Staring into my oblong-shaped crystal ball, here's what I foresee for the days, weeks and months ahead in this 2008 NFL season.....
• Dan the Man Marino's statistical legacy is going to take its third major hit in five NFL seasons when Saints quarterback Drew Brees shatters his single-season passing yardage record of 5,084, set in his magical 1984 campaign. Marino saw his one-season touchdown pass record of 48 go by the boards in 2004, courtesy of the Colts' Peyton Manning, who threw 49 (Tom Brady broke Manning's record with 50 in 2007).
Marino also watched Brett Favre run down his career touchdown pass record of 420 in September 2007, when Favre threw No. 421 against the Vikings in the Metrodome. And now its Brees' turn to relegate Marino to second place in single-season passing yardage.
Through six games, Brees has thrown for 1,993 yards, a 332.2-yard per game pace that would give him 5,315 yards at season's end -- or 231 more than Marino. Through his first six games of 1984, Marino had thrown for 1,848 yards, or 308 per game.
Yeah, we hate those on-pace projections too, to a certain degree, but this time we're allowing it because Brees is going to finish the job (and besides, he was my preseason pick for league MVP, so there's that.) And like Marino with Miami in 1984, Brees will have the benefit of good weather to throw the ball in down the stretch. In the Saints' final 10 games, they'll play half of them in domes (three in the Superdome, one in Atlanta, one in Detroit), and they should also have good weather this week in Carolina and in Week 13 at Tampa Bay.
That leaves only three games that could be climatically challenging for the Saints passing game: Their Week 8 game against San Diego in perpetually rainy London (remember last year's Dolphins-Giants Mud Bowl in Wembley in Week 8?), a Week 11 trip to Kansas City, and a Week 15 Thursday night game in the windy and probably frosty confines of Chicago's Soldier Field.
The Saints are not going to have a dominant running game at any point in 2008, so they will keep throwing the ball (late in blowout wins aside). And also working in Brees favor is that at 3-3, New Orleans will likely need every win it can get, prompting it to fully play the season out through Week 17, rather than rest him and other key starters in late December.
• Between now and the close of the regular season, the Cowboys will tell Pacman Jones to pack it in. Even if Jones should be cleared to play once again in a month or so by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- and we're nowhere near certain that will even happen -- it will be a short-lived reprieve for a once-promising career that is destined to end unhappily. There will be another embarrassing incident somewhere, some night, involving him and someone else, and that will be that.
Jones is his own worst enemy, and while his self-destructive behavior can be curbed, it's not realistic to believe he can change his temperament, judgment and lifestyle so completely as to avoid all future off-field troubles. That's unfortunate for him, because the reality at this point is he has earned himself that no-tolerance policy from the league, and the chances of him ever again getting the benefit of the doubt is slim and none.
Let's face it: If Jones can't make it in Dallas, where everyone from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on down went out of their way to erect a safety net around him and keep him on the straight and narrow, he can't make it anywhere.
• In the short run, meaning between now and the end of their 2008 regular season, the Cowboys' acquisition of receiver Roy Williams will pay some dividends for Dallas. But in the span of time, the trade won't be judged a long-term success or be identified as one of the key moments in the Cowboys' return to Super Bowl form -- if and when that ever occurs.
This wasn't a fate-of-the-franchise-altering Herschel Walker deal in reverse, but Dallas simply gave up too much for a fifth-year player who has shown flashes of dominance, but nowhere near enough to warrant surrendering a large chunk of its 2009 draft for: first, third and sixth-round picks.
Williams' career will be reinvigorated by escaping the losing atmosphere of Detroit for the chance to win in Dallas, and he'll have his moments where he'll be the play-making force that inspired the Lions to choose him so high in 2004's first round. But there won't be a Randy Moss-to-New England or even Terrell Owens-to-Philadelphia or Dallas level impact made by Williams. And the Cowboys paid as if there would be, even if they were only shopping for a No. 2 complementary receiver for Owens at this point.
• Shaun Alexander's signing in Washington won't make everyone wonder why the former league MVP's return to the NFL took so long. With Ladell Betts injured, Alexander makes for a decent insurance policy behind league-leading rusher Clinton Portis.
But rather than a return to greatness, Alexander's tenure in D.C. will ultimately conjure up something closer to Eddie George in Dallas: A once-great running back well past the point of being able to carry a team's offense on his back.
• If the wheels do come off the Cowboys season -- and I still think they win 10 games and get into the playoffs -- it won't be because their passing game disappeared once Tony Romo broke his pinkie. It'll be because they couldn't stop anyone else's passing game with a secondary that's being held together by hope and scotch tape.
Without cornerbacks Terence Newman (sports hernia) and Pacman Jones (self-inflicted suspension), the Cowboys are going to have to try to hold things together for a few weeks with rookie defensive backs Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick getting far more playing time than Dallas would prefer.
Veteran quarterback Brad Johnson will find enough ways to keep the chains moving on offense, even if his more controlled passing game isn't as esthetically pleasing to watch as Romo's gunslinger approach to the position. But if there's a demise coming in Dallas, it'll be brought on by what opposing quarterbacks are able to accomplish when they drop back in the pocket.
• The once-maligned defense that's getting ready to put together a stretch of solid play and occasional dominance is the one that hails from Indianapolis. For most of this season, the Colts defense was getting gouged by the run and couldn't force turnovers or keep teams from converting on third down. Injuries and the inability to get their vaunted pass going plagued the Colts throughout most of their first four games.
But the turnaround began in those frenzied final five minutes of Indy's game at Houston in Week 5, when the Colts defense forced three turnovers by the Texans, returned one for a touchdown, and wound up overcoming a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 31-27. Indy followed that up with a dominating 31-3 win over Baltimore, and has now given up just three points in its most recent four-plus quarters, creating eight turnovers in that span.
The Colts defense is also starting to get healthy. Defensive end Dwight Freeney is still rounding into form after last year's Lisfranc foot injury, safety Bob Sanders (ankle) should return in a couple weeks, and outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (pectoral muscle tear) resumed practicing this week for the first time since his injury in July. Add in the emerging performances of safety Melvin Bullitt, linebacker Clint Session and cornerback Tim Jennings, and the Colts defense looks like it has weathered its early season storm.
• Matt Cassel will continue to ride the week-to-week rollercoaster he climbed onto in the opening quarter of this year's season opener, but the Patriots won't give up on him and switch to rookie Kevin O'Connell as their starting quarterback because Cassel won't give them the two to three straight rough performances that it would take for them to bench him.
Cassel will look good enough and do a satisfactory and sometimes strong job of game management in the games New England gets out to an early lead. But when the Patriots fall behind and have to play catch-up, Cassel's lack of experience will be on full display, and it won't be pretty. Add it all up and it'll still amount to an uneven but somewhat still surprising nine- or 10-win wild-card berth season for the Patriots with Cassel under center.
Not Brady-esque to be sure, but not bad for a guy who hasn't been a No. 1 of anything since high school.
• With both Lane Kiffin and Scott Linehan already canned, the 49ers Mike Nolan will rise to the consensus top spot in the coaches on the hot seat list as the second half of another disappointing season unfolds in San Francisco.
What about Detroit's Rod Marinelli or Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, you say? Yes, they're both winless and seemingly in greater jeopardy than Nolan, whose 49ers are 2-4 and still in the race in the mild, mild NFC West. But in the case of both the Lions and Bengals, you never know where team owners William Clay Ford and Mike Brown will lay the blame for a losing season, so there's a survivability factor there for Marinelli and Lewis.
Not so in San Francisco, where Nolan was effectively put on a win-or-else notice when ownership debated for several days last offseason before bringing him back for a fourth year. That move at least provided clarity to Nolan's situation. Another non-playoff season -- the 49ers' sixth in a row -- will mean someone else gets to try their hand at turning San Francisco around.