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Early NFL: What To Look For

   by Al McMordie - 09/06/2009

The best time of the sports year kicks off this week as we begin the NFL season. From preseason play and recent history we can get a good idea about some of the strengths and weaknesses of several teams.

If you like to play totals keep in mind that the Minnesota Vikings were 3-1 under the total in preseason. Sure, all the talk has been on Brett Favre and what he potentially can give them -- a star QB they have not had since Fran Tarkenton retired. But remember, Favre joins a run-first offense, one with a great offensive line and a pair of terrific RBs in Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.

And don’t overlook this defense, one that was No. 1 in the NFL last season at stopping the run. Their game plan under Brad Childress is usually to get a lead and then play it safe. They carry a 4-1 run under the total into the new season.

Miami is another team that likes to play tough defense and a ball control offense under Coach Tony Sparano. The defense was No. 15 in the NFL last season, 10th against the run, and DE Jason Taylor returns after a one-year hiatus in Washington. The Dolphins are 11-6 under the total under Sparano.

The defending champion Steelers also prefer to play that style under Mike Tomlin, starting 2-1 under the total last September. And that was without a healthy backfield. For 2009, the Steelers have both RBs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall healthy, which can only help their ball control attack.

The Steelers open the season Thursday night against Tennessee. So when was the last time the Steelers lost a game that counted? Pitt lost to the Titans last December 21st. In that game, Tomlin's men were smacked around, 31-14, turning it over four times. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 329 yards, 2 TDs and 2 picks in trying to rally the Steelers, while the Titans had 117 rush yards against the great Pittsburgh defense, No. 1 in the NFL. Veteran QB Kerry Collins remained undefeated in his career against the Steelers, improving to 3-0, as he completed 20 of 29 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. Of course, none of that matters this week as it's a new season.

The Patriots might be a team to look at should you want to play a game 'over' the total in September. The offense gets back QB Tom Brady and there is wide receiver talent everywhere. But the defense is a question mark. The secondary was weak last year and has new looks all over. They struggled often in preseason, as well. Tedy Bruschi retired, plus they just traded longtime star and five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Raiders in a surprise move. Seymour, just 29, led the team with eight sacks last season. Since Seymour joined the Patriots (2001), the team has allowed an average of 17.8 points per game, which ranks third in the NFL over that span.

The Eagles and Panthers hook up in Week 1 Sunday, two teams that are far better than they looked in preseason. Forget about Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick -- Donovan McNabb is the quarterback of the Eagles, and he should be. Their passing offense will be interesting to watch in September as they added speedy WR DeSean Jackson last year and rookie WR Jeremy Maclin this season.

The Broncos are a team to look at – and maybe shield your eyes. They look thin everywhere for new coach Josh McDaniels. And who is the starting quarterback? QB Kyle Orton dislocated his finger and Chris Simms has a sprained ankle, so all that is left is rookie QB Tom Brandstater. McDaniels said there is a possibility that Orton and Simms could miss the first regular season game. Why again did they run Mike Shanahan out of town? Denver football fans will be asking that in December, if not sooner.

The NY Jets might be the biggest question mark of all. They have a new coach in Rex Ryan -- an outspoken guy who ran the Baltimoredefense the last few years -- plus rookie QB Mark Sanchez. He looked decent in preseason, but those games don't count. I can only think of the words of his college coach, Pete Carroll, who felt Sanchez should stay at USC another year because he wasn’t ready for the pros. Carroll said, "The facts are so strong against this decision....he should've stayed for another year." Maybe Carroll will be proved right, but after watching Oklahoma's QB Sam Bradford get injured yesterday, it's rarely a bad decision to take that much money when it's on the table.

We do know that NY offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's game planning will depend on Sanchez's ability to handle the mental aspect of his job. If he plays well, they will open the offense up. If the kid struggles, you will likely see more emphasis on running the football. Stay tuned. The best time of the sports calendar heats up this week! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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