- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

1. CAN THE PATS WIN THREE IN A ROW?

New England has done what was supposed to be impossible: win three Super Bowls in four years during the salary cap-driven age of parity. This season the Patriots can join the 1965-67 Green Bay Packers as the only teams to win three straight titles. Having lost coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis to head coaching jobs and seven regulars to age, injury or free agency, the Patriots seem ripe for a fall, especially in the loaded AFC. But New England owns its fiercest rivals, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. If the Patriots gain homefield advantage again, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will really be the Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr of the 21st century.

2. WILL T.O. STAY PUT AND SHUT UP?

Terrell Owens and Philadelphia seemed a perfect match last year as he averaged a touchdown catch a week in giving the Eagles the offensive pizazz they were missing while losing three straight NFC Championship games. But Owens’ valiant performance in the Super Bowl loss just seven weeks after breaking his leg convinced the receiver that he was bigger than the team. He pouted through the offseason about being underpaid and ripped his former pal, quarterback Donovan McNabb. Owens was suspended for a week during training camp for his attitude. The Eagles should win the weak NFC East no matter what, but the T.O.-engendered disharmony could well sink them in postseason.

3. WILL MOSS ROLL WITH RAIDERS?

After a T.O.-less year, the Bay Area again is blessed/cursed with a supremely selfish/superb wideout. But Randy Moss is in Oakland, not Owens’ old home of San Francisco. The Raiders and coach Norv Turner are well-used to dysfunctional players, and quarterback Kerry Collins has the arm to take advantage of Moss’ downfield excellence. However, where no one has ever accused Owens of not giving his all, pot smoker Moss admits that he goes through the motions at times. He walked off the field before the last snap of Minnesota’s critical 2004 season finale. The Vikings miss Moss’ talent but are glad he’s gone.

4. IS THE SUPER BOWL FINALLY PEYTON’S PLACE?

No quarterback has had a better first seven years than Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning, who passed for a record 49 touchdowns in 2004 along with 4,000-plus yards for a record sixth straight season. But Manning and the Colts are just 3-5 in the playoffs, with the last three losses by a combined 68 points. Manning and his sterling WRs are in their primes, and RB Edgerrin James is aiming for a big contract. If coach Tony Dungy, who proved his defensive bona fides in Tampa Bay, finally produces a unit even half as good in Indy, then this could be the year that the NFL’s best QB gets to play on its biggest stage.

5. IS THIS FAVRE’S LAST FLING?

Green Bay’s Brett Favre is the only player with three MVP awards and one of just three active QBs to lead his team to two Super Bowls. Only Hall of Famer Dan Marino has been a more prolific passer. But Favre turns 36 in October, his wife is battling breast cancer and he’s just 9-9 in his last 18 games at home after being nearly unbeatable at Lambeau Field (81-13) during his first 11 seasons. And at some point, Favre’s durability will give way to an injury that ends his record starting streak. In Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay has its first legitimate heir apparent in years. Unless the defense matures enough for the Pack to be a true contender, Favre might finally say farewell.

6. IS RICKY’S NUMBER UP?

No team came closer to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 without qualifying than Miami (19-13). Last year the Dolphins nosedived to 4-12 mainly because of the absence of star RB Ricky Williams, who decided that pot and inner peace were more important than football. Money and perhaps some maturity brought Williams back. All was OK in August, but new coach Nick Saban is a no-nonsense type. And rookie Ronnie Brown, taken second overall, could firmly be the No. 1 back by the time Williams returns from a four-game drug suspension. Williams, 28, could be trade bait this fall for a team willing to gamble.

7. WAS BIG BEN A ONE-YEAR WONDER?

Eli Manning and Philip Rivers got all the attention before and during the 2004 draft, but fellow QB Ben Roethlisberger was clearly the Rookie of the Year, going 14-0 as a starter for Pittsburgh before losing the AFC title game to defending champ New England. But Big Ben’s numbers slipped noticeably in the second half of the season, leading some to wonder if he’ll follow such flashes in the pan as Jay Schroeder and Scott Mitchell. However, Roethlisberger plays for the NFL’s most stable organization and is blessed with a terrific defense and running game. All the kid has to do to win is not make mistakes.

8. IS THERE A ‘D’ IN MINNESOTA?

The Vikings are the only team to have scored at least 390 points in six of the past seven seasons. However, Minnesota also gave up bushels of points en route to a 4-4 playoff record and three years out of postseason. After changing five starters on defense last year only to slip from 23rd to 28th in the rankings, Minnesota imported five new defensive starters again in hopes of ending a 28-year Super Bowl drought. That’s not likely, but if the defense is less porous than usual, then the absence of departed WR Randy Moss from the still very skilled offense won’t be as noticeable.

9. IS VICK READY TO PASS?

Atlanta QB Michael Vick is probably the NFL’s best athlete. He averaged an NFL-best 7.5 yards a carry in 2004 while completing a career-best 56 percent of his passes and leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship game. But the undistinguished Billy Volek and Tim Rattay had higher passer ratings. In his third full year as a starter and second season in the West Coast offense, it’s time for Vick to show that he is a passer and not just an athlete who happens to play QB. If Vick, 25, can do that, the Falcons’ superb running game and improving defense could take them to the promised land.

10. IS IT OLD MEN’S LAST ROUNDUP?

Kansas City’s Dick Vermeil, Washington’s Joe Gibbs and Dallas’ Bill Parcells have combined for 44 NFL seasons, 427 victories and six Super Bowl triumphs. But the NFL’s three oldest coaches were a combined 19-29 in 2004. Parcells, 64, has one playoff victory in his last five seasons. Vermeil, 68, is just 59-57 since ending a 14-year retirement in 1997. Gibbs, 64, was 6-10 last season, the worst record of his 13-year Hall of Fame career. The Chiefs’ defense is still weak, the Redskins’ offense doesn’t seem to be fixed and the Cowboys have an immobile quarterback throwing to aging receivers. It’s possible that this season could be the last for all three sideline legends.

David Elfin

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