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09-09-2004, 12:20 PM
NFL preview in easy pieces of fives

Jim Reineking / FOXSports.com

How is this NFL season preview different from all the rest? Well, for one, everything's broken down into handy five-part doses. The other differences you'll have to determine for yourself.

Five games not to miss
1. Sept. 9: Colts at Patriots
No powderpuff openers like last year (Jets vs. Redskins? Please). This season kicks off with a bang in what just might be the biggest game on the 2004 NFL calendar. The offensive power trio of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison faces off against Bill Belichick's one-for-all-and-all-for-one Patriots in what most everybody will build up as an AFC title game preview.

2. Sept. 27: Cowboys at Redskins
It's old school NFC East as Joe Gibbs faces Bill Parcells for the first time since 1990. Does that seem like a long time ago? It was. It was the year of Parcells' last Super Bowl triumph and the year before Gibbs' final title.

3. Oct. 31: Colts at Chiefs
When the Chiefs hosted the Colts in an epic 38-31 thriller in the divisional playoffs, the punters might as well have stayed home. For the first time ever, a playoff game was completed without a single punt. There were also 800-plus yards of total offense ... great day for fantasy players if they counted stats from playoff games. The two teams' defenses should be much improved (how could they not be?), but the real talent on both teams still resides on offense. Expect another light-up-the-scoreboard affair.

4. Nov. 14: Seahawks at Rams
Are the Seahawks an emerging powerhouse in the NFC West? Sure seems that way, and by the looks of the ever-growing bandwagon, fans are high on the 'Hawks. Don't get too excited yet, the Rams are the class of the division until proven otherwise. This late-season tilt in the Edward Jones Dome may separate contender from pretender.

5. Dec. 5: Packers at Eagles
Think Packers coach Mike Sherman hasn't thought about the fourth-and-26 debacle in last year's NFC divisional playoff game at all this off-season? Maybe a teensy, weensy little bit. The team did fire defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and replaced him with Bob Slowik. Then, the Packers went out and drafted defensive backs in the first and third rounds of April's draft. In addition, they nabbed Mark Roman in free agency to fill a weak link in the secondary.

Five teams guaranteed to make the playoffs
1. Patriots
Two Super Bowl triumphs in three years and the Patriots can still find a way to improve their team. It's been a while since the NFL has had a repeat champion (Broncos 1997-98), and while it won't be easy, expect the Patriots to put forth a valiant effort in their quest for NFL immortality.

2. Colts
It's about time the Colts started living up to the championship expectations that come with having Manning, James and Harrison on the same offense. Despite playing in arguably the NFL's toughest division, the Colts will figure in the Super Bowl XXXIX mix.

3. Eagles
No team was more active this off-season, and no team figures it already has a place in the conference championship (how could you think otherwise? They've been there — and lost — the past three years).

4. Seahawks
Coach Mike Holmgren has the Seahawks where he once led the Packers ... among the NFL's elite. A juggernaut offense and improved defense could lead Seattle to its first Super Bowl.

5. Broncos
Trade away a franchise running back? No problem, just plug in another back into a system designed to make stars of just about any runner. Now, Mike Shanahan has the shut-down cornerback (Champ Bailey) he so sorely needed, and still has a stable of runners (Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst, rookie Tatum Bell) to carry the ball.

Five sleeper teams (that were non-playoff teams in 2003)
1. Jaguars
With playoff perennials Indy and Tennessee, as well as improving Texans and Jaguars squads, the AFC South battle will be fun to watch. That level of play could also keep the Jaguars from becoming a playoff team this season, but they're well on their way.

2. Bengals
Coach Marvin Lewis nearly led this once-futile franchise to a surprising playoff berth in his first year at the helm last season. This year, sporting new uniforms and a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, the Bengals figure to be legitimate contenders.

3. Redskins
Gibbs is back, and that's enough right there to figure Washington will compete. The wild ideas of Steve Spurrier are gone and the Redskins welcome a coach whose theories have proven to work in the pros.

4. Lions
No team has a better tandem of young, freakishly talented wide receivers (think a team with TWO Randy Moss-type players. That's the potential of Charles Rogers and Roy Williams). If only Joey Harrington could get them the ball, and the defense could get the ball back to the offense once in a while.

5. Vikings
This team was a last-second miracle play away from winning the NFC North and keeping its arch-nemesis Green Bay home for the holidays. Late-season collapses are what the Vikings are wont to do. The NFC North is there for the taking if the Vikings can show some sort of consistency for an entire season.

Five teams primed for a fall
1. Rams
St. Louis is coming off an off-season that saw them get rid of a quarterback who led the team to two Super Bowls, lose a defensive coordinator and suffer through the on-going, off-the-field troubles for defensive end Leonard Little. This team just won't be able to get back the level it established in its Super Bowl season of 1999.

2. Titans
The heart and soul of this team was released and is now a Cowboy. The loss of Eddie George will be bigger than just his production on the field.

3. Cowboys
Dallas snuck into the playoffs last season, and now they must rely on ancient quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He won't last the full season, which will force the Cowboys to go with Drew Henson, who hasn't quarterbacked a team since 2000.

4. Packers
A spectacular late-season run (the Packers won seven of their last nine games), coupled with a colossal collapse by the Vikings put this team in the playoffs last season. No team has sustained the sort of success that the Packers have in the last decade (Green Bay hasn't had a losing season since 1991), and it's hard to imagine a team with Brett Favre and one of the NFL's most potent offenses not making the playoffs. However, a suspect (at best) defense and improving competition in the division could make another division title very difficult.

5. Panthers
Anybody out there really think Carolina can repeat what it did last season? Sure, Jake Delhomme's rise to stardom was fun and all, but his team won't sneak up anybody this time around.

Five teams that'll be just awful
1. 49ers
With the departure of quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens, the offense is a shell of its former self. The team's best defensive player, linebacker Julian Peterson, was disgruntled with his paycheck and held out. All this signals what could be a long season in San Francisco.

2. Chargers
The Carson, err San Diego, Chargers haven't made the playoffs in eight straight seasons. Can they make it lucky No. 9? You betcha. A holdout by their No. 1 pick isn't a very good omen for future seasons either.

3. Giants
While the rest of the NFC East is improving, the Giants took a huge step backward in 2003. This team is clearly rebuilding. Rams reject Kurt Warner will keep the quarterback spot warm for first overall pick Eli Manning, and then will come the inevitable growing pains.

4. Dolphins
Worst ... off-season ... ever! Ricky Williams retires to do whatever he wants to do that doesn't involve playing football. Newly acquired receiver David Boston is lost for the season with a knee injury. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye is dealt to the Bears for wide receiver Marty Booker, but not the running back Miami so sorely needs. If it weren't for that stingy defense, the Dolphins would be vying for that No. 1 overall draft pick.

5. Browns
You'd think after a disappointing 5-11 campaign coach Butch Davis would be on the hot seat. Instead, he was given a contract extension. His team doesn't figure to be any better this year, which could make Davis' job security much dicier next off-season.

Five first-round draft picks who will be busts
1. Philip Rivers
Babe Laufenberg, Mark Malone, Mark Vlasic, David Archer, Jim McMahon, Billy Joe Tolliver, John Friesz, Bob Gagliano, Stan Humphries, Gale Gilbert, Sean Salisbury, Jim Everett, Todd Philcox, Ryan Leaf, Craig Whelihan, Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, Moses Moreno, Doug Flutie and Drew Brees followed Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and preceded Rivers in San Diego. Not only does Rivers have the Chargers' brutal QB legacy to deal with, but his unorthodox side-arm delivery and ridiculous training camp holdout don't bode well.

2. J.P. Losman
Quick, name a quarterback from Tulane who has gone on to NFL glory. Sure, Shaun King had his moments. Going back further, Bubby Brister was a serviceable passer. Maybe Losman will be different.

3. Ahmad Carroll
Carroll's been given a golden opportunity to start thanks to camp no-show Mike McKenzie, but the Packers seem reluctant to pencil him in as a starter going instead with the very pedestrian Michael Hawthorne.

4. DeAngelo Hall
The cornerback/return specialist has suffered a hip fracture that will likely ruin his rookie year.

5. Jason Babin
The Texans traded up to select this Western Michigan defensive end. Babin could be a real diamond in the rough, but we think otherwise of the undersized end from an undersized program in an unheralded conference.

Five players who will thrive in new environments
1. Terrell Owens
In the end, Owens got what he wanted when he wound up in Philly. Now, he has to produce in an offense in desperate need of a good receiver. He will, and thus lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

2. Marcus Robinson
All Daunte Culpepper's going to have to do is lob up the ball and let the much-taller-than-your-cornerback receiving corps of Moss and Robinson go get it. This combination is going to make life miserable for opposing defensive coordinators.

3. Marcellus Wiley
The Cowboys sported the NFL's top-rated defense last season, and now they add Wiley (career-high 13 sacks in 2001) to a line that already includes La'Roi Glover and Greg Ellis.

4. Corey Dillon
A change-of-venue request should give the Patriots the running game they've so sorely needed. Sure, it's a bit of a gamble, but if Dillon keeps it cool and gets on board with Belichick's team-first approach, New England could be celebrating another Super Bowl victory.

5. Deon Grant
The playmaking safety helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl, and now will be an instrumental part of the turnaround in Jacksonville.

Five emerging stars
1. Terence Newman
Teammate Roy Williams is already among the NFL's finest at his position, and soon Newman will be joining him at the Pro Bowl.

2. Javon Walker
Walker began to show a real knack for making spectacular plays last season, which can only mean he'll be Brett Favre's go-to man in 2004.

3. Ken Hamlin
Nicknamed "The Hammer" for good reason, Hamlin showed Pro Bowl potential last season. In 2004, Hamlin will be teamed with rookie Michael Boulware and will form a hard-hitting duo no receiver is going to want to deal with.

4. Domanick Davis
Last year's NFL Rookie of the Year was an unexpected surprise for the Texans. Now, he'll be the team's workhorse runner as Houston — in its third season of existence — shoots for respectability.

5. Kevin Williams
The Vikings' defensive lineman finished his rookie season strong (10.5 sacks total) and seems poised for a monster year on a defense that should be greatly improved.

Five players you've likely never heard of who may have an impact this season
1. Travis LaBoy
The loss of Jevon Kearse left a humongous hole at defensive end for the Titans Who'll fill it? Perhaps a rookie second-round pick from Hawaii.

2. Ricardo Colclough
The rookie from Tusculum could figure into the Steelers' regular secondary unit before the season's out.

3. Roderick Green
The Ravens sure seem to be able to find great linebackers. Baltimore thinks it has the real deal in Green, a fifth-round pick out of Central Missouri State.

4. Lawrence Tynes
This former Canadian Football League kicker may have ended the seemingly never-ending career of Morten Andersen.

5. Joey Thomas
The Packers' third-round pick out of Montana State could give the team the big, physical corner it so sorely needs in a division filled with big, physical, talented wide receivers.

Jim Reineking is an editor for FOXSports.com.