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Everybody Wins

Sept. 04, 2006
Sept. 04, 2006

Table of Contents
Sept. 4, 2006

SI Bonus Section: SI Fantasy Plus
From the Editor
Inside: The Week in Sports
2006 NFL Preview
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Everybody Wins

AT SEASON'SSTART, every NFL club has playoff hopes, the optimism ranging from realisticexpectations of 14-2 and home field advantage to wishful thinking about 8-8 andthe sixth wild-card spot. Assuming 16-0 is out of the question, what's the mostyour favorite club can hope for? SI looked at each team's schedule to devise abest-case scenario--how the season could play out if all the key elements breakright. The chart rates each game from -5 (certain loss) to +5 (sure win) andnotes a handful of important matchups and calendar quirks that will make orbreak the season. The +1s are the games to watch--win those, and the hopebecomes reality.

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 2006 issue Original Layout

AFC
FINGERS CROSSED - Every game Carson Palmer starts enhances the Bengals' shot atmaking the Super Bowl.

> AFCEast

Buffalo Bills

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

@ NEW ENGLANDlose -3
@ MIAMI lose -1
NEW YORK JETS win +2
MINNESOTA win +1
@ CHICAGO lose -1
@ DETROIT win +1
NEW ENGLAND lose -2
Bye
GREEN BAY win +1
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -3
@ HOUSTON lose -1
JACKSONVILLE win +1
SAN DIEGO win +1
@ NEW YORK JETS win +1
MIAMI lose -2
TENNESSEE win +2
@ BALTIMORE lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
They better win the close ones, because they won't blow out anyone. If Losman'sdecent, the defense will give them a wild-card shot.

• Welcome to theAFC East, coach Dick Jauron. A baptism by fire with the toughest first twoweeks of any team in the league.
• Vital that the Bills steal one of these two road games, or they can kiss theplayoffs goodbye.
• Brady, Favre and Peyton back to back to back. CB Nate Clements, get yourtrack shoes on.
• J.P. Losman, a SoCal guy, prays for snow to slow rabid Chargers D.

MiamiDolphins

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

@ PITTSBURGH lose-2
BUFFALO win +4
TENNESSEE win +4
@ HOUSTON win +1
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -1
@ N.Y. JETS win +2
GREEN BAY win +2
Bye
@ CHICAGO lose -1
KANSAS CITY win +1
MINNESOTA win +4
@ DETROIT win +1
JACKSONVILLE win +1
NEW ENGLAND win +1
@ BUFFALO win +1
N.Y. JETS win +4
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -2

VOICE OFREASON
After ending '05 on a 6-0 roll, they'll keep it going. Nick Saban turns looseRonnie Brown, who goes after the league rushing title, and Miami wins at least11.

• DaunteCulpepper, 3-1 and healthy, says, "Who needs Randy Moss?"
• DE Jason Taylor sacks Brett Favre three times. Fins are 5-2 and have the weekoff.
• Lock of the year: Culpepper will not lose to his former team at home.
• Which club will have more at stake in Week 17?

New EnglandPatriots

BEST CASE
14-2

SCHEDULE

BUFFALO win +3
@ N.Y. JETS win +1
DENVER win +1
@ CINCINNATI lose -1
MIAMI win +1
Bye
@ BUFFALO win +2
@ MINNESOTA win +1
INDIANAPOLIS win +1
N.Y. JETS win +4
@ GREEN BAY win +1
CHICAGO win +2
DETROIT win +2
@ MIAMI win +1
HOUSTON win +2
@ JACKSONVILLE lose -1
@ TENNESSEE win +2

VOICE OFREASON
Losing Adam Vinatieri is going to cost the Patriots a couple of wins, but thisis still one of the best teams in the conference--as long as Brady stayshealthy.

• Eric Manginiknows Tom Brady well, giving Jets a shot to make a game of it.
• Brady versus Favre: one for the archives in Canton.
• Rookie RB Laurence Maroney steps up and sparks an AFC East--clinching win.
• Trapping, overly physical game leaves Pats beat up for the playoffs.

New York Jets

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

@ TENNESSEE win+1
NEW ENGLAND lose -1
@ BUFFALO win +1
INDIANAPOLIS lose -3
@ JACKSONVILLE lose -2
MIAMI lose -1
DETROIT win +1
@ CLEVELAND win +1
Bye
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -3
CHICAGO win +1
HOUSTON win +1
@ GREEN BAY lose -1
BUFFALO win +1
@ MINNESOTA lose -1
@ MIAMI lose -3
OAKLANDwin +1

VOICE OFREASON
One of the AFC's biggest long shots--and weakest teams offensively--will haveto play great defense to have a prayer. Are you ready, Jonathan Vilma?

• Now atquarterback for the Jets, rookie Kellen Clemens.
• Curtis Martin's heir, Kevan Barlow, grinds it out against a tough Lions D.
• Clemens hits Laveranues Coles for three TDs in a must-win game.

> AFCNorth

BaltimoreRavens

BEST CASE
10-6

SCHEDULE

@ TAMPA BAY lose-1
OAKLAND win +3
@ CLEVELAND win +1
SAN DIEGO win +1
@ DENVER lose -1
CAROLINA lose -1
Bye
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
CINCINNATI win +2
@ TENNESSEE win +1
ATLANTA win +2
PITTSBURGH win +1
@ CINCINNATI lose -1
@ KANSAS CITY lose -1
CLEVELAND win +3
@ PITTSBURGH lose -2
BUFFALO win +4

VOICE OFREASON
Hard to believe McNair will stay healthy or Kyle Boller will catch fire. ButRavens should open 2-1 and close 2-1, which sets them up for a wild-cardrun.

• With threebruising games to follow, the Ravens must be 2-1 now to have a playoffprayer.
• For this team Week 7 is perfect for a bye. Steve McNair is usually hobblingby Halloween.
• Real playoff teams don't lose at the Superdome--or at home to Cincinnati.
• Third straight game getting strafed by sharp passers, then two comfy dates athome in the last three.

CincinnatiBengals

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

@ KANSAS CITY win+1
CLEVELAND win +3
@ PITTSBURGH lose -1
NEW ENGLAND win +1
Bye
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
CAROLINA win +1
ATLANTA win +1
@ BALTIMORE win +1
SAN DIEGO win +1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +
@ CLEVELAND win +1
BALTIMORE win +3
OAKLAND win +4
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -1
@ DENVER lose -1
PITTSBURGH win +1

VOICE OFREASON
That 12-4 record isn't a pipe dream if Palmer shows up every Sunday. We thinkhe will. And another star emerges: safety Madieu Williams.

• This will be abrawl, and somebody's coming out of it limping: hopefully, not Palmer thistime.
• That's five straight weeks of facing defenses that tattoo the quarterback.
• If the Cincy attack is still going full bore, this is a bad matchup for theIndy D.
• No other team closes with three games this tough.

ClevelandBrowns

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

NEW ORLEANS win+1
@ CINCINNATI lose -2
BALTIMORE win +1
@ OAKLAND win +1
@ CAROLINA lose -2
Bye
DENVER lose -1
NEW YORK JETS win +1
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2
@ ATLANTA lose -1
PITTSBURGH lose -1
CINCINNATI lose -1
KANSAS CITY win +1
@ PITTSBURGH lose -2
@ BALTIMORE win +1
TAMPA BAY win +1
@ HOUSTON win +1

VOICE OFREASON
The defense must mesh, Willie McGinest must have 12 sacks in him, and CharlieFrye must be competent behind a better 0-line. None of those are locks.

• Judging by thefirst month, someone in the NFL office must love the Browns.
• Facing Delhomme, Plummer and Vick over five games will be a severe test for arebuilt D.
• Rare three-game home stand in the NFL. The Dawg Pound better stock up onbiscuits.
• Playing host to a Sunbelt team on Christmas Eve: Let it snow, let itsnow.

PittsburghSteelers

BEST CASE
13-3

SCHEDULE

MIAMI win +1
@ JACKSONVILLE win +1
CINCINNATI win +1
Bye
@ SAN DIEGO lose -1
KANSAS CITY win +2
@ ATLANTA win +1
@ OAKLAND win +1
DENVER win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +3
@ CLEVELAND win +1
@ BALTIMORE win +1
TAMPA BAY win +1
CLEVELAND win +3
@ CAROLINA lose -2
BALTIMORE win +2
@ CINCINNATI lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
Maybe not 13, but 12 wins are doable. Roethlisberger has to stay upright, and aWillie Parker--Verron Haynes combo has to run the ball effectively.

• Early runagainst ultraphysical defenses raises the question: Will Big Ben's face holdup?
• With seven TD catches in nine games, rookie WR Santonio Holmes is the newgo-to receiver.
• With this finish, champs better have the North in hand by now.

> AFCSouth

HoustonTexans

BEST CASE
9-7

SCHEDULE

PHILADELPHIA win+1
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -2
WASHINGTON win +1
MIAMI lose -1
Bye
@ DALLAS lose -1
JACKSONVILLE lose -1
@ TENNESSEE win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS lose -1
@ JACKSONVILLE lose -2
BUFFALO win +1
@ N.Y. JETS win +1
@ OAKLAND win +1
TENNESSEE win +1
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -2
INDIANAPOLIS win +1
CLEVELAND win +1

VOICE OFREASON
For the Texans to get a whiff of the postseason, Carr has to thrive--notcollapse--under pressure, and Williams has to transform last year's 31st-rateddefense.

• After a fourthpressure defense hammers David Carr, Gary Kubiak will know if his faith in hisQB is justified.
• The last game against the Cowboys until 2010 will test Houston's so-socorners big-time.
• Turning point in the season: Texans need to go at least 2-1 in stretch versusBills, Jets, Raiders.
• Houston drafted Mario Williams to torment Peyton Manning--and he does, withtwo sacks.

IndianapolisColts

BEST CASE
15-1

SCHEDULE

@ N.Y. GIANTS win+1
HOUSTON win +3
JACKSONVILLE win +1
@ N.Y. JETS win +3
TENNESSEE win +4
Bye
WASHINGTON win +1
@ DENVER lose -1
@ NEW ENGLAND win +1
BUFFALO win +5
@ DALLAS win +1
PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ TENNESSEE win +2
@ JACKSONVILLE win +1
CINCINNATI win +1
@ HOUSTON win +1
MIAMI win +2

VOICE OFREASON
No team has a better chance at 15 wins than Tony Dungy's Colts, even with fourtough games against NFC East teams. They're a playoff lock.

• Peyton 27, Eli13.
• Let's face it: It'll be an upset if the Colts aren't 6-0 after this one.
• Adam Vinatieri's 48-yarder with three seconds left wins it.
• Doesn't matter who's QB'ing the Titans. Indy's won its last three inNashville by a combined 37.

JacksonvilleJaguars

BEST CASE
11-5

SCHEDULE

DALLAS win +1
PITTSBURGH win +1
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -2
@ WASHINGTON lose -1
N.Y. JETS win +3
Bye
@ HOUSTON win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA lose -1
TENNESSEE win +2
HOUSTON win +2
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
@ BUFFALO win +1
@ MIAMI lose -1
INDIANAPOLIS lose -1
@ TENNESSEE win +1
NEW ENGLAND win +1
@ KANSAS CITY win +1

VOICE OFREASON
Last year's 12-4 record and first playoff appearance in six years was noaccident. A physical D led by Hayward and just enough offense makes a wild cardplausible.

• Good thingByron Leftwich is a tough hombre. These two teams will punish him.
• Jags could be favored in six of these seven games; a 6-1 run locks up aplayoff spot.
• Division title may be at stake. Can DE Reggie Hayward take down PeytonManning?

TennesseeTitans

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

N.Y. JETS win+1
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2
@ MIAMI lose -1
DALLAS lose -1
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -4
@ WASHINGTON lose -1
Bye
HOUSTON win +1
@ JACKSONVILLE lose -1
BALTIMORE win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA lose -1
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
INDIANAPOLIS lose -2
@ HOUSTON win +1
JACKSONVILLE win +1
@ BUFFALO win +1
NEW ENGLAND win +1

VOICE OFREASON
There's no way Tennessee belongs in the playoffs, but football is a funny game.If Norm Chow can speed the development of his dynamic rookie QB....

• Jeff Fisher'schallenge after a 1-5 start: keep the team from closing up shop.
• Billy Volek's just not up to the starting job. The call goes out for VinceYoung.
• Young's TD pass to Drew Bennett in final minute stuns N.Y., saves theseason.
• The rook beats Tom Brady at home. Bingo--wild card.

> AFCWest

DenverBroncos

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

@ ST. LOUIS win+1
KANSAS CITY win +2
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -1
Bye
BALTIMORE win +2
OAKLAND win +3
@ CLEVELAND win +1
INDIANAPOLIS win +1
@ PITTSBURGH lose -1
@ OAKLAND win +1
SAN DIEGO win +1
@ KANSAS CITY lose -1
SEATTLE win +1
@ SAN DIEGO lose -1
@ ARIZONA win +2
CINCINNATI win +1
SAN FRANCISCO win +3

VOICE OFREASON
They should start 5-1 and finish by winning two out of three to glide into theplayoffs. It'll be a shock if Plummer & Co. don't hold off San Diego in theWest.

• First sixgames: the NFL's scheduling gift of the season.
• Next seven games: schedule from hell.
• Jake Plummer returns, tears up the Cards' new house.

Kansas CityChiefs

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

CINCINNATI win+1
@ DENVER lose -1
Bye
SAN FRANCISCO win +4
@ ARIZONA win +1
@ PITTSBURGH lose -1
SAN DIEGO win +1
SEATTLE win +1
@ ST. LOUIS win +1
@ MIAMI lose -1
OAKLAND win +2
DENVER win +2
@ CLEVELAND win +1
BALTIMORE win +2
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2
@ OAKLAND win +1
JACKSONVILLE win +1

VOICE OFREASON
If Trent Green is injury-free, 11 wins are possible. If defensive coordinatorGunther Cunningham doesn't come up with new tricks, so is 6-10.

• Terrible weekfor K.C's bye, particularly in the physical AFC West.
• What a matchup: Larry Johnson versus three strong up-the-gut D's.
• Full crowd carries the Chiefs in first Thanksgiving-night game atArrowhead.

OaklandRaiders

BEST CASE
9-7

SCHEDULE

SAN DIEGO win+1
@ BALTIMORE win +1
Bye
CLEVELAND win +1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
@ DENVER lose -2
ARIZONA win +1
PITTSBURGH lose -1
@ SEATTLE lose -3
DENVER lose -1
@ KANSAS CITY lose -2
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2
HOUSTON win +1
@ CINCINNATI lose -2
ST. LOUIS win +1
KANSAS CITY win +1
@ N.Y. JETS win +1

VOICE OFREASON
Is second-year quarterback Andrew Walter ready? He'd better be, because newcoach Art Shell will be sick of the mistake-prone Brooks by midseason.

• First monthwill be high point of Raiders' year.
• Aaron Brooks turns it over four times. Black-holers turn onhim--viciously.
• The problem with playing in the AFC West is that eventually you may have adeadly three-game stretch like this.

San DiegoChargers

BEST CASE
13-3

SCHEDULE

@ OAKLAND win+1
TENNESSEE win +3
Bye
@ BALTIMORE win +1
PITTSBURGH win +1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +2
@ KANSAS CITY win +1
ST. LOUIS win +2
CLEVELAND win +3
@ CINCINNATI lose -1
@ DENVER lose -1
OAKLAND win +3
@ BUFFALO win +1
DENVER win +1
KANSAS CITY win +2
@ SEATTLE lose -1
ARIZONA win +3

VOICE OFREASON
No Colts, Pats, Dolphins or Jags. No other AFC contender has as manageable aschedule. Even with the green Rivers at QB, a division title is withinreach.

• A relativelysoft schedule allows Philip Rivers to get settled.
• Behind Shawne Merriman's 12 sacks, San Diego bolts to an 8-0 start.
• LaDainian Tomlinson wins rushing duel with Larry Johnson, 186 yards to67.

NFC
THE BEST OF THE WEST
For Lofa Tatupu and the Seahawks, winning the divisional games is the easy partof going 13-3 again.

> NFCEast

DallasCowboys

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

@ JACKSONVILLElose -1
WASHINGTON win +1
Bye
@ TENNESSEE win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA win +1
HOUSTON win +2
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
@ CAROLINA lose -1
@ WASHINGTON lose -1
@ ARIZONA win +1
INDIANAPOLIS win +1
TAMPA BAY win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +2
@ ATLANTA lose -1
PHILADELPHIA win +1
DETROIT win +2

VOICE OFREASON
The play of Drew Bledsoe--or Tony Romo if Dallas gets impatient with Drew'simmobility--will decide whether Parcells takes his third team to the BigOne.

• T.O.: sixreceptions, 176 yards and two TDs in his first trip back to the Linc.
• For Dallas to win the East, its suspect tackles have to keep the Giants' heatoff the quarterback.
• Upset of the week: DeMarcus Ware, Bobby Carpenter plague Peyton.
• Bill Parcells makes perhaps his last trip to the Meadowlands, his truefootball home.

New YorkGiants

BEST CASE
10-6

SCHEDULE

INDIANAPOLIS lose-1
@ PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ SEATTLE lose -1
Bye
WASHINGTON win +1
@ ATLANTA win +1
@ DALLAS lose -1
TAMPA BAY win +1
HOUSTON win +2
CHICAGO win +1
@ JACKSONVILLE lose -1
@TENNESSEE win +1
DALLAS win +1
@ CAROLINA lose -2
PHILADELPHIA win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +1
@ WASHINGTON lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
If Eli plays the way he did in late '05, the Giants are a playoff long shot. Ifhe makes normal third-year progress, they'll challenge for the divisiontitle.

• The toughestopening three-game set in the league.
• In this corner, weighing 257 pounds, wearing white trunks, LaVarArrington!
• Tom Coughlin returns to the scene of his prime.
• Against Panthers in '05 playoffs, Eli Manning played like a scaredrabbit.

PhiladelphiaEagles

BEST CASE
10-6

SCHEDULE

@ HOUSTON win+1
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
GREEN BAY win +1
DALLAS win +1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
JACKSONVILLE win +1
Bye
WASHINGTON win +1
TENNESSEE win +2
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -2
CAROLINA lose -1
@ WASHINGTON lose -1
@ N.Y. GIANTS lose -1
@ DALLAS lose -1
ATLANTA win +1

VOICE OFREASON
Philly needs Donovan McNabb to carry a bigger-than-ever load and RB BrianWestbrook to be great, for once, in late-season games.

• The first monthof the schedule almost guarantees the Birds at least a 3-1 start.
• Marketable QB Bowl: Manning 28, McNabb 10. This is the game in which the lackof a big-play receiver kills the Eagles.
• Payback for easy early slate: three straight East road games in December.

WashingtonRedskins

BEST CASE
13-3

SCHEDULE

MINNESOTA win+1
@ DALLAS lose -1
@ HOUSTON win +1
JACKSONVILLE win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS win +1
TENNESSEE win +2
@ INDIANAPOLIS lose -1
Bye
DALLAS win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
CAROLINA win +1
ATLANTA win +1
PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
@ ST. LOUIS win +1
N.Y. GIANTS win +1

VOICE OFREASON
Washington is one of those teams that could win 13 or seven. But Joe Gibbstrusts Campbell and will put the season in his hands.

• Jason Campbelltakes over at quarterback for struggling vet Mark Brunell.
• Defensive chief Gregg Williams adds some strange wrinkles just for Peyton.
• It's a shame both Dallas matchups are early-season.
• Toughness test: four physical NFC South foes in five weeks.

> NFCNorth

Chicago Bears

BEST CASE
14-2

SCHEDULE

@ GREEN BAY win+1
DETROIT win +2
@ MINNESOTA win +1
SEATTLE win +1
BUFFALO win +3
@ ARIZONA win +1
Bye
SAN FRANCISCO win +3
MIAMI win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS lose -1
@ N.Y. JETS win +2
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -2
MINNESOTA win +1
@ ST. LOUIS win +1
TAMPA BAY win +1
@ DETROIT win +1
GREEN BAY win +2

VOICE OFREASON
If the Bears don't win at least 11 with this soft slate, their 2005 divisiontitle was a fluke. Smith's guys should be playing for home field advantage inDecember.

• Divisionalshowdowns to start season, rematches near the end.
• Schedule tailor-made for a 6-1 start, and 7-0 isn't out of the question.
• With three games in the Northeast in 15 days, Lovie Smith should move theteam to New Haven.
• Brian Griese beats the Bucs, takes QB job for good.

Detroit Lions

BEST CASE
11-5

SCHEDULE

SEATTLE win +1
@ CHICAGO lose -1
GREEN BAY win +2
@ ST. LOUIS win +1
@ MINNESOTA win +1
BUFFALO win +2
@ N.Y. JETS win +1
Bye
ATLANTA win +1
SAN FRANCISCO win +2
@ ARIZONA win +1
MIAMI lose -1
@ NEW ENGLAND lose -1
MINNESOTA win +1
@ GREEN BAY win +1
CHICAGO lose -1
@ DALLAS lose -2

VOICE OFREASON
Biggest factor in Marinelli's favor is the schedule. With even marginalimprovement, Detroit should be in all but a few games and 9-7 apossibility.

• A typical Lionsstart would be 0-2; if Rod Marinelli is having an impact, 1-1.
• Detroit hasn't won in the Metrodome since 1997. Jon Kitna will changethat.
• With an efficient offense, the new look Lions are rolling.

Green BayPackers

BEST CASE
9-7

SCHEDULE

CHICAGO win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +1
@ DETROIT lose -1
@ PHILADELPHIA lose -1
ST. LOUIS win +1
Bye
@ MIAMI lose -2
ARIZONA win +1
@ BUFFALO win +1
@ MINNESOTA lose -1
NEW ENGLAND lose -1
@ SEATTLE lose -2
N.Y. JETS win +1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
DETROIT win +1
MINNESOTA win +1
@ CHICAGO lose -2

VOICE OFREASON
Favre has to turn back the clock for Green Bay to have more than a playoffprayer. He can do it--but only if the running backs and linemen stayhealthy.

• An 0-2 startwould be deadly given the tough late schedule.
• Metrodome can be a house of horrors for Brett Favre.
• Last time Pats visited Lambeau, in '79, Bart Starr was coaching the Pack.
• Favre versus Holmgren. And we thought the 2005 meeting would be theirlast.

MinnesotaVikings

BEST CASE
12-4

SCHEDULE

@ WASHINGTON lose-1
CAROLINA win +1
CHICAGO win +1
@ BUFFALO win +1
DETROIT win +1
Bye
@ SEATTLE lose -1
NEW ENGLAND win +1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
GREEN BAY win +1
@ MIAMI lose -1
ARIZONA win +2
@ CHICAGO lose -1
@ DETROIT win +1
N.Y. JETS win +2
@ GREEN BAY win +1
ST. LOUIS win +1

VOICE OFREASON
Johnson won't just be keeping the seat warm for the next QB. By midseason he'llhave a contract extension--and playoff-hungry teammates.

• Third game witha 2005 playoff team in 14 days.
• Brad Johnson licks his chops at Pats' suspect secondary.
• Culpepper 34, Zygiwilfs 16.
• Early Xmas gift in Green Bay: win over Pack locks up playoff spot.

> NFCSouth

AtlantaFalcons

BEST CASE
11-5

SCHEDULE

@ CAROLINA lose-1
TAMPA BAY win +1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
ARIZONA win +2
Bye
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
PITTSBURGH win +1
@ CINCINNATI lose -1
@ DETROIT win +1
CLEVELAND win +2
@ BALTIMORE win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +2
@ WASHINGTON lose -1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
DALLAS win +1
CAROLINA win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
An unpredictable team. The defense will keep the Falcons in every game, but ifVick doesn't take the next step in his development, look for eight winstops.

• Atlanta shouldwin, but there's an overpowering X factor: the Saints' emotion-packed return tothe Superdome.
• What a sight: Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora--New York's speed off theedges--chasing down Michael Vick.
• Fourth AFC North foe in five weeks.
• No other team has a more physically demanding finish than Atlanta.

CarolinaPanthers

BEST CASE
13-3

SCHEDULE

ATLANTA win +1
@ MINNESOTA win +1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
NEW ORLEANS win +2
CLEVELAND win +3
@ BALTIMORE win +1
@ CINCINNATI lose -1
DALLAS win +1
Bye
TAMPA BAY win +1
ST. LOUIS win +2
@ WASHINGTON win +1
@ PHILADELPHIA win +1
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
PITTSBURGH win +1
@ ATLANTA lose -1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +2

VOICE OFREASON
It's Super Bowl or bust for the Panthers, and they can make their reservationsfor Miami-- as long as Williams boosts the running game. He will.

• Imperative forCarolina to have made hay in first six weeks. It'll be a tough stretch over thelast six.
• Must be nice--no road games for four weeks around midseason.
• Rookie back DeAngelo Williams becomes the Man in the Carolina offense,surpassing 1,000 rushing yards against the Men of Steel.

New OrleansSaints

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

@ CLEVELAND win+1
@ GREEN BAY win +1
ATLANTA win +1
@ CAROLINA lose -2
TAMPA BAY win +1
PHILADELPHIA lose -1
Bye
BALTIMORE win +1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1
@ PITTSBURGH lose -1
CINCINNATI win +1
@ ATLANTA lose -1
SAN FRANCISCO win +1
@ DALLAS lose -2
WASHINGTON win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS lose -1
CAROLINA lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
Reggie Bush will loom large in the success of this team, but the play of Breeswill determine whether the Saints sneak up on the other clubs in thedivision.

• No other teamwill get as great a boost this season as the Saints will get from theirhomecoming.
• Three straight at home--what playoff dreams are made of.
• Don't laugh--could be close. Drew Brees loves the challenge of being a road'dog.
• Sean Payton meetsmentor Bill Parcells (gulp).

Tampa BayBuccaneers

BEST CASE
11-5

SCHEDULE

BALTIMORE win+1
@ ATLANTA lose -1
CAROLINA win +1
Bye
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
CINCINNATI win +1
PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ N.Y. GIANTS win +1
NEW ORLEANS win +1
@ CAROLINA lose -1
WASHINGTON win +1
@ DALLAS lose -1
@ PITTSBURGH lose -1
ATLANTA win +1
@ CHICAGO lose -1
@ CLEVELAND win +1
SEATTLE win +1

VOICE OFREASON
With half their games against '05 playoff teams, the Bucs have to be consistenton offense and extra stingy on D. Chris Simms better have a breakout year.

• After thirdstraight week facing topflight defenses, Bucs can use a bye.
• A Simms leads his team to a big win at the Meadowlands. Sound familiar?
• Bucs need this one. Playoff-bound Seattle will be using backups.

> NFCWest

ArizonaCardinals

BEST CASE
9-7

SCHEDULE

SAN FRANCISCO win+1
@ SEATTLE lose -2
ST. LOUIS win +1
@ ATLANTA lose -1
KANSAS CITY win +1
CHICAGO win +1
@ OAKLAND win +1
@ GREEN BAY lose -1
Bye
DALLAS win +1
DETROIT win +1
@ MINNESOTA win +1
@ ST. LOUIS lose -1
SEATTLE lose -1
DENVER lose -1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2

VOICE OFREASON
The Cards averaged a league-low 3.2 yards per rush last year. If they improvethat rate by one yard, they'll make the playoffs. Feel that extra weight,Edge?

• First threedivision games are in September, last three in December.
• Cards looking good, thanks in part to a manageable first-half slate.
• Edgerrin James proves his worth against two stout defenses.
• Wild-card-worthy: Kurt Warner shreds a weak 49ers secondary.

St. LouisRams

BEST CASE
9-7

SCHEDULE

DENVER lose -1
@ SAN FRANCISCO win +1
@ ARIZONA win +1
DETROIT win +1
@ GREEN BAY win +1
SEATTLE lose -1
Bye
@ SAN DIEGO lose -2
KANSAS CITY win +1
@ SEATTLE lose -2
@ CAROLINA lose -2
SAN FRANCISCO win +2
ARIZONA win +1
CHICAGO lose -1
@ OAKLAND win +1
WASHINGTON win +1
@ MINNESOTA lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
Jackson and crew will score a lot. Funny that it's Jim Haslett, an old nemesisfrom New Orleans, who's building the attacking defense they desperatelyneed.

• Now running theLions' attack, Mike Martz returns looking for revenge.
• They need a bye here. Look at the next four weeks: three brutal roadgames.
• Hope the fragile Marc Bulger holds up against Urlacher & Co.
• With a playoff spot on the line, Steven Jackson wears down a tough Redskinsdefense.

San Francisco49ers

BEST CASE
8-8

SCHEDULE

@ ARIZONA win+1
ST. LOUIS win +1
PHILADELPHIA win +1
@ KANSAS CITY lose -1
OAKLAND win +1
SAN DIEGO lose -1
Bye
@ CHICAGO lose -1
MINNESOTA win +1
@ DETROIT lose -1
SEATTLE lose -1
@ ST. LOUIS lose -1
@ NEW ORLEANS win +1
GREEN BAY win +1
@ SEATTLE lose -3
ARIZONA win +1
@ DENVER lose -2

VOICE OFREASON
Easy to write 'em off, but if Smith plays like Trent Green (a Norv Turnerprotégé) instead of like Heath Shuler (another Turner project), they'll turnthe corner.

• Important gamefor second-year QB Alex Smith, who must show that he can beat a good defense athome.
• Niners play Bears very tough, thanks to the efforts of one man: RB FrankGore.
• Mike Nolan must guard against losing his players following this baddefeat.

SeattleSeahawks

BEST CASE
13-3

SCHEDULE

@ DETROIT win+1
ARIZONA win +3
N.Y. GIANTS win +1
@ CHICAGO lose -1
Bye
@ ST. LOUIS win +1
MINNESOTA win +1
@ KANSAS CITY win +1
OAKLAND win +3
ST. LOUIS win +2
SAN FRANCISCO win +3
GREEN BAY win +3
@ DENVER lose -1
@ ARIZONA win +1
SAN FRANCISCO win +2
SAN DIEGO win +1
@ TAMPA BAY lose -1

VOICE OFREASON
For Shaun Alexander & Co., playing in the NFC West is like facing thejayvee six times. But every win will count: They'll need home field to returnto the Super Bowl.

• Remember, N.Y.had Seattle beaten last year at Qwest Field until a late field goal debacle.
• It will be a shock if the Seahawks don't have the NFC West in hand by now.
• Matt Hasselbeck overtakes Peyton Manning as the league leader in passingyards.

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