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Don't bet the ranch on favorites just yet
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1. New England PatriotsSuper Bowl odds: 8-1 What's wrong? Well, nothing's really "wrong" with the Patriots, but there are certainly some things that concern me heading into 2009. First would be the relatively quiet off-season departures of defensive leaders Mike Vrabel (traded to Kansas City) and Rodney Harrison (retired and off to NBC). Both field generals will be replaced by inexperienced, untested youngsters. Vrabel's outside LB spot, which he manned for eight years and three Super Bowl appearances, will be handled by a platoon of Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable, along with journeyman Tully Banta-Cain. Not exactly Lambert, Ham and Andy Russell.
2. Pittsburgh SteelersSuper Bowl odds: 15-1 What's wrong? In my book, you've always got to beat the best to be the best which makes it troublesome for me that the defending champion Steelers aren't the Vegas favorites heading into the season. Pittsburgh returns the majority of its defense, most of its offense and retained all of its key coaching personnel. After what they showed us in 2008 surviving the most difficult regular-season schedule I've ever seen it's tough to doubt the boys down in Pittsburgh this season.
3. Philadelphia EaglesSuper Bowl odds: 15-1 What's wrong? The Eagles are downright scary this season. Their offense is loaded (rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin are legitimate game-breakers), their defense is menacing, and they're coming off a devastating loss in the NFC Championship Game that should only serve as mega-motivation for 2009.
4. San Diego Chargers
Super Bowl odds: 15-1
What's wrong? Though they caught fire down the stretch and knocked off the Colts in the playoffs, most Chargers fans will tell you that the defense stunk last year. I'm sorry, it did.
Shawne Merriman missed 15 games, Antonio Cromartie was in and out of the lineup and teams ran and passed all over Ron Rivera's once-proud unit.
Entering 2009, it's easy to say Merriman and Cromartie are back and healthy, and feel as though the pass rush is recharged with the recently signed Larry English out of Northern Illinois.
But I still have doubts across the unit. Jamal Williams, the longtime DT and clog of the Chargers' 3-4 scheme, had work done on his knees this offseason. Is the 12-year veteran one bad fall away from the entire D crumbling below him? Igor Olshansky, a reliable vet at right end, is now in Dallas, and unknowns Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham are fighting for the starting gig. Though Cesaire has started in this league before, neither he nor Bingham are looked at as upgrades from the departed Olshansky. I don't think Tim Dobbins played all that well at ILB last year. He's the likely starter again. Ho hum. The Chargers D, once one of the most feared units in the NFL, has some glaring questions. If San Diego was in any other division, the defense would be enough to cause concern.
Fortunately, the Chargers play in the AFC West, the NFL's version of the minor leagues. They'll breeze through the regular season to their fourth straight division championship and perhaps get by the Colts in the playoffs for the third straight year.
But are they any more prepared for the Steelers or Patriots than they were in 2008 or '07? I fear they're not.
5. New York Giants
Super Bowl odds: 18-1
What's wrong? Who's going to catch passes this year for the Giants? Seriously. I've read everywhere how the Giants have addressed the losses of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, but I'm not buying it until I see some actual production. Rolling the ball on the field and saying, "Play Ball" is fine for a high school or college team, but in the NFL a quarterback needs go-to guys if a team is supposed to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And I'm sorry Giants fans, but from what I've seen neither Dominik Hixon nor Steve Smith are No. 1 targets. Hell, you know that.
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Excited about Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden? Well, you should be. Both have incredible potential. But they're rookies. Go through the history books. Unless you're a rare case like Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Marques Colston, DeSean Jackson or Donald Royal, rookie wide receivers do not tend to shine.
The reports from training camp on Nicks and Barden have been fine enough, but nothing has sent the masses into hysteria. Over at popular Giants blog BigBlueInteractive.com, a Monday morning camp write-up reported, "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that WR Hakeem Nicks is not fast enough, it just seems that he is significantly slower than say, WR Domenik Hixon or HB Ahmad Bradshaw in getting up field with the ball. Nicks is clearly not a blazer."
"Nicks is clearly not a blazer," is probably the worst sentence a Giant fan could read this August.
Maybe Sinorice Moss or Mario Manningham will finally emerge as the receivers fans thought they were getting when they were drafted in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Maybe the Giants go out and sign a veteran wideout that can contribute. Maybe David Tyree, the Super Bowl XLI star who sat out the entire 2008 season, returns to the field and picks up right where he left off in Glendale, Ariz. Maybe things all just work out in the end.
I don't know. That sure seems like a lot of maybes for a team that Vegas has as one of the top Super Bowl contenders in '09.
Photos: Get ready for the season! Check out the best shots as training camps open across the NFL.
6. Indianapolis Colts
Super Bowl odds: 22-1
What's wrong? Change is supposed to be good, right? Yet, when it comes to Indy, we might be looking at just too much change in too short a period of time. Crazily enough, the changes aren't even on the field, they're on the sidelines.
Yes, the Colts hired from within the organization in most cases, and sure, they still have that Peyton Manning guy under center. But replacing your head coach, assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and offensive line coach all in the same off-season? Well, I mean, that's a lot of freaking change, dude!
The rub is this: None of these guys, with the exception of new D-coordinator Larry Coyer, are really "new." Head coach Jim Caldwell's been with Indy for eight seasons, assistant head coach Clyde Christensen has, too, and offensive quality control/offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars has six years of work on Indy's staff on his resume. Caldwell told Sports Illustrated in June, "Often the word change denotes abrupt alteration of direction. Transition is smoother. The things that have happened with us have been rather smooth."
Transition, change, complete freakin' overhaul whatever you want to call it the Colts locker room will look and feel at least a little different in '09.
When you're the only franchise in NFL history to record 12 wins in six straight seasons, it's tough to just shrug your shoulders and say "Change is good."
7. Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl odds: 22-1
What's wrong? Though I may be one of the few in the media who feel this way, I'm actually really high on the Cowboys this year. I like that they're a bit under the radar (relative to previous years, at least), I like that they're free of any major distractions in camp (this includes players, girlfriends and HBO reality TV cameras), and I like that they're opening a new stadium they'll call home (you've heard about that scoreboard, right?). The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996. I strongly believe this is the year they break out of that slump.
But for all my confidence in the post-T.O./post-Pacman/post-Parcells/post-Jessica Simpson Cowboys, there are some pretty big question marks across the field. For one, who's going to line up alongside Roy Williams at wideout? Sure, Patrick Crayton's been a suitable third option for years, but can he be a go-to guy? Miles Austin? Sam Hurd? Again, they've both shown flashes, but are they ready for the big stage on a consistent basis?
There were some significant changes on the defensive side of the ball this off-season, as well. Chris Canty, the up-and-coming star that everyone loved in Big D, is now playing with the hated Giants. Veterans Tank Johnson, Zach Thomas, Anthony Henry, and Roy Williams are all gone, too. The cornerback unit, though filled with promise, is basically Terrence Newman and a bunch of question marks and unknowns. Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky were solid off-season acquisitions, but are they upgrades?
All in all, I like what Dallas did this offseason and like the quiet vibe in camp. But there's some reason for doubt. At least there's no four-week miniseries confirming it this time around.
8. New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl odds: 34-1
What's wrong? I was surprised to see R.J. Bell's book list the Saints as favorites in the NFC South over the defending champion Carolina Panthers and everybody's darling Atlanta Falcons. Must be those fantasy stats. They sure are sexy, aren't they?
Because if I'm a Saints fan, I'm still losing sleep over that wibbly wobbly defense. The thing's got more holes in it than a slice of Alpine Lace. As is the case every year with the Saints in August, the D looks perfectly fine on paper. It has its fair share of notable names and former Pro Bowl performers (Jonathan Vilma, Charles Grant, Will Smith), a pair of top 15 draft choices (Sedrick Ellis and Malcolm Jenkins), and sexy off-season veteran acquisitions (Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer). But like every August, I have my doubts about the unit. And if you've watched Saints football for the past two seasons you know that those doubts are usually validated by Week 5.
Whether it's been injuries, personnel decisions, or just a string of mediocre performances, the Saints defense specifically that nightmarish defensive backfield has been the team's Achilles' heel for quite some time.
If there's reason for optimism it's the sight of Gregg Williams roaming the sidelines as the new defensive coordinator. One of the more respected defensive minds in the game, Williams brings some bite and some credibility to a unit that sorely needs it.
In the end, Drew Brees and those offensive skill guys are going to put up their stats. They'll make your fantasy football teams sparkle, too.
But the defense needs to show up in 2009.
Somewhere other than just "on paper."
Other contenders and my doubts
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