AFC will be Super again

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

From Super Bowl to Saturday Night Live and now NFL season opener, Peyton Manning doesn't miss a prime-time moment. And that's editing out the incessant shilling the all-world Indianapolis Colts quarterback does in his overflowing reel of TV commercials.

The monkey on his back has been replaced by the Vince Lombardi Trophy and as a result, Manning's profile has never been higher.

It starts with the 2007 NFL season opener tonight where the Colts will set about to defend their title with a stout test against the New Orleans Saints.

A year ago the unmatched passing accomplishments of Manning were tempered with one big "but" as an asterisk. But when Manning shone through a rainy night in Miami for a Super Bowl win over the Chicago Bears, his critics were disarmed.

The geeky performance on SNL and his ad overexposure aside, there's a lot to like about Manning. He's humble, respectful of the game and his place in it and mindful of the challenge that awaits, beginning tonight.

"We have done a good job in previous seasons of putting what happened behind us, and that has been the same focus this year," Manning said this week. "It doesn't guarantee you anything once the season starts, but the attitude has been good, the work has been good."

The Colts are third choice among most oddsmakers to put the Lombardi hardware back in Manning's gifted hands. But all involved acknowledge that the task of becoming just the ninth team to repeat as champions won't come easily.

"(Steelers coach) Chuck Knoll's attitude was that they put the rings away before training camp because they wanted to go win another one," said Dungy, who played for Knoll in 1978. "Those guys were never intimidated by trying to win another one." In honour of the number on Manning's back, here are 18 things to look for as we ready for some four-down football:

1. Super Bowl pick: With the top three choices residing in the AFC, it's a good bet the title will go to the stronger conference for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. Picking between the Patriots (4-1), Chargers (6-1) and the Colts (8-1) is the Super-sized challenge, though. We'll go with the Chargers, who have it all in running back LaDainian Tomlinson and a bunch of toys to go with, plus a defence that attacks the opposition.

2. Feeling Randy: It's called hedging your bets, but should the Chargers falter, the Patriots could be sitting on a massive season. Winners of three of four Bowls between the 2001 and 2004 seasons, the Patriots have provided quarterback Tom Brady with some nice weapons, including former Raiders bad-boy Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth.

3. Talking Tiki: Former New York Giant Tiki Barber wasted little time in retirement showing there is some bite behind that ever present smile. In the pre-season, the new NBC analyst ripped his former quarterback, Eli Manning and coach Tom Coughlin and good for him. Renegade or refreshing, the league and its fans await Tiki's next targets. Elsewhere in TV land, Joe Theismann gets the turf from the Monday Night Football booth, replaced by Ron Jaworski who does a better job in far fewer words. Canadian viewers will notice a change with Rogers Sportsnet (emphasis on Rogers) getting in on the action on Sunday afternoons.

4. Farewell Favre? He waffled during the off-season but Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre has promised to linger another year past his prime in pursuit of records. At stake is the chase of Dan Marino's 420 passing TDs, of which he is six shy. What's the point? Peyton Manning will blow both of them away before he's done.

5. Roger that: Second-year commissioner Roger Goodell probably didn't expect the task of replacing Paul Tagliabue would closely resemble that of chief of police. So far, the commish has ruled with an iron fist. But given recent events, expect Goodell to keep busy.

6. Paying the Bills: Buffalo was just 7-9 in the standings last season but a healthy 10-6 versus the spread, the second biggest gift to gamblers behind the Tennessee Titans at 11-5.

7. Joey Harrington: No accident he is No. 7 on our watch list considering the number of the notorious bad bird he replaces with the Atlanta Falcons. A bust in Detroit before being a mostly backup in Miami, Harrington's career was going to the dogs until Michael Vick's far more serious canine capers. Is there hope for Joey? Well his cousin, golfer Padraig Harrington, broke through this year with his first major victory in the British Open.

8. London Calling: The NFL makes its first regular-season trip across the pond on Oct. 28 when the Dolphins meet the Giants at the re-done Wembley Stadium. Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey and others behind the Toronto bid (including billionaire Ted Rogers) will be interested observers. It is expected that the NFL will announce the host for two international games in 2008 some time that week and Toronto is considered a frontrunner.

9. Jeff Garcia: Canadian fans have loved following the former three-down star, now in his ninth year in the NFL. For his latest football life, Garcia gets one last chance as a starter, this time with the Tampa Bay Bucs and coach Jon Gruden. Garcia is hoping to pick up on his stellar end to the 2006 season in which he passed for 1,309 yards with 10 touchdown and two interceptions in eight games.

10. Division of Power: That would be the AFC North where the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals all should challenge for the division lead. In the NFC, the East should have its moments with the Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles and Giants.

11. L.T.: He has had his Pro Bowls and MVP seasons, so the Chargers running back now takes the notorious burden Peyton Manning had to live with: The NFL's best offensive player not to win a Super Bowl. (An L.T. aside: When you watch those new Chunky Soup commercials this season featuring a bunch of NFL stars, remember they were filmed in Toronto.)

12. Welcome Back: Buffalo will hand the ball to rookie running back Marshawn Lynch this year while the Bills defence gets a chance to beat up on their two-recent ball luggers. Travis Henry, now with the Broncos and Willis McGahee, now a Raven, both visit Orchard Park this season.

13. Where's Vandy? Since experiencing the wrath of then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells midway through last season, Oakville native Mike Vanderjagt has been lying low. Surprisingly, no NFL team came calling in the off-season and he didn't attend a training camp. The former CFL and Colts star has been staying in shape, however and will be ready when the first kicker crisis or injury takes place.

14. More Canada: With two seasons under his belt, former Ontario Varsity Football League star O.J. Atogwe retains his starting safety position and the Windsor native is establishing himself as a force on the St. Louis Rams defence. Welland native Shaun Suisham so impressed the Redskins in his late-season performance last year that the team didn't even bring another placekicker into camp.

15. Under Pressure: He may be the most beleaguered player at any position in the league, but Donovan McNabb will once again be a target in Philly. McNabb has had season-ending injuries in three of his past five seasons and to keep him healthy, Eagles coach Andy Reid allowed him just eight possessions and 43 snaps in pre-season action. Honourable mention goes to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who regressed noticeably in his second season and needs to man up to avoid the one-hit wonder label.

16. Super Bust: They won't fall completely off the face of the earth < residing in the weak NFC North almost assures them a spot in the playoffs. But as long as the Chicago Bears have Rex Grossman as quarterback, Super Bowl dreams are just that.

17. Party like it's 1989: If you are willing to take a stand against the Seattle Seahawks, could the San Francisco 49ers not challenge for the NFC West title? In memory of the late Bill Walsh - the architect of those great Niners teams of the late '80s and early '90s - San Fran coach Mike Nolan has the team headed on the right path. Alex Smith is progressing at quarterback and if he stays healthy, Frank Gore is one of the more promising running backs in the league. Add a bolstered defence, which includes shut down DB Nate Clements - formerly of the Bills - and the 49ers are an interesting bunch.

18. An Invitation from T.O.: And finally, just in case he had fallen off your radar, Terrell Owens yesterday issued this open letter to fantasy draft gurus:

"This year our offence is set up to make big plays," Owens scribbled. "I will score touchdowns. I will have a great season. Put me on your team and you won't be disappointed."


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