It's time for the NFL to start playing. Training camp has been brutal -- all that reading, the boning up on which team has what and whom. The anticipation of what is destined to be a wonderful season of noodle-knocking is a killer, too.
Problematic for me as well is trying to figure out if there's any way my beloved Green Bay Packers won't get slaughtered on defence. Answer: no. The Pack's success is again on Brett Favre's broad shoulders.
While it was tragic when Thomas Herrion, a 23-year-old backup defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, collapsed and died following a preseason game Aug. 20 and, of course, when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the NFL is clearly No. 1 among North American sports leagues. How do we know? Well, the NFL has a new multibillion-dollar television contract in hand and it doesn't have the problems making trouble for other leagues: labour strife, steroids and declining TV ratings.
Questions abound -- but they involve on-the-field stuff.
Can the New England Patriots become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls? Of course, they can. Can Terrell Owens find happiness -- if not peace -- in Philly? Stayed tuned. Have the Indianapolis Colts improved enough on defence to challenge the Patriots' dominance in the AFC? Don't think so. Their linebacking and secondary are questionable.
Even though New England must soldier on without defensive co-ordinator Charlie Weiss, 1-0 as the new head coach at Notre Dame; offensive co-ordinator Romeo Crennel, the new head man in Cleveland (good luck there, buddy); and star linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is taking this season off after suffering a minor stroke during the offseason, lots of NFL insiders think the Pats are actually deeper and better than ever.
Head coach and brainy philosopher Bill Belichick -- whose approach is that each game is of great importance and each player, no matter how good, is just part of something bigger -- will be more involved than ever with the defence, his specialty. And since Crennel hasn't been replaced, expect maturing quarterback Tom Brady -- who turned 28 on Aug. 3, to call his own plays.
Tossing some pigskin prognostications around, I see:
- New England (East), Indianapolis (South), the Pittsburgh Steelers (North) and San Diego Chargers (West) winning division titles in the AFC. They'll be joined in the postseason by wild cards Denver Broncos and New York Jets. The conference crown will again come down to the Patriots and Colts and the Pats will grind out a win.
- Philadelphia (East), Carolina Panthers (South), Minnesota Vikings (North) and Seattle Seahawks (West) taking division titles in the NFC. The Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Rams -- zounds, no Packers, you say -- catch the wild-card spots. Expect the Eagles and Panthers to fight it out for the conference title, a matchup in which the Eagles will soar.
- The Eagles not stopping with the NFC championship, but going on to win the Super Bowl, too. While things won't always be smooth in Philly, the city of brotherly love, this season -- T.O. lives there after all -- this just feels like the Eagles' year.
While the Patriots are entirely capable of making it three Vince Lombardi trophies in succession (and four in the last five years), there's pressure on them and people's expectations might be too much.
Right or wrong, that's my take on things.
Things kick off tonight with Oakland (and Randy Moss) at New England, and I'll again spend the season trying to send you the winners in advance.
Last season, your correspondent's guessing record was 167-89 (173-92 including playoffs) straight up and 111-110 (118-113 including playoffs) against the spread.