Sitting here at the start of five months of gridiron fun, it is disconcertingly easy to see who most of the playoff participants will be. This is one of the least open seasons for years, largely because so many teams were in such bad shape at the end of last season, not even extensive drafting and player trading has made a whole lot of difference. Admittedly, there is always the chance that someone will come from absolutely nowhere, as the New Orleans Saints did last season, but that isn't likely to make a whole lot of difference to the outcome. It is therefore with a certain sense of inevitability that I present my guide to the 32 candidates for the title Superbowl Champions 2008.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (2006 Record 5-11)
Just how a side like the Cardinals had such a bad 2006 season still mystifies me. How any team with Edgerrin James, Larry Johnson and Anquan Boldon can have a losing year is somewhat incredible, but the fact is that, for all of their offensive capability behind the line, the o-line itself was a shambles. They'll be hoping that the new coaching team of Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm can work that out in a way that enables them to get the best from their stars. On defense, their major problem is going to be stopping the run and the fact that, in Eric Green, they have the second-worst cornerback in the NFL. The upside of this is that the inventiveness of co-ordinator Clancy Pendergast should lead to some very aggressive play, with plenty of sacks and turnovers.
ATLANTA FALCONS (7-9)
It's hard to get a worse start to the season than the Falcons have already had, with the Michael Vick affair not only disrupting their entire offensive planning, but distracting the franchise as they tried to regroup after 2006's decidedly average season. They're left with a second rate QB in Joey Harrington, two very average RBs in Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, an unchanged defensive line which spent most of last season getting beaten up by everyone they faced and only one real attacking threat in Alge Crumpler. And you can't win games with just a decent tight end. If they win as many as six games this season I'll be surprised.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-3)
The Ravens surprised many people last season and probably hoped that they would make it all the way to the Superbowl. This year they will do well to do half as well. They're an ageing team where most of their best players are, at most, two seasons from retirement.Signing running back Willis McGahee from Buffalo will help in the short term, but he is no spring chicken either. Their best hope is actually in defense, where they are so strong, even losing a player as good as Adalius Thomas won't make a significant difference.
BUFFALO BILLS (7-9)
Losing McGahee will mean that they look ever more to the passing game. QB JP Losman is no longer the innocent youngster of previous seasons and, on his day, has a phenomenal arm. The problem is that his wide receivers are among the smallest in the NFL. Without a running game to speak of, this is going to be a problem against any side with reasonably tall cornerbacks - unless Marshawn Lynch comes through faster than expected. On defense, they have a compartively inexperienced front 7, but boy are they quick.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (8-8)
2006 was a huge disappointment. Injuries to Steve Smith illustrated just how badly one-dimensional they had become, even for a side with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield. A new offensive co-ordinator, Jeff Davidson, will be expected to redress the balance and will have to do so fast, as they have not really replaced the retired Keyshawn Johnson. Defensively, they are on the small side and injury-prone, but if Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins can stay fit, they'll still be a handful.
CHICAGO BEARS (14-2, lost Superbowl)
Even as a Bears fan I still have to ask how the hell they managed to win so many games with a liability like Rex Grossman at QB. Anyone who saw his nightmare Superbowl ought to know that this was no shock to Bears supporters, who have had to put up with the NFL's most error-prone triggerman for far too long. Losing star RB Thomas Jones in the close season won't have helped the offense either, hence the attempt to turn Devin Hester into an offensive as well as defensive player. Otherwise, the Bears will rely upon the erratic Cedric Benson for their points - unless a miracle happens and Grossman manages to find receivers Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Mohammed on a regular basis. The defense, lead by star linebacker Brian Uhrlacher, remains a ferocious prospect for opponents.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (8-8)
Expect much, much more from the Bengals this year. With Carson Palmer on form and Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmanzadeh and (once his suspension is served) Chris Henry for him to aim at, stopping them scoring will take a better team than most of those they will face. They'll concede plenty of points - their secondary, Jonathan Joseph aside, is feeble - but you'd always expect them to be a score ahead anyway.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
Last year was a disaster. This year won't be much better, unless rookie QB Brady Quinn comes good and the rest of the team manage to avoid being arrested. Brayon Edwards and Kellen Winslow should be potent attacking threats, but whilst they have good tailbacks in short yardage situations they have no-one who poses much of a ground threat. Their D is a solid and unspectacular unit who relied too much on rookie Kamerion Wimbley last season; they'll all need to put more effort in if the Browns are to have much of a season.
DALLAS COWBOYS (9-7)
This will surprise many, but, statistically, Tony Romo was the best QB of 2006. His overall passing was better and he made fewer errors than anyone else, Peyton included. With TO for once living up to his self-generated reputation and Jason Witten a potent threat at TE, they shouldn't miss the injured Terry Glenn at all. The hard hitting Ken Hamlin shores up a creaky defense, although the secondary is still going to have to hide the woeful Anthony Henry if they are not to cough up easy points.
DENVER BRONCOS (9-7)
The astute off-season signings of Daniel Graham and Brandon Stokeley should open up more options for Jay Cutler this season, whilst Travis Henry gives them running options. It is probably too much change for a young QB like Cutler to absorb in the early season, but expect them to come strong in the second half. Having Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly on defense will make them very hard to score against, so once they can get some points on the board they will be a formidable outfit.
DETROIT LIONS (3-13)
You have to feel sorry for Lions QB Jon Kitna. He's a talented player who deserves much more than he has to work with here.He gets abysmal pass protection, the o-line's run blocking is scarcely any better and, despite having explosive rookie Calvin Johnson wide out, he's got very few targets indeed. Basically, here's one guy who'll be spending a lot of play time on his backside this season. The defensive line spent more time injured than on the field last season, but if Shaun Rogers stays fit he and new signing Dewayne White will give them some much needed steel and probably represent their best hope of avoiding sixteen weeks of humbling.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-8)
So, Old Man Favre returns for yet another season in Wisconsin. He's interesting to watch, because his play has become increasingly maverick as the years have worn on - which must make him infuriating to coach and to play with. Just how much scope he will have for that this year, when his only real weapon is WR Donald Driver, is open to debate. He's either going to make someone a star, or it is all going to go horribly wrong for the Packers. Their defense is at least consistent, in that they make as many cock-ups as they do brilliant plays. Expect a losing season.
HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10)
All change in Houston, where the talented - if untried - Matt Schaub has replaced David Carr at QB and where veteran Ahman Green has been brought in to try and give some penetration to the running game. The problem is that very little has been done about the dreadful offensive line of 2006, the one which left Carr so badly beaten up and stopped the run in the first place. Apart from Green, Schaub has only Andre Johnson and (at short yardage) Ron Dayne as threats worthy of the name, so it could be a tough learning curve - to the point where it is a toss up who will be wishing he had stayed in Atlanta, him or the Falcons. Things might be a little easier if the defense was reliable, but it isn't, it's inexperienced and has a real vulnerability at CB.
INDIANNAPOLIS COLTS (12-4, won Superbowl)
What would you like me to say. They have Peyton, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai and Dallas Clark. The defense is a mess, with a mass of off-season defections being led by star linebacker Cato June, but the only way that will matter will be if Peyton gets injured; the real weakness of the Colts lies in the fact that it is so much his team now, without him it is doubtful they'd cope.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (8-8)
A slightly disappointing 2006 for the Jags, largely as a result of their failure to hold onto the ball. If they could just stop dropping the thing, they would be a pretty formidable proposition. This season, expect much more work for running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who were the best RB pairing last season. The defense has the enormous tackle combination of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, plus star CB Rashean Mathis, so they will be very hard to score against. Expect a better season than last.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (9-7)
A two man team if ever there was one. Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez must be wondering what they did wrong in a previous life to end up playing behind a line as clueless as this one. Johnson will be hoping for the same number of yards and TD s with far fewer carries than the 400+ he had last season. The defense has been strengthened by the arrival of Napoleon Harris and Alfonso Boone, but really it was youth, not weight, the Chiefs needed here. Expect plenty of 4th quarter scores against this ageing unit.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10)
It all went very wrong for the Dolphins in 2006. They started as playoff favourites and ended as also-rans. Having released Daunte Culpepper, it is hard to see how they will be any better off with the injury prone Trent Green. The offense lacks any real weapons; for all Chris Chambers' promise at wide receiver, his iron hands will have to soften before he can be seen as any sort of threat. The defense will rely too much on the incoming Joey Porter - who is going to have to play out of his skin to justify his reported salary - and the underrated André Goodman. Another tough year in prospect.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10)
The good news for Vikings fans is that the close season saw them shift Brad Johnson, the world's least mobile QB and a whole host of other makeweights. The bad news is that they've not actually been replaced by anyone. Second year QB Tavaris Jackson will lead them this year and will spend most of it handing the ball to Chester Taylor and rookie Adrian Peterson (not to be confused with the Bears' rookie of the same name), because the Vikings' passing game is going to be non-existent. Being more positive, the defense isn't bad, with a solid reputation against both the pass and the run.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4 )
Tom Brady will be licking his lips in anticipation. An offense which not only features Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth, but which is so strong, they could afford to let Reche Caldwell go last week. Not only that, but the defense, bolstered by Adalius Thomas, lacks any obvious weakness either. Only overconfidence can stop them now.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-6)
With Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and last year's surprise new arrival Marques Colston, it is arguable that the Saints should've won more games, scored more points and generally beaten the hell out of most other teams. What let them down was a defense which lacked both speed and penetration; nothing they have done in the close season has changed this, so expect a very similar season to the last.
NEW YORK GIANTS (8-8)
The Giants have one huge problem, which is that Eli simply isn't Peyton. In fact, if he wasn't a Manning, it is arguable that the Giants would not have persevered with him anything like as long as they have. The Giants' solution to his regular brain freezes was always to give the ball to Tiki Barber, but Tiki isn't there any more and Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns are just not as reliable at digging a side out of a hole. All this is before you consider that any side which has Plaxico Burress as their #1 receiver has problems anyway. They'll be looking to their tough defense, buoyed by new co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo, to keep them in games.
NEW YORK JETS (10-6)
In signing Thomas Jones from the Bears the Jets have at last given Chad Pennington a decent weapon to work with. The o-line is sound, but they lack class otherwise, with Jerricho Cotchery having had a particularly shoddy season last time around. The defense has historically been good against the pass but feeble against the run and this will hurt them again this year if some serious improvements are not made.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (2-14)
It is hard to see how it is going to get any better for the Raiders in 2007. Randy Moss has gone, leaving the side bereft of quality wide out. LaMont Jordan and the incoming Dominic Rhodes will enhance the running game, but at the time of writing they still don't have a quarterback, with JaMarcus Russell still (contrary to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago) refusing to sign a contract. As for the defense, well, the only stars are in the corners and that is never a good thing, because you're just asking to get run into oblivion.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6)
Donovan McNabb can't shore them up forever, but then again I say that every season and every season he does so. Brian Westbrook remains the main alternate threat, especially if McNabb's dodgy knee flares up again. They look weak wide out, though. The defense will blitz and blitz and blitz on the back of good line discipline and a talented secondary. At times it will go wrong, but no-one is going to rack up a cricket score against them.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8)
An 8-8 season was such a disappointment to them last year, as they tried to adjust to life post-Bus. This year, they have to adjust to life post-Cowher. Can they do it? Well, a year out of the spotlight can only have helped Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker remains a threat on the ground. Hines Ward will be #1 receiver and the better for it, especially with Santonio Holmes to keep him company. The defense will continue to do the basics very well indeed, secure in the knowledge that if you get past the line, you've still got to get past the human cannonball that is Troy Polamalu. Definitely should have a better year this year.
ST LOUIS RAMS (8-8)
The big question here whether the creaky o-line can give Marc Bulger enough time to unleash Steven Jackson, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. If they can, the Rams will be a side to be reckoned with. If, like last season, they can't, Bulger faces another season seeing more turf than gaps. The defense has been the subject of extensive surgery, but the line looks undersized and will once again be vulnerable against the run.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (14-2)
It isn't hard to see what will happen here. From the snap, Philip Rivers will hand the ball off to LT, LT will blast another hole in a hapless defensive line, and the Chargers will keep doing it until they score. It's a blessing and a curse. An easy offense to run, where any variation surprises, but also rather predictable. So, just for variation, they'll dump the ball off to Antonio Gates and watch him make the yards instead. The clock runs down, as does the spirit of the opposition. In defense, they've got Shawn Merriman, Quentin Jammer and a whole host of others as adept at stopping the run as their offensive counterparts are at making it. Hard to beat.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (7-9)
Still an improving side, the 49ers. Bringing in Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie gives Alex Smith some much needed options downfield, but the loss of Frank Gore for the opening games is still a big blow. An awful secondary cost them dear last time out, but this has been rectified by the signings of Nate Clements and Michael Lewis. In all, new coach Jim Hostler - and 49ers fans everywhere - have much to hope for this year.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-7)
Last season was spoilt for them by the injury which deprived them of Matt Hasselbeck for a good part of it. This year, they have lost Darrell Jackson and Jerramy Stevens, so an awful lot depends upon Shaun Alexander recovering his 2005 form. The defense is built on speed, not power, so expect them to take a pounding there, too. A shadow of their former selves.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12)
Anyone expecting the Bucs to bring in some youth to replace their aging side will have been very disappointed. Instead, Jeff Garcia will be the second oldest starting QB in the NFL. Moreover, he's their only threat on the ground apart from Cadillac Williams. The defense is in better shape, with Gaines Adams a quality signing, but nothing less than a complete overhaul could've prevented this being a very tough season for the Bucs.
TENNESSEE TITANS (8-8)
If he could play QB, RB and WR all at the same time, then Vince Young would. Moreover, if he could, the Titans would let him, because the options are LenDale White, Chris Henry and David Givens, which doesn't add up to an awful lot in my playbook. They've no Pacman Jones on defense, either, but they do have the hugely underrated Nick Harper, for which they may come to be incredibly thankful indeed.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5-11)
Don't expect too much passing from the Redskins. Mark Brunell had real trouble finding his receivers last season and things aren't going to change much this year. But given that they will have to go to a running game, losing Derrick Dockery seems at best careless, at worst tantamount to allowing Clinton Portis to be assaulted several times a week. Luckily, they now have Ladell Betts as a quality backup. They'll need to put plenty of points on the board, though, because their defensive line is old, injury-prone and likely to ship points like an old bucket ships water.