This year marks the 10th anniversary of the St. Louis Rams' run to the Super Bowl, an achievement so unexpected it still boggles the mind.
Before Kurt Warner -- launched into the starting spot after an injury to Trent Green -- led the Rams through that improbable 1999 campaign, they'd served as perennial pushovers for a decade. "Same old Rams," the 49ers would say, usually after another 30-point blowout. All of which goes to show how tricky the prediction business in the NFL usually is. From year to year, supposed powerhouse teams stumble (see Cowboys, Dallas) and punching bags rise (see Cardinals, Arizona, and that Warner guy again).
With that in mind, let's examine the conventional wisdom for how each of the eight divisions should shake out and explore why some sure summer bets might not be so come winter.
Expectation:Tom Brady returns to Patriots, throws for 4,000 yards, leads team to Super Bowl. Harps play in New England, choirs sing.
Spoiler alert: Brady, for all his talent and grit, is returning to a much more feisty division than the one he left. Playoff experience made Miami tougher. First-year coach Rex Ryan and the Jets have promised wave after wave of pressure and mayhem. Even Buffalo beefed up its pass rushing by drafting defensive end Aaron Maybin in the first round. Brady won't have to rely on his rebuilt ACL the way running backs coming off injury do, but he'll still need to move, glide, drift and motor around the pocket. Brady may still get his yards and the Patriots their wins, but a year without reps, timing and optimum health can disturb even the most elite athletes. Just ask Tiger Woods.
Expectation: The Denver Broncos will carry their offseason baggage into the season, ruining any postseason chances.
Spoiler alert: While the Josh McDaniels-Jay Cutler soap opera was playing out -- and serving as a huge distraction -- the Broncos were quietly addressing their biggest need: fixing their defense. They hired Mike Nolan, the former Niners coach who has found more success as a defensive coordinator. They signed strong safety Brian Dawkins, the former Eagle who will add passion and toughness to a team soft against the run. They used four of their first six draft picks on defensive players. While McDaniels absolutely bungled the Cutler affair, Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, though not big-armed Pro Bowl quarterbacks, are smart and accurate at short range. The Broncos open the season against three rebuilding teams: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland. If they start quickly, the soap opera will begin to fade away.
Expectation: Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott just took Baltimore's playoff hopes to the New York Jets.
Spoiler alert:Ray Lewis will play with an even bigger chip on his shoulder, if that's possible. For all the talk about Lewis's sideline-to-sideline ability (in decline, to be sure) few players prepare to win football games like Lewis does. He watches film like a coach, studying tendencies and looking for weaknesses. There's a reason he usually ends up with his nose in the middle of a play. It's not all athletic talent; the ability to make decisions on the fly separates the legendary from the merely talented. At 34, Lewis will have to work a little harder to be the player he once was, but with Ed Reed and Fabian Washington in the secondary, second-year quarterback Joe Flacco leading a blossoming offense and Lewis as feisty as ever, don't be surprised if the Ravens return to the postseason again.
Expectation: The Colts and the Titans will once more battle for divisional supremacy.
Spoiler alert: The Houston Texans, seemingly always a year away, could challenge for the division title. It's been a steady climb for the expansion franchise (two wins in '05, six in '06, eight in '07 and '08) and the pieces are finally in place for a postseason berth. Not only does pass rusher Mario Williams possess defensive player of the year ability, but also the Texans' offense features skill position players among the league's best. Receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels are the most underrated pass-catching group in the NFL. Running back Steve Slaton proved he can use a mix of speed and punishment to carry the load. Matt Schaub will benefit from gaining another year of experience in Gary Kubiak's offense. If Schaub can cut down on the turnovers, a beautiful season should be in store in Houston.
Expectation:Albert Haynesworth, Dan Snyder's latest multimillionaire, has been set up to fail.
Spoiler alert: Sure, Snyder overpaid for the erstwhile Titans defensive tackle, but the Washington Redskins actually boast some comparable pieces on defense to Tennessee, and that should allow Haynesworth to thrive. Like Tennessee's defensive line (which features Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tony Brown and Javon Kearse), savvy veterans and journeymen comprise Washington's line (Phillip Daniels, Cornelius Griffin and Andre Carter). As in Tennessee, Haynesworth is the best of the bunch. The biggest link between the teams might be at linebacker, where the fierce Keith Bulluck led the Titans and London Fletcher provides inspiration for the Redskins. Haynesworth will love having Fletcher, a leader and ultimate teammate, behind him. By the same token, Fletcher will love the mayhem Haynesworth creates up front.
Expectation: The Arizona Cardinals, so close to becoming Super Bowl champs, should roll into the playoffs again.
Spoiler alert: There is a reason Super Bowl runners-up rarely make the playoffs the next season (the 2000 Titans and 2006 Seahawks being the only exceptions this decade). Make that multiple reasons. Fatigue, disappointment, anger, turnover and expectations are all factors. This could be doubly so for the Cardinals, who were a Santonio Holmes' tiptoe-grab away from winning it all. While Warner and Larry Fitzgerald return (and negotiations with Anquan Boldin's new agent, Tom Condon, approach), the Cardinals may have trouble recreating that magic. I bumped into coach Ken Whisenhunt, his wife, Alice, and Cardinals PR man Mark Dalton at the Masters in April. I congratulated them on the 2008 season. I didn't mention the stat about runners-up. I'm sure I didn't have to.
Expectation: The Detroit Lions won't sniff .500 this season.
Spoiler alert: New coach Jim Schwartz need only look south to Atlanta to see what a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback can do together. Winning doesn't come easy in the NFL, but it can come quickly. The Lions can't expect Matthew Stafford to mimic Matt Ryan or Flacco (Stafford has to beat out Daunte Culpepper first), but they can feel good about their future and their present. Like the Miami Dolphins after their one-win 2007 season, the Lions have turned over their roster in an attempt to shed the remnants from their winless season. (Heck, they even created a new logo!) Linebacker Julian Peterson and defensive tackle Grady Jackson are instant upgrades. The secondary looks better, too, with Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Eric King, who played under Schwartz in Tennessee. We're years away from a parade here, but maybe only a few months from respectability.
Expectation: The New Orleans Saints can't win without a healthy Reggie Bush.
Spoiler alert: While Bush is an explosive player and an important cog in the Saints' offense, the New Orleans defense has been the real reason for the Saints' woes. Even with Drew Brees lighting up the scoreboard last season, the Saints spent much of the year trading touchdowns, thanks to their punchless defense. To buck that trend, the Saints hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the NFL's defensive fix-it man and a guy who loves to bring pressure. And another thing; Bush may be remarkably talented, but the Saints are equally excited about Pierre Thomas' power running, and Thomas will receive the bulk of the carries now that Deuce McAllister is gone. With Bush undergoing micro-fracture surgery on his knee last season, the Saints will need to lean on Thomas even more.