Graziano: Philly vs. NY would make for a “Super” Bowl indeed

Christopher A. Smith

Football fans got their first taste of the new NFL season last night, when the San Francisco 49ers traveled to the Meadowlands to take on the New York Giants.

Local fans can look forward to the Eagles’ opener against the Tennessee Titans at 1 p.m. on Sunday, while the New England Patriots begin their title defense on Monday night, playing host to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If there is anything to be said for the upcoming season, it is that several teams have realistic hopes for a trip to Super Bowl XXXVII. After the Patriots showed the world that the Rams are beatable, anything is possible.

The first thing fans will notice this season is that the NFL has moved to a new four-division format in each conference. This means that the champions of each conference’s East, North, South and West divisions will combine with two wild-card teams to determine the league’s 12 playoff spots.

Teams will now play just six games against divisional foes, opponents that in some cases are different from past years.

Other notable changes include the addition of a new team, the Houston Texans, to the AFC South division.

Also, Monday Night Football viewers will hear yet another voice in the booth, as John Madden will team with long-time play-by-play announcer Al Michaels.

So what can we expect to see when the smoke clears in early January?

Before I jump to the Super Bowl, let’s sort out the regular season and find out who is going to the playoffs.

The AFC East is the league’s toughest division, so look for two playoff teams to come out of it, most likely the high-flying New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins, whose solid defense and new running back Ricky Williams should equate to a successful season.

The Indianapolis Colts, led by the trio of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, appear to be the class of the South, while the Oakland Raiders should have enough left on their aging roster to emerge from a weak West division.

The final postseason berths will come from the North, where the Steelers look strong once again and the Cleveland Browns are ready to cash in on their young talent.

The St. Louis Rams again appear to be the class of the NFC.

They should be able to hold off the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West race, although both teams will play in the postseason.

The Philadelphia Eagles will steamroll through a weak East division and the Tampa Bay Bucs will do the same in an equally weak South division.

And in the North, the Green Bay Packers, with their new wide receiving corps, will join the Chicago Bears in the playoffs, who are hoping to repeat their magical season of a year ago.

My pick for the Super Bowl is a surprising one, but you can take it to the bank, because the Jets, with their newly perfected West Coast offense are going to face the Eagles’ stingy defense.

Watch Vinny Testaverde guarantee victory like Joe Namath did so many years ago. Or I can be wrong about all of this, like I usually am when it comes to making predictions.

Quickly, a look at some individual honors. Donovan McNabb is ready to break out as the league’s Most Valuable Player, while Clinton Portis should fill in nicely for the retired Terrell Davis in Denver, earning Rookie of the Year accolades.

John Gruden’s work in Tampa Bay will earn him Coach of the Year and Drew Bledsoe, happy to be a starter in Buffalo, should revert to Pro-Bowl form and become the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.