Sports

NFL Preview: Division-by-division

NFC

East

One to watch

Michael Vick, Eagles

The fall from grace for Vick (from No. 1 overall pick in 2001 to 18 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation) has been well documented. The pressure will be on (none from the patient Eagles fans, of course) once he is reinstated by the NFL. Osi Umenyiora’s walkout

Storyline to watch

The Giants’ two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, says he skipped practice Aug. 31 after getting into a disagreement with defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. But there are rumors Umenyiora is unhappy with his contract, which played a part in his walkout. If true, that could have a destablilizing effect on the possible Super Bowl contenders.

Predicted order of finish

1. Eagles

Donovan McNabb finally has some weapons.

2. Giants

Eli Manning might struggle with young receivers.

3. Cowboys

Dallas will miss T.O more than they know.

4. Redskins

Jim Zorn on the way out with another bad season.

North

Brett Favre, Vikings

You may have heard the quarterback ended his retirement to join Minnesota, which is tantamount to treason for fans of division rival Green Bay. The twice-retired (so far) QB is expected to take pressure off running back Adrian Peterson, but at the cost of former starter Tarvaris Jackson, who wants out of Minnesota. A big price if Favre falters with the Vikings.

Jay Cutler in Chicago

Chicago welcomed the strong-armed quarterback after he demanded a trade from Denver. Broncos fans called Cutler, right, immature and selfish, but Bears fans don’t care – as long as he leads them to the Super Bowl and doesn’t throw any interceptions at wind-blown Soldier Field.

1. Packers

Aaron Rodgers is the real deal. Brett who?

2. Vikings

Brett Favre makes them a Super Bowl contender.

3. Bears

Still a playmaker away offensively.

4. Lions

Should get a couple of wins this season.

South

Reggie Bush, Saints

Bush says he won’t juke and try to fake out defenders anymore, something that helped him win the 2005 Heisman Trophy while at Southern California. Juking hasn’t worked in the NFL, where Bush has averaged 3.7 yards per carry over three seasons, roughly half his college average of 7.3. In 418 career carries, he’s produced one run of more than 40 yards.

Matt Ryan’s improvement

Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2008, threw a touchdown pass on his first NFL attempt and kept going from there, leading the Atlanta Falcons to their first playoff berth since 2004 and earning NFL offensive rookie of the year honors.

Ryan shouldn’t be a one-year fluke as the Falcons gave Ryan another weapon by trading for tight end Tony Gonzalez.

1. Saints

Drew Brees and Co., left, should light up the scoreboard.

2. Falcons

Solid, young team on the rise.

3. Panthers

Jake Delhomme at quarterback – scary.

4. Buccaneers

Could be some growing pains for this young team.

AFC

West

Alex Smith, 49ers

Remember when some thought Cal’s Aaron Rodgers would be a bust after sliding to Green Bay as the No. 24 overall pick in 2005? Rodgers was rumored to be the No. 1 overall pick, but fell in the draft as Alex Smith’s stock went up. Now Smith, who was born in Bremerton, is struggling to keep a job with the 49ers, let alone start. Rodgers, meanwhile, is developing into a star for the Packers.

Flukes in 2008?

The long-dormant Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. The Seattle Seahawks, winners of four consecutive NFC West titles, fell to 4-12, their worst record in 16 seasons. Was last season a fluke? Will the Seahawks compete for the West title again. Will the Cardinals be out of the running by November? Or was last season an indicator of things to come?

1. Cardinals

Will prove Super Bowl appearance was no fluke.

2. Seahawks

Healthy Matt Hasselbeck leads the way.

3. 49ers

If they win, it’ll be with defense.

4. Rams

Tony Spagnuolo has them headed in right direction.

East

Mark Sanchez, Jets

The rookie from Southern California, the No. 6 overall pick, is scheduled to become the first Jets rookie quarterback to start a season opener (Joe Namath didn’t start until his third game in 1965, and don’t even ask about Richard Todd in 1976 and Ken O’Brien in 1983). There’ll be no pressure on Sanchez playing in a small market like New York.

The T.O. show in Buffalo

Terrell Owens surprised many by signing a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent. Buffalo gets a talented receiver (nine seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards) but a player who has a reputation for bizarre behavior (remember his crying about Tony Romo?) and trashing his quarterbacks (Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia and Romo in Dallas). T.O., below, reportedly gets along with Bills QB Trent Edwards, but stay tuned.

1. Patriots

Tom Brady’s healthy – watch out.

2. Jets

Rookie QB Mark Sanchez could surprise.

3. Dolphins

Will ride Wildcat offense again this season.

4. Bills

Even with T.O., still at least a year away.

North

Brady Quinn, Browns

Expectations have been high since Cleveland drafted the Notre Dame star quarterback in 2007, but in his first two seasons Quinn was unable to beat out former Oregon State Beaver Derek Anderson. Some think Quinn will be the Browns’ best QB since the glory days of Bernie Kosar and Brian Sipe, and others think he will be the latest Browns bust (see: Couch, Tim) and the latest Notre Dame QB bust (see: Mirer, Rick).

Knocks on the Bengals

The HBO series decided to follow the Dallas Cowboys during the 2008 season. Makes sense. So this year HBO is following … the Bengals? The team with one winning season in 18 years? Yes, receiver Chad “Don’t call me Johnson” Ochocinco loves the attention. Maybe the constant glare of HBO’s cameras will help the Bengals climb above .500 and forget that T.J. Houshmandzadeh now plays with Seattle.

1. Ravens

Hungry to overtake the Steelers.

2. Steelers

Might experience Super Bowl slide.

3. Bengals

Coach Marvin Lewis running out of lives.

4. Browns

We still don’t know who the starting QB is.

South

LenDale White, Titans

Remember when White’s draft prospects tumbled because of concerns about his weight, conditioning and dedication, and the former USC star fell to the No. 45 pick in 2006? After two mediocre seasons, White broke out last year, scoring an AFC-best 15 rushing touchdowns. He reported to training camp this year about 35 pounds lighter. White credits increased training and not drinking tequila. Oh, he’s in a contract year, too.

Manning without Harrison

For the first time in 12 seasons, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will look over and not see Marvin Harrison. Receiver Harrison was released by the Colts after 2008. Harrison and Manning combined for two NFL records for quarterback and receiver: most completions (965), and most scoring passes (114). “It certainly is different, and it is certainly an adjustment,” Manning said.

1. Texans

Could be the surprise team in the AFC.

2. Titans

Offensive struggles likely to get exposed.

3. Jaguars

Could be better than expected.

4. Colts

Indianapolis will miss steady coach Tony Dungy.

West

LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers

The running back, the NFL MVP in 2006, ran for a career-low 1,110 yards last season. Adding fuel to the speculation that Tomlinson’s best years are behind him, he turned 30 in June (some NFL people and lots of fans believe running backs aren’t as useful when they turn 30. Kind of like when people turn 21 in “Logan’s Run”).

Coaches corner

Head coaches have been making the news in this division more than the players. First-year Kansas City coach Todd Haley fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey less than two weeks before the season opener. First-year Denver coach Josh McDaniels, 33, clashed with quarterback Jay Cutler, forcing a trade to Chicago. Oakland coach Tom Cable, a Snohomish High graduate, reportedly broke the jaw of assistant coach Randy Hanson during an altercation last month. Cable denies it, saying the matter will be handled “internally.” There’s no word on any antics from San Diego coach Norv Turner, except that his first name is Norv.

1. Chargers

Should be a cakewalk if they stay healthy.

2. Chiefs

The best of the rest in weak division.

3. Raiders

The Al Davis soap opera continues.

4. Broncos

Josh McDaniels soap opera just starting.

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