NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Since the Steelers and their “Bus” went riding off into the Motown sunset last February, a lot of change has happened in the NFL.
T.O. is now in Dallas, “Air” McNair is eating crab cakes in Baltimore, Daunte Culpepper has gone from the Metrodome to Dolphins Stadium, and Keyshawn Johnson will catch the damn ball in Carolina.
With NFL training camps set to open later this week, BASN will spend the next two days getting you prepared for football with our burning questions. We’ll take a look at both conferences and examine the things you wanna know about your favorite team as two-a-days get set to start.
Today, we’ll look at the AFC.
1. In light of Ben Roethlisberger’s Evel Knievel impersonation, just what are the chances of the Steelers repeating as Super Bowl champs?
No matter who starts the season under center for the Black and Gold, look for Bill Cowher’s crew to get back to their natural offensive roots — running the ball. With RB Jerome Bettis’ retirement and WR Antwaan Randle El’s defection to D.C., it will be important for Willie Parker (1,202 yards, 4 TDs) and the oft-injured Duce Staley (five games, 148 yards, TD) to take the pressure off Big Ben and the offense.
2. After another playoff burnout, has the window of opportunity shut down for Peyton Manning and the Colts?
No matter how the Horseshoes try to spin it, Edgerrin James’ versatility (1,506 rushing yards, 62 receptions) will missed more than they think. The playoff loss to Pittsburgh truly exposed just how one-dimensional they are offensively. While the defense has made great strides, the offense may have peaked last season. First round pick Joseph Addai will help, but he won’t be able to fill James’ shoes. The Colts’ window could open shut this season.
3. With all the player defections (i.e., Vinatieri, McGinest, Givens), are Bill Belichick’s Patriots still title contenders or just pretenders?
Considering the previously mentioned transactions and the emerging presence of the Miami Dolphins, New England may find their hold on the AFC East a bit tenuous. While they absorbed the loss of two major assistants last season, losing Eric Mangini and others may be too much to overcome. The Pats won’t fall off the face of the earth, but they may have to settle for a wild card berth this season.
4. Now with Steve McNair entrenched as the starting QB, which side of the Ravens’ line has more pressure: the offense or the defense?
While there will be an adjustment period for “Air” and his line, receivers and etc., the Baltimore defense will find themselves under the microscope a little bit more this year. Despite injuries to Ray Lewis and others, the Ravens still finished near the top of the charts (6th overall, 2nd in the AFC) last year. While there shouldn’t be too many growing pains on offense, if the Ravens want to get back to a Super Bowl, the D will have to dominate again.
5. Will the return of Art Shell be enough to make the Raiders contenders?
Coach Shell has offensive weapons (Moss, Jordan) and a serviceable QB in Aaron Brooks that’s looking to rejuvenate his career with the Silver and Black. But his biggest task will be trying to improve an leaky and aging defense. In a division where the top teams have balance on both sides of the line, Shell will need some time to put Da Raidahs back into a contenting mode.
6. Staying in the AFC West, what sort of impact will Herman Edwards have on the Chiefs?
What will help Reverend Herm in K.C. is that his offense is pretty much set even if they start the season without Priest Holmes (neck). Any offense with Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez will be fun to watch, but like we mentioned with the Raiders, the defense must step for them to seriously contend. Edwards and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham must find a way for the 25th-ranked defense in the league to get better and soon.
7. What are the odds of Jake “The Snake” Plummer losing his starting QB job with the Broncos to rookie Jay Cutler?
After his AFC Championship Game meltdown, many media folks (yours truly included) felt we saw the real Jake Plummer vs. the Steelers despite his fine season. With the drafting of the Vanderbilt standout, Mike Shanahan is either trying to light a fire under Plummer or attempting to groom his new QB as soon as possible. Don’t be surprised if Denver is struggling at mid season, Shanahan hands the keys to the rookie
***image7***8. In another veteran vs. rookie battle, who will be the Titans’ Opening Day QB: Billy Volek or Vince Young?
Volek has shown he can put up decent numbers as a backup to McNair, but he’s also shown a propensity of not staying healthy as well. Management is saying all the right things publically, but me thinks that in the back of Jeff Fisher’s mind, he feels Young could be ready for prime time a little sooner than later. If Young shows himself during the preseason, the team may go from No. 9 to No. 10 faster than you think.
***image8***9. Will the off the field shenanigans of some of their players be a distraction to Marvin Lewis and the Bengals?
Changing the losing culture on the field in Cincinnati has come at a somewhat embarrassing off the field price for Coach Lewis. An off season that saw WR Chris Henry get arrested numerous times and has LB Odell Thurman already suspended for the first four games of this season is not what the doctor ordered. Lewis has said publically that these incidents will not have a factor for the players on the field. In the long run, it shouldn’t, but Coach Lewis needs to put a handle on this quick if we’re ready to take the Bengals seriously as contenders.
10. What teams will be sleepers in 2006?
Here are two teams to keep an eye on……
Browns: They still may be a year away from contending, especially with Charlie Frye under center. But you get the feeling that Romeo Crennel’s bunch will be a real spoiler during the year. If they stay healthy, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow could be to Cleveland what Boldin and Fitzgerald are to Arizona.
Jaguars: They played awful in their playoff whupping at Foxboro and that should be a motivating factor for 2006. A young, solid defense got them in the postseason and it will make them contenders again. The biggest question: Who’s going to be the QB? Byron Leftwich or David Garrard? Stay tuned.
Tommorrow: The NFC.