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Thread: Jets,Bengals,Raiders could be among big NFL . . .

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    Jets, Bengals, Raiders could be among big NFL surprises

    Forget parity, what's fun about
    league is unexpected success

    Look for quarterback Chad Pennington and the New York Jets to shake up the NFL this season, writes columnist Michael Ventre.

    COMMENTARY
    By Michael Ventre
    NBCSports.com contributor
    Updated: 3:32 a.m. ET Sept. 9, 2004

    The word that comes to mind most often when discussing the NFL is “parity.” The word we most enjoy, however, is “surprise.” And in a startling development, the two have not been declared mutually exclusive.

    I think we all understand parity. It’s that concept, embraced by commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his followers, that every team in the NFL should finish around 8-8, or thereabouts. Everybody should be about the same. Any one club should be able to beat any other club on a given Sunday. With all of the league’s teams fighting like hungry jackals to gain a slight edge over each other, the theory goes, the resulting fury will translate into lofty television ratings and beaucoup profits.

    But while fans sign off on this formula, secretly they pine for surprises. They love teams who come out of nowhere and shatter the bounds of mediocrity. They revel in an unlikely playoff push by a Cinderella. They love to hear the so-called experts on their boob tubes fess up: “I never dreamed (fill in the blank) could have had this kind of season.”

    Live Vote
    What team will be the NFL's biggest surprise this season? * 2898 responses

    New York Jets
    33%

    Washington Redskins
    11%

    Cincinnati Bengals
    16%

    Oakland Raiders
    34%

    New Orleans Saints
    6%

    Not a scientifically valid survey. Click to learn more.

    Because NFL aficionados are so desirous of surprise teams who defy the odds and make the talking heads look sillier than usual, here is a list of five NFL clubs who have a shot at shaking up everyone’s carefully laid plans. Granted, certain events have to occur, a little luck would help, and other clubs would have to disappoint in order for these to advance. But what’s football without a little gambling?

    New York Jets
    A great deal of ballyhoo has taken place in the Meadowlands over a quarterback duel: high-priced rookie Eli Manning, or iffy Kurt Warner? While that debate simmers, the other stadium tenant quietly gears up for a season with its smart, gutty, accurate and now healthy signal-caller, Chad Pennington. The Jets struggled last year on both sides of the ball, but with Pennington back and Curtis Martin continuing as one of the league’s unsung heroes, the Jets will be able to score. Pennington has able targets in Santana Moss, Wayne Chrebet and Justin McCareins. On defense, they got rid of coordinator Ted Cottrell and livened things up by hiring Donnie Henderson, who served as Baltimore’s secondary coach, to replace him.

    The Jets will benefit from the schedule also. The Bills and Dolphins both figure to have down years, so that is potentially three or four victories right there. After their opener at home against Cincinnati, the Jets have: at San Diego, at Miami, then home against Buffalo and lowly San Francisco. With some luck, they could conceivably be 5-0 entering the Oct. 24 showdown with the Patriots in New England. Later, they play Cleveland, Arizona and Houston, all of which should be easy pickings. If the Jets don’t challenge New England for the AFC East crown – and granted, that’s a tall order – they have a great shot at a wild card.

    Washington Redskins
    Personnel is obviously huge when handicapping a season, but so much of football is attitude. And Joe Gibbs has completely changed the attitude in and around this franchise. He radiates success and has imbued his directionless players with his drive, discipline and determination. As opposed to Steve Spurrier’s “Fun N’ Gun,” which shot blanks in the NFL, Gibbs prefers a simpler, more straightforward style, with much of it dependent on the play of the offensive line. The one he has in Washington isn’t nearly as talented as his old Hogs, but he’ll certainly adjust and get the best out it.

    Gibbs also helped bring in running back Clinton Portis, who will be his John Riggins here. And Mark Brunell won’t dazzle you with his skills, but he’s savvy and experienced, and he’ll manage the offense efficiently. On defense, rookie safety Sean Taylor is already a star, and this unit – led by linebacker LaVar Arrington – will be formidable. Much of the choice of the ‘Skins as a surprise team hinges on the others in the division. The Eagles are supposed to be the class of the NFC East, but they have so much pressure on them from ungodly expectations that there’s a good chance they’ll stumble under it. The Giants are a couple of years away, and the Cowboys will get disappointing performances from aging Vinny Testaverde and Eddie George. The conditions are ripe for the ‘Skins to shock the league and vie for the NFC East title.

    Cincinnati Bengals
    So much has been made about Carson Palmer finally being ready to lead a team, but really, all he has to do is his job. The Bengals under Marvin Lewis are about a lot more than their No. 1 overall draft pick last year. They finished a surprising 8-8 in 2003 and are ready to take the next step in a relatively weak division. Yes, the Ravens are loaded with talent, but they are banking a lot on second-year QB Kyle Boller, who could turn out to be the next Tim Couch, and also running back Jamal Lewis, who is facing a drug trial. The real problem for the Bengals is their defense, and Lewis – former coordinator for the stingy Ravens – spent the offseason acquiring talent to upgrade the unit. When it comes to defense, the Ravens will still be the class of the division, and probably the entire AFC. But the Bengals will be improved enough to make a run at a playoff berth.

    The Bengals got rid of Corey Dillon, which is actually a plus, because the guy was a bad attitude with legs while in Cincinnati. Instead, they’ll give the ball to Rudi Johnson and first-round pick Chris Perry of Michigan. So their offense, which was already capable last year under Jon Kitna, will have balance, and if Palmer settles in and plays to his potential, it will also have explosiveness. The one major issue for the Bengals, though, is the schedule. They can clobber Cleveland twice and split with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But they have road games against Tennessee, Washington, New England and Philadelphia. It won’t be easy, and certain things have to fall just right, but the once-pathetic Bengals could be playing in the postseason this year.

    Oakland Raiders
    It’s easy to dump on Al Davis’s kids. They’re the league’s misfits, and any time they have a down year – like they did in 2003 when they went 4-12 – Raider-haters everywhere salivate. But there is a new energy around the silver and black this year, and it’s because of low-key Norv Turner. When it comes to being animated, he makes Tom Flores look like Vince Lombardi. Yet so much of life is timing. For whatever reasons, the Raiders were sick of Bill Callahan, and bringing in Turner has changed the atmosphere. If Raider fans want a fiery leader, they need look no further than quarterback Rich Gannon, who is determined to have a comeback season. He doesn’t have great targets, but Davis at least improved his protection by drafting Robert Gallery and Jake Grove and signing Pro Bowler Ron Stone. And if Gannon goes down or falters, the Raiders are in good shape with Kerry Collins as a backup.

    The defense was lousy last year, especially against the run. Davis signed behemoth Ted Washington as well as Warren Sapp over the summer, so the Raiders should be improved in that department. They also have corner Charles Woodson in the fold after a contentious training camp holdout. As with all potential surprises, you have to look at the schedule. San Diego stinks, so that’s two victories there. The Raiders could split with Denver and Kansas City. They also have potential wins at Pittsburgh, home against Buffalo, home against Tampa Bay (the Raiders will be sky high in that Jon Gruden grudge match), at Houston, at Atlanta and home against Jacksonville. That’s 10 victories, enough to earn a wild card.

    New Orleans Saints
    Quarterback Aaron Brooks will probably never be included in the same breath with Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb, but he could be mentioned along with Tom Brady. That is, a guy who plays mistake-free football and leads his team. That hasn’t been the case in the past. Brooks has been wildly up and down. But this may be the year he settles into a groove. And Brooks can rely on running back Deuce McAllister to chew up yardage. When he has to throw, he can find Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth. The Saints will be able to score enough points to win.

    But their greatest improvement this year will be on defense. They are young, talented and hungry. They didn’t make a ton of offseason moves, but they did sign defensive tackle Brian Young and now have one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the league. That should help them stop the run and rush the passer. The Saints are feeling as if this is their year, and you can’t blame them. Of course, they are in a fairly tough division, which will make a playoff run perilous. They won’t unseat Carolina as division champs. They’ll have to hope both Tampa Bay and Atlanta slip considerably, and they can cash in with easy wins against the Niners, Chargers and Cardinals, foil the Cowboys and the Chiefs, and get lucky against the Panthers, Rams, Vikings and/or Broncos.

    Michael Ventre writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

    > http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5944364/#survey

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    Hasn't this already been posted about 5 times?

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