Monday February 5th, 2007

MIAMI -- Peyton Manning finally has his ring. So does Tony Dungy and the rest of the Colts, the NFL's winningest team since 1999. But with Super Bowl XLI in the books, the next logical question is whether Indianapolis can build on its big-game breakthrough and add to its trophy case next season?

And will the runner-up Bears find that Super Bowl loser syndrome too difficult to overcome in 2007? The long NFL season is over, and the offseason has begun. Here's a snapshot look at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition portion of the NFL's calendar:

SALARY CAP You can make a heck of an argument that no other team in the NFL is in worse shape than the Colts, who have a bevy of potential free agents on their roster and are projected to be less than $5 million under the $109 million cap. Only three teams have less room, and of those, none have as many key free agents. Any way you cut it, the Colts are going to suffer a significant talent drain this offseason.

FREE AGENCY First the good news: Even though defensive end Dwight Freeney's contract can void in March, he's not getting anywhere close to the open market. Colts general manager Bill Polian made it clear during Super Bowl week that he'll franchise Freeney (at a cost of $8.6 million for 2007) if Indy can't negotiate a contract extension with him before March.

And now the bad news: Indy won't be keeping all the players it prefers to. In no particular order of importance, the key Colts who are scheduled for free agency include both starting cornerbacks (Nick Harper and Jason David), both starting guards (Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott), both starting outside linebackers (Cato June and Rob Morris) and running back Dominic Rhodes.

COACHING STAFF It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Colts could lose head coach Tony Dungy to retirement after the Super Bowl. Dungy, 51, has been quoted saying he didn't expect to coach much past the age of 50, and his interest in committing himself fully to some kind of Christian ministry is part of his motivation away from football.

Also, Colts quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell is considered a head-coach-in-waiting by many around the league and is thought likely to interview for the Cowboys coaching job in the coming days.

2007 SCHEDULE Remember how bitter those Ravens fans were to the visiting Colts in the playoffs this season? If anything, it could be worse for Indy next season when it has to go back to Baltimore after eliminating the Ravens in that 15-6 divisional round upset. But Indianapolis doesn't have it so bad from an overall perspective. The Colts play just five 2006 playoff teams, although their four division games against Tennessee and Jacksonville aren't even close to being gimmes any more.

Indianapolis draws the NFC South in interconference play, and that includes tough road trips to Atlanta (Peyton Manning vs. Michael Vick) and Carolina, which figures to rebound from 2006's mediocrity. Oh, and one more game stands out: The Colts get the Patriots back in the RCA Dome for a rematch of this season's AFC title game.

SALARY CAP The Bears are in great shape to keep the core of their NFC champion roster together. With a projected $26 million to spend under the $109 million cap, there shouldn't be the kind of financially motivated moves that many winning teams face each offseason. Chicago will have the wherewithal to address its needs and keep the players it chooses to retain.

FREE AGENCY The Bears' big free-agent question mark is Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lance Briggs. He's expected to draw plenty of interest on the market, but that's only if Chicago allows him to get there. Though the Bears have never used the franchise-player tag on anyone since general manager Jerry Angelo was hired in June 2001, there's always a first time for everything and Briggs might be that exception.

With Chicago having so much money to spend under the cap, current Bears thinking appears to be leaning toward applying the $7.2 million franchise tag to Briggs if they can't work out a long-term deal by March. Briggs said Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day that he might even be open to giving the Bears a hometown discount in contract talks. We'll see how quickly agent Drew Rosenhaus talks him out of that notion.

COACHING STAFF It first appeared that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera would be the latest victim of the Super Bowl assistant coaching paradox -- his team's success made him less likely to land a head coaching job -- but that might not be the case after all. Dallas is waiting to interview Rivera, and he could be a candidate for the Cowboys defensive coordinator slot if he isn't the winner on the head coaching front.

Rivera and Bears special teams coach Dave Toub both have contracts that expired after the Super Bowl, making them free agents. Chicago wants them back, but Rivera and Toub have the advantage of exploring all options. They have been rumors that Toub will rejoin the Eagles as their special team coach, a position he held in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2003, before joining Chicago.

But Job One for Bears team president Ted Phillips is to extend the contract of Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who was the league's lowest-paid head coach at $1.35 million this season. Phillips said last year he wanted to see Smith put another strong season together before upgrading his deal. Smith did his part, leading the Bears to their first Super Bowl in 21 years. Now it's time for Chicago to do right by Smith, who just finished the third season of the four-year contract he signed in January 2004.

2007 SCHEDULE If you thought the Bears fattened up on their weak schedule this season, you might be tempted to say the same thing about their 2007 slate. Chicago faces seven teams that made the playoffs in 2006, but that's a bit deceiving if you dig a little deeper. San Diego, New Orleans, Philadelphia are its only opponents who won at least 10 games this season (Dallas, the Giants, Kansas City and Seattle were all playoff teams with nine wins or fewer).

Chicago's interconference foes will be from the AFC West, with tough trips to San Diego and Seattle, who the Bears beat twice this season, including in the divisional round of the playoffs. Besides their six NFC North games, the Bears also will face the NFC East teams, with the Giants and the Cowboys coming to Chicago, and the Bears traveling to Philly and D.C.

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