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Updated on 09/15/2011 1:59PM
NFL: Who's next Super Bowl champ?
The NFL season starts Sunday and Pete Rozelle's legacy - parity - is alive and well. Will one of the main contenders win the Super Bowl, or will a surprise team take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the Ravens and Rams did the last two years? Could the Broncos, who won the two titles before that, return to the top of the heap?
Even the division races are wide open. Few people thought the Saints could win the NFC West over the Rams last year, but they did. And the Redskins were supposed to be a lock in the NFC East, but were upended by the Giants, who went on to play in the Super Bowl. Who will be this year's surprise teams?
We'll start to get answers to these questions on Sunday, but they don't let you bet a horse race after it starts, so here are my predictions for this NFL season.
This is a three-horse race among the Giants, Eagles, and Redskins. The Giants will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2000 performance, especially while playing a first-place schedule. Their non-divisional road games are against the Broncos, Chiefs, Rams, and Vikings. Ouch! Donovan McNabb has elevated Philadelphia's spirits, but the Eagles could be in trouble if they don't split their first two games, against the Rams and Buccaneers. The Redskins have an easier early schedule, facing the Chargers and Cardinals. Early success should have the players buying into coach Marty Schottenheimer's system.
Division pick: Redskins (7-5). Overlay: None.
The Bucs are the odds-on favorite, but this race is as wide open as any in football. Coach Tony Dungy finally has a legitimate QB in Brad Johnson, but will that get the Bucs over the hump? The Vikings, despite the retirement of Robert Smith and the death of Korey Stringer, will be a contender. The Vikes' defense might not be able to stop anybody, but they will never be out of a game with Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, and Michael Bennett, who will fill Smith's shoes, lighting up the scoreboard. The Lions, Packers, and Bears (oh, my) are a notch below the top two, but an upset here or there puts any of them in the thick of the race.
Division pick: Vikings (3-1). Overlay: Vikings (they would be value even at 2-1).
The Saints are a tough team to figure. They could be 10-6 and be a playoff team as they were last year, or they could slip to 7-9. The Rams don't have that problem, unless Kurt Warner gets hurt again. Barring that, they should coast to a division title and make a serious Super Bowl run. The 49ers will know how their season is headed very early; they open with division games against the Falcons, Saints, and Rams. If the defense shows improvement and Garrison Hearst stays healthy to support the passing game, this team could make some noise, especially if they start 2-1.
Division pick: Rams (2-7). Overlay: 49ers (6-1).
The Colts should run away with the division if the defense does its share and takes pressure off Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison. Of course, that was supposed to happen last year but the Dolphins won the division (and beat the Colts in the first round of the playoffs). If Lamar Smith repeats his 2000 performance and Jay Fiedler limits his mistakes and lets the defense win its share of games, the Dolphins will be right in the hunt. However, both teams play tough schedules, which could open the door a crack for the Jets or Bills. The Jets are a team in search of an identity with Herman Edwards as the latest of many head coaches. With Doug Flutie gone, as Rob Johnson goes, so go the Bills.
Division pick: Colts (4-5). Overlay: Dolphins (3-1).
In a year, the Jaguars have gone from favorite to a distant third choice. The Titans won the division last year but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in the playoffs. The Titans and Ravens are solid teams and deserving of their 1 and 1A status atop the division, but if you're looking for an upsetter you might consider the Steelers. They started 0-3 last year, including two losses in which the league later apologized for officials' mistakes that cost them chances to win. The Steelers won four of their last five to narrowly miss the playoffs with a 9-7 record. This year, the Steelers could be 4-2 heading into back-to-back home games against the Titans and Ravens on Oct. 29 and Nov. 4. A pair of upsets would put them in the driver's seat.
Division pick: Ravens (6-5). Overlay: Steelers (11-2).
I'm saving the best for last. The Broncos' offense, with a healthy Brian Griese - and, hopefully, a healthy Steve Beuerlein backing him up in the second-half of the season - throwing the ball and the unmatched trio of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, and Orlandis Gary running it, should rank up there with the Rams, Vikings, and Colts for most points scored. Throw in a new scheme by defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes and the Broncos seem primed to return to dominance. In addition, the Broncos have the easiest schedule in the league (their opponents were 118-138 last year). Their main competition will come from the Raiders, who need Rich Gannon to stay healthy, and the Chiefs, who Dick Vermeil has on a fast track to success, just like he did with the Rams.
Division pick: Broncos (5-7). Overlay: Chiefs (8-1).
In the NFC, it's too obvious to pick the Rams, but I keep coming back to them, especially if they secure home-field advantage. The Vikings, who sure seemed to be on a mission in the preseason, are a decent value at 6-1 to win the conference title. Of course, the best overlay could be the 49ers at 25-1 if they get off that fast start and the Rams stumble. Regardless, the Rams are my pick to win the NFC at 2-1.
In the AFC, I like the Broncos. However, I should point out that the Dolphins are a huge overlay at 30-1 to win the AFC (they were raised from an opening number of 20-1 at the Imperial Palace.) Oddly enough, they're also 30-1 to win the Super Bowl (they have been bet down from 40-1). Obviously, you wouldn't waste your money on the Super Bowl bet when you can get the same odds on the AFC title without winning an extra game.
The Colts scare me the most, though I'd rather have Mike Shanahan coaching my team as opposed to perennial first-round loser Jim Mora. That goes double if the Broncos get home-field advantage with their easy schedule. Invesco Field is their new stadium, but it's still a mile high. I'll take the Broncos at 5-2.
In the Super Bowl, I'll ride the Broncos all the way at a generous 6-1 (more than double their AFC title odds).
Over/under win totals
When the Imperial Palace came out with its over/under win totals for each team back in May, I made three recommendations: Bills under 8 at even money, the Chargers under 7 at -125 (bet $1.25 to win $1), and the Colts over 10 at even-money.
I stand by those picks, though if you like the Bills under 8 you now have to lay -145 and betting the Colts over 10 will cost you -115. The Chargers under 7 is now at +110.