Forget the past.
For three out of the four teams that this article applies to, erasing the memory of last season shouldn't be too hard. As a general rule, we humans are very good a blocking out painful past experiences, and the 2006 NFL year was a stomach-punch for the Jaguars, Panthers, and Bengals. All three of these teams collapsed during their season's most important moment. In retrospect, they also collapsed during the smallest moments as well, seeing as they never would have been facing elimination in the season's final weeks if they had just been able to beat the bad teams.
The Saints, however, are likely to cling fondly to '06 as the year represented the best season in franchise history. Although they came up one game short of the Super Bowl, simply reaching the NFC Championship was a monumental achievement for a franchise that had only one playoff victory heading into the season. Yet if the Saints are still basking in afterglow and all the praises and predictions it earned them, they'll be in for a rude awakening along the lines of what Jacksonville, Cincinatti, and Carolina experienced last year.
If these four teams can forget the past and focus on the present, take each game as it comes, and keep their teams together, there's no reason that 2007 can't be the year of redemption for them all. The Jags, Bengals, and Panthers are all playoff-quality teams. What will take them from being playoff-quality to actual playoff teams will be avoiding the small mistakes that other teams are bound to make. It's those little things that ultimately become the difference between 10-6 and 8-8.
For New Orleans, there's no reason that 2007 can't be a Super Bowl year as they're coming out of the extremely weak NFC. The Bears are anything but stable with Rex Grossman at the helm, so enacting some revenge is certainly possible.
In 2006, all four of these teams learned a little more about what it takes to win. The Saints did so by taking their franchise to new grounds. The other three received their lesson the the hard way. Now it's time to find out who the best students are by taking the field and making the playoffs.
Now it's time for one of my favorite annual DeROK.Net moments: my pre-season playoff predictions. As always, the goal is to be an elusive 12 for 12 when selecting this year's playoff participants. The best I've ever done is 8 for 12 and the worst is 4 out of 12. These past two years have been extremely mediocre at 6-6, but I have a feeling this will be the year that break above .500 for the first time in three seasons. I'm not sure if that's a credit to me, or the fact that the Pats, Colts, Chargers, and Bears are three gimmee picks and I only have to go 3 for 8 the rest of the way to come out ahead. Anyway, enough rambling. Onto the predictions...
I can't imagine the Bears not taking the North, so this becomes a race for second place. My ties to Minnesota always make me over estimate the Vikings, but I'm not falling into that trap any longer. The Lions wide receivers should be good enough to get this team to a 6-10 finish, which could make them the runner-up.
The Saints are the easy pick, but I can't ever count out the Panthers after the heart they showed in Super Bowl XXXVIII. I'm well aware that's poor reasoning four years after the fact, but the same eight teams aren't going to win the divisions and this coup seems as likely as any.
It's going to be a tight contest at the top of the NFC East. The question you have to ask yourself is whether it's more likely that Tony Romo is a one-year wonder or that Donovan McNabb will get hurt. One's possible and the other is a near-guarantee. I'm going with the Boys.
Yes, the 49ers are the trendy sleeper pick, which is a complete oxymoron. Everything inside of me says to do what I did to the trendy Cardinals last year and avoid them like the plague. However, I had the Niners pegged for a return to the playoffs back in December, and I'm holding firm on my long-term forecast.
The Bears have six incredibly easy division games, so that should catapult them to the top seed. The way I seeded the rest was that Carolina would have to be pretty good to get ahead of New Orleans - better than Dallas would have to be to overcome Philly. And the 49ers will probably be squeaking in at 9-7.
Baltimore lost Adalius Thomas to the Patriots, but they did gain Willis McGahee. I'm not sold on the Bengals having their heads on straight, which is why I'm reluctant to hand them the division. Pittsburgh hasn't been an elite team since the Patriots handed Rothlisberger his first loss, despite somehow capturing a Super Bowl, and now they've lost Bill Cowher. And the Browns are the Browns.
As much as I despise them, I can't deny that the Colts are the real deal. It's tempting to pick the Titans as a sleeper team, but after their classless display in Week 17 last season, they can go without the playoffs this year. Just like they did when the Patriots pounded them into the ground and crushed Cinderella's glass slipper that same week.
I respect the Jets, but I just don't see them having a better record than the Patriots. They could definitely be a playoff contender though. Miami and Buffalo aren't going anywhere.
San Diego is giving no indications that they won't take the division again this year. The Broncos will once again be one of those teams who are right on the playoff brink. Between them, the Bengals, and the Jets, picking the two wild card teams won't be easy.
3. San Diego
I think the Patriots are going to be superb this year, and I'd be surprised with anything worse than 14-2. The Colts have lost players, while the Chargers have stood pat. I'm putting Indy second only because the Bolts have to play Denver twice. The Bengals might actually win their division, so I'm going to put them in. Sorry Jets fans, I think you'll barely miss out.
Returning playoff teams from last season - 8: Bears, Cowboys, Eagles, Saints, Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Ravens
Non-returning playoff teams from last season - 4: Giants, Seahawks, Chiefs, Jets
New playoff teams - 4: Panthers, 49ers, Broncos, Bengals
I've broken my rule that no more than seven teams can return from last year's playoffs. However, the NFL has been so insane lately, strictly following any type of rule isn't likely to help you make the right choice anyway. I've made my decision and I'm going with those eight. If anything, my first swaps would be the Jets for the Bengals and the Seahawks for the Niners which would give me 10 out of 12 teams returning. So I'm not that overboard exceeding the limit by one.
Cowboys over Eagles, Saints over 49ers
Bears over Saints, Panthers over Cowboys
Tough, tough call. Do I want to make the easy pick and set up a Super Bowl XX rematch, or go out on a limb and predict a repeat of XXXVIII?
I'm not feeling brave. Bears over Panthers
Chargers over Bengals, Ravens over Broncos
Patriots over Ravens, Chargers over Colts
I could have focused on the past and force a revenge game with the Colts , but I'm going with the more likely scenario...
Patriots over Chargers
Patriots over Bears
Getting things right the second time around...