drafted Byran Buluga, who was knocked for his short arms and being beaten soundly by Michigan’s Brandon Graham, the Eagles’ first-round selection. The Packers may have to force feed Buluga into action.
Indianapolis Colts -- Offensive line
We all remember GM Bill Polian blaming his offensive line for losing the Super Bowl and the Colts still don’t have an experienced backup behind Peyton Manning (Curtis Painter?). Center Jeff Saturday (12th season) isn’t getting any younger while tackle Tony Ugoh has been a disappointment.
Indy will attempt to patch up the interior of the line with Andy Alleman, Adam Terry and second-year player Kyle Devan. The Colts continue to rely too much on Manning making quick, smart decisions before he’s run over. Some thought Polian would draft Indiana offensive lineman Roger Saffold, but he went for another pass rusher in TCU’s Jerry Hughes.
Minnesota Vikings -- Defensive tackle
It looks like the Vikings’ two defensive tackles, Kevin and Pat Williams, could finally be suspended four games for failing a drug test more than a year ago. If it happens at the start of the season, they figure to lose two of their first four games with the Saints, Dolphins and Jets among the opponents.
There isn’t a better defensive tackle in the NFL than Kevin Williams while big Pat is a huge run stuffer. They will be replaced by Jimmy Kennedy, a former first-round bust, and Fred Evans. Yes, Kennedy and Evans play well when rotating in for the Williams Wall, but it will a lot different story if these two giants are down for four games. With no push from the middle, Jared Allen might find himself double-teamed repeatedly throughout the first quarter of the season.
New England Patriots -- Slot receiver
Tom Brady needs Wes Welker in the worst way, and who knows when Welker, who had reconstructive knee surgery plus shoulder surgery in February, will be ready for action?
Coach Bill Belichick is trying to get younger at a lot of positions like punter and tight end while also reworking his shaky defensive line. But to make the offense click for another playoff run nobody thinks David Patten and Torry Holt are going to be able to replace Welker. Plus, isn’t this the last season for Randy Moss in Foxboro? If the Patriots don’t have Welker by October, you can count them out in the AFC East.
New Orleans Saints -- Free safety
Does Darren Sharper, who played such a marvelous ball-hawking center field last season, have one last great season in him? Sharper, 34, was hoping to strike it rich in free agency after his nine interceptions and NFL record 376 interception return yards led this championship defense.
There is no question that Sharper -- who is returning off microfracture left knee surgery, a procedure that slowed Reggie Bush for a while -- ideally suits what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams employs on defense. The Saints have fantastic young cornerbacks, but they need Sharper to patrol the middle and make the smart gamble whenever someone is beaten deep. It’s a lot to ask if Sharper can’t run like he used to. The Saints need another nine interceptions from this guy to return to defend their title.
New York Jets -- Running back
They dumped run-blocker Alan Faneca and are counting on LaDainian Tomlinson to turn back the clock and rotate with playoff sensation Shonn Greene. When healthy, Thomas Jones, who led the team with 1,402 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and Leon Washington, who was dealt to Seattle, were a better combination in the New York backfield.
You can’t knock the Jets for wanting to go younger with Greene and rookie Joe McKnight, who was horribly out-of-shape in his first minicamp. But youth doesn’t necessarily mean either man will gain the tough, physical yards that Jones did. It’s like the Jets now think that they will be a passing team in Mark Sanchez’s second season.
San Diego Chargers -- Right cornerback
The Chargers are also worried about their linebacking corps, a key component in any 3-4 alignment. But in the secondary, they are now saying that Antoine Cason is a better fit as a starter for the traded Antonio Cromartie than he was as a starting nickel back. It’s a fascinating argument and that’s why Donald Strickland and ex-Bear Nathan Vasher were signed to boost the secondary. Neither one of them can run and cover like Cromartie, who is gone because he didn’t like to tackle running backs. Vasher will do that.
Yes, the Chargers are set on offense, but to make another long playoff run they need a solid pass defense and it’s anyone’s guess right now what the secondary will really look like next December.