Six of the eight divisions will be won by teams that didn't even
make the playoffs last season. The Chiefs and the Panthers are
emerging powers, while the defending Super Bowl-champion
Buccaneers will be on the outside looking in. What follows is my
projected playoff lineup, with conference seedings and
predictions for the postseason, which begins on Jan. 3.
1. CHIEFS (14-2) They're unbeaten but vulnerable. Four of their
games went down to the wire. Who will knock them off? I wouldn't
be surprised to see the Bengals upset them this Sunday. If not
then, I say it'll be the West-rival Broncos on Dec. 7, provided
quarterback Jake Plummer is back at full strength.
2. TITANS (14-2) Steve McNair is staking a mighty claim as the
NFL's best quarterback. The Titans have won four straight, and I
see them running the table to nip the Colts in the South.
3. PATRIOTS (12-4) They keep on winning, even with as many as 13
key players missing. Now that people are getting healthy, New
England will be battle-hardened for the stretch run in the East.
4. RAVENS (10-6) Let's face it, the North is there for the
taking, now that the Steelers have fallen off. Plus, once
Baltimore gets past the Dolphins in Miami this Sunday, the
schedule is soft.
5. COLTS (13-3) The offense remains high-powered. The defense
specializes in the quick strike, as the Dolphins found out on
Nov. 2. But then the Colts were upset by the Jaguars on Sunday,
losing the edge they had on the Titans for the South title.
6. BRONCOS (10-6) The bye last week came at just the right time,
to give Plummer the extra week to heal. Their defense and running
game are solid enough to keep them in the playoff chase. But
having to go with a third-string quarterback (Danny Kanell) is a
1. RAMS (12-4) The Ravens smacked their offense in the mouth on
Sunday, but the defense held things together. Marshall Faulk
doesn't look anything like his old self, but a favorable schedule
gives St. Louis the edge in the West.
2. PANTHERS (12-4) They had been winning with defense and the
running game, but Stephen Davis missed the game against the
South-rival Bucs, and Jake Delhomme had to win it with his arm.
This team has moved to a new level.
3. VIKINGS (11-5) Everyone was enraptured by their newfound
defense, then they gave up 1,359 yards in losses to the Giants,
Packers and Chargers. Now an asset has turned into a liability,
and winning the North isn't a lock anymore.
4. EAGLES (10-6) I think Donovan McNabb's early struggles were
health-related, and as he gets stronger, so does Philly. I see
the Eagles winning the East because they get the Giants and the
Cowboys at home.
5. PACKERS (10-6) They're keyed by one of the best and most
underrated offensive lines in football. The running attack is
formidable, and Brett Favre has lost nothing off his fastball
while playing with a cracked thumb. The only thing holding Green
Bay back is a subpar defense.
6. COWBOYS (10-6) It's fashionable to dismiss their early success
because of the teams they've beaten. We'll get a better reading
over the next month. Dallas's next four games are against teams
with winning records.
PATRIOTS OVER BRONCOS COWBOYS OVER VIKINGS
COLTS OVER RAVENS EAGLES OVER PACKERS
CHIEFS OVER COLTS RAMS OVER COWBOYS
TITANS OVER PATRIOTS PANTHERS OVER EAGLES
CHIEFS OVER TITANS PANTHERS OVER RAMS
SUPER BOWL XXXVIII
CHIEFS 24, PANTHERS 20