Beyond Nova Nation: Start of NFL season brings new contenders

Jamie Augustinsky

The ’08 NFL season starts tonight, and after the exciting Super Bowl that brought last season to a close, football fans are looking forward to the return of gridiron action. But who are the real contenders in the league this year and which teams are in for disappointing seasons?


New Orleans Saints:

The Saints finished 7-9 last season in an NFC South that saw its championship team finishing at a mere 9-7. Drew Brees is coming off another great season where he set an NFL single-season record for completions with 440. In the offseason, the team acquired tight end Jeremy Shockey from the New York Giants and veteran quarterback Mark Brunell as an unrestricted free agent who looks to serve as a solid backup to Brees. Saints all-time leading rusher Deuce McAllister is coming back from a season-ending knee injury, and if he stays healthy this year, the combination of him and Reggie Bush will be a dynamic duo at the position.

New York Jets:

One man doesn’t make a team, but in this case, it seems like it could. The Jets finished 4-12 last season in a division dominated by the Patriots, but they acquired the most buzzed about player of the offseason. Brett Favre is coming off a record-breaking season with the Packers. If he could come out of retirement producing the same way for the Jets, the team can be a real contender. Don’t look for them to be Super Bowl champions, but they can give the Patriots some competition in the AFC East.

San Diego Chargers:

The Chargers finished 11-5 last season and have won the AFC West the last two seasons while being led by arguably the best running back in the league, LaDainian Tomlinson. Although the team fell victim to the Patriots in the playoffs the last two seasons, they finally seem due for a Super Bowl berth this season.

Question Marks

Dallas Cowboys:

Yes, the Cowboys were the top seed in the NFC last year, but once again, they disappointed fans by losing their first playoff game. It seems like Tony Romo may never be able to get his team over the hump to a Super Bowl appearance. The team also acquired Adam “Pacman” Jones from the Titans in the offseason. We can only wait and see if he will stay clean this year, but the dynamic presence of him and Terrell Owens on the same team may blow up in owner Jerry Jones’ face.

New England Patriots:

Last year, the Pats had the perfect season – until their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. That could have been the start of the downfall for this dynasty. The team lost Pro-Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel to the Eagles, and Tom Brady has not played in any of the Pats’ four exhibition games this preseason with an injury to his right foot. A big part of the Pats’ story this season will depend on how he rebounds from this injury. Now that Favre is on the Jets, the Pats have some real competition in the division.

Philadelphia Eagles:

The success of the Eagles this year depends on Donovan McNabb. He needs to have an injury-free season and return to being the franchise player that made him a Philadelphia favorite if the Birds want a shot in the competitive NFC East. The team locked up running back and Villanova alumnus Brian Westbrook with a three-year, $21 million extension, and Samuel joined the already dominant secondary of Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. McNabb needs to have a great season to secure his starting position over promising backup Kevin Kolb.

Recipes for Disaster

Green Bay Packers:

The team finished 13-3 last season and was a game away from the Super Bowl, but this was with Brett Favre at the head of the team. The Pack may be able to compete with the other three teams of the NFC North, but don’t count on them to be actual contenders in the conference this season.

New York Giants:

The defending Super Bowl champions completed the ultimate Cinderella story last year but had a few key losses this offseason. Pro-Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey is now on the Saints and veteran defensive end Michael Strahan retired after 15 seasons. To make matters even worse, Pro-Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora was injured in the preseason game against the Jets and is out for the season. Don’t look for a Super Bowl repeat for the G-Men this year.

Cincinnati Bengals:

The team cut three Pro Bowlers on the same day when they released Willie Anderson, Rudi Johnson and Deltha O’Neal to tighten up the roster. Combine this with the off-field distractions caused by Chad Johnson, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Bengals will improve upon their 7-9 record from last season.