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Are you ready for some FOOTBALL???

In celebration of Major League Baseball’s avoidance yesterday of a work-stoppage that would have crippled the game, I will now offer my NFL predictions for the 2002 season, which kicks off one week from tomorrow. I love football, and it is in large part because of football that my favorite time of year is autumn and early winter. This is what I expect to happen this season. (BTW, I am no expert on the subject. I don’t participate in a Fantasy league; I don’t watch SportsCenter at all, since we don’t have cable; and I don’t subscribe to Sports Illustrated. Basically, I expect at least fifty percent of what I say here to end up being wrong. So, at the end of the season when the Arizona Cardinals are playing the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, don’t write to laugh at me.)

In question-and-answer format:

:: Will the New England Patriots repeat?

No.

Not only do I not expect that Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions, I don’t even expect them to repeat as division champions. Yes, the 2001 Patriots were a great story, the scrappy bunch of no-names led by a no-name quarterback to the Super Bowl championship after a 1-3 start, in the process beating a heavily-favored offensive juggernaut in the big game. But before we strike the mold for Bill Belichick’s bust at Canton, let’s consider the astonishing amount of luck that the Patriots enjoyed on the way there. They were able to capitalize on down-the-stretch swoons by three division rivals (the Dolphins, Jets, and Colts); they got an amazing break thanks to an obscure rule in holding on to defeat the division doormat (my beloved Bills); they got another amazing break thanks to an obscure rule in holding on to defeat a team which had outplayed them in a snowy playoff game in their own park (the Raiders); they went to the AFC Championship Game against a team whose premiere running back was not ready to play and whose quarterback has been a model of inconsistency throughout his career (the Steelers, Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart); and in the Super Bowl they were lucky enough that their opponent’s head coach decided, for reasons passing understanding, not to respond to their defensive-back heavy scheme with a power running game that his team was more than capable of executing (the Rams and Mike Martz). The Patriots went on the most amazing lucky streak in NFL history last season, but any person who has ever set foot in a casino will tell you that sooner or later lucky streaks end. The Patriots are a decent team — I expect them to make the playoffs again — but they won’t be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again.

:: Are the Rams still the “Greatest Show on Turf”?

Yes, I suppose they are — unless either Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk is injured and misses a significant amount of playing time, in which case the door will be wide open for at least three other teams to march through and seize their NFC title from them.

:: So, if the Rams falter, who will be the best in the NFC?

There is a logjam in the NFC this year. On paper, the Rams are still the best, but as Chris Berman says: “That’s why they play the games.” The Eagles, Packers, 49ers, and Bears could all usurp the Rams’ spot.

:: Can Bill Cowher win the big one?

Lord, I hope so.

:: Could this year’s Super Bowl teams both hail from the same state?

Yes. There could very well be an all-California or an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl this year. (In fact, I’m picking one of these two to happen. Keep reading.)

:: Is Steve Spurrier going to be the answer in Washington?

I don’t know; maybe he will, maybe he won’t. I don’t think he’s going to revolutionize things, and I don’t expect him to have the Redskins performing miracles this year. Keep in mind, Spurrier won’t really be able to use his recruiting skills to lure talent to his team, as he did at Florida; the NFL’s commitment to parity will make that quite hard, as will the mechanics of the draft. Plus, he won’t have five or six games against the Northeastern Florida Typewriter Repair College Butterflies each year to post scores of 93-3 and pad his record. I do think that Spurrier could turn things around in Washington, given three or four years to do it — that’s how long it took the last really big name from the college ranks, Jimmy Johnson, to turn his team around. This, however, assumes that Daniel Snyder is willing to give him that much time, which is something I would never bet on.

:: Will the Buffalo Bills be a better team this year?

Yes. This is the good news: it was a big offseason for the Bills. They landed Drew Bledsoe, finally acquiring a franchise quarterback which they have lacked since Jim Kelly retired. (Enough, Flutie fans! Doug Flutie is not a franchise quarterback, not now and not ever.) After years of ignoring the offensive line, they finally realized how bad things were up front and used their top draft-pick, the fourth overall, on Mike Williams. They also upgraded their receiving corps, their special teams, and their linebacking corps. The 2002 Bills could easily double their win total from 2001.

And that, sadly, is the bad news, because even if the Bills double their win total from 2001, they will still post double-digit losses. Their offensive line will be vastly improved, but still very young; their defensive line is also very young and very thin. Some observers think that the Bills may actually challenge for the playoffs, but I still think they are a year away. I’m expecting a 6-10 finish from the Bills this year.

:: So who will win the divisions and the wild-card berths this year?

My predictions are as follows:

AFC East: Miami

AFC North: Pittsburgh

AFC South: Tennessee

AFC West: Oakland

AFC wildcards: New England, Denver

NFC East: Philadelphia

NFC North: Green Bay

NFC South: Tampa Bay

NFC West: St. Louis

NFC wildcards: San Francisco, Chicago

:: Who will win the Super Bowl?

OK, here is my prediction, which is almost certainly wrong: the Pittsburgh Steelers will win Super Bowl XXXVII, defeating their fellow Pennsylvanians, the Philadelphia Eagles.

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