Peyton Manning's arm and the Colts' improved defense will lead the team to a championship this year, writes NBCSports.com's Ron Borges
By Ron Borges
Updated: 3:01 p.m. ET Sept. 7, 2005
These days, the easiest thing in the world is to go with the chalk.
Write "New England Patriots'' in as your choice to three-peat as Super Bowl champion and be done with it, because when a team wins three of the past four Lombardi Trophies, why bother with anyone else?
Well, there's several reasons.
The Patriots have to be established as the most likely to succeed in the AFC, but they definitely have issues. That's nothing new. They have overcome plenty of obstacles during their three-year title run, but it would be unwise simply to cite past history as the reason they will handle the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as well as all three inside linebackers of a year ago: Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer.
The Patriots might most easily survive the loss of Crennel because 34-year-old Eric Mangini was his top assistant and has been in the Belichick defensive system for a decade. But what about the offense?
In the end Belichick has said he will be responsible for the calls after a committee approach to how things will be set up during the week.
What will be more difficult is duplicating Weis' magic on game day, where he was one of the most innovative and successful playcallers in the league. They won't easily replace that.
The same is true of Bruschi, who was considerably more than an adept inside linebacker. Johnson was a powerful run stuffer and Phifer was a reliable old hand as a part-time player, but Bruschi had more than skills.
He had anticipation and an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the most opportune moment.
That is what 35-year-old Chad Brown and 27-year-old Monty Beisel, both untested at inside linebacker in the 3-4, face. Brown has been an outside linebacker and designated pass rusher for years in Pittsburgh and Seattle. Though he spent some limited time in the inside role, that was years ago and was not in anything resembling the Belichick system.
Beisel is a converted college defensive end who was only beginning to learn middle linebacker in Kansas City before New England signed him. He has started only a handful of games and admits that he is still learning.
Can the Patriots survive all these changes? Perhaps, but their margin of error always has been a slim one, and they are not without spirited challengers. So the plot thickens as the distance between them and their opponents closes.
The top two teams that are closing the gap are the Steelers and Colts. The Jets, Ravens and Chiefs are next in line, and possibly the Chargers or Broncos. Most of these teams are not on the same level as the Patriots yet, with the possible exception of the Steelers and Colts, but they all are dangerous and could give the defending champs a run.
The Steelers return nearly everyone from a team that went 15-1 a year ago. Pittsburgh will do what it always has done — run the ball on offense and stuff the run on defense.
The Colts, conversely, will continue to rely on the arm of Peyton Manning, and also will have the luxury of utilizing an improved run defense with the addition of defensive tackle Corey Simon, who could definitely help in finally dethroning the Patriots.
As for the Ravens, Chiefs, Broncos, Chargers and even Jacksonville Jaguars, they are all long shots, but not so long that the task should be seen as impossible. Kansas City needs only an average defense to be a force because of its high-scoring offense.
The NFC features the defending champion Eagles, a healthy Carolina Panthers team that came within a whisper of beating New England in the Super Bowl two years ago, Michael Vick's Falcons and three dark horses: the Vikings, Lions and Cowboys.
The Eagles return everyone from their run to the Super Bowl but are coping with problems from mercurial Terrell Owens, who never met a good thing he couldn't turn bad. This is a situation that could become ugly and unmanageable despite the level-headedness of quarterback Donovan McNabb. History is also working against them. It's been a long time since a team losing the Super Bowl even returned to the playoffs the following year. That doesn't mean the Eagles won't do it, but there are reasons for historical patterns and the Eagles have to overcome them.
Atlanta has Vick, which means it is in every game to the end.
Dallas has Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe, who both fully understand that this may be the last hurrah. Minnesota and Detroit have plenty of young talent.
But of all the NFC teams, it is the Panthers who seem most likely to stand in the way of whatever team emerges from the AFC if they can just stay healthy. Their defense is withering and their offense is a blend of power running and Jake Delhomme. A year ago they stumbled to a 1-7 start after the team lost 14 players to injuries, but don't expect that to happen again this year.
Having said all that, here are my predictions for the division winners, playoffs and Super Bowl:
AFC wild cards
NFC wild cards
Super Bowl XL champion
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