Chris Mortensen Archive
2002 NFL forecast: Division winners and losers

Aug. 28
So this much I have figured out, just like the rest of you. Boy, it's sure good to have Steve Spurrier in the NFL.

Spurrier, the former Florida Gators coach, will learn that he walked into the tougher conference as the Redskins' head coach: the NFC. The St. Louis Rams' success -- yes, the Rams' receivers often run wide open -- was an inspiration for Spurrier to give the NFL a go. But he will have to beat the Rams and a few other very worthy teams -- such as the Packers, Eagles and 49ers -- to make owner Daniel Snyder totally content at the end of the year. Maybe the Saints, Bucs and Seahawks shake things up, too.

Donovan McNabb
Donovan McNabb has led the Eagles to the playoffs the past two years.

As for those "surprise" teams -- from poverty to the Super Bowl -- the AFC may have to yield them. Of the non-playoff teams from last season, here's the group that could make a run: the Titans, Jets, Browns, Broncos, Bills, Colts, Chiefs and, yes, the Bengals. Well, maybe we ought to throw 'em all in there.

For now, here is the 2002 divisional forecast from this seat. Super Bowl picks? Ah, wait till next week.

NFC
NFC EAST
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Have the Eagles gotten better? Does the addition of Antonio Freeman on offense offset the subtraction of Jeremiah Trotter on defense?

Even with the intrigue of Steve Spurrier's entry into the division as Washington's new coach, the Eagles are the team to beat. The fact that Eagles coach Andy Reid believes his most improved player is none other than Donovan McNabb gets your attention. The running game should be in good hands with Duce Staley and Dorsey Levens.

2. Washington Redskins
As for Spurrier and the Redskins, why shouldn't they be a playoff team? Spurrier was disappointed that his offense "only" scored 26 of the 40 points that Washington put up against Tampa Bay in a "practice game." Coach, if you average 26 points per game in the NFL, you're going to win more than your share of games. The Redskins' defense also projects to be among the five best in the NFL, so as Spurrier draws up plays on the sidelines, he'll have some margin for error and time to figure it out.

3. New York Giants
The Giants, to me, are not to be totally dismissed. If they keep Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey healthy -- and those are significant ifs -- then the offense will be better than most people expect. Although the defense might be faster and more athletic, the loss of defensive coordinator John Fox is probably greater than cutting loose veteran LB Jessie Armstead.

4. Dallas Cowboys
Yes, the Cowboys will be better, but I don't see that giant leap forward. Their quarterback position is unproven with Quincy Carter. But the biggest problem might be their secondary. Their corners are suspect, which means they'll need plenty of help from the safeties. Veteran Darren Woodson and top draft pick Roy Williams, the safeties, are basically the same guys, except for age. They are strong run-support defenders with plenty to prove on pass defense. The defensive front seven, a pretty good group, will have to dominate beyond their means for the Cowboys to get to .500.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are one of the three best teams in the NFC. Their defense is much-improved, especially with the additions of Joe Johnson and Hardy Nickerson. Safety Darren Sharper has superstar written all over him. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will lead the NFL in sacks. In fact, the Packers could even steal home-field advantage away from the Rams if Terry Glenn lines up and plays all 16 games at wide receiver. Otherwise, the receiver unit might have talent but it's unproven. That said, word out of Green Bay is that the most improved player may by Pro Bowl RB Ahman Green. Oh, did we mention that Mike Sherman, an underrated and understated coach, still has Brett Favre?

2. Chicago Bears
There's a lot to like about the defending division champion Bears. They were not a fluke. It's just tough to get on a plane every weekend, as the Bears must do in playing their home games in Champaign, Ill. The quarterback situation is not bad. Jim Miller is the starter and looks better than a year ago. If he goes down, Chris Chandler is an upgrade over Shane Matthews. If Marcus Robinson can avoid the injury bug, then the Bears' offense has a lot of potential in the passing game when you add Marty Booker, an improved Dez White and last year's first-rounder, David Terrell. Throw in Anthony Thomas and a defense led by Brian Urlacher, and you say, why not the Bears?

3. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings obviously are dangerous because of Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss. But can Derrick Alexander take the heat off Moss? What about RB Michael Bennett? Is the defense really better? They'll have to prove it. New head coach Mike Tice has his work cut out for him.

4. Detroit Lions
Expect the Lions to make opponents nervous. Their defensive front is excellent, but too many question marks exist for coach Marty Mornhinweg to pull a miracle. While Mike McMahon is the starting QB, look for Joey Harrington anytime after midseason. Mornhinweg will find a way to score points.

NFC SOUTH
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There's no question that new Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden is going to juice up the offense. But this is not a team without holes. The offensive line is most suspect, and the best thing that may happen to it is Michael Pittman, a potential 1,200-yard rusher if he stays healthy. The defense has the All-Pro players in Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch -- and Simeon Rice was even better than expected in 2001 -- but is it a dominating unit, week in and week out? That's a question, not an answer.

2. New Orleans Saints
Coach Jim Haslett's Saints are very tempting to pick as the division champion. Deuce McAllister could make this offense much more potent, with his speed and pass-catching ability. Aaron Brooks has a whip for an arm; if he continues to mature and doesn't let his contract situation distract him, he should be dangerous. Joe Horn is now an established 1,000-yard receiver, and if top draft pick Donte' Stallworth becomes a viable threat with his blazing speed, this will not be a fun bunch to defend.

3. Atlanta Falcons
New Falcons owner Arthur Blank has generated excitement in Atlanta, but how far will it carry the team? Coach Dan Reeves did the smart thing for Michael Vick with the addition of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. But Vick's inexperience probably will cost them some games, and while new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips may create some chaos and turnovers, the Falcons' run defense is suspect.

4. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers will be better behind new coach John Fox, but they are still short on talent and playmakers. That's why DeShaun Foster's knee injury hurts. The rookie running back looks like a second-round steal, but he will miss the first month of the season. That especially hurts because the Panthers open the season at home against the Ravens and Lions -- winnable games for a franchise in dire need of some confidence.

NFC WEST
1. St. Louis Rams
A couple of things you should know about the Rams: They still have a lot of talent and they have a lot of character and class. The latter will carry them through the hangover that you would normally associate with a gut-wrenching Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots. Barring an injury to Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk, this is the team to beat. Oh, coordinator Lovie Smith's defense just might be better, although you wonder if they will miss the inspiration of MLB London Fletcher.

2. San Francisco 49ers
It's weird. The 49ers should be better. Terrell Owens is an unstoppable force. Jeff Garcia is the real deal. Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow provide a very good running duo. The defense is a year older and well-schemed by Jim Mora. For some reason, I see a little slippage ... perhaps because the Seahawks are a new threat in the division.

3. Seattle Seahawks
Yes, the Seahawks. Trent Dilfer should be back sooner than expected from his preseason knee injury. He looked so good, so strong in that one game that there's a lot of potential in this offense, even with some O-line issues. Shaun Alexander does not have to contend with Ricky Watters anymore. Defensively, it's fairly solid, especially if CB Shawn Springs can play 16 games. And, no, Mike Holmgren did not become a bad coach overnight, but the adjustment as GM and coach may have been more of a transition than he anticipated.

4. Arizona Cardinals
Pity Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis, except that he despises pity. McGinnis did an unbelievable job a year ago, but the realignment to a new division -- the best in football -- likely will cause the Cards to take a step back. They also have had a couple of devastating preseason injuries. Still, McGinnis and staff do such an understatedly good job, and the offense is capable of making opponents a tad uncomfortable. Jake Plummer has David Boston, but he'll need RB Thomas Jones to answer the call.

AFC
AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
Next to the NFC West, the best division in football and the toughest to forecast. You can make a case for every team to win it. Even the Bills. Yet the most underrated team just might be the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. No longer should anybody look at Bill Belichick as an unknown commodity as a head coach. Last year was arguably the best job of coaching in NFL history. Now the Patriots are deeper, especially on offense. They've added more talent on offense at tight end (Cam Cleeland, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham) and at receiver (Donald Hayes, Deion Branch). Tom Brady should prove he's no flash in the pan -- how he handles the expectations and scrutiny will be his test. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is a master at utilizing his players, and I'm assuming that Belichick got the attention of RB Antowain Smith by his courtship of Jamal Anderson.

2. New York Jets
The Jets are very, very interesting. Vinny Testaverde now has a full year under his belt in a new offense and appears to be entering the season in Pro Bowl form. Another season for Laveranues Coles and a full season for Santana Moss -- not to mention the ever-dependable Wayne Chrebet -- gives Vinny and the Jets a chance to be more explosive. And then there's one of the greatest players of this era -- RB Curtis Martin, along with an offensive line that pretty much does it all. And, yes, if the defense can hold up -- the biggest issue right now -- then the Jets have every reason to set the bar very, very high.

3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills should scare people. Drew Bledsoe -- not Ricky Williams -- was the steal of the year. If coach Gregg Williams can find a way for the Bills to manage a .500 mark in the first half, it may buy them time to mature into an outstanding team with playoff hopes. Bledsoe has a bunch of weapons on offense. The talent is in place, but the O-line and D-line both need some seasoning. I know this much: Bills brass Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak will ultimately get all the pieces in place, and sooner rather than later.

4. Miami Dolphins
As underrated as the Patriots and Jets are going into the season, the Dolphins might be overrated. Then again, this may be where the preseason is the great illusion. Much of the high expectations surrounding the Dolphins are based on two factors: the acquisition of RB Ricky Williams and the hiring of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Williams is certainly an upgrade, but is he a good back or a great back? Turner is without question one of the best coordinators in the game, but he didn't exactly replace chopped liver in Chan Gailey, the new Georgia Tech coach who was a miracle worker with Jay Fiedler as his quarterback and Lamar Smith as his running back. Turner and Williams must compensate for an O-line filled with question marks. The defense should be good, as usual. But is it great? And the biggest obstacles for coach Dave Wannstedt are the expectations and the media/fan reaction if it isn't as good as they expect.

AFC NORTH
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Owner Dan Rooney has put his money where his mouth is. The Steelers got a new stadium, meaning more revenues, and Rooney in turn has passed it on to the players, keeping a pretty talented team intact. Everyone seems to be looking for QB Kordell Stewart to take a step backwards. Why? It's another year together with the same offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey, and the Steelers have more weapons at receiver, including a maturing Plaxico Burress. Jerome Bettis might have something to prove. The secondary has a vulnerable spot or two. But coach Bill Cowher has the team to beat and it's on him to get this group to the Super Bowl.

2. Cleveland Browns
As logical as it is to ignore preseason games, coach Butch Davis' Browns looked like a potential playoff team in the Monday night game against the Packers. On defense, the Browns have talent and are going to be well-schemed by coordinator Foge Fazio. Offensively, coordinator Bruce Arians is one of the league's best, and it looks like the O-line is coming together. The high-percentage game was there for QB Tim Couch and his backup, Kelly Holcomb, who could start for a half-dozen or more teams in this league. The key is whether rookie RB William Green justifies his first-round status, with the underrated Jamel White pitching in. Watch out for this group.

3. Cincinnati Bengals
What to do with the Bengals. Excellent defense, especially if the coverage holds up. The offensive line is one of the 10 best in football, and Corey Dillon is one of the five best backs. The receivers should be improved so, yes, it comes down to QB Gus Frerotte. If he can pull it together, Bengals' fans have hope. If he is inconsistent, as many scouts suspect, then fans will wonder how the Bengals failed to make a play for Drew Bledsoe.

4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have lost a lot of players, but Brian Billick is the perfect coach for the situation. They have a huge question mark at quarterback with Chris Redman, but considering this position has been shaky forever, why overemphasize it. But they will hardly be a pushover. One coach in the division has studied them extensively and believes the defense will create as many problems as it did in the glory days, if not more. Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme fits the personnel -- the Ravens might even be faster on defense, have a better pass rush, and All-World LB Ray Lewis might have a budding star next to him in Edgerton Hartwell. So if Jamal Lewis is the same guy as he was in 2000, and Todd Heap can make people forget Shannon Sharpe, this Ravens team will make many teams uncomfortable in a season where very little is expected.

AFC SOUTH
1. Tennessee Titans
It's not only very possible that Eddie George has recovered from a frustrating 2001 season but also that the Titans are ready to challenge for another AFC title. Bet on this: The offense will be much-improved. George should return to 1,300-yard-plus form, and QB Steve McNair deserved a Pro Bowl berth last year. Nobody is tougher than McNair and he has more weapons around him. The defensive front seven should be very strong, especially if all the work Kevin Carter appears to have done pays off. The secondary was awful last year, but coach Jeff Fisher is convinced it is much improved and that free agent safety Lance Schulters (ex-49er) is a major addition.

2. Indianapolis Colts
Maybe they'll bounce back, but there has been very little in the preseason that gives an indication that they are championship-caliber. Perhaps once Edgerrin James takes the field, that notion will change. The defense should be faster. The special teams should be better. But they could fall short of the mark, unless new coach Tony Dungy can push things along faster than appears possible.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars
On facial appearance alone, QB Mark Brunell either looks older or worried. It's easy to understand why. The Jags have said goodbye to his best friend, Tony Boselli, they have cut loose dependable WR Keenan McCardell and they are stalled in talks with WR Jimmy Smith. So this all comes down to RB Fred Taylor. Healthy, watch out. But the Jags are very young. You wonder about their maturity. You also wonder whether coach Tom Coughlin -- a terrific competitor -- can truly stand what he's about to endure.

4. Houston Texans
There was almost too much hype in the offseason, obviously because the expansion draft did yield some pretty good veteran talent. But this was never going to be easy, and as injuries and questions have mounted this summer, coach Dom Capers is probably looking at a competitive expansion team that will fall short in many games. QB David Carr looks like a future star, though, and all that hype just might be fulfilled a few years down the line.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
This division has more question marks than it has in years, which might be the opening that coach Mike Shanahan needs to get back on top. Everyone wants to talk about Brian Griese, but the Broncos' defense could be faster and improved enough to take the heat off the offense. That being said, Griese should be fine if he can keep WRs Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey on the field. That will enable rookie WR Ashley Lelie -- who looks like the real deal -- to make some big plays downfield. The running game will be better than a year ago. Whether it's Clinton Portis or Mike Anderson or Olandis Gary, the Broncos' O-line will be a notch better, and Shanahan will find a way -- if they stay healthy.

2. Oakland Raiders
As much respect as Tim Brown deserves, his bad-mouthing of former coach Jon Gruden has been way out of line and off the mark. Even Al Davis has admitted that Gruden "rose to the occasion." We don't know whether new coach Bill Callahan can do it. One bad sign is that Callahan appeared to bend to the wishes of veteran players that desired a lighter training camp. Maybe it will prove to be the right thing in the long haul, but you wonder. This team also appears to have too many older players and too many younger players. But there is talent, and if Callahan does rise to the occasion, then don't dismiss the Raiders.

3. San Diego Chargers
Marty Schottenheimer might have done his best coaching job ever in Washington last year. His coaching staff is better in San Diego. It's still hard to envision the Chargers getting over .500, but Marty has a way of doing it. The key isn't Drew Brees or Doug Flutie. It's LaDainian Tomlinson, a very suspect offensive line and the defense. Of those three things, the O-line is the biggest question mark, but at least Hudson Houck is the unit's coach.

4. Kansas City Chiefs
Two months ago, I was ready to pick the Chiefs. So, again, I might be overreacting to the preseason, but there have been too many disturbing things -- such as the unsettled contracts of Tony Gonzalez and Ryan Sims, the season-ending injury to safety Jerome Woods, the broken foot of Marvin Minnis and the still-troubled knees of Willie Roaf. Nevertheless, if coach Dick Vermeil can pull this team together, the Chiefs can steal the division.

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