A Sporting Chance: Fearless Forecasts

Is Indianapolis the next dynasty team in the NFL?

They certainly looked unbeatable in a convincing 41-10 victory over last year's NFC runner-up New Orleans on Thursday night. After a slow start and trailing 10-7 mid way through the second quarter, the revamped Colts' defense took control and stifled the potent Saints' offense while Peyton Manning finally got his act together and marched Indianapolis up and down the field, scoring 34 unanswered points.

A combination of injuries to key players (Anthony McFarland) and free agent losses (CB's Nick Harper and Jason David) has coach Tony Dungy scrambling to plug some holes in an already suspect defense. Of course, there were questions about the Colts' "D" last year, and Manning willed them to victory over the Bears in the Super Bowl.

This year, teams are expected to run early and often against the Colts, hoping to chew up the clock and keep Manning and the offense off the field. Whether the Colts can counter by cracking down on the line of scrimmage and preventing that strategy from succeeding will probably tell the tale of their season.

There are plenty of challengers to the Colts in the AFC lining up for a shot at Super Bowl glory. New England, Baltimore, San Diego, and Denver all improved themselves during the off-season to one degree or another. Did any of them hit upon the magic combination of players, personality, and luck to make a grab at the brass ring?

In the NFC, my Beloveds (better known as the Chicago Bears) are getting some key defensive players back from injury in DT Tommie Harris and SS Mike Brown. They have added considerably to the offense moving second year return phenom Devon Hester to the receiving corps while drafting TE Greg Olsen out of Miami.

But for the Bears to repeat as NFC champions, all depends on the consistency of their quarterback play. Rex "The Wonder Dog" Grossman is still #1, but for how long is anyone's guess. Bears fans will certainly have a limited amount of patience with Grossman who has shown as many flashes of brilliance as he has utter futility. Coach Lovie Smith will no doubt be under tremendous pressure to make a change if Grossman doesn't come out of the gate playing well.

If the Bears falter, a host of teams including the Saints, Eagles, Cowboys, and perhaps even the Giants and 49'ers have a shot at replacing them in the parity paradise that is the NFC.

Here are some predictions for division winners and a fearless prognostication for the playoffs.

AFC EAST

No team had more buzz surrounding them over the summer than the New England Patriots. Last year's problems at receiver are a distant memory with the acquisition of a trio of potential pro-bowl free agents in Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, and Kelley Washington. A healthy Laurence Maroney at RB should give coach Bill Belichick plenty of options on the offense.

On defense, the addition of playmaker Adalius Thomas should bolster a somewhat aging but still rugged crew.

AFC NORTH

This may be the toughest division in football with Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh all laden with enough talent and experience to win.

But I have a soft spot for Steeler rookie head coach Mike Tomlin, a defensive wizard late of the Bucs and Vikes. A worthy successor to Bill Cowher, the Steelers will be putting a great team on the field that will include an in your face defense anchored by SS Troy Palamalu and a retooled offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger pitching to one of the best in Hines Ward.

Big Ben has something to prove this year and Tomlin should improve an already solid defense. It will go down to the wire between the three teams, but I think the Steelers will emerge to challenge again for the Super Bowl.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis should have the upper hand in this division, but expect Jacksonville to mount a serious challenge. The Jags are big and tough but have demonstrated a nasty habit of playing down to the level of their competition. On September 1, the Jags cut 5 year starter at QB Byron Leftwich and placed the reins into the hands of their talented back-up David Garrard who had an outstanding preseason.

This division may come down to the Colts-Jaguars head to head games.

AFC WEST

Two teams will vie for the division crown out west with the Chargers and Broncos butting heads to determine who ends up the he-bull of the herd. San Diego lost early in the playoffs again last year, losing to the Pats 24-21. That loss got coach Marty Schottenheimer fired and Norv Turner hired in his stead.

It hardly matters, With 11 Pro Bowlers and some of the best players in the game today including RB LaDanlian Thomlinson, LB Shawne Merriman, and TE Antonio Gates, the strategy may be to just let the guys play and dominate everyone in sight.

This is a team that has underachieved the last 3 seasons. And the talented Broncos will try and keep them from walking away with the division crown. Coach Mike Shanahan, considered one of the best football minds in the game, made wholesale changes in the offense and defense and has improved on an already playoff caliber unit. But there are just too many questions Denver needs to answer for them to overtake the powerful Chargers.

NFC EAST

Cowboys new head coach Wade Phillips has a lot of tools on defense to build a truly dominant unit. A strong D-line anchored by DE Marcus Spears and Chris Canty along with an excellent set of linebackers including Purdue 1st rounder Anthony Spencer will make the Cowboys defense a fearsome presence.

On offense, QB Tony Romo must get over his fumbled field goal snap from last year's playoffs and lead a potent offense that includes problem child WR Terrel Owens and an excellent RB tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber. The 'Boys should be able to put plenty of points on the board.

The Eagles, with a rejuvenated Donovan McNabb at QB may surprise and challenge the Cowboys for eastern supremacy. Much will depend on RB Brian Westbrook continuing his great productivity on offense and a talented but aging defense. Expect the Eagles to contend and perhaps surpass the Cowboys by year's end.

NFC CENTRAL

Da Bears, despite playing a brutal schedule, should have little trouble in this, the weakest division in football. Both Detroit and Minnesota have improved but not enough on either side of the ball to bring them winning records.

Green Bay is an interesting team with a young, tough defense and Bret Favre giving it one more go before heading off to Canton. But no discernible running game coupled with a dearth of talent at WR will make scoring points for this team a chore.

My Beloveds may only win 9 games but that should be enough to take the division.

NFC SOUTH

Despite their lopsided loss to the Colts on Thursday night, New Orleans is still the class of the division. The Panthers have a good defense and a one man wrecking crew named Steve Smith on offense. The addition of the strong armed David Carr at QB should also help.

But the Saints QB Drew Brees is one of the emerging stars of the league and with two outstanding RB in Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush (with Bush being used as a WR as well), the number one offense in the NFC from last year could be even better this year.

The Saints defense is young with good speed on the outside in DE Charles Grant and Will Smith. Question at the CB positions need to be answered because neither Mike McKenzie or Jason David are shut down corners and were burned on several occasions last year. But Brees & Co. should be more than enough to bring New Orleans to the brink once again.

NFC WEST

Injuries slowed Seattle considerably last year with starting QB Matt Hasselbach and former MVP RB Shaun Alexander missing the meat part of the season. Now healthy, that dynamic duo, along with some excellent additions on defense, including acquiring veteran safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, should make the Seahawks the best in the west for the 4th straight year.

But Seattle will be looking over its shoulder at St. Louis whose high powered offense will terrorize NFL defenses. QB Marc Bulger will once again have Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce to strike fear into opposing DB's while RB Steve Jackson can both run and catch the ball with the best of them.

On defense, stopping the run has been a problem for the Rams. Some tweaks during the off season may address part of that problem but most experts still think the Rams will have difficulties on the defensive side of the ball.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Wild Cards

AFC: Denver and Baltimore

NFC: Philadelphia and St. Louis

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

AFC: New England vs. San Diego

NFC: New Orleans vs. Seattle

SUPER BOWL

San Diego vs. Seattle

And the winner is...Victory parade in San Diego.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.