There are exactly 267 games that matter in an NFL season, and it's always a guessing game to predict the winners and losers. But when I searched for my projected Super Bowl matchup after six weeks of watching, listening and learning this preseason, I kept coming back to two teams that have what I consider the key factor in any Super Bowl run: Motivation that borders on an obsession.
In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers have it in droves. They've gone an impressive 27-9 the past two regular seasons, but both times they've had their dreams cruelly ended by the Patriots in the playoffs. Finding a way to get past the folks from Foxboro has occupied nearly every waking second for Chargers general manager A.J. Smith these past two years, and I think he has finally built a team to get the job done.
In the NFC, Saints head coach Sean Payton put it to me best during an early August stop at New Orleans' training camp: In the NFL, you always try to bank on the motivated player. The guy who wants it a little bit more than anyone else. In terms of his Saints, that would be Jeremy Shockey, trying to prove to the Giants he was an asset, not a minus. That would be Jonathan Vilma intent on showing the Jets that they gave up on him prematurely. And that would be players such as Reggie Bush, Jason David, Bobby McCray, even Drew Brees, all of whom have a reason to play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulders this season.
So put me down for the Saints-Chargers in Super Bowl XLIII. New Orleans is hungry again after last season's expectations went unmet, and the Chargers, having finally ended their playoff-win drought with a pair of January victories, are poised to take the biggest step of all. The Chargers over the Saints next February in Tampa. In late August, before the games that count even begin, it all makes sense to me at this point. But let's see if the next five months changes everything.
1. New England (11-5) -- Winless preseason or not, the Patriots are still the NFL's gold standard. The schedule looks soft (a league low .387 opponents winning percentage), but there's a lot of travel involved for a team that's starting to show some age. New England will cruise to its third consecutive AFC title game, but those late-game playoff meltdowns are starting to become a habit.
*2. Buffalo (9-7) -- The endless Jason Peters stand-off could be the loose thread that unravels the whole suit, but the Bills are better defensively and they have just enough increased firepower on offense to end a playoff drought that has stretched an AFC-high eight seasons.
3. New York Jets (9-7) -- The J-E-T-S are undeniably better after an offseason (and preseason) of making major headline acquisitions, but they still need a lot of pieces to fall into place just right to close the gap on New England. They'd be better off just trying to catch the Bills.
4. Miami (5-11) -- Rock bottom was reached last year, and that means the onetime playoff perennial Dolphins are on their way back. But nobody goes worst to first in the AFC East. The Fish will be bigger, and play tougher and smarter. That's enough progress for '08.
1. Cleveland (9-7) -- At the start of the preseason, I was convinced the Browns were ready for their close-up, and they'd continue to be the team on the rise in their division. Now the bar of expectation appears close to falling on their heads. It may not be pretty early, but they'll persevere.
2. Pittsburgh (8-8) -- The Steelers will be the same old Steelers, albeit slightly more explosive with Rashard Mendenhall around on offense. But their schedule is far tougher than last year's, and I'm still not convinced Pittsburgh's offensive line won't be its eventual undoing.
3. Cincinnati (6-10) -- New coordinator Mike Zimmer better be able to work mini-miracles on defense, because this is a team that can't win unless its front seven takes a quantum step forward. My gut tells me Bengals fans are in for another maddening season of underachievement.
4. Baltimore (5-11) -- I look for Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh to spend his first season figuring out which guys he can win with, and which guys are part of the problem. The culture change he has begun in Baltimore won't pay dividends right away, but give him time.
1. Indianapolis (10-6) -- I've heard some reports of the Colts' imminent demise and believe them to be somewhat exaggerated. But this much is true: The rest of the rough and tumble AFC South has narrowed the gap on Indy considerably, and I don't see more than a two-game gap separating first place from last place.
*2. Jacksonville (10-6) -- The Jaguars in the second half of last season proved they can score with the elite offenses in the league. But I still can't get them into anything other than the top wild-card position, right on the Colts' heels this year. Maybe the difference will be the pass rush they hope they've upgraded significantly.
3. Tennessee (9-7) -- It's simple, really. The Titans can't take a step up in this division unless third-year quarterback Vince Young becomes a play-making threat with both his arm and his legs. Tennessee has plenty enough defense to win its share of games. The offense just can't conspire to get the Titans beat.
4. Houston (8-8) -- The Texans are a team on the come, especially on a defense studded with young talent. Another .500 finish might feel disappointing in Houston, but remember the 1996-97-98 Oilers/Titans, who went 8-8 three years in a row before going to the Super Bowl in 1999.
1. San Diego (13-3) -- Nowhere will the gap between the first and second-place team be more pronounced than in the AFC West, which San Diego in essence has owned since 2004. With those two playoff victories of last January under their belts, the Chargers are much more confident, less mercurial team. And did I mention they're driven to beat the Patriots?
2. Denver (8-8) -- We'll know plenty about these Broncos right off the bat, because they have home games against San Diego and New Orleans -- my two Super Bowl teams -- in Weeks 2 and 3. If they've made improvement, it's only marginal. The Broncos are 16-16 since winning the division in 2005, and more of the same .500 dance is on the way.
3. Oakland (5-11) -- If second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell blossoms in what will amount to his rookie season, the Raiders could surprise some people this year and make a move toward the middle of the pack in the AFC. But for a team that has had the reverse Midas Touch on personnel for the past five years, that's a bit to ask and hope for.
4. Kansas City (3-13) -- Yes, it was a draft to remember, but then the preseason started and reminded everyone just how far Kansas City's rebuilding effort has to go. This year I can't even see the last-place Chiefs getting off to a hopeful getaway like last season's team, which was 4-3 en route to 4-12. It could be brutal from Week 1 on, when K.C. draws the dubious assignment of opening on the road in Foxboro.
1. Dallas (11-5) -- First, the good news for Cowboys fans: There will be a playoff victory for the first time since 1996. But alas, not two, and thus head coach Wade Phillips might find a two-year regular-season record of 24-8 (our projection, of course) and a pair of NFC East titles isn't enough to stave off the dawn of the Jason Garrett era. Don't say we didn't warn you.
*2. Philadelphia (10-6) -- I like the Eagles. I really do. That three-game winning streak to end last season was no mirage, and Donovan McNabb is back to being a quarterback who can beat anyone when he's on his game. But while I don't see a glaring weakness on this roster, I just can't picture Philly's season avoiding a speed bump or two.
3. New York Giants (9-7) -- The Giants are correct in their supposition that most people have not factored their magical postseason run into the projections for the NFC East this season. It's a valid point, and I'm guilty of it myself. But magic like the Giants exhibited is rarely duplicated the next season. I don't consider it a form of disrespect, as much as disbelief.
4. Washington (6-10) -- The Redskins are one of the tougher teams to peg because much of their season seems to hinge on how quarterback Jason Campbell transitions to new head coach Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. If you believe Campbell is a perfect fit for the system, there's reason for hope. If not, and you believe Campbell may struggle initially, you agree with me.
1. Minnesota (10-6) -- The pieces are in place for a return to the playoffs in Viking-land, but check out that early schedule: at Green Bay on Monday night of Week 1, home against dangerous Indy and improved Carolina, and then at Tennessee and New Orleans. If Minnesota makes it through that at no worse than 2-3, a double-digit win season is still very much in play.
2. Green Bay (9-7) -- The Packers have an impressive collection of young talent, likely the division's finest. But somehow I can't shake the feeling the club's nightmarish Brett Favre saga of this summer will loom over the entire season, robbing Green Bay of its 13-win mojo of a year ago.
3. Detroit (7-9) -- The Lions didn't do much to inspire much buzz this offseason in terms of personnel moves, and I can't find reason to change their slot in the NFC North from last year's 7-9 third-place finish. While Detroit has looked sharp this preseason, I sense we're all a little hesitant to buy into another fast start by the Lions, who were 6-2 at the turn in '07.
4. Chicago (5-11) -- Was this team really in the Super Bowl just two short years ago? If Devin Hester doesn't score, I don't know where the points are going to come from, no matter which quarterback plays.
1. New Orleans (12-4) -- The Saints don't need a dominant defense in order to win with one of the NFL's elite offenses on their side. But I like everything New Orleans did to strengthen its defense, with upgrades on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. The Saints will score, and now they can slow their opponents down too.
*2.Carolina (10-6) -- With some real pressure in Carolina this year, a bunch of Panthers have a bunch to prove. It starts with head coach John Fox, but quarterback Jake Delhomme, defensive end Julius Peppers and especially receiver Steve Smith are in that category as well. Carolina seems poised to use all that motivation to their benefit with a return to the playoffs.
3. Tampa Bay (8-8) -- The Bucs have a well stocked roster and a .500 finish would clearly register as underachievement. But no one has repeated as champion in this division since it formed in 2002, and that's a streak destined to continue. The hungriest teams usually prosper in the NFC South, and I've got the Saints and Panthers ranking higher on want-to this year.
4. Atlanta (4-12) -- The Falcons just don't have the weapons to compete for anything other than last place this season, but I still like the direction new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and rookie head coach Mike Smith are heading. They're building a program, not just a team. That's the best way to ensure staying out of last place in years to come.
1. Seattle (9-7) -- We keep waiting for the Seahawks' reign in the NFC West to come to a close, but there's no end in sight this year. Seattle will send Mike Holmgren out a winner this season, just as he has been so many times before in his 17-year NFL head coaching career. The Seahawks simply have fewer holes than any of their division foes.
2. Arizona (8-8) -- It's time for people to stop talking about the Cardinals taking that long-awaited step up to playoff qualifier, and let Arizona prove it has matured enough to handle the expectations. Put me down for doubtful that this year's Cardinals will break out of the mold.
3. St. Louis (6-10) -- At least the Rams got their Steven Jackson holdout problem settled. Can you imagine how bleak things would look in St. Louis without its one legitimate game-breaker? The Rams will need good fortune on the injury front -- something they had none of last year -- and unexpected contributors just to avoid a double-digit loss season.
4. San Francisco (4-12) -- It's make-or-break time for Mike Nolan and his 49ers coaching staff, and the team's three-man preseason quarterback competition already lent an air of desperation to the proceedings. I can't find many reasons to believe this year isn't just the depressing precursor to another fresh start for San Francisco's beleaguered fans in 2009.
* -- Wild-card qualifier
AFC1. San Diego2. New England3. Indianapolis4. Cleveland5. Jacksonville6. Buffalo
NFC1. New Orleans2. Dallas3. Minnesota4. Seattle5. Philadelphia6. Carolina
Wild-card roundIndianapolis (3) defeats Buffalo (6)Jacksonville (5) defeats Cleveland (4)Philadelphia (5) defeats Seattle (4)Minnesota (3) defeats Carolina (6)
Divisional roundNew England (2) defeats Indianapolis (3)San Diego (1) defeats Jacksonville (5)New Orleans (1) defeats Philadelphia (5)Dallas (2) defeats Minnesota (3)
Conference championshipsSan Diego defeats New EnglandNew Orleans defeats Dallas
Super Bowl XLIIISan Diego defeats New Orleans
MVP -- Drew Brees, New Orleans, QB -- The Saints potent offense will roll up huge numbers, and Brees will be the catalyst in the center of it all.
Coach of the Year -- Norv Turner, San Diego -- The Chargers might be both favored and loaded, but that doesn't mean Turner won't deserve acclaim for the best coaching job of his long career.
Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Jonathan Stewart, Carolina, RB -- The Panthers' resurgent offense will surprise in part thanks to Stewart's big-play style of running.
Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Sedrick Ellis, New Orleans, DT -- The ex-USC star should be a force in the middle of a much-improved Saints defensive front.
Offensive Player of the Year -- Drew Brees, New Orleans, QB -- Brees will have all the necessary numbers for what is a statistic-based honor.
Defensive Player of the Year -- Jared Allen, Minnesota, DE -- Allen's impact as a premier pass rusher gives the Vikings defense a lift into the league's elite.
Comeback Player of the Year -- Julius Peppers, Carolina, DE -- A move to the right end slot resurrects the skills of one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.