With the 2009-’10 NFL season kicking off tonight at Heinz Field, there are many questions waiting to be answered. How will Brett Favre do in Minnesota? Will Michael Vick ever start for the Philadelphia Eagles? But the most important question is who will win the Super Bowl this year? Here are some teams to keep an eye out for on the road to Miami:
Pittsburgh Steelers: The core of the team is still intact. Head Coach Mike Tomlin is still at the reigns. Ben Roethlisberger is still at quarterback. Troy Polamalu will still be all over the field. The reigning Super Bowl champions are looking to repeat by playing signature Pittsburgh Steeler football – running the ball effectively and playing great defense. It should be more of the same for the Steel Curtain this season.
New England Patriots: Last year did not go the way Patriots’ fans expected. Tom Brady was done for the season after the first quarter. The team lost a regular season game. There was no hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy in February. However, Brady’s replacement filled in admirably, and Matt Cassel earned himself a job as a starter in Kansas City. Brady looked great in the preseason. He hurt his shoulder after getting hit by Washington Redskin Albert Haynesworth, but all reports indicate that he should be fine for the opening game against the Buffalo Bills. Having Brady back in the quarterback slot instantly thrusts the Pats into contention. Head Coach Bill Belichick always get the best out of his players, and this year should be no different.
Indianapolis Colts: There is some turnover in Indy with Tony Dungy retiring after last season, but the Colts still have Peyton Manning at quarterback. Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez are one of the best wide receiver duos in the league, and Dallas Clark has great hands at tight end. As long as Dwight Freeney and the defense can keep the ball in Peyton’s hands, they should be able to make a postseason push.
Sleeper Pick -New York Jets: After a somewhat disappointing stint with Brett Favre at quarterback, the Jets organization took drastic measures in its hopes to improve the team. They chose not to bring back No. 4. They fired Head Coach Eric Mangini and brought in former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Ryan made a push to sign linebacker Bart Scott.
The team traded up in the draft to pick up the USC Trojan Mark Sanchez and have named him the starter in hopes of getting a Matt Ryan-esque performance out of the rookie quarterback. The Jets defense looked strong in the preseason, and Sanchez will not have to do too much with Thomas Jones and Leon Washington running the ball behind him.
Arizona Cardinals: Kurt Warner is back with both wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. It was expected that Boldin would be traded during the off-season, but he is still playing in Arizona. He and Fitzgerald can stretch any defense, making the Cardinals offense one of the most prolific in the league. If the defense can play as well as it did during last year’s postseason, the team may find itself in a position to do what it could not accomplish last February.
Atlanta Falcons: With a season under his belt and playoff experience on his resume, quarterback Matt Ryan will look to avoid the sophomore slump and pick up where he left off. The Falcons are now his team, and they will go as far as he takes them. Michael Turner is always a threat at running back. The off-season acquisition of Tony Gonzalez at tight end should give Ryan a security blanket, especially in the red zone. All signs indicate that the Falcons will be a better team this season.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are starting with a clean slate of sorts. They are playing in a new stadium. Terrell Owens is in Buffalo. Tony Romo is no longer dating Jessica Simpson. America’s Team is changing the way it carries itself. Owner Jerry Jones knows he has one of the most talented teams in the league and no playoff wins to show for it. In changing the culture of the team, he hopes to bring back the Lombardi Trophy to the Big-D for the first time in over 15 years.
Sleeper Pick – Green Bay Packers: Despite all of the off-season controversy last year, Aaron Rodgers still managed to have a good season at quarterback. However, after a great season, the defense was nowhere to be found in 2008-’09. The Packers have since gone on to draft defensive lineman B.J. Raji out of Boston College and brought in Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers. The former Patriots defensive coach is converting the Packers defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense to try to get the most out of a strong linebacking core that includes A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. If the defense can learn the new scheme and get on the same page, the Packers may have one of the better defenses in the league by the end of the season to compliment a very underrated offense.
While the preseason is filled with expectations and predictions, the NFL is known for its annual surprises. Arizona, once the laughing stock of the league, quickly rose through the ranks of annual contender. Thus, the only safe prediction is to anticipate even more surprises.