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Bill Simmons Can Lick My Pooper (and other thoughts about the AFC)

I think there are two types of people in the world: Those that think the best line in A League of Their Own was "There's no crying in baseball!" and those that aren't completely full of shit.

I mean c'mon people. We all know when Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) asks the umpire, "Anybody ever tell you that you look like a penis with a hat on it?" is the topper here.

It's not even close.

But we can't say this in mixed company because you never know what someone will think. So we go with the safe and popular choice. Same deal with the Emmy's last week. "The Office" won for best comedy show over "Arrested Development." And for TV writing, "The Daily Show" won over "The Colbert Report." In each case the show that won is funny, but satirical in an unchallenging way. AD and Colbert on the other hand is full scale attack comedy, holding nothing back and daring the audience to keep up. Not one episode of AD or Colbert ever makes me think to myself, "Oh they're holding something back here..."

I mean, did you ever watch AD? The whole story arc for season two and most of season three was a clever skewing of the Bush administration, a significant achievement coming from a sitcom. And it was on the Fox network! Its like will never come again on non-cable television.

I bring this up because I'm never annoyed by the analysts of any sport as I am with the football ones. I've been following the game for over two decades and I have yet to learn anything from a football broadcast, a pre-game show, or a post-game show. The one-liners are hackneyed, the observations are obvious to the point of being insulting, the stars much too over-hyped, regardless of their contributions to the actual game, and the actual storylines of the individual games, teams, and seasons habitually overlooked. The whole sport seems to be on a two year lag. The players that enter the public consciousness as being "good" were actually good two years ago, and the ones that are no longer good were actually quite mediocre two years ago. Not that the experts will ever notice.

Every season it's the same old garbage. At least one Super Bowl team is someone "nobody" saw coming and three or four squads picked to be sure-thing contenders don't even make the playoffs. Even though year after year only six or seven of the teams that made the playoffs the season before manage to repeat the feat, every clown they dress up on TV confidently predicts that ten of the twelve will be back this year and seven of the eight division winners will repeat. This stuff never changes.

I used to think that the ex-players were afraid of taking a chance and looking stupid, but lately I've changed my mind. These are confident dudes. They've spent their whole lives kicking butt and being surrounded by hordes of hangers on and easy tail. I think basically they suck at the prediction game because they refuse to put any thought into any of it. What's the point in studying up on this stuff when you can just tell idiot America that you like either Indy or Pittsburgh in the AFC and Carolina or Seattle in the NFC? Nobody cares about the actual teams anyway. All the losers are more into their lame fantasy football teams. It's all about the star players now, screw the real teams.

So I'm not taking the safe road this year. I'm going to put some actual thought into this. I resolve to have no more than seven returning playoff teams. But watch, I'll still come up with Indy-Carolina.

AFC East:

1) Miami Dolphins 11-5... They have an excellent no-nonsense coach in Nick Saban, and picking up Houston Houck to work with the OL should help fix what's been a liability with this team for years. The front seven will be aggressive enough to cover for an average secondary, but defensive backfields are Saban's specialty. I'm not as high on Duante Culpepper as some, but I don't think their season is necessarily over if he goes down again either. I think Joey Harrington got blamed for a lot of things that weren't his fault in Detroit (if he was the problem than why was Charles Rogers cut and Mike Williams damn close to being cut?) and he seems to be determined to fix reputation with a real NFL organization. If he gets the chance he should have receivers who actually know what their routes are and aren't afraid of catching a ball every now and then.

Plus, the schedule sets up perfectly for them to get off to a hot start. Even Big Ben going down for the Thursday game is a good omen for them, because if they kicked the full strength defending champions' butts at full strength, they would be on everyone's radar straight off. Now when they win, the clueless wonders will say it doesn't mean squat because Pittsburgh was shorthanded.

2) New England Patriots 9-7... Their front office is openly flaunting its arrogance now by jettisoning anyone of value and drafting the replacements of the guys with lame duck contract status instead of actually drafting for need in '06. How do you think the Deion Branch situation rests with the players? How do Corey Dillon and Daniel Graham feel about the Laurence Maroney and David Thomas picks?

Bill Bellichick is a good coach but I think the success has gone to his head and their entire operation over there is teetering dangerously close to "the emperor's got no clothes!" status. Their defense was old and flat out soft last year and only squeaked into the playoffs because the rest of the division was terrible. I don't think they did anything to improve it in the off-season. The LBs are slow and ancient, and the secondary is mostly a patchwork operation begging for a creaky Rodney Harrison to guide them.

Everyone talks about losing Deion Branch, but people forget that the other wideout, David Givens, is gone too. Plugging in Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel, guys that were too inconsistent for teams that weren't exactly stacked at WR is asking an awful lot of Tom Brady. I'm not saying the guys they've lost were irreplaceable, I just question the wisdom of losing both at once. The Pats may think of themselves as a ball-control grind it out team this year with their two backs and multiple threats at TE, but don't kid yourself, with that defense they're going to need to score a bunch to win. You know, unless the league lets their corners blatantly hold people every play like they did from `01-`03.

3) Buffalo Bills 6-10... The defense, primed by an excellent back seven, should keep the club in most games and as long as they give the ball plenty to Willis McGahee, there's potential here for them to become the Bears of '06. If the offensive masterminds were smart enough to take advantage of JP Losman's mobility with plenty of roll outs and bootlegs and safe passes, with maybe an occasional play-action bomb to Lee Evans, I could actually see a winning season happening for them.

Unfortunately I don't see any creativity in the track record of their coaches and as a consequence they won't be putting Losman in a position to succeed. Their fans and media will put pressure on the team to bench the kid at some point with Kelly Holcomb, a classic "just good enough to get you beat" guy, and the season will slowly go down the tubes. On defense what will ultimately separate them from the '05 Bears is that their front four won't generate the same heat on opposing QBs, and eventually the whole unit will wear down over the course of the year from being on the field too long in too many games. As always, Bobby April's excellent special teams will win a game or two by themselves, but it won't be enough.

4) New York Jets 4-12... I'm afraid things have to get worse for them before they get better. They blew the chance of a lifetime by not giving either the Texans whatever they wanted for the # 1 pick and the rights to draft Reggie Bush. It was plainly obvious last year that Curtis Martin was done and here was a chance to pick a franchise running back for the next decade for a seamless transition. The guy they got, LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, isn't a dud, but doesn't make much sense to me to get a stud blocker for QB Chad Pennington who's going to go down for the season the first time he gets hit anyway.

All the more reason to go for the back, because Pennington is dreaming if he thinks he can survive a full season. The guy had a noodle arm to begin with, and what's it going to look like now after two shoulder surgeries? Do they even have any 15 yard routes in their playbook? Yeah they drafted Kellen Clemens from Oregon, and he'll probably play a lot this year before it's said and done, but it's not going to be a pretty sight with a young line in front of him and only Kevin Barlow behind, just looking for a soft place to fall down after the handoff.

Oh and did I mention that they're switching to a 3-4 defense but don't have the right personnel at all to make it work? Yeah this won't be pretty.

AFC North:

1) Baltimore Ravens 10-6... This team is loaded everywhere. I think Steve McNair, rejuvenated and with something to prove will have one last big year now that he doesn't have to worry about doing it all himself, the three backs can easily combine for over 1,800-2,200 yards, and there receivers and tight end are solid as well. The defense is a little overrated actually, but Haloti Ngata should help keep blockers off Ray Lewis a little bit. Mr. Big Mouth has a lot to prove himself actually and maybe this'll be the season where he lets his play do the talking for him... or not. Actually the real comeback to watch for on D is from Ed Reed. This guy is absolute monster that changes everything. Troy Polamalu was excellent last season for the Steelers, but he wasn't close to the '04 Reed's level.

Not only is Baltimore filled with talent, but they're managing to hit the season where Pittsburgh is in the grips of the inevitable Super Bowl hangover and Cincinnati's defense is still a year away (from huge success or a long prison sentence, whichever comes first). The timing is perfect for the Ravens, and frankly only injuries or Brian Billick's ego can mess this up.

2) Cincinnati Bengals 10-6... Incredibly tempting to write them off completely because of all the horrible karma that's been brewing in the off-season. They had either five or six guys arrested, I can't remember which. Still the offense simply has too much talent to ignore and unlike other distraction laden teams of the past, all of the issues are from off-the-field stuff and not the really disastrous things like player-vs.-player or player-vs.-coach conflicts. The guys on offense seem to genuinely like each other, and that's big.

Even if he's only on the field for 15 or 20 plays a game, Sam Adams has to be an improvement for a porous run defense, and I like the corner they picked up in the 1st round, Jonathan Joseph from South Carolina.

There are still a few holes though, like the lack of a big pass rush, and they're in really bad shape if Rudi Johnson goes down, and he's been getting a ton of carries the last two years. Also, the schedule is a beast, with only one gimme game in the first nine.

3) Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7... Bad omens galore, huh? Big Ben's all banged up, they lost their goalline back in Jerome Bettis and have no adequate replacements, and Antwan Randle El wasn't just a good punt returner and slot receiver for them, but also was the guy that made all their gadget plays go. Now Hines Ward has a gimpy hammy, (and a bit of a "diva WR" attitude he seems to have picked up in the off-season) the other wideout, Santonio Holmes, is a rookie and that's been traditionally a very difficult position to succeed at for a first year player.

The front office looks like they had a bad off-season as well since the front office admitted that they missed with all their second day draft picks except one, and they didn't sign anybody, not even a mid-level guy, in free agency. Remember, this team was on the brink of elimination in '05, sitting at the three-quarter pole with a 7-5 record before their miraculous 8-0 run to end the year. This year I think they'll be the same 7-5 after twelve games, but with a ho-hum 2-2 finish.

4) Cleveland Browns 6-10... The only reason I can even give them six wins is because I respect the coaching staff, and the spunky young QB, Charlie Frye. Still, there are holes aplenty. Losing center LaCharles Bentley to an ACL in training camp just killed their O-line, and while ex-Eagle Hank Fraley is a smart player, he's a mismatch physically against virtually everyone lined up across from him, and personally, as an Eagles fan, I won't miss "Honeybuns" getting blown backward three yards every play.

As far as the skill position guys go, Braylon Edwards was looking pretty solid last year for a while, but he got an ACL himself, and it's not quite so easy for a WR to come back from that quickly as it is for someone like Carson Palmer. Also WR Dennis Northcutt on the other side is terribly inconsistent and RB Ruben Droughns is soft. Meanwhile TE Kellen Winslow Jr. is injury prone and an immature turd. Think "TO" but without the accomplishments.

On defense they drafted a couple decent guys, so they're only four away from a respectable front seven. As I said, I like some of the coaches and players, but there are just way too many question marks here. And I found it bothersome that for a so-called veteran leader trying to establish a winning attitude on a new team, Willie McGinest seems more preoccupied with Junior Seau taking McGinest's # 55 on the Patriots than in helping his new team. Anything New England does should be out of McGinest's mind, and he should focus on establish a legacy on the Browns. Besides, his anger is quite absurd when you consider that the whole reason he wore 55 anyway was to honor Seau, whose example he followed at USC.

AFC South:

1) Indianapolis Colts 12-4... Finally comes an incumbent I can't dismiss so casually. Then again, Indy isn't exactly in the same boat as the Pats or Steelers now, are they? These guys still have much to prove and much to answer for.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that when I play with the Colts on Madden '07, Edgerrin James will be my running back (sorry video game Cardinals). But this isn't because I think that Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai will be colossal flops as Edge's replacements. It's because I'm a lot more sentimental and subjective than Colts GM Bill Polian. Actually I don't think James will be missed too badly at all as a runner. As a blocker or receiver though, that might be a different story.

There are two reasons why I'm confident about the Colts' running game. First of all, I think all the hype about their platoon there is a bit of a sham. I fully expect Rhodes to get the bulk of the carries because a) he's the veteran who's waited for his shot and b) his grasp of the Colts' complex offense is surely better than the rookie. Manning audibles a ton, and I wouldn't trust my franchise to a rookie back not knowing which guy he has to pick up in a blitz adjustment. Also, don't forget that one year James was hurt a couple seasons ago, Rhodes ran for over a 1,000 yards in 11 games.

But really the main reason they'll be able to run the ball is Manning. He's too smart and too dangerous to not make it work. As long as # 18 is back there and has targets like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne to work with, the Colts will never see eight in the box and won't even face seven consistently. Whenever Manning sees a defense geared to stop the pass, he won't hesitate to check to a running play to take advantage of the open lanes. In fact, I fully expect Rhodes to have a huge opening night game vs. the Giants just for this reason. While New York's defense will pin their ears back for the Manning vs. Manning hype, the older brother will deftly swallow his pride and hand it off to Rhodes for a bunch of traps and draws.

And what of the defense you ask? Yeah, what of it? Same as always: they're a lot better with a lead than when behind, and they wear down over the year because they're so small. Still they played respectably enough in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh. 21 points shouldn't have been too much to overcome. And perhaps with Adam Vinatieri on board, it won't be this year.

2) Jacksonville Jaguars 8-8... Everyone talks about Dallas with Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo; and Washington and Chicago have situations that bear watching as well, but my darkhorse pick for "decent team torn apart by QB controversy" is the Jaguars. I can't really explain it, just a hunch. But the Jags really seemed to rally around David Garrard last year when Byron Leftwich hurt his ankle at Arizona. I think the added dimension of his running gives defenses something else to worry about and frees up their less than ideal cast of receivers for to get open for another second. When you think about it, Leftwich is just as much of a statue back there as Bledsoe.

Basically I think they fall back down to Earth this year because they have a big boy sked this time around, Jimmy Smith isn't there to bail them out on 3rd and long anymore, and the loss of Greg Jones to an ACL deprives them of a short yardage back.

The only speed they have at WR is Matt Jones, and he's more fast than quick, meaning that he can't change directions very smoothly and isn't a guy who can run every route on the passing tree fluidly. On defense there isn't much to complain about except the OLBs - they're awful - and a smart team can take advantage there passing to the RBs and TEs and running on the edges. For the most part, points will be at the premium in Jacksonville's games, and when it's low scoring and close, you win some, you lose some.

3) Houston Texans 5-11... Like the Jets they will rue the day they missed out on the chance to draft Bush for at least the next decade, but unlike New York who would've had to trade up for the right, the Texans didn't have to do any maneuvering at all - they had the friggin' 1st pick! I will never understand this move (or non-move) for as long as I live. They just settled for Mario Williams and did nothing with their advantageous position.

I mean, let's just use some common sense here. Suppose that for some reason the Texans front office didn't think Bush would be a good NFL player. Maybe he failed some personality test for them or one of their doctors found his right knee too unstable - whatever. My question is: Even if your franchise isn't drafting Bush with the 1st pick, isn't the knowledge that some other team would take him there worth something? If you're Charlie Casserly (since fired GM) and you know that the Saints or the Jets wanted Bush, couldn't you see what you could get in trade? Even if you pick up just an extra mid-round pick for '06 and/or a 2nd rounder for '07, isn't that better than nothing?

It doesn't bother me that they picked Williams as much as that they could have had Williams AND more. And when your team goes 2-14, such as the Texans did, there are needs everywhere. Twenty draft picks wouldn't be too many for a team like this.

But yes, just to be clear, I would've taken Bush or traded down for Ferguson before Mario Williams, who could very well become the Sam Bowie of the NFL. Their rationale to not draft Bush (besides his hefty contract demands) was that they already had a good back in Dominick Davis. Well why not trade Davis for whatever you can get then? Now you can upgrade two positions and get your fans excited.

So here we are, days before the opener and congrats to the Texans who now have neither Bush nor Davis. Fortunately for them, rookie Wali Lundy looks to be a sixth round find, and you'll recall that Gary Kubiak did pretty okay coaching up another sixth rounder a few years back named Terrell Davis. Anyway, I think Kubiak will do his best to improve the team incrementally here and there and he'll help the O-line enough to not get David Carr so beat up this season. Also, I liked their draft after the 1st round.

4) Tennessee Titans 4-12... Dissension galore. All three quarterbacks think they should start, all three running backs think they should start, and there aren't many others on the entire roster good enough to start. They added some veterans in David Givens, ex-Colt OLB David Thornton, and ex-Steeler S Chris Hope, but I don't see any as difference makers.

The team has had a dubious drafting record over the last handful of years and only lately have they pulled themselves out of salary cap hell, but the only long term solution that makes sense is for the organization to stop kidding itself sprinting for nothing on the mediocrity treadmill and to just play Vince Young and LenDale White as much as possible right away and hope for a more fruitful draft in '07. They badly need to build up the offensive and defensive lines, where the long term success of a team is predicated.

AFC West:

1) Denver Broncos 11-5... I have to grudgingly pick them to repeat as well, but I don't feel too guilty about it since from the looks of it, not only the Broncos not regress but may have actually improved themselves. Still, like the Colts and the Oakland A's in baseball, this organization seems to follow the philosophy of building a team for regular season success and then to just roll the dice in the playoffs from there.

Jake Plummer looks fine with a 10 point lead in October, but I like him a lot less with a 10 point deficit in January. That's just common sense, right? Unlike most people, I don't anticipate the drafting of Jay Cutler to be problematic or controversial for Plummer or the team for this season, but only this season. I don't think Mike Shanahan will throw a rookie in there when he's got a perfectly respectable playoff team on his hands as long as he doesn't micromanage it to death like Tony LaRussa would.

Mainly I like the Broncos roster, I think they had a terrific draft (especially with DE Elvis Dumervil), and I feel the acquisition of WR Javon Walker was an absolute coup. The LBs are pretty sweet too. I've never been a Broncos fan, but there isn't much I can pick at here honestly. My one area of concern is if they can run the ball as effectively without coach Gary Kubiak off to Houston, but I'm sure they'll manage. Dumping Ron Dayne was a good start.

2) Kansas City Chiefs 10-6... I'm not enamored with Herman Edwards' coaching, especially his clock management, but I think he has a gift for inspiring his troops, at least for a couple of years before his faults become apparent, so I think the Chiefs will have a brief honeymoon period.

Unlike his predecessor, Edwards has no qualms about running his feature back to death, and while that philosophy probably isn't good news for Larry Johnson's long term career prospects, it shouldn't hurt him too bad in '06 and is probably the best way to ensure a winning season for the Chiefs.

While losing both starting tackles will greatly affect Trent Green's protection and the passing game in general, it should be less of a hindrance to Johnson who's more of an up-the-gut guy that relies on the interior of the line to open up holes anyway. And the prospect of having Johnson tote the rock for a full season instead of just 11 games (and the addition of Michael Bennett as a chance-of-pace back) should balance out the departure of Willie Roaf and John Welbourn.

On the other hand, while the offense will try to just maintain its considerably high level, the defense can and should improve rather easily. Drafting DE Tamba Hali from Penn St and acquiring borderline HOF candidate CB Ty Law can only help matters. There is talent on this side of the ball, but mainly they have to tackle better and play with more heart and I think Edwards' influence will help here. No matter how much the Jets' offense was struggling, Edwards' D rarely laid down for him.

3) San Diego Chargers 7-9... There's a few pieces to like here obviously with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates leading the offense and a formidable front seven on defense, and WR Eric Parker is an emerging talent, but with practically a rookie QB running the show I can't tab them for a playoff spot this year, and I suppose to the untrained eye it will look like this team is regressing instead of improving.

The biggest problem is the coach. I think Marty Schottenheimer consistently sabotages his teams and plays to lose and that his lame ass pregame speeches lead him to lose the players by around Week 11. He has a growing rift with the GM too, so that isn't good for the organization. I think it'll be better for everyone involved when a younger, hungrier man is hired to lead this squad and the goals aren't to merely have a winning season but to hold the shiny trophy at the end.

As far as personnel goes, I don't think Keenan McCardell is a viable option for a number one receiver at 36, and at this stage of his career, the spirit may be willing, but the flesh will be weak. I'm not too fond of the secondary either and feel that they need a considerable pass rush just to look average out there. The offensive line has potential, but isn't solidified just yet and expecting an adversity free maiden voyage from Phillip Rivers is a fantasy. There are just too many weaknesses and question marks to overcome.

4) Oakland Raiders 6-10... I don't believe they'll be nearly as embarrassing as most prognosticators make them out to be. With Art Shell at the helm, you can count on nothing having to worry about LaMont Jordan getting enough carries, and I actually think the Raiders O-Line has the ability to be a solid drive blocking unit when they're not committing bonehead false starts and holding penalties. If they can force opposing defenses to bring that extra defender into the box, well it doesn't take a rocket scientist to throw it to Randy Moss deep when he's got single coverage on him, just a guy with a rocket arm, which Aaron Brooks has. The simpler the Raiders make this game, the better off they'll be.

Besides Moss and Jordan, I also like Courtney Anderson at TE and Ronald Curry at WR was off to a promising start last year before his ACL. The team must be feeling decent about his recovery to willingly ship out Doug Gabriel to the Pats. Also they have a trade chip in Jerry Porter, who's deep into Shell's doghouse at the moment, and you figure they'll get something for him eventually, especially if a premier WR elsewhere in the league gets hurt. I'm kind of interested in how they're going to do because I keep hearing about what a great leader Moss has been this off-season and I'm curious to see how it'll play out.

On defense they have DE Derrick Burgess, the leading sack man in the NFL in '05 and...let's move on. Oh yeah, Sebastian Janikowski's been absolutely been bombing the ball in preseason. And...I'm reaching.

That's enough for today. The AFC picks cover the Thursday game (I like Miami in case you couldn't figure). NFC and playoffs coming Friday.