Next Raiders Coach Beware, Al Davis is the Grim Reaper of Death

We live in an instant gratification society, “What have you done for me lately” doesn’t matter. It’s “What are you doing RIGHT NOW?” that counts. I get it. But I don’t think it’s the right way to rebuild a fledgling NFL franchise.

Unfortunately for me, I am not the owner of the Oakland Raiders. That distinction belongs to the artist formerly known as Al Davis.

Earlier today he finally pulled the trigger on a firing gun he’s been aiming at coach Lane Kiffin for months. Did I mention Kiffin has coached just a little over one season with the Raiders? That’s right. Twenty games was plenty enough for Al Davis.

Since the similarly unceremonious departure of Jon Gruden in the aftermath of The Tuck Game in 2001, the Raiders have had four coaches—with a fifth on the way—and just one winning season, in 2002, which ended miserably with a Super Bowl loss against Gruden’s Buccaneers.

Bill Callahan lasted two years. Ditto for Norv Turner. Therebirth of the Art Shell era? That laughable experiment lasted just one season. But Kiffin’s firing establishes a new low by getting axed during the season.

The worst part is Kiffin finally had the Raiders playing respectable football again for the first time in five years. His 1-3 record this season and 5-15 mark overall doesn’t do him justice. Yes, the Raiders blew fourth quarter leads in consecutive games. But the losses came against undefeated Buffalo and the reigning AFC West champion San Diego Chargers.

Raiders fans weren’t happy with the results, but we were encouraged by what we saw on the field. This was a Raiders team with signs of life and a glimmer of hope for the future—something Raiders fans haven’t felt since Chucky and the Bucs stomped on our Super Bowl dreams earlier this decade.

The young quarterback with the cannon arm. The young running back with the best combination of speed and power in silver and black since Bo. And the young coach leading the way. It seemed like the Raiders had something in place that could work, but Al Davis didn’t see it. Kiffin dared to make a power play with Davis, and that was the end of it. The firing happened today, but it became inevitable weeks, if not months ago.

Still, Kiffin had the general support of the Raider Nation and it seemed to be growing despite his record. He was the most popular coach in silver and black since Gruden and, I think, his brash attitude and boyish looks reminded us of our former coach and past success.

In year one, Kiffin had to eradicate all the garbage left over from previous regimes in Oakland. In year two, he was making them competitive. I think it’s very possible they could’ve learned how to win by the end of the year, making 9-7 a realistic goal for 2009 with a full year of experience for quarterback Jamarcus Russell.

Now? Who knows what happens to the franchise. What I do know is they lost a talentd, up ‘n coming coach—again.

Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Lane Kiffin. Brash young coaches, hired and scorned by Al Davis. Shanahan and Gruden have gone on to torture the Raiders and enjoy Super Bowl success elsewhere. Don’t be surprised if Kiffin shows up on an opposing sideline to do the same sometime soon.

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Die, Dynasty, Die: The Yankees Miss the Playoffs, But I Won’t Miss the Yankees

The last time the New York Yankees failed to qualify for the playoffs, I was 9 years old. I didn’t own a cell phone, check an e-mail address or listen to an iPod. (I taped radio hits on my cassette player.) Chris Webber was preparing for his rookie season in the NBA, the Raiders were playing in L.A., and I had only played one version of John Madden football—Madden 93 for Sega Genesis, which my friend Zach had.

The point is, it’s been a LONG time since the Yankees missed the postseason. It’s a remarkable feat, especially when you consider baseball’s relatively low ratio of teams to postseason berths. In the NBA and NHL, 16 of 30 make the playoffs (53.3 percent). In the NFL, it’s a bit more selective at 12 of 32 (37.5 percent). Still, nothing compares to Major League Baseball where just 8 of 30 (26.6 percent) make the playoffs.

Every year, October is a chance fans and non-fans alike to rally in their hatred for the Bronx Bombers. Anti-Yankees-sentiment runs deep and, without it, I’m left wondering what this postseason will bring. Sure, there’s Yankees-Lite up in Boston where the Red Sox have gone from the lovable loser to a mirror image of their rivals in a span of just four years. But it’s just not the same.

The 2008 Yankees’ failure is significant for the same reason their success has been downplayed: their unbelievable payroll. Teams like my Oakland Athletics simply do not have the resources to compete on the same financial playing field. That makes it all the more embarrassing for the pinstripes, who couldn’t compete on the actual playing field with the likes of the Tampa Bay Rays this season.

October without the Yankees won’t be the same, it’s true. And, there may even be a piece of me that misses the opportunity to hate them throughout the postseason run, misses the chance to watch them come up short as they have every year since 2000.

But the absence of the Yankees won’t spoil October for me. Oh no, not at all. This is the one time of year that I cannot help but fall in love with America’s pastime, even if it’s clearly past it’s time as the nation’s premier sport.

Yes, even in the midst of the NFL and college football seasons, even as NBA training camps get underway and Midnight Madness approaches, October belongs to baseball when every pitch means a little more and every inning builds the suspense. The World Series is not far away, and this season, I’m already guaranteed a happy ending because the Yankees won’t be playing in it.

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Early Season 3-0 Surprises

No one expected anyone to replicate the Patriots’ 16-0 regular season from a year ago. And after three weeks of football, only six teams remain unbeaten: the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos. All are 3-0 with the exception of 2-0 Baltimore.

Are they for real? Is the hot start indication of a playoff push? Only time will tell for sure, but why wait to forecast their fortunes? Here’s an overview of all six undefeated teams.

  • New York Giants
    Two of their three wins have come against winless St. Louis and Cincinnati. They’ll be tested throughout the year though, playing in the league’s toughest division along with Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington. Still, it’s probably safe to say the defending champions are a legitimate contender as a 3-0 undefeated team. Their offense looks sharp under a suddenly poised and precise Eli Manning, and the defense is playing strong despite key losses.

  • Dallas Cowboys
    It’d be hard to argue anyone else has looked better against stronger competition in the early part of this season. Dallas won a shootout with Philadelphia on Monday Night Football in week two and bounced back on Sunday night to win with defense against the previously unbeaten Packers. Add in a convincing week one performance against Cleveland, and it becomes clear why many people predict Dallas will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Whereas both NFC unbeatens reside in the rugged NFC East, the AFC has one undefeated team in each of its four divisions.

  • Buffalo Bills
    It took fourth quarter comebacks in consecutive weeks, but the Bills are undefeated and atop the AFC East. Second-year QB Trent Edwards is showing signs that he may be the leader the team has searched for since their last playoff appearance in 1999. Running back Marshawn Lynch gives the Bills a consistent ground attack, and their defense, featuring linebacker Paul Posluszny, has been solid. With Tom Brady out of action for New England, this division is wide open. The Bills will contend, but don’t count the Pats out just yet. And Brett Favre and the Jets may have a say in this race before all is said and done.
  • Baltimore Ravens
    With rookie quarterback Joe Flacco at the helm, the Ravens may be the most unlikely undefeated team. After Hurricane Ike postponed their game with the Houston Texans, they found out they’d be playing 15 straight weeks, but they won the first of that streak on Sunday against the Browns, improving to 2-0. Flacco has done enough to help the Ravens’ veteran defense shut down the opposition, but he will tested in a divisional showdown next Monday against the Steelers. Expect Pittsburgh to hand him his first professional loss and take control of the AFC North.

  • Tennessee Titans
    In a division that features the Colts and Jaguars, it’s the Titans with a two game lead in the standings and a 2-0 record within the division. Indianapolis and Jacksonville figure to challenge them, but if the Titans’ defense continues to dominate as it has this season and they coninue to run the ball effectively, they will be tough to beat. Expect this team—with or without Vince Young—to qualify for the playoffs this year.
  • Denver Broncos
    The Ravens and Bills may be bigger surprises, but no one has had as much early season excitement as Denver. From their opening week dismantling of the hated Raiders to their week two shocker against San Diego to their week three nail biter against New Orleans, the Broncos have made headlines with an offensive attack that features one of the league’s most exciting aerial attacks. If Jay Cutler continues to find Brancon Marshall and Eddie Royal like this all season, Denver will make it tough for the Chargers to repeat in the AFC West.

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Just Quit, Baby

In lieu of the news that Al Davis will likely fire Raiders coach Lane Kiffin as soon as Monday, I was compelled to post a column I wrote during my senior year of college in November 2006 for a feature writing class. The words still ring very true today, especially if Davis does indeed fire Kiffin.

Whatever happened to “A Commitment to Excellence”?

And “just win, baby” was much more meaningful when the wins were coming in double digits year after year.

Nowadays you would have to add up the wins from the past three seasons to reach double digits. It is easy to point to the 48-21 shellacking they received in Super Bowl XXXVII or the infamous “Tuck Rule Game” the year before as the turning point for a once proud Oakland Raiders franchise, but is my opinion that owner Al Davis is to blame for their downward spiral from feared franchise to laughingstock of the league.

Don’t get me wrong. I know who Al Davis is. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was commissioner of the American Football League, and his presence had a lot to do with the eventual merger between the AFL and the NFL. He hired the NFL’s first Hispanic American head coach and later the NFL’s first African-American head coach. And he was the first owner to name a woman as CEO of an NFL team. Through it all, Al Davis has been the face of the Oakland Raiders organization.

As coach, general manager, president and majority owner of the Raiders, Al Davis has done everything he possibly could for the silver and black. He has always tried to do what is best for the organization and he needs to continue that tradition now by stepping down and letting someone new breathe fresh air into the lungs of the Raiders.

The facts are simple. Al Davis is 77 years old, and he is simply too stubborn to admit his best decision-making days are gone. Coaches? Since the controversial departure of Jon Gruden, who went 38-26 in four years as head coach of the Raiders, Davis has tried three different coaches in five years. The latest hire, a recycled Art Shell, a man Davis fired in 1994 has produced more punchlines than points and has overseen the Raiders’ abysmal 1-5 start this season.

Players? The Raiders have monopolized the industry on bad acquisitions, doing so in a variety of ways. They have overpaid former stars in the twilight of their careers (see: Warren Sapp, Ted Washington), been fooled into overpaying faux stars (see: Super Bowl MVPs Larry Brown, Desmond Howard), and most recently, overpaid for “potential” stars (see: LaMont Jordan, Aaron Brooks). And when the Raiders have landed a star capable of making an impact, they have failed to use him appropriately (see: Randy Moss). Oh, and don’t forget their slew of draft day decisions that leave their fan base screaming at the screen, including this year’s decision to take a safety over a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback.

Al Davis has a history of moving. He took the team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back to Oakland again. He rotates coaches like tires and has shuffled the roster more than a deck of cards in Las Vegas. He’s made every move possible, except for one. He needs to remove himself from office. It would be his last great move, and the only one left to restore the Raiders legacy in his lifetime.

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Best NFL Franchises of the Modern Era

Earlier today, ESPN released its modern NFL franchise rankings (from 1970-present). To my pleasure, the Raiders cracked the top 10, coming in at number six behind Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Miami and Denver.

While it certainly opens the door to endless debate, the rankings are pretty interesting. They used a number of factors to earn points for a franchise including playoff and Super Bowl wins, regular season consistency, Monday Night Football appearances and more. By all means, do check it out

It was a bit surprising to see my Raiders ranked so highly. After enduring a five-year stretch as the worst team in the league, it’s hard to remember that the Raiders are also one of the league’s most storied franchises.

My favorite line, though, is the following: The Raiders are the only team in our study saddled with four crushing playoff defeats, culminating with Super Bowl XXXVII.

THAT is my experience as a Raiders fan, their last Super Bowl win coming nine months before I was born. I know two of the crushing defeats as I witnessed them firsthand: The Fumble vs. Tom Brady and the Patriots and, of course, the Gruden Bowl beatdown. A third was well before my time, but I’ve seen the replay enough to know it was a killer, the Immaculate Reception vs. Pittsburgh

Now I’m trying to think of the fourth one. Any ideas? Let me know if you know it.

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First to Seven Wins?

September means two things for me: my birthday (on the 7th) and the start of football season. As a diehard fan of the Michigan Wolverines and Oakland Raiders, my expectations are tempered for the 2008 season.

Michigan already started the Rich Rodriguez era with a disappointing, if not entirely unexpected, loss in the home opener against Utah.

The Raiders will host the Denver Broncos as the second part of the week one Monday Night Football double header. And after losing more games than any NFL team in the past five seasons, no one’s expecting big things from the Raiders. They should be better than last year, though.

The way I see it, seven wins would be a successful 2008 season for either team, but I’m predicting neither one gets there. My preview of each team follows:

Michigan Wolverines

8/30/08 vs. Utah
RESULT: Loss 25-23

9/6/08 vs. Miami (Ohio)
SUMMARY: An easy opponent allows the Wolverines to bounce back at home and earn Rodriguez’s first victory at Michigan.

9/13/08 at Notre Dame
SUMMARY: After being outscored 85-21 the past two seasons, you can bet the Irish will be fired up for a chance to kick Michigan while the program is down. An experienced Wolverines offense will turn it over early and often leading to a big win for Notre Dame.

9/27/08 vs. Wisconsin
RECORD: 1-3 (0-1)
SUMMARY: Michigan opens the Big Ten schedule at home against a Wisconsin team currently ranked number 11 in the AP poll. The Badgers punished the Wolverines with 232 yards on the ground last year despite a banged up P.J. Hill carrying just 5 times for 14 yards. Expect similar results with the bruising Hill back and healthy this time around in The Big House.

10/4/08 vs. Illinois
RECORD: 1-4 (0-2)
SUMMARY: Juice Williams and the Illini fell to the Wolverines at home amid their run to the Rose Bowl last year, and Michigan struggles with athletic quarterbacks like Williams.

10/11/08 vs. Toledo
RECORD: 2-4 (0-2)
SUMMARY: While Michigan fans know not to take any game for granted after last year’s Appalachian State debacle, this is a must-have and should-win game versus Toledo in the middle of their schedule. They need to be careful not to look ahead to Penn State.

10/18/08 at Penn State
RECORD: 2-5 (0-3)
SUMMARY: The Wolverines have owned the Nittany Lions for more than a decade, having won nine straight games dating back to 1996, but Penn State looks poised to end the streak this year. Expect a close game that finally goes against the Wolverines in this rivalry that has been the bizarre Ohio State feud in recent years.

10/25/08 vs. Michigan State
RECORD: 3-5 (1-3)
SUMMARY: The in-state rivals will have a wounded Wolverines team up against the ropes, but two thirds of the way through the season, Michigan’s offense shows visible improvement and wins in impressive fashion to avoid an 0-4 mark in the Big Ten.

11/1/08 at Purdue
RECORD: 4-5 (2-3)
SUMMARY: Michigan kicks off November by winning consecutive games for the first time all season.

11/8/08 at Minnesota
RECORD: 5-5 (3-3)
SUMMARY: Minnesota barely held on against Northern Illinois in their season opener, so this could be the only game all season when Michigan is favored to win on the road.

11/15/08 vs. Northwestern
RECORD: 6-5 (4-3)
SUMMARY: Northwestern keeps this one closer than it should be, but the Wolverines win their fourth straight to get above .500 for the first time all year heading into the finale.

11/22/08 at Ohio State
RECORD: 6-6 (4-4)
SUMMARY: Michigan would love to play the role of spoiler, but the Buckeyes, who may already have the Big Ten title clinched by this point, won’t allow it, continuing their recent dominance in this bitter rivalry.

Michigan finishes the season 6-6 (4-4 in the Big Ten) and plays an early December bowl game. Because let’s face it, if they’re bowl eligible, they’ll get an invite.

Oakland Raiders

9/8/08 vs. Denver Broncos
SUMMARY: The Raiders usher in the Darren McFadden era in style with a win at home on Monday Night Football against the rival Broncos.

9/14/08 at Kansas City Chiefs
SUMMARY: The Chiefs are nothing special this year, but Arrowhead is always a tough place to play. The young Raiders offense struggles and falls on the road.

9/21/08 at Buffalo Bills
SUMMARY: The Raiders’ stout secondary frustrates Bills quarterback Trent Edwards and leads the silver and black to a 2-1 mark.

9/28/08 vs. San Diego Chargers
SUMMARY: In a battle for early-season division supremacy, the Chargers will make it clear that they are head and shoulders above the Raiders and the rest of the AFC West with a convincing win.

10/12/08 at New Orleans Saints
SUMMARY: The Raiders cannot keep up with the high-powered Saints on the scoreboard, falling below .500 for the first time all season.

10/19/08 vs. New York Jets
SUMMARY: With Brett Favre at the helm, the Jets are nothing like they were in 2007. New York hands Oakland its second straight defeat.

10/26/08 at Baltimore Ravens
SUMMARY: Baltimore is one of the few teams in the league with a less-proven quarterback than Oakland. Whether it’s Joe Flacco or Troy Smith, this game features multiple interceptions for the Raiders defense en route to victory.

11/2/08 vs. Atlanta Falcons
SUMMARY: Potentially, the Raiders could be facing their second straight rookie quarterback if the Ravens and Falcons stick with rookies Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, respectively. That spells a two-game win streak for the Raiders and a first-half finish at the .500 mark.

11/9/08 vs. Carolina Panthers
SUMMARY: The Raiders squander a golden opportunity to get back above .500 with a poor effort against the Panthers.

11/16/08 at Miami Dolphins
SUMMARY: The Raiders continue to hang around in the AFC playoff picture with a win over an improved but not threatening Dolphins team.

11/23/08 at Denver Broncos
SUMMARY: The Broncos enact revenge from week one in a critical divisional matchup that, once again, prevents the Raiders from eclipsing the .500 mark in November.

11/30/08 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
SUMMARY: Oakland earns a season split with the Chiefs. Darren McFadden has his best game of the season, now in a starter’s role for the Raiders.

12/4/08 at San Diego Chargers
SUMMARY: The Chargers deal Oakland’s playoff hopes a near-fatal blow in this Thursday night showcase game.

12/14/08 vs. New England Patriots
SUMMARY: The Patriots, battling for a first round bye, dispose of the Raiders in embarrassing fashion.

12/21/08 vs. Houston Texans
SUMMARY: In a battle of former number one picks, the Texans’ Mario Williams gets the better of the Raiders’ Jamarcus Russell. Williams records three sacks and pressures Russell into two costly interceptions in a big win for the upstart Texans. The loss assures the Raiders of a sixth consecutive losing season.

12/28/08 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RECORD: 6-10
SUMMARY: In a Super Bowl XXXVII rematch, the result stays the same, although score is closer.

The Raiders finish the year on a serious down note with a four-game losing streak after a promising 6-6 start. Nonetheless, their six wins is still a two-game improvement from last year and the most the Raiders have won since they won 11 in 2002 on their way to a Super Bowl appearance.

The way I see it, both the Wolverines and Raiders finish the season with six wins (Michigan loses its bowl game) and losing seasons. Not a fun season at all.

Well, that’s what my fantasy teams are for!

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2008 NFL Preview

Six of the NFL’s 32 franchises have never been to the Super Bowl since it began in 1967. Nine more have played in the big game but never won it. That’s right, almost half the league has never been atop the NFL mountain. But the start of a new season means fresh dreams for all 32 teams and their fans that this could be their year. There are enough NFL previews out their breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of each fan, so in this year’s NFL preview I’m breaking down the fans of all 32 franchises.

(Predicted record in parentheses)
* Wild card

NFC East

New York Giants (11-5)
They just won a Super Bowl as a major underdog in one of the most exciting and improbable finishes in NFL history. The Giants fans have no reason to complain this year. Instead of greedily obsessing over a repeat, Giants fans should just watch tapes of Eli to Tyree over and over again.

*Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
America’s Team has fans all over the country. They’re one of the most popular teams in sports, but their fans (like team owner Jerry Jones) have a sense of entitlement because they’ve played in so many Super Bowls already.

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
Few fans have been tortured like Philly fans. Good teams kept falling short earlier this decade. Then, Donovan McNabb’s health went south. The team still hasn’t recovered from the brief Terrell Owens era, and the fans are starving for a first Super Bowl victory.

Washington Redskins (9-7)
Fans of the Redskins know success, as long as they’ve been fans for more than 15 years. Washington was a powerhouse through the 80s and won another title in 1992. Since then, it’s been a little tougher being a Redskins fan as owner Daniel Snyder has spent big with little to show for it.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
They watched Fran Tarkenton come up short. They traded for Herschel Walker only to see the Cowboys reap the benefits and win Super Bowls with the pieces they acquired. They watched the rise and fall of Randy Moss and Daunte Culpeper. Vikings fans are cautiously optimistic about the Adrian Peterson era, but you can understand why they might be skeptical of any Super Bowl talk for this team that finished out of the playoffs last year.

Green Bay Packers (9-7)
No one had their fanhood tested more this offseason than Packers fans during the whole Brett Favre saga. With their favorite son now dawning the green of another team, Packers fans are left to embrace the untested arm of Aaron Rodgers, knowing he now leads a team that played at Lambeau in the NFC Championship last year.

Detroit Lions (7-9)
They haven’t played in the postseason since 1999. They haven’t won a playoff game since ’91. Lions fans definitely have waited a long time for a breakthrough season, so at least they’ll be well practiced at waiting another year.

Chicago Bears (4-12)
Bears fans have a common gripe: quarterback. The Bears really haven’t had a quality QB since their Super Bowl championship with Jim McMahon in the mid-80s. That won’t change with Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman back again this year.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Saints fans were treated to a rare winning season two years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It made last seasons regression all the more frustrating. But hopes are high again in New Orleans. If they stay healthy, the Saints may march into the playoffs and give their fans something to cheer about once again.

*Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
Bucs fans are reaching the point where that Super Bowl Championship is no longer enough to give Jon Gruden a free pass. They’ve been up and down the past couple of years, but with an aging Jeff Garcia at quarterback, the Bucs fans are clamoring for a title run now.

Carolina Panthers (5-11)
With questions about the stability and ability of their quarterback and their star receiver suspended for the first two games of the season, Panthers fans have to be a little worried about this season already. They’ve made three conference title game appearances since entering the league in 1996, but haven’t been the same since their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2004.

Atlanta Falcons (2-14)
Falcons fans cheered one of the most electrifying players in the NFL until last season when Michael Vick’s career came to a screeching halt. The new face of the franchise is that of Matt Ryan, a rookie. He doesn’t run like Vick, but Falcons fans can only hope he brings back his winning ways.

NFC West

St. Louis Rams (9-7)
The Rams have been a formidable franchise for the past decade, but the team struggled last year after being decimated by injuries. If healthy, the team should give their fans a pleasant surprise by challenging for the division title.

Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
After cutting loose Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks have their fans wondering about their running game. Who will carry the load for Seattle? And can the team finally get over the hump in Mike Holmgren’s final season as head coach.

Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
Now that their quarterback of the future has been benched in favor of the ageless Kurt Warner, Cardinals fans…well, let’s be honest. There aren’t many Cardinals fans. This is a franchise that has never enjoyed much success in the NFL and it shows in their fan support.

San Francisco 49ers (3-13)
After being spoiled in the 80s and early 90s, the 49ers fans have had some rough times. They are one of several fan bases wondering where they can find good quarterback play. J.T. O’Sullivan? Alex Smith? Bueller? Bueller?

AFC East

New England Patriots (13-3)
Pardon the rest of the league’s fans for not taking pity on the Patriots. New Englanders are hurting after their Pats’ bid for a perfect season fell one game short with a shocking Super Bowl loss. It will be hard for them to shake that loss, but they’ll have plenty to cheer for again this year with Brady, Moss, Welker and company running the same high-powered offense that shattered records last year.

*New York Jets (11-5)
After a playoff run in 2006, the Jets laid an egg last year that left their fans clamoring for the days of Broadway Joe Namath. Instead, the Jets landed an even more famous QB, the legendary Brett Favre. Expectation were immediately raised for Jets fans, who now expect a team capable of competing with the mighty Patriots in the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills (6-10)
They’re still waiting for that first Super Bowl title. Don’t even mention the words “wide right.” The Buffalo Bills dominated the 90s, but they have only four AFC Championship trophies to show for it. Zero Lombardi trophies. This young Bills team showed some improvement last year, but fans will have to stay patient with quarterback Trent Edwards.

Miami Dolphins (3-13)
Fans are wondering how much the Big Tuna can help the woeful Dolphins. Number one pick Jake Long should help solidify the line, but the Phins fans should expect another losing season as Bill Parcells tries to rebuild this team as he’s done in previous stops with the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Recently ranked as the best fans in the NFL by a panel of experts at ESPN, Steelers fans are ready for a big year from Big Ben. He put up staggering passing numbers for the black and gold last year, especially for a team traditionally known for its defense and running game. With the Steelers’ exciting offense leading the way, Steelers fans should have a lot to cheer in 2008.

Cleveland Browns (8-8)
The Browns’ surprise 10-win season a year ago was a delight to Browns fans. Now, of course, they’re expecting it—plus a playoff berth. Anything short of that will be disappointing to Cleveland, but it won’t be easy to replicate the success of a year ago. Teams will be ready for the Browns and questions surround quarterback Derek Anderson’s ability to repeat his career year of 2007.

Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
If Chad Johnson really did change his name to Chad Ocho Cinco, this may be another wild year for the Bengals. Fans in Cincinnati have come to expect disappointment year after year with this team that seemed to be on the cusp of greatness just a few years ago. Injuries, arrests and losses continue to pile up, and so do the non-winning seasons for Cincinnati.

Baltimore Ravens (2-14)
Fans in Baltimore are used to a team led by a strong defense that features Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. This year, that defense may have to score the points, too. Rookie signal-caller Joe Flacco will start the season opener. The other options include injured veteran Kyle Boller and injured second-year man Troy Smith. QB trouble spells trouble for the Ravens this season.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts (13-3)
Now a full year removed from their Super Bowl title, the Colts and their fans are in an interesting spot. Peyton Manning enters the season banged up, and he’s not getting any younger. The same can be said for defensive standouts Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders. If the Colts can stave off the injury bug, though, their fans will be treated to another deep playoff run.

*Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)
The Jags fans are happy that Jack Del Rio trusted his gut with David Garrard over Byron Leftwich last season. The move paid dividends as Garrard helped Jacksonville to the divisional round of the playoffs while Leftwich flailed out as a Falcons quarterback and has since signed on in a backup role with the Steelers. The Jacksonville faithful is hopeful Del Rio, Garrard and company can take this team even deeper in the playoffs this season.

Tennessee Titans (9-7)
The Titans fans know their team rides on the throwing arm and legs of quarterback Vince Young. After a promising rookie campaign, Young’s progress slowed last season. Still, the team made a wild card berth in the playoffs. The first round exit didn’t erase the memory of Kevin Dyson falling one yard short in the Titans’ lone Super Bowl appearance, but an improved Young might be just the cure Titans fans need.

Houston Texans (8-8)
It’s not easy being the new guy on the block, especially when you’re in a division that sent 75 percent of its teams to the postseason last year. The Texans’ fans saw promise from Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson last year, but injuries played a major role in their downfall. A healthy Texans team could very well compete with the big boys in the division.

AFC West

San Diego Chargers (12-4)
They played in the AFC Championship game last year, but a banged up Philip Rivers combined with an early-game injury to LaDainian Tomlinson kept the Chargers from reaching the Super Bowl. That’s the mindset of their fans anyway. They’re confident a healthy Chargers team is as good as any in the league. Problem is their defensive terror Shawne Merriman is already injured (and risking more injury) but daring to play out the year anyway. If he does further damage, Chargers fans will be left to wonder what if?

Denver Broncos (7-9)
Is this the year Jay Cutler has a breakout season? The reduction of Brandon Marshall’s suspension from three games to one certainly helps Cutler. Fans can only hope this is the year that Cutler emerges from Elway’s shadow and leads the Broncos back to the playoffs. Otherwise, they may start searching for the next Denver QB.

Oakland Raiders (6-10)
The Raiders made a monetary commitment to excellence in the offseason, bringing in several high price free agents plus top draft choice Darren McFadden. Raiders fans may not agree with all the moves, but they were at least satisfied to see the front office working to restore this team to prominence after several years among the league’s worst. Improvement is expected this year. If the Raiders can’t win at least six or seven games, it will be very scary in the Black Hole—and not for the right reasons.

Kansas City Chiefs (3-13)
The Brodie Croyle era has raised more questions than answers for Kansas City fans (not including “How do you spell Brodie Croyle?”) If Larry Johnson can stay healthy, he’ll help lessen the burden on Croyle, but few are expecting the Chiefs to be a top team in the league this year.

Playoff predictions

NFC Wild Card Round
New York Giants over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dallas Cowboys over St. Louis Rams

AFC Wild Card Round
Pittsburgh Steelers over Jacksonville Jaguars
New York Jets over San Diego Chargers

NFC Divisional Round
Dallas Cowboys over Minnesota Vikings
New Orleans Saints over New York Giants

AFC Divisional Round
Indianapolis Colts over Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots over New York Jets

NFC Championship
Dallas Cowboys over New Orleans Saints

AFC Championship
New England Patriots over Indianapolis Colts

Super Bowl XLIII
New England Patriots over Dallas Cowboys

There you have it. The Patriots avenge last season’s loss with a Super Bowl win over the Dallas Cowboys. Brady vs. Romo, Moss vs. T.O. This would be a dream matchup for the NFL. As for the fans of the league, well, the Pats and Cowboys are two of the most hated teams in the NFL. And a lot of that has to do with their success, which should continue this year. So let the hating begin. It’s time for NFL 2008.

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