Change is only constant

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

Some of the post Super Bowl hype flying around the Pittsburgh Steelers a year ago was as thick as the pre-game stuff.

Which is saying a lot.

Lost in the platitudes heaped on the champs, however, was the fact that a team which a month earlier looked very ordinary finished off with an extraordinary run of good fortune.

The brilliant rally showed among other things that the recent multi-year success of the New England Patriots aside, each NFL season has the potential to yield dramatic change.

In 2005, for example, seven teams made the playoffs after sitting outside the post- season a year earlier. For the past 10 seasons, in fact, at least five teams have made such a recovery.

The Steelers went through their metamorphosis in mid- season. Stuck at 7-5, they were one loss away from falling out of playoff contention before turning things around.

The impressive drive to make the playoffs sent them to Cincinnati where on the first series of the game, lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's knee and that was that.

Then they went in to Indianapolis and knocked off everybody's Super Bowl favourite, the Colts. Despite dominating at times, the upset almost didn't happen as the Steelers needed a botched Mike Vanderjagt field-goal attempt to preserve things.

The Steelers were full measure for their AFC Championship victory over the Denver Broncos, earning their trip to the Super Bowl. But in Detroit, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was mediocre or worse and the game turned on a series of generous officiating calls that ultimately doomed the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.

The Steelers have their own worries heading into this season with Big Ben's medical struggles, the retirement of Jerome Bettis and the off-season loss of Antwaan Randle El.

So, in the spirit of recent team turnarounds, who are the most likely to travel down that road this season?

Will it be the Miami Dolphins, where coach Nick Saban helped them win their final six games a year ago? It won't hurt that in Daunte Culpepper the Fish finally have a legitimate starting quarterback.

Or will the comeback kids come from from the desert of Arizona? Starting with their spiffy new stadium, the Cardinals have all kinds of new toys. Running back Edgerrin James won't make up for a lack of defence, but you know he'll be fun to watch.

Then again, perhaps it will be the Philadelphia Eagles, finally distanced from the B.S. of T.O., which will be ready to return to power in the NFC.

Here's a selection of the storylines, some of them hype, some of them legit, that await:

QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL

No less than 11 teams head into opening weekend with a new starting quarterback. Some moves were made out of desperation, others merely to bring in a fresh face. Given the crucial nature of the position, fans, GMs and coaches get impatient in a hurry.

"It has become a nothing- lasts-forever league now at quarterback," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "They talk about the winds of change ... this has been more like a twister."

Among the most interesting of those will be Culpepper in Miami and Steve McNair in Baltimore. The Ravens have long felt they are on the brink of contention and may finally get the offensive leader coach Brian Billick craves.

Having traded Drew Brees to New Orleans, the San Diego Chargers will attempt to remain competitive with Philip Rivers.

ROOKIE WATCH

It will take more than Reggie Bush to solve the New Orleans Saints' woes, but by the virtue of his position and his team, the former USC star may have the most immediate impact.

More likely, it will be the rookie quarterbacks that may have the biggest say when career evaluations are made.

Despite being a lengthy training camp holdout, Matt Leinart has been impressive for the Cardinals and may not have to be a long-term understudy for Kurt Warner.

Same deal in Tennessee where the Titans may find them desperate enough to hand the ball to Vince Young after a couple weeks of bumbling Billy Volek.

The rookie that may have the greatest impact toward a championship, however, will be running the ball in New England. Late first-rounder Laurence Maroney had a huge pre-season and will make a dynamic one-two punch with veteran Corey Dillon.

BILL ME LATER

God love Buffalo Bills fans, who have virtually sold out the team's first four home dates at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The question would be: For what?

Yes, J.P. Losman won the starting quarterback job, though defeating Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall won't exactly make him an MVP candidate.

Rather, the offence will depend more on whether Willis McGahee can establish himself as a legitimate feature back. If he can do that, maybe the offence will open itself up for Losman and the team can approach .500.

The Bills, who most recently made the playoffs in 1999, must withstand a tough early start with road games in New England and Miami before their home opener against the Jets.

The off-season shakeup brought in a new coach (Dick Jauron) and a new GM (81-year-old Marv Levy). But if the team is to even hint at playoff contention, it will be on the heels of the defence and special teams. Not exactly the recipe to fill the seats in most NFL cities.

CIRCLE THAT DATE

Masters of marketing that they are, the NFL has scheduled at least one prime-time classic for the season opener.

By the time NBC celebrates its position as the new home of Sunday night football, fans will be sick of hearing the term "Manning Bowl." It will be intriguing, however, to see Peyton's Colts against Eli's Giants.

The surefire game to be circled is the Oct. 8 doozy when Dallas travels to Philadelphia. Calling Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens' return to the city of Brotherly Love a circus will be an understatement. Not only that, don't be surprised if these two battle for first in the tough NFC East.

ROUGH ROAD

In this his third season and second as the Giants starter, by rights this should be Eli Manning's breakthrough season.

Instead, the improving Jints must take it on the chin early. After the showdown with Big Bro, Eli faces division rival Philly and Seattle --both on the road -- to finish the toughest opening run in the league. If Manning can somehow get a win or two out of that mess, a season full of opportunity awaits.

Meanwhile, expect another rough ride in Green Bay, where quarterback Brett Favre may soon be wishing he retired two summers ago. An awful 2005 season was followed by an awful pre-season and with no offensive line to at least help keep him upright, life is bleak for the Cheeseheads.

"I have no idea what to expect this year, I really don't," Favre said. "I'd love to think we're going to the Super Bowl but we have to worry about winning a game first."

WHO WILL MAKE BILL BLOW?

Dallas coach Bill Parcells doesn't need to be egged on before blowing a gasket, but this season he has incendiary devices all around his dressing room. The leading candidates:

1. Terrell Owens. T.O. didn't waste any time becoming a headache, milking a hamstring injury for all it was worth in the pre-season. Big Bill was patient for a while, but eventually reached the exasperation point.

2. Mike Vanderjagt. The Oakville kicker picked up where he left off in Indy with his butchered attempt against the Steelers went wider than wide right. Missing two in overtime in the Cowboys final pre-season game had Parcells shaking his head, especially after he convinced owner Jerry Jones to open his wallet to get a kicker he could trust.

3. Drew Bledsoe. There are already whispers that the Cowboys believe backup Tony Romo and not the former Bill and Patriot is the man to eventually lead this team.

ODDS ARE

Despite never having made it to a Super Bowl under Peyton Manning, the Colts are the 7-2 favourites to win the big game in Miami.

After that, it's a jumble. Seattle, New England and Carolina share second billing at 6-1, followed by the Cowboys at 7-1.

The defending champion Steelers are 12-1 but if you are looking for value, why not buy a little Cincinnati Bengals at 20-1, Philadelphia (20-1) or Baltimore (30-1).

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION(S)

Anyone can call for Indy to defeat Seattle but where is the fun (and betting value) in that?

Let's try two others -- New England over Carolina for those who follow favourites and as a longer shot, Philadelphia over Denver.


Videos

Photos