Peering into my Roger Goodell-autographed crystal ball -- it's actually more oblong-shaped -- just hours before the NFL kicks off its regular season with the Redskins-Giants showdown at the Meadowlands, here are 10 things I foresee unfolding this year.....
1. Ex-Jets starter Chad Pennington will out-play current Jets starter Brett Favre in Week 1 in Miami, proving that one team's garbage can indeed be another team's treasure. Pennington's edge will be his familiarity with New York's defense, and his motivation to make the Jets rue their lack of faith in him. We know Favre gets a little hot and bothered with the idea of playing in warm weather, and with Sunday's high temperature of 88 predicted in the Miami area, might he and his Jets do a little wilting in the fourth quarter?
As for the rest of the season, the Favre-Pennington comparison in the AFC East will be a more subjective call. Favre has the better team around him by far, but Pennington will receive and deserve plenty of the credit for the Dolphins' offensive improvement. In the end, New York will go further than Miami, but both teams will rightfully be able to claim they're better off for the moves they made at quarterback in the preseason.
2. San Diego second-year veteran Jyles Tucker will replace the gimpy-kneed Shawne Merriman by midseason and, surprisingly, there won't be a drop-off in the Chargers' edge pass rush. Merriman, who has two torn ligaments in his left knee, is likely playing on borrowed time this season. He'll go as hard as he can, as long as he can, but when the inevitable happens and he succumbs to season-ending surgery, the Chargers won't be decimated at his outside linebacker spot.
That's because Tucker reminds many of a younger version of Merriman, one of the league's premier defensive play-makers. An undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest as a rookie last year, Tucker played his way from the Chargers practice squad to the active roster, and wound up winning the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week honor in Week 17, when he sacked Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell three times, forced two fumbles, and recovered one of them in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown.
No wonder Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, always looking to shrewdly lock up good young talent before the price tag goes up, last week signed Tucker to a five-year contract extension that makes him San Diego property through the 2012 season.
3. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won't be starting his own Ironman streak of any length this season, ála his famous predecessor. Playing behind a Packers offensive line that was dented for a league-worst 16 sacks in the preseason, Rodgers will get dinged up and have to give way to rookie reserve quarterbacks Matt Flynn or Brian Brohm at some point during the regular season. The days of Green Bay never having to make a starting quarterback change due to injury are as over as the Favre era in Titletown.
4. Speaking of ironman quarterbacks, this will be the year New England finally has to come face to face with its greatest fear: Trying to win a game or three without Tom Brady. We're not predicting major gloom and doom for the Patriots, like a season-ending whatever to the league's reigning MVP. But with New England's offensive line suddenly a point of real concern, protecting the Franchise won't be as seamless as the Patriots have made it look in recent years.
While I can't see any opponent succeeding in bum-rushing Brady like the Giants did to great effect in the Super Bowl, I also don't imagine No. 12 is going to have forever and a day to stand back there in the pocket and perform surgery on his opponent's secondary, as was the case so many times in the Patriots' record-breaking 2007 run. Teams are going to be sending the house against Brady this year, because they saw what New York accomplished and will realize anew that giving him time to throw is nothing but a recipe for defeat.
Matt Cassel, you've been put on notice. Better be readier than you looked this preseason. Otherwise the only thing the Patriots will be perfectly inclined to this season is a modest losing streak while Brady heals.
5. Much like the Saints a year ago, the Browns will be the young, on-the-come team that struggles under the burden of heightened expectations in the first half of the season. I'm not sure Cleveland is quite ready for the close-up the NFL is preparing to give it this year, with those five prime-time appearances that start with a Week 2 Sunday night home game against arch-rival Pittsburgh.
But unlike the Saints of 2007, who went 0-4, scratched their way back to 4-4, and eventually finished 7-9, the Browns will find their stride in the season's second half and wind up winning the AFC North at 9-7. It'll be Cleveland's first playoff berth in six seasons, and its first division title since the Bud Carson-coached Browns last took the AFC Central, in 1989.
Oh, and one more call: Browns backup quarterback Brady Quinn will fill in for injured starter Derek Anderson at some point in the season's second half and deliver two key victories down the stretch, only further complicating Cleveland's QB situation in 2009.
6. I don't know when, how and any of the particulars of who will be involved, but the NFL's new force-out rule will not have a completely uneventful rookie season. At some point in some key game, the rule that was designed to make things simple for the officials -- receivers must have two feet in bounds or the play is incomplete -- will reveal some unintended consequence, sparking a fresh round of controversy and debate in the process.
Defenders are now rewarded by forcing receivers out of bounds before their feet have touched the ground, which will probably result in way more sideline pass interference calls than anticipated, thanks to eager defensive backs plowing into receivers a split second before the catch. Maybe the officials, who were supposed to have the judgment-call element of the old rule erased for them, will wind up having even more tough judgments calls to make in terms of potential sideline P.I.'s.
7. The Bucs will never mount a serious threat to become the first team to play the Super Bowl on its home field, thereby keeping the NFL's 43-year streak alive in that regard. Tampa Bay will remain a tough and tenacious defensive team, with the Jeff Garcia-led offense balanced nicely between the running and passing games. But the Bucs won't see some of the close games fall their way this season, and they'll become the sixth consecutive NFC South champion to finish .500 or worse the following season.
8. There's another Marques Colston-like rookie receiver story waiting to unfold in the case of San Francisco's Josh Morgan. The sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech was one of the surprises of the early preseason, registering nine catches for 182 yards and a 59-yard touchdown catch in the 49ers first two exhibitions.
He missed most of the final two preseason games due to health problems, but Morgan figures to start the season active and be in San Francisco's receiver rotation. With the 49ers short on impact pass-catchers, Morgan is going to get every chance to see his share of the ball in Mike Martz's offense. He may start the year playing behind Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson, but his opportunity to impact games will come soon.
9. His price tag might be too high right now, but at some point in the season's first six weeks Ty Law and the cornerback-needy Patriots are destined to have a reunion in Foxboro. New England lost its top corner, Asante Samuel, in free agency and was hoping that either Fernando Bryant or Jason Webster could help fill the void in the secondary. But Webster couldn't stay healthy this preseason and Bryant was deemed not to be the answer as well. Both newcomers were released before ever appearing in a regular-season game.
The Patriots this week added two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who was released by Cincinnati, and for now he'll get his shot to hold down Samuel's slot. But Law, who left New England after winning his third Super Bowl ring with the Patriots in 2004, is an option that clearly continues to intrigue Bill Belichick. Providing he drops his salary demands into the reasonable category that the Patriots routinely do business, Law should get the chance to resume his career in New England.
Don't forget, he owns Peyton Manning, having picked off the Colts quarterback a record five times in the playoffs.
10. With Matt Leinart benched in Arizona and Vince Young still struggling to make his mark as a passer in Tennessee's re-tooled, Mike Heimerdinger-coordinated offense, Denver quarterback Jay Cutler will raise his level of play once again and leave no doubt who deserves to be considered the best of 2006's much-ballyhooed first-round quarterbacks.
These aren't the Broncos of past years, who always considered their dominating and multi-back ground game to be the foundation of their offense. With Cutler, Denver is going to be a throwing team that's capable of winning some old-fashioned AFL-like scoring-fests. The Broncos won't have a winning record or go to the playoffs, but they'll be fun to watch with Cutler winging the ball to receivers Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal and Darrell Jackson.