Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Week 4 Blogpoll Ballot

My Ballot:

1 Ohio State --
2 Auburn 1
3 Southern Cal 1
4 Georgia 2
5 Iowa 3
6 Louisiana State 4
7 Michigan 9
8 Florida 1
9 Louisville 2
10 Virginia Tech 2
11 West Virginia 2
12 Texas 2
13 Oregon 4
14 TCU 4
15 Alabama 1
16 Clemson 7
17 Florida State 12
18 Boise State 4
19 Michigan State 7
20 Tennessee 1
21 Penn State 5
22 Houston 3
23 South Carolina 3
24 Wisconsin 2
25 Arizona State 1

Dropped Out: Notre Dame (#7), Oklahoma (#15), Nebraska (#19), Pittsburgh (#24).

Flame away.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Officiating bad, teams were worse.

Perhaps the most famous blown call in sports in the last 25 years occured in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, back when Major League Baseball was a legit sport. The St. Louis Cardinals were up 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th against cross-state rival Kansas City. Cardinals' closer Todd Worrell was 3 outs away from closing out the Kansas City Royals for good and sewing up a World title for St. Louis. Things looked great for the Cardinals as Jorge Orta led off by weakly grounding to Jack Clark, who tossed it to Todd Worrell for the first out, or so everyone thought.

Umpire Don Denkinger, however, called Orta safe. Replays showed otherwise.

For Cardinals fans, this is where the story stops. The next thing you usually hear them say is that the Royals went on to win the World Series.

What Cardinals fan conveniently forgets is that Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter misplayed a pop-up foul ball that would have gotten Steve Balboni out. He also neglects to mention that Porter later had a passed ball that advanced Balboni and Jim Sundberg into scoring position. Also, Cardinals fan will probably conveniently forget that Porter also failed to tag Sundberg on the game winning run after Andy Van Slyke made a perfect throw to him.

Oh, and even after all that, the Cardinals still could have won game 7 if John Tudor had displayed the form that made him a Cy Young runner-up in 1985. Instead, Tudor allowed 5 runs and 4 walks in 2 1/3 innings. The rest of the pitching staff wasn't any better, and the Cardinals bats didn't show up.

Yes, the Cardinals were the victims of a bad call. But to say that it determined the series is wrong. All the Cardinals had to do was get the last 3 outs of Game 6 after the bad call, or at least not choke in Game 7 and St. Louis is the World Champion.

Fast forward to Week 3 of the 2006 College Football Season, where the spirit of Don Denkinger is apparently alive and well in Eugene, Oregon and Auburn, Alabama.

With 1:12 left to go in the 4th Quarter and Oregon down 33-27 to Oklahoma, Oregon needed to recover an onside kick. Ball kicked, OU recovers. Except the officials, replay official included, rule that the ball belongs to Oregon, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

Like Cardinals fans retelling the '85 series, the next thing you hear out of OU fan is that the call cost them the game as Oregon ended up winning 34-33.

Like Cardinals fans, they are leaving a few details out.

The Oklahoma defense is one of the most talented units in the nation, yet it allowed 501 yards total offense to Oregon, a team that had 379 total yards the previous week against Fresno State. 343 of the yards Oklahoma allowed were through the air, Fresno State only allowed the Ducks 240 yards passing.

Jonathan Stewart, Oregon's leading rusher, had 144 yards rushing on 6.3 yards/carry against Oklahoma. The entire Oregon team had 139 yards on 4.1 yards/carry against Fresno State.

Fresno State is probably a team Oklahoma could beat 9 times out of 10 on a neutral field and yet they had better defensive stats against the same Oregon team.

(Source for stats: ESPN.com; Oklahoma - Oregon Box Score; Oregon - Fresno State Box Score)

If Oklahoma had played up to it's ability level, Oregon isn't even in this ballgame with 1:12 left.

Like the Cardinals of 1985, the Sooners still had an opportunity to win despite the officials error. Garrett Hartley had a 44 yard field goal attempt on the last play of the game that would have won it. Unfortunately, like the Cardinals, OU's field goal protection choked. The kick was blocked.

A similar situation occured in the Auburn-LSU game where an apparent pass interference was waived off because the officials said the ball was tipped. Unfortunately, the replay showed that the contact was before the tip.

Still, LSU, for all the 309 yards it gained on offense, only put 3 points on the scoreboard. Had the Tigers finished a few more of these drives, the call isn't even an issue.

That's on the LSU Tigers, not the officials.

Also, LSU still had a chance to win, but JaMarcus Russell made a huge mistake by not trying to throw the ball in the end zone on the last play. The recievers hadn't made a catch-and-run touchdown all day. What made Russell think it was going to happen on the last play when all 11 Auburn defenders are in front of a guy trying to run into the end zone?

Yes, bad calls happen. Yes, teams get hosed. But most of the time, there's something your team could have done to prevent the call from being a game changer. And many times, your team will get a chance to undo the damage, if they take advantage of it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Weekend Preview "ZOMG, It's Separation Saturday 2006!" Edition

All times Central, Rankings courtesy the Blogpoll

(Damn this job hunting...)

There's usually one or two of these weekends in the college football season where a bunch of ranked teams play each other. ESPN's Chris Fowler, who has given us such college football cliches as "upset saturday" and "woodshed game", describes these weekends as "Separation Saturdays." So, thanks to Fowler's employer, the name has stuck.

Usually these weekends happen during conference play, mainly because the top teams load up on patsies during the non-conference, and then they get into conference play, where they have to play all the ranked teams they avoided.

This year, partly because of the 12th game, and partly because of the quirks of preseason expectations, we have a "Separation Saturday" in September. And 3 of those matchups involve Big 12 teams.

So, for our first weekend preview of the year, we got a triple game of the week.


Big 12/Texas Game of the week #1
#17 Nebraska at #2 USC
7:00 PM ABC
(All Big 12 Markets)

This game is a lot more complex than it appears at first glance. Mainly because aside from the numbers attached to the two teams, we don't know what to make of their results so far. Yes, Nebraska is 2-0 and they are rated 11th in passing defense and 5th in total offense, but that was against Division I-AA Nicholls State, and middle-of-the-WAC Louisiana Tech. Neither of these teams is on USC's level of talent.

Conversely, it could also be argued that USC played a weak and overrated Arkansas team, who isn't on Nebraska's level of talent.

Still, Nebraska hasn't beaten a Top 10 team on the road since before most of the current Cornhuskers were even thinking about a college football scholarship (1997 at Washington). Plus, the game is in Los Angeles. Even though we're talking SoCal sports fans and not hardcore SEC fans, a road game is a road game, and in a close game like this one is shaping up to be, home field makes a difference.

Key Matchup
Emmanuel Moody vs Nebraska's front 7
Everyone wants to talk about the recievers, but Moody, who steps in the slot vacated by Reggie Bush and LenDale White, needs to give USC at least 5 yard/carry on first and second down to keep the defense honest. Adam Carriker, Jay Moore, Bo Ruud, and company are a nightmare matchup for a lot of teams.

Key player for USC
John David Booty
Hard to believe, but Booty is making only his second collegiate start, and he hasn't seen a defense as fast as Nebraska's yet.

Key player for Nebraska
Marlon Lucky
Lucky him, he gets to carry the offensive load for his whole team. If he doesn't have at least 100 yards, Nebraska is sunk.

Tale of the Tape

USC offense vs. Nebraska defensePush
Can Nebraska get enough pressure on Booty and shut down the run? Maybe for a while.
Nebraska offense vs. USC defenseUSCNow here's the million dollar question. Will Nebraska be able to run their offense effectively? Probably not. The defense is where the experience is on this team, and their DBs and LBs are faster than Nebraska's RBs and WRs.
Special TeamsPushNeither unit stands out here.
Pete Carroll's has 1 1/2 national championships in the past 3 years, and his team played for the title last year. Bill Callahan is still an unproven commodity in the collegiate ranks.
IntangiblesUSCUSC's players, even if they haven't played, have seen nothing but winning for the past 33 games. Also, USC's the home team, and Nebraska is 1-10 against top 25 competition the last 8 years.

Big 12/Texas Game of the week #2
#18 Oklahoma at #16 Oregon
Saturday, 2:30 PM, ABC
(The only Big 12 market area not carrying this game will be KPOB in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, who will be carrying the Miami-Louisville game instead. Everyone else will get this game.)

Oklahoma has gotten off to a rocky start, and Oregon is feeling confident after beating Fresno State. However, OU has won the last 2 meetings against the Ducks.

Key Matchup
Oregon backs vs Oklahoma run defense
Both UAB and Washington were able to run frequently on this team, though neither of them had the talent to sustain a running attack against a team like Oklahoma.

Key player for Oregon
Dennis Dixon
Oklahoma had trouble with another mobile quarterback, Isaiah Stanback, last week, which bodes well for Dixon's chances this week.

Key player for Oklahoma
Malcolm Kelly
OU's big play threat must play well enough to get that 8th man out of the box and into the secondary.

Tale of the Tape

Oregon offense vs. Oklahoma defenseOregon
OU did not do well against Stanback and Louis Rankin. Now they face another mobile quarterback in Dennis Dixon and another star running back in Jonathan Stewart
Oklahoma offense vs. Oregon defenseOklahoma
Kelly will have a breakout game against this secondary if Paul Thompson can find him.
Special TeamsPush
Dead even.
Bob Stoops has one national title and 2 championship game appearances.
Oklahoma is the road team, and Autzen Stadium is a rough road game. Plus, the Sooners have been plagued by turnovers and inconsistencies.

Big 12/Texas Game of the week #3
#23 Texas Tech at #21 TCU
Saturday, 4:30 PM, OLN

TCU is a tough team for anyone in any year, as Oklahoma found out last year. They recruit the Dallas-Fort Worth area well, their ball control offense keeps opponents' high powered offenses off the field, and their defense is tough to prepare for if you're not in their conference. Last time they played (in Lubbock) TCU jumped out to a lead before the Raiders roared back.

Combine that with Texas Tech's tendency under Mike Leach to play lousy on the road, and it's a bad situation for the Red Raiders.

Key Matchup
Joel Filani vs Marvin White/Eric Buchanan
Whichever one draws inside reciever Joel Filani is likely to have their hands full.

Key player for TCU
Aaron Brown
Brown has been the leading rusher in both TCU victories so far. If TCU is to control the clock, it's up to Brown to have a 100 yard day

Key player for Texas Tech
Alex Trlica
True, Trlica hit the OT game winner last week. That obscured the fact that he missed both of his kicks in regulation. Trlica can not have another game like that.

Tale of the Tape

TCU offense vs. Texas Tech defenseTCU
This is Texas Tech's first game against a run-first offense, and they've always had trouble stopping the run.
Texas Tech offense vs. TCU defenseTexas Tech
Even though the Horned Frogs roll 5 DBs in their base formation, Texas Tech has speed enough at all four wideouts to burn rovers.
Special Teams
Bears repeating: Trlica missed both regulation FG attempts against UTEP
I would give Mike Leach the edge here, except he usually has trouble with tough roadies.
IntangiblesTexas Tech
Yes, technically TCU is the home team here, but the Metroplex is home to many Red Raider alumni with cash, and they tend to pack the stadium when Tech plays any of the DFW area schools, effectively neutralizing any home field advantage.

Big XII Games

Kansas at Toledo
Friday, 7:00 PM, ESPN
Teams who take games against MAC opponents for granted usually do so at their own peril. Let's hope Kansas takes this game seriously.

Iowa State at #13 Iowa
Saturday, 11:00 AM, ESPN
Iowa State should be encouraged that Syracuse took them to OT and the fact that they beat Drew Tate and company last year. Unfortunately that game was at home, and the Cyclones must travel to Iowa City this year.

Marshall at Kansas State
Saturday, 11:30 AM, FSN Southwest/Midwest/Rocky Mtn.
Last year, Kansas State needed a miracle to beat Marshall. This year? K-State is better overall, and they have a new coach and attitude

Texas at Rice
Saturday, 5:00 PM, ESPN2
Mack Brown and company get to take out their frustrations on Ex-Longhorn Major Applewhite, Rice's offensive coordinator.

Arizona State at Colorado
Saturday, 6:00 PM, TBS
A team in turmoil vs. A team that lost to Montana State and Colorado State. Take the Sun Devils.

Missouri at New Mexico
Saturday, 7:00 PM, Regional TV coverage
Rocky Long's unusual 3-3-5 Stack is tough to prepare for if you don't face it often, plus New Mexico beat Missouri in Columbia last year, and that was when Missouri had Brad Smith.

Army vs. Texas A&M
at Alamodome, San Antonio, TX
Saturday, 8:00 PM, ESPN2

San Antonio is a military town, but all of Fort Sam Houston could show up to cheer on the Cadets and it wouldn't matter. Texas A&M should win this easily.

Baylor vs. Washington St.
at Qwest Field, Seattle
Saturday, 4:00 PM

This will be a tough neutral site game for the Bears as they, like Nebraska, have to cross 2 time zones to face a Pacific team.

Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma St.
Saturday, 6:00 PM
None of these games are going to tell us much, yet. OSU's first real test comes next week against Houston.

Other Texas Teams

Grambling at Houston
Saturday, 6:00 PM
Grambling may win the halftime, but Kevin Kolb and the Cougars will win the game easy.

North Texas at Tulsa
Saturday, 6:00 PM
Tulsa takes an easy home win against North Texas.

Sam Houston St. at SMU
Saturday, 7:00
SMU will probably win, but it will be close.

National Games of Note

Miami at Louisville
2:30 PM
Louisville's chance to prove they are a top-10 program. Miami's chance to prove that they're not yesterday's news
Michigan at Notre Dame
2:30 PM
Michigan's recievers are the fastest that Notre Dame has faced to date, and Michigan's defense is better than last year.
LSU at Auburn
2:30 PM
In effect, this is the SEC West championship game, barring a complete collapse by the winner.
Florida at Tennessee
7:00 PM
While not as important to it's division as both teams still have to play Georgia, it's an important game for both coaches. Urban Meyer is still unproven at Florida, and Phil Fulmer is almost 10 years removed from his lone national title and starting to feel the heat. Plus, Tennessee's 2 wins are against a severely overrated Cal team and a squeaker against Air Force(?)
Clemson at Florida State
6:45 PM
ESPNYep, it's the Bowden Bowl once again. Both teams desperately need a win after lackluster performances last week.


Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, Noon, CBS (KEYE 42)

Well, a few Texans fans thought I was crazy for giving their new offensive line an "F" grade in my preview. They quoted preseason stats, and tried their hardest to convince me how their O-line was better. They even questioned what reality I was living in. To them I say: Preseason stats don't matter, your pass protection collapsed last week against actual NFL blitz packages, and it's the reality where the Philadelphia Eagles got 5 sacks on David Carr last week and held the Texans to 70 yards rushing. Total.

The Texans now take on the Indianapolis Colts, who won last week against the New York Giants despite paltry rushing numbers

Key Matchup
Charles Spencer vs Dwight Freeney
After getting his rookie initiation against the Philadelpha Eagles and Jevon Kearse, he now faces one of the NFL's better defensive ends in Dwight Freeney.

Key player for Houston
Lewis Sanders
With Patrick Buchanon out with a foot injury, it's up to Sanders to step up and show he can play.

Key player for Indianapolis
Joseph Addai
Someone has to provide this team with a running game. Addai needs to justify his first round pick status. With the Texans giving up 4.3 yards/carry to Philly's tandem, this may be the game where Addai breaks out.

Tale of the Tape

Texans offense vs. Colts defenseColts
Offensive line still can't block well, now they are up against another good defense
Colts offense vs. Texans defenseColts
Donte Stallworth had 141 yards in an unfamiliar offense. Now the Texans face Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Without
Special TeamsColts
Adam Vinatieri vs. Kris Brown. It doesn't get more obvious than that.
Tony Dungy has the experience factor on Gary Kubiak.
Houston doesn't really seem to believe it can win yet. Besides, it's not January yet.

Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys
7:00 PM, NBC (KXAN 36)

Let's get one thing straight, Cowboys fans, Drew Bledsoe is the starter for the season, and if you think for one minute Tony Romo is going to save this franchise, you should be suspended for 4 games under the NFL's substance abuse policy. Furthermore, the offensive line can't hold their blocks, which makes things worse for everyone. Either Parcells is going to have to shorten the drops, or he's going to have to start running more screens and draws to get teams out of blitzing every time.

To make matters worse, the Washington Redskins, a team which swept the Cowboys last year, comes to town.

Key Matchup
Dallas's O-Line vs Redskins' blitz
Gregg Williams is one of the best offensive coordinators out there, and he can give this Dallas line fits.

Key player for Dallas
Drew Bledsoe
If Bledsoe can stay upright and find his recievers, he can quiet the critics. That's a big "if"

Key player for Washington
Mark Brunell
Brunell is in a similar situation to Bledsoe in that Redskins fans will be calling for his head if he doesn't win this game.

Tale of the Tape

Cowboys offense vs. Redskins defenseRedskins
Cowboys rolled up 10 early points on the Jags, and couldn't cash in. It's hard to see them faring any better against the 'Skins.
Redskins offense vs. Cowboys defenseCowboys
Redskins offense coming off a lackluster performance against Minnesota.
Special TeamsCowboys
If only because Mike Vanderjagt is healthy and Mat McBriar can boom it.
Gibbs and Parcells are both legends.
Hard to tell who really has a mental edge here.

Monday:Weekend Wrap-Up

Thursday, September 7, 2006

2006 Cheap Seats MFP: NFL, all at once

OK, because I missed Monday-Wednesday with job-hunting stuff, I'm going to write this in one shot. Wish me luck

Oh, and even though I nailed Pittsburgh last year as the champs, it was pure luck. All picks are still guaranteed to lose money at your bookie.

Houston Texans

The Skinny: There are a lot of changes with this team. Dom Capers and crew are gone. Charlie Casserly is gone after missing both Reggie Bush and Vince Young. In steps former Denver Broncos offensive Coordinator(and Texas A&M alumnus) Gary Kubiak, who will most likely install a similar offense to Mike Shanahan's in Denver.


Starter: David Carr still has a great arm and leadership skills, but like every single year, it remains to be seen if he can get the necessary protection.Grade: B-
Depth: Former Dolphin QB Sage Rosenfels has taken very few snaps in an NFL gameGrade: D

Running Back
Starter: With Domanick Davis out for the season, Wali Lundy gets the first crack at the starting job Grade: D
Depth: Vernand Morency is the only healthy backup at the moment.Grade: D+

Wide reciever
Starters: Adding Eric Moulds was a coup for the Texans, he brings some experience alongside Andre Johnson. Grade: A
Depth: Depleted by the loss of Corey Bradford, Grade: C-

Tight End
Starter: For now, it looks like the Texans will go with some combination of Jeb Putzier and Mark Bruener unless Rookie Owen Daniels makes a huge impact. Grade: C
Depth: Well, at least they have 3 tight ends they think can play Grade: C

Offensive Line
Starters: This was the number one need for the 4th consecutive offseason and the Texans lack-of-braintrust still failed to improve the position.Grade: F
Reserves: If the starters are an F, what grade do you think the guys who couldn't beat them out get? That right... Grade: F

Defensive Line
Starters: Say what you want about Mario Williams, he may just turn out to be a quality 4-3 DE. Also with the Transition to the 4-3, last year's first rounder Travis Johnson should break out. Grade: C+
Depth: N.D. Kalu, who's more of a 3-4 end, could see some playing time, but none of the other defensive linemen are all that impressiveGrade: C

Starters: Morlon Greenwood had 112 tackles last year at OLB, and Rookie DeMeco Ryans might help solidify the inside. Who plays opposite these two is the big question mark.Grade: B-
Depth: DaShon Polk had 93 tackles last year as an ILB, but was squeezed out with the move to the 4-3. Grade: C+

Starters: Dunta Robinson still has upside, but the corner opposite, Phillip Buchanon, is coming off an ankle injury.Grade: B-
Depth: Dexter McCleon is past his prime and Lewis Sanders, is something of an unknown quantityGrade: C

Starters: With Marcus Coleman off to the Cowboys (and on suspension), second year man C.C. Brown and third year man Glenn Earl will take over the starting roles Grade: D
Depth: The backup safeties are nothing to write home about.Grade: F

Kicker: Kris Brown hit 76.5% of his field goals. Which means he roughly misses 1 out of every 4 Grade: D
Punter: Chad Stanley's net average: 38.8 Grade: C
Returners: Buchanon, if healthy will probably resume return duties Grade: B

Head Coach: We know Gary Kubiak is a top offensive playcaller, but the jury is still out on his game management skills.Grade: B-
Offensive Coordinator: Former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman is listed as the top offensive assistant, but make no mistake, this is Kubiak's offense, and it was part of the reason all those Denver backs got 1000 yardsGrade: A
Defensive Coordinator: Richard Smith moves over from the Dolphins to take over the Defensive Coordinator position, it's hard to say how much of an impact he's going to have because he was basically running Nick Saban's scheme, and now he's got to devise one of his own.Grade: D

Best Record Guess: Without a better offensive line, Expect a repeat of last year. You can't scheme your way out of a bad offensive line.2-14, dead last.

The Rest of the South

Jacksonville: Jacksonville's record last year was better than 5 of the 8 division champions. Even with Jimmy Smith's retirement, there'Best Guess: 11-5, Division Champs

Indianapolis: There's no reason to think that Indy won't win the division... What's that? Edgerrin James signed with the Cardinals? Oh, never mind. But, they still have enough pieces to be a playoff team. Best Guess: 10-6, possible wild card.

Tennessee: The QB situation may be a mess, as the Titans are hesitant to play Vince Young too early, but there's still talent surrounding the eventual starter (whomever that may be). Still, the Titans defense needs work.Best Guess: 5-11

The rest of the AFC

AFC East
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
I'm going to say what a lot of people want to say, but can't because they're afraid of offending Bill Belichick: The Dolphins have the pieces, the coaching, and the drive to overtake the Patriots this year. Sure we all know about Daunte Culpepper, but the key pickup no one is talking about is Will Allen.
New England
If it weren't for Belichick and Tom Brady, this would be a 6-10 team. The Salary Cap toll is going to start showing this year, as the Patriots front office starts to find out how replaceable their parts really are.
New York Jets
6-10Chad Pennington is back, but there's no depth at running back, and implementing a 3-4 is probably the worst thing that could have happened to this defense.
Buffalo4-12Aside from Willis McGahee, this team is a mess on offense. And the defense could only stop the Houston Texans.
AFC North
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
Pittsburgh13-3Even with Roethlisberger's bad offseason and the loss of Antwaan Randle-El, the defense is still there, Willie Parker is now the unquestioned starter, and Santonio Holmes will provide a nice complement to Hines Ward in time.
Cincinnati11-5Surprise, Carson Palmer is back, but will he stay healthy? Everything else is in place for another playoff run.
8-8Even though Steve McNair is the quarterback for this team, the once-vaunted defense is getting long in the tooth.
Cleveland4-12The experts say this team could reach .500 this year. I say: Prove it.
AFC West
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
Yes, people will call for Jake Plummer's head, and the running back situation is uncertain, but Denver should still win the division this year. Some running back will get 1,000 yards, and the defense will be solid.
San Diego
Even with the loss of Steve Foley for the season(gunshot from overzealous off-duty cop), the Chargers defense should still be decent. And Phillip Rivers has too many weapons around him to fail.
Kansas City
When your tackle is Kyle Turley, your offensive line has issues. When you have no quality defensive linemen and you want to run Cover 2, your whole defense has issues.
Art Shell: Great as a person, good coach. However, the alleged talent on defense is too old, they don't have a solid #1 running back, and Aaron Brooks is a bad QB.

AFC Playoffs

Division Champs
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5)
Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Denver Broncos (10-6)
Wild Cards
Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

Wild Card Round
Miami over Indianapolis
Cincinnati over Denver
Division Round
Miami over Jacksonville
Pittsburgh over Cincinnati
AFC Championship
Pittsburgh over Miami

Dallas Cowboys

The Skinny: Well, the Cowboys have had back-to-back quality drafts, and they have been very active in free agency. Now it's time for the Cowboys to produce


Starter: Drew Bledsoe returns as the Cowboys' starter for 2006, and the veteran finally has some weapons to throw to. However, he's still past his prime as a quarterback and he still needs his offensive line to keep him upright. Grade: C+
Depth: Tony Romo seems to be getting better as a quarterback, and could be a quality backup, but let's not get ahead of ourselves and peg him as a future starter Grade: B-
Running Back
Starter: Julius Jones will probably start. He has the speed to be a great NFL running back, but he hasn't shown the durability. Grade: B+
Depth: Marion Barber III is more of a power runner, but he should see a decent amount of action without the productivity dropping off too much.Grade: A-

Wide reciever
Starters: All the talk has been about T.O., who should improve the Cowboys' passing numbers once he figures out that he's not going to win a media battle with Bill Parcells. Just don't forget about Terry Glenn. Grade: A+
Depth: Patrick Crayton was a surprise find for the Cowboys last year, and should give the Cowboys a decent 3rd reciever Grade: D

Tight End
Starter: You can start the debate over whether the Cowboys' Jason Witten or the Eagles' L.J. Smith is the best tight end in the East. One thing's for sure, Witten means the Cowboys don't have to put a 4th reciever on the field in passing situations Grade: A.
Depth: Dan Campbell is gone, and the backups have little experience Grade: B

Offensive Line
Starters: Two big holes at left guard, with Larry Allen departing for the Cardinals, and right tackle, which right now is a revolving door Grade: C+
Reserves: Well, Rob Pettiti and Al Johnson, who started last year, are backups this year. At least there's some experience Grade: C

Defensive Line
Starters: With surprise performer Chris Canty, Jason Ferguson, and Marcus Spears expected to be the big contributors, this could be the best pure 3-4 defensive line in the NFC Grade: A
Depth: This is where it gets a little murky. Greg Ellis has moved to linebacker, and La'Roi Glover is gone. that leaves second year man Jay Ratliff and rookie Jason Hatcher to back up the ends Grade: C

Starters: Ellis has proven he can make open-field tackles at linebacker, DeMarcus Ware is on track for a breakout season, and former Jaguar Akin Ayodele should help solidify the middle. Bobby Carpenter will eventually start. Grade: A
Depth: Rookie Kevin Burnett and Al Singleton could see some snaps. Grade: B

Starters: Terrence Newman and Anthony Henry should make a great tandem Grade: A
Depth: Aaron Glenn has apparently lost a step, but should still be able to cover the other team's 3rd reciever. After that, it's questionable Grade: C

Starters: Roy Williams is still Roy Williams. Keith Davis is not Roy Williams, but he's survived a bullet in the leg to win the starting job Grade: B-
Depth: Unfortunately, Marcus Coleman's suspension means that the Cowboys depth at this position is limited. Grade: D

Kicker: Whatever you think of Mike Vanderjagt, he's a hell of a lot better than what the Cowboys had last year Grade: A
Punter: Mat McBriar can Grade: A
Returners: Right now it's Tyrus Thompson and Terrence Newman, we'll see how it goes Grade: C

Head Coach: Bill Parcells is still one of the best coaches in the game. While he's faced with a unique player management challenge, he does have the upper hand in that . Grade: A
Offensive Coordinator: Tony Sparano is the de facto offensive coordinator, but Parcells will probably make most of the play calls. Don't expect anything fancy. Grade: B
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer had to adjust to calling a 3-4 defense last year and he passed the test with flying colors. Grade: B+

Best Record Guess: My head says I should be cautious, but there's too many pieces here not to go out and at least grab a piece of the NFC East crown. 11-5 and the division

The Rest of the East

Philadelphia: I'm sure Philly fan wants to see Donovan McNabb show he can put the T.O. thing behind him, and Donte Stallworth helps in that regard. And the defense is solid. The problem is, everyone else in the division made significant improvements. Best Guess:10-6

New York Giants: OK, Giants, now let's see what you can do when you play against a *real* schedule. Best Guess: 8-8.

Washington: With Clinton Portis expected to miss significant time, it's hard to see the Redskins having any net improvement. Besides, when Dan Snyder spends money on a free agent, they usually turn out to be busts. Best Guess: 6-10, 3rd Place

The rest of the NFC

NFC North
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
9-7Once again, NFL rules state that someone has to win the NFC North, and the defending division champs are probably in the best position with their defense and running game.
8-8Hard to tell how things will go with this team, but Brad Johnson's veteran leadership should help things on the offensive side of the ball.
6-10They can't get any worse than they were last year, but they're not even close to playoff bound.
Green Bay
4-12Brett Favre can't save this team anymore.

NFC South
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
12-4The defense is back, Keyshawn Johnson should complement Steve Smith, and DeShaun Foster gets to carry the load full time.
Tampa Bay
11-5OK, it's not the glory days of the Warren Sapp-led unit, but the Tampa defense is still very good, and they have some good offensive pieces
Another team that's hard to pinpoint. Michael Vick is back, the defense was upgraded in the offseason, but T.J. Duckett was traded and Warrick Dunn has never been a 30 carry per game back.
New Orleans1-15
They need more pieces besides just Reggie Bush and Deuce McCallister.

NFC West
TeamBest Record GuessThe Skinny
Seattle11-5Even without Steve Huchinson, defending NFC champ Seattle still has the core of what got them to the Super Bowl
New Stadium, new quarterback, new running back, same old lousy Cardinals.
San Fransisco5-11
Alex Smith has plenty of weapons to throw to now, but losing Julian Peterson and Andre Carter stunts the overall growth of this team.
St. Louis4-12
Yeah, Torry Holt is still there, as is Stephen Jackson, but it's going to take time to transition to the new offense. And Adam Archuleta may not help Washington, but his loss hurts St. Louis's D

NFC Playoffs

Division Champs
Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
Chicago Bears (9-7)
Wild Card
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Wild Card Round
Tampa Bay over Chicago
Dallas over Philadelphia
Division Round
Seattle over Dallas
Carolina over Tampa Bay
NFC Championship
Carolina over Seattle

Super Bowl Pick

It worked so well last year, we're going with Pittsburgh again this year.
Pittsburgh over Carolina